Jul 17

Plans for a new opencast mine near South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve may increase pollution and poaching in the area, which would lead to further reductions in the size of the local southern white rhinoceros population. 

Among the most charismatic and recognisable of Africa’s mega-fauna, the white rhinoceros is the largest of the five rhinoceros species and one of the world’s biggest land animals, second only to the African and Asian elephant in size. A subspecies of white rhinoceros, the southern white rhinoceros, is currently the most numerous of all the world’s rhinos, and 93 percent of the total population is thought to occur in South Africa. This subspecies was rescued from near extinction a century ago, and represents a real conservation success story. In 1895, only around 50 individuals remained but careful conservation has increased this number to the 20,000 individuals that exist today. However, threats to the southern white rhinoceros are on the increase, and news of a proposed mining operation in close proximity to one of the most important nature reserve for this, and many other, species may spell disaster for this iconic animal.

The Near Threatened southern white rhinoceros is currently the most populous of the world’s rhinoceros species

The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa is the oldest nature reserve in Africa and was established in 1895, largely to protect the remaining population of the southern white rhinoceros. Situated at the confluence of the Black and White Umfolozi Rivers, this natural reserve is home to Africa’s ‘big five’, as well as innumerable other iconic species and over 340 bird species. There are fears that opencast coal mining in close proximity to the park may pollute the air and rivers, displace local communities, and threaten the southern white rhinoceros. Local communities’ fears are founded in experience, they say that drilling and blasting at the Somkhele coal mine, six miles away, already creates pollution and affects livestock. There are concerns that not only will the toxic dust from the new mine affect the local wildlife, but the influx of people is also likely to increase the accessibility of the park to poachers.

The African leopard is also found in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Poaching is an increasing threat to all rhinoceros species. Just 13 rhinoceros were killed in 2007, while recent figures show that over 500 have been killed so far in 2014, indicating the highest level of poaching since records began. The growing demand for rhinoceros horn is thought to be due to economic growth and increased disposable income in Southeast Asia and China, where the horn is used for traditional medicine and as a sign of prestige among the business elite. The price of rhinoceros horn is greater than that of gold, and poachers are becoming increasingly organised, and there have been many reports of helicopters and high-tech gadgetry being used in poaching attempts. It is thought that the mine could help to facilitate poaching, and increase the difficulty of policing the park. The response to the plans from local communities and conservationists worldwide has been one of concern and consternation.

The horn of the white rhinoceros is becoming a more valuable target for poachers due to increasing demand from Asia

Find out more about the white rhinoceros on Arkive.

Discover more South African species on Arkive.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – Mining poses new threat to world’s greatest rhino sanctuary.

Ben Hogan, Wildscreen ARKive PIPS Intern

May 22

Today is the United Nation’s International Day of Biological Diversity, which this year has been dedicated to island biodiversity.

Islands are home to an estimated 20% of all bird, reptile and plant species despite making up less than 5% of Earth’s land area. Islands also contain 40 percent of all critically endangered species, and the extinction rates on islands are disproportionately high despite a global extinction rate that may be 1000 times the historical background rate.

Islands contain 40 percent of all critically endangered species

“Biodiversity is crucial to meet human needs. Our economies, livelihoods, health, and cultures depend on the proper management of this natural capital.  This is even more important on islands where natural ecosystems are fragile and easily disturbed.” said Olivier Langrand, Island Conservation’s Director of Global Affairs, member of the Steering Committee of Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) and co-chair of the GLISPA Working Group on Invasive Alien Species.

The necessity of urgent action in aid of island conservation, to halt and reverse the loss in biodiversity is highlighted in the new publication , “Island Bright Spots in Conservation & Sustainability” by the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA). This report showcases inspired island conservation solutions in action, “bright spots”. These “bright spots” will also be showcased during the 2014 International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to encourage investment in scaling and replicating initiatives that work. In this publication Island Conservation’s Allen Cay and Small Islands, Big Difference (SIBD) projects are highlighted as successful examples that could serve as innovative models for island restoration around the globe.

