Dec 12

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

Oct 5

Population numbers of the tamaraw, the world’s most threatened buffalo species, have reached their highest since annual surveys began in 2001, according to figures from WWF-Philippines.

Tamaraw image

The tamaraw is the largest mammal native to the Philippines

Small but mighty

The tamaraw, also known as the Mindoro pygmy buffalo, is a national icon in the Philippines, where depictions of this small, robust species feature heavily on everything from coins to cars, and provincial statues to university sports teams. Sadly, this wary and famously fierce bovid also has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the rarest mammals in existence, but according to recent population surveys, conservation efforts are proving to be successful in increasing tamaraw numbers.

Historical threats

Some 12,000 years ago, tamaraw herds ranged across much of mainland Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, yet by the early 1900s, migrants had killed off many populations of this stocky buffalo species, leaving just 10,000 individuals on the island of Mindoro. Since then, several other factors have contributed to the continued decline of the tamaraw, including a crippling outbreak of the cattle-killing Rinderpest virus in the 1930s. Poaching and habitat destruction have also proven to be major threats to this species, leaving just a few hundred individuals surviving on the grassy slopes and forest patches of Mindoro, and have contributed to the tamaraw’s listing as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Tamaraw image

Gregg Yan from WWF-Philippines took this wonderful shot

Continued crisis

Despite being legally protected from poaching by four national laws, including the Wildlife Act which can lead to imprisonment and substantial fines for violators, illegal hunting, mainly for trophies, continues to be a problem on Mindoro.

Even the island’s wildlife reserves are not spared by poachers, as Edgardo Flores, a ranger with the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) who leads patrols in core zones within Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park, explains, “Still some poachers come here to hunt them, mainly for sport. Just this April we chanced upon a poaching laager. Our rangers recovered a tamaraw hide and assorted parts. Six hunters with tracker dogs snuck into the park at night, armed with M2 carbines, .22 hunting rifles and some homemade 12-gauge shotguns. Examples will be made – we’re now filing for their arrest.”

Close-up of tamaraw horns

The tamaraw has stout, powerful horns, measuring up to 51 centimetres

Teaming up for the tamaraw

WWF-Philippines has teamed up with the Far Eastern University (FEU) to further support TCP initiatives, and together they have formed Tamaraw Times Two by 2020, dubbed ‘Tams 2’. This project has set conservationists an ambitious goal: to double wild tamaraw numbers from 300 to 600 by 2020. To monitor success, annual population counts are conducted each April, with promising results so far.

Yes, I believe we can double the number of wild tamaraw before 2020,” affirms Rodel Boyles, TCP head and Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park Superintendent. “This April we counted 327 heads – the highest ever posted since we began our annual surveys in 2001. There were many calves and yearlings, a sure sign that the population is breeding. Finally, the count is conducted in a 16,000 hectare portion of a 75,000 hectare park. If we can find 327 heads in this small area, then there should be many more.”

Photographic mission

Armed with nothing but cameras, and shooting only pictures, a group from TCP and WWF-Philippines recently set out on the grassy slopes of the Iglit-Baco mountain range with one goal in mind: to photograph the world’s rarest buffalo species. The expedition was a success, despite several close encounters with the confrontational tamaraw.

Philippine brown deer image

Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park is home to several other threatened species, including the Vulnerable Philippine brown deer (Rusa marianna)

Home to many – tamaraw to tribesfolk

As well as the tamaraw, several other threatened species call Iglit-Baco National Park home, including the Mindoro warty pig (Sus oliveri), the large Mindoro forest mouse (Apomys gracilirostris), and the Philippine brown deer (Rusa marianna). These animals share the park with the reclusive, forest-dwelling Tawbuid or Batangan tribe, part of eight indigenous groups known as ‘Mangyan’.

Human activities, such as slash-and-burn farming, are a major concern in the area, with many groups, including the Tawbuid, cutting down essential forest groves. To mitigate these threats, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has been working tirelessly through the TCP to ensure that tamaraw core habitats are managed and protected, whilst engaging local communities in conservation efforts and simultaneously improving their lives.

We make it a point to hire Tawbuid tribesfolk, not just as trackers or porters, but as actual staff. Their bushcraft and knowledge of terrain make them particularly effective rangers,” says Mr Boyles. “Community-based education is our drive. Some groups cannot read nor write, so it is our duty to let them know that certain animals are protected by law. Our dream is to turn the park into the Mounts Iglit-Baco Biotic Area – a zone where the influence of modern society cannot replace the traditional practices of indigenous groups. We work not just to conserve the tamaraw – but the Tawbuid’s way of life.”

