Fukushima horse breeder braves high radiation levels to care for animals
Despite the departure of all his neighbours and the unexplained deaths of some of his stock, Tokue Hosokawa refuses to budge
Justin McCurry in Iitate
The Guardian, Sunday 27 October 2013 16.02 GMT
Until March 2011, Tokue Hosokawa had only to peer through the window of his home in Iitate village to confirm that all was well with his 100-year-old family business.
The 130 or so horses that once roamed this sprawling farm in Fukushima prefecture have sustained three generations of Hosokawa's family. Some were sold for their meat – a local delicacy – but his animals were better known for their appearances in commercials, period TV dramas and films, and local festivals celebrating the region's samurai heritage.
For decades, the 62-year-old horse breeder barely registered that his farm was just 25 miles north-west of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But the rural idyll was shattered on the afternoon of 11 March 2011, when the facility was hit by a towering tsunami that caused meltdowns in three of its reactors.
Even as people living in the path of the plant's radioactive plume were fleeing in their thousands, Iitate's 6,500 residents remained in their homes, convinced by official assurances that the village was safe.
But two and half years after the accident, Iitate has become a nuclear ghost town. When Hosokawa looks out of his window these days, it is at empty, irradiated fields.
Like several other farmers in Fukushima, Hosokawa ignored a government order to exterminate all of his horses and cows. "I told them that if the animals had been suffering from an infectious disease, then I'd have them destroyed," he said. "But not for something like this.
"Just after the accident one of the horses gave birth. When I saw that foal get to its feet and start feeding from its mother, I knew there was no way I could leave."
The order to evacuate Iitate did not come until weeks after the meltdown, as local authorities debated the risk posed to the village, which had only recently been voted one of Japan's most picturesque places. Rather than acting as a shield, the mountain forests surrounding Iitate had trapped radioactive particles, turning the village into a repository for dangerously high levels of contamination.
Hosokawa, short and wiry with the weathered complexion of a man who spends most of his waking hours outside, sent his wife and their daughter, Miwa, to safer parts of the prefecture.
But, unable to bear the thought of leaving his animals to starve, he stayed put and joined the handful of residents who continue to live in the contaminated homes they were ordered to abandon.
Although the evacuation order in parts of Iitate has been partially lifted to allow residents to visit during the day, radiation levels are still too high for a permanent return.
Last week, visiting officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) urged the government to prepare displaced residents from Iitate and other contaminated towns and villages for the grim news that cleaning up their former homes will take much longer than expected.
The IAEA report was published soon after Japanese officials admitted that the 5tn yen (£31.7bn) decontamination effort was woefully behind schedule. "We will have to extend the cleanup process, by one year, two years or three years. We haven't decided for sure yet," said Shigeyoshi Sato, an environment ministry official in charge of decontamination.
As Iitate's population plummeted in the spring of 2011, Hosokawa managed to find new homes for more than 80 of his horses. Then, in January this year, he noticed that several among the 30 that remained, mainly foals, had become unsteady on their feet.
Within weeks, 16 had died in mysterious circumstances. Autopsies on four of the horses found no evidence of disease and tests revealed caesium levels at 200 becquerels per kilo – twice as high as the government-set safety limit for agricultural produce, but not high enough to immediately threaten their health.
Hosokawa recently began legal action against the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco], claiming 200m yen (£1,269,534) compensation for the loss of the horses he was forced to sell or give away. The animals that died last winter are not included.
Tepco agreed to pay him 10m yen for the loss of 39 horses he could prove were born on the farm, but refused to compensate him for the rest. The family refuses to back down. "No matter how long it takes," said Miwa, "we will keep on fighting."
The 30 or so animals left behind are sustained by feed paid for with donations, many of them sent anonymously, from horse lovers around Japan. One woman turned up on their doorstep with a million yen in cash. Hosokawa repays their generosity with gifts of Fukushima's famed peaches.
He estimates that he has lost about 100m yen in income since March 2011: the compensation the family received for the enforced evacuation has already been spent on uncontaminated feed from the US and Australia. "There was nothing left for the family," he said.
This summer, Miwa, 27, quit her job in Fukushima city to help her father rescue what little is left of their business. But with no end in sight to the evacuation order and a shortage of people willing to take on his remaining horses, Hosokawa reluctantly accepts that the farm's days may be numbered.
"We can't give these horses the same life as they had before the nuclear disaster, and no one wants to buy them," he said. "We can't make a living from them, but unless we feed them they will die."
As Fukushima's long and bitter winter draws in, the Hosokawas again fear the worst. "We don't know why the foals died, only that they died in winter," Miwa said. "I'm worried that we'll find more dead horses this winter."
Almost three years on, one of the few signs of human activity in Iitate is the crews of workers who have the near-impossible task of cleaning up the village's contaminated landscape. As quickly as they remove irradiated soil from around homes, schools and other public buildings, rain washes more radioactive particles down from the mountainous forests that cover much of Fukushima prefecture.
Few are convinced by official assurances that their village will again be fit to live in. "Our neighbours have all gone," Miwa said. "They're scattered all over the place. I don't even know where most of them are. The only people who say they'll come back are old. There's nothing here for people with young children." Fellow rebel farmers aside, Hosokawa's only companions are his daughter and the salespeople who frequently cold call with offers of "anti-radiation" pills.
"Life here has been very hard for everyone since the disaster," he said. "Most of the people I know want to return, but because of the radiation they know that they never will. This place is awash with tears. It's a village with no tomorrow."
*************Fukushima horse breeder Tokue Hosokawa's farm - in pictures
Tokue Hosokawa was unable to bear the thought of leaving his animals to starve on his farm in Fukushima prefecture, so he stayed put and joined a handful of residents who continue to live in the contaminated homes they were ordered to abandon
Click to view: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2013/oct/27/fukushima-horse-breeder-tokua-hosokawa-farm-in-pictures
Japan's hunts threaten some dolphins and whales with extinction, says EIA
Japan relying on out-of-date data for hunts of small cetaceans, putting some species of whales, dolphins and porpoises at risk, warns Environmental Investigation Agency
theguardian.com, Thursday 31 October 2013 09.16 GMT
Japan's hunts of smaller whales, dolphins and porpoises threaten some species with extinction, an environmental group said on Thursday.
Catch quotas are based on data collected as much as 20 years ago and some species have been overhunted beyond the point of recovery, the Environmental Investigation Agency said in its report.
The lucrative market in live catches for aquariums, especially in China, poses another risk, the report said. Live animals can sell for between $8,400 and $98,000, sometimes more than the roughly $50,000 from sales of meat for a single bottlenose dolphin.
Japan set its catch limit for small cetaceans at 16,655 in 2013, far below the 30,000 caught annually before limits were set in 1993 but still the largest hunt in the world.
Japan's Fisheries Agency would not comment on the EIA report because it has not seen it. Japan defends its coastal whaling as a longstanding tradition, source of livelihood and as necessary for scientific research.
The London-based independent conservation group said Japan is failing to observe its stated goal of sustainability and urged the country to phase out the hunts over the next decade.
"The government has a responsibility to restore and maintain cetacean species at their former levels," said Jennifer Lonsdale, a founding director of the EIA.
The small cetaceans are among a number of species facing severe declines in Japan. They include Japanese eels, a delicacy usually served roasted with a savoury sauce over rice, and torafugu, or puffer fish.
The status of each species varies, depending on its range and hunting practices. Catch limits for Dall's porpoises are 4.7-4.8 times higher than the safe threshold, the report said.
For the striped dolphin, once the mainstay of the industry but now endangered and disappearing from some areas, catches have dropped from over 1,800 in the 1980s to about 100.
That is still four times the sustainable limit, the report said. It urged that the government update its data on the abundance of it and other species and stop transferring quotas from already overfished areas to areas that exceed their quotas.
Under a 1946 treaty regulating whaling, nations can grant permits to kill whales for scientific research.
In July, Japan defended its annual harpooning of hundreds of whales in the icy seas around Antarctica, insisting the hunt is legal because it gathers valuable scientific data that could pave the way to a resumption of sustainable whaling in the future.
Australia has appealed to the international court of justice to have the whaling outlawed.
Russia and China block bid to create two massive Antarctic ocean sanctuaries
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 1, 2013 6:27 EDT
Plans to create two vast ocean sanctuaries in Antarctica to protect the pristine wilderness failed Friday for a third time, with Russia and China blocking the bids, delegates at multi-nation talks said.
The proposals for two huge Marine Protected Areas were on the table at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) meeting in Hobart, which brought together 24 countries and the European Union.
But the 10-day talks ended with the nations unable to agree to a US-New Zealand proposal for a protected zone in the Ross Sea and another by Australia, France and the European Union for a sanctuary off East Antarctica.
“The international community came together in Hobart to protect key parts of the Antarctic Ocean — one of the last pristine environments in the world — yet Russia chose to stand in the way,” said Joshua Reichert, executive vice president of US-based Pew Charitable Trusts, which had a delegate inside the talks.
Environmentalists said an ocean wilderness that is home to 16,000 known species, including whales, seals, albatrosses, penguins and unique species of fish, was at stake.
CCAMLR — a treaty tasked with overseeing conservation and sustainable exploitation of the Antarctic Ocean, also known as the Southern Ocean — has not yet made any official comment.
The head of the Swedish delegation Bo Fernholm said the outcome was disappointing.
“There was sadness,” he told AFP. “We were quite unhappy with the fact that it didn’t go ahead, that they couldn’t get it through now was a disappointment.”
Another delegate, who did not want to be named, confirmed the details.
“The talks have failed. Russia and China wanted more details, more time. It’s very disappointing,” he told AFP.
The sanctuaries required the support of all 25 members of CCAMLR to be passed. Despite the scale of the New Zealand-US proposal being reduced, Russia was not won over.
While Russia and Ukraine actively blocked both proposals, China withdrew support for the East Antarctic sanctuary, said the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of high-profile individuals such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio and conservation groups.
This was the third attempt since 2012 by CCAMLR to protect large areas in the Southern Ocean. Fernholm said while “substantial discussions” took place, Russia had reservations, believed to be related to the limits on fishing.
“I think there are some major problems remaining on some of the major things like how long does a marine protected area need to stay in force, and there were also objections about the size of these marine protected areas,” he added.
The US-New Zealand bid for a sanctuary in the Ross Sea, the deep bay on Antarctica’s Pacific side, had been considered the best hope after its size was reduced, with its no-fish zone to be 1.25 million square kilometres (482,000 square miles).
The second proposal called for a 1.6 million square kilometre protected zone off East Antarctica, on the frozen continent’s Indian Ocean side.
Their creation would make the largest marine protection areas in the world.
Andrea Kavanagh, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Southern Ocean sanctuaries project, said safeguarding the teeming marine life of the Antarctic had far-reaching consequences for the world’s oceans.
“This is a dark day not just for the Antarctic, but for the world’s oceans,” she said.
“The scientific basis to create these reserves is overwhelming. The stubborn self interest of a few should not be allowed to deny the will of the majority of countries around the world.”
Environmentalists said CCAMLR’s conservation mandate had been brought into question.
“What we have witnessed over the last few years is the steady erosion of the spirit and mandate of CCAMLR to conserve our last intact ocean ecosystem remaining on earth,” said Farah Obaidullah from Greenpeace International.
“This year’s failure denigrates the reputation of CCAMLR and is symptomatic of a dangerous global trend where corporate and political interests override any genuine efforts to protect the oceans for the sake of future generations.”
The Christian Science Monitor
Name that mammal: Researchers find new humpback dolphin species near Australia
For years, biologists have argued over the number of species of humpback dolphins. Recent research somewhat settles the debate, as a team of biologists have discovered at least four distinct species – one of which had previously gone unnoticed.
By Amelia Pak-Harvey, Contributor / October 30, 2013 at 4:58 pm EDT
Humpback dolphins have the scientific community stumped.
A team of biologists have recently discovered a brand new species of the marine mammal, which is classified as a member of the genus Sousa and has a distinct hump under its dorsal fin. The discovery clears up a longstanding debate over the exact number of humpback dolphin species.
In the past, biologists had proposed the existence of three species, National Geographic reports. But after studying the genetics and physical features of more than 200 Sousa dolphins, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other groups say they have found a fourth, unnamed kind.
“Based on the findings of our combined morphological and genetic analyses, we can suggest that the humpback dolphin genus includes at least four member species,” said Dr. Martin Mendez, the study's lead author, in a press release. “This discovery helps our understanding of the evolutionary history of this group and informs conservation policies to help safeguard each of the species.”
Researchers say the discovery could help in preserving the animal.
New species information "provides the needed scientific evidence" for protecting the habitats and genetic diversity of the dolphin, said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, senior author of the paper, in the release.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Atlantic humpback dolphin, a typically acknowledged species, as "vulnerable" – just one step below the "endangered" category.
There are about 36 species of oceanic dolphins, and establishing a new one is rare. But remarkably, this is the second oceanic dolphin discovery to surprise scientists in two years.
In 2011, Monash University researcher Kate Charlton-Robb discovered a new coastal dolphin species she named the Burrunan dolphin. She called the finding "incredibly fascinating" because only three new dolphin species had been officially recognized since the 1800s.
Oceanic dolphins fall under the delphinidae family, although they are often confused with the shorter, stouter porpoises of the Phocoenidae family.
11/01/2013 03:43 PM
Hunting for Corpses: Vultures Lured Back to Germany
By Philip Bethge
Vultures are slowly returning to Germany, driven out long ago by an unwelcoming populace. At the behest of conservationists, loosened "carcass regulations" in Europe have made the search for food less daunting -- but some still wonder if the birds will be able to survive.
Griffon vulture number 259 is no longer able to fly. A bullet from a small-caliber rifle wielded by an unknown shooter shattered the ulna and radius of the bird's wing in June. Veterinarians tried to rehabilitate the vulture, using physical therapy to strengthen its wing muscles and even applying leeches to improve circulation, but nothing worked.
