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« Reply #315 on: May 06, 2014, 05:40 AM »

Wildlife and conservation given a home in France's first private nature reserve

Le Grand Barry has been acquired and opened by enthusiasts concerned for biodiversity in publicly run protected areas

Audrey Garric   
Guardian Weekly, Monday 5 May 2014 14.05 BST    

Majestic, densely wooded limestone cliffs rise into the sky for as far as one can see. At their foot a stream runs past dry-stone buildings belonging to the village of Véronne, Drôme. Last month the Association for the Protection of Wild Animals (Aspas) opened Le Grand Barry, France's first private wildlife reserve, just south-west of the Vercors massif, in the foothills of the Alps. It aims to let nature run wild, without any human intervention, taking over from purportedly "ineffective" public running of protected areas.

"Natural parks and reserves no longer protect biodiversity as before, frequently allowing hunting and logging, but we have developed a new approach to provide lasting protection for wilderness," says Pierre Athanaze, the head of Aspas. "Since 2010 we have been buying land with the aim of letting it evolve freely."

The organisation has refused public subsidies, relying exclusively on private funding to support its acquisitions. Thanks to fees from its 11,000 members, donations, legacies and a helping hand from the Fondation pour une Terre Humaine, Aspas raised the €150,000 ($202,000) needed to buy the 110-hectare Grand Barry site from various private individuals. Thanks to similar operations in Côtes d'Armor, Brittany, and Haute Loire, Auvergne, the NGO now owns 300 hectares of wilderness. As yet only the Vercors site has been classified as a wildlife reserve. In February Aspas joined Rewilding Europe, a network connecting 27 reserves that aims to cover 1m hectares by 2020.

Exacting standards are set for these islands of wilderness, such as banning hunting and fishing, logging and farming, stock-raising, motor vehicles, fires, waste disposal, unleashed dogs and even harvesting of wild foods. Visitors are simply allowed to walk along the paths. Half a dozen voluntary wardens will soon be trained to enforce the rules in the parts open to the public.

"Hunting has been forbidden here for almost two years and we are already seeing more large ungulates [deer, wild boar and the like]," say Roger Mathieu and Françoise Savasta, both part of Aspas in Drôme. We did not see any of the many chamois, roe or red deer that have settled in the reserve. But the frequent tracks and droppings, and the camera-traps mounted on trees, are evidence of their presence.

"Biodiversity is exceptional here and we are making an inventory of the wildlife," Mathieu explains, watching with his binoculars golden and short-toed eagles, sparrowhawks and vultures as they soar overhead. At our feet are liverwort, meadow saffron and vetch alongside young oak trees and Scotch pines. "No one in France would think of buying land to do nothing with it, apart from watching nature evolve," says Savasta, a keen botanist.

France started protecting areas of scientific interest in the early 1960s, gradually creating about 20 statutory bodies, such as national parks (now numbering 10), regional parks (48), various categories of nature reserve, Nature 2000 sites and biotope orders.

Nevertheless, only 1% of mainland France enjoys "strong protection", a figure that is supposed to double by 2019 following a commitment by the Grenelle environment forum. "There are loopholes in our protective measures compared with our European neighbours," says Daniel Vallauri, head of biodiversity and woodland at World Wildlife Fund France.

"Humans have shaped the landscape here, through farming, forestry and urban development. All over the place allowance must be made for private landowners and ancient customs."

The 2006 law reforming the status of national parks led to increased human interference. By opening the membership of governing boards to local policymakers and renegotiating the charter for each park with adjoining areas, it put them under greater pressure from business and tourism. "The aim was to reconcile the need for protection with economic growth, to make parks more acceptable to policymakers and the general public," says Alby Schmitt, deputy-head of water and biodiversity at the environment ministry.

"The law set lower standards for the protection of the core area of parks, the bits which should be sanctuaries," says Anthony Turpaud, in charge of the protected species section of the Syndicat National de l'Environnement and a technician in the Mercantour park, in the southern French Alps. "We have less time to spend on the core areas, because we have other missions promoting local development in peripheral areas," he adds. "Above all, lobbying by various interest groups has become more intense."

As a result, hunting is now allowed in the Calanques national park, near Marseilles, and in more than two-thirds of all nature reserves. The Cévennes national park has applied to set up a zone excluding wolves, to protect sheep grazing there. But at Grand Barry wild animals have the last word.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incoporates material from Le Monde

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« Reply #316 on: May 06, 2014, 06:15 AM »

Scientists help Charles Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands combat deadly maggots

By Reuters
Monday, May 5, 2014 15:29 EDT

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Which nest is best to eliminate a blood-sucking pest? Scientists seeking to help endangered Galapagos Islands birds survive a deadly parasitic threat put that question to the test.

Researchers on Monday described a new method to assist Darwin’s finches in combating the larvae of parasitic flies responsible for killing numerous nestlings of the famous birds that helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

They placed cotton balls treated with a mild pesticide near where the birds were building their nests. The birds picked up bits of the cotton with their beaks and incorporated it into their nests, killing the fly maggots while causing no harm to the birds or their offspring, the researchers said.

The pesticide was permethrin, used to treat head lice in people. It also kills flies of the species Philornis downsi that was apparently unwittingly introduced by people to the Galapagos Islands and has been blamed for population declines among Darwin’s finches, including two endangered species.

