Sep 22

It’s World Rhino Day today. To celebrate and discuss, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls (Deputy Keeper of Natural History of the Horniman Museum and Gardens) shares her insider knowledge and experience in rhinoceros conservation, after her recent return from the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia.

The Sumatran rhino’s problems began the moment someone, a name now lost to history, first decided rhino horn should be used as a medicinal ingredient. This idea was passed down from generation to generation until, over 2,000 years later, the use of rhino horn is deeply ingrained in people’s minds and cultures. These ancient remedies, now commonly referred as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’, are still used today, primarily in China and Vietnam. Contrary to popular western belief, rhino horn is not (ironically- until very recently) used as an aphrodisiac, but rather to treat a large number of ailments including fever, hallucinations, and headaches.

Rhino horn is largely made of keratin, however; and you’d feel just as better if you ground up and swallowed your own fingernails. Nevertheless, hunting these animals for their horns decimated Sumatran rhino populations throughout Southeast Asia and, as the issue of habitat loss also began to raise its ugly head, the combined impact of these two sustained pressures led to the collapse of wild populations. As a benchmark; in the 1980s it was estimated there were around 1,000 Sumatran rhinos in the wild. In 2017, that number is estimated to be around 100.

Sumatran rhinoceros © Gareth Goldthorpe

Until recently, these remaining wild populations were split between Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, there are now only two known individuals of the Bornean rhino left (a different subspecies), which live in a private research facility in Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia. On a positive note, these two remaining individuals are a male and female; generally accepted as the two primary requirements of a breeding programme. However, even if intensive breeding of their would-be sibling-offspring wasn’t an evolutionary no-no, in a cruel twist of fate Sumatran rhinos that haven’t produced offspring by a certain age often develop cysts in the uterus and can become unable to conceive anyway. As is the case for Iman, the last known remaining female Bornean rhino.

The largest known wild Sumatran rhino populations, holding on with all 12 toes in Indonesia, are now restricted to three national parks, all on the island of Sumatra. Having separate populations is good for genetic diversity, and if a natural disaster or disease should wipe out one population then the species will still persist due to those that were isolated from it. If, for example, a large tsunami hit the northern edge of Java (heaven forbid) where Ujung Kulon National Park is located, it could well wipe out the entire Javan rhino species, as there are no other populations anywhere in the world. On the other hand, if numbers of Sumatran rhino are so thin in each of the three parks that male and female rhinos won’t find each other, then short of joining Sudan on Tinder, making babies in the wild becomes exceptionally difficult, meaning perhaps bringing them together is the better option. Faced with this unenviable quandary, a lot of conservationists feel the answer is in a captive breeding programme with the aim of repopulating the wild habitat with captive-born rhinos.

The dense habitat preferred by the Sumatran rhinoceros is difficult for conservationists to penetrate in search of the elusive species. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Scientists find the key

The first known record of a Sumatran rhino to be born in captivity was in Calcutta, India in 1889. Although the specific details are irritatingly lost to history, rhino experts seem to feel there is enough evidence to substantiate the story. Nearly 100 years after India perhaps unintentionally made rhino history, the need for a captive breeding programme became urgent and so between 1984 and 1996, 40 of the approximately 1,000 Sumatran rhinos persisting in the wild at the time were captured (from both Indonesia and Malaysia) to form a worldwide collaborative captive breeding programme. The wild-caught rhinos were split up between Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the United States, and the UK who all tried their hand at breeding these enigmatic animals.

Thirteen years later, the pitter patter of tiny rhino feet was still absent from zookeepers’ ears and so in 1997 scientists at Cincinnati Zoo led by Dr Terri Roth (Vice President of Conservation and Science, and Director of the Centre for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife; CREW) turned to endocrinology and ultrasonography. A long and complicated story of science, frustration, grumpy rhinos, and no mating unravelled until Dr Roth and her team finally discovered that Sumatran rhinos are in fact induced ovulators. This means that a female won’t come into oestrus until she has had ‘special time’ with a male, after which, she obviously needs to gain in order to conceive. This was an exceptional breakthrough, and one that resulted in the first Sumatran rhino born in captivity in 112 years when Ipuh, one of the last three rhinos surviving from the original project initiated in 1984, successfully mated with a female called Emi, and with that a heavy hairy miracle was born. With all of their new found expertise in rhino romance, the CREW team managed to help Ipuh and Emi produce two more babies- a female called Suci in 2004, and a male called Harapan in 2007.

