Tag Archives: elephants

UK zoo starts vaccine trials for a deadly elephant virus

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) are by far the largest land mammal on the Asian continent, measuring up to 11 feet and weighing up to 5 tons. Their habitat covers 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia, but despite a relatively large spread, they are under serious threat from poaching and habitat destruction. To make matters even worse, there’s even a deadly virus threatening them. Now, a zoo in the UK wants to address this by working on a potentially life-saving vaccine for elephants.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Together with University of Surrey researchers, the Chester Zoo has long been looking at the Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), a type of herpes virus that can cause hemorrhagic disease when transmitted to young elephants. When the virus is detected in the blood or symptoms appear, it’s usually too late to treat the disease.  

EEHV can affect any elephant, from young to adults. It’s known to have caused deaths in at least eight countries, including Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Asian elephants are now listed are endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN), with all hopes placed on a vaccine solution. 

The virus has been detected in zoos, sanctuaries, safari parks, and, more worryingly, in wild elephants. A study by veterinary scientist Sonia Jesus Fontes estimated that EEHV caused 52% of the deaths of Asian elephants in European zoos since 1985. In North America, the virus was accounted to have caused 50% of the deaths since 1980. 

The team at Chester Zoo, including veterinarians, keepers, and immunologists, is now officially starting the trial of the vaccine, after long years of research. The backbone of the vaccine is the same as the one used to immunize elephants against the cowpox virus. Groups around the world have studied the EEHV virus but Chester Zoo is now taking a big step forward. 

“The only long-term solution to beating EEHV is to find a vaccine. Without zoos caring for the species it would be almost impossible to achieve that but, thankfully, we’re now making remarkable progress. The global conservation community is today a step closer to finding a viable vaccine,” Mike Jordan, head of Animals and Plants at the zoo, said in a statement. 

First steps of the vaccine

A healthy 20-year-old male elephant named Aung Bo is the first one to participate in the trials of the vaccine, with early tests showing an immune response. The trial was only possible due to the elephant’s willingness to participate. Vets test the elephants regularly for the virus, so they got used to providing blood samples on a regular basis.

Tanja Maehr, lead researcher at the University of Surrey, described this as an important moment in the team’s research, with “real optimism” to find a safe vaccine that works. While the initial results from the trials are positive, with the vaccine stimulating an immune response, these are still the early days on the road to an approved vaccine. 

“It’ll be several months until the first stage of our work to select the best candidate vaccine and determine optimal dosages and frequencies is complete. Then, if successful, further trials in zoos and in the field will need to take place to fully ascertain its efficacy,” Maehr, also a conservation fellow at the zoo, said in a statement. 

Herd of adorable elephants caught on video napping in China

A crew of wildlife conservationists has been following a herd of elephants as they journeyed across China for more than a year to make sure the animals are safe during their trek. Drones proved invaluable for monitoring the Asian elephants from afar as not to disturb them. They also provided priceless footage of the elephants dozing off in a patch of forest in Xiyang Township.

The herd of 15 has been on the move for more than 15 months, traveling more than 300 miles (480 km) from their home. During their trek, the elephants wandered through populated areas of Yunnan province, much to the delight of locals, as well as fields. Actually, not everyone was happy with the elephants. Local authorities estimate that the elephants have devoured millions of dollars worth of crops and even damaged some buildings as they moved their huge mass across the province.

It’s not clear yet why the elephants took this route, but it looks like the herd has had enough and is turning around to head back to their natural habitat, believed to be the Mengyangzi Nature Reserve in Xishuangbanna, in the southwest Yunnan province.

The Asian elephant is the largest land mammal on the Asian continent. They inhabit dry to wet forest and grassland habitats in 13 range countries spanning South and Southeast Asia, including China. Unfortunately, the majestic beasts are endangered with extinction due to habitat loss, poaching, and, in some instances, hunting by humans. Only an estimated 300 individuals are out in the wild in China.

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.

