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Archive November 2010

The Cost of Conservation: Tiger mauls two to death Brendan Moyle Nov 24

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Well, the Tiger Summit in St Petersburg has come up with a price tag of $350m to save the tiger. I wish I could be surprised that part of the solution to save the tiger is to spend even more money. I wish I could be surprised that we are starting to evaluate the success of our efforts to save tigers on the basis of meetings held and money spent.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable that we have such a single-minded focus on a single species. Most poachers for example, aren’t tiger poachers. They’re leopard poachers that sometimes take tigers. A wider, more cohesive strategy that looked at all of Asia’s big cat species could be merited. Going after leopard poachers would net in tiger poachers anyway. Targeting tiger poachers just keeps poachers in business as they persist with their hunting of leopards.

Asian Fishing Cat- Nocturnal Photo

Asian Fishing Cat- Nocturnal Photo

Finally, while we are thinking about $350m and who is going to come up with the money (hat-tip to Leonardo diCaprio for putting $1m into the pot), there is another cost of conserving the tigers. Live tigers mean people are going to die from tiger attacks. This sadly illustrated by the following news.

Tiger kills two in Assam

The attack occurred at the village Habiborongabari in Morigaon district, about 60 km east of Assam’s main city of Guwahati.
First a woman was mauled to death, then a man working in a field. The attack continued with a police official and girl being injured (both reported to be battling for their lives in hospital).

The tiger was eventually shot to death by forest rangers.

Saving tigers isn’t just a matter of good reserve design and controlling commercial poaching. The fundamental problem we face is that a lot of locals who live within, and next to these forests, don’t see these 1/4 ton monsters as cute, fuzzy, conservation icons to be saved. Insisting they tolerate the deaths of family members, children and livestock to save tigers is a big ask.

Crazy Creationists Unleashed #4 Brendan Moyle Nov 23

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From the “yes, they really think that” files, we have this assertion from a @Dunnam0127 who has decided that humans have not evolved.

monkey-evolution

This appeared to be the entire argument for why humans and chimps have not evolved from a common ancestor.  As an argument goes, well, that’s a pretty generous description. It depends entirely on two popular Creationist fallacies.

The first is the whole monkey-thing. Nowhere in human evolution is it claimed we descended from monkeys. It turns out, creationists really don’t get that there’s a difference between monkeys and apes. Of course, they don’t get much of anything in biology.

The second is a fallacious understanding of what a species is either. That’s kind of what prevents viable, fit offspring being produced by the mating pair.  Fortunately, no crocoducks were brought up in this discussion.

Actually, the poor guy doesn’t understand that both modern chimps and humans have adaptations to bipedalism. The foot/hand distinction isn’t that easy to establish. Especially when we sometimes transplant toes onto hands in the place of lost fingers or thumbs.

There are of course, all sorts of actual, real scientific facts that we use to establish that humans have a common ancestor with chimps.

The anatomical similarities- especially once you get to the skeletal level- are quite profound and striking. This is the sort of thing that Darwin noticed over a century ago [1]

There is the evidence from our own fetal development. In humans a layer of hair (lanugo hair) is formed during fetal development, a relic of our earlier, more hirsute ancestors.

The real smoking-guns though of our primate evolution has been the molecular. Chimps have a very similar genomes to people. But within that, its not just the similarities in the coding parts of the genome that show the trail. It’s the similarities in the non-coding parts.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence is the vitamin C pseudogene [2] Chimps and humans have one extraordinary thing in common. Neither of these two species can synthesise vitamin C. That’s why we (& chimps) need to eat fruit and vegetables to get vitamin C in our diet. Otherwise we get scurvy and die. The curious fact is that this is caused by both chimps and humans having the same broken gene. This mutation occurred about 6mya. We are in effect, the only species to have this exact, same, broken gene. (Guinea pigs also can’t synthesis vitamin C but that’s caused by a different mutation).

The other ‘smoking gun’ are our endogenous retroviruses [2]. These are ancient viruses that have become inserted into our genome, but no longer generate disease.  For humans, these ERVs make up about 10% of the non-coding parts of our genome.  And yes, both chimps and humans share many of these same defunct ERVs.

The mutation rate in the human genome also means we can clock back into time when these events occurred. This converges on a common ancestor with chimps at about 6mya.

References

[1] Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. D Appleton and Company, New York, 1871.

[2] The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome, Nature 437, 69-87 (1 September 2005)

The Myanmar Connection Brendan Moyle Nov 22

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Associated Press released this story in the weekend.

Wildlife group targets Myanmar-China tiger trade

BANGKOK (AP) – Wildlife trafficking officials say they have reached a preliminary agreement with an ethnic minority group in Myanmar to close down markets where hundreds of poached tigers from across Asia are sold for use in purported medicines and aphrodisiacs in China.

This is in line with my work in China in 2007-08, including a sojourn in the most southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Local minorities are often involved in the tiger poaching markets. Myanmar is within the range of both the Indo-Chinese and Bengalo subspecies, but the political situation has made conservation work there challenging.

With nearly a third of all tiger-smuggling incidents occurring in Yunnan, it was quickly apparent that the tigers under most threat from poaching were Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam [1].  The Indo-Chinese makes up the bulk of the intercepted bone supplied into Traditional Chinese Medicine Markets. [1] This was at odds with what I was assured in early 2007, that India was the major supplier of tiger parts into the Chinese medicine markets. Sadly, most facts about the black market in tiger parts in Asia you read on the web, are made up.

The article refers to a TRAFFIC study on tigers where it was noted that the Wa people were operating quite visible and open markets in big cat parts. It cites observing parts of more than 400 big cats (tigers, leopards) being traded in the last decade. Chinese traders were also coming to the area to consume various wild animals including tiger-bone wine.

This underscore a lot of the problems we’ve had in Asia. The areas where tigers live are also areas where a lot of ethnic minorities.  A lot of these minorities don’t get on very well with the Government. Sometimes it’s because government efforts to create reserves destroys hunting opportunities. That tends to annoy groups who are traditional hunters. This prompts them to become very adept poachers instead. In India for example, the Bawariya and Behliya tribes are involved in a lot of wildlife poaching [1]

In Myanmar the Wa people have conspicuously bad relationships with the military government. It’s so bad the Wa run a semi-autonomous region with their own army of their own within Myanmar (next to the Thai border). Part of the conservation deal here has been to get agreement with the Wa people to suppress this market in cat parts.

So, what are the sorts of tiger conservation lessons can we draw from this?

Well, first and foremost, a lot of Western conservationists need to lose the idea that local peoples who love to and around big cats, want to preserve them. That’s usually a low priority or indeed, unwelcome. Having big 1/4 ton carnivores roaming around their forest communities is not something people get enamoured with. Tigers kill valuable livestock and people still.

The second is seriously, not all the tiger parts are being consumed in China. Tigers have been used for their parts all through Asia and local people’s have developed all sorts of uses. The Wa region has gone through several hundred big cats that we know of. Different Asian cultures use all sorts of different parts- the teeth, claws, skin, meat, bones and sometimes penises [1].

Third, again, India isn’t a big player in the traditional Chinese medicine markets. It’s a big player for skins. The big 2007 bust in Tibet  recovered 32 tiger skins, 579 leopard skins and 665 otter skins [1].  India isn’t losing tigers to Chinese medicine markets yet. They’re losing them to skin markets in central Asia. Of course, that may change. It’s likely only a matter of time before the Tibetan smuggling rings start diversifying and crossing into supplying bones in the east. It’s just a matter of patiently establishing those networks.

—–

References

[1] Moyle, B (2009). The black market in China for tiger products. Global Crime 10:1, 124-143

Monday Morning Macro Brendan Moyle Nov 22

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This is a shot of an orbweb spider in daytime, hence it is huddling in a perch, trying to stay camouflaged. This can be quite effective.  It’s also a female if you care about such things.

For this shot I had combined a 50mm prime lens with my macro lens for increased magnification.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Tiger Tips for Reporters Brendan Moyle Nov 19

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In view of the Tiger Summit starting soon in St Petersburg, I thought a few pointers for reporters wanting to write stories on tigers might help :)

Okay, number 1. White tigers are not a subspecies of tiger. They are a genetic mutant that is thrown up in all subspecies from time-to-time. Siberian- or Amur- tigers, are not in fact, naturally white. They’re just a bit bigger than other subpecies.

Number 2, tigers aren’t being poached for their aphrodisiac properties. Traditional Chinese medicine is not a synonym for wacky impotence cures. Tigers are poached for many reasons. The skins are widely traded throughout Asia. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tiger bone is used as an ingredient for pharmaceuticals used to treat bone diseases. Other countries in Asia, like Vietnam, attribute medicinal qualities to tiger parts.

Number 3, India isn’t losing their tigers to TCM markets in China. Every analysis done of the tiger parts seized by smugglers out of India, are almost completely dominated by tiger skins. Bengali tigers out of India are supplying black markets in the skin trade.  Interception data from China shows that most bones come from the Indo-Chinese subspecies.  So they’re coming out of countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Number 4, consumption of tiger parts is not wide-spread. There are maybe 300 tigers a year than are poached in Asia. There are a lot of people who live in Asia. 300 tigers doesn’t go very far.

Number 5, education campaigns sound very grand, but let’s be honest. We don’t have a message for consumers in China. They’re buying tiger parts at great cost (a complete tiger is about $US50,000), at some risk (20 years in a Chinese prison up to the death penalty) and they certainly know that tigers are endangered. Nobody really has any idea what education message is going to work on this core.

Number 6, there is no proven preference for wild tiger parts by Chinese consumers. First up, we’re getting leakage out of zoos and captive-facilities in China (and elsewhere)- and by leakage we mean that tigers are being either stolen or sold illegally. People’s actions speak louder than words. The second is, nobody is actually surveying black-market customers. We’re only doing market surveys of people in general. We’re not surveying black-market customers because, nobody can actually find any. At the moment, the attested preference for wild tiger parts is akin to me having a preference for a Mercedes-S series car over a Toyota Lexus. But I’m not in the market for either. So my preferences don’t really count.

Number 7, Every international meeting promises great things for tigers. Nonetheless, the history of tiger conservation is littered with projects that have failed to achieve their outcomes. That’s why we don’t have many left. Please retain some objectivity and skepticism. Ask some hard questions.

Tiger Summit Preliminaries Brendan Moyle Nov 18

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The latest Tiger Summit is going to begin in St Petersburg on the 21st of November. This has been heralded as yet another last ditch attempt to prevent the extinction of tigers in the wild. There may be no animal that has received more conservation attention than the tiger, for little actual gain.

The thing about tigers is that there are lots of meetings held regularly and lots of plans get formulated. In India, Indira Gandhi backed an ambitious recovery program called project Tiger back in the 1970s. That was a system of national reserves backed by rangers, all with the focus on sustaining tiger populations. Nonetheless, since the mid 1980s, global tiger populations have shrunk almost unabated. The twin pressures of habitat loss and poaching have been challenging to overcome. Like so challenging, we haven’t overcome them.

There’s probably be a lot of issues this meeting is going to bring up. A lot of these issues won’t be new. While there’s a lot of agreement about the drivers behind the loss of tigers, it’s been much harder to get agreement on any solutions.

One of the differences with this summit has been the continued involved of the World Bank and its Global Tiger Initiative in 2009. This gave some cause for optimism in the conservation community as it offered the hope that funding restraints would be loosened.  Nonetheless, thus did not mean that suddenly tiger conservation projects were being given a blank cheque. And the IUCN was pulled out of the Nepal meeting last year over differences in the ‘management style’ of the World Bank.  For me, that meant being unable to chair one of the sessions on the demand and supply of tiger parts.

So, what are we going to hear out of this summit?

Well, doubtlessly some NGOs are going to insist that poaching and smuggling can be controlled through better law enforcement. Despite the great difficulty we have with infiltrating poaching rings (often because they are based on ethnic and family associations, making outsiders very identifable), this remains a very dangerous assertion.

Tiger poaching and smuggling is near impossible to control through law enforcement. The reasons are:

1) Habitat- tigers and their poachers have ‘cryptic’  lifestyles in rugged terrain. Poachers are rarely caught and it can take years to identify them. They come from hunting cultures that are familiar with the terrain and habitat.

2) Tiger parts are traded in both domestic and international markets. An increased focus on the international side for instance, doesn’t address the domestic side. The Sumatran tiger for instance, is pretty much thratened by local poaching, not international.

3) Tigers are an infrequently smuggled good. There’s about 300 tigers a year (we think) that get poached. The parts get traded all over Asia. It’s not like the cocaine route from Colombia into Florida. There’s not a plane or boat arriving on a regular basis.  Tiger parts are moved infrequently and via many different routes. This makes the whole intelligence gathering to block them much harder.

4) We have appalling intelligence on the participants in the black market. This was brought home again this year at the CITES meeting.  Despite the palpable threat from poaching facing tigers, Governments have gathered very little intelligence on the organisations that poach and smuggle tiger parts.

5) The borders are very big. China’s southern border stretches from Vietnam to Pakistan. Some of Asia’s busiest ports are now in China.  International borders in Asia are crossed regularly by smugglers and poachers. It’s just too big. The USA can’t stop drugs and people moving across the border from Mexico and that border is a fraction of the size of these Asian borders.

So long as we think poaching and smuggling is a problem that can be fixed with better law enforcement, we ignore actually trying to understand these black markets and where they are truly vulnerable.  And it is a policy call that shuts down discussion of other options. This doesn’t serve tiger conservation at all.

Monday Macro- Trilobite Brendan Moyle Nov 15

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Trilobites first appeared in the geological column in the Cambrian era  (543 to 490 mya). They were an enormously successful group of animals, with some 5000 genera and over 30,000 described species. Many of the trilobites became extinct during the great late Devonian extinction (c 360 mya) . The last of the trilobites became extinct in the even greater Permian-Triassic extinction about 250 mya.

One of the most common trilobites Elrathia kingii is from the mid-Cambrian (c 500mya) and is extremely abundant. While trilobites are extinct, the allied arachnomorphs- the related chelicerates- still persist today. The arachnids are well-known members of the arachnomorph group [1].

Click image for larger sized version

Click image for larger sized version

This trilobite is found in bedding planes in high density (up to 500 individuals per square metre) [2] and in different age groups (sizes vary from 4-40mm for complete individuals) [2].

They are found in settled strata (lacking the bioturbation of surface wave action) and were adapted to very low oxygen conditions. This appeared to have been an adaptation that served it well as other trilobites could not compete in such a low oxygen environment. This accounts for both the sediments it is found in, and the lack of competition. Elrathia kingii occur as single species associations of very high density.

References

[1] Cotton, T.J. and Braddy, S.J. (2004). The phyologeny of arachnomorph arthropods and the origin of the Chelicerata, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences, 94, 169-193

[2] Gaines, R.R. and Droser, M. (2003). Paleocology of the familiar trilobite Elrathia kingii: An early exacerobic zone inhabitant. Geology, 31(11), 941-944

Crazy Creationists Unleashed #3 Brendan Moyle Nov 11

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Hoping that everybody has recovered from the last foray into the crazy world of creationism, this is another mirthful assertion from @joecienkowski

punctuated equilibrium

Hmm. Wow. That’s just stupid. Really stupid and wrong. This has nothing to do at all with punctuated equilibrium. The fossil evolutionary record shows that the modern-bird went through many transitional forms. Feathers appeared relatively early on- before the origin of flight. The adaptations to flight occurred gradually.

This does speak to some of the misconceptions about punctuated equilibrium by creationists. The key point behind punctuated equilibrium is that radiation events occur very rapidly in geological time [1]. So there could be long periods where species remain largely unchanged, and then rapid radiation events. In practical terms this means that transitional fossils will be difficult (but not impossible) to find given the short time frames of these radiations and the low probability an organism will fossilise.

