Monthly Archives: September 2009

Hunting: an extinction threat to Middle East’s most threatened bird


Conservationists trying to prevent the extinction of Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita are distraught that one of the last remaining wild birds in the Middle East has been shot by a hunter in Saudi Arabia, bringing the known wild Middle Eastern population of this Critically Endangered species to just four individuals.

Formerly, the range of this species extended across parts of southern and central Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It even features in the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. Following a huge population and range decline, the bulk of the wild population of 210 birds now occurs in Morocco, but a tiny population was rediscovered in 2002, in Syria.

Northern Bald Ibis
Northern Bald Ibis © Stephen Daly, from the surfbirds galleries

A satellite-tracking project led by BirdLife International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in collaboration with the Desert Commission of the Syrian Government, established that the Syrian adults migrate to the Ethiopian highlands each winter, but the wintering area of younger birds remains a mystery. This migration across the deserts of the Middle East to north-east Africa puts these birds under threat from the region’s many hunters.

Researchers from BirdLife, the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and IUCN, trying to find out more about the movements of the young birds, fitted two birds with satellite tags, and it is one of these birds – a female – which was shot.

“We were excited that tagging a sub-adult ibis may have helped us to solve the mystery of where young ibises spend the winter, but now we may never know”, said Eng. Ali Hamoud, of the Syrian Desert Commission. “The shooting of a young bird from such a tiny population is devastating news and it shows that hunting is a major threat to this species.”

Dr Jeremy Lindsell, the RSPB scientist in charge of the ibis satellite-tracking project, said: “Recovery of the population from this frighteningly low level is going to be exceedingly difficult, but everyone involved in the project believes we must do everything we can to provide hope for this culturally-important icon of the Middle East. The tiny Syrian population has been breeding very well since its discovery, although it has suffered two poor years. The low rate of return of young birds to the colony shows that they are being lost somewhere on migration. We are starting to discover what the problem might be.”

Three birds from a semi-captive population in Turkey were released last year to see if they would migrate. They flew south as far as Jordan, but subsequently were found dead. Initially, it was feared they had been poisoned, but later it was realised that the birds had been electrocuted, emphasising that other threats can have a devastating impact on the future of the Northern Bald Ibis in the Middle East.

More satellite-tagged birds released from Turkey this year, flew south as far as Saudi Arabia but they too disappeared not much more than 100 km from where the Syrian bird was shot. Although their fate has not been established, researchers believe these birds too may have succumbed to hunters.

The hunting of Northern Bald Ibis is not allowed in Saudi Arabia. HH Prince Bandar Bin Saud the Secretary General of NCWCD (National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development) said: “Upon hearing the news of Northern Bald Ibises in Saudi Arabia, NCWCD immediately reacted and dispatched a team to search for the birds. Local people reported to the commission that an ibis had been shot illegally by hunters.

On migration, the remaining ibises nesting in Syria pass through Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, finally wintering in Ethiopia.

Sharif Jbour, of Birdlife in the Middle East, said “Now that the threats to this species are becoming clear we will be doing all we can to address them. It is essential for the future of this population that they have safe passage through the region during their migration. With so many countries involved this is a great challenge but we already have high level support in many of these countries, so we are hopeful of change.”

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New Species Discovered In The Greater Mekong At Risk Of Extinction Due To Climate Change


ScienceDaily (Sep. 28, 2009) — A bird-eating fanged frog, a gecko that looks like it’s from another planet, and a bird which would rather walk than fly — these are among the 163 new species discovered in the Greater Mekong region last year that are now at risk of extinction due to climate change, says a new report launched by WWF ahead of UN climate talks in Bangkok.

During 2008 alone, scientists identified these rare and unique species within the jungles and rivers of the Greater Mekong, including a bird eating fanged frog that lies in streams waiting for prey, one of only four new species of musk shrew to be described in recent times, and a leopard gecko whose “other world” appearance – orange eyes, spindly limbs and technicolour skin – inspired the report’s title Close Encounters.

Such is the immense biodiversity of this region that some discoveries such as the tiger-striped pitviper were made by accident.

“We were engrossed in trying to catch a new species of gecko when my son pointed out that my hand was on a rock mere inches away from the head of a pitviper! We caught the snake and the gecko and they both proved to be new species,” said Dr Lee Grismer of La Sierra University in California.

Close Encounters spotlights species newly identified by science including 100 plants, 28 fish, 18 reptiles, 14 amphibians, 2 mammals and a bird, all discovered in 2008 within the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia that spans Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan.

The reluctant flyer, Nonggang babbler, was observed walking longer distances than flying. It would only use its wings when frightened.

“After millennia in hiding these species are now finally in the spotlight, and there are clearly more waiting to be discovered,” said Stuart Chapman, Director of the WWF Greater Mekong Programme.

But no sooner are these new species discovered than their survival is threatened by the devastating impacts of climate change, the report warns.

