Best of our wild blogs: 7 Mar 13

Native Fig Species as a Keystone Resource for the Singapore Urban Environment
from Raffles Museum News

Random Gallery - The Courtesan
from Butterflies of Singapore

Sharing about our shores with Raffles Institution's Community Advocates
from wild shores of singapore

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Stop ivory poaching or face sanctions, nations warned at Cites

'Gang of eight' countries at the heart of surge in elephant slaughters must deliver plans with goals for the next 12 months
Damian Carrington The Guardian 6 Mar 13;

The "gang of eight" nations at the heart of an unprecedented surge in African elephant killing must be hit with heavy trade sanctions, according to the world's top illegal ivory official. The countries, including Kenya, Thailand and China, could be banned from all wildlife trade, including hugely lucrative orchid and crocodile skin exports.

Tom Milliken, who runs the official global project that tracks illegal ivory, said every report his group, the Elephant Trade Information System, had made since it started in 1998 had identified the eight nations as the major players in the trade, but to no effect. "There has been no discernible impact from previous Cites measures," he said at the 178-nation summit of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Bangkok. "Unless Cites scales up and takes this seriously, we are not going to win this thing." This Cites meeting should be the time sanctions should be used, he said.

Tom de Meulenaer, a senior Cites official, said the body's ruling committee had finally lost patience over the issue, and if the eight countries did not produce hard action plans for the next 12 months, it was "not unlikely" that sanctions would be implemented. Milliken said: "Can you imagine the effect on Thailand, Vietnam and China? The orchid and crocodile skin trades alone are massive."

It was revealed on Wednesday that the slaughter of elephants for their ivory has doubled in a decade, while ivory seizures have tripled to an all-time high, according to a new report from Cites, the UN environment programme and others. There were 17 large-scale seizures – hundreds of tusks each – in 2011, the last full year for which data is available, when previously eight seizures was considered a very bad year.

The report examined 60 sites in Africa, representing about 40% of the half million or so elephants remaining and recorded 17,000 deaths in 2011. "That is above the capacity of the elephant population to replace itself," said Julian Blanc, who heads the monitoring of illegal killing of elephants project.

The so-called gang of eight includes the source countries Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, countries through which ivory is smuggled, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and destination countries, Thailand and China. A particular problem is Thailand's legal domestic market in ivory, which allows illegal African ivory to be laundered.

Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister, opened the Cites conference by pledging to outlaw the domestic market at some point. But Ben Janse van Rensburg, chief of enforcement at Cites, cast doubt on the pledge on Wednesday: "If there is any phasing out of their domestic market, it is likely to be a very long process."

Cites is run by a standing committee of 20 nations which has demanded the gang of eight deliver action plans with concrete goals and timelines for the next 12 months. If these are not delivered or adhered to, Cites can ban its 178 member nations from importing any wildlife products from offending nations. Last week, it imposed this penalty on Guinea, for persistent violation of a ban on the export of great apes.

Cites is seeking stronger powers to sanction at the Bangkok summit. It is also seeking funding to pay for anti-poaching and smuggling measures: a fund set up in August 2012 aiming to raise $100m has so far received only $640,000.

The task faced by law enforcement authorities is formidable, said Milliken. The scale of seizures, for example 6.3 tonnes in Malaysia in November, showed the illegal trade was the work of major organised crime syndicates. "They are operating with relative impunity and with little fear of prosecution," he said. Van Rensburg said the criminal "kingpins" needed to be targeted, that tougher penalties were needed and that officers need to also "follow the money" using money laundering laws.

Milliken said the lack of a system for reporting ivory stockpiles, from which tusks were disappearing every year, meant it was very hard to track illegal activity: "Did someone just mow down a herd of elephants, or did someone just open a door?" He also criticised the lack of mandatory forensic testing of seized ivory to determine where it had come from. "It is very disappointing to know that 40, 50, 70 tonnes of ivory can be seized, but we have no idea of where it is from."

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New report warns of uncertain future for African elephants

IUCN 6 Mar 13;

Bangkok, 6 March 2013— Populations of elephants in Africa continue to be under severe threat as the illegal trade in ivory grows - with double the numbers of elephants killed and triple the amounts of ivory seized, over the last decade.

