THE FENCE: Depending on how you look at it, the fence could represent the curse that has driven so many wild animals to now be on the brink of extinction. On the other hand, as animal behaviourist Louis Dorfman says, the question about whether it is good or bad, all depends on how it is used! At Ukutula the fence is being used for the benefit of lions, tigers and cheetahs to research breeding programs and is contributing toward protocols for preserving wild endangered species.
In the section "the crisis" we discussed the necessity of captive breeding programs. Proof of this necessity is being experienced on an accelerated scale world-wide, but here we include just two examples of the critical need for captive breeding. Both examples are amongst the smallest of their species in the world - both are mammals. One species lives in the ocean, the other lives on land. Both present conclusive proof that leaving critically endangered animals in the wild is no longer a viable option, despite pressure from animal rights groups. In fact, the longer we wait before taking action, the less the number of survivors and the smaller the gene pool becomes for maintaining genetic diversity of the species.
Drowned Vaquita porpoise in gill net
Photo credit: National Geographic
The little Vaquita porpoise pictured above suffocated in a fishermen's gill net. Hundreds have died in this manner, bringing the species to the brink of extinction. According to rough estimates, only about three dozen of the world's smallest porpoise remain in the upper region of the Sea of Cortez in the Baja California peninsula. This is the only place it can be found in the world. Within months this sentence could read "This was the only place they could be found in the world"! With numbers falling by 40% annually, it is estimated there could be as few as eight breeding females left. What brought this beautiful mammal to such a critical situation?
We now know that this little porpoise's destiny has been inextricably linked to another neighbour that used to live in abundance in this part of the ocean and grew to about the same length of up to 7 feet (2.2 metres). The fish averaged a weight of 100 lbs (45 kg) and as much as 350 lbs (159 kg)! This fish is known as the Totoaba. It too is now virtually extinct. Why?
During the early 1930's and 1940's the fish were so abundant they swam in enormous schools close to the shore and were easily caught. Initially their value lay in the float bladder that was highly prized by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. Tons of fish were caught, virtually depleting the population in certain areas. The saddest was the waste - mountains of fish carcasses stripped of their bladders would lie and rot. According to historical reports, the smell would be so overwhelming, local residents would have to keep moving home to escape the smell. Finally, the Californians discovered the value of the tasty flesh and started harvesting the meat, reducing the tragic waste. Again, greed caused immense over-fishing and depleted the once abundant stocks.
As is so often the case, habitat destruction caused by man has also played a major role in the crisis.
Perhaps the most serious and lasting habitat impact for both the Totoaba and the Vaquita was the diversion of the Colorado river by the completion of the Hoover Dam in the mid 1930's. We now know that the brackish water flowing into the Sea of Cortez was the very alexir of life for both species. The Totoaba needed the mouth of the river for their spawning and the perfect balance of salinity caused by the mix of the river water and the ocean for their growth (since that time there have been no recorded catches that even come close to the size of the catches pictured in the photograph below). The Vaquita obviously needed this environment too, as since then their decline in numbers has been steep.
Conservalion Volunteers visited the area in December of 2016 and discovered two additional habitat impacts of man that could be having severe effects on the survival of this species, as well as countless other bird and sea life. In close proximity to the Sea of Cortez is a gold mine employing cyanide in the processing of the ore. The environmental impact of cyanide is no secret and the international mining industry has been forced in recent times to employ different processes. Not this one! The other alarming occurrence is the immensity of plastic washing up on the shores. Imagine the impact of the chemical leaching, as well as diet intake on both the sea and bird life! Neither of these issues is discussed or recognized by governments, as they are too economically sensitive.
But perhaps the most notorious impact on the existence of the species is poaching. This situation is no different to the crisis with elephants, rhino, lions and tigers where body parts are being harvested, primarily for the Chinese markets.
Memories of the once abundant and giant Totuaba. Photo circa 1954. Credit The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez
The greed for Totoaba float bladders continued unabated through the past 5 decades and because the fish were becoming more scarce, even more destructive fishing methods were introduced. Methods such as dynamite detonation and gill net fishing where the ocean is virtually scoured of all life became common practice. The little Vaquita, already coping with the sudden change of environment with the diversion of the Colorado river was now being harvested in gill nets. They would die by drowning in the nets.
To make a long story short, both species were placed on the Endangered Species list. A ban was placed by the Mexican government on fishing of the Totoaba in 2015. Despite all of the measures, illegal fishing has continued and it is estimated tons of fish have been caught by greedy as well as desperate fishermen, in addition to the recent addition of the drug cartels who are active at night when it is difficult to police activity. No wonder the Totoaba have now been named by some as "the cocaine of the sea"! The rewards of this harvest are very lucrative. As the commodity has become more scarce, the prices have soared. Currently, the Chinese will pay US$5,000 for a kilogram of float bladders. In 2015 it was estimated that 200 bladders would sell for US$3.6 million.
Despite all the bans and preservation efforts, there has been no recovery for the Vaquita. In desperation the International Committee to Protect Endangered Species has announced the last solution available - preparations are now being made to catch and enclose as many of the Vaquita as possible in some kind of protective area in a last-ditch effort to save the species. "We have to do something, as an emergency measure", says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of the International Committee. Interestingly, human trained US Navy captive dolphins will be used to find the vaquitas. The dolphins are trained to use their impressive built in sonar detectors to find objects, (in this case the vaquita), and then swim to the surface to "report" to their trainers where they have detected something.
