Feb 7

#LoveSpecies nominee: helmeted hornbill

Nominated by: World Land Trust

Why do you love it?

The fierce appearance of the world’s largest hornbill, with a battering ram of solid keratin fixed to their face, suits its medieval mating rituals. The males clash mid-air in head-to-head combat (an impressive display called aerial jousting) to win access to fruiting fig trees. Females then lock themselves up in nesting holes with mud, where they lay their eggs and rely entirely on their mate for their survival, and that of their offspring. 

What are the threats to the helmeted hornbill? 

The helmeted hornbill is targeted by poachers for the helmet-like casque on the upper half of its beak. Unlike other hornbills, this casque is made from a solid ivory-like substance, which makes them a prime target for the illegal wildlife trade.

In recent years, demand for hornbill ivory has seen a concerning rise, with around 6,000 helmeted hornbills lost every year, causing them to be classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Helmeted hornbills are also highly threatened by the rapid rates of forest loss. The escalation of illegal logging and land conversion, as well as forest fires, has significantly reduced suitable habitat for the species.


What are you doing to save it?

World Land Trust (WLT) works in Malaysian Borneo with conservation partner Hutan to preserve habitat for endangered species like the Helmeted Hornbill. As well as funding the purchase of land to create important wildlife corridors, WLT funds the employment of members of local communities to manage and protect the land, and to encourage sustainable, traditional practices.

As the hornbill’s natural habitat is declining Hutan has also established a next box programme to provide safe nesting locations where hornbills can be monitored.

Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: Galapagos giant tortoise

Nominated by: Ecology Project International

Why do you love it?

The Galapagos giant tortoise has had such an impressive impact on history, science, and its ecosystem that it’s sure to win over hearts. Endemic to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, this tortoise is one of only two distinct populations of giant tortoises remaining on the planet. Large and slow, giant tortoises are considered to be the oldest living vertebrates in the world, with one who lived to the impressive age of 152.

The Galapagos tortoise shares its name with the islands it inhabits, but it was the islands that were named after the tortoise. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers who visited the islands named the islands after the word “galápago,” a Spanish term for “saddle,” after the shape of some of the tortoise’s carapaces.

Morphological differences between the 15 subspecies of giant tortoise are believed to be the result of the varying habitats and subsequent environmental pressures that exist across the islands. The Galapagos Islands with their many endemic species and varying subspecies are famous for being the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

What are the threats to the Galapagos giant tortoise?

Each of the 11 living subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise falls under vulnerable, critically endangered, or endangered labels by the IUCN, and several have already gone extinct. The main causes for their decline are harvesting for food and oil, habitat loss due to farming and agriculture, and the introduction of larger mammals like pigs, dogs, cats, and rodents that prey on young tortoises and eggs, as Galapagos tortoises have no natural predators.

Estimates claim about 250,000 tortoises inhabited the islands before major human interference. Population estimates dropped as low as 3,000 in the late 20th century. Current estimates put the number of living tortoises somewhere around 20,000.

What are you doing to save it?

Since 2003, Ecology Project International (EPI) has engaged 3,225 local Galapagos youth and visiting U.S. students in giant tortoise field science and conservation education. Both local and visiting students learn ecology and biology firsthand while performing field research on giant tortoises with world renowned scientist Dr. Stephen Blake. While collecting data on this keystone species, they also perform service work, removing invasive plants and restoring native habitat to ensure the survival of Galapagos’ wildlife and the protection of its vulnerable ecosystems. Supplemental programming provides additional leadership skills to local youth that build critical thinking skills, a personal conservation ethic, and an awareness of environmental issues facing the Galapagos.

Additionally, in a unique partnership with the Galapagos National Park, EPI provides a year-long conservation education degree program to all Galapagos high school juniors. Approved by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education, this program engaged 50% of all Galapagos students within the first year. These students are the next generation; they hold the key to long-lasting conservation efforts of the Galapagos giant tortoise, and of many other species, on these incredible islands.

