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Red List flags danger for more species

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

IUCN red list : Male Okapi in Epulu Ituri Rainforest Reserve Democratic Republic of Congo


Old Macdonald found this article in today’s Guardian (he buys it for the sports pages really but does read the rest) and wanted to share it with you. It shows how many key species are threatended all around the world and how hard we must all work to protect them. Congratulations to Damian Carrington who wrote this.

The blue-tongued forest giraffe, the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is on the brink of extinction, according to the latest update to the red list of threatened species. The stripy-legged creature, which appears on Congolese banknotes and is actually a species of okapi, has become another victim of the DRC’s long-running war. But surveys reveal that conservation efforts have had a positive effect on ocean-roaming leatherback turtles and albatrosses, while a Californian fox has returned from the edge.

“This red list update shows some fantastic conservation successes, from which we must learn,” said Jane Smart, a director at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the list.

“However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend,” she added.

Leatherback turtle

To show what can be done, beach protection has allowed the Atlantic population of leatherback turtles, above, to double in two years. Photograph: RGB Ventures/Alamy

The red list now contains assessments of 71,500 species, including all mammals, birds and amphibians. The latest update added more than 1,000 species. Of the species understood well enough for a judgment to be made, more than a third are under threat. About half of known reptiles have been assessed and a third of fish, but only a fraction of invertebrates, plants and fungi.

Habitat destruction, hunting and the introduction of alien predators as a result of human activity are causing the greatest mass extinction of species on Earth since an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs 65m years ago.

The shy forest giraffe is confined to the fast-disappearing and militia-filled forests of DRC, and its population is plummeting as its meat is prized. “It is revered in Congo as a national symbol but, sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades,” said Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN Giraffe and Okapi specialist group.

The animal, which has a prehensile blue tongue and zebra-like stripes on its behind, is extremely difficult to protect in an area rife with elephant poachers and illegal mining. In a notorious incident in 2012, armed rebels attacked the headquarters of the DRC’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve and killed seven people and all 14 captive animals.

Other species whose prospects are plunging include the white-winged flufftail, shown underneath, a secretive African wetlands bird threatened by agriculture. “People treat wetlands as wasteland that needs to be drained,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN’s red list unit in Cambridge.

IUCN Red List - white-winged flufftail

Assessments have been added for 24 Caribbean skinks – a type of lizard – but it may already be too late. “We went to look for them, but there is no trace,” said Hilton-Taylor. Many may already be extinct, having fallen prey to mongooses that were themselves introduced to tackle an earlier alien predator: rats.

Among birds, the martial eagle – a sub-Saharan bird of prey – is struggling as it is shot and poisoned by farmers. Its numbers have plummeted by 60% in 20 years.

The decline of many species is linked to human development, but Hilton-Taylor warned that many people depended on wildlife. He highlighted bees and other pollinators believed to be declining globally. The IUCN has added assessments of 83 bumblebees and hundreds more are to follow. “Without pollinators, many food crops would not grow,” he said.

Another example is aloe plants: “Virtually every aloe is used medicinally – if these species go extinct, then in poor countries, they have lost their source of primary healthcare.”

A report in 2010 concluded that environmental destruction costs the world’s economy trillions of dollars a year.

The recovering species highlighted have all benefited from conservation action. Leatherback turtles, a global species, have been plagued by the ease with which their beach-laid eggs can be poached and by being drowned in industrial fishing nets. Beach protection has led the Atlantic population to double in two years, although the Pacific population remains in severe decline.

Another ocean species that roams for thousands of miles, the albatross, has seen some recovery after action against long-line fisheries. The extended lines of multiple baited hooks attracted and ensnared many thousands a year. The black-browed albatross, centred around the Falkland Islands, and the black-footed albatross, concentrated around the Hawaiian chain, have moved down to “near threatened” status.

Another success is the island fox, below, which had been lost from some of the southern Californian islands on which it lived, but has staged a remarkable comeback. A captive-breeding and reintroduction programme was accompanied by vaccination against canine diseases, which had decimated numbers. Golden eagles, which prey on the fox, were also relocated as part of the plan.

Island fox

“The trend is that things are generally getting worse,” said Hilton-Taylor. “But it is possible to turn things around, and do it quickly.”


Welcome visitors in August

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013


On 10th and 11th August our very good friends from the Essex Wildlife Trust will once again be here at the farm with displays and information on their important work and their nature reserves, nature parks and information centres.

They run a fantastic 87 nature reserves, 2 nature parks and 8 visitor centres, 25 of which are within 15 miles of Brentwood, which provide protection for some of our rarest species of animals and plants. These reserves give people the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the rich variety of habitats which were once widespread in our counties.

Essex Wildlife Trust is one of 47 local trusts which form The Wildlife Trusts network, dedicated to the achievement of a United Kingdom richer in wildlife. The Wildlife Trusts collectively care for more than 2,400 nature reserves and between them have more than 800,000 members.

For further information please visit or better still meet them when you visit the farm in August. By the way, the above photo from the Essex Wildlife Trust website was taken by Gary Jacobs and is of Packham the Barn Owl. Other images are below also from their website.




Loss of Lonesome George

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Old Macdonald has a fine collection of tortoises here at your favourite farm, but was sad to learn of the loss of Lonesome George in the Galapagos Islands, the last of his sub species. He found this fascinating article on the BBC website and wanted to share it.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise has died and his kind is now extinct. But if his genes live on in tortoise “relatives”, how much does the loss of this subspecies matter?

“Usually we don’t notice it.

“It happens, then we discover it, but it’s too late then,” says Lonesome George expert Dr Henry Nicholls about the moment of extinction, something humanity almost never knowingly sees.

But for the last Pinta Island giant tortoise, named in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s rarest animal, it was different.

“George managed to string out a moment of extinction for 40 years in captivity,” says Dr Nicholls, who wrote Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon.

“More than just a symbol for the Galapagos, Lonesome George was a symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited,” an open letter published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says.

But a series of genetic discoveries in recent years at Volcano Wolf on Isabela, one of the Galapagos Islands, offers some consolation.

Scientists from Yale found a first generation hybrid of the Pinta giant tortoises and Isabela tortoises, meaning that 50% of Lonesome George’s genetic material is still around, along with other strands of the genetic ancestry that Galapagos giant tortoises share.

“Even though Lonesome George and his lineage are gone there are still a couple of animals up on Volcano Wolf where they carry essentially the genetic make-up that is related to George, so some of the relatives are still around,” says Dr Peter Paul Van Dijk, co-chair of the IUCN specialist group for tortoises and freshwater turtles.

The movement of tortoises between the islands by boat is thought to be behind the mixing of genes.

How much solace can be found in the presence of some of Lonesome George’s genes in other subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoises, depends on how subspecies are viewed.

How to define a species has been debated among biologists for centuries and there are many “concepts” of how to identify one. Here are some examples:

  • “Morphological species concept” uses anatomical characteristics to define different groups. This is the way many species have been defined in the past
  • “Genetic species concept” focuses on organisms that have a common gene pool
  • “Biological species concept” is the theory that a species can be defined by being reproductively isolated from other organisms
  • It was believed there was only one species of manta ray up until 2008, when a second species of the fish was identified
  • A new species of giant rat was discovered in the jungle of Papua New Guinea in 2009

The definitions of subspecies and species are based on scientific principles of categorisation and are hotly debated.

From an evolutionary point of view, subspecies are on their way to becoming species, having moved in a different evolutionary direction from other subspecies that hold a common genetic ancestry.

The tortoises of the Galapagos are an example, says Dr Peter Paul Van Dijk.

“Obviously the Galapagos are a volcanic chain of islands.

“They are arising anew from the sea floor, so somewhere between the geological point of formation of individual Galapagos islands and now, the tortoise population colonised that newly formed island.

“That is essentially when the clock starts ticking on developing a new form, a new evolutionary lineage,” he says.

Whether the tortoises that evolved on each island are called subspecies or species does not really matter that much.

But what is lost when one of the forms disappears is an entire history of cohabitation.

Some of the world’s most iconic conservation efforts are actually focused on animals that are usually held to be subspecies rather than species.

For example, there is only one species of tiger, Panthera tigris but many tiger subspecies are threatened.

The Amur tiger, South China tiger, Indochinese tiger, Malayan tiger, Sumatran tiger and Bengal tiger are all subspecies on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.

“Subspecies are morphologically different, in coat patterns, in size, in morphological features because they adapted to their region,” says Dr Christine Breitenmoser, co-chair of the IUCN cat specialist group.

“They were all under different conditions, grew up with different competitors, there were other carnivores around, so it all has an influence on the evolution of the species,” she says.

But when a species or subspecies is lost, the fact that it has genetically similar forms in existence means that some form of reintroduction into the ecosystem may be possible under some circumstances.

The Pinta giant tortoise was similar to the subspecies from nearby Espanola Island, says Dr Nicholls.

“In a way putting new ones on there is like re-setting that clock and obviously that’s going to take a long time and evolution will unfold in a totally different way.

“Another 200,000 years from now will not give you Pinta tortoises again. The genes will be drifting in different ways.

“I don’t suppose they (the Pinta giant tortoises) are very different at all from the Espanola ones… the Espanola ones that are there now pretty much will do exactly the same thing,” he says.

So is the loss of subspecies with relatively short evolutionary histories, such as Lonesome George’s subspecies, more disastrous for conservation from a symbolic point of view than it is from an evolutionary perspective?

There are some attempts to take evolutionary history into account when sorting conservation priorities.

The Evolutionarily Distinct Globally Endangered (Edge) programme at the Zoological Society of London is working on a way to combine evolutionary history in order to build on existing endangered species lists.

“We work out how much unique evolutionary history each species represent by essentially taking a family tree, a phylogenetic super tree for a particular group of species,” says Carly Waterman, programme manager at Edge.

“We’d look at how each species is related and we’d look at the branches that culminate in each species and we’d work out an ED (Evolutionarily Distinct) score.”

Those species that evolved relatively recently will get lower ED scores.

That is then combined with a score based on the IUCN red list of endangered species, to sort species into a top 100 highest-scoring Edge species.

“We’re highlighting the 100 highest-scoring Edge species on our website. For the mammals… 66% of the species on this list are receiving little or no conservation attention,” she says.

“For the amphibians… it’s 85% of the species that we’re saying are the most irreplaceable species… (and) are being almost totally overlooked by the conservation movement.”

While elephants, rhinos and pandas are all named as Edge species, so are some lesser-known animals such as the Hispaniolan solenodon and the long-beaked echidna.

On the amphibians list, the top 100 includes purple frogs and Chinese salamanders.

“It’s been a real challenge for us to try to get people to care about these species that they didn’t even know existed in the first place,” says Carly Waterman.

But “we’re in no way saying Edge species are more important than other species”, she says.

But there are reasons to remain optimistic, says Dr Peter Paul Van Dijk.

The surviving genetic material that is shared with Lonesome George and other Galapagos giant tortoises may present fresh opportunities for conservation.

“We have a whole new window opening up on potential recovery for some of these lineages deemed extinct. We are trying to figure out what the implications and possibilities and opportunities are,” he says.

“We’ll be damned if we give up before every possibility is exhausted.”

Watch the Birdie

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

We may be a little way away, but Old Macdonald’s Farm is thrilled to say that in July we will be hosting the

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity with more than a million members and almost 20,000 volunteers. The organisation is dedicated to saving birds in Britain and overseas. Now we are delighted to say that RSPB South Essex Marshes will have a display at our farm on the 14th and 15th July, so it is well worth a visit to have a look at their stand, and of course visit our farm too!

Now for a bit of information about RSPB South Essex Marshes. Your first port of call should be their Visitor Centre and Discovery Zone which are located within Basildon District Council’s Wat Tyler Country Park and are the gateway to our South Essex Marshes reserves. The RSPB Visitor Centre and Discovery Zone are open from 10 am to 4 pm in winter and 10 am to 5 pm in summer. Their full address is RSPB South Essex Marshes, Wat Tyler Country Park, Pitsea Hall Lane, Basildon, Essex, SS16 4UH and you can visit their website

Entrance to the RSPB Visitor Centre and Discovery Zone is free, although a small charge applies to guided walks and some children’s activities. Contact the Visitor Centre for details of events, dates and charges.

The site is very good for birdwatching all year round with a free guided walk each Thursday around the park from the visitor centre.

There’s always something going on for families in the Visitor Centre. Watch the birds in the wildlife garden, discover minibeasts in the aquarium, follow the seasons on the live CCTV cameras or at weekends have a go a nature-themed activities. There are also monthly RSPB Little Owls (0-5 years) Wildlife Explorers (7-11 years) and Phoenix (11-18 years) clubs.

Dogs are allowed anywhere. Contact the Country Park for more information. However your best bet is to visit Old Macdonald’s Farm on 14th and 15th July. Now here are their top tips for what to do in the spring on the Marshes.

  1. Look and listen for cuckoos around the park
  2. Stroll along flat, wheelchair-friendly paths – an easy walk for all the family
  3. Bluebells, primroses and daffodils will already be a blaze of colour and provide valuable early nectar for insects

What a wonderful day out for the family and how important it is for us to ensure that we support the RSPB in their efforts to, as they say,  “speak out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Nature is amazing – help us keep it that way.”

Old Macdonald is dotty

Friday, May 4th, 2012


May 5th is international Climate Impacts Day and all over the world people are getting together to think about all the issues that link us all and the reasons we should take action to prevent human beings contributing to climate change.

In places from drought-stricken Mongolia to flood-stricken Thailand, from fire-ravaged Australia to Himalayan communities threatened by glacial melt, there will be rallies reminding everyone what has happened in their neighborhoods. And at each of those rallies, from Kenya to Canada, from Vietnam to Vermont, someone will be holding a…dot. A huge black dot on a white banner, a “dot” of people holding hands, encircling a field where crops have dried up, a dot made of fabric and the picture taken from above — you get the idea.

That is why Old Macdonald is here with his cartoon friends, holding up his own dot, so that his farm in Brentwood is part of this great international circle of like minded people co operating to help save the planet. And we hope this will encourage you to think about these issues too, and make sure that Old Macdonald going dotty is not in vain. Just in Brentwood.