Conservation News: Whales, Rhinos, and Bisons

Japan’s Controversial Antarctic Hunt

Photograph by Kyodo/AP

Japan’s Fisheries Agency announced on Thursday that the target number of “scientific research” kills have been achieved, 333 minke whales. Of the 333, approximately 200 were pregnant according to the country’s Institute for Cetacean Research. Japan killed these whales under Article VIII of the International Whaling Commission which states that each contracting government can kill, take, and treat whales for scientific purposes. The environmental campaign group Greenpeace labelled the hunt as “unnecessary” and that it violated the United Nations’ court ruling.

Last year, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Japan’s annual hunt was a commercial venture masquerading as science. Marine mammal biologist Leah Gerber spoke with National Geographic in 2014 about the subject. “Once a Japanese ship lands a whale, there is some semblance for scientific activity… But the bulk of the whale goes to market where it’s sold for consumption.”

Greenpeace Japan executive director, Junichi Sato said, “It is completely unacceptable for the Japanese to ignore the ICJ’s findings and furthermore, completely unnecessary to go ahead with lethal research.”

Japan claims that killing the whales is necessary to carry out its research properly and that the whale population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting. The agency says it also conducts non-lethal research such as observation and taking skin samples and attaching tracking devices.

In response to ICJ’s ruling, Japan revised its program to be more scientific and lowered its quota by two-thirds, instead of ending its annual whaling hunts. In practice however, the quota reduction is meaningless because previous hunts counted between 200 to 400 Antarctic minke whales each year. Still, many scientists derided the new plan and the International Whaling Commission could not reach a consensus on whether it met requirements.

Another part of its plan is target female whales. Japan argues that capturing and killing juvenile and adult females would help determine the age at which minke whales reach sexual maturity. Furthermore, it wants to use the data to demonstrate the minke whale population is healthy enough for commercial whaling.

At the moment, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labels the Antarctic minke whale to be undetermined due to “data deficient”. There is no accepted estimate but size seems to be in the hundreds of thousands. Data collected suggests that there has been a reduction of approximately 60% between 1978-2004. If the decline is real, it is possible that it is still continuing to decline and would qualify as endangered.

Antarctic Minke Whale Surfacing
An Antarctic minke whale swims near Boothe Island in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photograph by Paul Souders, Corbis

Morikawa, in his book Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy, argues that Japan’s modern commercial whaling bears little resemblance to the small-scale subsistence whaling. From the 1570s to the 20th century, whaling was limited to certain coastal regions. Only a small minority dined on whale meat in Japan and typically from shored whales or were speared to death after being surrounded by a mass of small boats. In fact, it was towards the end of World War II that whale meat became a key source of protein when the country was poor.

General MacArthur, as military governor of Japan in 1945, began large-scale whaling to feed the millions of Japanese on the verge of starvation. Though it provided a cheap source of meat, the USA and Europe profited from Japanese whaling of millions of dollars in whale oil.

The post-war recovery established whale meat as a nationwide food source for the first time. In 1947, whale meat made up of over 50% of the meat consumed in Japan. In 1954, the School Lunch Act included whale meat in elementary and middle school. This explains why Japan’s aging baby boomers have a sense of nostalgic nationalism over whaling and whale meat.

Despite this, consumption has dramatically declined in recent decades, with significant proportions of the population saying they “never” or “rarely” eat whale meat.

Some experts say that Japan’s refusal to end the Antarctic hunts is largely due to a small group of powerful politicians.

Japan Fleet Kills 333 Whales in Antarctic Hunt

Japan Kills 200 Pregnant Minke Whales

Japanese Government Restates Its Position on Whaling

Whaling Whoppers Debunked Book Review of Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy

Men and Whales by Richard Ellis

IUCN: Balaenoptera bonaerensis


Hope for the Sumatran Rhino

The Sumatran rhino, dark red-brown and covered with patches of stiff hair, is the smallest rhino species. They live in dense mountain forests, where they are highly elusive. Thought to have been extinct from Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, since last year, the Sumatran rhino was not physically encountered in the area for the past 40 years.

