The global collapse of the great animal migrations

In our modern world we are accustomed to seeing large-bodied species in decline.  Elephants, rhinos, tigers, whales, sharks, big trees -- the list goes on and on.

But there's another large biological phenomenon that is at least as vulnerable -- the great animal migrations.

Move or die: Cape Buffalo in Africa

Move or die: Cape Buffalo in Africa

Seasonal movements are crucial to the survival of most migratory animals.  And nearly everywhere one looks, migrations are collapsing.

In the plains of the American Midwest, the once-thunderous migrations of Bison and other large wildlife have virtually disappeared.

In northern Cambodia, the great migration of Asian Elephants, Gaur, and other large mammals -- known as the "Serengeti of Indochina" -- have vanished.

On the island of Borneo, large-scale movements of Bearded Pigs and Sun Bears -- in response to pulses of fruit availability -- are collapsing and causing massive animal die-offs, as poignantly illustrated by this video of a starving Sun Bear.

In the western Pacific, stunning annual migrations of shorebirds -- with some species traversing from Alaska to Australia and back each year -- are being rapidly eroded by runaway development of coastal shorebird-foraging sites, most dramatically in China and the Koreas.

Critical feeding ground for stressed-out migrants

Critical feeding ground for stressed-out migrants

In the Mojave Desert, a proposed solar-energy project would imperil the seasonal migration of Bighorn Sheep -- as highlighted recently by ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy and Harvard biologist Edward Wilson.

And in the iconic Serergeti Plain of Africa, a proposed highway would slice directly across the route of migrating wildebeest and scores of other wildlife species, potentially imperiling the greatest surviving migration on Earth.

David Wilcove at Princeton University has long studied animal migrations and their demise.  He makes a key observation: nobody has ever set out to destroy a great migration. 

Instead, migrating animals are being forced to endure an ever-growing array of human pressures -- new roads, dams, farms, cities, overhunting, persecution, and myriad other threats. 

And then, one day -- seemingly without warning -- the migration just stops.  The salmon runs collapse.  The last surviving Passenger Pigeon disappears.

As humans gobble up ever more of the planet, saving the Earth's last great migrations is going to be one of the greatest of all challenges facing conservationists. 

That it is an enormous challenge makes it not one bit less important. 

Wildlife poaching: Conservation on the borders

Dr Alice Hughes, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in southern China, tells us about an important conference that was recently held there.

Pangolins in peril  (photo by William Laurance)

Pangolins in peril (photo by William Laurance)

A recent conference on transboundary conservation held at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden drew international attention following an inspiring closing address by Britain's Prince William.  The event focused on the massive illegal cross-national trade in wildlife.

The closing of the conference highlighted the threats to Southeast Asian biodiversity, driven by the illegal trade of species of all sizes -- not just big species such as Elephants and Rhinos.

One animal at particular risk is the world's most trafficked animal, the Pangolin, with all six species in Asia now globally threatened with extinction.  The trafficking along one particular route is now so prevalent that it has been labeled “the Pangolin express”.

The legal trade of certified products from CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- lists species such as the Pangolin as a key priority. 

Another concern is ivory, which has led to the widespread slaughter of Elephant species in Africa and Asia.  Legally traded ivory has provided a loophole for its illegal trade, with studies showing that almost 60% of certified traders violate regulations and these loopholes prevent and weaken enforcement efforts.

Bushmeat has changed from being a subsistence activity to provide food for the poor, to an internationally commercialized industry to serve the demands of the rich.  As a result hunters, using lethal technologies such as high-powered rifles and cable snares, go to increasing lengths to procure valuable bushmeat.

These transnational issues in the trade in endangered species and the lack of enforcement in their trade threaten the future existence of many vulnerable species on regional and global scales.

Better education to limit demand, and increased enforcement to restrict trade -- including a complete ban in the trade of CITES-listed species -- will likely be needed to change trade patterns and save imperiled wildlife.

 

Global rally against devastating wildlife poaching

The last few decades have been deadly for wildlife.  Since the 1970s, over half of all animals on Earth -- mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish -- have disappeared, according to a major analysis by WWF.  And overhunting -- often by illegal poachers -- is one of the biggest reasons.

Mom killed by poachers...

Mom killed by poachers...

In response, there's just been the first-ever global rally against poaching, focusing specifically on the devastation of elephants and rhinos.  In 136 cities and towns across six continents, thousands of demonstrators voiced their strident concerns about this issue.

