Cattle News 2008
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|August 2008, Smithsonian magazine
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|A Wildlife Mystery in Vietnam
By Richard Stone
The discovery of the saola alerted scientists to the strange diversity of Southeast Asia's threatened forests
Pseudoryx nghetinhensis Saola (aka Vu Quang ox) 4 - 5 month old female at the Forest Inventory & Planning Institute Botanical Garden. Hanoi, Vietnam.
Photo: David Hulse, WWF-Canon
A landslide has blocked the cliff-hugging road into the Pu Mat National Park in northwestern Vietnam. To go farther, we must abandon our car and wade across a shallow river. My wife, Mutsumi, a photojournalist, and I roll up our jeans to the knee and look uncertainly at our two young boys. Do Tuoc, a 63-year-old forest ecologist, reads our minds. "I'll take the bigger boy," he says, hoisting our 6-year-old onto his shoulders.
Before I can come to my senses and protest, Tuoc plunges into the current, sure-footed, and reaches the opposite bank safely. I wade out with our 3-year-old clinging to my neck. I stumble like a newborn giraffe on the slippery rocks of the riverbed. My jeans are soaked. My son, asphyxiating me, crows with joy. Both boys want to do it again.
I shouldn't have been surprised by Tuoc's nimbleness: he knows this primeval wilderness better, perhaps, than any other scientist. It was near here in 1992 that Tuoc discovered the first large mammal new to science in more than half a century, a curious cousin of cattle called the saola. The sensational debut showed that our planet can still keep a fairly big secret, and it offered a reprieve from the barrage of bad news about the state of the environment.
If only humans had reciprocated and offered the saola a reprieve. A decade after coming to light, the unusual ungulate is skidding toward extinction. Its habitat in Vietnam and Laos is disappearing as human settlements eat into the forest, and it is inadvertently being killed by hunters. Saola appear to be particularly vulnerable to wire snares, introduced in the mid-1990s to snag Asiatic black bears and Malayan sun bears, whose gallbladders are used in traditional Chinese medicine. For the saola, "the situation is desperate," says Barney Long, a World Wildlife Fund conservation biologist, who is working with local scientists to protect forests in central Vietnam inhabited by saola. The Vietnamese government created Pu Mat and nearby Vu Quang national parks in response to the saola discovery, and this past fall designated two more nature reserves in the saola's dwindling range and banned all hunting in critical saola habitat. Neighboring Laos, the only other country in which the saola has been spotted, has pledged similar action. But no one knows whether these eleventh-hour efforts will succeed.
That's because the saola is so rare that not even Tuoc has spied one in the wild. Estimates of their numbers are based on interviews with villagers who have glimpsed the animal, and on trophies. Tuoc, who works for the Forest Inventory and Planning Institute in Hanoi, first beheld a partial saola skull mounted in a hunter's home in Vu Quang. He knew he was seeing something extraordinary. DNA tests confirmed that the saola was a previously unknown species, the first large mammal discovered since the kouprey, a Southeast Asian forest ox identified in 1937. The saola's horns, one to two feet in length and slightly diverging, inspired its name, which means "spinning wheel posts."
Tuoc calls himself "very lucky" to have discovered the saola—and to be alive. Forty years ago, his older brother volunteered in the Vietnam People's Navy, which ran supplies to forces in the south on a sea version of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His brother's service exempted Tuoc from the military and allowed him to focus on science. With his keen powers of observation, he has discovered two other species in addition to the saola.
The best guess is that a couple of hundred saolas are left in Vietnam, Long says. "Very little is known about the saola. We don't know exactly where it occurs, or how many there are. There's a big question mark surrounding it," says Laos-based William Robichaud, who is leading a working group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature that met in June to draft a strategy for protecting saola. "The last incontrovertible evidence we have—a photograph from a camera trap—was in 1999," says Robichaud.
Since February, Robichaud and his staff have placed about 20 camera traps in Laos' Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area—historical saola habitat, according to hunters' sightings. But neither the cameras nor interviews with locals have yielded evidence of saola activity. "Villagers seem unsure if it's still hanging on or not," he says.
Robichaud is one of the few scientists who have observed a live saola. In early 1996, an adult female was captured and sold to a zoo in central Laos. "She was a remarkable animal," he says. Nicknamed "Martha," she stood about waist high, her 18-inch horns sweeping back over her neck. Although the saola's closest relatives are cows and bison, it resembles a diminutive antelope. It has coarse, chestnut-brown hair and a thick, white streak above its eyes. Its anatomical claim to fame is massive scent glands bulging from its cheeks. Martha would flare a fleshy flap covering a gland and dab a pungent green musk on rocks to mark her territory.
Robichaud says he was most fascinated by Martha's calmness. A few days after her arrival at the zoo, she ate from a keeper's hand and allowed people to stroke her. "The saola was tamer and more approachable than any domestic livestock I've ever been around," he says. "You can't pet a village pig or cow." The only thing sure to spook a saola is a dog: one whiff of a canine and it crouches low, snorting and tilting its head forward as if preparing to spear the enemy. (Saolas are presumably preyed upon by dholes, or Asiatic wild dogs, common predators in saola territory.) Remove the threat, though, and the saola regains the Zen-like composure that in Laos has earned it the nickname "the polite animal."
Martha's equanimity around people may have been genuine, but she died just 18 days after her capture. It was then that zookeepers discovered that she had been pregnant. But they could not determine her cause of death. The handful of other saolas that have been taken into captivity also perished quickly. In June 1993, hunters turned over two young saola to Tuoc and his colleagues in Hanoi. Within months, the pair succumbed to infections.
The saola's baffling fragility underscores how little is known about its biology or evolutionary history. Robichaud and conservation biologist Robert Timmins have proposed that saola were once widespread in the wet evergreen forests that covered Southeast Asia until several million years ago. These forests receded during cool, dry ice ages, leaving just a few patches suitable for saola. "If we leave the saola alone," says Tuoc, "I think—no, I hope —it will survive."
Other scientists argue for hands-on assistance. Pierre Comizzoli of the Smithsonian's Center for Species Survival says a captive breeding program is the only option left to save the saola from extinction. He teamed up with scientists from the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi on a survey late last year to find possible locations for a breeding site.
"It's a sensitive topic," he acknowledges. "But captive breeding doesn't mean that we are going to put saolas in cages, or do industrial production of saolas." Instead, he envisions putting an electric fence around a select swath of saola habitat, perhaps half an acre. "They would have access to their natural environment and could feed themselves, and at the same time we could start to study them," says Comizzoli, adding that something as simple as fresh dung would be "fantastic" for research purposes.
After fording the river, Tuoc and my family and I hike to a ranger station. The next leg of our journey is on motorcycles. Their make, Minsk, is emblazoned in Cyrillic on the gas tank. Our sons, sandwiched between my wife and a ranger, have never ridden a motorcycle before, and they squeal with delight. For several miles, we tear uphill on an empty, curvy road faster than this anxious parent would like. At the end of the road, we hike into the misty hills on our quest to spot a saola.
Preserving this habitat will help a host of other rare creatures, including the two other new mammals in Vietnam that Tuoc helped uncover, both primitive kinds of deer: the large-antlered muntjac, in 1994, and the diminutive Truong Son muntjac, in 1997. Strange beasts continue to emerge from these forests, including the kha-nyou, a rodent identified in 2006 as a species thought to have been extinct for 11 million years. "If we lose the saola," says Long, "it will be a symbol of our failure to protect this unique ecosystem."
At Pu Mat, the late morning sun is burning off the mist. With the spry Tuoc leading the way, we clamber up a slick path until we reach Kem Waterfall. Tuoc grabs a handful of broad, dark-green leaves near the entrancing falls. "Saola like to eat these," he says. "At least, we have seen bite marks." These Araceae leaves, I realize with a pang, may be as close as I ever get to a saola. Tuoc, too, has no delusions. "Maybe I'll never see one in the wild," he says.
Richard Stone is the Asia editor for Science magazine. He lives in Beijing.
|25th June 2008, IUCN News
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|Regional conservation strategy aims to reverse decline of Asian wild cattle and buffaloes
Over 40 delegates from across South-east Asia have this week agreed to a new regional conservation strategy aimed to reverse the dramatic decline of Asian wild cattle and buffalo species. The landmark meeting was held over six days in Vĩnh Phúc Province, Vietnam.
The Banteng (Bos javanicus), one of nine threatened species of Asian wild cattle and buffalo. IUCN Red List status: Endangered
Photo: Rochmad Setyadi
Plenary session during the regional workshop in Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam.
Photo: Frederic Vallejo
Plenary discussion during the workshop.
Photo: Miguel Pedrono
Workshop banner at Belvedere Resort, Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam.
Photo: Ha Minh Tuan
All nine species of Asian wild cattle and buffaloes are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ 2008. The worst affected is the Kouprey (Bos sauveli), a large forest-dwelling ox, about the same size as a Water Buffalo. Last seen in Cambodia in 1969, it has not been located since and may now be extinct in the wild.
Asian wild cattle and buffaloes play a vital role in their natural environment. They are an important prey species and also help maintain habitat diversity through grazing. Wild cattle species also represent a major reservoir of genetic material that could help scientists safeguard and improve domestic cattle breeds throughout the world.
Poaching and habitat destruction and degradation are amongst the major threats facing these species. Recent field research shows there is a real danger that Asia's eight other wild cattle and buffalo species are likely to suffer the same fate as the Kouprey unless immediate action is taken.
Representatives from 11 countries comprising of academics, experts, policy makers, NGOs and government officials, came to the planning workshop hosted by the IUCN/SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group and The Wild Cattle Conservation Project in Vietnam (CIRAD, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development). The event was held in Tam Dao National Park and was sponsored by the French Global Environment Facility (FFEM), Earthwatch Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Amongst the actions agreed for the Regional Conservation Strategy were; to strengthen enforcement of legislation on wildlife hunting and trade, to improve the effectiveness of protected areas and to manage interactions with domestic livestock that could lead to disease transmission and inter-breeding.
In the coming months, further workshops will be held in South and South-east Asia, to continue the process of saving these species from extinction.
For more information about the regional conservation strategy please contact:
Simon Hedges, Wildlife Conservation Society, Large Bovini Working Group Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group and member of IUCN/SSC Species Conservation Planning Task Force
James Burton, Earthwatch Institute and Chair and Dwarf Buffalo Working Group Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group
Rosie Woodroffe, Zoological Society of London and member of IUCN Species Conservation Planning Task Force
Miguel Pedrono, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and member of the IUCN/SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group
KATHMANDU, Nepal – A recent census has confirmed the presence of 37 gaurs (Bos gaurus) in Parsa Wildlife Reserve (PWR). The census was conducted from 24-27 May 2008 by the PWR in coordination with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, WWF Nepal – Terai Arc Landscape Program, Nepal Army and Buffer Zone Management Committee. Nine elephants and twelve recorders participated in the count.
An adult gaur
© