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Falling Herbivore Numbers Could Result In Empty Landscape

Falling Herbivore Numbers Could Result In Empty Landscape

According to the results of a new study, the populations of some of the world’s largest herbivores have fallen so much; we are now at risk of an empty landscape. Scientists at Oregon State University say that populations of species such as tapirs, elephants, camels, zebras and rhinos are either falling or threatened by extinction in their natural habitat. This could mean fallow forests, deserts, savannah’s and grasslands.

The researchers examined 74 large species of herbivores, or animals the feed on vegetation and found that unless we take radical steps, many large and small herbivores will continue to disappear from their natural habitat which would have huge social, ecological and economic costs.

Habitat change the main cause

William Ripple the team’s lead researcher says he expects the main factor behind the endangerment of large herbivores will be habitat change. He adds that the two main driving forces behind declines in herbivore numbers are hunting by humans and habitat changes. According to the team’s analysis, the decline goes far beyond the forests and reaches into deserts, grasslands and savannah’s. As a result they have coined a new term “the empty landscape”

Herbivores in the developing world at greatest risk

The scientists say the greatest number of threatened large herbivores are located in the developing world such as Africa, India and South-East Asia. There are no threatened large herbivores in North America which has already lost the majority of its large mammals as a result of habitat changes and prehistoric hunting. Europe possesses one large threatened species, the European bison.

Livestock production also a problem

The researchers also highlight the fact that 25 per cent of the world’s largest wild herbivores now only occupy just 19 per cent of their historical ranges. Wildlife has faced competition from the production of livestock which has tripled globally since 1980. This has meant many of the world’s large herbivores have had their access to water, land and forage reduced as well as increasing their risk of disease.

All species could be affected

The authors of the study say that that other parts of the ecosystem will diminish as a result of the loss of large herbivores. This means that large predators such as lions and tigers will have less access to food. It also means there will be less opportunity for plants to disperse their seeds and more frequent and intense wildfires. This in turn will slow down the cycling of nutrients from vegetation to the soil and impact the habitat of smaller species such as fish and birds.

Elephant by Safari Partners, on Flickr

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Kenya Raises The Stakes In The Fight Against Poaching

Kenya Raises The Stakes In The Fight Against Poaching

In order to bolster its fight against illegal poaching, the Kenya Wildlife Service has opened a forensic laboratory. It is expected that information the lab will process should help in the prosecution of suspected poachers, whereas in the past many cases fell apart due to weak evidence. The laboratory will establish a DNA database that will have the ability to link meat and stolen ivory to specific animals.

Some species face extinction

Illegal poaching has had a devastating impact on Kenya’s wildlife population with experts worrying that some species may face extinction. The laboratory is the second of its kind on the continent with the other located in South Africa. The Kenyan Wildlife Service will make its facilities available to all countries in the East and Central African region.

Water tight cases

The laboratory comes at a cost of US$1.7 million and will be located in Nairobi with a team of 45 researchers who will be extracting DNA from samples of wild animals. KWS spokesman Paul Udoto says this information that can be used to build a water tight case against suspected poachers in court. Mr. Udoto adds that in the past prosecutors have faced the problem of proving that poachers found with meat came from a protected species. In the past suspected poachers have claimed they had either goat or cattle meat.

Information can now be compared

As a result of the lab, the evidence can now be tested and compared against the information contained in a database which will be able to prove beyond all doubt exactly which animal the meat comes from. According to KWS hunting bushmeat is resulting in some wild animals such as the hirola and sable animals becoming endangered. The lab also has the ability to sample DNA from smuggled ivory and link it to an individual animal in a specific location.

The poaching problem is acute

Mr. Udoto adds this information can be used to aid in gathering intelligence when trying to figure out exactly where poachers are operating and securing prosecutions. In the last three years, nearly 100 rhinos have been poached in Kenya and KWS is worried that without urgent intervention, the species could disappear from Kenya completely.

Convictions to serve as a deterrent

It is hoped that a greater number of convictions will serve as a deterrent to would be smugglers. Over the last few years the illegal trade in ivory has soared with a kilogram worth thousands of dollars. Much of the demand has been driven by a rapidly growing market in Asia.

