African Elephants Slaughtered for Ivory at Alarming Rate

The slaughter of more than 20,000 African elephants for their ivory last year is putting some local populations at an immediate threat of extinction, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The United Nations-linked conservation agency warns that criminal bands and rebel militias are killing the animals to cash in on the thousands of dollars per kilo the ivory fetches.

CITES says this is the third consecutive year that more than 20,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa, leaving only about 500,000 left on the continent.

Meanwhile, one of the world’s largest and best-known elephants was killed and mutilated for its ivory in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.

“Satao” was a favorite among visitors and rangers alike before poachers hacked off his face and took his long, massive tusks.

“Satao” before poachers killed and mutilated the popular Kenyan tourist attraction for its ivory.


Great white sharks seeing a population boom in waters off Eastern US and Canada

A report that scientists are calling one of the most comprehensive studies of great white sharks finds their numbers are surging in the ocean off the Eastern U.S. and Canada after decades of decline.

The study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, says the population of the notoriously elusive fish has climbed since about 2000 in the western North Atlantic.

The scientists behind the study attribute the resurgence to conservation efforts, such as a federal 1997 act that prevented hunting of great whites, and greater availability of prey. The species is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“The species appears to be recovering,” said Cami McCandless, one of the authors. “This tells us the management tools appear to be working.”

Great whites owe much of their fearsome reputation to the movie “Jaws,” which was released 39 years ago Friday. But confrontations are rare, with only 106 unprovoked white shark attacks — 13 of them fatal — in U.S. waters since 1916, according to data provided by the University of Florida.

They are, though, ecologically critical. They are apex predators — those at the top of the food chain — and help control the populations of other species. That would include the grey seal, whose growing colonies off Massachusetts have provided food.



Malawi’s prized chambo fish faces extinction

In the last decade the once abundant catch of fresh fish in Lake Malawi has shrunk by 90 percent.

In the past, fishermen would on average catch roughly 300 kilograms of fish a day, but that haul has dropped to no more than 25 kilograms.

“We go fishing but never come back with much,” said Njeleza, a local fisherman, waiting by the lake with a bag full of homemade jewellery slung over his shoulder. “And we don’t catch big fish.”

Lake Malawi, one of the deepest in the world, is estimated to have the largest concentration of freshwater fish species — up to 1,000, according to the UN Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

And a local favorite, the Oreochromis lidole or “chambo” as it is known in this landlocked southeast Africa state where it is a vital source of protein for millions of poor, is among the hardest hit.

In its last study on chambo, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated in 2004 that the population had declined 70 percent over the previous 10 years.

Overfishing is the main cause, and scientists blame both a lack of government muscle to enforce seasonal fishing bans as well as environmental degradation.

“The primary reasons why the fish stocks, specifically chambo, are going down is overfishing, and degradation issues because of factors related to the effects of climate change,” said William Chadza, director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Blantyre, the country’s finance and commerce hub.

Climate change is said to have affected rainfall patterns and caused a drop in the lake’s water levels, also hit by the effects of deforestation on tributaries feeding the lake.



Hyena Terror Grips Eastern Zimbabwe

Attacks by rabid hyenas in eastern Zimbabwe are forcing residents to remain indoors at night and leaving many too afraid to collect food even during the day.

The Herald reports that the animals had previously gone after only livestock.

But it says an expanding population and development are now bringing humans into contact with the mainly nocturnal predators.

“We used to hear hyenas laughing from a distance, and everyone knew that they would not travel all that way to attack humans,” councilman Charles Mukanwa told the Harare-based daily.

“But now the situation is different. We have people who are building their houses where the wild animals used to dominate,” Mukanwe said.

A recent attack took villagers by surprise as one of the apparently rabid animals attacked people sitting in their huts.

Hyenas in parts of Zimbabwe are turning from their usual prey to attack humans moving into their habitat.



Iberian Lynx in Crisis: Virus Outbreak Threatens the World’s Most Endangered Cat

Hidden in the marshes and mountains of southwestern Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, the last Iberian lynx may be quietly padding into history.

The lynx’s future depends on whether its sole prey, the European rabbit, can survive an outbreak of a disease known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV). A new variant of RHDV has arrived with a vengeance, leaving dead rabbits across Iberia—and lynx with little to eat. RHDV has appeared at least twice before in other variants, and has caused precipitous declines in rabbit populations. The new strain will further bottom-out rabbit numbers.

As a result, the critically endangered Iberian lynx may be the first feline to go extinct since the saber-toothed tiger millennia ago. Iberian lynx are on the brink, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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Deadly starfish disease explodes on Oregon coast

As scientists continue to puzzle over the cause of a devastating starfish disease, the outbreak this month spread rapidly north along the coast of Oregon, where ocean experts are now expecting a widespread die-off with some local extinctions of starfish possible.

