Category Archives: Illegal Wildlife Trade

Technologies That May Save Rhinos from Poachers

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The illegal wildlife trade, which brings in an estimated $19 billion annually worldwide, has claimed the lives of almost 6000 African rhinos since 2008, with 1175 of those killed just within South Africa, figures which have accelerated each year as demand for the horns increases steadily. Only about 5000 black rhinos, and just three northern white rhinos, which have been unable to reproduce, remain worldwide.

For poachers, killing rhinos makes good financial sense: a rhino horn in Asia was worth $60-100K per kilogram in 2013. Nevertheless, scientists and conservationists have been fighting back, using technology in creative ways to help save these beautiful creatures from having their horns hacked off and being left for dead.

A mechanical engineer thought up the idea to create robotic rhino babies, which would stay close to real rhino herds and alert authorities when poachers approached. These robo-rhinos, called Rakamera, would replicate real rhino behavior so the herds learn to accept them. The robots would be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, with internal hydraulic and servomotors to make movement possible; plus, they would be fitted with infrared sensors and cameras to track humans coming close to the herd.

Other techniques that have been implemented to stop poachers include implanting mini cameras or micro-chips into the horns, allowing officials to more easily trace and pursue poaching operations. Recently, San Francisco-based biotech startup Pembient came up with a unique and intriguing idea: they were able to create synthetic rhino horns, using a combination of rhino DNA and keratin, the protein the horns, as well as our hair and nails, are made of. These ingredients form a dry powder that is fed into 3D printers and emerges as a horn indistinguishable from the real thing. The company has even partnered with a Chinese brewery to create a beer with this synthetic powder inside, replacing other beers with real horn purported to cure hangovers. However, Pembient has faced criticism from conservation NGOs, who have long been working to reduce demand for the horns in the first place, educating the public about the dire impacts of horn poaching and the lack of evidence for supposed medicinal benefits of consuming the horn. These groups worry that flooding the market with cheap synthetic horns may actually have the unintended effect of increasing the general public’s desire for rhino horns, spurring on more poachers than before.

Until the demand for rhino horns, which are believed to have healing properties, and are now frequently used as a status symbol, decreases, we must continue to track and fight poachers through technologies which will hopefully only expand and improve in years to come.

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Sources: Gallego, Jelor. “The Newest Anti-Poaching Technique? Robotic Rhinos.” Futurism. 5 December 2016.

Ankrom, Darren. “Synthetic Rhino Horn Made with a 3D Printer is the Latest Tool to Fight Poaching.” Vice. 24 June 2015.

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A Year in Review: Seven Stories that Highlight Hope for Conservation in 2016

Channel Islands fox rebound

The Channel Islands, eight islands off the coast of Southern California, house more of their adorable cat-size foxes (found nowhere else on earth) than ever in recent history. Thanks to conservation efforts including captive breeding of the foxes and relocation of predatory eagles, the population was recently removed from the endangered species list.

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Photo source: Don DeBold

Chernobyl wildlife boom

Though Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded over 30 years ago, it has left behind a wasteland that most scientists thought would remain barren for years to come. However, in 2014 University of Georgia researchers left dozens of cameras in a heavily forested area of Chernobyl’s 1600-square-mile Exclusion Zone and saw that boars, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs and many more species had reclaimed the land as their own. “It’s basically an incredibly large sanctuary” for animals, said one researcher of the follow-up study and accompanying photos which were published this year.

Robotic animals used to trick poachers

US authorities have come up with an unexpected but highly successful method to catch poachers: placing remote-controlled robotic animals like deer, bear, and moose in illegal hunting hubs and apprehending those foolhardy enough to shoot at them.

Peanut butter and drones provide a creative way to help adorable ferrets

Native to the US, beautiful black-footed ferrets currently hold the spot of North America’s most endangered species, due in large part to a plague killing prairie dogs, their main source of food. This year the federal government began testing a unique and tasty solution that could drive the ferrets’ population to healthy numbers: using drones to drop peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with plague vaccine on unsuspecting prairie dogs (about 60-90% of prairie dogs fell for the trick in recent tests), helping their populations recover enough to restore a balanced ecosystem to the American grasslands where the dogs and ferrets reside.

Full-time Hedgehog Officer for British Town

Officials in Ipswich, a village on the eastern coast of the UK, have recently noted declines in typically high hedgehog populations, so a local wildlife organization created the post of “Hedgehog Officer”, tasking the British woman who beat around 150 applicants with conserving this adorable local creature.

Jaguars settling in Arizona

Jaguars claimed much of the western US as their own before being completely hunted to death, but 2016 gave two positive signs that some of the creatures may have migrated from northern Mexico into the Arizona desert. A few months following the appearance of a gorgeous male, caught on camera and nicknamed El Jefe, a second male cat was photographed prowling around an Arizona army installation. Though Arizona wildlife officials dampened some excitement with the revelation that the closest breeding population is 130 miles south, the presence of these cats brings hope that more may eventually find their way to their old stomping grounds in the US.

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Strong protections for some of world’s most endangered animals

The 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded by creating tough new regulations against killing and trading endangered animals currently vulnerable to poachers, including African gray parrots, pangolins, and manta rays.

Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Source: Brulliard, Karin. “Nine great news stories about animals in 2016.” The Washington Post. 30 December 2016.

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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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This Earth Day, Let’s Talk About the Pangolin…

cute_baby_pangolinEstablished April 22, 1970, Earth Day serves to raise awareness of the state and well-being of our planet. One important measure of that well-being is the health and stability of Earth’s more than 8 million known species, from little-known bacteria and fungi to well-loved and long-championed megafauna like elephants and whales. Yet, though all these species serve important roles within their ecosystems and environments, lesser-known species face added challenges for conservationists.

Just look at the pangolin: sadly, the most-trafficked animal in the world is one that most have never even heard of. The highly-endangered animal is trafficked for their scales, boiled for use in traditional medicine, for their meat, a delicacy in parts of Asia, and for their blood, used as a healing tonic. From 2006 to 2015, nearly one million animals were poached. In addition to Asia, the US has a huge demand for pangolin parts, so conservation groups must work to raise both local and global public awareness of pangolins to curb this dangerous market before it’s too late. If current trends continue, the pangolin will likely become extinct before the world takes notice.

10abb2b50Docile and nocturnal, pangolins make their homes in savannahs, tropical forests, and brush, with four species known to live in Africa and four in Asia. The insectivores feed mainly on ants and termites and have highly acute senses of  smell and hearing to make up for poor vision. The solitary creatures have rarely been studied in the wild, but  have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity.

This March the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced a positive development for the pangolin: they will consider including it in the Endangered Species Act.  “The Endangered Species Act is among the strongest conservation laws in the world, and listing all pangolin species under the Act will be a dramatic and positive step in saving the species from extinction,” said Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation.

So, though conservation efforts and individual awareness of endangered species are vital every day of the year, Earth Day 2016 is the perfect chance for people to learn more about this gentle and fragile animal and to consider steps necessary to prevent its extinction.

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Source: Swan, Carol Ann. “Earth Day 2016 is for Endangered Species Like the Pangolin.” BlastingNews, 22 April 2016.

 

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Saving the Invisible Balkan Lynx

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The Balkan Lynx (a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx) retains a mythic quality to locals, an unsurprising fact given that their current population is estimated at 19-36. Last year, the Balkan Lynx showed up on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, reflecting the subspecies’ fragility and potential for extinction: none of the animals are currently in captivity, and their only known breeding grounds are Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia and the Munela Mountains in Albania.

Sadly, the Balkan Lynx has faced significant threats for years, from illegal poaching and hunting to shrinking habitats and prey populations. In 2006, Germany’s EuroNatur and Switzerland’s KORA founded the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program (BLRP), to track and collect conservation data on the population. After four years of tracking, camera trapping, and interviewing locals, BLRP field biologists spotted their first Balkan Lynx: “One of the most exciting days in my entire life has to be the day we saw the first photo of a lynx from the camera traps. Can you imagine how it felt… to finally have confirmation that the lynx does live in Macedonia?” said BLRP team member  Aleksandar Stojanov.

