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According to a recent analysis, the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years and they warn that this may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation. 

The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at data on 29,000 land vertebrate species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and BirdLife International. The scientists identified 515 species with populations below 1,000 and about half of these had fewer than 250 individuals remaining. 

What is a Mass Extinction Event?

A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

The Analysis

The land vertebrates on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 individuals left, include the Sumatran rhino, the Española giant tortoise and the harlequin frog. Historic data for 77 of these species shows that they had lost 94% of their populations in the last century. Further, more than 400 vertebrate species became extinct in the last century, extinctions that would have taken up to 10,000 years in the normal course of evolution, illustrating humanity’s profound effect on the planet and those that live on it. 

The analysis also showed that 388 species of land vertebrates had populations under 5,000 individuals and 84% lived in the same regions as the species with populations under 1,000, creating the conditions for a domino effect. The scientists warned that ‘extinction breeds extinction’, where close ecological interactions of species on the brink tend to move other species towards extinction, creating the domino effect. 

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sixth mass extinction
A graph showing the number of species with fewer than 1,000 individuals and number of species whose conservation status had been evaluated by the IUCN. These are the species most likely to be lost in the sixth mass extinction event (Source: PNAS).

Causes

The scientists say that the ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilisation, because it is irreversible. They say that it is caused by an ever-increasing population and consumption rates. Further, species are links in ecosystems and, as they disappear, the species they interact with are likely to disappear as well.

When a species dies out, the Earth’s ability to maintain ecosystem services is eroded to a degree. Humanity needs a relatively stable climate, flows of fresh water, agricultural pest and disease-vector control and pollination for crops, all services that will be impacted as the sixth mass extinction accelerates. 

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and one of the researchers of the analysis, says, “When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system. The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to the climate disruption to which it is linked.”

Consequences of the Sixth Mass Extinction

When the number of individuals in a population or species drops too low, its contributions to ecosystem functions and services become unimportant, its genetic variability and resilience is reduced and its contribution to human welfare may be lost. An example of this includes the overhunting of sea otters, the main predator of kelp-eating sea urchins. A population boom of urchins wreaked havoc on kelp forests in the Bering Sea, leading to the extinction of the kelp-eating Steller’s sea cow.

Another is the bison, which was a keystone species in North America. At one time, it was maintaining the entire ecosystem, supplying meat, robes and fertilisers to Native Americans, and later to Europeans. Is it estimated that 200 years ago, there were 30 to 60 million individuals, but overharvesting for meat and skins and land conversion for farming decimated most populations. By 1844, there were 325 individuals left. They have since recovered to 4,000 wild bison and 500,000 living in enclosures, but the species has not reclaimed its ecological role and its habitats- the prairies- have been mostly destroyed. 

Many endangered species are being affected by the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, which poses a threat to human health, is a major cause of species extinction and is eroding the ecosystem services that are vital for our survival. The scientists note that the ban on wildlife trade imposed by the Chinese government could be a major conservation measure for many species on the verge of extinction if imposed properly. They propose including wild species for consumption as food as well as medicinal use and pets to curb the acceleration of the sixth mass extinction.

Previous Mass Extinction Events

There have been five mass extinction events during the last 450 million years, each destroying 70-95% of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms that existed previously. These events were caused by massive volcanic eruptions, depletion of ocean oxygen or collision with an asteroid. In each event, it took millions of years to regain the numbers of species comparable to those before the extinction event.

As such, an estimated 2% of the species that ever lived are alive today. Species extinction rates are today hundreds of thousands of times faster than the ‘normal’ rates occurring in the last tens of millions of years. The losses that we are seeing have mostly occurred since our ancestors developed agriculture 11 000 years ago. 

Can We Stop the Sixth Mass Extinction?

The scientists also propose classifying all species with less than 5 000 individuals as critically endangered on the IUCN list as well as implementing a global comprehensive binding agreement requiring parties to address the extinction crisis, especially through tackling the illegal and legal wildlife trade. 

