Jungle School

When they’re ready to start spending long periods of time alone, pupils at the center are still carefully tracked by technicians–most of whom come from nearby villages—to make sure they’re getting proper nutrition and not trying to revert to what they may have learned from humans. Every orangutan who “graduates” is tagged so it can be easily monitored.

“Even after they’re released, the orangutans still know to come back to the center when they get sick or  injured,” says Andhani Widya Hartanti, one of the veterinarians for the center. Hartanti is currently on site because an eight-year-old named Dora got sick and needed her attention, but she says the orangutan is recovering quickly. “When an orangutan that was sick becomes healthy again, that’s my happiest moment at work,” Hartanti adds.

Only between 6,000 to 10,000 Sumatran orangutans are estimated to remain in the wild, making them critically endangered. Beyond its immediate goal of rehabilitating and releasing rescued orangutans, FZS is working toward two bigger, longer-term goals: Establishing a healthy new population of these endangered primates in the forests of Thirty Hills, where no orangutans were present before FZS began its work here, and protecting those forests for future generations of orangutans.

So far, the center has released 170 orangutans into the wild, making 30 Hills a rare success story for this species. The goal is to reach 350—the minimum required for a stable population—in the next two decades. But when asked how many orangutans this jungle could shelter, Pratje estimates 4,000.

“Thousands would be the minimum carrying capacity,” he says. “When we were deciding where to establish this new population, for me, we had to work here, because it’s exceptional to have such a large area of lowland rainforest.”

Originally posted 2018-08-17 12:00:00.

Latrine Spotting: The Meditative Poo

An Exploration into the Studies of Spider Monkey Poop

Its 5am and the forest is just waking up. Under the canopy it’s still pitch black, but the rustles of the daytime animals emerging from their dens and stretching their legs is audible alongside the singular call of the howler monkey telling the rest of the forest it’s time to get up. Above me I can hear the spider monkeys talking to each other and affirming group cohesion, much like how we say, “good morning.” Suddenly, I feel a warm, light drizzle on my head, followed by the sound of something dense splattering on the ground not too far from me. I smile.

Spider monkeys are an incredibly important part of the forest ecosystem on the Osa Peninsula. They’re known as primary seed dispersers, which means the seeds they digest from eating fruit gets spread around the forest as they poop it out. One study found that seeds were dispersed from 83 meters to 1741 meters, but most figures were well over 100 meters – and they considered their study an underestimate.1

Close up of one of our most active latrines. You can see the Inga seeds in the feces.

This is why the spider monkey is called an ecosystem engineer, and why they are important for biologists to study. As ecosystem engineers, these primates have the ability to help rebuild damaged and cleared forests which is important in the larger goal of keeping our rainforests healthy.

There is one important aspect of spider monkey behavior that is rather unusual: they poop after they wake up and before they go to bed, but will rarely poop in random spots through the forest. This creates these massive buildups of poop under specific trees around the forest, which are called latrines.

My work with Osa Conservation centered around these latrines, and the ecosystem they create. That’s right – these piles of poo create entire ecosystems. When the poop falls, a whole host of insects are attracted to it: dung beetles, all types of ants, and flies. Then, their predators—which include anoles, all types of frogs, including poison dart frogs, and ant birds—are attracted to the latrines. Not only are predatory animals attracted to these sites, but seed eaters are attracted as well. We were able to collect camera trap footage of a whole host of seed predators and secondary seed dispersers, including the agouti, all types of small mice and rats, and pacas. These rodents exhibit a behavior called seed caching, where they stuff as many seeds as they can into their cheeks and bury them somewhere else, often forgetting where. The latrines we were studying ranged in size from 1 meter across, to the entire edge of a stream bank—about 17 meters!

Close up of another latrine, this time with an abundance of moldy feces.

These latrines are where I spent most of my time in the forest. A co-worker of mine on multiple occasions had spotted the green and black poison dart frog gathering in groups of four or five at the latrines. This is incredible because these frogs are aggressive and territorial and will attack another frog for entering the territory. My job was to figure out why they were tolerating each other and what they were doing at the latrines.

The set up was simple: create an ethogram, sit 5 meters from the latrine with a camera and binoculars and wait.

And wait.

And wait.


For twenty days I spent five hours in the morning and three and a half hours in the afternoon sitting at these latrines doing observations. That’s a combined 170 hours of time watching these latrines.


I saw no poison dart frogs.


This time spent alone in the forest allowed me to do some quiet meditation and reflection on what the hell I was doing spending all my time sitting in the middle of the rainforest staring at piles of poo.

And every time a troop of monkeys would swing by, or a tamandua would plod along quietly near me, or a swarm of army ants would cause me to run head over heels from where I was sitting, I would be reminded.

A green and black poison dart frog that was found elsewhere in the forest. Like most amphibians, they’re most likely to be found near water sources like streams and ponds.

  1. Arroyo-Rodriguez, V. (2017). Parent-parent and parent-offspring distances in Spondias radlkoferi seeds suggest long-distance pollen and seed dispersal: Evidence from latrines of the spider monkey. Journal of Tropical Ecology. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1017/S02664674170000

Originally posted 2018-02-17 23:12:16.

Of Coastal Carnivores and Conservation

It’s a misty, bracing morning on the banks of the Koeye River. Before long, the summer sun will rise to burn off the fog and reveal a world dazzling in shades of greens, blues, and sandy beige, and buzzing with biodiversity. But in these soft, quiet morning hours, a different shade of gold slinks along the brackish river. A grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) –a yearling– slumps along the shore, head low. He is patrolling for mussels and other oceanic protein along the beach. The crunch of his success, crushing calcium-rich shells, rings across the fog-steeped coastline.

A juvenile Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) rests between mussel-munching sessions. Photo credit: Tyler Jessen.

Coastal carnivores of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest (as it is now known) are captivating to say the least. Grizzly, black (Ursus americanus) and ghostly white spirit bears (a form of the black bear; Ursus americanus kermodei), stalk forests in search of abundant salmon streams and ripe summer berries; genetically-distinct, salmon-eating wolves (Canis lupus) swim across islands for better access to ungulate prey; cougars (Puma concolor) perch in trees alongside bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), quietly awaiting unsuspecting marine or terrestrial targets.

A coastal grey wolf (Canis lupus) perches in cautious watch near Klemtu, BC. These wolves are opportunistic foragers – consuming mussels, crunching barnacles, and seeking salmon carcasses as they cruise beaches of the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo credit: Philip Charles.

While these predators are often revered for their majesty or falsely feared for their ferocity, their complex and vital ecological roles are less often at the forefront of conversation. The disappearance of predators has potentially catastrophic consequences and can lead to the unraveling of entire ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere. Predators regulate co-evolved prey in numbers – and in behaviour through their mere presence. Via cascading effects, the presence of carnivores in ecosystems supports the biodiversity of plants. In the Great Bear Rainforest, predators also act as essential vectors of nutrients from the sea onto land. In what is a nearly poetic interconnectivity, bears, wolves, and other carnivores partially consume salmon, and spread nutrients in leftover carcasses, urine, and faeces to provide typically-limited marine-derived nitrogen and other nutrients to the “salmon-fed forests” of the Great Bear.

A Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), or spirit bear, seeks salmon during an early Fall run. The salmon this bear consumes, or partially consumes, will act as fertilizer for riparian forests. Photo credit: Lauren Eckert, photo taken on southern Princess Royal Island, in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory In what is a nearly poetic interconnectivity, bears, wolves, and other carnivores partially consume salmon, and spread nutrients in leftover carcasses, urine, and faeces to provide typically-limited marine-derived nitrogen and other nutrients to the “salmon-fed forests” of the Great Bear. Tweet this

But these iconic and important coastal carnivores face harm. Many of the pressures that challenge most of life’s biodiversity in today’s world, particularly large carnivores, likewise imperil Kermode bears, grizzlies, wolves, and other carnivores of the Great Bear Rainforest. Habitat destruction in the pursuit of extractive forestry, mining, and tanker traffic expansions put the homes and marine and terrestrial prey that these species rely on at risk. Further human-induced risks put direct pressure on these individuals and species – namely in the form of human-wildlife conflict and the commercial and recreational trophy hunt. Both forms of trophy hunting of grizzly bears were recently banned in British Columbia (hunting for bears for cultural reasons remains legal) in a stunning victory for conservation advocates and coastal First Nations alike.

A black Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), emerges successfully from an early-fall fishing attempt. Photo credit: Philip Charles.

This recent closure of the grizzly trophy hunt by a new BC government, however, was not driven by concerns of numerical sustainability of the hunt or bear populations (despite evidence of considerable uncertainty in management performance). Rather, the government realized that killing inedible species for trophy was no longer socially economically, and culturally sustainable. Poll data have long shown opposition to the hunt by most of BC society. Grizzly bears are also far more valuable economically as subjects of ecotourism than as targets of the trophy hunt. Additionally and importantly, the trophy hunt had contradicted Indigenous laws in coastal BC. In the traditional territory of First Nations (the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Wuikinuxv, and Nuxalk), historical and modern laws unequivocally ban the hunt. In this capacity, Coastal First Nations have led, and continue to lead, the way towards conservation and carnivore management. For these Nations, the laws that govern the closing of the trophy hunt are founded in relationships of reciprocity and respect with non-human animals. 

A grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) peers curiously forward, pausing in the process of devouring a salmon. Photo credit: Philip Charles.

Despite this game-changer for the lives of individual grizzly bears, the trophy hunt for other coastal carnivores remains open, and grizzlies and other bears are not secure from future changes to government policy. In the face of political uncertainty, bold ideas are required to safeguard these animals. One means to permanently protect coastal carnivores is through the purchase of commercial hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest. By purchasing the trophy-hunting guide outfitter rights to thousands of kilometres of land in the Great Bear Rainforest, Coastal First Nations and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have joined forces to permanently extinguish opportunities for guided trophy hunting and respect First Nations sovereignty and authority in these large swaths of land. Simply, they are buying the rights to shoot coastal carnivores, but only shooting with cameras.

Coastal First Nations and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have joined forces to permanently extinguish opportunities for guided trophy hunting and respect First Nations sovereignty and authority in these large swaths of land. Tweet this

As a Conservation Scientist whose work occurs in partnership with coastal First Nations, I’m keenly aware of the scientific and cultural logic of conserving coastal carnivores. Having shared space and time with these animals, I’m also personally motivated to do what I can to help them thrive. I’ve now teamed up with colleagues to support fundraising efforts aimed towards the acquisition of hunting tenures and, thus, permanent closures to trophy hunting. I’m lucky to be surrounded by scientists willing to put in the extra mile (sometimes, literally) to apply our shared research and values.

With collective political will, continuation of conservation efforts, broader public education, and the tangible, permanent solutions generated through the conservation-oriented purchase of commercial hunting tenures, we may see him, and other coastal carnivores, permanently safe from the hunt.Tweet this

As the golden grizzly club awakes from his après le diner slumber, he looks to the forest with concern. He’s listening for one of several giant grizzly males who may pose him harm. For now, however, the hardships he faces in the Great Bear Rainforest will not include the reach of the trophy hunt. With collective political will, continuation of conservation efforts, broader public education, and the tangible, permanent solutions generated through the conservation-oriented purchase of commercial hunting tenures, we may see him, and other coastal carnivores, permanently safe from the hunt.

If you’d like to help permanently end hunting of wolves, bears, and other carnivores in the Great Bear Rainforest through purchasing vast tracts of hunting tenures, please consider donating to the buyout efforts.

The sun sets slowly on a foggy evening near the Koeye River, draping sea-birds seeking forage fish in shades of gold and black. Photo credit: Lauren Eckert.

Originally posted 2018-08-16 21:18:21.

Strange Lion Behaviour Defies the Textbooks

The lion prides in the greater Kruger National Park have a habit of surprising people, but this time they really turned what we know about the species on its head.

The textbooks tell us how lions should behave. But in truth, their expected actions are often completely disproven by what we see in the field. This is what happened over the last few months .

The Manyeleti Game Reserve, which borders the Kruger National Park in South Africa, has numerous prides of lions come and go between the reserve and Kruger. There are two prides whose territories overlap in the area. These two prides are The Mbiri Pride and the Nharu Pride.

The Nharu Pride resides to the south of the lodge, and the Mbiri Pride to the west of the lodge. They have had many confrontations with each other, normally with the Mbiri females retreating with the younger cubs.

However, at a recent sighting with the Mbiri Pride, a lone lion was lurking about 50m away from the pride. The four Mbiri females were growling viciously at this lone lion. But we couldn’t understand which lion this was?

Looking closer, it was clear that the young male as one of the Nharu young males. Why was this young male lying near another competing pride, one that has a direct territorial advantage over another?

Stanger things

As the sightings of the Mbiri Pride went on, this young male moved closer and closer to the Mbiri Pride until one day he was feeding off the same carcass as the rest of the pride. It now looked as if the Mbiri Pride had now eventually accepted this young male. This is not something that you will find in textbooks about lion behaviour. It’s something totally unique.

Then, just last week, an incredible thing happened.

The Mbiri Pride and Nharu Pride were lying just 700m apart from each other. We were sure that the two prides would fight with each other during the night, as the Nharu’s were deep inside Mbiri territory. As we went to bed that night, we listened to the distant roars of the Nharu Pride echoing into the wilderness. But nothing came from the Mbiris!

The next morning, excited to see what we could find, we got up and went straight to where we had left the Mbiris, but there was nothing there! Then, as we got out to begin tracking them, we heard the distinct growling of lions. Who was this and what was happening?

We approached the area and found the incredible sight of 18 lions feed of a large male giraffe carcass. First of all, it is a incredible feat for lions to kill a giraffe, let alone a huge male giraffe. After some discussion with the trackers, it looked as though the Mbiri Pride had chased the male giraffe over the uneven and wet ground and the giraffe had slipped to its death.

But back to the lions; who were the 18 lions on the carcass?

Was it the hugely powerful Birmingham Pride from the north consisting of close to 20 individuals? No, it was the Mbiri Pride together with the Nharu pride feeding on the giraffe. How was this possible? Two separate prides, who normally compete viciously against each other, now feeding together on a large carcass.

This is the first time in my career that I have seen this happen.

Both prides had not eaten very much, and the large male giraffe was diminishing very quickly. After the first night, the hyenas began to move in on the carcass, making a lot of noise but not troubling the 18 lions that were submerged in the their giraffe meat.

The Males Arrive

The three Giraffe/Avoca males, who were lying approximately 5km from the giraffe carcass, must have picked up the scent of the carcass. It’s quite incredible that these animals can smell at such a distance.

The three males moved directly towards the carcass, and it took these males about two hours to cover at a walking pace. As they neared the area, they began to roar, and this roaring gave their position away. Luckily, this gave time for the other lions at the carcass enough time to run for their lives.

Why? These three males are not the fathers of either the Mbiris or the Nharus, and have already killed numerous Mbiri Cubs. The three males trotted towards the carcass, and took control of the third-hand giraffe. At this point, we left and headed home for dinner.

The Final Act

We woke up at first light to make sure we missed nothing of this incredible ordeal. On arrival at the carcass, to our amazement, we found 21 lions feeding on the carcass. The makeup of the lions on the carcass was 3 Giraffe/Avoca males, twelve Mbiris and six Nharus.

This was a sighting to behold!

Having just informed anyone who would listen that you would NEVER see the Mbiri pride and Nharu Pride together because they compete with each other, we had to swallow our words when these three males (that have killed five of the Mbiri cubs prior to this) started feeding on the same carcass next to these huge males.

How do you explain this? Some things in nature are truly stranger than fiction. When you study lions, you are told in no uncertain terms that different prides will always compete with each, and fight each other for that territory to the death. We were also told that different males who have not fathered the cubs, will kill any other cubs in the areas if they can.

But it did not happen this way in the Manyeleti.

It is funny how nature always defies what we think we know!

Originally posted 2018-06-12 20:54:30.

Sustainable shrimp?

With the industrial fishermen, for instance, WWF has introduced a system of electronic logbooks, so that captains can keep track of their catch histories and fishing efforts on cell phones and to timely self-report this information to managers, improving this way fisheries monitor and catch traceability.

As part of a model artisanal fishery, locals have erected a zig-zagging line of hundreds of wooden posts in a shallow finger of the Gulf known as Bajo Negro. Just beneath the water’s surface are a series of V-shaped nets, which funnel the shrimp into mesh bags, or bolsos, when the tidal waters rush past.

Julián Marcial Ponguillo, a leader of one of the mangrove communities that sets out these traps, says that they have been doing this for decades. Throughout these years, government attention has been scarce. Bajo Negro is a community of 1,000 people with dusty streets and crumbling buildings, and a lack of schools, electricity, running water, and flushing toilets. Every trip to buy groceries or harvest their catch puts them at risk of robbery in waters teeming with pirates. Yet when the government proposed relocating the community, they refused. The new location would be too far to ever catch shrimp or gather crabs from the mangrove forest they manage and protect. “They like the life here,” Marcial told me.

Although fisheries regulators have never tried to stop the fishermen from setting out their bags, the communities never had legal permission to sell their catch. In 2016, WWF launched a pilot project at Bajo Negro — one of 11 Bajos (“Shallows”) in the Gulf — to provide the government the data it would need to regulate the shrimp fishery and prove that the communities could do this on their own.

One concern raised by the owners of industrial trawlers has been that the bolseros were targeting juveniles and preventing them from reaching the deeper ocean waters. WWF helped create the first rules for the fishery, limiting the number of bags at Bajo Negro and requiring the fishery to close down for six months from November to April.

This year, the program was handed off to the government. About once a week, Rosa Garcia of Ecuador’s National Fisheries Institute receives information on the weight of the catch and the number of active bolsos. The bolseros also send her cellphone photos, showing bycatch in their net bags. So far, she says, both the bolseros and the industrial fishermen are catching shrimp of the same size. “I think they are doing it in a good way,” she says of the fishery.

Fisheries regulators are thinking about the replication of the same management scheme for the rest of the Bajos of Gulf of Guayaquil. Pablo Guerrero, Fisheries Director for WWF Ecuador and Latin America and the Caribbean, says “It’s not just a matter of conserving the stock, but the livelihoods of these people. Those people depend on the pomada and therefore, they are willing to cooperate with its good management and conservation.”

And, in fact, the pomada — and other creatures in the Gulf — depend on the people. While we were out on the water with Marcial, he pointed towards a shrimp farm on the coast where illegal burning of the mangrove was taking place. He vowed to report them, as he always does.

Originally posted 2018-11-14 13:00:00.

Cultivating sustainable livelihoods and environmental resiliency in Mozambique

In a small village along the northern coast of Mozambique, a remote region where electricity is scarce and roads are nearly non-existent, a group of mostly women in colorful traditional dress are seated in a circle on the floor of a community building. One by one, each person stands and walks to the middle of the circle, where she hands a bill or two to another villager—the congregation’s de facto bank teller. “Two hundred,” says one woman, then waits for confirmation that the transaction has been recorded.

At first, this modest gathering doesn’t seem to have much to do with conservation. But here, in Serema, in Mozambique’s Primeiras e Segundas region, villagers are taking part in a savings and loan association that’s revolutionizing how they manage their financial and natural resources.

Primeiras e Segundas is one of the poorest regions of one of the world’s poorest countries, where 70% of the population relies on natural resources to live. For many, that means life is lived on the edge—often just one monsoon or bad harvest away from economic ruin. Families must work hard to keep food on the table and generate enough income to pay for essentials they can’t produce, such as medicine or school fees.

Along the coast, most households rely on a combination of fishing and farming to survive, eating much of what they produce and selling what they can. But overfishing and commercial fishing vessels have depleted fish stocks closer to land, which over time has forced villagers to fish farther and farther out to sea in their rickety, unreliable “dhows.” Agriculture provides an alternative to fishing, but yields are often low and climate change is shifting weather patterns in unpredictable ways, making farming increasingly difficult.

As pressures on ecosystems grow, people urgently need alternative sources of income beyond fishing and farming.

Originally posted 2018-08-16 12:00:00.


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