Read more on this story at WWF-Philippines – Return of the Tamaraw.

Learn more about the tamaraw on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Mar 31

Now in its seventh year, Earth Hour is a global event symbolising solidarity in the fight against one of the greatest threats to our planet – climate change.

In 2011, more than 5,200 cities and towns in 135 countries switched off their lights for WWF’s Earth Hour, sending a powerful message to global leaders that the world wants immediate action on tackling climate change. Hundreds of millions of people are set to join in again this year, with many going ‘Beyond the Hour’ to commit to lasting action for the planet.

Earth Hour 2012 takes place at 8:30 pm local time on Saturday 31st March, so get ready to flick those switches and join in the fight for a healthier planet! Here at ARKive, we’re taking a peek at a few species which are pretty good ambassadors of energy conservation and efficiency, as well as a species which functions quite well without light!

Mexican tetra

Mexican tetra image

The Mexican tetra lacks functioning eyes

The Mexican tetra is a primarily carnivorous fish, of which there are two different forms. One of these forms lives in dark caves, and as a result it does not have functioning eyes. If this fishy fellow can survive without light its whole life, I reckon we can cope for an hour or so!

Sea otter

Sea otter image

Sea otters often hold their paws out of the water to retain heat

Sea otters are able to keep warm by having the densest fur of any mammal, with about one million hairs per square centimetre of skin. While resting on its back, this marine mammal is often seen holding its paws out of the water; this helps to reduce the amount of body heat lost to the water, and can also help keep the sea otter’s body temperature up by absorbing radiant heat from the sun.

Emperor penguin

Emperor penguin image

Emperor penguins huddle together to keep warm in harsh, icy winds

Emperor penguins live in one of the harshest environments on the planet, braving temperatures as low as -60°C. In order to survive the extreme cold, penguins often huddle together in large groups to conserve body heat. The penguins rotate positions within the swarm of feathery bodies, so that no single individual is constantly on the colder exterior of the group.

California condor

California condor image

California condors soar on thermals created in their arid environment

The California condor may be big and bulky, but it is an energy-efficient flyer. It takes advantage of the hot air currents formed in its arid environment, and simply uses its large wings to soar on these thermals, expending little energy in doing so. This species has also developed its own answer to air-conditioning; the California condor urinates on its own legs to take heat away from its body through evaporation. The cooled blood is then circulated through the rest of the body.

Cheesman’s gerbil

Cheesman's gerbil image

Cheesman's gerbils are well adapted to conserving water

Cheesman’s gerbil lives in desert areas where water is a luxury, and this rodent has developed a highly efficient digestive system which enables it to extract as much water as possible from its food.

Dung beetle

Dung beetle image

Dung beetles are some of nature's best recyclers

Dung beetles are rather ‘green’ creatures, as they play a huge role in the removal and breakdown of dung in the environment, and help to recycle nutrients into the soil. There are many species of dung beetle, and the work of these recycling champions improves soil structure and fertility.

Don’t forget, Earth Hour is on Saturday 31st March at 8:30 pm local time, so join the ARKive team and millions of other people worldwide and switch off those lights!

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

Jan 25

Immediate action on habitat loss is needed to secure the future of the Sumatran elephant, according to WWF.

Photo of Sumatran elephant bathing and spraying water with trunk

Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) bathing

A subspecies of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the Sumatran elephant has been uplisted by the IUCN Red List from Endangered to Critically Endangered after losing nearly 70% of its habitat and half its population in the last 25 years.

This dramatic decline is largely due to widespread deforestation on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, with much of the elephant’s natural habitat being converted for agriculture, oil palm production and timber plantations.

Rapid deforestation rate

Three subspecies of Asian elephant are generally recognised: the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) on Sumatra, the Sri Lankan elephant (E. m. maximus) in Sri Lanka, and the Indian elephant (E. m. indicus) on the Asian mainland.

Photo of Asian elephants in deep jungle

Asian elephants in forest habitat

Although Sumatra holds some of the most significant populations of Asian elephants outside of India and Sri Lanka, it has experienced some of the most rapid deforestation rates within the species’ range. As a result of increasing human encroachment, many elephant populations have come into conflict with humans, and Asian elephants are also illegally targeted for their ivory.

Only an estimated 2,400 to 2,800 Sumatran elephants now remain in the wild, and the species has been lost from many parts of the island. Confined to the remaining forest patches, many herds are now too small and isolated to remain viable in the long term.

