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April 2020

As calls to shutter wildlife markets grow, China struggles with an industry worth billions

By Illegal trade No Comments
Ashoka Mukpo, Mongabay | April 27, 2020

Read original article here.

Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to shut down wet markets where illegal wildlife are sold. Pompeo’s call was echoed by the Australian government, which on the same day urged G20 countries to take action on wildlife markets in order to reduce the risk of new diseases like COVID-19 spilling over into humans in the future.

Lost in both statements was a recognition of the complexity of China’s wildlife trade or the scale of the challenge it now faces. Wet markets have shouldered much of the blame for the deadly pandemic, but few of those markets sell wildlife and those that do only account for a portion of a supply chain that involves millions of people and vast sums of money. Unwinding China’s wildlife industry – which serves as the primary means of survival for many of those people – will be far from straightforward.

Original photo as published by Mongabay. China issued a provisional ban on wildlife consumption in late February, but on Thursday the U.S. called for the ban to be made permanent.

Some new polling data shows high levels of support in the region for shutting down illegal wildlife markets, even in countries where consumption of wildlife is considered a delicacy. China’s provisional ban on eating wildlife has earned praise from conservation groups as a good start, but sorting out the line between legal and illegal markets has already proved tricky.

Key sectors of China’s wildlife industry remain free from new regulations – including those that sell products made from animals known to carry coronaviruses. Traditional medicine, for example, includes the use of remedies made from bats and pangolins, but producers serving that market have so far escaped the kind of harsh new restrictions that the wildlife consumption industry faces.

In the long run, conservation experts say they hope the spike in outrage over the link between commercial wildlife exploitation and COVID-19 will lead to lasting change across the wildlife industry in China, as well as elsewhere in the region.

Wildlife markets shutter in China, but challenges remain in a vast industry

After the initial spread of COVID-19 was traced to a wet market that sold wildlife in Wuhan, the Chinese government ordered people across the country to stop trading or eating wild animals on Feb 24. The ban on consumption is provisional, with a new legal framework expected to come later this year. Horseshoe bats as well as pangolins – one of the world’s most trafficked species – have been identified as potential hosts that might have passed the virus to a human.

While the focus on wet markets can obscure the complexity of China’s wildlife industry, the small proportion of those markets that do sell wild animals have been identified as a public health hazard.

“These animals are often mixed with multiple different species in unsanitary conditions, creating a perfect environment for the pathogens that they carry to jump from one species to another,” said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in an email.

Conservationists based in China say that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an outcry on social media, leading to calls for harsher restrictions and reinforcing perceptions of the wildlife industry as dangerous to public health.

“This pandemic is so shocking,” said Fei Zhou, chief program officer of WWF China in an interview. “It’s a catastrophe at the national level we never had in the past, and a consensus has emerged to close all the wildlife markets.”

But abroad, misconceptions of what constitutes a wildlife market and how people in China consume or purchase products made from wildlife have led to confusion.

“I think people get this message a little mixed that there are these rampant wildlife markets all over China and they’re reopening,” said Blake. “That’s not the case, it’s mostly food markets.”

Part of the wildlife trade has shifted to online marketplaces in recent years, where buyers can purchase wildlife products and have them delivered to their doorstep by courier services.

Warehouses and farms where animals are stored by sellers who operate those marketplaces can pose similar public health risks to those of in-person wildlife markets.

“The situations where you have wildlife housed in warehouses for customers can still create a high-risk disease situation for workers, who can then subsequently spread a disease if they catch it,” said David Olson, director of conservation at WWF Hong Kong in an interview.

E-commerce companies like Alibaba and Tencent have begun issuing warnings and reporting accounts that sell wildlife food products to law enforcement agencies, conservationists say.

“They use keywords to check if there are online stores or advertisements talking about wildlife consumption, and if they find those they will send an alert to the store’s owners and ask them to take it off,” said Aili Kang, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)’s Asia Program in an interview.

According to an official with China’s State Council, 17,000 e-commerce accounts offering wildlife products were shut down in a month earlier this year.

Nearly overnight, a ticket out of poverty becomes a public health hazard

For many of the 6.3 million people involved in China’s $18 billion dollar per-year wildlife farming industry, the new rules are a life-upending event.

Among the species covered under China’s consumption ban are civet cats and bamboo rats, which have featured in a years-long effort by Chinese officials to reduce rural poverty by encouraging people to legally farm wildlife. The sale of civet cats was briefly banned in 2003 after they were identified as likely hosts for the SARS virus that killed nearly 800 people, but the ban was lifted not long afterwards.

This time, conservationists say, the restrictions are likely to stick.

“The difference between the current pandemic and SARS is that this health scare is a wake-up call for the government and public that there’s a need to end these kind of markets,” said Zhou of WWF China.

But sorting out compensation for farmers involved in a trade that was legal just a few months ago and helping them transition into other industries will be challenging, particularly for a government that prizes economic development. Already, some farmers have expressed frustration at the ban and are lobbying behind the scenes for exceptions to be made.

“They want to argue that captive breeding of civet cats isn’t the problem because they can get health checks or other types of control,” said Kang of WCS. “There’s a debate within China currently between conservation groups and the captive breeding groups.”

Kang says the government is examining whether farms used for wild species can be repurposed for other kinds of domesticated livestock.

According to one Chinese official, nearly 20,000 captive breeding farms were forced to close down in February alone. Some worry that if the owners of those farms aren’t assisted in finding new sources of income, they could be pushed into the black market.

“For a transition out of the wildlife trade to be socially acceptable and effective, it is essential that the identification of alternate livelihood options is carried out,” said Elizabeth Mrema, acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in an email. “And this must be done in consultation with, rather than imposed on communities.”

Despite risks, traditional medicine escapes new regulation

While China’s ban on wildlife consumption has been welcomed by conservation groups and public health experts, some say it doesn’t go far enough. The new rules don’t cover traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which has deep roots in Chinese culture and includes remedies derived from wildlife products like tiger bones and pangolin scales.

“The TCM lobby is really powerful,” said Olson of WWF Hong Kong. “More powerful than the wildlife farming industry even, because it’s a part of cultural tradition.”

Most TCM remedies don’t include wildlife products, but demand for those that do is high enough to link the industry to catastrophic levels of poaching across the world. China has long banned consumption of pangolin, but loopholes for use of the reclusive creature’s scales in TCM have fed the illicit trade and provided opportunities for its meat to make its way into markets and restaurants.

The decision to allow the TCM industry to continue selling products made from species that have been identified as coronavirus carriers has been met with criticism, although some NGOs are reluctant to push the Chinese government too aggressively on the issue.

“I think sometimes the international calls for action are counterproductive because of the nationalism and politics involved,” Olson said. “China doesn’t do things just because someone told them what to do.”

While production lines for TCM remedies can be better controlled than open-air wildlife markets, critics of the government’s decision say there are risks even when safety precautions are in place. Large-scale production of dried bat feces – which is used to treat eye and other ailments – remains legal and it can still be purchased online.

Bats have been a recurring feature at the center of viral outbreaks in recent years, and have been linked to the transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS], Middle East Respiratory Syndrome [MERS], Ebola, and now COVID-19.

One study from early February identified bats from a region near Wuhan as the most likely original host of Covid-19, speculating that use of the species for TCM may have been the initial vector of infection.

“Even when the selling of live wild animals at food markets would be completely prohibited in China, the trading and handling of bats for traditional medicinal purposes would remain a serious risk for future zoonotic coronavirus epidemics,” the authors wrote.

While concerns over the absence of TCM in China’s regulatory response to the pandemic remain, conservationists say the halt on wildlife consumption is a step in the right direction that they hope neighboring countries will emulate.

For now, public sentiment is soundly against the wildlife trade, but they worry about what could happen once memories begin to fade.

“After, say, five years, when people begin to recover from the pandemic and start to move back to normal, it’s possible they’ll forget what happened,” said Kang of WCS. “They may say, well we have medicine to treat Covid-19. That will be the time businesses may say, ‘now we can rethink this.’”

4 kilos of rhino horns land priest, police officer and a Lusaka businessman in court! (Zambia)

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade No Comments
Chris Phiri, Zambia Reports | April 27, 2020

Read original story here.

A priest, a Zambia Police officer and a Lusaka businessman have appeared in court on charges of illegal possession of over four kilogrammes of rhino horns.

Before Lusaka Chief Resident Magistrate, Lameck Mwale, were Mizhi Sandu, 43, a priest, Mutakatala Mwiya, 44, a police officer, both of Lusaka West and Frank Nakakena, 53, a businessman of Kabwata who all pleaded not guilty to possessing illegal prescribed trophy.

The court records show that on April 14, 2020 in Lusaka, the trio had in their possession two pieces of rhino horns weighing 4.33 kilogrammes, prescribed trophy which is the property of the Republic of Zambia, without a certificate of ownership from the Director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife.

The accused are on police bond. Magistrate Mwale adjourned the case to June 11, 2020 for commencement of trial.

You can get in touch with our news team by emailing us at: editor@zambiareports.com

12 rangers from Virunga park killed while trying to save civilians from FDLR ambush (DRC)

By Antipoaching No Comments
Angus Begg, The Independent Online/Conservation Action Trust | April 28, 2020

Read original article here.

Twelve rangers and four civilians were killed late last week in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to the highly endangered mountain gorilla.

Original photo as published by IOL. A tourist and park rangers wear protective masks as they visit the Virunga National Park in eastern Congo. Picture: Jerome Delay/AP

A statement released early Friday afternoon by the Congo Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) confirmed that an attack had taken place, with a ‘substantial loss of life’. ICCN director Cosma Wilungula said “around 60 fighters from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) ambushed a convoy of civilians that was being protected by 15 rangers”.

The FDLR, which operates in the volatile eastern DRC, has waged a periodic war with the Congolese government and rival militias since it was founded in 2000 by Hutu officials who fled Rwanda at the end of the genocide, which the United Nations estimates left over 800,000 dead.

“The guards were not the target and died while assisting the civilian vehicle that had been caught under fire from the attackers,” the Virunga National Park said in a statement.

According to the Enough Project, a policy organization aimed at countering genocide and crimes against humanity, several of Congo’s national parks – including Africa’s oldest, Virunga – are under siege.

“For years, the FDLR has helped sustain its activities by exploiting the remote area’s valuable natural resources, including minerals, ivory, fish, and marijuana. But one of the FDLR’s most successful revenue-generating businesses is the illicit charcoal trade in the DRC’s cherished Virunga National Park.

Headquartered deep in the remote southwestern sector of Virunga, the illegal charcoal trade is lucrative. Some have estimated it has an annual value of up to $35 million”.

The FDLR has recently been a source of friction between Rwanda and Uganda , with Rwanda accusing Uganda of supporting the FDLR and another DRC-based rebel group opposed to the Rwandan government. Uganda has consistently denied the allegations.

The CEO of the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), Andrew Campbell, said it was worst incident he had heard of in Africa:

“The odds these rangers are up against is hard to fathom as they are tasked with attempting to bring stability to one of the most volatile regions on the continent and frequently engage with heavily armed militia groups numbering from 50 to 500”.

Campbell says these rangers struggle on every level. “I’d be surprised if they earn more than $150 per month, after their US$50 salary is topped up by NGOs. We extend our condolences to their ICCN ranger colleagues, friends and call on the international community to drive support to their families via the Virunga Fallen Rangers Fund”.

Campbell says the DRC has “lost 71 rangers from July 2012 to July 2019. This amounts to over 20% of all ranger deaths recorded in Africa during that period, not including those lost between July 2019 and now”.

Virunga National Park is home to over half the global population of mountain gorillas. It is Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, covering 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles)in the world’s second-largest tropical forest , the Congo Basin.

Botswana attributes decline in poaching to shoot-to-kill policy

By Antipoaching No Comments
Journal du Cameroun | April 28, 2020

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Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism on Tuesday said no new cases of rhino poaching have been reported since the COVID-19 lockdown began early this month.

Original photo as published by Journal du Cameroun.

In a statement, the ministry said the decline “is attributed to reinforcement of anti-poaching surveillance and monitoring measures which are being carried out in areas where the rhinos are found.”

While Botswana has been criticized by its neighbours for adopting a shoot-to-kill policy, the government is adamant that “these proactive measures have resulted in six poachers losing their lives over the last month.”

The ministry said it is very conscious of the fact that poachers may try to take advantage of the lockdown and the lack of movement by tourists in remote areas to carry out their illegal activities.

“Anti-poaching personnel remain on active duty in all wildlife areas to counter any poaching at this time and will continue to exercise a zero tolerance approach to any criminal activities,” it said.

Botswana adopted the shoot-to-kill policy in 2013 as a measure to curb the mass slaughter of wildlife in the country, particularly rhinos and elephants.

Under the policy, poachers are shot dead on the spot if they are caught.

Coronavirus disrupts illegal wildlife trafficking, for now

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade No Comments

Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times | April 29, 2020

Read original article here.

The spread of the new coronavirus has stalled economic activity, halted travel and locked down some cross-border trade. Another sector that’s feeling the pinch is criminals trafficking illegally in poached wildlife.

“Security is too heavy at the border. Products can’t go out,” said a person in Vietnam involved in the trade. That person spoke to an undercover investigator who was involved in a new report on the state of the illegal wildlife trade.

The pandemic has prevented organized criminal gangs in Southeast Asian countries from moving large quantities of ivory and pangolin scales into China. But any limits on the illegal wildlife trade are likely to be temporary.

“Traffickers are currently constrained and suffering like the rest of us, and if we take what is really an extraordinary opportunity to exploit those vulnerabilities, we can make huge inroads in ending the illegal wildlife trade … We actually have an opportunity to win here.” Dr. Tim Wittig, United for Wildlife. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

“There’s too much money to be made from these products, and there’s too many people involved for this to have a significant long term impact,” said Sarah Stoner, a co-author of the report and director of intelligence at the Wildlife Justice Commission, an international foundation based in The Hague, Netherlands, that works to dismantle illegal wildlife trade.

She and other experts say that while the coronavirus’s limits on travel and business could be an opportunity for law enforcement to disrupt criminal networks, the pandemic’s economic toll could attract more people to the trade.

“We are tracking significant amounts of new trafficking activity in multiple countries, which seems to indicate that traffickers are both still very much in operation and also actively seeking ways to adapt and thrive in the new normal,” said Tim Wittig, the head of intelligence for United for Wildlife, a nonprofit led by Prince William to fight wildlife trafficking.

In a report published earlier this month, Dr. Wittig also found that temporary disruptions to the trade would be fleeting. “Traders have incentive to move product as soon as is feasible,” he said.

The Wildlife Justice Commission maintains an intelligence database of thousands of traffickers and dealers around the world. Undercover investigators working with the commission keep regular contact with a number of these criminals. The commission’s new report summarizes conversations, from January through April, between investigators and around 20 people involved in the trade in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, India and Mozambique.

These are desperate times for illegal wildlife traffickers, the conversations showed.

Vietnam closed its border with China on Feb. 1. At first, Ms. Stoner and her colleagues found, wildlife traders mostly dismissed this development and still guaranteed door-to-door delivery to their customers — something normally included in the price of everything from ivory to tiger parts. Traders repeatedly assured customers that “delivery will be fine after a few days.”

By the end of February, things had changed. “You can get the products here,” one Vietnamese trader told the investigators, “but if you want to send them to China, you could be waiting for months.”

Tighter security and even closed borders have left some traders offering deep discounts on their illegal goods, while others have temporarily frozen operations. Retailers in Southeast Asian countries also fear that the lack of Chinese tourists — their primary customers — will put them out of business.

Many traders work with corrupt airport personnel to clear their products through customs. But with flights canceled and diverted—and security increased—trusted smuggling routes are no longer guaranteed.

In early March, to prevent too many passengers from being quarantined in one place, a flight from South Korea destined for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam was diverted to Can Tho, a city 100 miles to the south. Officials there discovered 11 rhino horns in checked luggage.

The case highlighted that criminals can no longer guarantee their illegal products will arrive to their intended destination, Ms. Stoner said.

Not all illegal trade has ground to a halt. Throughout March and April, Chinese authorities have continued to seize large shipments of rhino horns and pangolin scales crossing into China by land from Vietnam. Traffickers told investigators that they are closely following developments at the border. Many are eager to offload their growing stockpiles.

In Africa, on the other hand, the virus may wind up facilitating rather than stalling illegal activity. Investigators learned that several heads of poaching gangs in Mozambique are planning to take advantage of reduced ranger patrols and the lack of tourists in Kruger National Park in neighboring South Africa.

Poaching bosses can also expect a glut of new recruits in the coming months, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “Because of Covid’s vast economic impacts, a lot of people will be driven into many forms of illicit economies.”

Dr. Felbab-Brown added, the coronavirus will “devastate much of conservation funding” in Africa, further reducing rangers’ abilities to ward off poachers.

While conservationists have celebrated bans proposed by China and Vietnam to limit consumption of wild animals, Ms. Stoner pointed out that these measures are unlikely to have any effect on illegal wildlife traffickers. “We’re not talking about what’s on sale at markets,” she said.

Governments around the world should also prepare for an upsurge in commercial-scale wildlife trafficking when borders reopen, Ms. Stoner said.

“We’ve heard a lot of conversations about traders feeling like everything will be opening up soon,” she said. “We shouldn’t allow organized trade to flourish while we’ve got our eye on this other problem.”

Dr. Wittig believes that the pandemic presents a watershed opportunity for ending industrial-scale animal trafficking. The momentary disruption to the movement of illegal goods, for example, gives law enforcement a chance to seize huge stockpiles of contraband, rather than one-off shipments.

More important, global society might take advantage of the now widely recognized link between wildlife trade and public health, Dr. Wittig said. The social stigma around the purchase and consumption of illegal wildlife products could grow, and countries eager to avoid becoming the origin of another pandemic would be motivated to investigate, arrest and prosecute wildlife criminals.

“Traffickers are currently constrained and suffering like the rest of us, and if we take what is really an extraordinary opportunity to exploit those vulnerabilities, we can make huge inroads in ending the illegal wildlife trade,” Dr. Wittig said. “We actually have an opportunity to win here.”

Is the environment minister captured by vested interests? (South Africa)

By Conservation, Illegal trade No Comments
Don Pinnock, Opinion/The Daily Maverick | April 29, 2020

Read original article here.

Everything a costly high-level panel appointed by the Department of Environmental Affairs is tasked to find out about wildlife is already known… so what’s going on?

Millions of rand are being spent by the Minister of Environment, Barbara Creecy, on a high-level panel to advise her on issues regarding lions, elephants, rhinos and leopards. But the scientific advice she’s requesting already exists.

Creecy is an intelligent, competent minister able to do her homework. So why is she ignoring this and wasting taxpayers’ money on an apparently superfluous exercise? Is the panel simply to inform her in her new position, or was it created to get the answers wanted by those pushing for the commercialisation of wildlife? If so, who are they?

“The only way to stop the poaching is to reduce demand in China and Vietnam. Adding the possibility of legal rhino horn simply fans the trade and acts as a cover for illegal horn.” Don Pinnock. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It seems necessary to ask whether the minister is being held to ransom by the wildlife industry or by members of her department? If they’re members of her department, then her staff needs an urgent shakeup. If the initiative is hers, then we have a bias problem. Here’s why.

Terms of reference for the panel were belatedly released on 22 April, months after its formation and then only to those NGOs requesting extension of time to make submissions. They’re so restrictively worded that they predetermine an outcome being pushed by only the wildlife trade and hunting fraternity.

The criteria for panel members required that they have “experience in sustainable utilisation” – essentially in the “use” and not conservation or welfare of wild animals. This calls into question any semblance of impartiality and clearly indicates the direction the panel is expected to follow.

In her selection of the Committee of Inquiry into a Possible Trade in Rhino Horn in 2015, even the previous environmental minister, Edna Molewa, (an avowed proponent of sustainable use) and Creecy’s predecessor, never created such a blatantly biased panel.

There’s an admirable number of traditional leaders on the panel, but not a single mention of community issues in the terms of reference.

What are they there for? Simply to give legitimacy to the decisions of a panel focused on the narrow interests of a group of affluent breeders, traders and hunters?

It’s necessary to inquire if Creecy is knowingly party to developments that would rip SA’s already tattered conservation reputation even further through her department’s continued support of canned lion breeding and its attempts to reopen ivory trade and restart the elephant culling debate. Because this is precisely the door opened by the new terms of reference and composition of the panel.

Culling of elephants risks massive international opprobrium – witness the storm raised by Botswana’s opening of elephant hunting and the suggestion that culled elephants could be used for pet food. Are her advisers not aware of this?

So what do the panel’s terms of reference say?

