Tag Archives: Wildlife Conservation

African Wildlife Encounter #2: African Wild Dogs with Puppy

On this day while in Tembe Elephant Park we were working to habituate three African Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs) to the sound of the vehicle. The goal was to get them used to our vehicle so that we could both identify all the members of the pack, check their health, and eventually dart them for translocation to a safer area. To do this, we routinely had to locate the alpha female which wears a radio-collar and place parts from a dead Nyala or Impala on the ground, chained or tied to a tree.

A recording of Painted Dogs making a kill was played and usually after 10-20 minutes the pack would have found us and sniffed out the free food. This was the first time that we saw the puppy come out from its den.

Painted Dog pups typically den for their first several weeks, suckling from their mother and, when they’re old enough, eating food regurgitated to them from their older pack members or small bits of food brought back for them. After only a couple of months they must be strong enough to follow the pack’s nomadic lifestyle and keep up on the exciting hunts. Once old enough to keep up with the pack, Painted Dogs typically let the youngest eat first to make sure that they have enough nourishment, which is why we see the adult deferring to the youngest member. The twittering sounds heard int his video mostly come from this feisty pup who is excited to have this feast and also bravely guarding his meal!

Like their canine cousins, Painted Dogs give birth to several pups per litter. Unfortunately the little pup in the video, probably 8-12 weeks old, was the only survivor. While it’s not uncommon for pups to be lost due to weakness or disease, it’s most likely that predator persecution by lions was the cause of this pup losing its siblings.

The pup was very strong and active during the observation period, as shown in this video. The high-pitched vocalizations that are heard are characteristic of Painted Dogs and serve as a means of expressing excitement over their meal and letting others in the pack know that there is food to share.

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Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.

African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as often as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.

Unlike Lions and other species that live in a close-knit group, Painted Dogs often let their young eat first. This suggests that the dogs are not only grouping for social reasons, but because they are stronger as a pack and only as strong as their weakest member.

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Benefits (Part 3)

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1) can be read here. Part 2, Moral Dilemmas, can be read here.

Benefits of Wildlife Conservation

While there are many financial, emotional, and physical expenses related to wildlife conservation there are myriad benefits. What makes these benefits hard to invest in, and difficult to relate to, is that we don’t always know the result we’ll have when conserving a species for future generations. In some cases the payoff might take many decades or what is discovered might not be of any immediate scientific value. If it takes years to capitalize on discoveries then the discovery itself is less exciting, but during that time we will inevitably make strides in our understanding of the way our world works, the way it was created, and have the opportunity to make it better for future generations.

These unknown benefits are what drives humanity’s curiosity and are integral to our ability to understand and adapt to our world. Discovering the unknown is one aspect that drives research and development at NASA which not only performs important science experiments but also gives back to the American people, and the people of the world, through sharing technological developments.

There are many known benefits of wildlife conservation that we can begin to study and consider relatively quickly. While these developments may not be life-changing technologies they do impact our understanding of evolution, genetics, trait inheritance, natural selection, sexual selection, and social behavior within the entire animal kingdom. With an understanding of the way that animals function alone, in groups, and fulfill their roles as a species we can also make comparisons to the way that human societies work and even the way our brains process and perceive information. We can even learn from the behaviors and emotions of primates in the way they interact within their society or with their mates and gain a better understanding of how human emotions develop, what behaviors are intrinsic to being a specific gender or fulfilling a gender role, and the way that physical and mental disorders change the social dynamics of a group.

National heritage and pride also plays a role in determining what wildlife conservation projects are undertaken and it should also be considered a benefit of successfully conserving an at-risk species. China spends millions of dollars on programs to increase the number of pandas both in captivity and what few thousand are left in the wild. This is a symbol of pride and something that their people can feel good about as it reflects well on their country.

Similarly, the Bald Eagle holds a special place in the heritage and pride of Americans and has undergone protection and wildlife conservation of its own. Both the national bird and national animal of the United States the Bald Eagle symbolizes freedom and strength. To various Native American cultures it has represented peace or fertility and even regarded as a spiritual link between humans and their gods.

Human-related pollution and use of pesticides are thought to have indirectly, but significantly, contributed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Bald Eagles and reduced their ability to raise healthy offspring. But action taken in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s lead to stronger protections on the bird of prey that was already illegal to hunt in the United States and Canada. Since then the population has rebounded and continues to increase across North America, contributing to the restoration of balance within the ecosystems. While this preservation of a species doesn’t provide the country with any economic benefit, and isn’t even a tourist attraction, it does bring back a species important to the heritage of the United States.

Economic incentives are the easiest aspects of wildlife conservation to relate to for the average individual, but exploring the connections between flora and fauna and profits for humans can be tricky. Honey Bees are one of the easiest examples of a type of conservation that can have a dramatic impact on human agriculture and quality of life. Bees, and the Honey Bee in particular, provide an essential duty in pollinating plants that provide flowers and fruit and as a byproduct these bees produce honey for themselves which humans harvest. Losing honey through the use of harmful pesticides, parasites, and climate change would not be a great strain on the economy, but would end the free labor that bees provide through pollination would be incredibly costly, valued at billions of dollars a year. It’s thought that current pesticide use may be poisoning the bees and in turn making ill the birds that eat them, creating a combination of disastrous effects along the food chain.

Without bees many of the fruits that they pollinate would have to be hand-pollinated or millions of dollars would have to be spent researching and developing a type of fruit or flower that can reproduce without pollination. This would result in fruits similar to the modern banana, a fruit that is largely grown in third-world countries where land and labor costs are extremely low, and whose costs to harvest would make agriculture in the United States much more expensive and unable to compete with foreign markets. Without wildlife conservation, which goes hand in hand with understanding and conserving native plant species, we run the risk of unhealthy environments and a damaged agricultural sector.

Invasive species are damaging to agriculture and the local environment as well. This species could take the form of a plant that is resistant to chemicals that kill weeds that take root among crops of vegetables, making it more expensive to harvest crops because additional labor is needed to remove unnecessary plants from the ground and remove the rodents and pests that might feed on those plants. Invasive species can also be parasites that transmit disease to local wildlife, some of which can jump from wild animal to domestic animal, endangering our food and our pets.

Without proper conservation of our natural habitat the risks posed by introducing non-native species runs high. The United States already has a huge variety of non-native species of plants and wildlife on its soil, but the invasive species are the ones that are damaging the environment, the national heritage of the country, and endangering the health of our agriculture, livestock, and ultimately ourselves.

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Moral Dilemmas (Part 2)

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1) can be read here.

Wildlife conservation has great importance to the terrestrial and sea environment and those that are beholden to it for food, clothing, and business. However active conservation carries with it a set of moral obligations both to us and to the species and ecosystems that are affected by any action taken against or in the interest of the environment.

There are also a number of risks and costs associated with the objectives of conservation and it is the moral responsibility of the citizens of the region and the world to ascertain the long-term effectiveness of conservation, its impact on our future as well as the regional environment, the ability to provide food and culture to future generations, and many other details that may change over time, impacting our original goals and the final outcome of conservation projects.

In some cases wildlife conservation projects may take decades and even extend beyond a single human generation. With little or no pay not many people are willing to devote so many years of their life to an undertaking that might see dramatically different organizational structures and goals over the course of various presidencies, environmental administrations, and changing environmental variables. All of these aspects detract from the ability to perceive and actualize the ultimate objectives of the project and make it harder to show the merits of conservation efforts to a world that wants an immediate return on its investment.

Moral Dilemma of Saving Specific Species

Specialization and adaptation play a significant role in the long-term success of a species. However some species are so well adapted to specific environments that after millions of years of evolution they’re unable to adapt to a changing climate or environment significantly different than the one they evolved in. This presents a difficult moral choice for humans to make: let a species naturally die out or spend resources, time, and effort preserving the species so that we might learn about the species’ struggle to survive. With this knowledge we might learn more about genetics, sexual selection based on long-term/environmental variables, habitat change and destruction, and even the effects of inbreeding due to population decline.

There is another moral dilemma however, this one involving which species to save in an interconnected framework of species each dependent upon another to keep the ecosystem balanced. An example of this is the African Elephant which can destroy habitats suitable for Cheetah by allowing saplings in a field to grow into a forest. But Elephants can also create a hunting ground for Cheetah who need clear, open fields where they can use their speed to their advantage in catching prey. In order to create these habitats Elephants can topple enormous trees for hectares around depriving smaller animals, especially birds, a place to nest or escape to safety. If this is the natural order of things, and by all accounts it is, then removing the elephant from the ecosystem risks changing the habits of the birds and other animals that have evolved to adapt to such situations. In these cases overpopulation of certain avian species can lead to a decimation of snakes and woodland rodents, further cause imbalances within the ecosystem. Ultimately there may not currently be funds to protect all the species in this interconnected environment and the deciding factor in which species gets saved is either the NGO or a local or national government providing funding for projects specific to that species.

Food supply for humans is another factor affected by our morals and one that affects not just terrestrial farming, but also the fishing industry. In 2011 the world depended upon more than 83 million tons of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans pulled from the sea, roughly 60% of total fish production. With so much food coming from the wild rather than being farmed over-fishing and poaching of Tuna, Swordfish, and Sea Turtles can have devastating impacts on our long-term food supply as well as the environment’s ability to sustain its resources that we rely so heavily upon. These aquatic creatures  also prey on certain species of Jellyfish and a drop in predators may be one reason that some Jellyfish populations appear to be on the rise.

There is also a trade-off between conserving one species or another, particularly with keystone species: wildlife that can disproportionately affect their local ecosystem Humans spend significant resources on the conservation of Lion, Leopard, and other well-known species, but less on species that aren’t as valuable to their environment or aren’t as well understood, such as the Pangolin. Other wildlife, such as the Giant Panda, are conserved because of their popular status in the media, as well as the Cheetah, even though both species seem to be incapable of thriving without human intervention. The Cheetah in particular seems to be at a genetic dead-end not wholly related to human interference with habitat destruction and genetic isolation thought to have started roughly 12,000 years ago.

Invasive species provide another aspect of conservation and ecology to take into account. In environments largely untouched by foreign plants even a single invasive plant species can cause significant problems to the balance of the local ecosystem. Non-native plants may be immune to defense mechanisms of native plants, preventing the reproduction of the native species. These invasive plants can also have harmful effects on the wildlife populations by presenting an inedible or dangerous food source to animals that may eat strange plants out of desperation.

Similarly, the unsolicited introduction of a wildlife species to an area large or small can have huge consequences on the local food chain and off-set the population of other species. In some cases this can result in vermin moving closer to human dwellings, causing property damage and increasing the spread of disease among humans and their pets. It can even affect crop yields as rodents or insects driven away from their original habitat devour our agricultural crops.

High upfront costs may also be associated with saving wildlife and some of this comes from taxpayer dollars — sometimes from countries that don’t even natively have the species being saved. In many cases funding comes down to whether a group of people believe it’s worth spending public funds to save wildlife or to preserve the natural beauty, and ecology, of the region. This can turn into a popularity contest where keystone species  such as the Elephant receives much more consideration for funding than do less attractive species, such as Hyena and Vultures, that prevent disease and remove waste from the local environment.

Money ear-marked or set aside by local or government projects offer another point of contention. If renovating a beach to provide a long-term nesting location for sea turtles also improves property values of beach-front real estate is this a fair use of public funds? On the other hand should insurance and government aid to repair damage done to coastal properties by storms and natural disasters also allow funding to go towards wildlife conservation projects with overlapping goals?

Ideally monetary investment in a healthy environment should have a long-term payoff. But the benefits may be hard to realize for small communities or those dependent on a strong tourist economy to provide even basic income. In these situations it’s essential for the national government or non-governmental organizations to provide funding where local communities cannot. But the choice of how this is achieved and who benefits the most — the wildlife or the people — may get lost in between. Without important considerations of our moral obligations and moral desires we’ll have increasing difficulty finding balancing environmental aspects and our goals.

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1)

Wildlife conservation appears to be a very straightforward prospect: saving animals keeps those animals alive for future generations. The immediate conclusion is that it must be morally good and just in every scenario. But wildlife conservation of all types depends upon understanding the way that the animal interacts with its ecosystem, its placement within the “food chain,” fiscal and physical feasibility of conserving wildlife that may have a very broad distribution across the globe (particularly for migratory species), as well as moral dilemmas caused by trying to balance an ecosystem that has become unbalanced due to events that we may not even fully understand. In addition long-term impacts of species rehabilitation and re-population must be taken into account both to understand the impact of this species on its ecosystem for many generations to come and to estimate the overall costs of such an undertaking, as morally justified as it might be.

The Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards topics will explore a series of topics relating to general wildlife conservation efforts and underscore the necessity of wildlife conservation goals to coincide with the natural duties of the species and do so in such a way that nearby human developments are not adversely impacted as a result.

Impediments to Wildlife Conservation

Human apathy towards the local, regional, national, and world environment is one of the most widespread dilemmas that faces wildlife, livestock, and environmental health. This apathy and disregard comes not only from people who are unaware of the effects that humans have on the environment, but also businesses that avoid taxes (some of which go towards repairing environmental damage) and that illegally dump or pollute local resources in order to save money. This behavior not only harms the local wildlife in the area but can also affect the health of rivers and irrigation systems that humans rely on for their food.

Ignorance about the intrinsic relationship between various ecological and social systems also plays a large role in impeding conservation efforts of all types. Climate change is an easy example of something that impacts our ability, as humans, to go about our lives, but also impacts our food, distribution, mental health (such as a growing number of cases of light sensitivity and mental health problems in northern latitudes).

At a smaller scale local communities often view the wildlife around them as being theirs for the taking or, in the event of people that have been displaced from their traditional homeland, rightfully theirs. So they may not see anything morally wrong with killing an endangered animal that raids their crops, even though it may have a greater ecological impact than they understand.

The ability to educate people about the laws of their country as well as the moral and financial choices that they must make to kill or save an animal fall short of the true problem: human-wildlife conflict occurs because two dissimilar groups attempt to share the same land. Educating a village about the merits of wildlife conservation is good, but it can be a time consuming task that leaves out educating or properly taking into account the needs of the other party: such as a solitary male elephant that insists of raiding crops for his own survival. Faced with the option to get a free meal most people and animals would take the opportunity assuming the risks were not extraordinarily high. To thwart this fences and other deterrents may be used to keep out wildlife that are dangerous not only to the local community’s food supply but also to individuals in the community who might incite an attack. There may be many ways to achieve a satisfactory result, but the best way is the one that takes into account the traditional values and lifestyle of all groups involved.

Local, regional, and national restrictions on conservation are largely ignored by the average person, but can have substantial effects. In particular regulations to prevent certain types of flora or fauna conservation or laws that withdraw funding from organizations designed to protect the long-term health of ecosystems near human developments. This impacts wildlife and local communities: everything from water problems on the west coast to pulling funding for beach restoration in Florida impacting beach-front property values and turtle conservation.

Additionally some conservation efforts may conflict with established industries, such as logging and mining, or may be at odds with popular hobbies such as hunting. Governments take these factors into account when permitting or denying conservation efforts in specific areas the same way that the government determines where and why it is or isn’t permissible to drill for oil, even in national parks and other protected lands.

Regional conflicts, especially in Iraq and many parts of Africa have helped fuel the current elephant and rhino poaching crises. While this distant problem seems inconsequential to westerners the rebel armies and syndicates that are causing this violence are getting their weapons from organized crime groups in Asia in exchange for exotic animal parts. As more and more people are displaced by violence and conflict from this the more the west feels a need to send monetary aid to these countries. However this does nothing to solve the root cause of the conflict nor does it provide a long-term solution suitable to the people and wildlife affected.

Some governments fear NGOs that aim to provide sophisticated and pro-active wildlife conservation, particularly anti-poaching services, because it is a perceived threat to established military dictatorships and the resulting balance of power. Having foreigners come in and provide paramilitary training to locals to stop human-wildlife conflict, protect wildlife, and community education programs to reduce human-wildlife conflict is something these governments are very wary of.

Africa Video Safari #1: Cheetah Walk at Wild Horizons

I’ve previously shared some photos about my micro-adventure walking with Sylvester the Cheetah Ambassador. I have finally uploaded the high-definition video of the entire walking safari so that you can go on a casual walk with Sylvester through the African bush from the comfort of your home or mobile device! I’ve also included a few extra photos of Sylvester that you can download!

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Sylvester was orphaned as a young cub (you can read about his story online) and has been given a home at the wildlife sanctuary. Unlike lion walks and other animal encounters where wildlife are taken out of their natural habitat, this cheetah walk is giving an opportunity to Sylvester to lead a relatively normal life given his circumstances. Having not been taught to hunt he is not very dangerous, but also cannot feed himself and therefore needs someone to provide him food. Lions used in lion walks are frequently taken from their mother when young and then live in a cage when not walking with tourists. When the lions get too old to be safe around humans they are typically sent to a hunting reserve where they will be killed. Sylvester has avoided that life and Wild Horizons and their partners at the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust have provided him a bright future in wildlife conservation.

Disclaimer: Red Hawk Adventures is not affiliated with Wild Horizons or the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, but they’re great guys!

Please visit Sylvester on Facebook. You can read more about his story hereWild Horizons is on Facebook and on the web!