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Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: okapi

Nominated by: Tusk Task Force

Why do you love it? 

Even though the okapi resembles the striped markings of a zebra on its behind, it is actually closely related to their tall cousins, the giraffe. Due to their common remarkable DNA, the okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family, Giraffidae. Okapis are only found in the northeast forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and their name actually means “the forest giraffe” for they rely on forests to survive. Like their cousins they have long tongues that can go from 14 to 18 inches but unlike giraffes, they are about the size of a zebra. The okapi is the symbol of the DRC and provides important biodiversity benefits to all the other species where it roams.

What are the threats to the Okapi? 

Since the okapi is only endemic in the DRC, their numbers have gone down tremendously since the discovery of their species in 1901 by humans. The okapi has been a protected national treasure of the Congo since 1933 but they are now listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Major threats include habitat loss due to deforestation and human settlement. Extensive hunting for their bushmeat and skin have also led to the decline in their populations. The most recent and dire threat on the okapi is the presence of illegal armed groups around protected areas, inhibiting conservation and monitoring by conservation groups, especially in the Virunga National Park. There are only 10,000-25,000 left of them in the wild, primarily in the Ituri Forest in the DRC.

What are you doing to save the okapi?

Tusk Task Force has recently included the okapi as one of its four target species (along with the elephant, giraffe, and the rhino) to defend because of their close relationship to the giraffe so they are partnering with the Okapi Conservation Project (OKP) to protect okapi populations. The OKP was established in 1987 which developed the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1993 to protect the species. In June 2012, a gang of militant poachers attacked the headquarters of the Reserve killing six guards and OKP staff in addition to 13 of the species.

Due to wildlife trafficking, Tusk Task Force is committed to help defend the okapi and its park rangers from further violence on a three-prong approach against wildlife terrorism:

Advocacy: 1. Build public awareness through consulting, education, public relations, and research; 2. Influence public policy channels by supporting legislation supporting okapi conservation on the international, national, state, and local levels; 3. Ally and consult with other advocates and NGOs on their targeted okapi conservation campaigns; 4. Deliver public policy advocacy resources to advocates and/or individuals at the grassroots level through our Tusk Ambassadors™ program; and, 5. Support global advocates on all levels, aligned with our mission, promoting okapi conservation.

Intelligence: 1. Provide a comprehensive repository of intelligence on the subject of wildlife terrorism including the DoW or DATA on Wildlife™ (Database of All Terrorist Activities on Wildlife) with regards to okapi population; 2. Compile, analyse, provide, and share intelligence of okapi casualties to all advocates and NGOs; 3. Promote data-driven and knowledge-based approach to help us address solutions to alleviate okapi mortality rates; 4. Authenticate with intelligence sources to confirm information regarding general and specific wildlife terrorism events on the okapi; and, 5. Corroborate each source of intelligence we acquire using “triangulation” or “five points” methodology to make sure that the source is as accurate as possible.

Protection: 1. Allocate tactical and operational resources to wildlife park rangers protecting the okapi; 2. Execute direct and in-direct force protection programs through our Tusk Defenders™ program; 3. Partner with other NGOs to help with their anti-poaching and okapi conservation efforts; 4. Ally with technology firms to enhance innovative tools to combat poaching of the okapi; and, 5. Collaborate with other NGOs to support a vibrant wildlife economy instead of a violent extinction economy that includes humanitarian aid to communities affected by wildlife terrorism.

Tusk Task Force observes the World Okapi Day on October 18 every year.

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Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: Scottish wildcat

Nominated by: Scottish Wildcat Action

Why do you love it?

The Scottish wildcat is a really charismatic species of cat that lives in the Scottish Highlands. It features on many clan crests and is a part of Scottish folklore so it’s part of our Scottish identity. Sadly there aren’t many of them left. Latest estimates suggest there could be as few as 100 in the wild.