“This parasite is not historically found in the Galapagos Islands and, therefore, Darwin’s finches have not had enough time to evolve defenses against the parasites,” said University of Utah biology professor Dale Clayton, one of the researchers.

“In some years, 100 percent of nestlings die as a direct result of the parasites. It is critical to find a way to control the parasites in order to help the birds,” Clayton said.

The flies probably came aboard ships or planes arriving at the Galapagos and were first noticed as a problem in 1997. The flies lay eggs in bird’s nests. When they hatch, the parasitic larvae feed on the blood of nestlings and their mothers.

Finding a method to control the flies has become a top priority for scientists studying the Galapagos birds.

“There are currently no methods to effectively combat the parasite,” said University of Utah biology doctoral student Sarah Knutie, another of the researchers.


A casual observation at a research facility in the Galapagos led to the idea of helping the birds help themselves.

“In 2010, I was sitting on my porch at the Charles Darwin Research Station and noticed Darwin’s finches continuously landing on our laundry line. The birds were pulling frayed cotton fibers from the line and presumably taking them back to incorporate into their nests,” Knutie said.

“Since we know that permethrin is effective at killing the parasite, I wondered if Darwin’s finches could be encouraged to take cotton balls treated with permethrin back to their nests to kill the parasite,” Knutie added.

In experiments on the Galapagos’ Santa Cruz Island, the researchers placed wire-mesh dispensers for cotton near where finches were building nests. They found that all four species of finches that nest there readily used the material in nests and were just as apt to use treated cotton as untreated cotton.

When the birds used treated cotton in their nests, this “self-fumigation” technique eradicated at least half the maggots, the researchers found. In nests that contained at least a gram of treated cotton, all but one nest was parasite-free.

The nest that was the lone exception had four maggots compared to an average of 30 in nests with no treated cotton.

Darwin’s finches, named for the British naturalist, are 14 species of birds that live on the Galapagos Islands, made up of 19 Pacific islands located about 600 miles (1,000 km) west of Ecuador. Darwin, who visited the islands in the 1830s, was struck by the diversity of the finches including such traits as beaks that varied depending on their local food source.

Darwin felt this suggested that the birds adapted to their environments, leading to the notion that species are not unchanging but instead evolve over time.

Knutie said the findings have important implications for helping critically endangered species of Darwin’s finches including the mangrove finch and medium tree finch. She noted that the mangrove finch has fewer than 80 individuals left, making it one of the world’s most endangered bird species.

The same method could be used elsewhere to help birds and perhaps even prairie dogs affected by parasites, Knutie said.

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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« Reply #317 on: May 07, 2014, 05:08 AM »

France launches action plan to save endangered hamster

€3m plan to increase numbers of the Great Hamster of Alsace, which has suffered from farmers changing crops

The Guardian, Tuesday 6 May 2014 12.53 BST   

Authorities in the French region of Alsace have launched an action plan to save a hamster facing extinction, more than two years after Europe's top court rapped Paris for neglecting the little rodent.

The five-year project will see farmers in the eastern region implement measures to try to encourage the reproduction of the Great Hamster of Alsace, which can grow to 25cm (10in) long, has a brown and white face, a black belly, white paws and little round ears.

It aims to raise the population of the creature, which is currently 500-1,000, to around 1,500.

As part of the three-million-euro ($4.2 million) project announced on Monday by Alsace's regional council, farmers have pledged to grow plants or grains that the rodent likes - such as wheat or alfalfa - on parts of their fields.

An action plan for the hamster had been put in place in 2007, but the European Court of Justice ruled in 2011 that France was still not doing enough to protect the furball, which hibernates for six months and spends the vast majority of its life alone.

The hamster has been protected legally since 1993 but its numbers fell from 1,167 in 2001 to as few as 161 in 2007, although they have since gone up slightly.

The preferred grazing of the creature – forage crops such as alfalfa – have largely been replaced by the more profitable maize, which it does not like.

Farmers will therefore try planting a mix of maize and alfalfa, or leaving strips of plants in between each line of maize.

"The aim is to find innovative... practices to preserve the animal without harming farmers' activities," the regional council said in a statement.

Rampant urbanisation has also contributed to eroding the rodent's population, and the hamster currently lives in just 14 zones in Alsace criss-crossed by busy thoroughfares.

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« Reply #318 on: May 07, 2014, 05:12 AM »

Nightingale has best birdsong because of its complex brain, research finds

By Jamie Doward, The Observer
Monday, May 5, 2014 22:28 EDT

Secretive bird produces more notes than other species, according to study that sheds light on human language

No wonder they celebrated it in a song. The common nightingale is top of the feathered crooners, according to research highlighted on International Dawn Chorus Day that suggests the bird’s impressive vocal range is down to the composition of its brain.

The secretive bird, immortalised in the romantic 30s song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, produces far more notes in its birdsong than other species, according to research carried out at the University of Bath and Cornell University.

The researchers studied three males from 49 different common species of songbirds from the US, Europe and South Africa, and compared the size and shape of their brains with the length and complexity of their songs. It was found that birds with larger “higher” brain areas in relation to “lower” brain areas were able to learn dozens of different notes. Higher brain areas control more cognitive and learning functions, while lower brain areas control more motor functions.

