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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.

Let me put that statistic in personal terms. There are only half as many animals on the planet as there were when I was a child. And if you live in a developing country, the numbers are even more dramatic.

If you dig deeper into the Living Planet Report, you will discover that animal declines are not uniform around the world. Freshwater species have been especially hard hit, down 76% in my lifetime, compared to “just” 39% for terrestrial and marine species. Animal populations in Latin America are down a shocking 83%. Elsewhere in the species-rich tropics, populations are down 56% percent compared to 36% in temperate zones. The world’s network of protected areas is helping limit the losses as animal populations in parks and wildlife refuges are only down 18%. While the magnitude of declines may vary, the trend lines all point in the same troubling direction — down.

Why are we seeing these alarming trends? Simply put, they are a consequence of the growing demands of the human population. More people are consuming more natural resources. And insodoing, they are clearing forests, plowing grasslands, polluting waters, and emptying the oceans.

This is not just a problem for wildlife. It’s a problem for you and me, too. As I wrote about in a previous LiveScience post, humans are consuming natural resources faster than nature can replenish them. Every year, we use 1.5 planet’s worth of natural resources. Overshoot day marks the day when we have used up our annual supply of renewable resources and start spending down the Earth’s natural capital. This year that day was August 20, and it comes earlier every year.

Instead of living sustainably within our ecological means, we are borrowing from our future to pay for our present. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 60% of ecosystem services — things like water supplies, fish stocks, fertile soils, and storm protection — are already in decline because of human impacts on the natural environment. Sometimes you need to dip into your savings to make ends meet, but you go back to saving again as soon as you can. Well people have been dipping into the planet’s natural capital account since 1975, and every year we take more than we took the year before.

So what are we to do? When my colleagues and I reflect on our conservation work, we see hope in WWF’s past accomplishments to protect the world’s most important places like the Amazon and iconic species. When we take a clear-eyed look at the trends described in the LPR, we also know we will have to accomplish much more in the future. I am most excited about three things that WWF is doing to start to reverse the current trends in animal populations.

First, we are looking at our conservation strategies with fresh eyes to ask how they might be scaled up to achieve larger conservation impact. The secret lies in developing strategies that can be implemented by others, effectively multiplying the impact that WWF could have by itself. To do that, we are using science to develop forecasts of how much conservation impact we think a project may have in order to identify the most promising strategies. And we are using impact evaluations — common in the health sector but cutting edge in conservation — to rigorously measure the impacts of strategies so that we better understand the conditions under which they can be successfully replicated.

An example of a multiplicative strategy with great potential impact is community-based conservation. WWF has been working in close collaboration with a number of communities in Namibia to develop their own conservation programs. The results have been a resurgence of rhinos, lions and other wildlife, and economic development opportunity for local people. Variations of this strategy are now being developed with communities all around the world, from Nepal, to the Arctic, and even with Native American communities in the Northern Great Plains of the US.

Finally, WWF is working with the private sector and with governments to help them incorporate natural capital considerations into their business and development decisions. WWF and The Coca-Cola Company have already collaborated to significantly reduce the amount of water used to produce beverages and other products. WWF scientists are now working with Coke to use natural capital accounting to source agricultural commodities that are sustainably produced and will contribute positively to watershed health. In Belize, WWF scientists have helped government officials and stakeholder groups to develop a science-based coastal zone management plan that balances economic development with protection of vital natural capital such as coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove forests that attract tourists, sustain fisheries, and protect coastal towns and infrastructure

These strategies give me hope in the face of the LPR trends because they show  the promise of what might be accomplished when conservation harnesses the creative potential of innovation and the multiplicative power of collaboration.

  • 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.

The discovery seems straight out of the golden age of exploration. It’s a story about modern technology and adrenaline-pumping adventure producing some good old fashioned field science. The key technology was GPS tracking collars that Robin and colleagues used to document the movement of eight female zebra for several months through the dry and wet seasons. But first they had to get the collars onto wild zebra – no easy task! In their scientific paper about the discovery, there is a very clinical explanation: "Adult female zebras (n=8) were darted from the air or ground and immobilized using a mixture of etorphine hydrochloride, azaperone and hyaluronidase. The age and family group size were estimated for each individual, and a satellite-tracking collar attached.”

The work began when team members, including a wildlife veterinarian and one of Namibia's best chopper pilots, went swooping over the bush in a helicopter looking for a healthy female zebra. The vet would lean out to sedate the animal with a tranquilizer dart. The team would then jump out the helicopter, put the collar on the animal, take some measurements and blood samples, and administer a drug to wake the animal back up. All the while they had to be on the lookout for protective and possibly dangerous family members who were not tranquilized. One kick from an angry zebra and the operation is over for you. 

Once the zebra were collared, and everyone safely back in the helicopter, technology took over the work. The GPS units recorded the precise location of each animal every 5 hours, and uploaded the data via satellite communications. When Robin plotted the data on a map upon his return from Christmas holiday in 2013, he and other wildlife biologists were stunned to see the zebras' long-distance migration route.

They had collared the animals in October, during the dry season near the Chobe River in Namibia. The zebra stayed there until early December, when one, and then the others, started moving south. By late December, seven of the 8 zebra had traveled more than 150 miles to Nxai Pan; the eighth animal arrived in early January. As more GPS data came in, Robin and colleagues could see that the zebra remained at Nxai pan for almost two months. Then, as the grass on the pan started to dry out, they headed back north to Chobe where they had started their migration.

People in Namibia have long known that zebra leave Salambala conservancy, which borders the Chobe River, at the end of the dry season, but they didn’t know where they went. Likewise, people knew that zebras came to Nxai Pan during the wet season but didn’t know where they came from. Thanks to Robin and team's adventurous and high tech fieldwork, the dots are now connected. We know that it’s the same zebra traveling 150 miles each way between Chobe and Nxai Pan, the longest documented land migration of any mammal in Africa.

And it turns out that this superlative is part of an even bigger one. The entire migration takes place within the boundaries of the largest multi-country conservation area in the world—the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, commonly known as KAZA.

This 109 million acre expanse covers five countries. It was established in 2011 by the governments of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in recognition of the large-scale habitat needs of some of Africa’s most magnificent wildlife species.

KAZA reflects the reality that wildlife never has, and never will, abide by the political boundaries that humans draw on maps. Today, elephants, wild dogs, wattled cranes and both black and white rhinos call KAZA home and benefit from protection within its vast landscape.

With this in mind, we know that the previously unknown migration is more than a cool discovery. It reminds us of the value of doing science in the field in order to explore and better understand a natural world that is still full of surprise. And it underscores how essential large-landscape conservation is for preserving spectacular phenomena like the longest zebra migration in the world.

To glimpse this process from the researcher’s point of view, check out this stunning short video:

  • 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: 29 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.

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