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App used to curb rhino poaching being used to track Covid-19 cases

By Antipoaching, Science and technology No Comments
Naledi Shange, TimesLive | May 14, 2020

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What does rhino poaching have to do with Covid-19? At least one thing, it turns out.

The Cmore app that SA is using to record screening data and assist in tracking potential coronavirus cases is the same app used by the country’s game parks to help curb animal poaching.

This is according to the US science magazine Scientific American.

While Cmore is the common name for the app, its full name is the Command and Control Collaborator.

In 2019, TimesLIVE reported that the app was developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and its software enabled the park’s control centre and rangers to use their cellphones to track poaching incidents, sightings, carcass locations, or to track rangers out on patrol.

In 2020, as SA was hit by the coronavirus, telecommunication companies donated thousands of cellphones to the government. These were then given to community workers who were deployed into different regions to screen people for the coronavirus.

The screeners go on door-to-door visits in the communities, where they ask the inhabitants to answer questions which allow them to weigh out whether they could have the virus. The data collected during these visits is then loaded onto the app and allowed for easy tracing and data analysis.

Scientific American said the Cmore app was  altered to adapt for the screening of the coronavirus.

“The adapted programme pulls together information such as statistics about the demographic spread of the country’s population and the health data of patients who have been tested. Approximately 340,000 South Africans have had diagnostic laboratory tests for viral infections, and more than 7 million have been screened by community workers for symptoms,” the magazine said in an article published on Tuesday.

“These data are all included in a government database and fed into the new system. If an individual has been infected, health authorities get an alert, along with address information, and begin tracing those who have come in recent contact with that person. Sometimes they are aided by cellphone tracking: the nation’s latest regulations compel cellular providers to hand over the locations of possible contacts.”

The app is quite secure.

“We don’t have a securitised approach toward contact tracing, which is a safeguard,” media freedom expert Jane Duncan of the University of Johannesburg told the magazine.

The information obtained through the database is held within the health ministry. This reduced the ability of the police or state security officials to access the data for spying or political reasons.

Scientific American reported that for the whole system to work, both the data-collection technology and the house-to-house surveys needed to complement each other.

The magazine spoke to Bruce Bassett, a data scientist and mathematician at the University of Cape Town, who warned that “even if the [adapted Cmore] system works perfectly, a key challenge is likely to be integrating it effectively with logistics and operations on the ground.”

Tolullah Oni, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, however, expressed optimism at South Africa’s use of the app.

“South Africa is uniquely positioned in the sense [that] it has the potential to leverage technology, as well as the experience with basics of infection control — the door-to-door stuff, the non-sexy stuff. That’s the foundation,” Oni told the magazine.

“South Africa straddles these two realities. And if you can make them work together, then you’ll stand a good chance of being effective.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa was himself impressed with the technology. Last month he visited the health department’s Covid-19 information centre which was set up to monitor and track the spread of the virus.

There he was shown how the government is able to provide close to real-time analytics and dashboards on the coronavirus outbreak per province, district, local municipality and ward.

“I was hugely impressed to see how we are able, through the facility we have here, to look at the entire country and see how we can get data and information about the incidents of infection of coronavirus throughout the country,” said Ramaphosa.

“More important is how we are able through science and technology to drill it down to provincial, district, municipality, ward level and street level as they track the people that are infected.”

Covid-19 is putting the country’s hard-earned conservation accomplishments at risk, conservationists warn (Nepal)

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Chandan Kumar Mandal, The Kathmandu Post | May 14, 2020

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The Covid-19 pandemic is threatening the country’s years of nature conservation achievements, with potential repercussions for years to come, conservationists have warned.

In a statement, Society for Conservation Biology (SCB Nepal), a non-governmental organisation of professional conservationists, said that it is concerned about how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect conservation communities in Nepal: practitioners, researchers and everyone.

“Although it is too early to make a conclusion about the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, SCB-Nepal is alarmed about its possible repercussions on biodiversity and our ability to continue conservation achievements,” reads the statement.

The conservations’ concerns stem from the pandemic and the resultant lockdown, into eight weeks now, which has led to suspension of all non-essential activities.

According to Prakash K Paudel, president of the SCB Nepal, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected every sector globally, will leave short- and long-term impacts on Nepal’s conservation sector.

“Conservation research has been disrupted, making it difficult to generate good knowledge and train young researchers,” Paudel told the Post. “Such disruption will mean there will be less funding available from the conservation organisations and government agencies, and such restriction would stop researchers from continuing with their work on the ground.”

Raju Acharya, another conservationist, said regular conservation and research-related activities have been completely halted.

“Field researchers have not been able to work on the ground. For example, our research on the clouded leopard has been put on hold for now,” said Acharya, who is also executive director of Friends of Nature Nepal, an organisation that works with the environment and in wildlife conservation.

“The trouble due to Covid-19 has already made it worse for small organisations which rely on small-scale grants for research. They have completely stopped for now. For example, zoos, which also support wildlife research from its income, have stopped financial assistance as zoos have remained shut for weeks now.”

Nepal has made some remarkable strides in conservation over the last decades, as a result, the country has witnessed a rise in many wildlife populations like tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, gharials, and blackbuck among others. The country’s green cover has also increased across much of the country.

The decade-long insurgency and political instability resulted in massive loss of the country’s valuable wildlife and led to deforestation in the past, according to conservationists. Now, the Covid-19 crisis has caused a sudden disruption in many regular conservation activities on the ground and might put the hard-earned achievements at risk, they say.

“Nepal’s biggest loss of wildlife, for instance, rhino poaching in Babai Valley and deforestation occurred during the periods of political instability and social unrest. Wildlife hunting, poaching and deforestation escalate during such difficult times,” said Paudel. “We are deeply concerned about recent reports of increased wildlife poaching and deforestation.”

There have been reports of wildlife poaching and increased deforestation in several parts of the country in the wake of the Covid-19-induced lockdown.

“While air quality has improved and nature is taking a break, there have been incidents of poaching and deforestation, mainly in rural areas. Outskirts of urban areas have not faced such problems,” said Acharya. “In rural areas, where people have returned home from cities, they are involved in illegal fishing, killing of wildlife and cutting down forests in the cover of the pandemic.”

Likewise, regular conservation activities have been suspended due to Covid-19 pandemic, fearing infection among park officials and others involved. The rhino count has already been called off for an indefinite period.

According to Paudel, both field-based and laboratory-based conservation research activities have been severely affected, as some field data have to be collected in a specific season, and failing to complete it in the specified time period means that researchers will have to wait until next year.

Not only researchers but also fieldworks of several MSc and PhD students have been cancelled due to the lockdown.

“Our frontline conservation staff are in the urgent need of safety equipment and resources, including better pay during such pandemics and other emergencies. Such a situation discourages them,” said Paudel. “The Nepal government, which is already not very supportive of investing in the conservation sector, will take this situation as an exception to reduce funding on regular programmes.”

Suspension of international flights and zero inflow of tourists have completely devastated Nepal’s nature-based tourism, causing a further drop in revenue–critical to sustaining conservation activities in protected areas and buffer zones.

The Society for Conservation Biology has called on the Nepal government to make more funds available for both research and conservation programs.

According to Acharya, global pandemic might work both ways for the country’s conservation sector in future.

“There is a strong realisation that people destroyed nature so that they are bearing the brunt in the form of Covid-19 pandemic. Governments at all three levels might increase funding for nature conservation now,” said Acharya. “But we also know people tend to forget when the crisis is over.”

U.S. fund that supports Sumatran rhino research faces deep cuts under Trump

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Charles Pekow, Mongabay | May 14, 2020

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The Sumatran rhinoceros — the smallest, hairiest and most endangered of all rhino species — is today only found in Indonesia. But for a quarter century, the remaining few have benefited from a program established by the United States government to support endangered species around the world.

The Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act, signed into law in 1994, set up the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation fund to provide grants to support international efforts to preserve the three-toed ungulates and big cats.

Records from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which administers the fund, show that in fiscal years 2012-2018 it specifically supported 12 projects designed to protect the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). But while the species remains on the brink, the 25-year-old program is facing a threat to its own viability: a Trump administration not focused on environmental issues.

Congress reauthorized the law several times and it is currently in effect through 2023. But while the law allows spending of $10 million a year, Congress has historically provided only about $3.5 million annually. And the U.S. Department of the Interior (DoI), parent agency to FWS, has proposed a budget for FY2021 that would slice current funding for rhinos and tigers to less than half, to only $1.575 million. The DoI also tried to halve the fund’s FY2020 budget, but congress didn’t go along.

Laury Marshall, assistant chief of FWS’s Office of Public Affairs, would only say that the budget reflects the priorities of the Trump administration, which plans to trim the overall FWS budget by 17%.

The DoI proposes cutting the fund, even though its own budget justification says that in “Asia, the status of both rhinos and tigers is … bleak.” It further says the fund “has been essential in responding to the poaching and trafficking crisis while also addressing other critical threats facing rhinos and tigers.”

The administration hasn’t been in a hurry to support new programs to save the vanishing species. It still has not awarded all available FY2019 money and hasn’t even solicited applications for FY2020 grants, despite $3.44 million available for each year. DoI says it is revamping its grants process, hence the delays.

“Unfortunately, it appears the administration is stalling wildlife conservation grants completely unrelated to any controversy,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement to Mongabay. “[Interior Secretary David] Bernhardt needs to give Congress justification for why the Department of the Interior is eroding critical conservation work, holding back funds that Congress appropriated, and calling for more conservation cuts in its most recent budget.”

Some other federal money also augments the funds slightly. In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) started issuing a semipostal stamp, one that costs a nickel more than standard postage, with the extra 5 cents going to the Multinational Species Conservation Funds, a series of programs that includes the rhino and tiger fund as well as others providing grants to save great apes, sea turtles, and other threatened species. Five cents at a time, the Save Vanishing Species Stamps, also known as Tiger Stamps, have raised $5.7 million for the funds, according to USPS.

But USPS stopped selling the stamps while maintaining an unsold inventory. Last year, Congress ordered USPS to sell the remaining stamps. Asked by email why USPS paused sales, USPS representative Roy Betts did not explain the original suspension, but noted that, once it had stopped, the service was unable to resume sales until legislation was passed. “As semipostal stamps are mandated by Congress through act of law, the USPS simply follows the letter of the law. We knew there was unresolved congressional action pending after the stamp was removed from sale, so the USPS simply went on hold during that period.”

The fund is also augmented by fines, penalties and proceeds seized from illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching, including rhino horns. The Government Accountability Office reported that about $7 million was available in this account in FY2017, the last time it checked. But law requires that FWS can only use this money to pay informants and care for illegally trafficked plants and animals.

