Tag Archives: poaching

Forensic method could help the pangolin and bring poachers to justice

The one good thing about the coronavirus pandemic? It might actually save the pangolins.

Examples of fingerprints lifted from pangolin scales

As China finally starts to take the protection of pangolins seriously, researchers have discovered a new forensic method that could disrupt poachers and traffickers and help them bring them into justice.

A group of wildlife forensic experts from the University of Portsmouth have discovered a way to lift fingerprints from pangolin scales by using gelatin, a common way that forensic scientists pick up prints from surfaces. The lift can be easily applied, removed and scanned and afterward the fingermarks can be graded for ridge detail.

The first trial using this method was done in 2018 and since then it has been further developed with training and workshops in Asia and Africa. Wildlife personnel worked with the researchers to improve their capability in using the methods that are most suitable in their areas and circumstances.

“We found that wildlife crime officers across Africa and Asia have extensive expertise and knowledge in relation to the wildlife, the crimes committed and the behavior of the traffickers, but they had little experience of forensic methods and practice,” said in a statement Brian Chappell, co-author of the study.

Gelatin is essentially a soft material that picks up almost anything left on a surface. That’s why it has been used in forensics science for over a century. By pressing a sheet of gelatin onto the surface, the gel adheres to the surface and picks up fingerprint impressions.

That’s true whether the surface is a table, a glass, or a pangolin scale. The gel also picks up other substances apart from fingerprints, such as soil and pollen, which could give scientists more information into where the pangolins are being traded. That’s why using gel is better than dusting for fingerprints, despite what you may see on popular tv shows.

Dr Paul Smith, co-author of the study, said in a statement: “The low-tack adhesive gelatine lifters have been used in crime scene and forensic practice for over 100 years, but we adapted bespoke packs and lifted evidence successfully off pangolin scales. This technique was easy to use, effective and suitable for practice.”

Beyond pangolin scales, the method could even be used for other smooth surfaces, like ivory tusks, according to the researchers. At the same time, using gelatin could also help keep people safe when they are tracking down poachers. It’s low-tech, easy to use, and allows wildlife rangers to quickly get in and out of a scene.

That’s important because illegal wildlife trade is a dangerous activity, especially for those who are trying to stop it. A 2018 study found that more than 100 wildlife rangers died in the line of work in just one year. Of those deaths, 48 people were murdered while working.

The study was published in the journal Forensic Science International.

Pangolins under challenge

Pangolins are a highly endangered species as they are valued for their meat and scales.. They are often considered the most endangered species in the world.

The humble pangolin is a scale-covered insectivore, highly valued in Asia and some parts of Africa for its scales and meat. The pangolin’s main defense strategy is to curl up into a ball and use its scales for protection — which renders it completely powerless against poachers. There are eight different pangolin species found in Asia and Africa.

Pangolin scales are made of keratin and their use is promoted by traditional Chinese medicine. It is believed that they improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation, although the scientific evidence is lacking. Last year alone, more than 130 tons of pangolin related products were seized by the government, which represents up to 400,000 animals — and that’s just what was captured.

Pangolins have been in the spotlight since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as studies have suggested they may have been the intermediate host that transmitted the virus to humans. Nevertheless, no positive identification was obtained yet, with experts suggesting a 100% identification will be difficult.

The latest edition of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, a government compendium of Chinese and Western medicine, doesn’t include pangolin scales on its list of approved ingredients anymore. The decision was explained by the government due to “wild resources exhaustion.”

Elephant poaching is still at its peak in most of Africa

Although initial research suggested otherwise, poaching of African elephants has not decreased since 2011 in Western, Southern, and Central Africa, according to a new study. This highlights the need for continued efforts to save the remaining elephant populations on the continent.

Credit Flickr

Beginning around 2007, a wave of poaching for ivory affected populations of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephants (L. cyclotis) across Africa. The total population of savannah elephants decreased by 30% between 2007 and 2015. In some countries, elephant populations declined by over 50% in under 10 years.

Recent reports, however, indicated that elephant poaching may be abating. Since 2016, some African parks have reported reductions or even a halt in elephant poaching. Likewise, global ivory prices appear to have peaked and may have begun to fall, perhaps as a result of bans on ivory sales.

Besides Eastern Africa, poaching rates are still at their peak

In a new study, Elephants Without Borders (EWB) with the University of Washington applied a novel statistical technique to analyze poaching data from the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Program. They found poaching reduced only in Eastern Africa in recent years, dismissing previous estimations.

Lead author Dr. Scott Schlossberg, an analyst with EWB, said in a statement: “Reports of falling poaching rates in Africa are something of an illusion. Regionally, elephant poaching is decreasing only in Eastern Africa. For the rest of the continent, poaching rates are still near their peak and have changed little since 2011.”

The MIKE program is administered by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. At MIKE sites, rangers record the number of elephant carcasses they find. The proportion of those carcasses that were killed illegally was used as the measure of poaching rates in the new study.

The researchers said Central and Western Africa are the areas of more concern regarding poaching. In Western Africa, remaining elephants are mostly in small and scattered, which makes it difficult to withstand poaching. Central Africa is the home of the African forest elephant, a species that has experienced severe losses.

“The poachers are not easing up their efforts, so the countries of Africa and supporters of elephants around the world need to keep up the fight against poaching. We have already lost over 100,000 elephants to poaching since 2007. Reducing poaching should be a top priority of conservationists,” co-author Michael Chase of EWB said.

While they described the reduction in poaching in East Africa as “real and laudable,” the researches said governments and conservationists shouldn’t let that improvement influence their outlook on what’s happening in the rest of the continent. Poaching levels in Central and Western Africa are “unsustainable” and more vigilance and anti-poaching efforts are needed.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Elephant poaching is going down, but we need more action

A new study has found reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of elephants: while poaching is still too high, it has more than halved since 2011.

