Selling Noah's Ark? The collapse of Asia's bird biodiversity

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes gives us a perspective on the daunting challenge of the illegal wildlife trade, which seems to have a global epicenter in Asia.

Popular species: spectacular Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise from Indonesia

Popular species: spectacular Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise from Indonesia

If you have ever ventured into the forest you will know the whine of insects, and the ringing calls of birds that envelope you as you breathe in the humid air. 

Now, imagine that forest without the calls of the birds or the rustle of vertebrate life.  You are imagining the forests that are fast becoming a reality across much of Asia, under the relentless pressure of hunting for various forms of trade.

Indonesia is one such case.  As a global biodiversity hotspot for birds, it now finds itself a market for their extinction.  A TRAFFIC survey released this week found an incredible 19,000 birds of 206 species for sale -- at just three markets in Jakarta and in just three days.  And only 2 percent of these birds were legally harvested.

Among the birds found in Jakarta markets, 41 species are endemic (unique) to Indonesia.  Further, nine of the species are classed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, four of which are Endangered or Critically Endangered.

The stunning number of birds found in just three days suggests that the annual sale of birds in Indonesia would involve hundreds of millions of individuals, including many globally endangered species.

Birds for sale in a Jakarta market  (Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC)

Birds for sale in a Jakarta market (Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC)

A Songbird Crisis Summit will be held in Singapore this week to highlight the illegal bird-trade crisis, and to seek strategies to secure a future for birds across the region.

Without rapid action to enforce existing laws and enact new regulations, we will undoubtedly witness the extinction of bird species from across the Asian region.  These forests may no longer ring with the calls of species found nowhere else on Earth.

Pangolins in peril: The most heavily hunted animals on Earth?

ALERT member Alice Hughes is based in China -- the global epicenter of demand for the illegal wildlife trade.  She tells us about a little-known animal whose fate is looking increasingly dire.

If you were to ask a member of the public what is the most hunted and trafficked species on Earth, chances are few would get it right.  In fact, many would never have even heard of it.

An African tree-pangolin  (photo by William Laurance)

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

That animal is the Pangolin -- a creature so peculiar-looking that it seems to have been dreamed-up by a mischievous Creator. 

There are, in fact, eight species of Pangolins on Earth, all found in warmer regions of Asia and Africa.  While looking vaguely like an armadillo, pangolins are unique creatures that aren't closely related to anything else.

Prized as culinary delicacies and in some traditional 'medicines', Pangolins are hurting.  In just the last decade, an estimated one million Pangolins have been poached and illegally trafficked.  Nearly 220,000 of the animals were seized by authorities from 2010 to 2012, and that's likely just a small fraction of the number actually being traded.

To put these numbers in perspective, around 110 Pangolins are currently being seized for every seized rhino.  It's a big worry because pangolins are slow-breeding and solitary creatures. 

Recent seizures of illegal shipments, some involving tons of killed and frozen animals, hint at the scale of the international trade. 

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Hong Kong is a distribution hub for Pangolins between China and the rest of Asia.  Nine-tenths of all Pangolin seizures have occurred in China, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent four other Southeast-Asian countries.  China and Vietnam are considered the biggest markets for Pangolin products.

Yet few people in Southeast Asia understand the Pangolin's plight. 

A recent survey of 1,000 Hong Kong residents showed that 7% had never heard of Pangolins, 85% wrongly regarded Pangolin scales as medicinal, and 50% thought their meat was medicinal.  Moreover, 33% were unsure of the legal status of eating Pangolin and 11% regarded it as legal.

Unfortunately, similar confusion reigns throughout China.  In mainland China, the trading of older “certified” pangolin parts is legal, and trading certificates for wildlife products are widely forged and abused.

Pangolins are captured in the wild using a variety of methods.  Once in captivity their body weight may be almost doubled through force feeding or subcutaneous fluid injections, as Pangolins are sold by weight.  Professional traffickers sell Pandolins for hundreds of dollars per kilogram.

In just the last decade, Pangolins have gone from being so common that you could hardly fail to see them at night in Asians forests, to being so rare that Chinese rangers laugh if you ask them if Pangolins are in their park.  On being given 42 confiscated Pangolins earlier this year, rangers at Bac Ninh park simply resold them.

