Monthly Archives: February 2009

Forest exploitation puts endangered rhinos at risk


LAM DONG — The residents of two villages near Cat Tien National Park in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong where a group of endangered one-horned rhinos live have yet to be relocated out of the area, despite a government programme that called for their resettlement.

In 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) approved a project to move local residents out of the national park’s core.

Conservationists said illegal logging and the activities of locals in Phuoc Cat Commune were affecting the food supply of the rhinos.

The park is the Javan rhinoceros’ only known habitat in Viet Nam.

Local authorities, however, have allowed all 52 families to remain in the area, blaming the delay on reduced budgets.

The authorities say that allowing the locals to continue to live in the area would help raise awareness and involve residents in conservation tasks.

But the villagers continue to survive by exploiting the forest environment.

The forests surrounding the two villages are two of the most severely damaged areas in the national park, according to a report sent to the MARD and authored by Tran Van Mui, director of the Cat Tien National Park.

“Illegal logging is well organised and occurs in the park’s core areas,” he said.

“Local residents have cleared paths through rhino habitats. These actions have pushed them into very inhospitable eco-regions where there is a lack of food and natural salt licks, which are crucial to the rhino’s survival,” Mui added.

If efforts aren’t made to set aside protected areas within Cat Tien where the rhinos can live undisturbed, then the animals may become extinct, according to conversationists.

The one-horned rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros sondaicus, is one of the world’s most endangered large mammals.

The Vietnamese Red Book has given the pachyderm an E classification, meaning on the brink of extinction, while the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has placed the rhinos on the list of critically endangered mammals.

The World Wide Fund for Nature helps Cat Tien Natural Park to monitor animal numbers by way of camera traps and local zoologists keep tabs on the animals as well. But conservationists say the rhinos’ future is bleak. — VNS

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Salmon Collapse Affects Another Endangered Species


SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — Salmon fisherman are not the only ones whose livelihood depends on a healthy Chinook salmon population. The sharp drop in king salmon adults returning to Central Valley rivers to spawn also poses a problem for the endangered Orca whale.

Salmon are the primary food source for the predators also known as killer whales.

“Everything is connected to everything else,” said KCBS and Chronicle Outdoors editor Tom Stienstra. Fewer salmon could lead the Orca to catastrophic collapse despite federal protections, he said.

A record low number of salmon are swimming back from the Pacific, according to a recent report from the Pacific Fishery Management Council. In 2008, just 66,264 fish—both wild and from hatcheries—entered the Sacramento River basin.

Salmon mistake the pull from powerful pumps in the San Joaquin River for a strong current that will take them to their mating ground. Instead they die in the machinery.

California and Oregon banned both commercial and recreational fishing was banned when the population dropped from 90,000 in 2007. The season will likely be canceled again this year.

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Poachers put Balkan lynx on brink of extinction


GALICICA MOUNTAIN, Macedonia (AFP) — The camera sits hidden in a field ready to track every move of the Balkan lynx, a wild cat both revered as an icon and reviled as a pest that has teetered on extinction for nearly a century.

“The lynx has no natural enemy except man,” said Georgi Ivanov, an ecologist working on a project to monitor lynx numbers in western Macedonia’s Galicica National Park, where 30 such cameras have been set up.

Poaching is one of the biggest threats to the survival of this Balkan subspecies of the European lynx, the largest wild cat found on the continent.

Though its overall numbers are uncertain, they seem to hover dangerously around the 100 scientists say are needed for their population to remain stable.

In Albania and Macedonia, foreign experts put their number at less than 80 though local counterparts say there are fewer than 40. The estimates in neighbouring Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are even worse.

Lynx are killed by villagers in the impoverished region mainly for their prized fur, a spotted golden-brown. But dwindling forests and a lack of prey are also factors in their decline, experts say.

“The main cause of the extinction threat is illegal hunting, as well as environmental destruction and, above all, uncontrolled forest cutting,” said biologist Dime Melovski of the Macedonian Ecological Society.

The monitoring scheme is also underway in Mavrovo National Park, also in western Macedonia, and in Albania in cooperation with the Swiss-based research group KORA, Germany’s Euronatur and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA).

Adeptly maneuvering his jeep along Mount Galicica’s winding roads, Zoran Celakovski said members of the Ohrid Hunting Society, which he heads, are also doing their part to protect the Balkan lynx.

“We have information that there are some lynx here so we help the ecologists in their work, patrols and file-keeping,” he said.

In addition to determining the cats’ status, via camera date, research and interviews, the project aims to establish protected areas for the animal and help local authorities develop a conservation strategy. It is due to wind up at the end of 2009, Melovski said.

Long seen as an unofficial national symbol in Macedonia, the Balkan lynx — whose scientific denomination is “lynx lynx martinoi” — features on both a postal stamp and a coin. With a short tail, long legs, and thick neck, its defining characteristic may be the striking tufts of hair on both ears. They grow to an average one metre (three feet) in length and 65 centimetres (two feet) in height and can weigh up to 25 kilograms (55 pounds).

