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Posts Tagged ‘endangered’

Photo: Pandbambooguy.
Female box turtle digging a hole with her back legs to lay eggs. Eastern box turtles are a popular species in the illegal world of wildlife poaching. 

Unsurprisingly, Erik couldn’t believe that global criminal gangs selling endangered species had ties to turtle thieves in little old Rhode Island. I know. It sounds pretty implausible — and grandmothers do tend to sensationalize news stories to entertain the kids.

But it’s all true. Just ask the state herpetologist. (Who knew Rhode Island had an official herpetologist?)

As Frank Carini reported at ecoRI News this month, “Rhode Island’s reptiles and amphibians face pressure from numerous threats, and for many species, removal of even a single adult from the wild can lead to local extinction, according to the state’s herpetologist.

“Since the local and/or regional future for many of these species — eastern spadefoot toad, northern leopard frog, northern diamondback terrapin, to name just a few — is in doubt, removing them from nature to keep as a pet or to sell is against the law. It’s illegal to sell, purchase, or own/possess native species in any context, even if acquired through a pet store or online, according to Rhode Island law.

“Turtles are especially vulnerable, according to Scott Buchanan, who became the state’s first full-time herpetologist in 2018, because some species must reproduce for their entire lives to ensure just one hatchling survives to adulthood. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) staffer said it takes years, sometimes a decade or more, for turtles to reach reproductive age, if they make it at all.

“Buchanan recently told ecoRI News that ‘broadly, across taxa’ the illegal taking, or poaching, of wildlife is a ‘huge issue. … Globally, it’s considered one of the driving forces of population declines and even extinctions,’ he said.

“Wildlife trade experts and conservation biologists such as Buchanan point to poaching — driven by demand in Asia, Europe, and the Unified States — as a contributing factor in the global decline of some freshwater turtles and tortoises. …

‘Before you take a photo of a turtle in the wild, turn off the geolocation on your phone. If you post a turtle photo on social media, don’t include information about where you found it.’ 

“Of the 360 known turtle and tortoise species, 52% are threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

“A group of global turtle and tortoise experts published a 2020 paper that noted ‘more than half of the 360 living species [187] and 482 total taxa (species and subspecies combined) are threatened with extinction. This places chelonians [turtles, terrapins, and tortoises] among the groups with the highest extinction risk of any sizeable vertebrate group.’

“Turtle populations are ‘declining rapidly’ because of habitat loss, consumption by humans for food and traditional medicines, and collection for the international pet trade, according to the paper’s authors. Many could go extinct this century.

“Buchanan’s involvement in dealing with the impact of poachers is primarily around North American turtles. He noted turtle diversity is high globally and in the eastern United States — in the Southeast more than the Northeast, however.

“But state and federal law enforcement officials and wildlife biologists consider the illegal collection of turtles to be a conservation crisis occurring at an international scale, according to Buchanan, who is the co-chair of the Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles (CCITT), formed in 2018 within Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. …

“In Rhode Island, Buchanan said, there are four turtle species of concern: the eastern box turtle; the spotted turtle; the wood turtle; and the northern diamondback terrapin.

Eastern box (species of greatest conservation need): This turtle spends most of its time on land rather than in the water. They favor open woodlands, but can be found in floodplains, near vernal pools, ponds, streams, marshy meadows, and pastures. They reach sexual maturity by about 10 years of age. Females nest in June and lay an average of five eggs in open areas with sandy or loamy soil. Eggs hatch in late summer.

Spotted (species of greatest conservation need): These turtles are sensitive to disturbance. They are usually found in shallow, well-vegetated wetland habitats, such as vernal pools, marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. …

Wood (species of greatest conservation need): For part of the year they live in streams, slow rivers, shoreline habitats, and vernal pools, but in the summer they roam widely across terrestrial landscapes. …

Northern diamondback (state endangered): Their population has suffered greatly due to poaching and habitat loss. They are found in estuaries, coves, barrier beaches, tidal flats, and coastal marshes. They spend the day feeding and basking in the sun and bury themselves in the mud at night. They reach sexual maturity at about 6. Females lay a clutch consisting of 4-18 eggs. Some females will lay more than one clutch in a season and hatching usually occurs in late August. The young spend the earlier years of life under tidal wrack (seaweed) and are rarely observed. …

“Other turtle species that can be found in Rhode Island include eastern painted, common snapping turtle, and eastern musk. …

“ ‘We have a lot of turtles for a small state,’ Buchanan said. …

“In late September environmental police officers from DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement found 16 eastern musk turtle hatchlings, a species native to Rhode Island and the eastern United States, in the home of a West Warwick man suspected of illegally advertising them for sale on Craigslist and Facebook.

“The case resulted from a week-long investigation, during which the suspect offered two hatchlings to undercover environmental police officers for purchase, according to DEM. The suspect was charged with 16 counts of possession of a protected reptile or amphibian without a permit. The turtles were taken to the Roger Williams Park Zoo, which has a room and equipment dedicated to the care of turtles seized from the illegal turtle trade. The turtles will be released back into the wild after clearing health screenings and disease testing, according to DEM. …

“To help protect Rhode Island’s native species, you can submit observations of amphibians and reptiles to DEM scientists online.”

More at ecoRI News, here. No firewall.

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As the website Right Whale Festival notes, “The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a federally protected ​endangered species.” Fewer than 350 exist today. Recovery is hampered by a slow reproduction rate and threats from entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with vessels.

Last week, I was talking to my younger grandson about elephants, and the conversation morphed into the topic of endangered species. He told me that the most endangered marine animal is the vaquita. I mentioned the right whale.

Today’s story is about an ocean scientist who is using drones and satellites to protect whales. Tatiana Schlossberg wrote about him for the Washington Post.

“Just yards from the Fish 1, a 22-foot research vessel, a humpback whale about twice the size of the boat hurled itself out of the water, sending shimmering droplets in a broken necklace of splash. In the other direction, a hulking cargo ship, stacked high with containers, crept closer.

“Aboard the Fish 1 … ocean scientist Douglas McCauley wanted to see whether the near real-time detection system he and his colleagues had developed, Whale Safe, could avert collisions between whales and ships in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“The tool represents one of the ways McCauley, who heads the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara, is working to protect the ocean even as it becomes more industrialized. By collecting data from several sources — an acoustic monitoring buoy that listens for whale songs, identifies them according to species with an algorithm and sends that information to satellites; a predictive habitat model for blue whales; and sightings logged in an app — Whale Safe forecasts to ships the chances of meeting a whale. Then, it grades shipping companies on whether they actually slow down to 10 knots or less during whale migrations, from May 1 to Dec. 15.

‘We can literally watch all of the ships in California and across the whole ocean; we are better positioned than ever before to try to track damage as it occurs, or before it occurs,’ McCauley said. …

“Humans have worked in the seas for centuries: fishing, seafaring and more recently, drilling for oil and gas and the development of offshore wind farms. Shipping lanes cross almost every surface of the sea, except for shrinking swaths of the Southern and Arctic Ocean. …

“In meetings with corporate executives and political leaders, McCauley has made a consistent argument: Protecting the sea is in our interest, since it already does a lot of the work for us.

