Keeping Amazon fish connected is key to their conservation

Imagine a fish isolated in an Amazonian lake — part of the vast freshwater ecosystem of the Amazon basin, an ever-changing network of rivers, lakes and floodplains that extends to 1 million square kilometers (386,102 square miles).

Now imagine that isolated fish as water levels rise during the wet season, and floodplains vanish beneath up to 15 meters (49 feet) of water. The fish — once restricted by the lake’s edge — swims freely into the flooded forest and mingles with others of its kind from elsewhere.

For thousands of years, isolated fish populations across the Amazon have likewise played a game of musical chairs: intermixing between flooding water bodies, migrating short and vast distances between lakes and along river channels, and then as the waters receded, forming new lake and river populations.

This connectivity — with the genetic mixing it affords — is vital for healthy fish populations, but is extremely vulnerable to changes in the annual “flood pulse” that inundates forests.

Read the rest of the article on Mongabay.

A South American Leaf Fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus). More than 2,000 fish species live in the Amazon, the highest fish biodiversity in the world. That diversity has been greatly enriched due to the periodic isolation and intermixing of freshwater species that occurs across the region. Photo © Rhett A. Butler/MongabayA South American Leaf Fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus). More than 2,000 fish species live in the Amazon, the highest fish biodiversity in the world. That diversity has been greatly enriched due to the periodic isolation and intermixing of freshwater species that occurs across the region. Photo © Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay


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

This piece was written for the environmental news website, 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 “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.”


  • Wijesinha, R., Hapuarachchi, N., Abbott, B., Pastorini, J., and Fernando, P. 2013. Disproportionate dwarfism in a wild Asian elephant. Gajah. 38, 30-32. URL:

Myanmar faces new conservation challenges as it opens up to the world

This article was written for, 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.

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 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.

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

Table Mountain, a jackass penguin, and a dung beetle: some highlights from South Africa’s Garden Route

We emerged from a grey British autumn, blinking into the bright Cape Town sunshine, and were told by our bed and breakfast host that we should go up Table Mountain straight away. The tablecloth – a curious and unpredictable cloud formation that sits on the top of the mountain, and cascades down the sides in a slow, misty waterfall – was absent, leaving the top completely clear. Roof terrace at La Rose Bed and Breakfast, Bo Kaap, Cape Town

The view from the roof terrace of La Rose Bed & Breakfast, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town.

Table Mountain is just over 1000m high, and from the top we could see south to Cape Point, and east and north towards sweeping mountain ranges and the south Atlantic coastline.

The light played tricks, so that bright clouds low on the horizon seemed to raise the distant sea level as high as us. Although it looks as flat as a table from a distance, up close the surface is sculptural, rocks weathered by the wind and clouds. The clouds rolled in as we wandered, adding a chilly atmosphere, before we rediscovered the sun’s warmth at the base of the mountain.A couple of days later, after exploring the beautiful botanical gardens and Cape Town surroundings, we drove south, to the drama of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, windswept cliffs high above crashing turquoise waves. The cliffs were lined with nests, and their cormorant residents launched themselves into the wind. Further along the coast, a sheltered cove of enormous boulders is home to a colony of penguins. African Penguins (also known as ‘jackass’, due to their braying call) are classified as endangered, and Boulders Beach is one of only a few colonies in the world. These little penguins are wonderful to watch. We scrambled over boulders one morning at low tide to reach a hidden beach, and quietly took in the scene, penguins coming and going in the waves, circling each other in mating displays, and seeing off unwelcome visitors. African penguins at Boulders Beach, South AfricaNext stop was De Hoop Nature Reserve, reached by mile upon mile of dirt track. We stayed at the peaceful restcamp, set back from the sea, with ostriches, spurfowl, weaver birds and bontebok as our most noticeable neighbours. Our view to the sea was obscured by what first seemed to be an optical illusion, a silver-white swirling shape on the horizon, that turned out to be a vast sand dune. From there we watched whales and their calves breaching and playing in the waves below. Another early morning expedition, picking our way through great piles of baboon dung (and no doubt many other kinds too) along the edge of a lagoon, saw us sitting for an hour on a rock, watching the comings and goings of a family of Cape Clawless Otters. The morning activity on the lagoon (lines of flamigos flying pink and low over the water, a busy Black-winged Stilt patrolling the shoreline below us) was punctuated by the crunching of otter teeth on their crustacean prey, and their whistles and whines as they called to each other. It was a magical encounter that ended with all four otters making their way up onto the rocks, up the bank and into the scrub, each rolling in the grass to dry their fur, and scent marking, before retiring from their morning fishing.

We continued along the coast, with visits to calm and secluded Nature’s Valley, and rugged Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma forest, before reaching the end of our journey in Addo Elephant Park. Here, game drive highlights were both large and small, with some of the smallest commanding the most attention. Dung beetle right of way, Addo Elephant Park, South AfricaWe signed up for a ‘sundowner’ game drive as soon as we arrived, and were lucky to see a tiny, month-old, still hairy elephant trying to get to grips with trunk mechanics. We were served drinks as we took in the view, watching the buffalo, kudu, warthogs, and zebra in the twilight. Baby elephant, Addo Elephant Park, South AfricaAddo Elehant Park, South AfricaAs the light faded, and we made our way back to the restcamp, we stopped to watch a  drama unfold. Not a big cat, or a predator after its prey, but a dung beetle, slowly rolling her dung ball, with her front legs on the ground and her back legs up in the air, leading the way. A small bump in the ground made her lose her grip, and the ball rolled away, covering so much ground in so little time that everyone on the safari bus exclaimed in sympathy. Dung beetle Addo Elephant Park, South Africa