Just one more sad story where captive breeding is the only solution remaining.
2017 Update: Our visit has brought good news, but the bad news has overwhelmed the faint rays of hope. The good news is that a vaquita count revealed that there are at least 100 vaquitas alive. Everywhere we go there is a presence of Naval and military officers on the vast beaches in San Felipe. Their mandate is to enforce a total ban on marine activity for the rescue operation that has been publicized by the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and the president of Mexico, as well as 1 billion pesos allocated to the rescue of the species. The bad news is that the efforts to save the species have been aborted as of November 6, 2017. During the third week of October and six month old calf was captured and scientists were able to sequence the genome of this little animal. Sadly, the stress was just too much and it had to be released again. On Saturday, November the 4th, there was much excitement when a mature fertile female was located and brought into the 46 square-meter floating pen which has been created close to the town of San Felipe. Sadly, within a day she started showing signs of serious stress and was released, but died shortly after release. This death was the final reason for the decision to terminate the program. The extinction of this species is a now a certainty, unless gill fishing is terminated immediately - something that is unlikely with the overwhelming commercial greed that has prevailed. Oh, and did we mention that the Sea of Cortez has been recognized as a rich source of ocean based oil? The exploration companies and waiting in anticipation for the go-ahead to start exploring in these uniquely protected waters that are sheltered from any hurricanes and storms.
CNN International has produced a very informative video for those wanting more insight and can be viewed by clicking on the following title: Vaquita: The business of Extinction
Finally, for an example of the very special relationship we as humans have with these precious animals including co-dependency, enjoy this video:
the sumatran rhinoceros
Once upon a time, hundreds, perhaps thousands of the world's smallest rhinoceros, known as the Sumatran Rhino, (also known as the "Asian two-horned rhinoceros" or "Hairy Rhinoceros") roamed the jungles of Sumatra. These special animals became known for their furry coats, (reminding us of the woolly mammoth!), a love of wallowing in muddy ponds and their wide array of vocalizations. Today, it is on the brink of extinction.
Numbers of the critically endangered two-horned rhino have fallen by around 90% since the mid-1980s. As few as 100 animals are estimated to still be alive, none in their original habitat from where they derive their name, or for that matter, in Malaysia. It is speculated that the last living rhino are now all found in Indonesia.
What has caused the virtual extinction of these precious animals? Exactly the same causes of all the other endangered species on earth. Primarily, loss of habitat. Jungles have been cut down on a vast scale in Asia to make way for agriculture and to harvest wood from the trees. Another issue plaguing the last remaining rhino's has been disease.
Finally, perhaps the saddest cause of near extinction is poaching of the rhino for the perceived medicinal benefits of their body parts in Asia and specifically, China. The gravity of the destruction can be measured by just one example, namely the Kerinci Seblat National Park. As the largest national park in Sumatra, the rhino population was estimated at around 500 in the 1980's. Due to poaching, this population is now considered extinct! The price being attained for the horn of the Sumatran rhino is estimated to be as high as US$30,000 per kilogram. Ironically, just as with the Totoaba, the more rare the animal becomes, the higher the price and the greater the incentive to hunt more.
One of the characteristics of this rhino that have made it's existence even more challenging is the fact that it is a very solitary and shy animal, except for courtship and offspring rearing. Males are also sexually mature quite late in life, only around ten years of age. The females are sexually mature a little earlier at between six and seven years. In the wild, the birth interval is estimated to be four to five years. Captive breeding studies have shown that younger males can often become too aggressive with females during courtship, to the point of even killing them. In the wild these females would have the ability to flee from the male, but in captivity this is not possible.
This knowledge has required adjustments during captive courtship to ensure no harm comes to any female. Captive breeding has been difficult until the advent of the 2000's and since then three captive births were achieved at the Cincinnati Zoo in the USA. During the preceding years much was learned about the hormonal requirements of females during ovulation which could then be applied affectively.
Only nine rhino currently live in captivity, but the research from these captive animals has been invaluable in contributing toward strategies for breeding and survival. It is a relief that captivity has at least preserved some of this species where those in the wild have been doomed to total destruction as in the case of Kerinci Seblat National Park and habitats where forests are being logged.
As a pioneer for captive breeding programs, the Cincinnati zoo in the USA has been one of the pioneers and a case study for the viability of captive breeding programs. During October of 2015 the zoo shared their last remaining Sumatran rhino with Indonesia in order to participate in a breeding program with the remaining three females and one male in captivity.
As we are now well aware, the techniques being implemented at Ukutula by scientists at Pro Fetura are revolutionising reproductive science and preventing extinction. We are confident that the cryo-preservation of sperm and ovum, as well as other cells such as skin cells, are also going to prove to be tremendously beneficial for this species!
the dynamic story of the frozen zoo
Under the section "strategies for survival", we discuss the dramatic developments in science over recent decades and the implications in terms of saving critically endangered species. One of the big challenges is what can be done where the population numbers are so small (like the vaquita and the sumatran rhino) that any interbreeding compromises the health of the species and brings about even further danger of extinction.
The following TED Talks Video presented by Dr. Ryder, director of genetic research at the San Diego Frozen Zoo will provide valuable insights into what, and why things are being done in our time. This is the link: DeExtinction
conservalion - facilitating education for conservation
embracing dynamic species preservation through applied science and education