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« Reply #4065 on: Oct 20, 2017, 04:17 AM »

A woman's dog died, and doctors say her heart literally broke

by Karin Brulliard
October 20 2017
WA Post

Joanie Simpson woke early one morning with a terrible backache. Her chest started hurting when she turned over.

Within 20 minutes, she was at a local emergency room. Soon she was being airlifted to a hospital in Houston, where physicians were preparing to receive a patient exhibiting the classic signs of a heart attack.

But tests at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute -Texas Medical Center revealed something very different. Doctors instead diagnosed Simpson with Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition with symptoms that mimic heart attacks. It usually occurs following an emotional event such as the loss of a spouse or child. That link has given the illness its more colloquial name: broken-heart syndrome.

In Simpson’s case, the event that she says tipped her over the edge was the recent death of her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Meha.

“I was close to inconsolable,” she said. “I really took it really, really hard.”

Simpson’s 2016 experience is described this week in the New England Journal of Medicine — not because of the dog’s role, according to one of her doctors, Abhishek Maiti, but because hers was a “very concise, elegant case” of a fascinating condition that research has established as quite real and sometimes fatal. Although not the first published case linking broken-heart syndrome to stress over a pet’s death, it underscores something many animal owners take as a given: that grieving for sick or deceased pets can be as gutting as grieving for humans.

A growing body of research supports this notion, which was echoed in a recent study that found pet owners with chronically ill animals have higher levels of “caregiver burden,” stress and anxiety. It’s the flip side of evidence that links pets to health and happiness, which gets more attention. Not that people who have lost beloved animals are likely to be surprised.

Simpson certainly wasn’t shocked. At the time of what she calls her “episode,” she’d been having a rough stretch: Her son was facing back surgery. Her son-in-law had lost his job. A property sale was proving to be complicated and lengthy. Meanwhile, 9-year-old Meha was suffering from congestive heart failure.

The dog was like a daughter, Simpson said. She adored jumping into the swimming pool, and when Simpson and her husband grilled on Friday nights, Meha was given her own hamburger.

“The kids were grown and out of the house, so she was our little girl,” said Simpson, a 62-year-old retiree who previously worked in medical transcription.

But Meha started having more bad days. By May of last year, she was ill enough that Simpson made an appointment to have her euthanized. When the day came, the dog seemed fine, and Simpson canceled the appointment. Meha died the next day, and not peacefully.

“It was such a horrendous thing to have to witness,” recalled Simpson. “When you’re already kind of upset about other things, it’s like a brick on a scale. I mean, everything just weighs on you.”

After the helicopter carrying Simpson landed on the roof of Memorial Hermann, she was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab. Cardiologist Abhijeet Dhoble quickly threaded a thin tube into a blood vessel in Simpson’s groin and up to her heart.

The team expected X-rays to show blocked arteries, said Maiti, then an internal medicine resident. They didn’t.

“The artery was crystal clear. It was pristine,” he said. Another artery was, too. Further tests indicated this was a case of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which is most common in postmenopausal women. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 is among those that confirmed that a flood of stress hormones may be able to “stun” the heart to produce spasms in otherwise healthy people.

Once medications stabilized Simpson, the physicians talked to her about the stress in her life, and they told her about broken-heart syndrome. It “made complete sense,” Simpson said. She was sent home after two days, and though she still takes two heart medications, she is doing fine.

Simpson, who now lives about two hours northwest of San Antonio in the town of Camp Woods, only has a cat named Buster these days. She hasn’t yet made the right connection with a dog, though she’s sure it will happen. She is the kind of person who takes “things more to heart than a lot of people,” she said, and she figures this tendency means her heart will break again, though maybe not so literally.

And it will be worth it, Simpson said.

“It is heartbreaking. It is traumatic. It is all of the above,” Simpson said. “But you know what? They give so much love and companionship that I’ll do it again. I will continue to have pets. That’s not going to stop me.”

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« Reply #4066 on: Oct 20, 2017, 04:19 AM »

Dogs can control their facial expressions and use them to manipulate you, study says

Agence France-Presse
20 Oct 2017

Your dog may be a master manipulator, deliberately making puppy eyes to pull at your heart strings, according to a study Thursday into a ploy many mutt owners have long suspected.

The research suggests that dogs may be in control of their facial expressions, using them to communicate, researchers reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Until now, it was assumed that dog expressions were involuntary.

The new study suggests, however, that man’s best friend may be very well aware of the reaction a scowl or grin will elicit from its master.

“The findings appear to support evidence… that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate,” said study co-author Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth.

In a series of experiments with different types of pet dogs, the team discovered that the animals “move their faces” more when humans were paying attention to them.

Raising the brows, which makes the eyes appear bigger to produce heart-melting “puppy dog eyes”, was the most commonly-used expression, the researchers found.

When humans had their backs turned, or were distracted, the dogs’ faces were much less active — regardless of whether the human was offering a food treat or not.

Previous research has shown that dogs are aware of how attentive humans are.

One study, for example, showed they stole food more often when a human had their back turned or eyes closed.

“We now know dogs make more facial expressions when the human is paying attention,” said Kaminski.

It was too soon, however, to state categorically that dogs have a perception of what a human may be thinking or feeling — a state of awareness considered a sign of high intelligence displayed by humans, the team added.

Research in non-human primates has suggested some of our far-flung cousins may also be aware that others can read their facial expressions — which changed when they had an audience.

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« Reply #4067 on: Oct 20, 2017, 04:26 AM »

Blood and Beauty on a Texas Exotic-Game Ranch

OCT. 20, 2017
NY Times

UVALDE, Tex. — On a ranch at the southwestern edge of the Texas Hill Country, a hunting guide spotted her cooling off in the shade: an African reticulated giraffe. Such is the curious state of modern Texas ranching, that a giraffe among the oak and the mesquite is an everyday sort of thing.

“That’s Buttercup,” said the guide, Buck Watson, 54.

In a place of rare creatures, Buttercup is among the rarest; she is off limits to hunters at the Ox Ranch. Not so the African bongo antelope, one of the world’s heaviest and most striking spiral-horned antelopes, which roams the same countryside as Buttercup. The price to kill a bongo at the Ox Ranch is $35,000.

Himalayan tahrs, wild goats with a bushy lion-style mane, are far cheaper. The trophy fee, or kill fee, to shoot one is $7,500. An Arabian oryx is $9,500; a sitatunga antelope, $12,000; and a black wildebeest, $15,000.

“We don’t hunt giraffes,” Mr. Watson said. “Buttercup will live out her days here, letting people take pictures of her. She can walk around and graze off the trees as if she was in Africa.”

The Ox Ranch near Uvalde, Tex., is not quite a zoo, and not quite an animal shooting range, but something in between.

The ranch’s hunting guides and managers walk a thin, controversial line between caring for thousands of rare, threatened and endangered animals and helping to execute them. Some see the ranch as a place for sport and conservation. Some see it as a place for slaughter and hypocrisy.
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The Ox Ranch provides a glimpse into the future of the mythic Texas range — equal parts exotic game-hunting retreat, upscale outdoor adventure, and breeding and killing ground for exotic species.

Ranchers in the nation’s top cattle-raising state have been transforming pasture land into something out of an African safari, largely to lure trophy hunters who pay top-dollar kill fees to hunt exotics. Zebra mares forage here near African impala antelopes, and it is easy to forget that downtown San Antonio is only two hours to the east.

The ranch has about 30 bongo, the African antelopes with a trophy fee of $35,000. Last fall, a hunter shot one. “Taking one paid their feed bill for the entire year, for the rest of them,” said Jason Molitor, the chief executive of the Ox Ranch.

To many animal-protection groups, such management of rare and endangered species — breeding some, preventing some from being hunted, while allowing the killing of others — is not only repulsive, but puts hunting ranches in a legal and ethical gray area.

“Depending on what facility it is, there’s concern when animals are raised solely for profit purposes,” said Anna Frostic, a senior attorney with the Humane Society of the United States.

Hunting advocates disagree and say the breeding and hunting of exotic animals helps ensure species’ survival. Exotic-game ranches see themselves not as an enemy of wildlife conservation but as an ally, arguing that they contribute a percentage of their profits to conservation efforts.

“We love the animals, and that’s why we hunt them,” Mr. Molitor said. “Most hunters in general are more in line with conservation than the public believes that they are.”

Beyond the financial contributions, hunting ranches and their supporters say the blending of commerce and conservation helps save species from extinction.

Wildlife experts said there are more blackbuck antelope in Texas than there are in their native India because of the hunting ranches. In addition, Texas ranchers have in the past sent exotic animals, including scimitar-horned oryx, back to their home countries to build up wild populations there.

“Ranchers can sell these hunts and enjoy the income, while doing good for the species,” said John M. Tomecek, a wildlife specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Animal-rights activists are outraged by these ranches. They call what goes on there “canned hunting” or “captive hunting.’’

“Hunting has absolutely nothing to do with conservation,” said Ashley Byrne, the associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “What they’re doing is trying to put a better spin on a business that they know the average person finds despicable.”

A 2007 report from Texas A&M University called the exotic wildlife industry in America a billion-dollar industry.

At the Ox Ranch, it shows. The ranch has luxury log cabins, a runway for private planes and a 6,000-square-foot lodge with stone fireplaces and vaulted ceilings. More animals roam its 18,000 acres than roam the Houston Zoo, on a tract of land bigger than the island of Manhattan. The ranch is named for its owner, Brent C. Oxley, 34, the founder of HostGator.com, a web hosting provider that was sold in 2012 for more than $200 million.

