Tag Archives: wildlife

Scientists have found a way to stop your cat from killing so much wildlife

Scientists have found a surprising way to make domestic cats hunt less and reduce their impact on wildlife. In a trial that involved hundreds of cats across the United Kingdom, the researchers discovered that changing cats’ diets in animal-sourced protein and playing more with them can make a big difference to stop them from hunting wildlife.

Image credit: Flickr / Thryn

Adorable killing machines

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are one of the most numerous carnivores on the planet, numbering over 600 million. The number of domestic cats is so great that it outnumbers the collective number of all other felines in the world — and while they are beloved by billions of people, they can also be a plague on local species when they are allowed to roam free outside.

Unless cats are kept for pest control, owners rarely consider killing wild animals to be desirable — and yet it happens so much it can devastate whole environments. To reduce killing, owners might completely or partly restrict outdoor access, or attempt to inhibit or impede hunting with collar-mounted devices such as bells on collars, but it’s not clear just how well these work. While these have varied success, they don’t actually repress the cat’s desire to hunt.

“Previous measures like bells tried to stymie the cat at the last minute. What we did was try to head them off at the pass by addressing some of their needs or wants before they think about going out hunting. With entirely non-invasive methods, owners can change what the cats themselves want to do,” Robbie McDonald, co-author of the study, told The Guardian.

Permanent confinement of cats would solve the problem of wildlife depredation, the researchers argued, but this is unpopular among cat owners in many areas. Outdoor access is seen by many as critical to cat welfare (although that often puts cats at risk, in addition to the environmental damage). Instead, the researchers suggested prioritizing behaviors that are likely to be widely adopted by cat owners, which would lead to more effective advocacy.

With this in mind, McDonald and her team tested whether something as simple as dietary and behavioral interventions can ostensibly benefit cats and reduce killing, not by directly impeding hunting but by reducing the cats’ tendency to hunt. They recruited cat owners whose cats regularly hunted and captured wild animals and brought them back to the house.

With a before-after-control-impact design, the researchers evaluated two existing inhibitory measures:

  • the first group of cats had their collars equipped with a bell or with a Birdsbesafe collar cover that hampered hunting;
  • the second group was treated to three novel measures: provision of food in a “puzzle” feeder, provision of a commercial, grain-free food in which meat was the principal source of protein, and 5- to 10-min daily object play. There was also a control group.

The study involved 355 cats from 219 households in southwestern England and lasted for 12 weeks. Feeding a cat with commercial food in which proteins came from meat reduced by 36% the number of prey animals brought home, while 5 to 10 minutes of daily play resulted in a 25% reduction. Colorful bird-friendly collar covers also reduced 42% the number of birds captured.

“Our work shows that non-invasive methods, like food and play, can change cats’ inclination to hunt and be positive for cats and their owners,” McDonald said. “Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, and it is possible that despite forming a complete diet, these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients, prompting some of them to hunt.”

The findings are consistent with the theory that some cats may hunt more because they are stimulated to address some deficiency in their provisioned food, while others do it just to keep themselves entertained. Nevertheless, the researchers couldn’t distinguish specific drivers of the beneficial effect of dietary change. They suggested this could be due to a specific micronutrient or amino acid, but more research is needed to demonstrate this.

Reproduction of natural behaviors in the home environment was also found to be beneficial for pet cats. During hunting and play, similar behaviors are observed, and hunger increases both predation rate and play motivation in cats. The study showed most cast readily engaged with the toys, with three-quarters of households planning to continue with regular play.

The researchers hope the findings will help address the predation of wildlife by cats, which they described as an ecological and social problem. In the US alone, domestic cats have been found to kill at least 1.3 billion birds and 6.3 billion small mammals each year. In New Zealand and Australia, there’s also some evidence that cats have contributed to the decline and extinction of native species.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Ocean life is suffering because we’re too loud, says new study

Noise pollution is a growing issue on land — but the seas are not safe either, apparently.

Image via Pixabay.

Marine shipping and construction, along with activity from sonar and seismic sensors are making the ocean a very loud place. While that may sound like just any other day in the big city, these high levels of noise pollution are causing a lot of damage to the health of marine ecosystems. A new paper reports on an “overwhelming body of evidence” that man-made noise is to blame.

Loud and deeply

“We’ve degraded habitats and depleted marine species,” said Prof Carlos Duarte from King Abdullah University, Saudi Arabia, lead author of the study. “So we’ve silenced the soundtrack of the healthy ocean and replaced it with the sound that we create.”

Sound plays a very important part in the lives of marine animals, the team explains, being involved in everything from feeding and navigation to communication and social interactions. A lot of what we know of marine animals such as whales comes from sound recordings.

But this state of affairs could change forever. According to the team, the youngest generations of marine animals are missing out on the “production, transmission, and reception” of key behaviors due to “an increasing cacophony in the marine environment” caused by man-made sound.

Freshly-spawned fish larvae use environmental sound and “follow it”, Duarte explains. But these sounds that helped them navigate and understand their environment are now being drowned out. Beyond noise from vessels, sonars, and acoustic deterrent devices, energy and construction infrastructure are also contributing to the issue.

“[T]here is clear evidence that noise compromises hearing ability and induces physiological and behavioral changes in marine animals,” the authors explain, adding however that currently “there is lower confidence that anthropogenic noise increases the mortality of marine animals and the settlement of their larvae” directly.

While the problems caused by marine sound pollution are pronounced and wide-reaching, the quarantine also showcased how quickly and easily they can be averted. According to the authors, levels of man-made sound in the ocean fell by around 20% last year.

Among some of the effects of this drop, the team notes that large marine mammals have been observed in waterways or coastlines that they’ve abandoned for generations. Such effects show that tackling the issue of marine noise is the “low-hanging fruit” of ocean health.

“If we look at climate change and plastic pollution, it’s a long and painful path to recovery,” Prof Duarte said. “But the moment we turn the volume down, the response of marine life is instantaneous and amazing.”

The paper “The soundscape of the Anthropocene ocean” has been published in the journal Science.

Humans may transmit COVID-19 virus to wildlife

There’s a considerable risk that humans can transmit SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to wildlife, according to a new major study. This could lead to outbreaks in some populations across the globe, endangering already threatened species, the researchers argued, calling for efforts to prevent such transmission.

Credit Flickr Sandia Labs

For this metaanalysis, the team searched for studies with different combinations of the keywords: SARS-CoV-2, infection experiment, animal model, mammal, susceptibility, ACE2, cell line, coronavirus, wildlife. They checked ProMED, a community-driven platform that scans infectious disease news and reports, in particular.

