Category Archives: NEWS

India mourns loss of ‘Supermom’ tigress, bids emotional farewell

The tigress was known as Collarwali in Hindi for being the first feline to be radio-collared at Pench Tiger Reserve in 2008 [Reuters]

India’s most famous tigress, known as “Supermom” for giving birth to 29 cubs during her lifetime, has died, triggering widespread grief among Indians.

The tigress died of complications due to old age at the Pench Tiger Reserve in central India on Saturday evening, park chief Ashok Kumar Mishra said on Monday, adding the big cat was more than 16 years old.

She was also known as Collarwali in Hindi, as she was the first feline to be radio-collared at the reserve in 2008.

“It is rare for a tigress to give birth to 29 cubs, including five in one go, and successfully raise 25, this perhaps earned her the title of Supermom among wildlife lovers,” he said.

The beautiful, graceful cat was a darling of visitors to the reserve and often described as the most photographed tiger in the world, local media reported.

Visuals showed several locals attending the cremation of the tigress, which was done in accordance with Hindu rites. Some held garlands while others folded their hands, paying their respects to Collarwali.

Social media were abuzz with Indians posting tributes and bidding farewell to the beloved Collarwali.

“Tribute to the ‘Super Tigress Mom’…The forests of Madhya Pradesh will always resonate with the roar of the cubs of the ‘Queen of Pench Tiger Reserve’,” state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said on Twitter.

Wildlife experts said Collarwali played a key role in maintaining the tiger population of the reserve, which reportedly has more than 130 tigers.

India is home to about 75 percent of the world’s tiger population and its conservation efforts have been fairly successful, with a 2018 census counting 2,967 big cats.



Greater Mekong primates struggle to cling on amid persistent threats: Report

By Carolyn Cowan

  • The Greater Mekong region is home to 44 species of non-human primates, including gibbons, lorises, langurs, macaques and snub-nosed monkeys, several of which were first described within the last few years.
  • Habitat loss and hunting driven by the wildlife trade and consumption have driven many of the region’s primates to the brink of extinction, with many species now only existing as tiny populations in isolated, fragmented pockets of habitat.
  • Experts say controlling the illegal wildlife trade is complicated by the presence of legal markets for primates, often for use in biomedical research.
  • Despite the challenges, conservation action at local levels is achieving results for some primate species in the region while also enhancing livelihoods and ecosystem services for local communities.

When scientists described the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) as a species new to science in 2020, it was already staring extinction in the face. Fewer than 260 of the fluffy gray leaf-eating monkeys are estimated to remain across four precariously isolated patches of forest on Myanmar’s central plains, where their survival is threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

And the Popa langur is not alone in its plight. Some 90% of non-human primate species in the Greater Mekong region are listed as threatened with extinction (vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered) on the IUCN Red List, according to a report published earlier this month by WWF.

Deforestation, habitat degradation, and hunting to supply the wildlife trade have driven many of the region’s gibbons, lorises, langurs, macaques and snub-nosed monkeys to the brink of extinction, the report says. It incorporates the latest updates to the IUCN species assessments, in which one-quarter of the primate species in the region were bumped to a higher category of threat.

A camera trap captures a Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) in the central plains in Myanmar. Its facial markings are distinct from its closest relative, the Phayre’s langur. Photo courtesy of WWF Myanmar

Of the 44 species of primates in the Greater Mekong region, which spans Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, 12 are considered critically endangered. The global population of some endemic species are miniscule: for example, fewer than 100 Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus avunculus) exist, exclusively in a tiny patch of limestone karst forest in Vietnam; and a surviving population of no more than 140 Cao-Vit black-crested gibbons (Nomascus nasutus) clings on in a wisp of forest on the China-Vietnam border.

Meanwhile, roughly half of species are endangered, including skywalker hoolock gibbons (Hoolock tianxing), a species that was only described in 2017 from eastern Myanmar and southwestern China, and pygmy slow lorises (Nycticebus pygmaeus), which are captured and traded as pets or killed for use in traditional medicines.

Primates are also at risk from human pathogens, like the coronavirus, that can be transmitted from people to animals, the report says, a threat that increases as habitats are further degraded and fragmented, forcing humans and wildlife into closer contact.

Skywalker hoolock gibbon
An endangered skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), a species first described in 2017, photographed in Yunnan Province, China. Photo courtesy of Magnus Lundgren / Wild Wonders of China / WWF

Trade lacks oversight

While most primates follow an arboreal lifestyle, enabling them to avoid the millions of snares that litter the region’s forests at ground level, many species still experience severe hunting pressure, according to Yoganand Kandasamy, regional lead for wildlife and wildlife crime at WWF Greater Mekong and co-author of the WWF report. This results in “empty forest syndrome,” whereby protected areas and forests exist, but are devoid of animals.

The motives behind hunting range from live capture of gibbons and lorises for tourism and the pet trade, to killing for food at a subsistence level and harvesting for body parts to use in traditional medicines.

Alongside habitat loss, the wildlife trade — both legal and illegal — severely threatens primates in the Greater Mekong: a 2017 study found that between 2005 and 2014, more than 450,000 primates were traded globally, with Asian species accounting for 93% of the trade.

A high proportion of trade in the region is domestic, says the report, but lack of formal monitoring and regulation and an increasing proportion of online transactions hamper experts’ attempts to gauge legality and impacts on wild populations.

