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« Reply #300 on: Apr 08, 2014, 07:07 AM »


Endangered butterfly defies climate change with new diet and habitat

Quino checkerspot, native to Mexico and California, shifts to higher altitude and chooses new species of plant for laying eggs

Patrick Barkham   
The Guardian, Monday 7 April 2014 11.03 BST   
   
A butterfly species whose population collapsed because of climate change and habitat loss has defied predictions of extinction to rapidly move to cooler climes and change its food plant.

The quino checkerspot (Euphydryas editha quino), found in Mexico and California, has shifted to higher altitudes and surprisingly chosen a completely different species of plant on which to lay its eggs, according to research presented at the Butterfly Conservation's seventh international symposium in Southampton.

Its rapid adaption offers hope that other insects and species may be able to adapt unexpectedly quickly to climate change.

"Every butterfly biologist who knew anything about the quino in the mid-1990s thought it would be extinct by now, including me," said Prof Camille Parmesan of the Marine Sciences Institute at Plymouth University.

The Quino was once abundant in southern California but the expansion of Los Angeles and San Diego saw it reduced to just two small colonies. Other populations in Mexico began declining sharply as global warming made conditions too hot and dry for its caterpillars' food plant, a species of plantain.

Six years ago, Parmesan suggested that the endangered quino could be a prime candidate for "assisted colonisation" – to be moved by humans to cooler, unspoilt habitat north of Los Angeles. Instead, to the amazement of scientists, the butterfly did not need human help and reappeared on higher ground to the east, where its caterpillars are feeding on a flowering plant it has never eaten before.

Several other butterfly species have been changing habitat or diet to cope with a changing climate but the quino checkerspot is the first butterfly known to science to change both so rapidly.

Many environmentalists fear that climate change is happening too quickly for species to adapt but, according to Parmesan, this surprising example shows that some apparently doomed species may be more resilient than we imagine.

However, she warned that this case showed that nature reserves, and linking together unspoilt habitat, was more important than ever to enable species to survive a changing climate. Without undeveloped land to the east of Los Angeles and San Diego, the quino checkerspot would have had nowhere to go and would have become extinct.

"We have to give these species the space to adapt," said Parmesan. "In the early days of climate change people worried that nature reserves would be no longer useful because the species they protected would move out. Now we know that new species move in, and so they are more important than ever."

More than a quarter of Britain's 59 species are moving north, with butterflies such as the comma moving around 10km each year. With climate change, another UK species, the brown argus, has started to feed on wild geranium plants as a caterpillar, enabling it to spread rapidly through the Midlands and into northern England.

But the international symposium also heard strong scientific evidence that climate change will create more losers than winners because unspoilt habitat is so fragmented, preventing many butterflies, moths and other insects from moving to more suitable places. Tom Oliver of the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology told the symposium that scientific modelling predicted a number of UK butterfly extinctions by the middle of this century.


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« Reply #301 on: Apr 11, 2014, 06:24 AM »

Clever chimps use improvised bridge to escape Kansas City Zoo

By Reuters
Friday, April 11, 2014 6:23 EDT   

Seven chimpanzees used an improvised ladder from a tree to scale a wall and briefly escape their enclosure at the Kansas City Zoo on Thursday, a zoo official said.

One of the chimps apparently pulled a log or a branch and leaned it against the wall of the enclosure, giving the primates a leg-up to the top, zoo director Randy Wisthoff said.

The animals did not have any contact with zoo visitors, as they escaped into an area reserved for zookeepers, he added. There are 12 chimps in total at the zoo, which was closed after the incident.

“We had a ringleader,” Wisthoff said. “He got up on the log and got some others to join him.”

Using food to entice them, the zookeepers herded the wayward chimps back into an indoor enclosure. The chimps were on the loose for around an hour.

Wisthoff said zoo staff regularly checks trees in the area of the chimpanzees for fallen limbs but in this case a chimp apparently pulled a log or large limb out of a tree.

“Chimps are so much stronger than humans,” Wisthoff said, adding that they are also very smart.

Click to watch: http://videos.rawstory.com/video/Chimps-escape-habitat-cause-ale

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« Reply #302 on: Apr 11, 2014, 06:27 AM »

Maine moose population ‘walking dead’ after ticks drain blood due to climate change

By David Edwards
RawStory
Thursday, April 10, 2014 9:59 EDT

Researchers in New England say that warmer weather caused by climate change has allowed ticks to thrive, and devastated the moose population by literally draining them of blood.

In a segment on PBS Newshour this week, reporter Hari Sreenivasan traveled to New Hampshire and Maine, where teams were tagging moose with radio transmitters to better understand why the animal population was in steep decline.

Film crews were there the day that researches found one dead calf covered in winter ticks.

“Literally, this is the walking dead,” University of New Hampshire wildlife ecology professor Peter Pekins explained. “The animal is totally emaciated. And there is no way it can survive.”

“They are literally being sucked dry of blood. So, they can’t consume protein to replace the blood loss,” Perkins pointed out. “Their only choice is to catabolize their own tissues. And that is going to be their muscles. The hind legs on a moose are some the most powerful legs in North America. And that animal doesn’t have any. And it’s because it has chewed up its own body to survive as long as it can.”

According to scientists, warmer weather has caused an explosion in the tick population.

And the National Wildlife Federation’s Eric Orff expected that the problem would get worse as climate change accelerates.

“In New Hampshire, our winters have warmed some four degrees since 1970,” Orff said. “So, the warming of the winter means less snow, means more ticks, means fewer moose.”

He has asked the outdoor industry to help pressure lawmakers into reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change.

“In my lifetime, as a wildlife biologist, I witnessed the disappearance of winter here in New Hampshire,” Orff observed. “So we really need to curb carbon, get off the carbs world, and we need to put this earth on a diet of carbs, carbon, and bring back winter.”


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« Reply #303 on: Apr 12, 2014, 07:00 AM »


SeaWorld loses appeal against killer-whale occupational safety ruling

• Judges: company exposed trainers to 'recognised hazards'
• Trainer Dawn Brancheau died in 2010 incident

Reuters in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 11 April 2014 17.38 BST   
   
Killer Whale Kills Trainer At Florida Seaworld Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Florida in 2009. The following year she was killed during a killer whale show at the theme park. Photo: Barry Bland/Barcroft Media

A US appeals court on Friday upheld a federal occupational safety agency's finding against SeaWorld Entertainment Inc, following the workplace death of one of its killer whale trainers.

The ruling by the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia circuit could have a major impact on how SeaWorld presents its shows, because it would require increased separation of humans and killer whales.

The three-judge panel, split 2-1, held that SeaWorld had violated its duties as an employer by exposing trainers to "recognized hazards" when working with killer whales.

A spokesman for SeaWorld, which operates 11 parks around the US, had no immediate comment on the ruling.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had fined the company $75,000 after trainer Dawn Brancheau died in February 2010. She drowned after being pulled underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000lb bull orca at the SeaWorld site in Orlando, Florida.

The fine was later reduced to $12,000 but SeaWorld was more concerned by the federal agency's application of federal safety law to an unusual workplace situation.

OSHA had told SeaWorld it could resolve the problem by requiring trainers to be protected by physical barriers or by adopting other abatement measures. The appeals court concluded that OSHA did not overstep its authority in bringing the action against SeaWorld.