Mark Wright, the director of science at WWF, says, “The numbers in this research are shocking. However, there is still hope. If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change. But we need global ambition to do that.”

Humanity relies on biodiversity for its health and wellbeing. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the dangers of interfering with and damaging the natural world. The scientists urge that a booming human population, destruction of habitats, wildlife trade, pollution and the climate crises must all be urgently tackled. 

There is time to save species, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There will likely be more pandemics in the future if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for consumption. The fate of humanity and most living species is at stake; it is therefore imperative that we act now. 

In the arctic tundra of northeastern Siberia lies a graveyard of a now – extinct species of megafauna, the woolly rhino, dating back 50,000 years. Now, a new genomic analysis of the remains of 14 of these fantastical furry yellow creatures shows that climate change was the likely culprit for their disappearance—not hunting by migrating humans, as scientists had assumed.

“We can say that climate probably did have a huge role in the woolly rhino declining and going extinct,” said paleogeneticist Edana Lord of Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, lead author of the recent study in Current Biology. However, Lord and her colleagues cannot rule out human activity as a contributing factor in the rhinos’ final years.

Woolly rhinos (Coelodonta antiquitatis), predecessors to the modern-day Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), roamed Siberia tens of thousands of years ago. Both the arrival of humans in their range and a climate warming period, known as the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, coincide with the disappearance of these ancient SUV-sized animals.

Scientists obtained 14 specimens in the form of 12 bones, a mummified tissue biopsy, and a hair sample. By determining the full DNA sequence of one of these remains, and the maternal DNA sequence of all 14, researchers hoped to expose key parts of their history.

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They zeroed in on mitochondrial DNA—DNA passed through the mother—which revealed a diverse rhino family tree. However, if hunting or other human activity had decimated their population, their genetic diversity would have declined noticeably, Lord said.

Instead, the species’ number remained constant until close to their extinction, and long after humans migrated into their range. The team’s specimens date as recently as 18,500 years ago; the species persisted another 4,500 years.

Further analysis of the rhinos’ genetic mutations over time pointed to evolutionary adaptations driven by the changing climate. In 89 genes, scientists found changes that likely led to cold-adapted traits. Such adaptations suggest that woolly rhinos were adjusted to a cold environment and could not adapt to a warmer, wetter climate.

Despite these clues, researchers can’t rule out that humans played a part. While woolly rhinos and humans appeared to live in harmony for thousands of years, early human settlers in Siberia were nomadic. Once the nomads created permanent settlements, changes in food sources and habitat could have harmed the rhino population—but genetic data alone is unlikely to show this.

“Whether or not they were actually killed or hunted by humans is very difficult to tell,” said wildlife geneticist Alfred L. Roca of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the study.

To even suspect human interaction, Roca said, researchers would have to find remains that “looked like they were butchered by humans,” as was the case with woolly mammoths. “Whether humans at the end had something to do with [the woolly rhino extinction] is an open question, only because humans have had so much to do with driving other species extinct,” he noted.

The rapid warming period 14,000 years ago mirrors our planet’s inflamed temperatures now. Finding intact specimens of animals from such eras provides clues about what might be in store for species today—including us. However, uncovering these samples is rare, and isolating their fragile DNA is no easy feat. For instance, fragments of bone, like those used by Lord and her team, often degrade over time and become contaminated with bacterial DNA as they decompose.

Despite these challenges, Lord is passionate about the impact her research has on illuminating both our past and our present. “I like bringing these extinct creatures to life,” she said. “How past climate impacted species is incredibly important for how future climate is going to impact species.”

Featured image by: Albert Protopopov for Mongabay

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Carolina Cuellar Colmenares, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is celebrating the birth of two critically endangered wildcats at Edinburgh Zoo. 

What is Happening?

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Alison Maclean, carnivore team leader at Edinburgh Zoo, said, “We are thrilled to have welcomed the birth of two wildcats in September, to mum Caol Ila and dad Talisker. The youngsters are doing well and we will be asking for the public’s help to name them in the coming weeks.” 

Featured image by: RZSS

About the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland  

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is a wildlife conservation charity and owns Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park. Founded in 1909, the Society’s purpose is to connect people with nature and safeguard species from extinction. For further information about RZSS conservation projects in Scotland and around the world, visit rzss.org.uk  

 

The platypus- the egg-laying mammal found in rivers in eastern Australia- has seen its habitats shrink by about 200 000 sq km, or 22%, since 1990, according to researchers. This is due to human activities in these river systems, bad droughts and introduced predators, among other things. The researchers have called for Australia to reclassify the species as “nationally threatened.”

Professor Richard Kingsford, lead author of the study, says, “Protecting the platypus and the rivers it relies on must be a national priority for one of the world’s most iconic animals. There is a real concern that platypus populations will disappear from some of our rivers without returning, if rivers keep degrading with droughts and dams.”

What is Happening?

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While the Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley said that the government had already committed around USD$731 000 to protecting platypus ecosystems, a representative said that the call to list it as a threatened species “would be considered.”

The platypus is one of Australia’s most iconic species, so it is vital to protect it from extinction. On a more grassroots level, people can plant native plants along the stream banks where platypuses live, which will protect the banks and provide areas to live, while people can also clean up streams, being sure to remove plastic bags and broken bottles. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Scientists have found that bee diversity is higher in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern, and that bees prefer temperate regions over the tropics. This discovery was made by the team analysing nearly 6 million public records of where individual species have appeared around the world, leading to the creation of the first global distribution map for bees. 

The project, published in the journal Cell Biology, contradicts most plant and animal distribution patterns, where diversity tends to be highest in the tropics and diminishes towards the poles. 

What is Happening?

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map distribution bees

This map of the global distribution of bees above shows that bees prefer arid, temperate regions rather than the tropics. Areas with darker colours have more species (Source: Cell Biology).

John Ascher, a biologist at the National University of Singapore and senior author of the study, says, “People think of bees as just honey bees, bumble bees, and maybe a few others, but there are more species of bees than of birds and animals combined.”

Michael Orr, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the study, said to CNN, Climate change poses a large threat to many species. But that’s going to be irrelevant if we don’t protect the habitats of species that are being destroyed now.” 

 

October 24 is Freshwater Dolphin Day. In celebration, Earth.Org is republishing this July 16 piece. WWF-Hong Kong and its partners have released an ‘emergency action plan’ to save Chinese white dolphins in the Pearl River Delta, in what they say ‘may represent our last chance to save the species’. 

According to the group, there are about 2 000 Chinese white dolphins- also called pink dolphins for the hue they acquire as adults- left in the Pearl River Delta and the population looks to be rapidly heading below the minimum number needed to sustain it. Their numbers are declining by around 3% every year; in Hong Kong, the number has dropped by more than 80% in the past 15 years. They warn that action needs to be taken now to preserve the species’ core habitats and prevent its extinction.

The most recent government estimates indicate an average of just 32 Chinese white dolphins left in Hong Kong’s waters, a historic low, down from 188 in 2003. 

The largest dolphins measure up to 2.5 metres in length, the young about a metre, and they can weigh as much as 150kg. According to the IUCN Red List, the species are listed as ‘vulnerable’ and populations are decreasing in all its native habitats, from China and Cambodia to Malaysia and Thailand. 

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Why are Chinese white dolphins endangered?

Coastal developments are encroaching on their feeding and breeding grounds, increased marine traffic strikes or disorients them, and pollution is poisoning them. These developments also make the animals extremely stressed, which affects their socialisation and reproductive habits. 

As part of the emergency plan, seven critical threats to the marine mammals are identified: habitat loss and degradation from development and construction, a depletion of the fish they eat from overfishing, illegal fishing and unsustainable fishing practices, underwater noise disturbance from boats, marine vessels that strike the dolphins, toxins and pollutants from industrial run-off, entanglement in sea nets and sea level rise. 

The group also proposes that 13 core protected areas be set up, stretching from the waters west of Lantau to Dongping Harbour at the western edge of the delta. They want these areas to be declared as ‘no-take’ and ‘development-free’. 