“Concerned people mostly focus on international trade that is governed by CITES” — the international convention to ensure commercial wildlife trade doesn’t lead to species extinctions — “but trade within national borders is a huge threat and overlooked because we don’t have access to the data, we don’t know what the intensity of it is, and there are no national databases available,” Yoganand said.

In addition, there is a booming legal trade in captive-bred primates for biomedical, toxicological and pharmaceutical research. In the Greater Mekong region, long-tailed macaque “farms” in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam export thousands of animals to research facilities in such regions as China, Europe, Japan and the U.S each year.

Although most of this international trade is documented through CITES and might look legitimate on the surface, “there are potentially huge illegalities, threats and risks associated with it,” according to Yoganand. In particular, the legal trade impacts wild populations since weak law enforcement and transparency enable traffickers to pass off wild-caught animals as captive-bred.

“Legal trade doesn’t mean it is sustainable, it doesn’t mean it is ethical, it doesn’t mean it takes care of animal welfare, or takes into account the risk of disease transmission,” Yoganand said, adding that regulatory gray areas that continue to facilitate exploitation of wild animals need to be clarified. “There are still a lot of shortfalls that need to be fixed, including monitoring protocols, independent checks, ensuring there is no laundering, better enforcement and credible non-detrimental findings.”

Lao langur
An endangered Lao Langur (Trachypithecus laotum), being held in a facility in Lak Sao near the Vietnamese border. Photo courtesy of WWF-Greater Mekong

Targeted action

Yoganand said action at the local level has huge potential to reverse the trajectory for many of the region’s species. The fact that some species are very range-restricted means conservation efforts can be focused, local communities can be engaged, and limited budgets can go further, Yoganand said. “There’s been very good success stories of collaboration with local communities and successful conservation — the primates benefit and also the local communities get benefits out of it.”

For Paul Garber, a primatologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the alarming global decline in primate numbers is a wake-up call. When Garber and his colleagues published a review of the world’s primates in 2017, 60% of species were threatened with extinction. “Now, just five years later, that figure is up to about 66%, and I would argue that is still an underestimate; many species are data-deficient,” he told Mongabay in a recent interview.

Garber said corporations, governments and buyers in wealthy consumer nations must take responsibility for their complicity in the devastating conversion of natural habitats around the world that is driving biodiversity loss.

As our closest living relatives, primates afford critical insights into human evolution, biology, behavior and emerging diseases, Garber said. They also play a crucial role in maintaining the health of tropical forests through pollination and seed dispersal and as prey for top predators. Given that they’re among the first animal groups to be lost when ecosystems fall out of balance, they also serve as important indicators of overall ecosystem health.

As Garber describes it, primates “are the canary in the coal mine.” While we continue to degrade, pollute and destroy natural habitats, we will lose primates in the short term, but over time those ecosystems will become unusable to humans too. “Primates are foreshadowing what will happen to us if we don’t change what we’re doing,” he said.

Banner image: A gibbon photographed in the Dawna Tenasserim forest landscape between Thailand and Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Christy Williams / WWF Myanmar


Estrada, A., Garber, P. A., Rylands, A. B., Roos, C., Fernandez-Duque, E., Di Fiore, A., … Li, B. (2017). Impending extinction crisis of the world’s primates: Why primates matter. Science Advances3(1). doi:10.1126/sciadv.1600946

Vietnam: Six tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales seized at Tien Sa port

By Vietnam Plus

Six tonnes of smuggled ivory tusks and pangolin scales have been discovered in a container at Tien Sa Port in the central city of Da Nang.

Customs officials in collaboration with relevant forces on January 11 decided to inspect what had been declared as cashew nut imported from Nigeria based on suspicious signs about the goods, resulting in the finding.

The smuggled goods, including 456 kg of ivory and 6.2 tonnes of pangolin scales, were on the list of goods banned from trading under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The case is under further investigation.

In July last year, more than 3.2 tonnes of rhino horns and bones of rare animals were found in containers at Da Nang Port.

In March 2019, customs officials in Da Nang also seized 9.1 tonnes of smuggled ivory tusks.

Why Hong Kong’s ivory ban is not enough to end demand or save elephants

By Jovy Chan

  • Banning the ivory trade without addressing the demand for ivory products only forces the trade underground and makes it even harder to stop
  • Hong Kong needs to ban the sale of antique ivory and remove demand before it can give elephants the protection they deserve

On December 31, 2021, Hong Kong at last officially banned the sale of elephant ivory. The culmination of a three-year-long process, the ban prohibits its import, re-export and commercial possession, with a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) fine.

The commercial possession of all ivory except pre-1925 antique ivory is now completely banned. While we celebrate this milestone, we also need to pause to ask a question: is this ban enough to stop illegal wildlife trafficking?

Hong Kong has a long, dark and justified reputation for being a hub for the illegal trade in endangered and threatened species. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city gained notoriety as one of the largest importers of elephant tusks.

For decades, it was a well-known ivory-carving centre, had a thriving retail trade and was a leading re-exporter of both worked and raw ivory tusks.

In 1989, an international trade ban introduced by the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) led to a decline in the ivory trade in Hong Kong and across the Asia-Pacific region, though no specific bans were enacted here.

