He was known as the Last Male Standing and attracted the attention of people around the world, but on March 19, 2018 the last male northern white rhino died. Sudan, 45 years old, had been under armed guard to protect him from the threat of poachers. His death is heartbreaking. The extinction of the northern white rhino is happening before our eyes.
Why has this happened?
Rhinos are the targets of poaching because of an insatiable demand for their horns on the black market. It’s thought that an average of three rhinos are lost to poachers every day, and poaching gangs are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Sudan was guarded and cared for by Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and died at an old age, but for many rhinos it’s a different story.
It’s illegal to buy and sell rhino horn, but the trade continues because of a belief in the horn’s medicinal properties. It’s a stark example of the devastating impact of the illegal wildlife trade on threatened species.
Saikhan’s happy story is a testament to the well-timed, collaborative efforts of the Hunting Department of Primorsky Province, staff at the Rehabilitation Center, WWF-Russia, the Amur Tiger Center, and special government-sponsored rapid response teams. It’s also evidence of the significant impact that these joint conservation efforts are having in the Russian Far East, where we’ve worked to recover the Amur tiger population from around just 40 in the 1940s to more than 500 since the 1990s.
But rising Amur tiger numbers pose new challenges. A recent WWF report estimated that between the years 2000 and 2016, there were approximately 279 human-tiger conflict incidents in the Amur region—a number that’s expected to only increase as the Amur tiger population grows.
Decreasing the number of human-tiger conflicts and protecting tigers against poaching is key to ensuring that Amur tiger populations continue to increase. Between 2009 and 2016, WWF helped to rehabilitate and release 13 tigers, many of which had been regularly involved in human-tiger conflict, back into the wild. Ten were tagged with GPS collars so that WWF can monitor their movements and protect these tigers.
WWF also works alongside law enforcement and local communities to strengthen on-the-ground anti-poaching efforts, increase tiger protections, impose tougher punishments for wildlife crime, and raise public awareness about these endangered animals.
Why does food loss happen? Often faced with hardships and economic losses, farmers must decide whether to grow more produce than they can sell under contracts with grocers and other retailers, with the understanding that some of that harvest will remain in the field. They also must decide whether to rescue edible but unmarketable produce—perfectly fine food that doesn’t meet the product quality standards—or to allow outside organizations and gleaners to rescue this produce, which often happens at a cost to the farmer. Farmers also face shifting labor dynamics, challenging market conditions, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and quality standards that can make it difficult to find markets for all produce coming out of the field.
When crops are left in field, they most often get tilled back under the earth to re-enrich the soil or serve as animal feed. That’s not the worst fate for lost crops, but the energy, water, and other resources that went into growing this produce goes to waste.
Food waste and the climate When we produce food that goes uneaten, we release unnecessary greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere—and a lot of them. Agriculture, forestry, and other land uses account for about 12 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year; only the energy sector emits more. And food waste alone accounts for about 8% of the greenhouse gas emissions caused specifically by humans. That’s why at this September’s Global Climate Action Summit, WWF will herald the Forest, Food, and Land Challenge, calling for action to improve food production and consumption, better conserve forests and habitats, efficiently use land, and for people across these sectors to work together to deliver up to 30% of the climate solutions needed by 2030, as identified by the Paris Climate Agreement.
But for lands like farms to be part of how we address climate change, we need to better understand how they’re being used (and sometimes abused). WWF will continue to study food loss on farms and at other points from the farm-to-plate journey. We’re also exploring how to rescue and effectively use extra produce. As we learn more about what causes food loss and where it happens, we can recommend the changes needed on the farm, at the store, and in our own homes that will allow us to use more of what we grow.
Africa is home to some 2341 bird species, 67% of which are endemic to the continent. We were overwhelmed by the number of photographs submitted this week! It seems that many have been enchanted by Africa’s amazing birdlife. As Rudyard Kipling said: “One cannot resist the lure of Africa.” We invite you to join us on an adventure to explore the amazing birdlife of Africa. Here we present 25 of the best photographs presented for this week’s theme. Next week we explore the birds of Australia. If you would like to submit photographs to be considered simply upload them to our Facebook page with species, location, photographer and #birdsofaustralia as the caption.