Species with larger brain areas that were capable of producing a higher repertoire of syllables included the common blackbird (108 syllables) and the Eurasian skylark (341 syllables). But their enthusiastic efforts are dwarfed by those of the common nightingale – a visitor to the UK from April to June – which has a repertoire of 1,160 syllables.

Species whose lower brain areas were larger relative to their higher brain areas, and can produce only a handful of syllables or notes in their songs, include the tree pipit, the sand martin and the yellowhammer.

The findings, first published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, are the first evidence that the capacity for learning in birds is closely related to brain structure, as opposed to overall brain size.

“This research is not only an extremely complex and interesting study of songbirds, it also gives us a unique insight into how brain development may contribute to human linguistic capabilities,” said Prof Tamas Szekely of the Biodiversity Lab at the University of Bath’s department of biology and biochemistry.

“The research gives us an example of the neural biology involved in language learning. It is possible to draw parallels between the ways in which bird brains have developed to learn complex songs and the way human brains have evolved to allow language.”

Neuroscientists have found that humans are able to speak and to set and achieve complex goals because of the prolonged development of higher brain areas, such as the cortex and the frontal cortex in particular.

These areas of the brain responsible for language are the last to mature and do not fully develop until humans are in their early 20s. In those bird species that have greater capacity for song learning, it is likely that their higher brain areas were built up over their lower brain areas as a result of sexual selection. Put simply, females prefer to mate with males that have more elaborate songs. © Guardian News and Media 2014

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« Reply #319 on: May 09, 2014, 05:48 AM »

Snow leopard rescued from coal mine in China - video

the guardian

Rescuers in north-west China have rescued a snow leopard from a coal mine's drainage tank. The animal, who was struggling in the water at the mine, was retrieved using a fishing net and rope. Snow leopards are rarely seen in human areas, with experts saying it may have climbed into the mine looking for food

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« Reply #320 on: May 09, 2014, 06:31 AM »

Study explains why polar bears are fat yet healthy

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, May 8, 2014 14:17 EDT

When it comes to healthy eating, polar bears break all the rules. They eat mostly fat, but they don’t get heart disease the way humans would.

Scientists said the Thursday in journal Cell that the reason lies in their genes.

Some speedy evolutionary tricks, particularly in the genes which handle how fats are metabolized and how fats are transported in the blood, have allowed polar bears to survive in the Arctic, scientists said.

And it all happened within the last 500,000 years, after the polar bear split from its cousin, the brown bear, according to research that compared the two animals’ genomes.

Scientists found that polar bears are much younger than previously thought, with past estimates of the divergence time between polar and brown bears ranging from 600,000 to five million years ago.

“It’s really surprising that the divergence time is so short,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a University of California Berkeley professor of integrative biology and of statistics.

“All the unique adaptations polar bears have to the Arctic environment must have evolved in a very short amount of time,” he said.

It’s unclear what drove polar bear to evolve into a separate group from brown bears, though it happened at a time that coincides with a warm interglacial period that could have encouraged brown bears to venture further north than they had in the past, researchers said.

Then, when conditions cooled again, a group of brown bears may have become isolated and forced to adapt to a snowy and cold new environment.

Polar bears eat mostly seals, which are rich in blubber, and they nurse their young with a milk that is nearly one-third fat.

About half the bears’ overall weight is made up of fat, rather than muscle and bone.

In contrast, a healthy person’s body fat percentage could range between eight and 35 percent.

“The life of a polar bear revolves around fat,” said Eline Lorenzen, a researcher at UC Berkeley and one of the lead authors on the study.

“For polar bears, profound obesity is a benign state,” added Lorenzen. “We wanted to understand how they are able to cope with that.”

Researchers compared the blood and tissue samples from 79 polar bears from Greenland to 10 brown bears from Sweden, Finland, Glacier National Park in Alaska and the Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof (ABC) Islands off the Alaskan coast.

They found one of the most strongly selected genes was APOB, which in mammals encodes the main protein in “bad” cholesterol, known as LDL (low density lipoprotein) and allows it to move from the blood into the cells.

Changes in that gene hint at how the polar bear is able to manage high blood sugar and triglycerides at a level that would be perilous in people.

Scientists on the study, who hailed from Denmark, China and the United States, said one day, the polar bear’s digestive secrets could help boost human health in an age of increasing obesity.

“The promise of comparative genomics is that we learn how other organisms deal with conditions that we also are exposed to,” said Nielsen.

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« Reply #321 on: May 11, 2014, 06:46 AM »

Ravens have social abilities previously only seen in humans

By The Conversation
Saturday, May 10, 2014 7:59 EDT

By Declan Perry, The Conversation

Humans and their primate cousins are well known for their intelligence and social abilities. You hear them called bird-brained, but birds have demonstrated a great deal of intelligence in many tasks.

However, little is known about their social skills. A new study shows that ravens are socially savvier than we give them credit for. They are able to work out the social dynamics of other raven groups, something which only humans had shown the ability to do.
Bullying in the community

Jorg Massen and his colleagues of the University of Vienna wanted to find out more about about bird’s social skills, so they studied ravens, which live in social groups. In their study, published in Nature Communications, they looked at whether ravens were intelligent enough to understand relationships in their own social groups, as well as if they could figure out social groups that they had never been a part of.

Ravens within a community squabble over their ranking in the group, as higher ranked ravens have better access to food and other resources. Males always outrank females and confrontations mostly occur between members of the same sex.