The grants can go a long way to leveraging other funds: in FY2018, about $3.4 million in federal funds leveraged more than $10.4 million in matching funds from foreign governments, grantee matches and other donors. As to how effectively the funds are spent, it’s hard to know. FWS stopped publishing summary reports on the program in 2003 and neither Congress nor Interior ‘s Office of Inspector General has reported on the issue since then. Congress last conducted a hearing on the fund in 2001, even though it reauthorized it several times since then.

But back in 2007, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works reported that “Continued funding is considered essential because future survival in the wild of these charismatic species remains tenuous due to increased poaching, escalation in illegal trade, spotty local law enforcement, habitat loss, political instability and civil strife within regions where these animals range. Despite achievements made … current conservation efforts could collapse with the cessation of U.S. financial involvement.”

Going by the report’s own figures, there’s been a massive decline since then. The 13-year-old report estimated about 300 Sumatran rhinos lived in Indonesia and Malaysia. Now, all estimates presume fewer than 100, with the species officially declared extinct in Malaysia.

Protecting Rhinos in the Wild

Since FY2012, FWS has awarded $2,075,649 in grants and cooperative agreements to protect the Sumatran rhino (though a few of the projects also involve protecting other species, such as its Indonesian cousin, the Javan rhinoceros, Rhinoceros sondaicus). Some 77% of the funds since FY2012 went to the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), which got funded every year. According to FWS’s project summaries, funding for these projects was matched by $1,387,580 in outside contributions.

“The support FWS has provided over Sumatran rhinos has been extremely important,” said IRF development director Maggie Moore. “It is a longtime partner of IRF and our local NGO partner in Indonesia,” Yayasan Badak Indonesia, or the Indonesian Rhino Foundation.

Most of IRF’s funding from FWS has supported rhino protection units in Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas national parks.

The units work with government patrols to monitor rhinos and other threatened and endangered animals; fight illegal hunting, trapping and encroachment; and minimize effects of other human activity. Most of the poachers aren’t after rhinos but would take one if they could find one. “Everyone knows how much a rhino horn can fetch on the market,” Moore said.

FWS has helped fund 20 rhino protection units over the last 15 years. The units also receive aid from the government of Indonesia, private foundations, zoos and individuals, according to Moore.

“The continuous protection provided by the [units] is essential for Sumatran rhinos’ survival, and IRF and [its Indonesian partner] are committed to continuing to fund this critical program. We will continue to work with our large coalition of donors and partners to provide the funding necessary to support the [project], even during this difficult economic climate,” Moore said.

FWS support has also been essential to the antipoaching efforts of the Leuser Conservation Forum, which has received FWS funding to train, equip and operate antipoaching ranger teams. The forum’s Sumatran Rhino Project trains the five-member teams and equips them with tents, field clothes, GPS units, and cameras. The teams operate in the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of about 25,900 square kilometers (10,000 square miles) in northern Sumatra which is believed to hold some of the world’s last remaining reproductively viable Sumatran rhino populations. It is also known for being the last place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans live together in the same forest.

“When we started the program, we had two teams,” project manager Rudi Putra said. Now 26 teams patrol the area. The main function of the teams consists of finding and dismantling snares left by poachers. “We drop [patrols] at the edge of the forest,” Putra said, where they begin a 15-day shift, moving to a different camp each night. After their shift, they rest at home a week, then spend a week doing other work before returning to the wild.

Between 2016 and 2018, the patrols have deactivated almost 4,000 snares, some left opportunistically, others specifically set to trap animals like tigers or rhinos that can fetch a high value on the black market. Patrols caught 50 poachers last year, Putra said.

“We work with many donors,” he said. “We cannot depend on one donor only.” The government of Indonesia, for instance, pays the salaries of its rangers, while the forum has to come up with pay and expenses for the rest of the teams with FWS and other support.

Currently, all the patrols are hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Leuser’s rangers hike 2 meters (6 feet) apart and get tested when they return from patrol. IRF rangers go out seven to 10 days at a time, wear masks, stay home during breaks, and undergo temperature checks and other health assessments.

IRF has closed its Indonesia offices due to COVID-19 restrictions, Moore said. “Some of the travel and trying to capture rhinos [for captive breeding] is on hold. We’re hopeful that later in the year, we’ll be able to start that process up again in earnest.”

Supporting New Research

FWS support goes beyond patrols. Back in FY2014, FWS awarded $39,383 to U.K.-based Flora and Fauna International (FFI), which calls itself “the world’s oldest international wildlife conservation organization.” The grant went to study the status of Sumatran rhinos in Ulu Masen Landscape in Indonesia’ Aceh province and use the data “as a baseline for a long-term strategy to secure this population,” according to FWS.

The project came up with a map of suitable rhino habitat in the area and trained staff to detect rhinos. “Regretfully, during these surveys, no verifiable signs of rhinos were found, although a follow-up meeting developed plans for improved field surveys and shared findings relating to other elements of Ulu Masen’s biodiversity,” according to a statement provided by FFI spokesman Nathan Williams. The project did, however, identify “ways to improve the search for rhinos in Ulu Masen and – unfortunately – by sharing our finding that the species could not be detected in Ulu Masen, this project emphasizes the vital importance of protection of the other populations of this critically endangered species,” FFI said.

More surveys are needed, Williams said. It is possible rhino were still present at the time of the survey, but were not detected because “the area is remote and takes two weeks to reach. The survey sampled a cross section of this remote area,” he said.

