Tag Archives: wildlife

Adélie penguin shortly after a dip in the Ross Sea. Credit; Credit John Weller/Antarctic Ocean Alliance

World’s largest marine reserve established in the Ross Sea, off the coast of Antarctica

Adélie penguin shortly after a dip in the Ross Sea. Credit; Credit John Weller/Antarctic Ocean Alliance

Adélie penguin shortly after a dip in the Ross Sea. Credit; Credit John Weller/Antarctic Ocean Alliance

In a landmark arrangement, 24 nations and the European Union signed to establish the largest marine reserve off the coast of Antarctica. The designated protected area will encompass 600,000 square miles of ocean — nearly as big as Alaska.

“For the first time since really the Cold War, countries have put aside their differences to protect a large area of the Southern Ocean and international waters,” said Andrea Kavanagh of the Pew Charitable Trusts, part of an alliance of nonprofits that pushed for the deal.

A great victory for marine wildlife

In the area, which is right off the coast of the Ross Sea ice shelf, commercial fishing is now completely illegal. However, some 28 percent of the area will be designated for research purposes — here, scientists are allowed to catch fish and krill, penguins, seals, and other animals. Hopefully, this article from the agreements text won’t be turned into a loophole (eyes on you, Japan).

The agreement was reached at Hobart, Tasmania, a deal which was five years in the making and was mediated by the Australian government. However, discussions about making a no-fishing zone in Antarctica’s waters have been going on for over a decade. The United States and New Zealand proposed a similar agreement in the past, but no consensus could be reached because Russia didn’t approve it. Now, Russia is among the states which signed the deal at Hobart on Friday.

The news is not only important for the endangered marine species in the area, but for species worldwide. That’s because the Ross Sea reserve is the first marine park created in international waters, setting a precedent for others locations to open around the world — and we know these are desperately needed. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s recommendation that 30% of the world’s oceans be protected.

“It’s probably why this agreement has taken so long to conclude, being the first outside a national jurisdiction and in an area of the high seas,” Ms. Kavanagh said

The reserve status is set to expire in 35 years. Hopefully, the terms will be extended past this point.

Bighorn sheep (such as this lamb) have declined dramatically since European-American settlement of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Wikipedia

Wildlife populations expected to plummet 67% by 2020 compared to fifty years ago

Bighorn sheep (such as this lamb) have declined dramatically since European-American settlement of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Wikipedia

Bighorn sheep (such as this lamb) have declined dramatically since European-American settlement of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Wikipedia

It’s obvious human have completely altered the landscape of this planet. Few places on this vast world are still untouched by our hands. Meanwhile, where humans live wildlife has to suffer. Habitat loss, poaching, man-made climate change — all have taken their toll on wildlife populations as evidenced by the hundreds of species that went extinct and the thousands currently endangered. Despite the best efforts of conservationists, things aren’t getting any better, the Living Planet Report 2016 suggests. The main takeaway, according to the authors, is that wildlife populations are declining at a huge rate. 

By the end of this decade, global vertebrate populations are on course to decline by an average of 67 percent from 1970 levels. That’s unless we take action.

The forecast is based on a steady annual rate of decline of 2% which has held true for decades. Already, since 1970, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 58 percent.

Wildlife populations have declined by 58% already since 1970. Credit: WWF

Wildlife populations have declined by 58% already since 1970. Credit: WWF

“For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife. We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us. Humanity’s misuse of natural resources is threatening habitats, pushing irreplaceable species to the brink and threatening the stability of our climate,” Mike Barrett, Director of Science and Policy at WWF-UK said.

The analysis produced by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is the most comprehensive survey of its kind to date. Inside the report, we can learn in detail how deforestation, pollution or overfishing is pushing many species to the edge.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Case studies ” footer=”Living Planet Report 2016 “]

  • Africa’s elephant population has crashed by an estimated 111,000 in the past decade primarily due to poaching. 2016 estimates suggest there are 415,000 elephants across the 37 range states in Africa.
  • The maned wolf, along with other large mammals including the giant anteater, is threatened by the increasing conversion of grasslands into farmland for grazing and growing crops in the Brazilian Cerrado.
  • The hellbender salamander underwent population declines of 77 percent across five locations in Missouri between 1975 and 1995. Degradation of habitat from the effects of agriculture and the recreational use of rivers is believed to be the main cause of the decline.
  • Orca populations in European waters are under threat from persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Despite legislative restrictions on their use, these pollutants are still present in orcas’ blubber at levels that exceed all known marine mammal toxicity thresholds.
  • The leatherback turtle has become increasingly rare in both the tropical Atlantic and Pacific. For example, it declined by 95 percent between 1989 and 2002 in Las Baulas National Park in Costa Rica. This decline was caused mainly by mortality at sea due to individuals being caught as by-catch and by development around nesting beaches. Similar trends have been observed throughout the species range.
  • The European eel is declining due to disease, overfishing and changes to its freshwater habitat that impede its migration to the sea to breed.
  • The White-backed vulture, long-billed vulture, slender-billed vulture and the Himalayan griffon have been decimated throughout South East Asia over the past 20 years due to the widespread use of the anti-inflammatory cattle drug diclofenac. The drug causes kidney failure in birds that eat the carcasses of recently-treated cattle.
  • The Yangtze river dolphin has declined largely due to incidental mortality by collisions with fishing vessels and entanglement in fishing gear An intensive survey carried out in China in 2006 failed to find any evidence that the species survives.
  • Gharial – India and Nepal: degradation of its habitat, accidental bycatch in fishing nets and harvesting of eggs have led to declines of this critically endangered species of crocodile.
  • Amphibians – global: A species of fungus that causes chytridiomycosis, a disease of amphibians, is implicated in the steep decline or extinction of more than 200 species.
  • Major Mitchell’s cockatoo underwent a precipitous population crash in Australia, largely due to the illegal taking of eggs for the pet trade. The population is now slowly recovering due to better enforcement of the law, but the species remains at risk from the clearing of woodland habitat and the destruction of nesting trees.
  • Tigers – Asia: around 3900 tigers are left in the wild facing threats of habitat destruction, climate change, and human wildlife conflict. The species is critically endangered
  • Amur Leopards – Asia: As few as 70 Amur leopards are left in the wild, facing threats of habitat destruction and human wildlife conflict. The species is critically endangered.
  • Giant Panda – Asia: 1864 giant pandas remain in the wild. Threats include human wildlife conflict and climate change. The species is listed as vulnerable.
  • Mountain Gorillas – Africa: 880 of the critically endangered mountain gorilla remain in the wild facing threats of habitat destruction and human wildlife conflict.