White Rhinos by Martin Pettitt, on Flickr

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African Elephants Could Become Extinct Within Decades

African Elephants Could Become Extinct Within Decades

At a recent conservation summit held in Botswana, experts warned that the African elephant could become extinct in the wild in just a few decades. Conservationists were highlighting the terrible fact that wild elephant numbers have declined due to demand for ivory resulting in an increase in poaching. If this magnificent species is to survive for future generations, then there is much work to be done because it would be a real tragedy if we lost the African elephant.

High demand for ivory

Delegates from over 20 countries participated in the African Elephant Summit. Delegates came from countries in Asia, Africa and Europe including China which is the main country accused of fuelling demand for ivory. The high demand for ivory in China is the main reason why elephant poaching is rising on the African continent.

We may lose the elephant

Dune Ives a senior researcher with Vulcan, the philanthropic division of US billionaire Paul Allen’s family office reckons that it is possible the African elephant could become extinct within our lifetimes. He goes on to add that within five years it is quite conceivable that we lose the opportunity to save the iconic African elephant.

Numbers are falling

According to the latest data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the number of wild African elephants has fallen from 550,000 in 2006 to 470,000 in 2013. The worst decline was experienced in East Africa, which saw the wild elephant population drop from 150,000 to 100,000 over the same time period.

Criminal networks

The illegal poaching of elephants is usually organised by international criminal networks which seek to establish a supply of ivory to mainly Asian markets. Some of the profits are used to fund regional conflicts and experts say the syndicates take advantage of poor governance, social unrest and conflicts.

Final destination China

According to TRAFFIC a group which monitors the wildlife trade, ivory trading routes flow from Tanzania and Kenya, through transit countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam before ultimately arriving at final destinations such as Thailand and China. At the final destination, ivory is then sculpted into art or jewellery to be sold on to the wealthy.

“Thailand is still a country of great concern, (But) China is the most important country that we are dealing with in the world with respect to illegal ivory trade.”

Chinese say they are trying to help

Delegates to the conference said that during a closed discussion, one Chinese delegate complained that the country was being targeted unfairly and instead should be thought of as an ally in the fight against illegal poaching. The delegate went on to add that China spends a lot of money to finance anti poaching activities in Africa and is bolstering legislation.

The conference follows on the heels of a meeting which took place in 2013 where over 30 countries agreed to adopt a set of urgent conservation measures such as calling for better criminal prosecution and agreeing to unite against poaching.

African Elephants-Africa by flickrfavorites, on Flickr

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Curious Monkeys Willing To Swap Prizes For Information

Curious Monkeys Willing To Swap Prizes For Information

Monkeys are an incredibly curious species. In fact monkeys are so curious they are willing to forsake the chance to win a large potential prize just so they can find out whether they picked the winning option during a game of chance. The revelation came from the results of a recent study which showed rhesus macaques displaying a surprising desire to obtain new information, even when there was no apparent benefit from doing so.

Better understanding of humans

Researchers from the University of Rochester and Columbia University say their findings may result in an understanding of a particular region of the brain which would provide insights into human mental disorders such as addiction. As part of the study the test, monkeys were presented with a gambling task video and consistently preferred to learn in advance whether they had chosen the winning option even if this meant they would not receive their prize any quicker.

“It’s like buying a lottery ticket that you can scratch off and find out if you win immediately, or you can buy one that has a drawing after the evening news. Regardless, you won’t get the money any more quickly, or in the case of the monkeys, they won’t get the squirt of water any sooner. They will just find out if they selected the winning option.” explained Rochester cognitive science Professor Benjamin Hayden, co-senior author of the study.

Instant gratification

The test subjects not only preferred taking the gambling option that told them immediately whether they had picked the winner, but they also preferred taking that option even when the potential pay off was as much as 25 per cent less than the option that required them to wait for the outcome.

“That 25 percent was really surprising to us — that’s pretty big,” Hayden says. “These monkeys really, really want that information, and they do these gambling tasks repeatedly and never get bored of them — it’s intrinsically motivated.”

Processing new information

The results of the study will help researchers better understand how the desire for new information or curiosity is both processed and rewarded in human brains say the researchers. Just like monkeys, humans will evaluate the amount they would be willing to sacrifice in order to satisfy their curiosity Professor Hayden says.

