Tag Archives: conservation

How many birds are there in the world? AI estimates around 50 billion

The house sparrow might be small, but with 1.6 million of them, they’re by far the most populous bird in the world. Credit: Corey T. Callaghan.

Through a combination of citizen science and big data analytics, researchers have estimated the entire global population of birds. There are roughly 50 billion individual birds chirping and flapping across the world, about six birds for every human.

“Humans have spent a great deal of effort counting the members of our own species – all 7.8 billion of us,” says Associate Professor Will Cornwell, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales and co-senior author of the study.

“This is the first comprehensive effort to count a suite of other species.”

In order to estimate the number of birds in the whole world, the researchers in Australia pooled together almost a billion bird sightings from eBird, an online database of bird observations curated by citizen scientists and run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Over 600,000 people contributed information to the database. This data included the species of bird, the location of the sighting, the size and color of the individual, whether or not it was close to a city, and other factors that were used to calculate a species’ ‘detectability’ — a measure of how likely it is for a person to spot a particular bird.

There are over 9,700 different bird species that we know of, and the eBird catalog covers 92% of these species. The remaining 8% of species are very rare species that are rarely sighted, meaning their numbers are very low so their exclusion from the analysis shouldn’t have much impact on the overall estimate.

While some species are threatened with extinction others are incredibly abundant. In fact, four bird species are in what researchers call ‘the billionaire club’, due to having an estimated population of over a billion. These include the house sparrow (1.6 billion), followed by the European starling (1.3 billion), ring-billed gull (1.2 billion), and barn swallow (1.1 billion).

But while a select few of ‘one percenters’ dominate the ecosystems, many others are struggling to survive. Around 12% of bird species included in the study have an estimated population numbering less than 5,000, making them extremely vulnerable to extinction. These include birds such as the Chinese Crested Tern, Noisy Scrub-bird, and Invisible Rail.

The researchers plan on doing a follow-up study a decade from now to see how the most vulnerable species fare in the meantime. If these populations fare worse, it could be a real alarm bell for the health of their native ecosystems.

Naturally, this assessment isn’t definitive since it relies on extrapolating sightings. Some of these sightings may be inaccurate, but at least some degree of uncertainty is to be expected when working with very large, global datasets such as eBird.

“While this study focuses on birds, our large-scale data integration approach could act as a blueprint for calculating species-specific abundances for other groups of animals,” says study lead author Dr. Corey Callaghan, who completed the research while he was a postdoctoral researcher at UNSW Science.

“Quantifying the abundance of a species is a crucial first step in conservation. By properly counting what’s out there, we learn what species might be vulnerable and can track how these patterns change over time – in other words, we can better understand our baselines.”

The researchers would like to invite any birdwatching enthusiast to contribute to eBird. As more data becomes available, the researchers plan to perform more robust analyses that may paint a more accurate picture of the state of bird ecosystems across the globe. Ultimately, this information will greatly inform conservation efforts to direct resources where they’re the most needed.

“A great starting point is to learn a handful of birds that come to your local area, like Rainbow Lorikeets, Sulphur Crested Cockatoo, and Australian White Ibis,” Cornwell says.

“It can be as simple as seeing if you can spot any out the window while you’re drinking your coffee in the morning.”

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We don’t really know how many lions there are — but researchers have an idea to count them

Current calculations estimate that there are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 lions in the wild… but we’re not really sure. Even if we were totally sure in that interval, a 50% margin of error isn’t exactly trivial.

Counting lions isn’t easy by any means, but one researcher has an idea how to do it more accurately.

A lioness in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area. Lions often like to spend hot days in the shade of the parks’ giant fig trees. Image credits: Cody Pope.

There are 102 lion populations are scattered across approximately 2.5 million square kilometers of Africa. The majority of estimates on African lion population and density are based on track counts, audio lure surveys and expert solicitation — hardly reliable enough to make accurate counts.

But without accurate counts, conservation efforts are severely undermined. Since lion populations are thought to have experienced a 50% decline since 1994, that’s quite a concern.

University of Queensland PhD candidate Alexander Braczkowski reviewed existing studies on lion counting and he believes a new approach can work better. It’s not easy, but according to Braczkowski, his idea can help not only in counting lions more accurately but also in understanding their behavior.

“It involves driving extensively and searching actively for lions, and then taking high quality photographs to individually identify them and noting their locations,” Mr Braczkowski said. “We use an analytical method known as Spatially Explicit Capture-Recapture (SECR). For African lions, it was first applied in the Maasai Mara by Dr. Nicholas Elliot and Dr. Arjun Gopalaswamy, and has now been adopted by the Kenya Wildlife Service and others to survey lions and other carnivores across the country.”

The researchers trialed the technique to better understand the density and population of lions in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, a park known for its wildlife (which includes buffalo, Ugandan kob, hippopotamus, warthogs, crocodiles, elephants, leopards, lions, and chimpanzees) as well as volcanic features. Since these Ugandan lions love their shade, it was also easier to take photos of them.

“This was the perfect place to use this novel approach since lions at Queen Elizabeth spend a lot of their time up in trees and it is relatively straightforward to get good pictures of them,” Mr Braczkowski said. “Due to this unique tree-climbing behavior, managers and tourists at this park very frequently see lions. But, our study showed that these lions are now moving more and have larger home range sizes compared to a previous study conducted about a decade ago.”

According to the SECR analysis, the lion population is lower than previously estimated, so the researchers suggest that lion populations may be even lower than currently expected, and ask that a more rigorous count be urgently implemented across all populations.

Accurate continent-wide counts would then underpin lion recovery projects, ensuring an efficient allocation of resources where they can make the biggest impact, researchers conclude.

Journal Reference: Alex Braczkowski et al. Restoring Africa’s Lions: Start With Good Counts, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2020). DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2020.00138

Tasmanian devils return to mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years

 A Tasmanian devil at Aussie Ark. Credit: Aussie Ark.

Around 3,000 years ago, Tasmanian devils were driven out from mainland Australia by dingoes introduced by Sulawesi hunter-gatherers. Fortunately, dingoes never made it to the island of Tasmania, the namesake of the devils, which helped the aggressive scavengers avoid extinction. But recent challenges such as habitat loss and the spread of one of the only known contagious cancers in the world are casting doubt on the fate of the iconic mammal.

With just 25,000 devils left in the wild in Tasmania, today’s announcement of their reintroduction to the Australian mainland marks a historic moment.

“In 100 years, we are going to be looking back at this day as the day that set in motion the ecological restoration of an entire country,” said Tim Faulkner, president of Aussie Ark. “Not only is this the reintroduction of one of Australia’s beloved animals, but of an animal that will engineer the entire environment around it, restoring and rebalancing our forest ecology after centuries of devastation from introduced foxes and cats and other invasive predators. Because of this reintroduction and all of the hard work leading up to it, someday we will see Tasmanian devils living throughout the great eastern forests as they did 3,000 years ago.”

Back home

Aussie Ark, an Australian non-profit that aims to protect the country’s endangered species, has been breeding Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) in captivity since 2011. The organization has so far been responsible for raising nearly 400 devils in a habitat that fosters their sense of independence and all the necessary skills they require to survive in the wild.

In partnership with Global Wildlife Conservation and WildArk, Aussie Ark released 11 devils into a 400-hectare wildlife sanctuary on Barrington Tops. The individuals were selected so that they can mate with one another without any inbreeding, and biologists at the wildlife sanctuary hope that this initial small population will soon grow in numbers.

As apex predators and the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials, the devils will help balance the ecosystem by controlling invasive species such as feral cats and foxes that threaten endemic species.

“The re-introduction of devils to mainland Australia is a game-changer for conservation in this country, not only building a robust, genetically healthy population outside of Tasmania, but also paving the way for future introductions that the Aussie Ark team are already mapping out,” said Mark Hutchinson, co-founder of WildArk. “Having partnered with Aussie Ark and GWC on the Koala Comeback Campaign after the bushfires this year, we’ve witnessed first-hand their commitment to ecological restoration in Eastern Australia and we couldn’t be prouder to now support the Devil Comeback. The groundwork is being laid for a broad, nationwide effort to rewild Australia and help our little critters find their niche again.”

In recent years, life hasn’t been easy for the Tasmanian devils. In 1996, the first case of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) was reported by scientists. It’s only one of three transmissible cancers known to man (the other being in dogs and shellfish), but also one of the most unforgiving, having an almost 100% kill rate. Today, wild populations of the iconic Australian marsupial are down 90% and many researchers fear the devil may be doomed unless something is done about it — and fast.

To make matters worse, devastating fires across the continent earlier this year destroyed 72,000 square miles of forest and claimed the lives of nearly 3 billion wildlife.

“The fires earlier this year were absolutely devastating and threatened to rob us of our hope,” Faulkner said. “This is our response to that threat of despair: come what may, ultimately we will not be deterred in our efforts to put an end to extinction and to rewild Australia.”

Their introduction to mainland Australia might help swell their numbers, as well as bring them into new habitats away from the dreaded DFTD’s reach.

Aussie Ark plans on introducing 40 devils to the wild over the next two years. Each animal is fitted with radio collars that monitor their location and movements. Additionally, camera traps in key locations will help conservation scientists keep a close eye on the devils.

At least 26% of the ocean needs to be relegated to conservation to prevent marine collapse

A new study reports that the oceans need “urgent conservation” in order to avoid massive biodiversity loss. According to the team’s estimates, between 26% and 41% of the ocean’s total surface needs to be designated as conservation areas and safeguarded to act as habitats for wildlife.

Image via Pixabay.

Key regions include the Northern Pacific Ocean near China and Japan, and the Atlantic between West Africa and the Americas, the team explains.

An oceanful of problems

“Preserving a portion of habitat for all marine species would require 8.5 million square kilometres of new conservation areas,” said Dr. Kendall Jones, lead author of the study and a PhD student at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences. “Currently one-third of all marine species have less than 10 percent of their range covered by protected areas.”

“We found that a minimum of 8.5 million km2 (2.5% of the ocean) of new conservation areas are required, and show that, in total, at least 26% of the ocean needs effective conservation to preserve marine biodiversity,” the paper reads.

“[This percentage] should be regarded as a bare minimum.”

The team determined which areas of the global ocean would need to be turned into conservation sites in order to maintain adequate (or at least, the bare minimum of) marine biodiversity. Oceans cover around 70% of the Earth’s surface and harbor between 50% and 80% of life on Earth. Marine ecosystems underpin all life on Earth at large by providing food, oxygen, by scrubbing atmospheric CO2 and through the recycling of other essential nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen.

For the study, the team mapped the habitats of over 22,000 marine species and used a mathematical model to estimate the minimum area required to capture a portion of each species’ ranges. The team also included areas of importance for global biodiversity (Key Biodiversity Areas) and those where human impact is very low (known as marine wildernesses).

In essence, the team determined the smallest area that would give all of these species some space free from human activity to live in. Dr. Jones says that a coordinated international effort is needed, and needed fast, to step up marine conservation efforts in time to preserve the health of the global ocean.

“Conserving the areas we’ve identified in our study would give all marine species a reasonable amount of space to live free from human impacts like fishing, commercial shipping or pesticide runoff,” he explains.

All in all, they report that between 26% and 41% of the total ocean surface needs to be relegated to conservation, depending on how much of each species’ range we decide to protect.

James Watson, a Professor at the University of Queensland, Director of Science at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the study’s corresponding author says that the findings should help inform world leaders who will be meeting in Rome later this year “to sign an agreement that will guide global conservation for the next ten years”. The meeting was originally planned to take place in Kunming, China, but the location was moved following the COVID-19 outbreak. Professor Watson explains that the success of such conservation programs hinge on taking rapid action to protect endangered species and ecosystems while also implementing long-term strategies to manage the global ocean more sustainably.

“This science shows that governments must act boldly, as they did for the Paris Agreement on climate change, if we are to stop the extinction crisis facing many marine species,” he says.

“This isn’t just about strict marine protected areas. We need to use a broad range of strategies such as no-fishing zones, community marine reserves, and broad-scale policies to put an end to illegal and unsustainable commercial fishing operations.”

As millions of people all around the world directly rely on the ocean (and its biodiversity) for food and income, politicians should have ample incentive to design and ratify measures like as the ones proposed by this study. If not, they’ll have quite a bit of civil unrest on their hands in the future — but all of us, everywhere, will have to contend with a much more barren ocean and Earth.

The paper “Area Requirements to Safeguard Earth’s Marine Species” has been published in the journal One Earth.

New areas will need conservation due to climate change

Climate change will force species to migrate in search of ideal living conditions, and a new paper estimates where they’ll go in order to inform conservation efforts.

Image via Pixabay.

Each species has a set of conditions it likes to live in — a certain amount of light, a temperature that’s just right, certain habitats to act as shelters, and a preferred menu. With shifting climates, however, the traditional ranges species inhabit, which correspond to the areas that satisfy their requirements, will also shift. Under these conditions, species will likely migrate to find greener pastures.

But where to?

“We are going to need to protect different places if we want to protect biodiversity in the future,” said lead author Joshua Lawler, a UW professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“We need to think about where species will go as the climate changes, and then plan for that. The business-as-usual planning process isn’t going to work.”

Efforts to protect plant and animal species hinge on knowing which areas these species inhabit. For example, habitat conservation efforts around the snowy plover focus on specific locations along the Washington coast, because that’s where the animals live.

A new paper authored by researchers from the University of Washington and The Evergreen State College aims to understand how species migration as a result of climate change will impact future conservation efforts. For the study, the team analyzed whether accounting for climate change can improve our current biodiversity conservation practices, and how expensive it would be to implement. They report that most species are expected to migrate due to climate change, and that we’ll need to shift the areas we focus on to keep adequately protecting them.

The team looked at 1,460 different species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians across the continental US. For each, they considered which current and potential future protected habitats are suitable for their needs. All in all, if impacts from climate change aren’t specifically considered, the team found that 14% of the species won’t have a viable habitat in the future. Current protection efforts focus exclusively on the areas where the species are living today, the team explains, not where they need to be in a warmer future.

“Our findings show that species are going to shift around, and we are going to have to put some of our conservation efforts in different places — and that will come at a cost,” Lawler said.

“Climate change effects that were originally projected to be decades in the future are starting to become apparent in the present day. This is not an abstract concept anymore,” said co-author John Withey, a professor at Evergreen. “We need to take action as soon as possible, thinking about where species may need to go under climate change, and providing corridors through which they can move.”

The team considered three approaches to including climate change migration predictions into our current conservation efforts. The first involved selecting certain species and then extending protection beyond the areas they inhabit now to include their estimated future range. The team used the Townsend’s chipmunk, western rattlesnake, and yellow-billed magpie as models for this step — they found it would cost about 60% more than solely protecting their current habitats. More general approaches, such as installing “climate corridors” or protecting landscapes with rare or disappearing climatic conditions wouldn’t lead to many increased costs — likely because many of these landscapes are already protected.

“It was encouraging to see that there were some climate-based solutions that didn’t increase the cost substantially,” said co-author Julia Michalak, a UW research scientist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

The team hopes that their findings will help policy-makers identify which areas are a high priority for conservation in general — they caution that the paper isn’t intended to help pinpoint specific new parks to protect. Still, having a general idea of what will work in the future should help us save money now and cut down on hassle down the road. And it will help keep as many plants and critters alive as possible.