African elephant.

The rise of the ivory black market — especially the one in China and Southeast Asia — spelled very bad news for elephants. Every year, up to 10% of the entire population was killed by poachers, with peak poaching being reached in 2011. Now, a new survey found that poaching rates are down to 4% in 2017 — which, while much lower, is still very dangerous for elephant population.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Colin Beale, from the University of York’s Department of Biology said:

“We are seeing a downturn in poaching, which is obviously positive news, but it is still above what we think is sustainable so the elephant populations are declining.”

“The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in South- East Asia and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”

Recent surveys suggest that Africa hosts around 350,000 elephants. Every year, 10-15,000 are killed each year by poachers. Overall, poaching rates are on the decline but still worrying. Poaching is contributing to rapid declines in wild animal populations across Africa, not just in elephants, but in many other species as well. Government initiatives to fight poaching, however, are working — slowly, but they’re working. High-level, as well as a number of well-publicized ivory destruction events in China and the USA have also helped push elephant poaching higher up the international agenda.

This increased awareness made a significant impact, researchers say, culminating with an ivory trade ban introduced in China in 2017, but this study did not assess the impact this ban had on poaching figures. What the study did find, however, is that continued investment in law enforcement could further reduce poaching, but is unlikely to succeed without action that simultaneously reduces ivory demand and tackles corruption and poverty.

“We need to reduce demand in Asia and improve the livelihoods of people who are living with elephants in Africa; these are the two biggest targets to ensure the long-term survival of elephants”, Dr. Beale added.

“While we can’t forget about anti-poaching and law enforcement, improving this alone will not solve the poaching problem.”

Simply put, as long as there will be a high demand for ivory and a struggling local population, there will also be poaching. For long-term success, governments need to take solid measures to reduce demand for ivory — in contrast, the recent decision by the Trump administration to eliminate a ban on importing ivory trophies is counterproductive. We have the know-how, we just need to take the necessary actions.

Severin Hauenstein, from the University of Freiburg, concludes:

“This is a positive trend, but we should not see this as an end to the poaching crisis.”

“We need to understand the local and global processes driving illegal elephant hunting.”

The study has been published in Nature Communications.

Heat-rhinos.

Scientists use astronomy software to protect endangered creatures from poachers

What do star-hunting and poacher-catching have in common? I’m a big fan of both — also, the technology employed.

Heat-rhinos.

Infrared image of rhinos in South Africa.
Image credits Endangered Wildlife Trust / LJMU.

Researchers at the Royal Astronomical Society and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) plan to turn star-hunting algorithms to more Earthly pursuits — well, to poacher pursuit, to be exact. They hope this will help conservationists better defend the planet’s most endangered species.

I spy with my little astronomical eye…

The technical details are a bit stuffy and not completely clear, but essentially, the software in question uses on heat emission readings to pick out galaxies or stars invisible to the naked eye. It relies on instruments such as the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to gather the raw data, and an algorithm trained to trawl through it and recognize the shape of far-off stars or galaxies.

But why limit a good tool to only one job? Working alongside staff members from the Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park, the researchers reprogrammed the star-gazing algorithm to recognize a variety of different animals and environments. Like a biodiversity Batman, it will use this knowledge to keep endangered species safe from poachers, warding off extinction at the hands of greedy men.

The project is based on machine-learning algorithms and astronomical detection tools developed through open source software, Astropy. An initial pilot project conducted in mid-2017 at a farm in the Wirral in northwest England tested the concept using infrared drone footage of humans and cows. The LJMU team then teamed up with Knowsley Safari and Chester Zoo to capture the unique thermal profiles of various animals, including rhinos and baboons, and build up a library of different animal thermal signatures. The team has now moved onto field tests to detect endangered animals in their native habitats.

Using thermal cameras to see animals in the dark isn’t a new idea. It’s particularly effective at keeping tabs on them in darkness or when they try to camouflage themselves. What’s new here is the automated recognition software that can decide whether it’s looking at ‘an animal’ or ‘a human’.

“We have been able to combine the technical expertise of astronomers with the conservation knowledge of ecologists to develop a system to find the animals or poachers automatically,” said Dr Claire Burke who works at the Liverpool John Moores University.

The system is particularly exciting since poachers like to ply their bloody trade under the cover of darkness — on account of it being ‘illegal’ and all that. By automatically keeping tabs on the animals and warning gatekeepers whenever a poacher tries to come close, the system should help keep the animals safe.

“Our aim is to make a system that is easy for conservationists and game wardens to use anywhere in the world, which will allow endangered animals to be tracked, found and monitored easily and poaching to be stopped before it happens,” added Burke.

The team has already conducted trial runs of the software using flying drones equipped with infrared cameras that keep tabs on animals at night via their thermal signature. This initial field trial was carried out in South Africa, on an indigenous, fluffy, endangered species: the Riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis). Further trials are planned, starting with endangered Orangutans in Malaysia, river dolphins in Brazil, and lastly spider monkeys in Mexico.

Drones were used instead of fixed cameras as they’re better suited to monitoring huge swaths of terrain, and they have virtually no impact on the workings of the habitats or animals they fly over. Right now, the team is working on getting the drones flying safely even in bad weather. The software itself is also being refined and upgraded to compensate for atmospheric effects, weather, and other environmental factors that could interfere with the thermal readings.

The project was presented by Claire Burke at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) in Liverpool on Tuesday, 3rd April.

This startup plans to end rhino poaching by counterfeiting illegal goods — and it could work

A Seattle-based startup plans to save the rhinos — by outselling the poachers. Key to this strategy will be bio-fabricating fake horns out of keratin, the substance hair and fingernails are made of, to tank the price of horns on the black market and drive poachers out of business.