If current trends continue, it is feared that the Sumatran elephant could become extinct within the next 30 years.

Photo of Sri Lankan elephant herd in shallow water

Herd of Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus), another Asian elephant subspecies

Urgent action needed

The Sumatran elephant joins a growing list of Indonesian species that are Critically Endangered, including the Sumatran orangutan, the Javan and Sumatran rhinos and the Sumatran tiger,” said Dr Carlos Drews, Director of WWF’s Global Species Programme.

Unless urgent and effective conservation action is taken these magnificent animals are likely to go extinct within our lifetime.”

WWF is calling on the Indonesian government to ban all forest conversion in elephant habitat until a conservation strategy can be put in place to conserve the species. It also recommends that large patches of habitat should be designated as protected areas, and that smaller areas should be linked with habitat corridors.

Photo of Indian elephant calf

Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) calf

According to Asian elephant expert Ajay Desai, “It’s very important that the Government of Indonesia, conservation organisations and agro-forestry companies recognise the critical status of elephant and other wildlife in Sumatra and take effective steps to conserve them.

Indonesia must act now before it’s too late to protect Sumatra’s last remaining natural forests, especially elephant habitats.”

Read more on this story at WWF – Habitat loss drives Sumatran elephants step closer to extinction.

View photos and videos of Asian elephants on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Oct 27

WWF has launched a new campaign in a bid to protect the threatened virgin forests of Romania.

Eurasian wolf pack image

Eurasian grey wolves rely on the forests of Romania.

The Carpathian Mountains of Romania harbour 250,000 hectares of virgin forest, pristine tracts of biodiversity untouched by human activities, which act as a stronghold for a wide variety of species. These unspoilt areas have high scientific, educational and ecological value, yet they equate to less than three percent of the country’s total forest cover.

In this, the International Year of Forests, and with the future of a major part of Europe’s natural heritage at risk, WWF is spearheading a new campaign to obtain total protection for more than 80 percent of Romania’s virgin, or old growth, forest. These areas house iconic species such as the grey wolf, Eurasian lynx and imperial eagle and were historically widespread, but are sadly now severely depleted as a result of poor management.

Eurasian lynx image

The Eurasian lynx is one of many majestic species found in the forests of Romania.

Irreplaceable

Virgin forests are complex, dynamic ecosystems built up of seedlings, young, mature and old trees, as well as dead trees and decaying logs, which provide a diverse range of habitats in which many plant, animal and fungus species thrive.

WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme in Romania works to protect all forest types, but the scheme recognises the importance of targeting the conservation of virgin forests. Magor Csibi, Romania’s Country Manager for the programme, highlights the urgency in acting now to save these areas of natural beauty: “We will never be able to rebuild this part of nature. Once lost, it is lost forever.

Historically, Romania’s virgin forests remained untouched, partly as a result of their inaccessibility, and partly due to the low economic value of the wood obtained from old trees. Yet socio-economic pressures in Romania are currently high, and with an ever-increasing demand for wood and development, the country’s virgin forests are becoming more and more vulnerable.

Imperial eagle image

Imperial eagle

Taking action

WWF has written to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Romania, urging them to make the implementation of effective protection for the country’s remaining virgin forests a priority. The letter also asks for changes to the legislative framework, which would guarantee the protection of this critical ecosystem, as well as compensatory funds for private forest owners.

Magor Csibi is confident that the campaign will be successful: “We expect our initiative to be supported not only by people who wish for a sustainable future, but especially by the authorities who can decide whether to solve this problem or not. I believe that we can obtain 100 per cent protection of our virgin forests.”

An awareness raising campaign for the public has also been launched, which highlights the importance of virgin forests and urges people to sign a petition.

Capercaillie image

The capercaillie is still found in the forests of Romania.

Legend, legacy and life

The forests of Romania, which once inspired the legend of the vampire, are some of the last untouched areas of wilderness in Europe. With their biodiversity, along with their rich and deep-set culture, the loss of these wooded habitats would be a huge blow to the country.

Magor Csibi called upon people to take into account moral, as well as environmental, values: “Considering that we are among the last European nations fortunate enough to have such a treasure, it is our moral obligation to preserve this piece of nature intact and to leave a small piece of wilderness to our children.

Read more on this story at WWF – WWF acts to save Europe’s last remaining virgin forests.

View photos and videos of species from Romania on ARKive.

Find out more about WWF’s forest conservation work.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

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