Archive September 2009

Solutions to poaching?- how about ways to encourage it? Brendan Moyle Sep 30

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Wildlife poaching is a pretty serious threat to a lot of species. In theory, it’s one of those issues where the solution seems so clear, but implementing that solution is actually very, very hard.

We do though, seem to have a much better understanding of how to encourage and sustain poachers. Afterall, tigers in large parts of Asia are on the brink of extinction. Recent reports from Africa indicate that elephants are being poached at a greater rate than the horrors of the 1980s.

There are I think, two main proximate causes of these very conspicuous policy failures. First, we tend to treat poaching- because it is a wildlife problem- as a problem that biologists are trained to fix. But with all deference to my zoology colleagues, they don’t do courses in black-market economics and law enforcement. I wouldn’t trust many of my economist colleagues to undertake an ecological survey either. So there tends to be a lot of noise and talk, and policies that attack the symptoms of the trade get implemented. There’s not a lot of direct action to combat the main drivers of poaching.

The second, is that poachers and smugglers are assumed to be idiots. In other words, all you have to is bust one conspiracy or monitor one route into a country, and the smugglers will give up. They won’t figure out how to get around these enforcement measures. This leads to a lot of anti-poaching policy being more of the same. Repeat the same measures over and over in increasing intensity, and hope that this will fix the problem. Alas, ivory poachers have abandoned the legal supply routes in favour of routes using shipping containers, mislabeled as machine-parts or the like. It really doesn’t matter anymore how hard we squeeze the legal trade (irregular shipments from Southern Africa). The smuggler’s don’t care because they aren’t using that route.

So, how have we managed to inflate the levels of poaching for tigers and elephants so high again?

What we have learned in the wildlife smuggling business, is that trade bans in wildlife products only give you a short-term payoff. When you ban trade in certain wildlife products, then you get a drop in poaching because all the causal and small scale operations collapse. They don’t have the resources or expertise to get around the law enforcement measures. And if you’re really lucky, demand for the wildlife products will collapse. This collapse in demand doesn’t happen a lot.

So, poaching dips down after the ban. Demand in importing countries remains high though, so the black-market price starts to rise. This lures in new smuggling firms. These are criminal firms that have the resources, have the expertise and ability to get around the law enforcement agencies. In other words, you replace casual and small scale poachers with big, organised criminal conspiracies.

That I’m afraid, then makes the problem a lot worse. Organised criminal firms are harder to stop than small-scale firms. The lesson really is that a trade ban in wildlife products has a short-shelf life. It buys you time to implement better management systems. In Africa, the CITES ban in 1989 was accompanied by a period of 4 years of increased enforcement. This trickled away as Western donors curbed funding. As Asian stockpiles of ivory ran down, prices soared again and poaching accelerated.

Similarly with tigers, the trade bans in tiger-parts has lead to sky-rocketing black-market prices and the involvement of resourceful and clever criminal conspiracies. We’re effectively trying to save tigers by putting a bounty of US$50k on every wild tiger in Asia. So far that doesn’t seem to be working.

What we tend to get however, is the assumption because the ban did reduce poaching once, perpetuating the ban will someday, somehow, deliver the same reduction again.

Takapu Photos Brendan Moyle Sep 29

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The gannet is indigenous to NZ, rather than an endemic species. So they are also found in Australia. There is a very nice colony near Muriwai, close to Auckland.

They are a bit of a pleasure to photograph because unlike most of our forest birds, they’re big and don’t hide in the forest canopy. You just have to point the camera at the birds and track it fly.
On the other hand they can really move, so the trick here is to photograph them when they’re flying upwind.


Link to larger image


Link to larger image

Stitchbird or Hihi Photo Brendan Moyle Sep 29

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The hihi is one of New Zealand’s rarest forest birds. Just a few years ago, it was restricted to Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf- it had been extinct on the mainland for about a century. The photo above was taken at Karori, where some birds have been translocated.

The photo is of a male- only the male has a jet black head.

Mating is pretty rough by bird standards. Females with developing eggs will be pursued by any (and several) males in the vicinity. Copulation may be forced on the female. In order to maximise the odds a male succeeds in fertilising the eggs, he will produce a lot of sperm in an effort to dilute the contributions of others.

