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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Did the Illegal Pangolin Trade Spark this Pandemic?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 27, 2020

Pangolin in rehab (Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

 

Early on, the rumor circulated that SARS-CoV-2 may have made the leap to humans via pangolins sold for food in wild animal marketplaces in China, Vietnam, and other countries. Scientists instead linked the pandemic to bats, like previous coronavirus outbreaks (SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012). Now, though, a study in the journal Nature has identified a SARS-CoV-2-related virus in Malayan pangolins seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China. Other new research has also swung to the idea that the virus originated in bats, then jumped to humans via the illegal pangolin trade. With that in mind, here’s some information about the state of the pangolin trade, from past articles I have written.

by Richard Conniff

Pangolins are among the oddest and least-familiar animals on Earth. They’re mammals, but they’re armor-plated. Their chief defensive posture is to tuck their heads under their tails and roll up, like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. (It works: Even lions generally can’t get a grip.) They have tongues that are not only coated with a sticky, fly paper-like substance but can also extend up to 16 inches to probe into nests and snag ants for dinner. They’re shy, nocturnal and live either high up trees or deep underground.

Lisa Hywood has discovered just how charismatic these obscure creatures can be. At the Tikki Hywood Trust, her rescue center in Zimbabwe, one of her current guests, named Chaminuka, recognizes Hywood and makes a soft chuffing noise when she comes home. Then he stands up to hold her hand and greet her, she tells me. (Bit of a snob, though: He doesn’t deign to recognize her assistants.) Hywood finds working with pangolins even more emotionally powerful than working with elephants.

False hope for medicine

It’s also more urgent: Pangolins, she says, are “the new rhinos,” with illegal trade now raging across Asia and Africa. They are routinely served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam. Their scales are ground up, like rhino horn, into traditional medicines. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, are made from keratin and about as medicinally useful as eating fingernail clippings. When poachers get caught with live pangolins, Hywood rehabilitates the animals for reintroduction to the wild.

But a lot of pangolins aren’t that lucky. By one estimate, poachers  killed and took to market as many as 182,000 pangolins just between 2011 and 2013.  In one case in northeastern India, for instance, authorities nabbed a smuggler with 550 pounds of pangolin scales. Something like that happens almost every week. Many more shipments make it through. And the trade seems only to be growing bigger.

There is little prospect that this trade will stop, short of extinction for the eight pangolin species. Three of the eight species are currently listed as endangered and another three are critically endangered status. As pangolins have vanished from much of Asia, demand has shifted to Africa, which has four species. The price for a single animal there was at one point up to $7,000, according to Darren Pietersen, who tracked radio-tagged pangolins for his doctoral research at the University of Pretoria.

In a handful of trouble

Hunters use dogs to locate arboreal pangolins or set snares outside the burrows of ground-dwelling species. That rolled-up defensive posture, which works so well against lions, just makes it easier for human hunters to pick them up and bag them, says Dan Challender, co-chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. His research has taken him to a restaurant in Vietnam where, by chance, he witnessed a pangolin being presented live to a diner, then killed to be eaten. At such restaurants, stewed pangolin fetus is a special treat.

The trade is already illegal in many countries, and it is also banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But enforcement is minimal, and even poachers seized with tons of smuggled animals often get away with a wrist slap. Authorities sometimes dispose of these shipments by auction, cashing in on the illegal market.

It could be worse than what’s happening to elephants and rhinos.

Zoos at least know how to breed those species in captivity, says Hywood. But so far, no one has managed to captive-breed any of the eight pangolin species. That means that if Chaminuka and his ilk go extinct in the wild before scientists can figure that out, these curious creatures will be gone forever.

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And here’s a related article I wrote on the pangolin trade for Yale Environment 360.

 

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Pandemic Pastimes in the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2020

Today's photos of wildlife in my own Connecticut neighborhood are all by Kristofer Rowe.

Today’s photos of wildlife in my own Connecticut neighborhood are all by Kristofer Rowe.

 

Yes, the times are incredibly stressful.  But getting outdoors will help, and watching wildlife is one place where social distancing works just fine. Not only can you do it on your own, but the animals don’t want you in their faces, and you’ll see a lot more of them if you keep your distance. 

 I wrote this piece a while ago to introduce newcomers to birdwatching and other quiet joys of the natural world. I’m deleting the lead, which was about new year’s resolutions back in that peaceful time. But most of the ideas that follow still make sense in the face of COVID19.

by Richard Conniff

Instead of resolving to exercise more, lose weight, and spend more time outdoors, try giving yourself a motive to do all three. Set out to see something new at least once a day among the beautiful and often dramatic wildlife that lives all around you. Birds are the easiest way to start, and good binoculars help. But insects, spiders, mammals, plants, mushrooms, and even rocks will do. (And note: Being in the city shouldn’t be an impediment.  Matthew Wills of @backyardbeyond, seems lately to see more copulating by kestrels on chimney pots and antennas around his Brooklyn apartment than locked-down millennials even want to think about right now.)