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However, there are some positive stories shared in the report, as well. These include the well-received ratification of the Paris climate-change agreement or news of stricter restrictions and sanctions on the international trade of threatened species. Global tiger and panda populations are on the rise, too. When there’s a will, there’s a way the authors of the report seem to tell us.

“We know how to stop this. It requires governments, businesses and citizens to rethink how we produce, consume, measure success and value the natural environment. In the UK, this demands a serious plan to strengthen protection for habitats and species and new measures to fast track low-carbon growth. Britain, like all developed nations, must take increasing responsibility for its global footprint. December’s conference on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity would be a good place for the UK government to signal that it’s serious about helping tackle the global loss of species,” Barett added.

“Human behaviour continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats. Importantly, however, these are declines – they are not yet extinctions – and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations,” Professor Ken Norris, Director of Science at ZSL said.

 

How bringing cougars to cities could actually save lives

Allowing cougars to re-populate back to their historic range could save hundreds of human lives and prevent tens of thousand of injuries, a new study reports. Counter-intuitive as this may seem, the numbers actually add up — while we may expect some property damage from the predators, they’d actually help us out in the end by keeping the US’s deer population in check.

Deer are most active between 6 and 9 p.m. and generally travel in herds – if you see one, there is a strong possibility others are nearby.
Image credits State Farm/Flickr

If I asked you to pick the animals with the highest human death toll between deers and cougars, which would you pick? The cougars, undoubtedly. And you’d be wrong. Sure, a cougar is fiercer than a deer, it has both teeth and claws and isn’t shy about using them while a deer is uh…a nuisance? But by sheer weight of numbers (and an inability to act when confronted with headlights) white-tailed deer in the US cause more than a million car collisions, resulting in more than 200 deaths, every year.

By the early 1900s, we pushed cougars away from our cities because they were dangerous, but a new study suggests this exact trait is why we should bring them back. Laura R. Prugh, a wildlife scientist at the University of Washington, Sophie L. Gilbert, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Idaho and several colleagues argue that allowing eastern cougars to return to their historic range could prevent 155 human deaths, 21,400 human injuries, and save $2.3 billion over the course of 30 years.

The team bases their estimations on studies they performed in 19 states including South Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missouri. Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland and Illinois were historically part of the eastern cougar’s territory, however, they lack the required open forestland to support a viable cougar population today, the team reported. They also said that if left to their own devices, it’s entirely possible that the cougars will re-populate these areas on their own: over the past few decades, they’re been sighted in parts of the Midwest and more recently in the East. Dr. Prugh advocates for this kind of natural repopulation, which would face less resistance than a human-engineered one, she believes.

Pictured: statistically less dangerous to you than a deer.
Image credits Wikimedia user Dcoetzee

They looked at the number of individuals to see how deer populations grow in each area, how many car crashes involve deer and how they increase as the deer population grows. They looked at cougars’ hunting behavior, and settled for an average of 259 deer kills per individual per average lifespan of 6 years, and an 850 square miles area of forested land needed to sustain a wild population of the felines.

They then tested several mathematical models to calculate the cougars’ effect on the deer population. The first question they needed to consider was if cougars would prey on the deer that are too starved, old, or sick to survive and don’t actually cause accidents. Dr. Prugh calculated for a “conservative” 75% of deer kills as animals that would’ve died anyway.  They also considered that as adult deer decrease in number, more fawns survive — so killing deer doesn’t immediately shrink the population.

But it’s not all roses. The catch is that we’re dealing with dangerous, deadly predators here, which are perfectly capable of killing humans. Their population would stabilize at considerable numbers in some states — about 1000 in New York and Wisconsin each, around 350 in Missouri and between 8-15 in New Jersey, the team estimates. They also expect to see livestock loss of around US$2.35 million per year in the areas, and some pet loss, though the team wasn’t able to estimate this — since there is little data on what happens to pets after they are lost.

The scientists also estimated that we could expect less than one victim per year, for a total of under 30 lives lost, far less than the number of lives saved. But they admit that the emotional response to predators is one element they can’t factor in — no matter how many people are saved in the end, death by deer is very different to death by cougar.

“The idea of being killed in a car crash with a deer just doesn’t scare people the way the idea of a cougar leaping on your back in the woods does,” Dr. Prugh said.

But she hopes that if cougars do return to the Eastern states, an understanding that they could bring tangible benefits will make people “a little more accepting, even if they are still scared.”

The full paper titled ” Socioeconomic benefits of large carnivore recolonization through reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions” has been published online in the journal Conservation Letters.

Poachers kill three rangers, wound park manager in Congo

Sad news comes from African wildlife parks again: three rangers were killed in Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba wildlife park. Two others were wounded, including the park manager.

Brave rangers risk their life every day to protect Africa’s wildlife. Credit: Flickr Enough Project

Just yesterday we were writing that African park rangers risk their life on a day-to-day basis to protect animals in natural parks, and now this tragedy was reported – and this happens. Armed poachers entered the UNESCO world heritage site, opening fire on the park rangers. Dimba Richard, Anigobe Bagare, and Matikuli Tsago were killed in the firefight, while park manager Erik Mararv, 30, and ranger Kenisa Adrobiago are in the hospital, but stable. U.S. forces in the area evacuated the others, but couldn’t save the three rangers.

‘We are devastated by this latest loss. Rangers put their lives on the line each and every day, and are under real siege in Garamba protecting elephants from heavily incentivized and militarized poaching gangs who threaten the very survival of humans and wildlife alike’ African Parks chief executive Peter Fearnhead said in a statement.

Killing for ivory

If you’re wondering why people did this, the answer is simple: ivory. Some 30,000 elephants are killed every year to supply ivory to the black markets in Asia, especially China. Elephant numbers have dropped by 60% in the past decade alone, and if the trend continues, there’s a definite change they will go extinct in the near future.

Unfortunately, protecting these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is extremely different and African countries don’t have a particularly good infrastructure for this. Brave men and women risk their life every day, but sometimes this simply isn’t enough. They are understaffed and underequipped, fighting a growing number of poachers equipped with weapons.

“Rangers put their lives on the line each and every day, and are under real siege in Garamba protecting elephants from heavily incentivized and militarized poaching gangs,” African Parks chief executive Peter Fearnhead said in a statement.

Without massive outside investments, there is no solution in sight.

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.

White Nose Bat Syndrome spreads deeper into the U.S. — first case confirmed west of the Rockies

The first case of white nose syndrome, a disease that has wreaked havoc on bat populations in the eastern U.S. has been identified west of the Rockies. The disease’s spread threatens to drastically impact bat populations there, altering ecosystems throughout the country.

Hikers discovered a little brown bat with white nose syndrome on a trail east of Seattle last in mid-March this year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey announced on Tuesday. This marks the first incidence of the deadly fungus west of the Rockies. The ailing bat was taken to an animal shelter, where it died two days later.

Picture of a little brown bat with white nose syndrome, taken in New York state, Oct 2008.
Image credits to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories branch chief David Blehert thinks it’s “surprising and unusual” to find the fungus spread this far west — the closest the syndrome has been identified before was Nebraska, some 1,300 miles from the site.

 “We’ve been dreading this,” said senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity Mollie Matteson in an interview for The Huffington Post. “This is a drastic jump.”

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that there has been a long-range jump of the fungus,” Blehert said.

Caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructan, white nose syndrome can wipe out entire bat colonies. It gets its name from the white fuzzy fungal growths on the noses, wings and ears of affected bats. The devastating disease spreads throughout bodily tissue, disrupting physiological processes and interrupting essential hibernation periods, causing bats to waste away.

It has already caused the deaths of more than 6 million bats in the eastern U.S, in what some describe as the steepest decline or North American wildlife of the past century.

Seven different species of cave hibernating bats in 28 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have been affected by white nose syndrome since 2006, when the first case was recorded in upstate New York. Two of these species are native to Washington state.

“I wish I could be optimistic, but given what we have seen on the East Coast, it’s hard to,” said Sharlene E. Santana, assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington.

“We knew it was coming [to the West], but we didn’t know it would be so soon,” Matteson said.

Range of white nose syndrome.
Image credits Washington Department of FIsh and Wildlife.

Blehert’s analysis of the Washington bat revealed that the disease was at an advanced stage, suggesting it had been present in the area for quite some time. Genetic sequencing indicates that the animal is a native to the area.

“We don’t know how the fungus got there,” Blehert said.

The fungus could have been transported bat-to-bat — which would have taken an extraordinarily long time. Or, as Blehert suspects, through human travel and trade, one of the largest spreader of infectious diseases. Humans aren’t affected by the fungus but act as carriers and are believed to (unknowingly) play a central part in transporting the disease across the country. Hikers’ and spelunkers’ clothes and gear can transport the fungus, according to the researchers.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.
Image credits Marvin Moriarty/USFWS, via flirk.

Unfortunately there is no proven method to cure the disease or at least halt its spread.

“We had hope that by the time [white nose syndrome] started to spread to the West, that there were more effective treatments in place,” Matteson said.

Scientists are now looking into the genetic code of the fungus to determine its point of origin and try to set up precautions to halt its spread around the world — the fungus most likely arrived in the U.S. on a human carrier from Asia or Europe where it’s endemic. They’re also looking into creating a vaccine that could give the bats a fighting chance against white nose syndrome.

“For years, we have been saying there needs to be stricter protocol put in place to minimize the chance of a jump like this via human transmission,” Matterson added.

Authorities are now putting abandoned mines and caves under lock-down to protect resident bat colonies. Federal agencies encourage visitors to decontaminate themselves and gear before entering an area with bats, but Matteson argued decontamination should be mandatory.

“We have species that are at risk of going extinct; it’s the least that could be done.”

Bats are an integral part of an ecosystem, and scientists are concerned about the chain reaction their loss might have on plant and animal life, including humans. If the bat population declines, insects would thrive and devastate agricultural areas. Populations of disease-carrying insects would also be left unchecked.

However, there might still be hope. Because bats in the western U.S. tend not to hibernate in large groups, the disease might not spread as widely or quickly from bat to bat. But far less is known in general about how bats hibernate on the West Coast, Matterson said, which means the bats could already be dying.