“One of the reasons this research is important, is because this basic desire for information turns out to be something that’s really corrupted in people with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction, for example. We think that by understanding these basic circuits in monkeys we may gain insights that 10 to 15 years down the road may lead to new treatments for these psychiatric diseases,” he adds.

Japan – Snow Monkey – Jigokudani by Marc Veraart, on Flickr

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Amur Tiger Numbers Starting To Recover In China


Things have begun to change for the Amur tiger which used to be close to extinction. The endangered species is starting to repopulate itself in the wilds of China. Recently a camera trap set up by WWF captured the first known footage of a family of tigers living in China. The amazing footage is evidence that years of conservation efforts that have been focused on re-establishing a breeding population of the species within China is starting to pay off.

Video footage is significant

WWF made the footage of the Amur tiger family available to the general public and whilst the video is very short it is also very significant.Professor Jiang Guangshun, executive vice-director of China’s State Forestry Administration’s Feline Research Centre said the footage shows a tigress with her two cubs aged between 12 to 18 months. The video was shot very close to the border with Russia.

Main problem is shortage of prey

Shi Quanhua of WWF says one of the major threats to wild Amur tigers is a shortage of prey. WWF has worked hard to restore the populations of species that act as prey for Amur tigers through anti poaching efforts and habitat restoration. WWF says it is thrilled with the video because it is obvious now that all the hard work in restoring the wild population of Amur tigers is delivering results.

The Amur tiger used to be ubiquitous

The Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian tiger used to be ubiquitous throughout the Russian Far East, China and even the Korean peninsula. The species came very close to extinction with less than 40 tigers left in the wild by the 1940’s as a result of hunting. In 1947 the government of Russia granted the Amur tiger full protection becoming the first country to do so. That helped save the species and has enabled conservationists to increase the number to today’s population of approximately 400, with most of them living in Russia.

“These images [in the video] show that Wangqing Nature Reserve has now become a breeding site for Amur tigers. Seeing these positive outcomes from our efforts greatly strengthens our confidence that wild Amur tiger populations can be restored.” said Wang Fuyou, division head of the Wangqing Nature Reserve conservation department.

WWF hopes to double the population of wild tigers

Wild tigers in general are an endangered species with less than 3,200 in the wild. WWF is working hard in the countries where tigers roam to double the population by 2022 which is the next Chinese year of the tiger. If you want to help out with tiger conservation you can do your bit by adopting a tiger with WWF.

Tiger 0412 6279 by Ross Elliott, on Flickr

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Conservationists Hope IVF Will Save The Northern White Rhino


The Northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction and experts are hoping that in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) will save the species. Two adult males recently died within the space of a few months at the end of last year leaving just five of the animals on the planet. In a bid to save the species from extinction, conservationists will harvest eggs from the remaining females. The eggs will then be stored in the hopes that it becomes possible for IVF in the future.

Sorry state of affairs

Whilst IVF does provide some hope for the sub species of rhino, it also highlights just what a sorry state of affairs it has become for the Northern white rhino. The eggs will be stored at an institute in Germany which already houses the species sperm. Experts say they will only attempt IVF after they improve the current techniques which has no set time frame.

” Experts will wait for a time when the IVF techniques will be developed and tested enough to give us a reasonable chance that usage of (northern white rhino) samples would lead to a successful embryo transfer”, said Jan Stejskal, from the Dvur Kralove zoo in the Czech Republic.

Extinction is probably the grim reality

The grim reality which few want to openly discuss is the likeliest scenario for this species, is extinction. When it came to conservation efforts for other species, there were a larger number of survivors. As the population falls to single figures, there are fewer options and less chance of any kind of assisted reproduction. The risk of inbreeding also rises significantly.

How to be humane?

These are painful times for those involved in caring for the last five remaining Northern white rhinos. The keepers at Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic are devoted to a female called Nabire who appears very relaxed. This raises additional issues such as how best to be humane. Interventions and sedations all come with risk. Many people have argued that the animals should be left alone and it was kinder for nature to take its course.

No plans for artificial insemination

Most of the remaining animals are at an advanced age and by the time it becomes possible for IVF, scientists will probably have to implant a fertilised embryo in a surrogate female from the Northern white rhino’s cousin, the Southern white rhino. Mr. Stejskal says that plans do not exist at present for artificial insemination. Whatever the outcome it really would be a shame to lose one of the great species of our planet.