Decline in African forest elephants can raise atmospheric carbon dioxide

Found in West and Central Africa, forest elephants have played a key role in shaping the structure of the continent’s rainforest. The species is now threatened by extinction, which could lead to a reduction in forest biomass and a decline in carbon stocks of up to seven percent, according to a new paper in Nature Geoscience

Source: Flickr (US Fish and Wildlife Service)


Fabio Berzaghi and colleagues analyzed the effects of elephants on the structure, productivity and carbon storage of African rainforests. They quantify these effects based on field data and model simulations that incorporate elephant disturbance, which they define as the destruction of plants.

Forest elephants kill trees smaller than 30 cm in diameter that are located on and near trails used for movement. This leads to changes in the competition for light, water and space among trees and favors the emergence of fewer and larger trees, which increases the amount of carbon stored.

“Megaherbivores and most large herbivores are now endangered, and their disappearance may have important ecological repercussions. Elephants, one of the last remaining megaherbivores, are classified as vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List,” the authors claimed.

Forest elephants are a distinct subspecies of African elephants. They are uniquely adapted to the forest habitat of the Congo Basin. Up to 30 percent of tree species may require elephants to help with dispersal and germination. They play a pivotal role in shaping their habitat.

But they are rapidly declining in numbers. They are threatened by activities such as poaching for ivory, mining and logging concessions, and road expansion. Their population has declined from 1,200,000 to the currently estimated 415,000, according to WWF.

“The large-scale effects over the entire African forest depend critically on the actual area under elephant disturbance, and on the spatial patterns of trails,” the authors argued.

The projected decrease of seven percent in carbon stocks due to the decline in the number of forest elephants could be reversed through conservation efforts, Berzhagi and colleagues claimed. This would represent a carbon storage service of up to US$43 billion.

Savannah and forest elephants differ in ear and tusk shape, but also in size. Now, a new genome analysis offers new evidence that the two are distinct species. Credit: YouTube.

There are actually two species of African elephants — and this may mean the difference between life and death

Savannah and forest elephants differ in ear and tusk shape, but also in size. Now, a new genome analysis offers new evidence that the two are distinct species. Credit: YouTube.

Savannah and forest elephants differ in ear and tusk shape, but also in size. Now, a new genome analysis offers new evidence that the two are distinct species. Credit: YouTube.

Scientists extracted and sequenced the DNA from seven different extinct and living species from the elephant family. This included the wooly mammoth but also a straight-tusked elephant which lived 120,000 years ago. The genome-wide analysis showed that the modern elephant family tree is more branched out than previously thought. What’s more, African elephants can be split into two different species: those that live in forests and those that roam the savannas. This means that there actually are three species of elephants alive today, the third being the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).

“Elephants and their ancient relatives like the woolly mammoths and mastodons have long fascinated people the world over. But until now there has been no comprehensive assessment of their evolutionary relationships,” said Professor David Adelson, Director of the University of Adelaide’s Bioinformatics Hub.

For centuries, people have known elephants come in only two varieties, either African or Asian. The two are easily set apart by differences in size and whether females have tusks or not.

African elephants have large ears, shaped much like the continent of Africa itself. The larger surface area of their ears helps to keep African elephants cool in the blazing African sun. Asian elephants have less to worry about heat-wise, as they tend to live in cool jungle areas, so their ears are smaller. What’s more, African elephants have fuller, more rounded heads, and the top of their head is a single dome. Asian elephants can also be recognized by their twin-domed head with an indent in the middle.

Two close cousins

For some time, biologists have suspected that there are, in fact, two species of elephants in Africa, living in the forest (Loxodonta cyclotis) and savannah (Loxodonta africana) elephant. There is no official consensus on the matter, and most often the two are treated as subspecies.

The distinction is very important to make, however, because the difference could mean extinction for one of the two. Forest elephants are far more threatened than their savannah relatives. By being recognized as a different species, forest elephants could receive more attention as conservation efforts get directed more towards them.

Between 2010 and 2014 alone, scientists estimate 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers for their ivory. At this rate, African elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation.

The most comprehensive elephant genome study to date supports the notion that there are two species of elephant in Africa. First, the Australian researchers completed 14 genome sequences: two from each of the three living species (African savannah, African forest, and Asian elephants) and extinct species: one straight-tusked elephant, four woolly mammoths, one Columbian mammoth and two American mastodons.