Born in 2001 at Cincinnati Zoo, Andalas was the first Sumatran rhinoceros born in captivity in 112 years and as such, represented a huge breakthrough for his species. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Meanwhile in Indonesia

As scientists in Cincinnati were working on unravelling the mysteries of the Sumatran rhino’s reproductive requirements, on the other side of the world the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary was completed in Sumatra, Indonesia, and in 1998 opened its doors to its first residents; two females, Dusun and Bina, and one male, Torgamba. Two more females, Ratu and Rosa, arrived in 2005. Yet despite being spoilt for choice on the dating scene, Torgamba sadly wasn’t up to the task and the breeding programme appeared to be failing.

Fortunately for Sumatran rhinos, in 2007 Dr Roth and her rhino specialist team gave the programme’s first born male, Emi and Ipuh’s first calf Andalas – now six years old, to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in a bid to save the day. It turned out to be worth their heartache as in 2012 Andalas became a first-time father and the number of Sumatran rhinos in the world went up by another one. One is a significant number when there are so few remaining, and Andatu, Andalas’s son, made history when he became the first baby rhino born at the SRS.

Andalas is obviously enjoying his new life as chief baby-maker as he and his ‘partner’, Ratu, successfully bred again and in 2016 had a girl called Delilah. By 2014, Harapan (Andalas’s younger brother, born at Cincinnati Zoo) became the only Sumatran remaining outside of Indonesia and Malaysia and so the Cincinnati team decided to let him follow in his brother’s footsteps and sent him too, to the SRS in Indonesia.

Now five years old, Andatu was the first rhinoceros born at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia. His parents are Cincinnati Zoo-born male Andalas, and wild-caught female Ratu. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

The future

Hunting and habitat loss have decimated wild numbers of rhinos to a point where physiology is now their main problem (although the aforementioned issues also persist). The need for induced ovulation, as well as the fact that cysts can develop in the uterus if females remain unmated, both mean that with so few rhinos in the wild, many females are likely to become unable to conceive. The stability of wild Sumatran rhino populations remains in question and captive breeding programmes used to boost numbers in the wild seem to be the most viable way of increasing their numbers to a level where they’ll regularly be able to breed naturally in the wild again.

In 2017, now armed with an entire crash (the official, not to mention delightful, collective noun for rhinos) including both males and females, the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary is on a path paved with hope and optimism. Andalas and his rhino team are undoubtedly working hard to produce more bundles of joy, and with the high levels of expertise and dedication witnessed first-hand at the SRS, there is definitely hope for the Sumatran rhino yet.

Although each animal lives semi-wild in its own 10-20km2 enclosure of primary forest habitat, their health is monitored daily by their keepers. Here Harapan is having his temperature taken as he nonchalantly hoovers up some carrots. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Find out more about the Sumatran rhinoceros on Arkive

Visit the International Rhino Foundation website

Follow Dr Nicholls on Twitter

 

Nov 19

The latest update to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species highlights the loss of sea ice habitat due to climate warming as the single most important threat to the long-term survival of the polar bear.

The update also highlights habitat degradation as a main threat to many fungus species and over-fishing as the key driver of decline in marine bony fish. 

Polar bears on thin ice

The report, which is the most comprehensive assessment of sea ice and polar bear sub-population data to date, revealed that there is a high probability that the global polar bear population will decline by more than 30% over the next 35 to 40 years.

Based on the latest, most robust science, this assessment provides evidence that climate change will continue to seriously threaten polar bear survival in the future,” says Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General. “Climate change impacts go far beyond this iconic species, and present a threat our planet has never faced before. Governments meeting at the climate summit in Paris later this month will need to go all out to strike a deal strong enough to confront this unprecedented challenge.”

Recent studies show that the loss of Arctic sea ice has progressed faster than most climate models had predicted, with September sea ice extent declining at a linear rate of 14% per decade from 1979 through 2011. As polar bears rely on sea ice to access their prey, such as seals, an annual ice-free period of five months or more will cause extended fasting for the species, which is likely to lead to increased reproductive failure and starvation in some areas.

Polar bears are important to the livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and, as apex predators, are essential to maintaining ecosystem balance in the Arctic region. Along with sea ice loss, other potential threats to the species include pollution, resource exploration and habitat change due to development. Oil development in the Arctic poses a wide range of threats, from oil spills to increased human-bear interaction.

Number of fungi on The IUCN Red List doubles

Twenty-nine species of fungi have been added to The IUCN Red List in this latest update, more than doubling current numbers. Fungi are an enormous group of organisms that are neither plants nor animals. They obtain nutrients through the absorption of decaying organic matter, recycling plant and animal waste into useful products.  The main threats affecting the species are habitat loss and degradation, mostly from changing land use practices.

