Category Archives: endangered species

Extreme Markets: the fascination for wild genitalia

Tomohon, in the highlands of North Sulawesi, Indonesia is …the “extreme market”. There is certainly something extreme about the serried carcasses, blackened by blow torches to burn off the fur, the faces charred in a rictus grin.   The pasar extrim speaks to Sulawesi’s striking biogeography. The Indonesian island straddles the boundary between Asiatic and Australian species—and boasts an extraordinary number of species found nowhere else. But the market also symbolises how Asia’s amazing biodiversity is under threat. Most of the species on sale in Tomohon have seen populations crash because of overhunting (habitat destruction has played a part too)…

An hour’s drive from Tomohon is Bitung, terminus for ferry traffic from the Moluccan archipelago and Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. These regions are even richer in wildlife, especially birds. Trade in wild birds is supposedly circumscribed. Yet the ferries are crammed with them: Indonesian soldiers returning from a tour in Papua typically pack a few wild cockatoos or lories to sell. One in five urban households in Indonesia keeps birds. Bitung feeds Java’s huge bird markets. The port is also a shipment point on a bird-smuggling route to the Philippines and then to China, Taiwan, even Europe. Crooked officials enable the racket.

The trade in animal parts used for traditional medicine or to denote high status, especially in China and Vietnam, is an even bigger racket. Many believe ground rhino horn to be effective against fever, as well as to make you, well, horny. Javan and Sumatran rhinos were not long ago widespread across South-East Asia, but poaching has confined them to a few tiny pockets of the islands after which they are named. Numbers of the South Asian rhinoceros are healthier, yet poachers in Kaziranga national park in north-east India have killed 74 in the past three years alone.

Name your charismatic species and measure decline. Between 2010 and 2017 over 2,700 of the ivory helmets of the helmeted hornbill, a striking bird from South-East Asia, were seized, with Hong Kong a notorious transshipment hub. It is critically endangered. As for the tiger, in China and Vietnam its bones and penis feature in traditional medicine, while tiger fangs and claws are emblems of status and power. Fewer than 4,000 tigers survive in the wild. The pressure from poachers is severe, especially in India. The parts of over 1,700 tigers have been seized since 2000.

Asia’s wildlife mafias have gone global. Owing to Asian demand for horns, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa leapt from 13 in 2007 to 1,028 last year. The new frontline is South America. A jaguar’s four fangs, ten claws, pelt and genitalia sell for $20,000 in AsiaSchemes to farm animals, which some said would undercut incentives to poach, have proved equally harmful. Lion parts from South African farms are sold in Asia as a cheaper substitute for tiger, or passed off as tiger—either way, stimulating demand. The farming of tigers in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam provides cover for the trafficking of wild tiger parts. Meanwhile, wild animals retain their cachet—consumers of rhino horn believe the wild rhino grazes only on medicinal plants.

Excerpts from  Wasting Wildlife, Economist, Apr. 21, 2018, at 36

The Super-Corals

image from wikipedia

By some estimates, half of the world’s coral has been lost since the 1980s. Corals are delicate animals, and are succumbing to pollution and sediment from coastal construction. Also to blame are sewage, farmland run-off and fishing, all of which favour the growth of the big, fleshy algae that are corals’ main competitors for space. (The first two encourage algal growth and the third removes animals that eat those algae.) But the biggest killer is warming seawater. Ocean heatwaves in 2015, 2016 and 2017 finished off an astonishing 20% of the coral on Earth. This is troubling, for countless critters depend on coral reefs for their survival. Indeed, such reefs, which take up just a thousandth of the ocean floor, are home, for at least part of their life cycles, to a quarter of marine species. Losing those reefs would cause huge disruption to the ocean’s ecosystem. So researchers are looking for ways to stop this happening.

A growing number of scientists reckon that an entirely different approach to saving coral is needed. If oceans are changing faster than coral can adapt via the normal processes of evolution, why not, these researchers argue, work out ways to speed up such evolution  One way to do this would be selective breeding. Most species of coral spawn on just one or two nights a year, a process regulated by the lunar cycle, the time of sunset and the temperature of the water. The sperm and eggs released during spawning meet and unite, and the results grow into larvae that search for places where they can settle down and metamorphose into the stone-encased sea-anemone-like polyps that are the adult form. In the wild, the meeting of sperm and egg is random. Some researchers, however, are trying to load the dice. By starting with wild specimens that have survived a period of heat which killed their neighbours, they hope to breed heat resistance into the offspring.

