Sunday, November 30, 2014
Ever thought of using your smartphone to contribute to environmental science or crack down on wildlife smuggling? Turns out there are mobile apps for that, though just how useful they are often depends on where you live or travel.
The use of apps for eco-science and eco-crimefighting is still in its infancy, but the potential is there. Take the area of wildlife smuggling — only a few apps exist, and for limited regions, but the need extends across the globe, says Heidi Kretser, a social scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society who recently co-authored a study of wildlife conservation apps.
"Mobile apps have the advantage of being able to operate without connectivity" if properly designed, notes Kretser. "Websites require connectivity. Phones? Again connectivity is required."
The Wildlife Alert app from the Wildlife Conservation Society is meant to help U.S. military users quickly identify furs, horns and other animal products that can't be legally taken out of Afghanistan.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
How Elephant Teeth Taught Scientists Extinction Exists
SARAH LASKOW, The Atlantic
NOV 14 2014
At the end of the 18th century, Georges Cuvier was thinking quite seriously about elephant teeth. He was working in Paris, in the National Museum of Natural History, where he had unusual access to bones collected from faraway, exotic places—Asia, Africa, Russia, America.
…and Asian elephants, which look like this…
…and concluded that they were more similar than different. But Cuvier looked more closely, and he saw that they were two different species. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker:
'It is clear that the elephant from Ceylon differs more from that of Africa than the horse from the ass or the goat from the sheep,' he declared. Among the animals’ many distinguishing characteristics were their teeth. The elephant from Ceylon had molars with wavy ridges on the surface, 'like festooned ribbons,' while the elephant from the Cape of Good Hope had teeth with ridges arranged in the shape of diamonds.
One reason that Cuvier was so interested in elephants's teeth was that European explorers had turned up similar, but distinct teeth in the swamps of what would become Kentucky and in Siberia. Cuvier looked closely at the jaw of the Siberian "elephant" and found that its teeth were, like the teeth of the Asian and African elephants, different from the other species's. They belonged, Cuvier eventually concluded, to a distinct type of elephant—a giant one, whose kind no longer existed on the planet. A mammoth.
Before Cuvier made this case, a few other scientists had toyed with the idea that there were animals that had once lived on Earth but were now gone. Cuvier, though, became the foremost advocate for the idea of extinction. His contention, controversial at the time, that in the past the planet had played host to a different cast of creatures, upended the idea that God had created a bunch of animals, plopped them down on Earth, and there they'd lived forever after.
By 1812, Cuvier had identified 49 extinct animals. This is no small feat. It's actually quite hard, Ruth Graham reported recently in the Boston Globe, to pin down how many species have gone extinct:
About 1.5 million plant and animal species have been named, but estimates of how many actually exist vary from 2 million to 100 million. Those numbers change every year: New species are discovered, and others wink out of existence, often without us ever knowing they were there at all. So when scientists talk about thousands of species going extinct in a year, they aren’t counting disappearances: They’re making extrapolations based on estimates of habitat loss, and of how many species currently exist, and how many have existed in history.
Since 1600, according to Graham, there have been 800 documented extinctions. And we have even witnessed some of those extinctions in real time: the dodo and the passenger pigeon, for example.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
It’s a common saying that elephants never forget. But the more we learn about elephants, the more it appears that their impressive memory is only one aspect of an incredible intelligence that makes them some of the most social, creative, and benevolent creatures on Earth. Alex Gendler takes us into the incredible, unforgettable mind of an elephant.
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Saturday, November 8, 2014
How China’s ivory addiction explains the new world economy
By Ana Swanson, New York Times
November 7, 2014
Tanzania, the world’s biggest source of illegal ivory, lost an average of 30 elephants per day in 2013, contributing to a trend that has seen half of the country’s elephant population die in the last five years, some to natural causes and others to poaching, according to a report released Thursday by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. Fueling these killings is an upsurge in demand for ivory in China, the world’s largest market for illicit elephant tusks. The trafficking chain between Tanzania and China has become the biggest conduit for illegal ivory in the world, according to the report.
Why exactly is China fueling the ivory trade? Here are the five top reasons.
1. China’s poorly regulated system for legal ivory sales. China views ivory carving as part of its cultural heritage. It has sanctioned a small industry for products made with ivory obtained in legal auctions. A complex system of permits regulates the companies that carve and sell ivory, including some that are state-owned.
In practice, however, this legal industry cloaks a massive black market. Those who have obtained government licenses can generate huge profits by laundering illegal tusks into the stock of more expensive legal ivory. This makes it virtually impossible for buyers to distinguish between the two.
