Conservation News: Pocket Mouse, Retired Dolphins, Snow Leopard Sanctuary

Reintroduction of the Pacific Pocket Mouse into Its Historic Range
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The Pacific Pocket Mouse Recovery Program began almost four years ago after 30 mice were brought in from the three remaining wild populations along the California coast for a captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The program was designed to increase the overall population while maintaining genetic diversity. Out in the wild, the habitats are separated by human development, making inbreeding an issue for its survival.

In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners, the staff at San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research released fifty of the endangered species to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, an Orange County (OC) parks.

As the smallest mouse species, the pacific pocket mice adults typically weigh between 6 to 7 grams. The mice are critical species in their ecosystem as seed eaters, dispersing the seeds of native plants throughout their habitat. Lisa Bartlett, Orange County Board of Supervisors chairwoman hopes that “their return will bring about growth for the native plant species”. They also dig burrows that hydrate and increase nutrient cycling in the soil, encouraging growth of native plants.

It’s important to mention that these pocket mice are picky when it comes to habitat requirements. They will only live within four miles of the coast, extending from the El Segundo dunes to the Mexico border which includes the Laguna Coast Wilderness Parks.

In May, biologists fenced off an acre area of coastal sage scrub habitat to begin the reintroduction phase. The fencing will create protection against terrestrial predators like coyotes and snakes while keeping the mice together. Any other native burrowing residents like the kangaroo rat will be trapped and confirmed.

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Prior to releasing the rodents out into the wild, 50 cages with small-grade mesh cage with an underground burrow built from biodegradable materials were created for the mice to acclimate to the new environment. The man-made living situation is meant to mimic the nests that the mice will build themselves, with one main chamber and two tunnels as exists. During the one week in acclimation cages, the mice are introduced to seeds from California native plants, similar to the diet they received at the breeding facility, to adjust to the new habitat.

The fifty pocket mice went through predator aversion training at the breeding facility. One of which included playing a recorded warning call from a Pacific pocket mouse when the breeding facility mice were exposed to a snake behind plexiglass. Another was the use of a taxidermy owl on a zip line to acclimate the mice to the overhead threat of an owl.

On June 13, seven biologists removed the acclimation cages, finally releasing the mice back into their historic to establish the fourth wild population.

In a press conference on June 14 at the Nix Nature Center, representatives from OC Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and San Diego Zoo Global gave an update on the recovery program.

ppm_05_med-1024x683“I’m really pleased the Pacific pocket mouse reintroduction has gone so well,” said Debra Shier, associate director of applied animal ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “For the last week, they’ve been moving the nesting material into the burrows; and during our observations, they’ve been displaying all of their natural behaviors. Last night the acclimation cages were removed and these mice, founders and captive-born are back in the wild.”

Supplemental food will continue to be provided through September and the population will be monitored for several years to watch how it develops. Each of the released mice have a small microchip under their skin for identification purposes. When biologists return to the site after the initial release, the microchips will track vital health information.

“We are honored to welcome the Pacific pocket mouse back into its historic range, in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park,” said Barbara Norton, supervising park ranger. “We’re so proud of our amazing OC Parks system, and it’s exciting to know that this species will contribute to the health of the ecosystems within the parks.”

Endangered Pacific Pocket Mouse Relocated To Historic Range

Most Endangered Pocket Mouse in North America Reintroduced

National Aquarium Announced Moving its Dolphins to an Ocean Sanctuary

Announced on last Tuesday, the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Maryland, will be moving its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to an ocean refuge, the first in North America, by 2020. The decision is a big deal, especially after being on display at the aquarium after retiring from performance shows in 2012.

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July 31, 2008: Chesapeake, a 16-year old dolphin, left, swims with her recently born calf, right. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

“We now know more about dolphins and their care, and we believe that the National Aquarium is uniquely positioned to use that knowledge to implement positive change,” said John Racanelli, chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. “This is the right time to move forward with the dolphin sanctuary.”

Because the animals would have difficulties surviving in the wild, releasing the captive cetaceans into the open seas would not be ideal. Out of the eight, only one female, the oldest, has ever swum in ocean water but was captured in 1972. Another was born at SeaWorld Orlando and the six remaining were born at the aquarium.

Instead, the sanctuary will provide the dolphins tropical waters with adequate space, isolation pools for medical care or temporary refuge, and natural stimuli like fish and aquatic plants while remaining in full-time human care. Though the to-be location is disclosed, potential sites in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean have been explored. Unlike the small display tank measured in square feet that the dolphins are used to, the enclosed sanctuary will be measured in acres, to better replicate the wild.

Initial costs will depend on seaside land values, but the costs of dolphin care should be lower than if the dolphins were kept at the aquarium. Racanelli notes that ocean waters do not need to be regulated like the waters in the display tank, keeping the cost down.

The announcement came after years of public distaste for live animal shows. Moving the dolphins into a sanctuary is one step to providing a new future for the nearly 556 cetaceans that live in captivity in the United States, according to The Humane Society.

Many, like Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, believes that other facilities will soon follow. “It’s definitely moving the needle,” Rose commentated. “I do think it has serious implications for where the entire industry is going.”

Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle stated that Racanelli’s plans are “more evidence that animal-based facilities” are adapting to cultural shifts and prioritizing the animals’ well-being.

Prior to the National Aquarium’s announcement, institutions keeping marine mammals have argued against proposals of the sanctuaries. Critics of the “sea pens” argue that freeing the captive animals have harmed them in the past, citing Keiko from “Free Willy” and two dolphins that were set free off Key West in 1996.

