Monday, September 28, 2009

Wildlife smuggling


In The Trouble With Lions I wrote:
There seems to be some debate about which illegal trade generates the most income, but the top four are drugs, arms, people (mainly women as sex workers) and animals. All are worth billions of dollars a year and the animal trade involves the death of a vast proportion of its victims even while in transit.

It now seems as if wildlife smuggling has leapt into second place behind drugs in South Africa and overtaken arms.

The latest report of a bizarre case comes from the Wildlife Disease News Digest listserv of Sept 21st to which I subscribe. They provided a link to a story from Britain’s Telegraph online news outlet. The headline reads

South African caught at airport with crocodiles in luggage

It was not only crocodiles that he had tried to smuggle in his luggage, but a real mix that included snakes, a turtle, spiders, scorpions and frogs. In all some seventy animals were involved.

The man had flown in from Thailand and many, if not all (the article in not clear about this) of the animals were non-native and came from the Far East. There were at least three endangered species.

There are several issues to think about. First, and obvious, is the drain on species in the countries from which the animals came. Then comes the other big question. What happens when the smuggled animals arrive at destination; will they bring foreign diseases; what impact will they have on native wildlife?

The most recent and well-publicised example of a bad news answer to this question comes from Florida in the USA. Two species of non-native python have been found in the state. They are the Burmese Python and the African Rock Python. No doubt so-called “pet” owners released them when they got too big to handle. What is alarming about the rock python story came in a Sept 14th report by Christine Dell'Amore of National Geographic News who wrote:
“Six African rock pythons have been found in Florida since 2002. More troubling, a pregnant female and two hatchlings have been found, which means the aggressive reptiles have set up house.”

The smuggling continues and will no doubt do so as long as bad people want to make money. Maybe scanners like the one I wrote about in the blog on bushmeat need to be used in all airports.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bushmeat smuggling from Africa


In The Trouble With Lions I wrote about an unusual case of bushmeat smuggling in the USA. An immigrant woman from Liberia had been prosecuted for smuggling monkey parts. At her pretrial deposition in the Brooklyn federal court in Brooklyn she stated that she ate the bushmeat for religious purposes and
‘because monkey from the wildlife is a very smart animal’.
The case has moved along and a report by Frank Donnelly in the Staten Island Advance of Sept 9th states that the woman, named Mamie Manneh (or Jefferson) has pleaded guilty to smuggling illegal monkey parts. This happened after her church minister debunked her claim of bushmeat's religious significance. She will be sentenced on Nov 13th in Brooklyn Federal court.

One of the issues raised by the prosecution was the potential of disease spread from bushmeat. The prosecution veterinary expert mentioned Ebola, measles, tuberculosis, monkeypox and retroviruses similar to HIV but added that she was ‘she was unaware of any documented cases of such diseases being spread through consumer bushmeat.” It maybe that she was referring to such diseases occurring in the USA, but it is important to recognize that several of these diseases are known to have crossed into humans from bushmeat in other countries. The classic is the spread of HIV to humans from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys on at least seven occasions in the last 100 years. Then there is the more recent finding of a gorilla derived form of HIV occurring in a human, which I recounted in this blog on August 4th under the title Gorillas and AIDS.

In a somewhat related case a Ugandan man was caught red-handed with bushmeat and fruit when his luggage was screened at Newark Liberty International Airport. Reporter Christopher N. Dela Cruz, writing in New Jersey Real-Time News, which is associated with the Star Ledger related that parts of antelope and cane rat were found along with fruit and other illegal commodities.

Lest anyone think that bushmeat smuggling is unusual, local authorities in Newark relate that this was the sixth seizure of bushmeat since October last year, totaling over 41 pounds. Last year, similar seizures weighed in at 88 pounds. Once again, and entirely appropriately, disease transmission to people from bushmeat was raised by federal authorities.

One of the slightly odd things about this report was that a picture accompanying the report showed a uniquely North American species, the pronghorn antelope. It seems possible that the newspaper lacked a picture of the most common antelope species in Uganda, the Uganda kob, (pictured here) which is often a target for poachers in Queen Elizabeth National Park and elsewhere.

In this case the man, whose name was not given, was fined $300 and released.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gorilla hunting in Congo


A recent headline on the BBC web site goes like this: “Scale of gorilla poaching exposed”. The story, by Earth News reporter Jody Bourton tells how
“An undercover investigation has found that up to two gorillas are killed and sold as bushmeat each week in Kouilou, a region of the Republic of Congo.”

Quoting Mr Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International (ESI) Bourton wrote:
"Gorilla meat is sold pre-cut and smoked for about $6 per 'hand-sized' piece. Actual gorilla hands are also available."

What Bourton did not mention is that there has been a culture of gorilla hunting and consumption in the Congo basin for a long time. In his autobiography On Safari: The Story of My Life (Collins 1963) Armand Denis published several remarkable photographs of gorillas that had been hunted by large gangs of Ituri hunters deep in the forests of the Congo basin when he accompanied pygmies on a well-orchestrated hunt in the forest. These hunters used home-made guns that fired anything that could be turned into a lethal projectile and were dangerous to use, as they might explode in the user’s face.

More recent photos of butchered gorillas and indeed the whole bushmeat saga have been published by Karl Amman, who allowed me to use some of his images in The Trouble WIth Lions. You can see some of them on his web site.

It is very likely that the current hunting is more systemic and highly organized than the events that Denis witnessed and it is also likely that it is unsustainable. The investigators found that half the population is killed each year. No population of slow-breeding animal can sustain itself under such pressure. The situation is compounded because the main targets are adult gorillas that carry the most meat.

