Hope for monkey on brink of extinction: new population found in Vietnam

Scientists have discovered at least 500 Critically Endangered grey-shanked doucs in Vietnam — their only home — boosting species estimates to up to 1,500 animals

Grey-shanked douc (4) - CREDIT Nguyen Van Truong, FFI

Photo copyright: Nguyen Van Truong/Fauna & Flora International

Grey-shanked doucs live in the forest canopy of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Their numbers have been severely reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation, along with hunting for food and the pet trade.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) researchers located the 500+ animals in several subpopulations within the Kon Tum forest, which provides important connectivity to protected areas to the south and north, and across the border into Cambodia.

FFI Vietnam is now developing a conservation strategy which may include ecotourism and forest patrols for the newly discovered population. Vietnam is home to 11 Critically Endangered primate species, and a priority for primate conservation in Southeast Asia and the world.

Read the full article on Mongabay.

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Imperiled Amazon freshwater ecosystems urgently need basin-wide study, management

My latest piece for Mongabay looks at some of the threats facing the Amazon’s freshwater ecosystems, and at how a fragmented protected area network and policy framework – based on terrestrial ecosystems – is failing to protect the connectivity of the freshwater world. As multiple impacts interact with each other the functioning of the whole ecosystem is under threat. You can read the full article here.cropped-p1030605.jpg

Damming the Amazon: new hydropower projects put river dolphins at risk

A little while ago I wrote about the plight of Amazon river dolphins in the face of dam-building across the region. Here’s the opening few lines, but to read the whole piece please follow the link to the original on Mongabay. A National Geographic photographer kindly let us use some of his pictures, so it is worth a look!

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A dam-building boom is underway in the Amazon. More than 400 hydroelectric dams are in operation, being built, or planned for the river’s headwaters and basin. Scientists know that tropical dams disrupt water flow and nutrient deposition, with negative consequences for aquatic animals, especially migratory species. But little detailed knowledge exists as to the impacts of dams on specific species, or as to the best mitigations to prevent harm.

A recent study that tries to fill in that knowledge gap zeroes in on Brazil’s river dolphins. It found that as many as 26 dams could negatively impact dolphin populations and their prey.

The research, led by Dr Claryana Araújo of the Federal University of Goiás, Brazil, focused on two freshwater species: the Amazon River Dolphin, or boto (Inia geoffrensis), which is sometimes famously pink; and the Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis).

The river dolphins of South America are charismatic emblems of rainforest biodiversity, and have captured the public imagination. Swimming in rivers, lagoons, and among submerged tree trunks in flooded forests to chase down prey, they can be found as far inland as the upper reaches of Amazonian tributaries, more than 2,600 kilometers (1,615 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean.

To continue reading, click here.

Suriname’s secret species – 60 new to science found on biological expedition

A team of tropical biologists exploring the Amazon rainforest in Suriname have discovered 60 species new to science, and a wonderful gallery of some of them can be found here on the Guardian website. The expedition was part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which was developed as a means of quickly assessing the biodiversity of little-explored regions in order to catalyse conservation action. Whereas some scientific research and biodiversity surveys can take months or years, rapid assessments are one way of intensively collecting data to get a snapshot of a region in a short amount of time. I think they look like amazing fun, but unfortunately lack the ID skills and expertise to have much hope of being useful on a RAP team. Dr Trond Larson, one of the biologists on this latest expedition, has written a wonderful piece describing the team’s Suriname experience, well worth a read here on Conservation International’s website.

In the footsteps of tapirs, into the real Yasuni

Tiputini Biodiversity Station sits on a bend of the Tiputini river. The forest on one riverbank is indistinguishable from that on the other, except that on the far side the forest lies within Yasuni National Park, a place that has long been on my wishlist of dream destinations. Jose offered to take us there, and we leapt at the chance. We set off downriver by boat, pulled into the riverbank some way downstream, and jumped onto the thick mud, following tapir footprints up the bank. Jose led the way, machete in hand, as we stepped through the riverside scrub and into more open forest beyond. yasuni1

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We were aiming for a clay lick within the forest, a swampy area, rich in minerals. Like the watering hole in the African bush, a clay lick is a magnet for all kinds of species day and night: the minerals in the clay are vital for a healthy diet. Jose led us under palms, across a stream where we exchanged glances with a trio of peccaries, and past a huge freshwater mangrove tree. yasuni4

yasuni3

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Eventually we climbed a bank, and then we were looking down on swampy clay, bright in the sunshine, covered in footprints. A solitary parrot quietly made its way up into the branches of a tree, but we saw no other creatures. Jose revealed he had never been there before, but had led us through the disorientating jungle based on directions given to him by his brother.  yasuni5

Despite not seeing so many species that morning, it was a thrill to be in Yasuni itself, and evidence of the diverse visitors to the clay lick was all around. This video, filmed in the Peruvian Amazon, gives a wonderful idea of who might have been there just before, or just after us. If you watch until the end, you might understand why I sometimes felt a little nervous during my PhD field seasons, on the trail at dawn.

