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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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Posts Tagged ‘endangered species’

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 »

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Plant Messiah Among the Living Dead

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 14, 2018

Magdalena and his beloved water lilies

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Not long ago, while teaching a couple of college courses about the natural world, I plucked a random selection of tree leaves on my way into class and asked my students to identify them. These were Yale and Wesleyan students, all highly educated and aware of the world around them—and most of them could not even name oak leaves.

They were suffering from what botanists call “plant blindness”: the tendency to take plants for granted as the undifferentiated green backdrop to our lives. It’s an epidemic, compounded by our penchant for plowing down forests and meadows everywhere, oblivious that what we are destroying is ourselves.

Plant Messiah Cover
“Plants are the basis of everything, either directly or indirectly,” Carlos Magdalena writes in “The Plant Messiah.” “Plants provide the air we breathe; plants clothe us, heal us, and protect us. Plants provide our shelter, our daily food, and our drink.” He counts 31,128 plant species used by humans, and adds that without plants “we would not survive. It is as simple as that.”

Mr. Magdalena, a botanical horticulturalist at London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, writes that he got dubbed “the plant messiah” by a Spanish journalist, for his work “trying to save plants on the brink of extinction,” and also for his “post-biblical (but pre-hipster) beard and long hair.” Taking the name to heart, Mr. Magdalena writes that curing us of plant blindness is the miracle he would like to accomplish.

Thankfully, he does not do much sermonizing on behalf of this mission. Instead, he takes the reader on a lively account of his own transformation from bartender in Spain to Kew horticulturalist in training, clinging much too far up a chestnut-leaved oak in a windstorm, “trying to comfort myself by musing on the tracheids, ray cells, and lignin—which I had seen on the microscope slides—that ensure the trunk won’t snap.”

Mr. Magdalena soon makes a reputation for obsessively experimenting with the arcane sexual behaviors of plants that are the last of their kind and unable to reproduce on their own—the Lonesome Georges of the botanical world. His first case is the café marron tree, considered extinct until a solitary example turns up in 1979 beside a road on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. Someone promptly chops it down, an appallingly common outcome in Mr. Magdalena’s stories. But a few branches Read the rest of this entry »

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Climate Change Complicates the Whole Dam Debate

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2017

Oroville Dam in California. (Photo: California National Guard)

by Richard Conniff/ScientificAmerican.com

With California now on track to have the rainiest year in its history—on the heels of its worst drought in 500 years—the state has become a daily reminder that extreme weather events are on the rise. The recent near-collapse of the spillway at California’s massive Oroville Dam has put an exclamation point on the potentially catastrophic risks.

More than 4,000 dams in the U.S. are now rated unsafe because of structural or other deficiencies. Bringing the entire system of 90,000 dams up to current standards would cost about $79 billion, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Hence, it has become increasingly common to demolish problematic dams, mainly for economic and public safety reasons, and less often to open up old habitats to native fish. About 700 dams have come down across the U.S. over the past decade, with overwhelmingly beneficial results for river species and ecosystems.

Now, though, a new study in Biological Conservation takes the science of dam removal in an unexpected direction. While acknowledging that reopening rivers usually leads to “increased species richness, abundance and biomass,” a team of South African and Australian authors argues

Read the rest of this entry »

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An American Catfish En Route to Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 23, 2017

The last of a North American heritage (Photo: William Radke)

The last of a North American heritage (Photo: William Radke)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It’s the simple declarative starkness of the sentence that catches the eye: “Extinction in the United States is predicted by 2018.” The species in question is the Yaqui catfish, which few Americans have ever heard of, much less seen (or eaten). It is, however, the only native catfish west of the Continental Divide, capable of growing up to 2 feet in length, with the familiar whiskery barbels drooping down from its chin and the flattened underside characteristic of the bottom-dwelling catfish way of life.

The remaining U.S. population, in and around the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arizona, has been declining by 15 percent a year, according to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation. That decline has continued even as a cooperative restoration effort by federal officials and private landowners has proved highly successful at protecting other aquatic species there. But for the catfish, with population recruitment “essentially zero” (meaning no younger generations surviving), the co-authors conclude that the last few elderly individuals still hanging on represent the end of the species in this country.

Moreover, the threat of U.S. extinction coincides with trouble for the larger Yaqui catfish population in northern Mexico. Its extensive habitat running southwest from the border down to the Gulf of California is now experiencing the same damming of rivers and draining of aquifers that occurred earlier on the U.S. side of the border. Introduction of nonnative channel catfish throughout the Mexican range also threatens to hybridize the last remnants of the Yaqui catfish into oblivion.

The threat to survival of the species coincides with a move in the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act, under which Read the rest of this entry »

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Champagne, Please! A Toast to Good News About Threatened Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 5, 2015

Gray seals on Cape Cod

Gray seals on Cape Cod

Wildlife biologists and other conservationists often suffer from chronic pessimism—not surprising, given the endlessly gloomy news about habitat loss, species extinction, and the latest delicacy being eaten by rich people in China. (“Boiled baby pangolin, dear?”) But sometimes things go right.

“There are glimmers of light that lead me to feel that what I’m doing is not absolutely mad and idiotic and senseless,” the author and captive breeding proponent Gerald Durrell once remarked. He told me this one morning on the Isle of Jersey while both of us were consuming large glasses of whiskey well before cocktail hour, or even lunch. But we toasted his point because it was a good one: There are success stories, and conservationists should cheer up and celebrate them.

