Mar 5
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In the News: Forest elephants in serious decline

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

Jan 9
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In the News: Entire elephant family killed for ivory in Kenya

Poachers have slaughtered an entire family of elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in an attack which has resulted in the country’s worst single loss of animals on record.

African elephant image

One of the world’s most iconic species, the African elephant is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Family fatality

The family of elephants, consisting of 11 adults and a young calf, were gunned down in a shower of bullets in a remote corner of Kenya’s largest wildlife reserve before having their tusks removed. This attack is the most recent in a string of elephant killings in Kenya which has seen the number of animals poached for their ivory double in less than two years, from 178 in 2010 to an estimated 360 in 2012.

This sudden surge in the slaughter of African elephants has been widely attributed to the rising demand for ivory in China and other Asian countries, where ivory trinkets are often viewed as a marker of wealth. While foot, vehicle and air patrols have all been deployed to catch the perpetrators of this latest attack, it is feared that the well-armed poachers may have already escaped with their haul of ivory, which could fetch up to £175,000 on the Asian market.

Every possible resource is being deployed to track down the criminals who carried out this heinous act,” said Paul Udoto, spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service. “We’ve not seen such an incident in living memory, it’s the worst single loss that we have on record. It’s unimaginable.”

African elephant ivory image

Large bonfire of confiscated African elephant ivory

The ivory trade

However much ivory is provided to the market, the appetite in Asian countries is insatiable and the criminals know that, and they will go to great lengths to find the tusks,” said Mr Udoto. “Africa has half a million elephants left, all together they would not be enough to satisfy the demand that has arisen.”

The next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international body regulating the trade in threatened wildlife, is to be held in Thailand in March, when several African countries will lobby for permission to sell stockpiled ivory and use the revenue raised to fund conservation projects. However, many conservationists argue that permission given by CITES for a large amount of South African, Namibian and Botswanan ivory to be sold to Japan in a one-off deal in 2006 was the root cause of a resurgence in the demand for ivory.

African elephant image

African elephants playfighting

Further casualties

Africa’s majestic elephants are not the only species being targeted by poachers, with 633 rhinos also having been killed in South Africa last year alone. As a prized material for ornamental use and a valued ingredient in some traditional Asian medicines, a single rhino horn can fetch up to $12,000, which is a fortune in countries such as Kenya where much of the human population earns less than a dollar a day.

The resurgence of poaching is a tragedy and one of the biggest reasons is that we’re now talking about our last herds,” said William Kimosop, chief warden at a reserve in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

Fighting back

In response to the continued increase in rhino poaching, Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya is employing new and inventive methods to protect its wildlife. Home to four of the world’s seven northern white rhinos, Ol Pejeta has worked hard to ensure the safety of its animals, and is now turning to technology in the fight against poachers.

In the past, each rhino has been assigned its own round-the-clock armed guard to protect it. However, the Conservancy will now be deploying commercial aerial drones – similar to those used by the military to identify terrorist targets – to track rhinos across the reserve and give rapid warning of any unwanted human encroachment in the area, day and night.

These high-tech guards have been specially adapted to deploy high resolution cameras, as well as infra-red thermal imaging for use in night operations, and it is expected that the drone could cover a 10,000 acre area in a single flight. These electric-powered drones will cover the reserve far more effectively than a team of staff on the ground, and will enable armed wardens to be dispatched quickly if an animal is at risk.

It’s really difficult to fully track animals or poachers across such a huge area even with 160 rangers – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Rob Breare, who works on strategy and innovation for the Conservancy. “We believe that a drone will be a significant deterrent to poachers, but it will also enable us to quickly send a highly-trained response team to an identified location if it reveals a threat.”

Northern white rhino image

A northern white rhino, only seven of which remain in the world

Aerial Rangers

Each drone, dubbed ‘Aerial Rangers’ by Conservancy staff, will cost $50,000 and have a wingspan of around 10 feet. Launched by a simple catapult, a drone will be able to fly over the reserve and stream live images back to base camp using an on-board GPS system to pinpoint exact locations. In future, the reserve plans to attach radio transmitters to each rhino, enabling the drone to identify and observe individual animals.

The Conservancy team has high hopes for these new flying guards, and is aiming to launch the first of several drones by March before expanding the fleet to neighbouring reserves. As well as being more efficient than a ground team, it is thought that the drones will be almost impossible for poachers to outwit.

