Conservation News: Elephants, Pangolins, and Groupers

With Poaching at an All Time High, Elephants are Fleeing to the Last Stronghold in Africa

With ivory poachers hunting elephants in neighboring countries Namibia, Zambia, and Angola, these large pachyderms are fleeing in astounding numbers to Chobe National Park of Botswana where illegal hunting is mostly kept in check.

“Our elephants are essentially refugees,” says Michael Chase, founder of the Botswana-based conservation group Elephants Without Borders, which works to create transboundary corridors for elephants to travel safely between countries.

While it has become a safe haven, offering some protection, the Chobe is not the most welcoming stronghold. The Kalahari Desert’s dry ecosystem is not capable of supporting so many elephants, which each can eat up to 600 pounds of food daily. Chase describes the environment as a “seemingly endless terrain of desiccated trees and brush” with “only a few spots of green.” Forced to eat bark, some elephants have already died from blocked intestinal tracts. Water resources for the elephants are also scarce in the parched land. The animals settle for remote watering holes around the park, instinctively steering clear of rivers where the risk of poachers catching them off guard is likely.

“The irony of elephants seeking refuge in the Kalahari Desert, an environment not compatible to sustaining these numbers of elephants, is a tragedy,” Chase declared. “Unfortunately, this time of peace was not to last.”

Elephants in Botswana’s Chobe National Park race down a dry, dusty hill toward the Chobe River. The animals regularly cross the water to reach the richer vegetation of Namibia. Photo By: Christine Dell’Amore

Due to poaching and rapid development, African elephant numbers have plummeted by 30% in recent decades, according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census. Once ranging from the coastal plains of Cape Town to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the species has fallen from 1.3 million in the 1970s to about 352,000 today. Because of this sudden decrease, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the African elephant as vulnerable to extinction on the Red List. Approximately 130,000 of the survivors now live in Botswana as the biggest elephant population in any country.

But as elephants fleeing to Botswana, the poachers are following. Already 55 have been killed illegal in Chobe National Park in recent months, according to Chase.

“These animals are highly intelligent,” he says. “They know where they’re persecuted.”

George Wittemyer, scientific chair of the Kenya-based nonprofit Save the Elephants, and his colleagues have found that elephants can identify and navigate what ecologists call “a landscape of fear.” As in Botswana, Kenyan elephants can discern boundaries of protected areas such as Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park without the aid of fences or other markers.

In a recent study, Wittemyer and his colleagues found that elephants living in a patchwork of protected and human-dominated land will shift their circadian rhythm to rest more during the day, which they’ve learned means fewer encounters with people. In such places, the animals will also choose less populated areas to rest, even if they are farther away from water. Then, under the cover of darkness, the elephants make a beeline for the water holes, quickly passing through places where people or poachers may lurk. However, in protected areas, elephants will switch this behavior and hang out at water holes all day.

elephant-refugee-2“It’s been remarkable to see the way they will identify areas they see as safe and move rapidly through areas they don’t see as safe,” says Wittemyer.

The herbivores’ evasive skills are due in large part to their highly sophisticated spatial memory.

Satellite data from collared elephants in Namibia’s Etosha National Park show that the animals travel the fastest, most direct route possible to water holes, according to a 2015 study co-authored by Wittemyer. Their ability to take the most efficient path to water sources regardless of where they are starting from suggests that they maintain detailed, wide-ranging maps in their heads.

The elephants’ intelligence also includes their communication skills. Joyce Poole, cofounder of the conservation group ElephantVoices, has studied elephants in the wild for 41 years and has identified hundreds of posture and gestures that reveal the creatures capability to consciously make decisions and act on them. Experiments and studies have shown that elephants can distinguish different languages and discern one people group as more dangerous than another.

Wittemyer also adds that “elephants can smell chemical stress levels in other elephants’ dung and feces, which could communicate which areas are safe.”

