Protecting Nature & Defying The Odds

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On a game drive in Akagera. Shannon Sims

Thanks to Shannon Sims for this story of a refuge defying the odds:

A Rwandan Game Park Defying the Odds

Despite modest tourism numbers, Akagera National Park is a success story in the making, particularly considering that, like its host country, it survived catastrophe.

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A velvet monkey and her baby in Akagera National Park. The Rwandan park is a success story, despite modest tourism numbers. Credit Ben Curtis/Associated Press

The road through Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda was blocked. Two giraffes had positioned themselves smack in the middle of the dirt road and were rubbing their necks together. In the car, with a driver and a guide, my cell service was long gone; there was nothing to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Right around this time of year, to the east of Rwanda’s borders, in Tanzania and Kenya, big packs of tourists are stumbling over each other to get the perfect photo of a scene like this. They’re driving through protected areas like Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in caravans of Land Rovers, each packed so tightly that peoples’ binocular straps get tangled up. It makes sense: the animal migrations that occur in this part of the world these months are rightly considered by many to be the greatest natural show on earth. Continue reading

Us & Them Instead Of Us Versus Them

Thanks to Emily Buder at the Atlantic for this five minute recommended viewing. In the video above, by Nani Walker and Alan Toth, the question is:

Can Humans and Lions Get Along?

“Lions are really causing us havoc,” laments an African pastoralist in Nani Walker and Alan Toth’s short documentary, Living with Lions.  Continue reading

Elephants & The Buzzer

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The arrest of a key member of an ivory-trafficking group is a bright spot in an otherwise complicated season for African elephants. PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK ROBERT / SYGMA / GETTY

We wish conservation was always all about warm and fuzzy topics, but it is not. We are mostly confronted with habitat loss, climate change and other human-initiated causes of threat to species’ survival. The worst of all, from a jolting immediacy perspective, but probably the simplest to counter, is the poaching. Men take animal lives only for body parts that have a mystique–medicinal, ornamental, or whatever–to people in faraway lands willing to pay a price that poachers cannot say no to. That is the problem.

Stories like this one below are too seldom to allow us to have confidence in the underdog winning. The underdog in this game is many points behind, and the clock in this game is ticking down very quickly. We vigilantly watch for stories like this in hope that the elephants beat the buzzer:

A WIN IN THE GROUND WAR AGAINST ELEPHANT POACHERS IN AFRICA

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Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, in northern Republic of Congo, consists of sixteen hundred square miles of Central African rain forest and is jointly administered by the Congolese ministry of forests and the Wildlife Conservation Society, of the Bronx.

Lying just east of the Sangha River, the park is home to significant populations of western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, giant forest hogs, and, above all, to some five thousand forest elephants. Like elephants everywhere in Africa, those in the park are, increasingly, under siege. Two years ago, when I visited,  the park’s technical adviser, Tomo Nishihara, told me that the numbers of elephants in the park and its surrounding buffer zones had fallen from ten thousand to five thousand in just five years. “That gives us five more years before they’re gone,” he said. Continue reading

Wildlife Crime Challenge Winners Announced

From wildlifecrimetech.org

From wildlifecrimetech.org

Back in July we shared a story on turtle egg poaching that was part of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, created by USAID with the support of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and TRAFFIC. The company with the fake turtle egg idea from that article was one of the sixteen winners of the competition, but a grand prize was announced for the four “most creative and impactful” ideas offered out of those winners. The four grand prize winners were announced this weekend at the  World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Honolulu, Hawaii. Christine Dell’Amore reports:

Every year about 10 million aquarium fish pass through United States ports, many on their way to new homes as family pets. But first, federal inspectors must leaf through mountains of paperwork on the animals, which are shipped from more than 40 countries around the world. “Until recently, the [inspectors] didn’t even have wireless access in the warehouses,” says Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability and science at the New England Aquarium. Continue reading

World Orangutan Day

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An orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo, Indonesia. All photos from: The Nature Conservancy

About a week ago we celebrated World Lion Day. Today we celebrate a different, long-limbed animal that likes to climb trees, the Orangutan. There are two species of this magnificent arboreal ape, both of which are facing potential extinction due to deforestation, poaching, the illegal pet trade and forest fires. As of last month, the status of the Bornean orangutan was classified as “critically endangered,” but conservationists are not giving up and are taking significant measures to improve forest management by working together with local communities and developing public-private partnerships.

The harmony between humans and apes began to unravel with the arrival of European explorers, who hunted them extensively during the 19thcentury. But it was not until the mid-20th century that human activities began to imperil orangutans’ existence. Extensive deforestation not only directly threatened orangutan habitat, it made the forest more easily accessible to humans. This led to both conflicts with orangutans, as the apes will eat crops, and made it easier for poachers to hunt the animals.

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GPS Turtle Eggs to Track Poachers

Prototypes of Paso Pacifico’s fake eggs. The small balls on the outside hold the GPS transmitter which will then be fit into the larger shells, forming the inner ring of the photograph. Photograph: Eduardo Bone via The Guardian

Last time we mentioned sea turtles it was also in the context of protecting them from poaching. These threatened ocean species lay eggs on public beaches and certain people enjoy eating those eggs, or even the turtle meat itself. Thanks to a great project by USAID called the Wildlife Tech Challenge, there will soon be a potential means to tracking where poachers are selling the illegal turtle eggs, as Jeremy Hance reports:

“Every year millions of sea turtle eggs are taken by poachers for sale on the black market. Paso Pacifico’s solution has the potential to reveal the trade routes and destination markets for trafficked sea turtle eggs,” the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said.

The USAID recently awarded Paso Pacifico $10,000 for its idea through their Wildlife Tech Challenge, a contest to tackle wildlife trafficking through technological innovation. The Wildlife Tech Challenge is also supported by the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC.

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Ginseng Memories

Ginseng with berries. Photo by US FWS via Wikimedia Commons

We first heard of ginseng in the New Yorker, where Burkhard Bilger wrote an article titled “Wild Sang” that explored the history of ginseng hunting and the very modern efforts to protect remaining plants from poaching in the Smoky Mountains. This week in Cool Green Science, the nature writer and conservationist Hal Herring reflects about his own personal experiences hunting ginseng in Alabama, and thinks about the future of the root:

I grew up in the flat-topped foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in north Alabama, and my mother was a student of wild herbs, wildflowers, and native medicinal plants. On my desk right now is a book called Tales of the Ginseng that my parents gave me for my twelfth birthday in 1976. It is a book of collected lore, of Manchurian folktales, of kings who become ginseng roots, of ginseng plants that withdraw, just ahead of the digger, to lure them into a deep-earth spirit-world from which they never return.

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Community Conservation in the Arnavon Islands

ACMCA ranger Dickson Motui clears a path for the hatchlings. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Justine E. Hausheer)

We value sea turtles as an important part of the ocean ecosystem, and are always happy to hear about new conservation stories regarding them. In many coastal areas, the sea-faring reptiles are hunted for their meat and their eggs are harvested from sandy nests, quite often illegally. We report on poaching frequently here, but have good news from the Solomon Islands, where The Nature Conservancy is helping with community conservation in the Arnavons:

After a 40-year history punctuated by arson, conflict, and poaching, conservation efforts in the Arnavon Islands are yielding a glimmer of hope for hawksbill sea turtles. Now, Conservancy scientists are working with local communities to make these critical islands the first site to be registered under the Solomon Islands’ 2010 Protected Areas Act.