Crushed dentine from a Woolly Mammoth for DNA extraction. Credit: JD Howell, McMaster University.

Crushed dentine from a Woolly Mammoth for DNA extraction. Credit: JD Howell, McMaster University.

The data suggests that African savannah and forest elephants have been genetically isolated for about 500,000 years, despite their geographical proximity — compelling evidence that the two should be treated as separate species. Furthermore, there is no evidence that L. cyclotis and L. africana interbred in the last half a million years. Previously, a 2017 study found L. cyclotis is more closely related to the extinct straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) than to L. africanaAnother 2010 study found that African savanna and forest elephants are about as distinct from each other as the Asian elephant is from the extinct woolly mammoth: quite a remarkable difference.

“The most surprising result was the degree of interbreeding between species. We didn’t really expect there would be gene flow between the mammoths and mastodons and the ancestors of modern elephants, but our results showed frequent interbreeding,” said Adelson.

“There’s been a simmering debate in the conservation communities about whether African savannah and forest elephants are two different species,” said David Reich, another co-senior author at the Broad Institute who is also a professor at the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “Our data show that these two species have been isolated for long periods of time – making each worthy of independent conservation status.”

Credit: UBC.ca.

Credit: UBC.ca.

Using DNA marker techniques, the team of researchers also found new evidence of gene flow between ancient species. For instance, the gene sequences show interbreeding among the Columbian and woolly mammoths, despite the two species are quite dissimilar in terms of size and habitat. Interbreeding among closely related mammals is quite common, for example between brown and polar bears, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, and the Eurasian gold jackal and grey wolves.

Next, the researchers plan on exploring whether or not the introduction of new genetic lineages into elephant population played a role in their evolution, and how.

Credit: Pixabay.

Trump Administration reverses ban on African ivory

Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, seems hellbent on reversing every piece of environmental legislature enacted by his arch-nemesis, his predecessor in the Oval Office, Barrack Obama — even if that means setting the world on fire.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Trump’s Administration has done so much to hurt the environment that keeping a tally can be a full-time job. National Geographic has a running list of all the vast changes Trump has made to U.S. science and environmental policy, if you’re interested. Among his ‘best-of’, we can remember him revoking flood standards, disbanding climate panels and programs, budget cuts for the environment, expanding offshore drilling, moving forward with the scrapping of ‘Clean Power Act’ or — the big one — exiting the Paris Agreement. The United States could become literally the only country in the world not part of the Paris Agreement, after Syria, a ravaged and war-torn country, recently joined. 

With this ‘impressive’ track-record in mind, it’s difficult to image what Trump could do to make things worse. Expect the unexpected with this ‘big, powerful’ man. Even when you’d think he couldn’t possibly stoop any lower, there he is, defying all odds. This week’s environmental bombshell comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which announced it would lift a 2014 Obama-imposed ban on ivory imported from Zimbabwe and Zambia. According to the USFWS, allowing wealthy white Americans to lure and shoot elephants in the African savannah will actually help conservation efforts.

Though Elephants are listed as “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act, there’s a provision that says trophies belonging to listed species can be imported on US soil as long as there’s evidence that the hunting can aid conservation.

“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management programme can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” a USFWS spokesman said.

“To support conservation, hunters should choose to hunt only in countries that have strong governance, sound management practices, and healthy wildlife populations.”

Needless to say, environmental and animal rights groups were not convinced at all, especially in the context of a recent controversy ensued after Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe in 2015.

“Evidence shows that poaching has increased in areas where trophy hunting is permitted,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society. “Remember, it was Zimbabwe where Walter Palmer shot Cecil, one of the most beloved and well-studied African lions, who was lured out of a national park for the killing. Palmer paid a big fee even though it did irreparable damage to the nation’s reputation.”

“Let’s be clear: elephants are on the list of threatened species; the global community has rallied to stem the ivory trade; and now, the US government is giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill them.”

