Penny Thoughts

Tag: conservation

Losing the Polar Bear Battle

Polar bears can be legally hunted in Canada for their fur, fangs and other body parts. This is the only country where this hunting is legal but the US put forward the proposal at this year’s CITES conference to ban this hunting altogether.

Polar bears currently fall into CITES appendix 1 which means legal hunting of these animals is allowed with strict monitoring and regulation. The proposal aimed to bump the polar bears up to appendix 2 which would make hunting of polar bears completely illegal.

This is not the first time that this proposal has been considered, but no success has been seen. There were hopes that the ban would get passed at the CITES conference, but this was not to be. 2/3 of the parties were needed to vote in favour of this proposal for it to be passed. Unfortunately, this was not even nearly reached. 38 voted in favour, but 42 voted against (48 abstained from the vote).

This result served for much disappointment for many nations including the US, Russia and the UK. However, with many important nations like China and Vietnam importing these products from Canada the number of opponents added up.

Canada was also strongly opposed to the proposal as the polar bear market provides the native Inuit people with a stable income. With roughly 600 polar bears being hunted and sold each year at a price of $5000 at auction, it is clear that they are a crucial income source for many Inuit people.

Depressing Future For Polar Bears

Polar bears have become a bit of a poster child for species affected by climate change. This is in part due to their popularity in modern culture and the visibly huge effects climate change is having on their habitat. So it does seem rather counter intuitive that there is legal hunting of this already vulnerable species.

The arctic habitat that these polar bears inhabit has decreased by nearly 20% since 1980 and this decrease is set to accelerate in the future. It is predicted that if we do not get a hold of our CO2 emissions by 2060, the ice caps will be committed to melting. That means no habitat for the polar bears at all.

Regulated Hunting

Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, argued that their hunting methods are sustainable and that they “hunt for subsistence”. He explains that the polar bears are needed to make money and put food on the table. Cows, chickens and pigs etc are not available to them; they are working with what they have.

This point is fair, however, there is no doubt that the hunting is having detrimental effects on the polar bear populations. Although this hunting has not been a huge problem in the past, it is likely that the combined effect of climate change and hunting in the future will only drive the polar bear populations down further.

My concern is that as the populations inevitably fall and therefore prices of polar bear products increase in price, we will have a situation very similar to that currently seen in the rhino horn trade. I have already written a post relating to these issues so I won’t delve into the details but you can find it here.

I feel that this may be another case of the powers of the world continuing to act in a reactive manner rather than a proactive manner. Yes, right now, the effects of polar bear hunting aren’t having a hugely dramatic effect, but we will not be able to say the same in the near future. Will it then be too late?

If you have any opinions on this or the rhino post, please share.. I’d love to hear what other people’s thoughts are..

Poisonous Rhino Horns: The Answer to a Difficult Question?

This year over 200 rhinos have been illegally slaughtered to feed the incessant demand for rhino horn coming from the East. The huge majority of this demand is coming from China where the horn is used for traditional medicine and the ivory for numerous products including artworks and weapon handles.

One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $68 000 on the black market making it worth more than its weight in gold. This clearly lucrative business attracts a lot of people and devalues the potentials costs associated with being part of an illegal industry.

There have been endless attempts to try to control this illegal poaching but with very little success. The number of rhinos being poached is rising each year and the future is looking ever darker for rhinos around the world. A ban has existed since the 1970s but is providing little protection to these heavily targeted creatures. Due to this, alternative approaches have been considered.

I have already written a post about the attempt to legalise the ivory trade to enable more control of the industry. This idea was based on the fact that rhino horn is made out our keratin, like our finger nails and therefore can regrow. So essentially rhino horn harvesting could take place. If you want to read more about this really interesting idea follow this link.

This year, another alternative method of control is being carried out in a game reserve in South Africa; Sabi Sands. It is targeting the medicinal use of the rhino horn which is ingested. The rhino horns are being injected with a mixture of parasiticides and an inedible pink die. If ingested, this cocktail of chemicals will make the consumer very ill, leading to “nausea, stomach ache, [and] diarrhoea.”

Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association has stated that the poison will not kill people just make them very ill. The pink dye will also be very obvious and therefore should act as an obvious visual deterrent. This dye will also make it very obvious to poachers that the rhino horn is poisoned and should prevent continued hunting of rhinos in those regions. It will also serve as a very good indicator for border control forces who will rapidly be able identify rhino horn in its whole or powder form.