Punctuated equilibrium however, is not a revolutionary challenge to the theory of evolution. As Gould notes: “I am not saying that punctuated equilibrium is the only mode of speciation. As with all major issues in natural history, support for punctuated equlibrium relies upon an argument about relative frequency, not a claim for exclusivity. Gradual, phyletic transformation can and does occur” p137 [1]

In short, it is a theory that says a new species could (but not always) evolve rapidly, say over 50,000-100,000 years. And it certainly does not entail or require large, sudden morphological changes.

References

Gould, S. J. (1982). “Punctuated Equilibrium–A Different Way of Seeing,” New Scientist 94 (April 15): 137-141.

Tiger poaching thoughts again… Brendan Moyle Nov 10

1 Comment

One of the side events to the CBD meeting in Nagoya was a tiger conservation event. I’m going to assume everyone knows by now that tigers are in deep, deep trouble (form a conservation perspective). Their wild population is now estimated to be about 3200 animals, where was a century ago it was an estimated 100,000 animals.

The tiger conservation event got a press release: Law enforcement essential if last tigers are to be saved

Now the basic substance of this, is the belief that tiger smugglers and poachers can be effectively countered through better law enforcement.  The problem really is that we just don’t know this. In fact there are some good reasons why law enforcement finds it very hard to deter poachers.

The first is the basic extrapolation argument. There’s been a number of border intercepts of tigers and tiger parts recently. Some bones were detected in the luggage of a ‘foreigner’ entering China in Hunchun by the Russian border. A tiger cub was intercepted at in Thailand. And in NZ a passenger was detected smuggling in an alleged tiger penis.

While this gives some scope for optimism, the fact is we’re not actually catching the poachers.  A lot of the poachers come from hunting communities in Asia, and are quite adept at their covert poaching.  Some of them have been at this poaching game for years and years. So while we’re getting some couriers, we’re not yet busting open any major conspiracies. And a lot of tiger parts never cross international borders- they get traded domestically within the range states.

Your second problem is this presumption that smugglers won’t react to an increase in border security at international checkpoints. The borders in Asia across range states are large and extensive. Yunnan is widely recognised as a major entry point into China of all sorts of wildlife parts. It’s also an entry point for drugs out of the Golden Triangle. The reason is simple. It’s a big, rugged border with lots of communities who have been trading across it for centuries.  The gaps are all over the place. If you increase vigilance at airports, then it’s going to be buses and trains and cars and boats that are used to smuggle tiger parts.

There are other ways smugglers can evade increased law enforcement. One of these is to process the tiger parts into medicine in South East Asia, then export it.  Once it’s processed into a type of medicine or tonic, then distinguishing from other products becomes much harder.

Assuming therefore, that smugglers are not going to react to better international border security is not one we should be betting the survival of the tiger on. The participants in these black markets already have a suite of strategies available to evade increased law enforcement activity.

Now, it is however sadly true that law enforcement has not been particularly effective against tiger poachers to date. Some of that stems to poor cooperation and poor intelligence gathering. Some of it stems from corruption and poor resources. So I won’t argue the point we can do more with law enforcement, and we can do better with law enforcement. I’m more concerned that the assumption that better law enforcement is the key to the survival of the wild tiger is rather heroic. And if this assumption gets in the way of exploring other strategies to combat poachers, then it’s not going to be helping out tigers all that much.

Tiger snapshot- Harbin, China

You can’t have too much of a good thing Brendan Moyle Nov 10

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…when they’re crocodiles.

Most of these photos were taken at the Mary River up in the Northern Territory. This stretch of water has one of the highest densities of estuarine crocodiles in the world. All of this speaks to the remarkable conservation success with crocodiles. It also says something about the remarkable resilience of these animals as well. They’re survived ice ages, the great KT extinction and human hunting that (in Australia) took them down to about 5% of their pre-harvest levels.

YouTube Preview Image

Most of these were taken on a small boat, which kind of reminds me, one of the scariest phrases you can hear while out photographing crocodiles is “Hey, where did that 4 metre crocodile go?”