“As the case in Washington indicates, the disease has already been there for a couple years, and it just got discovered this past month,” she added.

“One of the huge problems with white nose syndrome has been that the [government] response was slow to get off the ground, it was disorganized, a lack of leadership, there wasn’t any decontamination requirement for western public lands, no cave closures.”

“There will be more in the future,” she concluded. “We need to learn our lesson.”

Wildlife officials encourage people who encounter sick or dead bats to report it via an online reporting tool or telephone hotline, 1-800-606-8768.

A soldier stands guard as 420 kilos of cocaine seized in La Mosquitia in Honduras are incinerated by the organized crime public prosecutor’s office, in Tegucigalpa, in October 2013.Orlando Sierra / AFP / Getty Images

Drug trafficking is wiping out an unlikely bystander: wildlife

Central America is home to one of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. It’s here among its rainforests that you can still find large swaths of land where there aren’t any humans living nearby. But being sparsely populated also makes the region an attractive route to smuggle drugs and other logistical operations. In Honduras and Guatemala, particularly, all law and order seems to cede in the face of the narco-cartels who are razing forests to build airfields, roads and even ranches right in the middle of protected national parks. It’s all a nasty business, and the greatest victims are those who play the least part in it all: the wildlife.

In 2011, UNESCO listed Honduras’s Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve as a “World Heritage in Danger”.  The reserve is one of the few remains of a tropical rainforest in Central America and has an abundant and varied plant and wildlife. In its mountainous landscape sloping down to the Caribbean coast, over 2,000 indigenous people have preserved their traditional way of life. These ancient tribal lands are now being cleared to make way for cocaine trade.

“They used axes, chainsaws and earth compactors to flatten the land,” said a tribe’s leader for Al Jazeera, one of four elders who agreed to speak out for the first time, on the condition of strict anonymity. “Then they brought in sand to surface the strips, which were big enough for aircraft with one or two engines to land.”

The area now serves around 39 cocaine drop zones. The government sometimes cracks down some of the airstrips, as evidences by the abandoned and burned-out aircraft which you can easily find, but more seem to popup in their place. Central America has long been a corridor for cocaine headed to U.S. markets. Trafficking operations erupted there after Mexico began to crack down on cartels in 2006, and nowadays these aircraft land as often as two or three times a week on the clandestine airstrips.

Honduras and Guatemala are at the epicenter of the global drug trade, and it’s not wonder they’ve also experienced some of the most extreme habitat loss in Latin America. Species like the giant anteaters, jaguars, ocelots and manatees as well as flocks of increasingly scarce macaws are now extremely vulnerable and run a high risk of going extinct, the jaguars in particular.  In Honduras, the jaguar population is estimated at two per 100 square kilometers (38.6 square miles) of habitat, while in neighboring Belize the population stands at 11 per 100 square kilometers. How so? Well, a lethal combination of a cocaine and cows.

You see, to launder the drug money, the cartels often buy or, why not, claim land near the rainforest, clear it, and either plant palm oil trees or build cow ranches.

“In La Mosquitia there are narco traffickers that are buying huge tracts of land and just clear-cutting primary rain forest,” says James Adams for the Global Post, resident naturalist at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, a jungle hideaway near Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras. “No one is doing anything about it … they’re turning their cash into cattle and they need land.”

Only ten years ago, Guatemala’s Peten region used to be largely undeveloped rain forest and savannah. Now, over night seemingly, it’s been converted into a huge African oil palm production facility.

The drug cartels operations aren’t hampered by the government. On the contrary, corrupted officials work hand in hand with the developers, who serve narco trafficking interests. What’s hilarious is that land grabbing is fairly common. A developer might see an area of interest and just seize it, then forge property right later, even in protected national parks where there shouldn’t be any private property. If you accuse them of land theft, they’ll bluntly call you crazy: “how can it be a protected rain forest, can’t you see it’s a ranch?” It would be hilarious, were it not depressingly true.

It’s a heinous affair, and those would like this to change and fight are few and vulnerable. Scientists who want to conserve the local wildlife run in mortal peril whenever they’re out in the field setting camera traps or inspecting the rain forest. “Our members have been attacked,” says Santiago Ochoa, a conservationist working with the international NGO Rainforest Alliance in Guatemala, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.. “They can kill you — there’s always the possibility.”

“The drug war is causing a lot of fear in the people who are supposed to enforce conservation law,” says an anonymous conservationist. “When rangers go out to pursue an environmental crime, they’re usually going up against drug lords. … You’re going up against a lot of connections in government — congressmen, generals.”

 

Global Wildlife Populations Down by 50% in just 40 Years

Global wildlife populations have decreased by more than half, concludes a new report released by the WWF. The extent of this major destruction came as a shock and showed just how far we are from reaching a sustainable future and living in harmony with the Earth’s biodiversity.

Losing Biodiversity

wwf biodiversity

The cover of the WWF report.

The report shows that the worst loss happened in freshwater species – 76% of all species were gone; on average, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by an average of 52%. The Living Planet Report, published every two years, concludes that mankind is responsible for much of that destruction – through CO2 emissions, deforestation, urbanization, unsustainable extraction of groundwater and more.

“This damage is not inevitable but a consequence of the way we choose to live,” Ken Norris, Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London, said in a statement.

Indeed, despite some conservation efforts, the global trend seems to ignore biodiversity. The problem is that we fail to understand just how important this matter is – not only in itself, but also in the services it provides mankind.

“Biodiversity is a crucial part of the systems that sustain life on Earth – and the barometer of what we are doing to this planet, our only home. We urgently need bold global action in all sectors of society to build a more sustainable future,” said WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini.

