New rhino poaching numbers out of South Africa show a small decrease from the previous year, but the death toll remains perilously high.
The South African Department of Environmental Affairs announced that poachers killed 1,028 rhinos in 2017, down from 1,054 in 2016. Officials recorded a record loss of 1,215 rhinos in 2014.
Much of the poaching has shifted to rhino populations living outside of South Africa’s Kruger National Park to places where the risk of getting caught is lower and the benefits are greater.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing an increase in poaching numbers for other species in Kruger. Elephant losses grew to 67 in 2017 from 46 in 2016.
“Wildlife trafficking remains a pervasive threat to rhinos, and increasingly to other species such as elephants and lions which bring tourists and jobs to our important protected areas,” said Dr. Jo Shaw, African rhino lead for WWF International. “These crimes also affect people living around our parks by exposing them to criminals connected to international trafficking syndicates.”
Despite the still dangerously high rhino poaching numbers, the South African government has made some progress in tackling the issue. It has increased the number of convictions for illegal activities relating to rhinos, especially higher up within the criminal syndicates behind the poaching. And it’s working closely with communities to get them involved in the legal wildlife economy, including ecotourism.
WWF is supporting and experimenting with community-based approaches to addressing wildlife trafficking and building relationships between key protected areas and people who live among or close to Africa’s wildlife. We’re also providing equipment and scientific support for rhino protection and safely moving rhinos to more secure areas where their numbers can grow.
Humpback whale lunge-feeding on menhaden in New York waters. Photo: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale
One commercial fishing company is cruising off the shores of New York, taking whales’ food.
One year ago we reported that small, herring-like fish called menhaden, a major food source for whales, dolphins and large fishes, were making a comeback in New York waters. But then, last year, fisheries managers decided to increase the menhaden catch limit by 8 percent, or 216,000 metric tons of fish—allowing hundreds of millions more menhaden to be caught off the U.S. East Coast each year.
Why? One fishing company won out over whales, dolphins, fish and thousands of recreational fishers and whale watchers. As Safina Center Fellow Paul Greenberg has prolifically discussed and has covered in his new book, The Omega Principle, menhaden and other small, oil-rich fish are caught by major corporations in huge quantities, only to be ground up and turned into fertilizers, aquaculture feed, human health supplements and pet food. This creates a situation where there are fewer fish for marine animals to eat, and where fish caught are not used to directly feed humans. It is one of the least efficient ways to use fish.
Since the catch limit was increased, menhaden fishers in waters off New York have become especially active, pulling up enormous quantities of fish, reports Paul Sieswerda, executive director at Gotham Whale, a New York City whale research and advocacy organization. And Sieswerda says that one company—Omega Protein Corporation—is pulling up extra-large quantities of these important fish.
One of Omega Protein’s ships catching menhaden just outside New York waters where humpback whales and other marine animals feed. Photo: Gotham Whale
We recently spoke to Sieswerda to learn more about the current situation in New York’s waters and what needs to be done now to protect these important fish from exploitation by companies like Omega Protein.
Safina Center: What are menhaden, and why is menhaden conservation a focus of your organization?
Paul Sieswerda: Menhaden, called “bunker” in New York (and by many other local names along the U.S. seaboard from Maine to Texas) is a bone- and oil-filled herring-like fish, 10 to 12 inches in length. It has also been called “the most important fish in the sea,” by H. Bruce Franklin, the author of a book by the same name. Virtually all predators in the sea, except humans, eat menhaden directly. The whales of New York City feed directly on these fish and are the reason for the comeback of marine mammals to our area.
SC: Why is menhaden so important for the health of whales? Do any other marine animals rely on menhaden for survival?
PS: Whales come to northern latitudes to feed all summer before returning south to warmer waters to mate and give birth. They must acquire all their fat reserves while feeding here in the north because they do not feed during their winters in the tropics. The menhaden are at the bottom of the food pyramid feeding on algae and zooplankton. They provide food for sport fish like sharks, bluefish, striped bass, seabirds and anything with a mouth big enough to take them at each stage of their growth.
SC: Why do people catch menhaden?
PS: There is a local fishery for bait. Fishermen jig them individually for single hook sport fishing. Local fishers net them as bait for their traps and to ship to Maine for the lobster fishery. And the Omega Protein Corporation nets them on an industrial scale for the “reduction fishery” where they are turned into animal feed and additives for a myriad of products. This is a single company industry, operating out of Reedville, Virginia, which was recently bought by the Cooke Seafood, a Canadian aquaculture and seafood conglomerate.
SC: What threats does the Omega fleet pose in terms of conserving menhaden?
PS: The Omega Fleet uses a very efficient method of fishing. The fleet consists of 10 large “factory” ships close to 200 feet long, some of which can transport two boats of about 40 feet each, filled with nets. These boats ply out the nets around the menhaden school, guided by spotter planes that also are used to find the menhaden. The purse seine net surrounds the entire school, closing off the bottom giving the fish no escape. The nets are then brought next to the larger ships and vacuumed into the holds until they are filled and returned to Virginia.
Rinse and repeat…. This method cleans the local area of bunker much like clear-cut loggers reap the forests of the northwest. There is nothing left for grazing whales.
SC: What actions does Gotham Whale seek to take to alleviate the threats posed by the Omega fleet?
PS: Gotham Whale is trying to raise public awareness because the legislative, regulation, and policy approach is not working. The limit of the total allowable catch by industrial fishers is, in our opinion, too high. The State of New York, which prohibits menhaden fishing without a permit, only extends three miles off the coast, which is barely a stone’s skip compared to the enormous area where fishing is allowed. While we are supporting the efforts to improve these restrictions, the fish could be gone before any action takes place. We hope to influence the company itself, through public relations or investor direction.
SC: What can readers do to help or take action?
PS: Gotham Whale is developing an action plan to support better regulation and public awareness, to try to influence this and other companies. Please stay tuned for updates by following Gotham Whale on our website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Help us fight the fight!
Another Humpback whale lunge-feeding on menhaden in New York waters. Photo: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale
Aaaaaand we’re off! As I had hoped, it looks like we are having a baby boom this year, as we did in 2015. This means that the mother whales who came here in 2015 to have returned to calve in the same place. We have two things we didn’t have back in 2015: 1.) 75 trained fishermen from Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa and Barra de Potosí leading the way for all regional fishermen to give the mothers and calves space as they nurse and rest in the waves by the beach, and gather for their long, dangerous migration north. 2.) A drone to capture mesmerizing footage of baby whales, resting on their moms’ heads at the surface of the sea, nursing and playing. With this technology, we can confirm that the calves here really are tiny — and very likely born here, as some look like they are just a few days old!
We jumped right into our training programs and school programs this year, as we have big ambitions for both.
This week we completed a two-day training program with 40 fishermen from Barra de Potosí, Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. For me the best part was the end of day one, when everyone got in a big circle and had a discussion about how they can work together to support a culture of safe whale-watching in the region beyond the trained group and a healthier ocean.
The fishery has never been worse and I have never been more optimistic that we can recover it, based on the conversations I heard in the room two days ago.
Fishermen attending a safe whale watch training program
Kids are clamoring to get out to meet the whales this year, as the whales are giving tantalizing performances in front of the primary school in Barra de Potosí, making it hard for the students to focus on anything else. Last Saturday, six kids marched up to me, demanding that they get to come with us on the water. I told them they would need to bring me permission notes from their moms, arrange a boat, and be at my house at 8 a.m. sharp if they wanted to go out. I really didn’t think they’d come through.
Sure enough, bright and early, there they were, 6 munchkins, lunch bags and permission slips in hand, all dressed for a day at the sea. They FREAKED OUT when we dropped the hydrophone in the water and heard the whales singing right below. (They had heard it in the library during our workshops, but to experience it in in real life was a whole other thing!).
As we headed back to Barra after our adventure at sea, they threw their arms around each other compadre-style to ride the waves back into the lagoon. My heart grew three sizes that day.
Kid compadres on the boat heading back to Barra de Potosí after a whale watch
I’m so grateful to get to focus on this work of healing the ocean, supporting the wellbeing of the village and inspiring people to fall in love with marine mammals and the sea. Next up: 200 more hours of data collection, a second training program, ten more schools, ten village events, and a whole lot of coconut water, fresh from the source!
Gray wolves, and bison, in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
Currently the gray wolf is listed as an endangered species in all states where it exists, except Alaska, which is home to a much larger population. Across the lower 48 states, hunting of gray wolves is illegal, though federal agents kill wolves deemed a danger to human lives and livestock. Usually, this happens after a hungry wolf looking for an easy meal kills a rancher’s cow or sheep.
But wolves outside Alaska may lose their legal protections by the year’s end, rendering them open targets to anyone who wants to kill them: Last week the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—the governing agency tasked with regulating wolf populations across the United States—has recently begun reviewing the conservation status of the gray wolf across the lower 48 as part of the Endangered Species Act.
The big question federal officials are trying to answer is: Have America’s gray wolves—once virtually wiped out by hunters but recently supported by conservation efforts—rebounded enough to make them a nuisance, and thus, fair game for hunters once again by removing them from the Endangered Species List?
“Working closely with our federal, state, tribal and local partners, we will assess the currently listed gray wolf entities in the lower 48 states using the best available scientific information,” says Gavin Shire, FWS chief of public affairs. Shire adds that the federal government will open up a public commenting period if his agency creates a gray wolf delisting proposal.
Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
FWS proposed delisting gray wolves in all of the lower 48 in 2012, after successfully removing them from the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes, allowing hunters to begin killing wolves there. In these regions, gray wolves became plentiful enough to warrant removal from the Endangered Species List, according to FWS. However gray wolves were shortly returned to Endangered Species status in the Western Great Lakes after FWS lost a legal case brought by animal welfare organizations, led by the Humane Society of the United States. The court found FWS made administrative mistakes when making its delisting decision in that region, declaring its decision making “”arbitrary and capricious.”
Shire says FWS vows to “use the best available science in our determination of the wolf’s current status.” If the gray wolf population is found to have recovered past regionally targeted goals across its range. According to FWS, more than 3,700 gray wolves now live across the lower 48 states—from Wyoming to Oregon Idaho to Montana to Wisconsin. While all gray wolves experienced extreme population loss due to hunting persecution during the 20th century, one gray wolf—the Mexican gray wolf—was particularly hard hit. The subspecies went extinct in the wild and was reintroduced over the past few decades into eastern Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Only about 300 Mexican gray wolves roam today.
Gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
While the federal government equates the surpassing of gray wolf recovery goals to a green light for hunting, predator conservation advocates say there’s no number of wolves that could ever be enough to merit delisting these large carnivores because they are so ecologically important.
“Wolves are a key engine of evolution for terrestrial ecosystems, helping to hone the instincts and enhance the protections that prey animals develop over generations,” says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that supports maintaining the gray wolf’s Endangered Species status. “The population is still small and vulnerable.”
Robinson says the carcasses of animals wolves kill provide food for scavenger animals like bears, bald eagles and badgers. They keep check on populations of grazers, like elk and deer, allowing plant life to thrive in sensitive ecosystems that provide habitat to other animals. Their presence also scares off coyotes and thus increases populations of the species coyotes hunt, like ground-dwelling birds and pronghorn fawns.
Gray wolves share an elk carcass with ravens in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
“We stand to lose these benefits to other animals where wolves are recovering, and we would never experience the enhancement of natural diversity in the habitats where wolves could recover, since delisting would bring a halt to wolf recovery,” Robinson says. Besides wolves’ role as a key part of natural ecosystems, science tells us that killing predator animals, including wolves, can actually lead to an uptick in livestock deaths. As we have noted in this op-ed for the Cape Cod Times, this is common among social predators like coyotes and wolves after a shakeup in pack dynamics, such as the death a pack member. Wolves are complex social animals who rely on one another to live, and the death of even one member of a pack can reduce the entire pack’s ability to survive. What’s more, effective nonlethal deterrent techniques exist to keep wolves and other predators from killing livestock and interacting with humans.
Will FWS declare it open season for wolves across the lower 48 by the end of the year? Time, and science, will tell.
Wild Bird Trust present the Top 25 “Wild Birds of the Night”. Nocturnal birds are often lesser known and seldom seen. They tend to be drab since in low light there is little benefit to having brightly coloured plumage. They also have larger eyes than diurnal species which allows maximum light to penetrate to their retina. This week we present a variety of nocturnal birds from owls, to nightjars, patoos and night-herons. Thank you to all the dedicated photographers who have allowed us a window of opportunity into the lives of these secretive birds. If you would like to submit photographs for next week’s Top 25, watch our Facebook page for the announcement of the theme and then upload your image with species, photographer and location as the caption.
The Antillean Nighthawk is native to the Caribbean islands. In autumn they leave these areas, however it is not known where they spend the winter (Sonia Longoria)A beautiful little Northern Saw-whet Owl in Pennsylvania, USA (Melissa Penta)The Barn Owl occurs on almost every continent. Their screeching, eerie call is rather distinctive (Dr Malay Mandal)Brown Fish Owls mainly hunt at waterbodies at night, catching fish, crabs and frogs (Ramesh Aithal)A Buffy Fish Owl photographed in Pasir Ris, Singapore (Ananth Ramasamy)Most Eurasian Eagle Owls are dark, like this one photographed in England. However the one sub-species in Russia is much lighter, this is no doubt an adaptation, to make them less visible in snowy habitats. During the summer in Russia when it is light for most of the night, these owls will hunt during daylight, making this camouflage all the more necessary (Edwin Godinho)A sleepy Grey Nightjar perched on a tree in Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, India (Suranjan Mukherjee)The female Indian Eagle Owl does not build a nest but simply lays her eggs in a scrape on the ground which makes them vulnerable to predation by civets and mongooses (Vipul Trivedi)The Asian Barred Owlet is fairly common across south-east Asia (Shivayogi Kanthi)A Common Pauraque snoozing in Texas, USA. These birds occur from Texas down to Argentina (Melissa Penta)Nocturnal birds, like this Indian Nightjar, tend to have large eyes which allows maximum light onto the retina in low light conditions (Vinayak Yardi)Spotted Owlets sometimes hunt insects near electric lights (Sandipan Ghosh)Owls and nightjars are what come to mind when we think of nocturnal birds, however others like this Indian Stone-curlew are also most active at night (Udaya Kumar)These small Jungle Owlets, stand at 20 centimetres high, they eat mainly insects (Ajay Singh Rajawat)A Long-eared Owl preening in Novara, Italy (Carlo Galliani)The Mottled Wood-owl is endemic to the woodlands of India (Soumitra Ghosh)The Black-crowned Night Heron becomes active at dusk, when they can often be heard calling (Mainak Ray)The Eurasian Scops Owl breeds in Eurasia before migrating to central Africa for the winter (Antonis Tsaknakis)The Short-eared Owl can be found in the Americas, Eurasia and Africa (Gaurav Budhiraja)Spot-bellied Eagle Owls have magnificent ear tufts (Vinayak Yardi)A male and female Sri Lankan frogmouth side by side. The rufous bird is the female (Soumitra Ghosh)A Tawny Owl photographed in Surrey, England (Edwin Godinho)A magnificent Ural Owl in Finland (Anthony Roberts)The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is the largest owl in Africa. This one was photographed in Tarangire, Tanzania (Sharon Templin)An amazingly camouflaged Common Potoo in Honduras (Christopher Ciccone)
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!!