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 reproduction disease and genetic research, thereby contributing toward protocols for the preservation of the species in the wild.
Captively bred to prevent extinction of the wild
In the section "the crisis" we discussed the necessity of captive breeding programs. Under this necessity, zoos around the world are included. Not all zoos are good though! For example, National Geographic included recent coverage of tigers caged in a small cage in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. Apparently these animals also serve as food to many of the visitors! Conservalion is appalled by this kind of "zoo" and cannot support any caged animal program simply for the viewing of humans. There has to be a conservation aspect for any captive breeding program to have legitimacy.
Proof of the necessity of captive breeding programs is being experienced on an accelerated scale world-wide, but here we include examples of the critical need for captive breeding. These examples include the smallest of their species in the world - all are mammals. One species lives in the ocean, others live (lived)on land, another inhabits the sky. All 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.
The wild is not this beautiful place that people imagine it to be anymore" Dr. Jane Goodall
The following conversation with Dr. Jane Goodall at the Taronga Zoo provides great insight into captive breeding programs being conducted at Ukutula and zoos around the world.
Question: "Could you tell us what role zoos play in today’s world?"
Answer: "Animal rights groups are demanding the shut down of zoos and that all animals should be in the wild…I’ve lived in the wild. I've seen the reality.
I remember sitting and watching a group of chimpanzees in Taronga who are clearly having a wonderful life. Keepers who know them and love them, veterinarians who can look after them if they’re sick, and I was watching this group as the sun was setting, the males were grooming, the young ones were playing. It was very peaceful. And then I think of chimpanzees out in the wild, where they’re in a forest, you hear the chainsaws coming closer, they’re in danger of being caught with the wire snares, losing a hand or a foot, they’re in danger of being shot for bush meat or mothers shot to sell the babies and I’m thinking - the wild is not the beautiful place that many people imagine it to be, it’s not like that anymore.
Where would I rather be? With this protected content group of animals in the zoo, or with those poor unprotected endangered animals in the wild? Zoos are playing a really important role in conservation, contributing toward conservation of animals in the wild, captive breeding, reintroduction into the wild and education. …This education is critical in being in the actual presence of the animal - looking into the eyes of the animal, even being close enough to smell the animal helps to understand what the animal really is, rather than seeing a picture or tv program."
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.
March 2018 Update: At the end of last years summer, a network of acoustic monitors detected only 22 remaining vaquita. Biologists are increasingly of the opinion that the last remaining porpoises could well be extinct by May when the peak totoaba fishing season takes place. In the interim, government subsidies to stop the fishing have not been paid in 3 months. Payments that were made were found to be fraught with irregularity, including payments to dead people and non-existent people. In addition, conservationists who tracked the prevention activities of the Federal police in high powered boats experienced for 10 pursuits of illegal fisherman and not a single apprehension! The power of the cartels and the money at stake is obviously stacked against the chances of this little mammal. There is evidence that the cartels finance fishermen for their gill nets and "panga" boats, if they don't pay, they are simply assassinated. There is also some evidence that fisherman are now just waiting for the final extinction of the species which will restore open fishing rights again.
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
The following is 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 revolutionizing reproductive science and preventing extinction. Cryo preservation of sperm and ovum, as well as other cells such as skin cells, are also critical this species! One thing though - a researcher recently expressed doubts that this species could be rescued. There are just too few animals left to be able to successfully apply reproductive science. This is such an important fact for every endangered species - the chances of survival are materially reduced the longer animals are left in the wild. Consider the next example:
Bramble Cay Melomy
In the 1970's several hundreds of these rats were believed to occupy a small island on the Australian Gold coast. By 1992 the population had declined so precipitously that the Queensland government classified the species as endangered. The cause? This was the first known victim of global warming where the rats suffered a dramatic reduction in their habitat due to rising sea levels. With the knowledge we now possess as a result of captive breeding we know that if something had been done much earlier, the species would probably be in existence today. Rodents are easy breeders and with the advances in reproductive science, the situation could have been so different. Sadly, the Bramble Cay Melomy is now extinct, never to be seen again.
Photo Credit: University of Queensland
Oriental White-backed Vulture
A California Academy of Sciences report provides the following information on captive breeding of this vulture which is in grave danger of extinction: "While habitat loss and degradation are the primary drivers of rising extinction rates around the world, they are not the only culprits. The study authors noted several new threats that have emerged in recent years, including the use of a veterinary drug called diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug similar to ibuprofen that was introduced to the veterinary market on the Indian subcontinent in the early 1990s. While cattle can tolerate high doses of the drug, it soon became apparent that Asian vultures cannot - shortly after feeding on dead livestock treated with diclofenac, the birds die from renal failure. Since 1992, the population of Oriental White-backed Vultures has declined by more than 99%.