Photograph: Ari Wibowo/WWF

But, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced on Tuesday that they safely captured a female Sumatran rhino in the region. Estimated to be between four to five years old, the rhino was captured in a pit trap in Kutai Barat in East Kalimantan on March 12. Officials airlifted the rhino  via helicopter to what they hope will become the second Sumatran rhino sanctuary in Indonesia. Along with this female Sumatran rhino, at least three others are expected to be moved there in the near future to start a stable breeding population. The specific location will be kept vague as Simon Stuart, a rhino expert at IUCN, said that after declaring specific locations of rhino sightings, poachers arrived within weeks.

Despite scientist warnings that the Sumatran rhino might have disappeared from Kalimantan years ago, WWF scientists continued to look for evidence. In 2013, footprints and one image from a camera trap were discovered. With this evidence, WWF continued to search for what they believed to be the estimated 15 individuals left in the region.

“This is an exciting discovery and a major conservation success,” Pak Efransjah, the CEO of WWF-Indonesia said in a statement. “We now have proof that a species once thought extinct in Kalimantan still roams the forest, and we will now strengthen our efforts to protect this extraordinary species.”

About 100 Sumatran rhinos exist in the wild, making them one of the rarest mammals on the planet. Over-hunting and poaching for its horn has driven this formerly widespread species close to extinction. Due to its small numbers, breeding activity is infrequent, successful births are uncommon, and a severe risk of inbreeding.

A few hundred live in zoos, but breeding in captivity remained unsuccessful. Last year, the eight year old male that lived at the Cincinnati Zoo moved to Indonesia to help with the breeding program.

Rare Sumatran Rhino Found for First Time in 40 Years

Sumatran rhino sighted in Indonesian Borneo for first time in 40 years

IUCN: Dicerorhinus sumatrensis


Reintroduction of the European Bison

Earlier this month, Europe’s largest living land animal was reintroduced into state forest land in the Netherland. This is the second reintroduction of bison into the Netherlands, with the success of the first attempt in Kraansvlak nature reserve in 2007. Fenced inside an area about 1,500 hectares in the southeastern province of Noord-Brabant, three bulls and eight cows were released in hopes that they would multiply.

Frans Schepers, the managing director of the nonprofit Rewilding Europe, says that this herd will eventually be a breeding stock to supply efforts to rewild other parts of Europe.

Rewilding Europe has been overseeing the breeding of the Bison using zoo animals after being wiped out in the wild in 1919. Today, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the species to be vulnerable. It is believed that out of about 5,000 bisons left, about 3,500 now live in wild or semi-wild places. Their largest herds are in Poland and Romania but once spanned a range all over Europe and into the Caucasus region.

By Staffan Widstrand of Rewilding Europe

European bisons serve important roles in its ecosystem with cropping and fertilizing grasses, which then become food for deer and many other European species. They are also an important food source for wolves and other predators.

Contrary to popular belief, the European bison lives in forests or woods nearby, in addition to open lands, for shelter and to browse on bushes, brambles, and trees. These mammals can eat up to 60 kg or about 132 lbs, having a huge impact on the vegetation.

After the Ice Age, man hunted the bisons into the most remote corners of Europe. During World War I and the Russian revolution, soldiers and poachers killed the remaining wild populations, leaving the species extinct. Habitat degradation and fragmentation due to agricultural activity, forest logging, and unlimited hunting and poaching were the primary reasons for the extinction of the European bison populations.  The last remaining wild bison in Europe died in Bialowieza in 1919 and in Caucasus died in 1927.

The species only survived through the captive population of 54, 29 males and 25 females, kept in different zoos. A couple decades later, in 1954, the first bison reintroduction occurred in the Bialowieza forest of Poland. Since then, reintroductions in several countries followed.

The European bison, though IUCN considers the species to be growing in number, still face many threats. This includes lack of appropriate habitat, population fragmentation, loss of genetic diversity, inbreeding, disease, hybridisation, and poaching. The most significant limit is human population density and few areas are willing to reintroduce the bison. The isolation free-ranging and captive herds results in little to no exchange of genetic material, leaving the small populations to be more vulnerable to extinction.

Wild Bison Return to Europe After a Century

Bison Rewilding Plan

IUCN: Bison bonasus


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