Category Archives: Mammals

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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Your Favorite Big Mammals Are in Deeper Danger Than You Thought

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A report in the journal BioScience recently revealed that some of the world’s most beloved large mammals could disappear forever if action isn’t taken soon to protect their habitats. Threatened megafauna, which typically inspire more public sympathy and concern than similarly endangered species of plants, bacteria, or smaller animals, in this case include bears, rhinos, and gorillas. In the report, titled “Saving the World’ Terrestrial Megafauna,” a global team of conservation scientists laid out issues of particular concern to these animals’ well-being, including vast deforestation, the expansion of land used for livestock and farming, illegal hunting, and rapid human population growth.

“The more I look at the trends facing the world’s largest terrestrial mammals, the more concerned I am we could lose these animals just as science is discovering how important they are to ecosystems and to the services they provide to people,” said William Ripple, an ecology professor at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and the report’s lead author. “It’s time to really think about conserving them because declines in their numbers and habitats are happening quickly.”

The 43 scientists note that large mammals have widespread impacts on their ecosystems, and affect everything from regulating disease risks for humans and maintaining healthy populations of animals lower down in the food chain, to preventing wildfires and spreading seeds. The experts examined global trends confronting lions, rhinos, wolves, zebras, tigers, elephants, and other animals, concluding that “Most mammalian megafauna face dramatic range contractions and population declines.In fact, 59 percent of the world’s largest carnivores and 60 percent of the world’s largest herbivores are classified as threatened with extinction on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. This situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, home to the greatest diversity of extant megafauna.”

The scientists finished the report with a call to action for world leaders: “We must not go quietly into this impoverished future. Rather, we believe it is our collective responsibility, as scientists who study megafauna, to act to prevent their decline. We therefore present a call to the broader international community to join together in conserving the remaining terrestrial megafauna.” Hopefully their voices and research will not fall on dull ears, but will help leaders and the public come together to take measures to save these large creatures, beautiful and vital for our planet’s health.

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Source: Silva, Christina. “Humans Cause Animal Extinction: Large Mammals Including Elephants And Gorillas Are Under Threat, Study Finds.” International Business Times. 27 July 2016.

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