Like most of our forest birds, the hihi is really not fond of being round rats and feral cats.

In terms of the photo, I’ve worked a little with some blurring on the background :)

Optimism versus common-sense Brendan Moyle Sep 28

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One of the recurrent problems with conservation in New Zealand is few people really ‘get’ the scope of the problem and the amount of resources we actually put into halting species decline.

Consider the following map-

Now, about a third of this terrestrial area is allocated as conservation reserves. But when we start thinking about our conservation successes, most occur on an ecological scale that is truly insignificant.

The kakapo has recovered from a low point of some 50 birds to 120+ now, but Codfish Island is so small (it’s off Stewart Island at the bottom end), you can’t see it. Little Barrier Island and Tiritiri Matangi Island are invisible on this map. Of the Mercury Island group, only Great Mercury is visible. Middle Mercury Island- home of the giant tusked weta can’t be seen. Red Mercury Island- where rats were eradicated and tuatara reintroduced, is too small to be seen. The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington is also on such a small scale it’s practically invisible.

So, when we talk about conservation in NZ, it turns out we have a large area devoted to conservation, with apparently not a lot of conservation going on.

In the early 80s, the problem was apparently the lack of a specialised conservation agency. This was rectified in 1987, but recession and high public sector debt meant money wasn’t generous. So we waited for the economy to recover, and species like the brown teal or wetapunga kept sliding towards extinction. Then as more money came trickling in, we got a biodiversity strategy. Launched with fanfare but with few resources, experts like John Craig pithily noted that to reverse biodiversity loss, we actually needed a miracle. Such a miracle has not occurred. A review of the biodiversity strategy noted that only 2-3% of the reserve-areas in NZ got optimal management. Almost 50% got nothing. Lots of talk, promises and action plans. Little in the way of outcomes.

So, for almost 30 years we’ve sat, and waited, expecting that creating a department, or hoping for a reduction in public sector debt, or planning a biodiversity strategy will lead to adequate funding. Now some people in the conservation community are hoping that climate change and the stored carbon in native forests will lead to the necessary funding.

Every year we wait, and hope that somehow that the necessary funding will eventuate (something 2-3 orders of magnitude greater than what we’ve got now). And every year, species that are not part of the select few, continue their declines.

It’s really getting to the point where waiting for all that extra funding has to stop. Waiting hinders experimentation, it gets in the way of new ideas. It perpetuates inertia and contributes to increased extinction risks. What we really need to be doing is tabling a lot more new ideas on conservation and figuring out what’s stopping us from doing more with less.

Why do tigers get poached? Brendan Moyle Sep 22

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With poaching continuing to drive wild tiger populations closer to extinction, it’s important to understand why tigers get poached. Reviewing some of the news reports on tiger poaching, I fear we’re not really coming to grips with the causes. It’s not all down to the traditional Chinese medicine market. Please note that I am not a ‘keyboard-conservationist’ and have visited smuggling hot-spots, researched and published work on the tiger black-market.

Poaching alas, is driven by several different factors.

First, tigers get poached because they are regarded as a pest. Villagers and farmers who live adjacent to tiger-reserves, lose livestock to tigers when these cats move out to hunt. Tigers also represent a threat to people (which is why for a long time, Asian governments culled tiger populations).
So, local villagers and farmers kill the tigers (illegally) and get away with it. This source of poaching has nothing to do with other markets.

Second, tigers get poached for their skins. Tiger skins are in demand right throughout Asia (and possibly further afield). One of the most important markets for this has been Tibet, but there is nothing exclusive about this market. This market is not supported by the Chinese TCM market. It is also a large market. The Indian poacher Sansar Chand sent hundreds of tiger skins to buyers in Tibet (alongside thousands of leopard skins).

Third, tigers get poached for curios and tonics. In many parts of Asia, tiger teeth or claws were used by local communities. E.g. in Vietnam, tiger meat or parts were used to make tonics.

Finally, tigers get poached for the bones. Tiger bones are used to make medicine to treat severe bone diseases in humans. This is the important Chinese Traditional Medicine Market. Note however, that there are Chinese communities living in other parts of Asia as well as the rest of the world. We are fairly certain that not all of these bones are ending up back in mainland China.