As a result of such intense exploitation, two of the Asian Pangolin species are now formally listed as endangered, and the remainder are clearly in trouble.  Unless strong actions are taken soon, we could witness the dramatic decline and even global extinction of several Pangolin species.

It'd be a sad end for what might be the most heavily hunted animals on Earth.

 

Not just rhinos: Hornbill horns fetch stunning prices in illegal wildlife trade

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes provides this commentary on the appalling impacts of the illegal wildlife trade on one of Southeast Asia's most magnificent birds:

While the exploding illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory is squarely in the global spotlight, the “golden ivory” of the Helmented Hornbill is fetching up to five times the market price of true ivory.  As a result, hornbill populations are plummeting across Southeast Asia.

More valuable than ivory

More valuable than ivory

Unlike other hornbill species, the Helmeted Hornbill has a solid 'horn' (known as a "casique") on the upper side of its beak that can weigh up to one-third of the bird's body weight.

And given its semi-translucent, golden color, the hornbill's horn has become a prized item for the wealthy.  At a cost of US$4-8 per gram, a single casique can bring around US$1,000.

Just in West Kalimantan, Borneo, an average of 500 birds a month were killed in 2013.  Yet only around 6% of these killed birds were confiscated by authorities. 

Under CITES -- the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species -- it is illegal to sell any part of a Helmeted Hornbill.  But that has had little real impact. 

In just a few minutes on the Internet here in China, one can easily find open sales listings for Helmeted Hornbill casiques. 

China is by far the biggest consumer of illegal Helmeted Hornbill parts, where the valuable casiques are often carved up and sold by the gram -- to be used for decorations or traditional 'medicines'.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Many of the poached birds are likely to come from protected areas, such as Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia, given that the species is rapidly losing much of its remaining forest habitat. 

In June, a poaching ring involving around 30 hunters was broken up in northern Sumatra.  Most of the killed birds were destined for China, according to the arresting authorities

In a recent report, an official from the Environmental Investigation Agency said, “There is little to no awareness about these birds.  Few buyers know what they are, let alone the impact the purchase of these products creates.”

For this spectacular species not to follow in the wing-beats of the passenger pigeon, swift action is needed.  The Helmeted Hornbill should be a high priority on the global conservation radar.

Nineteen rangers killed trying to save forest elephants

Elephants are not the only thing being slaughtered in Equatorial Africa.

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 19 park rangers have been murdered so far in 2015 -- and in just two national parks.

The rangers aren't being killed by poor subsistence hunters.  Those responsible are heavily-armed gangs of illegal poachers in search of forest elephants, which are gunned down or snared for their valuable ivory tusks.

Ivory today is fetching record prices in Asia, especially in China and various southern-Asian nations -- the dominant consumers of illegal ivory -- where it is used for carvings and other ornamental purposes. 

The 19 park rangers have all been killed in just two protected areas -- Garamba and Virunga National Parks -- two of the oldest national parks in Africa. 

It has been estimated that two-thirds of all forest elephants -- which are confined to the dense rainforests of Central and West Africa -- have been slaughtered in the last decade.

Record ivory prices are not the only reason for the demise of elephants.  Vast networks of new roads -- totaling over 50,000 kilometers in length from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s -- have been bulldozed into the Congo rainforest by commercial loggers. 

This has opened up the rainforest to a tsunami of hunters, leaving few safe places for the elephants to hide.

For the increasingly beleaguered forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, cadres of poorly-paid park guards are often the only thing standing between the last forest elephants and oblivion.

We should tip our hats to these brave warriors who are drawing a line -- and often laying down their lives -- to save imperiled wildlife.

And while we're remembering their courage, we should also continue to pressure the dominant ivory-consuming nations, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Laos, to finally clamp down on their illegal ivory trade -- which is exacting far too high a price on the world.

 

Growing concerns over 'Lawless Laos' -- paradise for poachers & smugglers

Dr Alice Hughes, an associate professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, shares her worries about rampant illegal activities in nearby Laos -- where wildlife smuggling flourishes unchecked by any legal enforcement.

A caged loris ponders its fate

A caged loris ponders its fate

Worry about Laos

While most Asian countries have at least begun outwardly to condemn the illegal trade of endangered species, Laos has not recorded a single illicit-wildlife seizure in over 25 years.