Fidenci’s team estimates that there are perhaps 200 gorillas left in the area. That number won’t last long.

A worthy, but in my opinion unattainable, goal, is to stop the hunting by providing alternative income, increasing conservation awareness and creating a gorilla reserve.

Bourton ends by quoting Fidenci.
"Enforcement does not exist. Even though there are existing laws which protect endangered wildlife against such activities."

With war, inaccessible forests and many other problems to deal with it is difficult to see how antipoaching can be a high priority.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Elephant anthrax

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Anthrax is an ongoing problem all over the world and frequently appears on Promed listserv newsletters. Most often the story concerns a group of people who have eaten a carcass of a dead animal. The consequences are deadly. A story from India’s state of Kerala has a different twist. It concerns the burial of an elephant that was thought to have died of this nasty disease. The elephant’s name was Unnikrishnan, and it belonged to a saw mill owner in Perumbavoor.

Simple burial is simply the wrong way to deal with any animal that has died of anthrax because the bacterium that causes the disease is one of the hardiest life forms known and can persist in the soil for enormous (but unknown) lengths of time as a spore.

There is a safe way to bury anthrax carcasses, and that involves using lime and digging down so that the body is at least six feet deep. For an elephant that would no doubt mean that the bottom of the hole has to be ten or twelve feet deep.

In this case the story gets even uglier because the elephant was buried, near the Muvattupuzha river and could therefore pose a threat a source of potable water in the district.

In some elephant camps in India and elsewhere there is a routine preventive program that involves regular vaccination. Witness this picture of Dr. Carlyle Jaganathan holding a syringe and waiting for a working elephant to lie down so that he could vaccinate it. I witnessed this event twenty years ago in Mudumalai NP that lies between Kerala and Kamataka states. What I was could not document was the animal’s objection to the needle. I am sure she knew what was coming and even as Dr. Jaganathan inserted the needle into the fold of skin under her tail she started to try and get up. Her mahout prevented that and the injection was administered without further ado.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Grandson's first fish


Nothing much to do with conservation, but I can't resist posting a pic of my grandson and his first fish. It is a pickerel (walleye to some) and was caught in Prince Albert National Park on a yellow jig. The lad cast his own line from the canoe, hooked and played the fish on his own (with his dad's advice on keeping the rod tip up) and brought it to the boat. His dad then lifted into the canoe, at which point the six-year old said "So that's what this is all about.". As they returned to shore his dad asked "Don't you want to put your line out again and try for another one?".
To this came the memorable reply
"No dad, my nerves are having a party and I can't handle it."
That line has to go into a book at some point.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bushmeat in Madagascar and Asia


Two seemingly unrelated stories, one from the BBC and the other from the Wildlife Disease News Digest that came to me via their listserv once more showcase the subject of the bushmeat trade. The bottom line? Hunting is an old, old tradition and hungry people need to eat and will hunt the wild animals around them.

The first story comes from Madagascar and is headlined Lemurs butchered in Madagascar. Reporter Jody Bourton relates how the recent unrest and loss of law and order and “suspension of conservation aid” has led to wide-spread hunting and consumption of these already threatened or endangered animals. She sates
“The dead lemurs are sold to restaurant owners seeking to serve new delicacies.”
This may not be so much a story of hunger as of novelty.This picture shown in Jody’s report, taken by local non-government organisation Fanamby and released by Conservation International shows a basket of smoked lemurs available for sale.

Bourton concludes that
"The problem of illegal killing of lemurs in Madagascar will only be solved when authorities act and are empowered. Also, the big donor agencies, the United States and Europe need to reinstate funding for conservation activities there immediately, or the advances of the past 25 years will forever be lost."

The other story comes from Asia and concerns a different type of bushmeat. In this case it is the world’s largest bat, the so-called large flying fox that is being hunted. The story by John Platt is headlined World's largest bat being hunted into extinction

The study that Platt refers to was headed up by Dr. Jonathan H. Epstein of the Wildlife Trust in New York City. It was published in the August 25 online edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology.
In his report Epstein stated that in Malaysia alone, 22,000 bats are legally hunted every year, and an unknown number are also illegally killed.
He went further to say that
“this level of hunting is unsustainable
for the number of bats in the country and will decimate this ecologically important species."

The only real way to gauge the size of these animals is to look at the pictures (© 2009 Wildlife Trust) that appear on Dr. Epstein’s report. Keen observers will note that the man handling the bat is wearing protective clothing as well as a mask. I am sure that the garments are worn to protect not only the bat from human diseases, but vice versa. We do know that some really nasty viruses can be transmitted to people by Egyptian Fruit Bats in Africa. Check out Ebola and Marburg as a starter. I have not seen any similar reports about disease transmission from bats to humans in Asia, but who knows?

In this case the disappearance of the bats will have much wider implications than just one species. Epstein stated that the bats
"eat fruit and nectar and in doing so they drop seeds around and pollinate trees. So they are critical to the propagation of rainforest plants."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New Species in Himalayas


The most interesting thing to arrive in my email this morning was a posting from the Wildlife Disease News Digest about the discoveries of new species. The pick-up came from the Scientific American and you can see a slide show of seven of those species here.

Datelined Aug 28th and headlined A Decade of New Species Discoveries in the Himalayas it is well worth a look. The first sentence goes like this.
"The remote eastern Himalayas--home to tiny deer and big vipers--have offered enterprising researchers a wealth of new species to document and describe."

Of course for most of us there is no chance of ever seeing any of these creatures, but just knowing they are there is somehow heartening.