“It’s difficult enough to control the SARS-CoV-2 in human populations–imagine what it will be like if it spreads among wild mammals,” said co-author KU Leuven in a statement. “They could also get sick and form a reservoir from which they can then again infect humans, but we can’t ask animals to wear face masks.”

The likelihood that field researchers or other people interacting directly or indirectly with wild mammals can initiate a chain of SARS‐CoV‐2 transmission among wild mammal populations is not negligible, the study showed. And in fact, the possibility of this happening is probably higher than with other common human viruses.

This is due to the unique features of SARS‐CoV‐2. Many humans have it, it’s highly transmissible through direct and indirect contact, and many people are infectious before developing symptoms, and many remain asymptomatic. The virus can also infect a wide range of distantly related mammals, making it difficult to predict which species are more susceptible.

Direct mortality or severe disease aren’t the only concern. Wild mammals often live on the edge of survival, so even a mild disease may result in lower survival or reproduction probabilities. Natural stressful situations, such as food shortages and co‐infections, may also pre‐dispose wild mammals to more severe disease.

SARS‐CoV‐2 has the potential to spread very quickly in communities of wild mammals, the researchers argued. If the virus can circulate uninterrupted for some time, eventually a new non‐human reservoir could be established. This scenario would pose a significant hurdle for efforts to contain SARS‐CoV‐2 and protect ourselves.

While most people very rarely come into close contact with live wild animals, the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans could readily occur during field activities. This includes conservationists, pest control staff, wildlife tourists, and forestry workers, among others. Any situation in which direct contact takes place can lead to a big risk of human-to-animal transmission.

That’s why the researchers called for people to take sanitary precautions when in direct or indirect contact with wild or feral mammal species to prevent human-to-wildlife SARS-CoV-2 transmission. This includes physical distancing whenever possible, using a face mask, and fulfilling a quarantine period if symptoms are suspected.

“It is important to keep in mind that the aim is to prevent transmission of one’s own pathogens to wild mammals, rather than the reverse. To avoid spreading our own saliva or nasal droplets, a reusable cloth mask (with at least two layers of fabric) or a disposable surgical mask is appropriate,” the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the journal Mammal Review.

Almost two-thirds of the global wildlife population has disappeared since 1970

The population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have declined an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016, according to World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Living Planet Report 2020, a biannual assessment of wildlife. Latin America and the Caribbean were the most affected, with an average decline of 94%.

Bela Vista Farm, Sao Paulo. Credit WWF

The report pointed to humanity as the underlying cause of the deterioration of nature and the decline in the wildlife population. The increase in consumption, population, trade and urbanization in the last 50 years means we now use more of Earth’s resources that can be replenished. And this has a tremendous impact on biodiversity.

“This report reminds us that we destroy the planet at our peril—because it is our home. As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we’re devastating species populations. But we’re also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases,” said WWF CEO Carter Roberts in a statement.

The report measures the size of vertebrate populations. This is different from identifying threatened or extinct species, which may indicate little about the overall health of an ecosystem and, consequently, the natural services provided to people. The finding shows nations haven’t been doing their homework to protect biodiversity.

Freshwater biodiversity is declining much faster than that in our oceans or forests. The 3,741 monitored populations in the Freshwater Living Planet Index have declined by an average of 84%, equivalent to 4% per year since 1970. Most of the declines are seen in freshwater amphibians, reptiles and fishes.

The main direct driver for biodiversity loss is land-use change, according to the report, specifically the conversion of native habitats such as forest and grassland into agricultural systems. Climate change isn’t the main driver yet but WWF anticipates it will become as important as the other drivers in the coming decades.

Despite nature is being destroyed at a whopping rate, the declining trends could be flattened and reversed with urgent and unprecedented actions, the report’s authors argued. This includes changing food production and consumption, tackling climate change, and investing in actions that truly conserve, protect, and restore nature.

But that’s not all. WWF also highlighted the importance of changing our economic system in order to reflect the natural capital that supports our economic prosperity. In sum, it’s a call to global leaders to treat biodiversity conservation as an investment to preserve human health, wealth and security.

“While the trends are alarming, there is reason to remain optimistic,” said WWF Global Chief Scientist Rebecca Shaw in a statement. “Young generations are becoming acutely aware of the link between planetary health and their own futures, and they are demanding action from our leaders. We must support them in their fight for a just and sustainable planet.”

The planet healed during the lockdown. Now, researchers want to track wildlife changes during the “anthropause”

A group of researchers has launched a project to track wildlife before, during, and after the coronavirus lockdown, hoping to study what they call the “anthropause” –- the slowdown in human activity amid the pandemic that has likely had a profound effect on other species.

Credit Flickr

Measuring that impact will reveal the many ways in which we can “share our increasingly crowded planet”, the authors argued in an article in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. But to do so “urgent steps” are needed to allow scientists to learn as much possible from the absence of humans in landscapes.

Posts on social media over the past few months have shown unusual wildlife encounters, suggesting nature has responded to lockdown. There not only seem to be more animals than usual, but there are also some surprising visitors, for example spotting pumas prowling the streets of downtown Santiago, Chile.

However, the pandemic has also had negative effects on wildlife. Some urban-dwelling animals, like monkeys, may struggle to make ends meet without access to human food. In more remote areas, reduced human presence may potentially put endangered species, such as rhinos, at increased risk of poaching or persecution.

To address how human mobility impacts wildlife, the researchers, grouped under a consortium called “COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative,” will review the movements, stress levels and behaviors of animals before, during and after the coronavirus lockdowns. They will use data collected with animal-attached devices known as “bio-loggers”

“These bio-loggers provide a goldmine of information on animal movement and behaviour, which we can now tap to improve our understanding of human-wildlife interactions, with benefits for all,” Christian Rutz, a biologist at the University of St Andrews, UK, and part of the initiative, said in a statement.

Most of the studies that look at the impact of human presence and activity on wild animals are usually limited to comparing protected and unprotected areas, or studying landscapes following a natural disaster. But with the current context the scale is much larger, Rutz argued, and the scope can be extended.

The bio-logging team will integrate results from a wide variety of animals, including fish, birds, and mammals, in an attempt to build a global picture of lockdown effects. They reached out to the global research community, which has already offered 200 datasets, which will soon be analyzed.

For the researchers, it will be an opportunity to address previously intractable questions. “We will be able to investigate if the movements of animals in modern landscapes are predominantly affected by built structures, or by the presence of humans. That is a big deal,” said Matthias-Claudio Loretto, a fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

No more hunting and eating of wildlife in Wuhan, where the pandemic first started

It was where it all started and now it’s time to change things up. The city of Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus first surface, has now introduced a ban on the hunting and eating of wild animals. The ban follows growing pressure on China from overseas to stop illegal wildlife trade, which is largely blamed for the current pandemic.