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Kenya Burns Over 100 Tons of Illegal Ivory

Kenya will burn about 105 tonnes of elephant ivory and 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn in 11 large pyres, about seven times the amount previously burned in a single event. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP via The Guardian

We featured poaching a few weeks ago here, in the case of primates, and we have discussed the illegal ivory trade and other endangered wildlife on the black market before. This weekend, Fiona Harvey reports for the Guardian, Kenya burned a massive amount of tusks from poached elephants, in a symbolic act of destruction that presumably cost the black market millions of dollars, and thousands of elephants their lives:

Tusks from more than 6,000 illegally killed elephants will be burned in Kenya on Saturday, the biggest ever destruction of an ivory stockpile and the most striking symbol yet of the plight of one of nature’s last great beasts.

The ceremonial burning in Nairobi national park at noon will be attended by Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, heads of state including Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, high-ranking United Nations and US officials, and charities. A wide network of conservation groups around the world have sent messages applauding the work.

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Eavesdropping on Primate Poachers

Preuss’s Red Colobus, one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world

We hate poaching, so any novel method of preventing it is good news in our opinion. From Claire Salisbury for Mongabay’s Great Apes series, on a new project to particularly protect the Preuss’s Red Colobus, a severely endangered primate in Africa:

Cameroon’s Korup National Park is home to elephants, chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, drill, and a myriad of noisy species, whose squawks, squeals and howls fill the forest air. For more than two years, twelve acoustic monitors were deployed there and recorded every sound covering a 54 square kilometer (21 square mile) area of protected tropical forest.

They were tuned to listen around the clock for just one sound: gunshots.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols in African tropical forest protected areas,” Joshua Linder, one of the lead scientists working on the acoustic monitoring project, told Mongabay.

Bushmeat is a major source of protein in Central Africa, with 4.5 million tons extracted from the Congo Basin each year. Taking bushmeat itself is not always illegal, and it can be a vital source of protein for the poor and a valued commodity for the rich. But hunting endangered species, especially within protected areas, is against the law. It can pose a real threat to the survival of animal populations, and particularly to rare species.

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Waste Not, Want Not Tiger Habitat

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A tiger wades into the waters of Raj Bagh lake in Ranthambhore tiger in Rajasthan, India. Conservationists warn ‘tiger corridors’ connecting habitats across Asia are crucial for the survival of the species. Photograph: Aditya Singh/Alamy

From today’s Guardian in the Environment section, some welcome news on one of our most posted-on topics:

Forests still large enough to double the world’s tiger population, study finds

Satellite maps show tiger habitat is being lost but still adequate for meeting international goal of doubling tiger numbers by 2022

Forests that harbour tigers are being lost but are still large enough to take double the world’s tiger population in the next six years, according to a study using new satellite mapping technology. Continue reading

Tracking Tree-Poachers

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Global Land Analysis and Discovery alerts, analysing satellite images will be initially be available for Peru, the Republic of Congo and Indonesia. Photograph: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/AP

When there is news on the improved ability to reduce illegal logging, we are always interested. Thanks to the Guardian’s Environment section for their assistance on this front:

New satellite mapping a ‘game changer’ against illegal logging

System that provides hard evidence of logging crimes in almost real time gives new hope of combating tropical deforestation

Taken from outer space, the satellite images show illegal loggers cutting a road into a protected area in Peru, part of a criminal enterprise attempting to steal millions of dollars worth of ecological resources Continue reading

Fairer Trade Pact, In The Interest Of Wildlife

Coleen Schaefer (left) and Doni Sprague display a tiger pelt that was confiscated and is being stored at the National Eagle and Wildlife Repository on the outskirts of Denver. Some 1.5 million items are being held at the facility. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is still under negotiation, would punish wildlife trafficking.

Coleen Schaefer (left) and Doni Sprague display a tiger pelt that was confiscated and is being stored at the National Eagle and Wildlife Repository on the outskirts of Denver. Some 1.5 million items are being held at the facility. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is still under negotiation, would punish wildlife trafficking. Jackie Northam/NPR

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this story, which has nothing pleasant about it but which signals a positively determined approach to do something substantive about this tragic scourge:

Tiger Skins And Rhino Horns: Can A Trade Deal Halt The Trafficking?

If you want a sobering look at the scale of wildlife trafficking, just visit the National Eagle and Wildlife Repository on the outskirts of Denver. In the middle of a national reserve is a cavernous warehouse stuffed with the remains of 1.5 million animals, whole and in parts.

They range from taxidermied polar bears to tiny sea horses turned into key chains. An area devoted to elephants is framed by a pair of enormous tusks. Continue reading

Sea Snakes, Rhinos, And The Close Observation Of Two Tragic Commons

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Thanks as always to Conservation, and in this case to Jason G. Goldman for the excellent summaries of scientific findings each week. There is not much happy news in this story, but nonetheless it is critical reading because of the detailed observation of the scientists:

Each month, hundreds of squid fishing vessels return to port in Vietnam loaded not just with squid, but also with sea snakes harvested from the Gulf of Thailand. Each month, the seven major snake processing facilities move an average of 6,500 kilograms of sea snakes, which are sold for between $10 and $40 per kilogram, depending on species. By comparison, squid sell for between $7 and $20 per pound, making sea snakes the more lucrative catch.

In the most recent issue of the journal Conservation Biology, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology researcher Nguyen Van Cao and colleagues argue that the harvest of sea snakes from the Gulf of Thailand is perhaps the world’s largest systematic exploitation of marine reptiles in the world, but it’s one that is woefully ignored or, at best, underscrutinized. Continue reading

Poacher Is A Poacher Is A Poacher

The fossil of a Tarbosaurus bataar, which was returned to Mongolia after it was poached and sold for $1 million, in an undated handout photo. Fossil poachers have become a major problem for paleontologists, wreaking havoc on the sites of dinosaur remains. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via The New York Times) -- EDITORIAL USE ONLY

The fossil of a Tarbosaurus bataar, which was returned to Mongolia after it was poached and sold for $1 million, in an undated handout photo. Fossil poachers have become a major problem for paleontologists, wreaking havoc on the sites of dinosaur remains. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via The New York Times)

I have normally thought of poachers in relation to live animals and especially endangered species, but here is news that broadened my knowledge of what gets poached and what happens as a result:

On the morning of October 17, 2012, a cadre of federal agents and sheriff’s deputies in Gainesville, Florida, went to the home of a suspected fossil smuggler named Eric Prokopi and arrested him.

As I reported in The New Yorker in January, 2013, the case against Prokopi was unusual and aggressive: it included several counts of felonious smuggling, and characterizations of the defendant as a “one-man black market.” Two months after his arrest, Prokopi pleaded guilty to smuggling the bones of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a Tyrannosaurus rex cousin that lived seventy million years ago in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, which prohibits the commercialization of natural history. Continue reading

Natural Capital Valuation and Protection of Marine Megafauna

Photo © Fabrice Jaine

I’ve noticed a number of positive and interesting developments as of late in the area of marine species protection, pointing to an increasing recognition, by policymakers, of the value of natural capital and associated ecosystem services, particularly the value arising from ecotourism.

In February of this year, the Government of Indonesia granted full protection to manta rays within its nearly 6 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), making it the world’s largest sanctuary for manta rays. This reverses the trend of the past three decades wherein Indonesia has had the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s largest fishery for sharks and rays. Why the reversal? It seem that studies showing that the ecotourism value of a manta ray is an estimated $1 million over its lifetime, as compared to the onetime value of several hundred dollars for its gill rakers and meat played a key role in persuading policymakers to take action to protect the iconic species.

A few weeks later, the President of Palau announced that the country’s entire 200 nautical mile EEZ will be declared a marine sanctuary and closed to commercial fishing and seabed mining.  This follows a move a few years earlier to declare Palau a shark sanctuary. In explaining the reasoning behind the moves Palau’s president noted that a dead shark is worth several hundred dollars, whereas a live shark is worth $1.9 million in tourism during its life span, and that his country will promote scuba diving, snorkelling and ecotourism as an alternative income to commercial fishing. Continue reading