strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    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)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

Archive for the ‘Conservation and Extinction’ Category

Did the Illegal Pangolin Trade Spark this Pandemic?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 27, 2020

Pangolin in rehab (Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

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

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

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.

##

And here’s a related article I wrote in 2013 for Yale Environment 360.

 

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

Farmers Are Abandoning Land. It Could Save the Planet

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2020

Castro Laboreiro, Portugal

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

With apologies for my recent absence, I have been focusing on a book project lately and will continue to do so most of this year. But this is one I wrote in December.

People have lived in Castro Laboreiro, where northern Portugal borders Spain, long enough to have built megaliths in the mountainous countryside and a pre-Romanesque church, from 1,100 years ago, in the village itself. But the old rural population has dwindled away, leaving behind mostly elders yearning for their vanishing culture.

Roughly half the area once grazed by sheep, goats, and cattle is now unused and reverting to nature, meaning that wolves, bears, wild boars, and other species have rebounded in their old habit. Iberian ibex and griffon vultures thrive where they were extinct, or nearly so, as recently as the 1990s. So what feels like loss to some village residents, looks to others like a great recovery.

Places like Castro Laboreiro are of course everywhere. Abandonment of rural lands has become one of the most dramatic planet-wide changes of our time, affecting millions of square miles of land. Partly it’s a product of rural flight, and the economic, social, and educational appeal of cities. Partly it’s about larger forces like climate change and globalization of the food supply chain. But the result, according to a new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is that the global footprint of agriculture has “started decreasing in size during the past two decades, with more land now being abandoned Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Climate change, Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

Eeeek! There’s a Dinosaur in The Living Room

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2019

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Sitting poolside at a motel in the middle of Tucson, Arizona, a head-and-neck surgeon in cowboy boots and blue jeans is rhapsodizing about skulls. He has brought one along in his carry-on luggage on the flight into town, and he’s plainly thrilled by the perfect state of the brain case and the openings where cranial nerves once ran.

“I can see the ophthalmic nerve that gave vision,” he says, as if the former occupant of this skull still lives. “I can see the abducens nerve which allowed lateral eye motion, and the trigeminal nerve, which gave sensation to the skin of the face.”

The surgeon has asked not be identified in this article. Owning a collection of fossil skulls makes him both gleefully happy and nervously private, like many other collectors in town for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. At the moment, the surgeon is building an underground room to house the skulls, and he grins at the thought of displaying them in chronological order: the 36-inch-long Allosaurus skull, the toothy sea monster Elasmosaurus, the most complete skull of a Pteranodon ever found.

Private fossil collectors are pretty common these days. Some, like the surgeon, are serious enough about it to pass for professional paleontologists. He buys unprepared fossils and spends much of his free time meticulously extricating them from their stone prisons. Other collectors seem mainly to be indulging a boyish taste for big, scary—and expensive—monsters. (“The things that sell are jaws, claws, and horns,” one dealer confides.)

A few collectors rank among the world’s mega-rich, like the Chinese real estate developer haggling in Tucson for a slab fossil of an Ichthyosaurus, a large marine reptile, being offered at $750,000. More nervous privacy: The developer interrupts a question to his translator by loudly clearing his throat and marching off grimly in the direction of a $3 million Stegosaurus. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 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 »

We’re Still Slaughtering Bison–and American Indians Lose

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 31, 2019

Old habits die hard: Bison skulls from their 19th century annihilation.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In a 120-acre pasture on an Indian reservation in northeastern Montana, five prime examples of America’s national mammal rumble and snort. They shake their enormous heads and use them to plow aside the snow to get to their feed. In the night, I like to think, they put those shaggy heads together to ruminate on the weird politics of the American West and blast clouds of exhausted air out their shiny nostrils.

These five, all males, arrived last month from Yellowstone National Park, the last great refuge of the wild bison that once dominated the American landscape from Pennsylvania to Oregon. Their arrival marks the beginning of what will ostensibly become a pipeline sending surplus bison from Yellowstone out to repopulate portions of their old habitat.