Recent studies show the climate of the Greater Mekong region is already changing. Models suggest continued warming, increased variability and more frequent and damaging extreme climate events.

Rising seas and saltwater intrusion will cause major coastal impacts especially in the Mekong River delta, which is one of the three most vulnerable deltas on Earth, according to the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report.

“Some species will be able to adapt to climate change, many will not, potentially resulting in massive extinctions,” said Chapman.

“Rare, endangered and endemic species like those newly discovered are especially vulnerable because climate change will further shrink their already restricted habitats,” he said.

Often these newly discovered species are highly dependent on a limited number of species for their survival. If they respond to climate change in a way that disrupts this closely evolved relationship it puts them at greater risk of extinction.

Over the next two weeks, government delegates will meet in Bangkok, Thailand, for the next round of UN climate change talks in the lead up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit this December, where the world is scheduled to agree on a new global climate treaty.

“The treasures of nature are in trouble if governments fail to agree a fair, ambitious and binding treaty that will prevent runaway climate change,” said Kathrin Gutmann, Head of Policy and Advocacy at the WWF Global Climate Initiative.

“Protecting endangered species and vulnerable communities in the Greater Mekong and elsewhere around the world depends on fast progress at the UN talks in Bangkok – a hugely important conference that can lay the groundwork for success at the Copenhagen Climate Summit this December.”

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Queensland koalas ‘near extinction’


CONSERVATIONISTS say koalas are on the brink of extinction in southeast Queensland and more needs to be done to protect them.

Hundreds of protesters are expected to rally in Brisbane and march on Parliament House at noon (AEST) today y to raise awareness of the plight of the marsupials.

Rally spokeswoman Carolyn Beaton said there had been 25,000 recorded koala deaths in southeast Queensland – the fastest growing region in Australia – over the past decade.

Ms Beaton said rapid development in other parts of the country, particularly along the east coast, was also threatening koala habitat.

“This rally will show our politicians, and indeed the world, that Australia does care about its wildlife and we, as Australians, will not stand by and let the rest of our koalas be wiped out,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Government today announced it would protect 5.6 hectares of state-owned koala habitat at Alexandra Hills.

State Climate Change Minister Kate Jones said the land, located on Windemere Road and of high commercial value, would be handed over to Redland City Council.

The Government is currently drafting a state planning policy aimed at protecting koalas to halt declining numbers and recently completed a koala mapping project.

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Endangered Species Listing Sought for Arctic Reindeer


Today the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW filed a petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect two North Pole-residing caribou species under the Endangered Species Act. While caribou, more commonly known as reindeer, are threatened globally by climate change, the two specific sub-species in this petition, Peary and Dolphin-Union caribou, face an imminent risk of extinction.

Caribou have been a part of the Arctic and Inuit culture for generations. Currently, the habitat of Peary and Dolphin-Union caribou is threatened by rapid climate change and increased frequency of severe weather patterns which prevent them from foraging for food. The overall number of Peary caribou has declined by 84%, from almost 50,000 in the 1960s to less than 7,800 at the turn of the 21st century.

“With living conditions worsening, these caribou are literally starving to death,” said Nathan Herschler, IFAW Legal Fellow and lead author of the petition. “Populations are severely dwindling, and the way we manage climate change will likely determine the fate of this important species.

“We urge the government to respond in a timely and appropriate manner to secure a future for these creatures,” Herschler said.

Listing the species under the Endangered Species Act will not only bring international awareness to the plight of these species, but will also impose restrictions on the importation of either the animal or its parts, heightening and hopefully acting as a catalyst for global action to save them from extinction. Species ranging from the polar bear to the pacific walrus have been recognized as threatened by global warming, and the subspecies of woodland caribou are already listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

“Climate change has had detrimental effects across the board for arctic animals that rely on sea ice and stable seasonal weather conditions,” said Jeff Flocken, IFAW Washington, DC, Office Director. “Species such as Peary and Dolphin-Union caribou are in real jeopardy as a result. It is our hope that this petition leads to real protections for this beautiful arctic species.”

In addition to habitat change and global warming, the extinction of already reduced Peary and Dolphin-Union caribou populations could be accelerated by threats from predation, over-hunting, lack of genetic diversity, inter-species competition and disease.

The government has until December 14, 2009 to respond to the petition to protect Arctic reindeer, just a short time before Christmas.


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Bumblebees and the Sixth Great Extinction

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Bats are one of the endangered species that is begin to lose it place in the Mediterranean.

One in six mammals endangered in countries around the Mediterranean.

The expansion of industrial agriculture and the destruction of their ecosystems are reasons that put them on the list of endangered species. Trees, that serve as refuge in forests and gardens, are felled by the thousands, this has reduced some of their favourite prey (eg insects, which have been eradicated by the use of insecticides). What’s more, caves, that are home to many thousands of the creatures, “are used for tourism and caving” says Anabelle Cuttelod , researcher at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Disturbance of breeding sites of bats is also due to improper restoration or rehabilitation of old buildings. The persecution and destruction of their colonies, which are sometimes considered a pest, are other causes of its decline. This situation is described in the first survey on the status of mammals in the Mediterranean, prepared by the IUCN, which asserts that one in every six mammal species are at risk of extinction.

The report assessed a total of 297 mammal species (all except whales and dolphins) and concludes that nine of them (3%) is in a critical state, with a danger of imminent extinction, they are the African wild dog (Lycaon ), the serval (an African cat), the Iberian lynx, leopard, the European mink, the monk seal, Persian gazelle, dama gazelle and the African wild ass. Meanwhile, small mammals (rodents, bats, shrews, hedgehogs and moles), which constitute most of the mammals of the Mediterranean, are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. “The deterioration and drastic modification of their habitats is the main cause of this situation,” says Annabelle Cuttelod.

The Iberian lynx suffered a fragmentation of their populations, the European mink, because of the invasion of its American competitor, while the monk seal, very sensitive to any disturbance of their breeding habitats, has declined in Turkey and Greece with the intensification of tourism and coastal development.

In addition, 15 other species (5%) are threatened, among them the gazelle and the baboon. Gazelles and antelopes in North Africa suffer from the overgrazing of livestock and the competition for water. Besides, another 24 species (8%) are listed as vulnerable.
Here in Spain the bear, the wolf and prosaic voles are also victims of insecticides. The worst part is that 20 of the 49 endangered species are found only in this region of the planet.

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Introduced Japanese white-eyes pose major threat to Hawaii’s native and endangered birds


In the late 1920s, people intentionally introduced birds known as Japanese white-eyes into Hawaiian agricultural lands and gardens for purposes of bug control. Now, that decision has come back to bite us. A recent increase in the numbers of white-eyes that live in old-growth forests is leaving native bird species with too little to eat, according to a report published online on September 17th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. The findings show that introduced species can alter whole communities in significant ways and cause visible harm to the birds that manage to survive.

“Native Hawaiian songbirds cannot rear normal-size offspring in the presence of large numbers of introduced Japanese white-eyes,” said Leonard Freed of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Their growth is stunted.”

“Just as there are permanent effects of stunted growth in human children, there are permanent effects in adult birds,” added Rebecca Cann, also of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Birds cannot use their shorter bills to feed efficiently for themselves or when feeding their young. Stunted birds have higher death rates than normal size birds. The Japanese white-eye is causing this problem for native Hawaiian birds by depleting the food available for growth, survival, and breeding.”

Undernourished birds are left more susceptible to other threats, including infectious diseases. “Birds can only tolerate malaria if they have adequate nutrition to mount an immune response,” Freed said. “They can only tolerate chewing lice if they have adequate nutrition to replace heat lost through plumage degraded by the lice.”

The threat posed by the white-eyes came as a surprise to the researchers. That’s because over more than a decade of study, it had seemed as though the white-eyes were living in peaceful coexistence with other birds, including the endangered Hawaii akepa. But sometime after the year 2000, the researchers began to notice that young akepa were disappearing. The akepa fledglings that were seen were noticeably underweight. Other native birds had many broken wing and tail feathers—a sign of malnutrition—and suffered from a major increase in chewing lice. The researchers sounded an alarm, alerting the US Fish and Wildlife Service of the problem, but nothing was done, and two-thirds of the akepa in their long-term study site had disappeared by 2006.

Although Hawaiian birds face many threats, such as malaria, yellow-jacket wasps, and parasitoid wasps escaped from biological control of insects, the researchers were able to show that the white-eyes are most likely responsible for the decline of 7 of 8 native forest birds in a major portion of a national wildlife refuge. Young birds in a site with fewer white-eyes continued to grow normally, they found, despite potentially greater challenges from malaria and parasitoids. In other parts of Hawaii where white-eyes are flourishing, native species are suffering a similar fate.

The white-eyes are yet another example of the threats that introduced species can pose. When white-eyes were introduced, “no one at that time could have imagined that they would invade native forests,” Cann said. “This is a problem with all introduced species. It is impossible to predict how they will respond to the new environment. The white-eye is a member of a bird family famous for expanding its range and consuming new types of prey, even to the point that individuals that colonize a new habitat may vary among themselves in the prey items they consume. But that was not known in 1929.”

Even today, Freed said, foreign species continue to be put to work in risky ways. “Right now, realtors are using alien catfish to clean up the algae-ridden swimming pools of abandoned foreclosed houses in Florida. What if some escape during a flood into streams and lakes?”


The researchers include Leonard A. Freed, and Rebecca L. Cann, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI.

Contact: Cathleen Genova
Cell Press

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