Conservation


The Center for Biological Diversity is distributing free “endangered species” condoms, to raise awareness of the effects of human overpopulation on endangered species. Six different package designs are available, highlighting endangered species such as the polar bear, spotted owl, and jaguar. If you’d like to help distribute condoms (and probably keep some for yourself), they’re still looking for volunteers. You can even enter to win a lifetime supply of free condoms!

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Have you heard of the Kihansi spray toad? I’ve got a trip to New York planned this summer, and seeing these cute little guys is now at the top of my list of things to do.

…And New York is pretty much the only place in the world you can see them now, sadly. They’re extinct in the wild, which is unsurprising considering their native habitat is made up of just two hectares along the Kihansi Gorge in Tanzania. When a dam blocked 90% of the water flow to their waterfall habitat, the Kihansi toad population crashed. An outbreak of the amphibian dread-disease chytrid fungus cut the remaining population down to critical numbers, prompting the Wildlife Conservation Society to swoop in and rescue 499 of the tiny toads and whisk them back to the Bronx.

Although some of the toads were sent to five different zoos in the US, only the Bronx Zoo and the Toledo Zoo managed to keep them alive. As it turns out, evolving in such a specific area left the toads with very specialized needs, and the zoo has set up pure mist sprayers from filtered water, halogen lamps, and disease-free specially-bred insects for food. Now that they’re able to keep the toads alive and breed them successfully in captivity, WCS is working towards a re-introduction plan that involves an artificial mist system and the eradication of invasive plant species.

For now though, you can see them at the new World of Reptiles exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. Kihansi spray toads are unusual, charismatic amphibians — mustard yellow in color, and tiny enough to sit on the face of a dime. Unlike most amphibians, they also give birth to tiny, purple-ish live young, small enough to sit on the head of a pin.

If that’s not a poster child of cuteness for conservation, I don’t know what is.

Four of the world’s remaining eight Northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) are settling in to their new home in the Ol Pejeta reserve in Kenya. They were shipped to the reserve from Dvůr Králové zoo in the Czech Republic, where they’ve been for the past 30 years. The two remaining Czech Northern white rhinos and two Northern white rhinos at the Wild Animal Park, in San Diego, aren’t reproductively viable, so the four now in Kenya are the last hope of continuing the genetic line.

The Northern white rhino has a sad history. From the 1970s to the 1980s, their population was reduced to 15 due to poaching. Earlier in this decade, that population had doubled and seemed to be on the slow road to recovery. Since 2003, though, the last remaining Northern whites were killed and the species has been extinct in the wild until this week’s transfer. At this point, the goal is merely to pass on as much of the subspecies’ lineage as possible. Rob Brett, director of Flora and Fauna International, acknowledges that inter-breeding with Southern white rhinos in Kenya is “inevitable”.

Northern white rhino

Whether or not they will even be able to breed is still up for debate. San Diego Wild Animal Park mammal curator Randy Rieches contends that there is no chance of breeding in the herd, due to reproductive pathologies that set in after a period of reproductive dormancy. On the other hand, Dana Holeckova, director of the Dvůr Králové zoo, said at the time of the transfer, “I feel so happy. It’s my birthday today and this is like a gift to Africa. There is a 90 percent chance they will reproduce and I hope that we will start a new group of Northern White rhinos in Africa.” Clearly, the jury is still out on the rhinos’ fate, and only time will tell.

Northern white rhino

The money for the transfer was supplied by Alastair Lucas, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs in Australia, explicitly for the purpose of relocating these rhinos.

I’m leaving for a few weeks on vacation tomorrow night. I couldn’t be happier about this, and I’ll post all about my trip when I get back (at least, the science-y and library-related parts of it), but for now, I need to prepare. I anticipate being very busy playing catch-up when I return, and I’ve been posting here less than I’d like to. Therefore, I present to you a huge list of things I’ve been meaning to post about but never got around to. I might post in more detail on some of these topics later as I get a chance, but I encourage you to check out these links in my absence. In no particular order:

  • HOME is a stunningly beautiful 90-minute film from director Yann Arthus-Bertrand. It was released on June 5th simultaneously in over 50 different countries, and is freely available to watch on YouTube in HD. It covers the history of life on Earth, focusing heavily on human changes to the environment that have resulted in ecological collapses across the planet and global warming. The last 20 minutes or so provide a summary, but I highly recommend setting aside some time to watch the whole thing.
  • Another possibly global-warming related news item: The New York Times reports on the PNAS study about disappearing ice caps atop Mt. Kilimanjaro.
  • Toxic waste from a shipwreck off the coast of Madagascar is wreaking ecological havoc, according to the WWF.
  • Two female spectacled bears at the Leipzig Zoo are suffering from hair-loss. The Telegraph article isn’t very informative, but spectacled bears have a history of this problem in captivity. It’s limited to female bears and is thought to be stress-related. Incidentally, cross your fingers that I see a fully-furred spectacled bear while on vacation… they’re native to the Andean forests!
  • This collection of photographs of pollution in China has been heavily making the internet rounds. You’ve probably already seen it, but if not, you’ll be shocked. The photographs are so well-done they’re almost beautiful, but the content will make you cry.
  • Here’s some happy news, albeit a bit old: decades-long efforts by the French to clean up pollution in the Seine is finally paying off! After high levels of pollution in the middle of last century killed off all but four fish species in the river, France instituted large-scale efforts to clean up the waters, including a purification plant. Now, Atlantic salmon have returned to their historic breeding grounds up-river without any human interference. One of these was caught by an angler outside of Paris. There are now 32 species present in the river!
  • Have you heard about the Genome 10K project? “The Genome 10K project aims to assemble a genomic zoo—a collection of DNA sequences representing the genomes of 10,000 vertebrate species, approximately one for every vertebrate genus.” Thanks to the drastic reduction over the years of the cost to sequence a genome, this project is finally feasible, and collaborators are coming from all corners of the globe.
  • DNA is also going to ensure that we have delicious heritage apples for years to come, I hope.
  • The Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Society recently opened a new LEED gold-certified Center for Global Conservation that looks to be very impressive.
  • Attention parents: Black bears in Yosemite prefer minivans.
  • The winners of the British Wildlife Photography Awards were announced last month. Here’s the Coast & Marine winner:
  • New York is seeing “coywolves”, coyote-wolf hybrids that are smaller than wolves and larger than coyotes. These are fertile hybrids, stronger than coyotes, but appearing in areas where wolves can’t cope with the human development.

  • There are more article I have bookmarked, but I’ll save those for another vacation. See you next month!

I originally heard about this on NPR, and it brightened my morning drive up a bit to hear about Sea World’s successful hatching of 82 endangered green sea turtle babies last month. As a lifelong San Diego resident, I’ve been to Sea World many, many times. They’re a for-profit organization and I never got the impression that the animals there were very happy, so I haven’t felt compelled to visit for many years, but I was delighted to hear about the turtle births.

According to the Associated Press reports, the turtles were all hatched on the park’s Shipwreck Beach without any human assistance or intervention. Thad Dirksen, curator of fishes remarked, “It’s unusual to have sea turtles hatch in a zoological environment. And this time marked the first time we’ve done so without assisting the eggs through incubation.” Indeed, hearing about sea turtle births anywhere is pretty exciting for me, since they’re adorable and all sea turtle species are endangered or threatened. But it’s especially fun to hear about a hatching this size, right in my own neighborhood. They should go on display before the end of the year, so I’ll try to go out and visit them.

The Cove, the striking documentary about the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, has finally screened in Japan. It was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival this week, according to an interview with director Louie Psihoyos, posted on Boing Boing today.

Although Psihoyos noted the screening was tucked away at 10:30am and not publicized, showing the movie in Japan is a hugely important step for those concerned about dolphin conservation. The movie debuted earlier this year (I saw a preview for it before The End of the Line), and shows damning footage of the bloody annual hunt, including dolphin meat being sold to Japanese schools surreptitiously. Since dolphins are top-level predators, they can have dangerously high levels of mercury — up to 5000 the levels legally allowed by Japan. Of course, dolphins are also highly charismatic animals, beloved by most people. It’s particularly striking that the dolphin hunters in Taiji make a much larger profit for capturing a dolphin and selling it to amusement parks or aquariums than selling it for meat.

Last month, on September 1, the media arrived in Taiji to publicize the beginning of the annual hunt. For the first time, even members of the Japanese media were present. Under the pressure, the hunt was delayed as hunters debated how to proceed. Former Flipper trainer Rick O’Barry, star of The Cove, was even in town to watch events unfold.

By the end of the first week of September, however, the hunt had finally begun. Of the dolphins caught that day, half were sold to aquariums, and half were released.

Although the publicity has been unkind to Taiji, their dolphin hunt is not the only one of its kind. Because of the cove setting, it’s very photogenic, but dolphin hunts outside of Japan persist, mainly for food. Dolphin hunts are ongoing in the Soloman Islands. Less than 100 dolphins are killed there each year, but there may only be hundreds of dolphins in the entire population in that area. The public outcry over The Cove will hopefully help contribute to awareness of dolphin slaughter.

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:

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