Apr 29

Wildlife photographer Robin Moore is an award-winning photographer, author and conservationist who recently visited the Goat Islands in Jamaica after hearing about plans to convert the area into a shipment port. Over the next few days we will be posting the story of his visit and detailing his campaign to prevent the loss of this vital habitat and the species found within it.

As I find shade in a small field station in the Hellshire Hills of Jamaica, a leather-brown lizard with bluish thighs lumbers towards me through forest sprouting from jagged limestone. Its tail scatters red dust as it moves in rhythm with a large flap of scaly skin that swings like a metronome underneath its thick jaws. It stops two bodies length from my feet, tilts its head to inspect me with blood-red eyes and, deciding that I probably don’t pose a threat, collapses onto its stomach to take a well-deserved rest. As we sit in silence, I feel privileged to be in the presence of such a beautiful and iconic creature.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program

The Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collei, is a Critically Endangered species that has achieved iconic status through a story of chance, perseverance, collaboration and resurgence. At the start of the 20th century the lizard – the largest native land animal in Jamaica – was thought to survive only on Goat Islands, two small islets close to the Hellshire Hills just south of Kingston. After this population disappeared in 1948, the iguana was believed to be extinct. And then, in 1990, a hog hunter chanced upon an iguana in the limestone forests of Hellshire Hills, triggering exploration that revealed around 50 of the “rarest lizards in the world”.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands

The iguana promptly became a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the focus of an international recovery program, and inspired the formation of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. A consortium of twelve zoos, spearheaded by the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, built a facility at Hope Zoo in Kingston to rear eggs and hatchlings brought from the wild. This process of “headstarting” involves rearing hatchling iguanas in the safety of a cage to release them back into the wild once they are big enough to ward off predators – a technique that has worked. Since 1991, the number of recorded nesting females and annual hatchlings has increased over six-fold, with at least 200 individuals in the wild today. The recovery of the Jamaican iguana is, according to the IUCN, “considered one of the greatest success stories in conservation science”.

Jamaican iguana

Young Jamaican iguanas are raised in a facility in Kingston to see them through the most vulnerable months before being released back into the wild – a process known as “headstarting”

Find out more about the Save Goat Islands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

Apr 25

A study has highlighted how two rare species of Chelonian are being threatened by hunting in India.

Two endemic species of the Western Ghats in India, the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle are being threatened with extinction due to poaching from indigenous and non-indigenous people. The Chelonians (turtles and tortoises) are the second most imperilled vertebrate group in the world and the two species highlighted in the study are no exception, with the Travancore tortoise classified as Vulnerable (VU) by the IUCN Red List and the Cochin forest cane turtle classified as Endangered (EN). Cochin cane turtles inhabit evergreen forest habitats, and unlike many other turtles, do not require the presence of water. This turtle species is so rare that no scientists saw the species for 70 years between 1912 and 1982. The Travancore tortoise is an omnivore, and can be found in evergreen, moist deciduous, and bamboo forests. This tortoise species is known to produce chorus calls at night, but the purpose of the call is unknown.

The Cochin forest cane turtle

A study published in The Asian Journal of Conservation Biology in 2013 investigated the illegal hunting and consumption of these rare animals, and found that many individuals are caught by non-local forestry workers, including those who work as part of fire management initiatives. However, there was also evidence that Chelonian experts were harvesting these rare species and some individuals even used trained dogs while hunting. The study indicated that 77 percent of the 104 people that were interviewed had consumed the Travancore tortoise and 22 percent had consumed the Cochin forest cane turtle. Chelonian meat was reportedly on sale in local establishments. Although it was found that the primary reason for harvesting wild individuals was for consumption, there was also some evidence that the two species were taken due to superstitions and for medicinal purposes.

The Travancore tortoise

The authors of the report, said, “Wildlife hunting in India is illegal and punishable via the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) 1972, which includes most of the susceptible species … However, hunting continues to be widespread in several regions of India even though it is disregarded or refuted”. The interviews indicated that all 104 respondents knew the illegality of consuming the two species, but problems with pressing charges and corruption are thought to mitigate the risks.

Cochin forest cane turtle on leaf litter

The authors of the study suggest that a limit on the number of dogs allowed at each indigenous settlement may help to reduce the risk of Chelonian hunting, and that the forest department must make a concerted effort to properly supervise forest staff and educate them about the plight of Chelonians. The authors also highlighted the past success of poster campaigns introduced by the Kerala State Forest Department, which aimed to challenge similar local use of animals. Threatened Chelonians, including the Indian star tortoise, were targeted by the previous campaign, and the authors suggest that this kind of promotion could be repeated for the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle.

Read the original article at Asian Journal of Conservation Biology – Hunting of endemic and threatened forest dwelling chelonians in the Western Ghats, India

Find out more about the Travancore tortoise at Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises – Indotestudo travancorica

View photos of the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle on ARKive

Find out more about the wildlife of the Western Ghats on ARKive

Read more about this story at Mongabay – Chelonians for dinner: hunting threatens at-risk turtles and tortoises in India

Read more about turtle and freshwater tortoise conservation at the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group

Mar 23
Juvenile Philippine crocodile

Juvenile Philippine crocodile

Species: Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The Philippine crocodile is one of the most endangered freshwater crocodile species in the world.

