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World Wildlife Fund Science Driven

filtered by category: Species

  • Date: 30 September 2014
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

Today, World Wildlife Fund released the 2014 Living Planet Report. The report is always a must read update on the state of the planet, but this edition is especially important for anyone who cares about biodiversity. The headline finding is that vertebrate populations around the world have declined by an average of 52% between 1970 and 2010.

The situation is even worse if we look at the tropics, with an 83% species decline in Latin America. These are sobering statistics for me, and I’m sure for you as well.

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  • Date: 27 May 2014
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be an explorer? To discover a natural wonder? Being a conservation biologist, I always hope I might experience that in some small way. But in our rapidly developing world, where wilderness continues to shrink, it can feel like there is nothing big left to discover. Yet my colleague Robin Naidoo and his collaborators in Namibia (WWF, Ministry of Environment and Tourism) and Botswana (Elephants Without Borders) have done just that. They have discovered the longest known land mammal migration in Africa — a 300+ mile seasonal trek by Burchell’s zebra (their newly published full study appears in Oryx).

Adding to the surprise, this journey is not happening in the Serengeti that is so famous for massive wildlife migrations. It is happening in southern Africa, where up to several thousand zebra migrate back and forth between the Chobe River floodplains in Namibia and Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana.

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  • Date: 20 November 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

My last day in the polar bear capital of Churchill, Manitoba got off to a difficult start. But I soon discovered some optimism and hope for how contact between polar bears and people might be managed in a way that is safer for everyone.

After lunch, I was able to see a polar bear get released from "polar bear jail." About a week before I arrived in Churchill, a polar bear went on a burglary spree, breaking into a local resident's cabin and stealing half of a moose. Wildlife officers tracked the burglar bear down and put him in what’s commonly known as polar bear jail, along with about 10 other problem bears. These bears are isolated in a specially designed holding facility for a few days, sometimes even up to a few weeks. The idea is to give the problematic bears an unpleasant but harmless experience that will make them want to stay away from people. On this day, an inmate bear was going to be released back into the wild. It was a quick and exciting operation.

Here is a short homemade video of the relocation taken with Google Glass

Inside the facility, the bear was given a drug to immobilize it. Outside, the bear was then placed into a heavy duty net spread on the ground. As a helicopter hovered above the bear, wildlife officers hooked the net to a tether from the helicopter. The helicopter lifted the bear, but officers quickly realized the bear’s head was dangling out of the net. So the helicopter set the bear back down for an immediate adjustment and then off they went again. The bear would be flown 30-40 miles out of town and released, hopefully convinced that Churchill was not a place to visit again.

Jailing and releasing bears in this way is serious and expensive business. Each release can cost about $2000 for the helicopter, pilots, etc. But it's proving to be a valuable way for the people of Churchill to live with the bears that so many tourists are eager to see. In fact, the release I witnessed was paid for by Natural Habitat Adventures, the company with which I had traveled to Churchill.

As arctic sea ice diminishes in the face of climate change, bears will have to spend more time on land. That will increase the likelihood that bears and people encounter each other. And that will make effective strategies for managing human-bear interactions an essential part of polar bear conservation.

  • Date: 19 November 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

I recently traveled to Churchill, Manitoba—known as the polar bear capital of the world. It's a great place to observe polar bears in late autumn because the normally solitary predators gather along the shore, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so that they can head out on the ice to hunt seals.

Much of the conversation with fellow travelers was about climate change, and how it is threatening many polar bear populations, including the one around Churchill. Arctic sea ice is diminishing as temperatures rise and polar bears are spending more and more time on land.

On our last morning in town, we got a first-hand lesson in another threat facing polar bears—increasing contact with people.

Around 5am, a young woman was attacked by a polar bear while walking to work. A local resident heard the woman’s screams and ran outside to help. Consequently, the bear turned on him. In response to the attacks, two bears were killed—the male responsible for the attacks and a female who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, the female also had a cub that was not visible when she was shot. The cub was taken into captivity and is being placed into the International Polar Bear Conservation Center facility, in Winnipeg.

This was a tragic and dangerous incident. Thankfully, the two people are recovering well from the injuries, and local residents along with the Polar Bear Alert Program (run for many years now by the Govt. of Manitoba) were able to respond quickly.

Even though polar bears regularly wander through town during this time of year, this was not a normal incident in Churchill, One other attack occurred a month prior but that was the first since 2008. Residents and tourists alike were shaken up. They were concerned about the two people who were injured, upset about the bears that were killed, and questioning what could have been done to prevent it.

I found some optimism after breakfast when I had a chance to meet a dogsledder from a nearby community. With the bear attack fresh in mind, I wondered if bears were a threat to his dogs. He hadn't personally lost any dogs to polar bears, but he described several times when bears knocked down his dog yard fence. A polar bear even slept next to one of the doghouses.

The dogsledder then remarked on how much he and other dog mushers appreciated WWF's assistance to acquire buffalo fencing that bears couldn't knock down and food storage containers that bears couldn't break into. I hadn't yet told him that I worked for WWF, so it felt like a genuine endorsement for WWF's conservation work in the region.

Fencing, bear-proof containers, local polar bear patrols and warning plans for when bears enter town are all part of efforts, from WWF and local governments and residents, to reduce conflict between polar bears and people. As the bears come in contact with communities more frequently, these efforts will have to increase and more solutions found.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about a moment from my trip that gave me great hope for the future of polar bears in the region and an innovative solution to the problem of human-polar bear conflict.

  • Date: 30 October 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

What would Halloween be like without bats? Maybe a little less scary. Probably a little less fun.

A really scary thought is to imagine what the world would be like if we didn't have any bats at all.

There are about 1200 species of bats in the world—one in every five mammal species. The largest bat is the flying fox, with a wingspan of six feet! The smallest species is the bumblebee bat that weighs less than a penny. Among all of those species, only three are vampires, so you don't really have to worry much about bats sucking your blood.

Two-thirds of bat species feed on insects and other small prey. They are our nighttime pest patrol. One Mexican free-tailed bat can eat about 1000 mosquitoes per hour. The large colony of 30 million bats in Bracken Cave in Texas consumes about 250 tons of insects every night. Just 150 big brown bats can eat 33 million root worm pests.

Without bats, we'd have more pests and our crops would suffer from more pest damage.

Other bat species feed on flowers and fruits, acting act as pollinators and seed dispersers, especially in deserts and rain forests. Bats pollinate wild bananas, the famous saguaro cactus, and durian, the world's most expensive fruit. Without bats, rain forests would recover more slowly from disturbances. We would also not have tequila—the agave plant from which tequila is made depends on the Mexican long-tongued bat to pollinate it.

Bats are threatened by loss of habitat, especially their roosting sites. You can help bats by protecting their roost sites and maybe building a bat house for your yard.

Bats are also vulnerable to being killed by wind turbines. That risk can be reduced through careful siting of wind power developments away from important bat roosts and migration routes, and by raising the cutout speed for turbines so that they aren't spinning in low wind (read low power) conditions when bats are most active. Another nefarious threat is white-nose syndrome, a disease that is wiping out many bat populations in North America.

To learn more about the importance of bats, check out my video about A World Without Bats below and on History.com.

Adopt a vampire bat.

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