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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)

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Posts Tagged ‘China’

Dawn of The Flying Murder Heads

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2018

The bristling teeth of Anhanguera piscator were for snagging fish. (Photo: Robert Clark)

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By Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Heading out into the geological layer cake of Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas, British pterosaur researcher Dave Martill proposes a “to do” list for this brief reconnaissance: 1.) Find a rattlesnake to admire. 2.) “Find a complete Quetzalcoatlus skull sitting on the ground.” The odds are almost infinitely better for item one.  But he and Nizar Ibrahim, a fellow paleontologist, promptly fall into a detailed discussion about how to obtain a research permit in the event of item two.

This is the first rule of pterosaur research: You need to be an optimist. Thinking you will go out on a given day and find any trace of pterosaurs—the winged dragons that ruled Mesozoic skies for 162 million years–is like buying a Powerball ticket and expecting to win. Pterosaur fossils are vanishingly rare. Their whole splendid world, built on hollow bones with paper-thin walls, has long since collapsed into dust. Scarcity is especially the rule for Quetzalcoatlus northropi, thought to be one of the largest flying animals that ever lived, nearly as tall as a giraffe, with a 35-foot wingspan, and a likely penchant for picking off baby dinosaurs.  It’s known from a few fragments discovered at Big Bend in 1971, and not much else.

Ibrahim and Martill at Big Bend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Martill and Ibrahim spend three days bone-hunting among the fissured hillsides. They cross and re-cross the promisingly named “Pterodactyl Ridge,” frequently consulting the “x-marks-the-spot” on maps left by the discoverer of Quetzalcoatlus. They decipher the nuances of geological strata (“Look at that Malinkovitch-controlled cyclicity!” Martill exclaims, referring to the way the Earth’s shifting movements show up in the rock), and they conjure up forgotten worlds. On a sandstone ridge with no obvious way down, Martill remarks, “Haven’t found a mountain yet we can’t fall down,” plunges forward, and emerges unscathed below, eyes fixed on the passing landscape.

They do not, however, stumble across any rattlesnakes, nor even the faintest whiff of a pterosaur. The femur of an Alamosaurus, the largest North American dinosaur that ever lived, turns up, by way of consolation. But dinosaurs are not pterosaurs, or vice versa. Leaving the park, the two paleontologists are already mapping out a return search for Quetzalcoatlus, permanently hooked on the tantalizing pterosaur mix of extreme biological richness glimpsed through the rarest of fossil remains.

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Optimism against all odds has, however, lately begun to look almost reasonable in pterosaur research, with a rush of discoveries revealing Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Eggs in a Basket: Fossil Find Opens Up Lost World of Pterosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 1, 2017

With apologies, I have been delayed in posting several articles I published previously this year. Attempting to update now.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Thanks in part to an abundance of fossil discoveries in recent decades, scientists now recognize more than 200 species of pterosaur—the winged reptiles that dominated the world’s skies for 160 million years. But almost nothing is known about how they bred or how their young developed. As recently as 2014 the available scientific evidence on those topics added up to a grand total of just three pterosaur eggs, all badly flattened.

That dramatically changes with the description in this week’s Science of a sandstone block containing at least 215 fossilized eggs of a Cretaceous era pterosaur, Hamipterus tianshanensis. Many are preserved in three dimensions, and at least 16 contain partial embryonic remains.

Paleontologists Alexander Kellner and Xiaolin Wang

A research team led by Xiaolin Wang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing discovered the eggs, embedded in a rock slab more than three square meters in area, at a dig in northwestern China. Analysis of sediments in the find suggests “that events of high energy such as storms passed over a nesting site” by an ancient lake, the co-authors write, causing the egg mass to float “for a short period of time, becoming concentrated and eventually buried.”

Preservation of any pterosaur fossil is exceptional, partly because their bones were so thin. Extreme scarcity is even Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

China Drops the Hammer on Tortoise Smugglers

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2016

A radiated tortoise in Madagascar (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

A radiated tortoise in Madagascar (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Get caught smuggling illegal wildlife in most countries in the world, and you can expect a slap on the wrist. A very gentle slap at that. “Somebody could take an AK-47 and just shoot up a pod of pilot whales,” one frustrated investigator recently complained. “That’s the same as a traffic offense.” It’s why wildlife crime has become a $10 billion-a-year industry: It’s safer than robbing the bank. It’s more lucrative than selling drugs.