The paper “Planning for climate change through additions to a national protected area network: implications for cost and configuration” has been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Drought and human expansion are driving the platypus extinct

Woes seem to keep piling onto poor Australia: new research shows that the continent’s iconic and unique platypus is at risk of extinction.

Image credits hobvias sudoneighm / Flickr.

The intense and prolonged drought plaguing the land down under is placing enormous strain on the platypus, a new study reports. The rivers and waterways that make up this species’ natural habitat are drying up, leaving the animals stranded, the researchers explain.

Going through a lot

Although not much is known about their natural distribution or abundance (the species is nocturnal and quite shy), platypuses were once considered widespread throughout eastern Australia and Tasmania. However, new research led by members from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in collaboration with the Taronga Conservation Society showcases that the species is in dire need of help. It is experiencing heavy pressure from both natural and man-made factors including severe drought, water resource development, land clearing, and changing climate. The team warns that action is urgently needed to save the platypus from potential extinction.

Lead author Dr Gilad Bino, a researcher at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said action must be taken now to prevent the platypus from disappearing from our waterways.

“There is an urgent need for a national risk assessment for the platypus to assess its conservation status, evaluate risks and impacts, and prioritise management in order to minimise any risk of extinction,” says Dr. Bino.

“These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions with no capacity to repopulate areas.”

The species is most impacted by current climate conditions and habitat destruction through land clearing and fragmentation from dams and weirs, the team reports. They further explain that platypus numbers have almost halved since European colonists first settled Australia, with local populations going extinct across 40% of the species’ range. Considering the current drought and the likely increase in drought frequency and duration in the future (due to climate change), things are only going to get worse for the platypus.

While the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently downgraded the platypus’ conservation status to “Near Threatened”, it remains entirely unlisted under most local jurisdictions except in South Australia, where it is considered endangered.

Apart from climate change and its associated extremes in weather and precipitation patterns, the chief threat to platypus’ long-term viability is humans, the team explains. The animals live or have traditionally lived in areas that are still experiencing extensive human development.

“These include dams that stop their movements, agriculture which can destroy their burrows, fishing gear and yabby traps which can drown them and invasive foxes which can kill them,” says study co-author Professor Richard Kingsford, also from the UNSW Sydney Centre for Ecosystem Science.

Luckily for the strange mammal, it’s not yet extinct. If preventative measures are taken now, says Professor Brendan Wintle, a study co-author from The University of Melbourne, we can turn their fortunes around. He explains that mitigating or stopping new threats (such as new dams) from impacting the species’ range can help “even a presumed ‘safe’ species such as the platypus”.

Still, the paper highlights the “urgent need” for national conservation efforts focusing on the platypus. However, they add that many other native Australian species are also threatened with extinction.

“[Preventive measures are] likely to be more effective than waiting for the risk of extinction to increase and possible failure,” Prof Wintle said. “We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs.”

Such measures include “increasing monitoring, tracking trends, mitigating threats, and protecting and improving management of freshwater habitats.”

Meanwhile, the team plans to continue researching the ecology and possible conservation practices for the platypus to help guide effective policy and management programs in the future.

The paper “A stitch in time – Synergistic impacts to platypus metapopulation extinction risk” has been published in the journal Biological Conservation.

‘Half-Earth’ conservation schemes would affect over a billion people

A new study is looking into the social and economic effects Half-Earth-type conservation schemes would have on local and global communities. Over a billion people around the world would be impacted by such measures, they explain.

USFS Wilderness Sign at Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, California.
Image credits Jason Crotty / Flickr.

Back in 2016, American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson published ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’. The book proposes that we designate half the planet as a human-free natural reserve in order to preserve biodiversity.

The idea is definitely catchy — there’s something romantic about the idea of keeping half the planet wild, and it would definitely go a long way towards protecting nature. While policymakers and conservationists are starting to consider the idea in various forms ( such as the ‘Global Deal for Nature‘ which aims for 30% protection by 2030 and 50% by 2050) we still have a very poor idea of how a Half-Earth-type scheme would impact human society.

Half-earthing it

“People are the cause of the extinction crisis, but they are also the solution,” said Dr. Judith Schleicher, who led the new study, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“Social issues must play a more prominent role if we want to deliver effective conservation that works for both the biosphere and the people who inhabit it.”

Species go extinct all the time, that’s just how mother nature rolls. The ‘extinction crisis’ Dr. Schleicher mentions is an increase in that natural rate of extinction (called the baseline extinction rate) caused by human activity — with habitat destruction and pollution being the main culprits.

Faced with this extinction crisis, and with humanity’s overall disastrous effect on the natural balance of our planet, activists have picked up on Wilson’s idea and are calling for more ambitious conservation targets than ever before. A new study comes to assess how many people worldwide would be impacted, and who and where they are specifically, if half the planet was used to preserve the diversity of the world’s habitats.

For the study, they analyzed global datasets to determine the areas we’d need to give conservation status to add up to 50% protection for every ecoregion (areas of distinct habitats such as Central African mangroves and Baltic mixed forests). The team reports they made every effort possible to avoid specific “human footprints” such as cities of farmland.

This “conservative” estimate still holds that over a billion people, primarily in middle-income countries, would be affected by a Half-Earth scheme. However, many of the world’s rich and populous countries in the Northern Hemisphere would also need to massively expand on lands with conservation status, including areas we may be loathe to give up — the authors cite parts of London as an example. They cautiously estimate that an additional 760 million people would find themselves living in areas with new conservation status, a fourfold increase of the number of residents inside protected areas today.

The team says that issues of environmental justice and human wellbeing should be at the forefront of the conservation movement. They hope that their findings will help world leaders agree of global conservation targets at next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing.

“Goals that emerge from the Convention on Biological Diversity could define conservation for a generation,” said Schleicher. “We need to be ambitious given the environmental crises. But it is vital that social and economic implications at local levels are considered if the drivers of biodiversity loss are to be tackled. The lives of many people and the existence of diverse species hang in the balance.”

“Failing to consider social issues will lead to conservation policy that is harmful to human wellbeing and less likely to be implemented in the first place.”

The team calls for proponents of Half Earth, and all supporters of area-based conservation, to “recognise and take seriously” the human consequences – both negative and positive – of their proposals.

“Living in areas rich in natural habitat can boost mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, protected areas can provide new jobs and income through ecotourism and sustainable production,” said Schleicher.

“However, at the other extreme, certain forms of ‘fortress’ conservation can see people displaced from their ancestral home and denied access to resources they rely on for their survival.”

The paper “Protecting half of the planet could directly affect over one billion people” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Carved Ivory.

The price of ivory is up 1,000% since global ban on ivory trade, but is slowly decreasing

The global ban on ivory has increased the price of tusks on legitimate and black markets tenfold.

Carved Ivory.

Image via Pixabay.

Back in 1989, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) issued a worldwide ban on the trading of ivory. The move was intended to insulate Earth’s elephants from hunters and poachers and help stave off extinction. The decision did work: ivory prices plummeted, initially, and markets around the world closed down.

However, that was just the initial effect of the ban. A new study shows that the price of ivory increased tenfold since 1989, which is driving up incentive for poachers supplying illegal markets. Poaching is now responsible for an 8% drop in the world’s total elephant population every year, the team reports — and they hope this analysis can help us drive that number down.

Black ivory

“With poachers killing an estimated 100 elephants of the remaining 350,000 each day, we believe our findings are significant to global wildlife conservation policy-making,” says lead author Monique Sosnowski, who carried out the research at the Bristol Veterinary School as part of her MSc in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation.

The ban was introduced in 1975 for Asian elephants and 1989 for African elephants in response to unsustainable elephant poaching in the 1970s and 80s. The species were placed on Appendix I of the CITES, which forbids all international trade in a species and its products.

To better understand its effects, the team used data on ivory prices collected between 1989 and 2017 from literature searches and visits to ivory markets across Africa, Europe, and Asia, which they meshed with information such as ivory product type (raw, polished, carved), weight, region, and legality. This dataset allowed them to gauge the factors that lead to the rise in ivory prices.

Asian markets demand the highest prices for ivory on a global scale, while prices are the lowest in Africa. The global average price of ivory increased tenfold (~1,019%) between 1989 and 2014, but has been slowly decreasing since 2014. The main factors influencing the sale, purchasing, and price of ivory were the location of sale, whether the ivory had been carved or worked in any way, the legality of the sale (there are conditions under which ivory can be traded legally), and the total amount of ivory estimated to have been traded that year.

“Until now, very little has been known about global ivory prices since the international ban in 1989,” says Sosnowski. “We hope that a greater understanding of the factors that drive the price of ivory will lead to better informed policy interventions that lead to a more secure future for the long-term survival of elephants and other animals that suffer due to the ivory trade.”

The team hopes that their research will help policymakers better tweak global ivory policy. They explain that understanding regional price trends, the variables that drive them, and the associated demand can guide efforts on anti-trade campaigns, wildlife conservation, and education — all of them aimed at combating poaching. For example, focusing efforts to more heavily regulate trade in East Asia, where ivory demand and prices are highest, could decrease poaching and increase future security for elephants.

In the future, the team plans to incorporate their findings into larger economic models to guide more effective policy design concerning the CITES ivory ban, national trade regulations, and global ivory stockpile management. They also say that a similar study framework could be used for other endangered species experiencing poaching and illegal trade in their products, such as rhinos and tigers.

The paper “Global ivory market prices since the 1989 CITES ban” has been published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Working landscape.

Working landscapes can be used for species conservation alongside economic activities

Privately-owned land in the forests of Costa Rica can help support the same number of vulnerable bird species as the nature reserves they border, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

Working landscape.

Working landscape in Vietnam.
Image credits Quang Nguyen Vinh.

Collaborating with local landowners to conserve or restore forests in the working landscapes of Costa Rica can help protect local wildlife, the study reports. Working landscapes are cohesive units of land that are ecologically, socially, and economically connected. Rural areas, which often are dominated by intensive or extensive agricultural, forestry, or other natural resources based economies, are generally a part of a working landscape. In Costa Rica, working landscapes include forest patches, crops, pastures, and small towns. Private lands in regions that are wetter and already have a degree of natural forest cover would help local bird species the most, it adds.

Can’t see the forest for the patches

“With sufficient forest cover, working landscapes — even if degraded and fragmented — can maintain bird communities that are indistinguishable from those found in protected areas,” said lead author Daniel Karp, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

“This means that private landowners have great power to improve the conservation value of their lands through reforestation.”

As part of a larger project funded by National Geographic, the team looked at the state of Neotropical birds at 150 sites across Costa Rica’s northwest over a two-year period.

Agricultural lands in the area host diverse bird communities, the team reports, but not the same species that live in protected areas. These field-dwelling species also had large distributions, meaning they are of lower conservation value (‘not-as-threatened’) as the species in protected areas.

Interestingly, the privately-owned patches of forest in the studied area stood out quite sharply from their surrounding fields. Despite their advanced state of degradation — these plots of forest were degraded by logging, hunting, and fires — they housed the same species of birds as the protected areas. The patches were also better at supporting bird populations in wetter and more forested areas. The team estimates that reforesting the wettest sites would increase bird similarity to protected areas four-fold compared to a two-fold increase in the driest sites.

In a related study, Karp showed that the amount of local forest within about 150 feet of a site was the biggest determinant of the species of birds found there.

“Tropical birds respond very strongly to the amount of forest in their immediate vicinity,” Karp said. “That’s encouraging because it means forest restoration on a small scale, even in small patches, can be really effective in safeguarding vulnerable bird species.”

Costa Rica has experienced decades of forest decline, which prompted the state to offer monetary incentives for landowners who maintained forest on their private lands in the early 1990s. That’s how these patches of forest the study focuses on came to be.

The paper “Remnant forest in Costa Rican working landscapes fosters bird communities that are indistinguishable from protected areas” has been published in the journal Journal of Applied Ecology.

Orangutan numbers continue to decline — despite optimistic government report

A recent report presented by the Indonesian government is simply not true, according to a recent analysis. The report is at odds with several scientific studies, and there is little reason for optimism, the new research, ominously titled “Orangutan populations are certainly not increasing in the wild”, concludes.

There are three species of orangutans, all native to Indonesia and Malaysia, particularly to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutans are among the most intelligent animals in the world, being able to use remarkably sophisticated tools, and build elaborate sleeping nests each night from branches and foliage. But they are also critically endangered.

A recent study found that Borneo has lost almost 150,000 orangutans in the past two decades, largely due to agriculture-driven deforestation and poaching. The findings have been echoed by several other studies, but a recent governmental report from Indonesia claimed otherwise: orangutan numbers were rising, it said. Now, a team of researchers strongly refutes the report’s findings.

“All three species of orangutan are Critically Endangered and on a steep decline. Their numbers are not increasing as indicated by the Indonesian government report,” says Erik Meijaard (@emeijaard) of Borneo Futures and the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The governmental report focused on only nine monitoring sites and found that at one site, the population has doubled — something which is “biologically impossible,” Meijaard and colleagues say.

Furthermore, the sites chosen in the report are used for orangutan introduction and relocation, so naturally they would increase in population, because orangutans were brought from somewhere else — but this isn’t a net increase, only an offset.

Lastly, even so, the monitored sites account for only 5% of the total orangutan population, include only protected lands, and ignore the Tapanuli orangutan altogether. As a result, researchers say, it is “scientifically unjustified to extrapolate population trends from these sampling sites to the total range of all three species.”

Rainforest cover in 1973 (left) versus 2016 (right). Image credits: CIFOR.

Meijaard says that it’s not entirely clear what this report will mean, but it’s important that the Indonesian government realizes that the orangutan numbers aren’t increasing — they’re falling. This needs to be considered for future conservation strategies.

“If the government thinks that orangutan populations are increasing, it calls for completely different strategies compared to those required for dealing with rapidly decreasing populations,” Meijaard says. “It is important that the government realizes that populations remain in decline. Therefore, a new approach to orangutan conservation is needed.”

Lastly, Meijaard and colleagues call on the government, local corporations, and all involved stakeholders, to determine which strategies have been effectively implemented, and what strategies have been ineffective. If we want to truly see orangutan numbers rising, we need better collaboration and selection of strategies proven to reduce threats to remaining orangutans.

Journal Reference: Current Biology, Meijaard et al.: “Orangutan populations are certainly not increasing in the wild” https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)31277-6

Great Blue Hole.

UNESCO takes the Belize Barrier Reef off the endangered sites list thanks to conservation efforts

The Belize Barrier Reef has been removed from the endangered World Heritage Sites after nine years, thanks to the country’s “visionary” steps to preserve it.

Great Blue Hole.

The reef’s Great Blue Hole.
Image credits U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef System has been removed from UNESCO’s lists of endangered sites following a widespread campaign to protect it, the United Nations (UN) reported on Tuesday.

The reef was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1996 and harbors almost 1,400 different species — held to be one of the most biodiverse marine sites on the planet. Charles Darwin himself described it as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”. However, the Belize Reef System was listed as “in danger” in 1996 by UNESCO as oil exploration, mangrove deforestation, and illegal land sales and subsequent land use infringed upon the reef’s stability.

Over half of Belize’s population, some 200,000 people, are estimated to depend on the reef directly for their livelihood. Furthermore, tourism is a key industry for Belize, bringing in millions of dollars each year — so these threats to the reef represented a huge concern for the country’s government.

Last December, officials issued an indefinite moratorium on all oil exploration and drilling in the country’s waters — UNESCO says that this decision warranted removing the reef from the list of endangered sites.

“The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System […] is an outstanding natural system consisting of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries,” the agency said in its description of the region.

“The system’s seven sites illustrate the evolutionary history of reef development and are a significant habitat for threatened species, including the marine turtle, the manatee and the American marine crocodile.”

The UN writes that the “Belizean government deserves tremendous credit” for taking concrete steps towards protecting this unique ecosystem. Marco Lambertini, head of the World Wildlife Fund, also pointed to a public activism campaign that Belizeans undertook to help secure the reef’s future.

“We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just 18 months ago,” Lambertini told AFP. “Belizeans stood up to protect their reef, with hundreds of thousands more globally joining the campaign to save our shared heritage.”

The world’s coral reefs are struggling under the effects of climate change. Mass coral bleaching events have become so frequent during the last few years that reefs can’t recover between episodes. Against this backdrop, Belize’s effort — and success — shows that there is still hope for corals everywhere; we just have to work on it.

Angalifu rhino.

Efforts to pull the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction intensify as the last living male declines in health

In Kenya, the last male northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) in the world isn’t faring well — the animal is past its prime and in declining health. With time running out, a global team of scientists and conservationists are trying to save the subspecies from extinction with help from the last two surviving females.

Angalifu rhino.

Angalifu, the last male white rhino to ever touch the soil of the Americas, died in 2014. He was the second to last male of his subspecies.
Image credits Heather Paul

It reads more like the plot of the next action-packed blockbuster, but this is actually as real-life as it gets. Those involved in the project hope to use in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create viable white northern rhino embryos and save the species. The plan hinges not on the male, an elderly, Tinder-enabled rhino named Sudan, but rather on his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. Since the rhinos can’t reproduce naturally (Sudan’s past his prime) the females’ eggs will have to be extracted and the fertilization performed out of body.

Despite not being as smooth with the ladies as he once was, Sudan is quite a celebrity. He attracts thousands of visitors each year to the Ol Pejeta Conservatory, where he’s housed, and Tinder listed him as the “The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World” last year. But he is getting old, and a recent medical complication — a stubborn leg infection — may force his caretakers to euthanize the beast.

However, the passing of the last male white rhino in the world isn’t as bad for the species’ survival as you would believe:

“Sudan has been technically infertile for many years, so him dying is not going to affect the possibilities of recovery for the northern white rhino as a species,” Richard Vigne, the conservancy’s CEO, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

That’s not to say that the outlook is good: while semen from other northern white rhinos has been harvested and stored in various locations around the world, it’s critical that the conservancy keeps the two females alive “until such time when the protocol or technique for in vitro fertilization has been perfected so that we can begin that process,” Vigne adds. The 27-year-old Najin has weak hind legs and can’t support the weight of a pregnancy, while 17-year-old Fatu can’t carry an embryo because of a uterus problem.

Efforts to pull the species from the jaws of extinction have brought together institutions from around the world, such as the San Diego Zoo Global in the United States, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and Embryo Plus, a South African company specializing in IVF procedures. In vitro fertilization has seen wide use in the livestock industry.

Last of their kind?

White rhino skull.

Image credits Bernard Dupont.

Despite all the bright minds pitching in, it’s an uphill battle. The team has very limited genetic material at its disposal to save the northern white rhino with. The lack of living individuals further compounds this problem — the team plans to use another subspecies, the southern white rhino, for surrogate mothers. A non-surgical method that would remove rhino eggs with a needle inserted through the rectal wall into the ovary is being developed, said Morne de la Rey, director of Embryo Plus. Further plans include using stem cells and other advanced technologies to re-establish viable populations of northern white rhinos in the future.

While the project has been met with praise — particularly because the work performed here could be used to save other endangered species — it has also gained some criticism. Some conservationists believe the focus should fall on other endangered species, such as the Javan and Sumatran rhinos, who are reeling from more tangible issues such as poaching and human encroachment on their habitats. The grimmest outlook, one which London-based Save the Rhino conservancy group holds, is that the plan might just be too late to save the northern white rhino.

“With small chance of healthy new calves, and limited place in their historic range to go, Save the Rhino believes that the best outcome will be to put our efforts and funding — including research into IVF — into saving the species which do still have a chance,” it said on its website.

“The real fight for the survival of northern white rhinos in their natural habitat was lost over a decade ago,” said Jo Shaw, African rhino expert with the WWF conservation group. “Large mammals, like rhinos, should be seen as symbols of large functioning ecosystems and we must focus our efforts and energy on their protection and ongoing survival within these vital landscapes around the globe.”

Northern white rhinos suffered immensely during the conflicts that swept through their range in central Africa; the last individuals to be spotted in the wild were observed more than a decade ago in Congo’s Garamba National Park, a frequent target of well-armed poachers. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, was born in the country whose name it bears and taken to a Czech zoo. In 2009, he was transferred to Kenya along with Najin, Fatu, and another male who died in 2014.

Scientists track and study sharks by analyzing environmental water DNA

Marine ecologists have developed an innovative way to monitor shark populations. The method could complement or replace current methods, which are expensive and invasive.

Image credits: Bakker et al, 2017 / Salford University / Nature.

It hasn’t been a good decade for sharks around the globe. It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed by people every year, due to commercial and recreational fishing. Shark finning has grown to alarming proportions, killing anywhere between 63 and 273 million sharks per year. With this, it’s more important than ever to study and understand them, but this is no easy feat.

Almost half of all known shark species are classified as ‘data deficient’, particularly because of how hard it is to study them in their natural habitat. Bating, hooking and filming sharks is costly, time-consuming, and stressful for the animals. So researchers from the University of Salford in the UK have developed a new forensic-like technique.

“Water contains minute fragments of the skin, excretions, blood of animals that have swum through there,” explains Stefano Mariani, professor of conservation genetics at the University of Salford. “It’s just like when detectives do a forensic search of a crime scene, and can locate tissues and cells that contain the DNA of the suspects”

The team of researchers took samples from four sites in the Caribbean and three in the Pacific Coral Sea. They used a process called metabarcoding — a rapid method of biodiversity assessment that combines two technologies: DNA-based identification and high-throughput DNA sequencing. Metabarcode datasets are comprehensive and relatively easy and fast to obtain, both on land and on water. The team reported finding more shark DNA sequences in less anthropogenically impacted areas. For instance, the more isolated and the protected areas had larger amounts of shark DNA.

“The beauty of our method is that we can get a picture of shark diversity without the need for chasing, baiting and hooking them – so it is a lot faster for conservation scientists and less traumatic for the animals,” added Judith Bakker, the lead author of the study.

Image credits: Bakker et al, 2017 / Salford University / Nature.

This method could be applied pretty much anywhere with ease, making any pocket of water a potential gold mine of data, researchers say. As such, the findings could have a massive impact on conservation measures.

“In order to protect these elusive animals and their ecosystems, we must be able to rapidly assess many areas at repeated time intervals,” Mariani continues. “eDNA should prove a big step forward because basically anyone can collect water samples, and every bottle of water is a potential gold mine of data.”

Of course, much work is still needed to be done in order to be able to clearly identify different species of sharks, as well as understanding the impact of oceanic currents and depth on the transport of trace DNA, but results are certainly encouraging.

The study was published in Science Reports.

Native red squirrels successfully reintroduced in Scottish Highlands

Observations from a squirrel reintroduction program show that not only are the critters adapting to their new environment, but they’re expanding to other areas as well.

Good, news, little guy! Image credits: Nadia Tighe.

It’s been a rough century for the British red squirrels. In 1876, a Victorian banker by the name of Thomas Brocklehurst returned to Cheshire, England, with a pair of grey squirrels he brought from a trip to America. Other rich landowners, viewing the non-native species as a fashionable garden novelty, soon followed suit. Without any natural predators, the grey squirrels spread like wildfire. Now, more than five million grey squirrels inhabit the UK, and the native red squirrels can barely be seen in most parts of the country. The larger and fitter grey squirrels have forced them to retreat more and more. The greys are also immune to and spread squirrel pox virus, which is lethal to reds. Add in deforestation and increased urbanization, and you have the perfect recipe for a dramatic decline.

But the Brits aren’t just going to watch one of their iconic species fade away. Currently, some 1.238.000 red squirrels still exist, and conservationists have already started several programs to protect and expand this species. Such a project was carried out by an NGO called Trees for Life. They are reintroducing red squirrels to their old forest homes in northwest Scotland.

The project started in Spring 2016, carrying on to Spring 2017, and observations suggest that not only are the squirrels surviving and adapting, but they are naturally spreading. So far, 55 squirrels have been released at the sites, and they’ve moved along quite a bit.

“Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding in their new homes, they are also starting to spread out into new areas – with squirrels being sighted as far as 15 kilometres away,” said Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Wildlife Officer.

To make this an even lovelier story, it was community involvement that made all this possible. The project greatly relied on local people reporting sightings, monitoring the squirrels, and carrying out supplementary feeding.

The red squirrels are not threatened with extinction — they are common in many parts of Europe, but it’s still important to protect them in their natural habitat.

The moral of the story is straightforward: species can be protected if action is taken early. The earlier, the better. It also does a great difference to have the local community involved. This recipe could be copied and applied to other parts of the world, for other, endangered species.

Monarch Butterfly.

Death of a dynasty: west North America lost over 95% of its monarch butterflies in 35 years

The end is nigh for the monarch butterfly.

Monarch Butterfly.

Image credits Billings Brett / USFWS.

Tradition dictates that every year, the American West Coast dons a fluttery, black-and-orange coat with the migration of the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). But in recent decades, that coat has become thinner and frailer, an indication that something isn’t quite right with the insects. A decline in their numbers first became evident around the 1980s, and by the 1990s, nature lovers started to report a visible reduction in the swarms of butterflies migrating south for winter.

Now, a team of researchers from the Washington State University warns that we may be witnessing the last migrations of the monarchs, as the species’ numbers have declined to an all-time low.

A sight to behold

Every autumn, the insects make their way from all across the continent to sunnier California, where they spend the winter basking in the sun. Eastern populations of the monarch are known to hop the border into Mexico instead. After the cold months pass, the butterflies make their way back to the US and Canada, sup on spring flowers, lay their eggs on milkweed — and then do it all over again when winter looms.

No matter where they travel to, however, the journey takes D. plexippus over thousands of kilometers of the US countryside, attracting nature lovers everywhere. The butterflies gather in huge numbers and literally cover entire sections of woodland in a riot of black-and-orange wings. The migration is so strikingly beautiful that the event was often caught on film for nature documentaries.

Monarch flood.

Image via Youtube / National Geographic.

Sadly, such footage is the only place you can enjoy the sight today. Back in the 1990s, nature lovers attending the butterflies’ migration were starting to notice that the insects were dwindling in number. This begged the question: what’s happening to the monarchs?

To find out, a team of researchers led by Cheryl Schultz from Washington State University, Vancouver, worked with communities along the coast of California to pool records on butterfly numbers gathered by volunteers from across the state since the 1980s. Because the different groups involved in the migration take various paths — some even overwinter in forest groves west of the Rockies, for example — the team also drew on data gathered by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which recruited volunteers to do a yearly count of the “monarch populations overwintering along the California coast” since 1997.

Royally screwed

They fed this data into a mathematical model designed to dampen the data’s noise — minor fluctuations in numbers caused by the natural year-to-year changes in the pockets of butterflies — to get a good look at the long-term trends of the overall species. Their results paint a very grim future for the monarch: the team reports that their numbers have declined to less than 5% what they were in the mid-1980s, pushing the monarch dangerously close to extinction.

“In the 1980s, 10 million monarchs spent the winter in coastal California,” says lead researcher Cheryl Schultz from Washington State University Vancouver. “Today there are barely 300,000.”

“This study doesn’t just show that there are fewer monarchs now than 35 years ago. It also tells us that, if things stay the same, western monarchs probably won’t be around as we know them in another 35 years,” says Schultz.

Because they looked at population numbers alone, the team can’t offer an answer as to why the butterflies are dying off. It’s likely a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ scenario. Habitat loss and a decline of the summer milkweed which they use to reproduce due to shifting climate and land clearing, along with the effects of harmful pesticides, are wrecking havoc on the insects. More research is required to pinpoint the exact cause, but the findings may come in too late to help save the monarch. A report published by conservation non-profit Center for Biological Diversity concluded that “there is a substantial probability that the eastern monarch butterfly population could decline to such low levels that they face extinction. Researchers estimate that there is between 11 percent and 57 percent probability that the monarch migration could collapse [by 2036].”

The findings we’ve covered here today now show that the western populations of the monarch butterflies are in even more dire shape than the eastern populations, the team notes. Significant conservation efforts are needed to help save the species, and they’re needed sooner rather than later. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is monitoring the situation but is yet to list the monarchs as an endangered species.

The paper “Citizen science monitoring demonstrates dramatic declines of monarch butterflies in western North America” was published in the journal Biological Conservation.

The dodo & given by G.Edwards 1759. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Though extinct for centuries, the Dodo’s secrets and lifestyle have now come to light

The dodo & given by G.Edwards 1759. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The dodo & given by G.Edwards 1759. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1598 a ship of Portuguese sailors landed on the island of Mauritius where they were struck with amazement at the sight of an unknown, huge bird species. It didn’t take them longer than 100 years to wipe out all the birds from the face of the island and evolutionary history. Now, centuries after this landmark species known as the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was hunted to extinction, scientists have amazingly come to learn intimate details about the bird’s life cycle and biology.

Extinct but not forgotten

Over time, the dodo has become a symbol of wildlife conservation. Artists have immortalized its bulging beak and plump body in countless instances. Many conservation NGOs and even a popular environmental news outlet (The Dodo) use the bird for their logo or namesake.

But despite all of this, we really knew very little about how the bird lived, what it ate or how it bred. There are of course historical accounts of the birds that tell us what its plumage or eyes looked like but the gaps have always been left to speculation. But not anymore.

We now know that the dodo’s whole life cycle was adapted to the capricious weather on Mauritius where the austral summer between November and March can be very harsh with food being hard to find. Once summer was gone, the birds began shedding and replacing their feathers. By July, the dodo was ready for its next reproduction cycle with a new set of plumage to boot. In August, females would have already laid eggs ready to hatch in September, offering ample time for the younglings to get strong and grow feathers before the next austral summer.

The dodo's annual cycle. August is egg laying time, May is moulting time and the rough summer is characterized by an arrested growth in order to save resources. Credit: Scientific Reports.

The dodo’s annual cycle. August is egg laying time, May is molting time and the rough summer is characterized by an arrested growth in order to save resources. Credit: Scientific Reports.

All of this was made by possible thanks to the efforts of study leader Delphine Angst of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She and colleagues studied cross-sections of 22 leg and wing bones, thought to be from 22 different dodos.

Some of the remains belong to juveniles, as evidenced by the richness in fibrolamellar bone which is packed with immature bone cells. Other bones bore large cavities that suggest calcium was extracted from them — usually a clear sign of a molting cycle.

