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The eastern gorilla is one of two species of gorilla located in equatorial Africa, geographically separated from its counterpart, the western gorilla, by approximately 900 kilometres of Congo Basin forest. Although initially classified as one species (Gorilla gorilla), the two were reclassified as distinct species in 2001 with recent studies estimating a genetic sequence divergence time of 0.9 to 1.6 million years ago (this was not a clean separation, however, as genetic exchange between the two species is estimated to have continued to a certain degree until 80,000 to 200,000 years ago). The eastern gorilla consists of two distinct subspecies, the Grauer’s gorilla (or eastern lowland gorilla) and the mountain gorilla, each accustomed to differing habitats and altitudes. Native to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda, a region that was the epicentre of the Great African War, eastern gorilla populations suffered extensively from civil unrest, poaching, and human population expansion. Despite the mountain gorilla showing promising signs of recovery after reaching the brink of extinction in the 1980s, Grauer’s gorillas continue to decline at a rate of 5% per year due to unabated anthropogenic pressures.

Family: Hominidae

Genus: Gorilla

Species: Gorilla beringei

Subspecies: Grauer’s Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Population: Approximately 3,800 Grauer’s Gorillas, and 1,000 Mountain Gorillas

1. Appearance 

Of all four subspecies of gorilla, the Grauer’s gorilla is the largest. In fact, the subspecies constitutes the largest extant primate on Earth. It is distinguishable by its stocky body, large hands, cone-shaped skull (due to a bony crest at the top of the skull) and short muzzle, with females and non-mature males sporting darker, shorter fur than that of mountain gorillas. The subspecies also has shorter teeth and longer arms than its counterpart. Adult male Grauer’s gorillas can grow to be between 204 to 250 kilograms (250-5521 lbs) and 195 centimetres (77 in) tall, whilst females typically weigh in at approximately 100 to 125 kilograms (220-276 lbs) and reach a height 162 centimetres (64 in). Interestingly, the subspecies’ thumbs are larger than their fingers. 

The mountain gorilla is the second-largest subspecies of gorilla, and has longer fur, jaws and teeth than the Grauer’s gorilla. Adult male mountain gorillas weigh in at approximately 195 kilograms (429 lbs) and reach a height of 182 centimetres, whereas females grow to be 90 to 100 kilograms with a height of 152 centimetres (60 in). Their long, thick coat provides insulation against the considerably colder temperatures they endure at higher altitudes, and adults have cone-shaped heads similar to those of the Grauer’s gorilla. The subspecies’ broad chest is typically bare, a trait that only older male Grauer’s gorillas exhibit. 

Male gorillas become fully mature at the age of 12 or 13, developing a swath of silver-coloured hair down the centre of their back and thus earning themselves the nickname of “silverback” gorillas (between the ages of eight and 12, male gorillas are capable of reproduction and are known as “blackback” gorillas). Each group of gorillas is led and protected by a single dominant silverback, although the group may contain additional subordinate silverbacks as well. 

Individual gorillas can be identified by unique features such as their build, manner, and nose print – a unique pattern of wrinkles on their nose. Of all four subspecies of gorilla, mountain gorillas appear to have the most distinctive nose prints. 

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts

‘Silverback’ gorillas develop a swath of silver-coloured hair down the centre of their back once fully matured. Photo courtesy of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

2. Diet

As the distinct subspecies of eastern gorilla are found at different elevations, food availability and dietary preferences inevitably vary between the two. Mountain gorillas are primarily herbivorous and feed on stems, pith, leaves, bark, shoots, with a preference for wild celery, thistles, nettles, wood and roots. However, they have occasionally been seen consuming larvae, snails, ants, and rotting wood, which is a good source of sodium. Whilst the subspecies consumes parts of approximately 142 different plant species, the high altitude at which the mountain gorilla forages limits their consumption of fruit to just three species.

The Grauer’s gorilla has a more diverse, seasonal diet and consumes parts of at least 104 plant species, along with nuts, seeds, fungi and herbs. Fruit consumption is highest during the wet season, between September and December, with the subspecies showing a preference for figs. Both subspecies of eastern gorilla feed almost exclusively on young bamboo shoots twice a year, when in season. Eastern gorillas consume up to 18 kilograms (40 lbs) of vegetation daily, and obtain the majority of their water intake from succulent vegetation and morning dew.

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts; Eastern gorillas are primarily herbivorous, although are sometimes observed consuming insects and larvae (photograph courtesy of LifeGate);

Eastern gorillas are primarily herbivorous, although are sometimes observed consuming insects and larvae. Photo courtesy of LifeGate.

These incredible animals also use the hair on the back of their hands to absorb water to then suck and drink. Due to their sheer size, agile lips and hand dexterity, the species utilise their strength to tear apart vegetation and consume only the most palatable portions, with adult male gorillas having been observed shredding apart entire banana trees to reach the interior tender pith. The species is also believed to avoid overexploiting an area for sustenance, carefully cropping vegetation to allow for quick replenishment.

3. Habitat & Behaviour 

Grauer’s gorillas are found at elevations between 600 and 2,900 metres above sea level, inhabiting dense mature and secondary lowland tropical rainforests, through transitional forests to Afromontane habitat, including bamboo forests, swamps, and peat bogs. Research suggests that the subspecies occupies a mere 13% of their former geographic range, with strongholds in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Itombwe Massif.

Mountain gorillas are comprised of two subpopulations (although some primatologists believe that they constitute two distinct subspecies): one restricted to elevations above 1,400 metres (4,593 feet) in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda; and the other located at elevations above 1,850 metres (6,070 feet) in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanic mountains spanning three national parks across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. The Bwindi population’s habitat is characterised by steep slopes of mixed forest with dense understoreys, whilst the Virunga population’s habitat includes a variety of Afromontane vegetation types, such as bamboo forest, mixed forest, and subalpine grassland on the volcanic peaks.

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts; Female eastern gorillas will nurture their offspring until the age of three or four (photograph courtesy of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme).

Female eastern gorillas will nurture their offspring until the age of three or four. Photo courtesy of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

Eastern gorillas are semi-terrestrial, sometimes building their nests in trees but spending the majority of their time resting, foraging and walking on the ground. They forage and nest in a different location each day, thus preventing the overexploitation of any given area. Since the arms of eastern gorillas are longer than their legs, they utilise knuckle-walking as their preferred style of locomotion – a form of quadrupedal walking in which the gorilla curls its fingers inwards and supports its weight on its knuckles. They are capable of walking upright for short distances, although this is typically used in response to a perceived threat. 

Eastern gorillas are diurnal, rising with the sun, travelling to a foraging site, feeding intensively and then indulging in rest, play and social grooming until the evening. Mountain gorilla groups sleep together on the ground in nests made from foliage, with infants sharing a nest with their mothers to stay safe and warm. Eastern gorillas have approximately 16 different types of call, including warning vocalisations and short barks when mildly alarmed or curious. The species is not known to be territorial, as there is extensive overlap between the home ranges of different groups (an area typically varying between six and 40 kilometres squared). When encountering an unfamiliar group, the dominant silverback gorilla tends to defend his troop rather than his territory. Conflicts are typically resolved through standoffs and intimidating behaviours, such as chest beating and the use of vocalisations like roars or hoots, intended to frighten off potential threats without causing physical harm since gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive creatures

Eastern gorillas are extremely social and live in relatively stable, polygynous or polygynandrous family groups consisting of one or more adult males, several females, their offspring, and immature relatives. Although the median group size of eastern gorillas is 10 individuals (not including infants below the age of three), groups of 30 to 40 individuals have been observed, as well as a maximum reported group size of 65. Each troop is led by a single dominant male silverback, the chief leader and protector, who selects the best locations for foraging and nesting throughout the year. Males tend to leave their biological groups at the age of 11, some travelling alone or with other males until they attract females to join their troop. Approximately 60% of females will also leave their birth group and join another troop to prevent inbreeding. 

Male eastern gorillas are capable of reproducing from the age of eight to 12 years, whilst females typically begin menstruating at the age of six to seven years, followed by a period of adolescent sterility, and eventually begin reproducing at the age of ten. After a gestation period of nearly nine months a female will give birth to a single infant, with females typically giving birth every three to four years. Newborns are small and weak, weighing only two kilograms, but develop almost twice as fast as human babies. Offspring are weaned at the age of three to four years, at which point they will no longer travel on their mothers’ back. Although females are the primary caregivers of offspring, dominant silverbacks will also care for and play with infants, creating strong bonds and maintaining close relationships with them. Although the maximum life span of eastern gorillas is unknown, individuals typically live beyond 40 years.

4. Ecosystem Services

As eastern gorillas are primarily herbivorous animals, spending approximately half of their day consuming a wide variety of vegetative species, they play an essential role in maintaining the health, vitality and biodiversity of their forest habitats. These mega-grazers aid with seed dispersal and forest regeneration by travelling considerable distances to spread seeds far from the mother tree, thus keeping the diversity of vegetation in balance. Furthermore, due to their sheer size and strength, eastern gorillas create gaps in trees and shrubs as they move around and tear apart vegetation, allowing light to reach plants on the forest floor and creating paths for other species of animals to travel through.

Given their signifiant role in maintaining and protecting the integrity of their habitat, upon which a myriad of other wildlife species depend for their sustenance and survival, gorillas are considered to be an “umbrella” or “keystone” species as their conservation ultimately leads to the protection of entire ecosystems that rely on their services. 

Human populations in Central Africa also rely heavily on the forests that gorillas inhabit and maintain for their food, water, medicine and livelihood. For local and indigenous populations in settlements which are in close proximity to gorilla habitat, ecotourism further provides a source of sustainable and environmentally responsible income, although this trade is not adequately regulated at the moment.

5. Threats 

Classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List since 2016, both subspecies of eastern gorilla have suffered extensive population declines due to political conflict, habitat loss, exposure to disease, poaching, and climate change. Only discovered in 1902, mountain gorillas were pushed to the brink of extinction in the 1980s as a result of aforementioned anthropogenic pressures. Although the subspecies is showing promising signs of recovery with gradual population increases, threats of extinction remain present throughout the mountain gorilla’s home range and thus require constant monitoring and regulation. Despite a lack of quantitative evidence demonstrating the decline in Grauer’s gorilla populations, recent surveys have estimated a reduction of 77% in one generation, from approximately 16,900 individuals in 1994 to a mere 3,800 in 2018, as well as a continued population decline rate of 5% per annum.

The main threat to mountain gorillas is habitat loss and degradation. With more than 100,000 people already residing in the remote areas surrounding primary mountain gorilla habitat, as well an annual population growth rate of 2.37% in Africa, forest habitat is increasingly cleared for human settlements, agricultural farms, and for the extraction of natural resources, such as firewood and materials used in the production of charcoal.

Between 1990 and 1994, masses of Rwandan refugees fled to camps located at the edge of the Virunga National Park, which ultimately led to unregulated firewood collection and increased instances of gorilla poaching. In 2004, approximately 15 square kilometres of prime mountain gorilla habitat was cleared in the Virunga National Park by illegal Rwandan and Congolese settlers, destroying sweeping tracts of land for agricultural and pastoral farms. European oil and gas companies have further been granted exploration concessions in the Virunga National Park, home to approximately one quarter of all mountain gorillas. Although the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was successful in campaigning against the inclusion of primary gorilla habitat in said concessions, oil exploration is permitted in more than 85% of the national park’s area and thus poses a risk to the overall health and vitality of Virunga’s ecosystem. 

Snares and traps intended for bushmeat or other wildlife species also cause injuries and fatalities to mountain gorillas, as individuals may accidentally step on a snare whilst travelling between foraging grounds. As mountain gorillas are forced further up to higher altitudes for extended periods of time, exposure to excessively cold, dangerous and sometimes fatal conditions can have devastating effects on vulnerable members of gorilla troops, such as young offspring or juveniles. Alternatively, if unable to locate palatable vegetation within the region of forestland they are restricted to, mountain gorillas may venture onto farmland in search of maize and bananas, ultimately leading to conflicts with farmers. 

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts; Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national parks poses a serious threat to eastern gorilla populations (photograph by Axel Fassio for Flickr).

Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national parks poses a serious threat to eastern gorilla populations. Photo by Axel Fassio/Flickr.

For Grauer’s gorillas, habitat destruction and fragmentation also pose a serious threat of extinction to remaining populations. As aforementioned, research suggests that the subspecies occupies a mere 13% of their former geographic range, with agricultural, pastoral and mining activities causing rampant deforestation in their endemic regions. Only a small proportion of the Grauer’s gorilla’s remaining range lies within protected areas, such as the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (a Grauer’s gorilla stronghold), and even there civil unrest and weak law enforcement have consequently led to the illegal artisanal extraction of timber and materials for charcoal production, as well as the establishment of mining operations for tin, gold, diamond, and coltan (an alloy utilised for mobile phones).

As deforestation and fragmentation force gorilla populations into isolated locations surrounded by settlements and agriculture that are extremely difficult for park guards to patrol, such as Kahuzi-Biega and in the Itombwe Massif, poachers are given easier access to gorilla troops, hunting the subspecies for bushmeat, medicine, and the illicit pet trade. 

It is believed that the bushmeat trade, which occurs over a significant proportion of the Grauer’s gorilla’s range, may be a greater threat to the subspecies than habitat loss, yet the number of gorillas poached annually is not known. As illegal mining, timber and charcoal operations have expanded across the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where civil unrest continues to demand the presence of armed groups, an influx of migrants to a region suffering from a general scarcity of affordable domestic protein has resulted in an increase in bushmeat hunting. Despite the fact that the killing, capture and consumption of great apes is illegal within Africa, miners have reportedly admitted to poaching gorillas, stating that the animals are easy to hunt with guns and provide large quantities of meat. Due to weaknesses in law enforcement capacity and the aforementioned civil unrest in the region, park rangers are often unable to monitor gorilla populations effectively and therefore poachers, traders and consumers are rarely apprehended.

Aside from the bushmeat trade, the illegal capture of live infant gorillas is also a threat to the Grauer’s subspecies, despite the apparent absence of an international market for the animals. Orphan gorillas are usually seized by wildlife authorities or perish soon after being captured. In some regions within Africa, gorilla body parts are also used in medicine and as magical charms

As mentioned, central Africa has been destabilised by civil unrest and political conflict for over two decades, with refugees, internally-displaced citizens and armed groups putting an unsustainable amount of pressure on forestland throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Unregulated, rampant deforestation for the establishment of agricultural and pastoral farms, the rebel occupation of national parks, and the illegal circulation of military weapons and ammunition has facilitated gorilla poaching in areas affected by food scarcity and has further increased instances of human-gorilla conflicts and disease exposure. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, Virunga National Park was flooded with Rwandan refugees who depended on forest resources and bushmeat for their survival. As armed groups of rebels continue to occupy sections of the national park, monitoring and conservation work are almost impossible in the region as 140 Virunga park rangers have been killed in the line of duty since 1996. Similarly, the illegal establishment of mines and timber operations in Kahuzi-Biega National Park have hampered conservation efforts for Grauer’s gorillas, as well as preventing the establishment of eco-tourism initiatives which would greatly benefit local populations and Congolese ecosystems alike in promoting the protection and conservation of wildlife in the region. 

As a result of growing instances of contact between humans and eastern gorillas, with hunters, locals and tourists entering primary gorilla habitat with increasing frequency, the species are exposed to human illnesses that could have detrimental impacts on the vitality of remaining populations. Since gorillas and humans share 98% of their DNA, a wide range of diseases carried by humans can be transmitted to gorillas, such as respiratory viruses (tuberculosis and pneumonia), scabies, the human herpes simplex virus, and the Ebola virus. However, as gorillas have not yet developed the necessary immunities to combat these illnesses, even the common cold could have devastating effects on an infected troop. In 2003, scientists estimated that around one third of the wild gorilla population had perished as a result of the Ebola virus.

Due to the fact that certain groups of gorillas are visited by researchers and tourists on a daily basis, they have become habituated to human interaction and are thus awarded better protection and regular veterinary intervention to treat contracted diseases or injuries from snares. However, unhabituated gorilla groups are almost impossible to treat.

Lastly, climate change poses a growing threat of extinction to eastern gorilla populations, especially given the fact that the species’ range is increasingly restricted by human encroachment. Rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall patterns will have a devastating impact on food availability and habitat quality, as both subspecies depend entirely on significant quantities of palatable vegetation for their survival. Such varying climate conditions will also negatively affect agriculture in the region, leading to local populations developing an increasing reliance on forest resources and bushmeat for their sustenance, which will inevitably hamper future conservation efforts. Mountain gorillas forced into upwards migrations by deforestation and habitat loss will also face increasingly harsh conditions in unfamiliar habitats with novel or unsuitable food sources.

Similarly to humans, gorillas reproduce slowly, giving birth to a single baby at a time and raising the infant for several years before reproducing again. This low reproductive rate means that even low levels of poaching, habitat loss, disease and human conflict can have devastating effects on remaining populations, with declines in numbers talking several generations to be reversed.

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6. Conservation of Grauer’s Gorillas

The eastern gorilla is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as well as under Class A of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Whilst the mountain gorilla has shown promising population increases over the past decade, particularly due to conservation efforts in the Virunga Massif region, Grauer’s gorilla population trends continue to decline. Nevertheless, concentrated protection and monitoring initiatives, as well as expanding community outreach and education programmes, are beginning to paint an optimistic picture for the species and its endemic habitats across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. 

One of the foundations of gorilla conservation is scientific research and monitoring. Organisations such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund have been conducting cutting-edge research on mountain gorillas since 1967, with the establishment of the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. By collecting critical ecological information on the species, such as their behavioural traits, diet, habitat needs, range patterns, group composition, and general health, scientists and local governments are able to design effective conservation and management strategies that adequately reflect the biological needs of eastern gorillas. This is particularly true of Grauer’s gorillas since the subspecies has not been as well studied as mountain gorillas, and thus knowledge on their behaviour, habitat requirements and ecological relationships is currently lacking.

In 2012, the Fossey Fund established a research and conservation field station in Nkuba village to survey Grauer’s gorillas in the region and assess the vitality of the subspecies, as well as a number of other critical species that inhabit the forests in the area. Now known as the Nkuba Conservation Area, covering an area of more than 2,400 square kilometres, the Fossey Fund works with several local families (with the former having provided jobs and training initiatives for the latter) to protect and monitor the resident Grauer’s gorillas, tracking groups at a one-day distance since they are not habituated to human contact. The Fossey Fund further conducts research and monitoring on other endemic species of plants and animals that share habitats with eastern gorillas, tracking changes in plant availability in response to climate change and anthropogenic pressures which could potentially have critical consequences for animals across Rwanda and the Congo. 

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla;Mathieu Shamavu, a ranger and caretaker at the Senkwekwe Center for Orphaned Mountain Gorillas, poses with female orphaned gorillas (Ndakasi, left, and Ndeze, center) at the the Center in Virunga National Park, eastern Congo in 2019 (photograph courtesy of Mathieu Shamavu).

Mathieu Shamavu, a ranger and caretaker at the Senkwekwe Center for Orphaned Mountain Gorillas, poses with female orphaned gorillas (Ndakasi, left, and Ndeze, center) at the the Center in Virunga National Park, eastern Congo in 2019. Photo courtesy of Mathieu Shamavu.

Mountain gorilla monitoring and censuses are also undertaken by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) – a unique coalition formed in 1991 between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI), and Fauna & Flora International (FFI). By joining forces with local government partners from each of the three range states where eastern gorillas are currently found – the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) – the IGCP has assisted in training community park rangers to monitor the size and health of mountain gorilla groups in Virunga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and has further partnered with academic research institutions to carry out conservation science studies in these regions. These efforts are aimed at helping to ensure that advocacy positions and policy decisions are based on quality scientific data.

In addition to collecting valuable scientific research, monitoring gorilla groups and their endemic ranges is essential to prevent poaching and other illegal activities that have detrimental effects on eastern gorillas and their ecosystem, such as the setting of snares, deforestation, or the extraction of natural resources. WWF and partner groups have assisted in reestablishing control over the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, rehabilitating patrol posts, training guards in effective anti-poaching and law-enforcement techniques, and providing funding and equipment for such endeavours. Monitoring activities conducted on mountain gorillas by the Fossey Fund since 1967 have had the effect of habituating the animals to the presence of humans, which also enables patrollers to prevent fatal injuries arising from snares or allowing veterinary intervention when the group falls ill from disease. However, unhabituated groups of Grauer’s gorillas are followed with caution, as human interaction can have negative effects on the behaviour or health of the subspecies if not conducted heedfully.

Previously discussed civil unrest, political instability and economic insecurity have severely hindered efforts to effectively manage and protect national parks across the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda from deforestation, poaching, and the exploitation of natural resources. Although legal frameworks are in place for managing national parks in the country, officials have difficulties with enforcing legislation due to the presence of armed groups in eastern DRC, as well as the increasing need for agriculture and infrastructural development to support Africa’s human population growth. Furthermore, whilst the entire mountain gorilla population currently resides within protected areas that are managed through active government programmes, the ICUN reported that only one quarter of the predicted range of Grauer’s Gorillas currently falls within protected areas and national parks. That is why international organisations, such as the Fossey Fund and the IGCP, are working closely with local governments and populations to set up new protected areas based on scientific data, establish community education programmes and introduce livelihood alternatives, thus encouraging the protection of natural ecosystems and reducing the need for bushmeat hunting and illicit mining. 

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts; Patrollers and park rangers are hired from local communities to provide alternative sources of incomes for locals that promote the protection of the environment and African wildlife (photograph courtesy of WWF).

Patrollers and park rangers are hired from local communities to provide alternative sources of incomes for locals that promote the protection of the environment and African wildlife. Photo courtesy of WWF.

As mentioned, the Fossey Fund has helped establish the Nkuba Conservation Area, which it currently co-manages with local families who have been provided with the training and funding necessary to manage this protected area, as well as the Grauer’s gorilla population residing within its boundaries. WWF is further working to develop a management plan and consequently create a protected area for Grauer’s gorillas in the Itombwe Massif, which, together with expanding the western remit of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, could secure approximately 50% of the subspecies’ range. WWF also works with local governments, timber companies and international lending institutions to promote sustainable, positive environmental practices in the logging industry throughout the Congo Basin, as well as to introduce reforestation programmes in affected regions. In 2018, the African Wildlife Fund (AWF) purchased land directly adjacent to Volcanoes National Park and subsequently donated it to the Rwandan government specifically for the expansion of great ape habitat. By expanding and clearly delineating the boundaries of national parks and protected areas, based on data gathered on range patterns and habitat preferences of eastern gorillas, monitoring and patrol activities are facilitated and ultimately rendered more effective in the prevention of illegal activities that hinder conservation efforts. Furthermore, by training and hiring locals to serve as patrollers and park rangers within these protected areas, populations that previously derived their income from hunting wildlife and the illicitly exploiting forest resources are provided with an alternative, sustainable source of livelihood that encourages the protection of natural ecosystems and eliminates their reliance on poaching. 

On agricultural lands, WWF is helping farmers grow tea on the boundaries that their plantations share with mountain gorilla habitat, since the subspecies do not consider tea to be palatable vegetation. This prevents mountain gorillas from venturing onto cropland and potentially facing conflicts with farmers. The organisation further supports the Human Gorilla Conflict Resolution Programme (HuGo), a group of community volunteers who can be called by locals to redirect gorillas or any wildlife back into their forest habitat.

In 2009, WWF further partnered with Congolese musician Samba Mapangala and his Orchestra Virunga to record and broadcast a song titled “Les Gorilles des Montagnes”, which emphasised why mountain gorillas and their habitat in Virunga are important as the foundation of ecotourism, and further paid tribute to the rangers and conservationists who dedicate their lives to the protection of gorillas.

NGOs such as AWF and WWF also work with local communities in establishing eco-tourism initiatives to provide alternative, sustainable sources of income and to regulate the industry, which could potentially expose gorillas to disease or behavioural changes if left without governance. WWF champions Gorilla Friendly™ tourism, which are a set of standards designed to ensure a rewarding experience for tourists whilst protecting mountain gorillas from disruption. The organisation has further helped to introduce revenue sharing schemes and increased employment opportunities in the eco-tourism industry to ensure that locals benefit directly from their active efforts to protect and safeguard their environment. Profits from eco-tourism are further funnelled back into local communities through a range of enterprises and community projects to reduce the pressures of poverty and help create financial incentives for conservation efforts.

NGO Spotlight: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund 

In September 1969, Dr. Dian Fossey, widely considered to be one of the most legendary scientists of our time, established two small tents in the Virunga wilderness – the foundations for the Karisoke Research Centre. Now conducting one of the longest-running, most comprehensive studies of any animal species anywhere in the world, the Fossey Fund carries out cutting-edge research and produces the majority of our knowledge on eastern gorillas from their extensive research programmes now housed at the Ellen DeGeneres Campus in Rwanda. Dedicated to the conservation, protection and scientific study of eastern gorillas and their surrounding ecosystems, the Fossey Fund has worked extensively with local governments and communities, as well as international partners, to implement effective, long-term conservation strategies in the eastern gorilla’s endemic range states. 

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund focuses on four main pillars of conservation: scientific research; gorilla protection; training conservationists; and helping communities. As mentioned, the organisation conducts comprehensive monitoring and research activities, employing and training locals to serve as patrollers and park managers, and to carry out critical data collection projects in an effort to support conservation strategies and initiatives with solid scientific research on the ecological and biological needs of gorillas. In addition, park rangers remove snares and traps from the forest floor, protecting gorillas from potentially serious or fatal injuries, and deter poachers from hunting, loggers from conducting illegal deforestation, and locals from exploiting forest resources in protected areas. 

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts; Marcel Habumugisha, a gorilla tracker for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, observes a gorilla group (photograph courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund).

Marcel Habumugisha, a gorilla tracker for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, observes a gorilla group. Photo courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

The Fossey Fund also endeavours to train young aspiring scientists and build the next generation of conservationists and educators. They do so by training local university students, providing scholarships for staff to obtain access to tertiary education, offering professional internships, building the capacity of national park staff, supporting the personal research projects of staff, and further providing them with the opportunity to experience work across different field sites and attend conservation conferences. Over 400 university students in Rwanda and Congo are invited each year to learn about conservation strategies, gorilla biology and behaviour, field research skills, scientific methods, and more, whilst students conducting their senior thesis research are intensively supervised and offered post-graduate internship opportunities. Follow-up surveys have revealed that 85% of students who complete their senior thesis work at Karisoke go into scientific or conservation related careers, with many working for the Rwandan government or local conservation organisations.

The Fossey Fund believes in sustainable, long-term conservation through the involvement and engagement of local communities, with the tag line “Helping people. Saving gorillas”. By understanding the critical needs of local populations where the Fund works, such as clean water, food security, and livelihood opportunities, the community programmes they employ address these issues and supplement them with education and outreach programmes for children and adults alike. The Fossey Fund works with local primary schools, reaching over 8,000 students, by providing supplies and learning materials for the children, as well as training courses for teachers that enable them to provide effective conservation education. The Fossey Fund also works with secondary schools across Rwanda, offering environmental clubs, class work, lectures on scientific research, the establishment of school gardens, and the opportunity to complete field research on a range of different conservation research topics. The Fund further plans special activities for World Gorilla Day each year, raising awareness on the importance of conservation through extensive community engagement.

endangered eastern gorilla; eastern gorilla facts; The Citizen Science programme operated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund provides secondary school students across Rwanda with an opportunity to learn about conservations science (photograph courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund).

The Citizen Science programme operated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund provides secondary school students across Rwanda with an opportunity to learn about conservations science. Photo courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

To address the poverty and livelihood challenges that many local communities face, the Fossey Fund has established programmes that aim to meet the basic needs of such populations in order to help raise their standard of living, and consequently reduce their dependance on gorilla habitat for firewood, hunting, water or crop land. Projects endeavour to increase food alternatives by helping with the planting and growth of new crops with high nutritional value, planting fruit trees, creating tree nurseries, introduce bee-keeping, and teach skills like bread-making, sewing, and mushroom-growing. The Fossey Fund further helps communities with general educational needs, in particular providing women with access to literacy programmes since formal schooling had not been an option in the past.

