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« Reply #240 on: Jan 26, 2014, 06:46 AM »

New species of river dolphin identified in Brazilian Amazon

• Scientists hail 'rare and exciting' discovery
• Some 1,000 Inia araguaiaensis live in Araguaia river

Associated Press in São Paulo, Saturday 25 January 2014 21.24 GMT      

Scientists have made the first discovery in 100 years of a new river dolphin species in the waters of the Araguaia river in Brazil's vast Amazon rainforest.

The discovery of the Inia araguaiaensis was officially announced earlier this week in a study posted online by the Plos One scientific journal.

The study's lead author, biologist Tomas Hrbek, of the Federal University of Amazonas in the city of Manaus, said the new species is the third ever found in the Amazon region.

"It was an unexpected discovery that shows just how incipient our knowledge is of the region's biodiversity," Hrbek said by telephone.

"River dolphins are among the rarest and most endangered of all vertebrates, so discovering a new species is something that is very rare and exciting." He said: "people always saw them in the river but no one ever took a close up look at them."

Hrbek added that scientists concluded the large dolphin was a new species by analysing and comparing DNA samples of several types of dolphins from the Amazon and Araguaia river basins.

"The Araguaia dolphin is very similar to its Amazon river cousin although somewhat smaller and with fewer teeth," he said. He added that there were about 1,000 Inia araguaiaensis dolphins living in the 2,627km-long (1,630 miles) river.

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« Reply #241 on: Jan 26, 2014, 06:48 AM »

How the threat to lions, leopards and wolves endangers us all

Though fearsome killers, big carnivores are also a precious resource, as their feeding habits keep many delicate ecosystems in balance. But too many predators are now facing extinction

Robin McKie   
The Observer, Sunday 26 January 2014      

They are the planet's most prolific killers – and also some of nature's most effective protectors. This is the stark conclusion of an international report that argues that lions, wolves, pumas, lynxes and other major carnivores play key roles in keeping ecosystems in balance. It also warns that the current depletion of numbers of major predators threatens to cause serious ecological problems across the globe.

The paper, written by a group of 14 leading ecologists and biologists from the US, Europe and Australia and published in the journal Science, calls for the establishment of an international initiative to conserve large carnivores and help them to coexist with humans. Failure to protect our top predators could soon have devastating consequences, they warn.

"Globally, we are losing our large carnivores," said William Ripple, the report's lead author. "Many of them are endangered and their ranges are collapsing. Many are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning to appreciate their important ecological effects."

The report has been produced, in part, to show that the classic vision of a large predator, such as a lion or a wolf, being an agent of harm to wildlife and a cause of widespread depletion of animal stocks is misguided. Careful analysis of predators' food chains reveals a very different picture. "In fact, the myriad social and economic effects [of large carnivores] include many benefits," it states.

Ripple, a professor at Oregon State University's department of forest ecosystems and society, and his colleague Robert Beschta, have documented the impact of wolves in Yellowstone and other national parks in North America. When wolf numbers have been reduced, usually by hunters, this has led to an increase in numbers of herbivores, in particular the elk.

Elks browse on trees such as aspen, willow, cottonwood, and various berry-producing shrubs, and the more elks there are, the more browsing damage is done to these trees. The knock-on effect is striking, says the report.

"Local bird populations go down because they have fewer berries to eat," added Ripple. "The same is true of bears, which also eat berries. Beaver populations are also affected. They have less plant life to eat and less wood for making their dams.

"For good measure, the roots of the willow and other shrubs help to hold the soil of river banks together, so they do not get washed away. This does happen, however, when you have no wolves, lots of elks and, therefore, poor levels of vegetation. So you can see that the wolf – which sits at the top of the food chain in midwest America – has an impact that goes right down to having an effect on the shapes of streams."

Yet wolves were once considered to be such a menace that they were exterminated inside Yellowstone national park in 1926. The park's ecology slowly transformed with their absence until, in 1995, they were reintroduced.

"Very quickly, the park's ecosystems returned to normal," said Ripple. "I was impressed with how resilient it proved."

Another example of the ecological importance of large carnivores is provided by lions and leopards. Both animals prey on olive baboons in Africa, and as numbers of these key predators have declined, numbers of olive baboons have increased. The population of lions in particular has been so reduced that it now only covers 17% of its historical range, while numbers of olive baboons have risen in direct proportion.

The consequence of this increase has been significant, say the authors. Olive baboons are omnivores and eat small primates and deer. When olive baboon numbers rise, populations of local monkeys and deer plummet. There is also an effect on human populations.

"Baboons pose the greatest threat to livestock and crops in sub-Saharan Africa, and they use many of the same sources of animal protein and plant foods as humans," states the Science paper. "In some areas, baboon raids in agricultural fields require families to keep children out of school so they can help guard planted crops."

Nor is the impact confined to land. Marine carnivores are also being depleted at alarming rates, with similar consequences for ecology of the seabed. Sea otters, which make their homes in the northern Pacific Ocean, control local populations of sea urchins by eating them.

When sea otter populations suffer, urchins do well and this has reverberations along the sea floor. Urchins attack and destroy the giant kelp that is found in vast forests in coastal waters in the Pacific, the scientists point out.

These forests are devastated, often with unfortunate results. Kelp forests dampen currents and storm surges and so protect coasts from erosion and damage. An absence of sea otters means no kelp forest and no seashore protection, in other words.

In addition, kelp absorbs carbon dioxide – just as trees and other plants do on land. And that it is another critical issue, Ripple added.