This explains why early Mauritius sailors related conflicting stories of the dodo. Some would report the birds had downy black plumage while others would recall the dodo had real feathers. Well, sailors simply must have witnessed the dodo in various stages of its molting cycle.

These are some transverse sections of bones studied by the researchers. Highlighted are resorption cavities -- telltale signs of moult. Credit: Scientific Reports.

These are some transverse sections of bones studied by the researchers. Highlighted are resorption cavities — telltale signs of moult. Credit: Scientific Reports.

What’s more, the researchers were also able to identify two of the bones as belonging to females. Such bones contained an extra piece of tissue called medullary bone, which is a vital source of calcium when birds have to make egg shells. This tissue appears inside the bones when the birds were ovulating so not only were Angst and colleagues able to infer that the samples belong to females, but also glean information about their reproductory cycle.

“Before our study the only things we knew about the ecology of these birds was that they were a big pigeon [with a body mass of] about 10 kilos,” Angst told The Guardian. 

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

The Loch Ness Monster is a popular tourist attraction that attracts a lot of capital for local businesses. Some of this revenue is used in conservation and management of wildlife.

How mythical creatures can help conservation or, on the contrary, lead to species going extinct

A new study performed by British researchers cautions conservationists to be very mindful of local traditions and myths if they’re to be successful. According to their analysis, there is much to gain if researchers and policy makers acknowledge people’s spiritual, magical, and cultural beliefs instead of shunning them as irrational behavior.

The Loch Ness Monster is a popular tourist attraction that attracts a lot of capital for local businesses. Some of this revenue is used in conservation and management of wildlife.

The Loch Ness Monster is a popular tourist attraction, which means a lot of capital for local businesses. Some of this revenue is used in conservation and management of wildlife.

The eyes of death

One prime example where mythical beasts intersect with vulnerable species is Madagascar. In many respects, some native communities continue to live as they did for centuries, including old customs and traditional beliefs.

An influential part of Malagasy life are the local taboos or fadys. Sometimes these fadys can help protect local wildlife, whereas other times these can put pressure on endangered species.

For instance, local Malagasy people believe the critically endangered radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) is sacred. They simply refuse to touch the animal that has a high-domed shell, a blunt head, and elephantine feet, out of fear of spiritual retribution. Oddly, though, the locals will not intervene when foreigners harm or move the tortoises as they believe these ‘outsiders’ are not bound by the same rules. So, it’s a pretty straightforward example where magical thinking both directly and indirectly influences how species fair in a habitat.

Another worthy example, staying in the same Madagascar, is the fady surrounding the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). The Malagasy believe this rather cute and adorable primate is the impersonation of evil. Simply spotting an aye-aye is thought of as a sure sign of death or sickness for someone in the village.

Malagasy people believe the aye-aye is a symbol of death. Natives say that if an aye-aye points its middle finger at you, then death will soon befall. So… aye-ayes usually get killed on sight. Credit: YouTube.

Malagasy people believe the aye-aye is a symbol of death. Natives say that if an aye-aye points its middle finger at you, then death will soon befall. So… aye-ayes usually get killed on sight. Credit: YouTube.

Legend has it, the aye-aye sneaks into homes and murders the occupants in their sleep with their long, slender middle finger. When the Malagasy spot an aye-aye, they usually do whatever’s in their best power to kill it. What’s more, the fady calls for the corpse of the aye-aye to be displayed on roadside poles in order to dispell the jinx.

An aye-aye’s middle finger is particularly longer than the other digits, which the primate makes good use of by tapping trees for wood-boring insect larvae moving under the bark. It employs the same middle finger to fish them out. Yum!

An aye-aye’s middle finger is particularly longer than the other digits, which the primate makes good use of by tapping trees for wood-boring insect larvae moving under the bark. It employs the same middle finger to fish them out. Yum! Credit: YouTube

“It is difficult to predict how magical creatures can affect conservation goals. There are examples of myths and superstitions seriously harming the survival of certain species, and examples where they actually help species to survive,” said lead author Dr George Holmes, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, in a statement.

“Current views of magical animals within the field of conservation are inadequate, as they are unable to deal with what many would see as irrational beliefs and behaviours. What we need is a more interdisciplinary approach to conservation that helps us to understand the interactions between humans and both living and magical biodiversity.”

When magical thinking touches the lives of wildlife

Madagascar shows why understanding people’s magical beliefs needs to be seriously considered in order to protect the local wildlife. But Madagascar is far from being an outlier. Other examples abound, from places like Ethiopia or Tanzania to areas of the world where people usually think myths aren’t taken seriously, like Scottland. It is here that in 2015 alone, 350,000 people flocked to Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands to get a glimpse of Nessie’s breeding ground. This translates to a lot of capital flowing into the local communities — restaurants, hotels, gifts shops etc. Some of this revenue has been drawn into conservation and management of the area.

In Ethiopia, spotted hyena numbers have been declining at alarming rates around urban areas. Away from cities, though, hyenas are revered, as natives believe they consume evil spirits with their cackles. As such, this seemingly naive thinking has genuinely helped support the hyena populations.

Elsewhere in Iceland, a proposed new highway that environmentalists claimed would disrupt wildlife was shut down by a 2013 court order. Apparently, the highway would have crossed the habitat of the Huldufólk –– Iceland’s mythical elves.

[ALSO SEE] Five common biology myths

The team concludes in its paper, published in the journal Oryxthat magical thinking shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ideally, more work will help conservationists identify where and how to work with the local community so wildlife might benefit from such traditional myths.

“We really need to open up a discussion about how fantastic beasts can affect our ability to conserve the natural world, because there are no simple cases. Conservationists ignore mythical creatures at the peril of both biodiversity and the local people that live near or within significant conservation sites,” said Co-author Dr Thomas Smith, from Cardiff University.

“Further research into the impact of magical creatures on conservation and local people is required if we are to effectively conserve the world’s endangered species,” he added.

Orange peel dump.

Juice company dumped orange peels in Costa Rican national park in the 90s — it revived the forest

Back in the 1990s, a husband and wife duo of University of Pennsylvania ecologists teamed up with a juice company to dump orange peels and pulp on a barren pasture in a Costa Rican national park. Today, the area is covered in lush vegetation that puts neighboring forests to shame, a new paper reports.

Orange peel.

Image credits Myriam / Pixabay.

This project is the brain child of Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, a husband-and-wife team of ecologists at the University of Pennsylvania who worked as researchers and technical advisers for Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG, Guanacaste Conservation Area) back in the 90s. The job let them witness the strain tropical forest ecosystems are put under first-hand — so they decided to focus the latter half of their careers on preserving them.


So in 1997, they approached orange juice manufacturer Del Oro, a company that was just starting production along the ACG’s northern border with a proposal. If Del Oro would donate a part of the forested area they owned to the ACG, it would be allowed to dump its orange waste at no extra cost on degraded land within the park. The deal went through and in the first year alone some 12,000 metric tons of orange pulp and peels found their way to degraded land. Because of legal complications (a rival company sued Del Oro for “defiling a national park”), the peeled land remained largely overlooked up to now.

But the deal did pay off, says Timothy Treuer, a graduate student in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and co-lead author of the paper quantifying the outcome today.

Orange peel dump.

We’re talking a lot of oranges here.
Image credits Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs.

“This is one of the only instances I’ve ever heard of where you can have cost-negative carbon sequestration,” Treuer adds. “It’s not just a win-win between the company and the local park — it’s a win for everyone.”

Truer teamed up with Jonathan Choi, who was a Princeton ecology and evolutionary biology senior at the time. The two evaluated two sets of soil samples to see what (if any) effect the peels had on soil quality. The first set of samples was collected and analyzed in 2000 by co-author Laura Shanks from Belio College. Her results were never published, so her analysis was incorporated in the study to serve as a benchmark. The second set of samples was collected in 2014 by Choi.