A new article in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution makes the same point, minus the whiskey, and also proposes an agenda for dealing with the almost miraculous—but sometimes complicated—transformation of once-endangered species into commonplace neighbors.

Let’s start with a few of the success

Read the rest of this entry »

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For Endangered Species, a Call for Genetic Rescue

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 12, 2014

Before God told Noah to take “two of all living creatures, male and female” into the ark with him, He probably should have consulted with a wildlife biologist. Then He’d have known that extensive inbreeding after the flood would cause the rapid extinction of many of the species Noah had built his ark to save.

We are in roughly the same boat today. Instead of divine floodwaters, the relentlessly rising tide of human civilization is spreading into every corner of the landscape, leaving populations of threatened or endangered species isolated in a few remaining islands of habitat.  These survivors—tigers in India, red wolves in North Carolina, the kakapo parrot in New Zealand, African wild dogs in South Africa, and countless other species—almost inevitably experience inbreeding and reduced fitness, a recipe for extinction.

But a new paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution argues that “genetic rescue” could provide a fix for inbreeding problems.  It’s not about genetic engineering—no Franken-Kakapo—but rather about the seemingly simple business of crossbreeding with individuals introduced from outside populations.

“Genetic rescue has the potential,” conservation biologist David A. Tallmon and his co-authors write, “to be one of the most powerful means to

Read the rest of this entry »

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Under Pressure, Texas Moves to Stop Ocelot Traffic Deaths

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2014

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Takepart about the only U.S. population of the endangered ocelot suffering from roadkills because of poor planning on Texas State Highway 100.  Among other things, I asked readers to phone or email to let the Texas Department of Transportation know how they felt about that.

Now TexDot, as it’s known, says it’s going to fix the problem.  It’s not clear whether this is a smokescreen or the beginning of a genuine improvement.  I’ll keep an on it to see what really happens, and whether it happens soon enough to make a difference.  Meanwhile, here’s the report from ValleyCentral.com

Funding has been secured for four ocelot crossings on Highway 100 between Laguna Vista and Los Fresnos.

After four of the endangered cats were killed on the busy road and years of meetings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is prepared to construct four wildlife crossings beneath the roadway similar to this one on Highway 48 near the Port of Brownsville.

Regional TxDOT spokesman Octavio Saenz spoke to the Nature Report about the project.

“We secured funding for four crossings,” Saenz said. “We are still in negotiations or talks, I should say regarding the size of two of those crossings.”

With less than 50 of the rare cats estimated to remain in the wild, Read the rest of this entry »

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Save Endangered Species: Die Young

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 10, 2013

Endangered yellow eyed New Zealand has a high percentage of endangered birds, like this endangered yellow eyed penguin. (Photot: © paradoxdes / Fotolia).

New Zealand has a high percentage of endangered birds, like this yellow-eyed penguin. (Photo: © paradoxdes / Fotolia).

 

I apologize for the depressing headline, but that seems to be the message behind this press release from the University of California at Davis.

You would think the authors might have made some effort to disambiguate or disarticulate, or whatever it is careful researchers are supposed to do, these results, with the aim of separating longer lifespan from all the attendant socio-economic and medical changes that make it possible.

That is, we should be able to figure out how to enjoy a reasonably long healthy life without destroying the entire planet.

Not much help here about how to make that happen. So … just die, you miserable buggers.

And, oy, you in New Zealand, die sooner:

As human life expectancy increases, so does the percentage of invasive and endangered birds and mammals, according to a new study by the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the September issue of Ecology and Society, examined a combination of 15 social and ecological variables — from tourism and per capita gross domestic product to water stress and political stability. Then researchers analyzed their correlations with invasive and endangered birds and mammals, which are two indicators of what conservationist Aldo Leopold termed “land sickness,” the study said.

Human life expectancy, which is rarely included among indexes that examine human impacts on the environment, surfaced as the key predictor of global invasions and extinctions.

“It’s not a random pattern,” said lead author Aaron Lotz, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology when the study was conducted. “Out of all this data, that one factor — human life expectancy — was the determining factor for Read the rest of this entry »

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The Perils of Pangolins

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2013

(Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe)

(Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe)

My latest, published today at Yale Environment 360.

Early this year, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines. The 12 crewmen were already in trouble for damaging the protected coral reef. But then the Philippine Coast Guard crew working to re-float the vessel got a look at the cargo: 400 boxes of what may be the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal contraband — pangolins, carefully butchered and frozen to be served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam.

If you have never even heard of pangolins, much less pangolin poaching, you are not alone. Even conservationists tend not to know much about these armor-plated animals, commonly known as scaly anteaters, perhaps because they are small, uncharismatic, and nocturnal. The headlines tend to focus on bigger and seemingly more immediate problems, notably the slaughter last year of 35,000 elephants for their ivory and 810 rhinos for their horns. But almost unnoticed, the illegal trade in pangolins has raged out of control, to meet demand in East Asia for both their meat and their scales, which are roasted and used, like rhino horn, in traditional medicines.

Within the last year alone:

  • French officials seized 110 pounds of pangolin scales, said to be worth $100,000, being transshipped via Charles De Gaulle Airport from Cameroon to Vietnam.
  •  Customs officials in Vietnam discovered a cargo of 6.2 tons of frozen pangolins being smuggled in from Indonesia.
  • Police in India stopped a shipment of scales taken from 300 pangolins.
  • Police in Thailand stopped a pickup truck carrying 102 pangolins.

Annual seizures run to about Read the rest of this entry »

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