Science and technology

Indonesia to capture 3 wild Sumatran rhinos to add to breeding population

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Rahmadi Rahmad / Translated by Basten Gokkon, Mongabay | December 10, 2019

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EAST LAMPUNG, INDONESIA: Officials in Indonesia say they hope to capture three Sumatran rhinos from the wild for a recently expanded sanctuary where experts are carrying out breeding attempts to save the species from extinction.

The Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Way Kambas National Park, in Lampung province at the southern end of Sumatra Island, now spans 250 hectares (620 acres), following an expansion announced on Oct. 30.

“We are working to capture three wild rhinos in Way Kambas National Park,” Ade Kurnia Rauf, a senior adviser to Indonesia Rhino Foundation (YABI), told Mongabay. He added this was in line with Indonesia’s Emergency Action Plan on Sumatran Rhinoceros, issued on Dec. 6 last year.

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

While waiting for new rhinos to occupy the extension sometime next year, officials at the SRS have already moved one of the seven existing Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) at the facility into the new paddocks; Harapan, a 12-year-old male, is himself the product of an earlier successful captive-breeding program carried out at Cincinnati Zoo in the U.S.

The SRS at Way Kambas was opened in 1996, covering 100 ha (247 acres) and envisioned as a way to provide a heavily protected semi-wild habitat in which captive rhinos could breed naturally. Experts at the sanctuary are also tasked with carrying out research and programs to maintain a viable captive population that should be able to be released back into the wild eventually.

“Way Kambas National Park, where some of Sumatra’s last lowland tropical forest exists, is the last frontier for nearly extinct wildlife, such as the Sumatran rhino, [so] that we must protect its sustainability,” said Indra Exploitasia, the director of biodiversity conservation at Indonesia’s environment ministry.

Indonesia has launched a program to track and tally up Sumatran rhinos in the wild, including in Way Kambas National Park outside the SRS. Ade said five teams had been deployed to look for wild rhinos in Way Kambas and, by February, to start setting up pit traps to safely capture them alive.

The park agency estimates the rhino population in Way Kambas, which spans some 130,000 ha (321,200 acres), at some 33 individuals; some analyses give a much lower figure of around a dozen. The sanctuary itself is home to seven captive rhinos: three males and four females. Two of the rhinos were conceived and born at the sanctuary.

“We need new males and females to be relocated into the SRS. The reason is clear: to avoid inbreeding,” said Subakir, the head of Way Kambas National Park Agency.

In tandem with efforts to breed the species in captivity, conservationists are calling on the government to protect the last remaining wild habitats of the critically endangered animal so that there’s somewhere to release them back into when the situation allows.

The government of Lampung province has promised to increase protection for its forests from human pressure, especially within national parks, saying it wants the province to be the stronghold for the species.

“We must protect the Sumatran rhino, Indonesia’s treasure, from extinction,” said Arinal Djunaidi, the governor of Lampung, at a ceremony to mark the opening of the SRS extension on Oct. 30. He said he would seek an agreement with the environment ministry to boost law enforcement for national parks across Lampung.

Unlike with other rhino species, poaching isn’t the biggest threat to Sumatran rhinos. It’s the lack of natural breeding in the wild — a result of their habitats being carved up and destroyed, isolating individual rhinos and making it less likely that they’ll encounter one another to breed — that poses the greatest danger to the species.

“We’re fighting against extinction,” said Zulfi Arsan, a veterinarian at the SRS. “The population decline rate is [higher] than the birth rate.”

Despite its name, the species used to roam other parts of Asia, including India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. But the combination of habitat loss and poaching has left Indonesia as the final refuge for these rhinos; Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino, a female held in captivity, died of ill health on Nov. 23.

Widodo Ramono, the executive director of YABI,said his foundation had partnered with an international group, the Sumatran Rhino Survival Alliance — which consists of Indonesia’s environment ministry, the IUCN, the International Rhino Foundation, Global Wildlife Conservation, National Geographic and WWF — to protect the species.

“The expansion of the SRS can be used to its best to increase the rhino population while paying attention to sustainability, heritability, and good management of habitat,” he said.

Experts at SRS will still prioritize natural breeding, but are also open to using advanced reproductive technology, including in vitro fertilization.

“We must be very careful in carrying out anything,” Zulfi said. “Obviously, to produce a healthy rhino needs healthy parents who don’t have any reproductive problems.”

Fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos are believed to live in small populations scattered in the dwindling forests of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo. In Sumatra, experts believe the rhinos survive in Gunung Leuser National Park, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Way Kambas National Park. In Borneo, no more than 10 individuals are estimated to roam the forests of East Kalimantan province. Last year, a female rhino was captured from the wild there and relocated to a second SRS facility there. In 2016, another female rhino had been caught, but died a few weeks after her capture.