Based on the current trends, scientists estimate that the Oriental White-backed Vulture will be extinct in the wild in less than a decade. The only hope for the bird's survival is to establish an aggressive captive breeding program, which would enable scientists to reintroduce vultures to the wild once diclofenac is no longer in use. California Academy of Sciences ornithologist Dr. David Mindell has been studying genetic diversity in current and historical Oriental White-backed Vulture populations to help guide these captive breeding efforts and assess species status of the bird's closest relatives. His research has provided a clear course of action for ensuring that this species survives with a healthy, diverse gene pool.
Captive breeding programs are just one of the conservation strategies that are helping to mitigate species extinctions."
Photo Credit: Science News for Students
The Giant Panda
From a species in crisis and about to become extinct, thanks to the intervention by multiple zoos across the globe including the US and China, the Giant Panda is no longer an endangered species. So much has now been learned that can be beneficially applied to those remaining in the wild. This is one of the most convincing examples of the power of captive breeding programs in preventing extinction.
The San Diego zoo has published a comprehensive summary of the Giant Panda story. We have attached it for your reading!
The following extract from a Smithsonian study is further indisputable proof that the research being conducted at centers such as Ukutula Conservation Center and the many zoos around the world are indispensable in conserving the species.
Smithsonian Study Reveals Precipitous Decline of Genetic Diversity in Wild Cheetahs Findings Highlight Importance of Strategic Breeding Plans for Cheetahs in Zoos Jun. 21, 2016
The planet's last stronghold of wild cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) is losing genetic diversity at an alarming rate according to a new study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and partners published June 21 in the journal Biological Conservation. This is in direct contrast with the population of cheetahs in zoos, which is as genetically diverse as it was 30 years ago because of cooperative and strategically managed breeding programs, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Cheetah Species Survival Plan. This study provides objective proof that management of cheetahs in zoos is working, said Kim Terrell, lead author on the study, former SCBI doctoral student and current director of research and conservation at the Memphis Zoo. It is crucial that wildlife institutions continue to work together to invest in methods to complement conservation efforts in the wild, ensuring the long-term survival of the species. Genetic diversity plays a key role in the overall health of a species, its ability to fight disease and even whether it can easily reproduce. Cheetahs survived a population collapse more than 12,000 years ago that led to inbreeding and a loss of genetic diversity. As a result, modern cheetahs are prone to disease and have poor sperm quality. The study looked at the DNA of more than 100 male cheetahs in Namibia over the past 30 years to determine how modern population declines affect a species that already suffers poor genetic health. What the study's authors found surprised them, Terrell said. They had expected to find that, as a result of their lower genetic diversity, the cheetahs in the wild would have poorer sperm quality than those in zoos. What they found instead is that sperm quality was equally poor across both populations, with the exception of about 1 in 10 male cheetahs that had what the researchers consider to be "normal" sperm quality. This means we might not see serious health consequences until the cheetahs in the wild hit a certain threshold of low genetic diversity, said Adrienne Crosier, co-author, SCBI conservation biologist and manager of the Cheetah Species Survival Plan. It is important that we capture the genes of the 10 percent of males with good sperm quality and other highly beneficial traits, for example, by freezing their sperm. These lineages may be the key to helping bolster the species' chance at survival. SCBI has a cheetah breeding center at its headquarters in Front Royal, Virginia, designed to help create a genetically diverse and self-sustaining insurance population of cheetahs in human care. Since it was opened in 2007, 25 surviving cubs have been born there. SCBI is also a member of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), a partnership of eight facilities collectively managing more than 25,000 acres devoted to studying and breeding endangered species. Six of those facilities study cheetahs and have cheetah breeding centers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies cheetahs as vulnerable to extinction. The population in Namibia —the species' last stronghold —faces numerous threats, including habitat loss and conflict with livestock farmers. According to the study's authors, conservation efforts in the wild need to focus both on protecting habitat and reducing conflict with humans. We need to find a way as soon as possible to reverse the population decline —or at least stem it, Terrell said. Cheetahs have already come back from the brink of extinction once in history. We don't know if they can do that a second time. Additional authors on this paper are Dave Wildt and Warren Johnson at SCBI, Stephen O'Brien at St. Petersburg State University and Nova Southeastern University, Nicola Anthony at the University of New Orleans and Laurie Marker at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia.
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 volunteers - education through conservation
embracing dynamic species preservation through applied science and education