“In 2020 McCauley led a report that provided a framework for marine protected areas on the high seas, finding that such refuges could be powerful tools for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and climate resilience. Even port and fishing communities, he argued, depend on an ocean that is still wild and alive. …

“The encounter in late September, amid one of the world’s busiest shipping channels and a vibrant ecosystem, offered a glimpse of how to do just that. Minutes after the container ship had passed McCauley’s boat, the whale — possibly the same one, but it is hard to tell — had found another [whale], and the two sent up exhales of spray.

“It was as if a bulldozer operator had plowed through a herd of elephants without stopping, not too far from a major city’s downtown, hoping to avoid a crash. And it happens many times a day here in the Santa Barbara Channel, even though barely anyone sees it. …

“The ocean is, by far, the world’s largest carbon sink, having absorbed about 40 percent of the excess greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels. But it comes at a cost: more acidic and warmer waters, which may not soak up as much carbon going forward. The fact that ocean animals evolved to a narrow range of conditions, McCauley and others found, makes them more vulnerable to climate change. …

“He learned through experience: What is good for the ocean is also good for people, and possibly business too. Slowing down ships means fewer ship strikes, which means more whales. That is good for biodiversity and climate change: Whales themselves are carbon sinks and fertilize plant growth (another carbon sink). …

“Three shipping companies contacted for this article, as well as an industry association, said that they supported such programs. CMA CGM, among the world’s largest shipping container companies, is sending alerts above medium directly to their captains, and Hyundai Heavy Industries is working with Whale Safe to incorporate its data directly onboard new ships.

“But some of the firms tracked by the tool, which has recently expanded its use to include San Francisco, have received F grades. Matson Navigation, for example, only slowed down roughly 18 percent of the time.

“Lee Kindberg, the head of environment and sustainability for Maersk, which received a B for slowing down in about 79 percent of cases, said the company supports Whale Safe. But she added that shippers must balance safety and speed restrictions against weather and demands from companies — and their customers — who want everything faster.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Christoph Vorburger.
European common frogs were among the beneficiaries of an initiative to dig ponds.

Where I grew up, there was a pond that was good for frogs. We hunted for tadpoles in the spring, and later I learned to catch the big bullfrogs in my hands and immobilize them briefly by running a finger down their spine. I still dream of doing that in front of my grandchildren one day, but the frogs around here have no interest in helping me look cool.

Rowenna Hoskin writes at the BBC about a recent effort in Europe to increase the numbers of vanishing frogs.

“Switzerland has reversed the decline of more than half of endangered frogs, toads and newts in one region, research finds,” she reports. “After conservationists dug hundreds of new ponds in the canton of Aargau, amphibian numbers significantly increased.

“The European tree frog population in particular ‘exploded,’ scientists say. …

“Globally, amphibian populations are in significant decline due to factors including habitat loss, urbanization, road infrastructure, disease and invasive species.

“In 1999 Aargau decided that a mass conservation effort was needed to combat the loss of amphibians. The collapse of the European tree frog was of particular concern.

State authorities, nonprofit organizations, private landowners and hundreds of volunteers worked for 20 years to build 422 ponds in five regions in Aargau.

‘Older ponds had become unsuitable for some amphibians due to lack of space, a high number of predators, and dense vegetation. By creating new ponds, the conservationists gave the species more space to thrive. Of the eight endangered species, 52% increased their regional populations and 32% were stabilized.

“Lead author of the study Dr Helen Moor told BBC News she was excited to see ‘such a clear increase’ in numbers considering the simplicity of the solution.

” ‘Species will come, they will settle and start using the space if you offer it to them,’ she said.

“One of the species that dramatically increased was the tiny European tree frog. This frog likes to jump from shrubs to trees, Dr Moor explains, and is one of the most mobile species, capable of traveling several kilometers.

“It needs a very specific habitat to thrive, preferring shallow ponds created by meandering rivers on floodplains. But this type of habitat has disappeared in many places in Switzerland, leading to the species’ decline. Switzerland, like the UK, has high population density with large road and railway networks, and much of the non-urban land is intensely farmed, Dr Moor explains. …

“Over 20 years the regional population of the European tree frog quadrupled in one area. It could only be found at 16 sites in Reusstal in 1999 but by 2019 the species was living in 77 places. …

‘The key message is that it pays to do something, even if it feels overwhelming,’ Dr Moor said. …

“Some ponds will need to be cleared of vegetation and drained to remove predator larvae that threaten tadpoles. Dr Moor hopes this conservation success will convince other landowners to create ponds and diversify habitats.

“The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This shows what can be accomplished when people identify a problem and make up their minds to do something about it.

More at the BBC, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Yurgen Vega/Selva/ProCAT.
The rediscovered Santa Marta sabrewing. It is only the third time the species has been documented: the first was in 1946 and the second in 2010. 

As exciting as space exploration is, there are also exciting discoveries being made on Planet Earth — from ancient civilizations revealed by drought to rare birds showing up after many years.

Graeme Green writes at the Guardian, “A rare hummingbird has been rediscovered by a birdwatcher in Colombia after going missing for more than a decade.

“The Santa Marta sabrewing, a large hummingbird only found in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, was last seen in 2010 and scientists feared the species might be extinct as the tropical forests it inhabited have largely been cleared for agriculture.

“But ornithologists are celebrating the rediscovery of Campylopterus phainopeplus after an experienced local birdwatcher captured one on camera. It is only the third time the species has been documented: the first was in 1946 and the second in 2010, when researchers captured the first photos of the species in the wild.

“Yurgen Vega, who spotted the hummingbird while working with the conservation organizations SelvaProCAT Colombia and World Parrot Trust to survey endemic birds in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, said he felt ‘overcome with emotion’ when he saw the bird.

“ ‘The sighting was a complete surprise,’ he said. ‘When I first saw the hummingbird I immediately thought of the Santa Marta sabrewing. I couldn’t believe it was waiting there for me to take out my camera and start shooting. I was almost convinced it was the species, but because I felt so overcome by emotion, I preferred to be cautious; it could’ve been the Lazuline sabrewing, which is often confused with Santa Marta sabrewing. But once we saw the pictures, we knew it was true.’

“The Santa Marta sabrewing is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list of threatened species and features in the Top 10 ‘most wanted’ list in the conservation organization Re:wild’s Search for Lost Birds, a worldwide effort to find species that have not been seen for more than 10 years. The bird is so rare and elusive that John C Mittermeier, the director of threatened species outreach at American Bird Conservancy, likened the sighting to ‘seeing a phantom.’

“The hummingbird Vega saw was a male, identified by its emerald green feathers, bright blue throat and curved black bill. It was perched on a branch, vocalising and singing, behaviour scientists think is associated with courtship and defending territory.

“The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia is home to a wealth of wildlife, including 24 bird species not found anywhere else. But scientists estimate that only 15% of the mountains’ forest is intact. It is hoped the surprise sighting of the Santa Marta sabrewing will help to protect their remaining habitat, benefiting many different species found there.

“ ‘This finding confirms that we still know very little about many of the most vulnerable and rare species out there, and it is imperative to invest more in understanding them better,’ said Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, the director of conservation science with Selva: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics. ‘It is knowledge that drives action and change – it is not possible to conserve what we do not understand.