One of the most recent grants went to the University of Illinois’s Department of Animal Sciences, which received $129,430 in FY2018 to work with the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta to learn what it could about Sumatran and Javan rhinos via genetic markers found in their dung samples. “We developed markers [that can] distinguish individuals, the same kind of markers you find at crime scenes,” said Alfred Roca, a professor at the University of Illinois.

It is much easier to find feces from the species than the species itself; both Sumatran and Javan rhinos are famously elusive and live in remote, difficult terrain. But the project had to develop ways to use low-quality markers. “DNA from poop is much worse quality than what you get from high quality tissue or blood,” Roca said. The project was able to compare its findings with previously collected DNA from Sumatran rhinos from across their former range, in Borneo, Myanmar, the Malay Peninsula and Laos. The project determined that at one time the population consisted of three subspecies. And the few left on Sumatra are divided by a mountain range that keeps them from interbreeding.

As if the inbreeding among a small population isn’t enough of a problem, if females go too long without mating, they can develop reproductive pathologies that leave them unable to mate or bear young.

The population is so small that the project has recommended that all survivors become part of a captive-breeding program and with enough luck reintroduce them in the wild if the population becomes large enough. “If they can’t mate, researchers can collect gametes [sperm and egg cells] that may be kept indefinitely and used for breeding or perhaps cloning one day. Matching different subgroups may restore genetic diversity,” Roca said.

But collecting and analyzing DNA, learning about the species genetic history, and using that information to inform breeding strategies all require financial support. “None of this could be done without FWS,” Roca said.

Lockdown slows wildlife forensics (India)

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Science and technology No Comments
Sahana Ghosh, Mongabay | May 11, 2020

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As India cautiously emerges from an extended lockdown put in place to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), wildlife forensic scientists have flagged concerns over the delay in investigating wildlife crimes in the country.

The COVID-19 associated lockdown has slowed wildlife forensic work, delaying wildlife crime investigations.

The nationwide lockdown that started on March 25 was recently extended by the government of India until May 17, with some relaxations.

The extended lockdown, which is considered necessary to flatten the curve of the disease, created a chink in the chain for wildlife forensic scientists: from dispatch/reception of samples, transport of chemicals, and processing samples. There is also the apprehension of the possibility of a cut in funds for research.

Wildlife Institute of India scientist Samrat Mondol, who runs the rhino forensic facility said the pause in laboratory activities has resulted in a delay in processing some of the rhino case samples they received just before the lockdown.

“We have not been able to process the samples so definitely there will be delays in providing the reports to concerned authorities. During the lockdown, I received emails from the forest department about cases that they dispatched (or are planning to dispatch), but I am not sure when will I receive them,” Mondol told Mongabay-India.

At the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES), Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology too, forensic work has been affected.

“We have received only two cases recently from nearby areas in Telangana state. This is worrying as investigations on wildlife crimes are being hampered,” said Karthikeyan Vasudevan at LaCONES.

India has a low rate of wildlife crime conviction. As per the available records of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, 9253 people have been arrested in wildlife poaching cases from 2012 to 2018 in the country. The bureau on its website lists 154 convictions from 2009 to 2018.

Navigating the new normal, the scientists are anxious about the post-lockdown and post-COVID-19 scenario, especially preparedness for a spurt in wildlife trade.

“I strongly believe that post lockdown we can expect to see a surge in the trade of wildlife contraband (both live animals as well as their body parts) as demands are going to skyrocket high for traditional medicine uses (as this is one way to make quick money). So, we really need to be prepared to deal with this situation,” Mondol explained.

Funds and Critical Chemicals for Wildlife Forensics

Samrat Mondol described two major concerns regarding general lab functioning, whenever they resume post-lockdown.

“First relates to the transport of chemicals/reagents for lab work. I am not sure how much the shipments of consumables will be affected due to COVID-19. Some of the critical chemicals such as ethanol are absolutely necessary for our laboratory work, and I am not sure when the supplies will become normal,” said Mondol.

“The second problem is a bit more serious. I am worried about the release of funds after the lockdown to continue our work. In almost all of our projects, we were supposed to get funds from different agencies in April 2020, but now that is being delayed. My worry is if the required funds are not released it will seriously impact our research activities,” he added.

Udayan Borthakur at Aaranyak’s Wildlife Genetics Division (WGL) in Assam echoes Mondol. “In the longer run, we also see that funding to research may be an issue due to the impact on the economy.”

Borthakur said during the total lockdown (March 25 to May 4), the only work the scientists could do during this period is to complete data analysis in our computers from home and make few pending reports. The division has resumed operations since May 5 with 50 percent staff strength.

“Now we have some pending laboratory work which we will be completing soon. For wildlife DNA forensic service that our lab provides to the forest department, we normally do not carry out field sampling by ourselves. The forest department collects and sends us samples for analysis in this case. However, for our other research projects that demand fieldwork, it will be hard for us to continue for the next few months till we can ensure the safety of our workers,” Borthakur told Mongabay-India.

“In view of the current pandemic and the associated issues of wildlife crime, I feel such labs should now concentrate on developing databases that can aid in forensic investigations and help reduce wildlife crime,” said Borthakur.

Extra Vigilance and Personnel Safety

Even as they try to figure out how the whole situation will impact regular functions, going ahead, experts concur on extra vigilance on already established stringent protocols as lockdown ceases.

