Painting Sun Bears to Save the Species

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Photo: Tambako the Jaguar

In 2008, pet artist Suzi Chua learned about sun bears from biologist Wong Siew Te, founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) in the Bornean city of Sandakan. Also called honey bears for their love of the sweet stuff, these endangered creatures live throughout South-East Asian tropical rainforests and on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Chua, who is passionate about animals and volunteers at local animal shelters, was saddened to learn that the adorable bears, the smallest bear species, typically weighing in at 100 pounds or less, are often hunted for their body parts or are poached to be sold as exotic pets.

Thus, she created a project to help save the sun bears: through free art lessons that would teach how to paint sun bears. “I wanted to raise awareness and save the sun bears,” says Chua. To date, she has painted five sun bears at the BSBCC, including Koko, who died in 2015 of respiratory failure and whose portrait has been placed in the organization’s visitor center. Chua donated 30% of sales from three other portraits to BSBCC and just completed her fifth painting of Debbie, a sun bear sent to BSBCC in 2012 after being rescued from captivity as a pet.

Chua’s friend, Stacey Chiew, an art teacher, helps Chua by promoting the “Saving Sun Bears, One Painting At A Time” project to her students, and feels the project will help raise awareness of this sweet, shy, threatened species. “Art can create a powerful voice for sun bears. The main objective of this project is to let the younger generation know that forests are home to the sun bears, not cages,” she says. “The students should know that we have the power to change and destroy habitats, putting sun bears on the ever-increasing endangered species list. More and more young people are waking up to the fact that the choices they make can have an impact on wildlife.”

Adds Chua of the impact on students: “They can also gain a general understanding of how profound the loss would be if we don’t take action now to protect them. One day, we may never see the beautiful sun bears except in a picture book.” On their August 26 art session, they had over 40 students show up to paint Si Kecil (the Little One), a rescued sun bear cub who had been raised by sun bear biologist Gabriela Fredrikkson until he was killed by another sun bear in 2000. They worked from a photo taken by Wong two months before the cub’s death. Wong told Fredrikkson he hoped the photo of Si Kecil would grow famous around the world to shed light on the fate of the sun bears, and Si Kecil has since become the center’s icon. “These paintings will be displayed at BSBCC’s visitor center for public viewing. In future, we may sell or auction some of these paintings during special functions or fund-raising events,” says Wong.

BSBCC currently houses 40 rescued sun bears, the youngest of which is Wawa (a nine-month-old cub) and the oldest of which is Amaco (a 23-year-old sun bear). Sun bear populations throughout South-East Asia, Sabah included, are suffering greatly. Says Wong, “They face tremendous threats from habitat lost across their distribution range. For the sun bears that manage to survive, their survival may be further threatened by poaching for body parts and the pet trade. Recently, the Sabah Wildlife Department prosecuted two separate cases of sun bear poaching within two weeks. These cases raised serious concern for wildlife poaching in the state. In addition, Facebook is being used as a platform for the illegal wildlife trade.”

Wong praises Chua and Chiew for their unique project, which increases the next generation’s awareness of this beautiful endangered species.

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Photo: Suzi Chua

 

Source: Chiew, Marjorie. “Care to paint a bright future for sun bears?” Star2.  16 September 2016.

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How Humpback Whales Were Brought Back from the Brink

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Humpback whales have been hunted almost to the edge of extinction for hundreds of years. However, major efforts to protect them in the past forty years have finally paid off in significant and measurable ways, as shown in an NOAA Fisheries announcement this week reporting that 9 of 14 known humpback populations worldwide have now recovered enough to be removed from the US List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, most of which are in the southern hemisphere. “The data behind the humpback delisting is solid,” says NOAA marine ecologist Robert Pitman, a NatGeo Society grant recipient studying these amazing creatures. “Those of us that have been on the water working with whales for the past thirty to forty years have been amazed at the recovery that we have seen.”

Marta Nammack, NOAA Fisheries’ national Endangered Species Act listing coordinator, notes that while five humpback populations are still struggling and will remain on the list, it makes sense to remove the groups that have been successful at recovering. Each of the fourteen populations that make up the estimated 100,000 total humpbacks are recognized as being genetically distinct, suggesting that the populations’ statuses and threats to their survival should be studied and assessed separately. For example, she says, lethal entanglement in fishing nets is a much greater extinction threat for the 82 humpbacks remaining in the Arabian Sea, as compared with the 10,000 whales in the Hawaiian humpback population. “We may not be able to delist the entire species,” says Nammack, “but by dividing them up the way we did, we can see substantial progress for their recovery across a good portion of the species.”