What You Can Do to Protect the Eastern Gorilla

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The largetooth sawfish is one of five species of sawfish under the Pristidae family, characterised by long, flattened rostrums lined with staggered teeth. Although commonly referred to as carpenter sharks, and not to be confused with sawsharks (Pristiophoridae), sawfish are actually a family of rays. The largetooth sawfish is a euryhaline fish, able to adapt to a wide range of salinities, and can therefore be found in both freshwater and saltwater environments such as estuaries, rivers, lakes and marine waters. Despite a historically widespread circumtropical distribution, the species is reported to be ‘possibly extinct’ in 19 of its 60 former range states and its presence in a further 14 states is undetermined. Once considered to be amongst the most valuable species in the shark fin trade, decades of exploitation, unsustainable fishing practices, and habitat degradation have caused significant declines in the global largetooth sawfish population. 

Family: Pristidae 

Genus: Pristis

Species: Pristis pristis (synonyms: Pristis microdon and Pristis perotteti) 

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Population: Unknown 

1. Diet 

The diet of a juvenile largetooth sawfish primarily consists of benthic invertebrates, mollusks, and crustaceans (crabs and shrimps), and gradually includes a variety of small schooling fish (herring and mullet) as the sawfish matures. The animal’s rostrum, which accounts for almost one quarter of their body length, plays a critical role in hunting. Apart from stirring sediment on the ocean floor in search of prey, a sawfish will rapidly swing its rostrum from side to side in order to stun, impale and slice schooling fish before consuming them. An evolutionary marvel, the rostrum of a sawfish barely disturbs surrounding water as the animal swims, making these stealthy hunters undetectable to potential prey. Sawfish have also been observed burrowed in sand, lying in wait for prey, as well as using their rostrum to pin down prey to the ocean floor. 

As with all sharks, rays and skates, the sawfish has specialised electro-sensory organs, called ampullae of Lorenzini, which it uses to hunt for prey. These electroreceptors, which form a network of mucus-filled pores across the ventral and dorsal surface of a sawfish’s rostrum, can detect electrical fields emitted by nearby prey. In fact, the largetooth sawfish has more ampullary pores than any other species, due to the fact that they often inhabit low-visibility freshwater habitats, and is therefore considered to be an electroreception specialist. Since they do not rely on sight, sawfish are strictly nocturnal and only hunt at night.

Although larger specimens of largetooth sawfish are not typically preyed upon, smaller individuals are reportedly attacked by sharks and crocodiles on occasion. Juvenile largetooth sawfish utilising freshwater rivers as nurseries are more vulnerable to predation, often attacked by terrestrial predators, such as eagles, or freshwater crocodiles. 

In a study by Murdoch University, Associate Professor David Morgan presented a photograph of a crocodile attacking a largetooth sawfish in Western Australia's Fitzroy River (photograph by Western Australia Department of Parks and Wildlife/EPA).

In a study by Murdoch University, Associate Professor David Morgan presented a photograph of a crocodile attacking a largetooth sawfish in Western Australia’s Fitzroy River. Photo: Western Australia Department of Parks and Wildlife/EPA.

2. Appearance 

The largetooth sawfish is the largest of the five species, reaching a maximum length of 705 centimetres. Both males and females mature at a length of 300 centimetres, at the age of eight to ten years. Newborns are around 76 to 90 centimetres long and grow by 38 centimetres in their first year of life. At the embryonic stage, the rostrum of sawfish are flexible and soft, with a sheath of tissue enclosing rostral teeth to protect the mother during birth.

Although the largetooth sawfish greatly resembles a shark, it is actually a species of ray. The head of a sawfish is ventrally flattened, its pectoral fins are connected to its head, its gills, mouth and nostrils are located on its underside, and it has spiracles on the top of its head which are used to circulate water through the gills for respiration when inactive – all of which are morphological features of rays. Largetooth sawfish that reside in saltwater habitats tend to be dark grey to golden brown in colour, with a cream-coloured belly. Those found in freshwater environments are lighter grey with red colouration around the back, lower sides, as well as the second dorsal and pelvic fins. Although distinguishable from other species of sawfish by their proportionally larger pectoral fins, the distinct lower lobe on their caudal (tail) fin, and the forward positioning of their first dorsal fin, the main distinguishing feature of the largetooth sawfish is its rostrum. 

Largetooth Sawfish Pristis pristis released after being rescued from a drying floodplain waterhole in northern Australia. Photo: Peter Kyne.

Largetooth Sawfish Pristis pristis released after being rescued from a drying floodplain waterhole in northern Australia. Photo: Peter Kyne.

The rostrum of the largetooth sawfish is more robust than that of other species, and has a fewer amount of “teeth” that are slightly larger in size. Although commonly referred to as teeth, the razor-sharp denticles on the rostrum of a sawfish are actually modified placoid (teeth-like) scales, similar to the ones found on their skin. It has 14 to 23 rostral teeth uniformly spaced on each side of the snout, whereas the smalltooth sawfish has approximately 20 to 30. These teeth grow throughout life and their weight is minimal, making the sawfish well adapted to hunting fast, agile prey. Deeply rooted in hard cartilage, the rostral teeth of sawfish do not grow back if damaged at the root, unlike the teeth of other ray and shark species, and are kept short by regular abrasion on the substrate. Sawfish also have buccal teeth, which are typically used to crush their prey before digestion. They have 12 rows of 80 to 90 teeth in each jaw, which are dome-shaped at the front but have a blunt cutting edge at the back.

Fossil records and morphological comparisons between elasmobranchs with elongated rostrums have indicated that both families of sawfish, pristids (extant species of sawfish) and sclerorhynchids (extinct species of sawfish), evolved independently from shovelnose rays (Rhinobatidae). Sawsharks, on the other hand, are believed to have evolved from squalomorph sharks, making the similarities in the specialised saw-like rostrums of all three families an incredible example of convergent evolution. 

The elongated rostrum is thought to have evolved primarily for feeding, as a result of external ecological pressures. Random mutations that resulted in initial changes to the rostrum, making it slightly longer with strengthened lateral edges and bigger dermal denticles, could have allowed ancestors of sawfish to manipulate larger, faster, more agile prey with rapid slashing motions, therefore expanding their prey selection. Alternatively, since the largetooth sawfish has been observed using its rostrum to pin prey down onto the substrate, and does so more easily than the shovelnose ray as it uses its pectoral fins to reposition itself over the prey, some speculate that the elongated rostrum evolved initially for prey immobilisation with the lateral teeth forming as a secondary adaptation for slicing. 

Another theory for the evolution of the elongated rostrum is sensory optimisation. As has been suggested for the evolution of cephalofoils in hammerhead sharks, an elongated rostrum allows for an expansion of sensory receptors, such as ampullae of Lorenzini and neuromasts (a mechanoreceptive organ which senses mechanical changes in water), and therefore increases the animal’s electric and hydrodynamic ranges. Supporting this notion is the density of ampullae of Lorenzini found on the rostrums of extant rhinobatid shovelnose rays, which can be seen as an evolutionary stage preceding the elongation of the rostrum. Finally, some speculate that sclerorhynchids (extinct sawfish species) developed elongated rostrums for self-defence, as they were small benthic rays with a weak tail and unspecialised teeth. Extant sawfish species have also been observed using their rostrum for self-defence.

IUCN SSG illustration differentiating the swordfish, sawshark, and sawfish.  

IUCN SSG illustration differentiating the swordfish, sawshark, and sawfish.

Like sharks, the skin of a sawfish is made of dense, placoid scales known as dermal denticles, which point towards the tail of the sawfish. The scales of a largetooth sawfish are ovoid in shape and more widely spaced over its dorsal surface. As the sawfish grows, the scales do not get larger but rather the sawfish grows more scales. Apart from protecting the animal against attacks from predators, these dermal denticles help sawfish swim faster, as the hydrodynamic shape of the scales allows water to pass more freely over the surface of the sawfish and reduces friction. 

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3. Habitat & Behaviour 

Of all five species of sawfish, the largetooth sawfish has the largest historical range and is comprised of four subpopulations: Western Atlantic (Gulf of Mexico to Brazil), Eastern Pacific (southern Mexico to Peru), Eastern Atlantic (Namibia to Mauritania), and Indo-West Pacific (Australia and southeast Asia to eastern Africa). Nevertheless, the species is reported to be ‘possibly extinct’ in 19 of its 60 former range states and its presence in a further 14 states is undetermined. In the United States, there have been no reported largetooth sawfish sightings since 1961. Due to the scarcity and inadequacy of records, lack of surveying and reporting, the recurring issue of species identification, and a significant knowledge gap on the ecology, biology, and baseline distribution ranges of the species, its global abundance remains uncertain. Observations suggest that the largetooth sawfish is still present in several countries on the Amazonian Coast (northern coast of South America), as well as in Northern Australia, and these populations are considered to be the most significant strongholds at present. 

The largetooth sawfish inhabits a variety of freshwater and saltwater environments. Photo: Brit Finucci.

The largetooth sawfish inhabits a variety of freshwater and saltwater environments. Photo: Brit Finucci.

The largetooth sawfish is a euryhaline species, meaning that it can inhabit marine environments of varying salinities. To avoid predation, juveniles are typically found in shallow freshwater environments, such as freshwater rivers, lakes, and estuarine habitats, for their first four to five years of life. When venturing into extremely shallow waters, with a depth of 20 centimetres or less, juvenile sawfish have been observed collapsing their dorsal fins to avoid detection from terrestrial predators, such as eagles. As the largetooth sawfish grows, it tends to utilise more marine and brackish coastal habitats, including wetlands, bays, estuaries, lagoons, seagrasses, and mangroves. Nevertheless, adult sawfish have been observed far up inland river systems, including reports of the species in the Amazon River up to 750 km inshore, and as far as 100 kilometres offshore. Some may spend their whole lives in freshwater, such as those found at Lake Nicaragua, only entering saltwater to reach other rivers. With a preference for warm tropical and subtropical waters, the largetooth sawfish rarely descends to depths greater than 10 metres, although specimens have been found at depths of 122 metres in Lake Nicaragua.  

The largetooth sawfish is ovoviviparous, meaning that embryos are developed internally whilst being nourished by a yolk sac and females then give birth to live young. After a gestation period of approximately five months, litters usually consist of one to thirteen pups, although seven to nine is the average reported litter size. Upon reaching sexual maturity at the age of eight to ten years, females reproduce annually or biennially. As a result, largetooth sawfish populations grow at an extremely slow rate.

In 2015, scientists studying a small wild population of smalltooth sawfish in Florida were surprised to discover that some females had reproduced asexually. Although asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, has been observed in various species of sharks, snakes and fish kept in captivity, such so-called “virgin births” were believed to be extremely rare and had never been observed in wild vertebrates. DNA fingerprinting revealed that 3% of the sawfish population studied had been created through female-only reproduction, indicating that this method of reproduction may play a critical role in the survival of some critically endangered species. Although asexual reproduction may deplete genetic diversity within a population, scientists believe that it may be used as a “bridging strategy” during critical periods to overcome population bottlenecks. The long-term impacts of these findings, and whether other species of sawfish employ the same reproductive strategy, are still undetermined. 

4. Ecosystem Services

For a conspicuous species with a widespread circumtropical distribution, the biology and ecology of the largetooth sawfish are poorly understood and existing data is fragmentary. Most studies of the species have been conducted on populations located in Lake Nicaragua and northern Australia, which may not be representative of other subpopulations. Nevertheless, as a top predator, the largetooth sawfish undeniably acts as a critical member of the tropical and subtropical estuarine ecosystems it inhabits. Apart from controlling populations of prey species, culling sick or injured individuals, and maintaining balance within the food chain, the largetooth sawfish may play other crucial roles in their freshwater and marine communities that have yet to be determined. If driven to extinction, the loss of the largetooth sawfish would undoubtedly have destabilising effects on coastal and freshwater ecosystems.

5. Threats

Recognised as being “among the most threatened elasmobranchs” in the world by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), all four species of sawfish under the genus Pristis have been classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ since 2006. Due to its toothed rostrum, which renders the species especially susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear, the high value of its appendages and organs, its vulnerability to both marine and freshwater habitat degradation, as well as its slow reproductive rate, the largetooth sawfish is estimated to have suffered a population loss of at least 80% over the past 68 years (three generations).

The commercial exploitation of sawfish, driven by the financial and cultural significance placed on their rostra, rostral teeth, fins, meat, organs, and liver oil, has been documented since 1938. Rostra is sold globally as trophies, status symbols, decorations, ceremonial weapons, and curios, playing an important role in the cultural mythologies and rituals of tribal societies in Central America, West Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. In the Persian Gulf, sawfish were once so abundant that fishermen utilised their rostra to build fences around their properties. Traditional medicinal practices in China, Mexico, and Brazil have also historically used rostra in remedies for illnesses such as asthma. Before eBay banning the auction of sawfish parts on its platform in 2006, the site served as one of the primary marketplaces for the appendages, with each rostra fetching up to 1,500 USD. Rostral teeth are also sold globally as curios, crafted into tools in Southeast Asia, and used as cockfighting spurs in Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica. Although sawfish meat is typically consumed by local coastal communities and rarely enters the international market, the fins of sawfish are amongst the most valuable in the global shark fin trade and can fetch up to 4000 USD for a set. In 2007, all five species of sawfish were listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), effectively banning the international sale of sawfish parts. Nevertheless, due to the high financial value they hold, the illegal sale of sawfish rostra and fins reportedly continues. As recently as 2020, sawfish fins were seized in Hong Kong.  

As a consequence of their unique rostral morphology, sawfish are easily caught as bycatch in commercial gill-net and trawl fisheries. Inhabiting shallow coastal and freshwater habitats that are often subject to unregulated or poorly managed fishing pressures, both commercial and small-scale (artisanal, cultural, recreational, and subsistence fishing), sawfish caught as incidental bycatch are often retained due to the difficulties associated with untangling them from gear as well as the high financial value they hold (approximately 14,000 USD per individual sawfish). In September 2019, a two-week expedition to tag sawfish in Northern Australia believed to be one of two remaining global strongholds for sawfish, ended with no sawfish sightings. In the Flinders River, Queensland, fishermen targeting freshwater prawns with cast nets have reported capturing largetooth sawfish, as freshwater prawns are a primary prey source for the species in the region. Conservation groups in Queensland have highlighted the need for renewed restrictions on the Gulf of Carpentaria Inshore Fin Fish Fishery. Along the KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa, sawfish were frequently caught as bycatch in shark fisheries in the 1980s and 1990s, yet the species are now considered to be locally extinct in the region. Sawfish were also once commonly caught in coastal shark fisheries in northwest Madagascar, but intense netting across estuaries resulted in extensive population declines. Given the lack of training provided to fishermen on the safe disentanglement of sawfish from gear, as well as the absence of independent observers on fishing vessels to verify bycatch numbers and avoid underreporting, the extent of the fishing industry’s impact on sawfish populations, although quantifiably undeterminable, is likely understated.

Sawfishes are caught by a wide range of fishing gears due to their tooth-studded rostra being easily entangled. Photo: Jeff Whitty.

Sawfishes are caught by a wide range of fishing gears due to their tooth-studded rostra being easily entangled. Photo: Jeff Whitty.

The largetooth sawfish is also highly vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation given that the ecosystems the species inhabits, namely inshore coastal and freshwater environments, are commonly affected by human activity. Damming, underwater mining, dredging, agriculture, and coastal development projects have greatly reduced both the quantity and quality of riverine and coastal habitats within the species’ range, with consequential nutrient run-off and pollution having devastating effects on the vitality of ecosystems. Globally mangrove cover has declined by 20 to 35% since 1980, and seagrass cover has been reduced by 29% since the late 1800s. As juvenile sawfish are heavily reliant on freshwater areas as nursery habitats, changes in river flows and natural flooding events caused by damming projects negatively impact population recruitment. The estuary system of St. Lucia, once considered to be an important habitat and breeding area for sawfish, suffered reduced water flows as a result of agricultural and industrial expansion. Consequently, sawfish have disappeared from the region.

The plight of the largetooth sawfish has only garnered global attention in recent years. Emerging knowledge of the impacts of anthropogenic pressures on marine environments has shed light on the relative risk of extinction faced by all Chondrichthyes, however, scientists have encountered numerous challenges in creating conservation strategies for these species. With such vast geographic ranges and inadequate historical records, the taxonomic classification of sawfish species was not consolidated until 2013, when a global compilation of morphological and genetic data confirmed the existence of just five species in the family Pristidae. As a result of this taxonomic discrepancy, the credibility of historical data collected on the life history, biology, ecology, status, and distribution of global populations is uncertain. Given that scientists and conservationists now find it extremely difficult to locate individual largetooth sawfishes to tag and monitor, and with their protected status limiting any intrusive biological studies, there is little prospect of gathering further information on the species. This will inevitably have an impact on the effectiveness of conservation measures, at least until advances in technology enable scientists to better understand the biological needs of the species without invasive monitoring methods.

6. Conservation

Given the life history parameters that limit the largetooth sawfish to a slow intrinsic rate of population increase – low fecundity, late age sexual maturity, long gestation periods, and the potential for intermittent breeding – effective conservation actions are critical for the future survival of the species. The largetooth sawfish has been awarded protections in both international and national legislation, and in 2014 the IUCN SSC Shark Specialist Group established a Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy with recommendations for the development of global and regional conservation programmes. Scientists, conservationists, and NGOs working at a regional level have further implemented initiatives to minimise bycatch, monitor local populations of sawfish, and gather scientific data on each species. Nevertheless, the continued decline of the global largetooth sawfish population, as well as the inaction of some key range states, indicates that increased public, political, and financial support is crucial to prevent the extinction of the species.

Tracking Critically Endangered Indo-Pacific subpopulation of Largetooth Sawfish Pristis pristis in the Kimberly region of northern Australia (photograph by David Morgan).

Tracking Critically Endangered Indo-Pacific subpopulation of Largetooth Sawfish Pristis pristis in the Kimberly region of northern Australia. Photo: David Morgan.

The largetooth sawfish is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), banning any commercial international trade of the species, as well as Appendix I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), which obligates Parties to act nationally and cooperate regionally to protect sawfish. In 2012, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) further banned the retention of the largetooth sawfish and mandated careful release, although parties to the GFCM have been slow to implement the restrictions nationally. In the Wider Caribbean Region, the largetooth sawfish is listed in Annex II of the Protocol for Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife of the Cartagena Convention, which obligates parties to grant the species strict protections. Despite these binding international treaty mandates, the largetooth sawfish remains largely unprotected in several countries. Analyses conducted in 2018 indicated the need for concerted, international conservation policy action in four priority regions: the Caribbean, Amazon Delta, Western Indian Ocean, and Australasia. 

Nationally, species-specific protection of the largetooth sawfish exists in 17 countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panamá, Perú, Senegal, and South Africa. However, reports indicate that enforcement of legislation is generally poor in states with limited governmental resources and high poverty rates. A study conducted in 2021 highlighted the critical need for domestic sawfish protections in nations where the presence of the largetooth sawfish is uncertain, low, or declining, but where extinction probability is still low: Mexico, Panamá, Brazil, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka. Papua New Guinea, where largetooth sawfish are still observed regularly but which has failed to apply species-specific bans on killing, retention, sale, and trade, is also deemed a priority for conservation initiatives. 

In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission’s (IUCN SSC) Shark Specialist Group (IUCN SSG) convened the Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy Workshop with four key objectives: to summarise the state of knowledge of sawfishes and conservation capacity worldwide; to map the geographic range status for each species; to reassess the status of sawfishes by applying the IUCN Red List categories and criteria; and to develop a Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy. The workshop was arranged to ensure extensive representation with regard to geographic region and expertise, with a particular focus on involving those with the highest interest in the preservation of sawfishes: conservationists, scientists, government officials, resource managers, etc. After several discussions and plenary sessions, the workshop resulted in the development of several goals, objectives, and actions to reach a common vision, “a world where sawfishes are restored – through understanding, respect, and conservation – to robust populations within thriving aquatic ecosystems”. After the workshop, guidelines for the development of regional and national conservation strategies were provided. The multinational collaborative effort that ultimately resolved the taxonomic discrepancy within the sawfish family in 2013 greatly supports the notion that a global conservation planning initiative would bolster national and international protection efforts and render them more efficient. 

Arguably more effective approaches to minimising bycatch and illicit fishing practices are those employed by conservationists and NGOs working at a regional level with fishermen and local populations. In Australia, education initiatives, training fishermen in the safe release of sawfish and identifying bycatch at a species-specific level, and other community capacity-building efforts have been crucial for the protection of largetooth sawfishes inhabiting marine and freshwater environments near human settlements. Some bodies of water in Northern Australia, where sawfishes have been observed, have also been closed to gill-net fishing, and the prawn trawling industry has made considerable improvements in ensuring the survival of marine life caught as bycatch. In Bangladesh, National Geographic EDGE fellow Alifa Haque has been working to improve the reporting system for sawfish bycatch in coastal fishing villages. EDGE has further established five objectives of critical importance in a national conservation blueprint for the largetooth sawfish in Bangladesh: to reduce bycatch mortality through community-led release programmes; to disincentivise traders and fishers from retaining bycatch; to reduce trade through innovating monitoring mechanisms; to protect critical habitats; and to increase knowledge on the species and educate local communities. In Costa Rica, Professor Mario Espinoza, a marine scientist at the University of Costa Rica, was instrumental in lobbying the Costa Rican government to award sawfishes legal protections, which were enacted in 2017. Professor Espinoza had his team continue to raise awareness nationally through his sawfish conservation initiative, En Busca del Pez Sierra – Costa Rica. The project aims to promote education in local fishing communities regarding the legal protection of sawfishes by introducing methods of minimising bycatch and systems for reporting sightings.

Due to the rarity of largetooth sawfishes, innovative monitoring techniques, such as environmental DNA, are increasingly being used (photograph by Peter Kyne).

Due to the rarity of largetooth sawfishes, innovative monitoring techniques, such as environmental DNA, are increasingly being used. Photo: Peter Kyne.

Countries where the legislative enforcement of fishing prohibitions is lacking, particularly those with limited governmental resources and high rates of poverty, require a more holistic approach to conservation. Ruth Leeney, a National Geographic Explorer and scientist at the Natural History Museum of London, has worked in sawfish conservation across ten countries in Africa and Asia, noting that long-term, effective conservation initiatives in such regions cannot follow the same top-down approach used in the US and Australia. Working with local communities and taking into account the specific culture and socioeconomic context of each country will enable conservationists to establish programmes that decrease the current exploitation of natural resources by introducing alternative sources of livelihood for locals. By demonstrating the intrinsic value of environmental protection and sustainability, particularly the restoration and conservation of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass beds, conservationists can work towards protecting sawfishes and their natural habitats with community-led projects that tackle issues of food scarcity.

Lastly, as scientists and conservationists became increasingly aware of the plight of sawfishes and the concerning lack of biological and ecological data on each species, a surge of research activity was initiated primarily in Florida, the USA, South America, and Australia. Scientific data is crucial for the development of status assessments, management measures, and recovery plans, which, combined with local education and outreach programmes, resulting in effective protections being awarded to remaining sawfish populations worldwide. In 2019, Professor Colin Simpfendorfer, a marine scientist at James Cook University, initiated a Global Sawfish Search project utilising environmental DNA. Supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation, the project involved experts from around the world sampling marine and wetland environments for trace amounts of sawfish DNA (also known as environmental DNA); a method that can detect evidence of sawfishes over nearly a kilometre stretch of water over a three to four-day window. The project aimed to determine where conservationists should focus their efforts for the recovery of viable populations, which was outlined as a critical objective by the Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy.

NGO Spotlight: Sawfish Conservation Society 

The Sawfish Conservation Society is a nonprofit group based in Florida, USA, which takes a multifaceted, collaborative approach to the protection of sawfish and aims to connect the world to advance global sawfish education, research, and conservation. By working together with aquarists, museums, researchers, educators, and NGOs, the SCS and its partners have supported one another in maximising their influence and scope, making significant progress in the protection of sawfish. 

In 2017, the SCS assisted in establishing the first International Sawfish Day (October 17th) to celebrate and spread awareness of the value of sawfishes, and the organisation continues to collaborate with partner aquariums yearly to promote ISD across the world via social media, press releases, and other awareness-raising events. The SCS further provides a range of insightful materials and resources for educators and members of the public to promote and host an International Sawfish Day event, establish education and outreach programmes in schools, towns, and cities across the world, and encourage the protection of sawfishes and their natural habitats. These materials were designed in collaboration with international researchers, gathering their input on what materials and messages they believed would maximise education and outreach efforts. The SCS has also worked with partner aquarists to raise funds for a yearly research grant that is distributed to one research project during ISD.

how to save sawfish

The SCS further provides extensive, detailed biological and ecological information on each species of sawfish and the threats they face, which will hopefully encourage future generations of conservationists and ecologists to take an interest in sawfish protection. In-depth species identification resources are also available on the SCS website to aid fishermen with species identification when sawfish are caught as bycatch. Improvements in species-specific bycatch data would aid conservation efforts tremendously, helping establish areas to enact stricter fishing prohibitions and potential sights for research and data collection. The site further outlines procedures for the safe disentanglement and reporting of sawfish for the general public.

In addition to educating the public, the SCS assists researchers with their work wherever and wherever possible. This includes providing letters of support to get conservation projects up and running, providing tools and resources to assist with research initiatives, providing online platforms for researchers to promote their work and fundraising initiatives, and sparking discussions on recent events. The SCS further utilises International Sawfish Day to promote the work of researchers on a greater scale.

How You Can Help

you can help save sawfish IUCN SSG illustration differentiating the swordfish, sawshark, and sawfish.  

Featured image: David Wackenfelt for Simon Fraser University

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The Siamese crocodile is amongst the most endangered reptiles in the world, with Cambodia holding the largest remaining wild population. One of 23 extant crocodilian species, the Siamese crocodile was once widely distributed across mainland Southeast Asia and Indonesia. However, in 1992, the species was reported to be virtually extinct in the wild due to commercial hunting practices and the collection of live animals to stock crocodile farms in the region. Since the rediscovery of approximately 200 wild Siamese crocodiles in the remote Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia in the year 2000, research into the ecology of the species has been conducted and a number of conservation measures have been implemented for its protection. Despite these efforts, the animal continues to be one of the least understood, rarest crocodilian species in the world.

Family: Crocodylidae

Genus: Crocodylus

Species: Crocodylus siamensis

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Population: 250 to 1,000 individuals in the wild  

1. Appearance

The Siamese crocodile is a stocky, medium-sized freshwater species, with adult males typically reaching a length of 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) and females measuring around 2.7 metres (8.9 feet). The weight of adults ranges between 40 and 120 kilograms, with the largest male recorded reaching a length of 4 metres (13 feet) and a weight of 350 kilograms (771.6 pounds).

The species can be distinguished by prominent, bony crests behind each eye, a broad, smooth snout, and a row of four large post-occipital scales on its neck (typically used to distinguish Siamese crocodiles from saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) in regions where both are found). With an olive to dark green colouration, the Siamese crocodile is well camouflaged in the mossy waters and rainforest habitats they hunt in. 

In 2012, Paleobiologist Gregory M. Erickson conducted a study in which the bite force of all 23 crocodilian species were tested. Three specimens of Siamese crocodiles, weighing between 40 and 87 kilograms (88-192 pounds), were recorded as having a molariform bite force of 2,073 to 4,577 newtons. In contrast, the largest specimen of saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), weighing 531 kilograms, was found to have a bite force of 16,414 newtons. Hyenas, lions and tigers typically generate a bite force of around 4,450 newtons, and humans tear a steak with a bite force of 890 newtons. Interestingly, variations recorded in the bite forces of each crocodilian species correlated to differences in body mass; regardless of rostro-dental anatomy or diet, specimens of different species that shared similar body masses held similar bite forces.

