Sumatran Rhino Declared Extinct in Malaysia

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Sad news out of Malaysia. Once a primary habitat for the Sumatran rhino, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, this country has now been declared void of this magnificent species.



Sightings of rare species

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Below are a few articles I have recently found about rare species being spotted. These include a species of deer found in Vietnam which were thought to be extinct and the births of endangered Asiatic lion cubs in a French zoo.

‘Extinct’ deer turns up alive in Vietnam – Unexplained Mysteries.

Rare Borneo Bay Cat Captured in Stunning Photo – Yahoo News.

AOL.com Article – Cautiously, French zoo shows off rare lion cubs.

Rare false killer whale showing off Southern California allows for amazing encounters | GrindTV.com.

The Three Amigos: A win for conservation of three rare antelope species

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A victory for conservation was recently announced. On January 20 of this year President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Bill, which includes a provision to help prevent the extinction of three rare antelope species. The “Three Amigos” provision of the Omnibus Bill allows ranchers in Texas to manage their herds of addax, dama gazelle, and scimitar-horned oryx without federal intervention.

Scimitar-horned oryx

For those that have followed this blog for a while you may remember one of my first posts was about these three species. The link to which can be found at the bottom of this page. These three species virtually extinct in the wild, yet they are thriving here in the US on large hunting ranches in Texas. Unfortunately, as I predicted their numbers took a drastic hit over the last few years due to this ban. Most census data puts their populations at roughly half of what they were in 2010. This was thanks to the ban on hunting of these species in Texas. Essentially what happened was the ban removed the value from these animals. Several animal rights activists decided they would rather see the species completely extinct rather than survive on hunting ranches. When the animals no longer had value they were no longer cared for. These ranchers are businessmen and could not afford to waste time or money on an animal that would not help them make ends meet.

Dama gazelle

The good news is, value has been restored to the three species in question. The bill has just been signed, but hopefully we will start seeing the benefits soon as populations hopefully begin to increase here in the US. I for one would rather see these beautiful creatures continue to thrive, even if a few have to be hunted, than for them to be lost forever.



Red-cockaded Woodpeckers: Declines and Conservation

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Bird species have faced serious declines since the Americas were colonized by Europeans. One of these species is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. With estimated populations ranging from 920,000-1,500,000 groups at the time of European settlement these birds had fallen to only 10,000 individuals within 4,000 groups by the time they were listed as endangered in 1979.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

This drastic decrease in numbers was due to an almost complete loss of habitat. These birds rely on old-growth longleaf pine forests. Particularly because they burrow in trees that are infected with red heart disease. This fungus is fairly common in trees that are 70 years old or more but with few trees left in this age range there was little habitat left in which these birds could nest.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker male

Red-cockaded Woodpecker male

The bird does seem to be on the increase in recent years. Now considered vulnerable by the IUCN the birds have increased to around 6,105 breeding groups according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This increases is largely attributed to better management practices for these birds and their ecosystems. Once mostly restricted to South Carolina they have now expanded back out to cover 11 states (AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, NC, MS, OK, SC, VA, and TX).

Lesser Prairie-Chicken conservation

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Once widespread throughout the Great Plains the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Tympanuches pallidicinctus, are now limited to a restricted range through parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. These smaller relatives of the Greater Prairie-Chicken are dependent on large areas of native prairie, particularly shortgrass prairie and sand sagebrush grasslands. However these birds have experienced a 92% reduction in range since the 1800s with similar decreases in the number of birds.

Habitat loss has been the largest driver of this decline. With the 92% reduction in range this seems like a natural conclusion. However, the way in which habitat is being lost may not seem as obvious. If one were to drive through the native range of these birds they might ask how is this habitat lost? There is very little construction through these areas. The habitat has actually been degraded by the conversion of prairie to agricultural land and through the construction of tall structures such as power lines and wind turbines.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken range map

Lesser Prairie-Chicken range map

Lesser Prairie-Chickens will not venture near tall structures as these are excellent perching places for hawks and other flying predators. Unfortunately for these birds, which are labeled as vulnerable by the IUCN, the best places for wind energy happen to be right in the middle of their remaining habitat. So as we attempt to create more green energy by harnessing wind we are inadvertently putting more pressure on a species that has already been pushed to the brink.

Fragmentation of land through fence construction has also been a threat to these low flying birds. When they are flushed and try to evade danger they often smash into these fences and die.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

There is hope though. Several organizations are working to protect this species. NRCS, Natural Resources Conservation Service, has developed a program to promote conservation on private lands. This plan includes supporting better grading practices that maintain proper nesting cover for these birds, protecting and restoring large tracts of native prairie and  sagebrush grasslands, and increase connectivity of prairie-chicken habitat. So far 600 farmers and ranchers have enrolled in this program conserving around 1 million acres of habitat.

The Wildlife Society has also been involved in the conservation of prairie-chickens. Particularly several student chapters have organized work days to go out into prairie-chicken habitat and place reflectors on fences, with land-owner permission of course, to prevent these birds from striking fences by helping them see the wires from farther away.

Study: Amphibians disappearing at alarming rate – Yahoo! News

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Study: Amphibians disappearing at alarming rate – Yahoo! News.

See Spot Run: A discussion of cheetahs and cheetah conservation

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When I first visited Africa in July of 2009 the cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, was the first species I saw and photographed. Although it was in a cheetah center rather than in the wild this species will always be special to me as it was like an ambassador, welcoming me to the continent where I feel most at home. While the lion is still my favorite the cheetah is a close second. It was not until my fourth trip back to Africa that I was able to once again see these magnificent animals and photograph them in the wild.

Cheetahs are the most specialized of the world’s big cats, essentially the feline version of a greyhound. These amazing cats have traded strength for incredible speed, reaching speeds of 90-112 kph (60-70 mph). Though they are incredibly fast they lack both stamina and the strength of their felid relatives. Their jaws are fairly weak and lack the major canine teeth of other cats. Without the strength of other predators they are easily run off of their kills. While in Tanzania’s  Tarangire National Park I witnessed a pair of cheetahs that had been run off of a warthog kill by vultures. It is very likely that the cheetahs fled the kill out of fear of the vultures attracting larger competition rather than by the vultures themselves. As for stamina they can only maintain their speed for a short distance, prey must be overtaken within 300 yards, before they need to cool down. In fact a cheetah can cause itself to overheat if it tries to run for too long.

South Africa 2009 024

While predominantly solitary creatures cheetahs, mainly males, have been known to form coalitions. Males usually disperse and defend their own territories, but some litter mates have been known to stay together. The benefits of forming coalitions seems less obvious than in the case of lions. Females are solitary and wander amongst male territories. Having a coalition would not increase the likelihood of being visited by a receptive female. Single males would have a better chance of mating as they would not have to compete with a companion male for the right to copulate. The only benefit these males may receive is in hunting as having a companion would allow them to drag down larger prey.

Cheetahs that are actively hunting walk along alertly and will use termite mounds and low hanging tree limbs as vantage points. To get within range of prey the cheetah may wait at the vantage point if it sees prey grazing towards it or attempt a stalk. Some stalks are unsuccessful and do not result in a chase, but those that do result in chases are successful roughly 50% of the time. Serengeti cheetahs lose roughly 10% of their successful kills to other predators. However, females with cubs will occasionally try to defend these kills against hyenas and wild dogs, but will quickly yield to larger competitors such as lions.

South Africa 2009 025-2

While cheetahs are fascinating creatures they face serious threats. Once widespread across Africa and into southern India cheetahs have now become severely limited in range. In the 1950s they became extinct in India and are now very rare throughout North Africa. They are still wide spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa but very sparsely distributed. To make matters worse a series of genetic bottle necks have led modern cheetahs to be over 90% similar in genetic make up. This degree of genetic uniformity means that one disease could possibly devastate cheetah populations and quite possibly push cheetahs into total extinction.

There is a glimmer of hope though as many organizations throughout the world are working tirelessly to save cheetahs. The De Wildt Cheetah Centre in South Africa works to relocate cheetahs captured near ranches to areas where they will not run into conflicts with humans. This centre, where I saw my first cheetah, also has an ambassador program in which they teach humans that cheetahs are not a major threat to livestock and attempt to foster good relations between ranchers and this species of cat.

South Africa 2009 053

Back in the US at Texas A&M is another project which may benefit cheetahs. A professor there has been working mainly with bison, another species that has a severely limited genome, to collect DNA from hides taken prior to the genetic bottleneck the species went through. It is hoped that this genetic information can be spliced into modern bison and add more diversity back to their genetic code. In theory, this professor could do the same thing with cheetahs to hopefully provide them with enough genetic diversity to survive a disease that otherwise might wipe them out.

Cheetahs are an amazing species that have captured my heart. It took me three additional trips to Africa to finally catch glimpses of them in the wild, but the effort was well worth it as my latest trip provided three new cheetah sightings for a total of 6 cheetahs (one pair in Tarangire, a coalition of three in the Serengeti, and a solitary cheetah spotted a few hours after the coalition). It would be a great tragedy if we let this species slip out of existence. Fortunately there are many great people working to make sure this does not happen.

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