Though this was not directly discussed, it is thought that we have not yet reached the point of no return – while the damage we have done is irreversible, we can still work our way towards a more sustainable future. The problem is that we have to act now – we have to act fast, and we have to do it right.

“It is essential that we seize the opportunity – while we still can – to develop sustainably and create a future where people can live and prosper in harmony with nature,” said WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini.

Tricky statistics

lion biodiversity

African lion, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. The Living Planet Report 2014 found global wildlife populations have declined by more than half in just 40 years.
© naturepl.com / Anup Shah / WWF-Canon

It’s the tenth edition of the report, and this time, WWF have significantly improved their data acquisition methodology for their flagship publication. Naturally, compelling a list of wildlife populations and calculating species decline involves some tricky statistics, which often implies working with different types of datasets. For these reasons, some statisticians have debated the accuracy of this type of study.

But even the Zoological Society of London, which adopted a different, more conservative statistic, concluded that 30% of all wildlife was destroyed in the past 40 years – so the amount of the damage, while debatable, is still immense; and the reason why it’s happening is not in any question: we’re causing it. The problem is, no matter where you look for it, we are harvesting resources at a faster rate than they can replenish.

We’re cutting down trees much faster than they can grow back, we’re harvesting fish faster than they can reproduce, we’re using more water than the aquifers can replenish, we’re pumping more CO2 than the vegetation can absorb. There is simply too many of us, and our lifestyle is too greedy at the moment. But one of the things I really like about the report is that even with all this widespread destruction, there is no looming sentiment of doom. Instead, WWF proposes some solutions, and mentions successful conservation efforts such as:

  • A Gorilla Conservation Programme in Rwanda, promoting gorilla tourism
  • A scheme to incentivise small-scale farmers to move away from slash and burn agriculture in Acre, Brazil
  • A project to cut the amount of water withdrawn from the wildlife-rich River Itchen in the UK.
  • A program which was successful in increasing the number of tigers in Nepal

“The findings of this year’s Living Planet Report make it clearer than ever that there is no room for complacency. It is essential that we seize the opportunity – while we still can – to develop sustainably and create a future where people can live and prosper in harmony with nature,” said Lambertini.

We’re killing biodiversity… and ourselves

wwf report biodiversity

Amazon river dolphin, Brazil.Freshwater species have suffered a 76 per cent decline, an average loss almost double that of land and marine species.
© Francois Xavier Pelletier / WWF-Canon

According to the report, humanity’s demand on the planet is more than 50 per cent larger than what nature can renew. In other words, it would take 1.5 Earths to supply all our needs at the rate we are consuming resources. To better measure this impact, WWF calculated the environmental impact of all countries. Kuwait had the largest ecological footprint per capita of all countries, followed by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The USA wasn’t very far off either.

“If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets. If we lived the lifestyle of a typical resident of the USA, we would need 3.9 planets,” the report said.

What’s interesting (and concerning) to note is that poorer countries had a smaller ecological footprint – India for example uses its resources at a highly sustainable pace. So the question is: as these countries continue to raise their standard of life, will we see an even larger ecological footprint? The answer is likely yes.

The loss of biodiversity is just a consequence, but one which can accelerate the environmental damage we are causing. In turn, this will come back to haunt us. According to the report, some tipping points of irreversible damage have already been reached, including carbon dioxide emission and nitrogen pollution from fertilizers. Interestingly, the report also highlights how Asia is increasingly working on reducing its emissions and its carbon footprint.

The conclusion is clear: we’re in this together. If we kill the biodiversity, we are killing ourselves.

“Nature is both a lifeline for survival and a springboard to prosperity. Importantly, we are all in this together. We all need food, fresh water and clean air – wherever in the world we live. At a time when so many people still live in poverty, it is essential to work together to create solutions that work for everyone,” said Lambertini.

 

Scientists find snake no one believed existed

A small island, unique wildlife

1100 km off the coast of Mexico, there lies a small chunk of rock called the Clarion Island. Formerly called Santa Rosa, the island has an area of under 20 square km; no one lives there, and aside for a few Mexical sailors which come and go every couple of weeks and biology researchers and students, no one really visits it. The island has a unique wildlife, and it is the only home of the Clarion burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia rostrata), the critically endangered Clarion Island whipsnake (Masticophis anthonyi), the Clarion Island tree lizard (Urosaurus clarionensis), as well as several endemic species.

Biologists thought they identified every species living on the island, but they missed something. All the way back in 1936 a naturalist named William Beebe visited the island and wrote about another vertebrate (a snake) that no one else had seen since. But later research discounted his discovery. B. H. Brattstrom visited the island several times in the 1950s and never saw the snake, so he claimed that Beebe miscatalogued the species. Beebe’s expedition traveled thousands of kilometers and gathered numerous species, so he believed a simple mislabel was the cause.

“It’s conceivable,” acknowledges Daniel Mulcahy, a researcher with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). “But on the other hand Beebe was a very well-known naturalist. He took very good notes. For him to make an error like that, you wouldn’t expect it.”

Fast forward to 2012 – Mulcahy starts researching the island, and gets in contact with biologists – none of them had seen Beebe’s snake, and no one really seemed to believe in its existence. So he began the detective work – he borrowed Beebe’s specimen and started to list of everything that Beebe collected on the expedition, so he could retrace his steps; and in the final pages of the expedition’s journal – the found the key. Beebe detailed a beach where sea turtles build nests – there he came across a 45-centimeter snake moving against an outcropping of black lava rock:

“I saw a small, dark brown snake,” he wrote in the book, Zaca Venture. “It seemed to be unlike the one I had found in the daylight”—the much larger whipsnake—”having lines of black spots on the body.”

