Death of 17-Year-Old Endangered Gorilla Sparks Debate About Zoo Killings

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Many took to social media in protest after learning of the death of a beloved western lowland gorilla, one of a gorilla subspecies labelled “critically endangered” by the World Wildlife Fund. The 400-pound male, Harambe, was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo Saturday, May 28, when a four-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure. After the gorilla dragged the boy through a moat as a crowd of tourists watched in horror, the zoo’s response team felt that the toddler was in “life-threatening” danger and shot the gorilla with a rifle.

However, upon seeing video footage of the incident, some observers believe the gorilla was merely trying to protect the child from perceived danger upon hearing the screams of surrounding tourists, and #JusticeForHarambe began trending online in response. In the clip, Harambe appears to be shielding the boy from the panicked cries around them, and does not seem ready to lunge at or attack the child. More than 70,000 protesters have petitioned on Change.org for the child’s parents to be examined for signs of child neglect, claiming that Harambe’s death could easily have been prevented had they been actively watching their son.

Western lowland gorillas remain the most widespread gorilla subspecies, according to the WWF, but face significant threats from deforestation, as well as from poaching and diseases that have reduced the most recent generation’s population by more than 60%. Aside from being totally extinct or extinct in the wild, being critically endangered is the most dire label an animal population can receive.

Saturday’s event brings to mind a 1986 occurrence that took place on the UK-dependent island of Jersey, in which silverback gorilla Jambo famously stood guard over a five-year-old boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure, rubbing the child’s back and protecting him from other gorillas, until keepers were able to extricate the child. However, unlike Harambe, Jambo was left unharmed and made into a local hero, featuring in a life-sized statue and even on Jersey stamps.

Coupled with a similarly-fatal incident last week, in which two lions were killed at a Santiago, Chile zoo when a man attempted suicide by climbing into their cage, Harambe’s death has led many to question the standard emergency procedures zoos currently have in place for unexpected encounters between animals and humans. For instance, some are questioning why zoo staff don’t carry tranquilizers that could be used in such incidents to incapacitate rather than kill animals who are in close and potentially deadly contact with visitors. The Cincinnati zoo staff responded by noting that tranquilizers take a much longer time to kick in, and that the boy’s life would have remained in danger until further action was taken.

As for 74-year-old trainer Jerry Stones, who raised Harambe from birth and described him as a “gentle giant,” the gorilla’s death is especially painful. “He was a special guy in my life. Harambe was my heart. It’s like losing a member of the family.”

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Sources: Gladu, Alex. “How endangered are western lowland gorillas like the one at the Cincinnati Zoo?” Bustle. 29 May 2016.

BBC News. “Gorilla killing: Harambe’s death at zoo prompts backlash.” 30 May 2016.

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First Chicks Born in Captivity for Highly-Threatened Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

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This May, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks were successfully hatched for the first time in captivity. The chicks, born at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Fla, go one step forward in helping protect this highly endangered subspecies, one of North America’s most threatened birds.

With only an estimated 150 Florida grasshopper sparrows left in the wild, conservationists began a captive-breeding program in 2015, collecting five chicks from two different clutches in the wild, as well as two juveniles who would “tutor” the nestlings as they matured. In April 2016, the birds began to couple off, and a female hatched four nestlings on May 9. However, things are still less than rosy for these non-migratory, ground-dwelling birds, whose nest success rates are low (10-33%) to begin with.

Audubon Florida reported that 85 percent of the dry prairie land the sparrow depends on has been destroyed, mainly through conversion into pasture land. The exciting births come at a vital time, as experts are not optimistic about 2016 population counts for Florida grasshopper sparrows. “This breakthrough is great news because the Florida grasshopper sparrow couldn’t be more vulnerable,” said Sandra Sneckenberger, an FWS biologist helping lead the bird’s recovery effort.

Frequent Florida storms have taken a toll on the birds as well. As Sneckenberger noted in her May 11 statement: “Unfortunately, last week’s storms flooded most of the wild birds’ first nest attempts of the season. That brought the need for this captive-breeding program into even sharper focus. The four hatchlings are hopeful signs that bode well for producing options for recovery.” Let’s hope the joyful news of the recent hatchlings portends a newly positive direction for this threatened population of tiny creatures whose songs sound much like the grasshoppers they are named for.

Source: Discovery News. “Endangered Florida Sparrow Chicks Hatch in Captivity.” 19 May 2016.

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Vultures: Vilified but Vital For Healthy Ecosystems

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Picture a vulture and you’ll most likely have a hard time separating these gawky creatures with the social stigmas they hold, long being reviled as portents of death. Still, these ungainly birds play a crucial role in maintaining our ecosystems and well-being, so citizens should be as concerned as scientists are to know that vultures in some parts of the world are quickly disappearing, according to a recent University of Utah study.

Many vulture species are now declining or even close to extinction due to concentrated toxins in the carrion they eat. Such toxins often have widespread impacts on a vulture population, as dozens if not hundreds of vultures tend to swarm and feast on a single carcass. Once vultures grow scarce, they leave the field open for other scavengers to flourish, species that bring with them the potential to carry dangerous bacteria and viruses from carcasses into heavily populated cities.