This is the tack taken, for example, by Christian Voolstra of the Red Sea Research Centre in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. He describes it as “making sure super papa and super mama meet and reproduce”. Corals bred in this way at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, on Oahu, survive in water that is warm enough to kill offspring resulting from normal, random reproduction.

The reason corals die when the surrounding water gets too hot is that the microscopic algae and bacteria which live on and in their tissue, and are their main food sources, are sensitive to small changes in temperature. When stressed by heat these symbionts start producing dangerous oxidants. This causes the polyps to eject them, to ensure short-term survival. The reef thus turns ghostly white—a process called bleaching. Bleached coral is not dead. But unless the temperature then drops, the polyps will not readmit the algae and bacteria, and so, eventually, they do die.

Polyps that survive one such ordeal will, however, fare better if temperatures rise again. The second time around they have acclimatised to the change. Some species, indeed, can pass this resilience on to their offspring by a process called intergenerational epigenesis. The Hawaii Institute’s efforts to develop hardier corals thus include administering a near-death experience to them. Ruth Gates, the institute’s director, says the goal is to create reefs “designed to withstand the future”. The institute’s first such reef will probably be grown inside Biosphere 2, an enclosed ecosystem run by the University of Arizona.

Another approach, taken by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Queensland, is to crossbreed corals from different places, to create hybrid vigour. The results of such crosses are unpredictable, but some survive heat greater than either of their parents could cope with.

The artificial breeding of corals is, though, constrained by their cyclical breeding habits, so researchers at the Florida Aquarium, on Tampa Bay, are trying to speed the process up. The operators of the aquarium’s “coral ark” nursery stagger lighting and temperature patterns to fool the animals into releasing their gametes on a day of the researchers’ choosing. This also permits the co-mingling of sperm and eggs that would not normally meet, thus allowing new varieties to be created. According to Scott Graves, the aquarium’s boss, half a dozen such varieties show most promise of heat resistance, but the team is generating thousands more, “just like a seed bank”, as a backup.

A coral’s fate is tied so closely to the algae and bacteria which live in its tissues that, as Dr Gates puts it, it is best to think of the whole thing as “a consortium of organisms”. This is why scientists at AIMS are keen also to produce algae that withstand higher temperatures without releasing the oxidants that lead coral to kick them out. They are doing so using a process which Madeleine van Oppen, a researcher at the institute, calls “directed laboratory evolution”. In the past few years her team have grown more than 80 generations of algae, repeatedly culling those organisms most susceptible to heat stress and also to acidification, another curse of a world with more carbon dioxide around than previously. The resulting algae release fewer toxins and photosynthesise better in warm water than do their wild brethren..

[A]fter the trauma of bleaching, polyps do extend a preferential welcome to algae that have greater levels of heat tolerance. His team are thus now using special lights to bleach corals. Polyps “stress hardened” in this way will be planted on wild reefs in coming months…

This raises the question of whether the genomes of coral, algae and bacteria might be edited for greater robustness. According to Dr Voolstra, more than ten laboratories around the world are trying to do so. His own team has successfully inserted genetic material into about 30 larvae of a coral called Acropora millepora. Editing corals’ heat thresholds in this way is, he reckons, about five years away.

Whether they are created by selective breeding or genetic engineering, supercorals, the thinking goes, would not need to be placed on reefs in astronomical numbers… That thought, however, does not please everybody. Some object in principle to the idea of releasing human-modified creatures into the wild, or feel that amelioration of this sort is a distraction from the business of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. Others have pragmatic concerns—that corals bred to survive warming seas might suffer handicapping trade-offs. So regulators have been cautious. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, for example, will probably require that the hybrid organisms AIMS hopes to test in the open reef are removed before they begin spawning. …[T]he alternative, of doing nothing, is the equivalent of “ just throwing our hands up in the air and saying, ‘OK, we’re prepared now not to have coral’.” For the world’s oceans, that loss would be catastrophic.

Excerpts from Accelerating Evolution: Refreshing Reefs, Economist, Mar. 17, 2018, at 75

A Slow-Burning Tragedy

image from Universal Somali TV

Charcoal is one of the biggest informal businesses in Africa. It is the fuel of choice for the continent’s fast-growing urban poor, who, in the absence of electricity or gas, use it to cook and heat water. According to the UN, Africa accounted for three-fifths of the world’s production in 2012—and this is the only region where the business is growing. It is, however, a slow-burning environmental disaster.

In Nyakweri forest, Kenya, the trees are ancient and rare. Samwel Naikada, a local activist, points at a blackened stump in a clearing cut by burners. It is perhaps 400 years old, he says. The effect of burning trees spreads far. During the dry season, the forest is a refuge for amorous elephants who come in from the plains nearby to breed. The trees store water, which is useful in such a parched region. It not only keeps the Mara river flowing—a draw for the tourists who provide most of the county government’s revenue. It also allows the Masai people to graze their cows and grow crops. “You cannot separate the Masai Mara and this forest,” says Mr Naikada….