This decline proved to be short-lived. As China’s economy began to boom in the early 2000s, so, too, did the demand for ivory products.

With ivory being a traditional symbol of wealth and high status in many Asian cultures, particularly China, the ivory trade flourished hand in hand with China’s GDP. A surge of mainland Chinese tourists reignited Hong Kong’s local ivory industry, leading to large flows of both legal and illegal smuggled ivory entering and leaving the city.

Between 2010 and 2020, Hong Kong Customs seized more than HK$1 billion in trafficked wildlife products, including nearly 34 tonnes of ivory. In 2017, the authorities confiscated a record 7.5 tonnes of ivory, a case that has remained unprosecuted for five years.

In another case from 2016, an undercover officer purchased a pair of ivory chopsticks in an arts and crafts shop in Sheung Wan which were proven to be post-Cites ivory.

These cases, two of many, illustrate that even with an international trade ban in place, demand for ivory in Hong Kong remains high, with traders easily disguising post-Cites ivory as legal ivory and selling it.

In 2018, Hong Kong finally enacted a three-phase ban on elephant ivory. The first two phases banned the import and re-export of all elephant hunting trophies and all ivory, including pre-Cities. These have been in place since 2018, with the third phase – the closure of local ivory markets – coming into full effect at the end of 2021.

The first two phases did little to put a dent in the demand for ivory in Hong Kong. Smuggling continued unabated, as evidenced by the 2019 seizure of 2.1 tonnes of elephant ivory. This reveals a hard truth: banning the ivory trade alone, without addressing the demand for ivory products, only forces the trade underground and makes it even harder to trace and stop.

As of November 2021, there were still 47.1 tonnes of ivory left in the Hong Kong market. As an owner of an ivory art and craft store recently stated, most sales in the past came from either exports or tourism. Now, with the export ban and vastly reduced tourism, sales have dropped sharply, which is why so much ivory remained unsold by the end of 2021.

Now the danger is that traders might try to sell their remaining stock on the black market, passing it off as antique ivory. For most people who lack proper equipment, it is impossible to distinguish antique ivory from illegal elephant ivory, especially for small pieces. This creates another loophole that will let the illegal elephant ivory trade continue and demand remain high.

Outside our city, other jurisdictions are taking a more proactive approach. In New York, the state’s ivory law prohibits the sale, offer for sale, purchase, trade, barter or distribution of elephant and mammoth ivory articles and rhinoceros horn.

There are limited exceptions which are regulated and licensed by the Department of Environmental Conservation, giving the government full control over all trade in ivory articles and rhinoceros horn.

Like Hong Kong, Singapore used to be a hotspot for the import and export of ivory until it passed a total ban on all ivory trade in 2019, coming into effect last September 1.

The domestic sale, import and export of elephant ivory, as well as all types of ivory products, are now completely prohibited, as is the public display of elephant ivory and ivory products for sale.

Sadly, the answer to our question is “no” – Hong Kong’s ban does not go far enough. With such wide loopholes and thriving demand, it does not take an experienced conservationist to predict that wildlife criminals will continue to bring elephant ivory into Hong Kong and that unscrupulous traders will continue to try to sell it.

Hong Kong needs to ban the sale of antique ivory and take proactive measures to bring down demand immediately. Only then can we break this vicious cycle and give elephants the protection they deserve.

Unique Traits Shouldn’t be the Key Reason for Protecting a Species

By MERRILL SAPP – Earth Island Journal

Every animal has a role within its ecosystem, even if we have little knowledge of what that role is.

Over summer last year, giraffes were elevated to a new height. Though they are an iconic species, giraffes have never gotten the kind of attention their charismatic African savannah neighbors, such as elephants or even baboons, who can often be obnoxious, draw. As ungulates, giraffes have been viewed roughly as glorified cattle. One writer even claimed that a giraffe is “the herbivore that does the least to reward the fascination it inspires in visitors… When they’re not browsing, typically giraffes are just standing there looking back at you.” The implication is that giraffes do not have a lot going on upstairs.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the news about giraffes’ social behavior is the researchers’ suggestion that their social world would require complex communication that we essentially know nothing about. Photo by Michael Levine-Clark.

But we now know that’s not true. Researchers at the University of Bristol who have been taking a closer look at the social lives of giraffes over the past decade have figured out that these animals are much more intelligent than we have given them credit for in the past and have complex social lives. Coverage of this news in the press has focused on comparison with other species with complex societies, such as elephants. The hope is that the news about giraffes will elevate them to a status that confers a higher level of protection. This is vital because giraffes are in danger — their numbers have dropped by some 40 percent in the past 30 years as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Giraffes are suffering from what some conservationists call “silent extinction.”

When I read the news about giraffes, it immediately brought to mind two other groundbreaking revelations from the last few years: One is that elephant bulls are not loners and the second is that fish feel pain. Taken individually, these findings are interesting and important. Taken collectively, they show a pattern of how we approach animal life: Discover animals can so something that we did not know about, elevate their position in the hierarchy, and argue for better treatment or conservation efforts for the species in question.

Elephants are known for their complex social lives, but until recently, we believed that females were inherently more sociable than males. Bulls were studied as loners who occasionally socialized for breeding purposes. We learned the hard way that those old bulls are essential in a variety of ways. Not only do they account for the majority of successful reproduction, but they also mentor adolescent bulls. In the 1990s, in a South African National Park, a group of teenage bulls, left as orphans after their families were culled, were wreaking havoc. They were killing rhinos and harassing older female elephants. When ecologists figured out that the young bulls needed adult guidance and moved several older males to the park, the problem stopped.