"Statements by SeaWorld managers do not indicate that SeaWorld's safety protocols and training made the killer whales safe; rather, they demonstrate SeaWorld's recognition that the killer whales interacting with trainers are dangerous," Judge Judith Rogers wrote on behalf of the court.

She played down SeaWorld's concerns about the impact on its operations, saying that improved safety "does not change the essential nature of the business".

Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion noting that people who work in dangerous fields in the sports and entertainment context are aware of the risks.

OSHA has "departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena," he said.


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« Reply #304 on: Apr 21, 2014, 05:50 AM »

Conservationists and marksmen of Malta battle over annual bird hunt

Hunters try to block referendum on traditional spring shoot, while British volunteers help patrol countryside to protect birds

Patrick Barkham in Malta   
The Guardian, Sunday 20 April 2014 17.41 BST   
  
As dawn breaks over the sea and ancient stone churches turn pink, the morning's stillness is broken by volleys of gunfire. Tucked behind walls, sitting on armchairs in specially built turrets or else popping up from old stone sheds, Malta's marksmen open fire as migrating birds flap desperately for cover.

When it comes to bird hunts, this is one of Europe's more uneven contests. Birds flying over the islands of Malta on their annual migration to northern Europe must evade 31 licensed marksmen per square kilometre – 15 times more than in shooting-friendly France. On one day in 2013, more than 9,000 shots were logged by a conservation charity's observers.

Spring hunting is banned by the EU but the Maltese authorities obtain a exemption each year, enabling its 9,798 hunters to shoot 5,000 quail and 11,000 turtle doves, the latter a migratory bird whose British population has slumped by 95% since 1970.

But now a backlash is being felt. More than 44,000 Maltese citizens have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the traditional spring shoot.

And a flock of celebrity naturalists including Brian May, Chris Packham and Bill Oddie have swooped in, joining mostly British and Dutch volunteers patrolling the countryside at 5am each morning to monitor illegal shooting for the charity BirdLife Malta.

Packham will broadcast his confrontations with hunters on YouTube every day this week.

Steve Micklewright, executive director of BirdLife Malta, said: "The birds flying from Africa to northern Europe in the spring are the strong birds. They've survived the winter. If we don't allow these birds to breed, their populations stand no chance of recovery."

As a roosting marsh harrier rises from a field of barley displaying wings tattered from shotgun pellets, Nimrod Mifsud, a Maltese volunteer for the charity, says local birdwatchers take little pleasure in seeing a rare bird. "The first birds I've seen – my first stork, my first peregrine, my first glossy ibis – they all fell out of the sky, shot," said Mifsud. "That affects you. There's only so much you can take."

Last year, the Maltese army was deployed during the spring shoot after recent years in which naturalists had their cars set alight and a BirdLife Malta warden was shot in the face.

But Joseph Perici Calascione, head of the Maltese Federation for Hunting & Conservation (FKNK), said hunters felt bullied by foreign activists monitoring illegal shooting in Malta's countryside.

"I would like to see some Maltese lads going to the UK to try to stop one of their traditions. It's not nice to be treated as a third-world country. You [the British] shoot lots of migratory birds such as ducks and geese but it's only bad when the Maltese do it," he said.

Sergei Golovkin, head of the Maltese government's wild-bird regulation unit, said there was "an element of hypocrisy" in international criticism. "Unfortunately, some NGOs [non-governmental organisations] have chosen very aggressive confrontational tactics that are not based on science or law or enforcement."

Golovkin admitted that shooting protected species was commonplace 20 years ago, but said the government had recently introduced an automatic €5,000 (£4,100) fine and up to a year in prison for the crime.

It is deploying two drones and 70 enforcement officers to check hunters' licences and bags, he said. "It shows that we are prepared to really demonstrate that our system of checks and balances is sustainable and credible," he said.

Malta's government and its hunters argue that the main cause of the turtle dove's decline in Britain is industrial farming and there is no evidence that British populations of the bird fly over Malta. However, BirdLife Malta says Malta's turtle dove quotas are too high for a species in decline across Europe.

But the Maltese people are set to decide the species' fate on the islands after 13 Maltese charities obtained the signatures of the 10% of registered voters required to trigger a referendum. After every signature is checked by the electoral commission, the vote will be challenged in the country's constitutional court by the hunters, who claim it oppresses a cherished minority right – to shoot migrating birds. "If the referendum does take place, we would create a dangerous precedent on a small island where tolerance is of the essence," said Perici Calascione.

An opinion poll found that 60% of Maltese people favoured a ban on spring shooting. But if a referendum does not end this tradition, then dwindling turtle dove numbers might. So far this year hardly any have arrived.

Perici Calascione admitted the season had been a disappointment: he had fired just one shot in a week – and missed. "If there were turtle doves, each one would have at least 15 shots to bring it down because people are excited."

After a morning when more than 200 gunshots rang out on one tiny headland, a hunter opened his shooting bag to reveal only sandwiches and a drink. "The referendum is for nothing. There's no need to press down on the hunting in Malta because little by little it's finishing," said the 67-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous.

"I used to go shooting with my father and say: 'Look Dad, a flock of turtle doves! Look, another one.' My father shot with a musket. The more time passes, the less we're seeing of even small birds. The trouble is outside Malta – all the pesticides in the rest of Europe.

"If the referendum is passed, it will make no difference."


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« Reply #305 on: Apr 24, 2014, 05:46 AM »


Czech deer still wary of iron curtain boundary

Areas where Czechoslovakia had three electrified fences now avoided by generation of deer who never encountered them

Associated Press in Prague
theguardian.com, Wednesday 23 April 2014 12.36 BST      

Almost 25 years after the iron curtain came down, central European deer still balk at crossing areas where there used to be electrified fences, scientists have found.

A seven-year study in Sumava national park, in the Czech Republic, discovered that red deer were still wary of spots where the then Czechoslovakia had three parallel electrified fences patrolled by heavily armed guards.

Nearly 500 people were killed when they tried to escape the country across the frontier with Germany, and deer were killed too.

"It was fascinating to realise for the first time that anything like that is possible," said Pavel Sustr, a biologist who led the project. Scientists conducting research on German territory reached similar conclusions.

The average life expectancy for deer is 15 years and none living now would have encountered the barrier. "But the border still plays a role for them and separates the two populations," Sustr said.

He said the research showed the animals stuck to traditional life patterns, returning every year to the same places. "Fawns follow mothers for the first year of their life and learn from them where to go."

Wildlife officials recorded the movement of 300 Czech and German deer with GPS-equipped collars.

Professor Ludek Bartos, of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, who was not involved in the research, said: "I don't think it's a surprising result. These animals are really conservative."


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« Reply #306 on: Apr 24, 2014, 06:29 AM »

Texas robbery victim forced kill his dog with his bare hands after cop shoots it for barking

By David Edwards
RawStory
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 13:45 EDT

A Texas man said this week that he was forced to kill his dog with his bare hands after an officer who he called to investigate a burglary shot the animal because it was barking.

Earlier this week, Cole Middleton explained on Facebook that he had contacted the Rains County Sheriff’s Department about a robbery last Friday.

Middleton admitted that his 3-year-old dog, Candy, was probably barking when the Deputy Jerred Dooley arrived, but he insisted that the animal had never bitten anyone.

“I shot your dog, sorry,” Middleton recalled Dooley saying.

Middleton said Candy had been shot behind the ear, but she was not dead.

“I BEGGED him to shoot her again (SINCE MY WEAPONS WERE STOLEN!) and he refused,” Middleton wrote on Facebook. “I then had to do the otherwise unthinkable and take my poor baby’s life with my own hands while praying for this to be over with.”

In a video posted to Facebook, Middleton sobbed as he told other officers how he was forced to drown Candy.

“They then asked, ‘Well whose blood is on your shirt?’ That is the blood of my dog that I was holding because this deputy pulled up and shot her in my yard. Then the Tasers were put away and the pistols withdrawn,” Middleton told KLTV.

Texas Rangers are now investigating the case, KLTV reported Rains County Sheriff David Traylor declined to comment.


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« Reply #307 on: Apr 25, 2014, 06:24 AM »

Bird flu detected at California quail farm near San Francisco

By Reuters
Thursday, April 24, 2014 10:59 EDT

(Reuters) – Low-pathogenic avian influenza, a disease known as bird flu, has been detected on a California quail farm earlier this month, and Russia has announced a ban on California poultry imports due to the ailment’s outbreak in the state.

Birds have been euthanized and the farm in Stanislaus County, near San Francisco, has been quarantined after bird flu was detected on April 18, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reported on its website, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data received on April 22.

The farm has about 95,000 Japanese quail and some 21,000 Peking ducks, the OIE said. Federal and state agriculture agencies were conducting epidemiological investigations.

Russia’s state veterinary and phytosanitary service (VPSS) has banned poultry imports from California for 90 days due to the appearance of bird flu there, VPSS spokesman Alexei Alekseenko told Reuters on Wednesday.

The VPSS website shows that of the 270 U.S- based firms registered for poultry imports to Russia, six are from California.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Polina Devitt in Moscow Editing by W Simon)


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« Reply #308 on: Apr 25, 2014, 07:22 AM »


China hopes to take rare animals off the menu with tough jail sentences

People who knowing eat products made from 420 species classified as endangered face of up to 10 years or more in prison

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 12.30 BST   

Chinese diners who enjoy bear bile, tiger bones and pangolin meat now have a new reason to lay down their chopsticks.

China's top legislative body passed a new "interpretation" of the country's criminal law on Thursday that will allow authorities to jail people who knowingly eat products made from rare wild animals. Prison sentences for the offence range from under three years to more than a decade, the state newswire Xinhua reported.

Beijing classifies 420 species as rare or endangered, including giant pandas, golden monkeys, Asian black bears and pangolins – scaly, slow-moving anteaters which curl into balls to avoid their predators. While China already promises harsh fines and jail sentences for people who catch, kill, traffic, buy and sell the animals, it has until now remained unclear on the potential consequences for eating them.

"This is very, very encouraging," said Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a US-based animal rights organisation. "Including wildlife consumption in the criminal law can play a very important part in curtailing, and also stigmatising, wildlife consumption."

In recent decades, China's growing wealth has engendered a thriving illegal market in endangered wildlife products. Many businesspeople and status-obsessed officials believe that certain rare animal parts – shark fins, bear bile, tiger bone – posses medicinal properties, and that spending large amounts of money on them confers social prestige.

"Eating rare wild animals is not only bad social conduct but also a main reason why illegal hunting has not been stopped despite repeated crackdowns," Lang Sheng, deputy head of the legislative affairs commission of the NPC standing committee, told Xinhua.

Chinese authorities finally seem to recognise the scope of the problem. In March, 24 people were arrested for trafficking in wild animal parts and 4,500 products confiscated in police raids across nine provinces, state media reported. In January, authorities in the southern province Guangdong crushed six tonnes of confiscated elephant ivory in a public ceremony to discourage smugglers.

Last summer, customs officials in the northern Inner Mongolia region arrested two Russian nationals for smuggling 213 bear paws into China in the tyres of a van – their load, state media said, was worth more than £250,000.

Earlier this month, three Chinese nationals were arrested in Namibia, after they were found trying to board a flight to Hong Kong with 14 foil-wrapped rhino horns and leopard skins hidden in their luggage.


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« Reply #309 on: Apr 26, 2014, 06:12 AM »


Germany deploys drones to protect young deer from combine harvesters

Trial in Bavaria shows great promise in spotting fawns hiding in tall grass and alerting farmers doing spring mowing

Agence France-Presse in Berlin
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 18.02 BST      

A German wildlife rescue project is deploying small aerial drones to find young deer hiding in tall grass and protect them from being shredded by combine harvesters cutting hay in spring.

According to project spokesman Rolf Stockum, the pilot scheme has shown great promise in spotting the young animals. About 100,000 of them fall victim in Germany every year to the large agricultural machines, he said on Friday.

Five small drones fitted with combined digital and infrared sensors that can detect colour patterns and body heat were trialled in the southern state of Bavaria.

When spotted the young deer are fitted with beacons that emit radio signals so that farmers, when they later do the spring mowing, can find and avoid them as they noisily rumble across the grasslands and fields.

Germany's agriculture ministry – which is backing the project with €2.5m (£2m) – this month alerted farmers to the threat as mild April weather ushered in the grass-mowing season in much of Germany.

According to Stockum, the problem was that deer often hide their fawns in tall fields near the edges of forests to protect them from natural predators.

"Evolution has created a very effective way to protect the fawns, which do not yet have a sense of smell – they instinctively stay exactly where they are placed," he said.

This made it very hard for farmers or even experienced wildlife trackers to spot the animals, leading to horrible accidents, said Stockum.

"Unfortunately, there are many years in which the time when meadows are cut in spring coincides with the time when deer drop their offspring … and then many animals lose their lives."

Stockum said this was also traumatic for the farmers and machine operators involved and, furthermore, polluted the cut grass, which was used as livestock feed, with shredded deer remains.

Farmers have in the past made visual inspections of grass areas or used trained dogs, and more recently many have employed hand-held infrared devices, to find the deer, said the spokesman.

However, Stockum said, using drones in co-ordinated campaigns with crowds of volunteers in the weeks before hay-cutting would cover far larger areas with greater accuracy and therefore save many more fawns' lives. AFP Berlin

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Kenya to deploy drones in all national parks in bid to tackle poaching

Move follows a successful pilot project in major protected wildlife area that saw drones reduce poaching by up to 96%

Gitonga Njeru in Nairobi
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 11.49 BST   

Kenya is to deploy drones in all of its 52 national parks and reserves in a bid to monitor and stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos.

The move by the government follows a successful pilot project in major protected wildlife area, that saw drones reduce poaching by up to 96%.

Kenya has lost more than 435 elephants and around 400 rhinos to poachers since 2012, driven by demand for illegal wildlife products in Asia and elsewhere. Poachers have killed 18 rhinos and 51 elephants in 2014 so far.

Paul Udoto, spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), said: "Use of drones has shown that we can prevent poaching and arrest many poachers on their tracks. The pilot project has been a success and we are working with many partners including the Kenya police, the National Intelligence Service, and a lot of international partners such as Interpol, Ugandan and Tanzanian governments.".

