Conservation News: Snow Leopards, Extinction Prediction, and Antarctica Marine Reserve

Analysis Reveals Snow Leopards are Killed Out of ‘Revenge’, Finds Refuge in Kyrgyzstan

There are only about 4,000 snow leopards scattered across the mountains of Central Asia. There are found across 12 countries that sweep around the Himalayan and Tibetan plateaus. Despite their secretive nature, the cats are dying at the hands of humans, according to a new report by TRAFFIC and World Wildlife Fund. Out of the twelve countries, over 90% of the reported poaching occurred in just five countries: China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan.

Since 2008, poachers have killed a conservative estimate of 220 to 450 of this endangered species annually. On average, that’s four cats per week. The report addresses that possibility that the number could be substantially higher since many illegal killings in remote areas go undetected.

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The reason? Revenge. Though snow leopards are poached for trade in furs and bones, they only make 21% of all deaths. Instead, it is the herders are responsible for more than half of deaths as retribution for livestock losses.

“We think that what most observations, seizure records and expert opinion shows is that the majority is still happening because of retaliatory killing,” said James Compton from Traffic.

Given that snow leopards can kill animals three times their weight, their ability to hunt domestic sheep and cattle causes grievances among the farmers whose livelihood depends on their animals. The report’s authors concluded that snow leopard parts and pelts enter the market out of an opportunity to gain back the lost livestock.

Compton suggests that “better protection for livestock, in some of these very remote areas where you have nomad communities and herds of livestock,” will decrease human-wildlife conflict “because that’s where the friction takes place”.

With the rise in snow leopard poaching, one of the biggest worries is the rise of clandestine sales on social media and e-commerce. This new platform allows for lower-profile transactions that could avoid law enforcement.

A third of the snow leopard’s range falls along international borders that have seen considerable conflict in recent years. Because of this, the report calls for greater cross-border cooperation, especially on law enforcement. At present, only a quarter of known cases of poaching are investigated.

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Image by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Fortunately, conservationists find hope in Shamshy Sanctuary, located in Kyrgyzstan where the Snow Leopard Trust, Snow Leopard Foundation, and Kyrgyz government. It was once a former hunting ground, later converted to provide a protected area away from livestock populations.

Despite only having been protected since June 2016, the sanctuary has quickly become home to possibly 350 snow leopards.

According to Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan director, Kuban Jumabai uulu says, “earlier this year, we had found snow leopard tracks and scratch marks on several ridgelines in Shamshy. Now, (new camera-trap) pictures prove the cat’s presence in the sanctuary.”

This may be because of the growth of ibex and mountain goat, the cat’s preferred prey. By protecting Shamshy from hunting for at least ten years, the prey populations will likely increase, attracting more snow leopards to the area. To do so, the partnership will employ, fund, and train anti-poaching rangers to patrol the refuge.

While the area is too small to be able to host a sizeable snow leopard population, it could serve as the core of a larger habitat in years to come.

“Kyrgyzstan is like [a] bridge between two large snow leopard ranges, and if we lose snow leopard in this country, then it means the global population will be isolated,” Jumabai uulu argues. “Populations are stronger when they are together.”

More Snow Leopards Poached, Even as Bold Plan Fights Decline

Snow Leopards Still Fair Game for Poachers: Is Revenge a Motive?

Snow Leopards Killed ‘In Revenge’, Traded Online – Report

A Dramatic Report Argues That the World Will Lose Two-Thirds of Wild Animals by 2020?

Prepared and released by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, the new report, called the Living Planet Index, warns of ecological collapse.

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Photo By: Beverly Joubert

Between 1970 and 2012, animal populations dropped by 58%, largely as a result of human activities like poaching, habitat loss, and pollution. The analysis was based on field data collected on more than 14,000 populations of vertebrates, from 3,700 different species all over the world. Using this data to produce a measure that indicates the state of the world’s 64,000 animal species, the researchers extrapolated these trends forward to 2020, estimating it will reach 67%.

If accurate, this means that wildlife across the globe is vanishing at a rate of 2% a year.

“Global biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, putting the survival of other species and our own future at risk,” the index warns.

Lakes and rivers saw the steepest declines in resident animals, with populations down by 81% since 1970. Furthermore, groups that have fared particularly badly include marine mammals, fish, and birds.

“This is definitely human impact, we’re in the sixth mass extinction. There’s only been five before this and we’re definitely in the sixth,” WWF conservation scientist Martin Taylor told CNN. “It’s because we’re using so much of the planet and we’re destroying so much of (these animals’) habitat.”