Local authorities of Wuhan, a city with 11 million inhabitants, decided to ban not only the eating of all wild animals but also their hunting, declaring the territory a wildlife sanctuary. The only exception is hunting for scientific research, population regulation, and monitoring of epidemics.

Wuhan also imposed controls on the breeding of wild animals, making clear that from now on no wild animal can be reared as food. Wild animal breeders will be offered buyouts as part of a national plan, not just in Wuhan, to reduce exotic animal breeding. This will encourage a transition into other agricultural practices, the government hopes.

The Chinese government is offering payments to farmers for at least 14 wild species, such as rat snakes, bamboo rats, civet cats, and Chinese bamboo partridges. The highest level of compensation is given for the Chinese muntjac deer, estimated at $346. The buyouts have so far been presented in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.

Animal rights group Humane Society International (HSI) said Hunan and Jiangxi are “major wildlife breeding provinces”, with Jiangxi seeing a rapid expansion of the trade over the last decade. HSI China policy specialist Peter Li told AFP that similar plans should be rolled out in more provinces soon.

Of course, there’s a loophole

There’s a big loophole in the plan, experts have warned. Farmers will still be able to work with wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine, the fur industry, or entertainment purposes. In the province of Guangxi, snake breeders are already repurposing their animals for the medicine and beauty industries.

Responding to the coronavirus epidemic, China had already banned in April the trade and consumption of wild animals, mentioning the risk of diseases spreading to humans. The government also published a draft list of animals that could be legally farmed for food and clothing, most being domesticated animals.

“In the past 20 years, a lot of people have been telling the Chinese government to buy out certain wildlife breeding operations – for example bear farming,” Li told AFIP said. “This is the first time that the Chinese government actually decided to do it, which opens a precedent… (for when) other production needs to be phased out.”

We still don’t know exactly how SARS-CoV-2 made the jump to humans. But we do know that wildlife trading makes the virus (and many others like it) much more likely to jump from animals to humans. The first suspect was bats, as they can harbor many viruses due to their strong immune systems.

This initial supposition led to the closure of a food market in Wuhan, China, where animals (including live and wild animals) were sold alongside other food items. But there are key differences from bat coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2, suggesting that an intermediary host may have been involved.

Researchers are now looking closely at what was the actual origin of the current pandemic the world is facing. In the meantime, there seems to be more than enough reasons to tackle wildlife trade and consumption, with China taking some initial steps in that direction.

While we quarantine, some animals take to the streets, some get lonely, and a panda may get pregnant

As we keep to our homes more and more, wildlife is coming into the city to explore. Luckily for us, there’s always a camera nearby to capture such moments for “d’awws” and “aawws” on social media.

But not all animals are enjoying themselves equally. With zoos shutting their gates to the public, and amid growing concern that staff could unwittingly infect them, some zoo animals are starting to miss getting attention — but they’re also getting busy.

The goats of Llandudno

Wild goats roaming through Llandudno in North Wales by Andrew Stuart, a video producer at Manchester Evening News.
Image via Medium.

“Llandudno has a herd of wild goats, which date back to the 1800s. They do like to come down the hillside, as seen many, many times previously — and documented extensively by my colleagues at North Wales Live and the Daily Post,” Stuart explained for Medium.

“They are still wary of people and human life. Normally, they are put off going much further than the bottom of the Great Orme because of how busy it is (in relative terms — this is still Llandudno after all, and not inner-city Manchester). However, thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown, the goats didn’t have any traffic, people or noise stopping them — so they ventured out.”

The goats do seem to enjoy themselves, as they chew through local shrubbery and gardens, sunbathe in a churchyard, and even “blocked traffic”. However, they are still wary of coming close to humans.

This sleepy fox somewhere in Canada

Image credits SaraReneeRyan / Twitter.

Sara, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Texas Tech, Tweeted that her dad who lives somewhere in Canada “had been sending me and my sister updates [on the fox] all day” and has even named it Nezuko.

It’s not hard to see why.

Foxes are one of the more often-spotted animals in this period, from what I’ve seen so far. There’s a lot of fox photos to enjoy in the replies to Sara’s tweet if that’s your thing (it definitely is mine).

A chill coyote

A coyote spotted in San Francisco.
Image credits beccatravels / Reddit (Becca Cook).

San Francisco is no stranger to coyotes. They live in the woods near the Bay Area and are generally content to stay away from people or ignore them if they meet. This one, however, looks very pleased that the normal hustle and bustle of the city has been curtailed in order do get some peace and quiet with a view.

But while this coyote is enjoying itself, others are hard at work resolving local politics.

“We had coup d’etat if you will,” Presidio Wildlife Ecologist Jonathan Young told ABC News about a fight that broke out in between the animals a few days ago. “A new alpha pair came and took over and kicked out the old alpha pair.”

“Since the COVID shelter-in-place, the winding trails and idle golf course [around the city’s Presidio] have become a go-to refuge for neighbors and more importantly their dogs. For the next few weeks or months, that’s potential trouble.”

The Presidio Trust cautions people that coyotes aren’t typically aggressive, but will regularly be on the hunt or defend themselves from domestic pets. It’s also a pupping season currently, so people would best try to avoid these animals. Sections of the Park Trail and the Bay Area Ridge Trail will be closed to hounds starting April 6 for the next few weeks or months over concerns about safety.

What’s happening in the zoos

We’ve just had our first confirmed case of the coronavirus jumping from a human to a tiger, and zoo staff are understandably worried that they may unwittingly infect their charges. As such, zoos around the world are implementing measures to limit the risk by reducing the animal’s exposure with their handlers and the public.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since reiterated that there is no evidence yet that pets can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the US, but zoos and conservation centers are still being especially careful. For example, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a rehabilitation center for orangutans in Borneo, closed its doors to all visitors and asked the caretakers to wear masks and protective gloves when working with the primates, which are burned after the working day is over.

Grosser Panda.JPG
A giant panda at Ocean Park, Hongkong.
Image credits J. Patrick Fischer,

Nathan Hawke from Orana wildlife park in New Zealand told The Guardian that although visitors are no longer permitted, many of the park’s animals continue to come for their daily ‘meet the public’ appointments. Other groups of animals that are accustomed to human presence also seem to miss us, too, although the feeling may be forming through their stomach more than through their hearts.

Privacy, perhaps, was just what some of these species had been missing, however. Staff at the Ocean Park in Hong Kong reported that the 14-year-old resident female and male giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le have “succeeded in natural mating” two days ago — because there aren’t any rules on panda social distancing.