Not only will drones provide better surveillance of remote areas, but they will be difficult for poaching gangs to target,” said Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta. “Eventually we feel that drones will assist conservationists to provide the sophisticated range of deterrents needed to protect wildlife not just across Africa but in many other parts of the world.”

 

Read more on these stories at The Telegraph – Kenya suffers worst single loss of elephants as poachers kill 12 and The Telegraph – Aerial drones to be thrown into fight to save Africa’s White Rhinos.

Learn more about efforts to monitor wildlife trade at TRAFFIC.

Find out more about African elephants and white rhinos on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Dec 12
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In the News: Illegal wildlife trade threatening national security

The illegal trade in wildlife is not only driving many endangered species to extinction, but is also posing a threat to national security, according to a new report.

Photo of a large bonfire of confiscated African elephant ivory

Confiscated African elephant ivory being burned

The report, commissioned by WWF and entitled ‘Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking: A Consultation with Governments’, estimates that illicit trade in wildlife is worth at least US$ 19 billion a year. This makes it the largest illegal global trade after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

This trade not only poses a threat to wildlife, but also strengthens criminal networks, undermines national security, and threatens ecosystems and global health by increasing the potential for disease transmission and the spread of invasive species.

Photo of Bengal tiger, posterior view

Poaching, particularly for the traditional medicine trade, is one of the main threats to the tiger

Wildlife crime has escalated alarmingly in the past decade,” said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International. “It is driven by global crime syndicates, and so we need a concentrated global response.”

He added that, “It is communities, often the world’s poorest, that lose the most from this illicit trade, while criminal gangs and corrupt officials profit. Frontline rangers are losing their lives and families that depend on natural resources are losing their livelihoods.”

Criminal networks

According to the report, around 100 million tonnes of fish, 1.5 million live birds and 440,000 tonnes of medicinal plants are traded illegally each year. An estimated 30,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks, while the number of rhinos poached in South Africa between 2007 and 2011 rose by 3,000% and the price of rhino horn has risen to a staggering US$ 60,000 per kilogram.

Photo of southern white rhinoceros eating grass

The white rhino, under threat from a soaring demand for its horns

Unfortunately, current efforts to stop this illegal trafficking are woefully inadequate, and much of the trade is being run by powerful and sophisticated criminal networks with a broad international reach. The profits are being used to purchase weapons, fund civil conflicts and finance terrorist-related activities, putting national security and government stability at risk.

An example of this was seen earlier this year, when rebel groups from Chad and Sudan entered northern Cameroon and slaughtered 450 elephants for the purpose of selling their ivory to buy weapons for local conflicts.

High profits, low risk

The report says that criminal groups perceive the illegal trade as being low risk due to the absence of effective law enforcement, prosecution or other penalties. Consumer demand is also rising with the increasing ease of buying illegal wildlife products over the internet, and the potential profits for criminals can be very high.

The demand for illegal wildlife products has risen in step with economic growth in consumer countries, and with the ‘easy money’ and high profits to be made from trafficking, organized criminals have seized the opportunity to profit,” said Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Photo of dead, illegally traded green turtle

Illegally traded green turtles

Although the illegal wildlife trade is often seen by governments as an exclusively environmental problem, conservationists argue that it needs to be treated as a matter of national urgency.

Last month, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, upgraded wildlife trafficking from a conservation issue to a national security threat. “It is one thing to be worried about the traditional poachers who come in and kill and take a few animals, a few tusks, a few horns, or other animal parts,” she said. “It’s something else when you’ve got helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, which pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife.”

Cooperation and accountability

The WWF report says that a systematic approach is needed to fight the illicit trade in wildlife. As well as greater international cooperation, more resources are needed, together with a tougher response from authorities, and the use of modern intelligence and investigative techniques to identify and prosecute the criminals involved. It will also be important to raise greater awareness of the issues among consumers.

Finally, countries need to be held publicly accountable for their response to the illegal trade. A number of reporting initiatives have already been set up to highlight those countries failing in their international commitments, including the WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard and Elephant Trade Information System.

Read more on this story at WWF and BBC News, and read the WWF report – Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking: A Consultation with Governments.