“We must act quickly against time to save this species that has lived on Earth since 20 million years ago,” Widodo said. “The most important effort now is to produce as many rhinos as possible at SRS in the safest setting there is.”


Working towards making sedation safer for rhino (South Africa)

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Sheree Bega, The Independent Online | November 23, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG: Professor Leith Meyer hopes for the day when rhino anaesthesia has become so safe that no rhino will die during immobilisation.

“This is an important goal, especially as rhino populations, unfortunately, continue to decrease,” he said.

Meyer, the director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies, at the University of Pretoria (UP), and an associate professor in veterinary pharmacology, led award-winning research, together with SANParks and Wits University, into the role of certain immobilising drugs.

Their research found that the effects of butorphanol, an opioid, on immobilised rhinos “may be a game changer” in preventing the loss of the endangered animals, after they survive poaching attacks and other anti-poachng measures, such as dehorning and collaring.

Original photo as published by IOL: Prof Leith Meyer and his team have produced award-winning research on rhino immobilisation and making anaesthesia safer for the animals.

For their work, the researchers received the 2018 Elsevier Prize, for the best article published in the journal “Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia”.

“Immobilsation can be a risky exercise, with rhinos dying during these procedures in the past,” Meyer said, in a statement this week.

“Immobillisation effects are not easy to measure in rhino, so we have to develop novel ways of measuring these effects, such as adapting a human exercise physiology system, to measure the ventilation and metabolism of immobilised rhinos.”

Despite the limitations, Meyer gained insight into the physiology of an immobilised rhino.

“Typically, rhinos are immobilised using etorphine, also known as M99, an opioid that is about 4000 times more potent than morphine.”

This is usually administered in combination with a tranquilliser, which reduces induction time and opioid-associated hypertension.

But most deaths of immobilised rhinos have occurred from hypoxia – abnormally low oxygen concentrations in the blood – which is an effect of drugs such as etorphine, he explained.

Butorphanol, which is also an opioid, has been administered by vets in the past because it reverses etorphine’s effects, without reversing the immobilising effect. “This partial reveal was thought to improve the rhino’s breathing during immobilisation,” he said.

Before the study, it was believed that the deficiency of oxygen in the blood of immobilised rhinos was from the drugs depressing breathing.

But Meyer and his collaborators found that the etorphine-induced hypoxia developed from the rhino’s metabolism increasing, which was set in motion by tremors.

“The increase in metabolism is what primarily causes the hypoxia, as it burns up all the animal’s oxygen reserves. Butorphanol had been used by vets before, as it appeared to make the animals breathe better, but the research we did showed that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Butorphanol’s main beneficial effects are reducing tremors and metabolism.”

Their findings, said UP, prove incredibly important to rhino conservation. “Not only does the study confirm that butorphanol is an important drug to use during immobilisation, but also that its beneficial effects are not what they were previously thought to be. It reduces tremors, thereby reducing metabolism, to help improve the animal’s oxygen levels.

“This is a massive benefit to immobilised rhino, as it reduces the risk of anaesthetic-related deaths,” said Meyer. “The other important aspect of this study is that any future drug development needs to focus on treating the hypermetabolism caused by etorphine, not just its respiratory depressive effects.”


Genetic data from 1.77 million-year-old rhino tooth could solve some of the biggest mysteries in evolution

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The University of York / SciTech Daily | November 23, 2019

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New research on ancient rhino tooth could unlock evolution mysteries.

Scientists from the University of York were involved in a project to extract original proteins providing genetic data from a 1.77 million-year-old rhino tooth.

It marks a breakthrough in the field of ancient biomolecular studies by allowing scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution in mammals from further back in time than ever before – offering the potential to solve some of the biggest mysteries of animal and human development.

Researchers identified an almost complete set of proteins in the dental enamel of the rhino, the largest genetic data-set older than one million years to ever be recorded.

Original illustration as published by SciTechDaily: Artistic reconstruction of Stephanorhinus in its natural environment. (Credit: Mauricio Anton)

Tooth Enamel

Researchers at the University of York played a vital role ensuring that the proteins recovered were authentic and not contaminated. Dr. Marc Dickinson and Dr. Kirsty Penkman, both from the Department of Chemistry, have been developing a method for isolating protein trapped within fossil tooth enamel, and they applied this to the rhino tooth as well as other fossils from the site.

Dr. Dickinson said: “It was exciting to see such clear evidence from our data that the proteins within the tooth enamel were original, which enables the genetic data derived from them to be used with confidence.”

Professor Enrico Cappellini, a specialist in Palaeoproteomics at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and first author on the paper, said: “This new analysis of ancient proteins from dental enamel will start an exciting new chapter in the study of molecular evolution.

“Dental enamel is extremely abundant and it is incredibly durable, which is why a high proportion of fossil records are teeth.”

Shift in Understanding

The fossil of the rhino tooth was found in Georgia at a site called Dmanisi, an important archaeological site with the oldest human fossils outside of Africa.

