Pope Francis: friend to the environment

ImageDuring his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, 2013, Pope Francis took the opportunity to speak out about the environmental issues facing the Amazon region. At a meeting with thousands of representatives of Brazil’s political, business and cultural elite.

In a speech, the Pope appealed to the Brazilian congregation to refocus their energies and create a united Amazon face for the church. To focus the energies f the church on the rights of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples and their lands, with the current levels of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and other ecological problems facing Brazil’s rainforest The Pope then added his own voice to the pleas to protect the basin. Pope Francis also met with members of the aboriginal people from Bahia whose tribal lands are threatened by encroaching ranchers and farmers. They shared with him stories of habitat destruction and eviction, and he expressed genuine concern at the plight of both these tribes and the rainforests they inhabit.


Nearly-extinct pygmy sloths sets off international incident in Panama


On Monday, September 9, 2013, the police officer on morning duty at Isla Colón International Airport, noticed some foreigners loading crates with what appeared to be animals on a private jet. Finding this suspicious, he alerted his supervisor. Within minutes the local police chief, the mayor of Bocas, the director of the regional office of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), community leaders and heads of local conservation organizations were informed about the incident. Little by little, a crowd of concerned citizens from Bocas town gathered around what turned out to be eight pygmy sloths – some of the rarest mammals on Earth.

The pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) is one of the world’s most endangered species. A recent scientific survey found fewer than 100 sloths hanging on in their island home – Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama. They live nowhere else in the world. For the past 15 months, Bryson Voirin, expert on pygmy sloths and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, has been tracking ten of them with radio-collars to find where on the island they spend their time. Voirin has been working on sloth conservation in Panama for the last 10 years alongside scientists from Zoological Society London, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and many local organizations.

But on Monday, as the drama at the airport was developing, it became clear that the foreigners who were trying to export the pygmy sloths were Luis Sigler and Daryl Richardson of Dallas World Aquarium, Jason and Julia Heckathorn – children’s books publishers and amateur naturalists based in the U.S., and Judy Arroyo and Rebecca Cliffe from a sloth rehabilitation center in Costa Rica.

According to the flight manifest, the charter flight was headed for Island Roatan in Honduras before its final destination: Addison airport, Dallas. None of the passengers wanted to comment about the reason for this interim destination.

According to Sigler, the conservation biologist on staff at the Dallas Aquarium, the rare animals were being relocated in order to establish a captive breeding population in Texas. Sigler presented to the airport officials a research permit, animal export permit and a veterinary certification – all the required paperwork for the export. The National Environmental Authority (ANAM) in Panama City has since confirmed their legitimacy.

The Dallas Aquarium local partner in Panama was Jacobo Lacs, director of Zoologico del Istmo in Colon – also a private animal center, closed to the public, where tropical birds and other animals are bred for export. According to the research permit, Lacs was supposed to take two of the eight pygmy sloths to his facility.

However, as the regional ANAM office had no knowledge of the foreign conservation project, the local authorities, aided by a crowd of 75-100 impromptu protestors, vigorously insisted that the sloths be returned to their native habitat on Isla Escudo de Veraguas.

By Monday evening, Dallas Aquarium officials had relinquished possession of the eight sloths. The animals were to be taken back to the island on Tuesday morning and released into the mangrove forest. The local protesters, however, were distrustful and so the agreement was made that two local citizens would spend the night camped out by the sloths’ temporary holding enclosure in order to ensure they were not removed from the country before they could be returned to Isla Escudo de Veraguas the next morning. Even though the eight pygmy sloths are back in their home, all is far from over.

“We are really worried,” a local resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told . “They said they were going to come back and this time we wouldn’t be able to stop them. We think they plan to ship them out via David City, at the Pacific side of Panama.”

Potential captive breeding

Breeding programs for some threatened species have been successful. However, three-toed sloths are very difficult to maintain in captivity. They often do not survive, nor reproduce. For years, many have tried to maintain them artificially outside the Tropics, and nearly all of them have failed. There is little to no experiences with keeping, breeding and feeding three-toed sloths in captivity.

“A modern and serious zoo should never bring wild animals in without knowing this basic information. As studbook keeper for two-toed sloths in Europe I can say that because of ignorance and lack of experiences from zoos, a lot of sloths paid with their lives in the past,” says Dr. Jutta Heuer, from Halle Zoo, Germany, one of the world experts in sloth husbandry in Europe.

Recently, the Dallas World Aquarium has been able to maintain a small population of three brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) – another sloth species that is not endangered – by providing fresh Cecropia leaves to them flown in from Hawaii. But these three animals are the only ones which survived out of the nine sloths Dallas Aquarium imported from Venezuela and Costa Rica in the past 15 years. The only baby sloth born in captivity died 7 months later and had been conceived in the wild.

