Conservation News: Hippos, Sharks, and Dogs

The Illegal Hippo Ivory Trade Overshadowed by the Illegal Elephant Ivory Trade is Continuing to Suffer

Investigators suspect an illicit trade in hippo teeth in Uganda is feeding Asia’s ivory markets. But it is extremely difficult as they can only arrest the middlemen, unable to find the poachers.

“We have not got the real kingpins—we’ve mainly arrested Ugandans who don’t even know the traders because it is a chain,” says Charles Tumwesigye, deputy director of conservation with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. He says it’s probable that elephant ivory traders are also involved in smuggling hippo ivory because it’s used in similar ways but is cheaper.

In 2014 Uganda, increasingly worried about falling hippo numbers, banned the trade in hippo teeth, which had been legal. But the wildlife authority says that since the ban the flow of hippo ivory to international markets has continued, much of it going to Hong Kong. So far this year, investigators have seized nearly 900 pounds of hippo ivory—a fraction of the total suspected illegal trade in Uganda.

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Photo By: Vincent Opyene

CITES records show that between 2004 to 2014, Hong Kong reported to import almost 60 tons of teeth from wild hippos in Africa for commercial purposes, nearly half coming from Uganda. Under CITES a regulated legal trade in hippo ivory is allowed, and trade figures show that the source countries are now predominantly Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.

An alternative product to elephant ivory, hippo carvings are particularly popular because they command lower prices, says Patrick Leung, a trader in Hong Kong. He said his carvings sell for between $50 and $500 and that many of his customers are in Europe. During the past decade thousands of hippo ivory carvings have been exported legally from Hong Kong to France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy.

It’s not known how many hippos are left across Africa, but during the past few decades the animal has become increasingly threatened by hunting. On the IUCN Red List, the hippos are classified as vulnerable because threats of illegal, unregulated trade in their teeth, demand for their meat, and habitat loss are likely to continue.

In 2008, in its last published assessment of hippos, the IUCN estimated their continent-wide numbers to be between 125,000 and 148,000. Since then thousands have been legally and illegally killed for the domestic and international trades.

Even before Uganda’s 2014 ban, hunting hippos was illegal but their teeth could be traded legally if they came from carcasses of hippos that died naturally or were killed only for bushmeat, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority. But as populations decline, “we put a ban to make sure that people don’t think they can make money out of this,” says Tumwesigye, adding that the threat remains from ivory trafficking and poaching for their meat. How great a toll the illegal trade in teeth is having on Uganda’s hippos is anyone’s guess.

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Photo By: Rebecca Hale

Corruption fuels the wildlife trafficking, argues Tumwesigye. “Most times this hippo teeth, this ivory, is passing through the [borders] disguised as something else.” He says border officials are paid off to turn a blind eye to the smuggling. And in the past the wildlife authority has dismissed staff caught informing poachers about where rangers were patrolling national parks to help the hunters avoid those areas.

There are also calls for more scrutiny of Africa’s legal hippo teeth trade and its toll on the species. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of hippos have been slaughtered over the past 10 years to provide ivory for the general ivory trade,” says Pieter Kat, a conservation biologist who has worked on wildlife issues around East Africa for more than 20 years.

The way the trade works is that each country sets its own export quota, which, based on scientific studies, must be at levels that will not harm the species. The country and CITES are jointly responsible for monitoring trade, but, Kat points out, this system has failed vulnerable species in the past.

“The legal trade has been a machine that has mined African wildlife species without any proper controls,” Kat argues. “Far too late what we have seen is CITES and other organizations belatedly put in place controls. We don’t even know how many hippos there are these days in Africa.”

According to Kat, until independent, reliable counts of hippo populations in trading countries are carried out, it will be impossible to determine whether the trade is sustainable.

“What we need to realize is African wildlife conservation should not be guided entirely by a focus on elephants and rhinos,” Kat says. “Many many other species are being traded to extinction in Africa, and I would have to say hippos are probably one of the most obvious examples of this.”

Fighting the Underground Trade in Hippo Teeth

Bycatch Threatens More than Half of Mediterranean’s Shark Species

According to a new report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), bycatch from overfishing has put at least 53% of Mediterranean shark, ray, and chimera species at risk of extinction. The world’s top conservation body called the situation a “chondrichthyan crisis” ( the collective name for these three types of species).

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Via IUCN

It has been known that the Mediterranean’s sharks were in bad shape for at least a decade now. But since then, 11 species in the region have actually worsened. According to the most recent report, 20 of the 72 known shark and ray from the Mediterranean are currently critically endangered and 13 species have experienced localized extinctions in the waters around Spain, France, Italy and northwest Africa.

All told, the IUCN found that at least 39 of the 72 species that face “an elevated risk of extinction” in the region. That number could actually be much higher, however, as 13 species are listed as “data deficient,” meaning their conservation statuses have not yet been adequately assessed. The report notes that if the data deficient species in this case were listed as endangered, the number of Mediterranean shark species at risk would rise to 71 percent. Many people in the conservation community believe that data deficient species, some of which we know are quite rare, should automatically be considered endangered due to the lack of information on their risks and populations.

Of course, most of these shark and ray species have very wide ranges and exist outside of Mediterranean waters, but three species exist only within the confines of the Mediterranean Sea. Those include the critically endangered Maltese skate (Leucoraja melitensis), the endangered rough skate (Raja radula), and the speckled skate (R. polystigma) one of the few species in the report labelled as being of “least concern.”

The rapid decline, especially where there have already been local extinctions, is attributed to overfishing and the loss of species as bycatch. The problem with bycatch is believed to be especially terrible when it comes to longline fisheries targeting swordfish and tuna. According to the assessment, pelagic sharks are being increasingly targeted as regulations for tuna and swordfishes are increased, and the status of several species, including basking sharks, white sharks, blue sharks and smooth hammerhead sharks has worsened.

Furthermore, the illegal use of driftnets, which were banned in 2002, is also believed to be widespread throughout the Mediterranean Sea and has likely caused countless deaths that have gone unaccounted for.

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In a prepared statement, IUCN shark specialist group co-chair Nicholas Dulvy said the governments of the region must “establish fishing quotas and protected areas at domestic level.” He also suggested that consumers of the region’s seafood “need to be aware of the risk of what buying these products entails.”

The report does note that some countries and fisheries have taken steps to reduce bycatch, but the authors also found that no management measures in the region have been successfully implemented or enforced.

Conservationists hope the latest assessment leads to better regulations that are enforced, more data collection and far more awareness on our part of the true cost of eating fish.

“Governments need to support catch monitoring and data collection, regulate gears and establish fishing quotas and protected areas at domestic level. Consumers on the other hand need to be aware of the risk of what buying these products entails,” said Dr. Nick Dulvy, Co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and researcher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

“Crisis” for Mediterranean Sharks

More Than Half of the Mediterranean Sea’s Sharks Are at Risk of Extinction

Florida’s Shelter Dogs Contributed to the Technological Advances for Painted Dogs’ Conservation

African wild dogs, also known as African painted dogs, once roamed the open plains of 39 countries throughout the continent. However, due to widespread habitat loss and human development in the last century, their population has decreased by more than 90%. Fewer than 7,000 live in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Tanzania and the species is listed as endangered by the IUCN.

One of its most damaging threats is illegal traps, set by bush-meat poachers for species such as antelope. What makes the traps particularly dangerous is that when one dog in the pride is caught with the circular wire tight around its neck, the rest will join to help. “And poachers don’t just set one snare—they set a row of 10 snares, 20 snares. You can actually have the whole pack snared at once,” says conservation biologist Gregory Rasmussen, founder and director of the Painted Dog Conservation.

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But now there may be a solution: A snare-proof collar, successfully tested in domestic dogs, may help keep their colorful, big-eared kin from disappearing in some countries.

Several years ago, Rasmussen dreamed up a special collar that would help snared wild dogs safely free themselves. To combat this, the leather-and-steel collar is studded with curved hooks that catch the wire, protecting the dog’s neck. The more hooks that grab a snare, the more likely a wild dog can escape unharmed.

The Painted Dog Protection Initiative was created by the U.S.-based Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders, a training program for young scientists that took on the project. Conservationist couple Martha and Brandon Davis, who were based in Florida, commissioned four former shelter dogs in the state to complete more than 600 trials in 2015. The pet dogs, all comparable in size to African wild dogs, walked through fake snares to test six different designs.

“When we heard about this, it was great, because it opened up a whole new door to what domestic dogs can do for their wild counterparts,” says Martha Davis, senior trainer for Joel Slaven’s Professional Animals of St. Cloud, Florida, which administered the trials.

Overall, the prototypes proved more than 80% effective at catching snare wires. “Enough to try them out in the wild,” says Brandon Davis.

So over the next few weeks, conservationists will begin collaring ten to twenty dogs within high-risk packs in Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Victoria Falls National Parks. They will tranquilize the dogs to fit them with the collars, which will also feature GPS units with solar-powered battery packs which should likely last a few years.

If the initial trial is successful, scientists hope to collar another hundred dogs by spring of 2017, which the Initiative says will protect 20% of the area’s wild dog population.

Eventually, the technology will be shared with other conservation organizations. “This could even be useful to other species,” Brandon Davis says. “We’re excited by the potential for them.”

Weldon McNutt, founder and director of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, argues that though these snare-proof collars could save entire packs from extinction, they might be of limited value in some places where the dogs live. The core challenge for these wild dogs in other regions is the growing competition with people for resources including prey and habitat.  

“Illegal bushmeat hunting using wire snares is a serious problem in some parts of the remaining wild dog range, and especially in Zimbabwe, but not in others,” he says by email. “For example, in northern Botswana, where we have seen only three wire snares on wild dogs in 26 years of monitoring a population.”

Rasmussen admits that the collars, if effective in the field, are not a fix-all.

“It’s not an instant cure, but if it works it will certainly be something—in high-snare areas—that will make all the difference for the survival of the packs and dispersal of the dogs, and it will help fight the war against the poachers.”

How Pet Dogs Are Helping Out Their Endangered Kin in the Wild

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