This rearranging of the evolutionary lineage of a single species may seem like a small adjustment, but identifying changes in numerous extinct mammals and humans could lead to massive shifts in our understanding of the way nature has evolved.

The team of scientists is already implementing the findings in their current research. The discovery could enable scientists across the globe to collect the genetic data of ancient fossils and to build a bigger, more accurate picture of the evolution of hundreds of species, including our own.

Reference: “Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny” by Enrico Cappellini, Frido Welker, Luca Pandolfi, Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, Diana Samodova, Patrick L. Rüther, Anna K. Fotakis, David Lyon, J. Víctor Moreno-Mayar, Maia Bukhsianidze, Rosa Rakownikow Jersie-Christensen, Meaghan Mackie, Aurélien Ginolhac, Reid Ferring, Martha Tappen, Eleftheria Palkopoulou, Marc R. Dickinson, Thomas W. Stafford Jr, Yvonne L. Chan, Anders Götherström, Senthilvel K. S. S. Nathan, Peter D. Heintzman, Joshua D. Kapp, Irina Kirillova, Yoshan Moodley, Jordi Agusti, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, Gocha Kiladze, Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, Shanlin Liu, Marcela Sandoval Velasco, Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding, Christian D. Kelstrup, Morten E. Allentoft, Ludovic Orlando, Kirsty Penkman, Beth Shapiro, Lorenzo Rook, Love Dalén, M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Jesper V. Olsen, David Lordkipanidze and Eske Willerslev, 11 September 2019, Nature.

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1555-y


Scientists created fake rhino horn. But should we use it?

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Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times | November 25, 2019

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In Africa, 892 rhinos were poached for their horns in 2018, down from a high of 1,349 killed in 2015. The decline in deaths is encouraging, but conservationists agree that poaching still poses a dire threat to Africa’s rhino population, which hovers around 24,500 animals.

Now, in the hopes of driving down the value of rhino horn and reducing poaching even more, scientists have created a convincing artificial rhino horn made from horsehair.

“We’re not trying to supplant boots-on-the-ground, vigilant customs officials and protection of rhino habitat,” said Fritz Vollrath, a biologist at the University of Oxford and senior author of the study, published in Scientific Reports. “But these measures alone so far have not been sufficient to save the rhino, so what we’re doing here is bringing out a really good fake.”

The product that Dr. Vollrath and colleagues at Fudan University in China have produced looks identical to rhino horn under a microscope. It has a similar chemical signature and behaves like rhino horn when cut or shaved. It even smells the same when burned.

With such properties, Dr. Vollrath believes his artificial horn could be used to covertly flood the market with a cheap, convincing replacement, reducing the demand that leads to rhinos being slaughtered. He also hopes it might provide an educational tool for “demystifying that rhino horn’s something very special,” he said.

A number of experts pushed back, however, saying such a product is unnecessary and even dangerous.

“Conservation people don’t like the idea,” Dr. Vollrath acknowledged.

Some wealthy elites in China and Vietnam continue to give rhino horn as gifts and, in Vietnam, bring it to parties as a hangover preventive. In China, it’s also carved into jewelry and ornate cups, and collected for speculation purposes.

“What we’ve seen is that most rhino horn is now being used for status symbols,” said Olivia Swaak-Goldman, executive director of the Wildlife Justice Commission, a nonprofit organization that investigates wildlife trafficking networks.

Status depends on rhino horn’s exclusivity, high price and rarity — things that Dr. Vollrath believes his artificial horn could undermine. “We are giving back street entrepreneurs the recipe for how to make fake rhino horns, so hopefully people will get it into the market,” he said.

Rhino horn, as Dr. Vollrath puts it, is “nothing but a tuft of nose hair stuck together with glue that comes out of the animal’s nose glands.” He and his colleagues chose horsehair as a basis for their fake rhino horn because horses are a close relative of rhinos. They cleaned and tightly bundled the hair, then bound it together with a mixture of liquefied silk, which stood in for the collagen found in rhino horn, as well as cellulose, which represented the plant material that gets rubbed in as rhinos sharpen their horns.

Pembient, a Seattle-based bioengineering company launched in 2015, is already exploring the development of 3D-printed rhino horn. Matthew Markus, Pembient’s chief executive officer, said he would be open to testing the new horsehair formula. “Their organic matrix is a neat innovation and definitely brings horsehair horn closer to being a good substitute for rhino horn,” he said.

But his company has also faced pushback from conservationists.

Critics say that fake rhino horn risks stimulating demand for real horn, and that it would complicate policing. “There’s already scarce resources for wildlife crime and we don’t want to make it even more difficult for law enforcement,” said Ms. Swaak-Goldman, who works with governments and law enforcement agencies.

