Blue whales have ‘rediscovered’ South Georgia

By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science CorrespondentPublished4 hours ago

An Antarctic blue whale surfaces off South Georgia
image captionAn Antarctic blue whale surfaces off South Georgia

The resurgence of blue whales around the island of South Georgia is real and has probably been under way for a little while now, say scientists.

When a survey was conducted at the British Overseas Territory earlier this year, 58 of the animals were seen.

That was described as “astonishing” at the time because there had been so few sightings previously.

But a reassessment of 30 years of observational data suggests this bumper crowd of blues was no anomaly.

King penguins (c) George Lemann
image captionSouth Georgia is home to millions of king penguins

It most likely signals they really are making a comeback in the waters around the sub-Antarctic island.

South Georgia is infamous, of course, for being the epicentre of commercial whaling in the early 20th Century. captionJennifer Jackson: “I don’t think this is a surprise phenomenon”

Its steam boats, with their grenade-tipped harpoons, decimated all the large whale populations – and at the peak of the carnage were removing 3,000 blues a year.

And while fur and elephant seals, which were also heavily exploited, managed to bounce back to historic levels relatively quickly – the whales, and the blues in particular, did not.

Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia (c) GSGSSI
image captionGrytviken: Remnants of the old whaling stations can still be seen today

Their absence long after commercial whaling ended even led some whale experts to wonder if these majestic creatures would ever be seen again in significant numbers at South Georgia.

“It was held up as an example of how you can exploit a population beyond the point where it can recover,” Susannah Calderan, who led the reassessment, told BBC News.

Susannah Calderan
image captionSusannah Calderan uses ex-military sonobuoys to pick up the sounds of whales

It’s possible that as the population crashed, the blues simply lost the cultural memory that had drawn them to South Georgia in the first place, the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) fellow said.

The British Overseas Territory is in the path of a food train coming up from the Antarctic on strong currents. This train carries abundant krill, the small crustaceans that whales love.

But because there were so few blues left after commercial whaling, it may be that the knowledge of the island’s productive feeding ground could not be passed on to future generations – so the theory goes.

“So, perhaps now they have re-discovered ‘the larder’,” Susannah Calderan speculated. “South Georgia remains an extremely productive feeding ground. Nothing ever happened to its productivity. It’s not as if the whales stopped coming because there was nothing left to eat.” captionMale blues communicate over vast distances with their repetitive, low-frequency calls (B.Miller/AAD)

The SAMS scientist, with colleagues, has reviewed all the observational data on blue whales at South Georgia going back three decades.

This includes the systematic surveys that have been conducted by researchers and the opportunistic reporting that’s come in from mariners and from cruise ships, whose visits to South Georgia have increased in frequency.

The study also includes data from acoustics – the use of listening devices, such as sonobuoys, which are put in the water to detect the booming, low-frequency calls that are made by blue whales. captionSo-called D-calls made by blue whales are probably associated with social behaviour and feeding (B.Miller/AAD)

All this information points to a gradual increase in the presence of blue whale numbers around the island in recent years.

Even before the remarkable observation of 58 blues in February, it’s now recognised that a total of 41 animals from the species were photo-identified off South Georgia between 2011 and 2020.

South Georgia's Rosita Harbour (c) Oliver Prince
image captionConservationists say South Georgia is an all-too-rare example of an ecosystem in recovery

“It should be said, the survey we carried out at the beginning of this year was not dedicated to blues. This was an accidental finding. We were actually looking for right whales, but the team saw blue whales when they were doing their transects,” explained co-researcher Jennifer Jackson from the British Antarctic Survey, which led the February expedition.

“I don’t think this is a surprise phenomenon. I think we’re going to continue seeing blue whales in the years to come. What we need to understand now is why they are using South Georgia waters again.”

Humpback whale (c) BAS
image captionA humpback whale in the waters around South Georgia

And it’s not just blues. Those other species that were also driven to the brink, like the humpbacks, are also on the rise.

Susannah Calderan would like to see a network of acoustic moorings placed around the island, in particular off its southwest coastline where little systematic survey work has been conducted.

This would help fill gaps in the data and smooth biases which mean the same locations tend to dominate sightings – such as the popular routes taken by cruise ships.

Blue whale
image captionAt the peak of harvesting, 3,000 blue whales were being taken each year

The whale scientists are also now watching closely what will happen with the world’s biggest iceberg – the 4,200 sq km tabular block known as A68a.

Drifting in the same currents that deliver krill to South Georgia, it risks being caught in the shallows surrounding the island. If that happens, the iceberg could disrupt the foraging behaviour of many animals that depend on the krill.

“South Georgia is a kind of home to dead icebergs. Generally, they tend to go there to die. But, yes, this one’s massive,” said Susannah Calderan.

“Will it affect productivity? Will it affect the krill? Will that affect the whales? It’s a really interesting question.”

The team’s analysis, which is published in the journal Endangered Species Research, was funded by South Georgia Heritage Trust and Friends of South Georgia Island.

Iceberg A68a
image captionThe giant iceberg A68a could become stuck in shallow water near the island

Scientists discover new endangered primate species, with only 260 left

By Jessie Yeung, CNN

Updated 1:30 AM ET, Wed November 11, 2020The Popa langur, a newly discovered primate species in Myanmar that is critically endangered.The Popa langur, a newly discovered primate species in Myanmar that is critically endangered.

(CNN)Scientists have discovered a new primate species in the jungles of Myanmar — and it’s already at risk of extinction.The Popa langur is a type of monkey with a long tail, rings around its eyes, and a crest of fur on top of its head. There are only an estimated 200 to 260 left, according to a news release by the London Natural History Museum, which collaborated on this study.The research team named the Popa langurs after the sacred extinct volcano Mount Popa and classified them as “critically endangered.””Sadly this is a bittersweet discovery due to the limited number of individuals left in the wild and fragmented populations,” said Roberto Portela Miguez, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum, in the release.A Popa langur photographed at Mount Yathe Pyan in Myanmar.A Popa langur photographed at Mount Yathe Pyan in Myanmar.”The hope is that by giving this species the scientific status and notoriety it merits, there will be even more concerted efforts in protecting this area and the few other remaining populations.”The scientists, spanning three organizations, published their findings on Wednesday in the journal Zoological Research.In the study, researchers at Fauna and Floral International (FFI) and the German Primate Center (GMC) carried out field surveys of the langurs, whose scientific name is “Trachypithecus popa.” They also gathered samples and DNA of all other Trachypithecus species — cousins of the Popa langur.They combined the data from these surveys and samples, as well as data from specimens in other museums, confirm the existence of the new species, said the news release.One of the crucial parts of the puzzle was a 100-year-old specimen that had been stored at the London Natural History Museum. In the early 20th century, British zoologist Guy C. Shortridge collected thousands of specimens, including a 1913 Trachypithecus specimen that the Popa langur team re-examined.

The sixth mass extinction is happening faster than expected. Scientists say it's our fault

The sixth mass extinction is happening faster than expected. Scientists say it’s our fault“Monkeys are one of the most iconic groups of mammals, and these specimens have been in the collections for over a hundred years,” said Miguez. “But we didn’t have the tools or the expertise to do this work before.”There were other clues that the Popa langur was an entirely new species, like differences in its tail length, fur color, and skull shape — but genetic analysis confirmed it.”This study demonstrates that natural history collections are a valuable and key resource for genetic research and in the context of the current biodiversity crisis, they are clearly even more relevant and important today than ever before,” said Miguez.The Popa langurs were likely once widespread across central Myanmar, according to the study, which analyzed historical records like museum specimens and travel notes — but only a few groups survived. Now, the remaining individuals only live in four isolated populations.Mount Popa is a sacred pilgriimage site, and home to about 100 Popa langurs.Mount Popa is a sacred pilgriimage site, and home to about 100 Popa langurs.The largest population is on Mount Popa, home to more than 100 langurs. Mount Popa, a sacred pilgrimage site, is also home to an important wildlife sanctuary — but threats remain for the endangered Popa langurs.”Although Mount Popa is a national park, meaning the species that occur there are legally protected, hunting and deforestation for the timber industry and fuelwood still occur,” said Miguez.Other threats include agricultural encroachment, environmental degradation, and other disturbances to the land like free cattle grazing, said the study.The study urged international agencies like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to add the Popa langur to their lists of threatened species.”Improved protected area management, in particular improved law enforcement … is essential to stabilize the two largest known populations,” said the study. “The forests in Bago Yoma are severely degraded and fragmented, but could still provide the largest, contiguous habitat if deforestation and forest degradation are reversed through improved forest protection and restoration.”

The lynx effect: Iberian cat claws its way back from brink of extinction

A 20-year project to reintroduce the species across the peninsula has seen their numbers rise to 855

Sam Jones in Madrid @swajones

Sun 25 Oct 2020 06.15 EDT


An Iberian lynx
 Lynx numbers aren’t just growing in Spain – populations have been built in Portugal, too, where they were once extinct. Photograph: BELDAD/EPA

Spotty of coat, tufty of ear, and teetering on the verge of extinction less than two decades ago, the Iberian lynx is continuing to claw its way back across Spain and Portugal.

According to the latest survey, the lynx population on the peninsula has increased ninefold over 18 years, rising from 94 in 2002 to 855 this year. Experts say that if the current conservation and reintroduction efforts can maintain their momentum, the species could be out of danger by 2040.

Missing lynx: how rewilding Britain could restore its natural balance

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The 2019 census, carried out using camera-traps and large reserves of patience, revealed that more than 80% of the lynx population is in Spain, that 311 kittens were born on the peninsula last year and that there were 188 females of reproductive age. There are populations in the Sierra Morena and Donaña national park.

At the end of the last century, however, things looked decidedly bleak for the bearded cats – and for rabbits, which make up 90% of their diet.Advertisement

Government efforts to get rid of creatures considered to be vermin, which lasted until the mid-1970s, took a terrible toll, as did a catastrophic drop in rabbit numbers following the arrival of myxomatosis in the 1950s and then rabbit hemorrhagic disease in the 1980s. Both those factors were compounded by the destruction and isolation of habitats that came with motorway building and a greater human presence.

Miguel Ángel Simón, a biologist who spent 22 years conserving and building up lynx numbers before retiring last year, remembers the daunting scale of the task he and his colleagues faced.“When we started back in 2000, we didn’t even know how many lynxes were left,” he says.

“We found out from the first census that there were 94 and we thought that they were going to disappear. We just didn’t know if there was any way to save them – they were right on the edge and in critical danger of extinction. Back then, they were the most endangered felines in the world. Our first aim was just to stop them becoming extinct.”

Their strategy of seeking money and engagement from politicians, and cooperation from landowners and the public, gradually paid off.

A series of projects, coordinated by the Andalucían government in conjunction with other Spanish regions, the Portuguese authorities and conservation NGOs, has arrested the decline, expanded populations and seen lynxes reintroduced to other areas.

“Today, the situation is pretty good and I think we can be optimistic and fairly calm because we haven’t just recovered the population in Andalucía, we’ve also built populations in Portugal – where the lynx was extinct – and in Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha,” says Simón.

The latest phase of the programme, the five-year Life Lynxconnect project, has a budget of €18.8m, 60% of which comes from the EU.

Javier Salcedo, the project’s new leader, said the main aim was to join up existing populations and increase their genetic diversity. “We need to see an exchange of animals that will give us an exchange of genes,” he says.Advertisement

Ramón Pérez de Ayala, the large carnivores coordinator for WWF Spain – one of 21 partners in the latest project – warns that lynx populations are in danger of developing genetic problems if they remain isolated.

“We’re going to do some genetic tracking so we can monitor the situation and see if we need to move individuals artificially.”

Pérez de Ayala is also upbeat about the future of the lynx and hopes to see it move from the endangered category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species into the vulnerable category.

If luck stays on our side, we’ll have at least 750 females of reproductive age – 3,000 lynxes in total – by 2040Ramón Pérez de Ayala, WWF

He estimates it will take another 20 years of hard work before Spain and Portugal can claim to have saved the lynx. “If we carry on, if we can maintain the population growth momentum, and if luck stays on our side, we’ll have at least 750 females of reproductive age – which means more than 3,000 lynxes in total – by 2040,” he says.

Between now and then, existing populations will have to be blended and increased, and new ones established in rabbit-rich habitats. Equally important will be the mapping and marking of blackspots: in 2019, 34 lynxes died after being run over.

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For Pérez de Ayala and many others, protecting the lynx is a moral and ecological imperative. “Every species has an intrinsic value that can’t be lost – it would be like demolishing a cathedral,” he says. “And you’re talking about an animal that does a really good job of balancing out the food chain of the Mediterranean ecosystem.”

In the absence of lynxes, medium-sized predators that eat rabbits – such as foxes and Egyptian mongooses – put prey species under a lot of pressure. When a lynx comes along, explains Pérez de Ayala, the density of foxes and mongooses goes down and rabbit populations increase.

But, he adds, environmental harmony is only one of the many reasons why the peninsula’s unique wild cat must remain well spotted.

“On a more emotional level, the lynx is a jewel and a thing of beauty to behold.”

‘Sliding towards extinction’: koala may be given endangered listing as numbers plummet

The species is among 28 animals being assessed for potential upgrade of their threat status, federal government says

A koala in a tree
 Severe declines in Australia’s koala populations were exacerbated by last summer’s bushfires, environmental groups say. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The koala is being considered for official listing as endangered after the summer’s bushfire disaster and ongoing habitat destruction on the east coast forced the government to reconsider its threat status.