Find out more about wildlife crime at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Find out more about endangered species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Mar 21
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Spotlight on: Rhino conservation – Your chance for a Q & A session with ‘Rhino Wars’ author Peter Gwin

A battle for survival

Despite three of the world’s five rhino species being classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, rhinos remain embroiled at the centre of a bitter poaching battle. In southern Africa, poaching is the single biggest threat to rhino survival, and since 2006, more than a thousand rhinos have been slaughtered by increasingly organised gangs and crime syndicates.

Levels of poaching have escalated in recent years, fuelled largely by increasing demand for rhino horn in Asia, where it is highly valued in traditional medicine. In fact, rhino horn is known to rival the price of gold on the black market; last year in Vietnam dealers quoted prices of up to $133 per gram of rhino horn – almost double the price fetched by gold.

Get Involved: Your chance for a Q & A session with Peter Gwin

With several rhino species edging ever-closer to extinction, the urgent need for conservation of these magnificent animals has never been clearer. So, with that in mind, we’re giving you the chance to find out more about some of the issues surrounding rhino conservation.

On Thursday 22nd March at 5pm GMT/1pm EST/10am PST, ARKive is hosting an exclusive Facebook 30 minute chat with NatGeo author Peter Gwin about issues surrounding rhino conservation in South Africa.

Photo of black rhinoceros

The black rhino is the smaller of the two African rhino species, but it is still targeted by poachers for its valuable horn.

What would you like to ask Peter about rhino conservation? Post your questions on our Facebook event page for a chance to discover Peter’s views.

About the author

Peter Gwin has been a staff writer at National Geographic since 2003, reporting on everything from modern pirates in Southeast Asia to early tyrannosaurs in western China. His most recent piece, entitled Rhino Wars, was published in the March 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The article is a hard-hitting piece about some of the gritty issues faced by organisations and individuals’ working to conserve the world’s remaining rhinos (WARNING: some graphic images).

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

A white rhino cow (left) grazes with a bull that has become her companion after a poaching attack in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Using a helicopter, a gang tracked her and her four-week-old calf, shot her with a tranquilizer dart, and cut off her horns with a chain saw. Rangers found her a week later, searching for her calf, which had died, probably of starvation and dehydration. ©Brent Stirton/National Geographic.

Peter will also be releasing an eShort book in April – Rhino Wars: The Violent Underworld of Poachers and Black Market Medicine.

Interested in rhino conservation? Don’t forget to join the debate on Facebook before Thursday and post your rhino conservation questions for Peter.

Mar 8
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In the News: New report suggests that a leopard a day dies in India

At least one leopard dies every day in India, according to a report released last week by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Half of those deaths are caused by poachers, who target these magnificent big cats for their skins, claws and other body parts.

Photo of African leopard

African leopard

The tip of the iceberg

WPSI say that at least 356 Indian leopards died in 2011, with poaching accounting for 52% of all the deaths recorded. However, according to WPSI, these figures are likely to be just a fraction of the real numbers of leopards killed each year in India.

The cases that we have reported are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Anish Andheria, of Sanctuary Asia, which helped collect the data, “The loss could be three to five times more because most of the incidents happened outside the forest range and also due to improper intelligence gathering.”

Photo of Indian leopard (black morph)

Indian leopard (black morph)

Causes of death

Although poaching was the single biggest cause of death in 2011, it appears that other human activities may also play a significant role in leopard mortality. Around 12% of Indian leopards were killed last year as a result of human-leopard conflict, while a further 4% died after unsuccessful attempts to rescue the animals from human threats, such as farmers’ snares. Collisions with vehicles caused 8% of Indian leopard deaths last year, and around 5% of deaths were as a result of interactions with other animals, while the remaining 18% of leopards died from unknown causes.

According to WPSI, 30% of the leopard deaths occurred in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which is also the state with the highest number of poached tigers.

Leopard deaths continue rising

Despite being protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the number of Indian leopards killed each year has been rising steadily over the past decade. In addition to the 356 leopards killed in 2011, there were 180 leopard deaths in 2010, 161 in 2009 and 126 in 2007. This year appears to be following a similar trend, with around 70 leopards killed so far in 2012, half by poachers.

Photo of African leopard standing

African leopard standing on treetrunk

World’s leopards under increasing pressure

Leopards are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, although their range has become smaller in recent years and their populations increasingly fragmented.

Despite being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and being protected by law in most range states, leopards continue to be threatened by poaching, illegal trade and habitat loss. All nine subspecies of leopard as classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List.

Read the full article in the Scientific American.

Find out more about the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

View more leopard images on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

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