"It's over for him," says Wolfgang Rades, director of Herborn, a bird park in the central German state of Hesse. Rades casts a concerned glance toward the vulture, where it crouches on a pile of stones in a corner of its enclosure, looking a sad sight on this cold, damp morning. Yet for Rades, the bird is also a sign of hope. "He's an ambassador for others of his kind living in the wild," the biologist says. "Many more vultures will follow him, if we humans allow them to."
Griffon vulture 259 is among the vanguard of a new avian presence in Germany. Vultures are returning to the country, slipping stealthily into German airspace and often flying at heights of over 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). Ornithologists, glider pilots and hang gliders have all spotted these carrion-feeders above cities such as Hanover and Freiburg and regions such as the Black Forest and the Swabian Jura (see map).
"At least 50 to 60 vultures have been sighted in Germany this year," says Dieter Haas from the Vulture Conservation Initiative (GESI) based in Albstadt, southwestern Germany. "And many more are sure to follow."
Ornithologist counted 26 griffon vultures just in mid-June in the area outside the town of Tessin in northeastern Germany. And from April to August, a bearded vulture named Bernd delighted bird lovers by flying all the way from the Alps to the Baltic Sea. Even cinereous vultures, a rare species with a wingspan of nearly three meters, have been spotted in German skies.
Others may revile these species as supposed harbingers of death, but bird lovers are thrilled. "Vultures provide the best disposal service nature has to offer. They perform an important ecological function," says Haas, who has observed vultures feeding numerous times. They plunge from the sky "like stones" when they spot a carcass on the ground, he says of such spectacles, and set to work on their find. "They gobble everything up and then they're gone again." Haas considers these birds "a gift from the skies."
EU Takes Away Food Source
All four European vulture species -- the bearded, cinereous, griffon and Egyptian vultures -- were once native to Germany, but humans were no fans of the birds.
A century ago, when vultures still lived here, people in the Alps believed bearded vultures stole lambs, goats and even small children. They called the birds "bone crushers," for the way they dropped their prey from great heights onto rocks, smashing the bones to get at the marrow, their favorite food. Local lords offered a bounty for hunting the birds. In 1913, a hail of birdshot tore apart what is presumed to have been the Alps' last bearded vulture, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.
Many griffon vultures, meanwhile, perished from poison bait that was meant for wolves and foxes. Pesticides, too, are harmful to vultures, since they accumulate in the bodies of the animals on which vultures feed.
More than anything, though, vultures disappeared because their once plentiful source of food ran dry -- and remains so to this day. A 2002 EU hygiene regulation, also called the "carcass regulation" by conservationists, stipulates that germs from animal carcasses must be prevented from making contact with drinking water, to keep animal-borne diseases in check. The law was primarily introduced to stem the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, but it also applies when a sheep gets its skull split open by lightning or a deer meets its end at the bumper of a car. No dead livestock may be left lying in the open, and hunters must either take the carcasses with them or quickly bury them.
The new regulation kept European woods tidy -- but there was nothing left for vultures to eat.
Farmers in Spain, for example, had to close down their "muladares," traditional spots where for centuries they had tossed carcasses for vultures to feed on, a hygienic method of disposing of dead animals.
'Vulture Alert' in Germany
With their food source now gone, hungry vultures began attacking even living livestock. And in 2006, Germany experienced its first influx of vultures, as the emaciated birds flocked in to look for food. Coming as it did in the middle of the summer news slump, the arrival of birds such as a griffon vulture nicknamed "Gonzo" made headlines. German mass-circulation daily Bild reported a "vulture alert in the north."
Three years later, lawmakers eased the "carcass regulation" in response to pressure from conservationists. Spain's muladares are back and the country's vulture population has grown again, to around 25,000 pairs. Biologists have succeeded in reintroducing vultures into the French Alps as well. "It's fantastic, they've seen griffon vultures and steinbock on the same crags out there," Haas says enthusiastically.
It's no surprise, then, that the carrion-feeders have struck out for Germany as well. Young vultures are true distance travelers, undertaking wide-ranging exploratory flights before they start to breed between four and six years of age.
Such was the case with one early adopter, the bearded vulture Bernd -- so nicknamed, although the bird later turned out to be female. In 2012, Bernd was fitted with a radio transmitter and released into the wild in Switzerland. This year, on May 17, Bernd began a journey northward.
Bernd flew first over Bavaria and the Czech Republic, then as far as Poland's Baltic Sea coast, before turning west. She continued on past the cities of Stade and Bremen, then headed south once again. But then, near the city of Bayreuth, Bernd's radio signal suddenly cut out. Bird lovers feared the vulture had suffered a violent death, but those fears were soon allayed. "The female bearded vulture appears to have managed to get rid of her radio tag," conservationists announced online on June 13. Then on June 19 came the news: "Bernd is alive!" The bird was found, weakened, in the German state of Saxony. She was rehabilitated and returned to the wild in the Alps.
Can Vultures Be Fed?
When caught, Bernd was near death, having found too little food in Germany. It's a common scenario. In June, a griffon vulture was spotted at a landfill outside the city of Vechta in northern Germany. "It sat around there for days and grew visibly weaker," recalls Ludger Frye from the local chapter of Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).
Frye decided to feed the vulture. "But it was more difficult than I expected," he says. Frye spoke with the landfill operator and with conservation and hunting authorities. He could give the bird game carrion, he was finally told. Frye found a couple pieces of venison "in a carcass bin" and threw them to the vulture. "Then the bird started doing better," he says. Soon, it continued on its way.
Frye is pleased with this success, but not precisely happy with the general situation. "If these animals don't find anything to eat here, we'll never get them back," he says.
It's true that Germany is not yet a vulture paradise. "We're overly concerned with hygiene," says Rades at the bird park in Hesse. He points out, for example, that wildlife hit by cars in Germany still gets cleared away in next to no time. "Why don't hunters just move carrion 100 meters or so into an open field and leave it for the vultures?" the biologist asks. And, he adds, why not re-establish specific locations for feeding these birds?
Haas from the Vulture Conservation Initiative has set up one such spot already. In the Danube River valley outside the town of Sigmaringen, he regularly brings found carrion to a field belonging to a shepherd friend of his. Haas reports that he's seen some vultures circling above the field, but so far none has landed. "They don't quite dare," he says. Next, he wants to try bringing in vultures from zoos -- ones that have had accidents and are no longer able to fly, what Haas calls "crash vultures" -- to provide a "trust-building measure" for the wild birds.
Will offering food to these birds of prey really work? Supplying the birds' flight routes with enough meat would call for a fair number of carcasses. The demand would amount to "one cow per year for each vulture," calculates Haas, who dreams of setting up observation platforms near such feeding sites as a draw for eco-tourists. He imagines an afternoon outing to watch vultures feed would present an almost irresistible attraction. "People could experience something really worthwhile," Haas says.
That idea, though, goes too far even for some bird experts. Lars Lachmann of NABU, the conservationist group, finds it a bit premature to be feeding vultures. "With the current low population numbers, at the moment that would just lead to carcasses lying around everywhere, which people would then blame on conservationists," he says.