“The owner hopes in a few years that we can break even,” Mr. Molitor said.

Because the industry is largely unregulated, there is no official census of exotic animals in Texas. But ranchers and wildlife experts said that Texas has more exotics than any other state. A survey by the state Parks and Wildlife Department in 1994 put the exotic population at more than 195,000 animals from 87 species, but the industry has grown explosively since then; one estimate by John T. Baccus, a retired Texas State University biologist, puts the current total at roughly 1.3 million.

The Ox Ranch needs no local, state or federal permit for most of their exotic animals.

State hunting regulations do not apply to exotics, which can be hunted year-round. The Fish and Wildlife Service allows ranches to hunt and kill certain animals that are federally designated as threatened or endangered species, if the ranches take certain steps, including donating 10 percent of their hunting proceeds to conservation programs. The ranches are issued permits to conduct activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the Endangered Species Act if those activities enhance the survival of the species in the wild. Those federal permits make it legal to hunt Eld’s deer and other threatened or endangered species at the Ox Ranch.

Mr. Molitor said more government oversight was unnecessary and would drive ranchers out of the business. “I ask people, who do you think is going to manage it better, private organizations or the government?” Mr. Molitor said.

Lawyers for conservation and animal-protection groups say that allowing endangered animals to be hunted undermines the Endangered Species Act, and that the ranches’ financial contributions fail to benefit wildlife conservation.

“We ended up with this sort of pay-to-play idea,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is absolutely absurd that you can go to a canned-hunt facility and kill an endangered or threatened species.”

The ranch offers its guests the opportunity to drive and shoot World War II-era tanks. People fire at bullet-ridden cars from atop an American M4 Sherman tank at a shooting range built to resemble a Nazi-occupied French town.

“We knew the gun people would come out,” said Todd DeGidio, the chief executive of DriveTanks.com, which runs the tank operation. “What surprised us was the demographic of people who’ve never shot guns before.”

Late one evening, two hunters, Joan Schaan and her 15-year-old son, Daniel, rushed to get ready for a nighttime hunt, adjusting the SWAT-style night-vision goggles on their heads.

Ms. Schaan is the executive director of a private foundation in Houston. Daniel is a sophomore at St. John’s School, a prestigious private school. They were there not for the exotics, but basically for the pests: feral hogs, which cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage annually in Texas.

“We are here because we both like to hunt, and we like hunting hogs,” Ms. Schaan said. “And we love the meat and the sausage from the hogs we harvest.”

Pursuing the hogs, Ms. Schaan and her son go off-roading through the brush in near-total darkness, with a hunting guide behind the wheel. Aided by their night-vision goggles, they passed by the giraffes before rattling up and down the hilly terrain.

Daniel fired at hogs from the passenger seat with a SIG Sauer 516 rifle, his spent shell casings flying into the back seat. Their guide, Larry Hromadka, told Daniel when he could and could not take a shot.

No one is allowed to hunt at the ranch without a guide. The guides make sure no one shoots an exotic animal accidentally with a stray bullet, and that no one takes aim at an off-limits creature.

One of the hogs Daniel shot twitched and appeared to still be alive, until Mr. Hromadka approached with his light and his gun.

Hundreds of animals shot at the ranch have ended up in the cluttered workrooms and showrooms at Graves Taxidermy in Uvalde.

Part of the allure of exotic game-hunting is the so-called trophy at the end — the mounted and lifelike head of the animal that the hunter put down. The Ox Ranch is Graves Taxidermy’s biggest customer.

“My main business, of course, is white-tailed deer, but the exotics have kind of taken over,” said Browder Graves, the owner.

He said the animal mounts he makes for people were not so much a trophy on a wall as a symbol of the hunter’s memories of the entire experience. He has a mount of a Himalayan tahr he shot in New Zealand that he said he cannot look at without thinking of the time he spent with his son hunting up in the mountains.

“It’s God’s creature,” he said. “I’m trying to make it look as good as it can.”

Small herds passed by the Jeep being driven by Mr. Watson, the hunting guide. There were white elk and eland, impala and Arabian oryx.

Then the tour came to an unexpected stop. An Asiatic water buffalo blocked the road, unimpressed by the Jeep. The animal was caked with dried mud, an aging male that lived away from the herd.

“The Africans call them dugaboys,” Mr. Watson said. “They’re old lone bulls. They’re so big that they don’t care.”

The buffalo took his time moving. For a moment, at least, he had all the power.

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« Reply #4068 on: Oct 20, 2017, 04:28 AM »

Replenish the swamp: 7,500 trafficked Turkish frogs returned to wild

Five men arrested after police find minibus loaded with thousands of frogs in nets, allegedly part of lucrative export trade

Kareem Shaheen

Turkey’s gendarmerie has released 7,500 frogs into the wild after capturing five poachers involved in one of the largest frog trafficking operations in the country.

The country’s state news agency said the men were detained when their minibus was examined during a routine check as they travelled through the Cappadoccia region. Officers found dozens of nets with thousands of frogs inside. The men were allegedly destined for Adana, where they intended to sell them to an exporter.

The export of edible frogs is a lucrative trade, with large markets in France and China where the amphibians are a delicacy. Turkey issues licenses for frog hunters, but it is only permitted in certain seasons and some frog species cannot be legally traded.

“We just released the frogs back to nature because they were caught without permission and outside permitted hunting areas,” said Hasan Hüseyin Doğançay, head of the district livestock agency, in a statement on the state-run Anadolu agency.

Doğançay said it was the largest poaching operation he had ever seen.

The number of captured frogs was huge in comparison to previous operations, said F Gözde Çilingir, a Turkish PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore, who studies conservation genomics of endangered animals.

“The problem here is these guys did not farm the frogs. They basically went out and caught as many frogs as they could to sell them to the farms, which is not acceptable because this way of collection is not controlled,” she said. “There are permitted seasons for frog collection, and some frog species should not be collected at all because they are endangered, vulnerable or their statuses are unknown. There are also many endemic frog species in that region, the trade of which is restricted.”

The frogs were poached from the basin of the Kızılırmak river, which originates in eastern Anatolia and flows into the Black Sea. The Kızılırmak delta and wetlands are among the most ecologically diverse regions in Turkey, with more than 350 bird species and 560 plant species. Turkey last year proposed designating the area as a Unesco site of outstanding universal value.

The French appetite for frogs has often been blamed for dwindling populations and environmental damage in places such as Indonesia, which is one of the largest exporters of frogs’ legs to Europe.

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« Reply #4069 on: Oct 20, 2017, 04:31 AM »

Dignity in chains: stark macaque portrait shines light on animals’ plight in Indonesia

Nominations for Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards include images of endangered species on island of Sulawesi

Robin McKie

Nona is a Sulawesi crested black macaque. Photographed here by Stefano Unterthiner, she is seen chained to a chair outside the house where she is kept as a pet. The scene is made particularly poignant because Unterthiner has included in his image the shadow of Nona, her chain and a tree, thus underlining the freedom that the little animal has lost. At the same time, the owner of Nona – which means “miss” – stands relaxing in the early morning sun.

It is illegal to keep this critically endangered animal in captivity. Yet the law is rarely enforced, particularly in remote areas. Hence the grim picture – though far worse was taken by Unterthiner, an Italian wildlife photographer, during his visit to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Hunting, the live-animal trade and forest clearance have caused the animal’s population on the island to crash by 90% in the past 30 years. Only a few thousand are left there.

“Things are become desperate for the macaque,” said Unterthiner. “They are being killed for bushmeat, hunted as pets and having their forests ripped down around them.”

Local people like to keep these macaques – which they call yaki – because they look particularly cute as babies. Often they are adopted when their mothers are shot by bushmeat hunters. However, as they get older, kept in cramped conditions and poorly fed, they become less manageable and are themselves sold as bushmeat.

It is a deeply disturbing situation, captured by Unterthiner in a series of images that have earned him a place as a finalist in the wildlife photojournalist category in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, which will be announced on 17 October at the Natural History Museum in London.

“I first became aware of the crisis facing the Sulawesi macaque when I visited the island seven years ago,” he told the Observer. He has made several more trips and returned last year for a two‑month investigation into the relationship between macaques and local people. He found the bushmeat market – the main cause of the macaques’ plight – had become a “nightmare of blood and burnt animals”.

Another of his set of disturbing images shows a local bushmeat dealer called Nofi Raranta. He is seen wheeling the carcass of a Sulawesi warty pig, another threatened animal, across his yard; propped against a wall is the body of a Gorontalo macaque, closely related to the crested black species.

Macaque meat is popular at weddings and festivals in Sulawesi, although trade in it is also illegal. Again, there is little fear of prosecution and little police activity. “I feel sympathy for Nofi but he needs to sell something else,” said Unterthiner.

The crested black macaque is noted for its fascination with its own image. Often they will sit on scooters, the main form of transport in Sulawesi, and peer at their own reflections in handlebar mirrors – as Unterthiner highlights in another shot from his portfolio.

Several years ago this self-absorption led one female macaque to take an unattended camera from another photographer in order to stare at her own reflection in the lens. She then accidently pressed the shutter and took the first macaque selfie. It made headlines around the world and led to a bizarre court case, launched by animal rights activists, over the copyright of the picture, that was settled only last month.

Sulawesi was once covered in rich forests but these have been stripped away to provide land for farming. Plantations of coconuts and mangoes have replaced them. And as the forest shrinks, so does the macaques’ feeding area, forcing them to venture further from cover and into villages and plantations, where their risk of being killed – either by villagers who want to protect their plantations, or by bushmeat hunters – increases dangerously.