So what is actually in this poisonous cocktail of chemicals. The parasiticides used are generally used to control mites on livestock like horses, sheep and cattle. This is mixed with the dye and injected into a hole that is bored into the rhino horn when the rhino is sedated. This “toxification” has already been carried out on over 100 rhinos in South Africa, and work is continuing to toxify even more.

This process does seem like a good idea, however, it does bring up some moral concerns. This process is acting with the intention of causing harm to consumers. Yes, these consumers are acting illegally, but does that justify this kind of action? In my opinion it does. These people aren’t going to die, but it will serve as a lesson to not consume this illegal product. The lesson may be harsh, but the current “weaker” attempts are not working. Maybe these consumers deserve this kind of action and considering the product will be bright pink they would have to be pretty stupid to go on and eat it.

Another concern is that this may not bring an end to poaching or even reduce the levels, it may simply displace the poaching to other places. Poachers may be put off from poaching in certain regions due to this action, however, these people are likely to just target other areas to obtain their income. This method could be effective if carried out throughout a

ll/the large majority of the rhino’s distribution; unfortunately, this is really not a possibility. Many rhinos do reside within reserves and parks, but a large proportion of these parks do not have the people, the materials or the funds to carry out this kind of work. Also, many rhinos do not live in parks and therefore it would be extremely complicated to toxify all rhinos.

Maybe with significant funding and support, a campaign could be carried out; this is unfortunately pretty unlikely too. A huge amount of lobbying and campaigning would be required, with research and trials to determine whether this method would be a possibility. This would all take quite some time, and maybe too much time for the rhinos.

There is also concern that the rhino poachers simply wouldn’t care. These people are criminals, if they can still fetch a decent amount of money it is very likely that they will continue to poach these rhinos until the horn completely devalues. Devaluing may occur if this toxification can be rolled out across the world driving down global demand, but as has been mentioned, this is a lot easier said than done.

The Sabi Sands reserve want to tell poachers that they have no place being in their park as their rhinos are pointless kills. I do worry about this message; a few years ago some parks were shaving the horn off rhinos so that the poachers had no access to the horn and therefore, no profit. However, the poachers retaliated and many rhinos were slaughtered in response.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. Measures in place aren’t working and so new, alternative measures are having to be considered. This approach does come with some ifs and buts, but in my opinion, every little helps. However, it may reach a point  where our greed seals the fate for rhinos, where investing effort into saving them would be rendered pointless. Some people already think this is the case. I do still think there is some time, but that window of opportunity is ever shrinking and action needs to be taken now before it’s too late.

Threatened Species of the Week- Pangolins: One of Conservation’s Hidden Stories

It’s that time again where I reveal the chosen threatened species of the week.. well strictly this week it is 2 species but you’ll forgive me for that I’m sure.

There is a great deal of media coverage surrounding numerous threats to wildlife, including polar bear hunting, the ivory trade and the timber industry. However, these problems are only part of a much larger and concerning set of challenges that the world’s wildlife is facing.

Relatively unknown creatures are being overshadowed by poster-children of conservation campaigns, regardless of the often intense levels of exploitation they face.  With little media coverage and poor public interest, there is almost negligible drive felt by governments and policy makers to take action. This is why I am doing this feature, to increase the awareness of those species under great threat that the majority of us are completely unaware of.

So what is being overlooked? The simple answer is: an awful lot, and this weeks threatened species of the week is the Pangolin. Strictly there are actually 8 species of pangolin, of which 2 are listed as endangered under the IUCN criteria; the Sunda Pangolin and the Chinese Pangolin.

Pangolins were ranked the most illegally trafficked animal in Asia in 2011, yet most people are completely unaware of them, with them receiving little media coverage. Pangolins are related to anteaters and are found across Africa and Asia. They are covered in thick, hard scales made of keratin; the same material that makes up our finger nails and the precious horn of rhinos and tusks of elephants.

Although the pangolins are protected under international law, little success is being seen in the conservation of these docile creatures.

Population numbers are decreasing in all eight species of pangolin, and two species are listed as endangered under the IUCN Redlist criteria. These declines are being driven by the increasing demand for these unique animals’ meat, scales and hide.

The biggest demand for pangolins is coming from Asia. In some Asian cultures the pangolin scales are believed to have unique medicinal properties.

With countries like China becoming increasingly wealthy the demand for these scales is ever increasing. This rapidly rising demand is pushing up prices and tempting more people into the illegal poaching trade.

This increase in poaching popularity is driving the population numbers way down. Pangolins are now so rare that they can be sold for as much as $1000 on the black market.

The co-Chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group, Dan Challender has stated that “…tens of thousands of illegally traded pangolins are seized each year”. This is still likely to be a massive underestimate with a huge number of poached pangolins escaping identification and inclusion in these figures.

As this trade is illegal there is very limited market data available, making appropriate targeting of conservation strategies increasingly difficult

If the situation remains as it is for pangolins and many other species of concern, the future for wildlife does not look bright. Nature interacts in a multitude of ways and it is not just the poster animals that are of importance; everything matters.

Duck Feeding, Dog Poo and Goldfish Dumping: The Nightmares of Public Parks

I must apologise.. I have rather been neglecting my blog recently. I got back to university and have had to jump immediately into my final year project.. so I have been a little overwhelmed.

I’ve been doing tonnes of research so as soon as I come to terms with the endless pages of notes I’ll try to get posting regularly again.

My dissertation is on what works to maintain biodiversity in urban areas. Being that I live in London while I study, it has been something I’ve thought about since arriving at Imperial two and a half years ago. I’ve always looked at the paved streets and concrete buildings and thought that you couldn’t really be further from nature. The idea of looking into the horizon is pretty unexciting when I am at home in Leicester. However, in London I find that I go 8 weeks without really seeing the horizon at all.

It all sounds a bit depressing, but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in London. The constant hustle and bustle and vibrancy of the people and surroundings keeps me busy wherever I go. But there is no place in London I prefer than Hyde Park.

Being at Imperial has its perks; I’m probably only ever a 2 minute walk from Hyde park. Recently with the weather picking up I’ve been nipping there at lunch times to enjoy the sunshine in a more green and pleasant place than my computer labs.

Being that part of my dissertation is about how London parks manage their grounds to maintain biodiversity, I feel I have some kind of excuse to spend a little more time there than I probably should.

But saying all that, this week I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into maintaining the urban parks of our world. The constant pressure from the incessantly growing urban matrix means our parks are hugely vulnerable and are in a constant war against pollution and people.

Things that I’m sure we are all guilty of doing can have really detrimental effects on our much beloved parks and green spaces. Feeding the ducks, letting our dogs poo all over the place, littering, building dens, making fires, going off the paths, and trampling through meadows and bushes are things that many of us do with only the smallest tingling of mild guilt.

However, these relatively minor behaviours have big impacts on our parks that are already under constant fire from the “big problems” of air, noise and water pollution.

Something I have found surprising is just how bad feeding the ducks is.. I mean I thought I was helping them out. Apparently if you feed park birds and mammals too much bread it fills them up very quickly and means they don’t eat other food. The bread basically leaves no room for the animals to eat the foods that actually provide them with the nutrients they need. Also excess feeding leaves a lot of food on the ground and this attracts pests like rats and foxes, and nobody wants that.

I am not a dog owner so the idea of picking up a dog’s poo has never really been something I’ve worried about. We all know that dog poo is damaging to the environment in many ways; yet I seem to spend my life hop, skipping and jumping these piles of joy whenever I’m walking around London.

In many of the parks in London they have acid grasslands. These are basically ecosystems that are made up of plants that require very little soil nutrient content to survive and thrive. These are rare habitats in urban areas and are being managed to maintain their existence and to enable this ecosystem to thrive in our challenging urban environment.

Dog poo is a big threat to these grasslands as they provide nutrients to the soil, like a stinking, doggy  fertiliser. This added nutrient alters the soil and makes it increasingly unsuitable for the acid grassland plants. It also means that more common species of plants (often weeds) can colonise the area now that there is more nutrient in the soil. If this continues, these less specialist species can spread and take over the rare acid grassland. This is only one example of the damage to the natural environment that can occur when people let their dogs release their load in our green spaces.. pick up your poop.

Not only do we humans let our dogs do their business all over our urban parks, we also discard of our unwanted pets in them.. what a great idea! I’m sure some people probably think they are doing their poor neglected pet a favour by releasing it into a natural environment.. this is not true.. at all.

I spoke to a wonderful lady at Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park about her experiences in the urban-based park and she shared some brilliant insight into the difficulties of maintaining these precious spaces. She mentioned that one big problem they have is people releasing unwanted pets like goldfish and terrapins into their lakes and ponds. As multiple goldfish had been dumped they bred and now have increased rapidly in number. Some of their lakes are riddled with these household pets. Yes, goldfish are lovely, but that is when they are in a fish tank fully equipped with fake shrubbery and bubbling treasure chests. The lakes and ponds on Greenwich Peninsula are not where these fish belong and they are eating everything.