Instead, Lachmann wants to restore the birds' habitat. Vultures need rocky outcroppings and open pastures where a sheep might now and then fall dead without immediately being "disposed of according to regulation," Lachmann says. "Then the vultures will come of their own volition." He considers the foothills of the Alps, the Swabian Jura and the Harz Mountains in central Germany all to be "potential griffon vulture country."
What remains to be seen is whether or not the general public will give these strictly protected carrion-feeders a warm welcome. Cases such as that of griffon vulture 259, the bird felled by a rifle bullet, make it seem as though the writing may already be on the wall. Whoever shot the bird was most likely not a hunter, biologist Rades says, but a "gun nut with a small-caliber rifle." It seems ignorance and prejudice may once again seal the fate of vultures in Germany.
A different approach is possible, though. Haas tells the story of 23 griffon vultures that turned up one day in the Lorraine region of France and prepared to spend the night in the woods there. "Right away, someone jumped in and provided them with two dead sheep," he says. The next morning, the same French man "took pictures of the vultures and put a great story up online."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
British army joins fight against elephant and rhino poaching
Paratroopers in Kenya to train local rangers who are battling against increasingly militarised poachers
theguardian.com, Friday 1 November 2013 16.22 GMT
The British army is, for the first time in many years, taking a key role against the escalating illegal wildlife trade killing rhinos and elephants in Africa.
A total of 25 paratroopers in Kenya are on rotation at the army's base in Nanyuki, 200km north of Nairobi, and will provide training to Kenyan rangers who are battling increasingly militarised poachers.
Kenyan parliamentarians are currently considering proposals to increase the penalty for poaching from the current maximum punishment of three years in prison to lifetime sentences. Kenya said last month it was going to microchip the horn of every single one of the country's thousand rhinos in a bid to combat the trade, which is largely driven by demand from south-east Asia.
The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, who is in Kenya this week, said of the partnership: "Illegal poaching is having a devastating effect on some of the world's most iconic species and we must work together to tackle it. By joining forces with those on the front line in Kenya, our armed services will be able to provide training and support to the courageous people who put their lives on the line every day to protect these animals."
Brigadier Duncan Francis, defence attache based in Nairobi, said: "This is an excellent example of the British army taking positive action on an issue that is close to many people's hearts. It is also the first time that we have carried out this kind of work. The 25 members of the parachute regiment involved in this training will be making an immense contribution to securing the future of some of the world's most endangered species."
The soldiers will not take part directly in operations against poachers, but provide training on how to patrol better, working more effectively as a team, and what to do if they encounter poachers. Members of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Kenyan Forestry Service, and conservation organisation Mount Kenya Trust will receive the training in the coming weeks.
An NGO-organised conference in London next February will discuss how to improve law enforcement to tackle the illegal poaching of elephant, rhino and tiger parts.
November 2, 2013
Oarfish Offer Chance to Study an Elusive Animal Long Thought a Monster
By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
It was a big day for marine biologists: On Oct. 13, the body of an 18-foot oarfish was dragged from the water onto Santa Catalina Island off the California coast, presenting a rare opportunity for local scientists to study one of the world’s most elusive and awe-inspiring big fish.
Five days later, it was a big day again: Another oarfish washed up 50 miles away, this one 14 feet with six-foot-long ovaries full of eggs.
Pairs of oarfish have appeared within days of each other before, deepening the mystique that surrounds the animal. But the twin discoveries nevertheless sent a wave of excitement through a scientific community more used to reading about oarfish than handling them in the lab.
“These are unpredictable fish,” said Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And it’s hard to study unpredictable fish.”
Oarfish, which are long and eel-like in appearance, can grow to stupendous lengths — though ancient rumors of 55-foot specimens are probably exaggerated — and have inspired tales of sea monsters since ancient times.
Scientists know very little about them because they are “virtually never caught in nets or by hooks, and they’ve only been observed under water a handful of times,” Dr. Love said. “So you’re kind of left with these not random but rare events, and that’s the only way you can study them.”
It is known that oarfish are notoriously bad swimmers; their long bodies remain still while their undulating fins handle most of the propulsion, yet they have apparently learned to avoid nets, Dr. Love said.
Precisely what will be learned from the two newfound fish, which were dissected and divvied up among a handful of research institutions, remains to be seen. “You can only learn so much from a dead fish,” Dr. Love said. But by last week, a coterie of researchers, including a comparative ophthalmologist and a gill expert, were lining up to study them.
Early observations revealed that the second fish, found in Oceanside, was apparently ready to spawn. “There were probably hundreds of thousands of eggs in those ovaries,” said H. J. Walker, the marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who extracted the eggs. Its stomach was nearly empty, supporting the theory that a strong current, possibly the northeast-flowing Kuroshio, had carried it and the other oarfish, a male, away from their preferred environment and food sources.
A variety of parasites, including large larval tapeworms and a spiny-headed worm, were found in the intestines of the male, potentially giving a clue about where these particular oarfish lived and fed. Their species, Regalecus russelii, is most populous in the Western Pacific.
Oarfish fans noted with excitement that the male was missing some of the posterior part of its body, colloquially known as the tail. Tyson Roberts, an ichthyologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who is widely regarded as the world’s leading oarfish expert, has long hypothesized that oarfish can jettison sections of their bodies below the abdomen, much the way lizards can shed their tails.
As the world’s largest bony fish, oarfish have no known natural predator, so unlike with lizards, any shedding of the body is probably not done in self-defense, Dr. Roberts said. Such behavior is more likely meant to make swimming more efficient, among other reasons. “There may also be energetic benefits in shedding the posterior part of the body if it does not have much survival value, as apparently is the case in oarfishes,” he added.
Even oarfish experts disagree on some basic facts. Most refer to them as deep-sea creatures, contending that they live 500 to 1,000 feet below the surface. Dr. Roberts says that is not so.
“Mostly they spend their time quite near the surface, suspended vertically with their heads up, just passively floating,” said Dr. Roberts who championed the idea that there was more than one species of oarfish. He also believes that they have the capacity to change gender. “It may be that all individuals pass through a stage in which they are males and then pass through a stage in which they’re females,” he said.
Just how deep the oarfish resides may become clearer in the coming months as researchers study the eyes of the new specimens, possibly learning whether they are designed to see in the low light of the deep ocean. “There’s not much information on the oarfish eye, which is unusually large,” Dr. Walker said.
At California State University, Fullerton, Misty Paig-Tran, a biomechanist, will use CT scans to make a three-dimensional model of the female specimen, most of which she now possesses (the head will soon be delivered to Dr. Walker). Her preliminary X-rays gave researchers a closer look at the structures that support the dorsal fin, which may help explain the animal’s unusual way of swimming.
Oarfish have been a source of fascination for centuries. With long bodies, toothless jaws and giant red dorsal fins that protrude from their heads, they are often mistaken for monsters. “Most biologists will tell you it probably is the species responsible for the sea serpent legend,” Dr. Walker said.