Samrat Mondol said: “Generally, our forensic lab functions and protocols are quite stringent in dealing with samples (starting from the sample receiving till processing). As we mostly deal with poaching and seizure-related cases (where the disease is not a major concern), our standard forensic lab protocols generally take care of researchers’ safety. However, we need to be extra cautious given the situation now.”

“Personally, I am not much worried by wildlife samples coming to the facility as we are still not sure how much of the disease is spread from animal to human. But we need to be more careful with people coming to our facility to provide samples. This is a standard practice to maintain ‘Chain of Custody’. Our institute is planning to take appropriate measures to deal with such situations here. We will have to see how things work out after lockdown ends,” Mondol observed.

Vasudevan stressed on personnel safety.

“Although the samples are opened, processed under controlled conditions under a hood before being taken to the lab for further analysis, more stringent precautions will be followed with special containment conditions so as to avoid any disease/infection. Emphasis will be on personnel safety. Another concern will be the secured storage of samples until the analysis is complete and subsequent incineration,” he said.

Collection, storage/packaging, and transport will need more strict protocols before the samples reach the lab for DNA analysis.

“The forest authorities/staff need to be trained about the serious implications related to incorrect and improper handling of samples at the time of collection for their safety as well as safety of people in the lab. Although we train them for collection and storage of biological samples, stringent precautions to be followed at the time of collection and handling of samples in the field will be disseminated,” said Vasudevan.

The researchers call for enhanced efforts and investment in wildlife forensics.

“With regard to One Health, wildlife forensics should be an integral part of this program. Forensic samples could serve as ‘sentinel samples’ that might serve as warning signals before an episode of a disease outbreak. Therefore, there is a serious need for increased efforts and investment in wildlife forensics for accurate detection/diagnosis,” said Vasudevan.

Elaborating on the demand for DNA forensics in northeast India, Borthakur said while they started primarily with population genetics studies, wildlife studies, and using genetic tools for population monitoring including accurate estimation of population size, they eventually stepped into DNA forensics due to the demand that persists in the region.

Borthakur maintained that with a handful of institutes (wildlife forensics) for a big country like India, providing timely service is not possible.

“India must work towards the development of state-level facilities to promote the use of wildlife forensics so that the conviction rate can be increased. Wildlife disease investigation is another aspect that needs to be taken seriously and state level institutes should be empowered to take up extensive studies in this regard so that we have decentralisation of resources and expertise when it comes to the ground level investigation of zoonotic diseases and potential epidemic or pandemic situations,” explained Borthakur.

Pandemic or no pandemic, India is always in a situation to seriously work on illegal wildlife trade asserted Mondol.

“Our country is among the top in biodiversity-rich places globally, and will always accordingly be under threats from poaching and harvesting these resources. Wildlife forensics is one of many ways to deal with this challenge and we need all the support possible to fight this never-ending war. The whole crime syndicate chain works in complex ways and tracing and breaking are going to be a continuous fight,” added Mondol.

Pangolin immune system may shed light on how to defeat Covid-19

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Shaun Smillie, Daily Maverick | May 8, 2020

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The animal fingered as the culprit that passed the Covid-19 virus on to humans, contains a mysterious immune system that evolved over millions of years and might just help mankind beat the pandemic.

Pangolins are the prime suspects in passing the Covid-19 virus on to humans, but a new discovery suggests the animal’s unique immune system might hold the answer to defeating the pathogen.

Pangolins appear to be able to carry the coronavirus without becoming sick. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria made this discovery while they were examining the genome of the Asian pangolin species, that scientists suspect were responsible for the coronavirus’s interspecies jump to humans.

“We knew that bats have a reduced immune response against the virus, so we had decided to look at pangolins, because maybe they might have some genes that are different to other mammals,” explains Dr Leopold Eckhart, a co-author in the study that was released on Friday (8 May) in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

He was right.

“I was surprised to find that two sensors that are normally used by cells in other mammals to detect RNA viruses like the coronavirus, were missing.”

These sensors, he explains, were no longer active because of a mutation.

How they operate in other mammals, according to Eckhart, is that they work like a smoke detector, that triggers an alarm when they sense a virus has entered the body. This then triggers an immune response.

But this immune response can be deadly, as those treating Covid-19 patients have discovered.

It can cause what is called a cytokine storm, where immune cells go into overdrive and turn on the body. They flood the lungs and attack them, causing blood vessels to leak and eventually organs to fail.

But pangolins don’t appear to have this problem. In fact, they appear to be able to carry the coronavirus without becoming sick, and they are able to do this, says Eckhart, because of some unknown mechanism.

The team examined the genomes of other mammals, including humans, cats, dogs and cattle, but did not find anything similar to the gene mutations in the pangolin.

It is the absence of these two gene sensors that might have allowed the pangolin to pass on the coronavirus in the first place.

“This is speculation, but in a way you could make such a hypothesis,” says Eckhart.

“I would say that a species that has a reduced defence mechanism may be more susceptible to be infected. But of course, it would not explain why a virus would go from pangolins to humans, as we know the virus is transmitted by aerosols. There are many open questions that we have not addressed.”

Understanding how this ancient species that has been around for at least 20 million years fights off infection could help scientists in their search for a cure for the Covid-19 virus.

The authors suggest that pharmaceutical suppression of gene signalling, could be a treatment option for severe cases of Covid-19.

The problem, however, is that this approach could open patients up to secondary infections.