"Lions, leopards, wolves, sea otters and all those other carnivores at the top of food chains eat herbivores and keep their numbers under control. That in turn means there are fewer animals eating plants and so the planet has more trees or kelp that can absorb carbon dioxide and so help in some way to reduce amounts of the gas in the atmosphere," he said.

The problem for the planet is that across the world very few of the major carnivore populations are stable, the Science report reveals. In fact, numbers of virtually all of the major predators – including tigers, lions, pumas, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, black bears and hyenas – are plummeting.

More than 75% of the 31 species of large carnivore that were studied are declining, it was found, and 17 species now occupy less than half of their former ranges. According to the report's authors, the majority of the large carnivores that they looked at were either labelled endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Unfortunately for the biologists and ecologists who are trying to protect major predators, human tolerance of their presence is low. Farmers find their sheep and cattle are being killed and so view animals such as wolves as a straightforward threat to their livelihoods, for example.

"What is needed is a global initiative that is based on networks of local ecologists, landowners, hunters and other stakeholders who can work together to try to protect our key carnivores," said Ripple.

Carnivores are of immense value, he added. As well as helping protect the environment, they are of considerable tourist appeal. The wolves of Yellowstone bring in millions of dollars of tourist income every year, for example.

"Certainly it is true that these animals are killers, but they are also immensely important to the planet's ecosystems," Ripple told the Observer. "They are hard to live with. But equally they are a precious resource. Yet they are dying out very rapidly. We should not stand by and let that happen."

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« Reply #242 on: Jan 28, 2014, 06:28 AM »

Activists claim China is housing giant whale shark slaughterhouse

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 27, 2014 17:50 EST

A factory which processes around 600 whale sharks annually has been found in southern China, a conservation group said Monday, calling it the world’s biggest slaughterhouse for the endangered species.

Hong Kong-based conservation group WildLifeRisk said it discovered the factory in the town of Pu Qi in Zhejiang province after a four-year investigation.

It said the sharks are slaughtered and processed mostly to produce shark oil for health supplements.

Undercover video footage produced by the group showed workers cutting up the large dotted back fins of whale sharks and other shark species.

“How these harmless creatures, these gentle giants of the deep, can be slaughtered on such an industrial scale is beyond belief,” said a WildLifeRisk statement sent to AFP.

“It’s even more incredible that this carnage is all for the sake of non-essential lifestyle props such as lipsticks, face creams, health supplements and shark fin soup.”

The slaughterhouse also handles other species of sharks including blue sharks and basking sharks and produces 200 tonnes of shark oil annually from the three species, its owner — identified only as Li — said in the video.

Li also said he needed to “smuggle” whale shark skin out.

In another segment of the video, a man identified as Li’s brother said the whale shark skins are exported to European countries such as Italy and France, where they are used by Chinese restaurants.

Whale sharks measure as much as 12 metres (39 feet) but are harmless to humans and feed on tiny marine animals.

They are on the “Red List” of endangered species drawn up by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

They are also listed on Appendix II of the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning countries must show that any exports were derived from a sustainably managed population.

Exports and imports should also be monitored.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #243 on: Jan 29, 2014, 08:18 AM »

Mexico's 'water monster' the axolotl may have vanished from natural habitat

Biologist says most recent attempt to net creature in the Xochimilco network of lakes resulted in none being found

Associated Press in Mexico City, Wednesday 29 January 2014 09.50 GMT   

Mexico's salamander-like axolotl may have disappeared from its only known natural habitat in Mexico City's few remaining lakes.

It is disturbing news for an admittedly ugly creature, which has a slimy tail, plumage-like gills and mouth that curls into an odd smile.

The axolotl is known as the "water monster" and the "Mexican walking fish." Its only natural habitat is the Xochimilco network of lakes and canals, which are suffering from pollution and urban sprawl.

Biologist Armando Tovar Garza, of Mexico's National Autonomous University, described an attempt last year by researchers to try to net axolotls in the shallow, muddy waters of Xochimilco as "four months of sampling zero axolotls"."

Some axolotls still survive in aquariums, water tanks and research labs, but experts said those conditions were not ideal because of interbreeding and other risks.

Growing up to a foot long (30 cm), axolotls use four stubby legs to drag themselves along the bottom or thick tails to swim in Xoxhimilco's murky channels while feeding on aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans. But the surrounding garden islands have increasingly been converted to illicit shantytowns, with untreated sewage often running off into the water.

The Mexican Academy of Sciences said a 1998 survey had found an average of 6,000 axolotls for each square km, a figure that dropped to 1,000 in a 2003 study, and 100 in a 2008 survey.

Tovar Garza said it was too early to declare the axolotl extinct in its natural habitat. He said that in early February, researchers will begin a three-month search in hope of finding what may be the last free-roaming axolotl.

The searches "on almost all the canals have to be repeated, because now we are in the cold season, with lower temperatures, and that is when we ought to have more success with the axolotls, because it is when they breed," Tovar Garza said.

Researchers, who have been alarmed by the creature's falling numbers in recent years, have built axolotl "shelters" in Xochimilco.

Sacks of rocks and reedy plants act as filters around a selected area and cleaner water is pumped in to create better conditions. The shelters were also intended to help protect the axolotls from non-native carp and tilapia, which were introduced to the lake system years ago and compete with axolotls for food.

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« Reply #244 on: Jan 30, 2014, 11:30 AM »

Climate change taking toll on penguins, study finds

The study by University of Washington scientist P. Dee Boersma is one of the first to show a direct impact of climate change on seabirds. Most studies have looked at how warming temperatures affect animals indirectly, by altering predation patterns or food supplies.