African Fish Eagles are usually found along large still or flowing water bodies. If waterbodies dry up they may remain and feed on birds and carcasses (Muhammad Asif Sherzai)The African Pygmy-Kingfisher is monogamous, the pair excavates a burrow in a sand bank or in an existing mammal burrow (Marios Mantzourogiannis)White-faced Ducks tend to breed in temporary wetlands and then move to permanent wetlands to moult over the winter (Shivayogi Kanthi)The Eurasian Golden Oriole breeds in Eurasia and then spends the winter in sub-Saharan Africa and India. This Oriole was photographed in Ethiopia by Goutam MitraA White-bellied Go-Away Bird photographed in Tsavo West, Kenya by Marios MantzourogiannisThe Böhm’s Bee-eater was named after Richard Böhm, a German zoologist. This one was photographed in Liwonde National Park, Malawi by Anthony RobertsA trio of Great Cormorants at Lake Naivasha, Kenya (Anindya Dutta)Grey Go-away Birds get their name from their call which sounds like ‘go-away’ (Ravishankar Paranthaman)The Hooded Vulture is critically endangered, mainly due to poisoning (Preety Patel)The Lappet-faced Vulture has the largest wing-span of all the vultures in Africa (Wasif Yaqeen)The bright red gular pouch on the neck of the Grey Crowned Crane allows them to produce a deep booming call (Anindya Dutta)Lilac-breasted Rollers are endemic to Africa and are fairly common in woodland areas (Marios Mantzourogiannis)Unlike many swallows, the Lesser Striped Swallow is mostly resident (Anirban Roychowdhury)The Common Ostrich is the largest bird in the world. This one was photographed foraging on the plains of Kenya by Subhamoy DasThe Red-billed Firefinch eats mainly small grass seeds (Goutam Mitra)The Secretary Bird usually hunts on the ground, often in pairs. This pair was photographed in Kruger National Park, South Africa by Ravishankar ParanthamanThe male Silvery-cheeked Hornbill has a much larger bill than the female. This shot was taken at Lake Manyara, Tanzania by Edwin GodinhoThe Rüppell’s Starling is found only in east Africa. This handsome individual was photographed in Ethiopia by Goutam MitraThe Swainson’s Francolin is native to the savanas of southern Africa, usually near water (Ravishankar Paranthaman)A male Common Ostrich against the backdrop of beautiful mopane trees in Kruger National Park, South Africa (Ravishankar Paranthaman)White-fronted Bee-eaters hunt from perches, they have been recorded taking 300 swoops in one day with success rates of between 50% and 70% (Judi Fenson)White-headed Mousebirds occur only in east Africa, mainly in Somalia and Kenya (Goutam Mitra)Female Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills seal themselves into their nest cavities, mainly with their own faeces (Anirban Roychowdhury)A group of Yellow-billed Storks fly over Lake Manyara, Tanzania (Anindya Dutta)The population of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers declined due to reducing game numbers and toxic dips used on cattle. However the re-introduction of oxpeckers and oxpecker friendly dips has allowed the population to recover somewhat (Marios Mantzourogiannis)
Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.
We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!
We are always part of interrelated processes of momentary events. That is what one of my mentors in college used to explain to us, his students, during the Buddhist Philosophy course. He was teaching us about the interconnectivity of it all, according to a buddhist system of thought called abhidharma. Nothing is independent. Everything is interdependent.
And this interconnectedness, as well as human ingenuity – as expressed by Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President, Science and Exploration, Jonathan Baillie – was evident on the first day of the Explorers Symposium, where 30 National Geographic Explorers, educators, and staff members took to the stage at Grosvenor Auditorium for a series of panel sessions, updates from the field, as well as lightning-round talks to further our shared mission of reaching a planet in balance. Some ideas that were shared and that inspired us yesterday included:
Jonathan Baillie, BoB BALLARD, KAKANI KATIJA, Corey Jaskolski, Steven Brumby, and AVITA GUPTA. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
Misconceptions and a healthy skepticism permeated at a panel session where Lee Berger shared that we should be humble by understanding that, “the more we find, the more we don’t know,” and where Kim Young also argued that in our interconnected world of telecommunications there might also be an intergenerational shift happening from “Who am I?” to “Who are we?” The panel also included contributions on identity from Gyaneshwer Chaubey, Evgenia Arbugaeva, and which was moderated by Jamie Shreeve.
We got updates from the field from three different explorers. We furthered our understanding, and our shared humanity was highlighted, with an update from the field from Paul Salopek and his Out of Eden Walk. Emmanuel Merode shared with us what is going on from the front lines of conservation over at Virunga National Park in Congo, and the courageous resilience that is necessary to work there every day. And we also heard from Steve Boyes about his #Cuando18 expedition to protect the Okavango River Basin and Delta with the Okavango Wilderness Project team.
We saw work in progress from a few explorers like Stephen Humphreys with the rehabilitation of veterans through archaeology and exploration, as well as Tatjana Rosen and her critical work in saving one of the most introverted felines, snow leopards.
Janni Benavides from my home country of Colombia delighted us with a song for the closing performance of the symposium. It is an ode to the creeks, rivers, and other parts of the ecosystems around the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.
Pablo García Borboroglu and LÉONIDAS NZIGIYIMPA. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
But I not only found meaning and inspiration in the great events of Explorers Symposium and the National Geographic Awards. In the past couple of days I found synchronicity and serendipity as well in the little things, in the details of what appeared to be mundane. While going back to work I ran into Explorer-in-Residence, Enric Sala in an elevator ride where we spoke enthusiastically about soccer and the World Cup that started yesterday; I saw Ronan Donovan and Stephen Wilkes getting coffee near the headquarters, and recognized the meeting of two of the world’s best photographers; while walking to the National Geographic cafeteria I saw explorers Asha de Vos, Sylvia Earle, and – as of last night, Buffett Award winner – Pablo García Borboroglu, smiling at a camera in the courtyard while someone snapped a photograph of the smiles of three of the most dedicated defenders of the world’s marine wildlife.
This all reminds me of the connections we have with one another. It reminds me of how simple and yet how hard it is sometimes to reach out and join one another for a higher purpose.
I ask, as a matter of conclusion: What if changing the world started with chance encounters of the world’s leading change-makers by highlighting our connective tissue?
I’m glad to be able to witness these connections from yesterday’s symposium, and I can’t wait to watch what other connections are made later today in this world renowned forum of the minds. (Don’t forget you can stream today’s symposium live, here).
Look closely and you’ll see tiny amphipods using this Antarctic sponge as habitat. (Photo credit: Julian Gutt.)
By Rachel Downey (Australia National University & British Antarctic Survey) and Claire Christian (ASOC)
In our last post, we introduced you to one of nature’s underappreciated animals, the sea sponge. Sponges have been around for over 600 million years, by developing some fascinating adaptations that make them one of our greatest global survivors. Long existence has meant that sponges have been able to colonise the deepest trenches, harshest coastal environments, and survive a multitude of mass extinctions. Today, they live in every marine environment in the world, and even in some brackish and freshwater habitats.
In fact, though sponges with their bright colours and unusual shapes may seem ornamental, they are integral to the functioning of many marine ecosystems. By filtering seawater for food, sponges have a significant impact on water quality, with large sponges able to filter 1500 liters of water per day. Sponges alter the flow of water in their environment, which can be beneficial to other filter-feeding animals, such as brittle stars and sea lilies, which use sponges to get a leg up into the higher food-rich currents.
Furthermore, sponges are never an organism alone, as they host bacteria, viruses, fungi and other marine organisms within their bodies. Sponges are therefore seen as an ecosystem, a big community of lots of organisms, with many different types of relationships, rather than just a single animal. Like trees or corals, sponges are ecosystem engineers, creating complex and varied 3D structures in seafloor habitats that influence the rest of the ecosystem. Many animals, such as fish, scale worms, and brittle stars, rely on sponges as places to feed on their favourite prey, rest, lay eggs, keep their young safe, and occasionally munch on a bit of sponge. Unlike coral reefs, which are restricted to shallow, tropical waters, sponge grounds can occur in every marine environment and at great depth, potentially enhancing biodiversity globally.
An Antarctic fish takes shelter in a sponge. (Photo credit: Tomas Lundalv.)
In coral reef environments, a bacteria that lives in sponge tissue is able to capture phosphorus, making this important nutrient available to the rest of the animals living on the reef. Many of these tropical sponge species contain photosynthesising organisms similar to corals, and these can produce up to three times more oxygen and organic matter than they consume. Thus sponges make substantial contributions to nutrients and oxygen for other animals in the surrounding area. Sponges mainly consume dissolved organic carbon and nutrients that most other marine animals can’t consume. Sponge can consume half their weight in this carbon every day, and instead of using this extra carbon to grow, they shed their old cells, producing food for other organisms. Sponges are great recyclers and providers, keeping themselves and other organisms happy and healthy in many different marine environments.
