Here’s how your holiday photos could help save endangered species



Zephyr_p/Shutterstock

Kasim Rafiq, Liverpool John Moores University

Animal populations have declined on average by 60% since 1970, and it’s predicted that around a million species are at risk of extinction. As more of the Earth’s biodiversity disappears and the human population grows, protected landscapes that are set aside to conserve biodiversity are increasingly important. Sadly, many are underfunded – some of Africa’s most treasured wildlife reserves operate in funding deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In unfenced wilderness, scientists rarely have an inventory on the exact numbers of species in an area at a particular time. Instead they make inferences using one of many different survey approaches, including camera traps, track surveys, and drones. These methods can estimate how much and what kind of wildlife is present, but often require large amounts of effort, time and money.

Camera traps are placed in remote locations and activated by movement. They can collect vast quantities of data by taking photographs and videos of passing animals. But this can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run and once in the wild, cameras are at the mercy of curious wildlife.

Track surveys rely on specialist trackers, who aren’t always available and drones, while promising, have restricted access to many tourism areas in Africa. All of this makes wildlife monitoring difficult to carry out and repeat over large areas. Without knowing what’s out there, making conservation decisions based on evidence becomes almost impossible.

Citizen science on Safari

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world – 42m people visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 alone. Many come for the unique wildlife and unknowingly collect valuable conservation data with their phones and cameras. Photographs on social media are already being used to help track the illegal wildlife trade and how often areas of wilderness are visited by tourists.

Despite this, tourists and their guides are still an overlooked source of information. Could your holidays snaps help monitor endangered wildlife? In a recent study, we tested exactly this.

Partnering with a tour operator in Botswana, we approached all guests passing through a safari lodge over three months in the Okavango Delta and asked them if they were interested in contributing their photographs to help with conservation. We provided those interested with a small GPS logger – the type commonly used for tracking pet cats – so that we could see where the images were being taken.

We then collected, processed, and passed the images through computer models to estimate the densities of five large African carnivore species – lions, spotted hyaenas, leopards, African wild dogs and cheetahs. We compared these densities to those from three of the most popular carnivore survey approaches in Africa – camera trapping, track surveys, and call-in stations, which play sounds through a loudspeaker to attract wildlife so they can be counted.

The tourist photographs provided similar estimates to the other approaches and were, in total, cheaper to collect and process. Relying on tourists to help survey wildlife saved up to US$840 per survey season. Even better, it was the only method to detect cheetahs in the area – though so few were sighted that their total density couldn’t be confirmed.

Thousands of wildlife photographs are taken every day, and the study showed that we can use statistical models to cut through the noise and get valuable data for conservation. Still, relying on researchers to visit tourist groups and coordinate their photograph collection would be difficult to replicate across many areas. Luckily, that’s where wildlife tour operators could come in.

Tour operators could help collect tourist images to share with researchers. If the efforts of tourists were paired with AI that could process millions of images quickly, conservationists could have a simple and low-cost method for monitoring wildlife.

Tourist photographs are best suited for monitoring large species that live in areas often visited by tourists – species that tend to have high economic and ecological value. While this method perhaps isn’t as well suited to smaller species, it can still indirectly support their conservation by helping protect the landscapes they live in.

The line between true wilderness and landscapes modified by humans is becoming increasingly blurred, and more people are visiting wildlife in their natural habitats. This isn’t always a good thing, but maybe conservationists can use these travels to their advantage and help conserve some of the most iconic species on our planet.The Conversation

Kasim Rafiq, Postdoctoral Researcher in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Liverpool John Moores University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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More than 28,000 species are officially threatened, with more likely to come



A giant guitarfish caught in West Papua is hung from a fishing boat. Guitarfish are in trouble, according to the IUCN Red List.
Conservation International/Abdy Hasan, Author provided

Peter Kyne, Charles Darwin University

More than 28,000 species around the world are threatened, according to the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The list, updated on Thursday night, has assessed the extinction risk of almost 106,000 species and found more than a quarter are in trouble.

