Conservation News: Global Consumption, Elephants, and Owls

Maps Reveal Just How Much Global Consumption Is Hurting Wildlife

In a world driven by a globalized economy, the biggest threat to an endangered species is often fueled by consumer demand thousands of miles away. The things we consume, from iPhones to cars, have costs that go well beyond their purchase price. It is possible that the soybeans used to make tofu for last night’s dinner were grown in fields after burning down tropical rainforests or a t-shirt that was bought came from an industrial area that had been carved out of high-value habitat in Malaysia. It is impossible to know if the products and goods we buy are truly sustainable and this makes protection of wildlife and biodiversity an even more daunting task.

And unfortunately, many of the most economically lucrative regions are also hotspots of biodiversity, harboring species close to the brink of extinction. It’s the classic division between economic and environmental preservation.

But Daniel Moran from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and his colleague Keiichiro Kanemoto from Shinshu University in Japan tackled this issue in their recent paper, which was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. They developed a technique that allows them to identify threats to wildlife caused by global supply chains that fuel our consumption. By tracing these economic pressures back to their origins, the scientists mapped the spots where major consuming countries are threatening biodiversity around the world. After analyzing the data, they created a series of world maps that show the species threat hotspots across the globe for individual countries.

This map shows the species threat hotspots caused by US consumption. The darker the color, the greater the threat caused by the consumption. The magenta color represents terrestrial species, while the blue represents marine species. Photo: Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto.

In total, Moran and Kanemoto looked at 6,803 vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species around the world as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and BirdLife International. The researchers used a global trade model to identify the commodities that affected the species and tracing those commodities to their final destination. The resulting maps in the gallery above show the cumulative species-threat hot spots on land and nearshore waters linked to legal exports to the United States, the European Union, China, and Japan.

The work revealed some unexpected relationships between exporting and consuming countries.

One way to see how the hotspot maps work is to look at the effects of U.S. consumption across the globe. The researchers found that U.S. consumption caused species threat hotspots in Southeast Asia and Madagascar, the Sahel, and the east and west coasts of southern Mexico. The threat from U.S. consumption in Brazil is strongest in the country’s southern highlands, where agriculture is concentrated. The U.S. map also has an unexpected threat hotspot in southern Spain and Portugal, where several fish and bird species are in trouble.

European Union’s consumption is having a big impact in Africa, particularly in countries like Ethiopia, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. Exports to Japan are driving threat hotspots in Southeast Asia, such as on New Britain island in Papua New Guinea, where palm oil and cocoa plantations are concentrated and a lot of logging occurs. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s marine species are facing threats from the U.S. and Europe.

(a) hotspots in South America, driven by US consumption; (b) in Africa, driven by EU exports; (c) in southeast Asia, driven by Japanese consumption. Map by Moran and Kanemoto

Moran says making the connection between consumption and environmental impacts offers an important opportunity for governments, companies and individuals to take an informed look at these impacts — so they can find ways to counteract them.

“Connecting observations of environmental problems to economic activity, that is the innovation here,” he said. “Once you connect the environmental impact to a supply chain, then many people along the supply chain, not only producers, can participate in cleaning up that supply chain.”

As an example, he said, government regulators can only control the producers whose products cause biodiversity losses and deforestation in Indonesia. After looking at the maps to see what kind of impacts EU consumers are having on that country and the hotspots’ locations, the EU “could decide to adjust their research programs or environmental priorities to focus on certain hotspots in Southeast Asia,” argued Mora. “Companies could also use these maps to find out where their environmental impact hotspots are, and make changes.”

The 166 threats attributable to human activity that the scientists analyzed aren’t limited to direct harvesting of endangered species and the plants and other animals they depend on for survival. Exports also included threats like increasing pollution and encouraging destruction of critical habitat to make way for agriculture, forestry, and urban sprawl, as illustrated in the image below.

These maps breakdown threats to wildlife in Southeast Asia, as driven by US exports. Map by Moran and Kanemoto

Moran and Kanemoto suggest that their maps can help conservationists more efficiently prioritize their work. Collaboration between the producing and consuming countries may be daunting but could be possible in some cases, especially in places where the threat is driven by exports to several countries.

The scientists are also hopeful that the work could help consumers interested in avoiding unsustainable products. “Conservation measures must consider not just the point of impact, but also the consumer demand that ultimately drives resource use,” write Moran and Kanemoto.

Maps Reveal How Global Consumption Hurts Wildlife

Wildlife ‘Hotspots’ Threatened by Global Supply Chains Identified

World’s Smallest Elephants are the Newest Victims of Poaching

It seems like elephants have any safe havens on Earth. Even the planet’s smallest elephants, tucked away on the island of Borneo, are no longer immune to the global poaching crisis for ivory. Asian elephants have faced less poaching than their African cousins the past few centuries because only some Asian elephants sport tusks (whereas all African elephants have tusks). In addition, Asian ivory is considered less valuable than African ivory due to its brittleness and propensity to yellow over time. However, the latest grisly finds have led conservationists to worry for their survival.

Danau Girang Field Center

On New Year’s Eve, wildlife officials in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, found the bones of a beloved male elephant, nicknamed Sabre for his unusual tusks that slanted downwards like the extinct sabre-toothed tiger’s canines. They concluded that he was probably killed in late November.

The discovery of Sabre came just days after wildlife officials found a freshly slaughtered male elephant with its face cut off to get at the tusks. Both Sabre and the unnamed male perished within 1.5 km of one another, though a month apart.

Prior to either events, elephant poaching had not been considered a major issue in Sabah. But now, Benoit Goossens, director of Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, said the grisly finds indicate a professional hunter and trader may be setting up business in Sabah.

First discovered on a palm oil plantation by conservationists in early October, Sabre had been rescued and moved to Kawang Forest Reserve. Other than his tusks, which may have been due to inbreeding or congenital disease, he was declared healthy. Conservationists fitted the bizarrely-tusked pachyderm with a satellite collar and released him into the wild, thinking him safe.

“We were obviously wrong,” said Goossens.

“There are no words to express our sadness,” said wildlife vet Pakeeyaraj Nagalingam. A member of Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit, Nagalingam aided in Sabre’s rescue and translocation in October.

“It looks like there is no safe place for elephants in Sabah any more. The relevant authorities who are responsible for enforcement of illegal wildlife poaching and other illegal activities must work harder and smarter,” he adds.

Currently, the taxonomic status of the Bornean pygmy elephant, the smallest elephant species of the world, is in limbo. Genetic data shows that it may have evolved independently for 300,00 years which for some, is enough for the animal to be listed as a separate subspecies.

A family of pygmy elephants. Credit: Shutterstock

Either way, Borneo’s elephants are gravely endangered. Only 1,500 to 2,000, 95% of them roaming the Sabah forests, survive today in a decreasing habitat that is fractured by industrial palm oil plantations.

Sabre and the unnamed elephants’ deaths are the latest setback at efforts to conserve and increase the number of elephants in the region.

On Sept 18 of 2016, five of the nine elephants found stuck in a mud pool near the Berkat Saga Logging Camp in Rinukut, Sabah died, after the animals were believed to be trapped for more than a week. While in 2013, 14 pygmy elephants were found dead near Gunung Rara forest reserve after they were found poisoned.

“My hope is that Sabah wakes up … we are losing our megafauna, the rhino is gone, the banteng [wild cow] is going, the elephant will be next,” said Goossens. “Those crimes should not go unpunished. Let’s not lose our jewels, the next generation will not forgive us.”

World’s smallest elephants killed for ivory in Borneo

Beloved Elephant With Unique Tusks Was Just Killed For His Ivory

Rare Borneo pygmy elephant found dead

Japan’s Owl Cafes are Under Fire by Conservationists Due to Welfare Concerns

Recently, there have been a surge of themed pet cafes in Japan featuring various species like cats, dogs, reptiles, and birds. They have become so popular that the idea has crossed the Pacific Ocean with a cat cafe popping up in Los Angeles, California. But, the latest animal joining Japan’s growing list, owls, have caused welfare groups to bring out their talons calling for the practice to stop.

Owls on show at an exhibition in Japan.

Several owl species sit tied to a makeshift wooden perch as a TV plays a loud, animated owl-themed film behind them in the dimly lit room. This is Tokyo’s Forest of Owl cafe, filled with locals and snap-happy tourists even on a weekday morning. And with the countdown to 2017, its residents owls have been petted and photographed by more customers than usual as people come to seek good fortune for the new year.

Fukurō – the Japanese word for owl – means good luck or protection from hardship. Here, owls aren’t merely lucky, they’re cute, or kawaii, which is a culture all on its own in Japan.

The Akiba Fukurou cafe’s website promises customers a relaxing experience and claims that the owls are like therapy for “tired hearts.” However, bird-of-prey experts refute the later statement, warning that owls make terrible pets. In addition, welfare groups consider cafe conditions questionable, if not abusive, that will harm the owls housed.

“Owls have acute hearing and vision and are birds of prey who have evolved perfectly for flight and precision hunting,” said PETA in a statement. “It’s cruel to deny wild animals the opportunity to fulfil their basic behavioural needs by intensively confining them and exposing them to constant human harassment.”

Rob Laidlaw, executive director of the charity Zoocheck, also comments saying that animal cafe environments can cause “chronic stress, negative emotional states, and deteriorating physical health”, which could cause owls to bite or scratch visitors.

Though owl cafe practices vary depending on the specific business, with only a select few allowing petting, animal rights groups believe that the vast majority of them violate legal welfare requirements by restraining owls with ropes and disrupting natural sleep cycles by keeping them awake during the day for the customers.

A tethered owl in a cafe in Japan. Photo By: Millie Kerr

In short, Japan’s welfare laws are few, offering limited guidance. However, Sayoko Yamada, director of the Kanagawa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says that improvements may be on the horizon. He predicts that legislators will amend Japan’s animal welfare laws by 2020 because of the international scrutiny accompanying the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo. This will be in line with the country’s history as it is believed that Japan passed its first animal welfare legislation in 1973 just in time for a visit from Queen Elizabeth II.

Some believe that the surge in pete cafes stems from Japan’s obsession with trendiness. However, owl popularity is also linked to the popularity of Harry Potter.

In the UK, where pet owls are legal, ownership was negligible prior to the publication of the Harry Potter series, spiked during the height of the books’ popularity, and dropped by the time the final book was published. Once people realized the high cost and care required to care for an owl, they abandoned their feathered pets. JK Rowling, realizing what was happening, publicly denounced the practice of keeping owls as pets after sanctuaries needed to make room for the neglected animals. And in 2015, 60,000 Londoners bid for the chance to visit a pop-up owl cafe that promised to donate proceeds to an owl charity.

But, Japan’s cafes have little do to do with advancing conservation. Japan’s attractions do not claim to advance conservation. Animal experts acknowledge that cafes may foster animal appreciation but say they are more likely to inspire customers to buy pet owls than donate to animal welfare.

But some, like Sumo Yamamoto, a Japanese owl expert, does not yet consider the trend for owl cafes an immediate threat to the conservation of owl species as most birds on display are bred in captivity, either in Japan or abroad.

However, chicks stolen illegally from the wild sometimes end up in legal markets. In 2014, a Belgian court convicted four traders of forging trade permits for endangered species to make chicks caught in the wild appear to be captive-bred; the traders were part of a larger crime syndicate involved in fraudulent bird of prey trade throughout parts of Europe and the UK.

Photograph: Millie Kerr

Conservationists get their talons out for Japan’s owl cafes


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