In most animal groups, and as was previously believed for crocodilians, variations in bite force are a result in differing jaw shapes, tooth forms and diets. Yet, in light of the results of the study, Erickson noted: ”I think the most primitive development of the crocs was basically as a force-generating machine… Variations in snouts and teeth arose later, fine-tuning that powerful bite for prey ranging from fish and snakes to birds, mammals, and even insects.”

The study noted that one of the major factors in the evolutionary success of crocodilians was the retention of a specialised cranial musculoskeletal system that generates a bite force sufficient to capture a range of different prey opportunistically.

Close-up of a Siamese crocodile’s jaws at Phnom Tamar Wildlife Rescue Centre. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

2. Diet

Although the dietary preferences of captive Siamese crocodiles are well documented, the feeding habits of wild populations have been indefinably determined through faecal analyses conducted in Cambodia and Laos. While faecal analysis cannot be used to reliably quantify the relative importance of specific prey species for Siamese crocodiles, due to the varying digestibility of animal remains, the proportions of common prey (identified at a more general taxonomic level) found in each sample of faecal matter provide a good indication of feeding preferences. 

Similarly to other crocodilian species, Siamese crocodiles are generalist predators that feed on a wide variety of animals, such as invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, crustaceans, and mammals (including carrion). Contents of faeces analysed were comprised of 30.9% fish, 29.6% reptiles, 11.5% invertebrates (including ants, beetles, scorpions and crabs), 4.9% mammals, and 3% birds. Approximately 88.1% of the reptiles were identified as snakes, from their ventral scales. There was no indication of amphibian remains, although this is most likely because their bodies and bones were fully digested. As keratin structures (eg. hair, feathers, scales) and chitin (eg. arthropod exoskeletons) are excreted intact in crocodile faeces, researchers were able to identify the presence of mammal hairs consistent with rats or other species of rodents, as well as those of adult wild boar (although these were only located in the faeces of very large adults).

While it is clear that fish and snakes are of significant dietary importance to Siamese crocodiles, further studies are needed to quantify the amount of prey consumed by different crocodile age groups, as well as to identify crucial prey to a species level. Such fundamental ecological knowledge is essential for the creation and implementation of conservation strategies, as the protection of vital prey sources plays a critical role in their ability to reproduce and survive in the wild. 

3. Habitat & Behaviour

The Siamese crocodile is a freshwater crocodile found primarily in slow-moving wetland habitats, such as swamps, rivers, lakes, marshes, seasonal oxbow lakes, and streams, from near sea-level to elevations of up to 600 metres (recorded in the Central Cardamom Mountains). Permanently-occupied sites were typically found to feature gently sloping banks, both open and heavily shaded areas, a surrounding forest, and waterbodies with a minimum depth (even during dry season) of 1.1 metres. During the wet season, Siamese crocodiles have been observed dispersing across flooded landscapes, with one radio-tracked individual having travelled 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) before returning to a dry season site. Adult Siamese crocodiles have also been observed constructing burrows, excavated into the banks of rivers and lakes, with up to five individuals utilising one burrow at a time. However the exact purpose of these burrows, or how the behaviour evolved, remains unclear.

Once widespread throughout mainland Southeast Asia and Indonesia, with historical records indicating the species’ presence in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, the Siamese crocodile has since disappeared from approximately 99% of its former range. Remnant populations are greatly diminished and fragmented, consisting mainly of scattered individuals confined to small, degraded waterbodies in remote areas in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam. Many sites where crocodiles were reportedly observed prior to 2000 were either devoid of the species, or contained only one or two isolated individuals with no signs of breeding occurring; very few colonies are confirmed to be reproductively active. Field studies and interviews conducted across Cambodia revealed that the majority of sites with confirmed Siamese crocodile populations were state forestlands in the Cardamom Mountain range. Located at elevations of up to 600 metres, these significantly cooler sites are believed to be marginal habitat for the species, associated with slower growth and reproductive rates when compared to larger, warmer bodies of water in lowland regions. 

Despite conservation concerns, very little is known about the behavioural and reproductive habits of the Siamese crocodile. Like most crocodilian species, they are believed to be primarily nocturnal hunters, utilising daylight hours to rest and bask in the sun (since crocodiles are reptiles, they rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature, often seen sunbathing with their mouths open to prevent their brains from overheating). Able to remain submerged beneath the water for over an hour, crocodilians have certain physiological adaptations, such as a specialised heart and metabolic system, that enable them to hunt aquatic prey or catch birds by surprise. 

Crocodilians have a small opening within the outflow tract of the heart between the left and right aorta called the Foramen of Panizza, which allows blood to bypass pulmonary circulation (since there is no oxygen in the lungs to oxygenate blood, pulmonary circulation becomes an unnecessary use of energy when submerged). Crocodiles will reduce their heart rate to two to three beats per minute, saving energy in the form of reduced cellular respiration and only sending oxygen-rich blood to the areas of the body that need it most. If a crocodilian then needs to carry out strenuous physical exertion, such as lunging out of the water to capture prey after having been submerged for an extended period of time, they utilise anaerobic respiration, deriving energy from glycolysis when musculature cells have no oxygen left. 

The Siamese crocodile is not considered to be an aggressive species, with only three to five reported attacks on humans in the past century (all of which were defensive and not fatal). Communities that reside in close proximity to the species’ habitat continue to bathe and swim in waterbodies where crocodiles are known to hunt. This is particularly true of areas occupied by indigenous Cambodian communities, such as in the Cardamom Mountains, which hold the largest remaining colonies of Siamese crocodiles. Certain ethnic minority groups believe that crocodiles hold a spiritual significance and bring good luck, and that killing or disturbing the animals could bring misfortune. 

A baby Siamese crocodile being handled in Cambodia (photograph by Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International).

A baby Siamese crocodile being handled in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

Female crocodiles construct mound nests, scraping together mud and vegetative debris, on floating vegetation mats, on the banks of rivers or lakes, or in deeply shaded areas under thick tree canopy. Fidelity to nesting sites has been observed in the wild. Nesting occurs towards the end of the dry season (March to April), with females producing 11 to 26 eggs (captive females have been reported to produce clutches of six to 50 eggs). Females will generally remain close to the nest during incubation; some reports noted aggressive nest defence by the mother (as well as by the father when in captivity), whilst others observed wild adults immediately fleeing when approached by humans, even if their eggs were handled and their offspring emitted alarm calls. After an incubation period of 70 to 80 days, during which temperature-dependent sex determination occurs, hatchlings are born in the wet season (May to June).

Less than a few dozen wild nests have been located to date. In one study, observing the fate of 14 Siamese crocodile nests, researchers observed that five nests were poached (36%), one was raided by animals (7%), two were destroyed by flooding (14%) and the remaining six hatched successfully (43%). Further monitoring of 23 hatchlings, located in a well-protected lake in the Areng Valley of Cambodia, revealed that only five (22%) survived their first year of life. This extremely low level of reproduction is not enough to maintain wild populations, given the fact that many anthropogenic pressures threatening both juvenile and adult Siamese crocodiles remain present in the species’ primary habitats.

Since the scientific community became aware of the plight of Siamese crocodiles, research on the ecological and biological background of the species has increased, although opportunities to examine wild populations are limited. Further studies have been conducted on the species’ phylogeography and population genetics, seasonal sperm cycles, as well as on the potential antimicrobial properties of their blood. Since the vast majority of captive Siamese crocodiles are actually hybridised (bred with Cuban crocodiles, Crocodylus rhombifer, and saltwater crocodiles, Crocodylus porosus), researchers and conservationists have also successfully identified the chromosome number of pure Siamese crocodiles and their hybrids, as well as DNA methods to distinguish the two.

4. Ecosystem Services

Although there is limited knowledge on the ecological background of Siamese crocodiles, the generalist diet of the species indicates that it plays a crucial role in population control within their ecosystem; regulating the abundance of prey species, preventing the degradation of their environment and maintaining clean waterways. Siamese crocodiles also create habitats for other species by building nests and excavating burrows, and further protect aquatic life during the dry season by preventing the exploitation of water supplies by terrestrial animals.

Since the majority of remaining Siamese crocodile populations are found in protected wetland habitats, efforts aimed at conserving the species inherently protect a myriad of other animals and vegetation that depend on the vitality of these habitats for their survival. Peat bogs, freshwater lakes and other wetlands also act as important natural carbon sinks, which aid in the mitigation of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so the preservation of such ecosystems is crucial not only for the future of Siamese crocodiles, but also for the overall health of the planet.

A young Siamese crocodile in a river, Chhay Reap, Cambodia (photograph by Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International).

A young Siamese crocodile in a river, Chhay Reap, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

5. Threats

The Siamese crocodile is considered to be one of the most threatened crocodilian species in the world. It is widely believed that the rampant commercial hunting of Siamese crocodiles that commenced in the mid- to late-20th century, for the international skin trade and to stock crocodile farms across southeast Asia, were the primary causes for the decimation of wild populations. Competition with rice farmers for suitable wetland habitats also contributed greatly to the fragmentation of colonies. In 1992, the species was reported to be virtually extinct in the wild, and in 1996 was labelled as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List since scientists, although not entirely certain of the exact rate of decline, were confident that global populations had been reduced by more than 80% over the preceding three generations. Today, poaching, habitat loss, incidental entanglement in fishing gear, and inherent vulnerabilities associated with a highly diminished, fragmented remnant wild population continue to threaten the future existence of the Siamese crocodile. 

The capture of Siamese crocodiles for commercial crocodile farms has been ongoing since the 1940s. The fact that the species is relatively placid, easy to breed in captivity, has the capacity to grow to a considerable size and produces fine, soft leather has made Siamese crocodiles a prime target for crocodile farmers who sell the animals live, for their meat and skin. Despite being listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Article VII Paragraph 4 of the Convention states that “specimens of an animal species included in Appendix I bred in captivity for commercial purposes shall be deemed to be specimens of species included in Appendix II”. Consequently, Siamese crocodiles bred in commercial farms can be traded internationally subject to licensing controls. 

Initially stocked from Siamese crocodiles illegally caught in the wild and subsequently propagated artificially, there are now an estimated 1.53 million captive Siamese crocodiles in commercial farms across Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and China. However, this figure does not account for all hybridised crocodiles, as farmers typically breed Siamese crocodiles with saltwater and Cuban crocodiles, producing larger offspring. In Cambodia, there are approximately 445 registered crocodile farms, although conservationists estimate there are over 900 farms in operation. Of those registered, only 21 have been approved under CITES to export the animals internationally. Vietnam and Thailand are believed to operate over 1,000 farms each, of which 28 in Thailand and 10 in Vietnam are CITES-registered. Crocodile farming accounts for approximately 1% of Thailand’s yearly agricultural income. From 2013 to 2022, roughly 1,993,424 Siamese crocodiles were exported from farms holding CITES licences. The vast majority were imported by Hong Kong and China. Of those nearly two million specimens, 828,839 were sold as meat products, 447,418 were sold live, 336,622 were skins, 191,832 were pre-made leather products, and 79,410 were entire, deceased bodies.

A close up of a Siamese crocodiles teeth

Close-up of a Siamese crocodiles skin. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

The existence and apparent legality of the international trade of Siamese crocodiles and products derived from their body parts, as well as the extremely high economic value of the trade, is an undeniable incentive for the illicit capture of wild specimens by traders, poachers, and even park rangers in impoverished countries. Leather products and suits produced from Siamese crocodile skin are worth up to US$5,894, blood and bile (believed to hold health benefits) can be sold for up to US$1,167 per kilogram, and meat can fetch up to US$8.76 per kilogram. CITES are aware that on countless occasions Siamese crocodiles traded internationally were sourced from wild populations, having reported the export of 242 wild specimens in 2020 alone. With an estimated 250 to 1000 individuals remaining in the wild and categorised as a critically endangered species, the export of even a single wild specimen, which can never be obtained legally due to national legislations, would logically be considered a detriment to the survival of the species and should warrant the cessation of all legal trade of the species. The industry surrounding the exploitation of Siamese crocodiles is an example of the ineffectiveness of CITES and its lack of conservation value in certain cases, prioritising profit over the protection of a critically endangered species, as the regulations imposed by the Convention have failed to have an impact on the decline of Siamese crocodiles in the wild over the past 50 years.

Apart from farming and international trade, local consumption of Siamese crocodile eggs, hatchlings and adults continues in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, although reporting on such instances is limited due to the lack of legislative enforcement in remote areas.

In the 20th century, the effects of anthropogenic pressures on primary Siamese crocodile habitats also increased dramatically. Apart from the impacts of warfare in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, during which land mines, aerial bombardment and the use of chemical agents severely degraded natural ecosystems, the species faced growing competition from agricultural farmers for suitable wetland habitats. Rapidly growing human populations in key range states resulted in the conversion of wetlands for rice, crop and cattle farming, further accompanied by the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the removal of aquatic vegetation, and seasonal pumping of water for rice irrigation. In turn, Siamese crocodile populations faced increased exposure to human conflicts as key prey sources were depleted, historical nesting sites were degraded, and primary habitats were destroyed and fragmented. 

Aside from subsistence-level farming, the granting of economic land concessions in key range states has resulted in the conversion of wetland and adjoining habitats for rubber, palm oil, and banana plantations, as well as mining operations. At present, a mere 11% of remaining Siamese crocodile habitats are found within national protected areas, and even these are still at risk of economic exploitation. Approximately 70% of Lake Mesangat, East Kalimantan, which is considered to be an essential ecological area for Siamese crocodiles in the region, has been converted for palm oil production, with water diversion having grave effects on the hydrological conditions of the remaining habitat.

River systems across Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, including those found within supposedly protected areas, have also been targeted for dozens of large-scale hydroelectric dam projects. The construction of these dams has already resulted in the mass loss of breeding habitat due to the alteration of flooding cycles, with a 50% increase in dry season flows when compared to natural conditions. In 2006, the Vietnamese government approved the construction of a hydro-electric dam at the Ha Lam Lake in Phu Yen Province, which was the last known site to support wild Siamese crocodiles in Vietnam (the species was considered to have been extirpated from Vietnam as a consequence). The construction of new roads and the influx of construction workers to work on such projects also threatens the safety of wild populations; in 2011, forestry rangers in Cambodia reported finding a young wild Siamese crocodile in the possession of Chinese workers hired to construct the Steung Atay hydroelectric dam in Koh Kong Province. The section of the Mekong River known as the “Golden Triangle”, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet and which potentially holds remnant Siamese crocodile populations, has also been heavily impacted by illegal blasting to deepen the channel for shipping activity.

Although conflicts between humans and Siamese crocodiles rarely arise in the wild, due to the fact that the species is known to be mild natured and fearful of humans, instances of crocodiles interfering with fishing activities or preying on livestock have resulted in crocodile fatalities and human injuries in the past. As fishing is widely considered to be an essential source of sustenance and livelihood for rural communities, the practice tends to occur in most waterways across Cambodia, in remnant crocodile habitats in Indonesia and Myanmar (such as Mesangat Lake and sections of the Mekong River), and even in protected areas that prohibit the catch of fish, frogs or aquatic animals. Despite prohibitions on highly destructive fishing methods, such as electrofishing, spear-fishing, and the use of explosives or poisons, such practices are still carried out in remote areas where law enforcement is limited and these often have devastating consequences for crocodile populations, as well as their prey stocks and habitats. Lawful fishing methods, such as the use of gill nets, can also result in crocodiles becoming entangled and drowning, particularly due to the fact that most fishermen now utilise nylon nets (as opposed to nets made from natural fibres), which are harder for crocodiles to break free from. Fishermen have reported on past instances of receiving injuries from entangled crocodiles that they attempted to set free, and others detailed cases in which Siamese crocodiles were killed by fishermen or hunters for having preyed upon hunting dogs, livestock, or fish (which the species must inevitably must compete with fishermen for). 

Decades of aforementioned anthropogenic pressures have consequently led to an extremely depleted, fragmented remnant population of wild Siamese crocodiles, which presents a number of additional threats to the future survival of the species. Sudden natural disasters or stochastic hazards can cause mass or complete population declines, particularly given the increasing frequency of unpredictable climatic events due to climate change. Inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, which result in offspring with lower fertility and reduced resistance to disease or climactic changes, further render the species vulnerable to extinction. Radiotelemetry studies of Siamese crocodiles in the Cardamom Mountains have indicated that the species is highly sedentary, and therefore even in habitats that are not fragmented and that possess vacant waterways, individuals from differing genetic populations may never meet and breed. Nests of non-viable and presumably infertile eggs have been reported in Thailand and Laos, indicating that remaining colonies suffer from limited reproductive success and possibly a paucity of males (given that crocodile embryos require lower temperatures to hatch as males). There are a number of animals, such as wild boar, monitor lizards, and macaques, which prey on the eggs of crocodiles, whilst juveniles are often consumed by lizards, snakes, storks and large wetland predators. Although studies on the subject are limited, data collected suggests that approximately 40% of clutches succeed in hatching, and roughly 22% of hatchlings survive their first year. Adult Siamese crocodiles do not have any natural predators, but instances of saltwater crocodiles attacking Siamese crocodile have been reported where territories overlap.

Lastly, the widespread hybridisation of Siamese crocodiles in farms and zoos across key range states poses a threat to the genetic integrity of wild Siamese crocodiles, as any hybrids that are released or that escape into the wild can potentially breed with genetically pure specimens. Although hybrid offspring are fertile, they behave more aggressively than pure-bred Siamese crocodiles and could harm public perceptions of crocodiles within rural communities. The threat of unregulated releases of hybrids has intensified in recent years due to the decline in demand for crocodile skin, together with increasing costs in maintaining farms, as many farmers have reported a desire to sell their farms and seek alternative sources of livelihood. Although scientists have successfully identified the chromosome number of pure Siamese crocodiles and their hybrids, and have further developed DNA methods to distinguish the two, these can only be used to ensure government-sanctioned releases are genetically pure specimens and does not prevent uncontrolled releases from cross-breeding. 

6. Conservation 

Once Fauna and Flora International, in collaboration with the Cambodian Government’s Forestry Administration, confirmed the existence of wild Siamese crocodiles in the Cardamom Mountains of Southwest Cambodia in 2000, surveys and conservation strategies were gradually implemented across the species’ remaining range states in a final attempt to save the Siamese crocodile from extinction in the wild. Although there is still an immense amount of work to be done to recover wild populations and their natural habitats, recent successes in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos are a promising first step in the conservation of one of the rarest crocodilian species in the world. Conservation priorities have primarily focused on: status surveys; the development of management and conservation programmes; re-introduction and re-stocking initiatives; community outreach and engagement campaigns, and scientific research. 

As the exact number of wild Siamese crocodiles remaining in each key range state was entirely unknown at the turn of the 21st century, conservation initiatives commenced with status surveys to obtain quantitative estimates of population sizes, as well as the identification of any remaining strongholds, key habitats and breeding sites. 

With observations of remnant wild Siamese crocodile populations having indicated low breeding success, infertility and the possibility of male paucity, conservation efforts focused greatly on the protection of suitable wetland habitats, breeding sites, and the reduction of poaching instances through community-based initiatives. The Government of Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, with immense support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), has been at the forefront of Siamese crocodile conservation with the establishment of a long-term Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme (CCCP). The programme has succeeded in training rangers to conduct patrols of protected areas, monitoring and protecting key breeding sites, establishing community-based conservation management initiatives, and creating sanctuaries in northeastern Cambodia. In March 2020, ten baby Siamese crocodiles were reported in the Veal Veng Marsh, a protected area managed by FFI, demonstrating the success of such habitat protection initiatives. FFI further works with a network of local communities, such as the indigenous Khmer Dauem in the Cardamom Mountains, to improve their food security, their business acumen and their capacity to conserve their cultural heritage. 

The release of a Siamese crocodile (photograph by Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International).

The release of a Siamese crocodile. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

The Cambodian Ministry of Environment has further partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in protecting the Srepok and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuaries – two historical Siamese crocodile sites. Through this strategic, long-term partnership, WWF and the Cambodian Government have succeeded in safeguarding the two sanctuaries by conducting monitoring and research on the biodiversity of the localities, building the capacity for stricter law enforcement in the areas to prevent poaching, logging and land encroachment, and through community engagement initiatives aimed at promoting sustainable sources of livelihood and natural resource management. In September 2021, their efforts were realised when eight baby Siamese crocodiles were found in Sre Pok Wildlife Sanctuary for the first time in decades. 

The establishment of eco-tourism initiatives has also helped safeguard key regions in the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia. Apart from private enterprises, such as the Bensley Collection, international organisations have teamed up with local groups in order to purchase economic land concessions from the government in the Cardamom Mountains to establish community-based tourism projects. These initiatives, operated by organisations such as the Wildlife Alliance, not only protect large areas of forest from being destroyed and converted into palm oil plantations or exploited for timber production, but also provide local communities with alternative, sustainable sources of income that encourage environmental conservation. Since governments in developing countries are typically unable to afford resources for the effective management and protection of natural parks, eco-tourism projects assist in conserving ecosystems by managing these areas sustainably. In the Areng Valley of Cambodia, a critical remnant habitat for wild Siamese crocodiles, the proposal of an hydroelectric dam project was successfully halted by local communities in 2014 after Areng-based NGO Mother Nature Cambodia began mobilising a campaign to resist construction and educate locals on the importance of environmental protection and its potential as a long-term source of livelihood. 

In Lao PDR, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) initiated a programme in 2008 focused on community-based conservation approaches, as the majority of remnant wild Siamese crocodile populations are located outside the boundaries of protected areas in the country. Community workshops were conducted to gain an understanding of local sentiments towards crocodiles, and to determine the feasibility of community-based tourism focusing on the conservation of the animal. WCS succeeded in establishing Village Crocodile Conservation Committees to lead wetland protection initiatives, as well as a programme to conduct participatory land-use planning to limit habitat encroachment and exploitation. Core crocodile conservation areas have been designated within Ramsar sites (Wetlands of International Importance), with seven local villages participating in the project, and the Government has indicated plans to develop management strategies for the continued protection and eventual expansion of suitable crocodile habitat. In Indonesia, the palm oil company that currently owns Mesangat Lake entered into a partnership with Yayasan Ulin (The Ironwood Foundation), a local conservation organisation, with the intention of jointly managing and conserving important wetland habitat that contains remaining Siamese crocodiles in the region. Thailand currently supports the most effective, well-developed network of protected areas of any Siamese crocodile range state, and thus has the potential to be at the forefront of recovery efforts for the species. However, initiatives in the country have been slow to commence.

Re-introduction and re-stocking initiatives have also proven successful so far in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. As the Siamese crocodile is comparatively placid and unthreatening to humans, the species has the potential to cohabitate with local communities in the wild. By first ensuring that captive-bred specimens are genetically pure Siamese crocodiles, and by further confirming that areas intended for releases (primarily well-protected waterways) are largely devoid of hunting, persecution and other potential threats to the species, programmes across the range states have resulted in high rates of survival, promising breeding successes and positive responses from local stakeholders and communities. Advances in genetic testing and satellite tracking of released individuals have further streamlined these initiatives. Under the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme (CCCP), the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center established a breeding programme in 2010 in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International (FFI). Since 2012, the programme has successfully released 136 crocodiles in the Cardamom Mountains, and a further 179 pure specimens are currently in captivity in the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park. In 2022 conservationists expanded the range of re-introduction programmes beyond the Cardamom Mountains to the Siem Pang Wildlife Reserve in northern Cambodia, where the species were historically found but were ultimately extirpated from. Organised by local conservation group Rising Phoenix, the release presented greater challenges as local communities were wary of a species they had not cohabitated with in decades. After months of assuaging local concerns, 15 Siamese crocodiles were introduced into wetland channels in the Reserve, and plans for the release of a further 20 crocodiles at a nearby site are underway. Although unsure of the effects of reintroducing an apex predator to an ecosystem that it has been absent from for a substantial period of time, the campaign to save Siamese crocodiles from extinction in the wild is seen by conservationists as an ecological necessity.  

Head Warden, Sim Khmao releasing a Siamese crocodile at Chhay Reap, Cambodia (photograph by Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International).

Head Warden, Sim Khmao releasing a Siamese crocodile at Chhay Reap, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

Between 2005 and 2006, the Royal Thai Forest Service and Crocodile Management Association of Thailand successfully released 20 Siamese crocodiles in Pang Sida National Park. Although severe flooding in 2011 greatly hindered plans for further releases, conservation groups believe that the re-establishment of viable populations of crocodiles in protected areas is still feasible. In Lao PDR, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) began working with the local government in 2011 on a programme to breed and release Siamese crocodiles, which culminated in the hatching of 20 specimens at the Laos Zoo. After their release in 2013 to 2014, surveys conducted in 2018 strongly suggested that wild populations were growing. A community-based programme for egg collection and head-starting juveniles was also implemented at several villages in Savannakhet Province, Lao PDR, between 2008 and 2013, resulting in the return of 65 head-started juveniles to the wild in 2014. Aforementioned surveys in 2018 indicated high survival rates amongst these returned crocodiles. In Vietnam, 60 captive-bred Siamese crocodiles were re-introduced to Bau Sau Lake in Cat Tien National Park between 2001 to 2004, and one nest was reported in 2005. Although subsequent monitoring suggested that 25% of the released population was killed by local residents in 2004, hatchlings and juveniles were observed in 2009, which confirmed that remaining adults were breeding successfully. By 2010, the re-introduced population had risen to 100 to 150 crocodiles, however poaching for local consumption continues to pose a significant threat to the species’ survival in the region.

Concerns with the continued commercial farming of Siamese crocodiles have been widely debated, as many argue that the lack of effective governance and monitoring in key range states results in farms working to the detriment of wild populations. Although the commercial trade of wildlife can contribute to the recovery of wild populations when following a ‘sustainable use’ model, as demonstrated by Australia’s saltwater crocodile industry, crocodile farming in Southeast Asia was built upon and continues to be driven by financial gain, devoid of any forward-thinking research or conservation considerations, and has expanded exponentially without regulation. Nevertheless, due to its critical importance for the economic vitality of communities within range states, conservationists have proposed developing strategies to work with the crocodile farming industry, mobilising and channelling its powerful economic force for the benefit of conservation and the survival of wild Siamese crocodile populations. 

A satellite tagged Siamese crocodile ready for release, Chhay Reap, Cambodia (photograph by Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International).

A satellite tagged Siamese crocodile ready for release, Chhay Reap, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

As captive-bred crocodiles held across numerous farms in key range states have been genetically tested and confirmed to be pure Siamese crocodiles, these populations represent a potential source of specimens for re-introduction programmes. This is particularly true of Thailand, where a reservoir of genetically pure Siamese crocodiles is present on commercial farms across the country. The Thai Crocodile Farmer Association, in collaboration with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Mahidol University, have indicated that the Association plans to release a small number of commercially-bred Siamese crocodiles in Pang Sida National Park every year from 2023. In Cambodia, Flora and Fauna International (FFI) has partnered with several crocodile farmers interested in the conservation of the species, highlighting the importance of farm donations as a source of head-started juveniles or adults that can quickly build up wild populations and diversify the gene pool. Farmers have donated approximately 300 crocodiles to the re-stocking programme, and roughly one third of the specimens released in Cambodia so far have been from commercial farms. While considerable conservation efforts are still required for the recovery of the species in the wild, Siamese crocodiles are widely believed to have a reasonable chance of survival.