“ ‘The next step is [to] involve people from local communities and local and regional environmental authorities, so we can begin a research and conservation program together that can have real impact.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

By the way, the Guardian routinely covers encouraging environmental stories, including a recent one on the strengthening numbers of protected hen harriers in England. Nadeem Badshah reported here that, according to England’s conservation agency Natural England, “nearly 120 rare hen harrier chicks have fledged in England this year, the highest number for more than a century. … But conservation experts have warned that work needs to continue to tackle the illegal persecution of England’s most threatened bird of prey, which hunt red grouse chicks to feed their young, bringing them into conflict with commercial shooting estates.”

Now, there’s a riddle for you!

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Photo: Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash.
Though still endangered, tigers are doing better this year than last year.

We hear so much about species on the verge of extinction that we have to blink twice get it through our heads that anything is coming back. That’s why I like today’s story.

Dino Grandoni reports at the Washington Post that “tigers are having a good year. Nepalese officials announced [in July] that the top predator’s numbers within the country’s borders have more than doubled in a bit more than a decade. Across Asia, there are as many as 5,500 tigers prowling jungles and swamps, a leading wildlife group said last week, a 40 percent jump from its 2015 assessment.

“The slow but steady rise in the big cat’s estimated population comes as biologists get better at tracking the animal and marks a high point amid a deepening extinction crisis that may see as many as a million plants and animal species disappear worldwide because of habitat loss and climate change.

“Tiger researchers, while optimistic, warn that the fierce hunter remains under threat from both poaching and encroachment into its remaining habitat. …

“ ‘It’s a fragile success,’ said Dale Miquelle, tiger program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. ‘There are still many pressures on tiger populations, and they are disappearing from some areas.’

“There are between 3,726 and 5,578 tigers in the wild today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which tracks the status of plants and animals facing extinction. Tens of thousands of tigers once roamed Asia.

“One big reason behind the recent jump in tiger estimates: Scientists have simply gotten better at counting the cats, placing motion-sensing cameras in more spots to identify their territory. …

“But a combination of expanding protected areas and targeting poachers who sell tiger parts for use in traditional medicine has allowed tigers to stabilize or recover in China, India and Thailand.

“ ‘In all of those countries, tiger conservation has been a priority at the highest levels of government,’ said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at World Wildlife Fund.

“Asia’s most iconic predator is perhaps doing best of all in Nepal, where the estimated population has soared from 121 to 355 since 2009, its government said Friday, after the small Himalayan country committed to restoring habitat and dispatched military units to patrol for poachers.

“The grassy lowlands between Nepal and India near the Himalayan foothills — known as the Terai — teem with grazing animals, making it among the most productive potential habitats for the carnivore. …

“Tigers once roamed from Turkey in the west to the eastern coast of Russia and from frigid forests of Siberia in the north to tropical islands of Indonesia in the south. But a century of hunting both tigers and their prey has restricted their range and decimated their numbers.

“By the 1940s, wild tigers vanished from Singapore and Bali. By the 1960s, they were gone for good in Hong Kong and Java. In recent decades, they disappeared from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. And today, they continue to die out in Malaysia. …

“Both revered and feared across the globe, the tiger is a classic ‘charismatic megafauna’ — a big, regal animal that receives outsize attention and money in the conservation movement. But by protecting tigers, Miquelle said, conservationists end up protecting entire ecosystems on which other animals and people depend.

“ ‘When we talk about protecting tigers, you’re really talking about protecting the environment that people also need to survive and live a better life,’ he said.

“Yet, as tigers rebound, conflicts arise. In India, home to two-thirds of the world’s wild tigers, the big cats killed 383 people between 2010 and 2019, testing the tolerance of locals for living among them. A protest erupted in a Nepalese village this June after tiger and leopard attacks.

“In a bid to bolster incomes and provide economic incentive for tiger conservation, groups such as the WWF are encouraging residents to open their homes to ecotourists hoping to see the animals.

“Further complicating conservation efforts is Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has made it more difficult for researchers to collaborate with Russian counterparts and to attend a major tiger forum in the port city of Vladivostok scheduled for September.

“And rising seas fueled by global warming threaten to inundate tiger-filled mangroves in Bangladesh, though climate change may end up expanding the cat’s range in Russia.

“Despite the gains, tigers are still officially classified as endangered in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. And countries still are failing to double their numbers.

“ ‘We haven’t succeeded in that process,’ Miquelle said. ‘But we do feel that there are more tigers today than there were 12 years ago — that progress is being made.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Haven Daley/AP via NBC.
An ivory-billed woodpecker specimen on display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The ivory-billed woodpecker has been officially declared extinct, but hope lingers on.

Jenni Doering at the environmental radio show Living on Earth recently interviewed a woman who works to protect endangered species — and who sometimes fields calls from enthusiasts who think they have found the last living … whatever. The interview begins with Curry’s memory of an encounter that opened her eyes to the parallel lives we are living with wild creatures.

“JENNI DOERING: I talked with Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. Today she mostly has a desk job, working towards getting legal protection for endangered species, plants and animals, but she started by telling me about a close encounter she had a while back working with animals in Alaska. …

“TIERRA CURRY: One winter morning, it was my job to take two bald eagles in really large dog kennels out to this flight center. And there happened to just be a huge blizzard that day. And in Anchorage, when there’s a blizzard, your life doesn’t shut down, you just keep going. And so you just go out on the road and try to make a lane and hope for the best. …

“I kept having to get out of the car and chink the ice off my windshield wipers. And because this was my first winter in Alaska, I didn’t even really have an ice scraper. So, I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was using a credit card. I’m just like stuck there with my head down, it’s pouring snow, I’m sure my hair’s freezing and, and I look up and there’s a wolf at the edge of the woods, just looking at me. And I stared back at it. And it was just this moment where I was hyper aware of being a human. I’m here, at this moment, on a Tuesday morning, outside Anchorage. And this wolf is here too. And we just stared at each other and shared this moment. And we’re both dealing with the snow. … And then we both just went on about our schedules after that moment. …

“I work on all kinds of species across the country, from crayfish to butterflies to the Humboldt martens, just whatever is endangered and needs help if it’s a plant or an animal. And people contact me regularly when they have an experience with one of these animals. Like, if someone has a monarch butterfly that they’ve watched grow from a caterpillar and it isn’t doing what they think it should be doing, they contact me for advice.

That ranges from ‘my monarch lacks self confidence’ to, like, ‘it’s the wrong color’, or ‘should I help it out of its shell?’

“Or one time somebody found me because their dog was down in the creek and came back with a blue crayfish attached to its lip. And they had heard on the news that there was this endangered blue crayfish. … I sent the pictures to crayfish researchers in that state and it actually was a species that we had petitioned for protection for and this ended up being a new location for it. …

“One time, there was a fairy shrimp in Florida called the Florida fairy shrimp and we petitioned for protection for it, and the Fish and Wildlife Service said that it was extinct. And so that was hard and we put out a press release about the Florida fairy shrimp being gone. And then, this woman a couple months later, the roads around her house flooded and she found a bunch of fairy shrimp on the road. And she thought that maybe these fairy shrimp were the Florida fairy shrimp and she didn’t know what to do. …

“She contacted the state Wildlife Commission, a local Marine Lab. Upon their advice, she went and bought a tank and food to feed them. She just wanted so desperately to help these fairy shrimp. And she felt so much responsibility, because beyond compassion for the individual animals, she was afraid they were going to get run over, or that vector control was going to spray for mosquitoes and that it would kill them. She felt responsibility for the fate of the entire species. What if she had found this animal that was just declared extinct.

“And for days, it took over her life, she dropped, like, everything she was doing to try to take care of these shrimp to see if she could save the species. … They ended up being the common species of fairy shrimp in that area. But they could have been! So it’s really important that when people do have these encounters, they report it to someone who could help save them because it’s entirely possible that it’s just something that researchers didn’t find, and that you could find it. …

“Just take a picture, take a bunch of pictures of it, don’t disturb it. … Mostly just take the pictures so that you can contact the researcher or contact me and I can find the researcher to find out what it is. Most of the time unless an animal is hurt — even if it is hurt — just contact somebody who has the skills to go pick it up.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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Photo: Paul Salopek/ National Geographic.
A baby sleeps near a gold prospector’s diggings in northern Pakistan.

I’m not sure how many readers will be interested in today’s rather academic treatment of an exotic part of the world and its many languages. Although I am not fluent in anything but English, I myself like learning about languages, especially those that are spoken by a small number of people and don’t even have a written form.

Language activist Zubair Torwali writes at Aeon about the many languages of ‘Dardistan,’ which includes northern Pakistan, parts of Eastern Tibet in China, eastern Afghanistan and the Kashmir valley on both sides of the Pakistan-India border.

“Dardistan is one of the most diverse linguistic regions in the world. … The region has the large Dardic languages such as Kashmiri, Shina and Khowar on the one hand and, on the other, it is home to the Burushaski language, which could not be placed within any language family because of its unique features. The Nuristani, formerly Kafiri, languages are spoken here, too. There are minor languages such as Kalasha, spoken by the Kalash community of hardly 4,000 people who still follow the ancient animistic religion that was once practiced across Dardistan.

“The name ‘Dardistan’ describes the area comprising the highest mountain ranges of Hindu Kush, Karakoram, western Himalaya and the Pamir mountains. … Dardistan’s enormous linguistic diversity occurs despite the fact that, culturally, the area is fairly homogeneous. [Anthropologist Augusto] Cacopardo says there is no match for this region in terms of linguistic and cultural diversity, except the Caucasus. Though, of course, minor differences exist, the same religious rituals and religious pantheon prevailed among the polyglot peoples of Dardistan.

“The many languages spoken here, though mostly belonging to the Indo-European family, still more narrowly to the Dardic sub-family within the Indo-Aryan group, are so different from each other that the people of one linguistic community have to rely on a third language, Pashto or Urdu, to communicate with members of another community. For instance, the people belonging to the Torwali and Gawri communities of the upper Swat valley in Pakistan need Pashto to converse with each other. This is despite the fact that the Torwali and Gawri languages are ‘sister languages’ and seem to have evolved from one single language a few centuries ago. …

“In 1986, the Summer Institute of Linguistics in collaboration with the National Institute of Folk Heritage, Lok Virsa, and the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at the Quad-e-Azam University in Islamabad, undertook a survey of the languages of northern Pakistan. Published in five volumes, this Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan (1992) documented 25 languages. In fact, there are even more – at least 35 – languages in north Pakistan. …

“In his paper ‘India as a Linguistic Area’ (1956), the linguist M B Emeneau uses the phrase ‘linguistic area’ as a technical term to mean an area that includes languages of more than one family sharing some common traits with one another, but not all the linguistic features are alike among the language families. …

“[Swedish linguist Henrik Liljegren] argues that the Hindu Kush–Karakorum (HK) – also known as Dardistan – is a ‘linguistic area’ in the sense that it is a ‘convergence zone with a core that shares certain linguistic features’ as a result of a prolonged period of contact with other subareas. …

“Writing a century earlier, Morgenstierne was correct to claim that the region is among the most linguistically diverse in the world. Presently, about 50 languages are spoken here. [The] region has maintained this linguistic diversity, but it is under grave threat. Dardistan is at the crossroads of South Asia and Central Asia. It is mountainous and makes for very hard traveling. … It is perhaps thanks to Dardistan’s mountainous geography that we still find such a rich array of languages. …

“Dardistan is home to six language groups: namely Indo-Aryan, Iranian and Nuristani (all branches of the Indo-European language family), as well as Turkic, Sino-Tibetan and Burushaski. The Indo-Aryan phylum is the largest, including about 30 languages that have also been lumped together as ‘Dardic’ (North-Western Indo-Aryan) by linguists. … My work as an ethnographer and linguist has focused on north Pakistan. ….

“North Pakistan is a spectacular mountainous land of immense linguistic, ethnic and geographic diversity. It is undoubtedly one of the most multilingual places on planet Earth. Over many centuries, the movement and contact of people at this crossroads of Central and South Asia have left a complex pattern of languages and dialects. …

“None of Pakistan’s governments nor a university has ever taken any initiative in profiling the languages spoken by the people of Pakistan. Only a few – Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi and Saraiki – are mentioned in any media, teaching materials and in any kind of national database. It is, therefore, difficult to estimate the exact number of speakers of each language because none of these languages has been counted in the six national censuses so far conducted in Pakistan. The number of speakers of these languages may vary from a few hundred to a million. Many are also spoken in Pakistan’s neighboring countries – Afghanistan, India and China.

“All these languages are categorized as ‘endangered’ in the Routledge Encyclopedia of World’s Endangered Languages (2007) edited by Christopher Moseley. Many of them are ‘severely endangered’ whereas a few are ‘moribund’ or already ‘extinct.’ “

The author details six of the languages at Aeon, here, and posts videos of people singing in them. No firewall.

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Photo: Robert Mckergan.
Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry.

When I saw this story on traditional crafts, I thought of the late, great James Hackett of Moate, Ireland, and the handsome shillelagh he made for John. There was something so special about knowing the maker and knowing that his skill had been handed down through generations. Although his day job was harness making, I suppose James might also have been called a “stick-maker,” like the craftsman in this article.

Vanessa Thorpe wrote at the Guardian in March 2020 about organizations that are working to preserve traditional craft skills like those.

“Clay pipe making, wainwrighting, tanning and making spinning wheels – all are skills of the past that can offer us a sustainable future. This is the message behind a drive, launched this spring, to preserve endangered traditional crafts in Britain.

“With a new award of £3,000 available, together with fresh support from outdoor pursuits company Farlows, the Heritage Crafts Association is calling for a renewed effort to save old skills and pass them down to the next generation.

“The association’s list of ‘critically endangered’ ancient techniques has often been regarded as simply concerned with conserving history. But renewed interest in sustainability, together with a growing dislike of throwaway consumer culture, has prompted a new campaign. …

“The new HCA award was set up this month by Prince Charles, the association’s president: craftspeople are invited to submit a proposal to help secure the survival of a craft ranked either endangered or critically endangered on its official list. …

‘We have a rich heritage of craft skills that can be regarded as just as important as historic buildings and treasured objects,’ [Patricia Lovett, chair of HCA] said. ‘However we are in danger of losing a number of these crafts: our research has found that in some cases there are only one or two makers left.’

“The at-risk list is compiled by combining a conservation status ‘red list’ system used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist.

“A heritage craft, usually carried out by an individual in small workshops or at home, is considered viable only if there are sufficient makers to hand down their skills to a younger generation. Last year the traditional paper-making skill of ‘mold and deckle’ was judged extinct, and the vanishing of production in turn endangers paper making. Those deemed merely to be endangered are those crafts which are not financially viable as a sole occupation and those which have no clear system for training or passing on skills. Among these are fan making, watch making and walking stick making – all involving the manufacture of items that are still popular with the public, and even regarded as essential by some.

“Farlows, a company closely associated with fields sports and makers of traditional fishing rods, works directly with many artisan manufacturers, in particular tweed makers, and so its management has decided to formalise that arrangement by backing the heritage association, which they see as a key umbrella body.

“ ‘There is a real knack to making something like a split cane rod. People who fish really value it,’ said [Robin Philpott, chief executive of Farlows].

“The danger, according to Farlows, which began trading 180 years ago and in 1942 switched all its manufacturing to support the war effort, lies in widespread mass production. Although the company now has a Russian owner, its management say it still aims to keep alive the key trades it supported when it was owned and run by family members. …

“Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry. ‘For me, it started as a hobby, but I feel we need these crafts to go on. I am a retired engineer and while you can teach yourself as I did, not everyone can do it. You need to be competent with your hands.

“ ‘You couldn’t live on this work, I don’t think. Each stick is about 20 hours’ work. But you get a sense of achievement and of purpose. When I see a tree, I see all the potential carvings. And of course the smell that comes from a piece of wood, say cherry, as you work is lovely.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. An update is at the Heritage Crafts Association, here.

Photo: Wikimedia.
Shillelaghs. See the one James made for himself, here.

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Photo: Bassem18/Wikipedia.
The rare Mountain Gazelle is returning to Turkey.

Today’s story is about both environmental rescue and the power of one individual to make a difference.

Carlotta Gall writes at the New York Times, “Turkey’s southern border with Syria has become a place of hardship and misery, with tented camps for people displaced by a decade of war on the Syrian side and a concrete wall blocking entrance to Turkey for all but the most determined.

“Yet amid the rocky outcrops in one small area on the Turkish side, life is abounding as an endangered species of wild gazelle is recovering its stocks and multiplying.

“The mountain gazelle, a dainty antelope with a striped face and spiraling horns, once roamed widely across the Middle East, and as Roman mosaics reveal, across southern Turkey as well. But by the end of the last century, it was hunted almost to extinction, with only a dwindling population of 2,500 left in Israel, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“In Turkey, the gazelle was forgotten and thought to no longer exist. The only ones officially recorded were a subspecies, known as goitered gazelles, in Sanliurfa Province in the southeast of the country.

The rediscovery and survival of the mountain gazelle in Turkey has been largely thanks to one man and his love of nature.

“Yasar Ergun, a village teacher who became a veterinarian and professor at Hatay Mustafa Kemal University in the city of Antakya, heard in the mid-1990s from an old hunter that there were wild gazelles in the mountains along the border with Syria.

“A keen hiker, he set out to try to find them. Barely 25 miles from Antakya — the ancient city of Antioch — Kurdish villagers knew about them and shepherds occasionally saw them. The gazelles live on the rocky hillsides, where their markings and coloring make them almost invisible. But they come down in groups to graze and find water on the surrounding agricultural land.

“The professor spotted his first one in 1998 and, after a decade of observing them, estimated that there were about 100 living in the area.

“With a small grant for a teaching project, he bought a camera and telephoto lens, which led to a close encounter and a breakthrough discovery.

” ‘It was the mating season,’ he recalled. ‘I ran to the road, and the male ran toward me to defend his females. It was very unusual.’

“When he examined the photos, he realized the gazelles differed from those in southeastern Turkey.

“ ‘This one was light brown, with some parts white, and the horns were completely different,’ he said. He was sure he was looking at the mountain gazelle, but found little interest in his claims in academic circles, he said.

‘I sent the photographs around — professors just laughed,’ he said.

“He drew on the help of Tolga Kankilic, a biologist, who gathered samples of dung, fur and skin from the remains of dead gazelles for genetic testing, and found that the DNA matched that of mountain gazelles.

“The discovery presented Mr. Ergun with an altogether more important task: to help the gazelles survive. There were several threats to them — lack of water and habitat especially — but by far the greatest danger was illegal hunting. Hunting is allowed only under license in designated areas in Turkey, but illegal hunting is rife.

“The gazelles had disappeared completely from other regions, including Adana, farther west, where American soldiers stationed at Incirlik air base used to hunt them 20 years ago, he said.

“ ‘The end of a genetic source is the same as the collapse of Earth,’ he said. ‘Nature needs biodiversity.’

“He won a grant from the World Wildlife Fund in Turkey for a grass-roots project with local villagers and bought mountain gear and amateur walkie-talkies for several shepherds, who began monitoring the gazelles. They dug basins in the rock to collect water for the gazelles, though it took the animals months to trust the water source.

“With his knowledge of village life, Mr. Ergun began softly, gaining the support of local shepherds, educating children to protect the gazelles and even encouraging a local Kurdish legend of a holy man who lived with the gazelles and milked them.

“With the hunters, Mr. Ergun and his helpers adopted an approach of traditional courtesy and respect, drinking tea with them but never mentioning their hunting.

“ ‘We never tried to use force to stop them,’ he said. ‘We would say, “Hello, we are from the Nature Project.” Sometimes silence is more powerful than talking.’

“The local people were Kurds, a mountain people with their own language and culture — and a history of resistance to the Turkish state.

“ ‘If you make an enemy, just one, in 10 years you will have 10 enemies, and in 100 years you will have 1,000,’ Mr. Ergun said. But as the shepherds began monitoring the gazelles, the hunters got the message.”

More here.

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Photo: Daniella Zalcman
Pele gets ready to play the ukulele, an instrument brought to Hawaii in the 1800s by Portuguese immigrants.

Saving a language, according to a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, involves more than learning to speak it. A language is an expression of a culture, a way of life, and speakers must appreciate all of that if the language is to survive.

Alia Wong writes about a married couple who have been putting in the work to see that both the Hawaiian language and the Hawaiian culture get passed down to new generations.

“Pelehonuamea Suganuma and Kekoa Harman were bright-eyed high schoolers in Honolulu when they first crossed paths, in the 1990s. The two were paired for a performance — a ho‘ike, as such shows are known in Hawaiian. Both teenagers had a passion for hula and mele (Hawaiian songs and chants), and they liked performing at the school they’d chosen to attend — Kamehameha High School, part of a 133-year-old private network that gave admissions preference to students of Hawaiian Polynesian ancestry. Still, one part of Hawaiian culture remained frustratingly out of reach for Pele and Kekoa: the language.

“Over many generations, the native tongue of the islands had been systematically eliminated from everyday life, and even the Kamehameha Schools weren’t able to bring it back. Part of it was a lack of interest — students seemed to prefer learning Japanese, Spanish or French. But more important, Hawaii’s educators generally hadn’t yet figured out how to teach Hawaiian vocabulary and grammar, or give eager youngsters like Pele and Kekoa opportunities to immerse themselves in Hawaiian speech.

“A few years later, Pele and Kekoa found themselves together again. Both of them enrolled in a brand-new Hawaiian language program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. The two former schoolmates became part of a pioneering cohort that was innovating ways to bring Hawaiian back to life. They helped develop some of the first truly successful Hawaiian language programs throughout the state’s islands. Along the way, they started dating, got married and had four children, and raised them to speak fluent Hawaiian.

“Today, Pele teaches at a Hawaiian-language K-12 school and Kekoa teaches Hawaiian language and culture at the college they both attended. At home, their family speaks almost exclusively Hawaiian. The Harmans are proud of the revival they helped carry out in just one generation. But Unesco still lists the language as critically endangered, and there’s a long way to go before it’s spoken again as a part of everyday life. ‘There’s a false sense of security sometimes,’ says Pele, ‘that our language is coming back.’ …

“For centuries, Hawaiian had been an oral tongue — one steeped in mo‘olelo (story, legend, history). But after missionaries helped create a written version of the language, the local people took to it. They established more than 100 Hawaiian-language newspapers, according to some records. By 1834, more than 90 percent of Hawaiians were literate — up from virtually zero just 14 years earlier.

“Yet these strides in Hawaiian literacy were soon overtaken by efforts to erase Hawaiian culture altogether. American tycoons had also come to the islands, planting lucrative crops like sugar cane and coffee. …

“Outsiders helped to phase out the Hawaiian system of governance. They replaced traditional foods like taro with rice and imported wheat. They started issuing fines for performing hula, the ancient Hawaiian form of dance and expression. And as the 19th century was winding down, the Americans overthrew Queen Lili‘uokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch. They annexed the archipelago as a territory in 1898. By the time Hawaii became a state, in 1959, fewer than 2,000 people could speak Hawaiian fluently. …

“But there were still people left who remembered. Both Pele and Kekoa were close to their great-grandmothers — women born in the early 1900s, who spoke some Hawaiian, even though they were raised to think of their mother tongue as inferior to English. The great-grandmothers were the last members of each family to retain any fluency. …

“When Kekoa was a kid, his grandmother, who passed away a few years ago, used to take him to Hawaiian musical and hula performances. She’d make leis for tourist-targeted luaus, and he’d help her gather and string the flower garlands. ‘I loved going to those events,’ Kekoa says. …

“1997 was the year the Hawaiian legislature mandated a new program at the Hilo campus. It was called Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, named after [a] woman from an ancient Hawaiian dynasty who was the governor of Hawaii during the mid-1800s. She was a defender of Hawaiian culture — although she came from a wealthy family and understood English, she lived in a traditional grass-roofed house and spoke only Hawaiian. The new program at Hilo had the motto O ka ‘ōlelo ke ka‘ā o ka Mauli: ‘Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity.’

“Enrolling in this new program, Pele and Kekoa spoke Hawaiian as much as they could outside of class to become fluent. They ‘talked story’ with their professors in the hallways. Their teachers hosted little get-togethers every week. … At these gatherings, the students fumbled with the language over card games, with music in the background and snacks on the table. ‘That’s how we got comfortable,’ Pele says. …

“As the Harmans see it, Hawaiian will survive only if people value the culture around it. After all, Hawaiian doesn’t have the same marketing value as a massive international language like Spanish or Mandarin. Hawaiian is a language that describes local geographical features and captures an ancient worldview. … ‘Now we have a generation of Hawaiian speakers, but if we don’t also teach them [old Hawaiian] behaviors and beliefs, that fluency will only go so far,’ Kekoa says. ‘Hawaiian isn’t just a language but a way of life.’ ” More at Smithsonian, here.

And in a related article from today’s Associated Press, note that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has prioritized Covid-19 vaccine for elderly speakers of Dakota and Lokata languages, here.

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Saving the Stork

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Photo: Gerrit Vyn at Living Bird.
A conservation army of women has worked hard to revive the population of an odd endangered stork, the Greater Adjutant. The work is tied to Aaranyak, a nonprofit focused on biodiversity in northeast India.

As I was trying to decide if you’d be interested in another initiative that might be on hold because of Covid-19, I read the article more carefully and saw something that confirmed it is merely experiencing a pause. “When the entire nation of India was placed into lockdown in spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, public festivals were canceled, but the hargila army still celebrated the storks by making Greater Adjutant face masks.” 

Hargila? Greater Adjutant? The story of an inspiring Indian conservationist comes from Arundhati Nath at All About Birds.

“Dr. Purnima Devi Barman carefully balances her feet as she clambers down from an 80-foot-tall bamboo platform. She’s been scanning the treetops above the village of Dadara in northeastern India, looking for the giant stick nests of Greater Adjutants — huge storks named for their stiff-legged, almost military gait.

“These tall, majestic birds were once widely distributed in wetlands across India and Southeast Asia. … The Greater Adjutant is now confined to the northeastern state of Assam, their last stronghold. Elsewhere, small populations persist in Cambodia’s northern plains. The species is endan­gered, one of the rarest storks in the world. …

“In study­ing this species, Barman has noticed a change in the storks’ behavior. Greater Adjutants are now increasingly leaving the rural wetlands where they have historically nested and becoming village dwellers.

“Through her tireless work with Aaranyak, Barman has empowered an army of local women to make another big change happen. Once scorned, the storks are now wel­comed and celebrated in the villages — and people who once destroyed Greater Adjutant nests now care for the birds like their own children. …

“Greater Adjutants can be smelly neighbors. They bring rotting flesh to their nests to feed hatchling storks, and they rain smelly droppings down on villagers’ gardens. People in the Assamese villages of Dadara and Pacharia, where the storks are most common, tended to see the huge birds as a bad omen, a plague. They were even willing to chop down magnificent old trees in their backyards to get rid of stork nests.

“One day in 2007, Barman watched in horror as nine baby storks fell to the ground when a villager chopped down a nest tree. When she tried to stop the vil­lager, she was taken aback by his anger. …

“As other villagers gathered around her at the fallen nest tree, she asked for their help in taking the baby storks to a rescue center at a nearby zoo. … They laughed at Barman, ridiculing her and asking if she wanted to eat the baby birds on her way home. It was an inci­dent that could have discouraged her from enlisting locals in an effort to save the storks. But instead, Barman marks it as a turning point that led to a lot of good and necessary change.

‘I realized that it wasn’t the people’s fault,’ she says now. ‘They were com­pletely unaware about the ecological significance of the endangered stork.’ …

“She made a huge personal sacrifice, stepping away from her PhD studies to dedicate herself to shifting people’s attitudes. Barman started by reaching out to several women in the villages, speaking to them about the importance of these birds and their dwindling population.

“She chose women as a first point of contact for her conservation outreach effort, because she felt the women in these villages don’t often get a chance to weigh in on social issues. And within their families, women can serve as the gatekeepers.

“A big part of Barman’s conservation challenge was access to nests, with Greater Adjutants nesting atop trees on private land, in people’s yards. By striking up friendships with the local women, who were mostly homemakers, Barman figured she could gain permis­sion to enter their premises and work to save the storks. She organized activities such as cooking competitions to attract women to her meetings.

“The meetings were a hit, and they gained a big following. Today Barman has organized a group of more than 400 local volunteers in what she calls the ‘hargila army.’ (In Assamese, Greater Adjutants are called ‘hargila,’ which literally translates as ‘bone swallower’ because the storks sometimes swallow whole bones.)” More at All About Birds, here.

adds a bit more on Barnum at the Better India. “Fondly referred to as the ‘Hargila Baideu’ (Stork Sister) by the local community for the work she has been doing for the birds, Purnima has dedicated her life to protect the Greater Adjutant. …

” ‘My grandmother instilled my love and passion for nature. But it was during my Master’s studying ecology and wildlife biology, when my professors spoke of the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork, which were then nowhere to be seen in my grandmother’s paddy fields. I volunteered at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based non-profit wildlife conservation organisation, but saw that people’s interest was restricted to glamourous species like the rhino or tigers. So, why shouldn’t I work towards protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork,’ says Purnim.” More here.

By the way, this week I’m drinking a vey nice loose-leaf tea from Assam, home of the Greater Adjutant. Upton Teas has a huge selection, and they ship fast.

Map: Jillian Ditner. Greater Adjutant image: Amol Marathe/Macaulay Library.

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Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press
“The Maine Lobstermen’s Association said about 30,000 miles of rope has been removed from the ocean’s surface,” the
New York Times reported last year. That’s important for saving the lives of the remaining right whales, but it won’t be enough.

This morning, three Blue Jays were arguing over something they thought was good to eat in my backyard, and I got to thinking about how my attitudes are evolving as from the kitchen window I watch creatures come and go during the pandemic.

It occurred to me that the Blue Jays don’t know it’s my backyard. They don’t even have a way of registering the information. Nor, for that matter, do the baby skunk, the possum, the chipmunks, the squirrels, the cardinals, or the numerous rabbits.

Perhaps we’re all just a bunch of critters using this space for now.

That’s my prelude to a post on the conflicting interests of the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the lobster fisherman.

Some lobster fishermen are doing their bit to live in harmony with nature. Karen Weintraub reported on this issue at the New York Times late last year, after a right whale well known to scientists was found dead.

“Marc Palombo has been fishing lobster for 41 years, and he wants fishermen who come after him to be able to do the same. That’s why he’s testing a new type of fishing gear that, along with other efforts in New England and Canada, is being designed to avoid harming North Atlantic right whales. …

“This year [2019], about 10 have been found dead, but that number is uncertain. Not one of the nearly 30 right whale deaths in the last three years has been attributed to natural causes, said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium, which maintains a catalog of North Atlantic right whales. Mr. Hamilton blames climate change, which has driven the whales northward in search of food.

“Over the last decade, warming in the Gulf of Maine has driven zooplankton, which the whales feed on, northward into Canada’s waters. As the whales follow, they are swimming across fishing and shipping lanes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they are vulnerable to being struck by ships or entangled in fishing lines — often long lines of rope connecting buoys at the surface with traps at the bottom.

“ ‘The only way to save the right whale is to have all stakeholders, including industry, at the table collaborating on proactive solutions that will protect them while ensuring the future of the lobstering industry,’ Patrick Ramage, director of Marine Conservation, for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said in a statement.

“Fishermen, like Mr. Palombo, and others have been testing new equipment, like ropeless gear, to protect the passing whales, and their fishing livelihood. …

“ ‘We know that entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships are killing these ocean giants,’ Megan Jordan, spokeswoman for Oceana, an international advocacy and conservation organization, said via email. ‘Reducing the amount of vertical lines from fishing gear in the water and requiring ships to slow down can help save North Atlantic right whales from extinction.’ …

“In Canada, a multipronged effort to protect the North Atlantic right whales is underway. After 17 whales were killed in the 2017 fishing season, including 12 in Canada’s waters, the Canadian government initiated a three-year research project. …

“For example, snow crab fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence use rope that can withstand 14,000 pounds of force, Mr. Cormier said. His team is testing rope that breaks below 1,700 pounds, a weight that would allow a whale to free itself. …

“[Meanwhile,] the Maine Lobstermen’s Association recently pulled out of an agreement to reduce the number of fishing ropes in the water by 60 percent. The association’s executive director, Patrice McCarron, said the deal treats Maine lobstermen unfairly, because their fishing gear has not been the cause of any of the whale deaths in the last five years. She also said almost 30,000 miles of floating rope have been replaced with line that sinks.

“Mr. Palombo and collaborators at the New England Aquariumare testing a ropeless system that would leave lobster pots attached to a spool of rope at the bottom of the sea rather than to a buoy on the surface. A few days after setting his pots during a testing, Mr. Palombo headed back to the area and pushed a button on his boat that sent an audio signal to the spool. The rope rose to the surface where it took only a few minutes to retrieve.

“ ‘It’s pretty gratifying,’ he said about testing the ropeless system. ‘We’re the adventurers, we’re the people that are breaking the ground.’ ” More here.

In January, David Abel at the Boston Globe reported on delays in new regulations: “Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for protecting the critically endangered species, had planned to issue the regulations last year. But they were delayed after months of criticism from the region’s powerful lobster industry, which is worried that new requirements could be harsh and expensive.”

I sure am hoping for compromises that take everyone’s concerns seriously, including the whales’.

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rare-myanmar-turtles-bred-in-captivity-released-into-the-wild

Photo: NewsBeat Social/Youtube
“Seven years after conservation groups started a breeding program to save the Myanmar Roofed Turtle, 60 were released into the country’s river system,” says
Science Times.

Anytime a creature thought to be extinct makes a comeback, it gives one hope that other things can come back. We really shouldn’t minimize the importance of, say, the little fish called the snail darter that was the focus of a big fight. We never know what aspect of a biodiverse world will benefit us in the future. And, besides, we need metaphors.

I loved this story about a comeback for a rare turtle in Myanmar.

Liz Kimbrough reports at Mongabay, “Once considered extinct, the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) was brought back from the brink by an ambitious conservation program.

“Now, almost 30 years after its rediscovery in the wild, scientists have [published] photos and descriptions of hatchlings and eggs, as well as some background information about the conservation of the species [in] the journal Zootaxa by scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Myanmar, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Global Wildlife Conservation, and Georgetown University.

“The Burmese roofed turtle is the second-most critically endangered turtle in the world. Once abundant, hunting and overexploitation of eggs has driven the population to near-extinction, with only five or six adult females and two adult males known to exist in the wild today.

“The species was presumed extinct until 2001, when researchers found the shell of a recently killed turtle in a village along the Dokhtawady River in Myanmar. Shortly after, a U.S. turtle collector found a living turtle at a wildlife market in China.

“Encouraged by these findings, researchers conducted field surveys to find the wild populations. After following locals’ descriptions of ‘duck-sized eggs,’ the researchers found living turtles in two separate rivers in Myanmar. However, the population had collapsed to a whisper. …

‘The biggest threat is that there are so few left in the wild and so if there’s an accident we’ve lost a big chunk of the population,’ Steven Platt, first author of the study and WCS associate conservation herpetologist for Southeast Asia, told Mongabay.

“ ‘Otherwise its mostly fishing. I worry about them getting entangled in fishing gear and drowning. And if we didn’t monitor, the eggs would be collected.’

“More than half of the world’s turtle and tortoise species are now threatened with extinction. Loss of habitat is their biggest threat globally, but turtles also face dangers from the pet trade, overconsumption for food and medicine, fishing, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

“In an effort to bring the Burmese roofed turtle back from the brink of extinction, WCS and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in collaboration with the Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry began a program to ‘headstart’ the species in 2007. Researchers and technicians collected eggs from wild turtles for a captive-breeding program. …

“The captive population is now approaching 1,000 turtles, and the species appears to be in little danger of biological extinction. The goal is to eventually release them back into their wild habitat in the Chindwin River.

“In 2015, WCS and TSA reintroduced some male turtles back to the wild, but reintroduced turtles can be hard to follow and locate in the river when the wet season rolls in, Platt says. For now, the team is trying a different strategy, keeping some of the turtles in floating cages in the river as a ‘soft release’ of sorts. The hope is that once the turtles become acclimated to the area they can be released and won’t stray too far.

“ ‘River turtle conservation is really difficult,’ Platt said. ‘Tortoises can move about a kilometer, or, normally just stay within a few hectares of where we release them, but these turtles, once they’re in the river, they can go up or down for several hundred miles if they just keep swimming.’ ”

Read more at Mongabay, here. And hope for other comebacks.

Photo: Myo Min Win/WCS Myanmar
Burmese roofed turtle shown moments after emerging from an egg collected from a sandbank along the Chindwin River and incubated at a facility in Limpha village, Sagaing region, Myanmar. See Platt et al.

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PRI’s The World has an in-depth international focus I don’t find at other radio shows. Although the program is available nationwide, it’s produced at WGBH in Boston, and I listen to it there (weekdays at 3).

Yesterday’s show included some cool research by Duke University’s lemur center, a fascinating place I visited when Suzanne was on her high school tour of colleges.

The story was not about lemurs, however. It was about a rare critter scientists hadn’t seen in 50 years, the Somali sengi, popularly but imprecisely called the “elephant shrew.”

Amanda McGowen reported at The World, “The Somali sengi is a tiny mammal that looks almost like a mouse, but with a long, trunk-like nose, sort of like an aardvark.

“[For] 50 years, a sighting of this sengi had not been recorded by scientists — until now.

“A team of American sengi experts and Djiboutian ecologists rediscovered the elusive Somali sengi after a research expedition to Djibouti in 2019. Their findings were published in the scientific journal PeerJ [Tuesday].

“Houssein Rayaleh, a Djiboutian research ecologist and conservationist on the expedition, said that ‘people living in Djibouti never considered the sengis to be “lost,” ‘ but that ‘the new research brings the Somali sengi back into the scientific community, which is valued,’ according to the BBC.

“ ‘They’re unique in a lot of ways,’ said Steven Heritage, the lead author of the study who is a research scientist at the Duke University Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. …

“Sengis, Heritage explained, have flexible noses that they use to pick through leaf litter for food, as well as enormous back legs that allow them to run up to 18 miles per hour or more. They also have a monogamous mating system, where a male and female bond for life.

“Sengis are closely related to aardvarks, elephants and manatees. Though they’re commonly called elephant shrews, Heritage explained that the name has largely fallen out of favor among scientists because sengis are not really shrews or elephants.

“To find this particular species of sengi, the team drew on the knowledge of its local members, including Houssein Rayaleh, a bird expert at Association Djibouti Nature, as well as interviews with people in the areas where they were searching.

‘When we would go to these field sites, we would often interview locals. … They’d say, “Oh yeah, that animal is over there in those rocks, and this mouse animal is over here in this more flat area,” ‘ Heritage said. ‘Incorporating that local knowledge was invaluable.’ …

“The researchers used a combination of oatmeal, peanut butter and Marmite to lure sengis into live box traps so they could be observed.

“ ‘[It’s] this super smelly concoction of bait,’ he said. ‘You can imagine if you’re a small mammal that lives in essentially a desert, rocky environment, you’ve never smelled anything like that before. So you’re going to go check that out and see what’s going on.’ …

“Heritage said generating knowledge about rare or ‘lost’ species helps keep the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species up to date. He called the list a ‘barometer of the health of the biodiversity on our planet.’ “

More at The World, where you can also listen to the radio report.

Photo: Steven Heritage
The rare Somali sengi, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, is a relative of the elephant and the aardvark. 

 

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Photo: Sinclair Miller/Maryland Zoo via the Washington Post
A wheelchair fashioned out of Legos helped this Eastern box turtle, shown in 2018, to recover from a broken shell.

For your delectation today, I offer you two turtle stories. The Washington Post apparently has a thing about turtles, and that’s great. I do, too, remembering fondly long-ago box turtles in Rockland County, New York.

In the first report, Dana Hedgpeth, describes a clever use of Legos to repair the shell of a badly damaged turtle.

“A turtle that had been injured and had a customized wheelchair built for it from Legos has been released into the wild. [The] male Eastern box turtle had been in the care of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. … With a transmitter on its back, officials said they’ll be able to keep tabs on it in its native habitat.

“The turtle’s tale started two years ago when it was found by a zoo employee in the park and brought to the facility. The turtle had a badly broken shell and underwent surgery that involved placing metal bone plates, sewing clasps and surgical wire to keep its shell held together.

“Ellen Bronson, senior director of animal health, conservation and research at the zoo, said … ‘We faced a difficult challenge with maintaining the turtle’s mobility while allowing him to heal properly,’ Bronson said.

“Garrett Fraess, who was a veterinary student and in a clinical rotation at the zoo, said at the time that it was key to ‘keep the bottom of the shell off the ground so it could heal properly.’ …

‘They don’t make turtle wheelchairs,’ Fraess said, so he and a team sketched a customized wheelchair. He sent the sketches to a friend in Denmark who is a huge Lego fan, and she made a wheelchair for the turtle.

“The wheelchair worked because the Lego frame surrounded the turtle’s roughly grapefruit-size shell, and with plumber’s putty it attached to the edges of the upper shell, which got it off the ground and allowed it to move its legs, according to Fraess. …

“The turtle used its Lego wheelchair through the winter and spring of 2019 until ‘all of the fragments were fused together and the shell was almost completely healed,’ according to Bronson. Then they took off the wheelchair and the turtle underwent ‘exercise time’ to build up strength. …

“The zoo has done a project to monitor Eastern box turtles at the park since 1996. They’ve recorded, tagged and released more than 130 wild turtles. The work is used to help conservationists see how the turtles, which are native to Maryland, are doing in an urban setting.” More.

The second article, by Karin Brulliard, is about returning the rare Kemp’s ridley turtle and green turtles to the sea at Assateague, Maryland, a place that (along with Chincoteague) I associate more with Marguerite Henry and her children’s books about miniature wild horses.

“Seven months after washing up on the shores of Cape Cod, Mass., No. 300 stoically scanned the powdery beach while being held aloft by Maryland’s second-highest elected official.

“It was hardly the strangest thing to befall the young Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, a Gulf of Mexico native, since the animal found itself in cool northern waters in November. Its body temperature plunged, making it too lethargic to swim. It was scooped up by volunteers who found it near-dead on shore. It was trucked to Baltimore, then warmed by aquarium workers who named it Muenster and treated its pneumonia.

“The turtle swam in a pool with other injured turtles named for cheeses, and swam some more, not knowing that outside, pandemic-related shutdowns were delaying its return to the Atlantic waters now before it.

“Soon, Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), jeans rolled up to his knees, placed the turtle into breaking waves as beachgoers cheered this glint of hope at a time of tumult on land. And without a look back, Muenster became the first of 10 Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles to paddle forth on this late June morning into an ocean. …

“Six of seven sea turtle species are threatened or endangered, their populations driven down by development of the beaches where they nest, pollution of the waters where they forage, fishing nets and lines that accidentally catch them, and hunting and trade. But even against that dim backdrop, the trends for those that swim U.S. waters look fairly positive, according to one recent study: Endangered species protections have helped six of eight populations rise.” More.

Lt. Gov. Rutherford of Maryland cares about turtles? That can only be a good thing.

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