September 2009

The BBC has just launched a spectacular new Wildlife Finder website, aggregating their stunning video clips and photographs collected over many decades of wildlife observation. The site is beautifully designed,and organized, allowing users to search by species, habitat type, geographical area, and various behaviors, and even includes a collection of Sir David Attenborough’s favorite clips.

Each animal page features a host of valuable information, including multimedia (video and audio clips), photographs, IUCN conservation status, geographical distribution, taxonomy, general species information, and external links to Wikipedia for further information. New content is being continually added by BBC staffers.

In the process of updating our library’s media collection last week, phasing out a large collection of old VHS tapes and trying to purchase DVDs or Blu-Ray discs of zoo, wildlife, and natural history programs, I was shocked to find that many of these old BBC classics (such as Attenborough’s Trials of Life series) aren’t available on DVD at all, or were only released on Region 2 and/or 4 discs. If they manage to make all of this great footage freely available online, that would really be a triumph. While I’m pleased with the Wildlife Finder’s design and classification, at the moment none of the video clips are working in any of the browsers I’m currently using (Chrome, Firefox, and IE 8). Is anyone else having this problem?


Via The Great Beyond blog, today is the First Annual National Postdoc Appreciation Day. We have several postdocs in my building working on various conservation research projects, and others on far-flung fieldwork projects. In my brief experience, they all tend to be heavy library users – the type of library patron who bribes their librarian with brownies in exchange for numerous ILL requests (FYI, this is a good practice that I strongly encourage). So, as a librarian and someone who appreciates post-docs, here’s a cake, just like one I would have baked if I had any time:

Large game poaching in Africa is reaching a fever pitch. The level of rhino poaching is about to hit a 15-year high, in a situation described as “bleak” in a report presented earlier this year at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Standing Committee in Geneva. The report, “Status, Conservation, and Trade in African and Asian Rhinoceroses” (PDF), was published by TRAFFIC, WWF, and the IUCN. According to the WWF, “Illegal rhino horn trade to destinations in Asia is driving the killing, with growing evidence of involvement of Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai nationals in the illegal procurement and transport of rhino horn out of Africa.”

In South Africa and Zimbabwe alone, about 12 rhinos are killed each month, with elaborate cover-ups protecting the perpetrators. Compared with the rate of one to three rhinos killed per month from 2000 to 2005 in the entire African continent, the situation is clearly dire. Africa only has approximately 18,000 rhinos left, and has only reached that number after decades of assiduous conservation efforts. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must be for groups that have worked so hard to rebound rhino populations to see these animals poached to supply Asian “medicine”. I’m trying hard to be impartial here, so let’s just stick with the facts:

  • In early July, Kruger National Park in South Africa announced their plan to auction off up to 350 white rhinos to the highest bidders (usually game hunting reserves who cater to tourists). As hunting and poaching within the park is increasing dramatically, selling off rhinos to be legally killed seemed like a strange response. The Telegraph and Ecoworldly both have reports of the controversy, including an explanation of how this hunting loophole enables illegal wildlife trade.
  • Later that month, the tame, hand-reared white rhino Toliwe was poached in Mount Savannah reserve, in South Africa. He was found with his horn partially hacked off, after someone flying over the reserve saw poachers trying to remove his horn and called the authorities. Toliwe’s owner, Rob Dickerson, has said that the rhino was likely still alive while his horn was being hacked off, and is offering a substantial reward for information about the murder.
  • At the beginning of August, Ecoworldly picked up the story of Andrew Malone, a reporter for the UK’s Daily Mail. Malone went undercover, posing as a buyer of illegal rhino horn, and exposed part of an underground poaching cartel known as “The Crocodile Gang” operating out of Zimbabwe. The article includes mentions of a subsequent cover-up when poached horns are discovered, as well as death threats made against Malone for his role in the exposé.
  • Less than a week later, the second rhino poaching within a week in KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, is reported. The seven-year-old white rhino even had a tracker assigned to protect her from poachers, to no avail. She was discovered, as so many rhinos have been reportedly found: lying dead with her horn hacked out of her face.
  • Thankfully, there’s been some good news out there, too. Tanzania charged six businessmen for poaching and smuggling illegal ivory in July. Four men responsible for two of the KwaZulu-Natal rhino poachings were arrested last month. Eight poachers were killed in armed confrontations (it would have been more fitting to have their fingernails cut out of their hands before they died, but oh well) in an anti-poaching effort in Zimbabwe. In the same operation, 46 black rhinos were relocated to safer locations.

    Naturally, China denies allegations that it has any links to the rise of game killings.

    You can donate to Save the Rhinos International for Zimbabwe’s rhino crisis. Then, to perk you up a bit, read about this:

    In 1780, a Japanese ship ran aground on the Aleutian island Howadax (pronounced “How-a-tha”, meaning “welcome”). Earlier this year, scientists visiting the island discovered the carcasses of 43 bald eagles and 213 glaucous-winged gulls on the island. The story of Rat Island is both a cautionary tale and a story of redemption gone awry.

    After rats invaded the island from the grounded ship nearly 250 years ago, they quickly reproduced to staggering levels and ate their way through the entire populations of native puffins, petrels, auklets, and many others. With no native mammal predators, the rats soon became the only notable feature of the island, and it earned its new name in the early 1800s.

    The story is a familiar one. According to Island Conservation, rats are to blame for 40-60% of all seabird and reptile extinctions, with 90% of those occurring on islands. In 2007, Alaskan and federal wildlife biologists tried to reclaim the island from the rat populations. They laced grain cakes with the blood thinner brodifacoum, and conducted trials. In the trials, 88% of the rats died in their burrows, posing no risk to scavenging bird species. They concluded “some bald eagles may be exposed to brodifacoum residues but are unlikely to die.” The large scale restoration project occurred last September, when a helicopter dropped the poisoned grain cakes in a grid pattern over the entire 10 square mile island. Immediately after the poison drop, workers removed any rodent carcasses.

    In June, a two-week intensive survey of the island was conducted. Field workers saw no sign of invasive rat populations, and observed several nesting bird species on the island, including Aleutian cackling geese, ptarmigan, peregrine falcons, and black oystercatchers. They also discovered the carcasses of over 200 gulls and bald eagles in various stages of decomposition.

    After taking samples and testing the carcasses, all of the birds were confirmed to have been poisoned by brodifacoum, and USFWS is conducting an investigation into the restoration’s protocol. They theorize that some gulls may have consumed the poison, and that the eagles then ate the dead gulls. Since an estimated 90% of islands are now infested with rats, scientists have a strong motivation to perfect the process of eradication with low mortalities of native species. While Alaska has a healthy population of bald eagles, with 2,500 in the Aleutians alone, and 50,000 in the rest of the state, other smaller rat-infested islands don’t have those sort of stocks to draw upon. For now, Rat Island will be carefully monitored over the next couple of years for any signs of a rat rebound, before eventually re-adopting it’s original Aleutian name.

    Rat Islands barren coast

    Rat Island's barren coast