Elephants

The terms expect the panel of experts to assess and provide policy positions on elephants, yet of 25 members it has only two elephant experts – Rob Slotow and Karen Trendler. Requirements include debate and direction on:

— Keeping of elephants in captivity.

— Hunting of elephants: “Should hunting of elephants be permissible and what are the legal requirements and conditions for such?”

— Population management, including culling, contraceptives and inter-country translocations.

— Trade in elephant ivory, including “mechanisms of the trade, determination of the quota”.

— Ivory stockpiling: “What is the value for keeping ivory stockpiles to conservation?”

— How the variety of management practices like captive keeping, and trading in elephant ivory contribute value to conservation.

But wait! We’ve been through all this before. In 2007, at the invitation of the then minister of environmental affairs, it took around 70 experts to produce a 620-page book covering all these aspects, which led to the norms and standards. Has the current minister read this? She certainly should before starting the process all over again.

It gets worse. For an indecently long time, the minister has had on her desk for signature The National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa, which are the result of three years’ work by not only DEFF but also all interested parties. These norms and standards are excellent and answer most of the questions posed in the panel’s new terms of reference.

So why doesn’t she just sign that document? Is she seeking to circumvent yet another scientific process? Why?

In addition, DEFF is currently in the process of preparing a National Elephant Plan with input from stakeholders and following due process which should answer any questions not covered in the norms and standards.

The 2007 revised norms and standards specifically exclude the capture of elephants from the wild to prevent new elephants being added to the existing captive population. CITES regulations also preclude trade in live elephants.

This subject was exhaustively examined at a conference in 2019 held in Hermanus which included elephant experts from around the world. DEFF was invited but declined to attend. Most of the answers to the questions now being asked anew by DEFF can be found from the outcomes of that conference. But clearly the department did not like them and now seeks to justify its own actions with the support of a small group with vested interests.

The same year, a series of workshops on elephant policy was held in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park as well as a Conservation Symposium in St Ives, KwaZulu-Natal.  The symposium and workshops set out an extensive elephant policy programme answering most of what the panel is now tasked to re-explore.

The panel will serve only to reopen a debate on the hunting of elephants in the face of international disgust at this practice. Most of this hunting takes place in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) alongside Kruger Park which has its own protocols. There, national assets are permitted to move from Kruger Park to be shot in order to fund the leisure lifestyles of a group of mainly white landowners with scant benefit to bordering communities. Would a panel of mainly game breeders and hunters ever question this?

Culling is another issue to be reopened by the panel. Between 1967 and 1997, 14,629 elephants were culled in South Africa, mainly in Kruger, to maintain the population at an arbitrary level of 7,000. This had no foundation in science. Culling was stopped and a successful policy of closing down water holes was adopted to control elephant numbers.

In 2014 the park’s large-animal ecologist, Dr Sam Ferreira, said there would be no further culling in the park. He said managing the effects of elephants was not about controlling populations but letting natural processes influence where elephants spend time and what they do when they are in particular places. Kruger’s Elephant Management Plan confirmed that.

So why are we now opening up deliberations about culling? Has the minister not read that report? Instead, she’s paying 25 people an estimated R5- to 6-million to duplicate existing work already done by more qualified people. This at a time when the South African economy is on its knees and the costs of Covid-19 are astronomical. And when the answers she’s apparently seeking are already on the table.

Rhinos

Rhinos are under massive threat from poaching and their protection, particularly in Kruger Park, is costing millions of rand and the lives of rangers. The only way to stop the poaching is to reduce demand in China and Vietnam. Adding the possibility of legal rhino horn simply fans the trade and acts as a cover for illegal horn.

However, the panel is not tasked with this problem, but instead, among other things, to “identify new or additional interventions required to create an enabling environment to create an effective rhino horn trade”.

DEFF has already legalised domestic trade in rhino horn, despite an international ban on this trade by CITES. The panel’s task is not to bring South Africa into line with the UN body, but instead to “review and provide advice on the submission of the Rhino related trade proposals to the next coming CITES COP”.

In other words, to try, yet again, to get international horn trade legalised.

Significantly, there are no rhino experts on the panel unless one considers hunters and breeders to be experts.

Lions

In 2018, following a two-day colloquium into the captive lion breeding industry, the Parliamentary Committee on Environmental Affairs recommended that the industry be closed down. This was confirmed by a resolution of the National Assembly. It found that the conservation value of predator breeding was zero and was undermining the country’s tourism brand value.

It noted that, although captive lion breeding for hunting is currently lawful, this did not make it ethically, morally or socially acceptable – especially the manner in which hunted animals are raised and released for hunting.

It also considered SA’s export of lion bones and expressed concern over the health and safety posed by zoonosis – the transmission of disease from wild animals to humans (as with Covid-19).

The task of the high-level panel, however, is not to consolidate the parliamentary instruction on lion breeding or canned hunting, but to “get more insight into the management of lions and trade in lion bone in South Africa”.

It will open the debate afresh as though it has not already been extensively dealt with by Parliament. It is tasked to explore “the genesis of captive breeding of lions in South Africa, methods, size of breeding facilities, euthanasia of lions in captivity, handling of lions in breeding facilities, legal requirements, tourism, interactions and exploitation of tourists, petting zoos and related activities, as well as associated compliance and enforcement protocols and measure”.

It will also re-explore “the hunting rationale in captive breeding facilities, conditions for hunting of captive-bred lions, size of hunting farms, release periods of lions for hunting and legal requirements for hunting captive-bred lions”.

This does not sound like a recipe for closing down captive-bred lion facilities and canned hunting, as per Parliament’s instruction.

Is the minister aware of the 2015 Biodiversity Management Plan for Lions published jointly by CSIR and gazetted into law, specifically to address issues of lion management?

Once again, there are neither lion nor leopard experts on this panel apart from breeders, hunters or supporters of trade. Nor are there any illegal wildlife trade experts or monitoring groups able to advise on the effect and risks of opening legal trade on illegal trade.

The reopening of all these debates about wildlife in the face of solid, scientific guidelines by a large range of wildlife specialists and scientists and parliamentary instructions suggests the existing guidelines and science have not gone in the direction of a lobby group who appear to have considerable influence over DEFF.

Is the department “captured”? Who stands to gain from the commercialisation of wildlife? Why are we wasting money on a panel with terms of reference and composition that virtually guarantees an outcome in favour of a wealthy, privileged group of breeders and hunters?

A letter to DEFF from the Wildlife Animal Protection Forum of South Africa signed by 22 environmentalists and scientists lists the above concerns and concludes that the panel runs the risk of being institutionally biased.

“A candidate with vested interests in the continuation of captive predator breeding or captive-origin lion hunting,” they write, “appears unlikely to uphold the parliamentary resolution to put an end to these practices.

“Similarly, those with a vested interest in trading in rhino horn or ivory or trophy hunting may unduly influence the deliberations of the panel to secure an outcome on which their direct and/or future revenue depends.

“Given the urgent nature of the matters to be reviewed, the qualifications, skills, commitment to the Constitution and freedom from institutional bias among this panel should be beyond reproach. This may not have been achieved.”

The apparent duplication of effort and expense is so extreme it should warrant investigation by the auditor-general as possible wasteful and fruitless expenditure and, in the public interest, by the public protector.

Alfresco art gallery ‘shows woolly mammoths and rhinos depicted by our ancestors 15,000 years ago’ (Russia & Mongolia)

By Archeology, Science and technology One Comment
The Siberian Times | April 24, 2020

Read the original story here.

Petroglyphs some 7,000 years older than earlier thought with ancient artists using same style in Siberia and Mongolia.

Scientists have closely examined and compared intriguing rock drawings on the Ukok plateau in Russia’s Altai Republic and Baga-Oygur, and Tsagaan-Salaa in northwestern Mongolia.

The petroglyphs are now in different countries but in fact are only about 20 kilometres part.

The drawings were mostly found in the 1990s and early 2000s but many questions at the time remained unanswered.

Original photo as published by The Siberian Times. Mammoth image discovered at Baga-Oygur III in early 2000s. Picture: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS

In particular there was a dispute between experts as to whether the drawings showed extinct woolly mammoths that one roamed these parts – or fantastical creatures with trunks.

A new study by Russian and French researchers found new petroglyphs which helped the answer this conundrum.

For example, at Baga-Oygur II was found the image of a long-gone woolly rhino.

Most of the image is lost due to a rock slicing, but the animal is quite recognisable with an elongated, squat torso, short powerful legs, a characteristic tail, and an elongated muzzle with exaggeratedly enlarged two horns.

This was useful because these animals – like mammoths – became extinct around 15,000 years ago in this region, making the drawings the work of Palaeolithic artists.

Another new image at Baga-Oygur III evidently shows a mammoth calf.

The scientists also concluded that the artists worked with stone implements, and not metal.

They also noted a ‘desert varnish’ on the stones – a dark crust which forms on the stones in dry conditions, suggesting a greater age than earlier assumptions of between 8,000 and 10,000 years old.

Stylistic similarities between the Mongolian and Siberian petroglyphs further indicated the Ukok drawings to be woolly mammoths.

They made their petroglyphs in the so-called Kalgutinsky style.

The experts concluded: ‘We attribute the petroglyphs to the Final Upper Palaeolithic because the examples with typical features of this style depict the Pleistocene fauna (mammoths, rhinoceros).

‘These stylistic features find their parallels among the typical examples of the Upper Palaeolithic rock art of Europe.’

Russian scientists Vyacheslav Molodin said: ‘This is a new touch to what we know about the irrational activities of ancient people in Central Asia.

‘Science knows Palaeolithic era art in the region.

‘This is the famous series of sculptures in Malta in Irkutsk region, whose age is from 23,000 to 19,000 years ago, and several examples from Angara.

‘The assumption that the Pleistocene inhabitants undertook rock art on open surfaces fits into this context.’

The research was undertaken by Vyacheslav Molodin, Dmitry Cheremisin and Dr Lidia Zotkina from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Jean-Michele Geneste (University of Bordeaux) and Catherine Cretin (National Museum of Prehistory, France).

Their article ‘The Kalgutinsky Style in the Rock Art of Central Asia’ was published in late 2019, in the magazine Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia (issued by Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS).

Lack of tourism opens up new challenges in rhino conservation

By Antipoaching No Comments
Oishimaya Sen Nag, World Atlas | April 26, 2020

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In the absence of additional eyes and ears of tourists and guides in the field, rhino protection is now solely reliant on rangers.

While the world remains locked down in their homes, there are growing concerns about the rise in wildlife poaching incidents in different parts of the world. Conservationists are worried that restricted movements of forest staff, a fall in wildlife tourism, and rising poverty levels among the populations living in and around wildlife habitats will act in cohesion to encourage poaching.

Rhinos being among the prime targets of such illegal killings are thus under special monitoring in the protected habitats where they occur. To learn more about the status of rhino conservation and safety, World Atlas spoke to CeCe Sieffert, Acting Executive Director of International Rhino Foundation (IRF), a Texas-based charity focused on the conservation of the five extant species of rhinos.

White Rhino in South Africa. Wikimedia Commons

With the COVID-19 pandemic killing thousands around the globe, scientists are desperately trying to discover a cure for the same. On the other hand, traditional or “alternative” medicine practitioners, especially in China and some parts of Southeast Asia are promoting remedies using animal parts for the coronavirus infection. According to the International Rhino Foundation, there are reports that illegal rhino horn sellers in China and Laos are now advocating the use of rhino horns in medicines for treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

There is, however, no scientific evidence backing such claims. Made up of dead keratin cells, rhino horns are no different from human hair and nails. With large criminal syndicates being involved in the black-market trade of rhino horns in China and Vietnam, conservationists fear that false claims of COVID-19 cures can fuel the already robust rhino poaching business.

“The demand for rhino horn in illegal markets is always a threat to wild rhinos. There are reports of late that Chinese National Health Commission recommended the use of bear bile extract as medicine for COVID-19 which may have encouraged wildlife smugglers to seek rhino horn as a mistaken treatment as well,” said CeCe Sieffert.

Among the five extant rhino species, wild Javan rhino and Sumatran rhino populations number less than 100. Both species have been rendered critically endangered due to ruthless poaching in their Southeast Asian native habitats for decades. Now, after nearly finishing off these two species, rhino poachers primarily concentrate their attention on the Indian rhinoceros and the two species of rhinos found in Africa (black and white rhinoceros).

Rhino Protection in Locked-Down India

The Indian rhino (Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List), also called the greater one-horned rhino, numbers over 3,600 with around 2,413 members of the species living in India’s Kaziranga National Park in Assam, representing nearly two-thirds of the species’ population. Over the past few years, rhino poaching incidents in the park have decreased significantly. The stringent anti-poaching measures adopted by the park are credited for the success achieved in this direction.

So, how are these giants of the animal world faring in this pandemic-struck world? We look to IRF for an answer: “Although India instituted a country-wide lockdown on March 25, wildlife officials were allowed to do their duties of protection and management. Wildlife management is treated as emergency services by the Indian government. Assam’s approximately 2,650 Greater one-horned rhinos in the wild are protected by front line forest staff of the Assam Forest Department working 24/7,” said CeCe Sieffert.

Referring to the recent rhino poaching attempts made at Kaziranga, she mentioned: “Since lockdown, there have been at least two known attempts to kill rhinos in and around Kaziranga National Park. However, not only forest guards or police personnel are extra vigilant, but also the local villagers are suspicious of movements of people during the lockdown leading to the arrest of the rhino hunters.”

Difficult Times Ahead for Rhinos in Africa

While both black and white rhinos marched through the African wilderness in thousands a century ago, their numbers have plummeted dramatically in recent decades primarily due to heavy poaching. While the former (Critically endangered) has a population size of slightly over 5,500, the latter (Near threatened) numbers around 18,000.

In recent times, however, funding from a rapidly growing tourist industry and enhanced conservation efforts have helped some African countries with rhinos to better conserve these charismatic animals. However, how are the African rhinos doing in the absence of tourists in a pandemic-hit continent?

“In Africa, protection and conservation efforts are often funded by tourism income in reserves. With the lockdown and complete halt in tourism, reserves are finding themselves without the necessary income to continue supporting conservation teams. While many are doing their best to keep team members employed, some reserves are already asking staff to work with reduced pay,” said CeCe Sieffert.

With some reports circulating about the rise in poaching of rhinos following the lockdown in South Africa, World Atlas wanted to learn more about the current situation from Ms. Sieffert. Surprisingly, the response brought some relief:

“Poaching at a national scale in South Africa is definitely down because of the lockdown. Quite honestly, we expected the worst, but South Africa’s announcement of a hard lockdown and the way it has been enforced with police and military presence on the roads has made it risky and difficult for poaching groups to travel. There have been incidents but by far fewer over the lockdown period than normal and far less than expected,” was Ms. Sieffert’s response.

“One should keep in mind that logistics, proximity to a reserve, modus operandi, and the level of insider involvement all play a role in rhino poacher success. With only essential staff left on reserves, in many cases just the anti-poaching units, security and management, the drop in some areas is, sad to say, because the insiders are now outside,” she explained.

“However, with hungry and desperate communities along the boundaries, there is an increasing chance of a wave of meat poaching, so rangers need to be vigilant,” she also warned.

A Cause of Concern

Lockdowns have crippled the rhino tourism industry in both India and Africa. How is the sudden change affecting rhino conservation? We seek our answers from CeCe Sieffert.

