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  • Richard Conniff

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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 ‘poaching’

“The Dinosaur Artist” Review: Bad Boy Makes Old Bones Big Business

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2018

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

On a Thursday afternoon in May 2012, a paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin was having lunch near the American Museum of Natural History in New York when she heard a news broadcast about a spectacular dinosaur being put up for auction. It was a specimen of Tarbosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old close kin and look-alike of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Heritage Auctions, which bills itself as “the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer,” had it splashed across the centerfold of its sale catalog. In midstride, with the mouth on the 4-foot-long skull gaping to show its spiky teeth, and its counterbalancing tail stretched out behind, Lot 49135 stood 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. The auction would take place that Sunday afternoon, just three days off, at a converted warehouse a short subway ride south of the museum. The estimate was that it would sell for $950,000 to $1.5 million. There was only one hitch: Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Business Behaviors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Angry Tweets Won’t Help African Lions

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016

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(Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

THE killing of Zimbabwe’s celebrated Cecil the Lion by a Minnesota dentist, on July 1 of last year unleashed a storm of moral fulmination against trophy hunting. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued an official statement calling for the hunter, Walter J. Palmer, to be hanged, and an odd bedfellow, Newt Gingrich, tweeted that Dr. Palmer and the entire team involved in the killing of Cecil should go to jail. The television personality Sharon Osbourne thought merely losing “his home, his practice and his money” would do, adding, “He has already lost his soul.”

More than one million people signed a petition demanding “justice for Cecil,” and three major American airlines announced that they would no longer transport hunting trophies. A few months later, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed lions from West and Central Africa and also India as endangered, shutting down the major markets for trophies from that region. Australia, France and the Netherlands banned lion trophy imports outright.

Unfortunately, the furor did almost nothing to slow the catastrophic decline in lion populations, down 43 percent over the past two decades. That’s because trophy hunting was never really the main problem. Lions are disappearing in Africa for a reason Read the rest of this entry »

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

Namibia’s Hidden Poaching Crisis

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 29, 2015

From the ivory black market in Okahandja, Namibia (Photo: Shi Yi)

From the ivory black market in Okahandja, Namibia (Photo: Shi Yi)

This story is dismaying for me, as I have often written about Namibia as a model of smart conservation and anti-poaching common sense. But no place is safe in the current war on wildlife. Or, let’s call it what it is –China’s continuing war on wildlife.

Here’s the reporting by Shi Yi, a Chinese investigative journalist working in southern Africa:

Caprivi imagesIt was a quiet evening in Zambezi, until a herdsman heard a gunshot in the wilderness. By the time the police arrived, they found an elephant carcass – and the tusks had been taken.

“It could be a good trophy animal. Poachers never take small ones,” said chief control warden Morgan Saisai at the Katima Mulilo office of Namibia’s Ministry of Tourism and Environment (MET).

The carcass brought the number of elephants poached in Zambezi, [a region until recently known as “the Caprivi Strip”] in the far north-eastern region of Namibia, to 37 this year.

Namibia is known for its extremely dry climate and desert landscape, but Zambezi is an exception. With the Zambezi river and its tributaries flowing through lush wetlands, it is home to nearly 10,000 resident elephants and thousands of migratory elephants, according to MET.

Poachers take advantage of this. Since 2011, more than 230 elephants have been reported poached in Namibia, more than 90% of them killed in Zambezi.

In the southwest of the country, more than 100 black rhinos have been poached. In addition to these two iconic species, poaching of other animals such as lions and pangolins is also on the rise.

There are indications that Chinese are the buyers behind some of the cases. Despite the anti-poaching messages that can be seen at many places in Namibia, I was frequently approached by locals for ..

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Legal Rhino Horn Trade? Both Sides Say Save Rhinos in Wild First

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2015

(Photo: courtesy of IUCN/ David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

(Photo: courtesy of IUCN/ David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

At a recent mediation session in Cape Town, activists for and against legalized trade in rhino horns met to find common ground on saving rhinos in the wild.  Both were mainly worried by the rising toll of animals being poached in South Africa, up to 1215 last year, from almost none in 2007.  Here’s an excerpt from the report in South Africa’s Daily Maverick:

All participants agreed that, in the light of likely voting patterns when CITES members next meet in Cape Town (in March 2016), it is unrealistic to expect any changes to the legislation for the trade in rhino products. Indeed, it appears that even if successfully motivated, legalisation in the trade of rhino products would not happen within the next decade, at which point, based on current poaching statistics, rhinos in the wild could well