White Rhino by shankar s., on Flickr

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Cuddly Monkeys Manage To Fight Off Attacking Boa

Cuddly Monkeys Manage To Fight Off Attacking Boa

Indiana Jones may have found it very difficult to deal with snakes, however it would seem that Coquerel’s sifakas know exactly what to do. These primates live in Madagascar and last year, one of them was attacked by a large snake known as the Madagascar ground boa. The other members of her troop were not impressed and attacked the snake leaving it with wounds that were severe enough to kill it.

Big George and the attack

The snake attack was seen by four local hotel workers last year and they described what they saw to researchers from the University of Kent in Canterbury. According to the hotel workers the snake had lived in the area for over ten years and was a female that measured 2.7 metres long they liked to call “Big George”. The workers said they saw Big George attack a female Coquerel’s sifaka which was a member of a troop of eight. The snake coiled itself quickly around the hapless monkey. Upon seeing this the other sifakas launched a counter offensive, surrounding the snake, biting and scratching it. The attack lasted for about 20 minutes, at which point the boa loosened its grip on the sifaka. The released monkey then turned around and bit the snake on its head, damaging the snake’s lower jaw. The snake was left unable to close its mouth and retreated into some close by vegetation. The victorious sifakas surrounded the female and started to lick her wounds.

The snake was not so lucky

The sifaka ultimately gave birth to an infant just six months after the attack suggesting it had not caused her too much harm. Big George however was not so lucky. Aside from the scratch and bite marks, she suffered a fractured lower jaw. When staff found her just a few days after the attack, her mouth was hanging open. For the next couple of months the snake remained in the same spot on the grounds of the hotel. On 20th May 2014 Big George was found dead and it would seem the injuries caused by the sifakas attack had proven fatal.

Coquerel’s Sifakas, Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar by Frank Vassen, on Flickr

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Porpoises Use Sound Searchlights To Hunt

Porpoises Use Sound Searchlights To Hunt

Danish researchers have worked out exactly how porpoises manage to finely adjust the beams of sound they use whilst hunting. Porpoises use buzzes and clicks when they hunt, relying on the echoes from their prey to pinpoint their location. The results of the study show that hunting porpoises switch from a narrow to a wide beam of sound as they home in on their prey, in much the same way one would adjust a flash light.

Dolphins and whales use the same technique

The researchers believe that dolphins and whales probably use the same technique to trap fish and that switching from narrow to wide beams of sound helps prevent dolphins, porpoises and whale prey from evading capture. The purpose of the study is to find a way to help stop porpoises and other toothed whales from getting trapped by fishing nets. The study was led by Danuta Wisniewska of Aarhus University and published in the journal eLife. Dr. Wisniewska and her fellow researchers worked with harbour porpoises located off the coast of Denmark. They used submersible microphones in a semi natural enclosure which measured the sounds the porpoises produced.

“The facility is quite exceptional, the animals still have access to the sea floor and are only separated from the harbour by a net. Fish are able to come in, so they’re still hunting.” explained Dr Wisniewska.

A unique environment

Making use of the unique environment, researchers were able to attach sound detecting tags to the porpoises and also place a number of microphones which picked up sounds around the porpoise enclosure. The researchers then carried out a number of experiments to calculate where the porpoises were directing the sound energy they produced. In one particular experiment, the researchers dropped fish into the enclosure as they sought to tempt the porpoises into hunting. As the echo locating porpoises begin to hunt they flip from an exploratory clicking to a high frequency buzz which is more intense. The reason for this is they are seeking to elicit a continuous echo from their prey.

“If you were trying to find your car in a car park, you could use a narrow beam over a long distance and still see a lot. But when you’re trying to get your keys into the car, you would switch to a wider beam. This is similar to what we see in porpoises.” Dr Wisniewska explained.

Helping to prevent porpoises from getting caught up in fishing nets

According to the results of the study, the porpoises that were being examined managed to broaden their sound beam by as much as 50% as they homed in on their prey. The ability to fine tune their echolocation is controlled by a fatty structure located in their forehead know as the melon and acts as a kind of “sound lens”. The harbour porpoises that participated in the research came to the study facility after being rescued from fishing nets they had been caught up in. The researchers hope their efforts will result in ways of using sound to help porpoises from accidentally chasing their prey into these nets.