These confrontations are initiated by high-ranking ravens, who square up to low-ranking birds and emit a specific call to assert their dominance. Normally, the lower-ranking, or submissive, raven typically makes a specific call to recognise the high-ranking raven’s social superiority. Through this process, the dominant raven ensures that its social position is maintained.

But sometimes, the lower-ranking bird does not respond in a submissive way to a dominance call – this is known as dominance reversal call. These situations often result in confrontations, and can result in changes in the social structure of raven communities.

Massen and his team kept a group of captive ravens and made recordings of conflicts. These included normal conflicts (in which the lower-ranking bird responded submissively to a dominance call) and dominance reversal conflicts. The same method was also used to capture the calls from a different group ravens that were housed separately.

Individual ravens were then taken from the group and isolated in a separate enclosure. The recordings of different calls were then played, mimicking a situation in nature where a raven overhears two other ravens in a confrontation.

Massen said: “We monitored their responses to these calls to see if they reacted differently to normal dominance calls and dominance reversals. We also used the recordings taken from the foreign group, to see if our ravens recognised the same behaviour in other communities.”
Relationship stress

When presented with a dominance reversal recording taken from their own group, ravens displayed behaviour associated with stress, because they expected a disturbance in the social order. This stress is typically expressed by the raven either running around or pecking at its own feathers.

Ravens showed even higher levels of stress when they were played a dominance reversal call from members of the same sex. This makes sense, because ranking disputes only occur between members of the same sex. A confrontation between two females, for example, would not have a big effect on the social status of a male raven – but would affect any females who were listening.

Female ravens in general were more stressed than males when they were played dominance reversal recordings. This may be because females are always lower ranked than males, so changes in community structure pose more risks to females at the bottom, which have reduced access to food in the first place.

Bird-brained? Maybe not.
Csehak Szabolcs
Television watching skills

But perhaps the most impressive finding was that ravens seemed to notice dominance reversals in a foreign group of ravens, although they exhibited less stress than when they heard such calls from their own social community. To be sure that the ravens weren’t just recognising that call because it was an audibly different call, Massen played calls from a different community, which weren’t dominance reversal calls, and saw that the captive ravens were not stressed.

Massen said: “This shows that ravens are able to create a mental representation of relationship dynamics from groups they have never interacted with before, just like us when we watch television. This ability has not even been observed in monkeys yet.”

There are limitations. Alex Thornton of the University of Exeter explained: “The results in this study are no doubt exciting, but it should be recognised that captive ravens were used. Being kept in such close proximity, with only each other, may have influenced the ravens ability to judge each other’s behaviour.”

In addition to showing that ravens have social abilities that were previously only seen in humans, these findings give a clue that raven intelligence may have evolved along with the development of social communities.

“Being intelligent helps the ravens play the politics of their social group, and gain dominance. For example, understanding the rank of members of their group would help ravens know which birds to pick on, which ones to team up with and which ones to steer clear of during their quest for dominance,” Massen said.

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« Reply #322 on: May 11, 2014, 06:47 AM »

Social networking study reveals four-year ‘Game of Thrones’-like chimpanzee war

By David Ferguson
Saturday, May 10, 2014 16:08 EDT

Scientists at Duke University have applied complex social networking programs to peer into the mysteries of a vicious four-year war that took place between tribes of chimpanzees at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. The results, said New Scientist magazine, read like a tale of royal intrigue akin to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books and HBO series.

The only documented chimpanzee war began in 1971 at the park and raged for four years. In it, the park’s previously peaceful chimp population divided into two groups, viciously attacking and killing any members of the rival group that strayed into their territory.

Pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall studied the park’s apes for more than 50 years. The violence between the gangs that began in 1971 was so intense and lasted for so sustained a period that Goodall said that it could only be called a war.

A Duke university team headed by Joseph Feldblum studied Goodall’s detailed notes from the field station she established at Gombe. Goodall measured social bonding among the chimps by which animals showed up at the feeding station together, how long they stayed and how often they came.

Feldblum’s team fed data from the years 1968 to 1972 into a software program designed to map and study the chimpanzees’ social network.

The results suggested that the group’s unity began to fray when an older male chimpanzee named Leakey died at the end of 1970. Almost immediately the apes’ social structure began to unravel.

“He seems to have been a bridge between the northern and southern chimps,” said Feldblum.

The tribe divided into northern and southern factions and went to war. The Duke team said that the chimps’ social affiliations before the war were an accurate predictor of which side they took between the northern and southern tribes.

The northern tribe was led by a single male chimpanzee named Humphrey, whose rivals were a pair of brothers in the south. Over four violent years, Humphrey’s group killed all seven males of the southern group, eventually claiming the whole park as its own.

The war remains a unique event in the study of primates. Normally, chimpanzee tribes are deeply rooted in familial and genetic ties and rarely, if ever, divide. The researchers believe the study will pave the way to a greater understanding of how human societies break down and fragment.

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« Reply #323 on: May 14, 2014, 06:53 AM »

New species of yellow jellyfish spotted in North Adriatic last year has since disappeared: scientists

By Lizzy Davies, The Guardian
Tuesday, May 13, 2014 7:35 EDT

Scientists in Italy say they have discovered a new species of jellyfish in the Gulf of Venice.