Black rhino horn.

Image via Wikimedia.

There’s one pretty nifty concept in economics that has stubbornly defied policy ever since someone first thought of banning anything — supply and demand. It’s why the Prohibition worked about as well as a raft made of concrete and why the harder we push forth the “war on drugs” the less headway we make.

By eliminating any legal avenue of satisfying a certain demand, bans effectively grant a monopoly over that good or service to the black market. In the process, officials lose any control over said commodity. Prices soar because that’s how monopolies work. The extra value justifies the risk of selling a ‘banned’ good, supply grows to meet demand, and voila! It’s illegal, but it’s lucrative, so trade flourishes. To put it bluntly, when people want something, the fact that it’s “illegal” won’t stop them. They’ll just go buy it (at a premium) from a shady dude in a shady alley instead of a supermarket.

That same economic ebb-and-flow is killing off the rhino today. The animals’ horns are banned for trade under international law and  have become ridiculously valuable on the black market, fetching up to US$60,000 a pound ($133,200 per kilogram). That’s about three to four times more than gold, depending on who you’re asking. Demand is powered chiefly by East Asian markets, with Vietnam and China making up the bulk of trade. Horns are used to make high-valued carvings, from cups to jewelry, and traditional Chinese medicine holds that they will make you, among other things, quite horny. A pun I’d delight over if not for the tragedy of the situation.

The end of the matter is that rhinos today are on the brink of extinction. Decades of Western trophy hunting, poaching, and habitat destruction have decimated overall rhino populations. Between 1970 and 1992, for example, black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) saw a 96% reduction in numbers. Other species are also hard pressed, such as the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), currently estimated to number only 60 individuals according to the World Wildlife Foundation, or the white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) that are still making a comeback from numbering only 6 individuals in 2014.

Rhino sizes.

Size comparison for the five species of rhino.
Image via Wikimedia.

Three out of the five rhino species are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, and not a single one listed above “Vulnerable”. Habitat loss and poaching are currently the biggest threats to the rhinos. According to nonprofit Save the Rhino, 1,054 rhinos were killed in 2016 in South Africa alone, up from just 13 animals in 2007.

Pss, kids, wanna buy some horns?

Enter Seattle-based biotech startup Pembient. They’re trying to solve half the rhinos’ problems by literally making rhino horns so dirt-cheap no poacher worth his salt will bother with them. Their idea is to bio-fabricate fake horns out of keratin, a protein organisms use when strength and flexibility are required. It makes up stuff like fingernails and hooves, hair or fur, horns, and claws. By 3D printing keratin, Pembient hopes to manufacture fake horns that are identical on a “macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular” level to the real ones, according to its CEO and co-founder Matthew Markus.

The scheme isn’t ready to go right now. Once the fabricated horns are up to scratch and market-ready, however, they’ll feel so real that it will be “impossible” to distinguish them from natural horns, Markus told Business Insider. They’ll then be injected into the Asian carvers’ supply chain through various sources masquerading as honest poachers trying to get by. In the end, nobody will know whether they’re buying real or fake.

“Trust me, it’s the real deal. Fresh out of the savanna.”
Image credits Fathromi Ramdlon.

In effect, Pembient plans to flood illegal markets with super-cheap, rhino-friendly, counterfeit horns. Because they’re manufactured in bulk in a plant, the fakes will be much cheaper and could be sold for significantly less than the real horns. Over time, since people won’t be able to tell the two apart, this unfair competition will bring prices down, sending poachers looking for new employment.

“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” Markus said. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.”

It’s an interesting strategy, and radically different from traditional approaches used by conservationists. Bringing down demand for horns isn’t feasible, Markus thinks, adding that “it’s not really ethical either.” Instead, Pembient plans to increase supply so much that it would be impossible to turn a profit from poaching rhinos.

“These practices are based on thousands of years of cultural tradition — they’re a lot older than Thanksgiving,” he added, reffering to the traditional practices that maintain the rhino horn trade.

“We can’t just tell them to stop.”

There are some concerns leveled at the startup, however. In particular, International Rhino Foundation and Save The Rhino International, two NGOs working on rhino conservation, have raised concerns regarding the plans’ efficacy, pointing out that the black market is already swamped in fake horns and prices are still incredibly high.

“More than 90% of ‘rhino horns’ in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise annually,” the organizations wrote in a joint statement.

The two also argued that synthetic horns will divert attention from the “real problem,” which is to end rhino poaching.

Still, rhinos are running out of time as well as numbers, and as we’ve seen earlier, poaching has picked up in recent years. Markus agrees that Pembient’s approach is fundamentally different than current conservation efforts, but thinks his approach could help finally end poaching for good.

Personally, I’d like to think that while people may want the horns, nobody explicitly wants to kill rhinos. Tradition is a central pillar of many people’s lives, but I’d advocate for compromise. After all, traditionally, most people would work in the field and eek out a pretty bleak livelihood before an untimely end at the hands of dysentery some other, equally-jolly way to die horribly. A state of affairs which, I’m sure we can all agree, is best left in the past. So I’d really like to see Pembient succeed at their goal — for “restore-faith-in-humanity” points, if nothing else.

A “prevention and treatment” approach has shown efficacy in addressing drug abuse, so it might work for rhino horn trade as well. Time will tell. In August, the company introduced a novel cryptocurrency program, the “Pembicoin” to fund their research and development. Each coin will be redeemable for one gram of bio-fabricated rhino horn once they become available, in 2022, according to the company’s website.

If Pembient’s approach proves efficient, it could pave the way for synthetic ivory to combat elephant poaching in the future.