“The main challenge is to reduce the response to the pathogen while maintaining sufficient control of the virus,” Eckhart says.

Professor Ray Jansen, the chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group, isn’t surprised that these scaly anteaters appear to have an unusual way of fighting off pathogens.

“Pangolins are full of goggas, they really are. The bacterial swabs that we have done of their oral and anal cavities shows that they are full of bacteria and other pathogens. You could call them a very good host to carry zoonotic viruses,” says Jansen.

While pangolins are hardy critters when it comes to dealing with pathogens, Jansen has found that those that they have rescued from the animal trafficking trade often succumb to a number of infections. The stress, he believes, knocks their immune system, and many contract pneumonia.

Pangolins are not the only animals that are offering promise in the hunt to find a cure for Covid-19.

The New York Times reported recently that a four-year-old llama called Winter was discovered to have developed antibodies that neutralise the coronavirus.

Like pangolins, llamas have a unique virus-fighting mechanism. They have two types of antibodies.

One is the same size as human antibodies, while the other is much smaller.

It is these smaller antibodies that worked against the Covid-19 virus.

But much more work needs to be done on pangolins and the coronavirus. For one, scientists still need to confirm that it was indeed the pangolin that passed the virus onto humans.

Ultimately, nature might have the cure for the virus, and it is just up to scientists to find it.

“I think there are a lot of valuable things to be learned from biodiversity. Our findings should stimulate more research into exotic species so we can learn from nature just how different animals have managed to survive pathogens,” says Eckhart.

Innovation for conservation as rhinos battle for survival

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Mike Scialom, The Cambridge Independent | May 7, 2020

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What we are going to do about the species we have put into danger of extinction is a question facing many conservationists today – and some of the answers are forthcoming from Helping Rhinos, which is forging innovative conservation, community and education initiatives to ensure the long-term survival of the rhinoceros and other endangered wildlife in their natural habitat.

There is some evidence that Jurassic Park-like de-extinction – also known as resurrection biology, or species revivalism – could work, but it hasn’t fared well so far, which makes conservation work even more vital.

In 2003, a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, was brought back to existence by a team of Spanish and French scientists. The last bucardo – which had roamed high in the Pyrenees for thousands of years – died in 1989, and some of its cells were stored. Those cells were injected into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA before being implanted in surrogate mothers.

Original photo as published by Cambridge independent. Helping Rhinos’ Cambridge-based trustee Stuart Clarke, with Bhan

The only infant bucardo of 57 such implantations survived just 10 minutes after birth. A necropsy revealed “a gigantic extra lobe as solid as a piece of liver”, according to a National Geographic report.There are also some hopes of bringing a dodo back to life. The dodo became extinct in 1681 but in 2007 a very well-preserved skeleton was discovered on the island of Mauritius – but neither practical nor ethical considerations have been resolved.

Given the false dawn that such prospects involve – extracting and encoding DNA is still in its infancy – the approach now is to use every available option to ensure the survival of the existing species chains.

Work continues via the Cambridge-based David Attenborough Building to encourage and assist conservation work across the world. Cambridge has a particular connection with the rhino thanks to schoolboy Frankie Benstead’s RhinosUp group, whose progress we have recorded in this newspaper for three years. However, the cause suffered a massive setback in 2018 when Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on Earth, died.

Frankie’s fundraising efforts since have been focused on raising funds for Ol Pejeta Conservatory, a 400-square kilometre safe haven for wildlife, including rhino, in the Laikipia region of Kenya. It is home to the largest population of black rhino in East Africa. Ol Pejeta is also supported by Helping Rhinos and conservation innovator Fauna & Flora, which is based at the David Attenborough Building. There has been some crossover work which Helping Rhinos trustee Stuart Clarke, who lives off Hills Road, has described to the Cambridge Independent.

“The three big pushes we have at the moment are an interactive programme for children, which we’ve ramped up since the pandemic started,” says Stuart. #BeMoreRhino is an interactive suite of activities for everyone to do at home to learn more about rhinos and their conservation, and includes an art challenge which closes on June 30.

“Secondly, as a consequence of Covid-19, wildlife reserves face a bleak future, with funding down – tourism has effectively stopped, and corporations are cutting back on their CSR [corporate social responsibility] activities. To help, we have a ‘Name a Baby Rhino’ competition in partnership with the Kariega Foundation.”

The Kariega Game Reserve, which is based on the Eastern Cape in South Africa and has two rivers running through it, is home to a multitude of wildlife including hippo, giraffe and zebra as well as being a paradise for birdlife, including resident and migrant birds. The reserve became familiar to the public in 2012 as a result of an attack on three rhinos for their horns, which are bought and sold largely in the Asian markets in Vietnam, China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. One died immediately, a second shortly after and only Thandi survived long-term.

“In 2012 Thandi was attacked by poachers,” explains Stuart. “Her face was brutally ripped off, and she had ground-breaking surgery. She’s since had three baby rhinos, so we’re raising money via ‘Name a Baby Rhino’ to the end of May – it’s £10 per entry.”

The prize is a trip – at some point – for two to the Kariega sanctuary.

“Thirdly, the big message of the charity is sustainability. We launched a coffee brand a while ago, HORNi, from coffee on a Tanzanian farm. You order directly and all the profits go back into the charity.”

Other activities include a special re-recording of the song Survivor by UK duo Crimson Medici, with all royalties and sales going to the charity.