He knew that that was the key to the puzzle.

“I jumped up and said, ‘That’s it!’”

Chasing the dream

He took a huge gamble, and decided to actually travel to the island to find Beebe’s snake.

“It was a big risk,” Mulcahy admits. “I’m a technician at a molecular lab. They don’t pay me to go out and chase things. I had to get funding elsewhere.”

The journey also required approval from the Mexican Navy, and the entire mission lastet no less than a month. But even afteer gathering funding and working his way onto this mission, things were dire – when he reached the island, his heart sank.

“All of the bushes were shriveled and twisted like twigs,” he says. “It turned out the military had a controlled burn that got out of control. It scorched the area.”

But he didn’t give up (after all, he traveled thousands of kilometers just to get there); he started looking around, retracing Beebe’s steps. 79 years later, he was finding the same things.

“Along the eastern edge of the beach there’s a small knoll of black rock. We thought, that’s good habitat. It’s not burned.” They decided to explore it that night. “We were hoping for a lot, but not expecting much that first night,” Mulcahy acknowledges. “The four of us were talking and finding lizards and spiders and things.” Then one of the students on the expedition, Juan Cervantes, shouted two magical words: “Una culebra!”—a snake. “We all ran over,” Mulcahy says. Cervantes pointed into a hole and said the snake had gone inside. “It was a small hole. I removed a softball-sized rock and underneath—there it was. I thought, ‘Oh my god, we did it.’ We quickly pulled it out. It was amazing. We were jumping up and doing high fives.”

Indeed, an amazing story – a scientist working in a molecular lab traveling a thousand kilometers and more off the coast of Mexico to find a snake described by a naturalist almost a century ago! Definitely not something you hear every day. He then analyzed the samples back home, and confirmed the finding: 79 years later, the mystery was solved.

Protecting a unique environment

Now, he believes, the next step is to protect them.

“These island ecosystems are fragile and easily disturbed,” he says.

The main threats are feral cats, rabbits and pigs – probably brought many years ago, and now out of control. The invaders have already changed Clarion. When Beebe wrote about it, he described it as an island filled with impenetrable cacti – now, almost all of them are gone. Clarion island has no source of freshwater, and the cacti were probably eaten as a water source.

“We found less than a dozen prickly pear cactus plants on the island in the 15 days we were there,” Mulcahy says. “They’ve been almost completely obliterated.” 

Hopefully, conservation measures will be taken before an island-wide disaster takes place, and all the living species are obliterated due to the lack of water.

Scientific Rerefence: Rediscovery of an Endemic Vertebrate from the Remote Islas Revillagigedo in the Eastern Pacific Ocean: The Clarión Nightsnake Lost and Found

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Fences threaten local fauna, instead of protecting it

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Photo: conservationafrica.net

In some parts of the world you can find fences that stretch for hundreds of miles, delimiting protected areas or those populated with humans. The basic reasoning is that these fences are put in place to protect the local wildlife by preventing the spread of diseases, poachers and by helping helping managed endangered populations. The reverse may actually be true, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Livestock and wildlife don’t mix well, so farms and local governments have established  extensive fencing systems to ward of contact between the two and stop diseases like foot and mouth from spreading. These sort of fences, hundreds of miles long, are particularly common in South Africa. Researchers at Zoological Society of London report, however, that the effects produced are actually counter-intuitive.

The fences disrupt predator prey dynamics, such as the case of African wild dogs who have learned to chase they prey into fences where they become cornered. Fences also limit herds from grazing grounds, as elephants and wildebeest are now unable to reach the vast areas of land they require to support their population.

Fences may cause an ecological meltdown

A lot of people promoting the use of fences advocate that the most and foremost, these need to be put in place to separate human civilization from wildlife, which actually gathers local support for one reason or another. The study notes, however, that these aren’t that practical and most situations. After studying 37 fences in Southern India, researchers found that almost 50 percent failed to prevent the passage of elephants, demonstrating the difficulty in designing and maintaining fences.

“In some parts of the world, fencing is part of the culture of wildlife conservation – it’s assumed that all wildlife areas have to be fenced. But fencing profoundly alters ecosystems, and can cause some species to disappear,” said Rosie Woodroffe, lead author of the study.

It’s a bit naive to think that fences keep poachers out. Ironically, many fences come as a ready supply of wire for making snares.

The scientists involved in the study advise that a better design and implementation of fencing is warranted, and only in areas where these are necessary.

“An increased awareness of the damage caused by fencing is leading to movements to remove fences instead of building more. Increasingly, fencing is seen as backwards step in conservation,” concluded study co-author Sarah Durant, also of the Zoological Society.

 

Wildlife photographs of the year awarded

Every year, the Natural History Museum awards several prizes in wildlife photography: elephants, dugogns, gavials, mushrooms, mice and many, many more were captured on film by extremely talented photographers of all ages. Here are just a few of the best pictures and their stories.

Salmon versus Gold clash in Alaska

It’s the already a clichee: the big, international company wants to do some highly profitable operations, threatening the native wildlife and environment.

 

This time, the corporate behemoth is Northern Dynasty Minerals, of British Columbia, who teamed up with other companies, and now name themselves the Pebble Partnership. In the other corner lies native groups, commercial fishermen, village councils, local residents, outfitters, conservationists, and other communities, convinced that the environmental risks, especially those addressed to salmon greatly outweigh the benefits.

Pristine, roadless and wild, the Bristol Bay watershed is host to the largest population of wild salmon in the world – over 30 million salmons. Unfortunately for them, quite close to their natural habitat, there’s also a huge ore deposit, estimated at 36 billion kilograms of copper and 3 million kilograms of gold – quite easy to understand why big mining companies would want to be all over it.