So it should be big news that China, the leading market for wildlife trafficking worldwide, has just handed out jail sentences ranging from 21 months to 11 years to seven defendants caught smuggling hundreds of Madagascar’s critically endangered radiated tortoises. “This sentencing sends a strong message to illegal wildlife dealers that the punishment for these activities will fit the severity of the crime,” said Brian D. Horne, a Wildlife Conservation Society herpetologist who provided expertise to the prosecution.

The sentencing is the result of an investigation that began with the 2015 arrest of an airport security worker at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport toting two backpacks containing 316 juvenile tortoises. The animals had come in on a flight from Madagascar, as part of the baggage of Chinese immigrant workers there. The animals were wrapped in tinfoil, a precaution to avoid x-ray detection during transit via commercial airlines.

The airport worker, who had access to the baggage area, agreed to cooperate with investigators, leading to the dismantling of the criminal ring. Investigators also seized a second shipment containing another 160 radiated tortoises. The plan was to deliver the animals to an apartment in Guangzhou being used as a breeding facility, in an attempt to Read the rest of this entry »

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

Among 2016 Conservation Issues: Way Too Much Testosterone

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 29, 2015

What’s ahead for wildlife in the coming year? Anybody reading the headlines would probably answer: Calamity and extinction. Elephants? Rhinos? Lions in the African bush? Pollinators here at home? None of it sounds like good news.

For the past few years, a group of scientists and others with a strong interest in the natural world have tried to look past the headlines and identify emerging conservation issues most people in the field aren’t talking about yet, but will soon. They call it “horizon scanning,” and they try to include opportunities as well as threats. The new list for 2016 is just out in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, and it makes for interesting reading.

The list the group came up with inevitably includes China, but for a reason that hasn’t gotten much attention so far: The national government has now incorporated the idea of becoming an “ecological civilization” among its leading policies. If you have been hearing about the recent pollution red alert in Beijing, or about poaching and deforestation issues pretty much anywhere in the world, the words Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Cambodian Soldiers Kill Cambodian Police, as China Profits

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 17, 2015

Sieng Darong FA Patrol Leader and Sab Yoh District Police patrol member

Forest ranger Sieng Darong (left) and police officer Sab Yoh with a confiscated chainsaw hours before their murders on Nov. 7. (Photo: EIA)

 

 

 

 

It is a familiar story in Southeast Asia. In truth, it has become a familiar story almost everywhere: China’s vast appetite for luxury items was the underlying cause of last week’s execution-style killing of two government conservation workers in Cambodia.

Sieng Darong, a 47-year-old forest ranger, and Sab Yoh, a 29-year-old police officer, were murdered as they slept on November 7, shot with AK-47-style heavy weapons. A third member of the team survived with injuries, and a fourth escaped. The killings happened shortly after the team confiscated chainsaws at an illegal logging site in northwestern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Protected Forest.

Investigators have arrested six soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces on charges of illegal logging in the incident. One of the six has already been jailed to serve a prior sentence of ten years in prison on an old armed robbery conviction. But so far, no formal murder charges have been filed, nor has anyone above the level of foot soldier been implicated in the case.

The killings happened in an area heavily affected by the illegal trade in rosewood (also known as hongmu), a rare precious wood prized in the Chinese luxury market for Read the rest of this entry »

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

Goodall: Colonialist China in New Scramble for Africa

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 18, 2014

(Photo: Michael Collopy)

(Photo: Michael Collopy)

This comes from Agence France-Presse in Johannesburg, via today’s South China Morning Post:

China is exploiting Africa’s resources just like European colonisers did, with disastrous effects for the environment, acclaimed primatologist Jane Goodall has said.

On the eve of her 80th birthday, the fiery British wildlife crusader is whizzing across the world giving a series of lectures on the threats to our planet.

And the rising world power’s involvement on the continent especially raises alarms when it comes to her beloved chimpanzees and wildlife habitats.

During the last decade China has been investing heavily in African natural resources, developing mines, oil wells and running related construction companies.

Activists accuse Chinese firms of paying little attention to the environmental impact of their race for resources.

“In Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialist did. They want Read the rest of this entry »

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

China (!) Leads Crackdown on Wildlife Trafficking

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 11, 2014

This report comes from CNN.  To put it in perspective, the announcement is undoubtedly timed to this morning’s opening of the Wildlife Trafficking Symposium in London.  (More on that below.)  Even so, it’s gratifying to see China take the lead against an illegal wildlife trafficking epidemic it has, up to now, largely tolerated and paid for:

A wildlife operation involving dozens of countries and organizations, seized more than three tons of ivory and a bevy of rare wildlife products as well as rare wood.

Operatives found rare animals — both living and dead — during the international, month-long operation.

The China-led transnational effort, codenamed Cobra II, aimed to crack down on illegal wildlife trade. Authorities recovered over 10,000 live European eels and pig-nosed turtles, as well as over 2,000 live snakes, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.

They also seized three tons of ivory, 36 rhino horns, and over 1,000 hides and skins from tigers, leopards and snakes as well as several hundred kilograms of pangolin scales from wildlife traffickers.

The operation included 27 other countries Read the rest of this entry »

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

Here’s Why It’s A Mistake to Discount China’s Ivory Crush

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2014

Ivory going into the crush Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Ivory going into the crusher Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Among many Western environmentalists, the response to China’s public destruction of confiscated ivory (first reported here and on TakePart this past Saturday) has ranged from skepticism to derision

Here’s Joe Walston, Asia Executive Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society on why that’s misguided:

China destroyed a portion of its massive stockpile of confiscated ivory on Monday – a first for the country.

The action has left the international conservation community struggling with its own conscience. Whether to praise a monumental shift in approach to conservation by the world’s biggest consumer of the world’s wildlife or condemn the event as posture, devoid of substance and commitment? Before judging, it’s worth examining the situation in a little more detail.

It was probably no coincidence that China crushed 6.1 tonnes when, just two months earlier, the US crushed a slightly smaller amount. In the US’s case it was almost its entire stockpile, while in China’s case it is a fraction: 17 tonnes were confiscated between 2010 and 2013 alone. Which raises the obvious question, why only the six tonnes? If China was serious about destroying stocks, then why not Read the rest of this entry »

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China’s Ivory Destruction Goes Forward

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 6, 2014

ivory to crush

Here’s the first photo of the confiscated ivory that the State Forestry Administration destroyed a few hours ago in Guanzhou, China.  It’s interesting to see the almost floral presentation of the ivory beforehand, and also to note that the amount ultimately destroyed was 6.1 tons, just a fraction more than the United States destroyed in November.

Representatives of 10 foreign nations attended, among them three of the countries hardest hit by the continuing slaughter of elephants, Kenya, Gabon, and Tanzania.

There was also a certain quality of floral presentation in the praise for China served up by those engaged in the fight against the ivory trade.

From Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation: “This is a courageous and critical first step by China to elevate the important issue of wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world. The Chinese government is to be commended for taking the issue seriously.”

From Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society: “We congratulate China’s government for showing the world that elephant poaching and illegal ivory consumption is unacceptable. We are hopeful that this gesture shows that we can win the war against poaching and that elephants will once again flourish.”

Now the real question is whether China will take the lead to stop the war on elephants, instead of merely following the example of other nations.  As Samper put it:  “If China were to destroy the remainder of its ivory stocks and lead the world by committing not to buying ivory in the future, it would have a transformative, positive impact on the survival of African elephants.”‘

Saving the elephants, instead of eradicating them, could become a lasting status symbol and win China the admiration of the world.  But with 35,000 elephants–almost 10 percent of the remaining wild population–being slaughtered every year, now is the time to take that next step.

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

China To Destroy Illegal Ivory: New Hope for Elephants?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 4, 2014

Tusks in Hong Kong: (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Tusks in Hong Kong: (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

 Back in November, I predicted that the U.S. decision to destroy its six tons stash of confiscated ivory would have no real effect. 

Now it sounds like I was wrong.  China–the last place on Earth you expect to turn its back on the ivory trade–will also destroy six tons of ivory this Monday. My latest for TakePart. 

In a remarkable turnabout, Chinese authorities have announced that they will destroy six tons of confiscated elephant ivory on Monday. “The burning ceremony of illegal ivory and other wildlife products” will take place at 11 a.m. local time (10 p.m. Sunday U.S. Eastern time) in Guangzhou, where the rampant ivory trade has until now gone almost entirely unregulated.

In a cordially-worded invitation sent out Friday to foreign diplomats and non-governmental organizations, China’s State Forestry Administration described the event as being “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating the Chinese government’s resolve to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.”

The move comes as the trade in ivory is rapidly pushing Africa’s elephants to extinction in the wild, with 35,000 elephants being killed every year for their tusks. Some estimates put the remaining population in the wild as low as 400,000. The modern ivory trade is dominated by China, which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the market, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. “China is the epicenter of demand,” a senior State Department official recently told the publication China-US Focus. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”

For China’s rising middle class, ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, combs, and other trinkets have enormous value as status symbols and gifts. This taste for ivory carvings extends to officials at the highest levels of the central government. But that may now be changing.

According to a U.S. wildlife expert close to the planning of Monday’s event, the State Forestry Commission has been a reluctant participant Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »