Apr 18
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The most important eggs this Easter: Saving the Rarest Bird in Galapagos

Earlier in 2014, sixteen tiny eggs were collected from two small pockets of mangrove forest on the western side of Isabela in the Galapagos Archipelago. These eggs, each the size of the nail on your little finger, belong to one of the rarest and most range restricted birds in the world: the mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates). This small, brown, unassuming bird is one of the famous Darwin’s finches and is today the rarest endemic bird in Galapagos. There are less than 100 mangrove finches alive today and last year there were only 14 breeding pairs. But why are they so critically endangered?

Mangrove Finch © Michael Dvorak

Mangrove Finch © Michael Dvorak

Until recently, one of the main threats to mangrove finches was introduced rats. As generalist carnivores, rats would seek out and feed on the eggs and chicks of finches during the breeding season. Fortunately, rats are now being controlled at the breeding sites but now a much smaller invasive species poses an even larger threat.

Philornis downsi is a species of fly native to Trinidad and Brazil. It was introduced to Galapagos in the 1960s and has now spread to 14 islands within the Archipelago. The adults of this fly are harmless, feeding almost exclusively on nectar, but in their larval stage they are blood-sucking parasites. Female flies lay their eggs in the nests of small breeding land birds. Blind, naked and weak, the mangrove finch hatchlings are an easy target for the fly larvae which feed on their blood, very often resulting in the death of the chick. In 2013, 37% of chicks were killed this way – a massive hit to such a tiny population.

Philornis downsi larvae © A. Muth

Philornis downsi larvae © A. Muth

So why are the scientists removing eggs? In an effort to ensure that the mangrove finch does not become the first bird to go extinct in Galapagos since before Darwin’s time, scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation and San Diego Zoo are, with support from the Galapagos National Park, taking action. During the mangrove finch breeding season, females lay up to five clutches of eggs but the first few rarely survive. By taking this first clutch, hatching and raising the chicks in captivity, then releasing them back into the wild when they are old enough, the project should result in more individuals being added to the population each year.

Chick being hand fed © Juan Carlos Avila

Chick being hand fed © Juan Carlos Avila

By raising the chicks in captivity, they will have avoided the nest-bound parasites and will have been given a ‘head-start’ in life. 2014 was the first time ‘head-starting’ has been trialled on mangrove finches and it is proving a great success. The sixteen eggs have hatched and the mangrove finch chicks are being released back into the mangroves right now. The future of the mangrove finch is starting to look a little brighter.

2. Remaining mangrove finch habitat 2 - (c)Francesca Cunninghame

Remaining mangrove finch habitat © Francesca Cunninghame

For more information on the project and to keep up to date with progress, please visit www.mangrovefinchappeal.org

Apr 17
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Guest blog: Conserving Galapagos

Located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the volcanic Galapagos Islands are a living laboratory of evolution and a template for conservation for the rest of the world. Consisting of 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks, and surrounded by the 53,000 square miles of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (a World Heritage Site in its own right), this isolated environment is home to many unique species which vary from island to island. Charles Darwin’s appreciation of this distinctive quality has given Galapagos a special place in history and the development of modern science.

Galapagos Islands Map

Galapagos Islands map

Since Darwin’s time, travellers and settlers have disturbed the Islands’ ecological balance. In some cases, natural habitats and endemic species have been decimated and invasive plants and animals have become established, yet Galapagos remains one of the best-conserved tropical oceanic archipelagos in the world.

1. Bay with Pinacle Rock

Bay with Pinacle Rock, Galapagos © Phyl King

The Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) is the only UK charity to work exclusively towards a sustainable future for the Galapagos Islands. Supporting projects in the fields of science, education and culture since 1995, we have been working in programme areas including habitat restoration, invasive species management, sustainable development and education both locally in Galapagos and internationally.

1. Giant Tortoises

Galapagos giant tortoises © Alex Hearn

In the UK, we raise awareness of conservation matters in Galapagos through our network of committed supporters and the media. This year we are set to launch Discovering Galapagos - a brand new bilingual educational resource for use in the UK and Ecuador through which school children, our future conservation ambassadors, will use Galapagos as a template to learn about global conservation issues.