Dr Laurence McCook, WWF-Hong Kong’s head of oceans conservation, says that they’re working closely with partners and authorities in Guangdong to determine how the areas they’ve identified can be cleared of fishing and mooring.

He adds, “The Chinese white dolphin is a unique and shared heritage of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong. It would be a global tragedy to lose this iconic creature from the future of the Greater Bay Area. The governments, businesses and people of the delta region should seize this last chance to save our Chinese white dolphins.”

Otherwise, he says, extinction is not a threat, but the most likely outcome.

Featured image by: chem7

A new study has found that rewilding farmland could be one of the most effective and cheapest ways to mitigate the climate crisis while also increasing wildlife populations. 

Published in the journal Nature, the study says that if a third of the planet’s most degraded areas were restored and protections were given to areas still in good condition, about half of all human-caused carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution could be stored. This would prevent about 70% of all predicted species extinctions. As many as one million species are at risk of extinction. 

Scientists identified places around the world where these farmland rewilding interventions would be most effective, from tropical forests to coastal wetlands. Many of these identified areas were in developing countries, but lead author of the study, Bernardo Strassburg, says that while this can be a challenge, it also means that they are “often more cost-effective to restore.” 

To identify these hotspots, the researchers used a map from the European Space Agency that breaks down the surface of the planet into a grid classified by ecosystem: forests, wetlands, shrub lands, grasslands and arid regions. Using an algorithm that they developed, the scientists evaluated which areas, if returned to their natural states, would yield the highest returns for mitigating the climate crisis and biodiversity loss at the lowest cost. 

However, laying one result on top of the other was not enough; the researchers had to use another map. A similar and complementary tool called the Global Safety Net was released in September, which identifies the most strategic 50% of the planet to protect, filtering for rare species, high biodiversity, large mammal landscapes, intact wilderness and climate stabilisation. 

Rewilding farmland is among the cheapest ways of absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and does not need to be at the expense of agriculture and food production. Strasbourg says, “If restoration is not properly planned it could lead to a risk to agriculture and the food sector, but if done properly, it can increase agricultural productivity. We can produce enough food for the world and restore 55% of our current farmland, with sustainable intensification of farming.” 

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Interestingly, the study also found that planting trees, the most popular form of nature restoration, is not always the best way to preserve biodiversity and store carbon; peatlands, wetlands and savannahs provide habitats for many species, while storing vast amounts of carbon. 

Three-quarters of all vegetated land on the planet has now been influenced by humans, and some scientists have a target of restoring 15% of ecosystems around the world. 

The study identifies the biggest challenges to farmland rewilding as political will and acquiring the money to pay farmers to restore so much land to nature, but the authors point out that hundreds of billions of dollars each year subsidise fossil fuels and unsustainable farming practices.

Robin Chazdon, one of the study’s authors, says, “There’s a lot of money available for investment but the world is invested in destruction.” 

The study will be used to inform global commitments at the UN biodiversity and climate conventions next year. However, the study does not take into account national borders, which could present diplomatic challenges. 

Chazdon says, “This lays out the much higher benefits overall if you ignore the country boundaries and just look at where these priorities are. Do we say, ‘We’re just going to forego all those benefits and be provincial about this? Or are there ways to cooperate internationally?’” 

Scientists have put forward a proposal to develop a universal list of species on Earth. The 10-principle framework aims to better manage biodiversity and conservation in the age of accelerating environmental changes. What are these principles and how would they help? 

When it comes to conservation and biodiversity, a universal list of species would serve multiple functions. Broadly, it would help the mitigation of the trade on wildlife products, as restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The lack of such an authoritative universal list hinders the effectiveness of conserving biodiversity as different taxonomic practices may confuse users. 

There are projects such as the Catalogue of Life that are already working on creating a comprehensive global index of species, however it has not been universally adopted by taxonomists, governments or conservation organisations. 