NGO Spotlight: Flora and Fauna International 

As aforementioned, Flora and Fauna International (FFI) have been at the forefront of Siamese crocodile conservation in close collaboration with the Cambodian Government. In addition to supporting re-introduction and re-stocking initiatives with the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, FFI recognises the importance of working with local communities to mitigate potential threats to wild Siamese crocodile populations by supporting the needs, beliefs and practices of locals. After conducting consultations with locals, FFI established three community-managed sanctuaries to protect the most prosperous breeding colonies in the wild, all of which have become nationally protected under the Ministry of Environment. Further management plans for new protected areas are in the process of development. 

FFI also initiated discussions with local communities, such as the indigenous Khmer Dauem, on the issues they face and understanding how these may impact wildlife populations. They then established a programme with three main strategies to address the needs of locals and achieve outcomes that are mutually beneficial for their surrounding environment. Firstly, for greater food security and the introduction of alternative sources of protein (besides fish, which depletes prey sources for crocodiles and threatens net entanglement), FFI provides technical training on rice and chicken farming with a focus on sustainable community participation. Secondly, to boost incomes and strengthen market systems for such isolated communities, FFI improves the business acumen of locals and introduces monitoring and patrolling as potential alternative sources of livelihood. Lastly, FFI focuses greatly on building the capacity of communities to protect and conserve their environments, having assigned 31 community wardens to patrol five community-managed crocodile sanctuaries across the Cardamom Mountains. Wardens are extensively trained and tasked with raising awareness about the importance of safeguarding crocodiles and the regulations in place to protect them, gathering information about crocodiles they observe, understanding local attitudes towards the species, and reporting any threats or illegal activities to government authorities. Wardens utilise a SMART patrol system to monitor, evaluate and respond to threats effectively, and reports are prepared on a monthly basis for FFI to assess the success of their programme. FFI further focuses on the involvement of women in livelihood strengthening activities, creating equal opportunities for all members of local communities. 

A boat survey along the river at Chhay Reap in March 2022 (photograph by Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International).

A boat survey along the river at Chhay Reap in March 2022. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Holden for Flora and Fauna International.

The presence of wardens has resulted in zero instances of poaching since 2011, and has further achieved the ecological restoration of crocodile habitats with incredible impacts on aquatic diversity. Monitoring activities have indicated that Siamese crocodile populations across target sites are stable or increasing, and successful reproduction has been reported over various sites.

Other strategies employed by the FFI include: strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviours; providing financial compensation for community scouts and landowners who report crocodile activity (thereby encouraging the protection and conservation of eggs, juveniles or adults who wander into rice plantations or agricultural farms); performance-based incentives for patrolling or guarding practices; raising community awareness about crimes against wildlife exploitation and the associated sanctions; and improving local education and awareness on the importance of wildlife conservation for a balanced, healthy ecosystem. 

How Can You Help

If you want to learn more about endangered species, make sure to check out other articles from our Endangered Species Spotlight Series

Polar bears, as their name suggests, are animals that are endemic to the North Pole. They are majestic animals on the top of the food chain, which have long adapted to survive the extreme cold in the Arctic Circle. However, these animals are now being reduced to nothing but mere skins and bones – and were the earliest symbols of the oncoming impacts of climate change. Due to global warming and the rapid melting of Arctic ice, polar bears are dying quickly, and if nothing is done rapidly enough, they may be gone before we even know it. Here’s everything you need to know about this majestic, yet threatened, animal.

Family: Ursidae

Genus: Ursus

ICUN status: vulnerable 

Population: 22,000-31,000

Location: Arctic Ocean (Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway)

Species: Ursus maritimus

Weight: 800-1,300 pounds (males), 300-700 (females)

Length: 6-9 feet

1. Diet

Polar bears’ diet consists mainly of seals as they require large amounts of fat to survive the cold climate. They can eat up to 10 to 20% of their entire body weight thanks to their giant stomachs; their bodies can use about 97% of the fat they eat. The massive mammal eats at least 50 seals a year, but because of the annual melting patterns of the sea ice, they can hunt only from November to July. When there are no seals available, polar bears opt to catch walruses and beluga whales.

2. Social Behaviour

Polar bears are talented swimmers for hunting and travelling long distances, and they are able to sustain a pace of six miles per hour by paddling with their front paws and holding their hind legs flat like a rudder. They also have a thick layer of body fat and a water-repellent coat that insulates them from the cold air and water.

Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice for many activities such as travelling, hunting, resting, mating and, in some areas, maternal dens.

An interesting fact is that most polar bears sleep between seven to eight hours at a stretch and often take naps just about anywhere, any time, and especially after feeding; making humans and polar bears rather similar when it comes to sleeping patterns. 

facts about polar bears

3. Critical Species

Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and play an important role in keeping the biological populations in balance, which is a critical component to a functioning ecosystem. The species eat almost exclusively on seals, but if they can’t hunt for this food source due to lack of a sturdy ice platform or pure exhaustion, they will move on to other animals.

This could threaten the existence of other Arctic species, such as the Arctic fox or the walrus. Aside from the new, increased threat of being hunted as prey by polar bears, these Arctic animals will also have to compete for food resources with their predators. Scavengers like the Arctic fox and Arctic birds like the snowy owl depend on big kills from polar bears – feeding from the leftover carcasses – as sources for food as well. If polar bears are unable to kill seals, another food source for the wildlife will be cut out.

Without polar bears to control the seals’ population, the number of seals will subsequently increase, threatening the population of crustaceans and fish in the region, which is an important food source not only for seals, but also for other Arctic wildlife as well as local human populations.

4. Threats

Due to climate change, the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet, shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover by 14% per decade. Compared to the median sea ice cover recorded between 1981-2010, we have lost about 770,000 square miles between 2011 to 2021, an area larger than Alaska and California combined.

As polar bears rely heavily on ice to survive, this leads to a drastic decrease in the number of the species In fact, a recent reassessment shows that there is a high probability that the global polar bear population will decline by more than 30% over the next 35 to 40 years.

Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals, rest and breed. And when ice melts during summer and autumn, they come ashore and rely on fat storage until the ice refreezes so they can go back out to hunt. Due to the loss of sea ice, polar bears must travel longer distances to stay with the rapidly receding ice, and there is not enough food supplies during winter. To make things worse, sea ice now melts earlier in the spring and forms later in the autumn, meaning that they will starve even longer during these months. As the bear spends longer periods without food, their health declines. For every week earlier that the ice breaks up in Hudson Bay, bears come ashore roughly 22 pounds lighter and in poorer condition.

Even those who survive the starvation will suffer from heavy malnutrition, especially females with cubs. Unhealthy bears can lead to lower reproduction rates and extinction in certain locations. Scientists have found the main cause of death for cubs to be either lack of food or lack of fat on nursing mothers.

Along with sea ice loss, other potential threats to the species include pollution, resource exploration and habitat change due to development. Oil development in the Arctic, for example, poses a wide range of threats, from oil spills to increased human-bear interaction and conflicts.

global temperature increase, Roy Mangersnes, biggest environmental problems

5. Conservation Efforts

To protect polar bears, there have been numerous efforts taken up by different organisations. This includes the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which has been advocating for the establishment of protected areas in the Arctic, supporting Inuit-led management and conducting research to advance understanding of the Last Ice Area – where summer sea ice will persist the longest in the face of climate change, providing refuge for ice-dependent species.

Other than the WWF, the Polar Bear Specialist Group is also working to protect polar bears by funding the Hubbs-SeaWorld research, which aims to conserve and renew wildlife. There is also a special conservation group working within the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with a goal of coordinating, synthesising, and distributing scientific information necessary to guide the long-term viability of polar bears and their habitats.

Polar Bears International is also dedicated to the preservation of polar bears, conducting research and raising awareness of the plight of polar bears through educational programmes and by sponsoring programmes such as Save Our Sea Ice to facilitate efforts to reduce carbon, which will, in turn, save the polar bear’s habitat.

What Can We do?

There are many ways in which we can help save polar bears even when we are miles away from the Arctic Circle. We can donate money and even volunteer with any polar bear conservation organisations highlighted above. Another way to help polar bears is by helping fight climate change. 

Burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of global warming and the melting of sea ice. One easy way to reduce fossil fuel consumption is making our daily commute a little greener. Simply carpooling or biking to work is already a small step in saving polar bears from extinction. We can also reduce our consumption of animal products and buy local produce when possible to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gas.

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The great hammerhead shark is one of nine species of shark belonging to the genus Sphyrna, all of which share a distinctively flattened and laterally elongated head structure. The species inhabits primarily coastal-pelagic, semi-oceanic environments and can be found in tropical, temperate seas worldwide. Regarded as an apex predator within coastal ecosystems, the great hammerhead shark is equipped with specialised, highly sensitive electroreceptor organs, known as “ampullae of Lorenzini”, that allow the animal to sense, amongst other things, electrical fields emitted by potential prey. Distinguishable as the largest species of hammerhead shark, the great hammerhead is particularly threatened by commercial fishing practices due to its sizeable fins, prized in Southeast Asian medicinal and culinary industries. The species is also highly susceptible to being caught as bycatch, with comparatively high at-vessel and post-release mortality rates as a result of pronounced behavioural and physiological stress. 

Family: Sphyrnidae

Genus: Sphyrna

Species: Sphyrna mokarran

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Population: Unknown

1. Appearance 

Although able to reach a length of 610 centimetres (20 feet) and a weight of 450 kilograms (992 pounds), the average great hammerhead shark measures approximately 400 centimetres (13.1 feet) and weighs 230 kilograms (507 pounds). The species has a stout, fusiform body shape, which reduces drag and allows for minimal energy expenditure when swimming, and is covered in dermal denticles: small V-shaped, teeth-like scales that further decrease drag and turbulence, enabling the shark to swim faster and more quietly. Its dorsal surface is dark brown to light grey or olive, whilst its ventral side is white or cream-coloured. Juveniles can be distinguished by a dusky-coloured second dorsal fin tip, which is typically uniform in colour in adults. The dorsal and pelvic fins of great hammerhead sharks are markedly tall and falcate, and their teeth are strongly serrated. The key distinguishing feature of the great hammerhead shark is the nearly straight anterior margin of its cephalofoil (hammer-like head) as well as the prominent median indentation seen in adults.

The distinctive shape of cephalofoils has long been the subject of scientific debate. This unique adaptation is thought to serve numerous purposes, however as the size, shape and morphology of cephalofoils vary amongst hammerhead shark species, they most likely developed as a result of evolutionary pressures specific to each species and their ecological background, and thus each serve a distinct function. The flattened, elongated structure of cephalofoils has been shown to act as a hydrodynamic bow plane, giving hammerhead sharks enhanced manoeuvrability and thus allowing them to quickly raise or sharply turn their head with stability. Although not definitively proven, some have speculated that the wide distance between the nostrils of hammerhead sharks allows the species to locate prey more efficiently when quickly swimming into an odour patch at an angle, moving in the direction of the nostril that first detects the scent. 

Head morphology of all great hammered shark species in the Sphyrnidae family (line drawings modified from Compagno, 1984).

Head morphology of all species in the Sphyrnidae family (Line drawings modified from Compagno, 1984). 

The distance between the eyes of hammerhead sharks has also been proven to provide the animals with better binocular vision, with a much wider lateral field of view and increased anterior depth perception. This enables hammerhead sharks to track fast-swimming prey with a much greater level of accuracy than sharks with close-set eyes. The widened underside of cephalofoils further allows hammerhead sharks to have a higher concentration electroreceptor organs, or ampullae of Lorenzini, at their disposal for detecting electrical signals from potential prey. Lastly, great hammerhead sharks have been observed utilising the antero-ventral portion of their heads to ram and pin prey, such as stingrays, to the ocean floor whilst biting into their pectoral fins. It is unknown whether this type of prey handling behaviour is unique to the great hammerhead, as very few instances of hammerhead predation have been observed.

In a study conducted by the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2010, professor Andrew Martin theorised that the ancestor of all hammerhead sharks appeared abruptly approximately 20 million years ago, and was as large as some contemporary species. The cephalofoils of hammerheads then underwent divergent evolution in different lineages of time, becoming smaller in size, due to selective environmental pressures. In sacrificing size or locomotive advantages, smaller hammerhead species gained heightened visualisation abilities and energy for reproductive activities. Larger species retained a high concentration of electrical sensors, detecting extremely weak electrical emissions and triangulating on their prey.

2. Diet

The great hammerhead shark is an opportunistic feeder, consuming a wide range of prey that includes cephalopods, such as octopus and squid, crustaceans, invertebrates, bony fish, and other sharks. However, the species have shown a preference for stingrays and other batoids, as well as groupers and catfish. They have been observed with stingray and catfish barbs protruding from their mouths, indicating that the species is immune to stingray and catfish venom. When food is scarce, great hammerheads sharks are believed to be cannibalistic, consuming their own species if need be. Due to their large size, the species is regarded as an apex predator and is not preyed upon by other marine animals.

The great hammerhead shark feeds mostly at dusk, remaining close to the ocean floor. In addition to the species’ heightened sense of smell and sight, highly-sensitive electroreceptive organs (ampullae of Lorenzini) are distributed across the underside of the hammerhead shark’s cephalofoil, observable as small gel-filled pores that connect to nerve receptors at the base of the dermis, which enable the animal to detect electrical signals emitted by prey buried under sand. These sensory organs further allow hammerhead sharks to sense temperature changes in the water column, as well as to sense the Earth’s electromagnetic field for homing and migration.

3. Habitat & Behaviour

Great hammerhead sharks are a circumtropical species residing in costal temperate waters, typically above 20° C, from latitudes of 40°N to 31°S. Although occasionally observed at depths of up to 300 metres, great hammerhead sharks are usually found at depths of approximately 80 metres, above continental shelves, island terraces, in coral reefs and lagoons. Solitary by nature and highly mobile, some populations of the species seasonally migrate polewards in search of cooler waters during the summer months, whilst others are believed to be residential populations with seasonal incursions into colder waters due to range expansions (and thus, not true migrations). A study tracking the migration of a great hammerhead shark revealed that the animal had travelled a minimum distance of 1200 kilometres in 62 days. 

Great hammerhead sharks have a faster growth rate than other species under the genus Sphyrna, reaching maturity between the ages of five and nine years. Females typically reach maturity at a length of 210 to 300 centimetres, whilst males attain maturity at the relatively smaller size of 187 to 269 centimetres. However, studies conducted in South Africa suggest the possibility of geographical differences in maturity sizes, as 50% of great hammerhead sharks in the region were documented as reaching maturity at distinctively larger sizes, with females at 337 centimetres in length and males at 309 centimetres. The species is believed to have a life expectancy of 42 to 44 years or longer.

Similarly to other hammerhead shark species, female great hammerhead sharks are viviparous, giving birth to live young, with nutrition for developing embryos emanating from a yolk-sac placenta. After a gestation period of 10-11 months, birthing occurs during the late spring or summer in the northern hemisphere, between October and November off eastern Australia, and between December and January off northern Australia. Litter sizes vary from six to 42 pups, each measuring between 50 and 70 centimetres in length. The species breeds only once every two years, making it vulnerable to depletion and reducing the likelihood of recovery from overexploitation. Pups and juveniles are usually found in shallow costal, inshore waters and are preyed upon by larger species of sharks, including fellow great hammerheads. 

Great hammerhead shark in the Bahamas (photograph by Jim Abernethy for Shark Allies).

Great hammerhead shark in the Bahamas (Image by Jim Abernethy for Shark Allies).

4. Ecosystem Services

As an apex predator, the great hammerhead shark plays a crucial role in maintaining balance within coastal marine ecosystems. By preying on a wide range of species belonging to lower trophic levels, the great hammerhead sharks aids in maintaining healthy levels of species density and diversity within its environment. Following the process of natural selection, great hammerheads further consume diseased or injured marine animals, thus ensuring that individuals with unfit genes are not able to reproduce. If the extinction of the great hammerhead shark is not prevented through the enactment of effective conservation measures, it will inevitably have vastly negative impacts on costal ecosystems worldwide. 

5. Threats

Despite the general lack of data on current population trends of great hammerhead sharks, the well-documented existence of illicit shark fin markets, the assumed under-reporting of incidental bycatch by commercial fishing vessels, and a classification of “Critically Endangered” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List since 2019, the current level of protection awarded to great hammerhead sharks under national and international legislation is far from adequate. With recent studies further revealing historic population declines, high levels of inbreeding and alarmingly low levels of genetic diversity in the species, the threat of extinction they face will continue to grow unless effective conservation and protection measures are put in place. 

Great hammerhead sharks are fished both commercially and recreationally, with a high financial value ascribed to their large fins. Whilst their meat is typically not consumed, incidents of endangered hammerhead shark species being caught as bycatch in South Africa and later packaged and sold to countries such as Australia with a label of ‘flake’, ‘pearl fillet’, ‘boneless fillet’ or ‘monkfish’ have been reported. Shark liver oil is utilised in the production of vitamins, carcasses are sold as fishmeal, and their hides are used for leather. Nevertheless, the main product the species is targeted for is its fins, as they comprise a significant proportion of the fin trade and are one of the preferred species for shark fin soup. Approximately 4% to 6% of the fins imported in Hong Kong have been found to emanate from great, scalloped and smooth hammerhead sharks, with scientists estimating that 1.9 million to 4 million sharks of these species are harvested each year for their fins.

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Since the great hammerhead shark is only protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it is not considered to be threatened with extinction and thus allows the species to be commercially fished and traded internationally by fisheries with a CITES permit. Even though the Australian government admittedly possesses limited data with regards to global and local stocks of great hammerhead sharks, the capture of 100 tonnes of great hammerhead sharks per year was found to be non-detrimental to species’ survival and is thus legal within the country. Due to their migratory nature, fisheries are also able to illegally hunt for the species in international waters, where fewer patrols occur. 

Great hammerhead sharks are popular with recreational fishermen, particularly in Florida where legislation regarding the capture of the species is vague and often unenforced. Since hammerheads have been described as putting up an exciting fight, requiring two or three hours of reeling to be caught, they are often the target of competitions hosted by shark fishing clubs. Although such organisations claim that they abide by the practice of “catch and release”, hammerhead sharks are one of the most physiologically fragile species of shark and thus have extremely high post-capture mortality rates. 

Hammerhead sharks are further targeted in shark culling programs along beachfronts for the protection of beachgoers. In Australia, shark nets and drumlines are placed in the ocean off the coast of 51 beaches between New South Wales and Queensland every year. Targeting species which are considered to be a potential threat to swimmers, the nets are placed in the bottom half of the water column and are specifically designed to keep shark populations away from the beach. However, rather than deter the animals, approximately 10,000 hammerhead sharks have been fatally entangled in these nets since the 1930s, with the figure assumed to be far higher due to failures in reporting and the disregard for pups in the wombs of deceased females. These lethal nets also catch dolphins, manta rays, and sea turtles. There have been no reports of human fatalities involving hammerhead sharks anywhere in the world. General misconceptions depict the animals as aggressive and dangerous due to their size, however the species are generally disinterested in humans. 

great hammered shark species

Approximately 10,000 hammerhead sharks have been fatally entangled in shark nets along the East coast of Australia since 1930 (Images courtesy of Envoy: Shark Cull).

Although commonly claimed that great hammerhead sharks are not targeted by the majority of commercial or small-scale fishing vessels, the species is regularly caught as bycatch throughout tropical regions with longlines, bottom trawling nets, hook-and-lines, gillnets and purse seine nets. However, as the custom of under-reporting bycatch is common throughout the commercial fishing industry, and due to the fact that fishermen continuously fail to identify the specific species of hammerhead shark incidentally caught, quantifying historical trends in great hammerhead shark population declines related to commercial, small-scale and recreational fisheries is extremely difficult. In India, landings of elasmobranchs fell from 75,262 tons in 1998 to 42,117 tons in 2018. While this may appear to be the result of improved management initiatives and bycatch reduction strategies, India’s constant increase in fishing efforts indicates the decline in bycatch actually reflects the extreme exploitation of elasmobranch populations in the region.

In South Africa, demersal fisheries have been observed utilising bottom-longlines along the boundaries of the De Hoop Marine Protected Area to catch small species of sharks, which inevitably lure larger predators, such as hammerhead sharks, and result in their incidental capture. Due to the aforementioned high financial value of hammerhead shark fins, these appendages are typically removed whilst the shark remains alive and the fatally injured animal is returned to the ocean without being recorded as bycatch. Although the US, Australia and the European Union have adopted bans on shark finning to prevent this practice, the sheer lack of regulatory measures and demand for accountability allow this barbaric custom to continue.

Drone footage taken by cage dive operator and wildlife photographer Chris Fallows in South Africa (photograph courtesy of Sharkfreechips.com); Great hammerhead shark in the Bahamas (photograph by Jim Abernethy for Shark Allies).

Drone footage taken by cage dive operator and wildlife photographer Chris Fallows in South Africa (Image courtesy of Sharkfreechips.com).

Even if fishermen were to receive adequate training on efficient, ethical methods of bycatch release, hammerhead sharks have been shown to suffer a post-capture mortality rate of 90% (the highest amongst shark species) due to the severe psychological stress they endure. Appearing to have a stronger fight-or-flight response than other species of sharks, approximately 56% of captured hammerhead sharks perish at-vessel when captured through bottom-longlines, with those released typically suffering from fatal or long-lasting physical and psychological injuries. The reckless use of purse seine nets have been shown to cause a mortality rate of 100% for the closely-related scalloped hammerhead shark. Due to this inherent vulnerability to stress-induced post-capture mortality, hammerhead sharks deserve greater attention in the development of sustainable fishing practices and the establishment of marine protected areas. 

In January 2023, scientists analysed the chromosome-level genome assemblies of two species, the great hammerhead shark and the endangered shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), in an attempt to derive estimates of heterozygosity, inbreeding, and demographic history. Whereas heterozygosity provides an indication of the species’ standing genetic variation, reflecting their ability to adapt to changing environments and their vulnerability to low reproductive efficiency, historical demographic reconstructions can link changes in effective population size to various ecological factors (such as environmental shifts) and thus provide predictions on the effects of current and future environmental changes. Despite the importance of conservation genomics in the creation of effective conservation strategies, especially given the continuing advancement of sequencing technology, the genomic study of elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, skates, sawfish) had been largely neglected until now. 

The results of the study revealed low genetic diversity and signs of inbreeding in great hammerhead sharks, both of which indicate that the species may be less resilient to adapting to our rapidly changing climate. Although scientists are not yet certain of the effects inbreeding has on shark populations, findings from wolves and cheetahs demonstrate that problematic traits often appear over time, reducing the fitness of populations through lower growth rates, a higher frequency of hereditary diseases, and higher mortality rates. This is particularly concerning given the finding that great hammerhead sharks have experienced drastic population declines over the last 250,000 years. The species is also considered to have naturally low fecundity due to relatively slow growth rates, its late onset of sexual maturity, and a biennial reproductive cycle, thus further reducing their ability to recover from significant reductions in populations.

With scientists estimating a global temperature increase of 1.5°C to 2°C in the next few decades, major climatic events and shifts in environmental conditions pose an increasingly fatal risk for highly mobile marine mammals, such as the great hammerhead shark. Since most sharks are ectothermic, dependant on the temperature of external environments since they cannot generate their own body heat, changes in water temperatures may have significant consequences on prey availability and migratory patterns for the great hammerhead shark. Given the aforementioned findings of low genetic diversity and inbreeding in the species, the great hammerhead shark faces an increasing possibility of extinction without the implementation of effective population management and conservation strategies. 

6. Conservation

Although the reduction of great hammerhead shark populations is difficult to quantify, scientists have utilised a precautionary approach and concurred that a global population decline of over 80% over three generation lengths (71.1 to 74.4 years) is most likely. Due to the inadequacy of current protections afforded to the species under national and international legislation, which fail to reflect the severity of the extinction risk hammerhead sharks currently face, there are a number of conservationists and NGOs dedicated to saving the species through education campaigns, advocacy, monitoring and research. 

As aforementioned, great hammerhead sharks are protected under Appendix II of CITES and can therefore be traded internationally. Although exporters are required to acquire a permit based on findings that traded parts were sourced from legal and sustainable fisheries, regulating the trade is difficult given the the high financial value of hammerhead shark fins and the lack of monitoring surrounding bycatch and illicit fishing practices. The species is listed under the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission as a ‘key shark species’, but catch limits have yet to be adopted. The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean also banned the retention of great hammerhead sharks, however implementation by parties to the Barcelona Convention has been slow. The species is further listed under Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), indicating that the species is regarded as having an unfavourable conservation status rather than under risk of extinction. Further demonstrating the general prioritisation of financial gain over wildlife conservation, in 2015 Australia submitted a reservation to the inclusion of great hammerhead sharks to the CMS due to the burden it would place on recreational fishermen who incidentally capture hammerhead sharks. The state claimed that domestic management arrangements would continue to protect the species in light of the reservation, yet great hammerhead sharks are not even listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of Australia. In light of these legislative shortcomings, in 2019 the ICUN recommended that all great hammerhead shark retention and landings be prohibited whilst the global population is regarded as Critically Endangered, further urging the full implementation of bans dictated by international treaties.

In June 2022, the Centre for Biological Diversity submitted a petition urging the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the great hammerhead shark under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The petition further requested the NMFS to designate crucial habitat essential to the continued survival and eventual recovery of the species as protected areas. The Centre referenced significant great hammerhead population declines reported globally, including an estimated abundance and biomass decline of 99.99% in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the widely recognised issues surrounding bycatch, illegal fishing, habitat degradation, and climate change. Notwithstanding the multitude of specific threats faced by great hammerhead sharks, the Centre further held that the resemblance in appearance between great and scalloped hammerhead sharks, the latter of which is protected under the ESA, warrants the inclusion of both species under the Act since difficulties in differentiating the two could exacerbate the threat of extinction faced by scalloped hammerheads. Unfortunately, the NMFS rejected the petition, citing a lack of species-specific information on the effects of climate change, ocean acidification and coastal development on great hammerhead sharks. 

“The Fisheries Service’s decision not to move forward with protecting the great hammerhead shark under the Endangered Species Act is disappointing and misguided,” said Kristin Carden, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity at the time. “This critically endangered species has suffered a global population decline of more than 80% over the past 70 years. The agency’s failure to protect great hammerhead sharks keeps them on the path toward extinction.” Since one of the primary reasons for the denial of the petition was a lack of sufficient data on the species, the Centre has stated that it will continue to monitor the great hammerhead shark and resubmit the petition in the future once more data becomes available for review. 

Two hammerhead sharks in the Bahama Banks (photograph courtesy of Dive Magazine).

Two hammerhead sharks in the Bahama Banks (Image courtesy of Dive Magazine). 

Monitoring and scientific research initiatives, such as those employed by the Centre for Biological Diversity, are incredibly important for the protection of great hammerhead sharks since information on population sizes, distribution, migratory patterns, and catch data is severely lacking. This effectively prevents an appropriate assessment of the extinction risk the species faces from being made and provides governments an excuse to exclude the species from protective legislation at a national and international level. In a report released by the Marine Biodiversity Hub of Australia in 2015, the authors noted that great hammerhead sharks were encountered less frequently, yet it was unclear whether it was due to the species being less common in the region, a result of depletion, or an indication that suitable habitats were not well sampled. Shortage on such basic ecological data allows for the continued overexploitation of hammerhead sharks with limited accountability, since governments are able to justify harvesting the species and destroying its environment by failing to acquire accurate data on its population size and distribution in the region. By implementing additional measures for species identification on fishing vessels, such as observer programs or photographic records, scientists and conservationists would also be able to define catch composition (both targeted and as bycatch) at a level that would be useful for determining whether harvest quotas can still be considered non-detrimental to the survival of the species. 