The staff at the ecology park are doing their best to control these unwanted gold guests, but with their continued breeding and people’s continued ignorance it is proving relatively difficult. Working with locals and informing them about where they should take their unwanted pets is helping; so hopefully this amazing wetland will be goldfish free in the near future.

These are only a couple examples of how our behaviours can directly damage the areas we love so much. Urban parks and green spaces keep us happy and provide an oasis in an otherwise grey and polluted environment. Let’s respect these places we love; they are struggling enough as it is.

 

New Hope For Corals: Self-Recovery

study publsihed this week in Science has shown that coral reefs can in fact recover themselves after disaster, when under the right conditions.

Scott reef is an isolated reef found 250km from the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  It suffered a mass bleaching event in 1998 in which over 80% of the coral cover was lost. Dr James Gilmour, the lead author of the study stated that, “The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic”.

Before this paper, it was believed that seriously damaged corals could only recover in the presence of nearby coral reefs. Planula are the gametes of corals; they are what forms when the male and female gametes of the corals fuse together, much like our eggs and sperm. These planula are free-swimming and can reach neighbouring reefs and settle. Before the findings of this study were published, this process was thought to be the mechanism by which damaged reefs could recover.

Scott reef was monitored for 15 years by the researchers and the findings were very much unexpected. The researchers did not have much faith in the reef recovering to its pre-bleaching state in the near future. However, over the years of monitoring they observed the reef recovering at a surprisingly fast rate considering its isolation and level of damage.

Instead of the reef relying on propagules from other healthy reefs, the researchers found that the very few surviving corals were producing planula at high enough rates that self-replenishment was taking place.

It was soon realised that these few survivors were growing at such high rates because of the conditions existing in this isolated reef. Because Scott reef is so isolated from other reefs and so far offshore, the levels of human influence are reduced. The water quality at Scott reef is much better than other near shore reefs which receive higher levels of pollutants from the coast.

Water quality is linked with the health of reefs and meant that Scott reef had an increased ability to cope with and recover from the bleaching. The reef also received reduced levels of fishing and sedimentation compared to other reefs helping with its surprisingly speedy recovery.

The isolation that was initially considered a hindrance for the reef was actually enabling its survival.

This work proves that coral reefs can spring back from extreme damage. However, this recover is dependent on conditions. These findings are great for those reefs similar to Scott reef; isolated and with reduced human pressure. However, the majority of reefs do not have these qualities and are still at threat from the ever increasing human pressures. Non-isolated reefs are relatively safeguarded by neighbouring reefs sending propagules, but there is only so much these reefs can take.

Even conservative estimations predict that all coral ecosystems could be lost by the end of this century. So although this paper is good news in that it shows another way in which corals can recover after severe damage, the pressures facing coral reefs are ever worsening and need to be addressed.

Things are Looking Up: Sharks and Manta Rays

My posts have been pretty depressing recently so I thought I’d look for something slightly more positive to write about. It is relatively difficult to find positive stories when it comes to the state of our world’s wildlife, but I found some happiness in sharks and manta rays.

A Slightly Depressing Start…

The CITES conference that has taken place over the last couple weeks has featured quite a lot in some of my more recent posts. It was where the proposals for the legal trade of rhino horn and polar bear hunting ban were rejected. Generally I have had quite a negative slant on the outcomes of the conference so here comes a more positive outcome.

Sharks and manta rays are facing increasing levels of exploitation. Once again there is increasing demand for them in Asia which is only worsening due to the increasing wealth in this continent. China’s insatiable demand for shark fin for their soup and use of manta ray gill rakers for medicinal properties is tempting many people into the poaching industry.

The sharks and rays are common in coastal regions where many poor people live. The poaching provides a stable income on which many people rely on. 1kg of shark fin can be sold for over $100 on the black market, which is a large amount of money for many of these poachers.

The increasing demand for these products with Asia’s increasing wealth is tempting more people into poaching, but is having a huge detriment on the shark and ray populations. Inhambane is a coastal region of Mozambique and has seen an 87% decrease in shark numbers in the last 10 years alone. This region’s thriving sea life brought in tourists from all over the world, as people could see 7-8 sharks on one dive. Now however, it is a very different story. The chances of seeing even one shark are pretty poor and this has led to a huge decrease in the number of tourists being attracted to the area.

Some Good News I Promise…

This is the case in many regions where these sharks and rays used to thrive. Local economies have suffered and more and more people are turning to more environmentally damaging practices like poaching. It has been a vicious cycle and this has now been internationally recognized by CITES.

