Little elephant is the first scientific record of dwarfism in the wild

This piece was written for the environmental news website mongabay.com, the original can be found here.
Biologists in Sri Lanka have published the first documented evidence of dwarfism in an adult wild animal. A male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) measuring just over 1.5 meters (five feet) in height was seen in an aggressive encounter with another male of average size. The elephant’s small stature was due to disproportionately short legs, according to the findings published in the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group journal Gajah. “The ‘dwarf’ was by far the main aggressor in the altercation and appeared to be older than the other, a young adult,” states the study. “Other than for the disproportionately short legs, morphologically and behaviorally the dwarf appeared normal.”The dwarf adult male was in musth when researchers saw it, with visible temporal gland secretions. Also visible is a scar at the tip of the trunk, inflicted by a noose set to catch bushmeat. Photo by Brad Abbott.Dwarf adult Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Photo by Brad Abbott.Dwarfism is a condition in which either the limbs are disproportionately short relative to the body, or the whole body is in proportion but is smaller than usual. It can be caused by a number of genetic mutations, and is relatively common in humans. It has also been selectively bred in many domestic animals, such as dogs, cats and cattle. However, dwarfism in the wild is incredibly rare.”If you think about it, most animals, especially mammals, are either predators or prey. If you are either and are born with short limbs you would be at a very big disadvantage,” Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research, and one of the authors of the paper, told mongabay.com. “A dwarf prey animal is very likely to be caught by a predator and similarly, a dwarf predator would find it very difficult to catch prey. So such individuals are very unlikely to survive in the wild. Elephants in Sri Lanka are unique (together with those in Borneo) in that they have no predators. So he was very lucky that he was born here!”Dwarf elephant in an encounter with another male. Photo by Brad Abbott.
Dwarf elephant in an encounter with another male. Photo by Brad Abbott.

Although this individual appears to be doing well, it is likely to be an isolated incidence of dwarfism within the population. “There is no real advantage to the trait, so there will not be positive natural selection for it,” Fernando explained. “Also there may be an issue in mating. However, since elephants show a high degree of sexual dimorphism with males being much bigger [than females], he may be able to manage.”

Dwarfism is heritable, but the outcome for potential offspring is unclear. “As we do not know which mutation is responsible in this case, we also do not know the pattern of inheritance,” Fernando said.

Dwarf adult Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Photo by Brad Abbott.
The dwarf adult male was in musth when researchers saw it, with visible temporal gland secretions. Also visible is a scar at the tip of the trunk, inflicted by a noose set to catch bushmeat. Photo by Brad Abbott.

The elephant has already overcome some of the biggest challenges associated with dwarfism, but does not necessarily face an easy life in the future.

“One of the main issues he could have had is suckling, as elephants feed their babies standing up and the infant has to reach up to the mother’s breasts. He has overcome this and has survived into adult hood,” Fernando said, adding that, “however, he is still subject to all the threats that elephants have to overcome, in order to survive in the wild – especially human elephant conflict. If you look closely you can see a thin, light-colored mark close to the tip of his trunk where it got caught in a noose set to capture bushmeat. On his back and legs there are lumps that are indicative of gun-shot injuries.”

Citations:

  • Wijesinha, R., Hapuarachchi, N., Abbott, B., Pastorini, J., and Fernando, P. 2013. Disproportionate dwarfism in a wild Asian elephant. Gajah. 38, 30-32. URL: http://www.asesg.org/gajah38.htm
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Myanmar faces new conservation challenges as it opens up to the world

This article was written for mongabay.com, and you can read the original version here.

For decades, one of Southeast Asia’s largest countries has also been its most mysterious. Now, emerging from years of political and economic isolation, its shift towards democracy means that Myanmar is opening up to the rest of the world. Myanmar forms part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, and some of the largest tracts of intact habitat in the hotspot can be found here. With changes afoot, conservationists are looking to Myanmar as the best hope for protecting biodiversity in the region.

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have undertaken an analysis of the environmental threats facing the country, recently published in AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. By reviewing previous studies and analyzing potential changes in the climates of ecosystems across the country, the scientists have identified the primary conservation challenges facing the nation.

Fishing on Inle Lake.  Photo by Rhenda Glasco.Fishing on Inle Lake. Photo by Rhenda Glasco.

“For many years, Myanmar’s isolation has served to protect the biodiversity which has disappeared from many other regions in Southeast Asia,” said WCS’s Dr. Madhu Rao, lead author of the study. “Things are now changing rapidly for Myanmar, which will soon experience increasing economic growth and the myriad cascading effects of climate change on its forests and coastlines. The opportunity to protect the country’s natural heritage with a strategic and multi-faceted approach is now.”

Myanmar has extremely high biodiversity and a wealth of natural resources. In the north, Himalayan foothills extend down to forested valleys that are home to tigers, elephants, and rare birds. Mountains and plateaus give way to the central plains, and the great Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river flows south, through a fertile valley, to a delta rich with mangroves and swamps before reaching the Andaman Sea. Some of these ecosystems, such as the lowland tropical forests and mangroves, are critically threatened elsewhere in the region. Myanmar is home to numerous endemic species, such as the white-browed nuthatch (Sitta victoriae), Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota), and Burmese roof turtle (Batagur trivittata). In total, 233 globally threatened species are found here, 65 of them classified as Endangered, and 37 critically so.

However, the country’s large extent of intact habitat is relative to the extreme habitat loss seen in neighboring countries. Myanmar has not escaped habitat destruction, and in fact has suffered some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. From 1990–2005, 18% of all forest area was lost to logging, much of it illegal. The lowland forests are most likely to suffer further future losses, as pressure on natural resources increases; commercial logging, agricultural expansion, and conversion to rubber and oil palm plantations are the main threats identified by the study.

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Location of Myanmar (inset) within mainland Southeast Asia. Credit: Rao M. et al, 2013.

The scientists highlight weak environmental safeguards and low investment in conservation as two of the key factors that could make Myanmar especially susceptible to the effects of rapid economic development and climate change. Currently, overexploitation of both plant and animal species for subsistence and trade, along with habitat degradation and loss, are regarded as the primary threats to biodiversity in Myanmar. With international investments expected to increase dramatically in the near future, the authors anticipate “far-reaching negative implications for already threatened biodiversity and natural-resource dependent human communities.”

Myanmar’s system of protected areas is currently insufficient to safeguard biodiversity, with few large areas under protection, according to the researchers. In addition, the system as a whole does not represent the biological and geographic diversity within the country. Limited resources, both technical and financial, are to blame. However, Rao is hopeful that these issues can be overcome: “Myanmar is in a good position to begin addressing key technical and financial constraints – especially given the level of support that is being offered to the country by external entities. The time is right to fill policy gaps related to biodiversity and protected area management.”

“Given the current trajectories of economic interest in Myanmar, urgent conservation priorities include the need to expand and strengthen the existing protected area system, strengthening the legal and policy framework related to biodiversity and protected areas including the development of effective environmental safeguards and bolstering institutions responsible for protected area management,” Rao told mongabay.com. When examining the potential impacts of climate change, the scientists reached similar conclusions, advocating the protection of large, connected areas to “allow species or communities to track changing habitat conditions through space and time.”

Wetland systems, an important habitat for both wildlife and local communities, have already been degraded and are likely to suffer further from mining and hydroelectric development. The authors recommend the development of strict regulatory frameworks to limit their effects.

“The key to mitigating impacts of extractive industries is to develop and implement strong Environmental Impact Assessments and ensure that safeguards are adequately built into policies,” Rao said.

The study’s climate change analysis revealed that Myanmar is expected to experience high exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events, as well as a range of impacts on human communities and biodiversity. The overall assessment predicts that sea level rises and storm surges will threaten coastal and estuarine ecosystems, changes in rainfall and temperature patterns will result in increased flooding and drought, and species’ ranges will shift to follow fluctuant habitats.

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A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society examines the potential implications of growing economic development and climate change on the biodiversity of Myanmar, home to wild places such as the Hukaung Valley. Photo courtesy of WCS Myanmar Program.

“The short and long-term impacts of climate change will aggravate existing threats to biodiversity in Myanmar through direct mechanisms and indirectly, through impacts on humans and their dependence on the products and services produced by terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems,” the authors write.