Species-specific bycatch data, as well as further research into critical habitats of hammerhead sharks and the spatio-temporal variation in their use of differing habitats, is also crucial for the creation of effective avoidance and minimisation strategies for fisheries. Very few bycatch reduction technologies have been developed for elasmobranchs, despite their incredibly high susceptibility to post-catch mortality, and lack of monitoring provides fishermen with the opportunity to extract the fins of endangered species and throw them back into the water without detection. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) have been found to achieve a bycatch reduction rate of 55% for hammerhead sharks and 31% for the closely related bonehead shark, and the use of escape tunnels in pelagic trawl nets also saw a reduction of 55% in the capture of hammerheads. The identification of potential nursery and residency sites for great hammerhead sharks, which have been shown to exhibit philopatric behaviour, would also greatly assist in the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and no-take zones where restrictions on urbanisation and fishing activities would prevent the further deterioration of key hammerhead shark habitats. 

One study, conducted in 2020 on Indian fisheries, reviewed potential fishery management options for their technical effectiveness and socio-economic feasibility. Although spatio-temporal closures, net restrictions and the introduction of bycatch reduction devices were anticipated to be difficult to implement in the short term due to the potentially high impact on income for fishermen, the study suggested commencing with participatory monitoring to address crucial knowledge gaps in elasmobranch ecology, thus allowing for a holistic assessment of potential long-term bycatch management strategies. Designing a bottom-up approach to spatio-temporal closures and gear restrictions, if accompanied by eco-labelling schemes or compensation incentives for lost profits, could encourage the implementation of mitigation measures and ensure better compliance with regulations. 

In Australia, organisation such as the Humane Society International are petitioning to halt the use of drum lines for the protection of beachgoers due to the frequency of marine life entanglement and mortality. “Drum lines were first introduced in the 1960s and, since then, there has been 60 years of progress in technology and our understanding of shark behaviour,” said Nicola Beynon, the head of campaigns for the Humane Society International, in an interview with The Guardian. “There are better ways to protect ocean users that don’t kill our marine wildlife.”

Lastly, garnering public awareness on the plight of great hammerhead sharks is essential for the protection of the species, as education campaigns on sustainable seafood options, the consequences of consuming shark fin, the importance of reducing marine pollution, and the potential impacts of advocacy and petitioning can make a great difference if implemented globally. In Hong Kong, WWF’s work to reduce demands for shark fin have shown promising results, with a 70% drop in imports over the past decade and a decrease in the quantity of shark fin retained in the city (the remainder being re-exported to countries such as Vietnam and mainland China). By encouraging communities and populations across the globe to develop an interest in marine wildlife, the protection of poorly-understood, overexploited species, and in advocating for stronger legislative protections to be afforded to critically endangered species, the implementation of effective management and conservation initiatives becomes increasingly achievable in the foreseeable future. 

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NGO Spotlight: Centre for Biological Diversity 

The Centre for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit organisation that utilises scientific analysis, litigation, advocacy, media outreach and campaigning to mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic pressures on marine and terrestrial ecosystems and the species that depend on such environments to survive. As aforementioned, in June 2022 the Centre petitioned the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to place great hammerhead sharks under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Although the petition was rejected, the Centre has continued monitoring the species in the hopes of resubmitting the appeal when sufficient evidence is collected to demonstrate the risk of extinction that great hammerheads face. The Centre has had success in shutting down the most destructive fisheries in the Pacific, securing critical habitat protection for a number of endangered species, petitioning for new water and air pollution regulations for plastic plants, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to address the impacts of carbon dioxide on the ocean under the Clean Water Act, and campaigning for the removal of Arctic and Atlantic waters from the federal offshore oil-leasing program. Through such inspiring work, the Centre for Biological Diversity is holding governmental organisations accountable for the environmental degradation and species endangerment that has occurred over decades and is implementing strategies for conservation that will hopefully prevent the extinction of entire ecosystems. 

What You Can Do To Help

If you want to learn more about endangered species, make sure to check out other articles from our Endangered Species Spotlight Series

The Amur Leopard, also known as the Far East leopard, the Manchurian leopard, or the Korean leopard, is one of nine extant subspecies of leopard (Panthera pardus). Native to the Russian Far East, Northern China and the Korean Peninsula, Amur leopards have developed several morphological adaptations to withstand the often harsh climates of the high-altitude, temperate forests they inhabit. Believed to have once sustained large, widely distributed populations across its endemic range states, the Amur leopard began suffering extensive populations declines in the 1970s as a result of poaching, habitat loss, and reduced availability of prey. With just over 100 individuals remaining, the subspecies faces an extremely high risk of extinction without the implementation of effective conservation measures.

Family: Felidae

Genus: Panthera

Species: Panthera pardus

Subspecies: Panthera pardus orientalis

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Population: Over 100 individuals 

1. Appearance

Renowned for their ability to adapt to various terrains, climates and habitats, Amur leopards have developed a number of physiological adaptations to survive at significantly colder temperatures than their African counterparts. Although they are slightly smaller than other leopard subspecies, with males weighing approximately 32 to 48 kilograms and females roughly 25 to 43 kilograms, Amur leopards have longer, stronger limbs and wider paws for climbing trees and walking through deep snow. As with all cats, their claws are fully retractable, protected by a sheath of skin to prevent them from becoming dull or damaged when not being used to hunt, climb, provide traction or scratch. They have also been observed wrapping their tails, which average a length of approximately 80 centimetres, around their bodies to keep warm. 

Amur leopards sport thicker, paler-coloured coats than other leopard subspecies, which change in shade and length depending on the season. During the summertime, the Amur leopard’s fur has been described as a vivid, rusty reddish-yellow, not exceeding 2.5 centimetres in length. During the winter months, the subspecies coat becomes a lighter, softer shade of yellow and grows to approximately 5 to 7 centimetres in length. The rosettes that adorn the Amur leopard’s fur are more widely spaced and have thicker black borders than those of other subspecies. As this iconic spotted pattern is unique to each individual leopard, in the same way that fingerprints are unique to each individual human, it is an important tool utilised for individual and species recognition.

amur leopard

Amur leopards have thicker, denser coats than their African counterparts (photograph courtesy of WWF).

2. Diet

The Amur leopard is a strictly carnivorous, highly-skilled predator. Known amongst scientists as the “silent killer”, Amur leopards are widely regarded as the most accomplished stalkers and arboreal climbers of the big cats, tackling prey up to ten times their own weight. Their prey typically consists of ungulates, such as Manchurian sika deer, Siberian roe deer, and Ussuri wild boar; although the subspecies has been observed occasionally or opportunistically hunting smaller mammals, such as weasels, rabbits, badgers, birds and mice. As such, Amur leopards are typically crepuscular hunters, active mostly at dawn and dusk. Any unfinished kills are typically carried up and stored on high branches on trees to avoid being stolen by other predators. Due to the carnivorous nature of their diet, Amur leopards have also developed specialised papillae (small, sharp bumps) on their tongue, which aid with scraping the meat off the bones of their prey.

3. Habitat, Behaviour & Evolution 

Once distributed across Northern China, the Russian Far East and the Korean Peninsula, remaining Amur leopard populations are currently located in three key regions: Primorsky Krai in Russia, and the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang in China. The last Amur leopard sighting in South Korea was recorded in 1969, whilst the presence of the subspecies in North Korea remains unknown. Although left with a residual area of suitable habitat between 2,500 and 5,000 square kilometres in size, approximately 70% of this range is located within protected areas and has the capacity to support a larger population of Amur leopards than is currently held.

amur leopard

Amur leopards have longer, stronger limbs and wider paws for walking through snow (photograph courtesy of WWF).

Primary Amur leopard habitat is defined by middle-elevation, Manchurian mixed forests of Korean pine conifers and deciduous Mongolian oak. The subspecies tends to avoid open, populated grassland areas, instead opting for rugged hills, rocky outcrops and watersheds. During winter months, the subspecies keeps to southern-facing rocky slopes to avoid heavy snowfall. The territorial range of each individual leopard depends largely on the age and sex of the animal, as well as the prey density of the area, and can span from 50 to 310 square kilometres. Nocturnal and solitary by nature, Amur leopards are adept climbers and can camouflage well within trees. Like other leopard subspecies, they can run at speeds of 60 kilometres per hour, climb up to 15 metres high, and leap 6 metres horizontally and 3 metres vertically

Reaching sexual maturity at the age of two and a half to three years, Amur leopards typically breed during the second half of winter. After a gestation period of 90 to 95 days, litters of two to three cubs are usually born from March to May, covered in thick, long fur. Amur leopard kittens are extremely vulnerable during their first weeks of life: born blind, weighing approximately 500 to 700 grams, and unable to crawl until 12 to 15 days after brith. As such, a litter will stay with their mother for up to two years, with some siblings further remaining together during the first years of independence. Nevertheless, mortality rates remain high amongst young leopards due to the unforgiving conditions of their native habitat. Whilst wild Amur leopards have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, their captive counterparts can live up to 20 years.

4. Services

Despite their elusive nature, as well as their remote and relatively limited geographical range, Amur leopards play an incredibly important role in the sustaining the ecological vitality of their surrounding environment. As the subspecies is widely considered to be an apex predator within their natural habitat, consuming a wide variety of prey throughout the year, they consequently aid in maintaining healthy levels of species density. As a number of the Amur leopard’s preferential prey are herbivorous and omnivorous, the population control service provided by these skilled hunters therefore affects the health of the forests they, as well as a myriad of other plant and animal species, depend on. The increasing global awareness garnered by the Amur leopard’s plight, and the resulting conservation efforts implemented for their protection, also assist a number of neighbouring species facing similar threats of habitat loss and degradation. 

5. Threats

Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1996, the Amur leopard suffered extensive population declines in the late 20th century as a result of poaching, habitat loss and degradation, prey depletion, and a number of consequential anthropogenic threats. Now left with a meagre relict population, which is substantially lacking in genetic diversity and struggles to be quantified with any degree of certainty, the subspecies faces a distinct possibility of extinction.

Despite numerous national and international laws prohibiting the hunting of Amur leopards, with the subspecies listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), poaching continues to pose a threat to remaining populations in both Russia and China. In an investigation conducted in 1999, undercover teams seized two Amur leopard pelts, one female and one male, which were priced at US$500 and US$1000 respectively. The pelts were sold in the village of Barabash, Russia, and were believed to have originated from the Kedrovaya Pad reserve. In 2009, police officers confiscated an Amur leopard skin found in a car in the Primorsky province of the Russian Far East, and in 2013 a dealer was apprehended with an Amur leopard pelt in his possession in Vladivostok. Although no further reports of pelt seizures have arisen in the last decade or so, difficulties with regulating Amur leopard populations surrounding remote villages, particularly those in non-protected areas in close proximity with the Sino-Russian border, pose a challenge to preventing the illegal wildlife trade in such regions. Apart from being poached for their fur, leopard bones hold high financial value in traditional Asian medicinal practices, particularly in China where the bones are steeped in rice wine to produce health tonics and other unsubstantiated remedies for an array of medical problems.

amur leopard

An Amur Leopard pelt confiscated by police in the Primorsky province of Russia (photograph courtesy of S. Aramilev for WWF Russia).

Extensive habitat loss and degradation, which increased dramatically in the 1970s as a result of logging, agriculture, forest fires and overpopulation, further facilitated the hunting of Amur leopards as roads, infrastructure development, and the clearing of forests exposed the subspecies to human settlements. Scientists estimate that between 1970 and 1983, approximately 80% of primary Amur leopard habitat was lost due to anthropogenic factors. Between 1949 and 1986, northeastern China produced an estimated 658 million cubic metres of timber to serve as construction material within the country, whereas in Russia, 3,426 square kilometres, or 46%, of potential Amur leopard habitat was deliberately burned between 1996 and 2003 (12 to 22% of which continues to be burned on an annual basis). Further infrastructure development projects, such as gas pipeline plans, road and railway network construction, electricity grid expansion, and coal or mineral extraction, continue to deplete and degrade the little habitat Amur leopards retain.

This rampant loss of habitat, paired with the ever-expanding human population, has also placed an immense strain on sources of sustenance for the Amur leopard, as preferred species of prey have gradually become scarce in certain regions. Not only must the subspecies compete with fellow apex predators, such as Amur tigers, for free-roaming deer, boar and hares; villagers and farmers living in settlements surrounding prime leopard habitat also depend upon these prey species for their survival. As a result, Amur leopards have been observed preying upon domesticated animals, livestock, and farmed deer, rendering them vulnerable to often fatal human conflicts. Exposure to both feral and domesticated dogs, as well as wild sable, racoon dogs, and Asian badgers, also pose a threat to Amur leopards as reports of canine distemper in the subspecies have arisen both in the past (1993 to 1994) and as recently as 2015.

As a consequence of the Amur leopard’s drastic population decline over the past 50 years, difficulties associated with a critically low wild population size, such as vulnerability to disease and catastrophes, unpredictable variation in birth and death rates and sex ratios, as well low genetic diversity, have begun afflicting the remaining population. Biomedical examinations conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society on three Amur leopards in 2006 indicated early signs of health problems associated with inbreeding: all three leopards were found to have significant heart murmurs, and one had over 40% abnormal sperm production. Although more research is necessary to fully understand the effects of inbreeding on the subspecies, common risks include fertility issues and a decrease in the genetic health and fitness of newborn leopards. According to studies conducted on Amur leopard litters, the number of cubs born per adult female decreased from 1.9 in 1973 to 1 in 1991. Whilst father-daughter and sibling matings have been observed naturally (to a certain extent) in large cat species, the Amur leopard’s extremely small population size prevents the possibility of subsequent outbreeding. With the increasing prevalence of unpredictable climate events having a significant effect on the Amur leopard’s natural habitat, weak genetic diversity limits the subspecies’ ability to adapt to further environmental changes in the future

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6. Conservation

Due to the sheer extent of the Amur leopard’s plight, having been driven to the edge of extinction by the start of the 21st century, teams of national and international conservationists, governments and scientists have implemented and maintained a number of strategies for the subspecies’ protection that have ultimately resulted in promising population increases in recent years. 

In 2001, an International Workshop on the Conservation of the Far Eastern Leopard was conducted in Vladivostok, in which scientists and government authorities proposed a drastic plan to capture the remaining Amur leopard population and retain it in captivity, thereby securing their survival for future breeding and reintroduction attempts. However, the Russian government instead began to lay the foundations for a new protected area for Amur leopards, which ultimately led to the formation of Land of the Leopard National Park in 2012. The park covers approximately 2630 square kilometres and comprises 60% of the Amur leopard’s remaining habitat. Since its inception, the population of leopards within the park’s boundaries has tripled to 84 adults and 19 cubs or adolescents, marking the first time in decades that the subspecies population has exceeded 100 individuals. Not only have government and park officials worked to remove anthropogenic pressures that primarily threatened remaining leopard populations, such as the establishment of a 450 metre-long tunnel beneath a major motorway to aid leopard migration, the reforestation of land previously utilised for livestock grazing and agriculture, and the implementation of anti-poaching patrols across the park’s range; a significant improvement in monitoring and counting methods has also allowed scientists to calculate population sizes with greater accuracy, determining the presence of mating females and newborn cubs through an analysis of the fur patterns of leopards caught on camera. With a network of 400 cameras spread across 3600 square kilometres, park officials no longer rely on locating paw prints in snow and can track populations as they disperse past park boundaries and across the border with China.

Similar initiatives have been implemented in China with comparably promising increases in Amur leopard numbers. In addition to the founding of three protected nature reserves – Hunchun, Wangqing and Huangnihe – near the borders China shares with North Korea and Russia, the provincial government of Jilin has actively rejected or ordered the redesign of infrastructure project proposals which potentially pose a threat to Amur leopard and tiger populations. These include the construction of a highway, as well as a high-speed railway connecting Hunchun City with Vladivostok. In 1998, the National Forest Protection Programme (NFPP) was established with the aim of restricting rampant logging practices, and in 2015 a complete prohibition on commercial logging was implemented by the province of Jilin. As a result, the Forestry Department of Jilin reported that forest coverage in the region had risen to nearly 44%, or 93.86 billion square kilometres. An expansion on forest patrols and snare-removal campaigns further allowed for the clearing of 8,250 wire snares within the Hunchun National Nature Reserve between September 2015 and January 2016, as well as the apprehension of 314 poachers by Jilin government officers. In 2006, the Jilin provincial government introduced a compensation programme for local farmers and livestock herders in an effort to prevent retaliatory acts or human conflicts which commonly result in wildlife fatalities. Since its inception, the government has spent USD 18 million on 37,000 compensation cases in the region, covering 100% of the market value of produce or livestock preyed upon by Amur leopards and tigers. 

amur leopard

The Global Protected Area Friendly System, an NGO based in China, have cleared thousands of poaching snares in Hunchun Nature Reserve (photo courtesy of Global Protected Area Friendly System).

Despite the well-documented fact that Amur leopards typically cross between the Sino-Russian border, Russia and China remained relatively independent in establishing conservation strategies for their respective leopard populations until recently. In 2017, researchers from Beijing Normal University proposed the creation of a new transboundary national park, spanning 14,600 square kilometres, which would essentially combine the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park in China with the Land of the Leopard National Park and Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve in Russia. Initially commencing as a pilot project, the park has since allowed for the sharing of scientific research and data collected from camera traps and monitoring activities by both nations, resulting in the creation of an unprecedentedly extensive survey of the transboundary leopard population and a stronger understanding of the ecological requirements for their protection. 

Nevertheless, concerns have arisen with regards to the seemingly economic and touristic motives behind the Chinese government’s national parks programme. Scientists and conservationists have stressed the importance of enacting rigid legal protections for newly established parks in order to prevent any commercial infrastructure or development pressures in the long run. China faces further difficulties with the approximately 100,000 locals residing in or around the national park, as many rely on agriculture and livestock cultivation for sustenance and income. Although the local government plans to relocate villages and communities located within park boundaries to avoid conflicts with wildlife, solutions for the consequential financial burden on farmers and cattle herders have not yet been announced. 

Another critical contributor to the protection of Amur leopards has been the scientific community, as conservation strategies implemented by local and national governments in China and Russia have been largely informed by the research and findings of national and international scientists. In China, studies utilising gazetteers, or local records, have provided insights into the ecological, biogeographical, economic and political characteristics of Amur leopard population declines, as well as allowing for a reconstruction of the subspecies’ historical population dynamics. Such information is expected to assist in the creation of effective, well-informed conservation strategies and for long-term population management, as it provides a stronger understanding of the optimal ecological conditions necessary for the Amur leopard’s survival in the wild. 

Discussions have also arisen for the introduction of a second Amur leopard population into the subspecies’ former territorial range, intended to improve the genetic diversity of existing wild Amur leopards and thus reduce the risk of inbreeding depression or extinction from catastrophic events. However, this has been an area of contention, as captive Amur leopard populations appear to have been accidentally hybridised (deriving their gene flow from both Panthera pardus orientalis and Panthera padrus japonensis, a neighbouring subspecies), with some arguing that their introduction into the wild would threaten the integrity of a morphologically and genetically unique subspecies if they were to breed. However, many instead maintain that captive populations should be regarded as beneficial for wild populations, as they would augment the genetic diversity of homogenised wild leopards, thus enhancing their fitness and ability to withstand shifts in environmental conditions. A similar approach was successfully utilised for the restoration of the Florida panther, which was faced with the threat of extinction having suffered extensive population declines.

amur leopard

Captive Amur leopards at the Colchester Zoo. There are around 200 Amur leopards in captivity, mostly in zoos across North America, Europe, and former Soviet Union states (photo courtesy of the Colchester Zoo).

In addition to the conservation efforts undertaken by government officials and the scientific community, a number of international NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), have played a critical role in supporting and supplementing national protection strategies. In collaboration with TRAFFIC, the largest wildlife trade monitoring organisation, WWF assists in implementing anti-poaching and environmental education programmes in known leopard habitats, as well as aiding governments in enforcing national and international bans on the trade of leopard products. WWF further works with companies to commit to responsible forestry practices, whilst striving to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging in both Russia and China. In 2007, the organisation, together with other conservationists, successfully lobbied the government of Russia to redesign the routing of an oil pipeline which would have posed a threat to Amur leopard habitat. WWF has further aided with monitoring leopard populations across Russia and China’s national parks, supplying camera traps for more accurate population counts, whilst also supporting the rebuilding of leopard prey populations through the release of deer and boar into reserves.

amur leopard

Amur leopard captured on camera at the Hunchun Nature Reserve (photo courtesy of the WildCats Conservation Alliance).

NGO Spotlight: WildCats Conservation Alliance 

The WildCats Conservation Alliance (WCS), an initiative of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation (DWF), is another NGO providing critical support in the conservation of the remaining Amur leopard population. In China, surveys conducted by the WCS in 2001 were instrumental in the establishment of the Hunchun Nature Reserve, and the organisation has since continued to assist with snare removals, patrol strategy planning, ecological monitoring, camera trap placement and maintenance, and in minimising human-wildlife conflicts. More recently, the WCS aided in the management of the new Tiger and Leopard National Park, proposing conservation priorities and organisational strategies. Within Russia, the WCS has introduced SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) into national parks with the aim of reducing instances of poaching through improved monitoring and data analysis methods. The tool provides park rangers with quantitative and geographically-referenced information for the enforcement of anti-poaching laws, particularly in areas where limited government funding has had an impact on the efficiency of patrol efforts. Education campaigns and extra-curricular programmes aimed at teaching children the ecological importance of protecting wildlife and the environment are hoped to further prevent instances of poaching through the creation of an environmentally-conscious generation of students. To date, the WCS has raised over USD 4.6 million in support of 103 monitoring, conservation, conflict resolution, environmental protection and awareness-raising campaigns and projects.

How to Help

Featured image: Courtesy of WWF

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The green sea turtle is the second largest of seven sea turtle species and has an incredibly wide geographical distribution, nesting in over 80 countries and inhabiting the temperate, tropical coastal waters of approximately 140 countries. Highly migratory by nature, the remarkable green turtle undergoes complex journeys through climatically varying habitats to reach suitable foraging and nesting grounds. Contrary to common assumptions, the green turtle earned its name through the colour of its cartilage and fat, which derives its notably greenish hue from the strictly herbivorous diet of the species, rather than through the colour of its shell. Despite the implementation of numerous protective measures aimed at safeguarding global green sea turtle populations, threats such as habitat loss, climate change, pollution, commercial fishing and the illegal wildlife trade continue to contribute to the species’ decimation.

Family: Cheloniida

Genus: Chelonia

Species: Chelonia mydas

IUCN Status: Endangered

Population: approximately 85,000 to 95,000 nesting females

1. Appearance & Morphology 

Although smaller than the leatherback turtle, the green turtle is the largest species of hard-shelled sea turtle, with adults reaching an average carapace length of 83 to 114 centimetres and a weight of 110 to 190 kilograms. Their non-retractable heads are regarded as proportionately small and feature a single pair of prefrontal scales (between the eyes and above the nose), distinguishable from the two pairs found on other species. They exhibit a certain degree of sexual dimorphism upon reaching maturity, as males are typically larger than females and have longer tails, the base of which houses the male reproductive organ. Claws on the fore flippers of male sea turtles also tend to be longer and more curved than those of females, which is thought to assist with grasping onto a female’s shell when mating.

green turtle

A green turtle has non-retractable limbs and two distinctive prefrontal scales (photo by Flickr user greeny4).

The shell of green sea turtles is made of bone and cartilage, and consists of two parts: the carapace (the top shell), and the plastron (the underbelly). The carapace and the plastron join together at the sides to form a rigid skeletal box. The oval carapace of green sea turtles is absent of ridges, and is composed of five centre scutes (scales) and four lateral scutes on each side, all of which are non-overlapping. Scutes are made of keratin, shedding and regrowing as the turtle matures. In contrast with freshwater turtles, the head and limbs of sea turtles are non-retractable. This adaptation, when combined with the animal’s uniquely streamlined shell, makes them incredibly hydrodynamic in salt water environments. Their large front flippers serve as paddles, propelling them through the water at speeds of 10 to 35 kilometres per hour, whilst their back flippers act as rudders, assisting with steering. 

Scientists have long debated the evolutionary history of turtles and their unique shells, as their basic morphological structure has remained relatively unchanged since the Mesozoic Era, and prior to 2008 the oldest known turtle was a species which already possessed a two-part shell (Proganochelys). Whilst palaeontologists typically argue that turtle shells evolved from osteoderms (bony scales beneath the skin, as seen on crocodiles, armadillos and many dinosaurs), which fused with the ribs and backbone in creating a solid shell, developmental biologists instead maintain that the shell evolved from the animal’s ribs, which broadened over time and eventually fused with the spine to form the carapace.

In 2008, the discovery of a 220-million-year-old turtle possessing only the plastron portion of the shell, Odontochelys semitestacea, refuelled discussions on the turtle shell’s evolutionary pathway. The fossil’s upper ribs had begun expanding and the spine had developed bony outgrowths, indicating that the carapace was in the middle of its evolutionary progression. Although the apparent absence of any osteoderms on the fossil seemed to support the arguments of developmental biologists, some continue to claim that the general lack of fossil evidence prevents any definitive answer on the question

green turtle

The carapace of a juvenile Atlantic green turtle (left) and an Eastern Pacific green turtle (right) (photo by Javier Rodríguez-Zuluaga for PLoS One).

Shell colours vary greatly amongst green sea turtle populations, of which there are two major ones, Atlantic and Eastern Pacific; although scientists continue to debate whether they constitute two distinct subspecies, two separate species, or simply two sub-populations. Whilst the plastron of Atlantic green turtles is usually yellow or off-white, that of Eastern Pacific populations tends to be dark grey or bluish-green. The carapace of the Atlantic green turtle is more oval-shaped, slightly larger, and flatter than that of its Pacific counterpart, and is typically brown, pale to olive green, or yellow, adorned with iridescent, radiating streaks. Often referred to as the ‘black sea turtle’, the carapace of the Eastern Pacific green turtle is dark grey or black, which is further accentuated by the animal’s naturally darker skin pigmentation. Green se turtle hatchlings are usually black or dark brown with a white underbelly

Although highly adapted to a marine lifestyle, the kidneys of reptiles such as sea turtles are unable to expel large concentrations of salt through their urine. As sea turtles drink ocean water to hydrate themselves and consume large amounts of algae, they have evolved specialised secretory glands, otherwise known as lachrymal glads, to secrete excess salt. These glands are located by the turtle’s eyes, which is why many people believe that the animals are crying when observed on land.

2. Diet

The diet of green sea turtles changes rather drastically between the time of hatching and when sexual maturity is reached. Beginning with a largely carnivorous diet, hatchlings typically feed on worms, small crustaceans, aquatic insects, and other plant or animal life located in pelagic drift communities (such as Sargassum clusters). Juveniles then adopt increasingly omnivorous feeding habits, consuming sponges, crabs, jellyfish, invertebrates, discarded fish, as well seagrass and algae. Upon reaching adulthood, the green sea turtle then follows a strictly herbivorous diet, mostly consuming seagrass, seaweed and algae, although they may occasionally forage on sponges and invertebrates as well. Remarkably, the green turtle is the only herbivorous species of sea turtle, having developed a finely serrated lower jaw for tearing vegetation and scraping algae off from rocks

green turtle

Green sea turtle feeding on some algae (photo by Joshua J Cotten for Unsplash).

3. Habitat and Behaviour

As mentioned, there are two main populations of green sea turtles: Atlantic green turtles are typically found along the coast of Europe and North America, whilst Eastern Pacific green turtles habitually reside in coastal waters between Alaska and Chile. Migratory journeys between foraging grounds and nesting beaches often cover thousands of kilometres and various marine environments, with some crossing entire ocean basins in one migration. To navigate such vast distances, these remarkable creatures use the earth’s magnetic field to determine their geographic location, as each coastline has a unique magnetic signature that sea turtles memorise and utilise as an internal compass. Scientists believe that this propensity for geomagnetic imprinting explains the phenomenon of natal homing in sea turtles, whereby female sea turtles return to the specific beach on which they were born to nest. Nevertheless, as the earth’s magnetic fields gradually change over time, turtles must inevitably shift their nesting sites accordingly. 

As a reptile, the green sea turtle cannot breathe underwater and must therefore surface to respire and lay eggs. However, since cold-blooded reptiles are able to control and manipulate their metabolism to a significant degree, green turtles can hold their breath for extended periods of time when resting, approximately four to seven hours. During this time, their heart rate becomes significantly slower, beating once every nine minutes in order to conserve oxygen. To avoid fatal acidosis (high levels of lactic acid in the blood due to an absence of oxygen), sea turtles utilise their mineralised shell to release calcium and magnesium carbonates into their blood, thus neutralising the excess lactic acid.

green turtle

A green turtle surfacing for air, with an observable serrated bottom jaw (photo by Joshua J Cotten for Unsplash).

Green turtles depend greatly on their surrounding environment to regulate their internal body temperature, shifting between cooler and warmer waters according to their needs. Whilst most sea turtles generally swim within shallow, coastal areas to warm themselves, only coming ashore to nest, green turtles have been observed on relatively uninhabited beaches in the Galápagos Islands, Hawaii, and Australia basking in the sunshine along with seals and albatrosses. By warming its carapace to a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius, far higher than the temperature of the water, green turtles have a greater amount of energy to swim and forage with. When faced with drastic temperature drops (below ten degrees Celsius), sea turtles face the risk of cold stunning, a form of hypothermia that causes lethargy, decreased circulation, and a decline in bodily functions. Cold-stunned sea turtles face an increased risk of predation, illness, propellor strikes, and death, as continued exposure to cold conditions result in their bodily functions eventually ceasing. 

Upon reaching sexual maturity at approximately 25 to 35 years of age, green turtles mate every two to four years amid shallow coastal waters, after which nesting occurs solitarily and nocturnally. The two most populous green sea turtle nesting areas are the Caribbean coast in Central America, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. As mentioned, most adult females will return to the same beach on which they themselves hatched, digging a hole in the sand with their back flippers and depositing a clutch of approximately 100 eggs. Mothers will nest several times over the span of several weeks or months, whilst the eggs remain buried for two months before hatching. As sea turtles are subject to temperature-dependent sex determination, eggs incubated at temperatures below 27.7° Celsius are born as males and those incubated at temperatures above 31° Celsius are born female. Temperature fluctuations during incubation result in a mixture of female and male hatchlings. Once hatched, baby green turtles make the risky journey from nest to sea by following the moon’s light, living within offshore, pelagic habitats for several years. Juveniles then migrate towards more neritic habitats, rich with algae and seagrass, where they reside for the remainder of their adulthood. The life expectancy of green turtles ranges between 50 and 70 years.

4. Services

Green sea turtles play a vital role in maintaining the health and vitality of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. In following a relatively strict herbivorous diet, primarily grazing on seagrass and algae, these magnificent creatures strengthen the productivity of seagrass beds and their nutrient content, thereby preventing overgrowth, current obstruction, decomposition, and the excessive growth of algae or fungi. By tearing seagrass blades just above the root, meadows kept strong and flourishing, serving as nurseries for numerous species of fish and invertebrates. Once consumed, seagrass is rapidly digested by green turtles and passed as recycled nutrients for the myriad of plant and animal life that live within seagrass ecosystems.

Within terrestrial ecosystems, green turtles directly and indirectly impact vegetation growth, species distribution and the stability of sand dunes through their eggs. Unhatched turtle eggs provide a concentrated source of essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which promote vegetation growth. This shoreline vegetation stabilises sand dunes and barrier islands, protecting inland areas from the effects of ocean waves, currents and tides, and provides sustenance to a range of herbivorous species. Turtle eggs also serve as a source of food to numerous predators, such as crabs, foxes, racoons, feral cats, and vultures – the consequently nutrient-rich faeces of which then promotes further vegetation growth.

Green turtles also maintain both symbiotic and neutralistic relationships with a number of marine creatures. Epibionts are small organisms, such as algae, crustaceans, and barnacles, that attach themselves to the shells of sea turtles to be transported across reefs, seagrass beds and the open ocean. Whilst most maintain neutralistic relationships with the turtle, having little to no effect on its movements, others assist its host turtle by consuming any parasitic epibionts latching onto its shell, or by providing camouflage whilst the turtle rests on the sea floor. However, once a significant number of epibionts have accumulated on the turtle’s shell, they begin to affect the animal’s movements by weighing down its carapace and increasing the drag felt by the turtle. Luckily, green turtles also maintain a symbiotic relationship with certain species of fish, such as wrasses, which feed on the epibiotic organisms found on the turtle’s shell. In recent years, scientists have studied the epibionts found on different species of sea turtles to shed light on their migratory and habitat preferences, as well as their population distribution, in order to establish more strategic, well-informed conservation initiatives. 

Green turtles also play an important part in both terrestrial and marine food chains, with eggs, hatchlings and juveniles serving as an important food source for numerous species. As mentioned, unhatched eggs are typically targeted by terrestrial animals such as crabs, racoons, and cats, as they provide predators with a significant amount of protein and nutrients. Hatchlings then face an additional threat of predation from both diurnal and nocturnal seabirds on their journey from nest to sea. Once in the ocean, seabirds continue to possess an aerial view of the hatchlings as they float on the surface. Reef fish, such as groupers and jacks, also prey upon hatchlings. One study found that 97% of green sea turtle hatchlings in Australia are eaten within the first hour of entering the sea. Adult green turtles are less at threat of predation due to their size, although large marine predators such as tiger sharks, great white sharks, and killer whales have been observed preying on green turtles. 

Due to the significant effect they have on their surrounding environment, green turtles are a keystone species for many marine ecosystems. The impacts of green sea turtle population declines have been widely observed in the field, affecting the distribution of animal and plant species, as well as the shape and health of marine landscapes. As such, green turtles also play an important role as an indicator species, with their abundance, migratory patterns, reproductive success, distribution, and health all reflecting the quality of their environment. Sadly, the green turtle has further been described as a bioindicator for monitoring plastic pollution in the Northern Pacific Ocean, due to their susceptibility to consuming plastic debris. 

5. Threats

Due to their migratory nature, widespread distribution, and inconsistent mating habits, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) faced various difficulties in assessing green turtle population trends. Nevertheless, by conducting analyses on 32 globally distributed key index sites, as well as examining both historic and recent accounts of subpopulation declines, the IUCN determined that nesting female subpopulation numbers have decreased by 48% to 67% over the past three generations. Although these key index sites varied in the degree of green turtle subpopulation decline suffered, the perpetuation of numerous anthropogenic threats against a species that already suffers from a naturally high hatchling and juvenile mortality rate has resulted in green sea turtles being listed as ‘Endangered’ since 1982. 

Historically, green turtles have been the primary target of both legal and illicit sea turtle hunting, harvested for their eggs, fat, meat, and shells in immense quantities. Excavated human settlements from approximately 7,000 years ago were found to hold sea turtle shells and bones, whilst their meat has been a staple in the diet of tropical and coastal tribes for centuries. Sea turtle eggs are considered to be a delicacy and an aphrodisiac in some parts of the world, such as Central and Latin America, whereas turtle shells and skins are utilised to produce jewellery, glasses, instruments, wall hangings, and ornaments. Sea turtle meat is widely consumed in Southeast Asian countries, such as China, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, as well as by coastal communities, such as those in Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles, and Nicaragua. In countries such as Australia and Nicaragua, indigenous tribes are legally permitted to hunt green turtles for their own consumption, due to the cultural significance and dependance on the practice. However, the general lack of monitoring within these regions allows poachers to sneak in and hunt for turtles and eggs with relative ease. Concerns of indigenous communities capturing sea turtles for trade on the illicit wildlife market, as opposed to directly consuming the products, have also arisen; although many communities are typically protective of their environment and primary sources of sustenance. 

A study conducted in 2014 by the University of Exeter, described as one of the most comprehensive studies on the legal capture of sea turtles, found that more than 42,000 sea turtles are legally hunted each year, 80% of which are green turtles (around 37,000). A mere ten countries were found to be responsible for over 94% of legal sea turtle captures, with Papua New Guinea and Nicaragua accounting for almost 60% of the global reported take. The study estimated that since 1980, approximately two million sea turtles had been legally captured in the 42 countries that continued permit sea turtle hunting at the time of the study. These figures were believed to represent a mere fraction of the total number of sea turtles legally and illicitly slaughtered each year.

Despite the implementation of numerous national and international bans on the capture and trade of sea turtles, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), key consumer countries continue to bypass these protections due to the continued demand for sea turtle products. A 2021 study revealed the existence of numerous farms in China holding up to 5,000 sea turtles in abysmal living conditions, which are illegally sold to aquariums and private buyers across the country. Illegal artisanal turtle fisheries have further been reported across Africa, the Caribbean, Venezuela, and Mexico. In the Cayman Islands, despite an unsuccessful attempt to register the Cayman Turtle Farm under CITES as a legal captive green turtle breeding facility in 2002, the farm continues to breed green turtles for local consumption. Having commenced its operations by taking 477,644 green turtle eggs from wild populations, the farm sells approximately 32,538 kilograms of green turtle meat per year locally. Whilst the farm asserts that the distribution of turtle meat from captive populations aids in reducing instances of wild sea turtle poaching, conservationists maintain that the practice has the opposite effect by creating a public demand for the product, incentivising poachers with the idea that the animals hold high financial value. With extremely poor living conditions, these highly migratory animals suffer from stress, disease, severe injuries, starvation, congenital defects, exhaustion, dehydration, and even cannibalism. Claiming to serve as a conservation and research centre, the release of unhealthy green turtles bred and raised in captivity in fact poses a severe risk to wild populations through the spread of disease and pollution. 

green turtle

Enclosure at the Cayman Turtle Farm (photo courtesy of the World Animal Protection organisation).

Another major threat to green sea turtle populations is commercial fishing and boating accidents. The widespread and rampant use of irresponsible fishing techniques, such as drift netting, shrimp trawling, dynamite fishing, long-lining, and gill netting, results in hundreds of thousands of sea turtle fatalities each year. Trawlers, for example, catch an estimated 20 pounds of bycatch for every pound of their targeted species. As mentioned, sea turtles must surface for air, unable to hold their breath underwater for very long when distressed; once caught by a fishing net as incidental bycatch, most sea turtles drown before being hauled onto the responsible fishing vessel. The lack of training provided to fishermen on safely untangling bycatch, combined with the absence of regulations surrounding the installation of Turtle Excluder Devices on fishing gear, further increases these mortality rates. For those that are able to avoid drowning, debilitating and even fatal injuries often follow from flipper or neck entanglement, as well as from turtles accidentally swallowing hooks. In 2010, comprehensive studies on sea turtle bycatch estimates for 1990 to 2008 indicated a minimum global bycatch count of 85,000 turtles, although authors of the study suggested a more likely estimate of 85 million turtles due to the notorious misrepresentation of bycatch information provided by fisheries, particularly small-scale ones.

Apart from incidental bycatch, reports of fishermen intentionally harming or slaughtering green turtles have surfaced in Japan, purportedly prompted by the ill-informed belief that sea turtles pose a threat to fishing communities. In July 2022, after 30 green turtles with severe neck injuries were discovered near Kumejima (a Japanese island in the southern Okinawa prefecture) a spokesperson from the Kumejima sea turtle museum, Yoshi Tsukakoshi, shed some light on the views of local fishermen. Due to their propensity to forage near neritic habitats, such as seagrass beds, sea turtles often become tangled in fishing nets laid out by local fisheries, causing damage to the nets. Tsukakoshi further noted that some fishermen erroneously believe that the herbivorous diet of green turtles hinders seagrass beds from growing fully, thus preventing fish from spawning in the region. 

Ghost nets and abandoned fishing gears pose an added risk of entanglement to sea turtles, with one report from Brazil detailing the finding of 17 deceased sea turtles entrapped within one ghost net. Since green turtles often reside along coastal environments, swimming and mating near the surface of the water, vessel strikes are also a common occurrence around ports, marinas, waterways, and developed coastlines. 

The rampant degradation and destruction of key marine and terrestrial turtle habitats spans far wider than disturbances from commercial fishing and increased boat traffic. Coastal development, such as the construction of property, land reclamation, sand extraction, vehicle traffic, beach armouring and nourishment, has severely limited the availability of suitable nesting grounds for sea turtles. The presence of lights and sounds near nesting beaches can cause behavioural changes in nesting females, deterring them from coming ashore, and can disorient hatchlings, attracting them to light sources away from the water and into urban environments. Heavy vehicle traffic on beaches has the effect of compacting sand, making it extremely difficult for females to dig nests. The creation of coastal structures to protect inland areas from tidal action and the force of waves, such as seawalls, breakwaters, ports, and groynes, causes extensive erosion and prevents the natural process of littoral drifting, thereby leading to the loss of suitable nesting habitats for sea turtles. Attempts to rectify erosion through beach nourishment projects, whereby offshore sand or sediment is pumped onto beaches, severely alter the natural properties and thermal profiles of beaches, affecting the incubation temperatures of nests and the ensuing sex ratios of hatchlings. 

Coastal development has also had an enormous impact on the quality of surrounding marine environments, where foraging juvenile and adult sea turtles are typically found. Nutrient run-off from agriculture, contamination through trade effluents, sedimentation, land reclamation and beach restoration projects severely pollute ocean habitats and destroy nearshore feeding grounds, such as seagrass beds, whilst marine algae resources are regularly over-harvested. 

Plastic pollution is another major contributor to habitat degradation in both terrestrial and marine environments. On nesting beaches, high volumes of plastic and debris can prevent females from nesting (known as a false crawl) and obstruct hatchlings from entering the ocean. In a 2016 study, researchers found that removal of large anthropogenic debris from beaches resulted in a 200% increase in the number of nests dug by sea turtles. Within marine environments, approximately eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year, joining the five trillion tonnes that currently float within the ocean’s water columns. Hatchlings often mistake microplastics for their preferred diet of small crustaceans and aquatic insects, feeding instead on indigestible materials such as small pieces of hard plastic, nurdles, and synthetic textile materials. In July 2022, a green turtle hatchling rescued from a beach in Sydney excreted nothing but plastic for six days, indicating that the turtle had only been exposed to plastic as an initial food source. As adult green turtles follow a herbivorous diet, they tend to mistake narrow lengths of green and black plastic for algae and seagrass, consuming strips of plastic bags and fragments from ropes. In a 2019 study, scientists from the University of Exeter and the Society for the Protection of Turtles examined the stomach and gastrointestinal contents of adult green turtles found washed up on the beaches of Cyprus. All were found to contain plastic, with one found to have consumed 183 pieces. 

green turtle

Stomach contents of a juvenile green turtle founded stranded in Cananéia, Brazil (photo by Daiana Bezerra).

Another source of marine and terrestrial pollution are petroleum products, which habitually enter the sea through intentional vessel discharge, the transport of oil products, oil spills, offshore oil exploration, vessel refuelling, and land run-off (oil residue from roadways and the improper disposal of oil). Oil from offshore spills tends to concentrate along convergence zones, where oceanic currents meet, which are important foraging areas for young sea turtles. The stomach contents of deceased hatchlings and juveniles have been found to contain oil and tar balls (degraded crude oil), whilst oil floating on the surface of the ocean is often inhaled by turtles, coating their throats, lungs, and digestive tracts. Pregnant sea turtles that ingest oil can pass toxic compounds (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs) into their eggs, affecting the health of hatchlings. Petroleum products also contaminate many primary food sources for sea turtles, such as fish, crabs, seagrass, and algae, as well as killing the pelagic habitats of young sea turtles, such as sargassum clusters.

Marine pollutants, such as microplastics, toxic metals, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), industrial and agricultural run-off (fertilisers, pesticides, chemicals, nutrients, untreated waste), petroleum products, and 6PPD-quinone (car tyre dust), greatly affect the health of sea turtles at all stages of life. If not immediately harmed through direct contact, continuous exposure to such pollutants causes a gradual build up of toxins in the bodily tissue of marine turtles, resulting in immunosuppression, disease and death. Although the commercial production of PCBs has been banned in most countries around the world, these chemicals can still be found within the environment and in products manufactured prior to bans. Ingestion of PCBs can lead to illness, disease, and impaired reproductive functions, with scientists having discovered traces of PCBs in sea turtle eggs. In recent years, the increasing prevalence of Fibropapillomatosis (otherwise known as FP) in sea turtles has been linked to the rapidly declining quality of marine habitats, causing a significant number of fatalities in Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Australia. FP is a disease that causes the growth of tumours on the eyes, mouth, soft-skin areas, and internal organs of marine turtles, affecting their ability to swim, feed, see and breathe,  and thus making them more vulnerable to vessel strikes and predation. Whilst FP is most prevalent in green turtles, affecting 50% of the Florida Indian River green turtle population, the disease has also been observed in loggerheads, flatbacks, Olive Ridleys, and Kemp Ridleys. 

green turtle

Green sea turtle found stranded with several Fibropapiloma tumors (photo by Bárbara Oliveira De Loreto).

Lastly, the ever-present threat of climate change poses a significant risk of extinction to sea turtles, as rising sea levels, increasingly warm ocean temperatures, and unpredictable climate events cause significant amounts of damage to turtle populations. Global sea levels have risen by 21 to 24 centimetres since 1990, with numerous locations along the US coastline suffering high-tide flooding 300% to 900% more often than 50 years prior. Accelerating rates of sea level rise, as well as increasingly frequent and intense climate events, have made key nesting beaches highly vulnerable to flooding and erosion. In Australia, inundated nest sites have resulted in hundreds of drowned eggs, and beach erosion has led to the formation of mini cliffs from which nesting turtles fall. Warming ocean temperatures have drastically changed the distribution, abundance and health of primary sea turtle food sources, leading to shifts in migratory routes, foraging locations and nesting seasons. Hotter surface temperatures have altered the morphology and thermal profiles of beaches, disrupting natural sex ratios of hatchlings and causing numerous fatalities in extreme conditions. In August 2022, scientists revealed that nearly every sea turtle born in Florida over the past four years has been female due to unnaturally warm temperatures. On Raine Island (off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef), one of the largest green sea turtle rookeries on earth with more than 200,000 nesting turtles and records of 18,000 females nesting at one time, female hatchlings outnumber males by 116 to 1. These unbalanced sex ratios concern scientists as they predict sea turtle populations will ultimately become stunted in affected regions. Under such rapid and dynamic environmental changes, sea turtles are understandably unable to adapt naturally. 

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6. Conservation

Once international scientists and conservationists began observing the negative impacts of anthropogenic activity on sea turtle populations, many began publicly campaigning and implementing strategies to mitigate such threats. After decades of scientific research, education programs, government advocacy, eco-tourism initiatives and technological breakthroughs, international awareness surrounding the plight of sea turtles and public involvement in conservation efforts has increased exponentially. Although there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done in safeguarding the continued existence of sea turtles, the incredible efforts of dedicated individuals and organisations has already made a significant difference in some regions of the world.

By the 1970s, government officials and conservationists were already aware of the grave threat of extinction that commercial fisheries posed to sea turtle populations, particularly shrimp trawling. In collaboration with numerous environmental groups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) commenced a gear development project aimed at creating a device to reduce instances of incidental sea turtle bycatch. After years of research, trials, and modifications, the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) device was created, boasting a turtle capture reduction rate of 97% and a minimal amount of shrimp loss. Although most fishermen across the US refused to voluntarily utilise TEDs when the product was initially distributed, federal regulations mandating the use of TEDs in the US shrimp fishing industry, as well as the development of lighter, smaller and more affordable TED designs, have resulted in many shrimp fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic using TEDs on their shrimp trawlers. Since the 1990s, the NOAA has also worked with several partners in assisting countries across the globe to develop their own TED regulations, resulting in approximately 40 countries having similar reductions in sea turtle bycatch rates.

Studies conducted in 2016 also proposed the use of illuminating nets with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to reduce instances of sea turtle bycatch in smaller, bottom-set gillnet fisheries. Experiments demonstrated a 63.9% reduction in sea turtle bycatch with the illuminated nets, which were further found to be cost effective with financial support from national ministries and NGOs. Organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have been working to replace j-shaped fish hooks with the more turtle-friendly circle hook within international fisheries, as well as running a global competition for innovative solutions to bycatch in commercial fisheries, and using satellite monitoring to implement spatial and temporal closures when sea turtles are at close proximity to fishermen. WWF-Pakistan has also trained around 100 fishermen and crew members on the safe release of entangled sea turtles, as well as on a modified method of operating gillnets, which has resulted in a bycatch rate reduction of 85% in the region. In collaboration with TurtleWatch, the NOAA further developed a software known as EcoCast, which fishermen can use to determine where their target species are likely to be in relation to protected species, optimising their yield with the lowest possible bycatch ratio.

Attempts to mitigate plastic pollution have also been widely implemented across the world, with numerous international bans on the production of plastic and mass beach cleanup efforts driven by environmental conservation. In July 2021, the European Union banned single-use plastics and polystyrene products, such as plastic bottles, straws, takeaway containers, and coffee cups, following similar bans in New York, California, Thailand, China, India, and Seychelles, as well as proposed plastic-reduction strategies in Canada, Indonesia, Chile, Japan, and the US. SeeTurtles has implemented a number of community-based beach and coastal cleanup programs in Malaysia, Uruguay, Mexico, Kenya, Curacao, and Colombia, having established recycling centres and responsible waste collection and management systems within coastal communities. In 2018, a two-year beach cleanup operation led by a local lawyer in Mumbai transformed the rubbish-laden coastline of Versova into an incredibly pristine beach, described by the United Nations as the “world’s largest beach cleanup project”, on which Oliver Ridley turtles were later observed nesting for the first time in decades.

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A Sea Turtle Conservancy team surveying nests to determine hatchling productivity (photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservancy).

The protection of key sea turtle habitats through the establishment of marine protected areas, coastal national parks, eco-tourism initiatives, research stations, and community education campaigns has also been instrumental in the prevention of sea turtle poaching, bycatch, and habitat destruction. Working in collaboration with TRAFFIC, the largest international wildlife trade monitoring organisation, WWF has trained local patrollers and rangers on the protection of sea turtles on nesting beaches, further encouraging governments to strengthen legislative measures against poaching and provide the necessary funds for fruitful conservation strategies. By educating local communities on the ecological importance of sea turtles and providing them with an opportunity to effectively safeguard their resident turtle populations, locals who once based their livelihood on the extractive use of sea turtles are given the opportunity to earn a living through eco-tourism. Local hunting bans in numerous countries around the world have also had some success in reducing instances of poaching. A hunting ban implemented by the government of Seychelles in 1968, prompted by the rapid and alarming decline of local populations due to intensive harvesting, has resulted in a fivefold expansion in the number of nesting turtles on the Aldabra Atoll since the ban was announced. This achievement has exemplified the importance of long-term population monitoring, which has yielded similar sea turtle conservation successes in Australia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ascension Island, and Hawaii.

Research conducted by conservationists on the migratory, foraging and nesting patterns of sea turtles, through the use of satellite monitoring technology, has also informed international governments on the need for marine protected areas (MPAs), as well as protected migration corridors, to reduce instances of bycatch and vessel strikes. A study conducted in May 2022 on the regional network of MPAs off the West African coast (RAMPAO), home to one of the largest green sea turtle nesting populations, indicated that the tracked turtles spent the majority of their time foraging and nesting within the 24 MPAs in the region. However, only 21% of key migratory corridors, which the green turtles utilise to move from foraging to nesting grounds, fell within MPA boundaries. These corridors were found to be close to shore and habitually utilised by local fisheries, indicating the need to implement further protections in these regions to ensure the connectivity of MPAs and the protection of turtles undertaking migratory journeys. 

Green sea turtle

The Sea Turtle Conservancy releasing a satellite tagged turtle (photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle

NGO Spotlight: Sea Turtle Conservancy

One group at the forefront of marine turtle conservation is the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), one of the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organisations in the world. STC commenced its operations in 1959 as a result of Dr. Archie Carr’s alarming findings in Tortuguero, Costa Rica – one of the largest green sea turtle rookeries in the world. Dr. Carr discovered an economy based entirely on the extractive use of green turtles, with the rampant harvesting of eggs and turtle meat posing a severe threat to the species’ existence. Now, more than 60 years later, STC has helped establish a global movement dedicated to the protection of sea turtles around the world. Using scientific research, habitat protection, community outreach, education programs, networking, and policy initiatives, STC continues to mitigate the negative impacts of anthropogenic activity on all seven species of marine turtles, as well as the myriad of habitats and ecosystems they interact with. 

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STC team measuring and assessing the health of a nesting leatherback sea turtle (photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservancy). 

In Tortuguero, STC’s research and recovery program is the most successful project of its kind in the world, with biologists measuring, tagging, and assessing the health of each female observed on the beach during nesting season, as well as surveying nests to determine hatchling productivity. Similar initiatives have been launched in Panama, Bermuda, and Florida, equipping sea turtles with satellites for monitoring migration routes, foraging preferences and nesting habits. The launch of a systematic monitoring program in 2019 further enabled STC to understand the population density, growth, diet, movement and health of important sea turtle populations. In doing so, STC have been better able to support the advocacy and policy shaping projects they coordinate, working with governments to regulate commercial fisheries, fight the illegal wildlife trade, mitigate the impacts of oil spills and coastal development, protect critical habitats, and promote the establishment of eco-tourism operations as an alternative livelihood to poaching. Known as a trusted source of information for policymakers and the general public, STC provides the necessary research and data to implement effective, informed conservation strategies. 

green sea turtle

An example of STC’s retrofit turtle-friendly lighting program (photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservancy).

STC further collaborates with coastal communities, businesses, governments and conservationists in garnering awareness on the plight of sea turtles, as well as in implementing local initiatives to mitigate threats such as light, sound and plastic pollution. The Tour du Turtles program, which follows the migration of several different species from foraging to nesting grounds, has allowed over 500,000 students to learn about sea turtles and the ecological importance they hold. Sea turtle walk programs operated by local guides promote the importance of eco-tourism, educating visitors on responsible tourism practices whilst controlling the number of people on nesting beaches. STC has also become known as a key resource for environmentally-friendly coastal lighting practices, informing local communities about the effects of artificial lights on nesting beaches, and implementing retrofit programs to equip beachfront businesses and properties with turtle-friendly lights. 

How to Help the Green Sea Turtle

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: Galapagos Penguin: Endangered Species Spotlight

The Galapagos penguin is the most northerly occurring species of penguin in the world, endemic to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. They are believed to have travelled to the islands from Antarctica on the Humboldt Current, an ocean current of cold, nutrient-rich water that travels up along the west coast of South America. Despite the drastic change in habitat, these penguins developed several morphological adaptations to survive within the Galapagos’ unique climate and ecosystem. Although once an isolated sanctuary for the incredibly rich and unique biodiversity found on the islands, the introduction of invasive species, unsustainable fishing practices, and increasingly unstable climate conditions have led to the demise of numerous species, including the Galapagos penguin. 

Family: Spheniscidae

Genus: Spheniscus

Species: Spheniscus mendiculus 

IUCN Status: Endangered

Population: Approximately 1,200 

1. Appearance

The Galapagos penguin is one of the smallest species of penguin in the world, with an average height of 49 centimetres and an average weight of 2.5 kilograms. Their slight stature is believed to be an evolutionary adaptation to the rugged, volcanic Galapagos landscape, as it allows for easy access to small caves and crevasses in which they nest, breed, and seek shelter from the intense equatorial sun. 

They are characterised by thin, C-shaped strips of white feathers from the corner of each eye to the chin, and a single strip of black feathers cutting across the white breast feathers.  Baby Galapagos penguins initially have brown, downy feathers which gradually moult as they grow up. Like fellow temperate penguin species, the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins of South America, the Galapagos penguin has patches of bare skin around its eyes, at the base of its bill, and on its legs, from which the animal release heat.

galapagos penguin

C-shaped strips of white feathers give the Galapagos penguin its distinctive appearance (photograph by Meghan Foehl for the Galapagos Conservancy). 