Peter Knights, chief executive officer of WildAid, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trade, added that the market in Vietnam is already flooded with convincing fakes, like water buffalo horn, which accounts for up to 90 percent of what’s sold as rhino horn. “It’s widely known that there is a lot of fake product out there, so this experiment is already running,” Mr. Knights said.

Frederick Chen, an economist at Wake Forest University, said that there is more than one way to flood a market, however. “Conservation groups tend to clump different strategies under one roof and have a knee-jerk reaction that they have to reject them all,” he said. “But the dangers they point out don’t apply to all strategies.”

Dr. Chen agreed that introducing a product marketed as an artificial alternative would risk driving up demand for real rhino horn. But covertly introducing a product that passes as real rhino horn but later reveals itself to have some undesirable defect — horns that deteriorate after purchase, for example, or horns that, when consumed, trigger a stomach ache — could ultimately undermine demand. “If you introduce quality uncertainty into the market, you are trying to create confusion and essentially destroy the rhino horn market,” he said.

For now, these ideas remain in the realm of theory — and much of that theory goes against real-world evidence suggesting what might happen if the market was flooded with fake horn, said Solomon Hsiang, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Hsiang cautioned, for example, that experiments trying to undermine black markets in elephant ivory by selling legal ivory backfired and ultimately lead to increased poaching.

Engineering fake rhino horn “seems like an elaborate technological approach that is not without potentially serious risk,” Dr. Hsiang said, when a much simpler strategy would be to focus on targeted demand reduction.

According to Lynn Johnson, founder of Nature Needs More, a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce wildlife demand and supply, demand reduction campaigns should focus on top rhino horn users, who are usually wealthy, elite men.

Dr. Johnson interviewed 20 such individuals in Vietnam and found that they do not fall for fakes: They take measures to ensure their purchase is genuine, including working with a trusted supply chain and requesting the rhino’s tail as proof of provenance.

They also told her that they view rhino horn as a luxury product that confers prestige. A 2018 study involving 30 Vietnamese rhino horn buyers found that most no longer believed it could cure cancer — a newfangled use that became popular around a decade ago — but they still sought it out as a symbolic final gesture to comfort terminally ill relatives.

Belief in rhino horn’s traditional medical properties also seems to be on the decline. A survey of 400 people in Vietnam carried out by WildAid in 2016 revealed that 23 percent thought rhino horn had medicinal value — down from 69 percent in 2014.

But so long as influential people continue to hold rhino horn in high regard, Dr. Johnson says that younger and less successful people will also continue to see it as something desirable. “As soon as people can afford the real thing, they’ll buy it,” she said.

Changing the minds of top users — something Dr. Johnson and her colleagues are trying to do — is therefore key to quashing demand, she said.

“I’m a scientist, but you have to know when science won’t help,” she said. “Calls for fake rhino horn just shows that there’s a lack of understanding about the true commercial nature and consumer desire of current demand.”

Enough with the fake rhino horns

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John R. Platt, The Revelator | November 19, 2019

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Earlier this month a team of scientists announced they’ve developed a high-tech way to help save rhinos from poachers: They propose fabricating fake horns out of horse hair (which is also composed of inert keratin, like human fingernails) and then flooding the illegal market with their products, thereby lowering the price of powdered rhino horns so much that no one will ever want to kill another rhino again.


This isn’t the first time someone’s come up with the well-intentioned (yet illogical) idea of creating fake rhino horn, and it probably won’t be the last. But it should be the last, because there are several reasons why this concept, no matter how it’s executed, is doomed to fail.

Let’s explore them.

Original photo as published by The Revelator.

Perhaps most obviously, selling fake rhino horn doesn’t do anything to address the end-user demand for these illegal products, which are driven by either fortunes or phony medicinal claims. These are ultimately the reasons rhinos and many other species are poached in the first place. As a result the best way to eliminate the financial incentive to sell these wildlife products is to get consumers to understand why they shouldn’t be buying them in the first place. We’ve already seen this work; conservationists have finally started to make headway on curbing the shark-fin trade in China after extensive public-awareness campaigns called attention to the dangers the practice poses to people and marine ecosystems. Similar initiatives have started to help chip away at consumer demand for rhino horns there as well (thanks, Jackie Chan).

Progress still needs to be made on reducing the market for products from those species, as well as with other heavily trafficked animals such as pangolins, but that’s another reason why purposefully selling fake rhino horns is wrong: The more you say that any aspect of the market for rhino horn is okay, which is what happens when you put these fake products (or limited real products) up for sale, the more it will expand the market. We’ve seen this before in the surge of elephant poaching after a one-off sale of ivory tusks in 2008, which was meant to flood the market and reduce the profitability of poaching but horrifically backfired. Elephants had begun to recover before that, and now they’re in crisis. Rhinos are already in crisis — do we want to make things even worse?

On a broader and similar note, creating fake substitutes ignores a major aspect of what drives sales of many of these wildlife products. In traditional Asian medicine, “wild” products are considered more potent — and therefore more valuable — than anything that comes out of a lab or from a farm. That’s why China still has trouble commercializing its vast network of tiger farms (yes, you read that right). Consumers want wild products, so even if you do succeed in commercializing “fake” or farmed products, it will tend to normalize demand for all these biological byproducts and further drive desire for “prestige” animals poached from their native habitats.

Meanwhile some well-healed people are actually investing in the possibility of extinction. Rich consumers in China and other countries have been known to buy rhino horns, tiger bones, live tortoises and other species in anticipation that a species will become rarer or even go extinct in the wild, therefore making their assets even more valuable. That threat will never evaporate through the addition of fake products on the marketplace — because, yes, extinction is profitable.

Let’s get to the ethical aspects of this trade in fakes. For one thing many consumers — those who actually use powdered rhino horn as “medicine” instead of holding on to it for eventual sale — are already being exploited. They’re buying into false claims that rhino horn has curative qualities, including the recent and spurious assertion that it can treat cancer. By selling fake rhino horns, you become complicit in that lie and directly harm people who could, and should, seek more appropriate and effective medical care.

Another ethical quandary: How are you going to get these products into the black market without putting your undercover operatives in direct harm from the violent criminals who run wildlife trafficking networks? And do we really think anyone’s going to be able to squeeze these products into the same illegal market that professional law-enforcement operations haven’t been able to shut down? The chances of success there seem slim — and potentially dangerous.

Finally let’s address the invisible gorilla in the room: Selling fake rhino horn doesn’t do anything to resolve the inequality that inspires poaching. More often than not, people hunt illegally to support their families. The monies they get from poaching may mean the difference between comfortable living and going hungry. Sure, their pay comes from the people higher up the clandestine ladder — and sure, some poachers are more criminally minded themselves — but if we want to solve the problem of poaching, we always have to factor in the fate of people on the ground.

Having said all this, I have to point out that the current idea to sell fake rhino horns is just lab science. The researchers fully acknowledge that they don’t have an actual initiative to get these products into the market. They say it’s up to someone else to actually figure out how to make their idea a reality — so for now it’s basically a thought exercise, not a concrete plan.

I have a better idea: Let’s leave this fake horn concept in the lab where it belongs and commit to more practical initiatives to help rhinos — and people — in threatened habitats, where real assistance is desperately needed. With poaching and illegal trafficking still running rampant, rhinos don’t have time left for anything less.

John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.

Embrace technology to combat wildlife trafficking – US envoy (Uganda)

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Paul Adude, The Daily Monitor | November 18, 2019

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The United States (US) ambassador to Uganda, Ms Deborah Malac, has said modern technology will help combat wildlife trafficking in the country and the region at large.

“While Uganda and responsible members of the international community work together to continue fighting trafficking in traditional ways, the advent of technology as part of the solution is a game changer,” she said.

Ms Malac made the remarks during the opening of a two-day conference for conservationists and IT experts at the weekend at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) in Entebbe.

Original photo as published by Daily Monitor: US Ambassador Deborah Malac addresses a press conference at the US Embassy in Nsambya, Kampala, in June. She says African countries need to embrace technology to combat wildlife trafficking. (PHOTO: RACHEL MABALA)

“DNA collection and analysis allows investigators to pinpoint the origin of illicit ivory and focus enforcement in high risk areas to deal with the challenge of patrolling vast harsh landscapes. Researchers are using thermal imagery cameras to track illegal entry into parks and restricted areas,” she said.

Ms Malac said the embassy has launched the WILD Mobile App, which allows rangers in conservation areas across East Africa to collect and share data on wildlife sightings, poaching and human wildlife conflict. “Leveraging technology solutions will improve wildlife conservation,” she added.

Threat to Tourism

Ms Malac said wildlife trafficking not only affects the country’s eco system but also tourism. She added that unless the trafficking is eliminated, economic growth cannot flourish. The ambassador said the US government is committed in partnering with other countries to support global anti-poaching efforts.

“Trafficking is a real and serious problem in Africa. An elephant is killed for its ivory on average every 15 minutes even though many countries, including most recently China have moved to institute a ban on the ivory trade. In 2016 poachers killed more than 13,000 African rhinos and an estimated 100,000 pangolins are captured every year making them the most trafficked animals,” she said.


Putting a conservation finger on the internet’s pulse

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The University of Helsinki / Science Daily | November 11, 2019

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Scientists from the University of Helsinki have figured out how to mine people’s online reactions to endangered animals and plants, so that they can reduce the chance of pushing species toward extinction.

When the last male northern white rhinoceros died in March 2018, online news printed obituaries, and millions of people grieved on social media. This one event alone quadrupled the number of posts using the keyword rhino, with the general sentiment expressed becoming distinctly negative.

Researchers at the Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science are keeping tabs on online trends that affect rhinos and other endangered species. They have developed a computer algorithm that continuously measures the volume of online discussions on the topic, and measures the emerging sentiments from users.

And it’s this key information that alerts the scientists whenever the average sentiment exceeds the norm, highlighting that a major event affecting species has occurred.

In their article published in the journal Biological Conservation, lead researcher Christoph Fink and his team highlight the possibilities and the precision of their online-mining method. Compiling an exhaustive list of all rhino-related online events that happened around the world over five months, the researchers’ method successfully identified all the major rhino-related events.

“We found that social-media users and online news writers care most about rhinos when tragic events take place, such as the death of the last northern white rhino,” Mr. Fink said. “But people love to share happy moments too, such as a rhino calf being born in a zoo.”

Social media posts and online news articles mostly agree on which events are important, the researchers found. However, most posts came from countries that do not have rhinos.

“We don’t think that this had much to do with the generally poorer internet access in countries where wild rhinos live, but more because many environmental agencies are based in Europe and in North America,” Mr Fink added.

New Methods for Complex Data

“We’re combining technologies from several fields, such as computer science, geography, and linguistics,” Mr. Fink said. “Automatic sentiment analysis reveals the feelings people express in text, and other so-called natural language processing techniques have not been used much in conservation science.”

The research team has collected around 5000 Twitter posts and 1000 online news articles in 20 different languages each day over the last five years. “But not every post is relevant,” explains Dr Anna Hausmann, one of the team members, “It’s so much data that we have to boil it down to the essential information. For instance, a government official might want to keep an eye on if and how people embrace a new conservation action, but they cannot possibly look through tens of thousands of posts each day to get the vibe of the population.”

Versatile Applications

The researchers’ new method can now be used for a wide range of conservation applications. Understanding how the public feels about the protection of certain animals, plants or landscapes will help in designing conservation policies that will be widely accepted, or to adapt strategies facing pushback.

The algorithm can also slow the spread of misinformation, fight prejudices, and debunk ineffective solutions promoted in social-media bubbles. The method can also be used to measure the effectiveness of education programmes and outreach campaigns, and it serves as a good starting point for gathering feedback on conservation tourism.

“We have finally shown how to use online network information to help conserve endangered animals and plants,” said team leader, Associate Professor Enrico Di Minin. “Ultimately, we want to gain a deeper understanding of how much people care about other species, and how much they are willing to invest to save them.” “Discerning how much people want to conserve species is essential for fighting the environmental crises unfolding around the world.”

Story Source: Materials provided by University of Helsinki. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference: Christoph Fink, Anna Hausmann, Enrico Di Minin. Online sentiment towards iconic species. Biological Conservation, 2019; 108289 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108289

University of Helsinki. “Putting a conservation finger on the internet’s pulse.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2019.

Selling fake horn in effort to save rhinos from poaching could have opposite effect, inventors warned

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Jane Dalton, The Independent | November 8, 2019

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Scientists hoping to save the rhino from extinction have been warned they risk doing the opposite if they swamp the illegal market with a fake horn they have invented.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and a university in China have developed a substitute using cheap horse hair, which they say could drive down the price of real rhino horn.

The animal’s horn is in high demand, mostly in Vietnam and China, for use as a “traditional” Asian medicine – although it has no proven benefits – as well as ornamental carvings.

Original photo as published by A grass (or white) rhino in northern Kenya; on average more than two a day are poached in Africa. (F Vollrath)

It has also been claimed as an aphrodisiac and a hangover cure. But all international trade in it is illegal.

Hundreds of African rhinos are killed every year for their horn, with poachers still taking an average of two-and-a-half every day, according to the Save the Rhino conservation charity. Three of the five species are critically endangered, meaning they face a high chance of becoming extinct.

Rhino horn is formed of tufts of tightly packed hair comprising solid keratin, which human hair and fingernails are also made of. The university experts have made a new material by gluing together horse tail hair, stripped of its outer layer, to form what they say is a realistic substitute.

“It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired horn-like material that mimics the rhino’s extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair,” said Fritz Vollrath, of the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

He said: “We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.”

But Born Free, the UK-based wildlife conservation charity, warned that flooding the market with such a substance could not only threaten rhinos further by stimulating demand, but also undermine efforts to educate buyers and make it harder to enforce the trade ban.

Mark Jones, a wildlife expert at Born Free, said: “If you flood the market with a product that purports to be horn, you can stimulate demand and send confusing messages to consumers, having previously told them they shouldn’t buy it.

“It could also make the job of enforcement authorities very difficult: if they have to distinguish between white powders that can be hard. A great deal of effort goes into protecting rhinos from poaching, and if you suddenly introduce a product into a market that’s based on complicated, nuanced social and cultural beliefs, and expect consumers to switch, that’s unrealistic.”