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« Reply #4070 on: Oct 21, 2017, 05:26 AM »

The week in wildlife – in pictures

Migratory birds, rutting stags and leaping salmon are among this week’s pick of images from the natural world

Compiled by Eric Hilaire
Friday 20 October 2017 15.33 BST

Click to see all: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2017/oct/20/the-week-in-wildlife-in-pictures

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« Reply #4071 on: Oct 23, 2017, 04:17 AM »

How dinosaur dung fertilised the world

Over millions of years, certain dinosaurs may have played a crucial role in dispersing nutrients.

By Aristos Georgiou

Over millions of years, large herbivores such as certain dinosaurs may have played a crucial role in dispersing vital nutrients across continents, helping to fertilise the Earth, according to new research.

"Theory suggests that large animals are disproportionately important to the spread of fertility across the planet," said Christopher Doughty, author of the study, from Northern Arizona University.

"What better way to test this than to compare fertility in the world during the Cretaceous period [around 145-79 million years ago] – where sauropods, the largest herbivores to exist, roamed freely – to the Carboniferous period [around 360-300 million years ago] – a time in Earth's history before four-legged herbivores evolved."

During these two periods, when plants died they were buried faster than they could decompose, resulting in the formation of coal. Doughty gathered coal samples from around the US and measured the composition of the black rock. He discovered that elements required by plants, such as phosphorus, were more abundant and far better distributed during the age of the dinosaurs than in the Carboniferous period.

The data also showed that the abundance and distribution of elements which are not important to plants and animals, such as aluminium, was the same between the two periods studied, suggesting large herbivores contributed to spreading nutrients around the globe and increasing the fertility of plant life.

These large herbivores would often travel large distances, and when they excreted the plants they had eaten, this would effectively mix nutrients in the soil. When plants are exposed to nutritious elements, they grow faster, resulting in more lush environments.

Today, large plant-eating animals are dwindling in number, which means that this global distribution network for nutrients is being diminished, Doughty says.

"We are rapidly losing our remaining large animals, like forest elephants, and this loss will critically impair the future functioning of ecosystems by reducing their fertility."

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« Reply #4072 on: Oct 23, 2017, 04:19 AM »

Is the world's oldest living creature gay?

    At 186, Jonathan the giant tortoise is believed to be world's oldest land creature.

    St Helena vets discovered that Jonathan's girlfriend, Frederica, was actually male.

    The two tortoises have been mating every Sunday for 26 years.

Claire Toureille

Jonathan, 186, is the oldest giant tortoise - and probably the oldest land animal - to roam the Earth. And there's a good chance that our reptilian elder is gay.

Jonathan has been living a life of leisure since he moved from the Seychelles to the remote British territory of St Helena in 1882. Over a century later in 1991, when he was 160, he met Frederica, another elderly tortoise, and proceeded to woo her for almost three decades.

However in 26 years, they never managed to procreate. The sweethearts mating sessions every Sunday - Jonathan is a creature of habit, apparently - were to no avail.

Until very recently, their keepers at Plantation House couldn't explain why. But it turns out there's a perfectly logical explanation: His beloved Frederica is actually a… Frederic.

The tortoise's belated gender reveal happened by accident. Frederika suffered from lesions in her shell that needed repairs. Closer examination by the island's vet revealed that Jonathan's girlfriend was in fact another male, reported the Times.

The discovery is timely, as the tiny island of 4,255 in the south Atlantic is debating whether to allow same-sex marriage. A bill was introduced earlier in 2017, which allowed gay couples to marry, but was then withdrawn because of its poor reception among locals.

Perhaps Jonathan and Frederic's love will shine a new light on the legality of same-sex union?

Jonathan has been a resident of St Helena since his arrival in 1882, when he was a young lad believed to be about 50 years old. It seems that determining Jonathan's age is as difficult as determining Frederic's rightful gender.

There is no record of his hatching. In 2015, St Helena vet, Joe Hollins said: "We have a record that he was landed in 1882 fully grown. We are told that fully grown is at least 50 years of age, and so this is how we extrapolate back to a hatching date of 1832."

However, it is clear he lived well beyond the life expectancy of a giant tortoise, which is 150. His eyes are dimmed by cataracts and his sense of smell is gone, however his passion, it would appear, remains undimmed.

The science of determining a tortoise's gender

One can determine the sex of a tortoise by examining the shell, tail and claw sizes of a specimen as well as species-specific clues. For instance, a male tortoise's tail is usually much longer than a female's. But Frederic's case shows that it's very easy to get it wrong.

In August 2017, a Phd student from Queensland, Donald McKnight claimed sex toys - vibrators in particular - had a 100% accuracy rate in determining a turtle's sex. McKnight told ABC that previous research showed vibrators could collect sperm from male turtle, making it easy to make out male ones from female ones.

By placing the device on turtles, the researcher was able to provoke a sexual reaction in the turtles: "What you're looking for is for the the male to reveal himself and flash you — basically."

The research was done in Oklahoma in the United States on a wild population of western chicken turtles. It was published in the journal Acta Herpetologica. The method was not yet tested on tortoise species.

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« Reply #4073 on: Oct 23, 2017, 04:22 AM »

Brutal Outlook for Healthy Wild Horses and Burros: BLM Calls for Shooting 90,000


On Thursday, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recklessly voted to approve recommendations that call on the Bureau of Land Management to shoot tens of thousands of healthy wild horses and burros.

At its meeting in Grand Junction, Colorado, the advisory board recommended that BLM achieve its on-range population goal of 26,715 wild horses and burros while also phasing out the use of long-term holding facilities—both within three years.

If Congress allowed BLM to follow through on the independent board's recommendations, that would mean the government shooting at least 90,000 healthy animals. The advisory board has no power to control policy.

The board also called for allowing international adoptions and sales, which have not been allowed before. During its deliberations, the board repeatedly referenced a proposal made by a private party to have American taxpayers pay to ship upwards of 20,000 wild horses to Russia—where they would serve as prey animals for big cats.

"Killing tens of thousands of wild horses and burros would be a betrayal of millions of taxpayers who want wild horses protected as intended in the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and who have invested tens of millions of dollars in their care," said Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation.

"BLM has been tasked by Congress with the responsibility of protecting wild horses. The agency has failed over and over, wasting time on think tanks, challenge concepts and meetings that go nowhere instead of directing resources toward actually managing land, water and habitat on the range and building a robust volunteer effort to help with critical projects benefiting wild horses and other wildlife."

BLM has been close to its Appropriate Management Level before, but the agency balked at using fertility control despite ample evidence that it was safe and effective. The number of wild horses on the range stood within 1,071 animals of BLM's own population goal in 2007, yet even then the agency chose not to aggressively implement fertility control.

In fact, BLM has never spent as much as four percent of its Wild Horse & Burro Program budget on this safe, proven and humane solution for wild horse population control; instead, it spends upwards of 65 percent of its annual budget capturing, removing and warehousing animals.

Return to Freedom's American Wild Horse Sanctuary was among the first of many projects to use fertility control with great success. It has used the vaccine PZP for 19 years with an efficacy rate of 91 to 98 percent.

Meanwhile, wild horses continue to be dramatically outnumbered on federal land by privately owned livestock, which graze there at a fraction of the cost that ranchers would pay on private property.

"A balance must be struck between ranching and mining interests and wild horses and other wildlife as part of a fair interpretation of BLM's multiple-use mandate on the range," said DeMayo. "There needs to be a fairer distribution of resources—not more biased reports and recommendations aimed at capturing, removing or killing wild horses.

"BLM and the U.S. Department of the Interior must stop catering to those who profit from public lands and manage them for all Americans. It is time to stop treating America's wild horses and burros like an unwanted invasive species and start becoming real stewards by using the safe, proven and humane tools available, in keeping with the spirit of the Act and the will of the public."

Polls have repeatedly shown that about 80 percent of Americans oppose horse slaughter and a similar percentage want to see wild horses protected.

A March 1 BLM estimate—made before this year's foal crop—placed the on-range population of wild horses and burros at 72,674. As of August, the agency reported that 44,640 captured wild horses and burros were living in off-range facilities, including 32,146 on leased pastures referred to as long-term holding.

On Thursday, wild horse advocate Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation was the lone dissenting vote on recommendations that BLM achieve "Appropriate Management Level" of 26,715 in three years, close long-term holding in three years, and allow international sales and adoptions. She joined the others on the board in voting to recommend that BLM increase its funding of reversible fertility control to $3 million by fiscal year 2019, up from about $100,000 in 2017.

Kathrens noted that BLM's arbitrarily set Appropriate Management Level is only about 1,000 wild horses and burros more than the estimated population at the time of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed. The law—which Congress passed unanimously—stated that wild horses and burros were "fast disappearing from the American scene."

The advisory board's recommendation would have BLM spend money saved on long-term holding on on-range management and increasing adoptions. Those adoptions would likely spare only a fraction of wild horses on the range or in holding from death. In 2017, BLM has adopted out only about 4,200 wild horses—its best total in years.

In September 2016, the advisory board voted to recommend destroying captive wild horses and removing all restrictions to their sale, which would allow buyers to purchase them on the cheap and transport them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. Again, Kathrens was the lone "no" vote.

In July, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill that removed language that would bar BLM from killing healthy wild horses. The Senate Appropriations Committee could vote on its version of the Interior bill as soon as next week.

"It will take time, commitment and diligence—and a real plan—but we have science that clearly shows the path to a sustainable future for wild horses and burros," DeMayo said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but it must be done and it must start now. The American people need to rally and urge Congress to force BLM to humanely manage these iconic, federally protected animals on the range."

