Giant Pandas No Longer Endangered
On Sunday, it was announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii that the giant panda was upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ on the Red List of Threatened Species.
This iconic black-and-white bear, native to the Chinese bamboo forests, has been a worldwide symbol of wildlife conservation for half a century. Giant panda populations in the wild has risen steadily by 17% from 2004 to 2014, when a nationwide census found 1,864 adult giant pandas and 196 cubs in the wild. That’s up from the last census of 1,600 animals in 2003.
“It’s a good day to be a panda,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a nonprofit whose logo is the giant panda. “We’re thrilled.”
Though the panda has been on the IUCN endangered lists since 1990, China has been aware of their decline since the 1960s, when the first panda reserves were established. Since then, a combination of forest protection, reforestation, and strict laws against poaching, which was rampant in the 1980s, has allowed the population to recover. Now, China has 67 panda reserves.
“This is a deserved status,” celebrates M. Sanjayan, senior scientist at the nonprofit Conservation International. “The Chinese government has put in 30 years of hard work in pandas—[they are] not going to let the panda go extinct.”
There has been a trend of increased estimates of the panda population in every study since 1985, but researchers have remained doubtful if the species will continue to rebound. However, the most recent survey conducted between 2011 and 2014 removed any uncertainty, says IUCN.
“The improved status confirms that the Chinese government’s efforts to conserve this species are effective.”
China, though, was less optimistic about its recovery. The State Forestry Administration disputed the decision in a statement to The Associated Press, saying pandas struggle to reproduce in the wild and live in small groups spread widely apart.
“If we downgrade their conservation status, or neglect or relax our conservation work, the populations and habitats of giant pandas could still suffer irreversible loss, and our achievements would be quickly lost. Therefore, we’re not being alarmist by continuing to emphasize the panda species’ endangered status.”
IUCN countered that the upgrade does not include a decrease in conservation effort and monitoring.
However, Marc Brody, senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, says “it is too early to conclude that pandas are actually increasing in the wild—perhaps we are simply getting better at counting wild pandas.”
One of the biggest threats that looms over the survival of the giant panda is the lack of suitable habitat.Despite their geographic range increasing by nearly 12% since 2003, it is predicted that in the next 80 years, more than ⅓ of panda’s bamboo forests will be affected by climate change, causing the population to decrease once more.
“To protect this iconic species, it is critical that the effective forest protection measures are continued and that emerging threats are addressed,” the IUCN report explained.
Brody himself states that “ongoing fragmentation from highway construction, active tourism development in Sichuan Province, and other human economic activities” will be a threat to “quality panda habitat.
In the newest update to the list, 23,928 out of 82,954 species are threatened with extinction. There has been a 52% average decline in populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe between 1970 and 2010.
“We live in a time of tremendous change and each IUCN Red List update makes us realise just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating.”
The Dangers of Ocean Warming
A recent report released by the IUCN warned the scientific community of the continued effects of global warming.
Since the 1970s, the oceans have been a “powerful ally” against global warming, absorbing 93% of the carbon dioxide released by human activities. As global warming continues, the ocean will continue to warm by 1-4 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“Without this oceanic buffer, global temperature rises would have gone much, much speedier,” said Inger Andersen, IUCN’s director general, at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.
Dan Laffoley, principal advisor of marine science and conservation for IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Program, put it bluntly “if the oceans weren’t there to protect us, our lower atmosphere would have already heated up by 36 degrees Celsius”.
But now, they have finally hit their limit as dying corals and plummeting fish stocks signal that the seas are at a dangerous tipping point. Furthermore, people are already experiencing direct consequences, such as more extreme weather events.
“We all know the oceans sustain this planet,” argues Anderson, “yet we are making the oceans sick.”
Eighty scientists from 12 countries contributed to the “most comprehensive, most systematic study we’ve ever undertaken on the warming of the oceans,” Laffoley says.
One of the most worrying find is that entire species populations, such as plankton, jellyfish, turtles, and seabirds, are moving towards the poles by up to 10 degrees latitude, taking up residence in waters previously too cold to support them. That’s five time faster than land animals are migrating north.
Particularly, fish species moving out of their known range could destabilize the world’s fisheries. The report mentions that in Southeast Asia, marine fisheries may fall by up to 30% by 2050. And in East Africa and parts of the Indian Ocean, where warming has already killed coral reefs and fish species, fishermen’s livelihoods are in danger.
The outlooks is also bleak for coral reefs, which became a mainstay of ecotourism for many countries. Some have already lost up to half of their reefs, according to the report. The latest models predict that by 2050, a warmer ocean will bleach nearly all the world’s reefs.
People who live near or interact with the ocean could also be at increased risk of illness. Warmer oceans quickly spread pathogens, like the cholera-carrying bacteria and algal blooms that cause neurological diseases.
Severe weather is also on the rise. According to the report, the number of severe hurricanes has risen by up to 30% per degree of global warming. El Niño, the periodic warming of water in the Pacific Ocean, has also intensified over the past two decades.
Greg Stone, executive vice president at Conservation International and a marine expert, suggests treating the ocean like a sick patient that has a temperature. In order to lower the temperature, humans need to stop polluting the atmosphere with carbon, which is, of course, no easy task.
Another solution, however, is to create marine protected areas. “There’s good news on that front,” adds Stone. Just this week, President Obama quadrupled the size of Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
The scientists also offered recommendations, such as planning for the imminent blow to regional economies.
Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the Global Marine and Polar Programme, urges the world: “There’s no doubt in all our minds that we’re the cause of this. We know what the solutions are—and we need to get on with it.”
Vaccines Can Possibly Save the Ethiopian Wolf
During his 1991 field season, Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, for his PhD research, trekked through the rugged highlands of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains in search for the world’s rarest canid: the Ethiopian wolf. At the time, fewer than 1,000 remained, making conservation work imperative. During his trip, Sillero-Zubiri found very few alive. Instead, he came across the arid landscapes littered with their corpses.
After analyzing blood samples back at the University of Oxford, where he was studying, he identified the culprit: rabies.
Since then, Sillero-Zubiri, now an Oxford professor, and his team at the Ethiopian Wolf Project have identified four major rabies outbreaks among Ethiopian wolves in the Bale Mountains. Each time the virus hit—in 1991, 2003, 2008, and 2014—the wolf population declined by as much as 75 percent.
Now, only around 500 Ethiopian wolves remain in the wild, thanks to habitat loss and the repeated outbreaks.
But, vaccination programs, which helped control rabies in both wild and domestic animals across North America and Europe, may be a straightforward solution to the wolves’ existential crisis. In a new study, Sillero-Zubiri and colleagues show that immunizing Ethiopian wolves against rabies could help save the species.
In the Bale Mountains, rabies circulates between a large population of domestic dogs and the Ethiopian wolf. Efforts to immunize local dogs were minimally successful, due to difficulties in reaching sizeable feral dog population. Sillero-Zubiri had tried injecting the vaccines directly into the wolves, but capturing the animals to administer the vaccine was too expensive, time-consuming, and stressful on the animals.
Leaving oral rabies vaccines out for the wolves to find was also difficult. To attract the animals to ingest the drug, the packet is laced with a liver-flavored bait that many animals loved, but not the Ethiopian wolves.
So scientists conducted field tests to determine how best to entice the wolves to eat the vaccine. Inserting the vaccine sachet into a dead rat, the wolves preferred food, was only partly successful. However, the wolves’ favorite flavors were goat meat and intestines.
Of the 21 wolves captured after vaccine administration, 14 tested positive of eating the vaccine. Out of these wolves, 86% were successfully immunized against rabies, enough for the vaccine to help the species.
“Even immunizing just half of the wolf population would make a huge difference for conservation purposes,” adds William Karesh,executive vice president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance . “These people did a good job, doing the rigorous work to prove that the approach would work for these wolves.”
Although the trial was a success, Sillero-Zubiri still has to convince the Ethiopian government to begin a proactive vaccination program for the wolves.
“Some people believe that if we have to start vaccinating the wolves, we’ll have to keep it up forever,” he says. “That’s not true, but it’s no reason we can’t get started.”