An ancient Japanese myth holds that washed-up oarfish are a sign of an impending earthquake, a theory that regained popularity after about 20 oarfish beached themselves in Japan before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In Japan, the oarfish is known as ryugu no tsukai, or “messenger from the sea god’s palace.”
In California, the one-two arrival of the latest oarfish brought feverish speculation that an earthquake was imminent. But researchers said there was little science behind the myth. “If something about tectonic movement is killing these fish, why aren’t the other fish in the environment doing the same thing?” Dr. Love said.
The Catalina specimen might still be under water had Jasmine Santana, 26, a marine science instructor at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, not spotted it about 15 feet down while snorkeling on her day off. “I recognized it because my colleague had shown me pictures of it,” she said. After dragging the fish to land, she and some of her co-workers placed it on ice in a ditch outside the institute.
“We wanted the kids to see it,” said Jeff Chace, a program director at the institute. “We dissected it on the Wednesday after we found it, then packed up all the organs, tissue samples, skin samples and eyeball samples and sent them off to various institutions.” Dr. Chace has put the rest of the carcass in deep freeze until he can find someone who can clean and mount the skeleton.
Extinct ‘Godzilla’ platypus found in Australia
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 4, 2013 21:40 EST
A giant extinct species of the platypus with powerful teeth has been discovered in Australia, with a scientist on Tuesday describing the duck-billed water animal as a “Godzilla” like monster.
The new species, named Obdurodon tharalkooschild, was identified by a single but highly distinctive tooth found in Riversleigh in the northeastern Australian state of Queensland — a World Heritage site rich in fossil deposits.
“It pretty well blew our minds,” University of New South Wales professor Mike Archer told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. of the animal, which is estimated to be about twice the size of the modern platypus.
“And then bang out of the blue drops this monster. Platypus Godzilla.”
Scientists had thought that the platypus, which combines bird, mammal and reptile characteristics, had gradually lost its teeth and become smaller over millions of years, but the latest find contradicts that theory.
“We didn’t expect this. It’s a huge platypus at the wrong time. But there it was,” said Archer of the one-metre (three foot) species.
The modern platypus, a timid and nocturnal animal which lives in deep waterside burrows and is found only in eastern Australia, lacks any teeth as an adult and the scientists do not believe the new extinct species was an immediate ancestor.
“Discovery of this new species was a shock to us because prior to this, the fossil record suggested that the evolutionary tree of platypuses was a relatively linear one,” Archer explained in a statement.
“Now we realize that there were unanticipated side branches on this tree, some of which became gigantic.”
Archer said he was confident that the single tooth, which was discovered by Rebecca Pian, a PhD candidate at Columbia University in the United States, was sufficient evidence of a new species.
“We know it’s a platypus, we also know it’s very different from any other toothed platypus we’ve seen before,” he said.
Pian, the lead author of the research published in the US-based Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, said any new species, even though incomplete, was an important aid in understanding more about the fascinating mammals.
The extinct species is believed to have been a mostly aquatic animal like its modern descendant and would have lived in and around freshwater pools in the forests that covered the Riversleigh area millions of years ago.
It probably fed on crayfish and other freshwater crustaceans, as well as small vertebrates such as frogs and turtles, said Suzanne Hand of UNSW’s School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences.
Archer said scientists already had concerns about the long-term viability of the platypus and the discovery only added to these.
“It only says that there were more kinds of platypus that are now gone,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Starfish wasting disease baffles US scientists
Deadly disease ravages sea creatures in record numbers along west coast of US from south-east Alaska to Orange County
Reuters in San Francisco
theguardian.com, Tuesday 5 November 2013 08.06 GMT
Scientists are struggling to find the trigger for a disease that appears to be ravaging starfish in record numbers along the US west coast, causing the sea creatures to lose their limbs and turn to slime in a matter of days.
Marine biologists and ecologists will launch an extensive survey this week along the coasts of California, Washington state and Oregon to determine the reach and source of the deadly syndrome, known as "star wasting disease".
"It's pretty spooky because we don't have any obvious culprit for the root cause even though we know it's likely caused by a pathogen," said Pete Raimondi, the chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California.
Signs of the syndrome typically begin with white lesions on the arms of the starfish that spread inward, causing the entire animal to disintegrate in less than a week, according to a report by the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Program at the University of California.
Starfish have suffered from the syndrome on and off for decades but have usually been reported in small numbers, isolated to southern California and linked to a rise in seawater temperatures, which is not the case this time, Raimondi said.
Since June, wasting starfish have been found in dozens of coastal sites ranging from south-east Alaska to Orange County, California, and the mortality rates have been higher than ever seen before, Raimondi said. In one surveyed tide pool in Santa Cruz during the current outbreak, 90-95% of hundreds of starfish were killed by the disease.
"Their tissue just melts away," said Melissa Miner, a biologist and researcher with the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network, a group of government agencies, universities and non-profit groups that monitor tidal wildlife and environment along the west coast.
Miner, based in Washington state, has studied wasting starfish locally and in Alaska since June, when only a few cases had been reported. "It has ballooned into a much bigger issue since then," she said.
The syndrome primarily affects the mussel-eating Pisaster ochraceus, a large purple and orange starfish, but Raimondi said that at least 10 species have shown signs of the disease since June.
If the numbers of Pisaster ochraceus begin to decrease, mussels could crowd the ocean, disrupting biodiversity, he said.
In addition to on-site sampling, scientists in the coming months will use an interactive map to spot starfish wasting location patterns and help identify a driver for the disease.
Raimondi said he could not estimate, out of the millions of starfish on the west Coast, how many have been affected or could be in the future.
"We're way at the onset now, so we just don't know how bad it's going to get," he said.
Borneo bay cat photographed in heavily logged region
Extremely rare sighting raises hopes that larger mammals are more able to survive in logged areas than previously thought
theguardian.com, Monday 4 November 2013 22.01 GMT
One of the world's most elusive wild cats has been captured on camera in a heavily logged area of Borneo rainforest together with four other endangered species, suggesting that some wildlife can survive in highly disturbed forests.
The Bornean bay cat (Pardofelis badia) has been recorded on camera traps on just a handful of occasions to date and was only photographed in the wild for the first time in southern Sarawak in 2003. The cat, extremely secretive and similar in size to a large domestic cat with a long tail and either a reddish or grey coat, had been classified as extinct until new images taken in Malaysian Borneo in 2009 and 2010 gave fresh hope for its survival.
Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Imperial College London have captured more a dozen images of this animal following a study in Kalabakan forest reserve, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, together with evidence of four other wild cat species in a heavily logged area of forest where they were not expected to thrive.
Dr Robert Ewers of the department of life sciences at Imperial College London, who leads the Safe tropical forest conservation project in Borneo, said the discovery of the cats was evidence that large species can survive in commercially logged forests: "We were completely surprised to see so many bay cats at these sites in Borneo where natural forests have been so heavily logged for the timber trade. Conservationists used to assume that very few wild animals could live in logged forest, but we now know this land can be home for many endangered species."