Here are a baker’s dozen ideas to get you in the swing of things:

Gray squirrel (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

Gray squirrel (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

1. Learn to identify 10 species in your neighborhood. Go for the easy stuff—house sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, gray squirrels, chipmunks. Then move on to 20, 50, 100 species. Do it on the golf course, to distract your pals from your lousy swing or to remind them that birdies can matter in more ways than one. If you’re a college student stuck back at home with your parents and cursing those birds that dare to wake you up at 10 a.m., demonstrate your romantic side by learning to identify their songs. (Try here for help.  You’ll also find good stuff here.

2. Hold still and just watch a wild animal for a while, even if you don’t know its name: a cormorant diving for fish, a seagull smashing open shellfish on the rocks, a squirrel burying seeds, birds mating, a snapping turtle laying her eggs. Just look. And don’t get too close. Wild things deserve a little respect.

3. You use your smartphone to help you get started.  Try not to let it distract you from the experience, but, sure, take a picture, or record a song. When you get home, you can Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

The CIA, World War II Bombs, and 8 Million Dead Fish: A True Story

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2019

Mississippi paddlefish, Polyodon spathula. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

It is a horror movie director’s dream of a natural history collection. You find it by driving 10 miles southeast of New Orleans, to a piece of land that is part swamp, part forest, on a bend in the Mississippi River, down a dirt track named Wild Boar Road. Alligators and water moccasins live in the tangled woods to the left. On the right stands ammunition bunker number A3, its flanks heavily bermed against the danger of explosion, its loading dock cracked and skewed forward by the more reliable detriments of time.

There are 26 such bunkers, widely distributed around the roughly 400-acre property, most of them abandoned. During World War II, U.S. Navy ships stopped here to pick up artillery shells before heading out to sea. Later the Central Intelligence Agency trained Cuban guerrillas on the property for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Tulane University owns the place now, and the visitors tend to be biologists, drawn here by the nearly eight million dead fish housed in bunkers A3 and A15. (Another bunker nearby holds the University of Louisiana Monroe’s fish collection.)

Inside, the fish soak in alcohol, in tightly sealed jars of assorted sizes, lined up on shelves that rise 10 feet high and run 36 feet long, in row after row after row. Some of the specimens are outlandish. A couple dozen paddlefish huddle together in a five-gallon jug with their translucent paddles raised heavenward, looking like congregants at an extraterrestrial prayer meeting. But nine of the 22 rows in the main collection are Cyprinidae, which mostly means minnows. Ordinary is really the guiding aesthetic of the place.

It is the world’s largest fish collection, a title that comes with asterisks.

“It’s actually the largest post-larval collection,” says Justin Mann, the 38-year-old collection manager, who spends much of his time fighting back the mildew that paints and repaints itself across the interior walls. It’s the largest by number of specimens, he adds, not species. In fact, more than a million specimens belong to a single species, Cyprinella venusta. (Yes, it’s a type of minnow.) The collection includes outliers from as far away as Indonesia. But most of the fish here originally were Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Trophy Fish–And A Chain of Species Destruction at Yellowstone

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 14, 2019

Stocked fish are often home-wreckers for native species

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Recreational fishing is a pastime in which people have come to expect the fish they want in the places they happen to want them. That is, they want their fish stocked and ready to catch, even in places those fish never originally lived. This practice can seem harmless, or even beneficial. But the introduction of one “beneficial” species in Yellowstone National Park suggests how rejiggering the natural world for human convenience can cause ecological disaster for almost everything else.

All it took at Yellowstone Lake, the 136-square-mile centerpiece of the park, was the introduction of lake trout, a fish originally found mainly in the Northeast and Canada and beloved by anglers everywhere. The federal government had transplanted them to smaller lakes within the park in the 1890s, a time when adding fish to remote fishless lakes seemed like a smart way to spread around America’s amazing abundance. But a century later, in 1994, the introduced species turned up in Yellowstone Lake, which was already celebrated for its own native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Park managers theorized that an angler illegally introduced the fish, either by accident or in the misguided belief that it would improve a big lake with plenty of potential for further sportfishing. One result is that anglers now catch 20,000 lake trout a year there.

But the lake trout went on to gorge on the young of the cutthroat trout, and the population of the native subspecies Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Freshwater species | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Eradicating Disease-Causing Pests Sound Like a Smart Idea? Not So Fast.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 21, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Sleeping sickness (or trypanosomiasis), endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, is a horribly debilitating disease. When the parasitic protozoan that causes it gets into the nervous system and brain, weeks or months after being transmitted by the blood-eating tsetse fly, it sends the victim into a steep decline marked by depression, aggressiveness, psychotic behavior, disrupted sleep patterns and—if untreated—death.

Happily, a concerted multinational effort has reduced the reported incidence of the disease by 92 percent in this century, from 26,550 cases in 2000 to just 2,164 cases in 2016. That puts the fight against sleeping sickness on track to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of eliminating it by 2020, according to a study published in December in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated methods of reducing the population of tsetse flies, the area where people are at risk of infection has also decreased by 61 percent in the same period.

Why not just finish the job and end sleeping sickness by eradicating the tsetse (pronounced TET-see) fly from the entire African continent? That’s the stated goal Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime this winter, if all goes as planned, a caravan of livestock trucks will carry 60 American bison out of Yellowstone National Park on a 500-mile journey into the past. Unlike their ranched cousins, which are mainly the result of nineteenth-century attempts to cross bison with cattle, the Yellowstone animals are wild and genetically pure, descendants of the original herds that once astonished visitors to the Great Plains and made the bison the symbol of American abundance. Until, that is, unsustainable hunting made it a symbol of mindless ecological destruction.

When the appalling mass slaughter of 30 million or so bison finally ended early in the 20th century, just 23 wild bison remained in Yellowstone, holed up in Pelican Valley. Together with a roughly equal number of animals saved by ranchers, they became the basis for the recovery of the species, Bison bison, carefully nurtured back to strength within Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now routinely exceeds the limit of about 4000 bison thought to be sustainable within park boundaries. Park rangers have thus had the disheartening annual job of rounding up “excess” bison for slaughter or watching some step across the park’s northern border into a hunt that critics deride as a firing squad. Relocating the animals would be the humane alternative, except for one scary problem: Ranchers and others have long maintained that bison spread brucellosis, a bacterial infection that is devastating to both cattle and bison. But an authoritative 2017 study using whole genome sequencing determined that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Take a Deep Breath and Say Hi to Your Exposome

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 29, 2018

Pig-Pen in his element (Illustration: Charles M. Schulz)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Over the past few decades, researchers have opened up the extraordinary world of microbes living on and within the human body, linking their influence to everything from rheumatoid arthritis to healthy brain function. Yet we know comparatively little about the rich broth of microbes and chemicals in the air around us, even though we inhale them with every breath.

That struck Stanford University genomics researcher Michael Snyder as a major knowledge gap, as he pursued long-term research using biological markers to understand and predict the development of disease in human test subjects. “The one thing that was missing was their exposure” to microbes and chemicals in the air, Snyder says. “Human health is clearly dependent not just on the genome or the microbiome, but on the environment. And sampling the environment was the big hole.”

In a new study published September 20 in Cell, Snyder and his co-authors aim to fix that, with a wearable device that monitors an individual’s daily Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Hello, My Name is Denisova 11. And Mom Is S-O-O-O-O Weird. Or Is It Dad?

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2018

Artist’s conception of a Neanderthal: This would be Denny’s mom.  (Photo: Joe McNally/National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In a remarkable twist in the story line of early human evolution, scientists have announced the discovery of “Denisova 11”—a female who was at least 13 years old, lived more than 50,000 years ago, and was the child of an early mixed marriage.

That is, her parents were not just of different races, but two different and now-extinct early human types. Their exact taxonomic designations—whether they were separate species or subspecies—is still a matter of scientific debate. But the bottom line for Denisova 11 is that mom was a Neandertal and dad was a Denisovan.

The research, published Wednesday in Nature, is the work of a team led by pioneering paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. He and his co-authors presented the first description of the Denisovans in 2010, based on genetic evidence from one of the 2,000 or so bone fragments found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains,

The Telltale Bone, in 360 degrees (Photo Thomas Higham/Oxford University)

where Siberia borders Mongolia and China. The new discovery is based on another bone fragment from that lot, a 2.5-centimeter-long fragment of what was a femur or humerus, from which the researchers extracted six DNA samples and then cloned them for detailed analysis.

Molecular dating indicates that Denisovans, who are so far known only from Denisova Cave, and Neanderthals, known mainly from sites in Europe, diverged from each other almost 400,000 years ago. They coexisted, probably in relatively small populations scattered across the vast Eurasian landmass, until both became extinct some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

But the genetic evidence from Denisova 11 and other recent studies suggests that, on the occasions when they met, Denisovans and Neandertals commonly Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Sex & Reproduction, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

India’s The Tiger Capital of the World. Here’s How It Could Do 5X Better

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 9, 2018

Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal, India (Photo: Soumyajit Nandy/ Wikimedia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Ullas Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.

Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.

Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.

Richard Conniff: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?

Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

Conniff Is there any chance that that will happen?

Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Selling the Protected Area Myth (No Wildlife Need Apply)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2018

Chevron’s Gas Plant Being Built in a Class A Protected Area

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

It’s widely celebrated as one of the few success stories in the push to protect the wildlife we claim to love: Since the early 1990s, governments have roughly doubled the extent of natural areas under protection, with almost 15 percent of the terrestrial Earth and perhaps 5 percent of the oceans now set aside for wildlife. From 2004 to 2014, nations designated an astonishing 43,000 new protected areas.

These numbers are likely to increase, as the 168 nations that are signatories to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected area coverage by 2020. And at that point, even more ambitious targets should kick in.

So, hurrah, right?

Sadly, there are two big delusions at work here. The first is that designating protected areas is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 10 Comments »