It is not simply that adult bulls dominate the younger bulls into behaving like proper elephants, but that they develop relationships. In her book Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, author Katy Payne tells a story of seeing a tender interaction between bulls, wild elephants in Kenya. On an “unbearably hot day,” she saw a large bull and a small bull standing together in the sun. “The older bull had closed his eyes and was swaying when the younger bull moved in very close and touched his front left shoulder. The older lifted his huge left ear and the younger moved under it.” The “sun umbrella” settled and covered the younger bull’s head. They stood motionless for a long time, but when the older bull fell asleep and his ear started to slip, he “opened his eyes suddenly and restored his ear to its former posture.”

Elephants are known for their complex social lives, but until recently, we believed that females were inherently more sociable than males. Photo by Brian Lauer.

For a long time, researchers actively denied that fish had cells that respond to pain, but now we know that fish not only feel pain but also fear. Photo of dwarf hawkfish by Klaus Stiefel.

It turns out that while adult bulls may not participate much in the baby years, they are much more involved with their teenage sons, brothers, or even unrelated bulls.

For a long time, researchers actively denied that fish had cells that respond to pain, called nociceptors. Then they denied that fish had the full nociception pathway. Now we have moved to a higher-level debate over whether fish have consciousness or not. Victoria Braithwaite was a British scientist who demonstrated that fish not only feel pain, but also fear. She also discovered cognitive skills that fish use to navigate.

Braithwaite and colleagues tested fish on a basic maze and food reward system. They found that fish from ponds rely on visual cues and fish from rivers navigate by using information from the direction of water flow. In another experiment they found that fish in low predatory, low stress environments, were better able to explore and use visual cues than fish in high stress areas.

Although these findings may be interesting and may possibly apply to more general principles, such as that animals that develop in high stress situations are not as “flexible” in their learning as others, the specific relevance is not always clear. At the very least, fish are not the mere stimulus-response creatures that some people assume.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Rebecca Schwarzlose, neuroscientist and author of Brainscapes: the Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain—and How They Guide You, to talk about how to interpret the unique gifts of different species. Schwarzlose argues that the ways in which we perceive and interact with the world are literally mapped to a physical location in the brain and that this is true for all species. Interspecies brain maps are not a tale of hierarchy, they are a tale of investment. They represent what a species needs in order to survive. According to Schwarzlose, the value of a brain map “can only be determined in the context of a creature’s environment and moment-to-moment needs for survival.” A fish that uses visual cues has a different brain map than a fish that uses the feeling of water movement over its skin in order to know where to go to hide from a predator. There is no implication of better or worse, simply that every species has different needs and a unique way of interacting with the world.

One of the big lessons from our new understanding of giraffes is that females work together to look after calves. This allows the mother more time roam in search of food, which is especially important if the calf is still nursing. Add giraffes to the list of species, such as elephants and, probably, humans, whose offspring are more likely to survive if the grandmother is around.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the news about giraffes is the author’s suggestion that their social world would require complex communication that we essentially know nothing about. According to the authors, interactions between wild giraffes are common, but “their behavioral significance is poorly understood.” My own interpretation is that we have no idea what goes on between giraffes. For an animal described as the least to reward the fascination it inspires, we have a spectacular mystery here.

Misconceptions about animals are not simply about semantics, they have real implications. This may not shock you, but we are often invested in those misconceptions because they are convenient for us. Little has been done to conserve the lives and habitats of giraffes, though they are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Before Braithwaite advocated for fish, we did not think much about how they are treated. The work of Braithwaite and others has led to changes in the guidelines for how fish are handled in the UK, Europe, and Canada. The new guidelines attempt to minimize pain and stress.

Before we understood that multiple ways in which old elephant bulls are needed for a healthy population, we thought that removing them from the population did little harm. This was convenient for hunters because old bulls have the largest tusks. The income garnered from trophy hunters was considered too valuable to pass up in return for killing an old male who was past the age of breeding and wandering around Africa by himself. But now we know that killing them does tremendous harm and threatens the very existence of the population. While this may be known in animal rights circles, it has not made a huge impact on the trophy hunting debate. Hunting proponents still insist that animals must pay for the privilege of living wild by sacrificing a few to generate income for the costs of conservation.

If the knowledge that giraffes may be socially on par with elephants leads to their protection, that is wonderful. However, do our efforts at saving them have to depend on this relative evaluation of their worthiness? What if, one day, we find the most elusive animal of all — the animal that is dumb and boring. Personally, I believe that this beast is mythical, but what if it really exists? Could we find no reason to save it? Will enigmatic species all die before we have had the chance to document what makes each of them special?

If we revisit our consideration of interspecies intelligence, and consider intelligence contextual — dependent on the particular needs of a species to stay alive, can we judge ourselves in this context? Humans are the only species that actively, knowingly destroys its own habitat. Does this not make us the dumbest of all?

There are approaches to conservation that focus on the importance of all inhabitants of an ecosystem, rather than recognition of the specific merits of each animal. Every species has a role within its natural ecosystem and contributes to that community. Focusing on the ecosystem combines those who want to protect animals with those who want to maintain the biosphere, but might not believe that animals have inherent rights. Another way to think of this is about habitats. Healthy habitats are essential for the stability of the biosphere, but also enable animals to thrive.

One example of this is mangrove restoration along coastlines. We spent many years removing mangrove forests. This was done for a variety of reasons, including reducing mosquitoes and creating land suitable for development. Then we realized that mangrove forests reduce erosion and flooding and store carbon. We had also destroyed habitat for marine life and the animals that live in mangrove ecosystems, such as birds and reptiles. Restoration of mangrove forests is increasing biosphere stability, and is also recovering habitat for animals. If we look at conservation in the right way, what is good for the individual animal is the same as what is good for the ecosystem.

I love studying the behavior of animals, but I also appreciate that there is something unknowable about them. What if we never understand what goes on between giraffes? What if we never agree on whether fish have consciousness or not?

I value understanding animal life because it makes my own life more full. But my concern is that if we focus on cataloging every skill and unique trait of animals, species that do not inspire our wonder as much will be left behind.

There is beauty in recognizing the richness of animals’ existence without being able to fully know them. If we approach animal life, and protecting animal life, by recognizing that every animal has a role within its ecosystem, then we can save them by design rather than by arguing for each species. And maybe we can revel in their beautiful mystery.

Merrill Sapp is a cognitive psychologist and student of nature. She teaches at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.

Namibia’s community wildlife conservation system has come off the rails, investigation shows

By Don Pinnock – Daily Maverick

Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management is seen as a global gold standard for conservation. But a probe has found that it’s falling apart.

An investigation into Namibia’s wildlife management policies and programmes by two environmental researchers has found that the claimed success of conservation in the country and economic benefits for poor rural communities are largely a fabrication.

After two months of visiting 29 conservancies across Namibia, Dr Adam Cruise and Izzy Sasada found that – particularly in the northern areas – larger species such as elephants, lions, zebras and oryx were in decline. 

Far from being a success story, Namibia’s much-touted wildlife conservation model had achieved the opposite of what is commonly presented, they say. They found wildlife numbers declining and elephant and other wildlife populations in the Kunene Region collapsing. 

Throughout the country, many rural communities in Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) areas were found to be in worse condition than before independence.

Namibia’s rural poor are getting poorer. (Photo: Supplied)

Minority groups such as San, Himba, Kavango, Caprivian and Damara were being exploited, both by the government and by larger ethnic groups such as Ovambo and Herero “settlers” who had moved into their conservancies to exploit the natural resources. 

These land invasions involved overutilisation of wildlife, mining, oil drilling, logging and other natural resource appropriation.

“Namibia is always presented at CITES meetings as the exemplar of wildlife protection and community upliftment,” says Cruise. “Entities like WWF, USAID and the European Union pour millions of dollars into Namibian conservation. But more and more studies have been questioning the efficacy of CBNRM. I needed to find out for myself.”

He and Sasada chose elephants as a yardstick, since they’re key to measuring the health of Namibia’s biodiversity and take precedence in the perceived earnings and subsequent “benefits” for local communities. At the time of the study, Namibia announced it would auction off 170 wild free-roaming elephants to foreign bidders.

“We wanted to assess the areas earmarked for capture both in terms of how that might affect the elephant populations there and how they ostensibly benefit local communities,” says Cruise. What they discovered shocked them.

Forest elephants. (Photo: Adam Cruise)

They found that all wildlife populations, including elephants and gemsbok, were dangerously low. The people who were supposed to benefit from Community-Based Resource Management were hungry, impoverished and fed up with the government. Unemployment, exploitation and land expropriation were widespread and there were almost zero opportunities in terms of work, health and education. 

The common complaint throughout was that many still felt under the yoke of colonisation, merely that the colonisers had changed. “The pervading mood throughout our travels,” says Cruise, “ranged from resignation and despair (mostly among the San) to anger and even open sedition, as in the Zambezi Region.”

Sasada, an anthropologist, says she found the testimonies of particularly the San people in Nyae-Nyae and N#a Jaqna conservancy difficult to bear. 

“The San people I interviewed had been bullied and marginalised on all sides, both by conservancy managements who disregarded them and accepted bribes from ‘settlers’ (outsiders) in exchange for land, and by the settlers themselves, who bewitch them, underpay them for labour and steal their government pensions and child support money.”

Their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle which tourists come to experience no longer exists in these communities as they’ve lost access to the natural resources on which they depended.

A man was interviewed who had to walk several kilometres each day to collect water, since the tap provided by the conservancy had been blocked off by one of the settlers who now used it for his cattle. He said the cattle devastated the bush fruit on which they had survived and they often entered the homestead and destroyed crop gardens.

Another man said he had been to prison for three months for killing a blue wildebeest because his family was hungry. Traditional hunting had been banned in the area he lived in. He said he couldn’t fathom why a white man could come from abroad to kill an animal for fun when his own family could not hunt “for the pot” as they had done for generations.

The report found that, particularly in the CBNRM-dominated Kunene region, while many wildlife species were in sharp decline, desert-adapted elephants were marked for capture, auction and possible export.

The Namibian conservation model, it says, is an example of an increasingly “neoliberal” global policy framework as applied to biodiversity conservation, using a market-based approach with attendant socioecological effects. The model is considered successful in conserving wildlife and providing economic upliftment for impoverished rural communities. Yet assessment is warped by huge wealth disparities. 

“Namibia  has an annual GDP of about $10.7-billion with an average per capita income of around $5,300 a year. These figures, however, are skewed by 3,300 US dollar millionaires in the country. This hides the fact that about 18% of Namibia’s population live below the poverty line in spite of claims that its wildlife economy has been successful in reducing poverty.”

Under its conservation model, the Namibian government fully supports international commercial trade in wild animals and parts or products derived from them, including from threatened species such as elephants. 

It has regularly proposed a lifting of the ban on international commercial sales of ivory and on two occasions (1999 and 2008) it was granted permission by CITES to sell its national ivory stockpile.

Namibian desert elephants. (Photo: Stephan Scholvin)

Namibia’s recent announcement that it will auction 170 live elephants elicited widespread international criticism and could weaken its tourism sector at a time when it needs to rebuild the sector after Covid lockdowns.

Tourism is a major contributor to the country’s GDP, bringing in an estimated $77-billion (11.7% of the total GDP for 2020). The sector directly or indirectly supports 123,000 jobs (16.4% of all employment). 

The goal of CBNRM was to promote sustainable natural resource management by giving local communities rights to wildlife management and tourism.  CBNRMs are described as “self-governing, democratic entities, run by their members, with fixed boundaries that are agreed with adjacent conservancies, communities or landowners”.

They are managed by committee members and must have wildlife management plans and prepare financial reports. Since 1998, Namibia has created 86 CBNRMs, covering more than 20% of the country and encompassing about 228,000 community members.

The report by Cruise and Sasada, however, concludes that the programme’s perceived success of wildlife conservation and economic benefits for previously disadvantaged rural communities have been grossly misrepresented. 

“Far from being a success story, Namibia’s much-touted wildlife conservation model and its adherence to sustainable utilisation of wildlife through community-based management has, in fact, achieved the opposite of what is commonly presented. 

“Overall wildlife numbers are declining and elephant populations in the Kunene Region are collapsing, while rural communities within the CBNRMs are as impoverished as ever, in many cases, more so.”

Namibia’s ministry of environment and tourism was approached for comment but had not responded by time of publication.

Don Pinnock is an associate of Southern Write, a group of top travel and natural history writers and photographers in Africa. He’s a former editor of Getaway magazine in Cape Town, South Africa He has been an electronic engineer, lecturer in journalism and criminology, consultant to the Mandela government, a professional yachtsman, explorer, travel writer, photographer and a cable-car operator on the Rock of Gibraltar. His present passion is the impact of humans on planetary processes.

Large Herbivores May Improve an Ecosystem’s Carbon Persistence

By Rishika Pardikar – EOS.

he grazing habits of wild animals like elephants and boars enable long-term carbon storage, according to new research that stresses the need to align climate mitigation goals with biodiversity conservation.

Wildlife and open-canopy ecosystems like grasslands are rarely a part of discussions surrounding climate change mitigation. Now, a new review points to interactions between wild herbivores and vegetation to show how restoration efforts could be optimized by aligning climate goals with biodiversity conservation.

The idea that herbivores are necessarily bad for carbon storage because they consume and disturb vegetation is “far too simplistic and risks poor land management decisions with bad consequences for biodiversity,” said Jeppe A. Kristensen, the paper’s lead author and a fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

Terming grasslands as “overlooked global reservoirs of carbon,” the research shows how herbivores redistribute carbon from aboveground vegetation (where it is vulnerable to disturbances like wildfire and disease) into more persistent belowground soil pools. Soil pools are composed primarily of undecomposed plant and animal residues (particulate organic matter) and more resistant carbon stabilized by interaction with mineral soil particles (mineral-associated organic matter).

The paper presents a holistic framework of linkages between vegetation, large herbivores like elephants and wild boars, smaller organisms like earthworms and dung beetles, and microbes.

By grazing, Kristensen explained, herbivores recycle plant material to the soil via dung and urine. Decomposers in the earth (mostly microbes, as well as larger animals like earthworms) feed on this nutrient-rich resource and bury fractions of it in the soil. By increasing the amount of carbon cycled through the soil, Kristensen and his coauthors argued, ecosystems with large herbivores may store a larger fraction of total ecosystem carbon in pools less vulnerable to perturbations than living plant biomass.

The paper presents a holistic framework of linkages between vegetation, large herbivores like elephants and wild boars, smaller organisms like earthworms and dung beetles, and microbes. Aboveground and belowground carbon sequestration services provided by these living elements of an ecosystem ought to be viewed as a whole rather than as a series of singular foci, the paper argues.

“There is a lot of focus on aboveground carbon. And nature management efforts are usually about increasing forest area. But soil carbon is an important aspect, and herbivores improve soil carbon and nitrogen sequestration,” said Judith Sitters, a researcher in forest and landscape ecology at Wageningen University and Research who did not contribute to the new paper. Sitters was, however, the lead author of an earlier paper that showed how megaherbivores (animals weighing more than 1,000 kilograms) increased both carbon and nitrogen pools in the soil. Sitters added that megaherbivores like elephants and rhinos have a far greater impact on key ecosystem processes than smaller ones like zebras because of the amount of food they eat and the amount of dung they deposit.