The area is only one of four forest areas in all of Borneo – the third largest island in the world and shared between Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia – that has so far been reported to contain all five species, including the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) and marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata).
All five species are important to the forest ecosystem because they are predators of a wide range of other animals. They are also highly threatened: four of the five species are listed as threatened with extinction on the IUCN's "red list".
Camera traps – an automated digital device that takes a flash photo whenever an animal triggers an infrared sensor – have revolutionised wildlife research and conservation, enabling scientists to collect photographic evidence of rarely seen and often globally endangered species, with little expense, relative ease, and minimal disturbance to wildlife.
Borneo bay cat
The use of camera traps has led to major wildlife discoveries in recent years. They have shown an Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) in China for the first time in 62 years and confirmed breeding among a population of the world's rarest rhinoceros, the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus). It has also led to the discovery of new species including the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi) of south-east Asia and the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis), a species of elephant shrew endemic to Tanzania.
ZSL and Imperial College London PhD researcher Oliver Wearn said: "We discovered that randomly placed cameras have a big influence on the species recorded … The cameras record multiple sightings, sometimes of species which we might be very lucky to see even after spending years in an area. For example, I've seen the clouded leopard just twice in three years of fieldwork, while my cameras recorded 14 video sequences of this enigmatic cat in just eight months."
With rates of forest loss and degradation in south-east Asia exceeding all other tropical regions, and the majority of remaining forest in a highly disturbed state, scientists say there is now an urgent need for accurate assessments of the impacts on wildlife in the region.
ZSL and Imperial College London conservationists will continue to study the effects of logging on wildlife populations, looking more broadly at other mammal species, large and small. More detailed work aims to gather the information to help palm oil producers make their plantations more mammal-friendly, and assess whether saving patches of forest within such areas might be a viable option for saving Borneo's mammals
Green groups worried about whale deaths along oil-producing Ghana coast
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 7:34 EST
Decomposed whale carcasses have been washing up on beaches in Ghana’s oil-producing west, raising the ire of environmental groups worried the country’s growing petroleum industry may be killing marine life.
A total of 20 dead whales have been discovered along Ghana’s coastline in the last four years, including at least eight since September.
What killed the marine mammals remains a mystery.
But environmental groups say they are concerned, given the proximity of the discoveries to the country’s new offshore petroleum industry.
“The fears are rising as to what is killing the … whales,” said Kyei Kwadwo Yamoah, program co-ordinator for Friends of the Nation, an environmental group that tracks the deaths.
People living along the coast “want to know so they can rest assured if it would have impact on them or if it wouldn’t”, he added.
Last week, the 20th whale carcass found since 2009 washed up on a remote beach in Western Region, where Ghana gets most of its oil, Yamoah said.
Oil production did not start until 2010 but Yamoah said exploration intensified the year before.
Friends of the Nation and other environmental groups raised the alarm in September, when five decomposed whales were discovered in Western Region and near the capital Accra in the space of a week. In October, two more bodies were found in Western Region.
Ghana produces about 115,000 barrels per day, mostly from the Jubilee field off the coast of Western Region’s Cape Three Points, where the latest dead whale was found.
The west African nation has been trying to avoid the mismanagement and pollution that has plagued other regional oil giants like Nigeria, where billions of oil dollars have been lost through corruption and spills happen frequently.
Ghana’s government, which has downplayed the whale deaths, is counting on the riches from oil production to build up the country’s infrastructure and improve the economy. It could do without any environmental scandal.
The Anglo-Irish company Tullow — the Jubilee field’s main operator — declined to comment on the whale deaths and referred questions to Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
At the EPA, spokeswoman Angelina Mensah said an investigation into the deaths was under way but did not respond to additional questions sent via email.
The EPA said after the discovery of the five dead whales last year that the situation was “of much concern” but it was not unprecedented.
“The incidence of whales being washed ashore is a global occurrence and not limited to Ghana,” the statement said, adding that whales die frequently worldwide.
Nevertheless, collisions with ships, water pollution and seismic activity from oil drilling can kill or disorient whales, said the head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s whale program, Patrick Ramage.
Last September, a scientific review panel determined that a 2008 mass beaching of whales in Madagascar was caused by the use of sonar by vessels exploring for oil.
But that was not necessarily occurring off the coast of Ghana.
“It has to be a more careful analysis than the convergence of industrial activity and carcasses washing up off beaches,” Ramage said.
“That is certainly concerning and for some very compelling but isn’t sufficiently convincing to allege that connection.
“In the case of the Madagascar instance, it took the convening of a panel.”
Determining what, if anything, in Ghana’s waters was responsible for the whale’s deaths may prove difficult, said Peter Ziddah, a fish health specialist who has examined some of the carcasses.
Whales are usually badly decayed by the time they wash ashore and in some cases are beheaded by fishermen, according to local tradition.
“Looking at a rotting carcass, we can’t determine anything,” Ziddah said.
Other experts suggest that the cause could lie elsewhere.
Ghana is on a path of migration for whales heading from South Africa to the waters off Britain and with the current flowing east, whatever killed the whales could be off the coast of neighboring Ivory Coast — or further east.
“It’s definitely unusual. But what may be the cause we can’t put our finger on,” said A.K. Armah, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, who studies marine life.
165-million-year-old fossil shows Chinese insects copulating
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 19:45 EST
Chinese scientists have discovered the oldest known fossil of a pair of insects caught in the act of copulating, according to a study released Wednesday.
The imprint of the male and female froghoppers, lying belly to belly, was dug up in northeastern China. The fossil is believed to be 165 million years old, said the report in the journal PLOS ONE.
The insects got their name because they jump around on plants and shrubs much like little frogs.
“On the mating pair, the male?s aedeagus is inserted inside the bursa copulatrix of the female,” said the study led by scientists at the Key Laboratory of Insect Evolution and Environmental Changes at Capital Normal University in Beijing.
The rare fossil shows “the earliest record of copulating insects hitherto,” and “sheds light on the evolution of mating behavior in this group of insects,” it added.
Namely, it shows that the creatures’ genitalia and mating position have stayed the same for more than 165 million years, the authors said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Critically endangered species in Sumatra on the road to extinction
Some of the world's most vulnerable creatures could be wiped out if a highway through the Haparan rainforest is approved
The Observer, Saturday 9 November 2013 13.06 GMT
Critically endangered wildlife, including some of the last Sumatran tigers as well as rhinos, bears and eagles, could be wiped out if plans go ahead to construct a major road through an Indonesian tropical forest reserve currently being restored by British conservationists.
The 51km-road, which would enable 850 truckloads of coal a day to be exported more easily to power stations across south-east Asia, would divide the Harapan rainforest, which is licensed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with the backing of the British government, the Co-op bank, the EU and birdlovers around the world.
The 98,555-hectare reserve was selectively logged in the 1970s, but is considered one of the most diverse places on Earth and a global-priority habitat for conservation, containing 20% of the remaining lowland forest of the island of Sumatra.