A notice regarding this change to the 2014 ban will be posted in the Federal Register on Friday with more specifics.

elephant poaching

Carbon dating confirms poachers are on a killing spree: 90% of ivory seized since 2002 is three years old

elephant poaching

Credit: Pixabay

The overwhelming majority of seized ivory from Africa comes from elephants killed in the past three years. The stark findings were reported by scientists who used radiocarbon dating on samples from 230 elephant ivory specimens seized as part of 14 different operations from 2002 through 2014.

Ivory forensics

The last couple of years saw a dramatic surge in traded ivory on the black markets, most of it destined to Asian markets. Elephant populations in the African savanna have plummeted by 30 percent from 2007 to 2014; that’s tens of thousands of elephants murdered every year.

We can tell how many elephants get killed thanks to modern surveillance measures and algorithms that extrapolate data. Using helicopters and cameras, conservationists and local authorities scour the savanna and count elephants one by one. Today, only 352,271 are still alive in the 15 African countries that they surveyed, down from over one million in 1970.

It’s never been very clear, however, if seized ivory comes from elephants killed further back in the past or more recently. Some have gone as far as suggesting African authorities are collaborating with criminal gangs by releasing seized ivory held in government stockpiles into the black market. While this is horrific in itself, if true it would mean that the scale of poaching is not as drastic as ivory trading patterns suggest.

Thure Cerling, a professor at the University of Utah, and his colleagues, used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of seized ivory and test nefarious hypotheses like African officials being in cahoots with criminals. The method involves measuring the ratio between normal carbon (C-12) and its isotope (C-14). All livings things, be them plants or animals, have C-14 in their tissue and the previously mentioned ratio is the same at the moment of death as every other living thing. Because C-14 decays at a predictable rate with a half-life of 5,700 years, but C-12 remains constant, you can determine when an organism died fairly accurately. Using such a technique, scientists can determine how old an Egyptian mummy or fossil is, for instance.

Though they used ivory which was collected from various operations, only one sample was older than six years old, sourced from an elephant killed 19 years before being seized. However, nine-tenths of all the samples were no older than three years. One sample came from an elephant which was slain mere months before local authorities came into its possession.

“There’s been controversy for some time as to how to determine the killing rate of elephants,” says lead author Thure Cerling, a distinguished professor of geology, geophysics and biology at the University of Utah. “This shows that everything that has been seized comes from animals that died very, very recently.”

The findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to clear doubts of widespread leaks from ivory stockpiles, though corruption can’t be ruled out entirely. That’s the good news. The bad news is that poaching is indeed as bad as many have feared. More action is needed unless we want to live in a world where elephants can only be safe in zoos — maybe not even there.

Securing ivory can be tough, though. The international ivory ban came into force around 1990, but ivory sourced before the ban can be legally traded anywhere in the world. So, if a trader sources ivory from recently dead elephants he can pretend it’s actually ancient history. But the work of Cerling and colleagues might prompt these dubious characters to think twice before they commit to such claims.

If all traders who supposedly sale legal ivory were mandated to have their goods tested, the fight against poaching might come a long way. Even then, however, the logistical challenges might make such an initiative ineffective.

The best thing for elephants right now is to impose a global ban on all ivory, old or new, and impose severe penalties for those who sell or buy.


elephant and mouse

Are elephants really frightened by mice?

elephant and mouse

Credit: TV tropes

From Saturday morning cartoons to fables, one of the most popular images we can find is that of an elephant cowering in front of a mouse. This conjuring is often used as an allegory for the underdog, but is there any truth to it?

Eek, a mouse!

It’s not clear where or when the first ‘elephant scared by a mouse’ myth started. One version can be traced back to 77 AD, the time of Pliny the Elder —  next to Aristotle, probably the most influential scholar in antiquity. Pliny was the first to say “the elephant hates the mouse above all other creatures,” and because he was so influential and highly regarded, this sort of stuck not only with the Romans but for millennia afterward. Remember, elephants didn’t live in the so-called ‘civilized Western world’ so like other exotic species, their appearance and behavior were left to the imagination. Just look at how people used to think elephants looked like in the Middle Ages — totally hilarious.