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« Reply #4074 on: Oct 23, 2017, 04:27 AM »

Kea or Kākāriki? Bird of the Year contest gets New Zealand in a flap

Country’s treasured avian species puff up their plumage as nation votes on who rules the roost

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

First there was the “Jacinda effect” and a government to cobble together. Then came the mania for the jade Kākāriki, the shining cuckoo and the stern Ruru.

New Zealand’s Bird of the Year Competition has kicked off, and it has galvanised voters with the same intensity as the recent election. Now in its 13th year, the poll pits the country’s rare and endangered birds against one another: the cheeky Kea versus the shy Kiwi, the dowdy Bar Tailed Godwit against the alluring Hihi.

New Zealand Bird of the Year leaderboard: check the pecking order: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2017/oct/21/new-zealand-bird-of-the-year-leaderboard-check-the-pecking-order

There are 168 bird species in New Zealand and none of them have ever won twice. Around a third are threatened with extinction and dozens more are on the endangered list. Some species have dwindled into a few hundred individuals tucked away in isolated pockets of the country.

“New Zealanders get really into it,” said Forest and Bird’s Kimberley Collins, minutes before she hiked into the Hooker Valley on a twitching trek.

“There are huge social media campaigns, dozens of memes and videos – we’ve even had a smear campaign this year, with the Black-billed Gull unofficially being campaigned for by a radio station, who have been publically sledging other birds. They called the Kererū an ‘overweight tree rat’ and the White Faced Heron ‘racist’.

With three days before polling closes, a record 50,000 votes have been cast (20,000 more than last year) although more than 100 had to be discounted when it was discovered they were rigged by a bird enthusiast from Christchurch.

    Chlöe Swarbrick (@_chloeswarbrick)

    In the midst of a tense political situation, we have a crucial message about the most important election of the year. #nzpol pic.twitter.com/VETkqPvHaz
    October 17, 2017

    Golriz Ghahraman (@golrizghahraman)

    This man's commitment to the mighty Ruru is everything! The least the rest of us can do is VOTE RURU @birdoftheyear @Forest_and_Bird 💚💚 pic.twitter.com/EQ01w1LeOV
    October 12, 2017

“Someone cast 112 fraudulent votes for the White-faced Heron,” said Collins. “I was alerted to this by a data scientist who happens to track the votes with a computer programme. He noticed a big spike for the heron at midnight on the first day of voting. We have increased our security and blocked all those votes. We currently don’t have any leads or any suspects.”

Polls opened on 9 October and for the first week #birdoftheyear was trending in the top 10 spots on New Zealand Twitter, as well as featuring in nightly news bulletins and radio broadcasts countrywide.

In a week when the future of New Zealand was being decided the avian competition provided a welcome relief for New Zealanders, some of whom have got tattoos of their favourite bird, with politicians and celebrities devoting precious hours to championing their favourites.

Former All Black captain and director of Christchurch Helicopters Richie McCaw has thrown his support behind the Kākāriki, going so far as to paint one of the squad’s helicopters with the critically endangered bird. Only about 300 are left in the wild.

The Department of Conservation’s threatened species ambassador Nicola Toki is not voting, as she says it wouldn’t be fair because all the contenders are “her babies”.

Toki says the ones that do best in the competition tend to be “the pandas of the bird world”, such as the Takahē and Kākāpō which are large with vibrant colours and charismatic personalities. “We don’t really have megafauna in New Zealand, we don’t have lions or tigers or bears, so the next best thing we’ve got is the Kākāpō and Kiwi and Kea; the poster- children of bird conservation in New Zealand.”

Loss of habitat, introduced predators such as rats, stoats and possums and the increasing effects of climate change have had a “devastating” impact on New Zealand’s birds, which evolved in isolation without ground-based predators for millions of year. Some, like the Kiwi and Weka, can’t fly, and have no natural defences besides running away, rather slowly.

The competition is intentionally fun and lighthearted – an antidote, says Toki, to recent global events and the general election.

“I personally think New Zealanders are so attuned to this stuff,” says Toki.

“A few years ago National Radio tried to get rid of the bird call at 9am and there was national outrage that such a thing could happen and they had to back down.

“New Zealand’s connection to the bush has been described as ethereal and almost soulful. I think what that says is nature is our church, it is our connection to our spirit.”

Voting closes at 5pm on Monday with the results to be announced on Tuesday morning on radio national, just before the daily bird-call at 9am.

At time of writing the endangered Kea was the front-runner with more than 6,000 votes, while the Kererū – a native New Zealand wood pigeon – was coming second with around 3,000.

Tamsin Orr-Walker, the co-founder of the Kea Conservation Trust is excited it may finally be the mischievous Kea’s year to claim the top title. David Attenborough fell in love with the world’s only alpine parrot on a trip to New Zealand, and it is listed as critically endangered, with between 3,000-5,000 individuals left in the wild.

Orr-Walker said it was “wonderful” the Kea was leading the competition but the fact there were more votes for the bird than actual birds left in the wild was a strange and somewhat sad fact. “A lot of people are saying the Kea should be our national bird because they so much epitomise what it is to be a New Zealander: adventurous and up for a challenge and maybe a bit misunderstood,” says Orr-Walker.
Kea the world’s only mountain parrot in flight.

“They’re the mountaineer’s bird and they’ve had a really dark past. For 100 years they were reviled and 150,000 were shot.

“New Zealand is a land of birds and we love them. When we go into the bush we expect they’ll always be there. But that won’t be the case unless we fight for them.”

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« Reply #4075 on: Oct 23, 2017, 04:31 AM »

A puppy for Putin – but for dogs in Turkmenistan it's open slaughter

Berdymukhamedov’s presentation of a puppy to Vladimir Putin is ironic, given the bloodbath of stray dogs and cats over which he has presided in Ashgabat

Elle Hunt

The Turkmenistan president’s present to his Russian counterpart last week suggested a twist on the oft-quoted saying: if you want a friend in politics, give them a dog.

At a much-documented meeting in Sochi, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov gave Vladimir Putin a Central Asian shepherd puppy for the Russian president’s 65th birthday (and perhaps to see if Putin might not feel like resurrecting Turkmen natural gas exports).

Proudly dangling the puppy by the scruff of its neck in front of assembled statesmen and media, Berdymukhamedov said the ancient breed, also known as the alabai, was a “common friend” of Russia and Turkmenistan.

It is not only a popular pet and guard dog in Turkmenistan, but officially listed as part of the national heritage, alongside the revered Akhal-Teke breed of racehorse. Exporting alabai is prohibited, and since February they have been used as police and sniffer dogs by the state security services, under Berdymukhamedov’s orders.

But only alabai are held in presidential favour in Turkmenistan, notorious for its brutal treatment of strays and even pets mistaken for them. This dates back decades to the days of its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who banned dogs from the capital city, Ashgabat, on grounds of their “unappealing odour”.

(The dictator did, however, reportedly look to them for guidance on dental hygiene: “I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not gnaw on bones. This is my advice.”)

Alabai notwithstanding, Berdymukhamedov shares his predecessor’s revulsion for dogs. “There’s nothing that gets [the] president more crazy than stray dogs and cats,” wrote one reporter of the multiple mass culls carried out under Berdymukhamedov’s orders. Last year municipal workers planted poisoned food around the city, with many pets counted as collateral damage.

The killings increased in the lead-up to the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which Ashgabat hosted last month – and for which the Turkmen delegation saw no irony in naming an animated alabai, Wepaly, as its mascot. (Berdymukhamedov had input into him, too.)

Under the grimly brilliant headline “Turkmenistan: It’s Murdering Cats and Dogs”, Eurasianet quoted activist Natalya Shabunts’s public appeal to the president “to put an end to the bloodbath”: “The barbaric execution of these unfortunate animals by numerous hunting squads has turned Turkmenistan into a nation of executioners and murderers.”

Sanitation workers, she pointed out, were not nearly so motivated to rid the city of actual vermin such as bedbugs or rats. Shabunts (one of the few activists in Turkmenistan to campaign under her real name) was reportedly later abused for her dog-friendly activism while out walking her two pekingese.

State media subsequently published a report on a new “island of hope” for stray dogs: Turkmenistan’s first animal shelter, apparently set up with the support of government bodies.

No such fate is likely to await Putin’s new pup, however. The Russian president already has two dogs: a Bulgarian shepherd called Buffy and an akita named Yume; he reportedly turned down the Japanese government’s offer last year of a “bridegroom” for Yume. Cradling his acquisition and giving it a kiss on its head, he named it Verny (“faithful” in Russian).

Not only the name was considered ripe for analysis. The Times quoted a commentator on Moscow’s Kommersant FM radio station who interpreted the whole affair as a veiled threat. In Putin’s gentle receipt of poor Faithful, the analyst said, was a message to Russian voters ahead of elections in March: “Make the right choice and you will receive fatherly care. After all, we could do it differently, like in Turkmenistan: grab you by the scruff of the neck and give a good shaking.”

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« Reply #4076 on: Oct 24, 2017, 04:16 AM »

From ISIS to elephants: the tale of a unique anti-poaching force

The same geospatial mapping techniques and data analysis used by the US military to fight terrorism are now being deployed in a sophisticated offense to rival poachers’ criminal networks.   

Story Hinckley
CS Monitor
October 23, 2017 Boston—Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas says the two decades she spent fighting terror networks was the perfect preparation for her current job: saving elephants in Kenya.