Recently, regional scientists and volunteers have joined the efforts to research and preserve this lovely yet relatively unknown creature, with support from regional and international conservation organizations (MES in Macedonia, PPNEA in Albania, ERA and Finch in Kosovo and CZIPin Montenegro, as well as EuroNatur, KORA and NINA from Norway). “Our cooperation with many stakeholders – especially hunters – opened the doors to more detailed research and conservation attempts for this cat and its prey. Our next step will be to downlist the Balkan Lynx to the category of Endangered; this means raising the population from the current 19-37 individuals to more than 50,” said Dime Melovski, another member of the MES BLRP team.

This collaborative effort has produced significant data, but scientists say there is much more to be done: “While this is an amazing scientific achievement for us, we have no time to celebrate, the Balkan Lynx needs even more visibility and dedicated support. However, we are encouraged because the IUCN Red List provides ‘political’ recognition and global publicity,” Melovski added. In fact, Albania and Kosovo have gone so far as to create new national parks to protect the Balkan Lynx’s breeding grounds. However, Macedonia has not taken the same steps, increasing MES’s efforts to raise national awareness and support and to lobby for the establishment of protected areas in Macedonia. In the end, it will take support on both local and large-scale levels to save the rare beauty of the Balkan Lynx.

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Source: Putilin, Kenija. “How do you save a species that is almost impossible to track?” BirdLife, 12 April, 2016.

 

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Wildlife Trade on Facebook

Illegally-imported orang-utan Cambodia

Social media’s ability to put illegal wildlife traffickers in touch with many potential buyers quickly, cheaply and anonymously is of great concern for threatened wildlife and enforcement agencies

From the Malayan sun bear to a blood python, Malaysians seem to have found a booming marketplace for wild animals on Facebook for primarily the illegal pet trade of protected species. Much of this online trade is carried out in closed Facebook groups, and involves live, high-profile and threatened species for which trade is strictly prohibited in Peninsular Malaysia.

During a four month period,  TRAFFIC’s team monitored the activity of 14 groups on Facebook. They found that more than 300 individual animals, belonging to 80 different species, were for sale in the “private/closed”groups.

tiger cubs caged

Most of the 14 Facebook Groups involved in the illegal trade of wild animals were “Closed Groups”, according to the report, and needed membership to view or trade within the group. These groups had close to 68,000 members

What was also found, 93% of the species that were put for sale on Facebook, have legal protection in Peninsular Malaysia.

Mark! FACEBOOK needs to put a STOP to this IMMEDIATELY.

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“Yahoo” allows the trade of Ivory

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Internet company Yahoo has been accused of aiding in the slaughter of elephants by allowing the trade of ivory on its Japanese auction site. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer and Yahoo Japan head Manabu Miyasaka to have been asked to urgently stop all ivory sales from sites/platforms in Japan and all other markets.

It’s estimated that more than 12 tones of elephant tusks and fashioned pieces of ivory were sold on the Yahoo Japan auctions site between 2012 and 2014. Yahoo Japan is a joint venture between Yahoo and SoftBank, a Japanese telecommunications company.

There are several thousand pieces of ivory for sale on the auction site at any one time. On Tuesday, prices ranged from $20 for a trinket to $60,000 for a five-tiered pagoda carved in ivory. Traffic, an anti-wildlife trafficking group, said in a report last year that most ivory products in Japan are sold as hanko – personal seals that are signifiers of status in the country.

Despite Amazon and Google both having banned the sale of ivory on their platforms, and renewed efforts by the US government to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade, conservation groups said they have made little headway with Yahoo’s Japanese operation in recent years.

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A Yahoo spokeswoman said: “At Yahoo, we understand the concerns raised by this campaign and we in no way condone the sale of products made with ivory obtained from any animal at risk of extinction. “Yahoo does not accept ads for ivory under our existing policies. Yahoo is an investor in Yahoo Japan and does not have controlling ownership.”

Yahoo owns 35.5% of Yahoo Japan; telecoms firm SoftBank is the largest shareholder, with 36.4%. While Yahoo’s US-based internet business has struggled in recent years, its Asian holdings, including Yahoo Japan and Alibaba, are considered highly valuable.

Yahoo Japan came under fire by the UK’s Environmental Investigation Agency in April 2015 for its sale of whale and dolphin meat, which was found to contain unsafe levels of mercury. The company is Japan’s only online retailer that continues to sell whale and dolphin products.

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