Island Conservation’s Allen Cay

Allen Cay, The Bahamas is a small island habitat but is home to important populations of Audubon’s shearwater and provides critical habitat for the endemic, endangered Allen Cay rock iguana. However, invasive house mice were indirectly threatening the native species by providing an abundant food source for barn owls, increasing the owl populations, which predate heavily on Audubon’s shearwater and juvenile Allen Cay rock iguanas. In 2012, Island conservation collaborated with the Bahamas National Trust, Government, NGO and private partners to remove invasive house mice from Allen Cay. This successful partnership protected nationally and globally significant biodiversity, and laid foundations for future restoration and conservation projects in the Bahamas.

Allen’s Cay rock iguana on beach

Island Conservation’s Small Islands, Big Difference Project

Island Conservation’s Small Islands, Big Difference (SIBD) campaign was launched in Montreal, Canada in 2012. The goal of this campaign is to financially support hundreds of partners and island nations in protecting thousands of species through the removal of invasive species from 500 islands.

Island Conservation and local partners helped protect critical habitat for the waved albatross by removing invasive goats and feral cats from Isla de la Plata

The“Island Bright Spots in Conservation & Sustainability” publication also highlights emerging initiatives such as the recent launch of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a three year open-ocean journey around the world undertaken in two Hawaiian voyaging canoes. The aim of this project is to catalyse awareness and action on how to care for Earth, the Oceans and our natural heritage. The crew aim to bring stories of our islands and oceans to inspire communities and leaders to take action to protect these critical resources.

Read more about the importance of Islands habitats

Read more about Island Conservation.

Find out how the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage is progressing.

Ben Hogan, Wildscreen ARKive PIPS Intern

May 16

Island species are under threat.  Despite only making up about 3% of the Earth’s land area, islands are home to about 20% of all species and 50% of endangered species.

Approximately 80% of all known extinctions have occurred on islands. One of the primary causes for extinction of island species is the presence of invasive species. Since 1994, the charitable organisation Island Conservation has fought to prevent these extinctions by removing invasive species from island ecosystems.  Focusing on islands where the need is greatest, as biodiversity is concentrated and the rate of extinction is high, Island Conservation has deployed team members to 52 islands worldwide to protect 994 populations of 338 native species.

Invasive species are a threat to the Critically Endangered Juan Fernández firecrown

Once invasive species are removed, island ecosystems can often recover with little or no extra intervention. After the removal of invasive rats from Hawadax Island (formerly known as Rat Island), Alaska, bird species on the island increased dramatically and for the first time ever, breeding tufted puffins were documented on the island.

Working together with local communities, government management agencies and conservation organisations, Island Conservation enables many species to be brought back from the brink of extinction.

One such success story is the Anacapa Island Restoration Project. Invasive black rats on Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands Archipelago in California, were decimating native species populations, particularly the threatened Xantus’s murrelet (now renamed Scripps’s Murrelet),and the endemic Anacapa deer mouse. In 2001 and 2002, Island Conservation and partners removed invasive rats from Anacapa Island.  Since the removal of the rats, the nesting success of Xantus’s murrelet has increased by 90% and the Anacapa deer mice are thriving. In 2013, scientists documented the endangered ashy storm-petrel breeding on the island for the first time in history.

Anacapa Island

The removal of invasive species from island habitats has also led to the rediscovery of species once thought to be extinct. In 2011, Island Conservation and their partners removed invasive rats from Rábida Island, Galapagos to protect the native species.  A return visit to the island two years later led to an unexpected discovery of a gecko species, known only from subfossil records, which was thought to be extinct.

To date, Island Conservation have recovered and protected 338 seabird nesting colonies and taken action to restore 52 islands from the most damaging invasive animals.  With their continued work and the launch of Small Islands, Big Difference – a campaign which aims to save our world’s most vulnerable species by removing invasive species from islands at an accelerated rate, many more island species can be rescued from extinction.

Over the next few weeks we will be sharing with you more about the great work that Island Conservation have carried out.

For more information about Island Conservation visit their website or facebook page.

Discover ARKive’s favourite island species from around the world.

Dec 17

The Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), Rainforest Trust, Global Wildlife Conservation and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation have committed one million dollars to protect vital frog habitats around the world in the coming year.

Current figures from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate that around 30.2% of amphibian species are currently under threat of extinction, with 12.5% of birds and 20.6% of mammals also at risk. These statistics show that amphibians are by far the most threatened group of species and its members are in dire need of conservation efforts to secure their future survival. Amphibians are at the forefront of what is being described as the ‘sixth mass extinction event on earth’, with 120 species disappearing in recent years and around 7,000 amphibian species in decline.