The New York Times

Penguin chicks in their downy plumage seek shade under a shrub as they wait for their parents to return and feed them.

Life has never been easy for just-hatched Magellanic penguins, but climate change is making it worse, according to a decades-long study of the largest breeding colony of the birds.

The chicks are already vulnerable to predation and starvation. Now, the study at Punta Tombo, Argentina, found that intense storms and higher temperatures are increasingly taking a toll.

“Rainfall is killing a lot of penguins, and so is heat,” said P. Dee Boersma, a University of Washington scientist and lead author of the study. “And those are two new causes.”

Climate scientists say more extreme weather, including wetter storms and more prolonged periods of heat and cold, is one impact of a climate that is changing because of emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

While monitoring the penguin colony, Boersma and her colleagues also documented regional temperature changes and increases in the number of days with heavy rains.

The study, published online Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, is one of the first to show a direct impact of climate change on seabirds. Most studies have looked at how warming temperatures affect animals indirectly, by altering predation patterns or food supplies.

William Sydeman, senior scientist at the Farallon Institute in California, who was not involved in the research, said the study linked changes in climate, which occur on a scale of decades, to the daily scale of life in the colony. “That’s a unique contribution,” he said.

The colony at Punta Tombo, in a temperate and relatively dry region about midway along Argentina’s coast, is home to about 200,000 breeding pairs of the penguins, which are about 15-inches tall as adults. Boersma has been working there since 1982, with long-term support from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

For this study, researchers compiled data on nearly 3,500 chicks that they meticulously tracked by checking nests once or twice a day throughout the six-month breeding season, which starts in September. “We knew when each chick hatched, and its fate,” Boersma said.

Typically, nearly two-thirds of hatchlings at the colony do not survive to leave the nest. In most years, the researchers found, starvation and predation — by other seabirds and small animals — caused the majority of the deaths.

But they found that heavy storms killed birds in 13 of the 28 years of the study. In two years, storms were responsible for most of the deaths. Extreme heat killed more hatchlings as well, although the effect was less pronounced.

Like other young birds, penguin hatchlings can die from hypothermia if their down gets wet and loses its insulating air spaces. The birds are most vulnerable from about a week after hatching — before that they are largely protected by a parent — to about six weeks, when they develop waterproof plumage.

“They didn’t used to have to contend with this variability in the climate,” Boersma said. “And they certainly didn’t have to contend with all this rainfall.”

Since 1987, the number of breeding pairs in the colony has declined 24 percent, Boersma said. It is difficult to calculate how much of that decline can be attributed to storms and rain, she said.

Boersma said the increasing frequency of heavy storms was most likely directly affecting other seabird species that were breeding in the region.

Indeed, the same direct effect is being seen half a world away, in a terrestrial bird. In a study of a population of peregrine falcons in the Canadian Arctic that was published last year in the journal Oecologia, researchers reported that heavy rains killed large numbers of hatchlings, and documented an increase in the frequency of such rains over decades.

Alastair Franke, a University of Alberta scientist who led that study, said he was stunned when he read Boersma’s paper. “It’s amazing that we’re seeing such similarity between the two studies,” he said.

In her work, Boersma showed that the deaths caused by storms were in addition to those from other causes.

Franke said that was one of the most interesting aspects of Boersma’s study. “This is a double whammy for the penguins,” he said. “You’re still going to get all the starvation and predation. But now you get increased mortality from rainfall as well.”

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« Reply #245 on: Jan 30, 2014, 11:31 AM »

Number of monarch butterflies drops, migration may disappear

The black-and-orange Monarch butterflies cover only 1.65 acres in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City this year, compared with 2.93 acres last year.

The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — The stunning and little-understood annual migration of millions of monarch butterflies to spend the winter in Mexico is in danger of disappearing, experts said Wednesday, after numbers dropped to their lowest since record-keeping began in 1993.

The experts blamed the displacement of the milkweed on which the species feeds, extreme weather trends and the substantial reduction of the butterflies’ habitat in Mexico due to illegal logging of the trees they depend on for shelter.

After steep and steady declines in the previous three years, the black-and-orange butterflies cover only 1.65 acres in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City, compared with 2.93 acres last year, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, Mexico’s Environment Department and the Natural Protected Areas Commission. The butterflies covered more than 44.5 acres at their recorded peak in 1996.

Because the butterflies clump by the thousands in trees, they are counted by the area they cover.

While the monarch butterfly is not in danger of extinction, the species’ decline in population marks a statistical long-term trend and can no longer be seen as a combination of yearly or seasonal events, experts said.

The announcement followed on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which saw the United States, Mexico and Canada sign environmental accords to protect migratory species such as the monarch. At the time, the butterfly was adopted as the symbol of trilateral cooperation.

“Twenty years after the signing of NAFTA, the monarch migration, the symbol of the three countries’ cooperation, is at serious risk of disappearing,” said Omar Vidal, the World Wildlife Fund director in Mexico.

Lincoln Brower, a leading entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, wrote: “The migration is definitely proving to be an endangered biological phenomenon.”

“The main culprit,” he wrote in an email, is now genetically modified “herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides in the USA,” which “leads to the wholesale killing of the monarch’s principal food plant, common milkweed.”

While Mexico has made headway in reducing logging in the officially protected winter reserve, that alone cannot save the migration, wrote Karen Oberhauser, a professor at the University of Minnesota. She noted that studies indicate the U.S. Midwest is where most of the butterflies migrate from.

“A large part of their reproductive habitat in that region has been lost due to changes in agricultural practices, mainly the explosive growth in the use of herbicide-tolerant crops,” Oberhauser said.