After numerous legal skirmishes and petitions from both sides, the big battle is finally closing in – and it promises to be a turning point for Alaskan exploitation of resources. Either way it will go, it’s going to set up a precedent that will be hard to avoid in future cases.

Back in May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft assessment of the potential consequences of a Pebble Mine-like development, and according to them, even under the best conditions, the most optimistic prognosis, which is never going to happen, is that 90 to 140 kilometers or pristine streams will be contaminated, as will 1,000 hectares of wetlands. But even more worrisome is the possibility of a catastrophic failure of one of the mine’s tailings ponds, which would have devastating consequences.

Guess what happened then? The Pebble Partnership went to state officials to blame these results and complain. Not surprisingly for Alaska, state officials agreed with the money company, dismissing the results. Soon after that, the EPA gathered another committee of independent researchers. Care to take a guess, again? This new committee concluded that if anything, the initial study underestimated the risks.

“Given the extremely long-term nature of the project,” one reviewer wrote, “the risks seem, if anything, understated.”

It’s once again, a battler of money versus wildlife

 

Then, nine Bristol Bay tribal governments made quite a bold move – bypassing the state officials, fearing that they don’t understand or don’t care enough about these findings and went straight to the federal government. Citing a provision of the U.S. Clean Water Act, which governs dumping waste in streams, they had a pretty strong case, and went to the EPA for help. Following this approach, both the governor of Alaska and the Pebble Partnership have made pressures on the EPA, accusing it of overreach and threatening legal action. Back in the day, sadly, this would have done the job. The state could have just ignored the scientific facts, or just dismiss then as inaccurate and establish its own puppet committee; but this time, it seems, something has changed in the heart of Alaskans: the public opinion is heavily against mining in the Bristol Bay.

They fought for their natural treasures, trying to make the rest of the country that this is a national treasure, and should be guarded as such. What do you think, should the Pebble Partnership be allowed to start mining in the Bristol Bay?

Via Nat Geo

A Stunning New Species of Black-and-Yellow Horned Viper discovered in Tanzania

Hyderabad, Jan 12,2012: A strikingly black-and-yellow snake with horn-like scales above its eyes has been discovered to stun the wildlife enthusiasts world over.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has just announced the discovery of the spectacularly colored snake from a remote area of Tanzania in East Africa. The animal, identified as Matilda’s horned viper, measures 2.1 feet (60 centimeters) and looks very majestic with its has horn-like scales above its eyes.

The discovery is described in the December issue of Zootaxa. Authors of the study include: Michele Menegon of Museo delle Scienze of Trento, Italy; Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Kim Howell of the University of Dar es Salaam.

Fearing poaching, the authors have kept the exact location of the new species a secret. Its habitat, estimated at only a few square miles is already severely degraded from logging and charcoal manufacture.

The species may soon be classified as ‘critically endangered’ and as such the authors have already established a small captive breeding colony.

The conservationists desire to keep the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, with its whooping annual turnover of $160 Billion, away from the site so that the scientists could discover more such stunning species in the region.

“Wildlife trade is now the second largest illegal trade in the world after drugs.  Reptiles play a large part in this and unfortunately the illegal trade – especially in wild-caught reptiles – is having a devastating effect on wild populations, the conservations aver.

They maintain that in many parts of Africa, it is the single biggest threat to the existence of many species in the wild. The colourful, fascinating African bush vipers of the genus Atheris are popular pet snakes in many countries. Their natural habitat is seriously threatened and the numbers of wild caught animals destined for the pet trade continues to be unsustainable, they deplore. The snake is named after the daughter of co-author Tim Davenport, Director of WCS’s Tanzania Program.

Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide, through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo.

Together these activities change attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. //EOM//

 

Smithsonian Wild – a database of wildlife photos 200,000 captured with automated cameras

Some animals in the wild are so elusive and hard to glimpse that they’re almost impossible to capture with a camera. This is why researchers often use trip cameras with motion sensors that film or photograph whenever an animal is in the vicinity. The Smithsonian today launched a new searchable website, siwild.si.edu, that presents more than 202,000 wildlife photos captured in this manner. The website both still photos and video clips of more than 200 species of mammals and birds, and you’ll also be able to learn more about each species by clicking through the reference links leading to Encyclopedia of Life, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s own “North American Mammals” page.

“This site provides the public a glimpse of what the scientist sees when surveying remote places,” said William McShea, research wildlife biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “Not every photo is beautiful but every photo provides information that can be used to conserve wild animals. It is addictive to scroll through the photos at a single site and see the diversity that walks by a single camera in the forest.”

Extremely rare baby seahorse sighting

Seahorses are just as elusive as they are cute, so diver Neil Garrick-Maidment, the executive director of the Seahorse Trust was absolutely thrilled when he spotted a 1.5 inch long baby female seahorse “clinging onto a piece of seagrass”. This trule remarkable sighting was made in the waters of Great Britain, in the Dorset waters, a region well known as a breeding area for seahorses.

“These babies are so small they have never been seen before in Britain, and as far as I know in Europe either,” Garrick-Maidment said. “The species is literally hanging on by its fingertips so it’s heartening to see them breeding here. I can’t overestimate how rare it is to see something like this. It’s absolutely, mind-blowingly fantastic.”

If we were to take a look at these little guys, the odds aren’t good for them at all. Of the 3-500 baby seahorses born during each breeding cycle, just 2 or 3 make it to adulthood. Think about that whenever you’re having a rough day.