The myth wasn’t eaten whole by everyone, though. Some were rightfully intrigued by the imagery of a 3-ton-animal petrified by a teeny-weeny mouse, like Allen Moulin who was a physician during the 1600s. Moulin, who wasn’t very familiar with elephants but at least had some knowledge of their anatomy, reasoned that since elephants lack epiglottis — a cartilage that protects the windpipe while swallowing — then it reasonable to assume that such a big creature could be afraid of a tiny one if it could crawl up the elephant’s trunk and suffocate it.

Alas, like Pliny before him, Moulin wasn’t really on to anything. He did, however, perpetuate a seemingly scientific explanation for why the biggest land mammal in the world is afraid of mice.

Like any wildlife biologist will tell you today, elephants do have that flappy cartilage to protect their windpipes. Even if a mouse, insect or any kind of ‘debris’ ended up the trunk, the elephant needs only to blow it. In fact, that’s what they do most of the time when they feel the trunk is getting clogged.

Yet in an episode of Myth Busters, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman found the myth was actually ‘plausible’. Though they didn’t give it any chance, their experiments suggest that South African elephants stopped dead in their tracks when they were met by mice hidden in dung. Once the elephants noticed the little critters, they actually backed away and even started moving in the other direction.

According to John Hutchinson, who is a researcher at the Royal Veterinary College in London, elephants in the wild get nervous whenever a small but fast animal meets their tracks. That means that not only mice can frighten them, but dogs, cats and just about anything that’s agile. Also, there’s a novelty factor involved.

Captive elephants, like those in zoos or circuses, are often seen sleeping with rodents right on top of them. They seem to mind very little, as most keepers would tell you.

So, rather than being afraid of mice per se, elephants seem to be startled by frantic movements. And, really, the same can be said about any animal living in the wild.



Credit: Pixabay

Environmental history encased in hippo teeth shows how poaching is altering Africa’s landscape

Credit: Pixabay

Credit: Pixabay

Megaherbivores such as elephants and hippos like to graze on lowland tropical grasses, but they also browse the twigs, shoots, leaves, and fruits of bushes and trees. There’s more to this diet than meets the eye, though.

These animals, particularly the elephants which have a big appetite, help keep woody plant encroachment in check. But now that many of these megaherbivores have been killed, either by poaching or habitat loss, the vegetation of Africa’s savannas is changing — and it all strikingly shows in hippo teeth, a new study found.

Ask and nature will provide

There is not one, but three forms of photosynthesis — the essential biological process that harnesses energy from sunlight into chemical energy. These types are known as C3, C4 and CAM.

Tropical grasses, such as those commonly found in an elephant’s ecosystem, are C4 plants because of these employ a unique enzyme to process CO2 into sugars during photosynthesis. Other C4 plants include corn and sugarcane. Also, in the elephant’s surroundings are C3 plants, which use a different enzyme, like trees, shrubs, herbs and various flowering plants.

The two classes of plants, C3 and C4, are in direct competition for resources, sunlight no exception, and megaherbivores like elephants act like nature’s gardeners, keeping everything in balance. Since the 1960s, however, elephant populations have plummeted which has led to a significant advance of C3 plants. Grasslands, which many animals depend on for food and shelter, have been retreating, on the other hand.

Aerial photographs and ground surveys have confirmed that C3 plants are beginning to take over in the parts of Africa, but these have never been very reliable because you need a lot of data recorded at fixed time intervals to glimpse the big picture. Many African parks, like  Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, have little to any such observations recorded.

We’re surrounded by data, though. While there are many things humans have failed to record, nature never sleeps and there is so much we can learn about past environments by studying proxies like minerals, fossils or remains. For instance, coral build their skeletons from calcium carbonate, which is a mineral extracted from the seawater. Inside the mineral are oxygen isotopes as well as trace metals which can be used to determine the water’s temperature at the time the coral grew. Millions-of-years-old sediment cores trap tiny fossils and chemicals and we can use them to learn what past climates and faunas looked like. Patterns in tree rings can also tell us if a particular year in its life was dry or wet, among many other things.