Intelligence missions, including the 2006 kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, taught the US Air Force officer that classified intelligence is “only one piece of the puzzle.” She and other intelligence support officers learned to look for nontraditional clues when assessing the security of an area. It was in Africa, while working on a mission targeting the Lord’s Resistance Army, that she first started relying on the intuition of elephants.

The presence of elephants, it turned out, was a surprisingly reliable indicator of an area’s safety. During migration, elephants follow paths etched in memory, but they adjust those routes to avoid areas that they sense may be unsafe. By studying the movements of elephant herds, she was able to help keep the members of her unit safe.

She left active duty to return the favor. If clues from the natural world add nuance to information gathered from sophisticated intelligence streams employed by the military, perhaps military technology and strategy could help inform the fight against poaching.

“There were hard-fought and valuable lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that we could apply to achieve a more disruptive effect [in poaching],” says Cuevas. “Whether you are in Al Qaeda or ISIL, you have to have a local network that you tap into and it works the same for [the] wildlife network. It is a constellation of actors.”

In Pictures Defending wildlife from poachers

To better understand those actors, Cuevas has brought cutting-edge technology more commonly associated with modern warfare to the anti-poaching fight. The same geospatial mapping techniques and data analysis used by the US military to fight terrorism are now being deployed in a sophisticated offense to rival poachers’ criminal networks.

And those efforts appear to be paying off. Between May and September, with the help of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Cuevas's group the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) facilitated the arrest of 21 suspects during counter-poaching operations. Together, the two groups helped reduce poaching in Kenya's Tsavo National Parks by 43 percent from 2015 to 2017. In some previous hotspots, poaching appears to have ceased entirely.

Other groups borrow from military protocols to combat poaching as well, but many of those efforts focus on launching an all-out war on poaching, complete with gun battles. Critics of that approach caution that “green militarization” encourages an arms race and marginalizes impoverished communities. Others say counter-poaching efforts should focus on reducing demand for ivory in Asia.

Cuevas says her approach is different because it works directly with local communities and relies more on data than weaponry.

“Data and information are the new ammunition,” says Cuevas, in a video produced by IFAW, where she is a senior vice president.

Cuevas started working for the IFAW two years ago. The group is headquartered in Yarmouth Port, Mass., but Cuevas now lives in Nairobi, where she leads the organization’s tenBoma program in the Tsavo Parks.

The program borrows from a community policing philosophy known as nyumba kumi, or “10 houses” that look out for one another, similar to a neighborhood watch. TenBoma merges that idea with the Swahili concept of boma, which refers to an open area of bush that offers shelter and safety. The program’s mission is to improve information sharing among disparate anti-poaching efforts and to carve out a network of safe spaces for elephants among Kenya’s national parks and surrounding areas.

‘Left of the Kill’

Halfway around the world in Boston, Cuevas and IFAW president Azzedine Downes offered a glimpse into the thinking behind the group’s current strategy at the city’s HUB Week ideas festival earlier this month.

Mr. Downes began his speech by telling the audience that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its ivory.

“During this talk, four elephants will be killed,” he told the somber crowd. At this rate, he added, elephants may be extinct in 10 years – a timeframe that has been tossed around by other conservationists.

And while the demand for ivory needs to be discouraged, said Downes, conservationists need to take this poaching rate seriously and stop the kill before it happens. That’s where Cuevas’s military experience comes in.

While in Iraq in 2005, Cuevas says she witnessed one of the most successful counterterrorism strategies she's seen. It arose from the ability to zoom out and address the context of a chronic threat, in this case improvised explosive devices (IEDs) scattered along the roadside.

As IED prevention efforts stalled, generals in Baghdad told Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli that they needed more equipment to get “left of the boom” because the small bombs could easily be hidden in street garbage.

“Chiarelli said, ‘Well, let’s pick up the garbage then,’ ” Cuevas recalled.

“That's what I fixated on: How can we deny the poachers operational space?” Downes said. “We can't let the bombs go off and then chase the bad guys. We have to ... stay working on the side of the explosion before it happens. So we started thinking, how do we get ‘left of the kill?’ ”

By zooming out its focus and incorporating broad data analysis, IFAW began to spot seemingly unrelated patterns that could signal that poachers had moved into an area before they actually made a strike.

“We map out layer upon layer upon layer, and think in ways that a typical conservation group would not think,” Downes explained. Eventually, “a pattern emerges.”

One pattern that emerged was a spike in petty crime, such as theft of tea or food from nearby communities, prior to a big hunt. Another pointed to increased traffic at motorcycle repair shops as poachers had their bikes checked before heading out into the bush.

IFAW also monitors communities’ relationships with nearby elephants. If particular elephants have been damaging a family’s crops, their community may be less likely to share tips with rangers.Game the change

Historically, militarized anti-poaching efforts have fostered mistrust of conservationists among local communities, says Libby Lunstrum, an associate professor of geography at York University in Toronto who has studied poaching in South Africa since 2003.

Poachers need to have an understanding of the area, which means they often have ties to nearby villages. Local sympathy to conservation efforts may harden if a neighbor’s son, for instance, is killed by rangers for suspicious activity. Instead of pushing for bigger guns, Professor Lunstrum says conservationists need to focus on the economic circumstances that drive poachers to poach in the first place.

“Militarized approaches don't take reality of poverty seriously. It is more of a short-term response,” says Lunstrum. “It's about seeing the poachers as a part of the communities.”

But it's hard to have it both ways, says Francis Massé, also a poaching researcher at York University.

“Taking a military approach on one hand and trying to do community work on the other hand, it's kind of a contradiction,” says Mr. Massé. “There is a tension around trying to do both.”

But Cuevas says there is a difference between weaponization and the military tactics she is working to implement from the ground up, with community leadership.

There is a line, adds Downes, and he is careful not to cross it. IFAW has not, and does not plan to, create its own private militia to stop poaching – “Something that is rightly criticized,” says Downes, and that invites more conflict to highly politicized conflict areas. Instead, his organization embeds trained officials into existing law enforcement and park protection services to combat violence that he says already exists.

IFAW is gearing up to expand tenBoma into Malawi and Zambia in December, and eventually plans to bring the program to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in India.

Time is running out to identify the single game changer that is going to flip the script, says Cuevas. “It is time to bring all those game changers together in a collaborative environment, because it is time to game the change. We don’t want to be the generation that lost the elephants.”

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« Reply #4077 on: Oct 24, 2017, 04:19 AM »

The ivory police

A former Australian commando is using military tactics to curb poaching in Africa. Is that the right way to save the continent's vanishing animals?

By Mike Pflanz
CS Monitor

Stanley and livingstone Private Game Reserve, Zimbabwe — It's a little before midnight, and a matte-green Land Rover pickup with its headlights off and its dashboard darkened creeps along a dirt track beside a 10-foot-high electric fence. At the wheel, driving by moonlight and keeping the engine as silent as possible, is a former Australian Special Forces sniper with years of experience with this kind of mission from having served a dozen tours in Iraq.

Three armed men dressed in camouflage stand in the flatbed, their eyes scanning the fence line and the terrain ahead for the telltale ridge of sand that has been turned by a boot, or a blade of grass slowly springing back to upright, or the faint residue of wood smoke in the still air.

Fresh footprints are visible from a male lion that passed this way less than an hour ago. A herd of a dozen eland antelope emerge from the bush to the left. Ahead, a startled spring hare bolts for its burrow.

Farther on, something else catches the driver's attention. He stops and unfolds his mountain of a frame from the truck's cramped cabin and raises a night-vision scope to his eye, an infrared light in his hand. He scans the valley below while the other men fan out around the vehicle, establishing a perimeter.

Two electric lights flicker in the far distance. They would be invisible without the extra gear, equipment more apt to be found on a battlefield than here in a Zimbabwean game reserve a short drive from Victoria Falls. The driver, Damien Mander, a no-nonsense Australian who is a former elite soldier and gun for hire, quietly calls over his colleague, Chelepele Phiri, a mild, composed Zimbabwean with a quick smile who nonetheless handles his rifle with meaningful menace. Together, they focus on the pinpricks of light a mile away.

"Inside the reserve, or outside?" Mr. Mander whispers to Mr. Phiri.

"Outside. But close to the fence," the ranger replies.

The interlopers these men are looking for are poachers. Inhabiting the 12,000-acre reserve are a handful of endangered black rhinos as well as a sizable number of elephants, lions, and leopards. They are a trove for desperate men paid by rich people to come to kill and to carry out treasures whose value far away across oceans is rising higher than ever.

The illegal trade in wildlife and its horns, tusks, skins, and body parts has never been more lucrative. Its raw materials have never fetched higher prices, and the lengths to which people will go and the risks they will take to supply expanding markets in Asia have never been greater.

It is an industry now worth close to $20 billion a year, ranking it fourth behind drugs, weapons, and human trafficking as a global criminal activity. President Obama says its proceeds fund terrorism. The issue is serious enough that 50 world leaders gathered in London in mid-February at the invitation of the British Prime Minister and Prince Charles and Prince William for the highest-level summit on poaching in a generation.

On the eve of the gathering, Mr. Obama announced a new "national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking." It is designed to boost law enforcement efforts, reduce demand for illicit products, and strengthen partnerships among those fighting poachers.

But to people like Mander, founder and chief executive officer of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) – registered in Houston, headquartered in Zimbabwe, and training rangers across Southern Africa – the way the world is fighting back against this sophisticated new enemy is failing. What's needed, according to this military man, and to growing numbers siding with him in an acrimonious debate among conservationists, is total war on the poachers. Mander's philosophy, at its core, is simple: You don't want to show up at a gunfight armed only with good intentions.

"Look, I get it that we need to win the hearts and minds of the people living around here so they turn against the poachers," he says, sotto voce, leaning against the Land Rover while still looking through the night scope. "Hearts and minds: It rolls off the tongue so easily, but when has it really worked, shifting an entire population to your side? It didn't work in Iraq against the insurgency. It didn't work in Afghanistan against the Taliban. And it's not yet working in Africa against poachers.

"Meantime," he adds, "while we're trying to win people [over], tens of thousands of animals are being killed every year. We need to do something now, on the ground, to stop the hemorrhaging. Otherwise there won't be anything left by the time we've won all the hearts and minds."

Mander's urgency is not misplaced. Poachers in South Africa killed the equivalent of one rhino every eight hours in 2013. They hacked or sawed off their horns and sold them on the world market for as much as $27,000 per pound – more than the price of gold. That makes the average horn on the average rhino worth close to a quarter-million dollars.

Across Africa, the number of elephants has fallen from 1.3 million 40 years ago to fewer than 400,000 today. Each year, the continent loses somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of those that remain. This has prompted organizations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to predict that Africa will lose a fifth of its elephants in 10 years.

Other groups warn that the African elephant could be extinct within a generation, consigned to picture books, zoos, and eventually fairy tales, like the unicorn.

Mass killings of Africa's wildlife have happened before, notably in the 1970s and '80s, a period known as the "ivory holocaust." In 1989, an international ban on trade in elephant ivory curtailed the supply of illicit animal parts, and populations of the hardest-hit wildlife began creeping up again.

But so did the demand. Asia's growing middle class increasingly sought out the animal contraband that serves both as ancestral trappings of wealth and a source of traditional medicines.

To supply these expanding markets, poaching has surged again. But this time the sophistication, funding, and malevolence of the poachers and their big-time criminal underwriters have reached new heights.

The few who are caught are often found with their own night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, bandoliers of ammunition, and other specialized gear. Big-money backers equip the gunmen with helicopters to land inside the electric fences that guard wildlife. They bribe veterinarians to supply the poachers with powerful animal tranquilizers, which are used to fell the beasts all the more quickly.

In the face of this onslaught, the world's conservation organizations have significantly increased their efforts despite chronic underfunding. But Mander argues that the conservation "industry," as he calls it, is "dangerously fragmented" and wasting energy pulling in different directions.

"It's a world wildlife war. Don't let anyone tell you it's anything else," he says back at his main encampment in Zimbabwe. "And the way we're heading, we're going to lose."

•     •     •

Mander is an unlikely poster boy for an environmental conservation movement. Born in the late 1970s and raised in a beachfront suburb of Sydney, Australia, a "teenage hothead full of testosterone," he admits he had "no concern whatsoever" for animals, "besides our German shepherd."

In his youth, he would make pocket money by scuba diving to find lost fishing lures and then sell them back to the fishermen who lost them. At age 19, he joined the Australian Navy and soon transferred into the force's equivalent of the US Navy SEALs. Six years later, he had become a fully trained Special Forces sniper and specialist diver. But his commission ended, and he shifted into private security and protection of VIPs in Iraq.

As he helicoptered into Baghdad in 2005, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Vietnam-era anthem "Fortunate Son" on his iPod, adventure was all that was on his mind. At the time it would have seemed crazy to him that a decade later he would be patrolling the African bush at midnight, earnestly protecting wild animals.

Twelve tours and three years later, he'd become a wealthy man but decided to quit. He'd taken fire regularly, worked with good guys and guys not so good. He'd set up a base in a former Iraqi national intelligence building, where the trappings of Saddam Hussein's autocratic rule were still visible, including the "huge date palm stumps out back where they executed detainees." He'd spent time training the Iraqi police, a job he says meant he "maybe had a positive contribution in an otherwise bad situation."

Feeling uneasy about the ethics of the war, he left Iraq and spent 2008 partying his way across South America, eventually, he says, "hitting rock bottom."

Mander returned to Australia. He recalls a barroom chat he had with someone about a man who had gone to Mozambique and was running around with a sniper rifle protecting wildlife against poachers. "I don't remember how the conversation came up, but he said it as a kind of a joke – as the ultimate boy's adventure," he says. The idea appealed to Mander's sense of derring-do, and despite knowing no one in Africa, he bought a one-way ticket to Johannesburg, South Africa, and began contacting wildlife reserves offering to help.

"I can imagine how I looked back then, a white foreigner, a Special Forces background, wanting to run around in Africa and have some fun," he says. He admits he just wanted to live in the wild for a while and post some "cool" pictures on Facebook for his buddies back home.

In Zimbabwe, a wildlife reserve manager with a team of rangers out in the bush decided that hiring Mander was worth a try. At least he thought it could do no harm. So Mander lived with the rangers for six months. Slowly, he came to the realization that here, fighting poachers amid the teak forests and grasslands of the Bushveld, his military skills coupled with his enduring quest for adventure really could have the kind of "positive contribution in a bad situation" that he had hoped for when he was training the police in Iraq.

"I had a personal transformation. I realized out there in the bush that there was something much bigger than myself, and it needed protecting," he says. "I was living out with the guys, teaching them what I knew about military tactics, and they were teaching me about the bush and how to deal with the wildlife. We might be in the African bush here but the principles are no different to the techniques of working around downtown Baghdad."

Seeing the need to teach rangers about military tactics, and using money from investments he had made during his high-paying days in Iraq, Mander set up the IAPF in 2009. To date, it has trained rangers from 10 separate wilderness areas in Zimbabwe and is expanding into Mozambique. IAPF is also leading efforts from South Africa to create an international standard for wildlife rangers around Africa and beyond.

•     •     •

Down one of the sandy tracks that crisscross the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve, Mander's men gather one morning for advanced tracker training. The sanctuary sits on largely flat land covered with dense, low bushes that radiate the heat back into the air.

Areas of ancient cedar forest, long ago hacked down for firewood, are starting to sprout again. Bugs the size of hummingbirds buzz past. A storm builds far away to the south, but above is only expansive blue sky.

Walking slowly forward in a line, the rangers point out footprints (laid earlier by their trainer) that are so faint as to be barely visible. One of the men, Benzine Sibanda, spots where the "poacher" had rested. The imprint of his rifle butt is clear in the dirt. Victor Mumpande, a former mechanic who's now been a ranger for 17 years, finds where the man had walked backward, trying to throw off any pursuers. Broken twigs on branches and still bleeding sap mean that he had passed this way less than 30 minutes before.

Such training sessions are part of Mander's strategy to treat the rangers as warriors, which he sees as essential to thwarting the poachers. He teaches intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as overt and covert patrolling. He shows them how to set up observation posts, how to use force properly, and how to deal with battlefield casualties.

Mander deploys the gear he used when he was in Iraq, the night scopes and the infrared lights. He's working on a new gas-driven drone that can spend five hours in the air scouring the landscape for poachers. His rangers go through physical training drills every morning. Their uniforms are new and spotless.

"People will try to package it up in a softer way – I don't know why – but antipoaching is a paramilitary operation," he says. "Law enforcement should be a ranger's No. 1 job, but it's been turned into a minor role."

Mander is not the only one militarizing ranger training. In Kenya, the British Army is helping teach similar battlefield techniques. In South Africa, former special forces soldiers are doing the same. Drones are undergoing trials in a dozen wildlife reserves across Africa.

The key ingredient in Mander's approach is a perpetual show of force, which he believes acts as a deterrent. Any poacher living near a reserve where IAPF-trained rangers patrol will likely think it's not worth the risk and go somewhere less well protected instead.

If Mander's rangers do encounter poachers, the aim is to arrest them, not cut them down in a hail of bullets. Mander is proud to say that no poacher has been shot at in anger by any ranger he's trained.

Many have been arrested, however.

The last poachers to try to breach the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve, where the IAPF has its headquarters, were arrested and eventually sentenced to stiff jail terms. That was more than three years ago.

Since then, not a single poaching incident has occurred in the reserve. Meanwhile, the number of critically endangered black rhinos that were here when Mander arrived has more than doubled, thanks to a successful breeding program. Another calf is on the way.

"I'm not saying I have all the answers – far from it," Mander says. "But I'll tell you this: What we're doing is working."

•     •     •

As successful as Mander has been, not all conservation groups embrace the militarization ethos. The majority, in fact, favor the more traditional approach of winning the war against the poachers – what Mander terms "hearts and minds."

This entails persuading people living alongside wildlife across Africa that the animals are worth more to those populations alive, and bringing in prodigious tourist dollars, than they are killed and exploited for their tusks or horns. In places of generational poverty, as in many communities near large populations of wildlife, that can be a hard argument to win.

"I'm proud of my job, but when I go home to my village, some people see me as the enemy," says Mike Dube, one of Mander's rangers at the reserve here. "Animals are something they [get] money from, even if just for meat. It is hard teaching people the value of protecting these animals."

Yet the softer, educational approach is working in some places. The Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a three-hour drive north of Botswana's capital, Gaborone, began with just four donated white rhinos 24 years ago. Today, it has more than 30 and has already bred and relocated another 28 rhinos to wilderness areas across Southern Africa. Not one of the animals has been poached.

Most of the 50-odd people who work at the reserve are from nearby villages. Artisans sell crafts to visitors. The money trickles down to local residents. Here, says Moremi Tjibae, the sanctuary's chief warden, the "hearts and minds" strategy has been successful.

"Our No. 1 focus has been to make local people aware that these animals are worth more alive than dead," he says. "If you poach a rhino, maybe you will benefit for today, and maybe tomorrow. If you protect it, everyone benefits – and their children and their children's children. All our schools and clinics, they are paid in part by money from tourists who come to see the animals."

Critics in the conservation community worry that militarizing the antipoaching movement raises the risk of innocent people getting caught in the crossfire. They think it sidesteps the judicial process at a time when courts are beginning to impose harsher sentences on poachers.

Max Graham, the founder and CEO of Space for Giants, a Kenya-based charity focused on saving habitats for elephants, says that educating local communities about the value of conservation, even though arduous, is "the only way logically we're going to win."

"I get very nervous when I hear about guys with military backgrounds running around the bush with weapons selling themselves as the answer to beating the poachers," says Mr. Graham.

He stresses that he has not met Mander, nor specifically come across the IAPF. He is talking instead about "mavericks" who "think shooting anyone who looks like a poacher is a way to win this thing."

"Training guys on the front line is really, really important," he says. "It's been the cornerstone of our success in Laikipia [in central Kenya], where we've managed a 60 percent reduction in the illegal killing of elephants in one year. But it is imperative that the people offering that training are properly vetted, and the standard of training offered should be the best available."

He and others believe that it is important to strengthen and clarify the laws surrounding poaching, too. Space for Giants distributes a handbook to judicial officials that lays out all the laws under which poachers can be prosecuted: trespassing, illegal possession of a firearm, threatening behavior, even driving offenses. This "holistic" approach could put a surprising number more of these guys behind bars, Graham says.

Other conservation organizations are focusing their efforts thousands of miles away, in Asia, trying to get people to stop buying the horns and tusks to begin with. WildAid, a group based in San Francisco, enlists Hollywood actors, British royals, Chinese Olympic stars, and other celebrities to spread the message that buying banned wildlife products is simply not cool. Peter Knights, the group's executive director, is exasperated that so much money goes into trying to curb the poachers.

"We need to shift focus a bit towards cutting the demand," he says. "Then there's no need for supply."

•     •     •

Mander understands all this. He's emphatic that he does not oppose the other antipoaching approaches, even those less aggressive than his. He concedes that international donors who fund conservation charities often shy away from sponsoring the more paramilitary outfits like IAPF, indicating that the get-tough argument has yet to be won.

But all this talk about the right way and the wrong way frustrates him. It points to a sharp divide in the conservation community at a time when he believes the most urgent need is unity. To his mind, the field is overloaded with emotion and flawed logic. He cautiously backs the idea of a licensed trade in rhino horn, for example.

"I don't like it, mate, I'm a vegan after all, but we need to be logical about this: Harvesting horn could save the species." With proper regulation – a major hurdle, Mander admits – he argues there's no reason why selling limited amounts of horn taken from animals that have died naturally and from existing stockpiles couldn't help satisfy the demand in Asia and raise money to protect remaining animals.

He rails against those who "get fueled up on Facebook petitions against hunting or Asians buying rhino horn or one-off sales to help countries pay for conservation."

"A lot of people jump up and down and point fingers at Asians, saying they're bad, they're evil, taking all the wildlife, when it was actually white Europeans and Americans who came out here and shot these animals," he says. "I think it's a little misleading that we spent a hundred years killing as many of these animals as we could find, and now we are putting them behind fences and saying to everyone that we have to protect them."

Ultimately, he thinks the only way to stop poaching is to face up to a more fundamental problem: population growth. "My argument is that Africa's population is going to double to 2 billion between now and 2040," he says. "How do you convince a continent that has a common mind-set of immediacy, often born of poverty, that the long-term preservation of wildlife is more important than food on the table tonight?"

•     •     •

Mander and his rangers are out on foot patrol as the sun starts to dip toward the horizon and the afternoon begins to lose its heat. At first, the only noise is the swish of khaki pants through tall grass and the creak of well-polished boot leather. Then, suddenly, a bird chirps. It's a Grey Louie, informally known as the "go-away bird." It's the official lookout of the African bush, and its chatter signals something is amiss.

Phiri, the head ranger, brings the men, who are walking single file, to an abrupt halt. At first there is only dense bush. But then there is the flick of an ear, the shift of a gray-brown shoulder, a step or two of fire-hydrant legs. This is Shungu, the reserve's dominant male black rhino, one of only 5,000 left in the world.

"The rhino to me represents Mother Nature and what we're doing to the planet," Mander says. "You have an animal that's hardly evolved for millions of years and now all of a sudden it's being pushed to the brink of extinction not through any fault of its own evolution but just because humans want to use its horns. Are we going to be the generation that allows that to happen?"

Mander pauses. The go-away bird is silent. The bugs have stopped their symphony. Distant thunder rumbles. The rhino watches the men, close enough to kill it, but in fact here only to protect. Then it trots into the undergrowth.

"A lot of people will argue that we need to be focused less on the military approach I'm trying here and more on community work and hearts and minds and sustainable alternatives for communities," Mander goes on. "Look, I'm all for that. Let's have people out there working on that. But while they're at it, I'm going to be here on the ground trying to stop the bleeding and hold on to what we've got left before everything's dead."

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« Reply #4078 on: Oct 24, 2017, 04:23 AM »

In eastern Congo, a gorilla reserve tries to rise above its troubled region

Virunga, Africa's oldest national park, is not immune to security threats. But changing practices have yielded progress.

By Ariel Zirulnick, Correspondent
CS Monitor
Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo — Strolling among the tombstones of Virunga National Park’s “gorilla graveyard,” Innocent Mburanumwe, one of the chief wardens, smiles as he talks about his favorite gorilla, whose bald head reminds him of an old man.

Here in Africa’s oldest national park, he has watched the iconic mountain gorilla population, the largest in the world, rebound to almost 1,000 after dipping to an all-time low of 250 in the 1980s. A few of those who have died or been killed are buried here in the graveyard.

“I like to stay with animals [more] than staying with humans. Humans, they have a lot of problems, but animals, they are very kind,” Mr. Mburanumwe says.

He has worked at Virunga for 18 years, many of them without salary, resisting the temptation to line his pockets with money from illegal activities such as animal trafficking and charcoal smuggling in the park. This devotion is unusual in a country where underpaid, untrained public servants often feel compelled to seize whatever opportunities for personal enrichment they can. ​

During Mburanumwe’s career here, this part of Eastern Congo has been caught in the middle of four major wars. And the park is hardly immune to security threats. Rwandan and Congolese soldiers are perpetually in a tense standoff on the park’s eastern flank. Armed groups in the park have found haven and a steady stream of revenue – illegal trafficking of natural resources generates an estimated $100 million a year. ​As recently as mid-June, clashes with a local armed group left one ranger and several Congolese Army (FARDC) soldiers dead. And outside the park, impoverished communities seethe at being told that they can’t farm within the park boundaries. 

Still, with its orphaned gorillas tussling over bottles of gruel provided by caretakers and tourists sipping coffee on the deck of the luxury lodge, Virunga National Park seems like an oasis amid the chaos and insecurity of eastern Congo. But it’s more accurate to call it an experiment – an experiment in what can be achieved if civil servants are paid properly and punished for corruption, and local communities are given a boost out of the cycle of poverty.

“It shows what is and isn’t possible, particularly what is possible,” says Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian park director who took over in 2008 and has overseen much of its current progress.

Mr. de Merode acknowledges the many challenges of his task, particularly what he says is the main issue plaguing the region: good governance. But “good governance costs a lot of money,” he notes. The Virunga Foundation, as the Congolese Wildlife Authority’s partner, provides 95 percent of the park’s annual budget of $5.5 million. It's one of tens of organizations with a hand in the park through the larger Virunga Alliance, and receives much of its funding from the European Union.

What de Merode and the foundation, which has a 25-year agreement to jointly manage the park with the wildlife authority, are learning is that Virunga National Park, as part of a complicated ecosystem here in eastern Congo, can’t completely shield itself from the failures of the state – including violence and disarray.

“The image of Virunga as an oasis is really strong," says Esther Marijnen, a PhD candidate at the Free University of Brussels who is researching the park’s role in the region. "They’re the real heroes of Congo."

But she questions the success of the approach, which she argues is turning Virunga into “a state within a state.” "Is it really an oasis if there are so many armed groups in the park?”
Bloat and corruption

When de Merode took over in 2004, the Congolese Wildlife Authority (known by its French acronym, ICCN) was bloated with inept, corrupt rangers and officials. Rangers hadn’t been paid in years and were allowing poachers and smugglers free rein for a cut of the profit. Working alongside them were Congolese soldiers, accused of complicity in everything from wildlife trafficking to gold smuggling.

To save Virunga, particularly its mountain gorillas – whose hands used to turn up in stores as exotic ashtrays – de Merode needed to overhaul the ranks of both the rangers and soldiers. De Merode purged the rangers’ ranks, pushing aging rangers into early retirement and booting out those with links to armed groups and smuggling rings. Six were sent to prison for poaching and trafficking.

He also limited hires to those between 18 and 24, assuming that would weed out former soldiers or militia fighters.

​Over the course of about a year, the number of rangers plummeted, from about 1,000 to 230. In 2010, he also cut the number of FARDC operating in the park from 4,000 to 200. Then he hiked salaries from the country average of $25 per month to an unmatched $200, with all but $35 of that coming from the foundation, and created a three-month reserve so they could still be paid on months the government failed to pay its portion.

Results are apparent: Since 2007, only one gorilla has been killed. The “extreme protection regime,” as he calls it, is working.