James Watson, WCS’s Climate Change Program Director and co-author of the study, adds, “the threat of climate change implies the need to embrace ecosystem-based strategies that will enable people to be resilient and allow species to survive. With sensible planning, the people of Myanmar can aim to protect the key ecological services that will provide an important buffer for the likely effects of climate change that are already occurring.”

Recognizing the needs of local people and ensuring their involvement with conservation projects is vital. The authors state that greater engagement of local communities is an “essential requirement,” and that “appropriately designed conservation laws and land use policies are crucial to clarify how local communities can legally manage and benefit from natural resources.”

Rao explained further that “establishing clear zones for community use with their participation is not only important to ensure access of resources by communities but also helps spatially separate core areas without human use that could potentially act as source areas for wildlife. Ensuring local communities have tenure over their lands through clear land titles is an important mechanism to provide access to resources and simultaneously preventing the overexploitation of natural resources.”

What’s more, local people can be powerful advocates for their country’s biodiversity.

“There is a growing and dynamic group of civil society groups that are concerned with environmental issues and conservation,” Rao said. “Many of these have been organized around the threat of large, poorly planned infrastructure projects. Organizations such as Burma Rivers Network and the Dawei Development Association are increasingly sharing information and organizing the general public to be more informed and to participate in local and national decision making.”

The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, Myanmar.  Photo by Rhenda Glasco.
The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, Myanmar. Photo by Rhenda Glasco.

Furthermore, tourists are rediscovering Myanmar, and responsible ecotourism may offer an additional route to biodiversity conservation.

“Ecotourism can only offer conservation benefits if the ecotourism activity is well designed with mechanisms in place that involve strong linkages between ecotourism revenues and biodiversity conservation. Involving local communities in ecotourism and making explicit linkages to conservation targets can ensure benefits,” Rao said. “WCS is currently working with local communities in Mandalay to develop a community based ecotourism project linked to conservation of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.”

Although the study emphasizes the range of challenges facing Myanmar, it also highlights the great opportunities that exist to safeguard human livelihoods and biodiversity if action is taken. “Leaders of the Myanmar government have a chance to transform their country into a model for sustainable development,” said Joe Walston, Executive Director of WCS’s Asia Program. “Saving Myanmar’s natural wonders for posterity will rely on filling knowledge gaps and correctly anticipating the responses of environment and people in a changing world.”

Paper: Rao M., Htun S., Platt S.G., Tizard R., Poole C., Myint T., Watson J.E.M. 2013. Biodiversity conservation in a changing climate: A review of threats and implications for conservation planning in Myanmar. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-013-0423-5

Climate change pushing tropical trees upslope ‘exactly as predicted’

This article was first published on mongabay.com. You can read the original here.

Tropical tree communities are moving up mountainsides to cooler habitats as temperatures rise, a new study in Global Change Biology has found. By examining the tree species present in ten one-hectare plots at various intervals over a decade, researchers found that the proportion of lowland species increased in the plots at higher elevations. The study, which was undertaken in Volcan Barva, Costa Rica, adds to a growing body of evidence that climate change is having an impact on species range distributions.

As climate change leads to warmer temperatures, species must respond if they are to survive. One way to do this is to migrate to new habitats that become suitable (and away from old ones that become unsuitable); another way is to adapt to hotter temperatures, but the speed of climate change may be too fast for some species to evolve to keep up. In some cases, if their physiology permits it, species may be capable of tolerating increases in temperature, but the likelihood of this is unknown.

The researchers first turned to herbarium records to calculate the preferred temperature of thousands of tree species, by looking at the geographic location of sampling locations and the temperature ranges they encompassed. With the temperature preferences for each species known, it was then possible to calculate a ‘community temperature score’ for each of the ten study plots, by averaging the preferred temperatures of all species present. A high community temperature score indicated an abundance of species found in the hot lowlands, whereas a low community temperature score reflected the presence of high altitude species from cooler habitats.

Looking up at a giant tree in the Costa Rican rainforest Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Looking up at a giant tree in the Costa Rican rainforest Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Plots were monitored over the course of a decade, and in nine of the ten plots the community temperature score increased. This indicates a shift in species composition, with the relative abundance of lowland species increasing over time “exactly as predicted under climate-driven upward species migrations,” Kenneth Feeley, lead author of the study with Florida International University and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, told mongabay.com.

These changes corresponded to a mean thermal migration rate of 0.0065°C per year. However, over the past 60 years regional warming has been 0.0167°C per year, so the average migration rate observed across plots is not fast enough to keep up with the rate of warming. Still, encouragingly, when looked at individually, migration in 4 of the 10 plots did keep pace with regional warming.

Changes in species composition can be the result of different processes: species abundance can change without shifts in the overall range distribution, ranges can shift, and ranges can expand or contract. Identifying which of these underlies changes in species composition is important, because “depending on which of these processes is occurring, predictions for the future of ‘migrating species’ will vary from positive (under range expansions), to neutral (under range shifts) to dire (under range contractions),” Feeley explains.

To examine the specific causes of the compositional shifts in the study plots, the researchers measured stem growth, recruitment (the establishment of new trees), and mortality. They found that the main driver behind the increase in the relative abundance of lowland species upslope was in fact the disproportionate death of higher elevation species.

“Our results indicate that dieback is happening much faster than expansion. This means that species’ ranges will shrink. As ranges shrink, species will be more and more prone to extinction,” Feeley said.

Forested mountains in Costa Rica, where tropical trees communities are changing in response to climate change. Photo credit Kenneth Feeley

Forested mountains in Costa Rica, where tropical trees communities are changing in response to climate change. Photo credit Kenneth Feeley

An earlier study by Feeley and colleagues investigated related questions in the Peruvian Andes and came to similar conclusions, suggesting that their findings may be generally applicable across the tropics.

“The rates of migration that we have documented for the forests of Costa Rica are remarkably similar to what we found in the Peruvian Andes. The rates are also fairly close to the maximum rates of migration recorded for tropical trees during the warming period that followed the last glacial maximum. As such, it appears that what we are observing is trees moving at their fastest,” Feeley said. “In the past, this was fast enough; it is not fast enough now and it certainly won’t be fast enough in the future,”

While range contractions increase the likelihood of extinction for individual species, they also have a broader impact on patterns of biodiversity.

“As species experience dieback at the trailing edges of their distributions due to temperatures becoming intolerably hot, we will get decreases in local diversity through a process that has been termed ‘biotic attrition’,” Feeley said. If species are able to shift their ranges upslope, and not just suffer dieback in the lowlands, “then we may expect an increase in alpha (local) diversity in the mountains over long time periods as large numbers of species move up out of the lowlands and into the highlands. In this case, the real losses of biodiversity are expected in the lowlands where there is no known pool of ‘hot-adapted’ species waiting to fill in the lowlands after the existing species emigrate.”

Migrating to track climate change – either by moving up mountainsides or by moving towards the poles – is not easy: temperature is not the only factor that determines whether a habitat is suitable for a species, it is just the simplest to study in order to predict how species might respond to our warming world.

“Other climatic factors such as precipitation and seasonality can be hugely important for some species as can other non-climatic factors such as soil type and slope. Furthermore, biotic factors such as competition, predation, herbivory, disease, and mutualisms, may also be just as if not more important,” Feeley explains.

“The more realistic you make the models, and the more variables you consider, the number of future options available to species almost invariably decreases.” Even if species are capable of keeping pace with climate change and move upslope, they will still suffer a reduction in available habitat as land area decreases the further up the mountain they go.

“For example, in Costa Rica there is over 6.5 times as much land area between 1800 m and the highest plot at 2800 m as between 2800 m and the highest point in Costa Rica at 3820 m elevation,” the scientists write. Species already adapted to cooler high elevation temperatures will have nowhere to migrate into. And other problems also face tropical species that are a long way from a mountain to begin with.

“Within the tropics there is no latitudinal gradient in temperature. This is very important because it means that species cannot migrate towards higher latitudes to escape the heat but instead must migrate to higher elevations where it does get invariably cooler,” Feeley explains. “For lowland species in the middle of the Amazon basin where it is remarkably flat, this means that they will have to migrate huge, perhaps impossibly huge, distances before they experience any sort of relief.” Add to that the destruction of habitat, and movement becomes more challenging still.

“If species cannot migrate upslope, then their potential responses to climate change are greatly limited. Indeed, the only options left are to adapt or to acclimate. And given the speed at which the world is now changing, I think it is safe to say that adaptation is not a viable option, at least for large long-lived trees with long generation times. So the question becomes, can lowland trees acclimate to climate change?” Feeley posits. “The future of global diversity depends on the answer to this question but right now we are nowhere close to having that answer.”

Species in the lowland tropics inhabit one of the hottest regions on earth, so it is impossible to gauge their heat preferences above present-day temperatures by looking at their range distributions. However, understanding the upper limit of species’ heat tolerance would vastly improve predictions about species survival in a warming world.

Map showing the team's study plots (green squares) stretching from the lowlands up the mountain to a height of 2800 metres. Image credit Kenneth Feeley.

Map showing the team’s study plots (green squares) stretching from the lowlands up the mountain to a height of 2800 metres. Image credit Kenneth Feeley.

“By far the single most important factor is how much warming the species can tolerate. If they can tolerate a significant amount of warming, then our predictions are relatively sanguine. If species are intolerant of warming, then their future will be dependent on migrations and predictions for the tropics become very bleak,” explains Feeley.

To date, the majority of studies examining the potential impact of climate change have focused on North America and Europe.

“In general, there is a dearth of studies looking at the impacts of climate change on the distributions of tropical species. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of species are tropical,” Feeley told mongabay.com. “We desperately need to fill the void and have more studies from the tropics. To do these studies we need a better and more systematic system of ecosystem monitoring plots and more importantly, but also harder, a better understanding of the complex abiotic (non-biological) and biotic (biological) factors that regulate species distributions and dynamics.”

Feeley and colleagues continue to monitor their study plots in Costa Rica and Peru, and are expanding their research to better understand the processes that determine species range distributions and movements.

“We are in the initial phase of a large-scale transplant study in which we are moving thousands of seedlings of dozens of tree species up and down the slopes of the Andes under various experimental treatments in order to identify the specific biotic and abiotic factors that limit their distributions,” he says. “Once we have this information we can build it into improved predictions for the fate of these species on a warmer planet.”

The best hope for conserving forests in the face of climate change, and climate-driven migrations, is to anticipate species movements, says Feeley.

“We need to expand the time scale of our thinking and determine not just where species are today but where they will be a hundred years from now. And then we need to protect both of those places and everything in between.”

Paper: Feeley K.J., Hurtado J., Saatchi S., Silman M.R., and Clark D.B. 2013. Compositional shifts in Costa Rican forests due to climate-driven species migrations. Global Change Biology, Available Online. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12300

600 vultures killed by elephant poachers in Namibia

This article was written for mongabay.com, where it first appeared. You can read it here.

As the illegal poaching of African elephants and rhinos reaches epidemic levels, other species are also suffering catastrophic losses as a direct result of poachers’ behavior. A recent incident in July, where a poisoned elephant carcass led to the death of 600 vultures near Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park, has highlighted how poachers’ use of poison is now one of the primary threats to vulture populations. Poachers poison carcasses to kill vultures, since large flocks may give away the location of poaching activity, attracting the attention of law enforcement officials.

“By poisoning carcasses, poachers hope to eradicate vultures from an area where they operate and thereby escape detection,” explains Leo Niskanen, Technical Coordinator, IUCN Conservation Areas and Species Diversity Programme. “The fact that incidents such as these can be linked to the rampant poaching of elephants in Africa is a serious concern. Similar incidents have been recorded in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia in recent years”.

African vultures are highly imperiled, and are under pressure from a range of factors, including habitat loss as well as poisonings. Drastic population declines over the last 30 years have resulted in many species being classified as threatened by the IUCN. On average, the number of vultures in West Africa has dropped by 42% during this time, with Rueppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppellii) suffering losses of up to 85%.

Rueppell's vulture (Gyps rueppellii). Photo by Andre_Botha.

Rueppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppellii). Photo by André Botha.

“The current rate of population declines will likely see the extinction of most of Africa’s vultures in the next 40-50 years should the current threats continue to have the level of impact they currently do,” André Botha, Co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Vulture Specialist Group, told mongabay.com.

“However, it could happen sooner should occurrences such as these mass-poisonings continue or escalate.” Although the magnitude of the incident in Namibia is clear, the details have been difficult to assess accurately because the mass poisoning was not reported for some weeks.

“Unfortunately, the incident was managed rather poorly and all the vultures were incinerated before they could be properly counted, identified to species or checked for tags and rings,” Botha said. “It is however safe to say that species such as African White-backed Vultures (Endangered) would have been affected the most while Lappet-faced Vultures (Vulnerable), Hooded Vultures (Endangered), White-headed Vultures (Vulnerable) and Cape Vultures (Vulnerable) could also have been involved and most likely were killed in the incident.”

The sun shines on a White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) showing off the colors in the face.  Photo by Andre Botha.

The sun shines on a White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) showing off the colors in the face. Photo by André Botha.

This was the third incident of poisoning by poachers in Namibia this year, Holger Kolberg, Ornithologist at the Namibian Ministry of Environment & Tourism, told mongabay.com.

Kolberg says that the nature of the region where the incident took place (until recently known as the Caprivi strip, but now called the Zambezi region), located close to an open border with Botswana, is one of the main difficulties in dealing with this case and with poaching in general.

“The conservation and law enforcement staff are few and far between (imagine patrolling an area the size of Belgium with 20 policemen and 10 conservation officials and you know what I mean) so we have a really tough job to stay on top of things. Add to that, that the conservation head quarters (where e.g. all the scientists are based) is more than 1000km away and you can probably imagine the difficulties one faces,” Kolberg explains.

“Commercial ivory poachers have worked out that it is difficult to patrol the area and therefore are targeting it,” he added.

As tens of thousands of elephants are poached across Africa each year, the impact ofpoisoning such carcasses is huge. Not only are the poisoned vultures killed, but young vultures in the nest will also perish when their parents die. Vultures travel enormous distances to find carcasses, so population declines can occur over a large area. In this incident tags were only recovered from two birds, but these indicated that they originated from Kimberley in South Africa, approximately 1000km away, Botha said.

The current decline may have serious ecological and human health consequences in the longer term, say IUCN experts. The loss of vultures would be keenly felt, because they play a critical role within an ecosystem. Their scavenging behavior does not endear them to people, but by quickly cleaning carcasses they limit the spread of disease to humans, domestic animals, and wildlife, as well as keeping populations of other species which spread disease in check. They also offer a valuable service to farmers, who would otherwise need to pay to dispose of diseased or injured livestock. Where vulture populations have recently crashed in India, increases in rabies and feral dogs can be directly attributed to the loss of these aerial scavengers.

Although poisoning by poachers is rife, farmers also use poison to reduce predator populations to safeguard their livestock, and this can severely impact vultures too. Kolberg sees limiting the use of poison in general as key to vulture conservation.

Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres). Photo by Andre_Botha.

Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres). Photo by André Botha.

“The most urgent action that needs to be taken is to ban completely the sale of poison for predator control. Secondly, poison to be used in agricultural applications needs to be strictly controlled and adherence to regulations needs to be enforced,” Kolberg said. “This is, of course, also the biggest challenge, because we just do not have the staff that is qualified to do all this work, the legislation is mostly there but enforcing it is nigh on impossible.”

The IUCN wants the law changed to recognize the seriousness of crimes such as the case in Namibia. “We are engaging with African governments at the highest level to raise awareness of these threats and the possible implications of the loss of vultures from the environment,” Botha told mongabay.com. “At the same time, we aim to inform communities and members of the public of the public-health threats that the loss of vultures pose to them.”

Botha concludes, “We believe that crimes of this nature should have the same priority and be subject to similar penalties as those ascribed to incidents of poaching of the mega-fauna such as elephant and rhino.”

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus).  Photo by Andre Botha.

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus). Photo by André Botha.