Since 2000, it has been the custom to send 600 or 1,000 prize Yellowstone bison to slaughter every year at about this time to keep the park’s booming population at roughly 4,000 animals. The meat goes mainly to tribal nations. Even so, the culling is perverse and wasteful: Yellowstone is home to genetically pure wild bison, coveted by national parks, Native American tribes and conservation groups across the West.

But Yellowstone is also home to a notorious disease called brucellosis, dreaded by cattle ranchers everywhere. And while Congress in 2016 designated the American bison the national mammal, everyone knows that title comes with fine print reading “other than cattle.” And when it comes to cattle — a species that is not native to North America — the politics always gets weird.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 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 »

How to Send a Finch Extinct

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2019

Australia’s southern black-throated finch: Going, going …

This one caught my eye because it’s such a pretty bird, and because of the mindlessness with which Australia is letting human development drive it to extinction.

The state of Queensland and Australia’s federal government have allowed more than 1900 square miles of potential finch habitat to be cleared without anybody asking: Is this really a good idea? Almost 800 developments have been proposed and only one was turned down for its unacceptable impact on the finch, which has now vanished from 80 percent of its original habitat. Still in the works, five new coal mines in the last remaining high quality finch habitat.

It’s kind of amazing in a country that just this month is experiencing fish, wild horse, and bat die-offs  because of climate change.  (“Their brain just fries.“)

There’s a Senate hearing in Brisbane Friday on the continuing decline and extinction of Australia’s diverse wildlife. Time for somebody to get riled up. And of course it’s not just Australia. Development is our God everywhere, and the natural world pays the price.

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

When Trade Deals Become an Invitation to Environmental Crime

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 17, 2019

camion-transportando-madera-eia

(Photo: EIA)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

When the trade deal between the United States and Peru went into effect in 2009, proponents touted it as a shining example of environmental good sense. It was the first time the main text of any trade deal included detailed protections for the environment and for labor. That mattered — and still matters — both as a model for other trade deals and also because the environment ostensibly being protected includes a large chunk of the Amazon rain forest.

As part of the deal’s Forest Sector Annex, the United States provided $90 million in technical assistance to beef up enforcement by Peru’s forest service and to create an electronic system intended to track every log from stump to export. (That system does not appear to be working so far, because of software issues, according to rumors.) Peru in turn agreed, among other things, to ensure the independent status of its forest watchdog agency, called Osinfor, which sends its agents into the field to check that loggers have actually harvested the trees reported in their export documents. (That system works all too well, repeatedly demonstrating that logging companies lie.) On passage, then-Senator Max Baucus assured skeptics that enforcement of the treaty’s added provision would “have real teeth.”

Sadly, the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement is now slouching toward its 10th anniversary on Feb. 1 in shambles, brought on this time by the Peruvian government’s latest attempt to hobble, cripple or otherwise rid itself of this meddlesome Osinfor.

From the start, the Peru deal has served as a cover for almost laughably rampant Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

When Trump Babbles About His Damned Wall, Just Think Ocelots

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2019

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago about an awkward family secret. But it seems appropriate to reprint tonight, as a man with too much power and too little sense holds the nation hostage over his dream of building a useless $6 billion wall. That wall will do a lot of bad things. But one of them is that it will ultimately kill off the last remaining ocelots on American soil.

by Richard Conniff

Everybody has some dreadful bit of family history stashed away in the attic and preferably forgotten. For the Rockefeller heirs last week, it was their investment in the fossil fuel industry, largely founded by their oil baron ancestor John D. Rockefeller. For me, it was an ocelot jacket inherited from my wife’s grandmother.

And let me tell you, it is hard to write about endangered species when you have a dead one literally hanging over your head. Or more like 15 dead ocelots, to make up the single carcoat-length jacket that has been hidden away in my attic for several decades now. So I decided to get rid of it, more or less the way the Rockefellers decided last week to divest their millions from fossil fuel companies. Only on a somewhat more modest scale.

Ocelots are beautiful little cats, roughly twice the size of a house cat and covered in elongated spots that seem to want to become stripes. They’re hide-and-pounce predators, and tend to be solitary and elusive, but still range through much of South and Central America, and up both coasts of Mexico. The fur trade used to kill as many as 200,000 ocelots annually for jackets like the one in my attic, which probably dates from the 1950s. But Read the rest of this entry »

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