“The tourist season in Kaziranga generally declines from mid-April when pre-monsoon rains begin in the area. Tourism in wildlife areas in Assam has been on hold since the lockdown was enacted impacting the income generation of many people. Fortunately, both the state government of Assam and the national government of India has not been compromised in their efforts to prevent attempts of poaching. Scheduled meetings between authorities that aid in the coordination of wildlife conservation continues to happen through virtual gatherings to ensure that the rhino conservation successes that India has realized over the last several years are not hampered in the face of the pandemic,” mentioned Ms. Sieffert.

The situation in South Africa, however, does not look very promising as evident from what Ms. Sieffert said:

“In South Africa, the communities near reserves are dependent on tourism for the jobs this creates within the reserves, or for opportunities created outside. However, the hard lockdown since March 27, which will only ease slightly on May 1 has had dire consequences for the economy, business, and job security in South Africa. It has especially affected the poorest of the poor and the small, informal economies within community areas.”

Countering the New Challenges

Recognizing the fact that tourists and guides have traditionally served as additional eyes and ears in the field, acting as a poaching deterrent, Ms. Sieffert suggests that supporters must mobilize during this critical time to fill the gaps being created by the lack of tourism. She reminds us that now the rhinos and other wildlife are reliant solely on rangers.

“IRF encourages individuals that have booked safaris to postpone them rather than cancel to help minimize the impact of lost tourism dollars,” she stated. She also invited the concerned global community to join the Virtual Cinco de Rhino celebration organized by IRF on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

“On May 5th, Cinco de Rhino, IRF will take its traditional party for a purpose fundraiser online with virtual events to raise money to support salaries and health and safety needs for the dedicated men and women who continue to ensure that rhinos and other endangered species will survive. These funds, plus additional support, will establish the Reserve Relief Fund, which will make grants to organizations struggling to support their staff and maintain protection and monitoring activities,” stated Ms. Sieffert.

More information is available at https://rhinos.org/cinco-de-rhino/.

Thula Thula rhino poaching attempts foiled (South Africa)

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The Zululand Observer | April 26, 2020

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Rhino poaching attempts at Thula Thula Private Game Reserve has increased since the start of the national lockdown.

Thula Thula Managing Director, Francoise Anthony, said two groups of poachers entered the reserve on Wednesday, but were intercepted by security personnel.

Original photo as published by the Zululand Observer. White Rhino.

‘Our security, Project Rhino and K-9 unit members were called out to track down the poachers, but they managed to escape.’

The reserve was targeted twice before since the lockdown.

‘We think because the reserve has been quiet in terms of not having guests, poachers are seeing this as an opportunity.

‘However, we are well protected and they have not succeeded,’ said Anthony.

Assam conservationists oppose move to construct more highlands in Kaziranga (India)

By Conservation No Comments
Utpal Parashar, The Hindustan Times | April 26, 2020

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Four prominent conservationists in Assam have opposed the move to construct more highlands in the state’s Kaziranga National Park as a means to give shelter to wild animals during floods.

On Friday, union minister for environment, forest and climate change Prakash Javadekar had a video conference with Assam forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya to discuss ways to mitigate the loss of wildlife during the annual floods in Kaziranga and other protected areas of the state.

“Directed that more highlands maybe made for wild animals, to take shelter at the time of floods,” the union minister wrote on his Facebook page. He also asked Assam officials to ensure wild animals are not killed due to accidental hits by vehicles.

Original photo as published by The Hindustan Times. Kaziranga gets flooded every year forcing the animals in the national park to move towards hills in Karbi Anglong district.(PTI Photo)

In a statement issued on Sunday, Anupam Sarma, Team Leader of Brahmaputra Landscape, WWF India, Bibhab Talukdar, founder of Aaranyak, Rathin Barman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India and Kaushik Barua of Assam Elephant Foundation cited 10 reasons why the move was not a good one.

Spread over 430 sq km, Kaziranga is the biggest habitat of the one-horned rhinos in the world. But every year during floods nearly 80% to 90% of the park gets inundated forcing animals to cross the national highway located nearby and head to the hills of Karbi Anglong district.

In an attempt to protect animals, artificial highlands to allow wild animals to take shelter during floods were constructed inside the park. At present there are 144 highlands inside Kaziranga.

Nearly 200 animals including 18 rhinos were killed in the park during floods last year. But though the floods bring devastation, it also helps regenerate the grasslands inside the park, which are crucial for survival of rhinos and several other species.

In their statement the conservationists said construction of more highlands might change Kaziranga into a drier habitat and in the long run it might not remain suitable for rhino, swamp deer, wild buffalo etc.

“In every flood, the highland will erode naturally and deposit extra silt in the wetlands and water channels will eventually dry out. This will cause more damage to Kaziranga’s already fragile eco-system,” the statement read.

“Change of vegetation is likely to compel the animals to stray out of the park’s boundary, especially during dry seasons. This will bring more threat to the animals, especially the rhino,” it added.

The conservationists said that the new highlands may affect prey-predator reflex as it will affect visibility, might introduce invasive plant species in the park and may reduce grasslands for rhinos and other herbivores to graze on.

“It will be more beneficial if more emphasis is given to grasslands management, restoration of wetlands and anti-erosion matters rather than making highlands,” said the statement.

The conservationists suggested undisturbed animal movement in the identified animal corridors in Kaziranga and construction of an elevated highway to allow the wild animals to move to the Karbi Anglong hills during floods.