To make matters worse, the critically endangered pygmy sloths themselves have never been held and bred in captivity. Even their actual diet is unknown. They are thought to eat primarily red mangroves from the coast, but the radio collar study found pygmy sloths on the interior of the island in deep forest, suggesting that other trees make up at least a portion of their diet.

“The idea of an external breeding program to increase the number of pygmy sloths sounds logical and noble at first, but when you consider that it’s hard enough to just keep common three-toed sloths alive in captivity, let alone breed them, it seems highly unlikely that a satellite breeding population in Dallas would have yielded anything more than at best a few sloths surviving in captivity in a foreign zoo, but more likely eight fewer surviving pygmy sloths in the wild. The potential risks at this time do not justify the means. Promising the local community that by removing a few sloths from the island they will eventually benefit by receiving multiple captive-bred replacements is a fantasy at this point,” says Voirin.

The secrecy

All professionals from the international sloth conservation community contacted by mongabay.com were caught by surprise by the drastic actions undertaken by Dallas World Aquarium.

“I have formerly worked with the New Zealand Wildlife Service on some of the most endangered species in the world, which often involved capture of wild animals for transfer to other reserves or captive breeding. There is no way any kind of captive program for the sloths should have been established or even considered without a comprehensive management plan developed in consultation with experts on the species as well as with all relevant stakeholders. A serious conservation organization should never have undertaken this kind of project without further research and consultation with independent experts,” said Dr. George Angehr from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“I fail to understand why Dallas World Aquarium did not consult with the experienced researchers prior to exporting these animals. Furthermore, I fail to understand how ANAM approved the export of roughly 10% of the wild population if this species has never been kept in captive conditions,” said Dr Mariella Superina, Chair of the IUCN/SC Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group.

Sigler explains that “a document called Isla Escudo de Veraguas: a Vision for the Future, on page 16, Section 6.1 Project Scorecard showed the proposed participation of actors.”

This document was supposed to have been publicly shared for comments and sent electronically to all stakeholders more than a year ago. But it is not available online and apparently the only conservation organization it was emailed to (in January 2013) was the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which promptly responded that “the current draft raises a number of questions and concerns”.

The most suspicious thing about this conservation plan-type document is that it was drafted not by any particular conservation organization (not either by the Dallas Aquarium). Instead, it was put together and emailed around by Jason and Julia Heckathorn – the children’s books authors and amateur naturalists, who were also present at the airport last Monday for the attempted pygmy sloth exportation.

The Dallas aquarium refused further explanations as to what kind of working relationship they had with the animal-loving couple.

In the meantime, Silvano Vergara, the head of ANAM in Panama city gave an interview for local TV in which he said: “The agreement with Dallas Aquarium foresaw since 2007 that they would do research, and after doing studying the behavior, reproduction of each of these individuals, see how they could be reproduced in captivity. Precisely, they were going to export three pairs to reproduce them in captivity, and then bring back the animals and introduce them.”

Back in Bocas, nobody (including the local ANAM officer) had heard about this newly surfaced agreement with Dallas until the incident at the airport last Monday. People were upset that nobody consulted them on a matter as important as the fate of the few remaining pygmy sloths in the wild.

“If we want to protect this great species successfully we need to work openly together. We shouldn’t learn about a conservation effort relating to the pygmy sloths in the middle of the night amidst violent social unrest,” says Voirin.

Legislation loophole

Although the IUCN Red List classifies the pygmy sloth as Critically Endangered, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has not yet been updated to include the recently described species. Pygmy sloths have been known to science only since 2001 when they were formally described as a separate species, occurring only on Isla Escudo de Veraguas. This is why the Aquarium (or anyone else) needs no import permit from the U.S. federal government. They need only Panamanian export permits, which are often easily obtained.

“The leaders of this effort have exploited the oversight: no one ever anticipated that there would be trafficking of pygmy sloths out of the country,” says Voirin. An effort is underway since last week to have Panama immediately request that the pygmy sloths be listed as a CITES protected species. All aspects of the incident are still under active investigation in Panama.

* This article was written by Tanya Dimitrova for our good friends at MongaBay.com


World Wakes up to Threat of Wildlife Crime at Last?



Efforts to combat illicit wildlife crime have received a massive boost as heads of state and a number of ministers outlined the serious impacts of poaching and illicit wildlife trafficking.

During the most important the year in international politics, governments chose to highlight illicit wildlife trafficking as a major threat to peace and security, the rule of law and global development.