Porpoise by Elizabeth Weller, on Flickr

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Elephant And Rhino Poaching On The Rise

Elephant And Rhino Poaching On The Rise

Wildlife officials are saying that a very rare population of elephants found in Northern Mali is being targeted by poachers and their very survival is being threatened. In the last month authorities say that 19 Gourma elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks and it is estimated that the group now numbers between 350 to 500.

Poaching linked to rebel groups

In the past poaching has been linked to the region’s rebel groups which have connections to ivory smugglers. This species of elephant migrate roughly 600 kilometres every year to feed. However because the vegetation in Northern Mali is sparse, they have to travel long distances across a route that runs into Niger and Burkina Faso.

Elephants need more protections

Colonel Soumana Timbo who heads up the government of Mali’s division for nature conservation has asked for military support from MP’s to protect the species. Mr. Timbo says that the few rangers that are assigned to the region are already risking their lives.

“In the Gourma zone there is total insecurity. We have about 10 rangers covering about 1.25 million hectares, so it’s quite insufficient, If we send out two rangers on a motorbike they are risking their lives. So we really need joint patrols – military and rangers – and we need to focus all our efforts on stopping this massacre.” Mr. Timbo said.

The situation is complex

Since Mali achieved independence in 1960, the Northern part of the country has been a flashpoint of conflict, with rebels waging insurgency for independence or increased autonomy. There has been further destabilisation in the region with the emergence of jihadi groups including Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaida which has been targeting both the rebels and the government.

South Africa thinking about legalising trade in rhino horns

South Africa has attempted to combat poaching by appointing an expert panel to examine the viability of the legal trade in rhino horns. In South Africa the level of poaching has risen to record to levels. It is estimated that 20,000 rhinos or 80% of the worldwide population live in the country. Last year there were 1,215 rhinos killed in South Africa which officials say represents an increase of 21 per cent over 2013. The expert panel is considering whether legalising the trade in rhino horns may result in a reduction in the number of animals poached.

“It is important to emphasise that South Africa has not taken a position on the issue and will not do so until the committee has completed its work and presented its findings,” the environment ministry said in a statement

African Elephants-Africa by flickrfavorites, on Flickr

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Penguins Only Have Bitter And Salty Taste Receptors

Penguins Only Have Bitter And Salty Taste Receptors

Scientists have discovered that penguins only have the ability to taste salty or sour food. According to the results of a genetic study the flightless bird lost three of the five basic tastes a long time ago as a result of evolution. Taste is vital for survival in most animals but may not be that important for penguins which tend to swallow fish whole say researchers.

Most birds cannot taste sweet

Many other species of bird lack the ability to taste sweet things but they do have the receptors to detect umami (meaty) or bitter flavours. The discovery came when researchers began to decode the genome of the penguin and found there were some taste genes missing. The behaviour of swallowing food whole and the structure and function of their tongue suggests that penguins do not require the perception of taste. A closer look at penguin DNA showed that all species of this animal do not have functioning genes for bitter, sweet and umami tastes.

“Based on genetic data, penguins are believed to have sour and salty tastes, but have lost sweet, umami, and bitter tastes,” lead researcher Prof Jianzhi Zhang, of the University of Michigan, US, and Wuhan University, Chin said.

Penguins swallow fish whole

The taste of umami gives food the strong savoury flavour that people associate with meat. Not having this sense is very surprising for an animal that is carnivorous. However it would seem it is unimportant for the penguin which tends to swallow fish without chewing. The researchers however remain unsure whether these traits are a cause or consequence of loss in taste.

Loss of taste is a puzzle

Prof Zhang published his findings in the Current Biology journal and says they are a puzzle. One possible clue comes from the evolution of the penguin on Antarctica’s frozen ice sheets. At very low temperatures, sending signals from bitter, umami, and sweet to the brain does not work, though it does work for salty and sour. This may have been the impetus for the species to gradually lose its sense of taste the researchers reckon. What is very interesting, with the exception of the humming bird which feeds on nectar, almost all other species of bird cannot taste sweet.

King Penguins, Falklands. by Richard McManus, on Flickr

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