Endangered Species - Briefly - Summer 2008 Quarterly
Bittern Nests Show Promise
A wading bird called the bittern has returned to the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) nature reserve in Somerset after not being seen in the area for 40 years. Two nests have been found in this reed-bed site created especially for the bittern, making for encouraging evidence that a European Union-funded rescue package has improved the quality of the highly endangered birds' habitats and that some females still remain.
The species, which remains on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, actually went extinct in Britain between 1886 and 1911. Though it was reintroduced, by 1997, only 11 males remained. However, while the female population remains nearly extinct, following the rescue work, a high of 55 males was recorded in 2004. Most live in the freshwater wetlands along East Anglia's low-lying coast, where rising sea levels are damaging their traditional reed-bed nesting sites.
"It is great news that at last bitterns are beginning to re-colonize parts of their former range, especially when it's at a site that's been created with them in mind," said RSPB research biologist Simon Wotton, who is also the national organizer of the Bittern Monitoring Program. "The bitterns' core populations are concentrated in areas threatened by sea level rise. The Somerset birds hopefully represent the start of a new population, not subject to this environmental threat."
In late 2006, China's Yangtze River "Baiji" dolphin became the first cetacean to go extinct in our lifetime, due to an unfortunate influx of development related to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, as well as overfishing and the depletion of prey species, entanglement in fishing gear, and ship collisions due to increased ship traffic. Now, the Yangtze turtle population has dwindled to three males and one female, mostly due to the animals' popularity in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
No living female was known of until recently, when the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered "China Girl" in the Changsha Zoo in Hunan province. Brought in from a traveling circus approximately 50 years ago, the 80-year-old (still-fertile) turtle is now being mated with a 100-year-old male. Overseers report that considering neither had seen another of their own kind for many decades, and that males are aggressive breeders, the union is developing better than had been expected.
The US government announced in June that, following a 5-year search to locate a Caribbean monk seal and over 50 years since its last confirmed sighting, the species has officially been deemed extinct. The first type of seal to disappear due to anthropogenic causes, the Caribbean monk seal had been listed on the Endangered Species List since 1967. Populations became unstable due to hunting that began as far back as Columbus' second voyage in 1494 and escalated between the 1700s and 1900s. The animals were first killed for their meat and later for their blubber, skins, scientific study and zoological collection.
The Caribbean monk seal was the only subtropical seal native to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and now only two additional monk seal species remain. Both the Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are endangered and also at risk of extinction, with populations under 1,200 and 500 individuals, respectively. Some of the threats now facing these animals, including erosion and debris, are reported to be global warming-related, as they are tied to the El Nino weather pattern and rising sea levels.
There are now more than 21,000 African rhinos—the highest number seen in decades—according to the latest report by the IUCN Species Survival Commission African Rhino Specialist Group. Of these animals, there are 17,480 white rhinos, listed as "Near Threatened," but up from a population of only 14,540 in 2005. However, despite the increasing numbers of the Southern white rhino, another subspecies called the Northern white rhino is listed as "Critically Endangered" and faces extinction.
Restricted in the wild to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, poaching reduced the Northern white rhino's population to only four confirmed animals by August 2006. "Worryingly, recent fieldwork has so far failed to find any presence of these four remaining rhinos," said Dr. Martin Brooks, chair of the IUCN group. "Unless animals are found during the intensive surveys that are planned under the direction of the African Parks Foundation, the subspecies may be doomed to extinction."
A strange type of contagious cancer has cut Australia's Tasmanian devil population by as much as 60 percent, and the government decided in May to list the species as "Endangered" on the Endangered Species List. The animals are afflicted by a fast-growing, disfiguring head tumor that is spread by biting and eventually covers their faces and mouths, preventing them from eating—and often causing death within a few months.
Previously listed as "Vulnerable," the world's largest marsupial carnivore is already at risk, and now only lives on the Australian island of Tasmania. In addition to giving Tasmanian devils more protections, the Australian government also plans to breed an "insurance population" of the species in captivity, which could eventually be used to help re-establish population numbers in the wild.
In late April, the Mexican Senate voted unanimously into law a bill to ban the capture and export of Mexican wild parrots. Originally drafted and approved by the Deputy Chamber last year, the original bill was a response to a report by Defenders of Wildlife and A.C. Teyeliz, entitled "The Illegal Parrot Trade in Mexico: A Comprehensive Assessment." The report was the first to document the illegal trade of these animals. Up to 78,500 of Mexico's 22 species of parrots and macaws are captured for the trade each year, yet 75 percent die before reaching a purchaser. Ninety percent of the birds are already at some sort of risk, with a reported 11 species classified as "In Danger of Extinction," five species classified as "Threatened," four species under special protection, and two species unclassified.