"It is so rich in wildlife that it can be described as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. Animals found in the forest include the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant, otters, porcupines, bears and turtles," said an RSPB spokesman.
"Over 300 species of birds breed there – including hornbills, eagles, storks, parrots, kingfishers and rare pheasants. The rafflesia flower – the world's biggest – blooms on the forest floor, and a huge variety of insects can be found too," he added.
The coal road is expected to be more than 50m wide and would lead from a group of five large coalmines in south Sumatra to the Lalan river in Jambi province. It would directly remove around 154 hectares of rainforest, but could affect many thousands more by splitting the forest into two physically separate concessions, allowing hunters and illegal loggers access to the forest and restricting the movement of animals and people.
"Such fragmentation will increase the incidence of inbreeding and may even cause the extinction of these species. This is particularly important for the Sumatran tiger population, which consists of as few as 12-20 individuals and is an international conservation concern," said the RSPB, which manages the concession with Birdlife International and Indonesian bird group Burung.
The Sumatran tiger is the only surviving member of a group of tigers that included the now extinct Bali tiger and Javan tiger. It needs large joined-up forest blocks to thrive, and used to roam across the whole, massive island. It now lives in isolated populations, such as in Harapan, its habitat having been drastically reduced by clearings for agriculture, plantations and settlements. Habitat destruction forces the tigers into settled areas in search of food, where they are more likely to come into contact with people.
Conflict between humans and tigers is a serious problem in Sumatra. People are regularly killed or wounded, and tigers take domestic livestock, leading to retaliatory action by villagers.
According to a survey from Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, poaching is responsible for more than 78% of estimated Sumatran tiger deaths, consisting of about 40 animals per year. The Sumatran tiger was classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008 when its population was estimated at fewer than 680 individuals.
Conservationists believe that the road would compromise the Harapan rainforest irreparably and unjustly and is entirely unnecessary. They say that alternative routes for coal transport are available which use existing wide roads. These alternative routes would be no greater distance than the route of the proposed new road.
International agribusiness has converted nearly 10% of the whole island of Sumatra from primary forest to palm oil plantation during the last 20 years. In 1920 the largely untouched forest covered more than 25 million hectares, but it is now less than 500,000 .
Harapan is a flagship conservation project of the Indonesian government which gave its first ecosystem restoration licences to RSPB and its conservation partners in 2007. The government is hoping to designate 2 million hectares by 2020.
"Harapan is a global initiative to protect and restore a forest, paving the way for many others," said Jonathan Barnard, head of tropical forests at the RSPB.
"It is important for wildlife and people, but its great value is that it gives a real signal of hope that the degraded forests of the world can continue to be important reserves for wildlife."
Dolphin virus outbreak in Atlantic is deadliest ever
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 8, 2013 15:17 EST
A total of 753 bottlenose dolphins have died along the US Atlantic coast due to a measles-like virus, surpassing the previous deadly outbreak 25 years ago, officials said Friday.
The strandings began in July and have spanned the shoreline from New York to Florida, amounting to more than 10 times the usual number of such dolphins washing up dead in an entire year.
The record number has been documented in just half the time of the 1987-1988 event that killed more than 740, raising concerns that this die-off could be far worse, said the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The stranding networks are working very hard to deal with the overwhelming number,” said Teri Rowles of the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
There are also some early indications that the outbreak of morbillivirus may be spreading, since a handful of washed up humpback whales and pygmy sperm whales have tested positive.
However, scientists have not been able to confirm that morbillivirus was the cause of death since the animals were too decomposed by the time tests could be done.
“Currently there is nothing that can be done to prevent the infection from spreading or to prevent animals that get infected from having severe clinical disease,” said Rowles.
She also said it is unclear what proportion of the population of wild bottlenose dolphins is affected, or what is causing this unusually severe outbreak.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” she told reporters.
Humans are not at risk of catching the morbillivirus but they can be susceptible to bacteria and other pathogens found in the carcasses, and so are advised to call experts for help if they see washed-up dolphins.
Ivory stockpile to be publicly destroyed as Obama seeks to end illegal trade
TV cameras to record smashing of tusks and intricately carved items – but African elephants are already on brink of extinction
Suzanne Goldenberg in Denver
The Guardian, Monday 11 November 2013
Suzanne Goldenberg visits the Denver repository where the six tonnes of ivory is stored Link to video: Ivory trade targeted as Obama sanctions elephant tusk crushhttp://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2013/nov/11/ivory-trade-obama-elephant-tusk-crush-video
The ivory stockpile in the secure government warehouse – six tonnes of scarred tusks, glossy Confucius statuettes with $10,000 (more than £6,000) price stickers, coffee table items, and too many chunky cuff bracelets to count – represents millions of dollars and the slaughter of thousands of African elephants.
On 14 November, at Barack Obama's instruction, and in front of visiting dignitaries and television cameras, every last intricately carved and high-dollar item will be fed into the jaws of an industrial strength rock-crushing machine and smashed to splinters.
The hope is that this public act of destruction will serve as a turning point. White House officials and conservation groups calculate that demonstrating the president's commitment to breaking up the illegal ivory trade will persuade other governments to take similar measures, and help put the wildlife traffickers on the run.
But it may be too late. Two decades after an international ban on ivory sales, an explosion in wildlife trafficking has once again brought African elephants to the brink of extinction. Nearly 100 African elephants are killed every day for their tusks to feed a huge demand for ivory trinkets from newly wealthy buyers in Asia who see ivory as a status symbol.
US security officials say the global trade in illegal ivory has grown to $10bn (about £6.2bn) a year – just behind drugs and human trafficking. The huge profit potential has also turned ivory into an important line of financing for terrorist networks such as al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliate that carried out September's attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi.
"This is not the kind of poaching that we have dealt with in the past," said Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency leading the US fight against wildlife trafficking. "It's syndicated and sophisticated criminal organisations that are driving the trade."
The grisly results are visible in the vast storehouse outside Denver – ordinarily off-limits to the public – where six tonnes of ivory seized by US law enforcement officials over the past 25 years is heaped among stuffed tigers, caiman ashtrays, and other artifacts of the illegal wildlife trade.
The smuggled ivory was seized by US agents at airports and cargo ships, hidden in the false bottoms of suitcases and shipping crates, buried in jars of face cream, or disguised by being stained dark brown with tea. Some of the ivory – the big display case of bracelets – made it as far as a jewellery shop off Times Square in New York city, before it was seized by agents.
"There could be several hundred elephants represented on this pallet alone," said Bernadette Atencio, the supervisor of the US Fish and Wildlife repository.
America is one of the top destinations of illegal ivory from Africa, as well as an important transhipment point for the carved ivory trinkets bound ultimately for the leading markets in China, Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries.
But the six-tonne haul is only half that seized in China this week alone – 3,1888 pieces of elephant tusks were found in Xiamen city, with an estimated value of 603m Yuan ($99m or £62m) on the black market. The sheer volume of trade is depleting populations of African adult male elephants, Atencio said, reaching for a polished tusk, carved with renderings of the "big five" in African game.