The iconic species, which is currently listed as vulnerable under national environment laws, is among 28 animals that could have their threat status upgraded, the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, said on Friday.

The greater glider, which had 30% of its habitat range affected by the bushfire crisis, is also being assessed to determine whether it should move from vulnerable to endangered, while several frog and fish species, including the Pugh’s frog and the Blue Mountains perch, are being considered for critically endangered listings.

Several Kangaroo Island species, including the Kangaroo Island crimson rosella and Kangaroo Island white-eared honeyeater, are among birds being assessed for an endangered listing.

Ley has asked the threatened species scientific committee to complete its assessments by October next year.

The koala assessment will apply to the combined populations of New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT, where more than 10% of the population was affected by bushfire. Koalas on the east coast are also under multiple other pressures due to continued habitat destruction, drought and disease.

“We welcome prioritisation for the koala but also hope the process can be sped up and the koala listed as endangered before October 2021,” said Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International.

Josey Sharrad, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said koalas on Australia’s east coast were “sliding towards extinction” and immediate action was needed to bring the species back from the brink.

A recent NSW parliamentary inquiry found koalas would be extinct in the state by 2050 without urgent intervention to protect habitat and help the species recover.

Ley said on Friday that because of the ongoing effects of the bushfires, the government would introduce additional nomination processes for the listing of threatened species over the next two years on top of the annual nomination process.

The 28 species included on the finalised priority assessment list for formal assessment in the 2020 period include two reptiles, four frogs, seven fish, six mammals and 12 birds, bringing the total number of species currently being assessed to 108.

After a species makes the priority list, it is assessed by the scientific committee, which then makes a recommendation to the minister regarding its threat status.

“This process is critical in ensuring threatened species are given strategic protection, are eligible for targeted funding and that awareness is raised about the issues impacting them,” Ley said.

A recent interim report from a review of Australia’s conservation laws found governments had failed to protect Australia’s unique wildlife and the environment was in unsustainable decline.

The government currently has a bill before the parliament to devolve decision-making powers under national environmental laws to the states.

Ornithologists, Birdwatchers Uncover Staggering Magnitude of Bird Population Decline By Ari Dub

Bird species across North America are declining at a far more drastic rate than previously expected.


Bird species across North America are declining at a far more drastic rate than previously expected.

September 26, 2019
Correction appended.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Dr. Ken Rosenberg led an international team of 12 scientists in an analysis of decades of data on bird population — and the conclusion is disturbing. In the last 50 years, one in four birds in North America has disappeared.

Pesticide use and loss of habitat to farmland are some of the most significant contributors to the decline in bird populations, according to Rosenberg. Although scientists have known for a long time that certain bird species were threatened by human activities, this study reveals that these issues apply to birds of nearly all species.

“Seeing this net loss of three billion birds was shocking,” Rosenberg said.

The infographics show that while all bird communities in almost ecological zones have suffered, grassland birds have suffered the greatest, experiencing a 53 percent decline over the past 50 years. Some specific species have been particularly hard-hit. In the same time frame, six out of every 10 wood thrushes, three out of every four eastern meadowlarks and nine out of every 10 evening grosbeaks have vanished.


But there are two sides to this conclusion, Rosenberg said. Successful conservation efforts have meant that certain bird species, such as bald eagles, falcons and ducks, have increased in population. Falcons have increased by four times, and waterfowl have more than doubled. “These are stories of hope, resilience and success,” Rosenberg said.

One of the most important efforts of bird conservation is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, an agreement originally between the U.S. and Canada which prohibits most killings, sales or tamperings with migratory birds. This includes a ban on the collection or sale of any part of a bird, including feathers or nests. Since 1918, the MBTA has been expanded to include Mexico, Japan and Russia, and more recent programs, such as Southern Wings, allow U.S. states to put money into international conservation projects.

Understanding where birds travel is a crucial part of effective conservation efforts, Rosenberg said. Because of technological advances in bird tracking abilities, there has been a boom in migratory connectivity — the study of migratory species through multiple life cycle stages.

Yet in recent years, the United States has moved backward in its bird conservation efforts, threatening to cancel the benefits of policies like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to Rosenberg. These days, Canada is the North American leader in bird conservation.

“One of our key messages is that it’s time for the 40 to 50 million of birdwatchers in the U.S. alone to raise our voices,” Rosenberg said. This task falls heavily on the shoulders of birdwatchers because the threat is not only to game birds, who historically have been strongly defended by hunters. Now, it is common birds like sparrows and robins that are in need of conservation.

Already, Rosenberg and the study’s co-authors have been met with a “massive and overwhelmingly positive response” from individuals as well as many major news organizations. Rosenberg said one of the merits of Cornell is that the University has good mechanisms for publicity.

Birdwatchers have always been crucial to the work of ornithologists, not just in their role as activists but “the eyes of the world,” as Rosenberg described it.

Volunteers take bird counts through standardized processes, such as the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey, which then goes back to scientists for analysis.

These volunteer researchers are “amateurs in the best sense,” according to Wesley Hochachka, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They are knowledgeable and passionate about the study of birds and bird conservation.”

“There’s something about birds that capture people’s imaginations,” Hochachka said. Because of the dedicated work of these volunteers, ornithologists have more data than other animal scientists, according to Rosenberg.

The collaboration that exists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has enabled the use of weather radar data to study bird population, according to Emma Greig, the leader of Project FeederWatch, which facilitates data collection among volunteer bird watchers. Weather radars pick up the biomass of migrating birds, and this entirely independent data source was used to confirm the data from bird counts — over the last 11 years, the biomass of birds migrating in the spring dropped by 14 percent.

Moving forward, important areas to study are the causes of this population decline, as well as the stage in a species’s life cycle in which these threats are strongest.

“We’re hoping this paper will raise enough awareness among people who love birds and nature,” Rosenberg said. “We need to see public outcry lead to a second wave of conservation.”

Sir David Attenborough makes stark warning about species extinction

Media captionSir David Attenborough met some of the few remaining gorillas in the Virunga Mountains at the time some 40 years ago

Sir David Attenborough returns to our screens this weekend with a landmark new production.

The tone of the programme is very different from his usual work.

For once Britain’s favourite naturalist is not here to celebrate the incredible diversity of life on Earth but to issue us all with a stark warning.

The one-hour film, Extinction: The Facts, will be broadcast on BBC One in the UK on Sunday 13 September at 20:00 BST.

“We are facing a crisis”, he warns at the start, “and one that has consequences for us all.”

What follows is a shocking reckoning of the damage our species has wrought on the natural world.

Scenes of destruction

There are the stunning images of animals and plants you would expect from an Attenborough production, but also horrific scenes of destruction.

In one sequence monkeys leap from trees into a river to escape a huge fire.

In another a koala limps across a road in its vain search for shelter as flames consume the forest around it.

Image captionPangolins are trafficked in great numbers for their scales

There is a small army of experts on hand to quantify the scale of the damage to the ecosystems of the world.

Of the estimated eight million species on Earth, a million are now threatened with extinction, one expert warns.

Since 1970, vertebrate animals – birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians – have declined by 60%, another tells us.

We meet the world’s last two northern white rhinos.

These great beasts used to be found in their thousands in Central Africa but have been pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss and hunting.

“Many people think of extinction being this imaginary tale told by conservationists,” says James Mwenda, the keeper who looks after them, “but I have lived it, I know what it is.”

Northern white rhino
Image captionJames Mwenda: ‘Many people think of extinction being this imaginary tale’

James strokes and pets the giant animals but it becomes clear they represent the last of their kind when he tells us that Najin and Fatu are mother and daughter.

Species have always come and gone, that’s how evolution works. But, says Sir David, the rate of extinction has been rising dramatically.

It is reckoned to be now happening at 100 times the natural evolutionary rate – and is accelerating.

“Over the course of my life I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals,” says Sir David, in one of the most moving sequences in the film.

“Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been – many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever.”

Crisis in the natural world

Sir David is at pains to explain that this isn’t just about losing the magnificent creatures he has featured in the hundreds of programmes he has made in his six decades as a natural history film-maker.

The loss of pollinating insects could threaten the food crops we depend on. Trees and other plants regulate water flow and produce the oxygen we breathe. Meanwhile, the seas are being emptied of fish.

There is now about 5% of trawler-caught fish left compared with before the turn of the 20th century, one expert says.

The northern white rhino
Image captionTwo female rhinos are the last of their kind

But the pandemic provides perhaps the most immediate example of the risks of our ever-increasing encroachment into the natural world, as we have all been learning in the most brutal fashion over the last six months.

The programme tracks the suspected origins of coronavirus to populations of bats living in cave systems in Yunnan province in China.

We see the Chinese “wet market” in Wuhan which specialises in the sale of wild animals for human consumption and is thought to have been linked with many of the early infections.

Cause for hope

The programme is uncompromising in its depiction of the crisis in the natural world, admits Serena Davies, who directed the programme.

“Our job is to report the reality the evidence presents,” she explains.

But the programme does not leave the audience feeling that all is lost. Sir David makes clear there is still cause for hope.

“His aim is not to try and drag the audience into the depths of despair,” says Ms Davies, “but to take people on a journey that makes them realise what is driving these issues we can also solve them.”

The programme ends in iconic style.

We see one of the most celebrated moments in all the films Sir David has made in his long career, the moment he met a band of gorillas in the mountains on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

Image captionGorillas face many threats but there is hope for their recovery

A young gorilla called Poppy tries to take off his shoes as he speaks to the camera.

“It was an experience that stayed with me,” says Sir David, “but it was tinged with sadness, as I thought I might be seeing some of the last of their kind.”

The programme makers have been back to Rwanda and, after a long trek, spot Poppy’s daughter and granddaughter in the deep forest scrub.

We learn that the Rwandan government has worked with local people to protect the animal and that the gorillas are thriving.

There were 250 when Sir David visited in the 1970s, now there are more than 1,000.

It shows, says Sir David, what we can achieve when we put our minds to it.

“I may not be here to see it,” he concludes, “but if we make the right decisions at this critical moment, we can safeguard our planet’s ecosystems, its extraordinary biodiversity and all its inhabitants.”

His final line packs a powerful punch: “What happens next”, says Sir David, “is up to every one of us.”

You can see David Attenborough’s, Extinction: The Facts, on BBC One in the UK on Sunday 13 September at 20:00 BST.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are disappearing at an alarming rate; Scientists issue urgent call to reverse the tide

September 4, 2020 0 Comments

Whales, dolphins and porpoises, known collectively as cetaceans, face momentous challenges to their survival today. Many of these animals are disappearing right before our eyes, like the Chinese river dolphin, declared possibly extinct in 2017, and the Mexican vaquita, a species of porpoise that is all but extinct with only 10 individuals likely remaining in the Gulf of California.

This week, more than 250 cetacean experts from over 40 countries took the unprecedented step of sending global leaders an open statement urging swift action to save cetaceans before it’s too late.

The scientists estimate that of the 90 cetacean species now around, more than half have a “concerning conservation status” and might be swimming toward extinction. Thirteen species have already been listed as “critically endangered” or “endangered.” Many discrete populations are also in trouble and could become locally or regionally extinct.

A great deal of this decline is being driven by human activities, including pollution, habitat and prey loss, climate change and collisions with ships. Foremost among the threats is fishing bycatch—marine animals incidentally caught and killed in fishing operations.

This is a serious crisis, not only for these charismatic animals, but also for the health of our oceans, where cetaceans play an irreplaceable role as apex predators. But action to address the problems has been inadequate, the scientists say, adding that the lack of concrete action “means that many [cetacean populations], one after another, will likely be declared extinct within our lifetimes.”

The scientists single out the plight of the North Atlantic right whale, a mammal who lives along the U.S. and Canadian coast. Today, only a few hundred of these individuals remain alive, and their numbers continue to drop at an alarming rate, with more deaths than births. The scientists chastise the right whale’s “relatively wealthy range countries” for failing to address the decline, despite the fact that factors driving the decline are well known and could be addressed.

Humane Society International’s senior marine scientist, Mark Simmonds helped to coordinate this letter because the plight of cetaceans is an issue of deep concern for us. The Humane Society family of organizations has been among the loudest voices speaking out in favor of expanding conservation work for cetaceans at global forums, including the International Whaling Commission, where we have been very pleased to see progress on some of the major threats facing these animals . At the end of this month the IWC’s Conservation Committee will meet virtually and we hope this message from the scientists will be on the agenda for consideration.

Cetaceans are beloved inhabitants of our oceans and rivers, inspiring awe and wonder among those lucky enough to see them. They are a major tourist draw, providing a great economic benefit to the nations along whose coasts they live. They not only help keep marine ecosystems in balance, they also provide important nutrients that keep the waters, and their other inhabitants, healthy.

We thank the scientists who signed on to this statement for drawing attention to this critical issue and we now urge all nations whose waters are home to these animals to come together and swiftly implement policies that will reverse the tide for cetaceans before it’s too late.

California condor facility burns in Big Sur fire, fate of 14 endangered birds unknown

Dolan Fire burning in Ventana Wilderness destroys release center

A wildfire burning in Big Sur, seen here from a remote camera on Thursday Aug. 20, 2020, destroyed pens, a research building and other facilities for condors run by the Ventana Wildlife Society, (Photo: Ventana Wildlife Society)

A wildfire burning through remote terrain in Big Sur has destroyed pens, a research building and other facilities used to release California condors for the past 23 years, and 14 condors remain unaccounted for, a significant setback for the decades-long effort to restore the population of the endangered birds.

The Dolan Fire began Wednesday, Aug. 18, in the Los Padres National Forest south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. By early Friday morning, it had wiped out the 80-acre condor sanctuary run by the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group based in Monterey.

The site has been used since 1997 to release condors that have been raised in zoos and captive locations back into the wild. No condors or people were at the facility at the time of the fire, said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the organization.

From the archives: California condors return to the skies after near extinction.

But the fate of a 4-month old condor chick that was living in a nest in a redwood tree about one mile away remains unclear, he said. That bird, named Iniko, was being monitored by a remote camera. The chick’s parents flew away as the fire advanced, and the camera was destroyed Thursday while Sorenson was watching at home with his family.

“We were horrified. It was hard to watch. We still don’t know if the chick survived, or how well the free-flying birds have done,” he said. “I’m concerned we may have lost some condors. Any loss is a setback. I’m trying to keep the faith and keep hopeful.”

Sorenson noted that there have been other fires in the past along the Central California coast that burned in condor territory. Of those, six burned near condor nests, and in five of the six cases, the chicks, which cannot fly until they are 6 months old, survived.

“The redwoods they nest in provide good protection,” he said.

More on California condors. Click here for more stories.

Nearly all the adults are fitted with radio transmitters, but only about 30% also have more-precise GPS-tracking devices, which cost $4,000 each. Because the fire is still burning, it will be a few days before biologists can fan out to try and locate the missing birds.

Sorenson’s organization has begun a campaign to raise $500,000 to rebuild the condor center. More information is available at

As of Tuesday night, the fire had burned 21,844 acres in remote national forest areas, and was 15% contained. The cause is still under investigation. But California state parks rangers detained Ivan G. Gomez, 31, of Fresno, at the John Little State Natural Reserve near Dolan Canyon, the day after the fire began. Gomez was arrested and booked into Monterey County Jail on $2 million bail on charges of arson, cultivating marijuana and battery.

Highway 1 is closed between Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Lucia.

The recovery of California condors has been one of America’s greatest wildlife success stories.

The vulture-like birds have the largest wingspan of any bird in North America — up to 9 feet.

They once ranged from British Columbia to Mexico. But because of habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning from eating dead deer and other animals containing hunters’ bullet fragments, the majestic birds reached a low of just 22 nationwide by the early 1980s.

In a desperate gamble to stave off extinction, federal biologists captured all remaining wild condors in 1987 and began breeding them in the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo and other facilities. The birds’ offspring have been gradually released back to the wild.


Today the California condor population has grown to 518. Of those, 337 live in the wild: 200 in California, 98 in Arizona, and 39 in Baja Mexico. 

Hoping to cut down on lead poisoning of the birds, former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that took effect last year banning lead bullets for hunting statewide. The Ventana Wildlife Society has spent thousands of dollars buying copper bullets in a program to encourage hunters to switch.

“We are making great progress,” Sorenson said. “In the last couple of years we’ve had tremendous momentum. The birds have been doing great. The fire is a setback, but condor recovery is going in the right direction. We need to rebuild to keep it going.”


North Atlantic right whales now officially ‘one step from extinction’

International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List changes ocean giants’ status to ‘critically endangered’

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fewer than 250 mature individuals remain in a population of roughly 400.

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Massachusetts. Fewer than 250 mature individuals remain in a population of roughly 400. Photograph: New England Aquarium/IUCN/PA

With their population still struggling to recover from over three centuries of whaling, the North Atlantic right whale is now just “one step from extinction”, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN last week moved the whale’s status on their Red List from “endangered” to “critically endangered” – the last stop before the species is considered extinct in the wild.

The status change reflects the fact that fewer than 250 mature individuals probably remain in a population of roughly 400. While grim, scientists and conservationists expressed hope that this move may help speed up protections for these dwindling giants.

“As scientists, we’ve been working for many years under the idea that North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered,” said David Wiley, research coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank national marine sanctuary in Massachusetts. “The good thing about this new designation is it does bring them back front and center. Hopefully that will bring them up to the top of political consciousness.”

Moira Brown, senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute, who has been working on right whales for over 30 years, said: “For an organization like the IUCN, which weighs a lot of information when they make these changes, to shift the right whale’s status – it brings international recognition. It’s an added layer of: we’re not just blowing smoke here, this animal is really in trouble.”

Often found leisurely filtering plankton at the ocean surface, the right whale species was once highly targeted by whalers: their slow speed made them easy to hunt, and they float when killed, thanks to thick blubber.

That slow surface feeding today leads to these whales being struck by boat propellers or becoming fatally snarled in fishing gear. According to the IUCN, of the 30 deaths or serious injuries to North Atlantic right whales recorded between 2012 and 2016, 26 were caused by fishing gear entanglement.

As a result, many scientists support stricter regulations on the fishing industry, a topic that draws concern from fishing communities: new regulations could mean fishermen must bear the cost of upgrading gear, and they are often concerned that these changes will also reduce their catch. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2019 attempt to reduce gear in the water led the Maine Lobstermen’s Association to back out of regional protective measures.

Right whales’ habit of feeding leisurely at the surface made them ideal for hunting and now leaves them vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement in nets.

Right whales’ habit of feeding leisurely at the surface made them ideal for hunting and now leaves them vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement in nets. Photograph: Michael Dwyer/AP

“I think it’s sometimes portrayed as: you have whales, or you can have fishing,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. “What we’re trying to say is you can still fish if you can do it in a safer way for the whales.”

Knowlton noted that the growing entanglement problem may be partially due to stronger ropes adopted in the 1990s, making it harder for whales to break free. She is now encouraging fishermen to use lines with a weaker breaking strength.

Climate change also plays a big role. Since 1990, the North Atlantic right whale’s primary feeding ground, the Gulf of Maine, has warmed three times faster than the rest of the world’s oceans.

The US and Canadian governments enforce seasonal boat speed limits in areas that right whales frequent. But the whales are changing their usual haunts as they seek cooler waters, taking them into places without these speed limits. Warming waters also make it harder for right whales to find food, which could explain their unusually low birth rate.

Additionally, climate change has caused a lobster boom in northern New England and eastern Canada, which has brought more fishing gear into the whale’s habitat.

There is cause to celebrate small victories for right whales, like the birth of 10 calves this season. But these victories often come hand-in-hand with heartbreak: in June, one of those calves was discovered dead of a ship strike off New Jersey.

Overall, researchers are keenly aware that time is not on the whales’ side, as deaths outpace the speed of regulatory action.

“It’s a very slow process, and keeping the public engaged and keeping funding going is tough when you know you’re not going to see results for 20 years,” said Wiley. “That’s not unique to right whales, but we’re living at the moment in time that things either get better or continue to get worse.”

He added: “The fact that our activity is driving them to extinction is something that isn’t acceptable for us as human beings. We’re better than that.”

“Extinction breeds extinctions”: How losing one species can wipe out many more

Humans are causing a mass extinction. And humans can stop it.

Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis, also know as Abyssinian wolf, Simien wolf, Simien jackal, Ethiopian jackal, red fox, red jackal, in Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis, is an endangered species. Fewer than 1,000 individuals are left in the wild.
 Roger de la Harpe/Universal Images Group via Getty

Earth is now in the middle of a mass extinction, the sixth one in the planet’s history, according to scientists.

And now a new study reports that species are going extinct hundreds or thousands of times faster than the expected rate.

The researchers also found that one extinction can cause ripple effects throughout an ecosystem, leaving other species vulnerable to the same fate. “Extinction breeds extinctions,” they write in their June 1 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With the accelerating pace of destruction, scientists are racing to understand these fragile bits of life before they’re gone. “This means that the opportunity we have to study and save them will be far greater over the next few decades than ever again,” said Peter Raven, a coauthor of the study and a professor emeritus of botany at Washington University in St. Louis, in an email.

The findings also highlight how life can interact in unexpected ways and how difficult it can be to slow ecological destruction once it starts. “It’s similar to climate change; once it gets rolling, it gets harder and harder to unwind,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who was not involved in the study. “We don’t know what the tipping points are, and that’s scary.”

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what “extinction” means: a species completely and forever lost. Each one is an irreparable event, so the idea that they are not only happening more often but also might be sparking additional, related extinctions is startling. And these extinctions have consequences for humanity, from the losses of critical pollinators that fertilize crops to absent predators that would otherwise keep disease-spreading animals in check.

So researchers are now looking closely at which animals are teetering on the edge of existence to see just how dire the situation has become, and to figure out what might be the best way to bring them back.

Hundreds of animals are on the brink of extinction over the next two decades

There is tremendous biodiversity on earth right now. The number of species — birds, trees, ferns, fungi, fish, insects, mammals — is greater than it ever has been in the 4.5 billion-year existence of this planet. But that also means there is a lot to lose.

The new study examined 29,400 species of vertebrates that live on land — mice, hawks, hippos, snakes, and the like. These species from all over the world were cataloged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Out of those examined, 515 species — 1.7 percent of those studied — were found to be on the brink of extinction, meaning fewer than 1,000 individuals were left alive. These species include the vaquita, the Clarion island wren, and the Sumatran rhino. And half of these 515 species have fewer than 250 individuals left. If nothing is done to protect them, most of them will go extinct over the next 20 years.