This highlights the problem with devising anti-poaching schemes. If we think suppressing the illegal bone market in China is going to stop the skin-trade out of India or illegal ‘pest’ destruction by locals, the outcome is going to be very disappointing.

2nd Photo of Sirrocco the kakapo Brendan Moyle Sep 21

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What more can be said :)

I liked the increase in detail around the beak and face with the bird looking more directly at us.

It’s still a shame about the glass in the way, albeit I’ve tried to reduce that effect as much as possible.

Photo taken at f2.8. 1/15 sec at ISO1600. I’ve applied a light selective blur to the dark areas in the backgrounds to reduce the noise.

Kakapo- Photo of Sirrocco Brendan Moyle Sep 21

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Anybody familiar with bird conservation knows that the kakapo was one of the most endangered birds on the planet.

By the late 80s, the population of this large nocturnal parrot, had slumped to 50 birds. Of these, only 12 were female, and none had bred successfully in 10 years.

The threats are the “standard” introduced cats and rats, whose predatory habits hit females, eggs and chicks heavily.

A lot of resources have been poured into generating a recovery, and currently the population sits at about 124 birds. Most of these live on Codfish Island- off Stewart Island. This island probably has more volunteers and DoC staff helping breeding success, than there are actually birds on the island :).

One of the earlier breeding successes of the early 90s, led to a male parrot (Sirrocco) being habituated to people. This means that the guy thinks he’s more of a person, than a parrot. So at the moment, he’s being used for advocacy purposes.

This week at Auckland Zoo the bird has been on display to the public (via special night-time bookings). So, we had to go and look :)

My technique for photography here was to take a sharp lens (the Tamron 90/2.8), bump the ISO to 1600 and keep the lens wide-open. Alas, I still had to shoot through glass (needless to say, flash photography is not permitted). I also turned the camera display off to keep things dark.

The shots reflect this- but given I’m shooting at a high ISO, though glass and 1/10 sec and f2.8, I’m actually rather pleased with the result.

Fortunately this is a setting where the combination of a low-light prime and a stabilised body helps. Even so, I doubt that National Geographic is going to come knocking to get the picture off me :)

Kathmandu…on again Brendan Moyle Sep 15

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Well in all the highs and lows of the IUCN and the World Bank trying to set up the Global Tiger Workshop in Nepal, I might still be going.

After the IUCN pulled the plug on collaboration I was out. China was vacillating about going. I think that they may have resolved to attend now.

That means I might still be able to make it, as the Chinese are a bit keener than the World Bank to have tiger poaching experts at these events.

Complicating issues however is that I will have to fly direct from a swamp near Darwin direct to Nepal. That means no chance to return home for a breather first.

Macro photo- Centipede Brendan Moyle Sep 12

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Garden centipede macro photo

α700 with 90mm macro, 6x Raynox and Sigma EM-140 ringlight flash. Hand-held shot.

Why “Chthoniid”? Brendan Moyle Sep 03

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Sometimes I get asked why I use the name chthoniid as my Web ID. I also use chthoniid as my ‘name’ for facebook, twitter, skype and my zenfolio photosite account.

Of course, the other question I usually get is how to pronounce it :)

The very logical reason is that no-one else in the big, big world of the web uses the same name. If you can spell chthoniid, then it’s straightforward to find me. I won’t be on page 20 of a google search :D

But there are a couple of reasons why I chose this name.

The first is because it is a simple play on words. In classical Greek, the word chthonic was used to describe something pertaining to the underworld. This in Greek mythology was the world of the dead where Hades reigned. But if we forget for a second the Hades-angle, then the play on words should be a little clearer. I live in NZ, which is often referred to (along with Australia) as the world-down-under. World-down-under is thus, the under-world. Hence, it means I’m of the family of ‘things’ that live in the world-down-under.

The second reason is because of the zoological connection. I used to study false-scorpions (way back when I was doing my masters degree). I always felt that these tiny arachnids were rather amazing, even if no-one was really aware of their actual existence. One of the common NZ families was the Chthoniidae. So by using Chthoniid as my name, I’m also signalling that gosh, I really liked false-scorpions :)

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