Extreme weather — severe cold snaps, unusually heavy rains or droughts in all three countries — have also apparently played a role in the decline.

But the milkweed issue places the spotlight on the United States and President Obama, who is scheduled to visit Mexico on Feb. 19, with events scheduled for Toluca, a few dozen miles from the butterfly reserve.

“I think President Obama should take some step to support the survival of the monarch butterflies,” said writer and environmentalist Homero Aridjis. “The governments of the United States and Canada have washed their hands of the problem, and left it all to Mexico.”

It’s unclear what would happen to the monarchs if they no longer made the annual trip to Mexico, the world’s biggest migration of monarch butterflies and the second-largest insect migration, after a species of dragonfly in Africa.

There are monarchs in many parts of the world, so they would not go extinct. The butterflies can apparently survive year-round in warmer climates, but populations in the northern United States and Canada would have to find someplace to spend the bitter winters.

There is another smaller migration route that takes butterflies from the west to the coast of California, but that has registered even steeper declines.

Oberhauser noted that some Monarchs appear to be wintering along the U.S. Gulf Coast, and there has been a movement in the United States among gardeners and homeowners to plant milkweed to replace some of the lost habitat.

But activists say large stands of milkweed are needed along the migratory route, comparable to what once grew there. They also want local authorities in the U.S. and Canada to alter mowing schedules in parks and public spaces, to avoid cutting down milkweed during breeding seasons.

The migration is an inherited trait. No butterfly lives to make the full round-trip, and it is unclear how they remember the route back to the same patch of forest each year, a journey of thousands of miles, to a forest reserve that covers 193,000 acres in central Mexico.
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« Reply #246 on: Jan 31, 2014, 07:15 AM »

Debate erupts over genetically-modified monkeys created with ‘cut and paste’ DNA

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Thursday, January 30, 2014 18:27 EST

Breakthrough could help battle diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but ethical concerns remain over animal testing

Researchers have created genetically modified monkeys with a revolutionary new procedure that enables scientists to cut and paste DNA in living organisms.

The macaques are the first primates to have their genetic makeup altered with the powerful technology which many scientists believe will lead to a new era of genetic medicine.

The feat was applauded by some researchers who said it would help them to recreate devastating human diseases in monkeys, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The ability to alter DNA with such precision is already being investigated as a way to make people resistant to HIV.

But the breakthrough is controversial, with groups opposed to animal testing warning that it could drive a rise in the use of monkeys in research. One critic said that genetic engineering gave researchers “almost limitless power to create sick animals”.

The work was carried out in a lab in China, where scientists said they had used a genome editing procedure, called Crispr/Cas9, to manipulate two genes in fertilised monkey eggs before transferring them to surrogate mothers.

Writing in the journal, Cell, the team from Nanjing Medical University reported the delivery of twin female long-tailed macaques, called Ningning and Mingming. Five surrogates miscarried and four more pregnancies are ongoing.

The Crispr procedure has been welcomed by geneticists in labs around the world because of its enormous potential. Unlike standard gene therapy, Crispr allows scientists to remove faulty genes from cells, or replace them with healthy ones. It can even correct single letter spelling mistakes in the DNA code.

The Chinese team, led by Jiahao Sha, said their work demonstrates how Crispr could be used to create monkeys that carry genetic faults that lead to diseases in humans. But the same could be done to small pieces of human organs grown in the lab, and used to test drugs, or to monitor the progress of serious diseases.

Nelson Freimer, director of the centre for neurobehavioural genetics at the University of California in Los Angeles, said that while researchers often use mice to study human diseases, brain disorders are particularly hard to recreate in the animals because their brains are so different.

“People have been looking for primate models for a whole list of diseases, but in the past it’s been either completely unfeasible, or incredibly expensive. This is saying we can do this relatively inexpensively and quickly, and that is a major advance,” said Freimer.

But Freimer added that the use of monkeys was likely to remain a last resort. “It’s going to be really critical to define the problems for which this is used, just as you always do with animal research. You want to use all the alternatives before you propose animal research. This will be reserved for terrible diseases for which it offers hope that cannot be gotten any other way,” he said.

Tipu Aziz, who has used primates in his work on Parkinson’s disease at Oxford University, welcomed the new procedure. “If we can identify genes for neurological disorders in a clinical setting and transpose those into a monkey it would be of massive benefit. I don’t know that it’ll lead to a rise in the use of monkeys, but it will lead to more focused studies,” he said.

Robin Lovell-Badge, head of genetics at the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research in London, said that genetically modified monkeys could be valuable to check new therapies before they are tried in humans. “Mice are fantastic models for some aspects of human physiology, but they are not always perfect, and it’s good to have alternatives,” he said. “If you are trying to develop a stem cell therapy and want to graft cells back into the brain, it’s difficult to know how it will work in a complex brain, and mice or rats are not suitable.” With Crispr, scientists could perform far more subtle genetic tweaks than is possible with other methods, he added.

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, has co-founded a company, Editas Medicine, that aims to use Crispr to treat a number of human diseases. While monkeys had a role to play, he said another approach was to grow human “organoids” or small clumps of human organ tissue in the lab, and use Crispr to give them genetic faults that cause disease. “This is a really big moment, because if you think something has a genetic component, you can prove it with Crispr, and then improve it with Crispr, or other therapies,” he said.

One idea in trials already uses genome editing to remove a gene called CCR5 from human immune cells. Without the gene, the HIV virus cannot get into immune cells, so patients could be cured of the disease. In future, the same procedure could be used on healthy people at risk of the disease to make them resistant to infection.