Born Free would like to talk to the researchers to express their concern, he said, adding: “We would have serious reservations.”

There could potentially be regulations relating to fraud as well, Mr Jones said.

In response, Prof Vollrath said: “Our key message is simple: rhino horn is just a tuft of nose hair. Nothing magical about it. It’s easy to replicate, very cheaply.

Why would anyone pay for expensive nose hair? “Any buyer would be fooled – and more fool him (because he is bound to be male).”

In the past decade, 8,889 African rhinos have been poached.

Save the Rhino has opposed previous efforts by four US companies to produce synthetic or bio-fabricated rhino horn.

In 2015, a coalition of more than 10 conservation groups warned against promoting fake horn as it would remove “the stigma” of rhino horn consumption and create “unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement”. It could also lend credibility to scientifically unproven medicinal beliefs, they said.

Scientists create fake rhino horn from horsehair in a bid to save the species

By | Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Science and technology | No Comments
Amy Woodyatt, CNN | November 8, 2019

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Scientists have developed a fake rhino horn using horsehair, in a bid to create “credible fakes” to flood the market and reduce demand for the material.

Researchers from the University of Oxford created the synthetic horn by bundling horse hairs, gluing them together with a matrix of regenerated silk to mimic the collagenous properties of authentic rhino horn.

Rhinos are often poached for their horn, which buyers believe can cure health problems from hangovers to cancer.

Persistent poaching and habitat loss has led to a decline in the world’s rhino population — according to conservation organization Save the Rhino, 892 of the animals were killed in Africa in 2018.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), there are an estimated 20,000 white rhinos, 5,000 black rhinos and 3,500 greater one-horn rhinos left alive. There are believed to be fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos, and fewer than 68 Javan rhinos — both considered to be critically endangered species.

The international trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977, regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but individual countries determine their own laws that allow or prohibit its sale domestically, according to Save the Rhino.

Original photo as published by Rhinos are often poached for their horn, which some buyers believe can cure health problems.

In research published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports, the Oxford scientists said they were able to fabricate samples that looked and felt like real rhino horn — something they hope will allow for “credible fakes” to flood the market, confusing consumers and diminishing demand for the product.

Researchers said analytical studies showed the fake horsehair horn demonstrated similar composition and properties to natural horn, which grows from a tightly packed tuft of hair on the animal’s nose.

‘It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired hornlike material that mimics the rhino’s extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair,” co-lead author Professor Fritz Vollrath, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said in a statement.

“We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation,” he added.

Vollrath told CNN that by demonstrating how easily fake rhino horn can be created, he hoped potential consumers would think twice about buying rhino horn for huge sums.

“What I am hoping is that the story gets out that rhino horn is not some magical substance — it is hair, glued together with sticky stuff that comes out of the nose. It’s nothing special, nothing magical,” Vollrath told CNN.

However, the research has met with skepticism from conservationists.

WWF told CNN that it did not believe the marketing of fake or synthetic horn would reduce levels of rhino poaching.

“One of the known characteristics of the Asian consumer markets since the poaching crisis erupted in 2007 has been the high quantity of fake horn in circulation,” a WWF spokesperson told CNN in a statement.

“In spite of this rhino poaching levels have risen relentlessly, because many buyers still prefer the real product and will take some trouble to acquire it from sources they deem trustworthy.”

“A number of developers are working on creating a synthetic product, which, it is claimed, would be ‘biologically identical’ to real horn. This raises the obvious question as to how enforcement personnel could tell the two products apart, especially if they are both marketed as powder or as an ingredient in other medicinal or manufactured products,” the spokesperson said.

Cathy Dean, CEO of Save the Rhino, told CNN that flooding the market with fake product would hamper law enforcement efforts to clamp down on the trade in rhino horn.

“If you catch somebody who is trafficking a real rhino horn, they could plead a line of defense that they thought they were carrying a horsehair horn — it would make the whole prosecution process very, very difficult,” Dean told CNN.

Dean told CNN that the invention wouldn’t deter those seeking the full, intact rhino horns often bought by wealthy individuals.

“The main driver of the poaching prices is very wealthy businessmen willing to splash out large sums of money to buy a whole horn which they would then display,” Dean said.

“They want the real thing, they want to demonstrate that they have the power, the wealth, the connections to be able to buy this illicit product,” she added.

Indonesia plans IVF for recently captured Sumatran rhino

By | Conservation, Science and technology | No Comments
Basten Gokkon, Mongabay | November 5, 2019

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EAST LAMPUNG, INDONESIA: Indonesian authorities will make their first attempt at in vitro fertilization of a Sumatran rhino, aiming to boost the critically endangered species’ gene pool in the process.