The rally echoed the stark messages of the WWF Living Planet Report, which assessed the state of 10,380 populations of 3,038 wildlife species across the Earth.

According to the report, the situation is worst in poorer countries, where wildlife numbers have fallen by 58% on average, between 1970 and 2010.  Latin America had the biggest declines, with 83% of all animals lost in the last 40 years.

Some of the most imperiled species include African forest elephants, whose numbers have plummeted by an estimated two-thirds in just the last decade, following a massive rise in poaching for ivory.

Marine turtles have fared just as badly, falling by 80% in abundance in the last 40 years, the report concludes. 

As the situation grows more desperate for many species, some conservationists are beginning to devise innovative tactics in an effort to combat poaching.  For instance, an Australian-led team is using research on human behavior in an effort to modify attitudes toward rhino poaching in Vietnam.

In Kenya, the situation has grown so desperate that shoot-to-kill orders have been given to park ranges in an effort to combat heavily-armed poachers.  Globally, hundreds of park and wildlife rangers have been murdered by poachers in recent years.

The global rally against poaching is an admirable attempt to raise awareness about the critical role of illegal wildlife hunting.  It's come not a moment too soon. 

 

Do the world a favor: Dob in an eco-sinner today

Want to do the world a favor?  The next time you see somebody harming wildlife or the environment, turn 'em in.

Dying for their skins...

Dying for their skins...

In late February we wrote about a new website called WildLeaks -- established especially for anonymously dobbing in environmental sinners.  Guess what?  It's working.

In just its first three months, WildLeaks has resulted in tip-offs for 24 major wildlife crimes, including leads on elephant and tiger poaching, and illegal fishing and forest destruction. 

The crimes that WildLeaks has recently unearthed include:

• elephant poaching in Africa and illegal ivory trading in Hong Kong

• the killing of perilously rare Sumatran tigers

• trafficking of live chimpanzees in Liberia

• illegal fishing in Alaska, with alleged links to the Mafia

• Illegal imports of African wildlife products into the US

• illegal logging in Mexico, Malawi, and Siberia

The designer of WildLeaks, Andrea Crosta, is a pro at this stuff.  An expert on elephant conservation, his past exploits include revealing how Somalian terrorists used ivory smuggling to fund their activities. 

WildLeaks takes the security of its informants seriously.  Every tip that WildLeaks receives is examined by a team of legal and security experts, who then liaise confidentially with relevant law-enforcement authorities.

Thanks to WildLeaks, those who profit handsomely from eco-crimes -- which total hundreds of billions of dollars annually --- will be spending a little more time glancing nervously over their own shoulders. 

 

China imposes serious prison time for wildlife offences

China is overwhelmingly the world's biggest consumer of illegal wildlife products.  Now, Chinese citizens caught buying banned species could spend serious time in the clink.

Happy hanging onto its own skin (photo by Priya Davidar)

Happy hanging onto its own skin (photo by Priya Davidar)

This is welcome news to those who've watched massive poaching of elephants and rhinos in recent years to supply China's voracious appetite for ivory and rhino horn.  Other exploited species include tigers, pangolins, and many species of sharks, which are killed to make shark-fin soup.

In total, some 420 rare or endangered species will be protected under a reinterpretation of Chinese law by the the National People's Congress.  Those caught breaking the law could be sentenced to over 10 years in prison, depending on the offense.

This latest measure comes on the heels of other Chinese-government efforts to discourage the domestic trade in illegal ivory.

ALERT hasn't hesitated to criticize China for predatory practices, but it's also important to laud China's efforts when important progress is being made.  Credit where credit is due.

China acknowledges role in global elephant slaughter

The last few years have been devastating for elephants, with a global slaughter being fueled by a burgeoning demand for ivory. China, which accounts for much of this demand, is finally beginning to acknowledge its role and take steps to limit trade in ivory products.

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

In this week's issue of Science, Shiyang Huang and Qiang Weng highlight the burgeoning trade in illegal ivory in China, and detail the government's efforts to combat this black market

The good news is that, despite their belated response, Chinese authorities seem to be taking the threat seriously--recently confiscating and destroying 6 tonnes of ivory. In China, a decisive government action like this could potentially send a strong signal to illegal traders that the days of open trade in 'blood ivory' are coming to an end.

These are just the first steps, as the demand for ivory in China is huge.  Let's hope the Chinese government continues to show leadership on this high-profile international issue.