Vicky Robinson, chief executive of National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), said: “This research could drive an increase in the use of non-human primates worldwide. Whether that would be justified in terms of the benefits to scientific and medical research, let alone the ethical considerations, is open to debate. Just because the monkey has greater similarity to man than other animal species does not guarantee that it will be a better surrogate for studying human disease, a point that decision makers – funders and regulators – should take seriously.”

Troy Seidle, director of research and toxicology at Humane Society International, called for an outright ban on the genetic manipulation of monkeys. “You can’t genetically manipulate a highly sentient non-human primate without compromising its welfare, perhaps significantly. GM primates will be just as intelligent, just as sensitive to physical and psychological suffering as their non-GM counterparts, and our moral responsibility toward them is no less. In fact, the scope for animal suffering is increased because genetic engineering gives researchers almost limitless power to create sick animals with potentially devastating and disabling symptoms, which can include entirely unexpected phenotypic mutations. It’s also worth noting that this research is being pioneered in China, where there are currently no laws or enforced ethical controls on animal experiments.”

Dr Andrew Bennett, a scientist with the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (Frame), added: “Whilst the technological advances in genetic engineering are to be both applauded and admired, their subsequent use to produce genetically modified monkeys is questionable at best. Frame would call for more funding to be used to produce model systems based on human tissues and cells rather than try to develop more sophisticated laboratory animal species. If you’re working on human disease, then it is necessary to use human-derived material to predict human responses.”

© Guardian News and Media 2014

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« Reply #247 on: Feb 02, 2014, 06:56 AM »

Hundreds of reptiles and amphibians found dead at South African airport

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 31, 2014 16:26 EST

Several hundred reptiles and amphibians were found dead at Johannesburg airport when a routine inspection uncovered some 1,600 of the creatures crammed into two crates destined for the United States.

The shipment, from Madagascar, was left unattended in the cargo area of OR Tambo International Airport after bad weather delayed flights to the US, South Africa’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) said on Friday.

“The bad smell coming from the sealed animal crates indicated that many of the reptiles were dead or dying and in need of urgent assistance,” the NSPCA said in a statement.

The surviving animals, which include geckos, frogs, chameleons, lizards and toads, are being treated at Johannesburg Zoo.

The NSPCA said the animals had been kept in small muslin bags or plastic tubes for about five days before they were found on January 29.

“Many animals could not move or turn around in their containers. None had been provided with water,” it said.

More than 360 of the creatures died of dehydration, kidney failure, cannibalism and infections, Johannesburg Zoo managing director Bulumko Nelana told Sapa news agency.

The shipment was legal and the animals were destined for the pet trade, according to the NSPCA.

“People who have exotic animals as pets must realise that they are causing this cruelty. Without the demand for these animals as pets, there would be no market and these animals would not be stolen from the wild,” said Ainsley Hay, the manager of the NSPCA’s Wildlife Protection Unit.

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« Reply #248 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:22 AM »

Sochi hires pest control firm for cull of stray dogs during Winter Olympics

Firm says thousands of stray dogs are roaming the streets of Sochi and that some are biting children

Associated Press in Sochi, Monday 3 February 2014 13.32 GMT      

A pest control company in the Winter Olympics host city of Sochi has been given a contract to exterminate dogs during the Games.

Alexei Sorokin, director general of Basya Services, said his company was involved in the "catching and disposing" of dogs.

Thousands of stray dogs are roaming the streets of Sochi, according to Sorokin, who said some were biting children. He said he attended a rehearsal of the Olympic opening ceremony last week and saw a stray dog walking in on the performers.

"A dog ran into the Fisht Stadium; we took it away," he said. "God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony. This will be a disgrace for the whole country."

Stray dogs are not uncommon in Sochi and the surrounding area, and many tend to gather near construction sites where they are likely to get food and shelter from workers. Some have been able to get inside the Olympic Park.

Sorokin's company operates in the Krasnodar region, including Sochi. He refused to say how many dogs it killed each year, calling it a commercial secret.

Last year a politician from the Krasnodar region supported the dog culling. Sergei Krivonosov said taking the dogs off the street was Russia's "responsibility to the international community and their elimination is the quickest way to solve this problem".

He conceded, however, that this was not the most humane way of dealing with the problem, and said authorities should encourage dog shelters.

Sochi city hall announced a contract to catch and dispose of stray dogs in Sochi, but animal activists protested against the move. Authorities pledged to give up the practice and build animal shelters for stray dogs instead. Activists say there is no evidence that a shelter has been built.

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« Reply #249 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:30 AM »

Pakistan urged to ban Arab sheikhs from hunting endangered birds

Special licences given to high-rolling dignitaries to kill houbara bustard, which is considered to be at risk of extinction

Jon Boone in Karachi, Tuesday 4 February 2014 07.00 GMT   

Pakistan is witnessing a mounting backlash against Arab sheikhs who spend part of their winters hunting a rare bird that conservationists warn is at risk of extinction.

Activists in the country say they are determined to end the annual killing of houbara bustards, an elusive bird that migrates each winter from central Asia to Pakistan's warmer climes.

Although the birds are officially protected, VIP visitors from the Gulf enjoy their traditional hunts with falcons and believe the houbara's meat has aphrodisiac properties.

"Is there any more ridiculous reason to kill an animal?" said Naeem Sadiq, a Karachi-based activist who petitioned the Lahore high court to ban the practice. "If it's illegal for Pakistanis to kill these birds why should the Arab sheikhs be allowed to do it?"

On Friday, the court slapped an interim ban on hunting in Punjab province, where the government has issued special hunting permits to royalty from across the Arab world.