Elephants at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Elephants increasingly become more nocturnal to evade poachers

Every year, some 30,000 African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are slaughtered by poachers throughout the continent. The elephants, some of the most intelligent creatures out there, are not oblivious and have adapted by drastically altering their foraging patterns.

Elephants at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Elephants at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Traditionally, African elephants are on the move looking for food during daytime and rest under the cover of darkness. The sudden uptick in poaching for ivory, however, has forced elephants to reverse the pattern.

Researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands in collaboration with NGO Save the Elephants tracked 60 elephants in northern Kenya with GPS devices for up to three years from 2002 to 2012. The animals were tracked as they foraged in and around the Laikipa-Samburu ecosystem, just three hours drive from Nairobi. One paper published in 2015, found poaching in Laikipia-Samburu increased heavily over this period, peaking at 70% of all recorded deaths in 2012.

It’s no wonder that the elephants have recognized the pattern of violence, seeing how most of their peers perished gunned down. After they compared elephant movement with poaching activity databases, the researchers found females reduced daytime activity by about 50 percent on average in high-danger zone compared to low-danger zones. In other words, nighttime movements of the elephants increased significantly in sync with poaching levels.

Forced lifestyle

Female elephants forage in close-knit families, often with calves at their side while the bulls are more solitary. Despite entrenched foraging strategies and mating patterns, African elephants have now been forced to change their way of life. By staying more active at night, they’ve now become vulnerable to nocturnal predators like hyenas or lions. Even so, human poachers seem to be a much bigger threat.

“As most poaching occurs during the daytime, their transition to nocturnal behavior appears to be a direct result of prevailing poaching levels,” Festus Ihwagi, a researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said. 

This shift in foraging patterns might do the elephants good in the short-run but their long-term survivability is put into question. Elephants have evolved to forage during the daytime over the course of millions of years and it’s not very clear how this recent shift in response to poaching will affect their long-term adaptability.

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.

Long-term survivability might matter very little in light of the massive uptick in poaching on the continent. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, some 100,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory, which is sold mostly on the Chinese black market. African elephants populations have declined by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to a recent estimate.

Local governments with the help of many wildlife NGOs are trying to do something about it. Many elephant habitats have been declared national parks, and public ivory-destruction is performed frequently — 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.

Corruption is the biggest threat to the elephants though. “High-level corruption and poor governance are helping enable sophisticated international trade,” said Paulinus Ngeh, director of Traffic in central Africa. And beyond poaching, which is indeed the most immediate threat, habitat loss and competition for food with humans are also helping drive the African elephants extinct.

“Poaching attracts a lot of media attention, but it’s only part of a big picture,” says Julian Blanc of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. “If we somehow stopped poaching tomorrow, elephants would still be in big trouble.”

Pangolin.

Pangolin poaching is driving the species extinct, despite international trade ban

Hunted by the millions each year, Africa’s pangolins are in very real danger of going extinct.

Pangolin.

C to the U to the T to the E.
Image credits David Brossard / Flickr.

Just look at that little guy. He has to be, hands down, one of the most adorable critters evolution ever put together. It is called a pangolin — a mammal family that also has the distinction of being the most intensely trafficked and poached on the planet. Sadly, it’s not for hugs and cuddles: the meat and scales of pangolins can fetch a hefty price.

Such a price that pangolin populations in Asia have decreased drastically since the 1960s, coming perilously close to complete extinction. An international trade ban on pangolins has been announced last year, but there are concerns that black market traffickers still supply Asian markets with animals poached from Africa. With conservationist groups pushing for the ban to be more strictly enforced, solid estimates of the numbers involved in this trade are critical.

Cue Dr. Daniel Ingram from the University of Sussex. Working together with researchers in Africa, Ingram put together the first estimate of pangolin hunting levels in Central Africa.

“Pangolins have been hunted across Africa for centuries,” he told BBC News. “Because we don’t have population estimates we can’t tell if hunting for food is at sustainable levels or not.

“What we can say is that there is widespread pressure on pangolins from hunting in Central Africa, but we can’t ascertain whether hunting is at sustainable levels or not because we need biology data and population estimates.”

To get an idea of just how much pressure the family is under, the researchers gathered data from over 100 bush markets and hunting sites across 14 African countries. Based on these figures, they estimate that anywhere between 0.4 to 2.7 million pangolins are hunted annually in Central African forests.

Which is, as you may have guessed, a lot of pangolins. Overexploitation is one of the main drivers of species extinction and habitat destruction all over the world and the pangolins don’t break that rule. But the team’s efforts help paint a more detailed image of the pressures pushing this species on the way of the dinosaurs.

Knowing exactly which African regions see the most intense poaching could help direct future conservation efforts and guide the hand of governments around the world to take action and ensure the species’ continued survival. Action, which is sorely needed today, more so than ever before — as all eight species of pangolin in the world have transitioned into the ‘threatened with extinction’ class of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as of 2014.

The paper “Assessing Africa-Wide Pangolin Exploitation by Scaling Local Data” has been published in the journal Conservation Letters.

Rangers in India found an effective yet questionable way of slamming down poaching — they kill the poachers

Rangers are equipped with guns, and they use them on sight — sometimes without warning.

Image credits: Kangkan.it2004

The Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India, is a remarkable story of conservation success. Despite the increasing black market demand for rhino ivory and despite total rhino numbers dropping significantly throughout the country, Kaziranga is doing great. The reason for that, as a BBC investigation has revealed, is the implementation of extreme measures.

Rangers have been militarized and shoot without hesitation. A BBC reporter recalls a conversation with a ranger:

“The instruction is whenever you see the poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them,” Avdesh explains without hesitation.

“You shoot them?” I [journalist] ask.

“Yah, yah. Fully ordered to shoot them. Whenever you see the poachers or any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them.”