"I think the baby tusks are the most heartbreaking," she said. "What I see here are lost generations of elephants, many many generations of elephants that will never be because these elephants were not allowed to mature and to reach an adult size.
By ordering the destruction of the ivory haul in Denver, American officials hope to send a definitive message to traffickers that the bottom is about to fall out of the ivory trade, and that there is no use hanging on to stores of ivory, because it will eventually end up being destroyed.
The strategy has been endorsed by leading conservation groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, and wildlife officials in Kenya and other states which depend on African elephants for their tourism industries.
"It does send a signal that ivory is not going to be a good investment for very much longer," said Allan Thornton, who heads the Environmental Investigation Agency.
US diplomats are now reaching out to other governments to carry out similar high-profile acts of destruction. Kenya has destroyed its stores of illegal ivory in the past. The Philippines carried out a crush earlier this year.
The Obama administration is stepping up aid and training for park rangers in Africa to try to stop the traffickers on the ground. The Clinton Global Initiative has also aligned with the US government efforts, with Hillary Clinton in September announcing an $80m initiative to train park rangers and sniffer dogs at 50 poaching hot spots across Africa.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is promising to strengthen penalties against those caught smuggling ivory, a White House adviser said. "The laws need to be changed. They need to be stiffened," said David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of interior who was appointed last September to a new White House council on wildlife trafficking. "I think that's going to be a primary focus for the advisory council – enforcement penalties, and what we allow and what we don't."
The push to end trafficking comes at a desperate time for African wildlife, with rhinos and elephants under threat from mass poaching gangs. The explosion in poaching threatens to reverse a conservation successory story, with African elephants showing signs of a comeback after a 1990 ban on ivory sales.
But conservation groups say that positive outcome was undermined by a misguided decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the entity set up to protect at-risk wildlife, to allow limited sales of ivory. In 1997, Zimbabwe was granted permission to conduct a limited sale of 50 tonnes of ivory. In 2008, China was also allowed to import 60 tonnes of ivory. The idea was to slake the demand for ivory among the newly wealthy elites of China. But the result was a catastrophe for African wildlife, said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of Wildlife Direct. "We have seen in Kenya an eight-fold increase in poaching since 2009," she said. "The volume of ivory being taken across the country is just staggering."
Campaign groups said the combination of new buying power in Asia – where there is a surge in demand for ivory – and armed groups was overwhelming poorly paid and trained rangers in African wildlife parks.
A new breed of traffickers, armed with night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles, began staging mass attacks – such as last September's cyanide poisoning of 300 elephants at a Zimbabwe watering hole.
What put elephants on the top of the US agenda however was terrorism. Over the past few years, US intelligence officials have accumulated evidence that wildlife trafficking is funding rebel armies and causing instability in Africa.
US security officials and campaign groups have said the militant group al-Shabaab was getting up to 40% of its funds from the illegal wildlife trade, with ivory financing their operations and paying their footsoldiers, by acting as middlemen in the wildlife trade.
The result is a grisly kill-to-order system, with brokers paying poachers as little as $20 a pound for the raw tusks, and selling them onwards for as much as $800 a pound in some parts of Asia. Finished pieces sell for up to $4,000 a pound.
By last year, Clinton, then secretary of state, was so concerned about the links with terrorist groups that she designated wildlife trafficking a national security threat. Barack Obama during a visit to Africa in July also pledged action against the traffickers.
On 14 November, the international community – and the traffickers – will witness the first instalment of Obama's anti-trafficking plan. It's far from certain, though, whether Obama will be able to pull African elephants back from the brink, yet again.
"I believe that the scope and impact of the poaching crisis has now reached the highest levels of the US government," said John Webb, a former Department of Justice environmental prosecutor who is also a member of the new White House advisory council. "But, unfortunately, I think it's going to take a huge effort to turn it around this time."
Big cats’ oldest ancestor Panthera blytheae discovered in Tibetan Himalayas
By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 6:43 EST
The fossil skull of the Panthera blytheae, the precursor to all modern lions, tigers and leopards was found in the Himalayas
Scientists have found in the Tibetan Himalayas the fossil skull of the oldest known big cat, the precursor to all modern lions, tigers and leopards, pushing back the fossil record of these animals by at least 2m years and lending weight to the idea that they evolved in Asia, rather than Africa, where the previous oldest fossil was found.
The species, named Panthera blytheae, would have lived between 4-6m years ago in cold regions of the Himalayas.
“In terms of the overall size it would be a little bit smaller than a snow leopard– the size of a clouded leopard and those living cats grow up to around 20kg [44lb],” said Jack Tseng, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who led the team that discovered the fossil. “You would most likely recognise it as a big cat.”
Based on the wear of the teeth in the skull, the animal probably hunted like modern snow leopards do, said Tseng. “They used their front teeth to pick at a hide or hunt in very gritty areas where they get heavy wear on the front teeth. They used their back teeth, which remain very sharp, to cut through soft tissue. You can imagine [them] hunting among the cliffs of the Himalayas, ambushing the sheep or antelopes or smaller mammals.”
Tseng’s team found the fossilised skull under a mound of bones, which included antelope and horse limbs, in the summer of 2010 when driving in a remote area near the China-Pakistan border.
He said the cat would have had a broad forehead, associated with an expanded sinus cavity in the head, an adaptation suiting cold environments since it helped the animal warm up the air it breathed in.
The fossil is described in detail in Wednesday’s edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Studies of the genomes of modern big cats suggest they diverged from a common ancestor about 6.37m years ago, but till now the oldest known fossil from this group of animals amounted to some teeth found in Tanzania, dated to 3.6m years ago. Tseng dated Panthera blytheae to 4.10m-5.95m years.
Anjali Goswami, a palaeobiologist at University College London, who was not involved in the research, said: “This age has the result of pushing back the origin and evolution of Pantherinae by several million years, which is more consistent with molecular estimates.
“Divergence estimates for pantherines have been based in large part on very fragmentary material, so having a beautifully preserved specimen to accurately place in the big cat family tree means that we can have a lot more confidence in the result.
“This is also potentially the biggest weakness with the study, as the locality is not very well constrained in terms of age, meaning that there is a nearly 2 million year window on when this organism lived. Any part of this window still places it as the oldest pantherine, but constraining that to a more specific date between 4-6m years ago will be essential to furthering our understanding of pantherine evolution and indeed the evolution of this new species.”
The new fossil suggests central Asia, rather than Africa, was where the panthera sub family, including lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards, diverged from the rest of the cat family tree, felinae, which includes cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats.
Goswami said that the geographic origin of pantherines was perplexing, because the distribution of living species suggested an Asian origin for the group, but the oldest fossils were from Africa, suggesting an African origin.
“This beautiful fossil supports the Asian origin for the group, bringing together molecular, living and fossil data into a unified view of pantherine evolution.
“It also supports the idea that the Tibetan plateau was, and remains, an important biogeographic region for large mammals and is the centre of origin for many important groups. Nailing down the place of origin for pantherines also means that we can better understand the environmental and ecological context in which this group evolved.”
© Guardian News and Media 2013