1. Marine Iguana

Galapagos marine iguana © Vanessa Green

Over the next few weeks, we are excited to be sharing with you via our friends at ARKive some of the cutting-edge conservation projects that we are supporting right now in the Islands.

For more information:

GCT Email: gct@gct.org
Website: www.savegalapagos.org
Discovering Galapagos website: www.discoveringgalapagos.org.uk
GCT Blog: http://galapagosblog.org/
GCT Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Galapagos-Conservation-Trust/33337561833
GCT Twitter: @galapagossip

Apr 12
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Endangered Species of the Week: Doria’s tree kangaroo

Doria's tree kangaroo image

Doria’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus dorianus)

Species: Doria’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus dorianus)

Status: Vulnerable (VU)

Interesting Fact: Doria’s tree kangaroo is the heaviest tree-dwelling marsupial in the world, weighing as much as 20 kilograms, and is capable of jumping down to the ground from a height of up to 18 metres without injury.

Despite its appearance and arboreal nature, Doria’s tree kangaroo is closely related to the well-known ground kangaroos that can be seen across Australian plains, and has similar strongly developed hindquarters and a long, well-furred tail. Unlike its Australian relatives, Doria’s tree kangaroo is endemic to the island of New Guinea, where it is found in the central highlands. This species has fairly long fur, which interestingly grows in a reverse direction on the back and neck. This is presumably to stop water running down its face, as this marsupial tends to sit with its head lower than its shoulders.

While Doria’s tree kangaroo is thought to still be common in some areas of its range, intense and consistent hunting pressure for its meat has led to the local extinction of many populations of this species. In the past, hunting of this prized game species by local people may have been sustainable, but advances in the development of hunting equipment, combined with a rising human population, has led to an increase in hunting. Habitat loss and degradation of forested areas as a result of exploitation for timber poses an additional threat to Doria’s tree kangaroo.

Doria’s tree kangaroo is legally protected in the Indonesian part of New Guinea. However, this is not yet the case in Papua New Guinea, and the protection of vital forest habitat in this region has been recommended to ensure the future survival of this intriguing marsupial. In addition, measures to control or restrict traditional hunting have been suggested as key factors in the conservation of this threatened species.

See images and videos of Doria’s tree kangaroo on ARKive.

Find out more about New Guinea and other South Pacific islands.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer

Apr 7
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Out on the Barren Isles: Part II – When the going gets tough!

Readers of the ARKive blog may remember that last year we featured a guest blog introducing the fantastic Barren Isles Project, which is working towards creating Madagascar’s largest locally-managed marine area (LMMA) in the Barren Isles. Recently Olivier Raynaud, the Barren Isles Project Coordinator, got in touch let us know how the project is progressing.

Barren Isles image

Head down under the rain the whole morning, bailing water out of the pirogue as it crashes back in at once, one can’t help but reflect on how this mission hasn’t quite gone to plan…

We’d originally set out for a two-week mission covering all of the nine islands and eight coastal villages which make up the Barren Isles, but now, just 6 days in, we’re headed home early, and let’s face it; this particular consultation trip to the Barren Isles has been less than successful. Uncooperative equipment was daunting enough, but a patch of unexpected inclement weather added insult to injury, forcing us to abort the mission and scramble back to the mainland.

Under more auspicious conditions, travelling in the Barren Isles does by no means convey a sense of hardship (© O. Raynaud)

Under more auspicious conditions, travelling in the Barren Isles does by no means convey a sense of hardship (© O. Raynaud)

In contrast to this undeniably disappointing mission, overall project development is relatively stable and encouraging, as we work our way towards Madagascar’s largest locally-managed marine area (LMMA) in the Barren Isles. If there’s anywhere that warrants protection in Madagascar’s coastal waters, it’s the Barren Isles archipelago. When out on the islands, I never miss a chance to duck in for a snorkel, and am always rewarded with pristine coral reefs teeming with fish. Despite hosting hundreds of migrant fishers every year, fish populations remain relatively in tact here, as the fishers, mostly coming from Madagascar’s southwest coast, are here in search of high-value sharks and sea cucumbers.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is why we’re engaging with local and migrant fishing communities, before these reefs and fish go the way of many of the reefs of southwest Madagascar. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for local shark and sea cucumber populations, which are already largely fished out.

The Malagasy government now has in its possession all the paperwork required to establish an official Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Barren Isles. Throughout the creation process, and beyond all the legal and scientific requirements, we, as project promoter, have gone to great lengths to ensure transparent and constant communication between all stakeholders by gathering together, on a regular basis, all actors relevant to the Barren Isles conservation initiative.

Indeed, strong community support and collaboration between stakeholders are the only chance for the MPA to be a success, as it will depend on local communities to both create and enforce the rules and regulations, in partnership with government representatives and industrial sectors.

Stakeholder meeting on the establishment of the Barren Isles Marine Protected Areas, Antananarivo

Stakeholder meeting on the establishment of the Barren Isles Marine Protected Areas, Antananarivo

For instance, when the initial outline for the MPA perimeter overlapped with industrial shrimp fishing grounds, back-to-back delimitation propositions were exchanged between traditional fishermen and the national industrial fishing lobby (Groupement des Aquaculteurs et Pêcheurs de Crevettes de Madagascar – GAPCM). The negotiations reached a win-win compromise, where a considerable portion of the ecosystem is to become off limits to trawlers, hence allowing the regeneration of stocks, and in turn increasing the productivity of adjacent fishing grounds.

This MPA protection status will regulate external and industrial threats to the local marine resources. It will also provide a legal framework for the broader LMMA approach, through which local issues (such as destructive fishing practices) will be addressed by elaborating and implementing a marine dina – a set of rules agreed on and enforced by the community.

It is precisely in order to finalize this dina with the fishing communities that we headed back off to the isles on our ill-fated trip.

Perimeter of the future Barren Isles Marine Protected Area

Perimeter of the future Barren Isles Marine Protected Area

Though the mission got off to a good start, with weather forecasts predicting clear skies and smooth sailing, by the second day it was quite apparent that the weather was not going to cooperate much longer. An evening thunderstorm on Nosy Lava put a serious damper on the open-air outreach activities we had planned- a mix of showing environmental documentaries, giving updates on the MPA creation process and fielding questions from the community- sending everyone running for cover. A downpour the following day, as well as confirmation that our resupply pirogue bringing fresh water from the mainland would not be able to make the trip, made up our minds, and so on the third day we headed out early, while the sea was still calm and the skies relatively clear.

Consultations with fishing communities on Nosy Lava and Nosy Manandra - when the weather cooperates (© O. Raynaud)

Consultations with fishing communities on Nosy Lava and Nosy Manandra – when the weather cooperates (© O. Raynaud)

After the very first leg of the trip, and its occasional waves actually crashing in the boat, our generator had already drowned. A day spent drying – as far as sitting disassembled in the ambient dampness can be called drying – and it was back to life; hopes were high!  All the Nosy Dondosy fishermen gathered round, and… as we pulled the starter rope, it snapped. The final blow. Bummer.

Encounters in the Barren Isles – ones we did not get a chance to have this time... (© O. Raynaud)

Encounters in the Barren Isles – ones we did not get a chance to have this time… (© O. Raynaud)

Back home, after a quick stop for a – not so well-deserved but nonetheless necessary – hot pizza and icy beer (funny thing about being on the islands during inclement weather is that the fishers can’t go fishing, so our dinners were limited to rice and beans), and nothing left to do but pull ourselves up by the boot straps, plan another trip and keep our fingers crossed that this crazy atypical weather finally moves on to bother someone else… Heads Up!