Numbers of houbara, which are considered to be at risk of extinction by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, have fallen dramatically in recent decades.

They have been almost wiped out on the Arabian peninsula and various countries in the region, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, have set up breeding programmes to try to revive numbers.

While houbara hunting has been banned in India for decades, Pakistan continues to give special licences to Arab rulers and senior officials. This year Pakistan issued 33 permits allowing dignitaries to kill up to 100 birds each.

The list of licence holders is a who's who of Gulf potentates, including the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the president of the UAE.

The Arab kingdoms are home to huge numbers of Pakistani expatriate workers and the government is loth to jeopardise its relationship with such important regional allies.

"Arab dignitaries have been coming for hunting for decades and decades – it's a longstanding tradition," said Tasneem Aslam, from Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs. "Ten years ago there wasn't so much public awareness about the issue but now we see more voices raising their concern."

It's not just environmental activists and the country's boisterous media that increasingly focuses on the comings and goings of Arab dignitaries but also politicians determined to stop the sport.

Sindh, one of Pakistan's four provinces where a large number of licences were issued for the hunting season, is attempting to challenge the foreign affairs ministry's right to issue permits.

"We believe the constitution gives the right to give licences to the provinces," said Sikandar Ali Mandhro, a Sindh provincial government minister leading the fight. "If we succeed we will immediately introduce a five- or 10-year ban because the bird numbers have become so low."

Few outsiders have witnessed one of the bustard-hunting expeditions, but stories about the high-rolling Arab falconers are legendary in Pakistan.

Tons of equipment is flown in by private transport planes, including the falcons used to hunt the rare quarry. Luxuriously appointed camps are set up for the sheikh and his guests, who often stay for weeks.

Local communities value the money spent by their annual visitors, who have paid for improvements to roads and airstrips, as well as paying for the means to build mosques and schools.

An official from the Houbara Foundation Pakistan, which rescues birds captured for illegal shipment to the Gulf, said there was a desperate need for a proper national survey of houbara numbers in order to decide whether limited hunting should be allowed to continue.

"The real problem arises once a hunting camp is set up and other people come and take advantage," said the official, who did not wish to be named. "We have informal information about locals shooting the birds."

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« Reply #250 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:48 AM »

Chinese new year: Fighting tradition marks year of the horse

500-year tradition sees stallions clash in bouts over mares in mountain villages across southern China

AFP, Monday 3 February 2014 04.44 GMT   
Hooves clash in mid-air, a stallion bites his opponent while delighted spectators cheer wildly - in southern China some saw in the Year of the Horse by watching the animals fight.

For the residents of Tiantou, a remote village in the Guangxi region, the 500-year-old tradition which pits male horses against each other in a fight over a female was the only way to kick off the Lunar New Year.

"Without horse fighting it wouldn't feel like a new year," said Pan Jianming, whose horse Little Black reared-up on its hind legs and bit its opponent's neck to scoop victory in a competition this weekend.

"He stood up and hit the other horse straight away," Pan, a 31-year-old air conditioner repairman, said.

"If he likes the female horse, it doesn't matter how much pain he's in, he won't run away," he added, his black and white shirt stained with blood which dripped from a gash on his horse's nose.

"We have medicine to treat his injuries, and he will gradually get better," added Pan, who claimed a champion's prize of 500 yuan ($80).

Fifteen animals fought in bouts which saw horses jump into the air with their front hooves spinning before crashing down on their opponents and biting their head or neck, sometimes drawing hair and blood.

Horse fighting competitions held by the Miao – an ethnic group living in mountain areas of southern China and southeast Asia – date back more than five centuries, according to locals.

The first battle is said to have been held to settle a dispute between two brothers who both hoped to marry the same woman.

But the fights, held in dozens of small mountain villages in southern China every year with prizes of up to 10,000 yuan, have been condemned by animal rights groups.

In 2010, Hong-Kong based Animals Asia called horse-fighting a "horrific spectacle", accusing the scraps of causing "abuse and suffering to animals in the name of entertainment".

The stallions are encouraged to fight by the presence of a female horse, who is kept metres away from the clashing pairs by a villager armed with little more than a stick.

The horse which successfully defends its position close to the female is declared the winner.

Animals Asia has said the female horses are sometimes "induced into season through the injection of hormones".

In Tiantou, hundreds of spectators gathered just metres away from the battling equines - without any barriers separating them from the action.

The animals squared up to each other like boxers before unleashing a flurry of backwards-directed kicks and bites. Most did not appear to sustain any visible injuries.

Onlookers scrambled to escape when pairs of bucking mares periodically galloped towards them.

Others shouted: "Fight, Fight!" as the animals clashed but most insisted the contest was not cruel.

"Sometimes the horses will be injured but it won't be very serious, they have thick skin," said Di Zhai, a 16-year-old spectator. "

Some travellers from Chinese cities, which have seen a rise in concern for animal welfare in recent years alongside a growth in pet-ownership, seemed more concerned.

"It's horrible to see the horses get injured, I don't like to watch," said 14-year-old Ma Jiasui, who had travelled to the village from a nearby province as part of a tourist group.

However, she added: "It's the Year of the Horse, and my surname means horse, so its special to see horse fighting this year."

The contests are held year-round but peak following the start of the Lunar New Year - the most important annual festival in China, which fell on Friday.

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« Reply #251 on: Feb 06, 2014, 07:46 AM »

02/05/2014 05:13 PM

Crying Wolf: Saxon Hunters Say Predators a Danger

By Steffen Winter

Hunters believe wolves may have caused a serious accident in the state of Saxony in December. They claim the animals, which have been repopulating Germany over the past decade after a 150-year absence, are increasingly feared by the local community.