More information:

The Philippine crocodile is a relatively small species of freshwater crocodile, with a broad snout, and thick bony plates on its back. Until recently, it was considered a subspecies of the very similar New Guinea crocodile.

Philippine crocodiles are thought to feed mainly on fish, invertebrates, small amphibians and reptiles, but very little else is known about the natural history or ecology of wild populations. In captivity, females build mound-nests at the end of the dry season from leaf litter and mud, upon which they lay a relatively small clutch of 7 to 14 eggs. Only the females show parental care of both the eggs and the hatchlings.

Previously found throughout the Philippines but now reduced to a small and highly fragmented population on a number of small islands, the Philippine crocodile favours freshwater marshes, the tributaries of large rivers and small lakes and ponds.

The massive population decline of the Philippine crocodile was originally caused by over-exploitation for commercial use. Today, habitat destruction is the most pressing threat to the species’ survival, with rainforests being cleared throughout the region to make way for rice fields. The fearsome reputation of the saltwater crocodile undoubtedly contributes to local intolerance of any crocodile species. The word for crocodile in the Filipino language is a vile insult, and crocodiles are often killed when encountered.

The Philippine crocodile is considered to be the second most endangered crocodilian in the world, with possibly fewer than 100 individuals in the wild. International trade of this species is prohibited, but there is only one officially protected area within the Philippines and its protection is poorly enforced. At present, captive breeding of the Philippine crocodile takes place in a small programme run by the Silliman University and at the government-run Crocodile Farming Institute.

 

Find out more about the Philippine crocodile at the Mabuwaya Foundation.

See images of the Philippine crocodile on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

Jan 18
Close up of the Annam leaf turtle

Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis)

Species: Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: Until recently, the Annam leaf turtle had not been documented in the wild for 65 years.

More information:

The Annam leaf turtle has a dark brown head with striking yellow stripes that extend from its snout to the base of the neck. Three ridges, known as keels, run along the back of its dark brown upper shell. The underside of the shell, known as the ‘plastron’, is yellow-orange with black blotches on each bony plate. The Annam leaf turtle’s feet are fully webbed, which make it well adapted to its semi-aquatic lifestyle.

This species is omnivorous and will readily eat fruit, fish and invertebrates. A semi-aquatic creature, the Annam leaf turtle feeds both on land and in water, and lays its eggs in a hole dug into the soil. The young turtles emerge after around 80 to 90 days, and resemble miniature adults in appearance.

The Annam leaf turtle is found in a small area of central Vietnam. It inhabits lowland marshes and slow-moving or still bodies of freshwater. The small range that this species inhabits is a prime location for rice production, which puts the turtle’s habitat at risk. The Annam leaf turtle is also under constant threat from unsustainable hunting and illegal trade. In China, it can often be found for sale as meat or traditional medicine.

The Annam leaf turtle is protected under Vietnam’s wildlife protection law and is also listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that international trade in this species should be carefully monitored. Despite trade in the Annam leaf turtle being illegal, it continues to occur as the law is often poorly enforced. Various breeding programmes have recently been set up and captive populations are increasing. These programmes try to involve local school and university students to boost awareness of this Critically Endangered turtle’s perilous situation.

 

Find out more about the Annam leaf turtle at the Southeast Asia Campaign and the Turtle Survival Alliance.

See images of the Annam leaf turtle on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

 

Nov 30
Photo of a male Lesser Antillean iguana

Lesser Antillean iguana (Iguana delicatissima)

Species: Lesser Antillean iguana (Iguana delicatissima)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: Dominant male Lesser Antillean iguanas turn from green to dark grey, and when reproductively active will flush pink in the jowls and become pale-blue in the scales on the sides of the head.

More information:

Female Lesser Antillean iguanas have a uniformly bright green body, pale head and brown tail. Hatchlings and juveniles are also bright green, with white flashes from the jaw to the shoulder, and three white bars on the sides of the body. They have brown flashes which darken when the individual is stressed.

Displays involving side-walking and head-to-head pushing contests determine the most dominant male Lesser Antillean iguana, who is rewarded with easy access to females. Reproduction coincides with the wet season, ensuring there is plenty of fresh plant growth to feed hatchlings. Hatchlings live mainly on the ground among thick vegetation, spending more time higher up in the trees with age.

Once present throughout the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, the Lesser Antillean iguana is now confined to the islands of the northern Lesser Antilles. Clearance of suitable habitat for agriculture and tourism is a major threat to this species, particularly affecting communal nest sites. Feral predators such as Indian mongoose, cats and dogs, continue to reduce Lesser Antillean iguana populations.

The Lesser Antillean iguana is legally protected from hunting throughout its range, but law enforcement is limited. Accidental road kills are also a problem, principally because the majority of deaths are of migrating pregnant females and dispersing hatchlings. A further threat to the Lesser Antillean iguana is the confirmed hybridisation with common iguanas, responsible for the disappearance of the Lesser Antillean iguana in Les Îles des Saintes.

Proposals for the creation of nature reserves in other areas of the Lesser Antillean iguana’s range have been put forward, and captive breeding programmes are being run at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Memphis Zoo and San Diego Zoo.

 

Find out more about the Lesser Antillean iguana at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group

See images and videos of the Lesser Antillean iguana on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

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