Sightings of yellow jellyfish in the North Adriatic Sea were reported to a citizen science project last year, said Ferdinando Boero, a zoologist.

“People were saying, this jellyfish is not in your poster [of the region's known jellyfish], we don’t know what it is,” said Boero, from the University of Salento. “They were in their thousands. Fishermen had them in their nets. They couldn’t fish easily because there were so many jellyfish.”

Scientists including Boero set about trawling records of known jellyfish species to try to identify it, but found no match. “It’s a new species,” said Boero. The team decided on the name Pelagia benovici, after a late colleague, Adam Benovic.

They found that it bore similarities to Pelagia noctiluca, a mauve jellyfish known for its venomous stings, which wiped out a 100,000-strong salmon farm in Northern Ireland in 2007.

Could this new species pose the same kind of threat? “We really don’t know because there have not been so many investigations besides what it is. What it does is a completely different story,” said Boero. “There have to be more investigations about it.”

Quite how Pelagia benovici got to the North Adriatic and within the Venice lagoon remains a mystery. Scientists think it was probably introduced to the area in the ballast water of ships. In the 1980s, Mnemiopsis leidyi, a kind of comb jellyfish known as the sea walnut, was suspected to have been introduced into the Black Sea via the ballast water of merchant ships. Its arrival caused a dramatic decline in the local fish populations.

The jellyfish-spotting project is no longer receiving reports of Pelagia benovici, whose sudden appearance appears to have lasted until March. “But jellyfish have this erratic distribution. They are present in their millions, then they disappear and then they come back,” said Boero. © Guardian News and Media 2014

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« Reply #324 on: May 15, 2014, 06:04 AM »

Is this the most heroic cat of all time?

Footage of a 'hero' cat saving toddler from dog has been watched more than four million times on YouTube

Elena Cresci, Thursday 15 May 2014 11.41 BST   
A cat has been hailed as a hero after saving a four-year-old boy from a dog attack in California.

Surveillance footage posted on YouTube shows the moment the fearless moggy comes to the toddler's rescue after a neighbour's dog attacked him in their driveway in Southwest Bakersfield.

The attack on four-year-old Jeremy Triantafilo was captured on video by the family's surveillance cameras and posted on YouTube on Wednesday by his father Roger. In it, the toddler is shown playing on his tricycle in the family driveway, when the dog runs at him and grabs his leg with his teeth.

Within seconds, the tabby cat, named Tara, bolts to his owner's rescue and chases the dog away. Jeremy's mother Erica, who was also bitten, is seen chasing the dog away.

In an interview with 23 ABC News, she said: "He was just playing outside and I was watering the plants. Next thing I know the dog was just there and it was shaking him.

"Before I could even get there, my cat clobbered him. She saved the day, chased him away and then came back to him after the dog was gone.

"It was truly amazing, she's my hero."

By Thursday, the video had amassed more than four million views and has been featured on news websites worldwide.

Following the attack, Jeremy was taken to hospital where he had 10-stitches to his leg. According to reports, neighbours voluntarily quarantined their dog after the attack. Police in California said the dog would be quarantined for 10 days and then put down.

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« Reply #325 on: May 19, 2014, 05:01 AM »

Warm weather boosts hopes for rarest bumblebee's revival in Britain

Reintroduction of short-haired bumblebee queens from Sweden to wildflower meadows of Kent expected to restore population

Press Association, Monday 19 May 2014 10.44 BST   

Warm spring conditions should help Britain's rarest bumblebee as wildlife experts reintroduce a new batch of queens to help boost the species.

The short-haired bumblebee vanished from the UK in 1988, having suffered declines over the previous 60 years as its habitat was lost, and was officially declared extinct in 2000.

A scheme to reintroduce the species has seen experts collecting short-haired bumblebee queens from Sweden, where they are found in good numbers, and releasing them at the RSPB's reserve at Dungeness, Kent.

The first generation of queens collected and released in 2012 struggled in the cold, wet conditions that summer.
Worker short-haired bumblebees were spotted at the site following last year's release, but no queens have yet been recorded, although the team behind the project hope this year they will start to see signs of a self-sustaining population.

Nikki Gammans, project officer, said: "The signs are good – there are lots of wild flowers coming into bloom thanks to the work of the local farming community and gardeners.

"We have already spotted other very rare species in the area including the ruderal bumblebee and the red-shanked carder bee.

"With short-haired bumblebee workers being spotted last year and a new batch ready to go out, there are high hopes for the future of the species.

"We managed to collect all the queens in just two-and-a-half days in Sweden and the warm spring has brought the release date forward by two weeks.

"A lot of people are following the fortunes of the bumblebees now both in Kent and further afield in the UK and in Sweden, and it's fantastic talking to so many people who care so much about our threatened bumblebees."

The conservation project to bring back the bee has involved work with farmers to create flower-rich meadows and field margins in Dungeness and Romney Marsh, which have boosted populations of other threatened bumblebees.

Of 25 native bumblebee species, seven are in decline and two have become extinct, including the short-haired bumblebee, but the reintroduction project offers hope for bumblebees across the UK, wildlife groups said.

The scheme is a collaboration between Natural England, the RSPB, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, with Royal Holloway, University of London screening the imported queens for disease before they are released.