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

Are Namibia’s Rhinos Now Under Siege?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 2, 2014

Early this year in The New York Times, I wrote an op-ed in praise of Namibia’s work in restoring populations of endangered black rhinos and, more important, in avoiding the poaching nightmare taking place next door in South Africa (on track to lose 1100 rhinos this year).  Here’s part of that piece:

Daniel Alfeus //Hawaxab-- aka Boxer

Daniel Alfeus //Hawaxab– aka Boxer

Namibia is just about the only place on earth to have gotten conservation right for rhinos and, incidentally, a lot of other wildlife. Over the past 20 years, it has methodically repopulated one area after another as its rhino population has steadily increased. As a result, it is now home to 1,750 of the roughly 5,000 black rhinos surviving in the wild … In neighboring South Africa, government officials stood by haplessly as poachers slaughtered almost a thousand rhinos last year alone. Namibia lost just two.

But a new report says the poaching situation there has dramatically worsened. Here’s how the story begins, from Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism:

The air over Sesfontein this time of year is usually a peculiar metallic hue, tinged by the talcum-fine dust whipped by the harsh desert wind blowing from the Skeleton Coast, 250 kilometres away to the west.

But today, the white heat seemed bleaker than ever, and another metallic taste stirred in the air: that of blood, redolent of greed and betrayal, of witchcraft and a strange death by anthrax. Boxer was dead.

As the oldest and most experienced tracker of the three-man Save the Rhino Trust’s (SRT) Damara-speaking team, Daniel Alfeus //Hawaxab – aka Boxer – was by all accounts an exemplary employee. At age 37, he had spent his entire adult life looking out for the world’s last free-roaming black rhinos of the Kunene region.

His knowledge of the rugged mountains and deep valleys, watered by secret fountains where the last free black rhinos live, played a major role in the recovery of their numbers after the 1980s slaughter during the South African occupation that left fewer than 20 animals alive. Their numbers now are officially kept secret to deter poachers – but the secrecy also serves to obscure the true state of affairs.

For 20 years, after the last reported case at Mbkondja in 1993, there had been no rhino poaching, as the SRT’s tactics of constantly patrolling the rhino ranges kept the poachers at bay. But on Christmas Day 2012,

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

Killing Elephants for Fun and Profit

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014

deadbabyelephant

A game guard points out where the poacher’s bullet killed this young elephant.

This is a hard photograph to look at, but it’s what ivory poachers do, and what we are complicit in when we buy ivory objects.

It’s from a poaching incident in Mozambique, where a survey is about to begin to determine how many elephants still survive there.  You need to know how many there are in order to protect them and keep stuff like this from happening.  Here’s the press release:

Great Elephant Survey To Commence in Mozambique

Hard Data Needed to Better Address Elephant Poaching Crisis

Maputo, Mozambique, Sept. 26, 2014 –The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population.

The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census–an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa  in response to the current escalating wave of poaching sweeping across Africa. The census will provide an essential Read the rest of this entry »

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

South Africa Busts (Another) Major Rhino Poaching Syndicate

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2014

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South Africa’s “Hawks” anti-poaching squad has broken up another major rhino poaching syndicate.  The question is whether they can bring them to trial.  The Hawks made a similar splash when they busted the “Musina Mafia” poaching gang in 2010, but the suspects have yet to come to trial four years later.

Here’s the story on the new arrests, from The Citizen:

The accused, wearing a white collared shirt and black formal pants, exited the court building cuffed  hand  and foot.

The arrest formed part of an operation led by the Hawks, who pounced on the alleged gang boss and nine other syndicate members simultaneously in various parts of the country during an arrest mission.

The alleged head of the syndicate was nabbed in front of court as he was due to appear on charges of illegal possession of scheduled substances and firearms.

The Citizen learnt that among the members arrested is the alleged right-hand-man, a Warrant Officer for the Organised Crime Unit in Pretoria, as well as the alleged kingpin’s wife, attorney, brother, a pilot and a professional poacher.

Nine of members of the syndicate were arrested, while one

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In Mozambique, A Turning Point in the War on Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 12, 2014

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

The arrest of a deadly six-man poaching gang this past Sunday in the Niassa National Reserve, on Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, could mark a turning point in the war on elephants for two African nations critical to the survival of the species.

In a 1 a.m. raid, the result of a 10-month-long investigation, local police together with wildlife scouts from Niassa and the adjacent Lugenda Wildife Reserve surrounded the gang members as they were transporting a dozen ivory tusks.  The largest of the tusks, at 57 pounds apiece, came from an elephant believed to have been at least 40 years old.  Police also confiscated two high-powered hunting rifles.  During questioning, the shooter in the group, a skilled marksman, admitted to having killed 39 elephants in the Niassa Reserve this year alone.

That admission came in a bid to obtain repatriation to Tanzania, where four of the alleged poachers are based, according to Alastair Nelson, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Mozambique program, which co-manages the Niassa reserve with the national government.  “But that’s not going to happen this time,” he said. “These guys are in prison now and we’re pretty confident they’re going to remain there. Mozambique’s new minister of tourism himself phoned the warden and asked that these men be tried under a new law passed June 20.”

That law, for the conservation of biodiversity, criminalizes poaching of endangered species.  In the past, poachers often got off with a fine.  But the new law now mandates a prison sentence of eight to 12 years, on conviction.  That represents a major change for Mozambique, where in the run-up to elections last year, local police and politicians were rumored to be themselves participating in ivory poaching.

“We’re seeing a number of things beginning to align,” said Nelson.  “We have had

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

Africa’s Senseless War on Vultures

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 28, 2014

(Illustration: Sophy Hollington)

(Illustration: Sophy Hollington)

I ran into this senseless war on vultures during my recent visit in South Africa, where the preferred poison is known popularly as “Two Step.”  Good to see the issue getting play in The New York Times, in this op-ed by conservation biologist Darcy L. Ogada:

NAIROBI, Kenya — IN July of last year, roughly 500 vultures died after they ate the pesticide-laced carcass of an elephant that had been killed by poachers in Namibia. It was an example of one poaching technique in Africa that seems to be on the rise: the poisoning of vultures so that authorities won’t be alerted to the location of the crime.

The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate lost or dead livestock. In the same way, vultures help law enforcement officers zero in on poachers.

With their keen eyesight and distinctive vantage point, vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It can take 45 to 70 minutes for the most skilled poachers to hack off two elephant tusks, and when vultures gather overhead rangers can get that much closer to apprehending the perpetrators. By poisoning a carcass and killing vultures en masse, poachers are trying to ensure that next time around there will be fewer of them to contend with.

Vulture conservationists began to take particular note of this development in July 2012, when an elephant was poached in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and 191 vultures were found scattered around the carcass, poisoned. Since then …

Read the full story here.

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Watching an Elephant Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 5, 2014

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Filmmaker Mark Deeble has a post about the unsettling experience of seeing a bull elephant fall before his eyes in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, a victim of the escalating war on elephants:

Recently, we went on a recce [reconnaissance] for the film. The destination was a distant waterhole. We set off early. It was a typical Tsavo waterhole – seemingly hewn out of ochre. That warm glow seemed reflected in the animals that, as we watched, came to drink. A magnificent bull elephant, encrusted with dry mud, stood beside a tamarind as if surveying his personal fiefdom. He seemed unimpressed by the flights of sand-grouse that tumbled from the sky, briefly patterning his skin with their whirling shadows. They sipped twice, sometimes thrice, and clapped their way back into the sky. As they disappeared into the expanse of the Taru desert and their whistling blended with the day’s first gentle movement of air through the acacia thorns, the bull stepped forward to drink. He drank calmly and deeply. He might have traveled thirty miles to reach the water. He wasn’t going to hurry now. He’d drink a while and then rest in the shade, and then drink again as the shadows lengthened – or so we thought. What actually happened was that he drank deeply and stepped away. He faltered briefly and then suddenly collapsed. His legs spasmed as he thrashed in the dust – and within minutes he was dead.

It was utterly shocking.

Our plans for the day changed rapidly after that. A call to KWS/ DSWT vet Jeremiah Poghon resulted in an impromptu postmortem beside the waterhole.  He removed the head of a poisoned arrow that had been embedded in the bull’s flank, and released over 100 liters of pus from the hidden infection –  the result of the bull’s encounter with a poacher months before.

We’d watched the bull through binoculars before he fell and there was no noticeable sign of injury. It chills me to think how many others there may be like him, walking around, apparently fine, until the poison or infection finally catches up with them.

Read the full blog, with interesting stuff on the methods of modern poachers, here.

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