This is the first success since attempts at natural mating began a decade ago, and the staff is excited for the birth, as the species is currently considered vulnerable in the wild but attempts to breed more giant pandas in captivity have been remarkably frustrating.

China sets a temporary ban on wildlife trade. But could it be permanent?

As authorities scramble to contain the coronavirus, China has decided to temporarily ban the trade of wild animals in markets and online. The move was celebrated, especially as the virus seems to have emerged from an animal market.

But why not make it a permanent ban, conservationists and scientists are asking?

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The coronavirus outbreak has already reached a death toll of 132 people, with over 7,000 cases reported worldwide. There’s evidence that the virus moved to humans in a food market in Wuhan, China, which sells food and living animals alongside other products.

The market, now closed down as the source of the infection, had a wild animal section that sold live and slaughtered species, including wolf pups, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, and salamanders, among others. That’s a fairly common practice across China, and one that has been criticized in the past. It’s not just the potential of outbreaks and hygiene, but conservationists have repeatedly spoken against China’s wildlife trade.

It’s not the first time China has issued a temporary wildlife sale ban.

Following SARS, the acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 caused by a similar coronavirus, China had also set up a temporary ban on the sale of wild animals in markets, with scientists warning of the risks of allowing people to trade and eat wild meat.

But after the disease was handled, the markets opened up.

China adopted in 1998 a wildlife protection law but hasn’t updated the list of protected wild animals for three decades, with critics questioning authorities not doing much to enforce it. The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), one of China’s key wildlife organizations, is pushing for a new law to protect biodiversity and safeguard wildlife.

Jinfeng Zhou, CBCGDF’s secretary-general, told The Guardian that the ban failed to address the root cause of the outbreak, poor regulation and high levels of illegal trade. “This temporary ban is not enough. The trade should be banned indefinitely, at least until new rules are introduced,” he said.

China allows 54 wild species to be bred on farms and then sold for consumption. The list includes hamsters, turtles, and crocodiles, among others. Jinfeng said many wild animals are poached and brought to state license farms. There’s no actual figure on the number of markets in China, but experts estimate there could be hundreds.

Back in 2014, a study surveyed 1.000 people in five Chinese cities, finding different practices. More than 80% of those surveyed in Guangzhou said to have eaten wildlife in the previous year, while in Shanghai the figure dropped to 14%. More than 50% of those surveyed nationwide said wild animals should not be eaten.

Christian Walzer, the chief global veterinarian at the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society, told National Geographic that the chaos of the trade-in China enables the spread of diseases from animals to humans, known as zoonotic. Wild animals can carry viruses that “in a normal world wouldn’t come in contact with humans,” he said.

“If these markets persist, and human consumption of illegal and unregulated wildlife persists, then the public will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal, and the source of future pandemic spread,” Walzer added.

Up to 70% of the zoonotic diseases come from wildlife, according to Erin Sorrel, assistant research professor at Georgetown University. HIV, Ebola, and SARS are on the list of diseases that have been transmitted from wildlife to humans, causing global outbreaks.

Nevertheless, implementing a permanent ban would be tricky. Peter Li, a China policy specialist at Humane Society International, told National Geographic the State Forestry and Grassland Department, which gives licenses to wildlife breeders, “has been a spokesperson for the wildlife interest.” In other words, the state is keen on supporting this trade, rather than banning it.

At the same time, people have to be on board with the idea of a permanent ban in order to be effective, Caroline Dingle, a biologist at Hong Kong University, said. “People need to believe that consuming wild animals is bad for them personally for any ban to work long-term,” she added.

China will host at the end of the year the key meeting of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in the city of Kumming. The goal will be to seat a new global framework for the protection of biodiversity. There are now over 8.000 species at the risk of extinction because of illegal trading, according to a 2019 paper in Science.

UK wildlife is in decline with no sign of improving

Driven mainly by climate change and the expansion of farming, many species are declining across the world, with the UK not being the exception – the nation’s population of the most important wildlife has plummeted by an average of 60% since 1970.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The State of Nature report, the most comprehensive analysis to date, has found that the area occupied by more than 6,500 species has shrunk by 5%. Of the species there are more detailed data on, nearly 700 saw their numbers fall by 13%. The declines have left 15% of species facing extinction.

“We know more about the UK’s wildlife than any other country on the planet, and what it is telling us should make us sit up and listen,” said Daniel Hayhow of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the lead author of the report. “We need to respond more urgently across the board.”

Among those more threatened, hedgehogs, hares and bats rank high on the list, as well as many birds such as the willow tit and the turtle dove, and insects such as the high brown fritillary butterfly. Losses to all animals, plants and marine life show no sign of letting up, despite some successes in protecting individual species

The report also warned on the destruction of nature extends offshore. The seafloor was scoured or disturbed by fishing gear in more than half of all UK waters between 2010 and 2015, while half of all commercial fisheries are overexploited. Plastic pollution is rising too, with 93% of beached northern fulmar seabirds have eaten plastic.

The biggest driver for change is the intensification of farming, followed by climate change. Public funding for nature conservation has also been hit hard, falling by 42% as a percentage of GDP between 2008 and 2018. Cuts mean public spending on biodiversity is now at £456 million a year.

The report also notes that the UK will miss most of its biodiversity targets for 2020, which will be assessed at a landmark summit in China next year. Only five of the 20 targets will be met, according to the UK government, and the State of Nature partnership disagrees on whether those five will really be achieved.

“As we lose nature, we lose a huge part of what makes us happy and healthy. UK ministers and businesses persist in planning and funding disastrous projects and practices, often with public money,” Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth said. Repeated declarations by the government to halt and reverse the decline of nature have not been followed by matching action, he added.

The findings come ahead of protests next week in London by environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion, which wants the government to declare an “ecological emergency” and stop biodiversity loss. UK’s Environment secretary Theresa Villers welcomed the report, saying: “It is critical that we continue to act now, both internationally and at home.”

Pixelated images showcase how close these species are to extinction

As a campaign the World Wildlife Fund ran in 2008 is re-making the rounds on reddit, one Imgur user has created a powerful follow-up.

Image credits JJSmooth44 / Imgur.

Back in 2008, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a striking photo campaign. Called WWF Japan – Population by pixel, the campaign was created by the agency Hakuhodo C&D in Tokyo. It consisted of a set of 4 posters, blurred so that every single pixel in the photo corresponds to one living animal — the poorer-quality the final image is, the worse for wear the species is in the wild.

Since 2008, however, the four species shown in the campaign have been recovering and increasing in numbers in the wild. But those four aren’t the only ones that have been struggling. A collection of 22 new but very similar images recently published on Reddit by user JJSmooth44 showcases just that.