In science, most of the time, it’s all about asking the right question. In this case, the right question would be ‘what proxy can we use to build a timeline of vegetation growth in Africa’s savanna?’ That would be heavy carbon isotopes, researchers at the University of Utah might say. Because C3 and C4 plants use metabolic processes which treat carbon isotopes differently, namely C4 plants store more heavy carbon isotopes in their biomass, we have a reliable marker at our disposal.

Going up the food chain, these isotopic signatures become incorporated into the bodies of the animals which consume plants and get preserved in durable tissue, like teeth.

Kendra Chritz sampling hippo enamel by kerosene lamplight in Uganda. Credit: University of Utah

Kendra Chritz sampling hippo enamel by kerosene lamplight in Uganda. Credit: University of Utah

Kendra Chritz and colleagues at the University of Utah worked closely with officials from the Queen Elizabeth National Park to get ahold of hippo teeth from the 1960s, 2000s, and a lucky sample in between from 1991. This gave them the confidence they needed to build a nice timeline as they had both pre and post poaching samples to work with. There are only about 150 elephants left in the park, down from over 4,000 in the 70s. Thousands of hippos were poached in the intervening four decades, too.

The results published in Scientific Reports show that the 1960s hippos had a diet comprised of 80 percent C4 plants but later hippos only ate 65 percent C4. This suggests that in the span of only a couple of decades, C3 plant encroachment had progressed fast enough to alter the diet of the animals in the park. The proportion of C3 plants in later hippo diet came as a total surprise given initial studies of hippo diet surmised the animals almost exclusively ate grass.  And few researchers have suggested otherwise,” Chritz says. “It appears that they’re actually quite flexible in their diets and adaptable to environmental change.”

“We’ve built a record that shows just how drastic the loss of megaherbivores in a park can be on a very short timescale,” she says. “Within ten years, we see a big change in what’s happening in this once diverse grassy area of the park. This is a window into the future of what could to happen in East African savannas as elephants continue to be poached at the currently unprecedented rate.”

Poachers kill a hundred elephants every day in Africa. Today, there are only 350,000 elephants left in fifteen African countries or 30 percent fewer than only a decade ago. The University of Utah study shows that losing elephants might have far-reaching consequences for the local ecosystem.

“There’s a balance you have to reach. The most important thing right now is to work hard at fighting poaching,” Chritz notes.

“Not purchasing ivory and knowing which products you might use that are made from ivory is the best thing you can do to protect elephants,” she adds.

Seized ivory slated for destruction. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Poachers responsible for 30% drop in savanna elephant populations in Africa

Seized ivory slated for destruction. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Seized ivory slated for destruction. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Spurred by a lucrative black market trade and wealthy Southeast Asian buyers, African elephant poaching has ramped up tremendously over the past decade. According to a conservation group, poachers kill 100 elephants every day on average. This lunacy has taken a huge toll, as a recent census suggests the African elephants populations have declined by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014.

The researchers who worked on the $7 million Great Elephant Census say only 352,271 are still alive in the 15 African countries that they surveyed, down from over one million in 1970. What’s more worrisome is that the rate of decline is actually accelerating, rising to eight percent in 2014 and suggesting local efforts to stop poaching have been ineffective, to say the least.

The survey itself was a herculean effort requiring vast resources and close cooperation between governments and organizations from 18 countries. To count the animals, researchers flew small aircraft over large swaths of land and photographed everything they saw. Back at home base, technical advisers combed through all the data by hand so no elephant was counted twice.

It was a very laborious process and it took a while, but now we have a much more refined picture of the state of elephant poaching in Africa — and it’s bleak. Previous estimates of elephant populations in Africa ranged from 400,000 to 630,000. In reality, far fewer elephants are left. A previous 2014 study found the Central African elephant population has halved.

Tens of thousands of these elephants are killed primarily for the ivory in their tusks, which is highly prized on the Chinese market. The last decade has been very kind to China, whose economy is double that in 2004. Thousands of Chinese overnight millionaires are now busy spending their newfound fortunes. Most are uneducated and superstitious, so elephant ivory or rhino horns are high on their wishlist, at the expense of a whole species survival.