He argues that this sudden loss of wildlife across the globe wasn’t just a threat to biodiversity, but is also a threat to the survival of humanity.

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Some researchers estimate estimate there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050

“Governments (need) to take action (to cut down on emissions and habitat destruction) to halt the slow death of the planet because it isn’t just affecting wild species it’s affecting us too. This is a threat to our future as a species, what we’re doing to the planet,” he said.

Director of World Wildlife Fund Marco Lambertini also backs Taylor’s argument: The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex life systems that underpin it. Life supports life itself and we are part of the same equation. Lose biodiversity and the natural world and the life support systems, as we know them today, will collapse.” Humanity is “completely dependent on nature for clean air and water, food and materials, as well as inspiration and happiness.”

The biggest cause that the Index points to is the destruction of wild areas for farming and logging. The vast majority of Earth’s land area has now been impacted by humans in some way or form, with only 15% protected for nature.

Pollution and exploitation for food is also another major factor, due to unsustainable fishing and hunting. According to another research, more than 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction.

Other significant problems are pollution (particularly for killer whales and dolphins in European seas seriously harmed by long-lived industrial pollutants), wildlife trade (spread of disease and loss of genetic diversity), and use of drugs (like vultures in southeast Asia being decimated for eating carcasses of cattle dosed with anti-inflammatory drugs).

All of these pressures are magnified by global warming, according to Mike Barrett, WWF’s director of science, which shifts the ranges in which animals are able to live.

“The report is certainly a pretty shocking snapshot of where we are,” said Barrett. “My hope though is that we don’t throw our hands up in despair – there is no time for despair, we have to crack on and act. I do remain convinced we can find our sustainable course through the Anthropocene, but the will has to be there to do it.”

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However, critics argue that the Index’s conclusion is overblown and misleading.

“It is broadly right, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts,” said Professor Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University. Referring to the 58% decline, he describes it to be a “fairly silly kind of number to report”.

“It mixes what’s going on in the ocean with what’s going on in the land. It mixes studies of bird populations in Europe with mammal populations in Africa. It has very few data points in South America.

Pimm argues that there is far too much variability across different regions and too much uncertainty to predict a dire crash of all species.

“Trying to take all those different data sets, from all over the world, and putting that in a blender and trying to break that down into one number is irresponsible, disingenuous, and not helpful.”

Several others were in agreement with Pimm’s assessment of the Living Planet Index like Luke Dollar, conservation biologist leading National Geographic’s  Big Cats Initiative.

“That said, there’s no question that a great number of populations of myriad species are in substantial decline, and will continue to demand ever-increasing efforts to stem their loss and protect the systems of which they are a part. The need for self-awareness and proactive measures to mitigate our ever-increasing impact on wildlife has also never been greater.”

Taylor defends the report saying that WWF had been transparent about the variability in their data.

“There’s always going to be criticisms, we know that there’s a lot of variability in the data and that’s all expressed quite openly in the report itself … we know that this not an easy task to try and aggregate numbers across an entire planet,” he said.

Anthony Barnosky, Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve executive director, also points out that the report argued that ⅔ of individual animals would disappear, not necessarily ⅔ of species.

“I don’t think I would quibble with the trend they’re pointing out. We’re losing individuals of species and geographic ranges at a really rapid rate,” he notes. “If you keep that up, extinction of lots of species is inevitable.”

World to Lose Two-Thirds of Wild Animals by 2020?

World On Track To Lose Two-Thirds of Wild Animals, A Major Report Warns

Sixth mass extinction? Two-thirds of wildlife may be gone by 2020: WWF

World’s Largest Marine Reserve Created Off the Coast of Antarctica

Outdoing Obama’s expansion of the Hawaiian National Monument, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) announced a new marine protected area in the Ross Sea. The commission comprises of 24 countries, including the United States and the European Union.

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A map released by WWF showing the protected area of the Ross Sea

As the world’s largest marine protected area, it stretches 598,000 square miles. More than the twice the size of Texas, it will protect species from penguins to whales. Enric Sala, marine biologist and leader of Pristine Seas project, praised the designation.

“The Ross Sea is probably the largest ocean wilderness left on our planet,” he says. “It is the Serengeti of Antarctica, a wild place full of wildlife such as emperor penguins, leopard seals, minke whales, and killer whales. It’s one of these rare places where humans are only visitors and large animals rule.”

The Ross Sea is south of New Zealand and deep in the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean. It is sometimes called the “Last Ocean” because it is largely untouched by humans. A 2011 study described it as the “least altered marine ecosystem on Earth”. Its nutrient-rich waters are the most productive in the Antarctic with huge plankton and krill blooms that support vast numbers of fish, seals, penguins, and whales. Some 16,000 species call the Ross Sea home. Though its shelf and slope only comprise 2% of the Southern Ocean, the Ross Sea is home to 38% of the world’s Adelie penguins, 30% of the world’s Antarctic petrels, and around 6% of the world’s population of Antarctic minke whales.

Furthermore, the region is important to the rest of the planet as the upwelling of nutrients from the deep waters, which are carried on currents around the world. Scientists estimate that the Southern Ocean produces about ¾ of the nutrients that sustain life in the rest of world’s oceans.

The sea’s remoteness has meant that it has largely escaped the heavy fishing and shipping pressure that has impacted much of the world’s ocean. However, rising prices for seafood and the low cost of fuel has made it potential new grounds. Some fishing has already occurred there. Russia has an industry catching the Antarctic toothfish, a predatory fish sold as the highly prized Chilean sea bass.

“Certain seas like the Ross Sea ought to be closed [to fishing],” Senator John Kerry, who has been working towards the protection of the Ross Sea,  told National Geographic.

The protections will move the industry away from the most crucial habitats close to the continent itself. Fishing will no longer be allowed within the reserve except for a specifically designated zone. The agreement will also establish a 322,000 square kilometer “krill research zone” that will allow for research catching of krill, but prohibit toothfish catching. Additionally. A 110,000 square kilometer “special research zone” will be established on the outside of the no-take zone, allowing for catching of krill and toothfish only for research purposes. The new protections will go into force on December 1, 2017.

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Emperor penguins slice through the cold waters of the Ross Sea. Photo By: Paul Nicklen

The marine protected area was created based on a proposal from the United States and New Zealand. Environmental groups and several countries had pushed for protections for the Ross Sea for decades. Over the past few years, China and Russia opposed, expressing concerns about putting too much of the ocean off limits to fishing and to other uses, including the possibility of seabed mining. It was only last year that China changed its mind and Russia came on board this week.

One of the key questions in the negotiations was how long the designation should last. Countries like the United States suggested permanent protections whereas China stated it believed that 20 years is long enough for a designation. After five years of failed negotiations from opposition from China and Russia, ultimately the parties agreed on 35 years. Evan Bloom of the US Senate argued that the compromise “was necessary in order for this to be adopted”.

But, many conservationists argue that this is too short, given the lifespan of creatures, like whales, that life in the Ross Sea. “WWF has concerns that the Ross Sea agreement does not meet this standard,” says Chris Johnson, WWF-Australia’s ocean science manager, referring to the World Conservation Union definition of a marine protected area as a permanent designation.

Despite this, hope remains.

Johnson continues: “We are optimistic that after years of deadlock at the annual CCAMLR meeting, today’s decision will spark renewed momentum for CCAMLR members to achieve permanent protection for the Ross Sea in coming years and also deliver marine protected areas in East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea.”

Andrea Kavanagh, director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work for the Pew Charitable Trusts, chimes in with, “I’m positive that in 35 years, the conservation values that come out of the Ross Sea, the protections will be renewed. The world will be a different place in 35 years.

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UN oceans patron, Lewis Pugh, engaged in “speedo diplomacy” to push for a deal. Photo By: Kelvin Trautman

Environmentalists welcome the move to protect the Ross Sea, hoping it will be the first of many such zones in international waters. The protection of the Ross Sea has set a precedent to help the world achieve the IUCN’s recommendation that 30% of the world’s oceans be protected.

“There’s massive momentum in the world right now to protect our oceans,” said Luis Morago, campaign director at Avaaz. “Governments have just set the landmark target of protecting 30% of our oceans, and millions of people all over the world are pushing for more protected areas to achieve that goal. The Ross Sea is just the start.”

“Today’s agreement is a turning point for the protection of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean,” argues Johnson. “This is important not just for the incredible diversity of life that it will protect, but also for the contribution it makes to building the resilience of the world’s ocean in the face of climate change.”

World’s largest marine protected area declared in Antarctica

World’s Largest Marine Reserve Created Off Antarctica

World’s largest marine park created in Ross Sea in Antarctica in landmark deal

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