JJSmooth44 claims he “did it as a programming challenge,” using the Python language to obscure these images through pixelation, matching the number of pixels with the number of individuals that species are estimated to still have in the wild. He took the original photos from the Animal Planet endangered animals list.

“The code is very gross,” he says. “I only worried about the final product and not the readability/niceness of the code.”

The rate of species extinction has been picking up recently, and a big part of that is due to us. Species do go extinct through natural mechanisms, but more and more of them are struggling to adapt to ever-more pollution, human encroachment, and habitat devastation. Climate warming is further pushing these species towards extinction.

Work such as the Population by Pixels campaign and JJSmooth44’s work perfectly showcase how vulnerable Earth’s species and ecosystems can be if we do not care for them. Just like a picture losing its pixels, these species run a very real danger of fading away forever.

Ones study found that 27% of Beluga whales swiming in a highly polluted area had cancer. Credit: Steve Snodgrass, Flickr.

Human activity is causing cancer in many species of wildlife — and this effect is greatly underestimated

Humans can be considered an “oncogenic species” — meaning our activity induces the development of cancerous tumors. According to a recent meta-analysis, our activity might increase the rate of cancer occurence in wild populations through numerous processes.

Ones study found that 27% of Beluga whales swiming in a highly polluted area had cancer. Credit: Steve Snodgrass, Flickr.

One study found that 27% of Beluga whales swimming in a highly polluted area had cancer. Credit: Steve Snodgrass, Flickr.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death both worldwide and in the United States after heart disease, and its incidence is currently increasing worldwide. The surge in cancer has been mainly attributed to our lifestyle choices, such as poor diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, but also exposure to pollutants. The association between environmental contaminants and tumor development is well established by numerous studies carried on humans and animal models.

But our species is not the only one exposed to the compounds we have introduced in natural environments.

Humans: a cancer-causing species

Based on this link, an international team of researchers decided to investigate whether environmental contaminants resulting from human activity are also pushing up the rate of cancer incidence in wild animals. Their analysis suggests that this is indeed the case.

The researchers conclude “that the impact of cancer in wild populations is currently underestimated and that cancer prevalence should be exacerbated by rapid environmental changes caused by human activities.” They also propose several mechanisms by which human activity is promoting cancers in wildlife populations.

Pollution is one of the prime drivers of neoplasia — the uncontrolled growth of cells that is not under physiologic control — in wildlife. A study on beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Saint Lawrence Estuary, which is highly polluted by waste from aluminum smelting, found that a staggering 27% of the whales had cancer. Similarly, high cancer rates among adult individuals have been recorded in freshwater, marine, and estuarine fish that swim in highly polluted areas. One recent example involves California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), which are experiencing high cancer rates due to chlorine-based pesticide exposure.

Pollutants can cause cancer by inducing somatic mutations, DNA damage, immunotoxic effects, and through interference with the production, release, metabolism, and elimination of natural hormones.

Another type of contaminant identified by the authors of the new study is the accidental release of radiation, such as in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster or the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. One study found an association between Chernobyl background radiation and increased cancer rates in birds. Previous studies performed on humans found that rates of thyroid cancer drastically increased in Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, suggesting that both humans and wildlife are equally affected.

The world’s oceans are becoming increasingly choked with microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic (5 mm or smaller). Plastic cluttered beaches, massive landfills, and sea animals with clogged stomachs are common sights around the world. The new study suggests that we can also add cancer to the many environmental problems associated with microplastics. Microplastics, which are ingested by a wide range of species, increase cancer incidence through their intrinsic toxicity because they contain various organic contaminants. One of these contaminants (bisphenol A) possesses endocrine disruption properties and may contribute to the development
of breast cancer and prostate carcinoma in adult humans, as well as hepatic tumors in rodents.

Animals living in habitats close to farmlands and other agricultural activities are exposed to pesticides and herbicides, which, like microplastics, disrupt the hormonal system.

Light pollution is another source of endocrine disruption. Previously, a study of female employees working a rotating night shift found that exposure to artificial light at night (ALAN) was associated with elevated breast cancer risk. It’s believed that such cancers arise due to the suppression of pineal melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone with anti-tumor properties, which is present in all vertebrates and is rhythmically secreted by the pineal gland. It peaks at night, causing us to feel the urge to sleep. However, even a minimum light contamination can disrupt this normal circadian production of melatonin, making rats raised in captivity more prone to cancer.

Highly processed foods have also been associated with more cancer, and this food is often consumed by wild animals as well. Animals are exposed to processed food either by intentional feeding or unintentional provisioning, typically involving waste. One of the most common causes of wildlife feed contamination is fungal growth, which can produce toxic metabolic by-products known as mycotoxins, along with toxins from certain antibiotics that become carcinogenic due to sunlight exposure. For example, 92% of tested Eurasian griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) showed variable concentrations of residues of the antibiotic fluoroquinolone,
which is considered to be a photochemical carcinogen. Sometimes, even unaltered food can cause cancer due to its nutrient deficiency that decreases immune health and potentially alters gut microbiota. A recent review on the nutritional effects of supplementary food on wildlife demonstrated that nearly half of the studies (42%) found negative effects of provisioning on protein or micronutrient deficiencies

Finally, anthropogenic perturbations can, directly and indirectly, affect the genetic diversity of populations and therefore influence the capacity of individuals to respond to pathogens. Studies suggest that reduced genetic diversity and inbreeding are linked to cancer — both in humans and animals. Loss of genetic diversity can lead to malignant transformations due to two main effects: the accumulation of oncogenic homozygous mutations (direct effect) and through the increased susceptibility to oncogenic pathogens (indirect effect). For example, reduced genetic diversity has been associated with increased susceptibility of endangered wildlife species to cancer-causing pathogens, such as papillomatosis and carcinomatosis syndrome in western barred bandicoots (Perameles bougainville), and viral papilloma and squamous cell carcinomas in snow leopards (Uncia uncia).

The study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution concludes that cancer in wildlife caused by human activity is greatly underestimated and call for more research to better understand our impact.

“It is therefore urgent to develop and conduct more research in this direction because — more than ever — ecosystems are being altered by human activities, and this tendency is unlikely to decrease in the future.”

Ocean life

Ocean wilderness is disappearing because of us: only 13% of it has been spared

Ocean life

Credit: Pixabay.

Oceans cover over 70% of our planet, but despite their sheer vastness, few marine areas around the globe have been spared by human activity. According to a recent study, only a tiny fraction of the world’s oceans have naturally numerous populations of marine wildlife. What’s more, this little marine wilderness we have left could be lost at any time if we continue to fish deeper and farther.

Aside from the poles and remote Pacific, almost all of the world’s oceans have come under the influence of human activity, whether it’s fishing, global shipping, or pollution.

According to Kendall Jones, at the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, just 13% of the world’s oceans have remained untouched by the damaging reach of human activity.

These remaining patches of oceanic wilderness sit in stark contrast to overfished and polluted waters found elsewhere around the world, such as around coastlines. According to Scientific American, commercial fishing now covers an area four times the area used for agriculture, and much of it is unsustainable, causing the depletion of 90 percent of important species.

“They act as time machines,” Jones told The Guardian. “They are home to unparalleled levels of marine biodiversity and some of the last places on Earth you find large populations of apex predators like sharks.”

Only 5% of the remaining ocean wilderness lies within existing marine protected areas, Jones and colleagues reported in the journal Current Biology. One of the reasons why is that unaffected areas are far away from human activity, but also away from the jurisdiction of governments — in the high seas. Covering nearly half of the planet, the high seas are international waters where no country has jurisdiction.

On the bright side, a high seas conservation treaty is on the horizon, with negotiations hosted by the UN starting in September.

The researchers also draw attention to the $4bn a year that governments spend on subsidies for fishing in the high seas, which should be cut in order to protect marine wildlife. Vessels from ten rich nations, including Japan, Korea, and Spain, take 71% of the catch from the high seas — but many of these operations would be actually unprofitable if there were no more public subsidies that offset the cost of traveling so far from their home parts.

If this little marine wilderness we have left isn’t protected, the world risks losing it very soon, just like waters elsewhere have become overrun by human impact. As technology continues to improve, but also while climate change makes previously isolated areas more accessible, it won’t be long before much of the marine wilderness is gone. For instance, in 2014, Russian company Gazprom brought home the first barrels of oil from the Arctic, from areas which were once protected by ice cover. Again, Russia, this time in partnership with France’s Total and China’s CNPC, wants to start drilling the Arctic in 2019 for natural gas. The $27 billion plant is expected to extract 16.5 million tonnes of natural gas per year.

Besides overfishing, there are many other problems that threaten wildlife, such as pollution with farming fertilizers, industrial chemicals, and plastic.

“Plastic pollution is one of the big things that we want to work out a way to get data on,” Jones told the BBC.

“It’s so widespread and so hard to manage that we really want to get a good idea of where it is and where is most affected.”

Hopefully, this study will get the much-needed attention it deserves, and thus inspire policymakers to take haste in adopting international agreements meant to protect marine wilderness.

 

Sleeping bear.

Wildlife is shifting activity to nighttime because they don’t want to run into humans

Humans are bugging wild animals — so the critters are staying hidden during the day.

Sleeping bear.

Image via Pixabay.

Animals are finding that the best way to deal with those pesky humans isn’t to go live someplace else, but to start living during the night. The findings, published by researchers from the University of California–Berkeley and Boise State University, show that previously-diurnal animals are shifting activity during night hours to avoid humans.

Under the cover of darkness

The team analyzed 76 studies involving 62 species of mammals on six continents, from opossums to elephants. These studies looked at how individual species changed their behavioral patterns in response to human activity such as hunting, farming, or development. Each study used some sort of technique to follow animals, from GPS trackers to motion-activated cameras.

The team then compared how much time those creatures spent actively at night under different types of human disturbance. One common feature all the surveyed animals shared was that they became far more active at night after humans arrived, the team reports. On average, they found that human presence triggered an increase of about 20 percent in nighttime activity, even in animals that aren’t normally night owls. Strikingly, the animals even delegated critical tasks such as hunting and foraging for nighttime activity. The team further reports that mammals which used to split activity roughly even between the day and night also shift more strongly towards darker hours — on average, these species increased nighttime activity to 68%.

It also became apparent that human activity doesn’t need to directly impact these species to determine a change in behavior. The team notes that all species responded similarly to human encroachment in their habitats. A deer, for example, will shift activity towards nighttime regardless if the humans it sees are hunters or hikers.

“It suggests that animals might be playing it safe around people,” Kaitlyn Gaynor, an ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study, told PBS. “We may think that we leave no trace when we’re just hiking in the woods, but our mere presence can have lasting consequences.”

This shift in activity does help humans and animals coexist with less friction, the team notes. The findings might also help us design better conservation strategies that take into account species’ patterns of activity.

However, there’s also cause for concern. A nocturnal lifestyle can impact an animal’s ability to get food or mate, impacting the short- and long-term stability of whole species. This, ironically, also defeats the purpose of shifting activity in the first place. If animals are becoming more active at night to avoid us, but that only makes life harder for them, have they really escaped the impact of human activity?

The paper “The influence of human disturbance on wildlife nocturnality” has been published in the journal Science.

Cow

Humanity is just 0.01% of all life but we wiped out 83% of all wild mammals

Cow

About 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock. Credit: Pixabay.

With our fragile appearance, humans don’t look like much at first glance. Our impact on the planet, however, is unrivaled and unfortunately mostly negative. It is a proven scientific fact that even the climate is changing in response to human activity — that’s how consequential our actions are. Our huge infrastructure works have carved huge gaping holes inside mountains or even beneath the ocean. And, according to a new study, we’ve culled most of the planet’s wild animals and plants, replacing them with our livestock and crops.

The world’s 7.6 billion people represent only 0.01% of all living things, according to researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. However, our impact on nature is disproportionately huge. After Ron Milo and colleagues in Israel estimated all of the different components of biomass, they eventually calculated that humans have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants.

For three years, Milo and his team had been combing through the scientific literature in an attempt to estimate the total mass of all life forms on Earth. To simplify things, the researchers looked at carbon content, ignoring other aspects — like water content — that might have made comparisons between various life forms difficult. The tally shows that the planet’s total biomass weighs 550 gigatonnes of carbon. Considering their amount of carbon, Earth’s life forms can be ranked as follows:

  • bacteria 13%;
  • plants 82%;
  • all other creatures, from marine life to insects, 5%;

By carbon content, fungi (12 Gt C) are about six times more abundant than all animal life on the planet (2 Gt C), whereas the biomass of humans represents just a tiny fraction of that (0.06 Gt C). However, humanity’s biomass can grow to gargantuan proportions if you factor in our food: livestock. The researchers estimate that of all birds on the planet, 70% are farmed poultry, with just 30% being wild. For mammals, the picture is even grimmer: 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are the humans themselves, and a mere 4% are wild mammals.

Five-sixths of wild land animals have been lost since the industrial revolution began, over than a century and a half ago. Meanwhile, in the oceans, three centuries of whaling and aggressive fishing have reduced marine mammals to a fifth of what they were.