For millions of years, herbivores have been integral to how ecosystems work. Sumanta Bagchi, an associate professor with the Centre for Ecological Sciences and the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, said the presence of herbivores changes “the quality and quantity of food supply for microbes in soil.” In the absence of herbivores, Bagchi said, “carbon’s residence time in the soil is reduced.”

Bagchi was not involved in the new review but is one of the authors of an earlier paper suggesting why moderate levels of grazing could promote net soil carbon storage in ecosystems. Maintaining the influence of large herbivores on grazing ecosystems through conservation and rewilding efforts could be of “high importance” for soil carbon sequestration, Bagchi said.

Kristensen agreed, suggesting “a mix of climate-friendly forests, high-yielding agriculture, more extensive semipastoral systems, and dedicated nature parks where biodiversity is given first priority” as perhaps the best way to optimize multiple goals like climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation.

Scientists like Bagchi, Sitters, and Kristensen are not alone in highlighting the links between biodiversity and climate change. In 2020, two bodies of the United Nations (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) released a landmark report to highlight how “functional separation” between the fields of climate change and biodiversity “creates a risk of incompletely identifying, understanding and dealing with the connections between the two.”

—Rishika Pardikar (@rishpardikar), Science Writer

Understanding human-elephant conflict and vulnerability in the face of climate change

By Yves Ducrot – The Ritz Herald

Human-wildlife conflict is a central issue in the conservation sciences. Whether it is reintroducing wolves into key ecosystems of the southwestern U.S.—which is having an impact on livestock and cattle ranchers—or the ongoing challenge of elephants living alongside communities on the African savannah, the effects of this conflict on people’s livelihoods can be significant. In African landscapes where growing human and elephant populations compete over limited resources, for example, human-elephant conflict causes crop loss and may even result in human injury and death and subsequent retaliatory killing of wildlife.

Despite all that is known about the challenges of human-wildlife conflict, however, measuring its impact on human livelihoods is complicated. An international team of researchers, including Northern Arizona University professor Duan Biggs, spent three years investigating the dynamics between wildlife, people and the environment across the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the world’s largest terrestrial transboundary conservation area, extending across five African countries.

The study, led by Jonathan Salerno of Colorado State University and funded by the National Science Foundation, involved a large team of collaborators, including researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Louisville, the University of California Berkeley, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the University of Botswana, the University of Namibia, Stellenbosch University and Griffith University as well as The Nature Conservancy South Africa and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife of Zambia.

As described in their paper recently published in Current Biology, “Wildlife impacts and changing climate pose compounding threats to human food security,” the team used interdisciplinary approaches across a wide study area to better understand how climate change interacts with human-elephant conflict to affect household food insecurity.

The goals of the project were to identify the socioecological conditions and patterns that affect household and community vulnerability and to determine leverage points that may aid in mitigating how land-use decisions and land-cover change affect vulnerability in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in southern Africa. The investigators combined household surveys and participatory mapping to characterize how indicators of vulnerability shape smallholders’ land use decisions. They integrated data on the environment, market factors, government policy and subsidies, culture and ethnicity and the presence and intervention of non-governmental organizations with remotely sensed imagery to compare trajectories of land-use and land-cover change with underlying socioecological drivers. By advancing the understanding of vulnerability, this research identifies how vulnerability influences and is affected by socioeconomic and biophysical drivers at multiple scales.

“The project as a whole is focused on understanding human vulnerability and adaptive capacity in the context of environmental change,” Salerno said. “Taking a systems-level view of this problem is important because we’re studying human vulnerability, which can be defined and impacted by many different things.”

Another important finding of the study was that the people within these affected communities have the adaptive capacity to gather food resources and buffer the impacts of elephant conflict and short rain seasons. Although the individual communities may be resilient, larger institutions such as governments and aid organizations are not currently sufficiently supporting effective risk mitigation or risk reduction strategies for households. The team also advocates that in addition to habitat protection, there need to be appropriate resources and funding put toward human-wildlife conflict mitigation programs to support the conservation of African savannah elephants.

Biggs was born and raised in southern Africa and has worked extensively on community engagement for conservation and human-wildlife conflict. He contributed his experience from the region and social-ecological expertise to the study.

“Our findings highlighting the dependence of both humans and elephants on the same resources, especially during drought, shows that we need to tackle the challenge of human-elephant co-existence and local adaptations to climatic change simultaneously,” Biggs said.

Biggs, who joined NAU in 2021 as the Charles Olajos and Ted Goslow Chair for Southwestern Environmental Science and Policy in the School of Earth and Sustainability, is an internationally recognized leader in wildlife conservation and is the founder of Resilient Conservation, a group of researchers working actively at the interface of science, policy and practice to enable innovative conservation outcomes in our fast-changing, multicultural world. He focuses on developing partnerships between researchers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments and the private sector to conduct science that informs the development of conservation actions and policies.

Plea seeks rehabilitation of African elephant kept at Delhi zoo; HC asks authorities to respond

By The Print

A plea filed in the Delhi High Court on Monday sought the release and rehabilitation of an African elephant gifted to India by the Zimbabwean government and kept chained at the National Zoological Park here for 16 years now.

A bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh issued notices and sought responses of the Centre, Delhi government, National Zoological Park, Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) on the petition and listed the matter for further hearing on March 9.

The court also directed the authorities to consider a representation preferred by the petitioner in this regard in November last year.