Killing poachers

Rhinos desperately need protection — that’s not even a discussion. Like many species of large herbivores, they’ve suffered from massive poaching, being hunted to extinction. The Western Black rhino is already extinct and things are looking bleak for all species of rhinos. To make things even worse, poachers (and the black market bringing the demand) have upped their game. Poachers nowadays use big guns, drones, and they’re ruthless.

Poachers hunt rhinos for their horn, which can get a lot of money on the black market. Image credits: Pixabay.

They come in for the kill, and quite often, threaten humans as well as animals. This is also what the Indian government is saying. They’ve made the rangers almost a military force – wearing khakis, trained, they are allowed to carry guns and even to use drones to spot poachers approaching. Now, nothing’s really unusual up to here. Rangers should be properly equipped to deal with threats, and they should be able to defend themselves. The questionable thing is how often they should be pulling the trigger. At one point, they were killing 2 people every month, which seems like a lot. Add in the fact that they’re almost never held responsible for the killings, and you see how the problem emerges.

So, is this what it comes down to? We have to kill people to protect endangered animals? We all agree poachers must be punished harshly, but is it right for a ranger to be judge, jury, and executioner? The director of the park, Dr Satyendra Singh, says that that question is devoid of meaning because rangers are very disciplined and never shoot on sight.

“First we warn them – who are you? But if they resort to firing we have to kill them. First we try to arrest them, so that we get the information, what are the linkages, who are others in the gang?”

If he’s right, which at the very least, the BBC seems to question, all you would need are some checks and balances to make sure rangers act responsibly and don’t cause unnecessary killings — in other words, that they shoot only when threatened. Which brings us to an even bigger problem…

Collateral damage

There isn’t much in the way of checks and balances.

Like many parts of India, the Kaziranga National Park is densely populated. People have been living in the area for centuries, and sometimes they just wanted inside the park. Sometimes, they’re in the proximity of animals; and sometimes, they get shot.

Basically, the park has a “no one gets in” policy.

“Kill the unwanted,” should be the guiding principle for the guards, the head of the park says. He adds that environmental crimes are worse than murder. “They erode,” he said, “the very root of existence of all civilizations on this earth silently.”

One of the most popular tourist activities at the Kaziranga National Park is the early morning mahout-guided elephant safari. Image credits: SeethaG.

He makes a strong case, especially considering that the park is the main touristic attractions in the area and one of the main income drivers. But while this does send a strong message to poachers, sometimes locals get caught in the crossfire — with disastrous consequences.

BBC tells the case of a local villager (Goanburah), reportedly caring for his cows, who was shot and killed after not realizing he ventured inside the park. They write:

“Goanburah had been looking after the family’s two cows. His father believes they strayed into the park and his son – who had severe learning difficulties – went in to try and find them. It is an easy mistake to make. There are no fences or signs marking the edge of the park, it just merges seamlessly into the surrounding countryside and fields. The park authorities say guards shot Goanburah inside the forest reserve when he did not respond to a warning.”

There’s no chance Goanburah was a poacher, especially as he was seriously disabled.

“He could barely do up his own trousers or his shoes,” his father says, “everyone knew him in the area because he was so disabled.”

A similar instance is told by a seven-year-old survivor. Akash Orang was shot in the leg. After a dozen surgeries, he can barely walk, and will likely never run again in his life.

“I was coming back from the shop. The forest guards were shouting, ‘Rhinoceros! Rhinoceros!'” He pauses. “Then they suddenly shot me.”

Accountability

At this point, this isn’t even about protecting the endangered species. When someone is shot (especially a disabled person and a seven-year-old), there should be an investigation and of course, some accountability. But there isn’t. The park says it’s not responsible for any investigations, and is generally unaware of who the alleged poachers are. Most of the time, the killed people are unidentified — which if you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. Your main interest is to protect the rhinos and identify the poacher network, so wouldn’t you want to know who the poachers are? Especially if people are living at the periphery of the park, you’d want to know who’s doing what.

Some other things also don’t add up with the way the Kaziranga administration is managing things. They want to expand the park and extend the protected area — which again, is a good thing. But due to their “no one gets in” policy, this means they will relocate several villages on the periphery, villagers who claim to be protecting the wildlife and providing environmental services.

Their response to the journalistic investigation was also highly questionable: they simply banned the BBC from the park for 5 years, for failing to submit the documentary to MoEFCC and Ministry of External Affairs for obligatory previewing “in order to remove any deviations, so as to achieve a balanced and accurate exposition of the theme”.

Since the crackdown commenced in 2013, rhino poaching has gone down drastically. You can’t argue with the results, at least so far. But is this a cost worth paying? I’d love to hear your opinions.

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.

 

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.

Elephant ivory seized from poachers in Garamba. Credit: Flickr Enough Project

How A.I. and game theory is fighting poaching and illegal logging

Park rangers risk their lives on a daily basis to protect wildlife from poachers. They’re also underfunded and understaffed, so allocating resources as efficiently as possible is critical. This is where artificial intelligence, big data,  machine learning, and game theory come in.

The A.I. can identify and predict poaching patterns, and adapts in time so that park patrols can transition from “reactive” to “proactive” control. Pilot programs launched in Uganda and Malaysia have so far been successful, and a similar system is currently being developed for illegal logging.

Elephant ivory seized from poachers in Garamba. Credit: Flickr Enough Project

Elephant ivory seized from poachers in Garamba. Credit: Flickr Enough Project

The AI-driven system was developed by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC). Aptly named Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), the A.I. essentially plays “green security games”, or game theory for wildlife protection.

Game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” It’s mainly used in economics and psychology to predict outcomes, but game theory can work just as well wherever coordinated human activity is involved. Previously, similar methods were used by the Coast Guard and Transporation Security Administration to improve airport and waterway security.

