New Technology Reveals Hundreds of Bird Species at Risk
A new Duke University-led study argues that old methods of assessing threat levels are not as accurate as it should be. Published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, this new study used remote sensing data to map recent land-use changes that are reducing suitable habitat for more than 600 bird species across six of the world’s biodiverse regions. There is much smaller levels of suitable habitat in the Atlantic forest of Brazil, Central America, the western Andes of Colombia, Sumatra, Madagascar, and Southeast Asia available to the species than previously recognized.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List currently classifies 108 out of the 600 species as being at risk of extinction. However, the researchers estimate that there are actually 210 out of the 600 that face accelerated risks of extinction. Out of 210, 189 species are not currently assessed as being at risk should now be classified as threatened, based on the extent and pace of habitat loss documented by recent remote sensing.
“Good as it is, the Red List assessment process dates back 25 years and does not make use of advances in geospatial technologies that have placed powerful new tools at our fingertips, including vastly improved digital maps, regular global assessments of land use changes from satellite images, and maps showing which areas of the planet are protected by national parks,” said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
Using remote sensing, satellite scans of the Earth, the researchers were able to determine where forest habitats have been lost to agriculture, urbanization, or other land-use changes. They also classified the areas by elevation, a critical element of where many bird species choose to live.
Study’s lead author, Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela mentions that “some bird species prefer forests at mid-elevations, while others inhabit moist lowland forests. Knowing how much of this preferred habitat remains — and how much of it has been destroyed or degraded — is vital for accurately assessing extinction risks, especially for species that have small geographical ranges to begin with. But it’s ignored in the current Red List assessment process.”
“When these factors are accounted for, some species that are not currently considered at risk of extinction likely have ranges that are smaller than those that the Red List otherwise quite sensibly decides are at risk,” adds study co-author Clinton Jenkins, who directs the biodiversity mapping site.
By not incorporating this type of modern geospatial data directly into its assessments, the Red List may be seriously underestimating the number of species at risk and causing scientists and policymakers to overlook priority areas for conservation.
“The Red List employs rigorously objective criteria, is transparent, and democratic in soliciting comments on species decisions,” Primm stressed. “That said, its methods are seriously outdated.”
Existing assessments of extinction risk would benefit from modern geospatial technologies, say scientists, who warn that there are hundreds more species who are at risk of extinction than is currently recognized.
Although the IUCN itself has disputed these findings, saying current methods do the trick, the paper does highlight the fact that we need to step up our game in our attempts to understand the threats the world’s species currently face. As habitat loss accelerates around the world, many species could suffer or even disappear before we truly have a chance to figure out how urbanization and other threats impact them. New tools and technologies can only serve to contribute and help scientists and conservationists to better prevent extinctions.
Ocampo-Peñuela concludes that “with better data we can make better decisions, and have a greater chance of saving species and protecting the places that matter.”
Tiger Farms Linked to Massive Surge in Illegal Trafficking
Commercial tiger breeding in Asia is threatening the future of the world’s remaining wild tigers. A TRAFFIC report was released on tiger trafficking and found that an estimated 30% of tigers seized between 2012 and 2015 were reported to come from captive breeding facilities, highlighting their growing role in the illegal trade. While complicating enforcement activities, tiger farms also legitimize the sale of tiger parts and products, which drives up demand. It is critical for governments to begin implementing concrete steps to close all of the continent’s tiger farms and will be a major topic at Hanoi Conference, international conference on illegal wildlife trade currently held in Vietnam.
“There is no longer any doubt that tiger farms are stimulating and expanding the illegal tiger trade or that they should all be closed down,” said Michael Baltzer, Leader of WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative. “The Hanoi Conference is the perfect platform for governments to commit to shutting Asia’s tiger farms, which would contribute enormously to the survival and recovery of tigers in the wild.”
The study’s percentage of tiger-related customs seizures is a significant increase from the 2% between 2000 and 2003. An approximate of 3,890 tigers remain in the wild, but body parts or live animals total to an estimated 1,755 tigers have been seized since 2000, according to the report. As with any crime, the seizures represent a tiny fraction of the total level of activity. The sheer volume of tiger trafficking suggests that many of the seized animals come not from the wild but from legal and illegal breeding facilities, which the Environmental Investigation Agency estimates hold between 7,000 and 8,000 tigers in Asia.
With so many cats in captivity, wild tigers are not safe. Traditional Asian medicine and culture values wild products over farm-raised. Therefore, the steady market of captive-bred tiger products stimulates consumer demand and puts more pressure on wild tigers. India alone has lost at least 76 tigers to poaching so far this year, their highest number since 2010.