As a result, the E.U. law-enforcement agency Europol recently coordinated the largest-ever crackdown on international illegal wildlife trade -- which in four months seized over 1,300 elephant tusks destined for Laos.

As a landlocked conduit from Thailand and Cambodia, Laos offers an ideal staging post for the import of imperiled wildlife species and products into China and Vietnam.

Notably, Laos is home one of the world’s biggest international wildlife traffickers, the notorious Vixay Keosavang.  Vixay has so little fear of capture that wildlife shipments worth millions of dollars are sent directly to his home.

Though Laos claims it lacks the resources to screen imports, it is clear to many that officials profit from the rampant illegal trade -- as evidenced by a recent 'coffee bean' shipment intercepted in Bangkok, Thailand in April.

Thai customs officials had been alerted to the bogus shipment prior to it’s arrival.  But when Thai officials requested permission from the Laotian embassy to check the shipment, embassy officials denied their request and demanded its immediate release. 

Fortunately, Thai customs officers ignored the demand -- and discovered some 700 elephant tusks, totaling over 4,000 kilograms in weight, with an estimated value of US$6 million.

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

While revealing that corruption reaches right into heart of the Laotian embassy in Thailand, this shipment was only opened because of a new Thai military regulation issued in March. 

Prior to this, all shipments through Thailand had to be passed straight on to their intended destination -- undoubtedly resulting in the transport of thousands of threatened species that were illegally killed or captured.

The new Thai regulation has rapidly netted a number of major wildlife seizures.

And despite the mass interceptions of elephant tusks, to date this has not resulted in a single arrest in Laos.

Until rampant corruption is confronted and lawless Laos follows the official stance of its neighbors, it will continue to be a critically weak link for the enforcement of region-wide anti-trafficking efforts.

It's time to get tough.  Lawless Laos is a paradise for wildlife smugglers -- and a key conduit to China and Vietnam, the world's biggest consumers of illegal wildlife products.

China screams about arrest of its illegal loggers

The nation that is provoking more environmental degradation than any other today is very, very upset.

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Virtually everywhere one looks -- from the Asia-Pacific to Africa, and from Siberia to South and Central America -- China is behind hard-driving schemes to exploit the planet's natural resources. 

China is not only the world's biggest polluter in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is the largest global consumer of timber, construction minerals, iron ores, wildlife, and many other natural resources -- considerable amounts of which are obtained illegally, via corruption or smuggling.  

And through its massive investments in new roads, railroads, mining, dams, and other infrastructure, China is also substantially responsible for opening up many of the world's last remaining wild areas to exploitation.

China is upset because the nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has just handed out stiff jail sentences for illegal logging to more than 150 Chinese nationals.  The loggers were arrested in January following a crackdown on illegal forest activities.

Editorials in Chinese state-run media have expressed outrage at the arrests, demanding that those arrested be returned to China. 

For years China has sucked up timber and other natural resources in Myanmar, leading to growing frustration and resentment there.

A court in northern Myanmar -- where illegal logging has been especially rampant -- just handed out 'life' sentences to 153 Chinese loggers.  Such sentences typically run for 20 years in Myanmar. 

Despite the heated Chinese protests, the Myanmar government said it would not interfere in the judicial process. 

While the sentences are certainly severe, they reflect a growing view that Chinese investors, corporations, and workers often display a predatory attitude when working in foreign nations.

China is overwhelmingly the biggest global driver of the illegal wildlife trade, consuming vast quantities of ivory, pelts, bones, shark fins, and hundreds of other wildlife products, including those from a number of endangered species.

No nation consumes more tropical timber than China.  It has been heavily criticized both for failing to support illegal-logging measures internationally and for pursuing mainly raw logs from timber-exporting nations. 

China's addiction to timber

China's addiction to timber

Raw logs, which are unprocessed, provide only minimal employment, industrial development, and income for timber-exporting countries, and thus are the least profitable way for a nation to exploit its forests.

Last April, Myanmar banned the export of raw logs.  But many Chinese loggers have paid little attention to the new law and have been engaged in smuggling rings that have effectively stolen huge quantities of Myanmar's timber.

Timber smuggled into China from 2000 to 2013 was worth nearly US$6 billion, according to Myanmar government estimates.

Unless China reigns in its aggressive tactics, expect more backlash from developing nations that are feeling ripped-off.  No matter how much China screams about it. 