The most vulnerable areas in Africa to elephant poaching are colored in red. Most are located in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Chad. Credit: GREAT ELEPHANT CENSUS

The most vulnerable areas in Africa to elephant poaching are colored in red. Most are located in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Chad. Credit: GREAT ELEPHANT CENSUS

While these recent figures are grim, it would be unfair to shoulder all the blame on local governments. After all, they are trying. Many elephant habitats have been declared national parks, and public ivory-burning is done all the time — the most recent in Kenya saw 7,000 tusks burned. Earlier this year, three rangers were killed and two were injured by poachers in Congo — one of many similar episodes happening in central Africa, and not only, where the fight against poaching can be fatal.

“Elephants are already locally extinct in my own country, Mauritania, and I do not want to see this happen anywhere else –-an imminent possibility in Cameroon and Mali, and further down the line in other countries, unless we accelerate action,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, the deputy head of the U.N. Environment branch, in a statement.

“As depressing as these numbers are, I hope they act as a further spark for action and change. We know how to solve the crisis. The Great Elephant Census tells us we must act, and now.,” he added.

It looks like an uphill battle, but there is hope the coming decade will see ramp down in poaching aided by science. Organizations have started tracking ivory using DNA sequencing, as well as artificial intelligence.

The medieval elephant was partly horse, partly dog, totally hilarious

There were some pretty epic works of art made throughout the Middle Ages and especially the Renaissance. Tapestries, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, monumental works gracing royal chambers and cathedrals. But we’re not gonna talk about those today. We’re gonna talk about the drawings that would have barely made it under a magnet on the fridge door (if they would’ve had fridges or magnets in those times.)

The drawings that never fail to get a giggle out of me. No matter how tragic or dramatic the scene, there’s always a little something hilarious in the depiction; most often caused by a dissociation between what’s happening and the expressions depicted. The fiercest battle, the most grueling siege, for example, has that one guy stabbing away with a bored expression on his face, seemingly wondering whether or not he turned the stove off before he left home. For me, it just adds to the experience — they’re treats, like little chips of chocolate in a cookie to be found and enjoyed.

But if you want a full chocolate bar, look no further than these medieval takes on what an elephant looks like.

From the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, Classe

Ok so only two pictures in and color, anatomy and size are already hilariously wrong. A preschooler could probably draw a better elephant, right?

Well yes, that’s probably right. But consider the fact that these drawings were done starting from nothing more than a description of what an elephant is, and a shoddy one at that. Or from another drawing, at best. The average preschooler today has seen a lot more elephants than all these artists combined. So they naturally drew them similar animals they knew of which seemed similar in form or use: horses, boars or dogs.

From the Rochester Beastiary

It just goes to show the huge difference modern photography makes in our lives, connecting the world, making it smaller and smaller each day. I can’t think of a single thing that I know of without having seen at least one picture or photograph of. But if I do and I’m curious to see how it looks like, all I have to do is google it. These artists could have only dreamed of that.

Luckily for us, or they wouldn’t have made these awfully hilarious drawings.

All images via Imgur.

Elephants rearrange family structure in response to poaching

Elephant social structure is deeply matriarchal, meaning their groups look to older females for leadership. This tends to work best in a poacher-free environment, as hunters tend to target older animals for their larger tusks which yield larger quantities of high-quality ivory.

The world however is by no means a poacher-free environment; a new study looks into how, even with poaching picking their matriarchs off one by one, elephant social structures unexpectedly managed to survive.

Image via nytimes

“We were expecting some sort of social collapse, especially knowing how important matriarchs are to a society,” said Shifra Goldenberg, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University and an author of the new report.

To find out how they managed to do so, researchers spent 16 years studying adult female elephants in northern Kenya’s Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves, starting since 1997. The 2009 drought also affected the elephant population in these areas, they note.

Elephants typically live in three types of groups: core groupings are comprised of animals closely related between them, followed by bond and clan groups, each including more genetically distant individuals. After confronted with the death of their leading female, the scientists watched as different core groups fused together.

“Families that dissolve because of poaching group up,” Ms. Goldenberg said. “Sometimes it is genetically based, but we also saw unrelated groupings.”

And keeping it all together falls to the younger females; The team observed that when confronted with the loss of a matriarch, female offspring often took the lead and stepped in, drawing on their mother’s contacts to rebuild social networks. In one case, Ms. Goldenberg reports, a family of elephants lost all of its adults to poachers  and natural causes in a brief period of time, with only three young females and three young males remaining in the group. A 12-year-old female took charge and linked the youngsters with an older female matriarch.

“We thought we’d be seeing a bunch of kids running around that don’t have much guidance,” Ms. Goldenberg said. “But the story here is that they are figuring it out. They just need a bit of time.”

The full article was published online in the journal Current Biology.


China destroys six tonnes of seized ivory as anti-poaching message


Photo: Vincent Yu/Associated Press

As China’s populace grew in affluence and trade restrictions with other countries became more permissive, the past couple of years have seen a dramatic surge in ivory making its way towards China – in consequence elephant poaching has grown to record heights, as expected. In a historical event, China for the first time destroyed part of its seized lot of ivory. Some six tonnes of ivory ornaments and tusks were obliterated in Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, which is a major hub for the ivory trade.

[READ] China is killing Africa’s elephants

Environmental groups have herald the event has a strong anti-poaching message from behalf of the country which is home to the largest ivory market in the world, and have congratulated Chinese officials for this bold move. The highly publicized event was attended by state officials, foreign diplomats and wildlife campaigners, in hopes that nationwide awareness on the subject may be raised.

Some of the ivory crushed by the U.S. government in November 2013. USFWS / YouTube

Some of the ivory crushed by the U.S. government in November 2013.
USFWS / YouTube

China followed the United States’ example, which last November destroyed all the seized ivory in its possession – again some six tonnes. Figures are hard to come by, but the Wildlife Conservation Society said on Monday that the total amount of seized ivory still in the Chinese government’s possession amounts to some 45 tonnes.

“If China were to destroy the remainder of its ivory stocks and lead the world by committing not to buying ivory in the future,” said Cristián Samper, president and chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society “it would have a transformative, positive impact on the survival of African elephants.”

More than 30,000 elephants are killed for their tusks each year in the lucrative trade that sells at around $1000 per pound. The event in Dongguan should help hammer home the message a lot more clearly, wildlife activists now hope. There’s a lot more to it, and although the event is admirable in its intentions, the world is hopping there’s some actual measurable improvement following it.

China is killing Africa’s elephants

The number of elephant poaching in Africa has increased dramatically, as well as the Chinese demand for ivory, and according to most, this is not a coincidence at all. The growing demand for ivory in China, combined with the country’s growing influence on the dark continent work together and are leading to the tragic decline of elephants, which are being killed for their tusks.

In only the latest incindent, Thai custom agents have seized over two tons of ivory, hidden on a ship. The 247 tusks discovered officially on March 30 are estimated at about 3.3 $million, illustrating (even if just vaguely) the size of the poaching and smuggling taking place in Africa. The head of the Kenya wildlife authority blames China for slaughtering over 100 elephants in the last year alone, an accusation that should not be treated lightly; he also has some facts to back up these charges:

“Ninety percent of all the people who pass through our airports and are apprehended with illegal wildlife trophies are Chinese,” said Julius Kipng’etich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Meanwhile, China is investing billions in Africa in all sort of deals, mostly trading highways and railways for the natural resources which pump its ever growing economy.

“China is the major driver for trade in ivory and that is linked to China’s phenomenal economic growth, the level of disposable income there, a re-embracing of traditional culture and status symbols in which ivory plays a role and the phenomenal increase of Chinese nationals on the African continent,” said Tom Milliken, regional director for east and southern Africa at TRAFFIC, a group which monitors the global wildlife trade.

Similar accusations have come from South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and more other countries, but a firm measure against these actions is yet to be taken.

Pictures via Global Post