Both Caribou and Monarch Butterflies in Canada Threatened

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On December 4, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Cosewic), a group of scientific experts, classified both Canada’s caribou and its monarch butterfly populations as endangered. “Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing caribou more and more,” said committee member Justina Ray. “These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North.”

The committee’s report notes that: “Many of the great northern caribou herds have now fallen to all-time lows, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before.” The group is responsible for classifying wildlife species at risk of extinction, and recommending potential protective actions to the Canadian government.

In order to determine whether caribou herds were at risk, Cosewic examined two different caribou populations: the tundra herd, deemed to be “threatened,” as well as the smaller population of Torngat Mountain caribou which dwell in northeastern Canada, and which were found to be at an even greater risk of extinction. This group was thus labelled “endangered,” and was noted to be facing “imminent” extinction. The report also highlights both habitat encroachment, due to increased forestry and mining, and Arctic global warming as grave threats to Canadian caribous’ continued existence. This October the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) rang alarm bells over Canadian caribou herds’ rapid decline over the past thirty years, and the committee’s findings sadly lend support to this conclusion.

In the same report, Cosewic classified monarch butterflies as endangered, noting that the “remarkably tiny wintering grounds where monarchs congregate continue to be chipped away by habitat loss.”

These migratory creatures regularly fly 4000km south from Canada to Mexico to remain warm as winter approaches. The committee strongly recommends that the butterfly’s habitat in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, all be proctected to ensure the insects have a place to rest each step of their migration.”Otherwise, monarch migration may disappear, and Canada may lose this iconic species,” it concluded.

Lending support to this call, this June, 200 American, Mexican, and Canadian scientists, artists, and academics appealed to the leaders of the three nations to ban illegal logging and mining in the Mexican reserve where monarchs outlast the winter. They also called for a ban on pesticides used to diminish milkweed, which serves as the only food source for monarch caterpillars. For its part, Cosewic called out the use of an herbicide used on genetically modified corn and soybean, which has been detrimental to monarchs as well.

Actions such as those recommended by the committee will go a long way in helping preserve two Canada-dwelling species that rely heavily on diminishing habitats.

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Source: “Canada caribou and monarch butterfly ‘endangered’”. Phys.org. 6 December 2016.

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The Epic Battle Against Invasive Lionfish

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First reported near Florida in the 1980s, lionfish have since spread throughout southeastern U.S. waters, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea, taking over coasts from New York to Brazil. These brightly-striped ornamental fish, native to the Indo-Pacific, were believed to have been let loose in U.S. waters by the aquarium trade.The problem: with insatiable appetites (they’ve been found to eat over 70 fish/invertebrate species) these invasive creatures have since wreaked havoc on coral reefs and fisheries, eating both other species’ prey and grazers that clean algae from reefs. Plus, no predators have stepped in to gobble up the strange species, allowing the fish to reproduce relatively unchecked.

Still, scientists and environmentally-minded entrepreneurs alike have been taking action against ballooning lionfish populations, creating and testing everything from underwater robots to fish traps loaded with special recognition software, all designed to drastically lower the lionfish headcount. “It’s the inverse of every fisheries management plan you’ve ever heard of,” says marine biologist Corey Eddy, who focuses on lionfish near Bermuda. “Usually we’re trying to minimize the pressure on fish populations so they can rebound. Now we’re saying, let’s start wiping them out.”

Though strategies like hosting spearfishing tournaments and giving out special lionfish culling permits can help individuals nab hundreds of lionfish in a day, this is nothing compared with the two million eggs a female lionfish could spawn every year. Add that to the fact that they can lurk below 130 feet, too deep for average divers, and scientists have speculated that robots may be better than humans at controlling lionfish populations.

Colin Angle, cofounder of iRobot, had this same thought while diving in Bermuda, only natural since his company has created robots from the Roomba to radioactive nuclear waste cleaners. Inspired by the idea to employ robots in lionsih control, Angle and his wife, biochemist Erika Ebbel, began nonprofit Robots in Service of the Environment (RISE), with the goal of creating an affordable autonomous underwater robot that lethally shocks lionfish by early next year. RISE members feel that lionfish could ultimately become the next popular delicacy, a demand that would vastly help limit lionfish populations. “Ultimately the way this becomes a success is by creating a market and the interest of consumers in eating lionfish,” says John Rizzi, executive director of RISE. “The best way to challenge the sustainability of a species is for humans to eat it. Whether that’s good or bad, in this case that will benefit the environment.”

Similarly, recreational divers Bryan and Anna Clark were inspired to start a nonprofit environmental group called Coast Watch Alliance, which works to simultaneously protect reefs and battle lionfish. Bryan Clark is working on a prototype to suck up the fish with a vacuum-like gulp. He’s also developing a “hunting ROV” (remote-operated vehicle) with a camera to seek out the fish before diving down. He feels that both technology and financial motives will help decimate the lionfish. “Some people are going to harvest lionfish because it’s great for the environment, others will do it because it’s fun to do while they’re diving. But a lot of people are going to do it because they’re going to make some money taking lionfish to the market,” he says.