Fungi are extremely important to humans as medicine and food and their conservation is vital for the health of the world’s ecosystems. Fungi have a symbiotic relationship with 80% of all plants and form a crucial part of the digestive system of ruminants such as sheep and cows.

Logging of the redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) which is listed as Endangered, is major threat to the fungus Leptonia carnea which has now been listed as Vulnerable.

Marine bony fishes at risk of extinction in the East Central Atlantic and Greater Caribbean regions

The latest global assessment of the 1,400 marine bony fishes of the Eastern Central Atlantic – covering the area from Mauritania to Angola – shows that 3% are threatened with extinction. In the Caribbean, 1,340 species were assessed, and of these 5% are threatened with extinction, including the golden tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps) which is listed as Endangered.

The lionfish, which is an invasive species, is placing further pressure on marine bony fishes in the Caribbean.

The degradation of sensitive coastal habitats, pollution, overexploitation and destructive fishing practices are putting many species of marine bony fishes at risk of extinction.

Marine bony fishes are both ecologically and economically important, with the loss of these species posing a serious threat to food security and livelihoods of more than 340 million people in the regions assessed. The data from this latest assessment will be used to guide fisheries management and conservation priorities in the regions.

The IUCN Red List now includes 79,837 assessed species, of which 23,250 are threatened with extinction.

For more on the latest update visit The IUCN Red List website.

Learn more about climate change and ocean acidification on Arkive.

Jul 25

Birdlife’s recent assessment of 350 newly recognised bird species, on behalf of the IUCN Red List, has found that 25 percent of these species are at risk of extinction. Around 13 percent of all known bird species are considered to be at risk, showing that the conservation of these newly recognised species needs to be prioritised.

This recent study focussed on non-passerine birds, such as birds of prey, owls, seabirds and waterbirds. There are 4,472 non-passerine birds known to science, of which 361 were found to be distinct species during this recent assessment. The identification of these new non-passerines shows that previous species counts have underestimated the true diversity of this avian group by around 10 percent.

Just a few Bugun liocichla breeding pairs have been found in eastern India and the species has been reclassified as Critically Endangered

One finding of the study was that an ostrich subspecies, the Somali ostrich, is in fact a distinct species and has now been classified as Vulnerable. Andy Symes, BirdLife’s Global Species Officer, said, “This species highlights both the need for improved knowledge of the world’s birds and the need for conservation action in some of the most challenging parts of the globe.” It is hoped that the early recognition of these threatened species will provoke action to ensure their future survival.

Despite the recovery of the lammergeier in Europe, the species is declining globally and has been upgraded from Least Concern to Near Threatened

Various species have also been reassessed to determine whether their Red List classification is currently correct. The population size of many species has dramatically decreased, leading to reclassification. In some species, such as the lammergeier, it was found that the population is becoming larger in certain areas but is declining in others.

The newly recognised Javan blue-banded kingfisher has entered the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered

The importance of bird hotspots was also highlighted during the assessment, especially those that are home to many endemic species. These habitats, along with the bird species that live within them, are in desperate need of conservation action to ensure their future survival. Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Head of Science, said, “The IUCN Red List is crucial not only for helping to identify those species needing targeted recovery efforts, but also for focussing the conservation agenda by identifying the key sites and habitats that need to be saved, including Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas.

Read more on this story at IUCN – One tenth of bird species flying under the conservation radar.

Check out Arkive’s top 50 bird species.

Hannah Mulvany, Arkive Content and Outreach Officer

Feb 1
Semirechensk salamander (<em>Ranodon sibiricus</em>)

Semirechensk salamander (Ranodon sibiricus)

Species: Semirechensk salamander (Ranodon sibiricus)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: The Semirechensk salamander is aquatic during the breeding season but terrestrial for the remainder of the year.

More information:

The Semirechensk salamander is greenish-orange on its upperparts, sometimes with a pattern of dark spots, and pale pink on its underside. The colour of this species changes depending on its environment, appearing darker when underwater and lighter on land in higher temperatures. The tail of the male Semirechensk salamander is generally longer than that of the female, and during the breeding season the male also has a much more prominent crest. The breeding season starts in April, following the snow melt, and continues until August. Throughout the breeding season, this species is aquatic, but it is terrestrial for the remainder of the year. Hibernation begins soon after the end of the breeding season.

The Semirechensk salamander has an extremely restricted range, being found only in the Dzungarian Alatau Mountain range in southern Kazakhstan and the Tianshan Mountains in northwest China. It occurs in small, cold, clear streams and brooks in mountainous areas, surrounded by coniferous forests and meadows.

