Monthly Archives: July 2011

Research team take rare eggs to save species from extinction


Under gruelling conditions and amid fears it might be too late, a conservation breeding team in the remote Russian Far East has collected a clutch of spoon-billed sandpiper eggs, signalling an incredible step towards safeguarding the species from extinction.

The team has been in Russia since mid-May on an emergency mission to find nests to collect eggs for conservation breeding. They aim to create a population in captivity for future reintroductions and as a safety net, should the species die out in the wild before threats along their flyway can be addressed.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Trevor Feltham, from the surfbirds galleries.

Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding for WWT and leading the expedition in Russia said: “Finding a nest of eggs made the 35 sleep-deprived days so far, the gruelling 7000 mile journey hampered by transport problems, heavy snow, driving winds, and lashing rain – not to mention the ever present threat of becoming a hungry bear’s lunch – completely and utterly worthwhile.”

Now five weeks into the mission, at times it seemed doomed to failure. Peaks of excitement with sightings of adult male spoon-billed sandpipers in full courtship ritual and song, were swiftly followed by crushing disappointment as a predated nest and dead female were discovered.

With so few breeding pairs in existence, the loss of a female and her eggs through predation is a distressing event. However, it is natural for predation to occur like this. The real threat to the survival of the species are caused by humans: inter-tidal destruction along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s migration flyway and unsustainable levels of trapping on the wintering grounds in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Part of the expedition team, Liza Tambovtseva from Birds Russia, said: “We know from previous years that there is a great risk of nest predations. In 2010 we found eight nests, four of which were predated before hatching. In 2009 the situation was even worse: there were four nests found and only one was successfully hatched – the other three were predated.”

Nigel said: “It was a cruel moment for everybody. That day we had trekked through snowdrifts and as we stepped onto the tundra my eyes were still streaming tears from snow-blindness. As my vision cleared the first thing I saw as I looked down, right in my path, was the broken body of a female spoon-billed sandpiper next to a nest littered with smashed eggshells. It was a devastating moment but it made us more determined to continue our search, vowing that we could not let this truly remarkable bird become extinct. ”

When, just a few days after finding the predated nest the team found a second nest, this time with a fresh clutch of eggs inside, the team decided not to risk leaving them to succumb to the same fate as before. Nigel explains: “Ideally, we leave freshly laid eggs in the nest for at least a week before collecting, but because the first nest we had come across was predated so quickly, we had no idea whether this would be the case with other nests.”

Liza continued: “Considering these statistics we recommended taking the clutch for incubation straightaway because we believed there was a greater chance for the spoon-billed sandpiper’s eggs to hatch in incubators than to remain in this nest. Also, by taking this clutch at an early stage we gave the bird a good chance to relay a second clutch. In this way we minimize the harm for the birds and for nature.”

So, late into the night just days ago, Nigel lifted the first clutch of eggs from their tiny nest in the rough, unforgiving terrain of the arctic tundra and carefully laid them in a portable incubator for the slow and careful dinghy and ATV (all terrain vehicle) journey back to base in Meinypilgyno. At this stage it is not known whether the collected eggs are viable. Infertile eggs are common with spoon-billed sandpiper, so only time will tell.

Thankfully, things started to look up. After successfully collecting the first clutch, the team went on to discover several more nests each with freshly laid eggs and with these, the plan is to leave them to be naturally incubated by their parents for several days more, all the time assessing the risks from nearby predators.

Nigel continued: “It is a carefully balanced waiting game. We are only able to monitor the nests from a distance as our presence near them naturally attracts predators like gulls, dogs, foxes and stoats. If we take eggs too early there is a chance they will not develop normally in an incubator, but if we leave it too late the eggs can get eaten by predators. Dogs are a particular problem in the area as the villagers tend to keep them as early warning systems for approaching bears. All we can do is watch and wait.”

The team have constructed a temporary incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine. The chicks will then be transferred to a specially built conservation breeding unit at WWT’s headquarters in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds.

The expedition, led by staff from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, has support from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo. The project is funded by WWT and RSPB, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, and Heritage Expeditions.

The team plans to establish a population in a conservation breeding facility at WWT Slimbridge which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming decades, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed. Dealing with the threats to the bird on the flyway will help a range of other species destined to suffer a similar fate.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is a unique and remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken.

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Four vulture deaths in Ahmedabad in fortnight


The bird lovers and conservationists in the city are in a state of shock after the recent deaths of vultures in the city. In the past 15 days, four vultures have been reported dead in various parts of the city.

While the first death was registered in mid-June, the second bird died on last Tuesday. These two deaths were followed by two more on Wednesday.Experts believe that the prying scavengers will go extinct if effective steps are not taken.

