Stopping animal cruelty in its tracks – Zafigo.com, June 6 2018

Aaron Gekoski is an environmental photojournalist from the UK who has spent over a decade documenting human-animal conflict. He has recently garnered much attention for his photography project which highlights animal cruelty at wildlife tourism attractions in Thailand. He spoke with Zafigo about the issues with wildlife tourism, being a responsible tourist, and his own goals.

Why did you choose to document this in Thailand?

This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just Thailand, it’s happening in [the United States of] America, the UK, and other places in the west too. Thailand seems to be the epicentre [of wildlife cruelty] as a lot of animals are kept in captivity in a country that has non-specific laws regarding cruelty. The Prevention of Cruelty Act isn’t specific on how big a holding area should be, what you should feed animals, what constitutes cruelty, and how an animal should be trained.

There are things like orangutan boxing shows daily. The majority of people are laughing at it and don’t seem to notice anything wrong, but they don’t see behind the scenes and how the animal may be trained, for example. Also, in other places, animals may have been taken from the wild and then have to live the rest of their lives in captivity.

What did you witness on your trip in Thailand?

The boxing orangutan shows were very bad. There were elephant rides being offered at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, and the elephants were not in a good state. They were skinny, swaying around and didn’t look healthy. Crocodiles there were in poor conditions.

Pata Zoo has four orangutans, a gorilla, and some chimps kept in filthy small cells at this zoo at the top of a shopping mall. They have no stimulation and [live in] an unsuitable environment. At Phuket Safari ECO+, there was a monkey theatre and elephants being made to perform in small rooms. It’s not happening just in Thailand, I really want to stress that.

Are there some places branding themselves as fair and sustainable but not necessarily abiding by these practices?

It’s quite common for places to greenwash. A lot of places dress themselves up as conservation initiatives. They say they’re all about conservation and about reintroduction, but often, they don’t end up doing it. They are money-making schemes working to the detriment of animals. I’m not anti-captivity; there are many zoos doing good things for conservation. I’m anti-cruelty. That’s the goal of this project, to fight cruelty.

Can you name some wildlife tourism operations worthy of support and others to avoid?

In Thailand, Wildlife Friends of Thailand are doing amazing things and have an excellent reputation. Safari World [Bangkok] is the glitziest, the most Disney-fied. What we witnessed was orangutan boxing and a morbidly obese orangutan who sat in a holding area that was much too small, begging for food. It doesn’t fill you with much hope when at the most high-end attraction you witness some of these shows and alarming situations. Phuket Zoo wasn’t great either, and Pata Zoo has had a lot of bad press also.

On the other hand, places like Houston Zoo and London Zoo put a lot of money into conservation. I used to live in London and visit London Zoo. Seeing animals up close inspired me to get into this industry. Most people don’t have access to these animals, so zoos and aquariums are important, but they must be done responsibly. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

Did you have any difficulty getting these shots?

I just paid for tickets and filmed animals as I found them. This is all imagery that’s available and open to the public at any time. Those cage images weren’t behind the scenes, these are conditions animals live in.

I don’t want to speculate, but everything I hear about how these animals are kept and trained is bad. For example, elephants go through something called the crush, which is the most horrific form of animal abuse possible. They are literally beaten; their spirits are broken by handlers and they’re beaten until completely submissive.

What reactions have you had to your project?

I’ve seen the worst sides of humanity, and on the back of this, also seen some of the best. People have been donating; someone’s buying me a new camera and a guy is building me a site for free. The idea is to set up a platform so people can flag certain operations. It’ll be called Raise The Red Flag. People can log on to the website and make a report with photos. Once there are enough reports, we will speak to relevant authorities and try to make as much noise as possible.

Do you have any tips for those when choosing wildlife-related tourism options?

That’s why I’m setting up this platform, because there isn’t enough info out there. In general, if it involves animal shows and performances, there’s a red flag there right away. I don’t think animals should be made to perform for people because the way animals have been treated in order to make them perform is quite worrying. You can always do research on a place you are going to, check whether they have conservation initiatives, look at TripAdvisor and find out where they got the animals from.

(First published on Zafigo.com on June 6 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/stopping-cruelty-in-its-tracks/ )

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US considers imposing restrictions on Chinese researchers – Asian Scientist, May 8 2018

The White House is considering a proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities.

A proposal under consideration in the White House to prevent Chinese researchers from performing sensitive research at US universities has sparked concern within the scientific community. The move stems from fears surrounding intellectual property theft between China and the United States. If enforced, it could prove detrimental for many of the estimated 350,755 Chinese students in the country, as well as Chinese researchers.

China is proving to be a rising force in research and technology; the US National Science Foundation reported that in 2016, for the first time, China released a higher number of scientific publications than the US. The nation’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan—a blueprint aimed at transforming China into a global leader in high-tech industries such as robotics and aerospace—illustrates the government’s intention to continue to advance. This move has not been welcomed by the US, primarily due to fears over theft of US intellectual property.

A probe into China’s policies and practices relating to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation by the Office of the US Trade Representative, launched in August 2017, found that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between US$225 billion and US$600 billion annually. These findings were largely what prompted the Trump administration to announce plans to place tariffs of US$50 billion on Chinese goods, a move that provoked similar retaliation by China and ignited fears of an impending trade war between the nations.

The proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities is the most recent manifestation of these tensions.

“[This proposal], in conjunction with some of the other policies that the administration has issued with respect to immigration reform and restricting foreign nationals, has raised concerns among academic institutes and scientists in particular that the US is being seen as an unwelcoming nation,” said Ms. Joanne Carney, director of government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. “Rather than coming here to study, students will go to other places and those nations will benefit from their expertise.”

The AAAS has released an official statement, signed by its Chief Executive Professor Rush Holt, on the travel of Chinese researchers to the US, recommending that the administration “work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity.” While it remains unclear what kind of restrictions are being tabled, or how much traction the idea is gaining in the White House, Carney noted that universities in the US have been outspoken about their views on the proposal.

“[The universities] recognize that there are concerns and are open to working with the government in order to craft a positive solution that not only helps to protect national security, but still allows for openness and helps to maintain the US as a welcome nation in terms of research,” Carney said.

“Scientific progress depends on the free flow of ideas, openness and transparency. The US in particular has benefitted from the unfettered exchange of information between scientists of many nations. We are very concerned about the possibility of restrictions in terms of science research,” she added.

(First published on Asian Scientist on May 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/05/academia/us-considers-imposing-restrictions-on-chinese-researchers/)

A tern for the better – Irish Examiner, April 2 2018

A hugely successful conservation project has seen an Irish island nominated for a major European award, writes Amy Lewis.

In 1989, a conservation project on tiny Rockabill Island off north Dublin took flight and now it’s in the running for a major European environmental award.

The Rockabill Roseate Tern Conservation project is the only Irish initiative out of 25 finalists in this year’s Natura 2000 awards, a pan-European award which recognises excellence in the management of Natura 2000 sites.

Led by BirdWatch Ireland, this project focuses on conserving one of Europe’s rarest seabirds, the roseate tern, which owing to almost three decades of monitoring and conservation efforts, is now thriving here.

The Rockabill colony has grown from 152 pairs in 1989 to 1,603 pairs in 2017, making the island a nesting habitat for 47% of the European population.

This year marks the first time that an Irish-born project has been shortlisted for a Natura 2000 award.

Commenting on the nomination, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Stephen Newton said that, in the coming weeks, he hopes to drum up support from the public, whose vote determines who will win the European Citizen’s Award.

“We think we have a good project. We have a tiny site with 80% of the biogeographical population of these birds on it,” says Stephen, who coordinates the project which is supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

“It’s of phenomenal importance; every bird is ringed, we know each bird’s mother, father, where it was born and what year they were born in.

“We have built a big database of their movements and survival rates and know an awful lot about them. It’s quite unique.”

It was the departure of the last lighthouse keepers from Rockabill in the late 1980s that prompted BirdWatch Ireland to step in. Up until then, roseate terns had gained protection and nesting spots in the gardens of the lighthouse keepers and it was feared that their absence may cause the already small population to decline further.

In 1988, Rockabill was declared a Special Protection Area (SPA) and the following year, BirdWatch Ireland sent the first pair of wardens to the island. Since then, wardens have resided on the island annually between April and August.

Much of the work involves increasing the area of nesting space for these ground-nesting birds by removing non-native vegetation such as tree mallow and placing down nest boxes.

“The terns like nesting under tree mallow but only around the edges as they like seeing what is going on around them to avoid predators. We essentially remove all that, compost it and put out nest boxes so that we can get far more terns nesting in the same area,” explains Stephen, who says there are currently about 900 nest boxes on the island.

The wardens check each nest daily to monitor the bird’s progress, see how many eggs were laid and when they hatch. All of the chicks are then ringed and monitored throughout their lifespan.

We have four or five hides around the tiny island and we sit in those for a couple of hours at a time to scan and try to read ring numbers of as many animals as we can. Because of this, we have a lot of information on the birds and how long they survive. Our oldest bird is 25 years old.

The ringing system also allows the team to track the whereabouts of the terns post breeding season; occasionally, they receive photographs of them in unexpected locations such as Lake Geneva and the River Seine.

It’s uncertain why the European population of roseate terns declined to globally-threatened status in the years preceding this project.

According to Stephen, it’s likely that persecution by predators and loss of key breeding sites resulted in birds becoming displaced and not breeding for several years. While many of them eventually settled on Rockabill, there are also about 200 pairs at Lady’s Island in Wexford.

Though it has been hugely successful, the Roseate Tern project is not without its challenges. Stephen says that the main hurdle he faces is looking after the wardens who reside on Rockabill in accommodation leased from island owners Irish Lights.

“The main thing is keeping those people alive during these few months! Everything has to be taken out to the island, including food, water, gas and diesel.

“I have to keep a generator running and often I get a call during the night to say it isn’t working. If I can’t fix it over the phone, I have to get out there as soon as I can as we need electricity to power laptops and chargers.”

Ensuring that the project has adequate funding is another challenge; at present, it costs approximately €40,000 a year, much of comes from the EU LIFE programme.

While not involved in the project himself, bird expert Eric Dempsey has been following the work and says it’s an “incredible attraction” for birdwatchers on his guided tours.

“Very few of us are able to go to the island which is the way it should be. Terns are very prone to disturbance; if you disturb them from nesting, gulls can swoop in and take their eggs,” he explains.

“The wonderful thing about this project is that in places like Skerries, the birds are feeding right off of the piers and coastal walkways so I don’t need to bring people to the island.

For people to be able to see the roseate tern catching fish 20 metres off shore, it’s as good as seeing Trinity College or the Rock of Cashel.

“This is unique to Dublin and special to the east coast and we should cherish it.”

Voting closes on April 22 and votes can be cast via natura2000award-application.eu/finalist/3188

(First published in the Irish Examiner on April 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/outdoorsandgarden/a-tern-for-the-better-835300.html)

Leopards that live in cities are protecting people from rabies – New Scientist, March 8 2018

When leopards stray into a city, people often fear them because of the danger they pose. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies.

About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, as they bite people and pass on the rabies virus.

Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander Braczkowski at the University of Queensland and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of Mumbai. They found that 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet consists of feral dogs.

All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1,500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1,000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases.

“This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan.

The same could be true of other leopard populations that encroach on cities. The team found 19 studies describing leopards eating feral dogs in Asia and Africa. However, O’Bryan says that they would need to be studied more closely to be sure that they bring the same benefit.

The researchers also emphasise that leopards can  cause harm. In particular, they often kill livestock – leading people to persecute them.

“It’s difficult to weigh up the costs with the benefits with a large cat species that’s known to attack and even kill humans,” says O’Bryan. “We just want to provide an angle that hasn’t been explored before, despite the pieces of the puzzle being in front of us the whole time.”

Journal reference: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, DOI: 10.1002/fee.1776

(First published online by New Scientist. Available online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2163166-leopards-that-live-in-cities-are-protecting-people-from-rabies/)

Driving Down Pests – The Scientist, August 28 2017

 A computer model estimates that gene-drive technology could wipe out populations of an invasive mammal on islands. 

The government of New Zealand has a goal: to wipe out the most damaging introduced predators in the nation by the year 2050 through the Predator Free 2050 program. At present, rats, possums, and stoats have pushed native species such as the kakapo to near extinction and cost the country NZ$70 million (USD$50.5 million) in pest control measures and NZ$3 million (USD$2.2 million) in agricultural losses annually.
Acknowledging that the existing pest-control methods are not going to be enough for this ambitious project, scientists involved in the program have placed their hopes in engineered gene drives: a technology that involves meddling with the rules of inheritance and increasing the likelihood a deleterious gene will be passed to the next generation of a species. With the advent of the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to alter DNA at precise locations using a single guide RNA and a DNA-cutting molecule called Cas9, the idea of using gene-drive technology to turn populations on themselves is now within reach.

In a study published August 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Adelaide have provided modeling evidence that gene drives could indeed be an effective means to wipe out entire populations of invasive vertebrates on islands.

“The most obvious potential advantage to using gene-drive technology for this purpose is species specificity,” says Luke Alphey, a genetic pest management expert at the Pirbright Institute in the U.K. and a cofounder of Oxitec, which is commercializing other genetic-modification methods to control insects. “Genetic approaches are transmitted through mating, so the direct effect is only on the target species.”

“That aspect alone is phenomenally powerful if we are talking about working in an ecologically fragile environment,” notes Alphey, who was not involved in the study. He says the current approach for managing invasive species consists predominantly of “harmful mass poisoning.”

In this recent study, the scientists chose to test gene-drive strategies on a simulated island population of 50,000 mice that they constructed in silico. Invasive rodents are likely responsible for the greatest number of extinctions and ecosystem changes on islands, according to a 2006 study. The house mouse (Mus musculus) in particular has been shown to have a devastating effect on seabird colonies in places such as Gough Island in the South Atlantic and New Zealand’s Antipodes Islands.

“We also focused on islands because in the long term . . . if this technology is deemed a good idea and acceptable by society, islands will be the first place it is carried out as it is easier to control,” explains coauthor Paul Thomas. “There’s a long way to go before we think about using it, but we wanted to conduct this study to see if it could be a possibility.”

Using a mathematical model, the scientists tested four CRISPR-based gene-drive strategies that could be readily developed based on what is within the current literature. The “heterozygotic XX sterility” strategy, also known as the “daughterless strategy,” involves using the gene drive to spread a male sex-determining gene so that all carriers develop as males regardless of their sex chromosomes. As a result, there will be a deficiency of females and the population will eventually crash.

“Heterozygotic XX sex reversal” is a similar technique, but contains additional genetic cargo that enables XX males to transmit the gene drive. “Homozygotic XX sterility” achieves population suppression through the infertility of homozygous females. The final strategy, “homozygotic embryonic non-viability,” causes embryonic fatality through gene mutation. All of these strategies were based on the basic CRISPR-Cas9 system using a single guide RNA.

The heterozygotic XX sterility strategy failed to present itself as a viable method, the researchers found, as carrier XX males are infertile and therefore unable to pass on the gene drive. The paper notes that this method would only prove effective on the basis of a continuous release of gene drives into a population, a process that would be costly and time-consuming.

The remaining three strategies proved capable of causing rapid population decline to the point of elimination. The researchers conclude that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying one of these gene drives could destroy an island mouse population of 50,000 individuals within four to five years.

The researchers acknowledge that, for all of these strategies, the potential for the formation of resistant genes poses a problem, as has been observed in laboratory studies of mosquito gene drives. However, by conducting further tests that involved targeting several different DNA sequences with more than one guide RNA, they found that the possibility of this resistance is reduced.

Michael Wade, who studies population genetics and mating at Indiana University, is not convinced that this solution to resistance comes without consequence. He says that by using multiple guide RNAs as the authors suggest, one could increase the risk of targeting the genome at unintended sites, which may lead to other problems.

“Release of this type of construct raises the risk of reducing the target specificity of CRISPR-Cas9 and increasing the possibility of it jumping to a different species, possibly an endemic relative of the invader species targeted for eradication,” he writes in an email to The Scientist.

Concerns have been raised by members of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a consensus study report about the potential consequences of using gene drives for species eradication, including the unintentional spread to other populations, unpredictable negative effects on the ecosystem, and ethical implications. Thomas and his colleagues are “very conscious” of these worries, he says.

“I think this method definitely has potential but we do need to do more studies, have the conversation around whether it is safe to use, and see if the benefits outweigh the risks. We are keen to engage with all members of the community,” he says. His team has now begun conducting a mouse-based gene-drive experiment in the laboratory.

 

T.A.A. Prowse et al., “Dodging silver bullets: good CRISPR gene-drive design is critical for eradicating exotic vertebrates,” Proc Royal Soc B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0799, 2017.

 

(First published on The Scientist online on August 28 2017. Available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50180/title/Driving-Down-Pests/)

What is the best antidote for a jellyfish sting? (Clue: it’s not urine) – The Guardian UK, May 9 2017

What should you do if a jellyfish stings you? Scientists have found that applying vinegar is the best solution, and that popular remedies including urine, lemon juice, and shaving foam could make the situation worse.

A recent study in Toxins, which investigated the efficacy of various remedies for stings from the Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) concludes that rinsing with vinegar before applying heat is the most effective treatment. The commonly recommended treatment of seawater and ice was found to cause more harm than good.

Dr Tom Doyle, a biologist at NUI Galway and co-author of the paper, conducted research on both the Atlantic and Pacific man o’ war. He said the findings represented a complete U-turn.

“For me it was certainly surprising as we have been recommending seawater and ice for the last 10 years,” he said. “But that’s the nature of science; we have to hold up our hands and say we were wrong. We went back to basics and tested different methods. There’s no doubt about our findings. We are absolutely 100% certain that vinegar does the trick.”

The scientists tested various solutions on sheep and human blood cells suspended in agar. The method of scraping away tentacles was found to increase pressure on the affected area, causing the stinging capsules to fire more venom into the victim. However, applying vinegar was shown to prevent further venom release, allowing the tentacles to be safely removed. Immersing the area in 45C water or applying a heatpack resulted in fewer red blood cells being killed.

In contrast, rinsing with seawater was found to worsen stings by spreading venom capsules further, while cold packs caused them to fire more venom. The infamous urine theory – popularised by an episode of Friends – was also found to aggravate stings. Baking soda, shaving cream, soap, lemon juice, alcohol and cola yielded similar results.

Although vinegar is used for many other jellyfish stings, the man o’ war has long been considered an exception, with many guidelines warning against its use. While it’s true that the man o’ war is different – they are technically a siphonophore and not a jellyfish – the scientists behind this research are now arguing that all stings be treated equally.

Biologist and jellyfish expert Dr Lisa Gershwin agrees that treatment with vinegar works, but expressed concern about the hot water recommendation.

“Hot water does take away the pain but this is a neurological process; it has nothing to do with denaturing the venom,” she said. “Fresh water activates discharge and by applying heat, you are dilating the capillaries and allowing venom to go further into the body.”

The study was prompted by an influx of man o’ war on European coasts last summer and built upon the findings of a study on box jellyfish conducted by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. The researchers will now turn their attention to the lion’s mane jellyfish to determine if the same conclusions apply.

(First published in The Guardian UK. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/09/vinegar-best-antidote-jellyfish-stings-urine-lemon-juice-make-worse-study)

Parachuting birds into long-lost territory may save them from extinction – Science magazine, May 5 2017

Saving the Spanish imperial eagle was never going to be easy. This enormous bird, which once dominated the skies above Spain, Portugal, and northern Morocco, saw its numbers drop to just 380 breeding pairs in 2014, thanks to habitat loss, poaching, poisoning from farmers and hunters, and electrocution from power lines. Now, a new study highlights a potential way of restoring eagle populations to their former glory: dropping them into long-abandoned habitat.

One common approach for bringing threatened species back from the brink is to reintroduce them to the places they were last known to live. For example, the sea eagle in Scotland—which was hunted to extinction on the Isle of Skye in 1916—was successfully reintroduced in 1975 to Rùm Island near its last known breeding ground. But not all such efforts bear fruit: When scientists tried to release the same bird to its former range in western Ireland in 2007, the newcomers fell victim to the same poisoning that had done them in 107 years earlier.

“The tendency is to think that the last place that an animal was present is the best place for the species, but this isn’t always the case,” says Virginia Morandini, a biologist with the Spanish National Research Council’s Doñana Biological Station near Seville.

So Morandini and her colleagues teamed up with conservation biologist Miguel Ferrer of the Migres Foundation at Doñana to try a different approach. Along with the Andalusian government’s Spanish Imperial Eagle Action Plan, they introduced imperial eagles into a territory they last inhabited some 50 years ago, far from established populations. Their method had some strong theoretical underpinnings because relict populations that have been pushed into small, low-quality habitats—often the “last known address” of threatened species—are thought to have relatively low breeding rates.

From 2002 to 2015, the Doñana team monitored 87 eagles that had been released in the south of Cádiz province of Spain, some 85 kilometers from the nearest established eagles. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored a naturally occurring population of eagles in south-central Spain. When scientists analyzed the breeding success of the two groups—a proxy for how well the eagles might survive over the long run—they found that the relocated population produced nearly twice as many chicks, they reported last month in Ecology and Evolution. Morandini attributes their success to the ready availability of prey and breeding partners, as well as efforts to reduce threats from hunters and exposed power lines.

The results suggest such reintroductions can be helpful in recovering endangered populations, especially when natural range expansion isn’t a possibility, says Doug Armstrong, a conservation biologist at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. But Armstrong, who was instrumental in rehabilitation efforts in New Zealand of a honeyeater-like bird called the hihi, also warns that this method won’t work for every threatened species. Lots of factors can lead to failure: selecting an inappropriate site, unpredictable environmental factors, and stress after reintroduction.

Cornell University ecologist Amanda Rodewald says that—even with its upsides—the approach should be seen as a last resort. “With ongoing climate change and habitat destruction, we are likely to be turning to [reintroduction] methods more and more,” she says. “However, taking proactive conservation steps such as habitat protection before a species becomes critically endangered is always going to be the most cost-effective and successful approach.”

(First published by Science magazine on May 5 2017. Available online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/parachuting-birds-long-lost-territory-may-save-them-extinction)