SeaWorld, for instance, has made it clear that they believe their animals are safest in their current displays while helping to educate the public. Spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne Becka stated that “SeaWorld’s orcas would be safer and receive better care than in high risk sea cages”. According to the Born Free Foundation, SeaWorld keeps approximately 160 captive cetaceans. And though the company ended its orca breeding and shows earlier this year, releasing them into sea sanctuaries has been a no.

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This artist rendering provided by Studio Gang, shows the proposed seaside dolphin sanctuary (Studio Gang via AP)

However, there have been successful transitions from captivity to the wild in the past, such as the five theme park dolphins in South Korea that were originally from the wild.

Advocates of the ocean refuges and sanctuaries counter that these facilities don’t want to consider “pricey alternatives when they can make money off of captive dolphins and whales”. Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammals Project, describes them as “very self-serving”.

Eventually aquariums will have to adjust to the shifting attitudes of their customers, notes Rose. A 2014 poll resulted in half of a thousand people opposing keeping orcas in captivity, an increase of 11% than what it was two years prior. Public scrutiny of using captive cetaceans for entertainment purposes has risen in the recent years and will continue to do so. The public pressure has even forced SeaWorld’s decision to end its orca breeding, after years of declining attendance and decreased profits.

Rose believes that “smart facilities that want to stay in business or get out gracefully are going to pay attention to these societal trends.”

For Dolphins, a Bold Decision by the National Aquarium

Miami: National Aquarium to Move Dolphins into Refuge

Hunting Reserve Turned Sanctuary

The snow leopards of Kyrgyzstan rely on ibex and argali as a source of prey in the Tien Shan mountains. Incidentally, these wild relatives of goat and sheep are also a target for trophy hunters for their spectacular, curved horns.

Despite the quota system created to regulate the number of animals taken for trophies, the recently intense illegal hunting has severely depleted their populations. As their main prey animals have grown scarcer, snow leopard populations has also fallen.

According to the Snow Leopard Trust, the mountainous Kyrgyzstan, an ideal habitat for the snow leopards, now holds no more than 500 individuals, approximately 10% of the global total. Saving the Kyrgyzstan population is vital for the survival of the species. The country connects the northern populations in Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan with the southern ones in Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges. As a migratory species, the snow leopards are able to intermix, using Kyrgyzstan as a “corridor between the two populations”.

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An anti-poaching team in Kyrgyzstan confiscated this snow leopard. Photo By: Cyril Ruoso, Minden Pictures, National Geographic

When Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the Soviets in 1991, the government suffered from the lack of funds. Throughout the 90s, hunting licenses didn’t go towards conservation. Instead, “local-level observers claim[ed] that the funds go no further than the pockets of corrupt officials,” according to Eric W. Sievers, a political analyst associated with Hard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. This meant that rangers were underpaid, undertrained, and under-equipped with wildlife laws not being enforced.

Thus, the snow leopards have suffered. The population has halved during the past 20 years. Its prey, the argali population fell from an estimated 26,000 to less than 16,000 from 2003 to 2006. Sievers says that the main reason for the decline was that “more argali permits were issued to American hunters than national law allowed”.

Since President Almazbek Atambayev took office, snow leopard conservation efforts have finally been taken..

“Since time immemorial, the Kyrgyz people have regarded the snow leopard as a sacred animal and as guardians of Kyrgyz warriors,” states Atambayev. “It is no mere chance that the first Kyrgyz leader received the name of Barsbek, or Master of Leopards.”

It’s incomprehensible, Atambayev continued, “that some Kyrgyz men, descendants of snow leopards, kill the cats and sell their fur to be fashioned into hats and coats. These men can barely be called human. Anyone who shoots a snow leopard shoots his own people. Anyone who sells snow leopard skins sells his own land.”

Now, President Almazbek Atambayev ordered a hundred square mile (260 square kilometer) former trophy hunting concession, Shamshy in the northern Tian Shan Mountains, to be set aside as a fully protected natural habitat for the snow leopards.

Without trophy hunting, Shamshy “has the potential to become a key snow leopard stronghold, if the area’s wild ungulate population can be increased.” The population could possibly “double or triple in the next 10 years.”

The Shamshy initiative is managed jointly by the Kyrgyz government, local and international conservation NGOs like the Snow Leopard Foundation of Kyrgyzstan, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

In addition, the reserve is relatively close to the nation’s capital, Bishkek. Its location will make it an attractive spot for international researchers and for ecotourists.

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Photo By: Axel Gomille, Nure Picture Library

Atambayev’s decision was the result of years of conservation efforts.

In 2013, he hosted a conference in Bishkek for all twelve snow leopard-range states. After the creation of the Bishkek Declaration, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program was formed. This multinational effort aims to ensure that “snow leopards and the people who live among them thrive in healthy ecosystems that contribute to the prosperity and well-being of the range countries.” The declaration pledged to identify and secure at least 20 healthy landscapes across the snow leopard’s range by 2020.

In 2014 the Kyrgyz government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Snow Leopard Foundation of Kyrgyzstan, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation to enhance snow leopard conservation during the next decade.

Out of the memorandum formed the Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program to encourage rangers and local community to apprehend poachers and law-breakers. The program began to restrict and slow the overhunting of the snow leopard’s prey, playing into Atmabayev’s conversion of Shamshy to a nature reserve.

Okamoto wrote in Wildlife Matters, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s magazine, “we are fully confident that all political support is in place to make this project stable”.

How a Hunting Reserve Became a Snow Leopard Sanctuary

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