Wildcats are built like a mini tiger but they are only slightly larger than a tabby domestic cat. If you look closely you can see they have longer limbs and a wider head with a powerful jaw. These are good for catching and eating live prey.

The most notable difference is the thick bushy tail which has black rings and a blunt black tip as though it has been dipped in paint. It’s a beautiful animal with some serious attitude.

What are the threats to the Scottish wildcat?

The biggest threat today actually comes from domestic cats that haven’t been neutered or vaccinated. Although Scottish wildcats are our native cat and domestic cats were introduced by humans much later, they can still interbreed and even catch the same diseases.

The Scottish wildcat is now a protected species but it is so heavily outnumbered by domestic cats that it’s difficult for them to find and mate with another wildcat, and instead they often mate with domestic cats and have hybrid kittens. These hybrids have mixed wildcat and domestic cat ancestry and as hybridisation continues with each successive generation, the wildcat genes are being diluted. Soon we will lose our native cat altogether.

Every time they come into contact with a domestic cat they are also at risk of catching diseases because mating or fighting over territory passes on infectious diseases like feline leukaemia (FeLV) or feline Aids (FIV).

Historically, humans hunted wildcats and this reduced their numbers. People still hunt cats today, but now they aim to shoot unowned domestic cats living in the wild (known as feral cats) as a legal method of controlling predators. However, it can be easy to mistake a domestic cat with a wildcat if shooting at night or using snares.

What are you doing to save it?

The good news is that, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Wildcat Action is working with over 20 partner organisations and lots of local people to protect wildcats in the wild. Our friends at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are also breeding them for later release.

Wildcats are notoriously elusive and very cunning. With the added issue of hybridisation, it’s difficult to even identify them in the wild. Thankfully, new technology is helping us to find out where they are. We use hundreds of motion-sensitive trail cameras to gather images of cats living in the wild and this helps us target our conservation work more effectively. Using the intelligence from the trail cameras, we can also find out where there are feral cat hotspots and target them for neutering and vaccination. Ferals are domestic cats whose ancestors were once pets or farm cats that were abandoned or strayed; however, because they are a domesticated species they do not have the adaptations to cope with wild-living like the wildcat. These feral cats live a hard life, often riddled with disease and parasites, breeding with even their close relatives and scraping a living by scrounging from human food sources.

The best thing for them is to stop them from breeding further and making sure they are immune to some of the more common diseases. Once they have been neutered and vaccinated we return them to the wild because they are not socialised to humans. This way they also act as a buffer between wildcats and any new feral cats in the area who may not be neutered or vaccinated.

We rely on local sightings too and we have over 150 fantastic volunteers helping us to maintain the cameras, catch feral cats to take them to the vet, and to raise awareness of how cat owners can help by micro-chipping, neutering and vaccinating their pet cats. Finally, we are also working with our partner, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, to encourage the use of wildcat-friendly predator control methods so that wildcats are not accidentally caught in the crosshairs.

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Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: spotted hyaena

Nominated by: Ruaha Carnivore Project

Why do we love the spotted hyaena?

Spotted hyaenas, or laughing hyaenas, are seen as scavengers and are pretty much at the bottom of most people’s lists of favourite creatures, along with cockroaches and flies.  Ask anyone and they’ll usually tell you that hyaenas are cowardly, ugly, opportunistic and sinister – being linked to witchcraft (voodoo) hasn’t helped their case.  This Valentine’s Day the Ruaha Carnivore Project wants to change your mind and turn your views around.  Did you know that spotted hyaenas are fantastic mothers, fiercely loyal, wonderfully social and are skilled hunters? In fact they hunt more and scavenge less than lions!  Another common myth to bust is that hyenas are NOT dogs!! Hyenas are more closely related to mongooses and cats.  They’re feisty and have been known to confront lions, and can successfully drive lions off kills and defend their own meals from the big cats.