It just so happens that lionfish have already unwittingly stepped into the spiny lobster fishery commercial market, as 20 percent of lobster traps end up catching lionfish as well. “lf the lionfish are showing up in those traps, uninvited and unintended, then why not get them to show up intentionally?” notes diver Bob Hickerson, who’s putting his contractor skills to good use by designing a better lionfish trap. The “Frapper Trap” (from the French word meaning “to strike down”) will implement a pattern recognition program to seize lionfish, and let other species free. Along with his wife, Maria, his father-in-law, and volunteers from Team Frapper, he hopes to have a trap ready to test in the next six months. “We can’t stand back and watch our reefs being taken over by lionfish,” he says.

Nevertheless, even with such a broad range of arsenals being developed, experts believe that total destruction of lionfish is impossible, though creating a strong commercial market for selling the species to diners could prevent them from devastating entire ecosystems.

“I think commercial incentive will be a big part of the solution, supplemented by spearfishing in shallow water and some of these other things,” says Stephen Gittings, science coordinator at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Some of these might sound like crazy ideas, but you never know until you try.”

Source: Gaworecki, Mike. “The lionfish invasion: a call to arms?” Mongabay. 14 December 2016.

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Giraffes Are Added to Endangered Species List

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On December 8, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which creates and tracks the official global endangered species list, re-classified giraffes from a species of Least Concern to a Vulnerable species, as reported in its Red List of Threatened Species. Vulnerable species face extinction in the relatively-near future if no actions are taken to protect it and its habitat from external threats. Following a Vulnerable status, the next steps are endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and finally extinct.

Though poaching and illegal trade of other megafauna, from elephants and rhinos to pangolins, has been at the forefront of news the past for years, giraffes have been perceived as relatively safe in the last decade. However, as reported by Damian Carrington at The Guardian, giraffes have dropped significantly in the last 31 years, from 157,000 in 1985 to 97,500 when counted last.

“Whilst giraffes are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people—including conservationists—are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades alone, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. As one of the world’s most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late.”

The giraffes are faced with both habitat destruction, as cities and towns increasingly take over, and poaching, which has been especially problematic of late. While food insecure villagers sometimes kill the animals to eat, Jani Actman at National Geographic notes that many are killed for their tails, which are seen as a status symbol and are often used as a dowry in local cultures.

The New York Times reporter Patrick Healy explains that the red list divides the giraffe into nine subspecies, and that five of those subspecies are rapidly declining, while just two are increasing and one has held stable. Happily, West African giraffes, the smallest group, have grown from 50 in the 1990s to 400 today, but that victory required solid and vast activism and efforts from both the government of Niger and conservation groups.

Derek Lee, founder of the Wild Nature Institute, told Healy that both threats must end in order to save giraffes. “These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” he says. “You need to stop both threats.” Lee believes that funding for anti-poaching efforts will be helpful, but that preventing habitat destruction is much trickier, requiring intervention into land development, mining, and local livelihoods.

The most concerning aspect for some is that so few were aware how perilous the situation had become for giraffes. “I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation told Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. “This silent extinction. Some populations less than 400. That is more endangered than any gorilla, or almost any large mammal in the world.”

“There’s a strong tendency to think that familiar species (such as giraffes, chimps, etc.) must be OK because they are familiar and we see them in zoos,” Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm said in the Associated Press. However, giraffes have disappeared across much of Africa for a century, and is already extinct in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal. Their plight is a sad insight into how easily we can overlook the silent destruction of a beautiful and beloved species.

Source: Daley, Jason. “Giraffes Silently Slip Onto the Endangered Species List.” The Smithsonian. 9 December 2016.

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Photo Source: Jon Mountjoy

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Largest Dog Meat Market in South Korea Shut Down

On the morning of December 13, Seongnam, South Korea’s Moran Livestock Association, which kills around 80,000 dogs every year for their meat, announced they are entirely stopping the practice of confining, killing, and selling dogs. The shut-down was due in great part to the actions of Defense of Animals, an animal activist group who had heavily campaigned against MLA’s brutal slaughter of dogs and had petitioned the city of Seongnam to take action. Marilyn Kroplick, the President of IDA, made this statement following the group’s victory: “The closure of Korea’s most infamous dog meat market at Moran deals a significant blow to the heart of the dog meat trade. Moran market has run with the blood of hundreds of thousands of dogs for many years, so this is a step in the right direction in our fight to end the horrific dog meat trade.” Nevertheless, despite this step in the right direction for the dog meat trade, Kroplick noted that dog meat selling operations would likely just relocate, necessitating further activism by IDA until all such meat markets are eliminated.

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Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol

Source:  Starostinetskaya, Anna. “South Korea’s Biggest Dog Meat Market Shuts Down.” VegNews. 14 December 2016.

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