Southern gastric-brooding frog image

The southern gastric-brooding frog is thought to have gone extinct in 1981

Sensitive souls

The class Amphibia contains frogs, salamanders, caecilians and toads, among many others. As a group, amphibians are extremely sensitive to environmental change and are often the first species to become locally extinct in a disturbed habitat.

It is thought that habitat loss is the primary threat to amphibian populations around the world, and the Leapfrog Conservation Fund will be used for management and protection of key habitats. Don Church, Executive Director of the ASA, said, “Habitat loss is the single biggest threat to the survival of amphibians worldwide. This million-dollar commitment represents a landmark in the battle to stem the alarming loss of frogs, salamanders and caecilians. We hope that it will encourage others to step forward and make a commitment to protecting amphibians and habitats.”

Although habitat loss is thought to be the primary cause of global declines, many other factors are also decreasing amphibian population numbers, including climate change, invasive species, over-collection and diseases such as chytridiomycosis.

Lemur leaf frog image

The Critically Endangered lemur leaf frog exists in just a few pockets of its former range due to the negative effects of habitat loss and chytridiomycosis

Action plan

The million-dollar Leapfrog Conservation Fund will be dispersed through the ASA and will be used to manage key amphibian habitats around the world. It is thought that there are around 940 amphibian species living in unprotected areas around the world, and many of these species have a very restricted range, which may be as small as a single stream or pond. The most threatened habitats will be prioritised and targeted for protection. As well as having a positive effect on the amphibians within the habitat, the fund will undoubtedly help to boost populations of other species.

Western Ghats waterfall image

Areas such as the Western Ghats rely on their amphibian biodiversity to sustain the ecosystem

Success story

Previous alliances between the ASA and other conservation organisations have been very successful. The forest of Sierra Caral in Guatemala was at risk of being destroyed for agriculture, before a team of amphibian specialists surveyed the area, finding 12 amphibian species, 5 of which were endemic to the area. Funds are now being raised to further protect the area and the species which inhabit it.

Partnerships are the key to success,” said Robin Moore, Conservation Officer with the ASA, Rainforest Trust and Global Wildlife Conservation. “We all have a stake in the future of our environment, and what is truly exciting about the Leapfrog Conservation Fund is that it represents an opportunity for unique collaborations to achieve a common goal – saving amphibians and habitats upon which we all depend.”

Hidden salamander image

The hidden salamander is one of Sierra Caral’s Critically Endangered amphibians

The future is bright

Dr Paul Salaman, Chief Executive Officer of the Rainforest Trust, said, “Amphibians represent an opportunity to stem biodiversity loss through relatively modest investments. We can literally save entire species through strategic habitat protection. We are thrilled to be able to make this commitment to protecting the most threatened vertebrate group in priority sites worldwide.”

For some amphibian species, such as the golden frog, it may be too late, but the Leapfrog Conservation Fund is definitely a step in the right direction to protect other species from a similar fate.

Golden frog image

The extinct golden frog has not been seen in the wild since 1989

For more information on the Leapfrog Conservation Fund or to apply for funding for a project, visit the Amphibian Survival Alliance homepage or contact Robin Moore at rdmoore@amphibians.org.

See the top 50 amphibians on ARKive, and many more amphibian photos and videos.

Hannah Mulvany, ARKive Content Officer.

Dec 9

The fascinating role of giant armadillos as ecosystem engineers has recently been described, thanks to the hard work and dedication of researchers in Brazil.

Giant armadillo image

Giant armadillo

The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project has been running since July 2010, establishing a long-term ecological study of giant armadillos and other species of Xenarthra at the Baía das Pedras Ranch in the Nhecolandia sub-region of the Brazilian Pantanal. One of the project’s main goals is to research the ecology and biology of giant armadillos in the region, and understand the contribution this species makes to its ecosystem.

Armoured animals

The giant armadillo is the largest species in a group of animals known as the Xenarthra, which also includes sloths and anteaters, and can reach up to 1.5 metres in length and weigh up to 50 kilograms. This nocturnal species is highly adapted to life underground, with large scimitar-shaped claws on its forefeet that help it to dig deep burrows.