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« Reply #326 on: May 19, 2014, 05:43 AM »

Living alongside leopards in Mumbai

A conservation charity is helping residents to learn to live with the leopards rather than relocating them

Patrick Keddie in Mumbai, Monday 19 May 2014 05.00 BST   

A curious night-time incident between a dog and a leopard was captured on CCTV in the Mumbai suburb of Goregaon earlier this year. Footage was released on Youtube and Indian newspapers printed grainy snapshots of a dog chasing a leopard out of a housing complex.

The dog, a stray, soon became a hero among the building’s residents.

“We have three stray dogs in the building and residents often feed them. It was shocking to see this one giving a chase to a leopard. We hope none of them falls a prey to the leopard,” one was quoted as saying.

As the population of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital and largest city, continues to expand rapidly, its suburbs are straining against the boundaries of the Sanjay Gandhi national park, which is thought to be home to India’s highest concentration of leopards.

It is now estimated that over a million people are living around the borders of the SGNP. Population pressure makes encounters between leopards and humans inevitable.

Statistics provided by the forestry department show that there were no fatalities or injuries from leopard attacks in the Mumbai suburbs from 2009-11. Yet, since November 2011 there have been six fatalities; the last three deaths were all reported in Aarey Milk Colony, to the south of the SGNP. The most recent attack was in October 2013.

People living in informal housing, or slums, may be more at risk from leopard attacks. Dogs, pigs and goats rummaging through open garbage dumps are easy prey which can attract leopards.

There are rarely sanitation services in informal areas and many people have been attacked when crouching and defecating at the edges of settlements. People in slums who sleep outside to escape the sweltering heat of their shacks may be more vulnerable to attack. Unaccompanied children are most at risk as a leopard is unlikely to attack an upright adult.

However, researchers claim that the dangers can be mitigated. Mumbaikars for SGNP was set up to engage local people, raising awareness about leopard behaviour, conservation and how to take precautions. Much of the project's work also involves trying to convince people against having the leopards trapped and relocated.

The practice may inadvertently increase attacks on humans. In 2003, many leopards found in the expanding sugarcane plantations far to the north in Maharashtra were trapped and relocated – some injured during the trapping and then subjected to the stress of being caged and exposed to close contact with humans – to the SGNP.

Released into unfamiliar areas, traumatised leopards did not have to go far to enter the city and researchers now believe that this practice may have contributed to the spate of fatal leopard attacks in the Mumbai suburbs in 2003-04.

When leopards attacked people around the SGNP, the standard response again tended to be to trap them and release them elsewhere. But leopards are highly territorial and dominate their area, knowing it intimately and understanding how to avoid people. When an animal is removed, it opens up space for greater numbers of less dominant leopards to move into areas they are not familiar with.

“That is a recipe for conflict,” according to Sunetro Ghosal, a researcher working with Mumbaikars for SGNP, “because now you have animals who don’t know how to deal with you.”

Local politician Ravindra Waikar recently filed a public interest litigation, hoping to force the state government “to protect the lives of tribals [sic] in Aarey Colony by completely removing the leopards and wild animals from the area of Aarey Colony and shifting them elsewhere.”

“This is not a solution at all,” argues Vikas Gupta, director of the SGNP. "This is the habitat for the leopard. We are encroaching as humans. So let us try to find a solution by taking proper precautions at our end, rather than trying to say that we will throw them out somewhere else.”

Vidya Athreya, a biologist specialising in the study of leopards, says that more research is required to fully understand the reasons behind the more recent spate of attacks. But she says that she strongly believes “it could be either injured animals or released animals that are likely to be attacking people.”
A leopard attacks a forest guard at Prakash Nagar village near Salugara on the outskirts of Siliguri on July 19, 2011. Six people were mauled by the leopard after the feline strayed into the village area before it was caught by forestry department officials. Forest officials made several attempt to tranquilised the full grown leopard that was wandering through a part of the densely populated city when curious crowds startled the animal, a wildlife official said. A leopard attacks a forest guard at Prakash Nagar village near Salugara on the outskirts of Siliguri, West Bengal. The leopard mauled six people on 19 July 2011 before it was captured.

The rising prevalence of CCTV in suburban areas has sometimes contributed to fears about leopards in the past, increasing public pressure to trap the animals. Yet, CCTV footage has also provided the impetus for dialogue, as in the recent incident where CCTV shots showed a dog chasing a leopard out of a housing complex in Goregaon. The residents approached Mumbaikars for SGNP for advice, saying that they were not blaming the leopard but that they wanted to know how take precautions.

The approaching monsoon season will swell the spindly foliage of the park and the suburbs into lush, thick jungle; providing greater cover for the leopards to prowl. But Mumbaikars hope that greater awareness will help them be better equipped to live alongside leopards.

“Physical separation is a luxury, there has to be a mixing up of people and wildlife,” says Ghosal. “Conflict is just one expression [of the variety of relationships between humans and leopards], and also this can be momentary and can change.”

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« Reply #327 on: May 20, 2014, 05:30 AM »

South Africa elephant park accused of 'horrific' cruelty

Cruelty charges laid with police against Elephants of Eden park after video of animals' spirit being broken by abuse

AFP, Tuesday 20 May 2014 10.06 BST   

A South African animal rights group on Tuesday accused an elephant park of cruelty after "horrific" video footage emerged of abusive training methods used on baby elephants.