While recent headline-grabbing estimates put as many as 1 million species facing extinction, these were based on approximations, whereas the IUCN uses rigorous criteria to assess each species, creating the world-standard guide to biodiversity extinction risk.




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In this update, 105,732 species were ranked from least concern (little to no risk of extinction), to critically endangered (an extremely high risk of extinction) and extinct (the last individual of a species has expired).

This Red List update doesn’t hold a lot of good news. It takes the total number of threatened species to 28,338 (or 27% of those assessed) and logs the extinction of 873 species since the year 1500.

These numbers seem small when thinking about the estimated 1 million species at risk of extinction, but only around 1% of the world’s animals, fungi and plants have been formally assessed on the IUCN Red List. As more species are assessed, the number of threatened species will no doubt grow.

More than 7,000 species from around the world were added to the Red List in this update. This includes 501 Australian species, ranging from dragonflies to fish.

The shortfin eel (Anguilla australis) has been assessed as near threatened due to poor water and river management, land clearing, nutrient run-off, and recurring drought.

The Australian shortfin eel is under threat from drought and land clearing.

Twenty Australian dragonflies were also assessed for the first time, including five species with restricted ranges under threat from habitat loss and degradation. Urban and mining expansion pose serious threats to the western swiftwing (Lathrocordulia metallica), which is only found in Western Australia.

Plight of the rhino rays

I coordinate shark and ray Red List assessments for the IUCN. Of particular concern in this update is the plight of some unique and strange fishes: wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes, collectively known as “rhino rays”.

This group of shark-like rays, which range from Australia to the Eastern Atlantic, are perilously close to extinction. All six giant guitarfishes and nine out of 10 wedgefishes are critically endangered.

Bottlenose wedgefish in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
Credit: Arnaud Brival

While rhino ray populations are faring comparatively well in Australia, this is not the case throughout their wider Indo-Pacific and, in some cases, Eastern Atlantic ranges, where they are subject to intense and often unregulated exploitation.

The predicament of rhino rays is driven by overfishing for meat and their valuable fins. Their meat is often eaten or traded locally and, along with other sharks, rays and bony fishes, is an important part of coastal livelihoods and food security in tropical countries. Their fins are traded internationally to meet demand for shark fin soup. The “white fins” of rhino rays are highly prized in the trade and can fetch close to US$1,000 per kilogram.




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This exploitation for a high-value yet small body part places the rhino rays in the company of the rhinoceroses in more than name alone.

Bottlenose wedgefish in the Kota Kinabalu fish market in Malaysia.
Peter Kyne

Two species in particular may be very close to extinction. The clown wedgefish (Rhynchobatus cooki) from the Indo-Malay Archipelago has been seen only once in over 20 years – when a local researcher photographed a dead specimen in a Singapore fish market.

The false shark ray (Rhynchorhina mauritaniensis) is known from only one location in Mauritania in West Africa, and there have been no recent sightings. It’s likely increased fishing has taken a serious toll; the number of small fishing boats in Mauritania has risen from 125 in 1950 to nearly 4,000 in 2005.

This rising level of fishing effort is mirrored in the tropical nations of the Indo-West Pacific where most rhino rays are found.

Effective rhino ray conservation will require a suite of measures working in concert: national species protection, habitat management, bycatch reduction and international trade restrictions. These are not quick and easy solutions; all will be dependent on effective enforcement and compliance.




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The challenges of saving rhino rays illustrate the larger, mammoth task of tackling our current extinction crisis. But the cost of inaction is even larger: precipitous loss of biodiversity and, eventually, the collapse of the ecosystems on which we depend.


This article was co-written by Caroline Pollock, Program Officer for the IUCN’s Red List Unit.The Conversation

Peter Kyne, Senior Research Fellow in conservation biology, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Academia can help humans and large carnivores coexist


In Romania, wolves live in the same landscapes as shepherds.
Shutterstock

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Abi Vanak, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University; Laurentiu Rozylowicz, and Tibor Hartel

Bears, wolves, lions and other top predators have a long history of conflict with people – they can threaten our safety and kill livestock.

In our recent study, published in Conservation Biology, we outline how conventional conservation approaches are unlikely to lead to effective coexistence between humans and large carnivores in human-dominated landscapes.




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This wicked problem encompasses public safety, agriculture, conservation, animal welfare, and more. Each facet is commonly managed by a different institution working in isolation – often failing to reflect the reality of our highly connected world.

Academia can help foster better institutional arrangements, especially in places like Romania, India and Brazil, where there are substantial populations of people and large carnivores in shared spaces.

In Romania, for instance, bears and wolves live in the same places used by shepherds and their livestock. Guardian dogs typically help protect livestock from being attacked.

Similarly, Australia’s own dingo occurs across agricultural and pastoral regions, with sentiments ranging from protected native species to disliked pest.

Why institutions fail carnivore-human relationships

From bears in Romania to dingoes in Australia, large carnivores are found in an array of places. This means they regularly affect the interests of a range of institutions, from agriculture to forestry.

But the current arrangements are poorly suited to facilitate a peaceful coexistence between humans and large carnivores.

Typically, institutions focus on a small subset of concerns. Forestry and agricultural sectors, for instance, may not feel responsible for large carnivore conservation because they are primarily interested in timber and agricultural production.

On the other hand, institutions for transport, energy and border security might be indifferent towards large carnivores. But they can negatively affect these animals if they put up barriers restricting predator movement and inappropriately handle roadkill.

These compartmentalised, and often conflicting, institutions are poorly suited to helping wildlife, especially when large carnivores, such as leopards, wolves and bears, live in human-dominated regions.

A role for academia

Academia has solutions to offer.

Most environment-related professionals, like foresters, wildlife managers and conservation biologists, are trained in a range of academic institutions. Unfortunately, they are often taught narrowly within their sector or discipline.

However, all these future professionals passing through the same institutions provides a great opportunity for a broad change in how we approach difficult conservation challenges and conflict with wildlife.

A leopard being rescued from a well in rural India, where the animals interact with locals regularly.
Photo credit: John Linnell

There are at least three ways in which academia could help address the challenges of human and large carnivore coexistence:

1. Break down the silos

Academic institutions need to create special centres to better support teaching and research across different disciplines.

Conservation – and, on a broader level, how humans should relate to the natural world – cannot be siloed away in wildlife management courses.

2. Broaden the view

We need to actively foster a broader perspective that does not see large carnivores as an “enemy”, while still safeguarding human life. This is a complex and multifaceted challenge.

By working across disciplines, universities have the chance to actively foster this broader perspective. This may seem like a nebulous point, but the collapse of species around the world has highlighted how ineffective our current approach to conservation is. We need to move beyond tinkering around the edges of our extinction crisis.

Conservation policy is already equipped to address individual targets such as regulating carnivore populations and legally protecting species. It is the larger aim of changing norms, challenging values and ensuring all these various institutions are pulling in the same direction that we need to tackle – a tactic called the “leverage points approach”.

3. Work outside the academy

Academia could support existing collaborations. When people with shared interests come together to pool knowledge and address a particular issue, we call it a community of practice. Academia can contribute to these communities by offering the skills and expertise of its graduates, but also broader social and industry connections (where required), knowledge sharing, collaborative research, education and technological innovation.

We need big carnivores and they need us

Large carnivores are critical for the health of ecosystems globally, and we need to provide them with enough space and tolerance to survive.

The ongoing controversy regarding the management of the dingo, Australia’s largest land-based predator (aside from humans), provides a perfect test case for this new approach to managing human-wildlife conflict.

If we can achieve more harmonious relations with the world’s top predators, many of the myriad other species that coexist with them are also likely to benefit from both better habitat management and conservation and the important ecological effects large carnivores can have, such as keeping herbivore and smaller predator numbers in check. This can be a positive step towards addressing Earth’s mass extinction crisis.


The authors would like to thank John Linnell, Senior Research Scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, for his contribution to this article.The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Abi Vanak, , University of KwaZulu-Natal; Benjamin Scheele, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; Laurentiu Rozylowicz, Center for Environmental Research and Impact Studies, University of Bucharest, and Tibor Hartel, Invited user

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New research could lead to a pregnancy test for endangered marsupials



Knew you were coming: a koala cub on the back of the mother.
Shutterstock/PARFENOV

Oliver Griffith, University of Melbourne

Many women realise they are pregnant before they’ve even done the test – perhaps feeling a touch of nausea, or tender, larger-than-usual breasts.

For a long time, biologists had thought most marsupials lacked a way to recognise a pregnancy.

But new research published today shows a marsupial mum knows – in a biological sense – when she’s carrying a young one before they make their journey to the pouch.




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This knowledge changes how we think pregnancy evolved in mammals. It may also help in breeding programs for threatened or endangered marsupials by contributing to new technologies such as a marsupial pregnancy test.

Marsupials do things differently

When people think of marsupials – animals that mostly rear their young in a pouch (although not all marsupials have a pouch) – kangaroos and koalas tend to spring to mind. But marsupials come in a range of shapes and sizes.

A red-necked wallaby with a joey.
Pixabay/sandid

Australia has about 250 species of marsupials, including wombats, possums, sugar gliders, the extinct Tasmanian tiger, and several endangered species such as the Tasmanian devil.

In addition to Australia’s marsupial diversity, there are also 120 marsupial species in South America – most of which are opossums – and just one species in North America, the Virginia opossum.

One thing all marsupials have in common is they give birth to very small, almost embryonic, young.

An opossum with two day old young.
Oliver Griffith, Author provided

Because marsupial pregnancy passes so quickly (12-40 days, depending on the species), and marsupial young are so small and underdeveloped at birth, biologists had thought the biological changes required to support the fetus through a pregnancy happened as a follow on from releasing an egg (ovulation), rather than a response to the presence of a fetus.

Marsupial pregnancy is quick

One way to explore the question of whether it is an egg or a fetus that tells the marsupial female to be ready for pregnancy is to look at the uterus and the placenta.

In marsupials, just like in humans, embryos develop inside the uterus where they are nourished by a placenta.

Previously, biologists thought all of the physiological changes required for pregnancy in marsupials were regulated by hormones produced in the ovary after ovulation.

If this hypothesis is right, then the uterus of pregnant opossums should look the same as the uterus of opossums that ovulate but don’t have the opportunity to mate with a male.

To test this hypothesis, my colleagues at Yale’s Systems Biology Institute and I examined reproduction in the grey short-tailed opossum.

Grey short tailed opossum with young.
Oliver Griffith

Signs of pregnancy

We looked at two groups of opossums: females that were exposed to male pheromones to induce ovulation, and females that were put with males so they could mate and become pregnant.

We then used microscopy and molecular techniques to compare females from the two groups. Contrary to the current dogma, we found that the uterus in pregnancy looked very different to those females that did not mate.

In particular, we found the blood vessels that bring blood from the mother to the placenta interface were only present in pregnancy. We also noticed that the machinery responsible for nutrient transport (nutrient transporting molecules) from the mother to the fetus was only produced in pregnancy.

While hormones may be regulating some aspects of maternal physiology, the mother is certainly detecting the presence of embryos and responding in a way that shows she is recognising pregnancy.

How this knowledge can help others

Given that recognition of pregnancy has now been found in both eutherian (formerly known as placental) mammals like ourselves and marsupials with the more ancestral reproductive characters, it appears likely that recognition of pregnancy is a common feature of all live bearing mammals.




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But this knowledge does more than satisfy our curiosity. It could lead to new technologies to better manage marsupial conservation. Several marsupials face threats in the wild, and captive breeding programs are an important way to secure the future of several species.

Two Tasmanian devils.
Pixabay/pen_ash

One such species is the Tasmanian devil, which faces extinction from a dangerous contagious cancer. Captive breeding programs may be one of the only mechanisms to ensure the species survives.

But management can be made more difficult when we don’t know which animals are pregnant. Our research shows that maternal signals are produced in response to the presence of developing embryos. With a bit more research, it may be possible to test for these signals directly.

New reproductive technologies are likely crucial for improving outcomes of conservation programs, and this work shows, that to do this we first need a better understanding of the biology of the animals we are trying to save.The Conversation

Oliver Griffith, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.