A sponge’s ability to construct amazing skeletons into innumerable shapes, for their own and other animals’ benefit is also being explored by engineers. These industry researchers are convinced that they can build taller, stronger, and more flexible buildings and vehicles in the future, based on what sponges have mastered over millions of years.
But sponges aren’t simply sitting on the seafloor, waiting to be exploited by other species. They can defend themselves quite well. How do they stay safe on the seafloor? Sponges produce noxious chemicals, often with the help of their bacterial associates, to survive attacks and dominate landscapes. In the last few decades, scientists have been exploring sponge species from every part of the globe to see what unique chemicals they produce. Amazingly, they have found sponges that contain substances that are anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, anti-tumor, vital compounds for our future development in modern medicine, and they can even produce chemicals that are alike to fire retardants! One sponge has been found to contain a bacterium that protects it against arsenic poisoning, which may not sound like an exciting revelation, but this new information could be used to help eliminate our global arsenic poisoning issues, which affects millions of people every day.
In Antarctica, our area of expertise, sponges are an unusually important group. We’re going to focus on them for a bit to further illustrate how critical sponges can be in the polar marine environment. Antarctic sponges live in the shallow, rocky coastal regions that are often scoured clean by icebergs, on the hundreds of isolated seamounts dotted throughout this ocean and on the vast expanses of abyssal, muddy seabed bottoms. The Southern Ocean harbours almost 450 different species from all major sponge groups, including the often brightly coloured and wondrously shaped demosponges, giant spiky vase-like glass sponges, and tiny pale calcareous sponges. Close to half of sponge species that live in this ocean are endemic, meaning that they are not found anywhere else in the world. Antarctic sponges are unusual in that they have very broad longitudinal distributions, so one species can be found around the entire, immense Antarctic coastline and the same species can live in a huge depth range, occurring both in shallow waters and in water hundreds of meters deep. In fact, Antarctic glass sponges are found in shallow marine habitats, a rare phenomenon, as elsewhere in the world they are usually found in very deep waters.
Antarctica is a sponge paradise. (Photo credit: Julian Gutt.)
The relative isolation of the Antarctic region by ocean currents is one reason for this diversity of sponges, since isolation often leads to the evolution of new species. Both abundant silica, necessary for constructing most sponge skeletons, and sea water formed in the deep oceans and then washes up to the shallow coast, may have enabled unusual deep-sea sponges to move from the abyssal depths to the icy coast. The furious Southern Ocean currents circling the continent may have helped distribute sponge larvae all around the Antarctic continent. Whatever the reason, the outcome is clear: Antarctica is a sponge paradise. It has been argued that the biomass (the sheer weight of life) on the Antarctic shelves rivals that of tropical reefs, and this is in part due to the dominance of sponge habitats. By creating complex 3D structures on the seabed, they likely enabled the co-evolution of many Antarctic fish, starfish, crustaceans and much more.
So how did sponges manage to triumph in this harsh polar environment? They are long-lived (some species are thought to be able to live for centuries) and can go for a long time without food, enabling them to survive Antarctic winters when little food will be available and resume growth in the summer when nutrients are more plentiful. Yet patience isn’t the only thing they have going for them. Recent research has revealed that despite their sedentary, slow lives, sponges in Antarctica may be able to move quickly when it counts. After the Larsen A ice shelf collapse, glass sponges moved in very quickly and took over areas newly suitable for life. Soon, other species will likely move in to take advantage of the new habitat these sponges have created.
Furthermore, all sponges produce an incredible array of chemicals to defend themselves and compete for space on the seafloor, and our Antarctic sponges are no exception to this. Only a few sponge species have been studied by pharmaceutical scientists hoping to find compounds to synthesise in their laboratories, and these species have not disappointed, with one species that has compounds that eliminate MRSA, a major source of infection in hospital environments. Some sponges have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties, while others have antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties, which are all compounds that can be utilised to improve our fights against human disease.
The Antarctic sponge Dendrilla membranosa contains a substance that could one day be used to treat MRSA. (Photo credit: Bill Baker.)
Unfortunately, Antarctic sponges, as well as those elsewhere in the world, aren’t always allowed to do their habitat engineering and chemical defense creating in peace. In the next post, we’ll talk about the threats to sponges, and why protecting their seafloor habitats should be an important consideration for anyone who loves marine life and appreciates the unique beauty found in our oceans.