At the conference 2/3 of the CITES parties had to vote in favour of the proposal to protect shark and manta ray species. Success was seen, with 5 shark species and 2 manta ray species being granted protection under CITES. Some of these chosen few include the oceanic white tip shark, porbeagle sharks and 3 species of hammerhead sharks.

This is a great step in the right direction for conservation of these animals. The trading of these animals is a big problem but this action has been taken at a good time. It should hopefully ensure their protection in the future by targeting protection more effectively. With demand increasing, well thought out conservation should help to safe guard these animals from the ever increasing threats.

Research Progress for Rays and Sharks

To ensure effective conservation attempts more information is going to be needed. Research into the current population sizes and assessment of the market data would be a good start, and the good news is, this is already underway.

A team from Equipe Cousteau and The Deep have just finished the first phase of their shark and ray conservation project. The expedition was led by Nigel Hussey and Steven Kessel, both marine biologists from the University of Windsor and members of the Ocean Tracking Network.

The work was carried out at Dungonab Bay marine park in the Sudanese Red Sea. With the help of local conservation teams and fishermen, the team managed to successfully tag 22 manta rays with acoustic, satellite and GPS tags. This is the first time the manta rays have been tagged in such a way and is a huge step in increasing our knowledge of these amazing creatures. The acoustics will be monitored and the GPS tags will allow tracking of these rays enabling us to monitor their movements.

This will provide precious data about the rays which can hopefully work to enable better application of conservation measures especially on the back of the new CITES protection.

Genetic work has already found that the majority of the manta rays may in fact be the giant manta ray species rather than the coastal manta ray species which was previously believed. So already, this research is improving population data for these quite poorly researched animals.

They next phase of the research will be focusing efforts on sharks and hopefully equally promising results will be seen.

I feel that this is a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise depressing world of conservation failures and needs. Fingers crossed more cases like this will begin to receive more support and media coverage to capture increased public interest. The state of the world’s wildlife is pretty tattered, but cases like this are helping to patch up some of this mess. There is no miracle cure for the state of the Earth, but a gradual and widespread recovery process is going to be needed to make the difference.

To Legalise or Not to Legalise? Rhino Horn Trade

SA rhino poaching at record high

This week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are meeting in Bangkok to discuss the current and future threats to wildlife. The ivory trade is set to be a hot topic at the conference. This has been proven already with the announcement of a ban on the trade of elephant tusk in Thailand last week. A highly controversial proposal is also being put forward this year, calling for the legalisation of the African rhino horn trade.

A ban on the trade of rhino horn has existed since 1977, but it is failing to protect the rhinos which are being illegally slaughtered for their precious horn. The demand for rhino horn is rapidly increasing as buyer countries like China and Vietnam become richer.  With the ban in place, the only way this huge demand can be supplied is by illegal poaching.

With rhino numbers ever dwindling and demand ever increasing, horn is becoming more and more expensive. One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch $68 000 in the illegal markets; this makes it more valuable than gold. This combined with the inadequate enforcement of penalties by often corrupt governments means the benefits of poaching far outweigh the potential risks. Wealthier poachers mean the use of more technologically advanced and efficient methods of poaching. The conservation efforts are struggling to keep up and therefore, rhino populations are falling dramatically.

A Legal Market

Dr Biggs and his colleagues at the University of Queensland believe that legal trade is the only way to supply the “insatiable international demand” for rhino horn, whilst simultaneously protecting the rhinos. They suggest that a highly regulated and monitored legal trade could fulfil these needs as the profits made from this legal market can go directly to the conservation of the rhinos.

The reason this legal trade could be possible is due to the fact that rhino horn is made of keratin and therefore constantly grows, much like our own fingernails. So this means that rhino horn can essentially be harvested. Most illegal poachers kill rhinos for their horns, but Dr Biggs and his colleagues state that “sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.”

This kind of approach has seen success in the crocodile skin market, but can it be applied to rhinos? The researchers believe it can, but there is concern that legalising will only increase the demand further so that the legal market alone is not enough.

However, Dr Biggs and his colleagues believe that if the trade is controlled solely by one central selling organisation (CSO), successful legal trade could be possible. They believe that selling in this way will enable much easier identification of changes in demand and the presence of illegal traders and suppliers.

Legal trading should drive down the high prices and tempt buyers away from the more risky illegal suppliers. This should in turn lead to a huge reduction in the levels of illegal poaching and enable more efficient protection of these unique animals.

Dr Biggs has stated that he believes the rhino horn trade “is an urgent issue, we must start the process of getting a legal trade evaluated and put in place soon.” It has been predicted that it could take up to six years to get this system into place. The big question here is whether the rhinos can continue to be exploited for that long.