2. Diet 

As with numerous equatorial seabirds and inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos penguin relies heavily upon two cold-water, nutrient-rich oceanic currents – the Humboldt and Cromwell currents – to supply a rich array of prey throughout the year. When upwelling occurs on the equator, trade winds displace warm, nutrient-poor surface water and allow for cold, productive Antarctic waters to rise. This abundance of nutrients acts as sustenance for phytoplankton, which in turn sustain an infinite number of small fish and crustacean species. As these primary producers and consumers form the basis of the ocean food chain, the Humboldt and Cromwell currents support one of the largest ecosystems in the world with incredibly high concentrations of distinctive fish and marine mammal species. Since upwelling occurs most frequently around islands and archipelagos due to shallow sea floors, the Galapagos penguin is able to hunt close to the comparatively safe shoreline.

Nevertheless, the process of upwelling is by no means a regular or frequent occurrence: trade winds are weakest during the hot, rainy season (December to May) and strongest during the cool, dry season (June to November). Upwelling thus occurs at varying strengths throughout the year, resulting in periods of unstable and unpredictable availability of prey for the Galapagos penguin.

Galapagos penguin

A group of Galapagos penguins swimming (photograph by Joshua Vela for the Galapagos Conservancy). 

The diet of the Galapagos penguin consists mainly of cold-water schooling fish, such as sardines, anchovies, and mullet. As visual predators, they typically hunt during the day, with a clear protective membrane covering the penguin’s eyes to avoid irritation from the salt water. Despite their notoriously clumsy manner on land, Galapagos penguins are incredibly agile when underwater, swimming at speeds of 35 kilometres per hour and diving up to 27 metres deep; however, most diving trips tend to take place within five meters of the shoreline, at a modest depth of six meters and for a duration of less than one minute. Like many other pelagic-hunting penguin species, the Galapagos penguin practices group foraging, diving beneath schools of fish, herding them towards the surface, and picking them off from below. This provides fellow seabirds an opportunity to feed on the surface with relative ease.

Adult and juvenile Galapagos penguins are prey for sharks, sea lions, and Galapagos fur seals when hunting underwater. Eggs and chicks are vulnerable to the Galapagos hawk, as well as introduced predators such as rats, dogs, cats and other birds of prey.

3. Habitat and Behaviour 

The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, made up of 13 major islands and an undetermined number of smaller ones. Straddling the equator, a handful of islands sit in the Northern Hemisphere, whilst the majority fall in the Southern Hemisphere. Here, temperatures range from 19C to 32C. When combined with the intense equatorial sun, these temperatures make for a sweltering climate for the Galapagos penguin. 

In order to survive in the unique Galapagos ecosystem, these remarkable creatures have thus developed a number of morphological and behavioural adaptations.

Whereas all other penguin species undergo one complete moult per year, the Galapagos penguin instead moults twice per year, shedding their damaged, sun-bleached, algae-stained feathers and growing new ones. However, since moulting is an energy-intensive process and the availability of prey is often unpredictable, the Galapagos penguin will prioritise moulting over breeding and complete one full moult before mating. 

This contrasts with most other species of penguins in more seasonal environments, which breed before moulting. The Galapagos penguin further maintains, waterproofs, and conditions its feathers through preening – the process of rubbing oil acquired from the bird’s preen gland (at the base of its tail) across its feathers. 

Due to the craggy nature of the Galapagos Island coastline, penguins are often able to find shelter from the blistering heat of the equatorial sun during the day. Yet, this is by no means the only way in which these incredible seabirds avoid overheating. Adding to the archipelago’s unique ecosystem is the fact that it is situated at the point in the Pacific Ocean where three different ocean currents converge, resulting in a remarkable mixture of cold and warm ocean waters. Therefore, Galapagos penguins not only rely on these currents for sustenance but also as a way of cooling down and escaping the intense heat. On land, these extraordinary creatures have been observed panting and standing with their flippers extended, releasing heat from under their flippers whilst protecting their bare feet from sunburn. 

Due to the unpredictability of prey abundance at certain times of the year, the Galapagos penguin has evolved into an opportunistic breeder, nesting only when food is plentiful and ocean water temperatures are cool. Breeding pairs mate for life, strengthening their relationship through mutualistic behaviours such as feather preening. Although the Galapagos penguin doesn’t need to worry about their eggs freezing as Antarctic penguins do, overheating and predators are two major concerns for parent penguins nesting along the coastline. Whereas fellow South American penguin species dig burrows beneath soil or guano (a build-up of seabird excrement), the Galapagos penguin must utilise natural cracks, caves, and rock depressions within dried lava formations to nest in. If conditions are optimal, a breeding pair can produce two to three clutches of eggs per year. The majority of breeding takes place on the Islands of Isabela, Fernandina, Floreana, and Bartolomé.

Once a pair has mated, the female can lay up to two eggs, which are then incubated by either parent for a period of 35 to 42 days. Until the hatched chicks are 21 to 30 days old, one parent guards the nest whilst the other forages for food. The foraging penguin finds its way back to the nest through a distinctive honking bray call, which these animals use for individual identification. 

Chicks become fully-fledged and independent after approximately 60 days, although in times of plenty parent penguins have been shown to continue feeding fledglings. Aside from the Galapagos penguin, this unique post-fledging parental care has been observed in just one other penguin species, the sub-Antarctic Gentoo. 

It is hypothesised that post-fledging care in the Galapagos penguin is an evolutionary adaptation to maximise reproductive success, as offspring are given the opportunity to further practice their hunting abilities before having to catch their own food. However, if resources are scarce, parent penguins will abandon their chicks and skip breeding windows to survive times of famine. In a statement, Doctor Dee Boersma – a leading expert on Magellanic and Galapagos penguins – noted that: “Galapagos penguins have adapted themselves not to the seasons, but to the whims of the bounty of the ocean.”

4. Services

The Galapagos penguin’s method of group foraging provides feeding opportunities for a number of seabirds, such as brown pelicans, brown noddies, and flightless cormorants. By swimming beneath schools of fish, the foraging penguins prompt their prey to swim to the surface of the water, allowing any awaiting predators to partake in the meal. Yet, from a broader perspective, the Galapagos penguin plays a crucial role within the ecosystem of the islands through its place in the food chain. 

Adult penguins serve as an important source of food for a multitude of predators, such as sharks, whales, sea lions, and fur seals, whilst chicks and juveniles are preyed upon by crabs, snakes, hawks, and owls. In turn, they carry out population control on schooling fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods, transport essential nutrients from the ocean to the land, and enrich both habitats with the nitrogen, phosphorus, and organic carbon found within their faeces. By researching and analysing penguins as a keystone species within the Galapagos Islands, scientists can assess the health and condition of their predators, prey, and the local ocean ecosystem.

From an emblematic standpoint, the Galapagos penguin is the one of the rarest species of penguin in the world with a mere 1,200 individuals remaining and is strictly endemic to the Galapagos Islands. A testament to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Galapagos penguin is a remarkable species with incredible morphological and behavioural adaptations to suit its unique habitat. The entirely preventable extinction of this magnificent creature would be a tremendous loss to the scientific community and to the greater natural world. 

galapagos penguin

Galapagos penguins searching for food with a brown pelican (photo by Cynthia M. Manning for the Galapagos Conservancy).

5. Threats

With a relatively limited population size and geographic range from the outset, as well as a heavy reliance on unpredictable oceanic currents, the vulnerable Galapagos penguin population was quickly threatened with extinction upon the introduction of several novel influences on the Islands. Apart from direct anthropogenic factors, such as unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, and invasive species, climate change has had an immense impact on marine perturbations brought about by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. 

Having suffered a population decline of 60% between 1970 and 2004, and with scientists predicting a further population decline of 80% in the next 100 years, in 2000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Galapagos penguin as ‘endangered’.

Due to the rich and unique array of biota endemic to the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago is both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Established in 1959, the Galapagos National Park was set up to protect the extraordinary species of wildlife and plants on and around the islands, as well as to preserve the historical scientific observations made by Charles Darwin in developing his theory of evolution. Upon listing the archipelago as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the organisation provided four reasons for its decision: the unique marine environment; the archipelago’s continuous geologic formation; the role of the islands’ flora and fauna in understanding evolution and climatic influences; and its biological diversity.

Nevertheless, in 2007 the islands were placed on UNESCO’s list of Threatened World Heritage Sites, as growing rates of tourism began placing an increasing amount of strain on the environment. Although praised for its remote location, scientists soon discovered the increased vulnerability of isolated flora and fauna to marine pollution, as it holds little tolerance for habitat disturbance and lacks a suitable alternative terrain. Although the archipelago was removed from the list in 2010, owing to the incredible efforts of the Ecuadorian government in protecting the integrity of the Galapagos ecosystem, human activity continues to plague the once pristine landscape.

In a 2021 study conducted by the University of Exeter, the Galapagos Conservation Trust, and the Galapagos Science Center, up to 449 microplastic particles were discovered per square metre of beach area on the Eastern coast of the archipelago, and approximately 4,610 pieces of macroplastics (plastic measuring over 5mm) were recovered over 13 beaches. Only two percent of this plastic pollution was determined to have originated from the islands, with the vast majority emanating from the 304,000 tonnes of mismanaged coastal plastic waste that Ecuador and Peru produce yearly. 

As the Humboldt current travels north along the west coast of South America, it is believed to be the primary vehicle for plastic pollution from the mainland. Species that rely heavily upon the current for sustenance, such as the Galapagos penguin, therefore face an increased risk of ingestion and entanglement; feeding regurgitated plastic to offspring and filling the incredibly delicate food chain of the Galapagos with this indigestible material. Additionally, plastic debris has been identified as a novel substrate for rafting organisms, such as cyanobacteria, algae, protists, invertebrates, and even terrestrial vertebrates, acting as a potential channel for invasive species to reach the Galapagos Islands. 

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An invasive species is a living organism that is introduced into an ecosystem to which the organism is not native. Such invasive species, typically introduced by humans, can cause grave ecological disturbances as they lack natural predators, spread new diseases, and compete with endemic species for resources such as food and territory. 

On the Galapagos Islands, the intentional introduction of feral cats in 1832 has since posed an enormous threat to penguin populations on numerous islands. Not only do they prey upon penguin eggs and chicks within breeding sites, but also on fledglings and adults alike; in one instance, a single cat observed within a penguin breeding area caused an adult mortality rate of 49%

In addition to predation and habitat disturbance, feral cats are amongst the numerous invasive species that carry potent diseases previously unknown to the inhabitants of the Galapagos. In the 1980s, mosquitos were inadvertently brought to the island, where they effectively acted as vectors for avian malaria and the West Nile virus – two diseases to which the Galapagos penguin is highly susceptible. Most concerning to scientists was the discovery of the Plasmodium blood parasite in numerous penguins in 2009, with no clear indicator of its origin. Although initially uncertain about the gravity of the infection on the species, studies later indicated a potentially drastic decline in population numbers as a result of the parasite. 

Another critical threat facing the Galapagos penguin is unsustainable fishing. Under the management of the Galapagos National Park is the Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the most ecologically diverse marine protected areas (MPAs) in the world. Within the initial reserve area, which comprised approximately 133,000 square kilometres of ocean surrounding the islands, only local Galapagos residents were permitted to conduct small-scale, manual fishing expeditions; scientists from the marine reserve often implemented education campaigns aimed at local residents to promote sustainable fishing practices

Nevertheless, foreign commercial fishing vessels lurking at the fringes of the marine reserve often sought to profit from the rich array of marine species that travelled through the area. In 2017, a Chinese ship carrying 300,000 kilograms of illegal marine wildlife was seized and detained by Ecuadorian officials, having carried out illicit fishing practices within the reserve. Despite a fine of USD 6.1 million and a prison sentence of three years for the ship’s crew, the Chinese fishing industry remained undeterred as a Chinese-flagged flotilla of 342 ships was reported by Ecuadorian officials in 2020. Apart from depleting the Galapagos penguin’s already vulnerable source of prey, the use of purse seine nets and similar unsustainable fishing practices pose a risk of entanglement to the pelagic-hunting species. Poorly managed waste produced by fisheries, including the disposal of nets and plastic fishing equipment into the ocean, contributes to approximately 30% of marine pollution within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and further increases the risk of entrapment for marine life.

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Although the COVID-19 pandemic has benefited wildlife in the absence of tourists, that same absence of tourists has exposed the vulnerability of the Galapagos Islands since 90% of its economy is dependent on tourism. Entrance fees to the national park aid with the conservation and maintenance of the islands, and the tourism industry provides a source of income for many locals. Without tour boats and local fishermen traveling out on the water, no one patrols the boundaries of the marine reserve for illicit fishing or collects plastic detritus floating on the surface. 

Of the threats posed to the Galapagos penguin population, perhaps the most severe is climate change and the aggravating effects it has on climate patterns. The natural phenomenon known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a cyclical, large-scale climatic event in which ocean surface temperatures rise and surface winds weaken or change directions in the Pacific Ocean. As a result, upwelling around the Galapagos Islands decreases, leading to fewer nutrients in the pelagic zone, lower plankton concentrations, and a sharp decline in fish populations. In such times of famine, Galapagos penguins skip breeding to avoid starvation, as the decreased resilience of adults towards predation and disease places individuals at greater risk of death. Strong El Niño events in 1982-83 and 1997-98 caused population declines of 77% and 65%, respectively, with recovery rates hindered by the disproportionate effect of such events on female mortality rates. Although a natural phenomenon, evidence has begun to indicate a possible rise in the frequency of ENSO events as a result of climate change.

6. Conservation

The government of Ecuador, together with local populations, national charities, international organisations, scientific communities, and fellow world leaders, have worked incredibly hard over the past decades to preserve the unique and delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands. 95% of the Galapagos penguin population is typically found on just two islands, Isabela and Fernandina, which are both under the protection of the national park. As such, authorities have been able to work towards mitigating the effects of invasive species, human disturbance, pollution, and illicit fishing.

One of the problems identified by Doctor Dee Boersma when conducting research on the Galapagos Islands was the lack of suitable nest sites for penguins to breed in. Previously used sites are typically flooded, overtaken by marine iguanas, or no longer exist after a period of time. 

As breeding success depends predominantly on the availability of prey, conservationists have highlighted the importance of high-quality nest sites so that when conditions are favourable and prey is abundant, penguins are able to keep their eggs safe. In 2010, with the support of the Galapagos Conservancy, Doctor Boersma and her research team built 120 shaded nests from stacked lava rocks and tunnels dug into slopes within primary nesting areas. Subsequent biannual monitoring trips have allowed the team to assess the efficacy of the constructed nests in bolstering reproductive success when food is plentiful. Since the program’s inception, almost 25% of all observed breeding activity has taken place within constructed nests. On some islands, such as in the Mariela Islands, constructed nests were utilised by 43% of breeding penguins in some years. After the El Niño events of 2016, Doctor Boersma’s team counted just one juvenile penguin amongst over 300 adults, with adults in algae-ridden feathers showing signs of malnutrition. Yet by 2017-2018, juvenile penguins accounted for 60% of all penguins observed, all of which were in healthy condition.

galapagos penguin

Parent Galapagos Penguin keeping their eggs safe (photography by Doctor Dee Boersma).

Another crucial factor in optimising breeding success and promoting population growth is the eradication of invasive species from key breeding sites. Extensive measures have been implemented by national park authorities, such as checking the bags of visitors upon entering and leaving the islands, to ensure that non-native flora and fauna are not accidentally or purposefully brought to the islands. Authorities also search actively for invasive plants or wildlife and eliminate those located, which has resulted in the complete eradication of invasive species from certain islands.

Bolstering conservation aims and agendas is the tremendous amount of research that is conducted by scientific teams, establishing the species’ needs through building a better understanding of its ecological background. By collecting, marking, weighing, and measuring penguins on the islands, researchers are able to determine the general health, moulting frequency, diet, nesting habits, and population trends of the species, which consequently guide decisions on conservation initiatives such as the establishment of protected areas and restricted breeding sites. 

Organisations such as the Galapagos Conservancy and the Charles Darwin Foundation have been at the forefront of such research, aiming to expose the vulnerability of Galapagos penguins to anthropogenic threats and climate change. iGalapagos.org, established by Doctor Boersma and the Centre for Ecosystem Sentinels, is a program whereby those visiting the Galapagos Islands can submit photographs of any penguins they observe, along with the location of the sighting and any additional notes. This allows researchers to monitor the breeding activity, population size, migratory habits, and moulting frequency of the penguins remotely. 

In January 2022, the government of Ecuador announced the creation of a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) north of the Galapagos Islands, named the Hermandad Reserve, to protect migratory species. Adding approximately 60,000 square kilometres to the current marine protected area, the new reserve was described as the first step in a plan between Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama to establish a protected migration corridor for endangered species between the Galapagos Islands and the Coco Island National Park. Although non-migratory by nature, Galapagos penguins stand to benefit from this expansion with the prohibition of commercial fishing activities in the designated area. Doctor Boersma and her research team have further suggested the creation of a Marine Protected Area in Elizabeth Bay, due to the high density of penguin breeding that occurs on the Mariela Islands, as well as an MPA around Bartolomé Island. 

Nevertheless, for maximum efficacy, MPA initiatives must be accompanied by stricter enforcement of fishing bans within the reserve. New technologies have been introduced to rangers and local fishermen alike in the hopes of locating and apprehending illegal fishing vessels, within the MPA as well as in Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Organisations such as the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) have been working with local communities on improving fishing practices, introducing effective waste management, establishing catch quotas, and involving fishermen in conservation initiatives. Eco-friendly fishing techniques – such as green stick or kite fishing – and new fishing gears are regularly introduced and distributed amongst locals as well. 

NGO Spotlight 

Apart from funding the incredible work carried out by Doctor Boersma and her research team in creating 120 shaded nesting sites for the Galapagos penguin population and monitoring their progress, the Galapagos Conservancy has implemented a number of initiatives aimed at safeguarding the future of the Galapagos ecosystem. The Education for Sustainability Program provides formal education to the local youth population of the Galapagos Islands, focusing on three pillars of sustainability (economy, society, and nature), in addition to essential themes, such as invasive species, food security, transportation, energy, water, and social inclusion. The program educates local communities by utilising the incredible landscape of the Galapagos as a classroom, supporting critical thinking, and encouraging contributions to the wellbeing of the environment. 

The Women in Sustainable Entrepreneurship (WISE) Program similarly encourages conservation within local communities, providing funds and education to female entrepreneurs who are hoping to form the foundation of a more equitable and sustainable economy for the Galapagos. One such remarkable entrepreneurship project funded by the program is Karina Bautista’s Huerta Luna Farm, a research farm focused on discovering the agroecological techniques best suited for farming in Galapagos. 

How to Help

Featured Image by Laura L. Fellows for the Galapagos Conservancy

If you want to learn more about endangered species, make sure to check out other articles from our Endangered Species Spotlight Series

The red panda, also known as the lesser panda, is an arboreal mammal inhabiting the Eastern Himalayas and China. With an initially mysterious taxonomic background, scientists first placed the red panda in both the bear family (Ursidae) and the racoon family (Procyonidae). However, after extensive genetic testing, the species was made the sole representative of the Ailuridae family. Testing further revealed the existence of two separate species, Himalayan and Chinese red pandas, refuting previous beliefs that the two constituted distinct subspecies. Despite growing international awareness garnered towards the protection of this unique animal, their survival is increasingly threatened by a wide range of anthropogenic pressures. 

Family: Ailuridae

Genus: Ailurus

Species: Ailurus fulgens (Himalayan Red Panda), Ailurus styani (Chinese Red Panda)

IUCN Status: Endangered

Population: between 2,500 and 10,000

red pandas

A red panda resting on a tree branch (photograph by Jessica Weiller for Unsplash).

1. Taxonomy 

Despite common assumptions to the contrary, the red panda was actually discovered 50 years prior to the giant panda. The word “panda” is thought to have been derived from the Nepalese words “nigalya ponya”, meaning “bamboo eater”, and was subsequently ascribed to the giant panda due to certain morphological similarities it shared with the red panda. Aside from their appetite for bamboo, giant and red pandas share similar specialisations in the forefoot, male genitalia and masticatory system, and both species possess a “false thumb”: a carpal bone, or radial sesamoid, acting as an opposable sixth digit on the animal’s wrist. Although once believed to substantiate a close relationship between the two species, the discovery of a Miocene red panda relative (Simocyon batalleri) and a Late Miocene giant panda relative (Ailurarctos) suggested otherwise. Whilst the two fossils were found to possess the additional digit, scientists determined that the false thumb had evolved in each species for different purposes: as Ailurarctos shifted from a carnivorous diet to one consisting primarily of bamboo, the extra appendage aided with bamboo manipulation; Simocyon batalleri, on the other hand, remained a carnivorous mammal and so the additional digit is believed to have evolved for arboreal locomotion. The herbivorous diet of the modern red panda led to the digit developing a secondary ability of bamboo manipulation (known as “preadaptation”). This apparent coincidence has been described as one of the most dramatic cases of evolutionary convergence observed amongst vertebrates. 

As such, the exact evolutionary history and taxonomic classification of the enigmatic red panda has long baffled scientists, as physiological, ecological and genetic similarities to species within the Ursidae (polar bears, black bears, brown bears, giant pandas) Procyonidae (racoons, ringtails, cacomistles, coatis), Mephitidae (skunks), and Mustelidae (weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets) groups have resulted in several differing opinions within the scientific community. After three decades of extensive testing, during most of which the red panda was contentiously placed within the Procyonidae family, recent genetic research has indicated a more isolated phylogenetic position for the red panda by placing it in a family of its own (Ailuridae). This classification indicates that the species represents a lengthy, uniquely separate evolutionary course; with its closest known relative (Parailurus) having gone extinct approximately two to four million years ago, the modern red panda has earned the title of a “living fossil” as the sole extant member of the Ailuridae family. Nevertheless, as Ailuridae forms part of the superfamily Musteloidea, along with the Procyonidae, Mephitidae, and Mustelidae families, red pandas are believed to be closest to racoons, weasels and skunks.

Apart from the red panda’s relationship to fellow Carnivora, scientists have long debated whether Chinese and Himalayan red pandas constitute two subspecies, or whether they are distinct enough to be regarded as two separate species. Whilst the distinction may not seem significant, erroneous classifications of basal taxa lead to a misunderstanding of the species’ adaptive mechanisms and evolutionary background, resulting in misinformed, ineffective conservation strategies. 

Traditionally, the determination of species, subspecies and population delimitation was based on morphological and biogeographical data, as well as reproductive isolation. Limitations in genetic technology and insufficient sample sizes prevented studies from reaching definitive conclusions on the topic. Whilst morphological differences were evident – the Chinese red panda was found to have a longer skull, wider cheekbones, an inflated forehead, more distinctive tail rings, and less white fur on its face – scientists expressed differing views on whether the distinctions were sufficient to warrant a classification of two species. The difficulty with differentiation was exacerbated by the fact that red pandas found along either side of the The Nujiang River, previously considered to be the geographic boundary between the two species, were found to be morphologically similar. However, in 2020 a genetic study conducted by Yibo Hu and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences determined that Chinese and Himalayan red pandas are in fact two distinct species. By using next-generation sequencing technology, Hu and his team were able to conduct a comprehensive analysis using 65 whole genomes, 49 Y-chromosomes and 49 mitochondrial genomes to demonstrate a significant inter-species genetic divergence, as well as to correct species distribution boundaries. The two species were found to have diverged approximately 250,000 years ago with minimal transfer of genetic variation between the two, and the Yalu Zangbu River was found to be a more accurate geographic boundary between the species. 

In discussing the effects of the findings on conservation initiatives, Hu noted, “To conserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we should avoid their interbreeding in captivity… Interbreeding between species may harm the genetic adaptations already established for their local habitat environment”. Hu further stated that the Himalayan red panda requires more urgent protection, as a drastic population decline that occurred 90,000 years ago resulted in the Himalayan species exhibiting a small population size and low genetic diversity.

red pandas

Red panda with tender bamboo stems (photograph by Steve Payne for Unsplash).

2. Diet

The red panda’s diet is primarily herbivorous, with bamboo accounting for approximately 95% of their sustenance. Scientists estimate that the red panda switched to its current bamboo-based diet approximately two million years ago. Believed to have evolved from the carnivorous Simocyon batalleri, red pandas have powerful jaws and dentition once used to crush the bones of prey, which now serve to grind bamboo. High in fibre, low in nutrients and composed of cellulose, which the red panda cannot digest due to its simple carnivore stomach, only 24% of the bamboo consumed by these remarkable animals is actually digested. Therefore, red pandas must eat around two kilograms of bamboo per day to attain the energy they need to survive. However, unlike the giant panda’s indiscriminate approach to consuming bamboo, the red panda tends to feed selectively on the most nutrient-dense, protein-rich part of the bamboo – the leaf tips and tender shoots – avoiding the culm. Despite the apparent inadequacy of bamboo as a food source, scientists believe that the sheer abundance and quick growth of the plant, as well as the lack of competition for the food source, account for its popularity amongst pandas. Aside from bamboo, red pandas have been observed foraging for fruit, acorns, roots, succulent grass, insects, grubs, and occasionally hunt for bird eggs and rodents. A predominantly solitary species, the red panda forages at night, dusk and dawn

3. Appearance

Slightly larger than a domestic cat, an adult red panda weighs between 3.6 and 7.7 kilograms and averages a bodily length of approximately 56 to 62 centimetres, with its lengthy tail adding an additional 37 to 47 centimetres. The red panda’s iconic ruddy coat serves as a form of camouflage for the animal within the forest canopy, blending in with the brownish-red moss clumps and white lichens which cling upon the branches of fir trees. Their black bellies further prevent predators from locating them from the ground

Other distinctive features include their large, pointed white ears, short snouts, and the white markings above the species’ eyes and on their cheeks, believed to be an evolutionary adaptation to keep the sun out of their eyes and for cubs to locate their mothers in the dark. In addition to a soft, dense and woolly undercoat, layered beneath longer, courser hair, the red panda utilises its thick bushy tail to keep warm against the windchill of the high-altitude forests they inhabit. As opposed to paw pads, fur covers the entirety of the red panda’s paws, enabling them walk in snow and climb slippery trees with ease. Aside from their furry paws, red pandas have a number of features that assist with their arboreal lifestyle: sharp, semi-retractable claws; five separate toes; the aforementioned false thumb; a large tail for balance; and specialised, extremely flexible ankles that can rotate 180 degrees. As such, red pandas are one of the only animals that can climb head-first straight down a tree.

As mentioned, the two distinct species of red panda have slight variations in their appearance. Aside from the relative size advantage held by the Chinese red panda, the key distinguishing feature between the two is the colour of their face and tail. Whilst the Himalayan red panda has more white fur around its head and face, the Chinese red panda sports a more reddish complexion. Similarly with their tails, the Chinese red panda boasts more distinctive, defined rings on its tail, with darker red and lighter beige strips, whereas the Himalayan red panda’s red and orangey ringed tail is somewhat less conspicuous. 

red pandas

Himalayan red pandas have whiter faces and less distinctive rings on their tails (photograph by Jenna for Unsplash). 

4. Habitat and Behaviour

Once widely distributed across Eurasia, the remaining red panda population is now restricted at the southern and southeastern fringes of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Whilst Chinese red pandas are located in northern Myanmar, southeastern Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, Himalayan red pandas are found in Nepal, India, Bhutan, and southern Tibet in China. The species inhabit temperate forests with bamboo understories at altitudes of 2400 to 3900 metres. They are largely arboreal, spending the majority of their day in trees, and are primarily crepuscular, foraging between dusk and dawn. As an obligate bamboo feeder, the red panda runs on a relatively tight energy budget and is therefore asleep for 55% of the day. When faced with excessively cold conditions, these incredible creatures are able to enter a state of “torpor” by lowering their metabolic rate, respiratory rate, core temperature and becoming dormant, utilising the same amount of energy as a sloth and raising their metabolism only to forage for food every few hours. As mentioned, their thick tails also assist with internal temperature regulation as resting pandas will curl into a tight ball to conserve heat. During warmer months, red pandas release heat and stay cool by panting and stretching out across branches.