Ecuador will receive 3.6 billion $ not to drill for oil in a historic pact

The race for oil drilling is tougher than ever, and the effects are quite often extremely damaging for the environment (I’m sure pretty much everybody knows about the BP oil spill already). However, the UN has come up with an initiative, the first of its kind, that promises to protect at least a handful of special environments. Such is the case with the Yasuni National Park, in Ecuador.

The Park is one of the most biologically diverse parts of the Amazon rainforest, and the Ecuadorian government signed not to destroy this pristine landscape at least for a decade, in the exchange of 3.6 billion dollars. The deal finalized, and U.N. Development Program associate administrator Rebeca Grynspan issued this statement:

We are witnessing the inauguration of new instruments of cooperation, which will act as a basis for supporting other national and international efforts directed toward the search for economies that are in harmony with society, nature and the planet.

With the sum being quite significant for Ecuador, they would probably made twice as much (or even more) from exploiting the oil located beneath the Yasuni Park – but at a huge cost. Currently, the U.N. are trying to work out similar arrangements with countries who plan on drilling in such areas.

Natural Geographic launches Nat Geo Wild

I don’t know about you but I was thrilled to find out Natural Geographic was launching another baby, dedicated to wildlife; and no, the bulk of the programms won’t consist of old material just put on a different chanel.

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"Expedition Wild: Project Kodiak" is one of the star shows, and it will focus on Alaskan grizzly bears

“We’re going to make it a very distinct channel. We are going to target promotion on particular nights, different from what we do on the core channel. We are going to have wildlife programming that is 24-7, which is a celebration of animals. On the core channel less than 5 percent of our primetime content has wildlife featured” says Adds Steve Schiffman, Nat Geo’s general manager.

“We are focused on originality and exclusivity for this channel. We are operating as a global network and combining our budgets, which is going to allow us to produce a high volume of original programming. We’ve got hundreds of hours in the development pipeline right now, and I’m really encouraged by the quantity of new things that we are going to be able to bring, all in stunning HD.”, added Geoff Daniels, senior vice president of development and production.

I haven’t looked at any programs so far, basically because I don’t have a TV where I am right now, but I most definitely will.

*ZME Science is not associated in any way with National Geographic; but we’d love that. Seriously. If there’s anybody from National Geographic, we love you guys !

Giant squids take to California

Yes ladies and gents, giant squids are all over the California beaches. Each of the squids weighs about 40 pounds, but some of them reach 60 and even more than that. I haven’t been able to find out what’s up with them, or why they gathered in such numbers, but according to scientists, this happens almost periodically, though they cannot have a totally satisfying explanation. The most plausible guess is that they’ve been brought there by a warm water current.

humboldt-squid

Anyway, there’s no reason to panic or anything, though you might want to avoid taking a swim this week. However, local anglers are absolutely delighted, catching them by the hundreds, and since things probably won’t change, we’re going to be talking thousands pretty soon; they also sometimes get rolled over on land, there they remain stranded and eventually end up rotting.

The searches for “giant squids” have gone through the roof, so I’m guessing a lot of people are interested or quite nervous about this. The squid in case is the Humboldt squid, also name Jumbo Squid, Jumbo Flying Squid, or Diablo Rojo (which is just Spanish for “red devil”). They rarely weight over 100 pounds, and their average lifespan is at about 1 year. Oh, they’re giant by comparison with most squids, but there others that make it pale in comparison. The biggest squid out there is (arguably) the colossal squid.

13 countries make a plan to save tigers

Just a short while ago, I was telling you about the extremely worrying decline of the Siberian tigers (and not just them). It’s obvious that if nothing changes, the odds are they’ll be going extinct, perhaps even during our lifetime (which is the case for numerous mammals, actually. Russia and a dozen other Asian countries had a meeting and signed a pact to double tiger numbers by 2022, and keep them growing. That includes fighting harder against poaching, preventing building of roads and bridges that harm their habitat.

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However, as fantastic as this sounds, I do have my reservations. The signed plan includes no money, but instead suggests approaching interntional institutions like the World Bank for money, or tap into resources such as eco tourism and carbon financing.

“This is a historic meeting. Before this, not many people paid attention to tigers,” Thailand’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Suwit Khunkitti said after the three-day meeting in Hua Hin. “Stopping the depletion of tigers is a very important issue for all of us.”

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Along with protectinc and increasing the numbers, the major goal is to save their habitats, which have been drastically reduced. Alas, this is the best news tigers have got in quite a lot of time. We can only hope they will carry out this plan; and let’s hope China does something about trading tiger body parts (sounds brutal, but that’s exactly how it is) – this is another dangers the felines have to face.

“This is excellent news for tiger conservation,” said Michael Baltzer, who heads the WWF Tiger Initiative and attended the meeting. Simply, there never has been a high-level government commitment to take forward tiger conservation,” Baltzer said. “The fact the governments committed to doubling the numbers of tigers shows they have high ambition. They are setting the bar at a high level.”

3 legged serval rescued nearby Arizona desert

At a first glance, this doesn’t seem like much. Just an animal rescued. But if you look more carefully, I think you’ll find it’s more than this; it’s a symbol. A symbol of how people don’t care about animals, regardless of how rare they are and how well they can take care of themselves.

This three legged serval was most likely used for breeding hybrid species, Savannah cats that sell for thousands of dollars, and was dumped for being too difficult to handle, which is basically what you expect from a large feline. But the wound was really old, so it was probably dumped without one leg and left to fend for itself. It would have suffered a slow and painful death, just limping around if it hadn’t been for the Tucson Wildlife Center.

I really really recommend checking out bigcatrescue.org, lots and lots of amazing stories and a great job done by the people there. Hats of to you guys !