With threats of extinction looming large, India is already fighting a battle and the recent deaths prove that enough is still not being done. The prime reason for this is believed to be the banned veterinary drug diclofenac, which is used in treating cattle.

Diclofenac administration keeps animals that are ill or in pain alive for longer. However, if the ill animals die, their carcasses carry traces of the drug. If vultures, which are sensitive to Diclofenac, eat flesh of such animals, they suffer kidney failure, visceral gout, and death as a result of diclofenac poisoning.

“We will soon enter into a crisis-like situation. The authorities must take stringent steps to ensure diclofenac administration is stopped. The vultures feed on carcasses and it leads to kidney fail and brain haemorrhage,” says Karitk Shastri, trustee of Jivdaya Charitable Trust, which is working for birds.

The trust is presently treating two injured vultures. “We are treating two juvenile scavengers-one with a leg injury and the other with broken wings. We will send the scavengers to the breeding centre in Junagadh.”

The bird lovers demanded strict action. “The forest department should spread awareness and take strict action against those who used the banned drug diclofenac. If this is not stopped, our skies will be bereft of vultures,” said a veterinary surgeon.

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Fish and Wildlife denies protection for tiny arachnid; single specimen known at Grand Canyon


GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Federal officials say a tiny arachnid found in a cave at the Grand Canyon doesn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Grand Canyon cave pseudoscorpion is known from a single female specimen collected in 1978 from the national park’s Cave of the Domes.

Pseudoscorpions typically require wet and moist habitats, but the cave is considered a dry environment.

Fish and Wildlife officials say that raises questions about the origin of the tiny arachnid that has large claws but lacks the stinger of true scorpions.

Environmentalists sent a petition to Fish and Wildlife in 2007 seeking protection for the arachnid and other species.

Federal officials said Monday that they’d welcome any new information on the distribution and status of the arachnid that can hitch rides on flying insects.

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KUALA LUMPUR—The long-tailed macaque is being threatened with extinction by a huge surge in international trade and the destruction of its habitat in Southeast Asia, conservationists said on Friday.

Species Survival Network (SSN), an international coalition of over 80 charities, says trade in the species had more than doubled in the second half of the last decade.

The group is pressing countries taking part in a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva this month to review the impact on the macaque of the trade.

“The long-tailed macaque is the most heavily-traded mammal currently listed on the CITES appendices and our research findings raise alarming questions concerning the long-term viability of targeted populations of the species if this trade is allowed to continue at current levels,” Ian Redmond, chairman of the SSN Primate Working Group said in a statement.

Traders sold more than 260,000 long-tailed macaques—found mainly in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam—between 2004 and 2008, a huge rise from the nearly 120,000 between 1999 and 2003.

The breeding and supply of the monkey has developed into a large-scale business enterprise mainly in Southeast Asia with most exported for medical and scientific purposes.

Redmond said the population was also dwindling due to hunting, habitat loss and degradation, and human encroachment.

“There is also evidence of an illegal trade in wild-caught long-tailed macaques that is likely to have a significant impact on populations,” he said.

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China opens 1st rescue center for endangered white dolphins


XIAMEN, July 23 (Xinhua) — A rescue and breeding base for endangered Chinese white dolphins started a trial operational period on Saturday in the southeastern seaside resort of Xiamen. The base is the first of its kind in the country.

The base, located on the city’s Huoshaoyu Islet, includes a rescue center and a breeding area and can accommodate up to four to six white dolphins, said Pan Shijian, vice mayor of Xiamen.

Previously, rescuers had to return injured white dolphins back to the sea after giving them simple medical treatment due to the lack of a rescue base, Pan said.

“From now on, the base will be a hospital for injured or stranded dolphins,” he said.

The base will also be used as a rehabilitation center for children with infantile autism and brain paralysis, with the dolphins acting as “doctors” during the children’s recovery period, he added.

The Chinese white dolphin mainly lives in the seas around Xiamen and the Pearl River estuary in south China. The dolphins are under first-class state protection.

The Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences estimates that about 2,000 of the dolphins are living in China’s seas.

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Near extinct fish faces death by dynamite


Dynamited to death in the Mahaweli Ganga at Waratenna, Getambe, has been the fate of an ‘endangered’ endemic freshwater fish which has not been sighted for at least five years and was believed to be extinct in Sri Lanka.

While for three weeks blasts have been rocking the peaceful environs of Waratenna close to the Seemamalakaya on the Peradeniya-Katugastota Road, the sudden activity in connection with the groundwork for a mini-hydro power project has left the gadeya or Green Labeo (Labeo fisheri) dead, the Sunday Times learns.

The belief was that the gadeya was extinct worldwide, says researcher Pradeep Samarawickrama, explaining that about four months ago it was re-discovered by him at Waratenna. Earlier this fish was found in the Mahaweli system, at Polgolla and near Victoria, but with the construction of the dams under the accelerated Mahaweli Scheme, their habitats were submerged and changed.