Found east of the Andes, from Colombia and Venezuela southwards to Paraguay and northern Argentina, the giant armadillo occurs in a wide variety of habitats, including tropical forests and open savannahs. However, it is rare across its entire range, and very little is known about this rather secretive species. The giant armadillo has declined as a result of habitat loss and hunting, and is now classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and as Critically Endangered on many State lists in Brazil.

Giant armadillo camera-trap image

Camera-trap image of a giant armadillo from the project
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Fact-finding mission

In the Pantanal, most local people have never seen a giant armadillo, and there are fears this species could go extinct before its natural history is properly understood. The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project set out to use a variety of methods, including camera trapping, fitting radio transmitters, conducting burrow surveys, resource mapping and interviews, to get a better insight into the life of this mysterious mammal. What the researchers discovered showed the true importance of the giant armadillo to the species with which it shares its habitat.

Camera traps

For over two years, giant armadillo burrows were monitored using camera traps set up near the burrow entrance. These cameras are triggered by motion, and hundreds of images of 57 different species were obtained in this way during the research period. Interestingly, it was found that giant armadillo burrows provide new habitats and influence resources for at least 24 of these species.

It’s amazing to see that such a secretive species which occurs at such low densities can play such an important role within the ecological community,” said Arnaud Desbiez, Project Coordinator from The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Crab-eating fox camera-trap image

Crab-eating fox resting in a burrow during a hot day
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Unexpected visitors

Giant armadillo burrows can be up to five metres deep, and the camera trap images showed that 16 different species used these areas as a refuge against predators or against temperature extremes, as well as places to seek certain resources. The three other armadillo species found within the study area were all registered spending prolonged periods of time in the giant armadillo’s burrows, but the most surprising discovery came in the form of another member of the Xenarthra: the southern tamandua. The southern tamandua is known to be a tree-dwelling species, yet astonishingly it was the animal most often documented using the giant armadillo’s underground dwelling place. A whole host of other species, including ocelots, crab-eating foxes, lizards, tortoises and collared peccaries were also photographed entering the burrows.

Southern tamandua camera-trap image

Southern tamandua emerging from a burrow after a long period of rest
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

The sand mound

The researchers found that it wasn’t just the refuge provided by the deep burrows which was of use to other species. Giant armadillo burrows have a characteristic large mound of sand in front of them, and the study showed that this area, too, was used by a surprising number of other species. White-lipped peccaries, collared peccaries and feral pigs were all seen using the sand mound to wallow in, rest and cool down, while giant anteaters were also photographed taking sand baths in the mound. Lowland tapirs and pumas were discovered using the pile of earth as a resting spot, whereas various raccoons, ocelots, lizards, small rodents and various other species were captured on film searching for their prey in the mound.

White-lipped peccary camera-trap image

White-lipped peccary enjoying a rest in the humid sand in front of a burrow
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Ecosystem engineers

Through the creation of burrows, the giant armadillo physically alters its surroundings, and creates a host of new habitats which have now been found to influence the resources of at least a further 24 species – this is known as ecosystem engineering. As ecosystem engineers, giant armadillos are extremely important components of their environment, with their burrows and the large sand mound affecting the characteristics of the ecosystem, from geomorphology and hydrology to the vegetation and animal communities in the area, both on a small and large scale. The role of giant armadillos as ecosystem engineers has also been recorded in the Amazon by Dr Renata Leite Pitman, who documented the rare short-eared dog, as well as several other species, using giant armadillo burrows.

Short-eared dog camera-trap image

Short-eared dog emerging from a giant armadillo burrow
© Renata Leite Pitman

Climate change is predicted to increase maximum air temperatures. Our data loggers placed inside giant armadillo burrows demonstrate that temperatures within the burrow remain constant at 24 degrees Celsius,” said Desbiez. Giant armadillo burrows offer an important refuge from extreme conditions, and their role may become more important as impacts from climate change increase.”

Although rarely seen, the giant armadillo plays a key role in the ecological community in which it lives, and it is vital that this species is better understood and protected.

 

Find out more about the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.

Read more about this and other Xenarthrans with the IUCN SSC Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group.

View more images and videos of giant armadillos on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content Officer

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