The site of the accident, on Germany's B-6 federal highway, looked like a scene out of a horror film. Shattered glass and car parts had been flung all over the place, as had been the blood-smeared bodies of animals. Medics at the site counted seven dead horses. Two seriously injured motorists had to be taken to the hospital. Both cars were wrecked beyond salvage.

The crash, which happened on an important traffic artery between the cities of Meissen and Riese in the eastern German state of Saxony in December, sent shock waves that rippled well beyond the medics dispatched to clean up the mess. Hunters in the region are convinced that wild wolves caused the horses to panic. The horses had escaped from a paddock and stood close together on the B-6 as cars raced by at high speeds in both directions.

Wolves returned to Saxony more than a decade ago, and ever since, nature conservationists have been battling with hunters and farmers in the region. On the one side, people are pleased that these wild animals, the subject of many a myth and which had been extinct in the country for some 150 years, have found a home again in Germany. But the other side views the wolf enthusiasts as crazy and fears the predators are killing sheep and deer in droves. Initially, the animals had settled in the state's rural Lausitz region, but now that they are encroaching on cities, a new debate has flared.

Hunters Warn of Fear in Everyday Life

Members of district hunting association in Meissen, an idyllic city with a castle that is world famous for its porcelain, recently criticized the wolves' return in a letter to the Saxony state interior minister that included the header "urgent". In it, the hunters lament that Saxony has the "world's densest population of wolves," and that it is increasing. It goes on to say that they worry not only about public safety, but also that "previously unseen mass packs" of up to 40 wild boar had been lurking about in the Meissen area recently.

The hunters claim the animals have joined together in large packs out of fear of the wolves and are causing tremendous damage. They also claim that local partridges, pheasants, hares, owls and skylarks are disappearing, devoured by wolves and other predators. Something has to be done, the hunters warn -- otherwise fear "will become an unwelcome part of daily life."

The state of Saxony has indeed become a haven for the wolf, although not to extent of that seen in Poland or the United States, where there are far more of the animals per square kilometer. Saxony is estimated to be home to 11 wolf pairs or packs with up to nine animals in each. Across Germany, there are 26 such groupings. The people feeling the brunt of the increasing numbers of wolves are farmers. Since 2002, wolves have killed 409 sheep, 20 goats, 12 deer in enclosures, one cow and one dog in the state.

Humans Greatest Threat to Wolves

The accident involving the horses and the injured drivers suggests the problem may now have spread to the roads. In mid-January, suspicions that a wolf may have killed a German shepherd in a kennel in Lausitz also helped to escalate tensions. The regional Mitteldeutsche Zeitung reported extensively on the incident, and even the Saxony state environment minister felt compelled to weigh in defending wolves in the Sächsische Zeitung newspaper.

Wolves are provided with strong protection under German law, but humans still represent their greatest threat. Since 2000, some 30 wolves have died in Saxony after getting hit by cars. Five wolves have been killed illegally. Near the town Driewitz, also in the Lausitz region, an unidentified driver chased a wolf down a fenced-in forest path and ran it over. And on Dec. 13, just three days after the accident on the B-6, a wolf pup died after being shot by a shotgun.

The highway accident offers new arguments for the wolves' opponents in the region. The pack of critics is led by Wernher Gerhards, a man fond of describing himself as a science journalist. He has written an evaluation of the accident based on what he sees as hard evidence. He believes wolves drove the horses from their paddock and claims to have discovered wolf tracks in three different places as well as wolf dung, which he has stored in his freezer. According to his theory, the horses were frightened two times by the wolves. A short time before the deadly accident, he says the horses broke out of their enclosure. The owner was able to capture the expensive Trakehner horses with the help of police, but they were frightened again even as they were being taken back home.

Horse expert Hans-Joachim Schwark finds this version to be plausible. A professor emeritus in animal husbandry from Leipzig, Schwark says that flight animals (those, like horses, which flee danger), react "extremely sensitively" to wolves, even if, as in this case, they are being led by someone with extensive horse experience.

'No Proof'

Thus far, nothing has been proven. Gerhards does not want to pass along his evaluation to the authorities out of fear that wolf-friendly politicians will "play down the issue." Government officials, on the other hand, have not sent an expert of their own. Wolf expert Gesa Kluth, who works at the Contact Office Wolves in Saxony, says that Gerhards has never approached her office for consultation. She adds that it is easy to confuse wolf tracks with those of dogs. "At the moment, there is no proof that wolves are active in the region of the accident," she says. But, she adds, the possibility cannot be excluded.

The environmental protection group WWF has offered a €10,000 ($13,500) award for the capture of the wolf poacher from Lohsa and has demanded that a special law enforcement force be established to investigate the crime. Normal law enforcement bureaus, the group added, are unequipped to handle such offenses.

In the meantime, laboratories in Gelnhausen and Berlin have been able to use genetic tests to determine what happened to the German shepherd Udo. It wasn't a wolf. Rather it was the neighbor dog, a great Dane named Honey.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey

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« Reply #252 on: Feb 06, 2014, 08:12 AM »

France destroys illegal ivory stocks

Public destruction of three tonnes intended as a warning to poachers and traffickers that there is no future in ivory

• Eco audit: does destroying ivory help save elephants?

Kim Willsher in Paris, Thursday 6 February 2014 11.58 GMT   

France became the first European country to destroy its stocks of illegal ivory on Thursday in a dramatic warning to those involved in the lucrative wildlife trade that is endangering elephants and other species.

The three tonnes of ivory, mostly elephant tusks packed into white builders' bags, were unloaded from a lorry at the Champs de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and laid out on a blue tarpaulin.

In bitterly cold drizzling rain, the tusks were fed one by one on to a conveyer belt and into a pulveriser that spewed out a fine, dirty-white dust.

It was intended as a powerful message to the poachers and traffickers: there is no future in ivory.

The destruction of France's impounded ivory comes as London prepares to host a global summit to tackle the $19bn a year illegal wildlife trade on February 12 and 13, led by Prince Charles and David Cameron, to which 50 heads of state have been invited.

Most of the tusks, either whole or carved into batons of ivory, weighing 2,304kg, had been seized by customs officers at Roissy and Orly airports either in freight cargo or from passengers.

A further 15,357 pieces of ivory, including statues and jewellery, weighing 800kg, were also fed into the grinder. Officials said the powder would be encased in a composite material to make it impossible to retrieve, and used in construction.

Philippe Martin the minister for ecology, durable development and energy, added that all ivory seized in France in future would be destroyed, apart from samples kept for scientific or educational purposes and those items that might help trace traffickers.

"The destruction of illegal ivory has become indispensable in the fight against trafficking of threatened species. It's a firm message that we are sending to the dealers who are threatening the survival of the elephant in Africa," Martin said.

"Our weapons against the illegal trade in wild species has been considerably reinforced and will continue to be in 2014."

He said France had increased fines against those dealing in illegal ivory by up to 10 times.

"The message to the poachers and traffickers is clear: the trafficking of ivory has no future; with this action we are telling them ivory has no value."

Hubert Géant, the director of police at the national office of hunting and wild fauna, said: "The contraband from wild animals has become the most lucrative criminal activity after drugs, fake money and the trafficking of human beings.

"All species included it brings in more than $14bn. Pure ivory can bring in $2,000 a kilo in the Asian black market, it's main destination. We estimate that the illegal trade in wild specials involves 500-600 million tropical fish, 15 million fur animals, five million birds, two million reptiles and 30,000 primates."

In November last year the United States destroyed six tons of illegal ivory and in December China ground up the same amount.

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« Reply #253 on: Feb 06, 2014, 08:14 AM »

Russian poachers purge parks as Moscow goes nuts for squirrels

Extra police to patrol parks and hand out fines as large numbers of squirrels go missing to become household pets

Associated Press in Moscow, Thursday 6 February 2014 12.37 GMT

One by one, the bushy-tailed residents of Moscow's parks have been disappearing. The problem: Russians have gone nuts for squirrels.

A city official, Alexei Gorelov, said he had received multiple reports of squirrel poaching in local parks. In response, municipal authorities have beefed up security for all of Moscow's green areas.

Gorelov, who heads the ecological control department of eastern and north-eastern Moscow, said more police patrols would be dispatched to fend off poachers, who can be fined up to 20,000 rubles (£357).

Squirrels, which are of little use for their meat or their fur, are primarily poached to become pets. Russian websites offer the creatures for sale at 5,000 rubles each.

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« Reply #254 on: Feb 06, 2014, 09:07 AM »

House Republicans Seek to Ruthlessly Gut the Endangered Species Act

By: Keith Brekhus
Wednesday, February, 5th, 2014, 8:15 pm   

House Republicans are taking aim at the Endangered Species Act. The effort, spearheaded by Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and Washington State’s Doc Hastings, both Republicans, is designed to weaken the Act which was signed into law forty years ago by President Richard Nixon. Republican critics of the Endangered Species Act argue that it hampers development and imposes undue burdens on landowners as well as on corporations that engage in logging, mining, and drilling. They also contend that the Endangered Species Act is a failure because not many species have been taken off the list.

However, The Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 and other environmental policies enacted in conjunction with it have been successful in providing for the remarkable recovery of several species of wildlife. Take for example our national bird, the iconic bald eagle. Once near the brink of extinction, this majestic bird has made a dramatic recovery. In 1973, the lower 48 states had fewer than 800 nesting pairs of bald eagles. Now there are over 11,000 breeding pairs, with nests in every one of the lower 48 states.

Likewise, the gray whale, has nearly doubled in population since being listed as endangered in 1973, when the initial act was passed into law. The current population estimate of around 19,000 gray whales is an optimal population that is close to the population of the animals prior to the commercial whaling that decimated their numbers in the early and mid-twentieth century.

Although perhaps less glamorous, the American Alligator was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s. The recovery for this species was so thorough that it was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1987. The United States is now home to around 5 million of these impressive reptiles.

The grizzly bear and the gray wolf have also benefited from some federal protection made possible by provisions contained in the Endangered Species Act. In the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem alone the grizzly has rebounded from estimates of fewer than 200 bears in the 1970s to triple that number today. Wolves have also begun to thrive in the Yellowstone area after a successful reintroduction effort in the 1990s.

Lummis has consistently fought to remove grizzly bears and wolves from the Endangered Species List, even though they are popular draws for tourists who come to observe them in Yellowstone. Lummis refers to those who try to defend America’s wildlife from being pushed to extinction as “radical environmentalists.” However, it is Republican politicians who want to give corporate interests the unfettered ability to exploit nearly every acre of pristine land for profit, while ignoring the impact on wildlife and the environment, who are truly pushing a radical agenda. On behalf of the recovery of the majestic bald eagle, the impressive gray whale, the formidable American alligator, the resplendent gray wolf, and the awe-inspiring grizzly bear, the Endangered Species Act should be left alone, so that America’s wildlife can continue to rebound and thrive.

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