He said he could not name which the park in the pilot took place, in case it changed poachers' tactics.

According to Udoto, the drones use radio frequencies to monitor the landscape and the movement of the animals. They are unmanned aircraft and remotely piloted in areas that are considered too risky for flight.

"The drones will have a capacity to spot the poachers before they even kill an animal. We have tried so many other security measures but they have failed us," Udoto said.

The drones will provide the rangers and other security personnel with 24-hour-a-day surveillance once in full force.

"With drones, you can keep aerial surveillance and monitor if there are any poaching activities. Poachers will be very scared and we believe arrests will be many based on the results of the pilot project. Enforcement will be much easier," Udoto said.

The $103m drone project is being funded partly by Kenya but also by the governments of the United States, Netherlands, France and Canada.

"Apart from drones, we are purchasing more equipment such as fire arms, bulletproof vests, and night equipment. We will also be training our rangers and recruiting new ones," said Udoto.

KWS currently has 975 rangers, a figure set to rise to 1,600 by the end of the year.

Separate to its own rangers, Udoto said KWS was training community rangers who are employed by both community and private ranches. "We have trained about 1,200 community rangers. We plan to reduce poaching activities in all the 52 national parks and wildlife protected areas around Kenya in the next few months." .

William Kiprono, KWS director, told the Guardian: "Poaching is a menace and we have realised something had to be done. That is why we decided to come up with the idea to use drones. This is a project that may even last a lifetime as long as poaching remains a problem and the global demand for wildlife products continues to increase."

Six senior KWS officials were placed on leave earlier this month after allegations by its founder, Richard Leakey, that the service had been infiltrated by people enriching themselves from poaching.

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'Drones are changing the face of conservation'

The use of 'eye in the sky' drones has become a cost-effective way for conservationists to track suspected illegal activity

John Vidal   
The Guardian, Tuesday 28 May 2013 15.21 BST   

The Namib Desert Covert Operation from ShadowView on Vimeo.

http://vimeo.com/58060364

Anti-hunting groups in Britain, conservationists on African game reserves and US animal welfare groups have started using drones to combat poaching and to monitor suspected illegal activities.

The cost of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has dropped so fast in the past year that it has now become cost-effective for civilians, rather than only the military, to use them widely, says Steve Roest, former chief executive of the Sea Shepherd conservation society. It pioneered the use of UAVs in 2011 to locate the Japanese whaling fleet heading for the Antarctic.

"What cost $30,000 a few years ago can be got for $5,000 now," Roest said. "You can get electrically driven, fixed wing and multirotor [machines] that have a range of 20 minutes to an hour, or gas-powered ones that can fly eight to 24 hours and fly up to 500km. They are changing the face of conservation: they can film anything, go anywhere."

Roest and the former Dutch policeman Laurens de Groot have set up a new charity called ShadowView to enable environment groups to observe activities such as illegal forestry, cruelty to animals and factory farming.

During 2012, ShadowView worked with the League Against Cruel Sports to monitor suspected illegal hunting in the UK and in the next few weeks they will begin work with marine watchdog group The Black Fish in the Mediterranean.

A rhino checks out the Octocopter while it performs a test flight from ShadowView on Vimeo.

http://vimeo.com/58024230

According to Black Fish director Wietse van der Werf, the drones will be sent 20 or more miles out to sea to try to identify the drift netting fleet which uses illegal gear and kills thousands of sharks and other protected fish.

"The drones are not a gimmick. We want to use them to identify and then prosecute criminals. Drones give us the ability to monitor large areas. Previously we would have had to hire a helicopter or plane," said Van der Werf.

Roest said: "We should be able to work faster and much more cheaply than with big boats. If we had had this technology a few years ago we could much more easily have spotted the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica. We would not have had to do scary undercover work in Namibia. Instead we could have just filmed the illegal activities and given the film to the police. Drones do not mean that you can do without direct action and research, but it makes it easier."

Civilian use of "eye in the sky" drones is being developed by police forces around the world, as well as by businesses such as ski resorts and bodies such as national parks.

According to Marc-Alexandre Favier, a post-graduate farming researcher in Shropshire, they could even be used to take over from sheepdogs. He has written a computer programme for simple drones to locate and track livestock on farms. A small camera attached to a drone can now be controlled from a laptop via Wi-Fi, but eventually could be manoeuvred around hill farms or over farmland using a standard smartphone, he says.

In the US, civilian drones are being used to locate illegal puppy- and cat-breeding farms which are often hidden in woodland. In 2012, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), also said it was "actively shopping for machines to stalk hunters" targeting bears, deer and birds.

Ingrid Newkirk, Peta president, said: "We are shopping for one or more drone aircraft with which to monitor those who are out in the woods with death on their minds. The talk is usually about drones being used as killing machines, but Peta drones will be used to save lives. Hunters may need to rethink the idea that they can get away with murder, alone out there in the woods with no one watching."

Conservationists say that the technology will allow them to fight back against escalating wildlife crime, deforestation and illegal hunting. WWF has received a Google grant to use drones in Nepal and Africa.

Several major game reserves in South Africa are already using fixed-wing drones to monitor poachers and others are expected to follow. "We bought the equipment to try and combat rhino poaching before they are all gone," said the businessman Anton Kieser, after three rhinos were killed in the Kariega game reserve. "It is a big investment, but is also well worth it – we want to use drone technology to position ourselves at the forefront of the fight against rhino poaching."

But some agri-business and hunting groups have started to fight back. Missouri and Idaho states in the US are being pressed by farmers and hunting groups to pass laws to limit drone use to law enforcement agencies that have warrants. Elsewhere, hunters have equipped a drone with thermal imaging cameras to better locate wild pigs.

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WWF plans to use drones to protect wildlife

The green group says by the end of the year it will have deployed 'eyes in the sky' in one country in Africa or Asia

Adam Vaughan   
The Guardian, Thursday 7 February 2013 14.17 GMT   

Conservation group WWF has announced plans to deploy surveillance drones to aid its efforts to protect species in the wild, as the South African government revealed that 82 rhinos had been poached there since the new year.

The green group says that by the end of the year, it will have deployed "eyes in the sky" in one country in Africa or Asia, with a second country following in 2014 as part of a $5m hi-tech push to combat the illegal wildlife trade.

A record 668 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa alone last year, and a single shipment of ivory seized in Malaysia in December weighed almost as much as all the illegally traded ivory since in 2011, which was itself a record year for seizures. And poachers have kept up their hit rate since the beginning of 2013, according to figures from the South African government. "The Kruger National Park remains the hardest hit by rhino poachers this year, having lost 61 rhino to mostly foreign poachers," a government spokesperson said. "Twenty-one poachers have been arrested, 14 of them in the Kruger National Park."

The criminal trade has become so serious that last year the US intelligence community were ordered to track poachers by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, with a WWF report in December warning the multibillion dollar trade was now threatening national security in some countries.
Drone to fight illegal wildlife trade and poaching : wwf in Nepal park The WWF will deploy unmanned aerial vehicles to help monitor wildlife and combat poaching. Photograph: WWF Nepal

WWF's three-year project also involves combining data from unmanned aerial vehicles, cheap mobile phone technology tracking animal movements, and handheld devices carried by rangers, in a bid to outsmart often heavily armed poachers who bribe corrupt officials to avoid patrols and find wildlife.

Allan Crawford, project leader for the WWF Google technology project, who had just returned from the Kruger national park where many of South Africa's rhinos are being killed, told the Guardian: "It's a very scary prospect for rangers … they could run into very heavily armed gangs of poachers, there's usually four or five of them, sometimes with dogs. They've also got wild animals to contend with – one ranger was recently attacked by a lion. They're outnumbered, and sometimes poachers have night-vision equipment. There aren't enough resources to tackle this in South Africa at the moment. This is where the new technologies come in, to help them."

Drones are already being used by conservationists to monitor wildlife, such as orangutan populations in Sumatra, anti-whaling activists are using them against the Japanese whaling fleet, and a charity in Kenya recently beat its target of raising $35,000 in crowdfunding for a drone to protect rhinos and other wildlife in the country's Laikipia district. One South African rhino farmer is even planning to put 30 drones in the sky himself. But the way the three key technologies are being used by WWF is "unprecedented", Crawford said.

A pair of drones will be used in each of the two countries selected, which the group hopes to name within weeks, with plans to ultimately be operational in four sites by 2015, with different terrains. Crawford said the software and drones, which would be operated by rangers or local law enforcement, would "generate a strategic deployment of rangers in the most cost effective way, so they can form a shield between animals and poachers."

The drones would likely cost in the tens of thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands, he said, adding that "if governments wanted to, they could deploy [more expensive] high altitude drones that can stay up high in the sky, and track poachers to get the middle men and whole trade line." The funding for WWF's project comes from a Google grant awarded last December.

"We've got to crack this problem because it's getting out of control," Crawford said. "The poachers seem to have figured out how to get round existing anti-poaching methods." But he admitted anti-poaching efforts could get caught up in an arms race, and that it was a "risk" that poachers may get their own drones. "It will be an escalation like that until we change the cause, which is demand in Asia."

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Saving the rhino with surveillance drones

South African farmer plans to put 30 drones in the air to help combat poachers

David Smith in Johannesburg
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 December 2012 22.10 GMT   

A rhino farmer in South Africa is planning to use surveillance drones designed for the US military to combat poachers who are driving the animals towards extinction.

Clive Vivier, cofounder of the Zululand rhino reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, said he has been granted permission by the US state department to buy the state-of-the-art Arcturus T-20 drone.

He is now seeking clearance from local civil aviation authorities to put 30 of the drones in South African skies.

Radical solutions are needed, he argues, at the end of a year which has seen a record of more than 650 rhinos slaughtered for their horns to meet demand from the Far East.

Vivier believes the true figure may be closer to 1,000, a significant dent in a population of around 20,000. "We're now eating into our capital of rhino," he said. "From here they are heading rapidly towards extinction. Despite all our efforts, we're just historians recording the demise of a species. We don't have the numbers on the ground to see people and stop them killing the animals."

Around 400 rhinos have been killed this year in the world-famous Kruger national park, which spans 2m hectares – impossible for a limited number of rangers to guard effectively. Vivier estimates it as the equivalent of a town with one policeman for every 100,000 houses, "all with the doors and windows and open and rhino horn inside".

He continued: "We need to change the rules of the game. We need technology. The only thing that can see these people before they do the dirty deed is surveillance drones."

The answer, he believes, is the unmanned Arcturus T-20, which, with a 17ft wingspan, can fly for 16 hours without refuelling at a height of 15,000 feet. Its lack of noise and infrared camera would be invaluable for spotting poachers at night. "It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not," said Vivier, 65. "We can see the poacher but he can't see us. We're good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it's a needle in a haystack."

Vivier has spent two years in talks with civil aviation officials and is hopeful that he will soon get the green light for a six-month trial. He proposes 10 of the drones for Kruger park, and a further 20 for other vulnerable reserves in South Africa.

He estimates that each drone would cost roughly $300,000 (£184,445) to keep in the air for two years, making a total of around $9m (£5.53m).

"The drones are economical to fly and will get us information at a very low cost. We need this technology to put us in a position to catch the guys. We need to do it before they kill rhino. The drone is, in my opinion, the only solution. It is highly sophisticated and can see things no other technology can."

After the worst rhino poaching year on record in South Africa, air technology is seen as a crucial preventative step. Earlier this month, a reconnaissance plane with surveillance equipment including thermal imaging began patrolling over Kruger park.

But Vivier believes such alternatives lack the Calfornia-built Arcturus T-20's capability. "The smaller ones are like using a bucket to put out a fire at the Empire State building. We need fire engines. We're now an inferno. If we don't wake up and do something, the world will lose the rhino."

He appealed for the US, UK or other countries to help raise the necessary funds. "The company making the drone has to be paid and we don't have the money. We need the best technology because the criminals are sharp. We've had approval from the US state department and we're trying to work with them. It's a world problem and the rest of the world needs to help us."

Vivier is among a group of rhino farmers who believe that legalising the trade in horn would thwart the black market and reduce poaching. Several conservation groups disagree and call for measures that will reduce demand in countries such as Vietnam, where horn is seen as a delicacy with health benefits.

Ike Phaahla, a spokesman for South African National Parks, welcomed moves to put eyes in the sky. "In the past three months that is a strategy we have decided to use," he said. "We are able to use the intelligence to intercept the poachers, although you can't have a silver bullet for this kind of thing."

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Google Earth and drones help save Kenya’s elephants

A fleet of iPad-controlled drones – and chilli powder – is helping conservationists keep elephants away from danger

Bloomberg
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013 14.39 BST   

elephants walking at Amboseli National Park, Kenya A fleet of iPad-controlled drones – and chilli powder – is helping conservationists keep elephants away from danger. Photograph: Zhang Weiyi/Corbis

Conservationist Marc Goss touches “take off” on his iPad 3, sending a $300 AR Drone whirring into the air - his latest weapon to fight elephant poachers around Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.

“It’s an arms race,” said Goss, whose green khaki clothing shields him from thorny acacia branches in the 30,000 hectares (74,132 acres) of savanna he protects. “We’re seeing larger numbers of poachers.”

Besides the almost 2 foot-long drone, Goss and other conservationists are using night-vision goggles and Google Earth to halt the decline of Kenya’s wildlife, which helps attract $1bn a year in tourism. With elephant ivory sold for as much as $1,000 a kilogram in Hong Kong, Kenya is facing its most serious threat from poaching in almost a quarter of a century, according to the United Nations.
Parrot AR drone The $300 Parrot AR drone is being used to defend elephants in Kenya's Maasai Mara game reserve

At least 232 elephants have been killed in the year to the end of September, adding to 384 last year from a population of 40,000. Demand for illicit ivory from expanding economies such as China and Thailand has doubled since 2007, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Goss’s patch borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where semi-nomadic tribesmen, known as the Maasai, wearing checked-red robes herd their cows. On a warm morning he squints through the bush at a tusk-less elephant carcass, surrounded by 10 of its grieving family members in the hills above the village of Aitong.

'Drones are a future of conservation'

“It’s pretty grim,” Goss, a 28-year-old Kenyan who manages the Mara Elephant Project, said as he stood 50 metres (55 yards) from the carcass. “It’s an elephant without a face. It’ll be eaten by hyenas now.”

Poachers had speared the pachyderm in her back. Its ivory would be worth more than $8,000 in Asia. The carcass was the third found in four days, an unusually high number, Goss said. One was shot with an automatic rifle and the other animal was also pierced.

When he started using the drones, Goss thought they would help mainly with providing aerial footage of the landscape and tracking poachers armed with rifles and the Maasai who sometimes killed the animals when they interfere with the grazing of their cows. He soon discovered they could help by frightening the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way.

Drones can do the work of 50 rangers

“We realised very quickly that the elephants hated the sound of them,” said Goss, whose week-old beard goes white near his temples. “I’m assuming that they think it’s a swarm of bees.”
Zimbabwe has seen a spate of elephants being killed with cyanide in 2013. Zimbabwe has seen a spate of elephants being killed with cyanide in 2013. Photograph: Xinhua/Landov/Barcroft Media

Goss and his team have put collars with global positioning system devices on 15 elephants so they can be tracked on a computer overlaying their paths on Google Earth. That way the animals, who have names such as Madde, after Goss’s wife, Fred, Hugo and Polaris, can be followed to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict.

Goss hopes to buy 10 more drones and to modify them by adding a mechanism that releases capsaicin, the active component in chili pepper, when elephants stray near dangerous areas. Paint balls loaded with chili pepper are being used in Zambia’s lower Zambezi region to deter elephants from high-risk zones.

“Drones are basically the future of conservation; a drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” said James Hardy, a fourth-generation Kenyan and manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At night time we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”

Poaching battleground

East Africa is a key battleground against the poaching of elephants, whose numbers in Africa are estimated between 419,000 and 650,000, according to the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as Cites.

Kenya is proposing stiffer penalties for the slaughter of elephants and rhinos, with fines of as much as 10m Kenyan shillings ($117,000) and 15-year jail terms. The government has deployed paramilitary forces and plans to acquire drones to fight poaching.

The development of new towns and urban sprawl in Kenya is intensifying the conflict between humans and elephants. The UN says the country’s population has more than doubled to about 43.2 million people in the past two decades.

“Kenya very soon will have to make some tough decisions on how to manage the elephant population because they will be at high levels of human-elephant conflict,” said Matthew Lewis, senior programme officer of the WWF’s African species conservation programme.
Night-time surveillance

Across the Maasai Mara, which means spotted land in Swahili, Calvin Cottar uses a €86,000 ($116,000) gyrocopter to enforce land agreements he made with neighboring Maasai communities. His camp, part of Cheli & Peacock’s safari lodge portfolio, is built on plots he leases from the Maasai for $45 to $50 an acre. As part of the deal they won’t graze their cattle on areas that Cottar is trying to conserve.

“A big issue we have is night-time surveillance,” he said. “I can’t use the gyro at night so we’ll probably resort to using these drones.”

Later, Cottar sits at a wooden table where a member of the Kenya Wildlife Service recounts the previous evening’s close call. With his G3 rifle leaning against a concrete wall, the ranger eats a lunch of rice and beans as he tells Cottar that he thinks an elephant was shot and wounded for its ivory.

The rangers are planning a night-time operation nearby. Anti-poaching forces only fire on illegal hunters if they have guns, said Cottar, who runs a 1920s colonial-style safari camp with his wife Louise.

“It could have been poachers, so now we’re setting a trap for them,” said Cottar, who hunted game in Tanzania in the 1980s. “If they see someone with a gun, those rangers will shoot them. If they’re without a gun, they’ll chase them.”



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« Reply #310 on: Apr 28, 2014, 05:55 AM »


Chris Packham: Malta is a bird hell

The BBC presenter talks of confrontations with hunters and police while making films to highlight the cruelty of the annual bird shoot

Patrick Barkham   
theguardian.com, Monday 28 April 2014 11.14 BST   

When Chris Packham announced he was heading to Malta to report on the island's annual spring bird shoot as if he was a war correspondent covering a conflict, even his admirers probably thought he was guilty of hyperbole.

But after a week in which the naturalist has detained by police for five hours, shoved to the ground by gunmen and witnessed the illegal killing of dozens of endangered birds, his mission to raise awareness of the annual slaughter of migratory birds has been more like a battle than he imagined.

Over the last week, the Springwatch presenter has also pioneered a new form of wildlife filmmaking. Operating independently, with a voluntary crew of BBC freelancers, Packham has uploaded a daily video blog to his website, documenting his confrontations with hunters and struggles to save rare birds.

It has been an unexpected success – with each short episode proving to be compelling viewing and a powerful fundraising tool. Packham's efforts have raised €55,000 in a week for the charity Birdlife Malta, which is campaigning to end the shooting of thousands of turtle dove and quail on the Mediterranean island each spring.

“It was physically draining but emotionally it was draining too,” said Packham, after a week working 20-hour days on the island. “It's so depressing, then it's shocking and sad and then it makes you very angry. It's a bird hell. It's the last place on Earth you would want to be with feathers.”

His films show him breaking down on several occasions, particularly when he visited a Maltese vet and sees a Montague's harrier, which has to be put down after it was illegally shot.

Malta allows 9,798 hunters to shoot up to 16,000 turtle dove and quail each spring but Packham found injured and dead birds illegally shot last week included swifts, yellow-legged gulls, kestrels and a little bittern.

The most shocking moment, said Packham, was when he watched 20 migrating Montagu's harriers – a vanishingly rare species in Britain – fly onto the island to roost one evening. Later that night, he was called by a local bird-lover who had found hunters roaming through the fields with torches and guns, trying to shoot these majestic birds of prey as they roosted on the ground.

“That's the mentality of these people. It's so different from the UK,” he said.

Maltese hunters have reacted angrily to a procession of British naturalists arriving on the island to campaign against their spring shoot, which is forbidden by the EU birds' directive. Malta was taken to the European court of justice over its shoot but subsequently satisfied the EU that its annual derogation from EU law was within the rules.

After five days watching birds illegally shot down and becoming embroiled in tense stand-offs with the police and hunters, Packham was summoned to a police station and interviewed for five hours. “It was nice to sit down for five hours in one place,” he said. “The chairs weren't terribly comfortable but at least we weren't running around.”

At one point, a hunter confronted Packham and told him: “Get the hell out of here. You are in our country. You are provoking me.”

But Packham denied criticisms that his intervention represented colonial-style finger-wagging, when Britain still has its own problem with the illegal killing of raptors.

“We are all Europeans now. These birds don't have boundaries. They are flying all over the place,” said Packham. “We should be collectively trying to preserve these species. There's not a nationalist bone in my body. I'm a European, a citizen of Earth. The principle reason for our visit was to show our support for the Maltese people and their feelings on this issue.”

Malta is set to have a referendum on its spring shoot and an opinion poll found that 60% of local people were opposed to the slaughter. “When we met 'normal' Maltese people, they were in full agreement [with the anti-shooting campaign],” said Packham. “They feel the shooting is an embarrassment, a threat to their country's reputation and harmful to tourism, and they see it as meaning they can't access their own countryside in spring.”

Packham decided to make his own films in Malta after failing to persuade conventional broadcasters to cover the issue – including his own employers, the BBC. But the naturalist denied his outspoken campaign and independent film-making would lead to conflict with the BBC.