"The footage shows elephant calves and juvenile elephants being chained, roped and stretched, shocked with electric cattle prods and hit with bull hooks," the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said.

This was done to break the animals' spirit so that they would obey humans, it said in a statement.

"The elephants show signs of crippling injuries with severely swollen legs and feet, debilitating abscesses and wounds," National Council of SPCAs inspector Wendy Willson said.

The video was taken on the premises of Elephants of Eden in the Eastern Cape where they were being trained for elephant-back safaris, she said.

"The calculated and premeditated cruelty of this nature that took place at this facility is a far cry from the loving sanctuary image that Elephants of Eden/Knysna Elephant Park like to portray," Willson said.

The SPCA said it laid cruelty charges with the police against Elephants of Eden, the Knysna Elephant Park, their directors and management.

If the case is brought to court and the directors and managers are convicted, they could face sentences of up to three years in jail on each charge and lose all their elephants, Willson told AFP.

"In simple terms; due to the size, intelligence and nature of elephants, training most often takes place through domination, and the breaking of the elephant's spirit," she said in the statement.

"In order to dominate or force one's will onto an animal such as the elephant, force needs to be applied and thus is a recipe for abuse.

"The captive elephant interaction industry is a form of tourism driven by greed and without any conservation benefit," she said.

A growing number of people in South Africa and around the world had been injured or killed as a result of the rebellion of trained elephants kept in captivity, the statement said.

"Elephants of Eden and the Knysna Elephant Park are no exceptions - at these facilities two elephant handlers have been killed and others have been seriously injured."

The SPCA was initially denied access to the park for an inspection and had to call for assistance from the police, the SPCA said.

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« Reply #328 on: May 22, 2014, 05:29 AM »

Return of the European bison

Europe's largest beast is to roam the forests of Romania after 200 years. Adam Vaughan witnesses the buzz as a herd of 17 is released in the Carpathian mountains

Adam Vaughan in Armenis, Romania
Wednesday 21 May 2014 07.10 BST

The crowd surges forward against the barrier, cameraphones are held aloft, children are hoisted on to shoulders. The celebrities, the first European bison about to set their hooves in this remote Romanian valley in the southern Carpathian mountains for two centuries, wait in the shadows of a huge trailer.

The forest, already home to bears and packs of wolves, is the final destination for 17 of Europe's largest land mammal, some of whom have been travelling hitched to lorries for five days from as far as Sweden. It will be their first time out of captivity.

A herd of bison are gathered from across Europe for release into the wild in Romania. The animals were shot with a tranquiliser gun to immobilise them, then loaded onto a truck to drive to Romania. In all 17 bison were collected from wildlife parks and breeding centres across Europe. Video: Kristjan Jung

The release of the animals into the wild is one of the biggest in Europe since reintroductions began in the 1950s, establishing wild populations in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Kryygzstan. More will be reintroduced each year, with an aim of having 500 in the mountains eventually.

Bison bonasus was driven to extinction in the wild across Europe in 1927 after decades of decline from hunting and habitat loss. But it has become that rare endangered species: a conservation success story.
bison box out

There are now thousands in the wild, all descended from the 54 individuals in captivity when the last wild one was killed in Poland's Bialowieza forest.

Despite the increase in numbers, the European bison is still rarer than other high profile species, such as the black rhino, even with the reintroductions. There are over 5,000 European bison, with about 3,200 in the wild.

Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based charity behind the release last weekend, Rewilding Europe, said: “It has a big symbolic value, bringing back animals. I’ve done that a lot in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, but in Europe it is very rare. Releasing animals, giving them space, is a sign of hope, it shows that if we choose, we can help wildlife come back.”

The hulking, hairy beasts, some standing nearly two metres tall and and weighing as much as 1,000kg, have not been seen in this part of Romania for generations. “But it has never quite disappeared from our minds and souls,” says Adrian Hagatis, project manager at WWF Romania.

One of the founding legends of Moldovia, in Romania’s east, centres around a Romanian nobleman, Dragoș, killing a bison, an act which some say was once a prerequisite for joining the country’s army. The herbivore is a symbol of national pride, and several nearby places still carry bison-related names.

But for Romania, the second poorest country in the EU after Bulgaria, bringing back bison is not just of cultural importance, it is also an economic imperative.

Anne Juganaru, secretary of state for the environment and climate change, says the country’s challenge will be balancing protecting large tracts of untouched wildnerness – a rarity in Europe, and seen as a potential source of future tourism income – with the need to develop.

“It’s wonderful that we have this treasure of nature. But we have a dilemma: we have to maintain the balance between developing the economy and looking after protected areas. It’s not so easy to have this balance.”

That dilemma was laid bare last year, during protests of thousand of people across Romania at plans to build Europe’s largest gold mine in nearby Rosia Montana town. Critics said the mine would destroy four mountain tops and cyanide used in the mining process could leach into water sources. The parliament was forced to shelve a law paving the way for the mine.

And in the region where the bison were released, jobs beyond farming are still in great demand.

“Local people were reserved at the beginning [about the bison plan], they didn’t believe this could happen,” said Petru Vela, the mayor of Armenis, the nearest village several miles along a bumpy, unpaved road usually reserved for the forestry officials who care for this virtually untouched part of the Carpathian range, the Tarcu mountains. “But as the project went on, they started to believe in it and now they are excited about the jobs.” Two local men have been trained and employed as rangers to monitor poaching, and a visitor centre is planned.

