Author Archives: ecowoo

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) relocated for UK Captive Breeding Programme

Pichu, a female red panda (Ailurus fulgens) at a conservation park in southern Scotland, is set to be part of captive breeding efforts following the introduction of a new possible mate. Ruben, a young male, has been relocated from Paignton Zoo in Devon, to accompany the previously alone Pichu at Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park.

Breeding programmes are an important part of conservation planning for species with low population numbers, such as the red panda of which less than 10,000 adults are believed to exist. This allows scientists to monitor population growth and breeding behaviour, as well as protecting vulnerable mothers and young. Captive breeding programmes have been successful in protecting a wide variety of species from extinction, the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) and Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) have been reintroduced to the wild as a result. But they are not without their challenges. The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is famous for its apparent loss of interest in breeding once captured; whilst organisations such as the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) must manage inbreeding problems and sustain genetic diversity.

Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens – Brunswyk

Endemic to the Himalayas, red panda populations began to decline as a result of deforestation and harvesting for fur. Livestock trample the bamboo on which red pandas feed, and as human development spreads, panda populations become increasingly isolated. Overall, a decline of ~40% has been estimated for populations in China over the past 50 years. The IUCN has listed red pandas as vulnerable, and trading has been banned by CITES. Although protected in all of its range, conservation efforts vary: population estimates are unavailable for Burma and Bhutan where they have been known to be confused with civets, and poaching still occurs.

Red pandas have shown adaptability to living in captivity, where ~800 individuals are currently held. Breeding rates are high across many zoos, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (Darjeeling, India) has successfully released four captive bred pandas to the wild, whilst many more have been born in captivity.


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May 29, 2012 · 1:08 pm

Conserving the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus): trading bans and native hunters

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) stands as a flagship species for conservation action, with its climate-change related habitat loss well publicised, but the problems it faces are more complex than just melting ice. Concern has been rising amongst organisations such as the NRDC – the Natural Resources Defence Council, with over 1.3 million members – about trade of polar bear body parts, a currently legal activity, along with regulated hunting.

Polar bears are considered vulnerable species, with population decline estimated at >30% over the last half-century, and predicted decline by 2/3rds by 2050, primarily due to climate change. Their position as a mammalian carnivore may encourage human interest, but also means they exist in small numbers, reproduce at lower rates and rely on longer food chain, reducing species resilience.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), Unknown

Hunting of polar bears is a tradition of Arctic people, but increased rapidly as technology advanced. First firearms, and later snowmobiles and airplanes were used, increasing annual kills from an estimated 400-500 to 1300-1500 in the early 1900’s. As concern grew, regulations on hunting were formed, beginning with the Soviet Union (1956), and culminating in the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (1973). Signed by the five nations with the biggest polar bear populations (U.S, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland), the agreement allows killing by local people using traditional methods, but prevents trade for commercial purposes. Data is shared between these countries, which meet every 3-4 years and are responsible under the agreement to protect polar bear ecosystems using research-based conservation practices.

With species-specific hunting regulations and high public interest, the polar bear is in a much more favourable position than many other endangered animals. However, threats to polar bears are particularly high. Climate change directly reduces sea-ice, reducing feeding ability and causing drowning, and could lead to their underground dens collapsing. Toxic pollutants accumulate in polar bears from longer food-chains, illegal hunting occurs, and disease may increase as bacteria survive better in warmer conditions. It is these issues which cause groups such as the NRDC to be so concerned about trading, which could potentially increase hunting incentive by making them profitable and available to the public, adding to polar bear decline.

Hunting is still legal, however, in small, highly regulated conditions by local people. Such hunting has existed for centuries, a traditional part of many cultures which also provides income. This raises the question of whether local cultures should suffer for globally-caused climate change, and has become the topic of much debate. At the most recent CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) meeting, the United States supported the ban of commercial trade of all Polar bear parts, but the issue remains contentious. Opinion is still divided on the impact of regulated killing, whilst some deny even the decision to list the Polar bear as threatened. CITES will meet again in March 2013, meanwhile the issue highlights the problems caused when multiple threats affect a species, and the conflict between traditional culture and modern environmentalism.

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Declines in Irish raptor populations due to rodenticides

Irish raptors have shown dramatic decline over the past half century, of which agricultural pesticides may be a major cause.

Placement of poisoned ‘meat baits’ on farms, as a means of killing foxes, is legal in Ireland, though poses a threat to many raptor species. The widespread use of poisons in rodenticides may be consumed in large quantities by species such as Barn owls, which have declined by over 50% in the past 25 years. A recent analysis of a Golden eagle corpse, which have recently been reintroduced to Ireland, showed toxin poisoning to be the cause of death. It is believed the bird fed on a nearby lamb carcass, laced with the toxin Nitroxynil.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba), Luc Viatour

Toxins threaten raptors in two ways: through direct consumption of unprotected meat baits, and through biomagnification, as pesticides accumulate over time in the body from eating numerous infected prey. Pressures such as habitat destruction and severe winters have further exasperated these problems.

Similar problems have caused drastic decline in species such as the Californian Condor, Brown Pelican, Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon. DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichoroethane) was a heavily used insecticide in the early nineteen hundreds, since banned in many countries due to it’s devastating effects on wildlife. Egg-shell thinning resulted in reduced reproductive success, and populations of several raptor species plummeted. The Californian Condor surviving only through a captive breeding programme, and pesticide use has since been increasingly regulated.

Though toxins such as those used in rodenticides are highly lucrative within the agricultural business, their effects must be intensely researched if we are to prevent harm to wildlife. To date, the Californian Condor project has costed over $35million, and whilst populations are increasing, they are still low. Barn Owls, Kestrels and Long-eared Owls are all noted as being particularly vulnerable to rodenticides, whilst ‘meat bait’ and general pesticide use further threatens raptor populations in Ireland. At present BirdWatch Ireland is at the centre of such issues, monitoring to identify further population decline, with continued conservation programmes helping many declining species.

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Speedboats and The Florida Manatee: Conserving Trichechus manatus latirostris

The Florida manatee is a large, herbivorous marine mammal found in warm fresh and saltwater along the Florida coastline. Recent recovery of this endangered subspecies has resulted in conflict between conservation experts and boaters of the region, complicating its conservation.

Propellers and boat hulls can cause serious damage to manatees, and resulted in 88 deaths in 2011 alone, as well as many serious injuries. Boating, climate change and waterway alterations caused significant population decline. Its confinement to warm waters puts it at further risk as populations are small, with limited unaffected habitat to move into. Coastal development and waterway alterations further reduce area suited to manatees, whilst climate change threatens to alter those which prevail. After conservation effort, the current population is estimated to be around 3000 individuals, and are listed as endangered.

Trichechus manatus latirostris, Unknown

At present, Florida manatees are protected by several laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Speed limits have been introduced, public awareness raised, and injured manatees rehabilitated.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which monitor the subspecies, have recently reported stable to increasing populations, good adult survival and promising reproductive rates. Action to downlist the Florida manatee, from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’, has since been proposed, whilst pressure from boaters pushes officials to relax strict speed and zone policies. But despite this, conservation experts stress that the Florida manatee is still threatened. If protection is too lax, populations will fall, whilst possible future threats, such as changing waterways and climate change, make the needs of the Florida manatee hard to quantify. Conflict between conservation scientists and boaters continues, though such attention may benefit the Florida manatee, whose state consequently continues to be closely monitored by scientists and the public alike.

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The Scotland Beaver Trial

Previously extinct in the UK, in May 2009 the few first individuals of an ambitious beaver reintroduction trial were released at Knapdale, Scotland. Over the course of the following months, a total of 15 Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were introduced to the trial site, a topic of much debate.

The Eurasian Beaver, Peter lilja

Work on the beaver reintroduction programme began as early as 1995, and the resulting trial will last 5 years and be the subject of careful monitoring. Beavers have been extinct in the UK for around 400 years, their decline a result of overhunting for their fur and castoreum, a secretion used for medicinial purposes. Hunting led to a decline across the entire range of the beaver, causing numbers to plummet and subsequent extinction in many European countries. Wild populations are today present across much of mainland Europe, spreading into China and Mongolia, with successful reintroductions in countries such as Romania, The Netherlands and Sweden.

Reintroduction of beavers to Scotland is a contentious issue. Those opposing the trial may do so for several reasons. Firstly, the term ‘ecosystem engineer’ may be applied to beavers, referring to their ability to change the habitat in which they live. The creation of dams, though not carried out by all beavers, may slow the water flow and trees in the surrounding area will become food sources. As with any introduction, any change to the area may disrupt the landscapes current ecology, favouring or troubling a species survival, though beavers dams may be beneficial by regulating flooding, retaining water during drought. The use of surrounding trees for feeding may encourage diversity by allowing others to grow. Consequently, intensive monitoring by independent organisations of the impact of beavers at the trial site is carried out. It should be considered that beavers were once a natural part of the British landscape, their absence man-made and relatively short-term.

The water quality in surrounding areas has also been a concern voiced; The Eurasian beaver often carries parasites, in particular Giardia lamblia , which may cause symptoms such as fever and diarrhoea in humans. Sampling of streams around the reintroduction site, however, showed G. lamblia (which may also be carried by other animals) to be already present, though the monitoring of other changes, whether changes in abundance or new species, is essential.

The trial may thus far be considered a success. In Spring 2010, the first kits were born, more of which have since followed. Some small dams and lodges have been built, all of which were in the loch rather than stream area. Independent analysis has determined that the beavers have had little impact on the water quality or surrounding areas, and the public have been increasingly involved in the programme. A full analysis will be completed in 2014, and the decision to launch a full reintroduction programme or not made. The trial has now been underway for just under 3 years, and, if everything continues to run smoothly, there may soon be a larger beaver population recolonising the rivers of the United Kingdom.

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Lake Victoria and the Nile Perch

The Nile perch (Lates niloticus) is a large, freshwater fish that provides a classic example of the dangers of invasive species. Introduced to Lake Victoria in the 1950’s, the Nile perch can weigh up to 200kg , and is highly valuable to the fishing industry for both food and sport fishing. Problems arose when the carnivorous fishes diet led to extensive predation of endemic cichlid species.

Covering over 68,000km2, Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world, which supports a diverse community of several hundred endemic cichlid species. In just 60 years, approximately half of the lakes cichlid have become extinct, from an original 400 estimated species to a current estimate of just 200. Upon introduction, Nile perch first fed on the abundant cichlid supply, but in recent years have moved towards a shrimp and minnow diet as a result of the decline. Overall populations have seen a dramatic decline, cichlids, which used to make up 80% of the fish biomass, now comprise just 1%.

The Nile Perch, D. Admassu

This rapid ecological impact would be alarming in any ecosystem, however it is of particular importance in this case for several reasons. Firstly, the cichlid speciation in Lake Victoria is very young with little genetic diversity, increasing the chances of substantial losses in genetic diversity and the Allee effect. The species found here are endemic, not occurring anywhere else in the world, and thus would be unrecoverable if they become extinct in this single body of water. Finally, this problem has developed in a very short time, with no natural mechanisms to prevent further damage. Further complexities are added by the commercial value of sustaining the Nile perch population, eutrophication due to sewage disposal in the lake depleting food supplies for cichlids, and local fisheries being outcompeted.

In response to the growing problems at Lake Victoria, there have been some attempts to aid the situation. Researchers have begun captive breeding of some of the cichlid species, funded by the IUCN. The Lake Victoria Research Team continue to investigate and monitor the lakes ecology and the threats to its wildlife. Conservation laws, such as fines for dumping sewage, have been established, particularly in Kenya, however conservationists must monitor both the implementation and effectiveness of these laws. OSIENALA, an NGO consisting of local communities that use the lake, was founded in 1992, and has helped local education about the lakes ecology whilst supporting the local community.

There are many challenges facing Lake Victoria, the Nile Perch has already had a major impact on the lakes unique ecology, but the problems are furthered by the key role of the lake in many peoples livelihood. Despite the problems, local and international efforts to target the threats and protect both ecology and the surrounding culture make a suitable starting point in protecting this highly threatened ecosystem.

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Conservation vs. The Public: The Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Endemic to the US, red cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) were once common throughout the south-eastern United States, but numbers rapidly fell following European settlement and subsequent habitat loss. Unlike most woodpecker species, the red cockaded woodpecker nests exclusively in living trees. Cavities are excavated for nesting, which can take up to 3 years, with most new colonisation occurring through reoccupation of old, abandoned sites, and competition for nesting cavities high.

Problems arouse between conservationists and landowners as a result of terms in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA states that ‘taking’ of protected species includes intentional or unintentional acts that harms or harasses that species, and can result in criminal prosecution. This means that any harm to a red cockaded woodpecker that occurs on a persons private property can be punished. Landowners are prevented from harvesting not only trees in which the woodpeckers reside, but surrounding trees, unable to change any of the surrounding habitat, and required to pay tax on the land’s previous value. As a result, preemptive habitat destruction began to occur in areas suited to red cockaded woodpeckers. Landowners harvested trees at younger stages, planted shortleaf pine over longleaf, and let understories grow.

The Red Cockaded Woodpecker, Rolf Nussbaum

The changes did not go unnoticed by conservationists. Following a surge of conservation laws in the 1970’s, alterations to reduce public resentment whist still protecting the environment have been a high priority. Today, plans such as ‘safe harbour’ and ‘no surprises’ policies allow landowners to set use their land as they wish with no repercussions if they set aside some areas for threatened species. The public is encouraged to involve themselves in ecological issues, and negative impacts of conservation investigated before conservation plans are drawn up. Although still threatened, red cockaded woodpeckers are today considered only ‘vulnerable’ by researchers, due to conservation efforts.

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