Vietnam has also become an increasingly significant hub for tiger trafficking and home to a growing number of tiger farms. Close to 40% of the country’s reported seizures came from its captive facilities.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Vietnam’s Country Director, Thinh Van Ngoc, urges that Vietnam to join Thailand and Laos and help lead efforts to ban commercial tiger breeding across Asia. “There are no more excuses for allowing tiger farms to operate. The evidence is clear, while technical and financial assistance is available – all that’s needed is the political will.”
On November 23rd, the world will mark the 6th anniversary of the groundbreaking “Tiger Summit” in St Petersburg and the halfway point of the global Tx2 campaign to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022 – the most ambitious and visionary recovery programme created for a single species.
“Decades of campaigning and on-the ground efforts to halt tiger poaching have achieved some significant successes, but the threat remains as grave as ever,” said Baltzer. “Ending tiger farming would ease the pressure and help law enforcement agencies focus on the poachers and traffickers of wild tigers.”
TRAFFIC is calling for all existing tiger farms to immediately begin recording and managing their captive cats in a central database, complete with DNA profiles and photographs to help prevent any more captive tigers from “leaking” into the illegal trade. That is, until there is a complete ban on tiger farming throughout Asia.
WWF is also promoting the Indian government’s proposal to create a regional stripe pattern database that can compare images of seized tiger skins with camera trap photos of wild and captive tigers. The database will also compile sets of DNA markers from wild and captive populations and launch focused, evidence-based behavioral change programs to reduce demand for tiger parts and products.
World’s Longest Cat-Proof Fence Protects Endangered Birds
In a bold conservation move to protect the federally endangered Hawaiian petrel from feral cats, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park recently completed a five mile long fence. It is the longest cat-proof fence ever constructed, protecting almost 600 acres of the petrel’s nesting habitat on the island. The project was a collaboration between the National Park Service (NPS) with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American Bird Conservatory, Hawai’i Pacific Parks Association, and the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit at the University of Hawai’i (PCSU).
The Hawaiian petrel, also known as the ‘ua’u, nests in deep lava rock burrows on the rugged high-altitude slopes (up to 10,000 feet high) of Mauna Loa Volcano. However, even at that altitude and remote location, they are not safe from cats, who are thought to be responsible for 72 percent of the petrel carcasses found in an 18-year period. A 2013 study found video evidence of cat activity at eight of 14 monitored petrel burrows.
Feral cat supporters are vocal in their opposition to eradicating or removing feral cat colonies, as often is done with other invasive species. A bill introduced by Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources that would have outlawed feeding feral cats on state land was defeated after cat advocates jammed the bill’s hearing with hours of testimony.
Even without cat supporters, full eradication would be difficult, take time, and prove expensive. Fencing, even with high upfront cost, offers a solution that sidesteps the logistical problems of eradication while not upsetting feral cat supporters. Besides minor upkeep, like cutting back vegetation so it doesn’t provide a way over the fence, fences are usually a one-time expense.
Construction began in 2013, limited to January through May to avoid disturbing nesting birds. The seabirds come to land only during breeding season, spending most of their lives at sea. The ‘Ua’u will briefly land in April to repare nest sites and return in early June to lay a single egg. Protecting approximately 50 breeding pairs left in the park, the specifically designed barrier is more than six feet high and with a curved top section that prevents cats from climbing over it.
Building a fence at 8,000 to 10,000 feet on top of a volcano was grueling and arduous. NPS and PCSU fence crews camped at the high altitude in steep and loose lava rock terrain. All materials and workers had to be flown in by helicopter and endured conditions like hail, high winds, and extreme heat.
“I suspect the fence crew might say the most difficult part was the preparation of the ground,” said National Park Service biologist Kathleen Misajon. “They pounded the entire five-mile route by hand, with sledgehammers, to create a stable base on which to build.”
This type of predator protection-fencing is the fifth conservation fence in Hawaii. It was first used in 2011 in Hawaii when a 2,040 foot long fence was built to protect albatrosses on Oahu. The first was pioneered in New Zealand and Australia, two countries that had extensive invasive species problems.
“To our knowledge, this is the largest fence of its kind in the U.S. To build such a fence is an incredible feat, and an important victory for a native species that is extremely rare on Hawai‘i Island,” said NPS biologist Kathleen Misajon. “Through the partnership of the cooperating organizations, the cat-proof fence will protect these amazing seabirds and support the expansion of this small population.”