The rhino is not directly involved in the coronavirus outbreak, but the species relies on conservation work in national parks, game reserves and conservatories. With the collapse of tourism in these African countries, the work for their survival requires different means of support.

Alison Mollon, Africa director of operations for Fauna & Flora International, said: “Innovative ways of funding conservation for rhinos – or indeed any other species – are to be welcomed at this time of crisis. We are working hard with communities and conservancies to ensure rhinos continue to receive the protection they need now more than ever.

“Protection of nature is an investment in our human health and well-being as well, so it’s important that funding for conservation is prioritised by governments and international organisations moving forward. Individual donations can also make a big difference.”

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

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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).

Photos of the fight to save the world’s last two northern white rhinos (Kenya)

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Jennifer O’Mahony, i-D | April 22, 2020

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Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the reproduction management department at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, leads the team of scientists who announced in September of last year that they had successfully created two viable northern white rhino embryos using in vitro technology and sperm from long-dead males.

Following decades of poaching for their horns, there are just two northern white rhinos left in existence, mother and daughter pair Najin and Fatu, who live under 24-hour guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya’s central highlands. Both are infertile. The two embryos will now be inserted into a surrogate southern white rhino, the closest subspecies. If a calf is born, it would herald a new era for conservation — and for one of the world’s most important critically endangered animals.

Original photo as published by i-D

Jennifer O’Mahony: When did you start working with the concept that in vitro technology could be an asset for biodiversity and conservation?

Thomas Hildebrandt: For the northern white rhino project, there are two really important developments. Firstly, the in vitro technology that was already used for other species in the past. What is new since 2012 was pairing that with stem cell technology, because for the northern white rhino, assisted reproduction would be not sufficient to actually create a self-sustaining population. If you don’t get together enough genetic diversity in the population, then it makes no sense to speak about future reintroduction plans. By pairing these two approaches, that gave us a totally new horizon on saving critically endangered species, and it also changed the way we evaluate the status of species which are on the brink of extinction. While in the past, that was based on the number of fertile individuals in the population, that is no longer necessary—or at least in the future it will no longer be unnecessary, because every infertile or even dead animal can contribute to the population by utilizing this kind of technique.

And how have you shifted your approach as the technology has evolved?

We were quite disappointed, because we worked with the northern white rhinos in the early 2000s, and all our efforts got less and less successful because of a very small population. We went to San Diego Zoo, we scanned all the individuals there, we collected semen from the last bull, which had a poor semen quality. We did that, but we were not hopeful that it had any implication for saving the species. At that time, there was the existing population of 30 individuals in Garamba. And actually, we were invited to go there to harvest more semen from the wild ones, when they were supposed to get a transponder put into their horns. But the trip was cancelled, due to the civil war. So, we never went and shortly after, all of those individuals were gone. And there is still a rumor that there are some remaining individuals left in Sudan, but nobody can prove that. The stem cell technique is only proven in a mouse, not in a rhinoceros, but it’s available to us. These samples we have for the northern white rhino are of equal or even higher genetic diversity than those of the southern white rhino (there are more than 17,000 southern white rhinos left in existence and just two northern white rhinos).

The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in 2018 leaving behind a daughter and granddaughter. Before his death, nine years had gone by with no northern white rhino births. Why is it so hard for rhinos to reproduce?

Infertility comes quite early. In the wild, the female would have one ovarian cycle every five years, because she finds a suitable breeding partner, and then she gets pregnant for 16 months. After she gives birth, then she’s lactating and is raising the calf, and during that entire time, we have an ovarian dormancy (she cannot get pregnant). If the suitable breeding partner is missing, then the female is ovulating every month, and estrogen is a carcinogenic substance. If you have about two years of cycle activity in a female rhino, then the likelihood that you develop severe pathologies is very high.

So, it is dangerous for them not to get pregnant?

The pregnancy is actually a curing element, and ovulation is a very rare event. A rhino ovulates every four years.

What is the best way to tackle the biggest threat to rhinos: poaching?

There are different organizations which are quite good at stopping smugglers and enforcing a military presence in natural reserves or national parks. But there’s one aspect, which I think should be a little bit more explored: the option to breed or to produce rhino horn in vitro. Nobody is doing that. If there is such demand on the Asian market for this kind of product, it could be easily—well, not easily, but at least it is thinkable that you could produce it like you do silk from spiders. Then, most likely is the argument that these people want the real horn. But I think that would be an option, but on every side, it’s very hard. And it is really a kind of war. It’s a very sad point, and as a reflection of that, we always get the argument, “You are now spending so much effort and so much resources to create the northern white rhino population to a level that you can reintroduce them, and then they will all be shot again.” My answer to that is that we see a lot of examples, and the best one is in Australia. In the 1930s, Australia paid a bounty for killing Tasmanian tigers, and they erased all the Tasmanian tiger population. And now they invested millions of Australian dollars to create an institute exploring the option to recreate the Tasmanian tiger to reintroduce it to Tasmania. I think if the African nations get the option to utilize the northern white rhino as a magnet for ecotourism, there will be sufficient protection from the government and from the younger generation, which will allow them to propagate in the right way and will protect them in the future.

Species have died out throughout history. Why do you think it’s important to focus research and money on these larger mammals like rhinos? What is it about them for you that makes them so important to save?