They are highly social and intelligent animals – amazingly, studies have shown that they are better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees, and even more impressively, managed to solve the problems they were faced with in silence, using non-verbal communication. They can and do communicate over long distances, though – the hyaena’s whooping call is an iconic sound of the African wilderness, although few people realise that the pitch and tone of the ‘laugh’ actually indicate social status to other hyaenas.

In spotted hyaena society, the women hold the power (another reason to love them!) – and the core of the clan (which can reach 80 animals) is comprised of related females who form the top hierarchy. Fascinatingly, female hyaenas become very masculinised before birth and have three times the level of testosterone as males. This means that female spotted hyaenas are larger and more muscular than males – impressively, they even have a ‘pseudo-penis’ (actually an elongated clitoris) which can reach seven inches long, leading people as far back as Aristotle to falsely believe that they were hermaphrodites.

The often vitriolic and unwarranted treatment that hyaenas receive makes it all the more important to stand up for them – who doesn’t want to champion the underdog! Hyaenas have long been associated with witchcraft and even in our study area in rural Tanzania some people still believe that naked, invisible witches ride on hyaenas’ backs. Many myths surround hyaenas, such as them digging up the dead and morphing into werewolf-type beasts to attack people at night. Sadly, this leads to extensive persecution of these amazing animals, and they are frequently killed in rural areas.

Even without the human impacts, life as a spotted hyaena isn’t easy.  They’re born into a den, with no communal care – not even from their fathers.  Although litter sizes are small (1 – 4), they fight with their siblings from an early age and 1 in 4 cubs die within the first month due to the ferocity of their attacks on each other. Although not cuddly at birth – being born with their eyes wide open and a full set of teeth – we have to hand it to them as survivors in a hostile world…. And with this, we ask you to cast your vote in their favour.

What are the threats to the Spotted hyaena?

Being of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List means that there is no special treatment reserved for them in the conservation hierarchy. They’re often associated with attacks on villagers’ livestock and are persecuted along with other carnivores who attack livestock. As human populations expand and growth of agriculture, settlements and roads continues, wildlife is losing space in which it was previously able to roam freely.

What are we doing to save the species, to reduce persecution and to raise awareness?

As one of the Ruaha Carnivore Project’s main concerns is human-wildlife conflict we are engaged in programmes which actively change the way people think about the species, by taking school children and villagers on educational Park visits to become acquainted with wildlife, and especially top predators, in a safe environment, where they can ask questions and learn about the vital role these species play in the ecosystem.

Retaliation is the primary reason for hyaena killings. We work with communities to help them fortify bomas —( livestock enclosures)—that protect stock from predators.  Protecting bomas with wire has proved very effective – they reduce losses by as much as 95%. Importantly, we also develop community benefit programmes so that people see real rewards from living alongside dangerous species such as hyaenas – we have developed education, healthcare and veterinary health benefit programmes which have proved extremely valuable in terms of increasing local tolerance for hyaenas and other wildlife.

In our extensive camera-trapping programme we work with colleagues both within and outside Ruaha National Park, to collect information from as many carnivore sightings as possible. We equip Ruaha National Park lodge drivers with data collection devices and cameras, and they record and report large carnivore sightings to us each month. This initiative has been incredibly valuable, and by the end of 2015, 22 drivers from eight lodges had reported over 8,000 sightings to us and had also generously shared their invaluable insights into the behaviour and ecology of Ruaha’s carnivore populations. However, as we also need to get information on carnivore presence and movement outside tourist areas, we will be deploying satellite collars on lions and spotted hyaenas around Ruaha, so we can collect that information and use it to inform future conservation plans.

Tourists in Ruaha can help with our work by submitting photographs of these amazing animals to us. More widely, an innovative safari company has dedicated one of its tours to the species, and, as a member of the public you can get up close and personal by booking into a ‘spotted hyaena safari’.  So, move aside the big five…. as the spotted hyaena takes on a new and much-deserved significance.

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