This species is vulnerable to habitat changes including deforestation, over-grazing and soil erosion. Current populations are severely fragmented as a result of the scarcity of suitable habitats. The Semirechensk salamander is used locally as a basis for the treatment of malaria and broken bones, and collection for scientific, medical and commercial use has greatly reduced populations of this species in some areas.

Only one part of the Semirechensk salamander’s range is thought to fall within a protected area, although its presence there is unconfirmed. Current conservation efforts are thought to be insufficient to protect this endangered amphibian, but the creation of strictly protected areas could be an effective conservation measure to ensure its future survival.

Find out more about the Semirechensk salamander at the IUCN Red List and AmphibiaWeb.

See images of the Semirechensk salamander on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

Nov 26

The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has revealed that the okapi – the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – is creeping ever closer towards extinction.

Okapi image

The okapi is now classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Into the Red

The okapi, also known as the ‘forest giraffe’, is endemic to the rainforests of the DRC, and has been found to be in serious decline across its range as a result of poaching and habitat loss. Following the latest set of assessments for the IUCN Red List, the okapi has been moved from being classified as Near Threatened to the far more serious category of Endangered. The presence of rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners in its habitat have also contributed to the okapi’s dwindling numbers, leaving it just one step away from the highest risk of extinction.

The okapi is revered in Congo as a national symbol – it even features on the Congolese franc banknotes,” says Dr Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and manager of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project. “Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades, leading to widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin. Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing its survival.”

The latest update to the IUCN Red List brings the total number of species assessed to 71,576, of which a worrying 21,286 are threatened with extinction. Threats to the world’s species range from habitat destruction and climate change to pollution and overexploitation.

Black-browed albatross

The black-browed albatross has been moved from Endangered to Near Threatened

Bad news for birds

According to the update, almost 200 species of bird are now classified as Critically Endangered, with the latest addition being the white-winged flufftail, one of Africa’s rarest birds. This small, secretive bird has suffered as a result of habitat destruction and degradation in its native Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Wetland draining, water abstraction, overgrazing and conversion of land for agriculture have all played a part in the decline of this species, and the IUCN is calling for urgent action to better understand this species’ ecology and address these threats.

Positive stories

However, it is not all bad news, as the population numbers of some species are currently increasing. The albatross family is one of the most threatened bird families on Earth, with bycatch in fisheries being the main threat to their survival, but populations of two such species are on the increase, putting them at a lower risk of extinction. The black-browed albatross has improved in status from Endangered to Near Threatened, while the black-footed albatross has moved from Vulnerable to Near Threatened.

Island fox image

The island fox is endemic to the California Channel Islands

Conservation success

One particularly positive story is that of the island fox, a canid endemic to six of the California Channel Islands off the coast of southern California in the USA. This species was once classified as Critically Endangered following catastrophic declines in the mid-1990s as a result of disease and predation by non-native species such as the golden eagle. All four subspecies of this relative of the mainland grey fox have since increased in number or are showing signs of recovery. The island fox’s change in status to Near Threatened is a credit to the hard work of the US National Park Service, an IUCN Member, which included captive breeding, reintroduction, vaccination against canine diseases, and the relocation of golden eagles.

Leatherback turtle image

Leatherback turtle

More to be done

This IUCN Red List update shows some fantastic conservation successes, which we must learn from, for future conservation efforts,” says Jane Smart, Global Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend.”

The importance of scientific knowledge and continued conservation action is highlighted in the case of the leatherback turtle. While the status of the global population of this species appears to be improving, the leatherback turtle continues to face serious threats at the subpopulation level. One of seven biologically and geographically distinct subpopulations, the Northwest Atlantic Ocean leatherback subpopulation is abundant and increasing thanks to successful conservation initiatives in the region. However, its counterparts from both the East Pacific Ocean and West Pacific Ocean subpopulations are suffering a severe decline as a result of extensive egg harvesting and incidental capture in fishing gear. It is feared that these threatened subpopulations may completely collapse if targeted conservation measures are not taken.

Black-footed albatross image

Populations of the black-footed albatross are on the increase

Raising awareness

Wildscreen, an IUCN Red List Partner, is working towards raising awareness of the diversity of life on Earth and highlighting the plight of its many threatened species. Through its biggest public engagement initiative, ARKive, an unparalleled collection of wildlife footage and images is being made freely available to all for conservation and education.

Educating people about the current extinction crisis is a vital aspect of the conservation movement,” says Dr Verity Pitts, ARKive Content Manager. “By connecting the world with nature, and successfully communicating the importance of biodiversity, we move one step closer to reversing – or at least halting – the decline of our most valuable resources.”

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content Officer

 

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