“Elephants use their cognitive and sensory abilities to avoid poachers as well, but they aren’t always successful, especially when poachers use sophisticated equipment,” says Poole. “How do we protect these elephants and not end up with refugees running from one tiny safe haven to another? We’ve got to stop the demand for ivory.”

But, poaching shows no sign of stopping. Illegal killing for ivory is so intense that in ten years scientists expect to lose 50% of Africa’s remaining elephants, Chase says.

Even if anti-poaching and park management improved, in some cases, there’s not much left for the elephants to return to. Across much of Africa, ill-maintained parks have become overrun with domestic livestock that have denuded the land. And countries are expected to double in population by 2050, leaving less space for wildlife and fueling the growth of large-scale development, fragmenting suitable habitat.

There have been some victories worth celebrating. Uganda, Namibia, and Gabon have stable or recovering elephant populations. And in Botswana, ecotourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner. Which Chase describes as “reaping the rewards of successful conservation.”

Perhaps most importantly, “the world is listening to the plight of elephants,” he says, citing the growth of wildlife documentaries like Savage Kingdom as one example. “We’ve shocked people out of apathy and into action.”

Elephant Refugees Flee to Last Stronghold in Africa

Tragedy: Nowhere to Go, Elephants Seek Refuge at the Kalahari Desert

The Largest Ever Release of Rescued Pangolins Give Them a Second Shot

A pangolin waiting to be released. Photo By: Rachel Nuwer

On Monday, 46 pangolins rescued from traffickers were put back into the wild at a reserve on the Vietnam-Laos border, unidentified to preserve secrecy. But while it is worth celebrating, there is no guarantee that some, if not all, will fall victim again to poachers and end up back in the illegal wildlife trade in the wildlife.

“I feel very good about the release, but we know that no place is 100 percent safe from poachers,” says Thai Van Nguyen, founder and executive director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, the nonprofit organization that undertook the release. “That animals can wind up back in the trade is always a concern for us,” he said. “If pangolins are just trapped again, then it doesn’t mean anything if we rehabilitate and release them.”

Most of the pangolins Nguyen and his colleagues set free this week were discovered in September, packed in boxes of ice on the back of a truck in northern Vietnam. Of the 61 the police confiscated, 12 died from trauma and injuries and several are still recovering at Nguyen’s facility, the only rehab center in Vietnam capable of caring for those animals.

But they represent barely a drop in the total illegal trade. More than a million pangolins are estimated to have entered into the black market during the past decade, making the species the most trafficked mammal in the world.

In September, pangolins were given the highest level of global protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the body of nations that regulates the international wildlife trade. Vietnam’s legislation also strictly protects pangolins, yet the country remains a hub for both pangolin consumption and trafficking to China.

“We are aware of our roles and responsibility in controlling the illegal wildlife trade,” Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, Vietnam’s vice president, said yesterday in Hanoi at the start of a two-day conference on illegal wildlife trade. The meeting, hosted by Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, drew delegates from more than 40 countries, including Prince William from the U.K. “Without responsible actions to be put into practice right now, our future generations will no longer have the chance to see diverse wildlife,” she said.

A newly released pangolin clings to Thai Van Nguyen’s leg, possibly mistaking it for a tree trunk. Photo By: Rachel Nuwer 

Vietnam has long professed in words and writing its commitment to tackle wildlife crime, but action on the ground has lagged. According to case reviews from 2010 to 2016 conducted by the Hanoi-based nonprofit group Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV), the country has yet to arrest or prosecute a single high-level wildlife criminal, despite widely available evidence indicating who these alleged traffickers are.

These shortcomings were heard at the public hearing in November held by the Wildlife Justice Commission, an NGO made up of criminal justice experts, which highlighted Vietnam’s failure to follow through on its commitments to crack down on the trade. The group’s year-long investigation, mainly conducted at Nhi Khe, a town near Hanoi, revealed significant amounts of illegal wildlife products for sale such as ivory and tiger products. According to the findings, corruption and lack of political will are the primary factors allowing this illegal commerce to continue.

Minimal action has followed. Vietnamese officials declined invitations to attend the hearing and instead a single Vietnamese observed attended.