Armed clashes

Despite the changes, the joint battalions can’t stop armed groups’ pillaging of natural resources, which is chipping away at their habitat – a slower path toward destruction.

Armed groups are key players across all of eastern Congo. They finance themselves with so-called 3T minerals (tungsten, tin, and tantalum, crucial components for electronics devices) and gold, plus charcoal and fish, pitting them against park authorities constantly. Mburanumwe says there are about two clashes a week between armed groups and the park's hybrid ranger-soldier patrols.

“It’s not because [the rangers] are protecting gorillas, it’s because they’re on the front line of what’s causing conflict,” de Merode says, referring to resources.​ “It’s enough to fund an army, it’s enough to fund a war.” ​

But the rangers' mandate doesn’t allow them to engage with armed groups, leaving them heavily dependent on the FARDC. The mid-June patrol of about 80 rangers, in which one ranger was killed, was up against more than 300 rebels, says Faustin, a ranger on that patrol who wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

They regained control of the area, but only after receiving reinforcements. “It’s normal, it’s part of the job,” he says. “It is risky work in the park.”

And under this much duress, the rangers bend. They’ve been accused of using excessive force when dealing with locals who try to farm and hunt illegally in the park. Others give in to armed groups’ demands for help in illegal activities, either out of fear of being killed or the allure of more money in their pocket.

Virunga is also up against the allure of oil riches. While, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is not open to oil exploration, the international oil company SOCO was given an exploration license by the Congolese government in 2007. Disputes have stalled the process, but this spring the government said it would try to negotiate a compromise, likely the declassification of a section of the park, to allow SOCO to explore further.

A better path for locals

A key path to stopping the plundering of the park is by giving locals, who are just as likely as armed groups to engage in illegal pillaging, a better economic option.  From the outside looking in, it can be difficult for locals to come to terms with the park boundaries. The park's 3,000-sq. mi. footprint limits where they can farm and hunt, undermining their ability to feed their families. This affects the four million people who live within a day’s walk from the park, according to de Merode.

“There is no other park in Africa with that level of demographic pressure,” he says.

Authorities "are trying to conserve Virunga by thinking that with strong protection you can keep people out of the boundaries,” says Deo Kujirakwinja, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s landscape manager for eastern Congo.

But driven by economic desperation – the DRC is second to last on the UN's Human Development Index, and eastern Congo, after decades of war and neglect, lags behind much of the country – many locals sneak in for hunting and foraging. Some set up communities within the boundaries and then pay armed groups to shield them from authorities. They also join the illegal charcoal and fishing trades. The fist-sized black bricks of charcoal and dried fish are sold on street corners across Goma and all along the road connecting the city to the park.

“It’s a major part of the economy and it’s one of the primary driving forces both behind the armed groups and weakness of government institutions,” de Merode says.

“What brings the people inside the forest to destroy is that they are very poor,” says Mburanumwe, the warden. “They can’t like us, we are stopping them from doing illegal activity. When we interrupt them, they are very aggressive.”

Building schools

To try to address the problem, the Virunga Foundation has taken on tasks typically reserved for the state, like building schools. It also has an ambitious $22 million hydropower project, backed by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, that will make the park the second largest electricity producer in North Kivu Province by December. The plan includes the construction of a number of factories that would transform local resources on site – drying fish in large quantities, making soap from local palm oil crops – and the provision of cheap electricity to local small businesses. The foundation estimates it could create 1,200 local jobs within the next three years.

But communities are impatient. Virunga is well aware of that, but it’s staying the course. The idea is to bring the local population around by making the park a driver of growth for the whole region. Still, that takes time – and along the route to the park, the frustration is palpable.

“We are waiting without patience,” says one man in Rumangabo, a village just outside the southern sector headquarters that has a Virunga-built school. “The ICCN project has failed,” says another.

“They don’t value humans!” argues someone in Kibumba, a village separated from the park by a dirt road. Of the two dozen or so who piped up in the two villages, only one man, in Rumangabo, comes to Virunga’s defense. When he reminds everyone that the electricity will be coming soon, he is laughed at and shouted down. A neighbor shouts out: “We want to push this park further into the forest.”


How mountain gorillas helped three countries find common ground

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo – During Idi Amin’s eight-year reign of terror in Uganda in the 1970s, elephants migrated to Virunga National Park  amid the country's conflict and disastrous land policies. In 1994, the 100-day Rwandan genocide also sent its wildlife scurrying.

Then came Congo’s waves of war beginning in the mid-1990s, which reversed the animals’ flight and pushed many of Congo’s animals across borders as well.

Despite crossing national boundaries, they remained this whole time within the Virunga ecosystem, which stretches into three countries and encompasses seven parks, including the well-known Virunga National Park.

“We have this connected forest. The animals inside don’t recognize those boundaries,” says Deo Kujirakwinja, a landscape manager with the Wildlife Conservation Society in eastern Congo.

The countries of Africa’s Great Lakes region are deeply intertwined. Leaders have backed rebellions against each other, ethnic groups span borders, and rebel groups find safe havens among the hostile neighbors. After decades of war within the region, governments are highly suspicious of each other.

Amid this, conservation efforts have struggled to gain traction. Animal populations have declined and forests shrunk. And in the mid-2000s, conservationists realized that country-by-country efforts were falling short. But how would they get the three hostile neighbors to work together?

The answer lay in mountain gorillas.

The Virunga ecosystem is home to the largest gorilla population in the world. Gorilla tourism rakes in $292 million a year for Rwanda alone, with visitors paying hundreds of dollars for a few hours of face time with a family, and hundreds more in park fees while tracking them. Then there’s the transportation, food, and lodging that supply income to the surrounding communities. (Congo’s figures are much more erratic because of spikes in conflict.)

The region’s iconic species, with their lumbering, arm-heavy gait, childlike antics, and penetrating gaze were the perfect starting point as a way for the three countries to work together. What followed were a series of milestone agreements during the 2000s that eventually led to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Core Secretariat in 2008, the only diplomatic trilateral agreement that Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo have ever signed and upheld.

The agreement reflected a number of diplomatic maneuvers, from allowing rangers of different nationalities to informally collaborate to protect the forest, to sharing tourism revenue from gorilla families that cross borders.

“When you have three countries who were at war at certain times, you have to choose something that’s easy to agree on,” says Johannes Refisch, project manager for the Great Apes Survival rtnership(GRASP), explaining the decision to start with an agreement on the gorillas.

Mr. Refisch hopes that the growing trust within the secretariat will allow the three countries to tackle much tougher issues like charcoal smuggling, which is slowly chipping away at the gorillas’ habitat.

“The countries mistrusted each other. There was no platform to come together even in an informal way. Now the countries know each other,” he says.

All three countries have poor, rural populations dependent on charcoal for cooking – particularly Rwanda, which must import most of its charcoal from Congo. The need is so great that it is unwilling to crack down too hard on the illegal trade, Refisch says. But getting Rwanda's help at all might have been impossible before the secretariat existed.

And if the agreement really takes root, Kujirakwinja says, Rwanda and Uganda’s much-stronger rule of law might help impose more order in Congo.

But Virunga National Park’s management is skeptical that Rwanda and Uganda can help its uphill battle, and there's some concern that trying to use this agreement to tackle thornier issues could end up weakening the agreement overall.

“Most of the problems relate to us,” says Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian director of the park. “We have to solve our own problems before doing anything too big.”

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« Reply #4079 on: Oct 24, 2017, 04:24 AM »

Why are mountain gorillas losing their genetic diversity?

After completing a genetic map of the subspecies, scientists say inbreeding has led to a substantial loss of diversity among mountain gorillas.

By Will Dunham,

Washington — The most extensive genetic analysis of mountain gorillas ever conducted has found the critically endangered apes burdened with severe inbreeding and at risk of extinction but the researchers still see reasons for optimism about their survival.

Twenty-three scientists from six countries unveiled on Thursday the first complete genetic map of the mountain gorilla, a close genetic cousin to humans inhabiting two isolated areas in central Africa.

"We found extremely high levels of inbreeding," said geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith of Britain's Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

The study in the journal Science revealed a substantial loss of genetic diversity from inbreeding caused by mating with close relatives due to small population size, with mountain gorillas inheriting identical segments from both parents in about a third of their genome.

Inbreeding can increase threats from disease and environmental change by reducing the genetic ability to adapt and cause a larger hardship of harmful mutations.

"Mountain gorillas are critically endangered and at risk of extinction, and our study reveals that as well as suffering a dramatic collapse in numbers during the last century, they had already experienced a long decline going back many thousands of years," University of Cambridge geneticist Aylwyn Scally said.

The researchers were surprised that many of the most harmful mutations, those that can stop genes from working and cause serious health conditions, were less common than in other gorilla subspecies.

"We have shown that although low in genetic diversity they have not yet crossed any genetic threshold of no return. They can continue to survive and will return to larger numbers if we help them," Scally said.
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There are only about 880 mountain gorillas, living in mist-covered forests of the Virunga volcanic mountain range on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The study was based on blood samples from seven Virunga gorillas.

Two gorilla species exist, eastern gorillas and western gorillas. Mountain gorillas, with thicker and longer fur than other gorillas, are one of two subspecies of eastern gorillas.

"While comparable levels of inbreeding contributed to the extinction of our relatives the Neanderthals, mountain gorillas may be more resilient," Copenhagen Zoo geneticist Christina Hvilsom said.

The researchers said the main threats to these gorillas are from humans: habitat loss, hunting and diseases transmitted from people. Tyler-Smith said, "We just need to continue to conserve them: their future lies in our hands."

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