According to a new report entitled “Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis”, increasing poaching levels, as well as loss of habitat are threatening the survival of African elephant populations in Central Africa as well as previously secure populations in West, Southern and Eastern Africa.

The report - produced by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) - says that systematic monitoring of large-scale seizures of ivory destined for Asia is indicative of the involvement of criminal networks, which are increasingly active and entrenched in the trafficking of ivory between Africa and Asia.

At sites monitored through the CITES-led Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme alone, which hold approximately 40% of the total elephant population in Africa, an estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011. Initial data from 2012 shows that the situation did not improve. However, overall figures may be much higher.

These threats compound the most important long-term threat to the species’ survival – increasing loss of habitat as a result of rapid human population growth and large-scale land conversion for agriculture, which provides for international markets.

"CITES must re-engage on illegal wildlife crime with a renewed sense of purpose, commitment, creativity, cooperation and energy involving range states and transit countries to consuming nations of products such as ivory," says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director.

"The surge in the killing of elephants in Africa and the illegal taking of other listed species globally threatens not only wildlife populations but the livelihoods of millions who depend on tourism for a living and the lives of those wardens and wildlife staff who are attempting to stem the illegal tide."

“This report provides clear evidence that adequate human and financial resources, the sharing of know-how, raising public awareness in consumer countries, and strong law enforcement must all be in place if we are to curb the disturbing rise in poaching and illegal trade," says John Scanlon, Secretary-General of CITES.

The report recommends critical actions, including improved law-enforcement across the entire illegal ivory supply chain and strengthened national legislative frameworks. Training of enforcement officers in the use of tracking, intelligence networks and innovative techniques, such as forensic analysis, is urgently needed.

“Urgent action is needed to address the growing challenges elephant populations are facing, but it will only happen if there is adequate political will to do so,” says Dr Holly Dublin, Chair of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.

Better international collaboration across range states, transit countries and consumer markets - through the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, CITES, INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, the World Bank and other international actors – is needed in order to enhance law enforcement - from the field to the judiciary - to deter criminal activities and combat illegal trade.

These efforts include the need to fight collusive corruption, identifying syndicates and reducing demand.

“Organized criminal networks are cashing in on the elephant poaching crisis, trafficking ivory in unprecedented volumes and operating with relative impunity and with little fear of prosecution,” says Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s ivory trade expert.

Elephants are also threatened by the increasing loss of habitat in around 29 per cent of their range as a result of rapid human population growth and agricultural expansion.

Currently, some models suggest this figure may increase to 63 per cent by 2050, a major additional threat to the survival of the elephant in the long-term.

Other key findings from the report

• Large-scale seizures of ivory (consignments of over 800 kg) destined for Asia have more than doubled since 2009 and reached an all-time high in 2011.

• Large movements of ivory that comprise the tusks of hundreds of elephants in a single shipment are indicative of the increasingly active grip of highly organized criminal networks on Africa’s illicit ivory trade.

• These criminal networks operate with relative impunity as there is almost no evidence of successful arrests, prosecutions or convictions.

• Globally, illegal ivory trade activity has more than doubled since 2007, and is now over three times larger than it was in 1998.

• The prevalence of unregulated domestic ivory markets in many African cities, coupled with the growing number of Asian nationals residing in Africa also facilitates the illegal trade in ivory out of Africa.

• Poaching is spreading primarily as a result of weak governance and rising demand for illegal ivory in the rapidly growing economies of Asia, particularly China, which is the world’s largest destination markets.

• The high levels of poaching are, in some cases, facilitated by conflicts that, through lawlessness and ensuing abundance of small arms, provide optimal conditions for the illegal killing of elephants.

The report - released in Bangkok, at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CITES convention - combines information from sources including the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) African Elephant Specialist Group, MIKE and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), managed by TRAFFIC on behalf of CITES.

African forest elephants decline by 62% in 10 years
BBC News 5 Mar 13;

Forest elephant numbers have decreased by 62% across Central Africa over the last 10 years, according to a study.

The analysis confirmed fears that African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are heading for extinction, possibly within the next decade.

Conservationists said "effective, rapid, multi-level action is imperative" in order to save the elephants.

They are concerned the forest elephants are being killed for their ivory.

Results of the study, undertaken by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and several other conservation organisations, are published in the scientific journal PLoS One.

Over 60 co-authors contributed to the study, which was led by Dr Fiona Maisels, a WCS conservation scientist from the School of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling, and Dr Samantha Strindberg, also a WCS conservation scientist.

"Although we were expecting to see these results, we were horrified that the decline over the period of a mere decade was over 60%," Dr Maisels told BBC Nature.

Findings also indicated that large areas where the elephants ranged just 10 years ago now have very few elephants remaining.
Data drive

Scientists surveyed forests in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

Dr Maisels said survey teams spent "91,600 person-days... walking over 8,000 miles (12,875km)" to compile the largest amount of African forest elephant data ever collected.

"For elephants, we can get a standardised measure of their abundance using their dung piles. There were 11,000 dung piles in our dataset," said Dr Maisels.

She said the teams also recorded important "human signs" such as snares and bullet casings during the field missions from 2002 to 2011.

The results confirmed what scientists already suspected.

"Forest elephants were increasingly uncommon in places with high human density, high levels of infrastructure such as roads, high hunting intensity, and poor governance - indicated by levels of corruption and absence of law enforcement," commented Dr Maisels.

"We were also shocked to see that huge parts of the reasonably intact African forests have lost most of their elephants."
The bigger picture

Conservationists suggest that almost one-third of the land where African forest elephants were living 10 years ago has become dangerous for animals, since poachers can access these areas using road networks meant for logging.

The paper has been released to coincide with the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), taking place in Bangkok from 3-14 March.

Dr Maisels explained that research from Cites' Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme, has shown that the increase in poaching levels across Africa strongly correlates with trends in consumer demand in the Far East.

Thailand's prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has already agreed at this year's Cites convention that she will amend Thai laws to ban the legal trade in ivory.

Now conservationists are calling for immediate action in order to protect the remaining forest elephant populations.

"The WCS is advising that Cites review the enforcement gaps and needs - at all points in the trade chain from the field to the marketplace - that have led to the failure of the current ivory trade regulation system," Dr Maisels said.

"Reducing chronic corruption and improving poor law enforcement, which facilitate poaching and trade, are crucial. It is also vital to improve control of import and sales of wildlife goods by the recipient and transit countries of illegal ivory, especially in Asia," she continued.

"The recipient nations, with the international community, should invest heavily in public education and outreach to inform consumers of the ramifications of the ivory trade," Dr Maisels concluded.

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The fight to save threatened sharks and rays

WWF 6 Mar 13;

Forty years ago the international community decided to combat the critical issue of trading endangered species globally.

In Washington the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) was born with the objective to protect wild plants and animals from the risk of extinction.

To do this plants and animals can be proposed for listing on the convention`s appendices I, II and III. Successful listing either ban trade, limit it if harvesting is done within sustainable levels or help conserve them.

The increased level of threat facing many of our marine species due to unsustainable fishing is being discussed here in Bangkok during the 16th Conference of the Parties of CITES. It is a chance for the 178 countries that are members of the convention to demonstrate that it can fulfil its core objective for five species of sharks, two species of manta ray and one species of sawfish.

Sharks and rays are grouped together because of their anatomical similarity having skeletons of cartilage rather than bone. They are especially vulnerable to overfishing. Compared to most fish species, they take a long time to reach an age where they can reproductive and have relatively few offspring in their lifetimes.

Some species such as hammerhead sharks and manta rays aggregate in large numbers at certain times of the year making themselves even more vulnerable to being fished.

Because of their role as apex predators, they are the tigers of the sea, their extinction from the ocean would have profound and devastating ecological consequences.

The market for shark and ray products is first and foremost a luxury one. The fins, in the case of certain shark species, are used in shark fin soup. It`s a status symbol to include sharks fin as a standard menu item in Chinese celebratory banquets. Hammerhead shark fin is a particular favourite and has been recorded as costing as much as $135/kg in Hong Kong.

The gill plates, in the case of manta rays, are used in China for a tonic soup that has become fashionable because of its perceived medicinal properties, even though it is not in the traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia. This is a recent trend and has caused the demise of some population of manta ray to decrease by up to 86% in the last six to eight years.