“I'm proud to work for the BBC and I wholeheartedly support their principles of impartiality but as a campaigner it can be frustrating,” he said. “I think the BBC understand that I'm employed on the basis of my genuine commitment to the cause. If I wasn't a concerned conservationist I shouldn't have my job on their programmes. I wave the flag for the BBC and I'll continue to do so.”

During his time in Malta, Packham has also produced a short film for Springwatch, which he hopes will be broadcast in May.

Packham's rising profile has led to comparisons with Sir David Attenborough, who has been much less outspoken on conservation issues during his illustrious career.

“David grew up in a different era. Obviously he's one of the uber-heroes and I've tremendous respect for him,” said Packham. “But I'm an old punk rocker and that whole ethos was getting things done yourself. My mantra is to shout above the noise and we've got to be heard.”

Malta's tourism officials have criticised the anti-shooting protests by Packham, as well as Brian May and Bill Oddie, but Packham said he was not calling for a boycott of the island.

On his final day, he visited the island of Camino off the Maltese coast and saw more birds than he had all week – spotted flycatchers, hoopoes and golden oriole. “It really identified what a valuable resource Malta could be for birds and birders,” he said.

Like other birdwatchers, Packham hopes that if the spring hunting is halted, Malta could benefit from a surge in ecotourism and become a birdwatching destination – rather than a black hole for rare species.

Click to watch these episodes:

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ehOvfA6hls

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eh-sJ2HqXJ8

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFbkpyuKe6E

4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kts8mfLyB50

5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvxDovYV-ho

6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbgP1XkFWMc

7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dPpdwjLxQ8


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« Reply #311 on: May 03, 2014, 05:53 AM »

Forked tail, forked tongue: Scientists say African bird can imitate 50 other animals

By Reuters
Thursday, May 1, 2014 22:30 EDT

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – If you believe honesty is the best policy, you would have a hard time convincing the forked-tailed drongo. This tricky African bird is the pathological liar of the animal kingdom.

Scientists described on Thursday how this medium-sized bird brazenly deceives other animals by mimicking alarm calls made by numerous bird species – and even meerkats – to warn of an approaching predator in a ruse to frighten them off and steal food they leave behind.

The researchers tracked 64 forked-tailed drongos over a span of nearly 850 hours in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa close to the Botswana border to unravel this unique behavior.

“They’re rather demonic little black birds with red eyes, a hooked beak and a forked tail,” said evolutionary biologist Tom Flower of the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“They’re also highly aggressive and are renowned for attacking eagles and hawks, for which they apparently have no fear,” added Flower, whose study appears in the journal Science.

These birds, common in southern Africa, usually get meals the honest way, such as capturing insects in mid-air using their superb aerial skills.
But at other times, like on cold mornings when few insects are flitting around, the drongos turn to a life of crime.

FALSE ALARM

The drongos are able to mimic the sounds made by many different species that inhabit its desert environment, including birds such as pied babblers, glossy starlings, sociable weavers and pale chanting goshawks as well as mammals like meerkats.

The drongos carry out an elaborate con. They give their own genuine alarm call when they spot a predator approaching – essentially behaving as sentries – and other animals come to trust that this call signals real danger.

But they sometimes give this alarm call when no danger exists to fool other animals into fleeing and abandoning their food.

Then the drongos swoop down for a free lunch.

“All the animals in the Kalahari eavesdrop on each other’s alarm calls, which provide invaluable information about potential predators. It’s a bit of an information superhighway where all the animals speak each other’s language,” Flower said.

“Because drongos give reliable predator information some of the time, it maintains host responsiveness (of other animals) since they can never know if the drongo is lying or telling the truth,” added Amanda Ridley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia, another of the researchers.

The scientists noticed that sometimes the other animals “get wise” to the con and ignore repeated false alarm calls. But then the wily drongos simply grab another tool from their toolbox of trickery – they mimic the alarm calls made by other animals, once again conning them into fleeing and leaving their chow behind.

Flower observed drongos mimicking more than 50 calls.

When stealing food from other animals, drongos are able to eat larger prey than they normally would be able to capture on their own like scorpions, beetle larvae and even geckos.

“Crime pays,” Flower said, noting that the stolen stuff accounted for about a quarter of the food eaten by the drongos.

“One could argue that the strategy of the drongo to steal food from others seems very dishonorable in human standards. But, yes, if it has found such a crafty way to catch food, which is usually much larger than the food items it catches itself, then we cannot help but admire this clever little bird’s adaptiveness,” Ridley added.

The researchers classify the drongo as “a kleptoparasite.”

There are many examples of mimicry and deception in the animal kingdom. About 20 percent of song birds mimic the calls of other birds, Flower noted.

“However, drongos are the only ones to flexibly produce the specific signals that best deceive their different hosts and to maintain their deception racket by changing signal when the previous signal failed,” Flower added.

(Reporting by Will Dunham, editing by G Crosse)

[Image: Forked-tail drongo is shown perched in Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa in 2008 in this image courtesy of Tom Flower. Handout by Tom Flower for Reuters]


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« Reply #312 on: May 04, 2014, 06:12 AM »


Chris Packham: Why I'm fighting to stop the slaughter of Malta's wild birds

The island is the EU's last outpost of licensed spring shooting. The TV naturalist explains why it's time to stop the barbarity

Chris Packham   
The Observer, Sunday 4 May 2014   
       
When it comes to life and death I'm probably more stoic than most. But last week I cried in front of more than 20,000 viewers on YouTube. Like all our team, I was close to exhaustion – we'd been on four hours sleep a night for days. I was also clearly depressed by the daily slaughter we had been witness to and the relentless attrition that had been mounting with every dead bird I'd seen blasted from the Maltese skies. But in truth from the moment I reached into the cardboard box that held a shot Montagu's harrier and gently felt its badly broken wing, as soon as I saw the blood of this beautiful and rare raptor on my fingers and looked at the defiance and confusion in its brilliant yellow eyes, it was a predictable reaction.

I like birds, and this was a very special bird. That morning I had been out with a team of observers from BirdLife Malta, patrolling the dry fields of this tiny island where about 10,000 hunters wander and wait to shoot at turtle doves and quail. It's their highly controversial spring hunting season, the only such in the European Union, of which Malta has been a member since 2004.

The Wild Birds Directive expressly forbids any spring shooting for obvious reasons – these birds are the adult survivors en route to their summer breeding grounds. In the UK, turtle doves have declined by 95% since 1970 and both they and quail are in critical decline all over Europe. But the Maltese government is granted an exemption to the rules. Sadly, that's only the half of it. Illegal shooting of protected species, like the Montagu's harrier, is rife. Some species – swallows, swifts, warblers, gulls, waders, well, anything flying really – get blown out of the air just for target practice. Other rarer or exotic birds are sought after as taxidermy specimens, trophies.

As the continuous rattle of gunfire had echoed across the valley that morning, a luckless flock of Montagu's and marsh harriers, kestrels, lesser kestrels and red footed falcons had floated in off the Mediterranean, tired and hungry after their crossing.