The European bison's initial range covers 15 hectares, but by September the animals would be able to roam freely over a 160-hectare area.

"It’s a source of pride for us, the bison," says Nicolae Vetres, a construction worker from Armenis, who normally fishes for trout in the surrounding countryside. A trio of teenage boys say they are here as an alternative to their usual Saturdays of Facebook and football. One boasts he has seen bison before, recalling a visit to a managed reserve in Hateg, 40 miles away, where one of today's cows, Romanitsa, is coming from.

As the time nears for the release, the crowds build up, among them officials from local and central government, conservationists from across Europe, local priest and other villagers. Numbers swell to 250, and the place starts to resemble a small festival.

But then the first bison lorry gets stuck on the muddy track. Having travelled thousands of miles, in some cases from zoos in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Belgium, it appears they might not be able to make the final 30 metres to the finish line.

The bison is just one of several species including wolves, lynx, beavers and eagles that are making a comeback across Europe due to conservation efforts, according to a report by the Zoological Society of London last year.

Rewilding Europe, and other ecologists say the trend of farmers abandoning relatively unproductive land in Europe, and recession, has also made space for many species to return to the wild. However, a Romanian forestry expert said the "trend was already a history in Romania” as international investors buy up land.

In the Tarcu mountains, the bison will influence both people and the landscape. They are known as a ‘keystone’ or ‘umbrella’ species, capable of altering whole ecosystems through a series of knock-on effects. The wolf is another such keystone species, whose reintroduction in Yellowstone park in the US in 1995 deterred deer in some areas, helped vegetation recover and trees grow higher, stabilise soil erosion, ultimately changing rivers.

As grazers eating a huge amount of grass and herbs each day, the bison will create open spaces, meadows and glades, in the forests, which in turn will bring insects and birds. They will spread seed in their dung and their hooves will break up the soil, allowing vegetation to grow. Griffon vultures may one day be reintroduced here as the area changes, conservationists hope.

Back at the release site, a huge forestry vehicle helps to overcome the mud. The bison are now on the brink of freedom.

The Orthodox priest sings an Easter prayer, blessing the animals as he flicks holy water from a sprig of basil. A local boy and girl, dressed in traditional dress of a feather-filled hat, black waistcoat and a lacey white shirt, cut a ribbon in Romania flag colours of yellow, blue and red, the boy then rushes to grab his digital camera, chewing gum all the while.

The bison, skittish and nervous despite their huge size, walk off the lorries and up the path to their 15 hectare (150 acres) site (in September their range will expand to 160 hectare). Two of them lock their short horns and tussle – a good sign, the conservationists say, as it shows the animals are healthy enough to fight.

The final cow, apparently reluctant to leave her transport, finally comes out with surprising speed. She stops, nibbles the grassy verge, turns, and trots off through the trees.

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« Reply #329 on: May 22, 2014, 05:33 AM »

Top 10 newly discovered species include gecko, bear-cat amalgam, Tinkerbell firefly

By Reuters
Thursday, May 22, 2014 6:25 EDT

A cross between a sleek cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear that lives in Andean cloud forests and an eyeless snail that lives in darkness 900-plus meters (3,000 feet) below ground in Croatia rank among the top 10 new species discovered last year, scientists announced on Thursday.

The list, assembled annually since 2008, is intended to draw attention to the fact that researchers continue to discover new species. Nearly 18,000 were identified in 2013, adding to the 2 million known to science.

An international committee of taxonomists and other experts, assembled by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, selects the top 10.

The list is released in time for the May 23 birthday of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish botanist considered the founder of modern taxonomy.

Scientists believe nature holds another 10 million undiscovered species, from single-celled organisms to mammals, and worry that thousands are becoming extinct faster than they are being identified, said entomologist Quentin Wheeler, president of the environmental science college, part of the State University of New York.

“The top 10 is designed to bring attention to the unsung heroes addressing the biodiversity crisis by working to complete an inventory of earth’s plants, animals and microbes,” he said in a statement.

Like previous lists, this one shows that even large species can elude scientists.

One top-10, for instance, is the olinguito, the cat-bear amalgam from the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. The 2-kilogram (4.5-pound) raccoon relative is the first carnivorous mammal discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

Scientists had long missed an even bigger quarry: the 12-meter (40-foot) dragon tree of Thailand, which has soft, sword-shaped leaves and cream-colored flowers with orange filaments. People living in the area knew of it but scientists didn’t.

No one knew about some other top-10s. A submersible exploring beneath Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf discovered a yellow 2.5-centimeter (one inch) sea anemone that burrows into the ice and dangles two dozen tentacles in the frigid water.

More alarming, scientists had no idea of the existence of microbes that survived attempts to sterilize clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled – one in Florida and one in French Guiana – and which threaten to hitch a ride to other worlds.

Explorers arguably get a pass for failing to discover the Tinkerbell fairyfly of Costa Rica: at 250 micrometers (0.00984 inches) across, it is one of the smallest known insects.

“We are very far from having exhausted the knowledge of the biodiversity on Earth,” said zoologist Antonio Valdecasas of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain, and chair of the top-10 committee. Without knowing what exists, humans will not know if something disappears or moves in response to climate change or other environmental disruption, the committee warned.

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