“It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.

”The destruction of wild habitat for farming, logging and development has resulted in the start of what many scientists consider the sixth mass extinction of life to occur in the Earth’s four billion year history. About half the Earth’s animals are thought to have been lost in the last 50 years.”

The results suggest that there has never before been a species that comes close to Homo sapiens, one that has caused the destruction of so many other species and individuals. In fact, our propensity to alter the environment and replace wildlife has some scientists claiming that we’re actually living in a new geological era called the Anthropocene.

“It is definitely striking, our disproportionate place on Earth,” said Milo. “When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken.”

This study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences goes to show that far from being puny mortals, we humans have become a huge driving force that’s capable of destroying hundreds of species if we so wish it (or just don’t pay particular attention). Perhaps, one day, we’ll also learn how to harness this immense power with matching responsibility.

Hawaje.

Hawaii moves to ban common sunscreen mixes in a bid to safeguard its corals

Sunbathers beware — Hawaii plans to become the first US state to ban sunscreen mixes that are toxic to marine life.

Hawaje.

Satellite view of the Hawaii archipelago. Image credits Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC / Wikimedia.

Two chemicals that are often used in sunscreen mixes (oxybenzone and octinoxate) are also sadly quite very deadly — if you happen to be a coral, a fish, or some other kind of marine resident. While that may not often concern us, landlubbers, especially as we’re basking in the sun on those oh-so-sweet vacation days, it’s a real problem for beach-totting tourist hotspots such as Hawaii.

That’s why the state is moving to ban the sale of sunscreen mixes containing these two compounds, becoming the first US state to do so. The bill was passed by the Hawaii state legislature on Tuesday and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. If this comes to pass, the ban would enter into force in 2021.

More coral protection factor, please

One past study (published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2015) has shown that both oxybenzone and octinoxate break down coral reefs by leeching its vital nutrients. The same compounds also disrupt the normal development of simple marine organisms (like algae or sea urchins) as well as more complex creatures (like fish). According to the same paper, these compounds can be found in especially high-concentrations in beaches frequented by tourists.

NOAA has also warned about the dangers such sunscreen compositions pose.

They affect corrals in three different ways: by leeching them of nutrients, by altering their DNA, making coral more susceptible to bleachings, and finally, by inhibiting their endocrine system (i.e. glands), deforming and ultimately killing baby coral. These effects started at extremely low concentrations — only 62 parts per trillion (ppt). Oxybenzone can also turn adult male fish into female fish, cause sexually immature fish to adopt characteristics common to mature, pregnant female fish, is toxic to shrimp, sea urchins, bivalves (e.g., scallops, mussels), and is especially toxic to marine algae (according to the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii).

The reefs of Hawaii and the U.S Virgin Islands showed some of the highest concentrations of oxybenzone out of all coral reefs that attract tourists, the 2015 paper reported. Sunscreen enters the ocean both from direct contact with people wearing such compounds and from wastewater streams that drain into the sea. Both oxybenzone and octinoxate are widely employed in sunscreens, as well as some other types of lotions.

“More and more people realize, as you go home and shower the water is getting treated and put out into the ocean,” Hawaii state Sen. Laura Thielen told KHON2.

“So really it’s damaging our corals no matter whether you’re wearing it on land or at the beach.”

So the only realistic option that Hawaii had at its disposal was a carpet ban on all products containing these compounds. If the governor puts his signature on the bill, vacationers will have to use alternative sunscreen options. Luckily, these options are readily available, with mixes most often substituting ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide in lieu of the dangerous chemicals.

Credit: Pixabay.

Not too big and not too small: when faced with extinction, it pays off to be just the right size

Animals that are either big or small are the most vulnerable to extinction. Vertebrates sandwiched in between a so-called ‘Goldilocks area — not too big but not too small either — prove to be the most resilient to outside threats like climate change, predators or human hunting.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

“Human activity seems poised to chop off both the head and tail of the size distribution of life”

According to Prof Bill Ripple of Oregon State University in Corvallis, US, larger vertebrates are mostly threatened by human hunters while smaller vertebrates are largely threatened by habitat degradation.

Ripple led a team of researchers that compiled a database of thousands of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, and reptiles at risk of extinction. Investigating the results shows that animals sitting at either end of the scale were disproportionately vulnerable.

“Surprisingly, we found that not only the largest of all vertebrate animal species are most threatened, but the very tiniest ones are also highly threatened with extinction,” Prof Ripple told BBC News.

“Indeed, based on our findings, human activity seems poised to chop off both the head and tail of the size distribution of life.”

You’ll often hear on the news about the desolate poaching of African elephants, lions or rhinos. Indeed, reporting like news of 100,000 elephants killed between 2010 and 2012 is no exaggeration. Many other less popular animals are in a similar situation, though. These include the whale shark, Somali ostrich and Chinese giant salamander, which can be considered the giants of their niche. Meanwhile, frogs and shrews — literally the little guys — get even less exposure.

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Large animals are often apex predators that play an important role in their ecosystem controlling the abundance of species they prey upon. Their impact has a cascading effect that can be felt all the way from food security to the quality of water and soil. On the other hand, small creatures are often vital pollinators of plants and can play a major role in pest control.

The list compiled by Ripple and colleagues totaled 25,000 vertebrate species, of which 4,000 threatened with extinction.

The main threats faced by large animals are:

  • Both legal and illegal fishing;
  • Hunting food, trade or medicines, including poaching.

While those faced by smaller vertebrates include:

  • Pollution of lakes, streams, and rivers
  • Farming
  • Logging
  • Urban expansion.

The findings serve as a wake-up call, signaling an impending sixth major extinction. While the previous five were caused by catastrophic natural phenomena, this one is on us humans.

The last time this happened was 65 million years ago when an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs and two-thirds of all life. The most devastating blow came 252 million years ago when the Great Dying snuffed out about 90 percent of the world’s species. A 2015 paper found that while the pre-human rate of extinctions on Earth was about 1 — a “death rate” of how many species become extinct each year out of 1 million species — now that death rate is about 100 to 1,000.

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

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

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

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

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

The eyes of death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When magical thinking touches the lives of wildlife

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

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

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

[ALSO SEE] Five common biology myths

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

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

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

Science is core to wildlife conservation

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

Image via Pixabay.

No conservation without science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The march for science

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

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

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

Every day, this man in Kenya drives hours and hours to bring water to wild animals

Usually, when animals hear humans in the Tsavo West National Park, they hide away. But when he comes, the elephants, buffalo, antelope, and zebras come running. They’ve come to know the sound of the engine.