Sea star wasting syndrome is a traumatic process in which, over the course of a week or less, the sea stars begin to lose legs, disintegrate, ultimately die and rot. They sometimes physically tear their bodies apart. Various epidemics of the syndrome have been observed in the past, but none of this extent or severity, according to information released by Oregon State University.

The spread into Oregon is part of an epidemic of historic magnitude, one that threatens to decimate the entire population of purple ochre sea stars, according to OSU marine biologists.

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California Drought ‘Emaciates’ Hawks and Owls, Forces a Lost Generation

Perpetual drought across the coastal regions of Southern California has left raptors emaciated, contributing to silence in their once populated breeding grounds.

In regions usually swarming with hawks and other birds of prey, nests remain empty, Audubon California Bird Conservation Program Director Andrea Jones said.

“We’re losing an entire generation,” Jones said. “This has been going on for a while and we have seen significant declines in species including red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles and White-tail Kites.”

A major contributing factor is the drastically reduced food supply consisting of insects and small mammals that various bird species feed upon.

“The impact of the drought has been pretty severe,” Jones said. “We know that it is one of the worst breeding seasons on record.”

Jones said that there have been very few active nests spotted, including a webcam set up to observe the nesting of Barn Owls located at Audubon California Starr Ranch Sanctuary. “Birds are just not nesting,” she said. “They’re not laying eggs.”

Even though one Barn Owl egg was laid at Starr Ranch Sanctuary, it was abandoned by its mother because the male quit supplying her with food, Jones said.

Barn Owls can lay many eggs at a time, but even the lonesome egg could not be supported this March. The embryo later died after being completely ignored upon its mother’s return.

Jones said various species of bird are emaciated and are not exhibiting normal breeding behaviours.

The drought is impacting the entire ecosystem – because of a lack of grass, which inhibits insects and small mammals from reproducing, it has reduced the supply of a variety of species, not just birds, she said.

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Zebras make ‘longest trek in Africa’

At a time when mankind’s encroachment on habitats is increasingly leading species to extinction, scientists have discovered a mass migration of animals in Africa that reaches farther than any other documented on the continent.

The journey made by about 2 000 zebra who travelled between Namibia and Botswana, two countries in a sparsely populated part of southern Africa, was discovered by wildlife experts only after some of the zebras were collared with tracking devices.

The newfound migration is a rare bright spot at a time when mass movements of wildlife are disappearing because of fencing, land occupation and other human pressures.

The previously unheralded trek occurs within the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which is the size of Sweden and encompasses national parks in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola.

The zebra odyssey encompasses a roundtrip journey of 500 kilometres, starting in floodplains near the Namibia-Botswana border at the beginning of the wet season. It follows a route across the Chobe River and ends at the seasonally full waterholes and nutritional grass of Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana. The zebras spend about 10 weeks there before heading back.



More Whales Bringing More Collisions With Ships

A bumper population of whales feeding off the coast of New England appears to be responsible for the unusually high incidence of ships striking the marine mammals during recent weeks.

Of the three strikes during May, one involved a cruise ship hitting a sei whale and inadvertently dragging it into the Hudson River.

The attached dead animal was not discovered until the ship reached port.

The U.S. agency NOAA said another sei was found dead and attached to a container ship that was docking near Philadelphia three days later.

NOAA believes the whales may be following food sources unusually close to shore when they haplessly swim into shipping lanes.

Operators of whale-watching excursions in coastal waters off Boston report 20 to 30 whales are being spotted on every cruise — 10 times the usual number.


Extinction Rates Soar to 1,000 Times Normal

Species on Earth are going extinct at least 1,000 times faster than they would be without human influence, new research finds. But there’s still time to save the world from this biodiversity disaster.

Between 100 and 1,000 species per million go extinct every year, according to the new analysis. Before humans came on the scene, the typical extinction rate was likely one extinction per every 10 million each year, said study researcher Stuart Pimm, a Duke University biologist.

These numbers are a big increase from the previous estimates, which held that species were going extinct 100 times faster than usual, not 1,000 times faster or more. But despite the bad news, the research is “optimistic.” New technology and citizen scientists are allowing conservationists to target their efforts better than ever before.

Pimm and his colleagues have long worked to understand the effect of humanity on the rest of the species that share the planet. In the history of life on Earth, five mass extinctions have wiped out more than half of life on the planet. Today, scientists debate whether humanity is causing the sixth mass extinction.