Red pandas are generally solitary animals, except during mating season, with a home range of approximately 2.5 square kilometres. When crossing paths with a fellow red panda, communication occurs through tail arching, head bobbing, squealing, twittering, or though huff-quacks: a unique vocalisation similar to a duck quack and a pig snort. When threatened, red pandas may also stand on their hind legs and emit a hiss, grunt or bark, whilst distressed young cubs often let out a high-pitched whistle or bleat. Similarly to skunks, frightened red pandas will also release a sharp, pungent liquid from their anal glands to ward off any predators. 

Aside from repelling predators, red pandas utilise their scent glands, as well as their urine, for marking territory. These markings hold information about the individual’s sex, age, and fertility, which facilitates the search for mates during breeding season. In addition to the malodorous spray that emanates from the anal glands, red pandas also have scent glands on the bottoms of their feet which exude a liquid completely colourless and odourless to humans. Adding to the species’ list of incredibly unique adaptations, the red panda tests odours with the underside of its tongue, as it has a coned structure for gathering liquid and holding it up to a gland inside its mouth. It is the only member of the Carnivora order with this specialisation. 

red pandas

Red pandas are asleep for 55% of the day (photograph by Joshua J Cotten for Unsplash).

The red panda is known as a K-selected species, indicating that females bear only a few offspring but invest a greater amount of time into parental care. However, such species have adapted to breed and rear offspring within a stable environment, and are thus less likely to survive within a rapidly changing habitat. In the wild, red pandas are typically observed bearing litters of singletons or twins, with most births occurring in late spring when there is an abundance of tender, digestible bamboo leaves and shoots. As a K-selected species, the red panda also has a relatively long gestation period of 93 to 156 days, though some attribute this to their slow metabolic rate. Similarly to giant pandas, female red pandas are fertile for just one to two days per year, but are able to delay the implantation of a fertilised egg for weeks. Females will create nests within tree holes, hollow tree stumps, roots, or bamboo thickets, utilising moss, leaves and soft foliage to line the nest. Cubs are extremely small when born, weighing around 90 to 110 grams, and thus require weeks of nursing and grooming before opening their eyes. After approximately one year, a cub is considered fully-grown and able to leave its mother, later reaching sexual maturity at 18 to 24 months. 

5. Ecological Importance

Due to its largely herbivorous diet, the red panda plays an incredibly crucial role in maintaining its surrounding ecosystem and habitat. With each individual red panda consuming roughly 20,000 bamboo leaves and tender stems per day, this magnificent species prevents the overgrowth of bamboo forests, maintains the overall health of understoreys, and thereby supports a myriad of cohabitating species and organisms. Since bamboo plays a critical role in balancing atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, releasing 35% more oxygen than an equivalent grouping of trees, their maintenance further benefits the overall quality of the planet’s air. As such, the red panda is an indicator species for the Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forest ecosystem, their presence or absence providing insights into the quality and condition of the environment. Growing international awareness surrounding their plight has further earned red pandas the role of a flagship species, as fellow vulnerable and endangered Himalayan-endemic species inevitably benefit from efforts to protect the red panda and the habitat they share.

More broadly, the red panda is an incredibly unique evolutionary marvel as the only extant member of the Ailuridae family. As aforementioned, the red panda represents a long evolutionary course which has yet to be studied fully, with the species exhibiting exceptionally distinctive morphological and behavioural adaptations that shed light on our planet’s natural history and ecology. The entirely preventable extinction of the red panda would be a great loss for scientists, conservationists, and the greater natural world alike. 

red pandas

The red panda is the sole extant representative of the Ailuridae family (photograph by Micheal Payne for Unsplash). 

6. Threats

Due to the red panda’s evasive, timid nature, population estimates currently range between 2,500 and 10,000 individuals. Despite this uncertainty, comparisons with population estimates from 1997, combined with forest loss rates and the increasing presence of anthropogenic pressures within key red panda habitats, indicate a plausible population decline of 50% between 1996 and 2015. As this is predicted to intensify over the next 18 years, the red panda has been listed as ‘Endangered’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2015. Although habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation pose the greatest risk of extinction to the remaining wild red panda population, these issues are heavily compounded by wider concerns of climate change, overpopulation, lack of legislative enforcement, invasive species, and the illegal wildlife trade.

Over 75% of original Himalayan habitats have suffered degradation or been lost entirely to human needs. With a population growth rate of 3.3% per annum, the Himalayan mountain population is predicted to experience a 13-fold increase by 2061, from a current 53 million to approximately 260 million. As a large percentage of this population lives below the poverty line (earning less than two US dollars per day), this rapid and unsustainable growth has ultimately placed a tremendous amount of pressure on the surrounding environment to serve as a source of income and livelihood. The collection of fuelwood, logging, agriculture, hydro-projects, anthropogenic forest fires, and the creation of human settlements are amongst the primary reasons for deforestation. 

As Himalayan cattle show a preference for rich bamboo under-storeys, gentle slopes, and a proximity to water sources, herders often allow domestic cattle to graze within key red panda habitats. As such, cattle often trample bamboo, which is collected by herdsmen for fodder, and compete with red pandas for tender leaves and stems. Livestock also cause extensive environmental degradation through overgrazing, desecrating the composition of natural forest ecosystems upon which a myriad of organisms depend. 

The clearing of canopy trees by logging companies places further pressure on bamboo forests, as the removal of these shelter tress exposes bamboo to stress from wind and water, damaging existing plants, destroying seedlings, and preventing the regeneration of the forest. Such harsh conditions are particularly threatening to bamboo forests, which sporadically undergo mass flowering followed by die-off, as bamboo is climatically-sensitive and therefore unable to re-establish in areas of deforestation and degradation. Within the mountainous Imawbum region of Myanmar over 5,000 square kilometres of forest area has been logged since 2000, prompting the construction of numerous roads connecting the forest with cities in Myanmar and China. 

This concomitant construction of roads and electric lines pose further risks to red panda populations by destabilising substrate and triggering landslides, fragmenting forest habitats, and facilitating poaching by providing hunters with easier access to previously unreachable areas. Isolated in small pockets of forest with little sustenance, exposed to starvation and poaching, red pandas become incredibly vulnerable to novel threats when crossing unfamiliar terrain in search of palatable bamboo. Facilitating this perilous situation is the fact that a large proportion of red panda habitat lies outside of protected areas within the species’ endemic countries. In Nepal, 70% of red panda habitat is found outside the boundaries of protected areas and national parks; as a result, this habitat has been fragmented into 400 isolated, small forest patches. For populations found within protected areas, insufficient staffing, inadequate incentives for rangers, difficult terrain, inaccessibility of red panda habitat and complex geopolitics enable illegal logging, agriculture and poaching to continue within the supposedly protected regions.

Red pandas are not able to adapt and survive in unsuitable habitats, devoid of tender bamboo, water sources, and adequate elevation. As aforementioned, K-selected species require stable environments in order to breed and rear the small litter of offspring they bear successfully. A study conducted in 1991 demonstrated that red panda mortality rates were unsustainably high in disturbed areas. Within the period of the study, only 3 cubs of the 12 to 13 born survived to six months of age, and just five out of nine adults remained alive. They determined that 57% of the fatalities were caused by anthropogenic stressors. 

Another major threat facing the red panda is the introduction of invasive species, such as feral and domesticated dogs, to their natural habitat through agriculture, cattle herding and human settlement. Red pandas are extremely susceptible to rabies, as well as a viral disease known as canine distemper, which have caused a signifiant number of fatalities amongst the species’ population. Due to limited resources, funding and the failure to enforce regulations surrounding the annual vaccination of domesticated dogs in countries such as India and Nepal, canine distemper and rabies are a common occurrence in dogs between the ages of one and five. As farmers, herders, and foragers increasingly encroach upon red panda habitat, dogs are introduced to the area for hunting, protecting cattle, or as free-roaming strays. Consequently, instances of contact between wild red pandas and dogs have been rising, thus exposing the species to the fatal diseases through physical attacks or contact with dog excreta. Cases of canine distemper spillover have been documented in various other species, such as Indian foxes and tigers, with vaccinations proving ineffective amongst wild mammals. Feral dogs also prevent red pandas from foraging effectively, forcing them away from certain habitats, and pollute their water sources with seven different types of gastrointestinal parasites.

Perhaps the most complicated of the threats facing wild red panda populations is the illegal wildlife trade. Due to the species’ patchy distribution in the high-altitude forests of the Himalayas, researchers have little information on the illegal capture and trade of red pandas. Instances of red pandas accidentally getting caught in traps and snares intended for other animals, such as deer and pigs, and subsequently being sold for their pelts is a well-documented occurrence. However, early investigations into the trade failed to uncover a clear market for red panda products, as confiscated pelts were rarely designated for export to other countries and only poachers were ever intercepted by authorities. Prior to the red panda being listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1995, red pandas were commonly caught live in Myanmar, transported to China and later sold to zoos around the world. Reports in 2010 and 2012 also noted sightings of red panda fur caps in Bhutan and Nepal, carcasses and skins in eastern Myanmar’s village homes, pelts for sale in China, social media posts advertising the sale of live red pandas in China, as well as dishes containing red panda meat in Chinese restaurants.

Then, in 2015 conservationists began reporting a notable increase in cases of illegal red panda trading in Nepal, based on the quantity of traders and poachers intercepted in the region. Despite peaking in 2017 with the seizure of 27 pelts, researchers continued to find little evidence of a demand sufficiently stable and strong to warrant the rise in poaching cases. Therefore, in 2020 a group of researchers from the University of Queensland set out to elucidate the illicit red panda trade in Nepal in an attempt to understand what prompted the increase in trading. The study indicated that a large proportion of human populations living in close proximity to red panda habitats were aware of the species, but did not ascribe any ethnozoological value or significance to the animal. Instead, the study suggested that the market is potentially driven by previous investigations into the red panda trade, after undercover investigators inadvertently created the illusion of a market for the animals by posing as buyers. Mainstream media disseminating inaccurate information on the market value of red pandas and informing impoverished local populations of the price of pelts confiscated from poachers, without stating the species’ ecological and conservation importance, may have encouraged an increase in poaching as these regions tend to lack viable sources of income. As lead author of the study Damber Bista noted, “[the] unstoppable supply of pelts indicates the presence of a fake market with almost no buyers, which is solely based on rumours…Awareness building campaigners, security personnel and media personnel are the suspected sources of such rumours”. 

Studies and surveys conducted by the Red Panda Network further corroborate these findings, noting that poverty, unemployment, and misinformation are the driving forces behind the illegal wildlife trade in Nepal. In a report released by the International Labour Organisation, it was shown that 63% of Nepal’s population are under 30 years of age, and amongst this population the unemployment rate sits at 19.2%. As such, pressures to find adequate avenues for income are incredibly high in the region. The false narrative of the illegal wildlife trade constituting a get-rich-quick scheme with high financial returns has unfortunately encouraged young locals from low socioeconomic backgrounds to try their luck at poaching.

Difficulties in monitoring illegal activities within red panda habitats were exacerbated by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, as restrictions and lockdowns deprived locals of various sources of income whilst leaving endangered wildlife and protected areas unguarded. With many having lost their jobs in cities and neighbouring countries, locals returned to their villages and faced the risk of abject poverty. Tempted by the absence of anti-poaching patrols and surveillance operations, ordinarily carried out by law enforcement agencies, poachers roamed the forests relatively unhindered. After 12 pelt confiscations in 2019 and a further 10 confiscations in 2020, the figure suddenly rose to 27 pelts in late 2021.

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7. Conservation

Over the past few decades, the plight of the red panda has garnered increasing national and global awareness, with local and international NGOs working incredibly hard to implement effective conservation strategies and compel local governments to strengthen their protection measures. Despite the species’ recognition in Appendix I of CITES, Schedule I of the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972, China’s Wild Animal Protection Act, Myanmar’s Wildlife Act of 1994, as well as in legal protections granted by Bhutan and Nepal, it is the work of researchers and activists at the frontlines of red panda conservation that have made the most significant difference. As outlined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are four primary categories of action for the conservation of red pandas: protection against habitat loss; reduction of habitat degradation; reduction in anthropogenic red panda fatalities; and improvement of global awareness. 

Community outreach and local involvement in red panda conservation strategies is incredibly important for their success, as the current lack of education and livelihood opportunities, coupled with the remote, patchy distribution of red pandas, effectively hinder any attempts to protect the species against poaching and habitat loss. In 2007, the Red Panda Network established a conservation program in the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung corridor, a strip of protected forests that connects protected areas in India and Nepal, where locals were given the opportunity to earn a living by working as Forest Guardians. These Guardians were tasked with patrolling red panda habitats, monitoring populations, and reporting any anthropogenic threats. Since its inception, the initial group of 16 Forest Guardians has since grown to 111 members, and their range has expanded to seven districts in western Nepal. This new range covers 50% of Nepal’s red panda habitat and secures the connectivity of three protected areas.

red pandas

Red Panda Network Forest Guardians (photograph courtesy of Red Panda Network). 

Further bolstering the work of the Red Panda Network’s Forest Guardians is their collaboration with the Rainforest Trust in establishing a new 430,050 acre protected area, connecting three other reserves in Nepal and India. This area covers multiple elevation zones and constitutes a vast, contiguous region of Himalayan forest on which a myriad of species depend. By employing local tribes and villages to monitor, organise, and manage the community forest reserve, all of which hold religious and cultural beliefs that regard wildlife with respect, these disadvantaged communities are given the opportunity to earn a sustainable income and exemplify environmental stewardship. Data collected from monitoring activities in protected areas allows the Red Panda Network to better understand the species’ ecological background, as well as the effect of anthropogenic pressures on red panda populations, and thus enables the organisation to design effective, science-based conservation strategies. 

Aside from the Forest Guardian program, the Red Panda Network has worked to introduce a number of alternative sources of sustainable income to communities living around red panda habitats. These indigenous, often marginalised communities are typically dependent on forest resources and are accustomed to a specific lifestyle. By building a relationship of trust and understanding, the Red Panda Network has been able to demonstrate sustainable herding practices, organic farming, handicraft production, bio-briquette production, sustainable energy use, homestay management, eco-tourism practices, and have provided safe, clean cooking appliances to improve the lives of both locals and wildlife. As opposed to viewing the forest as a source of a quick and easy income, communities are given the opportunity to change their perspective and support the forest as a source of long-term benefit

red pandas

Red Panda Network Plant a Red Panda Home Program (photograph courtesy of Red Panda Network).

Targeting wider demographics, the Red Panda Network has also implemented a number of education initiatives that aim to educate local school children on the ecological and conservation value of the red panda, its habitat, and the Himalayan forests in general. As well as integrating species conservation into school curriculums throughout the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung corridor, Forest Guardian workshops have collaborated with local schools in organising Roots and Shoots groups and eco-trips for their students. Combined with radio broadcasts, posters, signs, public workshops, and the endorsement of local celebrity Dayahang Rai, approximately 49% of populations living within Red Panda Network project regions, including 23,000 students, have been reached by education initiatives. Through these campaigns, the Red Panda Network has endeavoured to dispel misinformation regarding the value of illicit red panda products, as well as inform the public on the dangers of involvement in the illegal wildlife trade.

As mentioned, fatal diseases such as rabies and canine distemper are a growing threat to wild red panda populations, as human settlements and agricultural workers encroach upon red panda habitat. Since disadvantaged communities are generally unable to provide annual vaccinations for their feral and domesticated dogs, organisations such as the Red Panda Network, in collaboration with local community partners, have succeeded in offering free vaccinations to 2,300 dogs in 6 of Nepal’s red panda range districts. In addition, the Red Panda Network works with local agencies and community organisations to establish vaccination and neutering programs for the domestic and free-roaming dogs of Nepal’s eastern and western districts. 

Zoos across the globe have also played a significant role in conservation efforts by creating a Global Species Management Plan (GSMP) closely allied with field conservation strategies. The purpose of the GSMP is to directly and indirectly contribute to red panda conservation by, “providing a genetically and demographically sustainable and behaviourally competent back-up population for the wild population; holding the potential to supply individuals for genetic or demographic supplementation or reintroduction programmes; educating and the raising of public awareness of Red Panda, its uniqueness and conservation needs; and providing financial, technical, scientific and other support and expertise to the planning and implementation of in situ conservation and research”.   In addition to the management plan, the international zoo community initiated and funded three Population and Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA) workshops, whereby representatives of key countries shared primary or novel threats faced by red pandas within their region, as well as potential habitats to protect and conservation strategies to implement.

NGO Spotlight

As mentioned, the Red Panda Network (RPN) has been at the forefront of red panda conservation within Nepal, conducting numerous campaigns and initiatives involving local communities in an effort to protect native red panda populations. In addition to the numerous achievements noted above, the RPN has organised training sessions and workshops for Border Outpost Police to educate them on the importance of conservation and provide insights into the illegal trade. They further provide logistic support to Division Forest Offices and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, have created a field guide on red panda pelt identification, and have created a network of anti-poaching units to gather information on red panda poachers, buyers and traders in key export districts. The ‘Plant a Red Panda Home’ campaign has succeeded in planting 134,393 trees in eastern Nepal’s red panda habitat, over approximately 66 hectares, thereby connecting fragmented forests with a protected biological corridor. By engaging local governments, Community Forest User Groups and District Forest Offices in workshops regarding the ecological importance of red pandas, the Red Panda Network strives to ensure these policymakers adopt and implement conservation strategies in their respective regions.

In collaboration with the Charles Sturt University of Australia, the Government of Bhutan, World Wildlife Fund, and Australian Landcare International, and funded by The Darwin Initiative, the Red Panda Network has also assisted in creating a five-year Red Panda Conservation Action Plan for Bhutan. As the status and density of populations within Bhutan are relatively unknown, the plan aims to gather information on local red panda population dynamics, ecological roles, socio-cultural significance, and breeding habits; after which effective protection, community awareness and engagement campaigns can be developed. If successful, this collaborative effort, driven by the extensive knowledge of red panda conservation held by the Red Panda Network, can be further applied to all red panda endemic countries. 

How to Help

If you want to learn more about endangered species, make sure to check out other articles from our Endangered Species Spotlight Series

The magnificent Asian elephant, found across India and Southeast Asia, is the largest land mammal on the continent. Due to their distribution across 13 countries, differing subspecies inhabit a range of habitats, from grasslands to tropical forests. However, their advanced intelligence and complex social structure allow them to adapt to the resources available in the face of rapidly changing environments.  To celebrate World Elephant Day, which falls every year on August 12, here is all you need to know about the endangered Asian Elephant. 

Family: Elephantidae 

Genus: Elephas 

Species: Elephas maximus (Asian elephant)

Subspecies: Elephas maximus indicus (Indian elephant), Elephas maximus maximus (Sri  Lankan elephant), Elephas maximus sumatranus (Sumatran elephant), Elephas maximus  borneensis (Bornean elephant)

IUCN Status: Endangered

Population: 20,000 – 40,000

Location: India and Southeast Asia

1. Diet

The herbivorous diet of an Asian elephant consists mainly of tree bark, roots, leaves, stems,  and grass. They spend approximately two thirds of their day feeding, with adults consuming as much as 130kg of food daily. Valiant individuals often wander into fields of cultivated crops, showing a preference for bananas, rice and sugarcane plants.

2. Elephant Trunks

One of the most defining characteristics of this elephant species is their incredible trunk, which contains  approximately 40,000 muscles. It is utilised for breathing, drinking, showering, and even as a snorkel when crossing deep rivers. The Asian elephant trunk features a small, finger-like appendix at its tip to assist with holding onto small objects, whereas its cousin, the African elephant trunk has two.

3. Social Behaviour 

As aforementioned, elephants have a high intellectual capacity which enables them to adopt  learned behaviours. With a neocortex on a similar evolutionary stage as humans, apes and dolphins, elephants demonstrated a range of behaviours, such as tool-use and displaying emotions including grief and compassion, which are typically associated with intelligence. In fact, the temporal lobe of elephants is actually larger and denser than that of humans, indicating a higher capacity for memory retention. Coupled with their extensive social ties, these spectacular animals are able to develop and socially teach novel foraging techniques, warning signals, and other behaviours which aid in their survival.

Another survival technique which elephants have evolved is their abnormally long gestation  period and birth interval. The gestation period of the Asian elephant, which lasts approximately 18 to 22 months, is one of the lengthiest amid the animal kingdom. It allows  for the calf to develop the necessary physical and neurological features to stand up a mere 20 minutes after birth, walk within an hour, and keep up with the herd after just two days of life. Along with a four year birth interval, this evolutionary adaptation allows for the herd  to continue their migratory route in search for food and water without the burden of a dependent infant.

4. Critical Species 

Apart from being gentle, sentient giants, Asian elephants provide numerous services to their surrounding ecosystem.

Firstly, they assist with maintaining the integrity of their habitats. The sheer size of an Asian elephant’s body, which can reach a height of 3.8 metres and a weight of 6,000kg, facilitates the creation of pathways through dense thickets and forests. These routes ease the travel or migration of numerous species throughout the forest, in addition to controlling  the overgrowth of vegetation.

Furthermore, the monumental feeding needs of a single Asian elephant can produce as much as 100 kilograms of dung daily, spread across an area of 325 square kilometres. This allows for the mass dissemination of germinating seeds, thereby conserving plant diversity, as well as supporting a range of smaller animals which feast upon the insects and grubs found within the elephant’s faeces.

5. Threats

Despite their critical importance to Southeast Asia’s ecosystem, these incredible creatures  have been listed as ‘Endangered’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature  (IUCN) Red List since 1986. Studies conducted in the mid-70s indicated reduction in population size of over 50% over the course of three generations (approximately 75 years), primarily based on measurements of occupancy area and quality of habitat. An investigation into the fragmentation of Asia’s wild lands in 2003 revealed the impact of anthropogenic pressures on half of the species’ geographic range, with habitat loss at the forefront of  threats against the Asian elephant.

The imprudent and seemingly incessant deforestation witnessed in Southeast Asia over the past three decades is truly unparalleled. It holds the highest rate of deforestation of any  tropical region, with 1.2% of forest lost per annum, and has already destroyed over 50% of  its original forest cover. Fuelled by the constant desire for agricultural and commercial development, plantations of palm oil, rubber and timber gradually limit the amount of space and vegetation available for wild elephants. Inevitably, human-elephant conflicts occur over  land and crops, leading to increased violence towards these creatures. Additionally, linear infrastructure, such as roads, railways and canals, obstruct traditional migratory routes, endanger the lives of elephants, and push them further from protected areas. In India,  approximately 310 elephants have perished due to railroad accidents from 1987 to 2019, whereas in Sri Lanka the figure stands at 21 elephant deaths between 2018-2019 alone.

asian elephant

Deforestation in Indonesia to clear land for palm oil plantations (image by Ulet Ifansasti for Greenpeace). 

Another major threat towards the Asian elephant is their illegal capture for labour and  tourism. Today, approximately one third of the Asian elephant population is in captivity, with  most found in Thailand, India and Myanmar. Whilst some are used for logging and mining work, the majority are utilised for performing at shows or giving rides to tourists. Fear-based techniques are used to tame the animals into submission, with little concern for their welfare. Further exacerbating the situation is the difficulty with regulating this industry, since elephants in captivity are classified as domestic animals and are thereby ‘property.’

Whilst ivory mainly originates from African elephants, due to the fact that female Asian  elephants do not have tusks and some males never develop theirs, poaching still poses a great danger to Asian elephant populations. Elephants are poached for their skin, meat, tail  hair and other body parts, as the use of elephant skin in jewellery and pharmaceutical products has increased in popularity over the past few years.

You might also like: World Elephant Day: 12 Incredible Facts About Elephants

6. Conservation Efforts

Conservation efforts have been underway for decades, yet with the ever-increasing  population of Southeast Asia and the difficulties with regulating illegal trade, the protection of the Asian elephant has proven difficult.

The main priority in elephant conservation is the preservation and restoration of their  habitat, with a focus on forest connectivity and the establishment of protected areas as core habitats. Studies have shown that, whilst some countries still possess a fairly decent amount of potential elephant habitat, only a small percentage of that land is protected and it is often fragmented by anthropogenic structures. In addition, the introduction of invasive species and livestock has heavily impacted the quality and availability of vegetation habitually consumed by Asian elephants. In Myanmar, an area of 170,000 square kilometres was  identified as suitable for elephant inhabitation in 2003, yet only 7% of that land was  protected by the local government. Furthermore, pre-existing protected areas, such as the Kathapa National Park and the Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary, accommodate only a very small percentage of all Asian elephants within Myanmar. The majority of Asian elephant populations inhabit areas frequently utilised by humans.

There is thus a clear need to expand conservation efforts beyond maintaining currently protected areas. An extensive investigation into the traditional migratory routes of each Asian elephant subspecies is needed to highlight the regions in which forest corridors should  be established to maintain forest connectivity.In India, the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS), launched in 2000 by WWF, has been successful in securing habitat  protection and connectivity through the collaborative work of local NGOs, forest departments, and communities.

In areas where elephants and humans must inevitably coincide, education and awareness building programs are necessary for local communities to understand how to defuse encounters without the use of violence. WWF has been actively supporting local populations in establishing eco-friendly elephant deterrents around crops, as well as in learning how to safely usher elephants back into the forest.

NGO Spotlight: Asian Elephants Society

In an effort to combat the illegal capture, trade and poaching of Asian elephants, international NGOs have partnered with local agencies in conducting wildlife patrols throughout core elephant habitats.

Of equal importance is the work conducted by local NGOs, such as the Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES). As news of wildlife deaths tend to escape international media  attention, organisations such as the VFAES shed light on the ongoing plight of Asian elephants in remote, and often forgotten parts of India. Most recently, they highlighted the unprecedented number of elephant deaths in Odisha’s forests during the COVID-19  pandemic, as restrictions limited the number of patrols conducted around forested areas. Their numerous local projects, such as the positioning of reflective billboards along highways to protect elephants from road accidents, as well as the instalment and widespread advocation of elephant-friendly electric fences, have saved the lives of countless elephants.

asian elephant, voice for asian elephant society

A herd of Indian elephants crossing a highway in Odisha (photo from the Voice for Asian Elephants Society).

What Can You Do?

  1. Avoid palm oil. The next time you visit your local supermarket, try to avoid purchasing any  products that contain palm oil. Palm oil plantations are one of the biggest culprits behind  the mass deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.
  2. Buy forest-friendly coffee and wood. When purchasing coffee or timber wood, try to find a Forest Stewardship Council (FCS) certified brand, which ensures that your products  originated from responsibly managed forests.
  3. Boycott elephant captivity. When visiting Southeast Asia, avoid elephant camps, farms,  homes, zoos, and even some self-proclaimed ‘sanctuaries’, where elephants are physically  and mentally abused. Avoid riding elephants or purchase paintings ‘painted by elephants’.
  4. Support and donate to an elephant conservation organisation. You may wish to help fund education campaigns, wildlife patrols, or the preservation of elephant habitats by donating to organisations such as Save the Asian Elephants or the Voice for Asian Elephants Society.
  5. Buy a Mr. Ellie Pooh notebook. Their paper products are made from elephant dung and recycled paper, in which proceeds help fund and provide educational workshops to local Asian  communities on elephant welfare, create fair wage jobs for local workers, and raise awareness on the protection of Asian elephants.

Featured image by: Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

If you want to learn more about endangered species, make sure to check out other articles from our Endangered Species Spotlight Series

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