Using data like patrol activity and poaching signaling, PAWS can plan which routes rangers need to follow to maximize poacher apprehension or minimize wildlife risk. What makes it particularly practical is that it also incorporates topographical data, so the plotted routes actually make sense. Rangers are also directed on patrol routes that minimize elevation changes — this saves time and energy.

As PAWS is fed more data, it becomes better at predicting the best outcomes against poaching. Since PAWS was implemented in Uganda and Malaysia in 2014, authorities report more observations of poaching activities per square kilometer. To make things more interesting, PAWS also randomizes routes so poachers can’t learn to avoid which routes to avoid.

“This research is a step in demonstrating that AI can have a really significant positive impact on society and allow us to assist humanity in solving some of the major challenges we face,” said USC’s  Milind Tambe, professor of computer science and industrial and systems engineering.

PAWS can be fitted to combat all sorts of illegal activities, like logging. Since 2015, two NGOs in Malaysia have been using PAWS to protect the nation’s forests.

The team recently combined PAWS with a new tool called CAPTURE (Comprehensive Anti-Poaching Tool with Temporal and Observation Uncertainty Reasoning) that predicts attacking probability even more accurately.

“There is an urgent need to protect the natural resources and wildlife on our beautiful planet, and we computer scientists can help in various ways,” said Fei Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in the computer science department at the University of Southern California (USC). “Our work on PAWS addresses one facet of the problem, improving the efficiency of patrols to combat poaching.”

Such solutions are impressive and much needed. There are only 3,200 tigers left in the world, down from more than 60,000 a century ago. Elephants, rhinos and scores of other wild animal species are threatened by extinction due to poaching. Meanwhile, illegal loggers harvest timber worth as much  as $100 billion each year. This undermines economies, destroys habitats and further exacerbates a global problem. Like before, technology is here to help solve complex problems.

Rwema and Dukore dismantle snares laid by poachers. Credit: DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND

Young gorillas learn to dismantle poachers’ traps

In  Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park poachers set thousands of snares to trap wildlife for meat. Inadvertently mountain gorillas — listed as critically endangered — get caught in the traps, and the young often die due to wounds or starvation. These sort of scenes are commonly witnessed by trackers working in the area to dismantle the snares, an uphill battle most of the time. What was startling though was a display of ingeniousness few cared to think was possible. Days after a young mountain gorilla was killed by a trap, trackers saw how a pair of four-year old gorillas worked together in coordination to dismantle a trap from the same area.

“This is absolutely the first time that we’ve seen juveniles doing that … I don’t know of any other reports in the world of juveniles destroying snares,” said Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program coordinator at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund‘s Karisoke Research Center, located in the reserve where the event took place.

 Rwema and Dukore  dismantle snares laid by poachers. Credit:  DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND

Rwema and Dukore dismantle snares laid by poachers. Credit: DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND

Thousands of snares litter Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. The traps are intended for antelope and other species. Gorillas aren’t the target, but get trapped also. Adults most of the time can spring themselves loose, but the young which are too weak often get killed.

The makeshift traps are are made by tying a noose to a branch or a bamboo stalk. The rope is kept tense by bending the branch, while a rock or stick is used to keep the trap in balance. Vegetation is added for camouflage. When an animal budgets the trigger (rock or stick), the trap is triggered: the branch springs back closing the noose around the pray. Lighter animals may actually be hoisted into the air.

Trackers from the  Karisoke center scour the national park in search for the traps. One Tuesday, John Ndayambaje spotted a trap very close to the Kuryama gorilla clan. He moved in to dismantle the snare, but was greeted by an aggressive silverback adult which the trackers knew as Vubu. Vubu grunted in warning so the trackers kept away. Moments later, two young gorillas Rwema, a male; and Dukore, a female, ran towards the trap, frightening Ndayambaje. The two youngsters knew what they were doing, though. Swiftly and coordinated, the two gorillas dismantled the trap: Rwema jumped on the bent tree branch and broke it, while Dukore freed the noose.

Then, the two, joined by a third teenager called Tetero, proceeded to dismantle another trap — one Ndayambaje himself had missed.

The process was swift and coordinated, which lends the trackers to believe the gorillas proceeded with intent and knew the outcome. “They were very confident,” Vecellio said. “They saw what they had to do, they did it, and then they left.”

The care takers and researchers believe the gorillas may have seen some human trackers dismantle snares before and took a hint. The trackers don’t want to school other gorillas, however. “No we can’t teach them,” Vecellio told National Geographic. “We try as much as we can to not interfere with the gorillas. We don’t want to affect their natural behavior.”

It’s still amazing how these primates felt the danger these snares represented, learn to spot, then dismantle them. “Chimpanzees are always quoted as being the tool users, but I think, when the situation provides itself, gorillas are quite ingenious,” said Veterinarian Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

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.

Journalist Uses GPS Trackers and Fake Elephant Tusks to Reveal Smuggling Route

Every year, over 30,000 elephants are murdered, slaughtered for their tusks. Ivory is an extremely valuable commodity, and many people will stop at nothing to get it and sell it. With this in mind, investigative journalist Bryan Christy set out to see what the smuggling route is, so he commissioned a taxidermist to create two fake ivory tusks, which he embedded with GPS trackers.

Image via Doubtful News.

“These tusks … operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team, and almost like a robocop,” Christy said in an interview.

Between 2010 and 2012, over 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa, a study found. China is the biggest market for illegal ivory, and despite some efforts and new DNA tracking technology, things aren’t looking too good.

“China is the biggest consumer of illegal ivory. … Just a few years ago [China] purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa, and it was that purchase that unleashed the notion that ivory is on the market again,” he says.

Image credits: Brent Stirton.