This question is trickier than it may seem. Certainly, humans have driven species from the dodo to the Tasmanian tiger to the passenger pigeon to extinction. There’s no doubt that continuing deforestation and climate change will destroy even more species, including some humanity will never get the chance to discover. But researchers don’t even know for sure how many species exist on the planet. About 1.9 million species have been described by science, but estimates as to how many are out there range from 5 million to 11 million.

“People often say that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction,” Pimm said. “We’re not in the middle of it — we’re on the verge of it. And now we have to tools to prevent it.”


Shark Sanctuary Established in British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands recently became the third Caribbean territory to declare its waters a safe haven for sharks. The decision to establish a shark sanctuary bans shark fishing throughout the territory.

Five Alaska Wolf Pups Rescued by Firefighters

Firefighters rescued five wolf pups from an abandoned den as they battled the massive Funny River Fire in southern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The pups had not been hurt by the blaze. Medics with the fire crew fed the fuzzy brown puppies glucose (sugar water) and plucked porcupine quills from their skin.

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Huge Swath of Amazon Preserved in Record-Setting Deal

On May 21, the Brazilian government, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and partners announced the creation of a $215 million fund to ensure long-term protection of the world’s largest network of protected areas — 150 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Thanks to an innovative long-term financing model, 150 million acres will be protected permanently, which amounts to fifteen percent of the Brazilian Amazon. That’s equivalent to three times the size of all U.S. national parks combined.

Conservation groups been working on this with the government of Brazil and partners for more than a decade, and there already are almost 100 protected areas encompassing 128 million acres. These were selected based on the rich and unique diversity of habitats and species found there. Half of them are strict conservation areas, some appropriate for tourists, others only for biological research. The others are sustainable-use areas where local people can harvest natural resources, such as rubber or nuts.

The conservation value of that amount of protected areas is cause for celebration in and of itself. But what’s truly groundbreaking is its funding mechanism.

An unprecedented number of partners created an extraordinary $215 million transition fund to help the Brazilian government manage the protected areas for the next 25 years. During that time, Brazil gradually will increase its own contributions with the intention of establishing permanent financing as the money in the transition fund draws down.

This deal comes at a critical time. When you think of the Amazon, you may imagine only a wild and remote region. But development is creeping in to this important wilderness, and it’s already starting to change. These protected areas are vital to ensure that species, like those spider monkeys I studied, have plenty of forest habitat, and to safeguard natural resources.



Fish Die-Off in Los Angeles – USA

Thousands of anchovies turned up dead in Southern California’s Marina del Rey over the weekend after suffocating in the harbour, state officials said.

A fish die-off like this hasn’t been seen in recent memory at Marina del Ray, a coastal community just north of Los Angeles International Airport.

The anchovies most likely became trapped in the harbor and died of oxygen depletion, investigators with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

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Coral bleaching is devastating reefs around the globe

The industrial age of fossil fuels has severely changed the Earth’s ocean ecosystems. Our oceans absorb about one-third of human-caused carbon-dioxide, but unfortunately rising emissions have surpassed what the oceans can sustainably absorb.

As the world continues to burn fossil fuels at an increasing rate, people are pumping more and more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which act like a blanket over the Earth, causing the planet to warm. The warming and the increased carbon dioxide in the oceans are combining to put coral reefs, some of the most biodiverse and important ecosystems on the planet, in jeopardy.

Though associated with warm waters, coral reefs are highly susceptible to increases in water temperature. Most corals get their energy, nutrients and vibrant colour from algae that live symbiotically within the corals’ tissues, but when water temperatures get too high, corals expel these algae, losing their colour and nutrients — the resulting stark white appearance is called coral bleaching. If the coral does not regain algae, the coral polyps eventually die, because they cannot live long-term without these nutrient-supplying algae.

While a variety of stressors can trigger coral to expel their algae, ocean warming is one of the most prevalent causes. Even a minute increase in average temperatures can result in coral bleaching, and in some cases, large areas of coral reefs will expel their algae, resulting in mass bleaching events. Coral reefs build up over thousands of years, yet the rapid pace of global warming can cause coral bleaching — which is disastrous and extremely difficult for reefs to recover from — at a much faster pace.

The changing ocean chemistry is also causing the seas to become more acidic. Ocean acidification threatens coral reefs, as it threatens the ability of corals — as well as other animals like oysters, mussels, clams and pteropods, foundational to the ocean food chain — to create their calcium carbonate skeletons. When carbon dioxide interacts with seawater, chemical reactions deplete substances that are vital for the growth of coral skeletons. When these substances disappear, corals start to grow more slowly. Compounded with this, is the fact that as the oceans become more and more acidic, coral skeletons could actually start to dissolve — a fate already befalling pteropods.