Nyakweri is hardly the only forest at risk. The Mau forest, Kenya’s largest, which lies farther north in the Rift Valley, has also been hit by illegal logging. Protests against charcoal traders (!) broke out earlier this year, after rivers that usually flow throughout the dry season started to run dry. In late February a trader’s car was reportedly burned in Mwingi, in central Kenya, by a group of youngsters who demanded to see the trader’s permits. At the end of February 2018 the government announced an emergency 90-day ban on all logging, driving up retail prices of charcoal by 500%, to as much as 5,000 shillings a bag in some cities.

The problems caused by the charcoal trade have spread beyond Kenya. In southern Somalia, al-Shabab, a jihadist group, funds itself partly through the taxes it levies on the sale of charcoal (sometimes with the help of Kenyan soldiers, who take bribes for allowing the shipments out of a Somali port that Kenya controls). The logging also adds to desertification, which, in turn, causes conflict across the Sahel, an arid belt below the Sahara. It forces nomadic herders to range farther south with their animals, where they often clash with farmers over the most fertile land.

In the power vacuum of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rampant charcoal logging has destroyed huge swathes of Virunga National Park. That threatens the rare gorillas which tourists currently pay as much as $400 a day to view, even as it fuels the conflict.

In theory, charcoal burning need not be so destructive. In Kenya the burners are meant to get a licence. To do so, they have to show they are replacing the trees they are cutting down and that they are using modern kilns that convert the trees efficiently into fuel. But, admits Clement Ngoriareng, an official at the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the rules are laxly enforced. Some suspect that powerful politicians stymie efforts to police burners.

Excerpts from A Very Black Market: Illegal Charcoal, Economist, Mar. 31, 2018

Choked by Hyacinths: Lake Victoria

Hyacinth-choked lakeshore at Ndere Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya. Image from wikpeida

The report, Freshwater biodiversity in the Lake Victoria Basin (2018), assesses the global extinction risk of 651 freshwater species, including fishes, molluscs, dragonflies, crabs, shrimps and aquatic plants native to East Africa’s Lake Victoria Basin, finding that 20% of these are threatened with extinction. Of the freshwater species assessed, 204 are endemic to the Lake Victoria Basin and three-quarters (76%) of these endemics are at risk of extinction.

The African Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), for example, is declining in the Lake Victoria Basin largely due to overfishing, poor fishing practices and environmental degradation as wetlands are converted to agricultural land. The lungfish is considered a delicacy for some local communities and is an important local medicinal product, used to boost the immune system and treat alcoholism. The lungfish is also traded at market, making it important to the local economy.

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by surface area. Its catchment area includes parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. Also referred to as ‘Darwin’s Dreampond’, Lake Victoria is known for its high levels of unique biodiversity. The Lake Victoria Basin harbours immense natural resources including fisheries, forests, wetlands and rangelands….

Pollution from industrial and agricultural sources, over-harvesting of resources and land clearance are among the primary threats to biodiversity in this region. Invasive species also present an important threat to native biodiversity in the basin, affecting 31% of all species and 73% of threatened species. The purple flowered Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) was accidentally introduced to Lake Victoria from South America in the 1980s, and at its peak covered close to 10% of the lake surface in dense floating mats. These mats reduce the oxygen and nutrient availability in the water column, which negatively affects native biodiversity. Opportunities for harvesting and exploiting the Water Hyacinth, for example by using the species as fuel in bio-digesters for energy production, are under investigation.

Excerpts from Livelihoods at risk as freshwater species in Africa’s largest lake face extinction – IUCN Report, IUCN Report, Apr. 30, 2018

Target Practice on Orangutans

Captive Orangutan image from wikipedia

Estimating the number of orangutans is difficult. Researchers have to extrapolate from the number of nests observed. (The apes build new ones to sleep in each night.) A new study published in Current Biology finds that the number of orangutans on Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, declined by some 148,000 between 1999 and 2015, leaving fewer than 100,000. Within the next 30 years, another 45,000 could disappear. The decline has been steepest, naturally, in areas where the jungle has been razed to plant palm-oil trees. But it is areas that are still forested that account for most of the fall in the orangutan population. This suggests that hunting and crueller activities—carcasses have been found maimed and riddled with airgun pellets—are also taking a bloody toll, says one of the study’s authors, Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute, a research organisation in Germany…