All image credits: Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua.

After a long day’s work in the blistering Kenyan sun, Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua still finds the energy to drive the rough miles to the National Park, where he knows the animals are suffering due to lack of water.

“There is completely no water, so the animals are depending on humans,” Mwalua tells The Dodo. “If we don’t help them, they will die.”

Mwalua, who is a pea farmer in his local village, came with this idea when he saw the devastating toll climate change was taking on his village. In the last year particularly, the cracked barren land hasn’t been able to provide animals with the precious water they need.

“We aren’t really receiving rain the way we used to,” he says. “From last year, from June, there was no rain completely. So I started giving animals water because I thought, ‘If I don’t do that, they will die.'”

He doesn’t even own the truck — he pays to rent it and has been for over a year. He drives dozens and dozens of miles offroad, to get to concrete-covered holes where he unloads water for the animals to enjoy. It’s a slow process, he says.

“The truck is heavy and doesn’t go very fast,” he says. “We have to be very patient and go deliver water.”

The holes themselves are often dirty and require cleaning, likely because of the buffalo droppings, Mwalua believes. But that doesn’t stop him — or the animals. They’ve gotten so used to him that whenever they hear his engine rolling by, they rush to get the water — they don’t even wait for him to leave.

“Last night, I found 500 buffalo waiting at the water hole,” he says. “When I arrived they could smell the water. The buffalo were so keen and coming close to us. They started drinking water while I was standing there. They get so excited.”

In between his daytime job and the delivering of water, Mwalua also runs a conservation project called Tsavo Volunteers. The 41-year-old talks to local children, explaining to them how crucial wildlife is to the area, and how the country’s legacy is connected to this wildlife.

“I was born around here and grew up with wildlife and got a lot of passion about wildlife,” he says. “I decided to bring awareness to this so when they grow up they can protect their wildlife.”

He receives little to no support from local authorities, but he has gotten an unexpected lifeline from three women, who ironically have never met each other.

Angie Brown, who lives in Connecticut, visited Kenya in 2015 for the first time, though she didn’t know Mwalua. When she heard about his work, she wanted to help, and somehow connected on Facebook with Cher Callaway and Tami Calliope — three different women, from three different parts of the US, who wanted to aid Mwalua. They set up a GoFundMe page that has so far collected almost $250,000, which is more than he would have expected, and it’s perhaps enough to make a huge difference.

“We have all spent a lot of time getting the word out about the animals Patrick is helping and the GoFundMe has been a real success,” Brown says. “He needs so much more money though.”

Even with this newfound support, Mwalua has got a lot of work ahead of him. With rampant poverty through the area, corrupt and inefficient policymakers, and an ever growing number of poachers, it’s hard to see a bright future for these animals, but at least Mwalua is giving them a fighting chance.

As it so often happens, environmental measures aren’t spectacular. If you want to support him and the animals which rely on him, please consider donating to the GoFundMe page.

A major extinction is likely, and we’ll also suffer, UN experts warn

The United Nations urged leaders around the world to take action and protect the world’s plants and animals. Otherwise, we’ll all suffer.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating Avocado. Image credits: Andrew Mandemaker.

Speaking just before today’s World Wildlife Day on the 3rd of March., the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John H. Knox, made an appeal to protect the planet’s irreplaceable biodiversity. Losing it, he argues, will not only be a catastrophe for the environment but will also cause great human suffering as well.

“We are well on our way to the sixth global extinction of species in the history of the planet, and States are still failing to halt the main drivers of biodiversity loss, including habitat destruction, poaching and climate change,” Mr. Knox stressed. “What is less well understood,” he added, “is that the loss of biodiversity undermines the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food and water.”

The remarks from Knox come right after the bleak announcements from a conference on biodiversity held at the Vatican. According to several researchers present there, half of the world’s species (plants and animals) might go extinct by 2100 unless serious action is taken — fast.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

This is first-ever UN report focusing on the relationship between humans and biodiversity. Knox’s work underlines how much we depend on these species, and how much we have to lose if we don’t properly care for them. Humankind benefits in many ways from ecosystems; these so-called environmental services are involved in our day to day lives, even though we don’t realize it. The help with our provision of clean drinking water, pollinating our food, and with the decomposition of waste. Healthy ecosystems provide better services, but many ecosystems are suffering due to human activities.

Earth’s biodiversity si simply stunning. This is a sample of fungi collected in summer 2008 in Northern Saskatchewan mixed woods, near LaRonge. It is an example of the species diversity of fungi. In this photo, there are also leaf lichens and mosses. Image credits: Sasata.

“People cannot fully enjoy their human rights without the services that healthy ecosystems provide.” Mr. Knox emphasized. “And protecting biodiversity is necessary to ensure that ecosystems remain healthy and resilient.”

Basically, agriculture and fisheries will be among the first to suffer. The loss of species will lead to unpredictable domino effects in ecosystems, seriously threatening food security. Water security is next on the list — we don’t give much thought to it, but natural filters are extremely important for our water security. Next, the right to health will be threatened. Who knows how many potential medicines will forever be gone with the extinction of plants and animals?

“While the loss of biodiversity affects everyone, the worst-off are those who depend most closely on nature for their material and cultural life,” Mr. Knox stated. “Even when cutting down forests or building dams have economic benefits, those benefits are usually experienced disproportionately by those who did not depend directly on the resource and the costs are imposed disproportionately on those who did.

Basically, as the UN has repeatedly explained (backed by a number of studies and reviews), we depend on plants and animals just as much as they depend on us. “The risks posed by forest destruction throughout the world are highly significant for all. Not only are forests a critical source of timber and non-timber forest products, but they provide environmental services that are the basis of life on Earth,” a 2012 review read.

More worryingly, a 2016 study highlights how we ignore the benefits from environmental services: “Despite their value, environmental services are often lost as land users typically receive no compensation for the services their land generates for others and therefore have no economic reason to take these services into account in making decisions about land use.”

The same philosophy seems to be applied globally. Whether it’s humans or animals, environmental services often fly under the radar. We don’t realize how much we need them, and we don’t appreciate them — we don’t appreciate the world’s biodiversity, not as we should. Yet as mister Knox concludes, defending biodiversity is not just about plants and animals. It’s also about human rights.

“Biological diversity and human rights are interlinked and interdependent. The two must go hand-in-hand,” Mr. Knox added. “States’ obligations to fulfil their human rights obligations include a duty to protect the biodiversity on which those rights depend. In addition to that general duty, States have specific duties, which include public information about measures that adversely affect biodiversity, providing for the participation of citizens in biodiversity-related decisions and providing access to effective remedies in cases of biodiversity loss and degradation.”