Coral reefs have already faced losses from other human activity, like destructive fishing, pollution and sedimentation. These coral reefs are highly vulnerable to future losses from ocean warming and acidification because of the damages already incurred. Researchers estimate that roughly 80 percent of Caribbean coral cover has been reduced, with an approximate 50 percent reduction rate in the Pacific. Coral reefs are home to one-quarter of all known fish species, and must be protected from future damage.

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New ‘Penguin Flu’ Found in Antarctica

A new version of bird flu unlike any other seen on Earth has been discovered in Antarctica, researchers have announced.

However, the flu’s gene segments show no sign that the virus is particularly deadly, nor is it adapted to transmit to mammals. An attempt to infect ferrets (an animal commonly used in flu studies) with the disease failed to get the ferrets sick.

The study does raise “a lot of unanswered questions,” study researcher Aeron Hurt of the World Health Organization’s centre for flu research in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement. Mysteries include how often avian flu viruses are introduced to the isolated continent of Antarctica and how they persist year after year.

Previous studies of penguins in Antarctica had found that multiple species of the bird sometimes carry flu antibodies in their blood. Antibodies are proteins created by the immune system in response to an infection.

But no one had ever found the virus itself. Hurt and his colleagues swabbed the tracheas and cloacas (waste and reproductive orifices) of 301 Adélie penguins from Admiralty Bay and Rada Covadonga on the Antarctica Peninsula. The researchers were also able to take blood samples from 270 of the birds.

In eight cases, the swabs turned up an influenza virus. The team was successfully able to culture four of the viruses in the lab, and found that all were strains of H11N2, a version of avian flu.

Intriguingly, these H11N2 strains did not look like strains seen elsewhere on Earth. Because avian flu is spread by migratory birds, strains tend to cluster in two groups defined by bird migrations: North American strains and Eurasian strains. Very little is known about avian flu in the Southern Hemisphere. Of 19,784 publicly available bird flu genetic sequences, only 5.7 percent come from Africa, 1 percent come from Australia and Oceania, and 0.1 percent come from South America.

Four of the gene segments analyzed in the new penguin flu look most similar to North American avian influenzas from the 1960s to the 1980s, while other segments look closer to South American strains, the researchers report today (May 6) in the journal mBio. One gene sequence looks most similar to H3N8, a virus known to infect horses, dogs and seals as well as birds.

Judging by the rate of evolutionary change in the virus, Hurt and his colleagues estimate that the virus has been evolving on its own in Antarctica for between 49 and 80 years. Migratory birds that travel to and from Antarctica, such as skuas and giant petrels, may be responsible for carrying flu viruses to penguin populations, the researchers wrote in mBio. Marine mammals such as seals could spread the viruses, too. Another possibility, they wrote, is that avian flu circulates among penguins and other birds in the summer and becomes frozen in ice over the winter, only to reactivate during the summer thaw.

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Chernobyl Disaster Zone Birds Thriving with Radiation

Some species of birds living in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone appear to be thriving, and maybe even benefiting, from long-term exposure to radiation.

Since the 1990s, researchers have captured and examined 16 different bird species and measured for radiation levels, oxidative stress and DNA damage.

They also checked levels of pigments in the feathers and found that birds with the most red pigments had the greatest problems in coping with radiation.

The findings were published in the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology.

“Previous studies of wildlife at Chernobyl showed that chronic radiation exposure depleted antioxidants and increased oxidative damage,” said lead author Ismael Galván. “We found the opposite — that antioxidant levels increased and oxidative stress decreased with increasing background radiation.”

The Chernobyl disaster occurred just over 28 years ago in northern Ukraine, contaminating a wide area of Europe and forcing authorities to establish an exclusion zone around the wrecked nuclear plant.

But it has also provided a working laboratory for scientists to study how long-term radiation affects wild animals and plants.



Starving NYC Rats Ate Trees During Polar Vortex Winter

The past winter, dominated by the polar vortex, was so harsh that it drove New York City rats to eat trees to survive, according to a U.S. Forest Service scientist.

“With the deep snow and the cold winter, probably they didn’t have access to the normal food supply and it was a lot colder this winter,” research ecologist Rich Hallett told WNYC.

“So they went after the trees.” The tenacious rodents gnawed through the bark to get to a sugary layer for nourishment and energy.

In some of the most extreme cases, the rats can chew all the way around the base of a trunk in a practice called girding, which usually kills the tree.

But experts warn that some of the coldest winter weather on record is not likely to have made a significant dent in the rat population.