But even without looking at the results, the duo could tell that the oranges left a big mark on the area.

“It was so completely overgrown with trees and vines that I couldn’t even see the 7-foot-long sign with bright yellow lettering marking the site that was only a few feet from the road,” Truer recounts.

“The site was more impressive in person than I could’ve imagined,” Choi added. “While I would walk over exposed rock and dead grass in the nearby fields, I’d have to climb through undergrowth and cut paths through walls of vines in the orange peel site itself.”

More of everything


Image credits Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs.

To quantify changes in vegetation, the team used several transects within the area. These were 100-meter-long parallel lines through the forest, which the team would use as guides. For control, they set up a similar transect system on the pasture on the other side of the road, which hadn’t been used to dump the peels.  Lastly, they identified the species and measured the diameter of every tree within 3 meters of each transect for both areas.

The differences were quite dramatic. In the peel-plastered area, the team found richer soil, more diversity in the species of trees, more overall biomass (the trees grew bigger and faster), and greater canopy closure compared to the control area.

They found dramatic differences between the areas covered in orange peels and those that were not. The area fertilized by orange waste had richer soil, more tree biomass, greater tree-species richness and greater forest canopy closure. All in all, these effects show that agricultural waste can play a huge hand in regenerating forest ecosystems while also sequestering a large quantity of carbon at virtually no cost to industry or society at large.

“Plenty of environmental problems are produced by companies, which, to be fair, are simply producing the things people need or want,” said study co-author David Wilcove, Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute.

“But an awful lot of those problems can be alleviated if the private sector and the environmental community work together. I’m confident we’ll find many more opportunities to use the ‘leftovers’ from industrial food production to bring back tropical forests. That’s recycling at its best.”

It’s not very surprising to see that the peels helped the forest get back on its feet — after all, people have been using compost to fuel crops for centuries. Considering the ease and virtually inexistent cost of the operation, however, similar projects should be implemented around the world to boost struggling forest ecosystems while keeping our landfills emptier.

The paper “Low-cost agricultural waste accelerates tropical forest regeneration” has been published in the journal Restoration Ecology.


Science is core to wildlife conservation

The human impact on wildlife is growing more and more every year — not only due to global warming but also through agriculture gobbling up more and more land, habitat destruction, hunting and poaching, transportation… most of the things we do as a society have a negative impact on wildlife, when they’re done excessively. Biologists even agree that humanity is causing an ongoing massive extinction, with unforeseeable consequences — both for wildlife, and ourselves.

Image via Pixabay.

No conservation without science

Wildlife Conservation Society President Cristian Samper has recently issued a statement highlighting the importance of science when it comes to wildlife conservation.

“Science is at the core of wildlife conservation. It allows us to understand how to conserve wildlife and wild places and measure the impact of our work to save them. At WCS, we march for science every day through our field work in nearly 60 nations and in our zoos aquarium in New York City.”

With the widespread degradation of highly biodiverse habitats such as coral reefs and rainforest, as well as other areas, we don’t even know how much of a damage we are causing, and many believe this extinction will be invisible. Half of the world’s species might be gone by 2100, and it’s not just the animals that will suffer, we’ll suffer right alongside them.

Now, if we want to improve things, we first need to understand what’s going on. This is where scientific research steps in, as Samper explains:

“We could not do our work without science. Our WCS scientists produce more than 400 research papers a year. Science has informed our work throughout our 122-year history – helping to discover new species, to prevent the extinction of species, to achieve recovery of species, to establish protected areas, and to inform policies that help wildlife and communities thrive together.”

“In our early years, science helped us prevent the extinction of the American Bison; it helped us inform the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and it helped us inform a ban on commercial whaling, among many other conservation successes during our first century.”

The golden toad of Costa Rica has been extinct since around 1989. Its disappearance has been attributed to a confluence of several factors, including El Niño warming, fungus, habitat loss and the introduction of invasive species. However, we still don’t know exactly what drove it over the tipping point. Image credits: Charles H. Smith

In modern times, science is just as — if not even more — important. Every day our understanding of biodiversity expands, and we get a better idea of how we can better work to protect vulnerable biodiversity. Basically, we need solid information to take the most efficient conservation measures, and this is all science.

“More recently, science has given us important data that will help with the recovery of forest elephants that have been decimated by poaching. In a paper published last year in the Journal of Applied Ecology, researchers found that forest elephants begin breeding later and have much longer calving intervals than other elephants, which means the population takes much longer to increase. Low birth rates mean that it will take forest elephant populations at least 90 years to recover from their losses. WCS scientist Andrea Turkalo, lead author of the study who collected data over several decades, said this research provides critical understanding regarding the dire conservation status of forest elephants.

It’s not only animals — plants too are threatened. Image via Pixabay.

The march for science

Raising awareness is also key to protecting wildlife, and the upcoming march for science might also play a part in this regard. Scientists and people who care about science and the environment will march on April 22, on Earth Day. It’s important to note that the march is non-political and non-partisan — tackling only non-science and anti-environmentalism, no politics itself. It is hoped, however, that politicians will take note of this march and continue supporting science, instead of “alternative facts.”

“By marching, we aim to celebrate science, not to politicize it. While science is the fine print in all smart policy – at WCS, we want to highlight at the March for Science the importance of science to all our work. Science is behind the good news and bad news about wildlife conservation but it has nothing to do with the fake news. Science is the antithesis of fake news.”

“In 1970, more than 20 million marched on the first Earth Day. I will be honored to march with the millions who are expected to march from around the world on Earth Day 2017 in recognition of the power of science. Science helps us navigate the complicated world of wildlife conservation with the facts. Nothing we do at WCS in our efforts to save wildlife is accomplished without science.”


Ecotourists are helping domesticate wildlife

Growing at 7% per year, ecotourism is the fastest rising tourism segment. Millions flock to secluded areas of the world blessed with unique faunas each year, be it diving to see the coral reef, diving in shark water, forest trekking through national parks and so on. Tourists and guides alike claim activities are undertaken responsibly and sustainably, with minimal impact on the environment. After looking at 100 studies on animal behaviour, however, researchers found that animals in protected areas where ecotourism is practiced become more benign. Bears, elk, even sharks become more comfortable with humans and regularly filch food from visitors. As such, these can’t be considered wild animals anymore and their safety is endangered seeing how they leave their guard down for predators or human poachers.


Photo: victorifalls24.com

“These animals become more blasé about everything,” says Daniel Blumstein, a study co-author and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California-Los Angeles.

For instance, vervet monkeys have fewer run-ins with predatory leopards or elk and pronghorn antelope change their grazing patterns moving closer to areas known to harbor human activity. Where there are humans, there’s food a plenty. Over time, the characteristics of whole species change.

Blumstein says that ecotourism has effects comparable with urbanization or domestication. “If individuals selectively habituate to humans – particularly tourists – and if invasive tourism practices enhance this habituation, we might be selecting for or creating traits or syndromes that have unintended consequences, such as increased predation risk. Even a small human-induced perturbation could affect the behavior or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community.” Blumstein writes.

According to the study, protected area receive a staggering 8 billion visits each year. It’s hard to believe tour guides can manage their visitors so well as to minimize interaction, and while visiting ‘raw’ nature is a great way to connect with your roots (and take some great pics with your iPhone), it’s also taming wild life. Blumstein hopes his results encourage colleagues to do more research that might tell us how various species respond to human interactions. Ecotourim, in theory, is a fantastic leisure experience. Consequently, it should not be restricted. But if the study’s conclusions are true – though mostly anecdotal – it’s important this kind of tourism sticks to its name and lessens its impact to a minimum – for real.