“There have been declarations aplenty this year, but pledges must be backed by action on the ground,” says Olivia Swaak-Goldman, the commission’s executive director. “Do remember that while the Hanoi Illegal Wildlife Trade conference is taking place, just 20 kilometers away is Nhi Khe, one of the world’s worst wildlife-trafficking hubs.”

Pangolins Released Into Wild May Be Recaptured and Eaten

Scaling the Odds at Vietnam’s Pangolin Rehab

A Clash of Interests Over the Protection of the 800-Pound Groupers

Not all hold such a reverential view of the Atlantic goliath grouper. Fished to near extinction in its western north Atlantic habitat by 1990, U.S. states and the federal government banned catching the gigantic fish. Since then, the population has been making a comeback and scientists are celebrating.

However, some Florida fishermen have been frustrated, arguing that the groupers have been eating too many fish and stealing from them. Several videos online show the goliath grouper’s antics, which, includes a grouper dragging a fisherman and stealing his catch.

Via Lak-ai Blogspot

“There are a lot of spots we don’t go to anymore because you won’t catch anything,” says Brice Barr, a charter boat skipper and president of the Key West Charter Fishermen’s Association. “The goliaths will catch every single fish that you hook. They hear the sound of our boats and that’s the dinner bell. They know they are going to get fed.”

Barr and others also blame the groups for decimating fish stocks on the Florida reef, including snapper and smaller grouper species. “If you ask most fishermen, they say we need to get rid of the goliath. These top predators are becoming so protected, they are starting to prey more and more on the rest of the fish.”

But Chris Koenig, a retired University of Florida marine biologist who has studied goliaths for decades, fights back. “People make up all kinds of reasons why the fish must be destroyed. This is a native species. They were part of the natural environment. They have been here for millions of years, much longer than we have.” He and his wife refuted claims and clarified the groupers’ dining habits and biology with a paper online.

“We’ve been trying to knock down these arguments for years,” Koenig says. “People think because it is big, it has to eat a lot. But in the Gulf of Mexico, the snapper fishery has been below sustainable levels for 20 years.”

Nor is the grouper especially ferocious.

“The longest teeth in their mouth are an eighth of an inch. Sure, they are sharp, but you have to provoke them, and then, the worst they can do is give you a rash,” Koenig says. “Sharks, will take your hand off. Goliath suck their prey, they have such a weak bite.”

Instead, Koenig says the push to lift the ban on catching goliath grouper has more to do with sports. Among trophy fish caught in the Florida Keys historically, the goliath grouper has long held special distinction because of its large size. Growing up to eight feet, it stands taller than the catcher. Catching one is the ocean equivalent of hunting big game. Only sharks, which are rarely caught, are bigger.

grouper 2.PNG
© Walt Stearns

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has conducted three population counts – in 2004, 2010, and 2015 – in the past in an effort to determine if the grouper has recovered enough to lift the fishing ban. Each time, the counts have not convinced the officials to repoen the goliath grouper fishery so far. And Amanda Nalley, the commission’s spokesperson adds that there are no plans currently to reconsider the status.

Dan DeMaria, a commercial diver who used to hunt goliaths when they were plentiful, now supports ecotourism, believing that the fish are worth more alive than dead. “One fish can be seen hundreds of times,” he says.

Koenig agrees. “Nowhere else in the world can you swim up to a fish that is the size of a small Volkswagen and pet it on the face and see about 30 of them around you,” he says. “That is a thrilling thing.”

But ecotourism can only help so much. Groupers are still being killed illegally and left to sink to the bottom to avoid being fined. Koenig suggests a plan for reopening the juvenile goliath grouper to fishing on a limited, sustainable basis which might better protect the goliath.

“If you come to some kind of compromise where the fishing group gets their piece of the pie and the diving group gets their piece of the pie, and we don’t see any changes in the population density, everybody’s happy.”

800-Pound Groupers Making a Comeback—But Not Everyone’s Happy


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