The egg for the IVF attempt will come from Pahu, a solitary female Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) being held at the Kelian Lestari Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in West Kutai district, in the Bornean province of East Kalimantan. Indra Exploitasia, the director of biodiversity conservation at the environment ministry, told Mongabay that the plan was to fertilize egg cells harvested from Pahu with sperm collected from one of the males living at the Way Kambas SRS in Lampung province, on the island of Sumatra.

Pahu was captured from the wild in November 2018 as part of a captive-breeding program for the species. For a year she has been held alone in the facility leading some to question what Indonesian authorities plan for her future.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: Pahu is the sole captive rhino at the Kelian Lestari Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesian Borneo. (Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry/Sumatran Rhino Rescue Team Kalimantan.)

Pahu is believed to be quite old as rhinos go, about 25 years old, but experts say they’ve found no obvious reproductive problems with her.

However, she weighs only around 360 kilograms (790 pounds), less than half the weight of a typical adult Sumatran rhino, and experts suspect she might be suffering from dwarfism. Her small size has raised fears that attempting to mate her naturally with a much-larger male could lead to injury or even death; Sumatran rhino mating is a violent, raucous affair. Her size has also prompted doubts that she would be able to bring a regular-sized baby to term.

Pahu’s isolation at the Kelian Lestari SRS is another potential obstacle. Previous research has indicated that female Sumatran rhinos do not ovulate naturally when males are not present. However, Dedi Candra, a veterinarian working for Indonesia’s environment ministry, says some egg cells do develop without males present, albeit at a slower pace, and that researchers have had some success artificially inducing ovulation. Widodo Ramono, executive director of the Indonesia Rhino Foundation (YABI), says that male rhino urine alone may be enough to stimulate ovulation. Conservationists in Indonesia have already made use urine from captive males, flying a liter to Kalimantan to help lure Pahu into the pit trap where she was captured.

“We are currently monitoring Pahu’s reproductive health,” Indra told reporters in Way Kambas on Oct. 30. “We must know first when she ovulates, so the egg cells can be retrieved and then fertilized in a test tube.”

If the plan goes through, it will be the first IVF attempt on captive Sumatran rhinos by Indonesia, says Widodo. Scientists here previously attempted artificial insemination — injecting sperm into the uterine cavity —with Bina, one of the captive female rhinos at Way Kambas, but it was unsuccessful. For that attempt, they used semen collected from Andalas, a rhino born in captivity at Cincinnati Zoo and now a resident at Way Kambas, where he has sired two offspring, both through natural mating.

Last month, experts in Malaysia attempted to use IVF to fertilize an egg harvested from an older female rhino using sperm collected from a now-deceased male. But that attempt was also unsuccessful, with Malaysian experts citing the low quality of the sperm, taken when the male was very old. The Malaysian conservationists have long requested a transfer of sperm from the Indonesian captive rhinos, but Indonesian authorities have repeatedly declined, citing the need to sort out a long list of paperwork.

If the IVF attempt with Pahu’s egg and sperm from Andalas or his younger brother, Harapan, is successful — or Malaysia sends egg cells retrieved from its last rhino to Indonesia and the treatment works — the new offspring would represent a new hope for the species. The populations in Sumatra, D. s. sumatrensis, and Borneo, D. s. harrissoni, are subspecies that have been genetically separated for hundreds of thousands of years. Mixing the two would give a much-needed boost to the gene pool of a species so diminished — as few as 40 are believed to remain on Earth — that inbreeding is a real risk.

The idea of mixing the Sumatran and Bornean bloodlines initially met with disapproval from conservationists. But in recent years there’s been a growing sense of urgency among researchers that the situation is so dire that it’s better to focus on preserving the species at all costs rather than trying to maintain two separate subspecies.

Indra said the planned IVF attempt would most likely use sperm from Andalas, who is a proven breeder. “Harapan has never had a chance to mate naturally,” Indra said. “So we don’t know yet the quality of his sperm, and we haven’t tried to collect samples from him.”

Meanwhile, the surrogate mother could be any captive female Sumatran rhino as long as she’s not going under a natural breeding program, Indra added.

A previous global effort to breed captive Sumatran rhinos, launched in the 1980s, fell through a decade later after more than half of the animals died without any calves being produced. But a string of successful captive births at Cincinnati Zoo, and later Way Kambas, and a growing consensus that the species will go extinct without intervention, have laid the groundwork for the latest captive-breeding effort.

The species was brought to the edge of extinction by habitat loss, with Sumatra and Borneo losing vast swaths of forest to oil palm plantations and coal mines, as well as poaching. Now, conservationists believe a low birthrate is the primary threat to Sumatran rhinos’ survival. The network of SRS breeding centers (the Indonesian government plans to open a third in Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra) holds a combined eight rhinos — seven at Way Kambas and one at Kelian Lestari, including two calves born in captivity. Malaysia has one in captivity, an aging and ailing female named Iman, but otherwise the species is believed to be functionally extinct there.