Christy and his team managed to track the smugglers as they transported the tusks north from Congo’s Garamba National Park to Sudan. Much of the ivory ends up in the Darfur area of Sudan before heading for China. His article about tracking the ivory of African elephants is the cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s September 2015 issue. The National Geographic Channel documentary Warlords of Ivory also reports on his efforts.

The brutality of the poachers is without limits. They’re killing animals in every manner conceivable: using AK-47s, poisoning waterholes, using poison spears, poison arrows; and it’s not just the elephants getting killed: in 2013 alone, over 1,000 park rangers were killed while attempting to defend African elephants from poachers.

But just as guilty are the people driving up the demand: they are the real problem, for without them, a market wouldn’t exist, and poachers would have no reason to poach. If you know someone who owns or would like to own ivory, do talk to them about this problem and let them know how it is actually obtained.

Dozens of endangered cockatoos trafficked in small plastic bottles

At least 21 cockatoos have been discovered and saved from illegal trafficking; they were recovered at an Indonesian port during an anti-smuggling operation, crammed in 1500 ml bottles. Unfortunately, seven of them didn’t survive.

Cuckatoos are being smuggled in plastic water bottles. Image via CNN.

“The birds were still alive then but some were already very weak,” Lily Djafar, spokeswoman for the Tanjung Perak police, said in a statement.

Cockatoos are critically endangered, but they are desired by many as house pets. They were cut from their plastic prisons by Indonesian customs officials at Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, and this is not the first time they’ve discovered something like this.

In April alone, over 200 rare and endangered animals, including birds of paradise, reptiles, sugar gliders and cockatoos were saved, and the suspects are members of boat crews. The fact that people are willing to stuff the birds into small plastic bottles shows at what lengths these people go to make some money through smuggling.

Traffic’s Southeast Asia Facebook page says that stuffing these birds into plastic bottles is actually quite common, as cockatoo smuggling has increased to incredible heights in recent years. They are sold either as pets, or to be eaten, for supposed medicinal properties.

“(The yellow-crested cockatoo is) a breed that is at very serious risk because of excessive trafficking of wild populations,” Traffic’s Thomas said. “Most of those birds are destined to be trafficked to parrot collector and breeders, rather than the meat market.

“There’s a lot of demand for parrots and cockatoos in southeast Asia and Europe,” he said. “They could well have been destined for markets there, although obviously it’s illegal for wild-caught birds to be exported.”

If there’s a crime which I wish would have a much stricter punishment, I wish it was poaching and animals smuggling. It’s just unbelievable to see just how many animals are killed and how many species are threatened by these practices.

“The raging practice of online wildlife trade has become a serious threat for wildlife conservation, because most of the traded animals were captured from the wild, not from captive breeding as claimed by many dealers,” Swasti Prawidya Mukti, campaign officer for Profauna, a nonprofit working for the protection of forest and wildlife in Indonesia, said in a statement in January.

“Wildlife crime has become a transnational business. Therefore, governments should take this more seriously as such act… clearly (violates) our national law.”

You too can contribute to this issue, either positively or negatively – don’t buy wild birds, even if they were bred in captivity, so you don’t encourage the illegal market.

100,000 elephants killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012, study finds

Elephant numbers are dwindling, with over 100.000 elephants being killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012. Image via AP.

Most societies in Africa are leading an uphill battle in their attempt to ensure safety, good health and food security. But for African animals, it’s even worse. Poachers alone killed an estimated 100,000 elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012, raising new concerns about the species’ survival.

Poaching in Africa is huge – the term ‘crisis’ has rarely been used more appropriately. The unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade, threatens to overturn what conservation efforts were slowly starting to achieve in the past decades. For example, although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, and due to this, rhinos are now on the brink of extinction. Recent estimates show that if current trends continue, rhinos could go extinct by 2020. Let me phrase that in a different way, so you can get a better sense of the absurdity – one of the world’s most iconic species will likely go extinct in our lifetime, for a “medicinal” property which it doesn’t even have! The Western Black Rhino is was already driven to extinction, and soon, its relatives could follow.

WIldAid teamed up with Chinese basketball player Yao Ming for this campaign against ivory trade.

As you will probably guess, elephants are hunted for the ivory. Again, we’re dealing with one of the most iconic and well known species on the face of the Earth. A species known for its intelligence, kindness and ability to cooperate is being wiped out to be old as body parts, mostly on the Chinese black market. While the rhino horn has reached a mind blowing price of $30,000 per pound (almost $14,000 per kilo), ivory is estimated at $1,000 per pound (over $2,000 per kilo) – a huge price, especially when considering that no one actually needs an elephant’s tusk – except himself.

Warnings about massive elephant slaughters have been going on for years and years now, but until now, there has been no study to quantify the effects of massive poaching. Keep in mind, poaching in Africa is not one or a few guys with guns going out to kill elephants. Poaching has become so organized and well funded, that we’re talking about well organized criminal organizations and even militia. The study found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has climbed from 25 percent of all elephant deaths a decade ago to roughly 65 percent of all elephant deaths today, a trend which if continued, will lead to the complete wipe of the species. All in all, they found that over 100.000 elephants have been killed between 2010 and 2012, and the number is continuously growing.

Two-month-old orphaned baby elephant Ajabu is given a dust-bath in the red earth after being fed milk from a bottle by a keeper, at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. A new study released Monday Aug. 18, 2014, by lead author George Wittemye of Colorado State University, found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has climbed to about 65 percent of all elephant deaths. Image via AP.

It’s estimated that there are as many as 700,000 elephants in Africa, but this is the total of two different species: the African bush elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. However losing either, but especially both, would be a major loss to the ecosystems and tourist economies throughout Africa. Unfortunately, the numbers for the Asian elephant are much smaller.