 

Mysterious black leopards finally reveal their spots

Researchers have devised a clever technique to tell black leopards apart -- a trick that may end up saving their skins.  

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

The researchers have been studying leopards on the Malay Peninsula -- where almost all of the big cats are jet black. 

Elsewhere across its range in Africa and Asia, the leopard is pale colored with distinctive black spots.

Experts have no idea why the Malay leopards are black and, until recently, could not tell them apart, hindering research and conservation efforts.

But the researchers have now devised a simple method to solve the problem by manipulating the mechanism of automatic cameras.  Such cameras are increasingly being used to study animals in the wild.

“Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it’s only activated at night”, said Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, an ALERT member and coauthor from James Cook University in Australia. 

“However, by blocking the camera’s light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes,” said Clements.

With the infrared flash firing, the seemingly black leopards suddenly showed complex patterns of spotting.  These spots could be used to distinguish different animals, and help estimate the population size of the species.

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash  (images (c) Rimba).

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash (images (c) Rimba).

The researchers tested this method in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia.  “We found we could accurately identify 94% of the animals,” said Clements.  “This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation.”

The researchers want to use their new method to study black leopards in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia -- where there is abundant prey but few leopards are seen. 

It’s thought widespread poaching is largely to blame. 

“Many dead leopards bearing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been discovered in Malaysia,” said ALERT director and coauthor Bill Laurance, also from James Cook University.

Laurance said that leopard skins and body parts are increasingly showing up in wildlife-trading markets in places such as on the Myanmar-China border.

At the same time, suitable leopard habitats are disappearing faster in Malaysia than perhaps anywhere else in the world, as forests are felled for timber and replaced with oil palm and rubber plantations.

“Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital,” said Laurie Hedges from the University of Nottingham-Malaysia, who was lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management

“This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal,” said Hedges.

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.

 

Using old smart-phones to fight eco-crimes

Guarding nature is tricky... there's a lot of nature out there and many illegal loggers, poachers and gold-miners who are eager to pillage surviving natural areas.  What are we to do?

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

One innovative solution might be to use old smart-phones to detect illicit encroachers in the act.  A nonprofit group called Rainforest Connection has begun using the phones to set up monitoring stations in endangered forests -- keeping a sharp ear out for growling chainsaws or the bang of a poacher's gun.

As reported on the leading environmental website Mongabay, the group has tested out their system in Sumatra, Indonesia.  It worked a treat, allowing authorities to catch illegal loggers in its first two weeks of operation.

Now Rainforest Connection is scaling up.  Partnering with the Zoological Society of London, they are using 30 of the devices with solar-power units to monitor 10,000 hectares of vulnerable forest in Cameroon. 

Rainforest connection reckons their devices work far faster than monitoring of forests by satellite.  Their system can alert authorities within just 5 minutes of detecting illegal activity, they say, whereas satellite systems can take a week. 

It's heartening to see good minds working on creative solutions for serious environmental issues.  Let's hope the old smart-phones can do the trick.

 

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. 

 

Melbourne woman combats illegal rhino-horn trade

One highly motivated person can have the impact of 10,000.  That's what one must conclude from the story of Lynn Johnson.

Johnson, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, was disturbed by a documentary about the slaughter of rhinos to sustain the illegal trade in rhino horn.  And she was appalled by a WWF report that the illegal trade has skyrocketed by 5000% since 2007.

Let the rhino keep his horns...

Let the rhino keep his horns...

So, despite having no training in wildlife conservation, Johnson set her mind to doing something about it.

Johnson decided to focus on Vietnam, a major consumer of rhino horn, which is a putative treatment for cancer and other ills.  So far she has raised $20,000 to place ads in Vietnamese newspapers and magazines, to fight the illegal trade.

But rather than pushing conservation, Johnson uses a different tack--emphasizing the potential risks for human health.  This is because South Africa has begun putting powerful poisons into rhino horn, to help deter the illegal trade. 

One of Johnson's ads cautions Vietnamese mothers not to risk poisoning their children.  Another warns businesspeople--who often give gifts of rhino horn during negotiations--not to risk sinking their business deal.

Johnson's next goal is to raise $250,000 on Breakingthebrand.org to put similar advertisements in major airports in Vietnam.

As Lynn Johnson is showing us, where there's a will, there's a way.  If rhinos could talk, they'd surely be thanking her.