Over the years a few shark species have been listed by CITES including the whale and basking sharks, and great white shark, which has limited international trade to sustainable levels and helped reduce the threat of overfishing.

Nevertheless, recent meetings have failed to adopt proposals to list more commercially important species.

In 2000 proposals relating to the three largest hammerhead shark species and the oceanic whitetip shark, both of which are valued for their fins, and the porbeagle shark, which is valued for both fins and meat failed to be adopted.

Hammerheads, whitetip and porbeagle sharks are up for debate again, sponsored on this occasion by a range of countries across the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Meanwhile, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are proposing that manta rays also be added to limit trade.

It should be remembered that the core objective of CITES is to protect wild fauna and flora from over-exploitation through international trade. It is time that the convention fulfilled this mandate with respect to these uniquely vulnerable and iconic species.

5 Shark Species May Gain Protection Boost from New Findings
Two new studies make clear the global threat to sharks as well as some of the challenges conservationists face, just in time for an international meeting this week that could decide the fate of several of the iconic species
Tara Haelle Scientific American 6 Mar 13;

As 177 nations gather in Bangkok this week to deliberate trade restrictions on potentially endangered animals, new research reveals how important these deliberations are to the long-term survival of five species of sharks.

A study published March 1 in Marine Policy reported new, higher estimates for the numbers of sharks killed yearly: approximately 100 million sharks. Meanwhile another study published February 20 in PLoS ONE, describing the migratory patterns of the highly threatened oceanic whitetip shark, reveals why international cooperation may be the last option available to preventing this shark's extinction.

Among the 71 proposals being considered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok March 3–14 are four involving marine species. The proposals would move the oceanic whitetip shark, the porbeagle shark, all three species of hammerheads and all species of manta rays to an Appendix II listing, which requires anyone wishing to trade them to first procure a permit. The whitetip, porbeagle and scalloped hammerhead all had proposals considered at the last CITES meeting in 2010 but each narrowly missed the two thirds majority needed for adoption.

But shark researchers and conservation specialists hope that the new research showing just how threatened these sharks are might be enough this year for these sharks to join the only three other sharks listed on Appendix II: the whale shark, the basking shark and the great white.

“CITES is going to be a dialogue between nations that want to protect their sharks and the financial interests that want to see maximum yield and maximum sustainable yield,” says Rick MacPherson, the conservation programs director at the Coral Reef Alliance. Those nations wanting to protect sharks include an unusually high 37 countries this year. “However, the number for maximum sustainable yields are probably overestimated,” he adds.

That unsustainable level of shark fishing is exactly what the new Marine Policy paper shows. Annual shark mortality was previously estimated at 73 million, but this study added reported catch at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and estimates of unreported landings and finned sharks for an estimated range of 63 million to 273 million sharks killed each year.

Barriers to protection
Sharks face a triple threat: “They are really migratory, have a really low reproductive capacity and are subjected to heavy fishing driven by a demand for international trade,” says Elizabeth Wilson, the manager of the Global Shark Conservation Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts, who partly funded both new studies. On top of that, few regulations and “fragmented governance”—the patchwork policies across all the countries’ waters where sharks roam—impede meaningful shark protection strategies.

“Just the fact that they migrate between political jurisdictions complicates things,” says David Shiffman, a graduate student in ecosystem science and policy at the University of Miami. “Even if one or two countries are responsible with fisheries management, if the animal doesn’t spend all its time there, then it can still be severely overfished.” In the oceanic whitetip study, Demian Chapman, of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, S.U.N.Y. and colleagues attached pop-up satellite tags to 11 oceanic whitetips off Cat Island in the Bahamas in May 2011. All but one tag reported data for up to 245 days and revealed that the sharks spent about 68 percent of their time in the Bahamas’s Exclusive Economic Zone, where long-lining and commercial trade of sharks is outlawed. The rest of that time they roamed more than 16,000 square kilometers of ocean, traveling nearly 2,000 kilometers from the safe Bahamian waters.