Prior to the humpbacks, distinct gray whale populations were delisted separately from one another depending on various extinction threats they faced. After a successful recovery, the Eastern North Pacific population of gray whales was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994, but the Western North Pacific population remains an endangered group.

The delisting of several humpback populations will not mean that they will become instantly vulnerable to hunting and other manmade threats that would cause their numbers to plunge. In fact, every humpback population will remain protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing, collecting, or killing any marine mammal in US waters. In addition, the International Whaling Commission has banned hunting humpbacks since 1982.

NOAA Fisheries reported filing two regulations that mandate whale watching and other boats keep a 100-yard distance from all humpbacks. “The decision [to delist] shows the power of the Endangered Species Act. But the job isn’t done,” says Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney Kristen Monsell. She describes the threats that climate change, ocean noise, and ship strikes will continue to pose to humpbacks, making maintenance of existing protections necessary. “We’re lucky to share our oceans with these amazing animals, and we should be doing everything we can to protect them,” she says.

Nammack and Pitman point out that the delisting is exciting news not only for humpbacks, but also for the laws and programs that helped them along the way to recovery. Concludes Pitman, “This is a win for humpbacks and the listing process. Delisting is ultimately what we are all after.”

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Source: Bittel, Jason. “The Plan to Save the Humpback Whales—and How It Succeeded.” National Geographic. 9 Sept 2016.

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California Droughts and Wildfires Further Endanger Rare Mountain Frogs

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Photo: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

Fewer than 400 endangered yellow-legged mountain frogs now remain from the thousands that once crowded hundreds streams throughout California’s San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges. Fifty years ago frogs swarmed these streams competing for desirable mates, but are now reduced to surviving in five hard-to-find streams that still trickle down despite five years of heavy droughts.

Scientists have grown more concerned about the frogs’ survival with a nearby wildfire growing each day, the third major fire in a month to overtake the frogs’ habitat. If this most recently endangered patch of vegetation is destroyed, biologists fear winter storms could wipe out the only remaining streams where the frogs live with debris and ash from previous fires. “I’ve never seen things this dry here before,” said Adam Backlin, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, regarding a population of around 20 frogs in San Gabriel Mountains’ Big Rock Creek. “The last thing these frogs need is drought and wildfire.”

Though wildfires in the area have been common for a long time, they are now coupled with a vast array of factors that would make it difficult for sparse yellow-legged frog populations to recolonize from neighboring populations, as they did in decades past. Now, existing populations have been pushed to the brink of extinction by disease, urbanization, and widespread invasive predators from crayfish to trout and bullfrogs. Backlin notes that many isolated mountain yellow-legged frog populations were already decimated after 2003’s Old fire, 2009’s Station fire, and 2013’s Mountain fire, and are incredibly weak in the face of the most recent fire.

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Just three weeks ago, the Sand fire destroyed 40,000 acres of northwestern San Gabriel Mountain watershed, containing sections of Soledad Canyon, a shelter to both rare arroyo toads and federally endangered unarmored threespine stickleback fish. This week, biologists were alarmed to discover that the Blue Cut fire burned through over 37,000 acres across San Gabriel’s northeastern canyons. They are now rushing to study the fire’s impacts on the yellow-legged mountain frogs’ populations, and questioning whether captive breeding may be the only way to ensure the species’ continued survival.

Federal wildlife authorities started a recovery program for the frogs back in 2010 that involves trout removal, captive breeding, and banning public access to regions where frogs still survive. Authorities hope to keep the frogs alive in carefully monitored aquariums at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos, where “insurance colonies” are being maintained with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, the Memphis Zoo, and the Santa Ana Zoo may join the program within the next year. Everyone involved hopes these efforts will allow the yellow-legged mountain frog to survive long-term, if outside its threatened natural habitat.

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Source: Sahagun, Louis. “California’s drought, wildfires threaten endangered frog.” LA Times. 20 August 2016.

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