Apr 19

Masked men have raided a storeroom in the National Museum of Ireland and stolen four rhino heads believed to be worth a total of £430,000 on the black market.

Black rhino image

The black rhino is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Night-time raid

Police have revealed that the lone security guard on duty Wednesday night at the museum’s storeroom in Swords, north of Dublin, was tied up by three masked men who broke into the building. The security guard later managed to free himself and raise the alarm.

During the raid, the thieves managed to escape with the heads of three black rhinos from Kenya, as well as one from a northern white rhino, a subspecies on the very brink of extinction. The horned mammals had all been killed more than a century ago and, until recently, had been on public display at the museum itself. The rhino heads, each of which sports two valuable horns, had been removed from the exhibit last year and placed in storage, in order to protect them from being targeted by thieves.

Northern white rhino image

In 2006, as few as four northern white rhinos were thought to exist in the wild

Powdered horn

Nigel Monaghan, keeper at the museum’s Natural History section, has said that, based on their weight, the eight horns could be worth up to £430,000 on the black market. Despite being made of keratin, the same fibrous protein that makes up our own hair and nails, and having no documented medicinal value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine.

In countries such as China and Viet Nam, powdered rhino horn is marketed as being an aphrodisiac and a cure for serious diseases, including cancer. As a result, rhino horn is considered to be extremely valuable, and its illegal trade has led to three of the five rhino species in Africa and South Asia being classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – Rhino heads seized in gang raid on Ireland’s national museum.

View photos and videos of rhino species on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Mar 5

African forest elephants have undergone a 62% decline in 10 years and face extinction if drastic measures are not taken, according to a new study.

Photo of forest elephant bull

Mature male forest elephant

The study was the largest ever conducted on the forest elephant. Led by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), it involved over 60 scientists who surveyed the forests of Central Africa between 2002 and 2011, recording signs of forest elephants as well as human signs such as snares and bullet casings.

The results of the study, published in the journal PLoS One, confirmed the scientists’ fears. As well as suffering a huge population decline, the forest elephant has been lost from nearly a third of its range since 2002, and large areas where the species roamed just ten years ago now have few elephants remaining. Unless urgent action is taken, the species could face extinction within the next decade.

Although we were expecting to see these results, we were horrified that the decline over the period of a mere decade was over 60%,” said Dr Fiona Maisels, a WCS conservation scientist from the University of Sterling and one of the lead authors of the study.

Photo of forest elephant infants

Forest elephant infants

Poached for ivory

The forest elephant is smaller than its more familiar relative, the savanna or African elephant, and is also distinguished by its smaller, rounded ears and straighter, downward-pointing tusks. The two are considered by many to be separate species.

The study found that the main cause of the forest elephant’s dramatic decline is poaching for its ivory. Even large tracts of intact forest have lost most of their elephants, and the species’ decline was associated with areas of high human density, high hunting intensity, lack of law enforcement, and infrastructure such as roads, which allow poachers easy access to the forest.

Photo of forest elephant bull

Forest elephant bull

Research by the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme run by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has shown that the increase in poaching of elephants across Africa is strongly correlated to an increase in consumer demand for ivory in the Far East.

Icon of the forest

Conservationists have warned that urgent action is needed to save the forest elephant. Illegal ivory poaching and encroachment into elephant habitat must to be stopped, and the international demand for ivory needs to be reduced.

Photo of large bonfire of confiscated African elephant ivory

Large bonfire of confiscated African elephant ivory

The latest study has been released to coincide with the 2013 CITES Conference of the Parties, taking place in Bangkok from 3rd to 14th March. Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has already pledged at the conference to amend Thai laws to end the country’s ivory trade. However, further action is still needed.

The WCS is advising that CITES review the enforcement gaps and needs – at all points in the trade chain from the field to the marketplace – that have led to the failure of the current ivory trade regulation system,” said Dr Maisels. “Reducing chronic corruption and improving poor law enforcement, which facilitate poaching and trade, are crucial. It is also vital to improve control of import and sales of wildlife goods by the recipient and transit countries of illegal ivory, especially in Asia.”

Photo of forest elephant herd in bai digging for salt

Forest elephant herd digging for salt

The forest elephant is not only an icon of Africa’s forests, but also plays a key role in their health, by dispersing seeds, clearing trails, and helping to maintain the forests’ biodiversity. Saving this iconic elephant will therefore also be vital for the conservation of many other forest species.

Saving the species requires a coordinated global effort in the countries where elephants occur – all along the ivory smuggling routes, and at the final destination in the Far East. We don’t have much time before elephants are gone,” said Dr Maisels.

 

Read more on this story at BBC Nature News – African forest elephants decline by 62% in 10 years and WCS – Extinction looms for forest elephants.

View photos and videos of elephants on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Feb 11

In the past few weeks, we’ve looked at Africa’s Top Ten Iconic Animals, as well as its ‘Big Five and Little Five’. But what about some of the continent’s equally fascinating but slightly less famous inhabitants?

Here at ARKive we thought it was time to give some more enigmatic African animals a chance at stardom. Join us as we explore some of Africa’s weird and wonderful lesser-known creatures!

Potto

Photo of potto

The potto is an unusual nocturnal primate found across the tropical forest belt of western, central and eastern Africa. This thick-furred, tree-dwelling species climbs with slow, deliberate movements, aided by its powerful grasp and highly mobile wrist and ankle joints. The potto has a bony ‘shield’ on the back of its neck which is covered in a layer of thick fur and highly sensitive skin. Although the exact function of this shield is debated, it may provide protection against predators or play a role in social behaviour.

Bongo

Photo of juvenile female eastern bongo

A particularly striking mammal, the bongo is the largest and most colourful of all African forest antelope. Its rich chestnut-red coat and conspicuous white stripes make the bongo instantly recognisable, and its long, spiralling horns can reach up to about a metre in length. A shy and reclusive forest species, the bongo is found from West Africa to the Central African Republic and Sudan, and also has a small, isolated population in Kenya.

Secretarybird

Photo of secretarybird

A large and distinctive bird of prey, the secretarybird spends much of its time stalking across open ground on foot, earning it the title of ‘Africa’s marching eagle’. When it finds prey, it typically crushes it underfoot or repeatedly kicks it with its long, powerful legs before swallowing it whole. The secretarybird supposedly gets its name from its resemblance to an old-fashioned secretary, as its long, black crest resembles quill pens tucked behind the ears. Alternatively, its name may come from a French corruption of Arabic words meaning ‘hunter-bird’.

Goliath frog

Photo of goliath frog in habitat

As its name suggests, the goliath frog is the largest frog in the world, reaching lengths of 32 centimetres and weights of over 3 kilograms. Unlike most other frogs and toads, the goliath frog does not have a vocal sac and therefore does not use calls to attract a mate. This species inhabits fast-flowing rainforest rivers and cascades in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, where it is sadly under threat from deforestation, hunting for food and collection for the pet trade.

Ground pangolin

Photo of ground pangolin walking

The bizarre-looking ground pangolin belongs to an unusual group of armour-plated mammals which have a protective layer of overlapping scales covering the upper surface of the head, body and tail. When threatened, the ground pangolin may roll into a ball, protecting its more vulnerable underside and belly. Pangolins have strong claws for digging and for tearing apart ant and termite nests, and a long tongue for lapping up their prey.

African burrowing python

Photo of African burrowing python in defensive posture

The African burrowing python is a shy and elusive African snake which lives underground and hunts the nestlings of small mammals. The head, body and tail of this snake are more or less uniform in diameter, and its head so closely resembles the tail that it can be hard to tell which end of the snake is which. When threatened, the African burrowing python defends itself by rolling into a ball with its head protected in the centre of its coils, or it may lift the tail and move it around, distracting predators away from its vulnerable head region.