By Olivier Raynaud, Barren Isles Project Coordinator

Mar 31
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In the News: Vulture-killing veterinary drug approved for use in EU

The veterinary drug diclofenac, which has been held responsible for the devastating decline of Asian vulture populations, has been approved for use in the EU.

White-rumped vulture image

The white-rumped vulture suffered a population decline of 99.9 percent in just two decades

Deadly drug

Between 1991 and 2007, the population of the white-rumped vulture in India suffered an unprecedented drop of 99.9 percent, with corresponding reductions of 96.8 percent in both the Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture. Initially, scientists were baffled as to the possible reasons behind this decline, with conflicting explanations varying from the use of pesticides, to an increasingly westernised middle-class consuming more beef and therefore removing one of the vulture’s primary food sources, to the destruction of vulture nesting sites.

Eventually, it emerged that the true cause of vulture deaths across the Indian subcontinent was diclofenac, a powerful anti-inflammatory drug regularly prescribed by veterinarians to treat cattle. The vultures were ingesting the drug as they fed on dead livestock, causing severe kidney damage in the birds which led to death within just a few days.

Indian vulture image

The Indian vulture suffered a devastating population decline between 1991 and 2007

Indian ban on diclofenac

As a result of the discovery of the cause of the decline, veterinarians were subsequently banned from prescribing diclofenac across the region. However, despite these events and the fact that safe alternative drugs are now readily available, the European Union has recently sanctioned the use of diclofenac throughout all member countries. According to conservation groups, this could place European vulture species at risk of meeting a fate similar to that of their Asian counterparts, and could also threaten other wildlife.

It is shocking that a drug that has already wiped out wildlife on a massive scale in Asia is now put on the market in crucial countries for vulture conservation such as Spain and Italy, especially as the total ban on diclofenac in India has produced the first signs of recovery in Indian vultures,” said José Tavares, the Director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation.

Cinereous vulture image

The cinereous vulture is an impressive bird with a large wingspan

Vultures in Europe

Europe is home to an incredible ten species of vulture, eight of which are found in Spain. Of these, four are considered rare and threatened, and receive a certain level of protection under European law. Two such species are the cinereous vulture, an impressive bird with a wingspan of around three metres, and the Egyptian vulture, a species classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Spain is home to 97 percent of Europe’s cinereous vulture population and 85 percent of the continent’s Egyptian vulture population, as well as high proportions of other closely related species. Conservationists fear that the new ruling to allow the powerful anti-inflammatory drug to be distributed across the EU could put decades of vulture conservation efforts in Europe in jeopardy, particularly in vulture strongholds such as Spain.

Egyptian vulture image

Spain holds 85 percent of Europe’s Egyptian vulture population

Importance of vultures

While vultures may be viewed unfavourably by some, they play an extremely important role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of ecosystems through ecological recycling. These birds survive almost exclusively on carrion, and in countries such as Spain they consume the carcasses of livestock left in special sites known as ‘muladres’. By cleaning and disposing of these dead animals, vultures make a contribution to the health of local human communities, as this helps limit the populations of stray dogs which are enticed by the carcasses, and therefore reduces the potential for the transmission of life-threatening diseases such as rabies.

Call for action

A coalition of conservation organisations, which includes the Vulture Conservation Foundation, the RSPB and BirdLife Europe, is calling for an immediate continent-wide ban on diclofenac in Europe.

In a technical document released recently on diclofenac in Europe, conservationists wrote, “The case here is clear – it is really a question of learning from what happened in India, and also upholding and being coherent with the leading role of many EU policies, notably on nature conservation.”

It is hoped that enforcing a ban on diclofenac in Europe will encourage countries in Africa to follow suit in an effort to save the continent’s dwindling vulture populations.

Read more on this story at Mongabay.com – Europe approves vet drug that killed off almost all of Asia’s vultures and BirdLife International – Vulture killing drug now available on EU market.

View photos and videos of vultures on ARKive.

Find out more about vulture conservation at Tusk, VulPro, the Vulture Conservation Foundation and Save Our Species – Conserving South Asia’s Threatened Vultures.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer

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