The wild cat prey mainly on roe deer, the mountain goat-like chamois and hares, but never attack its greatest threat — human beings.

Although hunting lynx is punishable by prison terms of up to eight years, poachers continue to pursue the animal with impunity, knowing that no one has ever been prosecuted for doing so.

Lynx-advocates like Macedonian ecologist Aleksandar Stojanov have been pushing to have areas where the cat roams proclaimed as national parks, to “reduce threats and increase the number of protected mountainous areas”.

Raising awareness among villagers is also needed, he said. Local lore holds that lynx are “pests that kill livestock and that is why they do not like it.”

“But our data has shown that in only four cases has the animal actually caused any damage, and it was minimal,” said Stojanov.

Experiments in other parts of Europe have been encouraging. Conservationists reintroduced wild lynx to Switzerland after its eradication there at the end of the 19th century, raising the population to 140 in the last two decades.

Similar action has seen the lynx population recover in the Baltics, in the Carpathian mountains that run from Slovakia to Romania, and in Scandinavia.

Some experts involved in the Balkans project, like John Linnell of NINA, warn this success might be difficult to repeat here because “poaching is obviously a factor that is limiting their ability to recover.”

Another, Manuela von Arx of KORA, stressed that improving law enforcement and stepping up efforts to educate locals about the animal was the key to the Balkan lynx’ survival.

“Legal protection is meaningless if violations are not persecuted,” she said in a statement.

“In the long run co-existence between large carnivores and people can only be achieved and secured if the local people and land users are willing to tolerate animals such as the Balkan lynx in their vicinity.”

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Bat extinction inevitable: Garrett


Federal Environment Minister concedes Christmas Island pipistrelle bat will inevitably become extinct.

The Federal Environment Minister has conceded the Christmas Island pipistrelle bat will inevitably become extinct after he received advice from a group of Australian threatened species experts.

The group has recommended actions to address the continued decline of Christmas Island biodiversity but has highlighted some issues associated with a potential captive breeding program for the pipistrelle.

“Sadly, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee has confirmed what we feared, that the pipistrelle is in severe decline and that extinction in the wild is almost inevitable,” Mr Garrett said.

“We are now at a critical stage – despite some $470,000 spent over the last five years under the recovery plan and around $4 million spent slashing the numbers of yellow crazy ants which are the biggest threat to biodiversity on the island, combined with the huge efforts by park managers and independent scientists, these actions have so far failed to reverse the bat’s rapid decline.

“Unfortunately, the Committee has also advised me that there is a high risk associated with a proposed captive breeding program for the pipistrelle with so few left on the island.

“The bats are also very difficult to catch and no-one knows how to keep them alive for breeding,” he said.

Mr Garrett said he was told no captive breeding program for microbats had taken place anywhere in the world.

“I therefore accept that there are unacceptably high risks involved in embarking on an immediate captive breeding program,” he said.

“However, on the Committee’s recommendation, a trial captive breeding program on a closely related species – Pipistrellus westralis – will begin as soon as possible.

“This bat is abundant and secure in the top end of the Northern Territory.”

The Minister said the objective was to demonstrate safe capture methods with the NT bat, and if the trial was successful, it will pave the way for a potential captive breeding program on Christmas Island.

“We will do whatever is practical and feasible to save the pipistrelle – even though it is the case that bat numbers on the island have been in rapid decline for around 14 years now for reasons that are not clear,” he said.

“I am deeply concerned by the fact that its prospects do not appear bright on the basis of our current understanding of the situation.”

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Saimaa ringed seal extinction likely without massive conservation measures


The Saimaa ringed seal is very likely to become extinct if measures to preserve the species are not upgraded considerably, says Metsähallitus, the state institution concerned with regulating natural resources. The ringed seal population in the Saimaa waterway in the southeast of Finland has been calculated at 260, down from 280 a few years ago. The danger of extinction has been noticed around the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has changed the classification of the seal as extremely endangered, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has demanded that Finland enact more efficient measures to protect the species. The negative prognosis for the Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis) is the result of a combination of factors: warmer winters, drownings of seals caught in fishnets and traps, and the dispersed nature of the seals themselves. If winters lack snow, young seals born in the winter often cannot survive through the spring, and then fishnets pose a hazard. In addition, the small population is spread out over such a wide area, that the death of a single fertile female can be catastrophic. The seals were once mainly seen as a nuisance, and were hunted just to get rid of them. That attitude has not completely gone away. “At one hearing a man from Rantasalmi said, I believe, that they still have dry gunpowder”, says fisheries consultant Risto Tarikka of the Finnish Federation for Recreational Fishing. Tarikka worked with a working group which proposed a mandatory extension of restrictions on net fishing from the present 600 square kilometres to 1,500, if such a move is not achieved voluntarily. Fishermen’s associations take a different view. “Voluntary agreements for protection are the sustainable way, and one which brings results”, says Markku Myllylä of the Federation of Finnish Fisheries Associations. “If and when restrictions are well founded, they must be suitable for us as well”, says Ilkka Mäkelä, executive director of the Finnish Federation for Recreational Fishing.