Black-footed cat

Photo of black-footed cat

A lesser-known relative of the more famous lion and leopard, the black-footed cat is Africa’s smallest wild cat and one of the smallest cat species in the world. Found in steppe and savanna habitats in southern Africa, this tiny predator is named for the black soles of its feet. The black-footed cat is a rare and secretive species which hunts at night, feeding on a variety of small mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. It may even sometimes kill prey up to twice its own weight.

Golden-rumped elephant-shrew

Photo of golden-rumped elephant-shrew twitching snout

Despite its name, the golden-rumped elephant-shrew is not closely related to shrews, instead bellowing to an ancient group of African mammals that also includes elephants, hyraxes and golden moles. This strange-looking species uses its long, flexible nose to search for insects and other invertebrates in leaf litter on the forest floor. If confronted by a predator, the golden-rumped elephant-shrew may alert the predator to the fact it has been spotted by loudly slapping its tail on the ground. Pairs of golden-rumped elephant-shrews are known to mate for life.

African harrier-hawk

Photo of African harrier-hawk landing

The African harrier-hawk is a relatively large but lightweight bird of prey with a small head and a patch of naked yellow skin on the face, which flushes red when the bird is excited. This species is unusual in its habit of actively searching for prey in trees, nests, among rock faces, or underneath objects on the ground. It can often be seen running up, clambering about in or even hanging from trees as it searches for food, and is able to use its remarkably flexible legs and feet to reach into nests, holes and crevices and extract prey.

Sagalla caecilian

Photo of Sagalla caecilian

Despite its earthworm-like appearance, the Sagalla caecilian is in fact a legless amphibian. This peculiar species is known only from a small area on Sagalla Hill in Kenya, where it spends its entire life underground. Uniquely among vertebrates, caecilians have a pair of retractable sensory tentacles on the head which, along with an acute sense of smell, may help these amphibians to locate their prey. The Sagalla caecilian lays its eggs in an underground chamber, and like related species it is likely to show an extraordinary form of parental care in which the hatchlings feed on the outer layer of the female’s skin.

 

This is just a small selection of Africa’s fascinating but lesser-known creatures. You can find out more about African wildlife by viewing photos, videos and fact-files of African species on ARKive.

Which other overlooked African species do you think deserve their moment in the spotlight?

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Feb 6

East Africa is a stunning region of the African continent. Marked by wonders such as the Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Rift Valley, this area is renowned for its high concentration of widlife.

After the new BBC series ‘Africa’ took viewers to the savanna for its second episode, ARKive Geographic chose to highlight the United Republic of Tanzania this month to follow suit and showcase a nation with endless savannas to explore, along with some unique wildlife that you may be less familiar with!

Armoured Arborist

The three-cusped pangolin is an arboreal mammal that is well adapted to life in the trees, with its prehensile tail and clawed feet. This nocturnal creature is active at night searching for food, primarily consisting of ants and termites. It feasts on these critters using its incredibly long tongue which can extend to around 25 centimetres! Pangolins typically defend themselves from predators by curling into a tight ball, creating effective armor with their sharp scales. They can be found in the forests of Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa, as well as some nations in western and southern Africa.

Swimming Spelunker

The Tanganyika blackfin belongs to the Cichlidae family of freshwater fish which are adapted to a wide range of ecological niches. This has resulted in the evolution of a huge diversity of species that live in close proximity. Like many cichlids, this species occurs in a number of different colour forms, including black, light grey and yellow.  This attractive fish occupies rocky regions along the shoreline in the southern parts of Lake Tanganyika governed by Tanzania and Zambia.

Fleet Flapjack

With its unusually thin, flat shell, the pancake tortoise is more agile than other tortoise species. Since this tortoise could easily be torn apart by predators with its softer shell, it must rely on its speed and flexibility to escape from dangerous situations. This rare reptile is found in rocky habitats, also known as kopjes, in Kenya and Tanzania. It is classified as a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List due to habitat destruction and over-harvesting for trade.

 Spicy Islander

Kirk’s red colobus is a leaf-eating monkey found only on Zanzibar, part of an archipelago formerly known as the Spice Islands off the coast of Tanzania. This primate is named after Sir John Kirk, the British Resident to Zanzibar who first identified the species. This attractive monkey has a dark red to black coat with a paler underside and distinctive pink lips and nose. Now Endangered as a result of high rates of deforestation, it is believed that fewer than 1,500 individuals exist in the wild.

Damsel in Distress

The Amani flatwing is a damselfly aptly named for its behaviour of spreading its wings out flat when resting. These little beauties begin their life as aquatic larvae and pass through a series of developmental stages as they grow. Depending on the species, this larval period can last from three months up to ten years! Currently known only from the Amani Sigi Forest of the East Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, the Amani flatwing is classified as Critically Endangered due to destruction and degradation of its habitat.

 Carrion Commander

Rueppell’s griffon is a large African vulture that feeds solely on carrion and the bone fragments of dead animals. These sky captians spend much of their day gliding on thermal wind currents, flying with slow, powerful wing beats and looking for food from above. Griffons have frequent squabbles with one another over food, with grunting and hissing often a part of their aggression. This amazing bird is listed as Endangered, and occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range, including the Serengeti National Park, a World Heritage Site and an important feeding area for the griffon.

Do you have a favorite savanna species to share with us? Find us on Twitter or Facebook!

Maggie Graham, ARKive Program Assistant, Wildscreen USA

Jan 16

Here in the ARKive office we can’t wait for the next installment of the new BBC series ‘Africa’, which kicked off earlier this month and is currently airing in the UK. Presented by Wildscreen patron Sir David Attenborough, the first chapter focused on the Kalahari desert in Africa’s southwest corner.

Having been inspired by this incredible first episode, we thought we would feature Botswana in ARKive Geographic this month, a land-locked nation with nearly 85% of its area falling within the Kalahari. Of course, Botswana also boasts the stunning Okavango Delta which supplies water to this region year-round, meaning that Botswana is teeming with a wonderful array of wildlife!

Creative Canine

African wild dog photo

The African wild dog, also known as the painted hunting dog, may appeal to many artists, as it illustrates nature’s sense of creativity. Their coats resemble an abstract painting from an art gallery, and no two dogs have the same pattern. These dogs hunt in packs, and are capable of taking down a wildebeest weighing up to 250 kg.  Another unique fact is that females can have litters of up to 10 pups, the largest litter size of any dog species. The African wild dog is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with potentially viable populations currently found in Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Wattled Wader

Wattled crane photo

One of six crane species in Africa, the wattled crane is not only the largest but also the rarest,  with the largest populations occurring in Botswana and Zambia. Appropriately named for the wattles that hang below their chin, a crane’s wattle signals aggression when elongated, and feeling threatened when it is retracted. These non-migrating birds are rather quiet unless they need to use their resounding bugle call!

Kalahari Kitten

Black-footed cat photo

The black-footed cat may look cuddly, but it is actually quite a formidable hunter. Despite being the smallest wild cat species in Africa, this nocturnal stalker is able to consume prey up to twice its own weight. This rare species is found in savannah habitats in the Kalahari and Karoo deserts, and is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, primarily due to poisoning and traps set out for other animals.

Bleeding Beauty

Bleedwood tree photo

The beautiful bleedwood tree is a tropical deciduous tree found in southern Africa, including the arid bushveld regions of Botswana. Its sweetly-scented, orange-yellow flowers bloom in spring and autumn. Its large leaves are up to 40 centimeters long, and its trunk varies in color from light brown to copper. The dark red, sticky sap from which the tree gets its name is used as a dye and has medicinal properties.

Sabred Sandman

Gemsbok photo

The gemsbok is a striking animal, with black and white facial markings and long saber-like horns. These heavy-bodied antelopes can be found in the semi-arid and arid grasslands, bushlands, sandy plains and dunes of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Incredibly, gemsbok can go much of the year without drinking any water, and as depicted by the photo, males establish territories and mating rights to females by fighting with their horns.

Do you have a Kalahari wildlife experience you would like to share with us? Find us on Twitter and Facebook!

Maggie Graham, ARKive Program Assistant, Wildscreen USA

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