Local officials still push for more palm-oil plantations, mines and roads. But tourism in Sumatra’s Gunung-Leuser National Park shows the value of leaving the jungle, and its inhabitants, alone. A night and two days of climbing and crawling in search of orangutans can cost a visitor around $100…Eco-tourism can benefit orangutans, too, if controlled. But tourists often get too close to the animals, risking the transmission of disease, or leave rubbish in the forest…

Excerpts from Orangutans: Money Swinging from Trees, Economost, Feb. 24, at 2018, at 30

The Balding Forests of Australia

Most deforestation takes place in poor countries. In richer places, trees tend to multiply. Australia is an unhappy exception. Land clearance is rampant along its eastern coast, as farmers take advantage of lax laws to make room for cattle to feed Asia. WWF, a charity, now ranks Australia alongside Borneo and the Congo Basin as one of the world’s 11 worst “fronts” for deforestation.

The worst damage occurs in the north-eastern state of Queensland, which has more trees left to fell than places to the south, where agriculture is more established… Its bulldozers are at present busier than they have been for a decade. They erased 395,000 hectares of forest, including huge tracts of ancient vegetation, between 2015 and 2016—the equivalent of 1,000 rugby pitches a day. As a share of its forested area, Queensland is mowing down trees twice as fast as Brazil.

Australia has lost almost half its native forest since British colonialists arrived, and much of what remains is degraded. For a time, it seemed that the clear-cutting might come to an end: in the early 2000s several state governments passed bills to reduce deforestation. But in the past decade these have been wound back in every state. Queensland’s land clearance has more than doubled since conservatives loosened its forestry law in 2013, allowing farmers to “thin” trees by up to 75% without a permit. Neighbouring New South Wales recently enacted a similar rule.

Conservationists blame powerful agricultural lobbies. These retort that controls on land clearance push up food prices and cost jobs. Family farmers lament that trees obstruct the big machinery needed to keep their land productive. … In 2014 a landowner in New South Wales murdered an environment officer who was investigating illegal bulldozing. (Authorities in the state are examining at least 300 cases of illegal tree-clearing.)

Yet clearing land eventually hurts farmers too because, without trees, soil erodes and grows saltier. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, spurring global warming, and reduces regional rainfall…. Loss of habitat has brought many species, including the koala, to the brink of extinction.

Chainsaw massacre: Deforestation in Australia, Economist, Feb. 24, 2018

The Most Trafficked Animal in the World: pangolin

Pangolin defending itself against lions. image from wikipedia

Pangolins are a smuggler’s dream. For defence, and when asleep, they roll themselves up into spheres, scales on the outside, to thwart any predator. That makes them easy to handle and pack. And handled and packed they have been, in enormous numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a worldwide wildlife-preservation organisation, reckons that more than 1m pangolins were traded illegally from their African and Asian homelands over the decade to 2014. That may be a conservative estimate. A paper published in 2017 in Conservation Letters calculates the number of pangolins hunted in central Africa alone as between 400,000 and 2.7m a year. Based on statistics such as these it seems likely that pangolins, of which there are eight species, four African and four Asian, are the most trafficked type of animal in the world.

Some are consumed locally. That is not necessarily illegal, for laws vary from place to place. International trade, though, is a different matter. Early in 2017 CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed all eight pangolins as part of what is known as Appendix 1. This means signatories to the convention (which most countries are) cannot permit them to be imported or exported.

Most of those that are, nevertheless, exported illegally from their homelands end up in China and Vietnam. In these countries pangolins’ meat is a treat and their scales are used in folk medicine, even though those scales are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, and thus have no medicinal value. Pangolin scales fetch as much as $750 a kilogram in China. A 12-tonne stash of them, the world’s biggest seizure, was found last summer by the authorities in Shenzhen….

Cracking down on poachers and traders is difficult, particularly in poor places…Part of the blame lies with ignorance. Awareness of pangolins is patchy. They are nocturnal and shy, and thus rarely feature on tourists’ tick-lists. That makes them a low priority, even to game-management authorities who know they are there. …The Hywood Foundation’s initiative is part of a larger effort in Uganda, sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government’s conservation agency. Now that pangolins are on the UWA’s radar, it has stepped up intelligence and investigative work on poachers and traffickers…At the consumption end of the trafficking routes, too, things are starting to happen…. In theory, eating pangolin meat (along with that of many other wild species) is already illegal in China—not for conservation reasons, but as a reaction to the outbreak of SARS, a fatal respiratory disease…Persuading people to stop using the animals’ scales may be harder.

Excerpts from  Conserving Pagolins: A Problem of Scale, Economist, Feb 3, 2018