Just like with the drug trade, there’s a long-running debate about whether establishing a regulated market or banning the product entirely would be more effective at limiting the ivory trade. Some argue that banning ivory in China would drive up the price in the underground market and fuel poaching. Yet, even in its current state, China’s system provides camouflage for an illegal industry.
A new report that accompanies this video by the Environmental Investigation Agency says Tanzania is the hub of a resurgent elephant poaching industry thanks to growing demand for ivory in China. (Environmental Investigation Agency)
2. Growing ties with Africa and porous Chinese borders. China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Ivory accompanies shipments that move between China and Africa, buried in containers of dried fish, plastic waste and grains.
People traveling between Africa and China also can carry ivory in their luggage. More than one million Chinese, from businessmen to factory workers to chefs, have moved to Africa over the past decade. Chinese officials say that 90 percent of ivory seizures involve individuals concealing ivory in their suitcases.
According to the EIA report, diplomatic channels are also often used to smuggle ivory. The report alleges that that bags of ivory were loaded onto Xi Jinping’s own plane during a visit to Tanzania in March 2013, presumably without the Chinese president’s knowledge.
3. Gift-giving and corruption. The ivory trade has close ties to Chinese practices of giving expensive and exotic trinkets, which is sometimes linked to business and official corruption.
One United Nations report suggests that Chinese demand for ivory might be driven, counterintuitively, by the high price of ivory -- just like other expensive status symbols like watches and diamonds.
The chart below shows the price and quantity of imports into China and Hong Kong have increased as the price has gone up. The report offers two explanations: that mammoth ivory is subject to some kind of speculative price bubble, or that it is what economists call a “Veblen good.” (A Veblen good refers to any product for which demand rises as its price goes up -- contrary to the law of supply and demand.)
If this is true, the Chinese government’s current crackdown on corrupt government officials might help to dampen sales of ivory as it chills questionable behavior -- as it has done for watches and luxury cars.
4. The suppression of the Chinese environmental movement. Toxic air, water and food products mean environmental issues are increasingly on Chinese minds. However, limitations on free speech and collective organizing have greatly hampered a nascent environmental movement.
Environmental organizations and activists are subject to government surveillance and hampered by restrictive laws; some have been arrested or detained for inciting social unrest.
5. Lack of knowledge about the ivory industry. Many Chinese who buy ivory may not realize that the trade is illegal, or that elephants have to be killed in order to obtain their tusks. And Chinese thinking on animal rights is still an early stage compared to Western countries.
This is changing, slowly. Both dog ownership and Buddhism, which values animals and often involves vegetarianism, are increasingly in vogue among Chinese urbanites. And public education about endangered animals is on the rise.
Yao Ming, the Chinese former star of the Houston Rockets, joined with WildAid, a San Francisco-based charity, to make a series of successful commercials in 2011 that urged Chinese to stop eating shark fin soup. Yao and WildAid partnered again on a documentary that was screened in China in August about the mass slaughter of the ivory trade.
In the long run, this kind of education is probably the most effective way to reduce China’s massive purchases of ivory, since it pushes down the demand for the good. This may be far more effective than just attacking supply, since limiting ivory imports will only push the value of them up.
Friday, November 7, 2014
Kenya: Google Funds DNA Lab to Catch Poachers
By Geoffrey Kamadi, The Star
November 7, 2014
Google will fund the new system to trace origin of illegal wildlife products to the tune of Sh255 million ($3 million).The DNA barcode tracing system for the country's endangered species will be up in a year's time in an electronic library at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) headquarters in Nairobi.
The project is led by the NMK and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Supervision will be conducted by the Consortium for Barcode of Life (CBOL), under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, which is the world's largest museum and research complex.
This barcode system works much the same way as a supermarket scanner. The scanner reveals details of an item, such as pricing, name and manufacturer when it is passed before it.
"If someone is caught with a wildlife trophy, we as the wildlife forensics experts will get its DNA and scan it against the DNA data base in the library which will immediately tell us what species of the animal it belongs to," explains Dr Hastings Ozwara, a molecular biologist at the NMK's Institute of Primate Research (IPR).
The library will have an initial data base of at least 200 species of Kenya's critically endangered plants and animals. This number will increase with time, to include all wildlife species.
"The new forensics technology will eliminate doubt in evidence produced in cases involving wildlife crimes," adds Dr Charles Musyoki, the senior scientist, Department of Species Conservation and Management at the KWS.
Trade in endangered wildlife not only involves ivory and rhino horns. Some of the little-talked about animal and plant species are equally threatened by illegal trade.
"There are 60 cases of sea turtles being poached in one area of Watamu at the Kenyan coast in the last three years, but nobody is talking about it," says Salisha Chandra of the Kenya United Against Poaching (KUAPO).