The lack of a single authoritative list of species has resulted in a number of issues. Four main drawbacks of the existing taxonomic practices have been identified: first, some of the world’s species are invisible to those who lack the resources to access or navigate specialist taxonomic literature: there is hardly a single complete list of marine invertebrates of the deep sea, however there are four big ones for birds. Second, the lack of a unified list means that  taxonomic contributions are often missed because information is so scattered. Third, it causes confusion between what lists to consult and fourth, users may unknowingly follow outdated species identification guides or lists. 

What Do The Principles Consist Of?

The 10 principles of compiling the universal list of species were proposed by a group of scientists aiming to support pre existing efforts on building a global list and providing a legitimate reason and institutional authority for adopting the list as a global standard across governments and world organisations. 

These proposed governing rules help guarantee that the list will be properly managed and accepted by stakeholders including the taxonomist community, naturalists, ecologists, the commercial sector and government agencies:

  1. The list should be built on science, where non taxonomic considerations and interference, such as political and economic considerations, should be avoided. The funding authority of the taxonomic authority should not interfere with the governance process and the funding of the list should be open to the public.  
  2. The governance of the list should strive for community support and use, where global support of the list demands all interested parties to be engaged. The governing process should also be validated by international organisations to maintain a high level of international governance.  
  3. The decisions about compiling the list should be transparent. The list itself should also be freely accessible, archived, provide citation and indicate where any edits have been made. 
  4. The governance of the validated lists of species should be separate to the governance of the naming of species, but the lists should be compatible or even be integrated if possible.   
  5. The governance of the lists should not interfere with academic freedom. 
  6. The set of criteria considered to be sufficient to recognise species boundaries may vary between different taxonomic groups but should be consistent when possible. 
  7. The list should provide archived versions to accommodate users who prefer currency and stability and vice versa, since taxonomy is a dynamic process, where taxonomic research is constantly tested, adopted and overturned. To accommodate users such as legislators, who would require a stable version of the list, the archived versions of the list should be accessible as long as it is needed.
  8. The people who prepare and annotate the list should receive recognition. 
  9. Full citations of the literature including scientific nomenclature and the foundation of the specific associated taxonomic concept should be included.
  10. The global listing process should ensure both global and local diversity be considered.

The adoption of this governance system would require consensus and collaboration among different bodies. These principles should be agreed upon and refined, where the system would be operated by a representative body in accordance with these principles. The system should also be endorsed by key users such as the IUCN and other national bodies. The united list would also gather the thematic parties to develop a work plan for combing the current competing lists and maintaining and managing the created list. 

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A pilot programme has been launched by the International Union of Biological Science (IUBS) that aims to extend this 10-principle framework by gathering the taxonomic expertise, users of taxonomy, current aggregators of taxonomic lists and governance experts to establish a globally accepted taxonomic authority.    

Compiling a global authoritative list may not be an easily accomplished task but in In view of facing the global extinction crisis, creating a globally-accepted list of the world’s species may help better manage the planet’s biodiversity.  

On September 30, world leaders convened virtually for the 2020 UN Summit on Biodiversity in New York under the theme of “Urgent Action on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development.” As expected, the summit addressed the COVID-19 and the overall relationship between humanity’s invasion and destruction of nature with zoonotic diseases, but it also focused on biodiversity as an essential part of humanity, through its provision of food, water, medicines and protection from extreme events. Earth.Org rounded up 11 noteworthy pledges and speeches from the UN Summit on Biodiversity. 

  1. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attacked “international greed” over the Amazon rainforest. He insisted that countries should have the right to use their natural resources, adding that “that’s precisely what we intend to do with the huge wealth of resources in the Brazilian territory.”
  2. More than 70 leaders and head of state from around the world have now signed the “Leaders’ Pledge for Nature,” including Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern and Boris Johnson. It entails a 10-point pledge to reduce pollution, adopt sustainable economic systems and eliminate the dumping of plastic waste in oceans by 2050. 
  3. Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno called on countries to self-regulate their fishing activities in the waters around the Galápagos islands, in a thinly veiled message to China after a mostly-Chinese fleet of 340 vessels descended on the biodiversity-rich region for squid in late July. The fleet had turned off their tracking devices, a common ploy to disguise illicit activities. 
  4. Chinese President Xi Jinping did not follow up on his surprise announcement last week at the UN Summit’s opening that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and that greenhouse gas emissions would peak in 2030. 
  5. Conservationists and campaigners were not convinced by many of the pledges made by world leaders at the summit. Greta Thunberg dismissed the “the laughable, cynical empty promises and “pledges” still taking place.” 
  6. Indigenous leaders expressed dismay that plans to protect 30% of the planet by the end of the decade could threaten their people, with one activist saying it could be the “biggest land grab in history” while another said that only through “traditional knowledge can we guarantee the conservation of biodiversity and the reduction in deforestation needed to address climate change.”
  7. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called humanity “parasites” and urged world leaders to use the delay of the Kunming, China meeting as an opportunity to bolster ambitions. In particular, Sanchez says that the world must focus on ensuring that 30% of land and sea is protected by 2030, restoring 15% of degraded land and recognising the close link between people, plants, animals and their environment. 
  8. The Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that his government will explore an expansion of Ireland’s marine protected areas and will use its seat on the UN Security Council to link human conflict with the environment. 
  9. Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih referenced the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that “humanity is living with the consequences of our constant disrespect to nature.” He pledged to designate one island, one reef and one mango grove in each atoll as a protected area. The island country is phasing out single-use plastic by 2023. 
  10. Qu Dongyu, director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) delivered a sharp rebuke to world leaders. He said, “Let me put it plain and simple: without biodiversity there would be no food. The loss of biodiversity undermines efforts to tackle poverty, and to halt biodiversity loss we need to radically change our economies.”
  11. Costa Rican President Carlos Quesada told the UN Summit on Biodiversity that humanity must focus on three areas to improve our relationship with nature. First, he says that we need to take responsibility and be self-critical by thinking about how our behaviour affects ecosystems. He is a proponent of economic development models that are based on human wellbeing, not just growth. Secondly, we must realise that we are not the most important beings on Earth and be humble enough to learn from nature. Finally, we must focus on equality by protecting ecosystems and decarbonising economies for the good of everyone. 

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Featured image by: Flickr

The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) released its 2020 State of the Rhino report in mid-September that outlines current conservation trends of the world’s five species, including the impacts of COVID-19 on rhino poaching.

There has been a decrease in the number of rhino poaching incidents during the first half of the year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Borders around the world closed and international and domestic travel was restricted. Additionally, there has been increased military and police presence, regular checkpoints enacted, and government parks and private reserves shuttered to all outside visitors, thwarting opportunities for would-be poachers. International travel restrictions have closed wildlife trafficking routes to China and Vietnam, the largest black markets for rhino horn.

However, as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions begin to ease in many countries, poaching is on the rise again and with widespread economic losses, more people may be pushed into rhino poaching. 

Africa

While planned rhino census operations have been postponed, the black rhino population in Africa has seen a small increase to 5 630 from 5 500 in 2019. Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley saw a 13.8% population growth during the first half of 2020. However, overall, this is no cause for celebration as the population was 65 000 in 1970. 

The white rhino population in Africa has been facing declines over the last two years due to poaching. The population is estimated to be around 18 000 animals and is likely to continue to drop this year.

900 rhinos were killed in 2018, nearly 1 every 10 hours. South Africa reported a drop in rhino poaching  from 319 animals in the first half of 2019 to 166 in the first half of 2020, presumably due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Kruger National Park’s Intensive Protection Zone reported zero poaching incidents in April, the first since 2007. 

Private reserves rely on tourism income and have had to make tough budget cuts due to the pandemic. There are worries that essential staff may have to be removed from the field. In response to emergency needs, the IRF established the Reserve Relief Fund to provide gap funding for salaries and equipment. More than USD$200 000 in grants have been awarded so far.

Asia

In Indonesia, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain, having experienced declines of more than 70% in the past 30 years. Three small, isolated populations exist on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, plus a handful of animals in Kalimantan. The last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, Iman, died in late 2019. 

The government of Indonesia developed an Emergency Action Plan for Sumatran rhinos  in 2017. Going into its third year, the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project, formed by IRF and partners, has initiated surveys in Way Kambas, Bukit Barisan Selatan and Gunung Leuser National Parks, as well as in Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo to identify isolated rhinos. The activities are part of plans to rescue rhinos and bring those with reproductive potential into large, semi-natural breeding and research facilities like the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas to increase population numbers.

The Javan rhino population, another species in Indonesia, increased slightly to 72 from 68 the previous year. Javan rhinos are found only in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, where they are heavily protected. There has been no poaching in the park in more than 20 years. 

Illegal fishing and lobster trapping in the protected waters of Ujung Kulon represent both a threat to habitat and the potential that poachers may make their way to the beaches of the park which are frequented by rhinos. To prevent this, a marine patrol was launched in January. In the first six months of operations, the two marine patrol units apprehended 45 boats and 218 people illegally encroaching in the park.

As the Javan rhino population increases, expanding their habitat will be a major concern. Habitat management projects are ongoing in the Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area of Ujung Kulon, including the removal of the ubiquitous Arenga palm, which opens up corridors for rhinos to move to different areas of the park and promotes new growth of food sources.

In India, two greater one-horned rhinos were translocated to Manas National Park in March before COVID-19 lockdowns were in place. The transfer was part of the India Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV2020) program established in 2009, bringing the population in Manas to 41 animals. Unfortunately, the final translocation planned for late spring was postponed. IRV2020 was scheduled to wrap up this year, but review and planning meetings have been pushed back. The greater one-horned population has been steadily increasing to more than 3 600 in India and Nepal from 100 animals in the early 1900s. Nepal has postponed a census of their rhinos to 2021.

Strict protection by government authorities and forestry officials in India has resulted in several years of poaching declines. There were only three recorded losses in Assam in 2019 and just two incidents so far this year. However, the monsoon season this year in Assam brought intense floods to the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). 18 rhinos died and hundreds of other wildlife perished during the floods. In response to the widespread devastation and loss, a proposal to build more artificial highlands in KNP has been pushed forward by the government. 

You might also like: World Rhino Day: Two New Javan Rhino Calves Spotted, Bringing Population to 74

Assisted Reproduction Technology Advancements

In August 2019 a team of scientists in Germany harvested eggs from the two remaining female northern white rhinoceros, artificially inseminated those using frozen sperm from deceased males and created two viable northern white rhino embryos. With support from the Kenyan Government, the procedure was repeated in December 2019, and was able to create new embryos at Avantea Laboratories in Italy. This significantly increases the chances of successfully producing offspring.

The research is part of an effort to save the subspecies from extinction, as well as advance the science of assisted reproduction technology (ART) as a tool in conservation. Preparations for the next steps are underway with the plan to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female could serve as surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo.

Recommendations

The report outlines the following priorities for all five species of rhinos:

  1.   Bolster anti-poaching activities
  2.   Maintain intensive monitoring and active management of wild populations in the face of revenue losses, employing conservation breeding where needed
  3.   Work with local communities to ensure they are active participants in wildlife conservation and receive economic incentives that improve livelihoods
  4.   Governments must commit to enforcing their wildlife crime laws and commitments to international treaties to foster more effective international collaboration on investigations to address the entire criminal supply chain, particularly in Asia

Poaching remains the largest threat to rhinos’ survival. A decline in the price for rhino horn, trending downward since 2015, has unfortunately not disincentivised poachers.

Nina Fascione, executive director at IRF, says, “Declines in poaching during the global pandemic, gives us hope that a stronger commitment by governments in enforcing wildlife crime laws can break up large criminal syndicates involved in poaching, allowing rhinos to maintain steady populations gains. Together, we can ensure these marvelous creatures can thrive for future generations.”

 

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