“The current demand for ivory is unsustainable. That is our overarching conclusion. It must come down. Otherwise the elephants will continue to decrease,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.

Early this year, nearly 450 elephants were slaughtered in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, representing close to 10% of the country’s remaining elephant population, but that’s nothing! Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve dropped from 40,000 to 13,000 over the last three years. Botswana seems to be the only place where elephant populations have maintained stable or increased, but that’s only because poachers haven’t yet started their activities there – which they almost definitely will in the near future.

As mentioned earlier, China is the main demand market for the ivory. Chinese Ambassador in Kenya Liu Xianfa is aware of this, and he claims efforts are being made to limit the damage.

“Wildlife crimes are a cross-border menace,” Liu said, according to a transcript of the ceremony published by Kenya’s Capital FM. “I assure you that more action will follow as will support to fulfil our promise. We firmly believe that, through joint efforts, the drive of combating wildlife crimes will achieve success.”

In this Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, a Maasai boy and his dog stand near the skeleton of an elephant killed by poachers outside of Arusha, Tanzania. Image via AP.

Even though elephant numbers are plummeting, researchers are still optimistic. They say that where conservation efforts have been thoroughly planned an implemented, the results are visible. Sadly, it’s almost certain that more and more elephants will be killed, but the species has good chances of survival lead author George Wittemye of Colorado State University believes:

“I have to be an optimist,” he said. “I’ve been through all of this before in the 70s and 80s. As a collective group we stopped that killing, and in the savannahs there was a reprieve of 20 years. I believe we can do it again.”

Elephants also survived a massive poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan fueled the demand for ivory.  In 1989 the Convention of the International Trade of Flora and Fauna (CITES) abandoned attempts at regulation and passed a ban on international trade in ivory. Japan has since greatly reduce its ivory market, and initially, the law was a huge success, but legal ivory sales made way for illegal ivory sales… and here we are.

 

 

Buddhist Monks step in to protect Snow Leopards

snow leopard 1

It’s currently estimated that only 4,510 to 7,350 snow leopards remain in the wild – though estimates rely on outdated information and are pretty rough. Given the development of the local environment, the numbers are probably optimistic.

Numerous agencies are working to conserve the snow leopard and its threatened mountain ecosystems which range across Asia, in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Kazahstan, and other countries in the area. But according to a new research, the leopards are also protected by hundreds of Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan plateau.

Snow leopard approximate habitats.

Snow leopard approximate habitats.

The study, which was published in the journal Conservation Biology, shows that approximately half of all Buddhist monasteries are within snow leopard habitat and monks constantly patrol the wilderness to prevent poachers from killing the rare cats. They also try to educate both locals and tourists, teaching them the way of nonviolence, and at the very least, trying to convince them not to do any harm to local wildlife, one way or another.

snow leopard

“Buddhism has as a basic tenet — the love, respect, and compassion for all living beings,” said study co-author George Schaller, a biologist with the endangered cat conservation group Panthera, in a statement. “This report illuminates how science and the spiritual values of Tibetan Buddhism can combine their visions and wisdom to help protect China’s natural heritage.”

Poaching is a huge problem in the area, especially for large felines, which are hunted for fur and internal organs – which are very prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Locals also occasionally hunt them, either for the above reasons, or because they sometimes prey on their sheep and goats.

Cubs are also not spared.

Cubs are also not spared.

Via Discovery

Tusk DNA tracking to handle illegal trade

International treaties to protect the elephants are not working – that’s the sad truth. There is no real, practical way of enforcing them, and as a result, whatever few elephants are left are still being tracked down and hunted, mostly for their tusks. Researchers estimate that tens of thousands of African elephants are now being killed by poachers each year, from a total wild population of around 400,000.

A bull elephant grazes in South Africa's Kruger National Park

I think tusks look best on elephants… how about we leave them there?

“It doesn’t take much math to show we have a serious, urgent problem,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

It’s estimated that a total of 39 tons (!) of illegal ivory were traded worldwide in 2011, with the number constantly growing or at the very best, remaining the same. We have every reason to believe that the number for 2012 will be even bigger than that. Poachers get about US$1,600 per kilogram in the Far East, but that number may very well be higher in other parts of the world. Many measures, plans and etc have been adopted, but so far, there’s been little to no improvement.

“We’re really at a tipping point, I think,” says George Wittemyer, an ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. “We’re seeing declines in the species as a whole and we’re seeing poaching spread into what were once untouchable safe havens.”

Indeed, it’s That is the stark message that Wasser and others will deliver to policy-makers in Bangkok next week, at the triennial conference of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The thing is, it’s almost impossible to get some accurate estimates – because of the sheer size of the elephant territory and the rough conditions there.

elephant

So Wasser and his team has developed a map of DNA samples collected across Africa which he plans to use to pinpoint the origin of the ivory, giving a more accurate depiction of where the ivory is coming from. He wants CITES to increase forensic scrutiny of the huge stockpiles of ivory in many African nations, so authorities can know where most of the ivory is coming from and increase efforts in those areas.

“There are probably not as many of these poaching hotspots as people might think.”

Meanwhile, others are working on the matter as well. Alfred Roca, a geneticist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (who demonstrated that in fact, African elephants are two different species) has used mitochondrial DNA to trace ivory hauls – he believes that this could very well complement Wasser’s work.

“It’s very important to source these large-scale ivory seizures. It should be mandated through CITES that there is forensic examination of the shipments so the source can be determined,” says Tom Milliken, the elephant expert at wildlife-trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, which is headquartered in Cambridge, UK. Milliken will be presenting the ETIS data at the Bangkok meeting.

However, nothing is going to work in terms of elephant protection until sanctions aren’t applied to countries illegally exporting ivory.

“We have reached a moment when the threat of sanctions is certainly warranted,” says Milliken.

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