 

The best commute in the world, and searching for a subflava in a gold mine

One of the main questions we were investigating was the importance of rivers in structuring populations of our chosen antbird species (the Peruvian warbling antbird Hypocnemis peruviana, yellow-breasted warbling antbird H. subflava, and the chestnut-tailed antbird Myrmeciza hemimelaena). In other words, how connected are individuals on one side of a river with those on the other? Are they equally likely to mate with those on near and far sides of a river? And if there are river effects, do these differ between species, depending on their ecology and behaviour? (These are questions at a local scale, that form part of broader questions relating to the diversification of Amazonian birds; more background information about the project is given in an earlier post.)

It is possible to look at population connectedness by using genetic analysis of blood samples. In a technique analogous to DNA fingerprinting, individual patterns of genetic markers can be described for each bird. Instead of using these to work out the relationship between two birds, the distribution of markers within a whole population can be assessed. Clusters in the data reflect groups of individuals that are more closely related to each other than to other groups. These clusters can then be matched with their geographical location, and if they fall on opposite sides of a river, then this would suggest that the river is a barrier to gene-flow (interbreeding) between populations.

Our analyses are still not complete, so the final part of the story is not yet known, but all this meant that we needed to cross the river to collect samples. Instead of setting off into the forest in the morning, we would descend the 250 stairs from the high upland terra firme, down to the riverbank. We’d scramble into a boat, and if the engine started quickly, we’d be on our way in the dawn twilight, watching the sky change colour, and the mist rise from the river. It was only a short journey down river, either 10 minutes to the village of Boca Amigos, or 20 minutes to a satellite station belonging to CICRA, known as CM1. But it was a beautiful way to travel to ‘work’, one that I never failed to appreciate, and one that was always different depending on the weather and light.

Boca Amigos is a small village, home to a handful of families, with most houses also seeming to double as a shop or bar. There’s a small school, and a football pitch, as can be found in every Peruvian community no matter how small. We’d arrive before many people were up, and would quietly walk between the houses to reach the trails into the forest beyond.

The journey to Boca, and our exploration of the surrounding forest, also brought home one of the less beautiful aspects of life in the Amazon: gold mining. We would pass mining dredges on our way downriver (in fact we could hear them, generators running late into the night, from CICRA).

The price of gold keeps on rising, and the opportunity to make a decent living in the jungle by mining gold continues to attract migrants, particularly from the Andes. The work is tough and relentless, but profitable. It results in huge mounds of gravel, deforestation, and leaves behind desolate expanses of bare ground, and pits filled with polluted water.

The cheapest and easiest way to extract gold is to use mercury. Mercury is therefore being constantly washed into the river, entering the forest ecosystem and food chain, and is likely to be having a terrible effect not only on the forest species but also on human health. The whole issue of mining is complex and controversial: the needs of people and the protection and conservation of the rainforest requires a careful balance, which has not yet been reached. It is an issue right across Amazonia. Although the blue-tarpaulin covered mining camps that we walked through behind Boca were small-scale, some mining operations have an impact on a much greater scale, and anyone who has flown between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado will have seen a huge scar in the otherwise mostly unbroken rainforest canopy.

Mist-netting around a gold mine was not something I had expected when I set off for Peru. It was shocking to see the devastation of the mines. We would climb over huge felled trees, and navigate around the pits, trying to hear our species singing above the noise of the generators.

We found birds adjacent to the mines, and were defecated on from a great height by a group of howler monkeys who objected to our presence, so jungle life continues in the adjacent forest. This gave some hope that once abandoned, the mines could be reclaimed by the forest. But I have no idea how long it will take for all traces of the mines to be gone, as the ground has not simply been cleared, but excavated, and the effects of mercury – invisible and far-reaching – are likely to persist for much longer. Working there also gave us a more personal perspective on the whole situation. We exchanged buenos dias with miners as they were preparing their breakfast, bemused at the site of us with our microphones and mist-netting gear, and they came to our rescue when our boat engine wouldn’t start. It is easy to say that the mining should be stopped – and heartbreaking to learn about the extent of the destruction across Peru and beyond – but is not easy to achieve, especially whilst also ensuring the livelihoods of those who currently depend on it. A much more in-depth and eloquent report on gold mining can be found on the Smithsonian magazine website, and an award-winning new film, Amazon Gold, documents the destruction of the Peruvian rainforest for gold. The trailer below is well worth a look.