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Extinction alert on vultures and eagles – Cachar


Feb. 10: Eagles and vultures have disappeared from Cachar’s skyline, confirming a suspicion that ornithologists and birdwatchers long held — that deforestation is robbing the district of its bird heritage.

Not just Cachar, there has also been a sharp decline in the population of these birds in the other south Assam districts of North Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj.

Scientists tracking eagle and vulture population confirmed Cachar’s suspicions.

India has lost 99.9 per cent of the oriental white-rumped vultures over the past 15 years and 96.8 per cent of long-billed vultures and slender-billed vultures, researchers from India and the UK said in May last year.

Bird watchers in Cachar and Hailakandi claim that the greater spotted eagle, white tailed eagle and grey headed fish eagle can no longer be seen the area. As have disappeared the bearded vulture and the cinereous vulture.

Abhik Gupta, a professor of ecology in Assam University and an avid birdwatcher, said cinereous vultures could be sighted only once in the past 12 years at Silcoorie tea estate, 12 miles south of Silchar town.

While most attribute this decline to rampant deforestation that has robbed the birds of their homes, scientists feel that diclofenac, a common painkiller used to relive pain in cattle, could be one of main culprits.

When vultures feed on livestock carcass with traces of diclofenac, they slowly die from dehydration.

Mathematical modelling based on the diclofenac concentrations in tissues available to vultures show that there is sufficient diclofenac in livestock carcasses to cause the population decline that has been observed, scientists had said.

In the midst of this research, Cachar forest officials were thrilled to find a red-tailed fish eagle in Silchar in January-end.

Y. Suryanarayan, the conservator of the forest department in south Assam, said the bird, which looked sick, was perched on the wall of a Silchar neighbourhood.

It was carefully rescued, fed and nursed till it was healthy enough to fly away.

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Harbour seals’ decline ‘alarming’


Harbour seals, or common seals, are familiar faces along coastlines across the northern hemisphere.

But they are now vanishing in the UK at an alarming rate, warn scientists from St Andrews University.

Numbers have halved in the hardest hit area, the Orkney Islands, since 2001 – falling almost 10% each year.

There will soon be “no harbour seals left” in some areas if the mysterious decline continues, said Professor Ian Boyd, of the Sea Mammal Research Unit.

Marine biologists are baffled by the disappearances and have begun investigating possible causes, which include illegal hunting and disease.

“The change in numbers is well outside normal limits and the decline appears to be accelerating,” said Professor Boyd.

“We’re worried that over the next 10 years, there will be no harbour seals left in the core area for the animals in Europe.”

The harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) is found in cold and temperate waters throughout much of the northern hemisphere. The UK is home to 40% of the European population.

Also known as the common seal, they are a familiar sight around the UK’s coasts – much more so than their more elusive cousin, the grey seal.

However, the latest report shows dramatic decreases in the numbers around most of Scotland.

When compared with figures from 2001, counts in 2007 showed drops of 56% in Orkney, 42% in Shetland and 30% in Strathclyde.

Researchers have seen similarly worrying declines along the Scottish east coast, and along the North-East coast of England.

“We really don’t know what’s behind this,” Boyd admits.

“It looks like the problems are likely to be complex and the decline in numbers is probably down to a combination of factors.

“It could be a change in the ecosystem. We know that the grey seal is moving into harbour seal territory and this might be having an effect on the harbour seal.

“But we don’t really know the nature of the competition between the two species. We do know that both feed on sand eels, which are also in decline.”

Worrying trend

The decline in harbour seals reflects a similar trend in North Sea marine life.

Puffin numbers have fallen 30% over the past five years, according to a recent study on the Isle of May, off Scotland’s east coast, by scientists from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

And a decline in sand eels has been reported by the Fisheries Research Service, in Aberdeen.

There is no evidence, so far, of any kind of parasite-mediated infection of harbour seals.

Grey seal populations seem to be healthy, but Professor Boyd added that grey seals could be more robust than harbour seals, which seem to be more susceptible to disease.

In 1988, an outbreak of phocine distemper virus (PDV) killed around 18,000 harbour seals in European waters, over half the population in some areas.

Disappearing Act

The population had recovered fully by 2002, when a second outbreak began, in which several thousand seals died. There is no cure or prevention for the disease.

Common seal numbers are monitored annually in the UK, with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, which published the results of the latest survey.

NERC advises the UK government on the size and status of the British seal population under the Conservation of Seals Act, 1970.

Some environmental groups want the Scottish government to use powers under the proposed marine bill for Scotland to legally protect harbour seals, by abolishing the Act.

At the moment, it is legal to shoot harbour seals that come near fisheries.

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