88% of threatened vulture species are impacted by the presence of poisons within carrion. In North America, only 22 California condors remained by 1982, due to their consumption of toxic lead bullet fragments left in the bodies of hunted animals  However, intense conservation efforts have since helped the species grow to over 400 who inhabit California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California, Mexico.Similarly, more than 95% of India’s vultures had disappeared by the early 2000s, which was  traced to diclofenac, a drug that relieved pain in cattle, but proved deadly to vultures who flocked to cattle carcasses; fortunately, this drug was banned through international coordination efforts, and the birds have slowly increased.

Now, the vulture crisis is centered in sub-Saharan Africa, where pest-control poisons are so potent that they have been affecting birds, mammals and insects alike on a massive scale. For instance, in 2007 an elephant carcass poisoned in Namibia killed around 600 vultures. These vultures in Africa are also the direct victims of poachers who poison carcasses specifically to silence the birds who might give away the location of illegally killed animals.

Declining vulture populations will have negative consequences for human health as they make way for foragers like dogs, rats, and crows, all of whom have more frequent contact with humans than relatively-solitary vultures. Vultures are highly efficient carrion consumers, often finding and eating carcasses within an hour after death, before decay really sets in; plus, vultures’ stomachs are highly acidic, thus killing most bacteria or viruses present in carrion. In these ways, vultures help prevent diseases from dead animals spreading to human populations. However, other scavengers without these features could easily pass along those diseases to humans, as many are entrenched in cities. Following the decline of vultures, India feral dog count increased by around seven million and was linked to a rabies outbreak that killed 48,000 people from 1992-2006.

Vulture populations can be restored through careful and collaborative efforts by the international community, as evidenced by the story of California condor. However, it is important that these efforts start now if we want to retain a creature which, though vilified for its appearance and its eating habits, plays a vital role in regulating the spread of bacteria and viruses and in maintaining healthy ecosystems and human populations, whether or not we are aware of how beneficial these scavengers are.

Source: Buechley, Evan et al. “Why vultures matter – and what we lose if they’re gone.” Phys.org. 5 May 2016.

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“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”

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…This is the intriguing question biologist and ethicist Frans de Waal poses in the title of his new book, which examines humans’ perceptions of animal intelligence. Scientists have long rejected the once-popular belief in a moral hierarchy in the animal kingdom, one which frames “highly intelligent” humans as holding court over “lesser species”, from more humanlike apes and “noble” wild beasts down to lowly insects. Still,this “ladder of nature” belief remains fiercely embedded in our culture and our notions of the limits of other species’ intelligence.

Within the last hundred years, animal cognition researchers have been fiercely divided into two camps. “Scoffers” refuse to acknowledge animals can think at all, instead purely believing that behaviorism (a series of responses to various stimuli) shapes all animal actions. In contrast, “boosters” believe animals think and act with intelligence, but they lean too heavily on anecdotes and anthropomorphism rather than data in their eagerness to shed light on animal intelligence.

De Waal argues instead for the study of “evolutionary cognition,” or the measure of other species’ intelligence based on different standards from the way we would measure a human’s. This involves shifting the ways scientists have traditionally designed animal cognition studies and would likely force them to empathize with specific species to understand the parameters along which intelligence would have practical implications. For instance, squirrels don’t need to be good at counting to ten, but geospatial intelligence is critical for their understanding of where they’ve buried their nuts. Similarly, chimps have tested poorly at human facial recognition, but test very well on telling fellow chimps’ faces apart, as do sheep, who can remember up to 25 sheep faces and retain that information for two years.

In addition to focusing the discussion around how animal intelligence can be judged more effectively, de Waal cites numerous examples of animal behavior that are typically thought of as exclusive to humans. It turns out that rats may feel regret, octopi and crows create elaborate tools, whales communicate in regional dialects, and elephants have complex social hierarchies similar to our webs of Facebook friends.

Just like us, animals have shown vast capacities for cultural transmission, self-awareness, understanding others’ emotions, and imagining the future. So why do we continue to underestimate their abilities to learn from and explore the world we all share? As de Waal makes clear, animal cognition experts still have a lot to learn about the unique and profound skills of species as varied as bonobos, turtles, beavers, and bees.

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Sources: Cahalan, Susannah. “We may not understand how intelligent animals are.” New York Post. 24 April 2016; Gopnik, Alison. “How animals think.” The Atlantic. May 2016 issue.

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5 Years in Prison for Canadian Turtle Smuggler

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On April 12, Kai Xu, a Canadian man caught in 2014 attempting to smuggle 51 live turtles in his pants, was sentenced to fifty-seven months in prison by a US federal judge. According to prosecutors, Canadian border guards had found “41 turtles taped to his legs and 10 hidden between his legs”, and he had already sent over 1000 turtles to Shanghai in suitcases via a co-conspirator.
Since his arrest in September 2014, the 27-year-old has spent his days in prison. He has admitted he’s tried to smuggle over 1600 turtles, ranging in species from Eastern box turtles and red-eared sliders to Diamondback Terrapins, from the US to China between April 2014 and his arrest. The Associated Press reported that Xu entered Michigan multiple times to buy and ship turtles to China without a federal permit. Assistant US Attorney Sara Woodward noted his wildlife smuggling crimes to be among the largest in recent years.
Xu, who claimed in a letter to US District Judge John Corbett O’Meara to be selling the turtles in part to fund his college degree, thanked agents “for stopping the darkness of my greed and ignorance”, and expressed remorse for his actions. The sentencing marks a victory against the dangerous and widespread global trend of wildlife trafficking.
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Source: Dasgupta, Shreya. “Turtle smuggler sentenced to five years in prison.” Mongabay, 18 April, 2016.

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