The Waratenna area in which the fish was found. Pix by Pradeep Samarawickrama

Then it was assumed that the fish may be extinct but with Mr. Samarawickrama picking up the dead and decomposed fish it now indicates that the gadeya had made the Waratenna area its home.

“These sites should be preserved,” he stressed, without indiscriminate dynamiting of the rocks embedded in the riverbed.

Another serious concern that this researcher raised was the impact of such blasting in an area which is heavily landslide-prone, with the government on one hand requesting people to be cautious.

Adding his voice to the concerns expressed by Mr. Samarawickrama including the need to preserve the ‘last habitats’ of this nearly-extinct fish, environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena quoting Section 27 of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act said that any act or negligence that causes the death of any fish by the use of explosives is an offence.

He questioned the integrity and inaction of the Mahaweli Authority, which being the project-approving body, has the responsibility of monitoring the implementation of the project that it had approved in the first instance.

Referring to the gadeya, Mr. Gunawardena said it was earlier found in areas such as Lewella, Tennekumbura and the lower regions of the Hulu Ganga but in the early 1980s it was predicted that 75% of the known habitats of this fish would go under water due to the construction of the Victoria reservoir.
“But now we realize the gadeya has been able to re-establish itself upstream,” he said.

He lamented that due to short-sighted policies, these areas too would be destroyed. “L. fisheri has been assessed as ‘endangered’ due to its restricted range (extent of occurrence less than 5,000 km2), continuing decline in habitat quality and the fact that the species is considered to be found in less than five locations,” according to the 2011 Global Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This species is found only in the mid to upper reaches of the Mahaweli Ganga basin, it states, explaining that L. fisheri may already be extinct, as a result of habitat loss following the Mahaweli Ganga development project.

Referring to habitat and ecology, the Red List states: “L fisheri is a benthopelagic species that only inhabits deep, fast-flowing sections of the river. It has not been recorded from unshaded, silty or turbid waters. It moves fast through the water, staying close to the bottom.”

It was way back in 1980 that Ranil Senanayake predicted that the Polgolla and Victoria projects of the Mahaweli Scheme would destroy the gadeya’s habitat while in 1990, Dr. Eric Wikramanayake said that this fish may already be extinct.

Bigger than originally believed

It was believed to grow only to 30 cm. but researcher Pradeep Samarawickrama has found a gadeya which is nearly twice that size, close to 60 cm. in length.

Sadly the fish is dead, due to companies which think only of short term gain and government authorities which do not do their jobs, said a conservationist while many others joined their voices to his, in pointing an accusing finger at the Mahaweli Authority for not acting quickly, even now, to stop the destruction of the gadeyas’ habitat and re-evaluate the project.

Earlier, the known maximum length of this fish as reported by Dr. Paul Deraniyagala in his ‘Vertebrates of Ceylon’ Volume I published in the 1950s; the ‘Freshwater Fishes of Sri Lanka’ published by Rohan Pethiyagoda in 1991; and all other references was 30 cm.

However, a dead fish picked up by Mr. Samarawickrama is nearly twice that length.

Blasting going on despite warning

The company involved in the project has been warned to halt the blasting with immediate effect, said Mahaweli Authority Director-General D.M.C. Dissanayake who has sent a three-member inquiry team to the spot.

I am waiting the report, he said. However, the Sunday Times learns from residents in the area that work has not been halted and the blasting was going on even yesterday, with the whine of backhoes dumping the blasted rock onto one side continuing throughout the day, aggravating the already disturbed habitat.
Meanwhile, Central Environmental Authority Chairman Charitha Herath said that the CEA has not given its concurrence for the latest work at that spot.

The CEA has asked all stakeholders including the company involved to come for an urgent meeting on Tuesday, he said, detailing the background to the Sunday Times.

In 2007, a proposal was put forward to set up a mini-hydro power plant there and environmental approval sought. The Mahaweli Authority as the project-approving agency set the terms of reference for an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The EIA was reviewed by the Mahaweli Authority and the CEA asked for concurrence and as there were no public comments it was given, says Mr. Herath.

The concurrence was for a three-year period from February 2007 to February 2010, during which time they were supposed to build the plant. However, the project was not started and the approval expired on February 2010. Recently, CEA concurrence was requested once again, but we have not given it. That’s why we called a meeting on July 26 to discuss it. However, we have received complaints that the project has been started.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena, however, cites Section 24 B of the National Environment Act, according to which the CEA can issue a directive ordering the suspension of all activities of a project that is implemented without its permission. If this directive is not heeded the CEA can go to the Magistrate’s Court and get it implemented as a court order, he adds.

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Spix Macaw on Brink of Extinction


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