The rhino didn’t die out because of a failure in evolution. It died out because it’s not bulletproof. It’s an absolutely human-made effect. And it’s a key species, which is an umbrella species for hundreds of other species. It distributes plants on a large scale; it produces feces for insects; it makes avenues for small antelopes and other small animals; it’s a landscape architect, one of the most important ones. It lives in swampy areas, so you can’t actually bring southern white rhinos to Central Africa. So, it is a very important element, and you may remember what happens when you disturb a fragile ecosystem. It didn’t fail in evolution, it didn’t fade out slowly, but it was shot. So, by messing with this fragile ecosystem, by taking out such an important element, I think we will pay badly for this mistake, and therefore, I think it’s our responsibility to fix it.

Do you think in your lifetime, you will see a rhino being born from the embryos that you have developed?

It is not the scale of my lifetime, it is a scale of the lifetime of Najin and Fatu. So, we have to be successful as soon as possible, because we have the genetic code, which makes up species, but we also have tradition, we have the behavior aspect (any future calf would be born from a surrogate, but raised with the last remaining northern white rhinos who are both infertile). And we really want that new northern white rhino calf. These embryos have the potential to develop into such a calf, and they can learn from the last two remaining northern white rhinos. That is our goal right now. I hope I don’t fail in this kind of hope.

Two poachers killed after being caught by KZN game park’s hi-tech cameras (South Africa)

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
The Independent Online | March 17, 2020

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DURBAN: Cutting-edge technology has been linked to intercepting a poaching incident at a provincial game park earlier this month.

Environmental Affairs MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube said two poachers were shot dead in Hluhluwe- iMfolozi Park because they used cutting-edge technology.

Dube-Ncube said the technology was inspired by the 4th Industrial Revolution to protect KwaZulu-Natal’s wildlife and eco-tourism.

She said staff at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the Peace Parks Foundation and the national Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries had been working hard to install a number of technologies in the Hluhluwe- iMfolozi Park. This had been part of a long-term strategy aimed at protecting the rhino population.

Original image by The Independent Online: The three suspected rhino poachers were caught on a camera that used artificial intelligence.


“We have decided to invest in Smart Park connectivity and the integration of systems to ensure early detection and rapid response. One of the key instruments being used is the installation of infrared trap cameras linked directly to the Parks Operational Centre,” said Dube-Ncube.

“These cameras using artificial intelligence identify people and send an immediate alert to the Operations Centre who then rapidly alert and activate the relevant Reaction Unit and associated resources,” said Dube-Ncube.

The MEC said the incident earlier in the month where two poachers were shot and died at the scene, while a third escaped, was an example of the technology at work.

“An infrared camera detected three armed poaching suspects and automatically alerted the Operations Centre, providing the number of persons, grid reference and direction of the incursion. The Reaction Unit was immediately briefed and dispatched. The suspects were located in the area and challenged. The Reaction Unit members who came under immediate threat defended themselves, which resulted in the two suspects being fatally wounded,” Dube-Ncube said.

She said police managed to recover a heavy calibre hunting rifle and knives commonly used to remove rhino horns. One of the fatally wounded suspects was a well-known high-level rhino poaching suspect. He had been charged for the illegal possession of rhino horn in 2017. He had also been suspected of not only being directly responsible for a number of rhino deaths but of co-ordinating other Mpumalanga poaching groups to target Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Ezemvelo spokespers­­on Musa Mntambo said 28 rhinos had been poached in KZN since the start of the year.

Two suspected rhino poachers shot dead in KwaZulu-Natal game park (South Africa)

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Science and technology No Comments
Kaveel Singh, News 24 | March 15, 2020

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Two suspected rhino poachers have been killed in a shootout at the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, KwaZulu-Natal Environmental Affairs MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube said on Sunday.

Original photo as published by News24: Alleged rhino poachers captured with new technology being used at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. (Supplied, KZN EDTE)

She said that “courageous field staff, who work in dangerous conditions”, encountered three armed suspected rhino poachers on the night of 6 March.

Dube-Ncube added that 28 rhinos had already been killed at the park this year.

“Two of the suspects were fatally wounded and died at the scene, while one suspect managed to escape. One heavy calibre hunting rifle, as well as knives, commonly used to remove rhino horns, were recovered at the scene by the South African Police Service.”

Dube-Ncube said one of the men who was killed was a well-known high-level rhino poacher. He had been charged with the illegal possession of rhino horns in 2017.

She said he was suspected of coordinating groups of Mpumalanga poachers to target Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Technology Comes to the Rescue

Dube-Ncube lauded the use of drone technology to combat poachers. She said it was part of a long-term strategy aimed at protecting the rhino population.

“We have decided to invest in Smart Park connectivity and the integration of systems to ensure early detection and rapid response. One of the key instruments being used is the installation of infrared trap cameras linked directly to the Parks Operational Centre.”

She said the cameras used artificial intelligence (AI) to identify people and sent an immediate alert to an operations centre which activated reaction units.

“On the night of 6 March an infrared camera detected three armed poaching suspects, and automatically alerted the operations centre, providing number of persons, grid reference and direction of the incursion.”

They were then located in the area and “challenged”, Dube-Ncube said.

“The reaction unit members who came under immediate threat defended themselves, which resulted in the two suspects being mortally wounded.”

She added that figures had shown that money earned in the illicit animal trade was more than $10bn.

“Such illegal activities have resulted in the loss of biodiversity and destruction of the ecosystem. Despite these alarming figures, we wish to commend communities that are working with us to fight rhino poaching.”