President Ali Bongo of Gabon called for the appointment of a special UN envoy on wildlife crime as well as a UNGA resolution, a move that was supported by the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, William Hague and the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, as well as other representatives present such as the Norwegian Minister of Environment.

President Ali Bongo said, “Illicit wildlife crime is no longer a simple environmental problem, it is a transnational crime and a threat to peace and security on our continent”.

The President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete highlighted the problem of demand and called for help from the international community to close markets.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle highlighted that for Germany “it is no longer a measure of securing endangered species, it’s about countering the spread of organized crime and preventing uncontrolled militarization. This has become a problem of foreign and security matters”.

“This is a step forward in the fight against wildlife crime and today countries have shown they are serious in the fight against this organised crime,” said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International.

“Wildlife trafficking is now more organised, more lucrative, more widespread and more dangerous than ever before. It constitutes a threat to territorial integrity, security and represents an invasion as well as natural resources theft,” he added.

The high level meeting,”Poaching and illicit wildlife trafficking – a multidimensional crime and a growing challenge to the international community,” was hosted by the government’s of Germany and Gabon and was attended by ministers and other high level representatives from Chad, Thailand, UK, Norway, Belgium, the US, Colombia.

Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson provided an introduction, and the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Secretary General of the Economic Community of Central African States both took the floor.

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, New York


Danielle Ryan, journalist and special projects consultant to World Wildlife Fund-Australia will be in attendance at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, New York, October 15-20 to screen two of her films on sea turtles and Costa Rica. Come to the event to meet Danielle at 30 more international wildlife documentary filmmakers, scientists and celebrities. Visit: http://www.WCFF.org

Kenya establishes a new rhino sanctuary

ImageBorana Rhino Sanctuary receives first rhinos as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has successfully trans-located a number of rhinos from Lake Nakuru National Park and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to the newly established Borana Rhino sanctuary in Laikipia.

The rhinos were moved from Lake Nakuru National Park while the others were trans-located from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. The composition was so designed to avoid in-breeding. The week-long exercise (August 26-31, 2013) was funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Zurich Zoo and US F&W in collaboration with Kenya Wildlife Service.
The trans-location is aimed at establishing a new rhino population and keeping the established populations in Lake Nakuru National Park and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy productive by controlling their numbers below the ecological carrying capacity levels of the respective areas.

Kenya’s rhino conservation policy since 1989 has centered on the creation of highly protected fenced sanctuaries. Black rhino numbers have steadily increased within the sanctuaries necessitating removals to avoid overpopulating any one area. However, many established sanctuaries still remain overstocked so secure new habitats are required.

Goal of 750 black rhino
The current Conservation and Management Strategy for the Black Rhino in Kenya 2012-2016 sets targets on restocking former free ranging areas which can support large populations, as well as the creation of intensive Protection Zones (IPZ) and secure sanctuaries in order to achieve its strategic objective of population expansion to reach a confirmed total of 750 black rhinos by end of 2016.

Focus is placed on promoting creation of more government, private and community rhino sanctuaries to achieve the vision of a population of 2,000 black rhinos in Kenya managed in their natural habitat in the long term. Borana rhino sanctuary, which is privately owned, was one of the new areas targeted in the strategic plan for rhino population expansion.

Grizzly Bears may lose Federal Protection


The United States Fish and Wildlife Service plans to draft a rule to delist the grizzly from the federal Act, and turn management over to the state of Montana.

The 1000 bears of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem habitat is Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Mission Mountains and parts of the Blackfeet and Flathead Indian reservations. This covers 3 zones; zone two a likely corridor for bears to reach the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem., and the area is connected to grizzly populations in Canada.

The plan doesn’t specifically discuss hunting grizzlies, but it has already been suggested that Montana state officials could add that as a tool for controlling bear numbers., which seems contrary to “recovery”.

Montana wildlife already has threats from logging and mining- and grizzly habitat would be under more stress if the plans for the XL Pipeline are approved. This is absolutely the wrong time to delist grizzly bears in Montana from federal protections as their recovery is not yet complete, although it is better than when they were first listed as endangered 37 years ago.

Even Crocodiles have a fetish for fruit


It is hard to reconcile visions of a sharp-toothed, scaly, and ferocious with anything other than a completely carnivorous diet. We have been bombarded with gory kill scenes in which crocodiles take down everything from impala to buffalo, but new evidence suggests we need to rethink crocodilians altogether.

When Steven Platt, a herpetologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, was a young graduate student in the 1990s, he learned that scientists had begun to suspect that turtles could consume fruits and disperse their seeds. However, crocodilians were never likely candidates for reptilian seed dispersal, or as scientists call it “saurochory.” They had no need to eat fruit, and were even considered incapable of digesting plant material.

Ever since that class two decades ago, Platt wondered if perhaps biologists had it wrong. Now, his recent article in the Journal of Zoology forces scientists to reconsider these very efficient butchers in a softer light, placing crocodilians among the ranks of a handful of rare carnivores with a bizarre fondness for fruit.

Platt and his team have found fruit in crocodilian stomachs for years. The usual explanations suggest that the fruit were accidentally eaten along with other prey, or could be from the stomachs of recently consumed animals. In one of the first papers Platt ever published, he ventured the idea that crocodile species in alluvial floodplains used seeds as gastroliths, or stomach stones, but contended that fruit was not a source of nutrition to these archaic carnivores.

Today, Platt says, “I was just plain wrong, we were all wrong. It was just one of those things that was under our eyes for years, but nobody gave it much thought.”

There are 23 extant species of crocodilians, including , caiman, salt and freshwater crocodiles, gharial and the tomistoma (or false gharial). Platt and his co-authors re-examined years of data on every species, and conducted a literature search for the most obscure reports on crocodilian feeding ecology. The result is a compendium of instances of intentional frugivory, or fruit-eating, among crocodilians, with 13 of the 18 species (72.2%) for which dietary data exists exhibiting frugivory to some degree.

There are reports of seeds in the stomach contents of ten crocodilian species, and observations of frugivory in at least three others, both in the wild and in captivity. Even the idea that crocodiles could not digest plant-material has now been wholly debunked.

Over half the seeds consumed by crocodiles (from 34 families and 46 plant genera) belonged to fleshy fruits, including large seeds such as the extremely hard Sacoglottis, and avocado-like Persea. Crocodilians were even spotted eating corn from wildlife feeders in Louisiana, and feasting on the fruit of Opuntia in Texas. Two tropical fruits—the alligator-pear (Persea americana) in Belize, and the alligator-apple (Annona glabra) across the Neotropics—have been named for the affinity that alligators have for them. The majority of fruit consumption data, however, comes from the analysis of stomach contents, a messy but rewarding endeavor.

In his time, Platt has certainly “caught a lot of crocodiles, and pumped a lot of stomachs.” Since crocodilians do not chew their food but swallow their prey whole, they lack a gag response. This allows Platt to feed a tube into their esophagus, distend the stomach with water, and then just invert the animal to recover its last meal.

“Pumping a crocodile’s stomach is like opening a Christmas present,” Platt tells his students. “You never know what you are going to get.” His team has recovered everything from half-digested rats to live fish, after which many a student volunteer has joined the crocodilian in losing their lunch, according to Platt.

Adult crocodilians establish extensive home ranges (up to 5,000 hectares) and aggressively defend smaller territories within those areas. They achieve this by traveling remarkable distances during the day, from 12 kilometers in only two hours to a maximum of 23 kilometers in a single day. This incredible propensity for movement, coupled with extended gut passage times, could render crocodilians extremely influential seed dispersers.

Platt hopes that this discovery will spur a series of new studies. Together with the authors of this paper, he is eager to begin seed germination experiments, where crocodiles are fed fruit and the effect on the seed in the digestive tract is recorded.

“I think we are still a far cry from demonstrating that they are effective dispersal agents but the fact that they consume fruit, and a lot of it, reveals their potential to be important seed dispersers,” notes Platt. Crocodilians are not the only carnivores that some times consume fruit; others, such as margays and bush dogs, also eat fruit, and are occasional seed dispersers.

Crocodilians are an ancient group of reptiles, thought to have evolved approximately 80 million years ago. Nearly 20 million years before they emerged, fruiting plants (or angiosperms) radiated across the tropics, replacing other older plant groups. Thus, it is possible that the consumption of fruit has been occurring ever since the first crocodilians walked the earth.

Despite their savage image, crocodilians are important ecosystem engineers, affecting both wetland systems and prey populations. It now appears they may be important to seed dispersal as well—another strong reason for the conservation efforts of groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society.

This article was written by for Mongabay.com

Blobfish voted world’s ugliest animal

The (), a species that lives at great depths and is rarely seen but resembles a marine Jabba the Hut, has been voted the world’s ugliest animal. More than 3,000 votes were cast in the online competition, with 795 for the .

The campaign, run by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society to decide its new mascot, was set up to raise awareness for endangered and aesthetically challenged animals. With 200 species becoming extinct every day, it says ugly animals need more help because of their less than “pinup” appearance.

Simon Watt, the society’s president, said: “We’ve needed an ugly face for endangered animals for a long time and I’ve been amazed by the public’s reaction. For too long the cute and fluffy animals have taken the limelight, but now the blobfish will be a voice for the mingers who always get forgotten.”