They began to swoop and slice low over the fields, then to soar in tight circles, to rise up in a splendid swirling crowd, their wings flashing in the early sun. It was the best view I'd ever had of these birds – only a handful of "Monty's" breed in the UK. And yet none of us could revel in this fabulous display – we all knew that at any moment we could see them crumple and fall to the ground, and by mid-afternoon that had been the fate of my "Monty's".

Thus in the vet's I held in my hands one of nature's greatest masterpieces, sleek, neat, a predator honed with a determined purpose, a synergy of beauty, form and function and gilded with the cachet of rarity. It was simply too valuable to have been wasted. But as its life drained out and its breathing slowed and it fell limp, it went from being one of nature's jewels to another statistic of slaughter on this bloody isle. And that was simply too much.

The Maltese hunting issue has been known about for years, but unfortunately not among the wider public; our NGOs have generously supported BirdLife Malta but not run any high-profile campaigns. Indeed campaigning is not popular any longer; our larger charities don't seem to want to upset anyone however badly they contravene our objectives in wildlife protection. This caution or complacency doesn't sit well with my type of conservationist so in the end our little team of four couldn't wait any longer and set off on a self-funded mission to make and upload a video blog every night. We used off the shelf cameras to film it and edited it on a laptop, and the project cost little more than four flights and hotel bills. We got shouted at, jostled, threatened, harassed by the police, but who cares: the results have been astonishing.

I have been invited to speak on television and radio programmes which together clock up nine million viewers, contributed to newspapers with a combined readership of 12 million and their online partners with 20 million readers. While we were in Malta there were 2.8m tweets to our account and we trended twice in the UK. Nearly 2,000 people downloaded our template letter to send to their MEPs, and by Friday we had raised more than €60,000 (£49,000) for BirdLife Malta and our blogs had been viewed by nearly 120,000 people.

The real power of social media to call attention to issues of conservation interest cannot be denied and this is really exciting. But what about the birds, their future …

Well, there are several lights at the end of the barrel. First, and significantly, 44,000 Maltese people have petitioned their government to hold a referendum on the spring hunting issue. Independent polls suggest a minimum of 65% of the population are sick of it, and it embarrasses them. Their sham of democracy is uncovered by the perverse union of the government and this destructive minority. It also threatens valuable tourist revenue and prevents them from enjoying their countryside.

The vote should be held within a maximum of 11 months but last week the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, seemed to suggest that he would seek to block it under pressure from the hunting lobby, although now he seems to have retracted that remark. Unbelievable, really.

But so is the revelation that the hunters have admitted employing a police officer to watch us and, in a change to regular schedules, this Saturday saw a half-hour slot normally given to an animal welfare programme broadcasting instead a "TV programme regarding the reality about the Maltese traditional hunting and live-bird capturing [trapping] passions".

The hunters wield influence and also terror; many Maltese people said they fear reprisals if they speak out against the practice. But more are finding the confidence to stand up to intimidation, including public figures such as Moira Delia, presenter of the Animal Diaries TV show, and host of some of the most inspirational conservationists I've ever met.

People have been shot at, had their homes burned down and their nature reserves destroyed, yet they bravely carry on.

Returning to the positive, the European commissioner responsible for monitoring and enforcing the Wild Birds Directive will be replaced this year and on Wednesday the House of Commons will debate "UK policy on protection of migratory birds in Malta" in Westminster Hall from 4.30-5.00pm. The debate has been instigated by Sir John Randall MP, who said: "I have called this debate to ask the government what it will do to help put an end to this pointless killing."

Of course, more pressure from MEPs is needed to legislate Malta into the 21st century when it comes to conservation but I'm minded by what Gandhi said about such conflicts. "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win" … and we will win, and the sorry death of that Montagu's harrier and my tears will have played their little part and that feels good.


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« Reply #313 on: May 04, 2014, 06:50 AM »

Five rare tamarin monkeys stolen from England’s Blackpool Zoo

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 2, 2014 8:37 EDT

Five rare monkeys have been stolen from a zoo in northwest England in a “planned and pre-meditated” break-in, police said Friday.

Thieves cut a hole in the perimeter fence of Blackpool Zoo and removed the locks from two monkey enclosures.

Two female and one baby cotton-top tamarin, a critically endangered species native to South America, and two male emperor tamarins were stolen overnight on Tuesday.

Officers believe the squirrel-sized animals were specifically targeted and their details have been circulated to all ports and airports in case an attempt is made to take them abroad.

“It would appear from the way that these thieves have broken into the zoo that this was a planned and pre-meditated crime and that the offenders knew what they were looking for,” PC Steve Higgs of Blackpool Police said.

“I would also appeal to anyone who may be offered these animals for sale to contact the police.”

Police added that the stolen monkeys need specialist care and keepers are very concerned about their welfare.

Officers are working with the National Wildlife Crime Unit to try to trace them.

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« Reply #314 on: May 04, 2014, 06:52 AM »

Scientists puzzled by massive North American starfish deaths

By Reuters
Saturday, May 3, 2014 10:17 EDT

Scientists are struggling to find the cause of a disease that is killing off numerous species of starfish on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, dispatching the five-armed creatures in a particularly gruesome way.

Researchers said on Thursday they have ruled out some possible culprits including fungi, some parasites and certain other microorganisms and are taking a hard look at whether viruses or bacteria may be to blame.

The starfish, also called sea stars, are being obliterated by an unexplained wasting disease that causes white lesions to appear before the animal’s body sags and ruptures and it spills out its internal organs.

“The magnitude of it is very concerning. There’s the potential that some of these species could actually go extinct,” said Cornell University ecologist Drew Harvell, one of the scientists involved in the loosely organized search for a cause.

Harvell said she is concerned because the mysterious pathogen is affecting 18 different West Coast species along their entire range. Pathogens that affect an animal’s range in such a way like a fungus that has targeted frogs can be particularly damaging, she said.

The disease appeared last year and is showing no indication of abating. “I wish we had a sign that it was petering out, but believe me it definitely is not,” Harvell said.

The scientists seem to have more questions than answers.

“What is it that has caused this? Where did it come from? If it’s exotic, how did it get here? Is it something that’s likely to be repeated?” asked Pete Raimondi, chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Raimondi expressed concern that the disease that is killing the starfish could be a harbinger of bad things to come for other marine species. “This is a really difficult disease in lots of ways because it’s very virulent,” Raimondi said.

The researchers noted that starfish were the victims of previous diseases in past decades that reduced their numbers, but the current one is more serious.

The scientists are wondering whether the starfish have been infected by a virus, bacterium or something else unwittingly imported to the region or whether a pathogen already present somehow became more dangerous, Raimondi added.

Scientists prefer to call the animal a sea star rather than a starfish because these marine creatures are not fish but rather echinoderms, cousins of sand dollars, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Most have five arms, although some have many more.

They are remarkably durable creatures, and when healthy are able to regenerate lost limbs. They are predators and use suction to pull shells apart to get at the soft body inside. When the shells are pried opened, the starfish pushes its stomach out of its body and into the prey, secreting enzymes that digest the victim’s soft body parts.

They are significant predators in their ecosystems, the scientists said.

“These animals are really important ecologically. If they do go extinct, or at least ecologically extinct for some period of time, there undoubtedly would be some really huge impacts on the ecosystems that they live in,” said Bruce Menge, a marine community ecologist at Oregon State University.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by Andrew Hay)


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