These findings mean two things: shark sanctuaries work (all the tagged sharks eventually returned to the Bahamas)—but that they are insufficient to protect open-water sharks. “Once you get into the open ocean, there are relatively few and sometimes no rules governing what you can and can’t take out of the water,” Shiffman says. One in six shark and ray species are classified as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but one in three species of open-ocean sharks are threatened.

Then there are sharks’ life histories. These predators may be fishes, but biologically they resemble mammals more than other fishes. “Sharks management is such a conundrum for fisheries management organizations because they’re so used to fish, and sharks don’t lend themselves to traditional fisheries management policies,” MacPherson says. Unlike most fishes, sharks are slow to sexually mature, physically mate instead of spawning, have long gestation periods and produce few litters of pups. Consider the oceanic whitetip and the swordfish: Oceanic whitetips (pdf) take four to seven years to reach maturity, gestate for nine to twelve months and have litters of five to six pups every two years. Swordfish reach maturity in two to three years and produce up to 1.5 million eggs when they spawn multiple times a year, with gestations lasting about 2.5 days.

But like whales, swordfish and tuna, sharks have become big industry tickets, especially because the demand for fins began rising in the 1970s. Sharks have gone from being accidental bycatch to targets for their fins, meat, cartilage and liver oil—but regulations have not kept pace with fishing, MacPherson says. The large fins of oceanic whitetips fetch about $90 per kilogram; hammerhead fins, also large for their size, bring in $110 to $220 per kilogram. Like other pelagic fishes (those that live in the open sea or in surface waters), many sharks travel far and wide. Just a couple of sharks can pay for a day’s worth of fishing. Like whales, however, sharks cannot recover quickly from overfishing. (Fishes that can recover relatively quickly are those that grow quickly and reproduce by spawning, such as mahi-mahi, Shiffman says.) Taken together, sharks are “the fishes that are most likely to go extinct within the next few decades,” Shiffman says.

What a CITES listing would mean
A listing on CITES Appendix II might help stanch the rapid population declines of oceanic whitetips, scalloped hammerheads and porbeagles—all three have declined 90 to 99 percent since the 1950s. “For sharks and rays, it would make a world of difference,” Pew’s Wilson says. “The Appendix II listing would require countries to ensure that their exports were legal and sustainable,” she says. Fishermen might catch these sharks in open international waters but they cannot sell them without a permit. Trade without permits can lead to heavy penalties, or even sanctions on a country.

Several regional fisheries management organizations already have protections in place for the oceanic whitetip, but they are difficult to enforce. “The truth is, these regional fisheries management organizations don’t have the teeth and don’t monitor trade like CITES,” says Stony Brook’s Chapman, senior author of the PLoS oceanic whitetip study. “Countries like the U.S., Australia and New Zealand invest a lot of money in monitoring catch, doing stock assessment and enforcing regulations. Many developing countries can’t do that, but they do have customs and police. They do have the ability to say you can’t export that or you can only export that if it’s sustainable.”

The Marine Policy paper makes plain that current shark fishing levels are not sustainable. Annual shark exploitation rates range from 6.4 to 7.9 percent, the paper reported, but shark rebound rates average 4.9 percent a year. A CITES listing would mean permits could not be issued unless fishermen could show they had changed their practices to fish the sharks more sustainably. “That should help the population of a heavily exploited species to recover,” Shiffman says. And recovery means preservation of some of the ocean’s most important species.

“Hammerheads and manta rays in particular are very iconic animals,” Shiffman says. “They’re culturally significant and very important in terms of ecotourism.” Shark-related tourism added $800 million to the Bahamian economy alone over the past 20 years, according to Pew. The predators also are important to the health of entire marine ecosystems. “Oceanic sharks do a pretty good job of maintaining strong tuna stocks by culling the small and genetically weaker ones, similar to the role of the lion in the Serengeti,” MacPherson says.

The bottom line, as was true with whales and still is with bluefin tuna and other threatened fishes, is that ensuring shark species’ survival also ensures the survival of multiple fisheries. “Pro-shark protection or pro-whale protection is not anti-fishing,” MacPherson says. “If we want fishing for all the benefits it derives, whether it’s sustenance or it’s economic, if we want that for the future, we have to be willing to change our practices.”

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