The plea filed by 16-year-old Nikita Dhawan, founder of Youth For Animals (YFA), said the lone African elephant named ‘Shankar’ is a victim of cruelty and viciousness at the hands of caretakers at the zoo, and his present condition is nothing less than illegal imprisonment.

Dhawan said it will be a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution if the animal is not rehabilitated in a sanctuary as his mental and physical health is deteriorating day by day.

The plea cited a 2009 circular issued by the CZA which had banned exhibition of elephants in zoos, as well as CZA guidelines prohibiting an elephant to be held in solitary for over six months.

The petitioner, represented through senior advocate Raj Panjwani, has urged the high court to direct the authorities to rehabilitate Shankar in a suitable wildlife sanctuary that houses other African elephants, and to ask the CZA to submit a rehabilitation and translocation plan for all captive elephants held in zoos across India in order to implement the 2009 circular.

The plea said the Zimbabwean government had gifted an African elephant couple, Shankar and Bombai, to India in 1998. However, due to an unyielding environment, Bombai passed away in 2005, and since then, Shankar is held captive alone at the zoo here.

It said an RTI response showed a horrid state of living conditions in which the elephant was kept, and if the same continues, he will also meet the same fate as the female elephant.

“He is perpetually chained on both legs for 17 hours a day and does not get adequate space to move around,” the petitioner alleged.

“It is also pertinent to highlight that within 100 metres distance from Shankar’s enclosure, there are multiple railway tracks, due to which there is constant noise and disturbance to the elephant. These disturbances are also one of the reasons for psychological trauma to Shankar, as elephants are extremely sensitive to sounds.

“There are various reports and pictures/videos of Shankar which glean out the brutality/inhumaneness sustained by Shankar within his confines. Shankar is shackled in chains in an enclosure which unforgivingly falls short of the prerequisites of the behemoth elephant coupled with his merciless handling. The cruelty exhibited towards Shankar departs beyond physical in nature and forays into psychological abuse as well,” the plea said.

It added Shankar’s solitary confinement and living conditions have engendered deep neurological and mental damage to the animal.

His psychologically distressed circumstances have steered him into aggressive behaviour with not only visitors and other animals but also his caretaker, it said, while seeking his release and rehabilitation.

Richard Leakey, Fossil Hunter and Defender of Elephants, Dies at 77



World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter Richard Leakey, whose groundbreaking discoveries helped prove that humankind evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country’s president said.

The legendary paleoanthropologist remained energetic into his 70s despite bouts of skin cancer, kidney and liver disease.

“I have this afternoon… received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr. Richard Erskine Frere Leakey,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement late Sunday.

Born on December 19, 1944, Leakey was destined for paleoanthropology — the study of the human fossil record — as the middle son of Louis and Mary Leakey, perhaps the world’s most famous discoverers of ancestral hominids.

Initially, Leakey tried his hand at safari guiding, but things changed when at 23 he won a research grant from the National Geographic Society to dig on the shores of northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, despite having no formal archaeological training.

In the 1970s he led expeditions that recalibrated scientific understanding of human evolution with the discovery of the skulls of Homo habilis (1.9 million years old) in 1972 and Homo erectus (1.6 million years old) in 1975.

A TIME magazine cover followed of Leakey posing with a Homo habilis mock-up under the headline “How Man Became Man.” Then in 1981, his fame grew further when he fronted “The Making of Mankind,” a seven-part BBC television series.

Yet the most famous fossil find was yet to come: the uncovering of an extraordinary, near-complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of his digs in 1984, which was nicknamed Turkana Boy.

As the slaughter of African elephants reached a crescendo in the late 1980s, driven by insatiable demand for ivory, Leakey emerged as one of the world’s leading voices against the then-legal global ivory trade.

President Daniel arap Moi in 1989 appointed Leakey to lead the national wildlife agency — soon to be named the Kenya Wildlife Service, or KWS.

That year he pioneered a spectacular publicity stunt by burning a pyre of ivory, setting fire to 12 tons of tusks to make the point that they have no value once removed from elephants.

He also held his nerve, without apology, when implementing a shoot-to-kill order against armed poachers.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley where he had made his name. He survived but lost both legs.

“There were regular threats to me at the time and I lived with armed guards. But I made the decision not to be a dramatist and say: ‘They tried to kill me.’ I chose to get on with life,” he told the Financial Times.

Leakey was forced out of KWS a year later and began a third career as a prominent opposition politician, joining the chorus of voices against Moi’s corrupt regime.

His political career met with less success, however, and in 1998 he was back in the fold, appointed by Moi to head Kenya’s civil service, putting him in charge of fighting official corruption.

The task proved impossible, however, and he resigned after just two years.

In 2015, as another elephant poaching crisis gripped Africa, President Kenyatta asked Leakey to again take the helm at KWS, this time as chairman of the board, a position he would hold for three years.

Deputy President William Ruto said Leakey “fought bravely for a better country” and inspired Kenyans with his zeal for public service.

Soft-spoken and seemingly devoid of personal vanity, Leakey stubbornly refused to give in to health woes.

“Richard was a very good friend and a true loyal Kenyan. May he Rest In Peace,” Paula Kahumbu, the head of Wildlife Direct, a conservation group founded by Leakey, posted on Twitter.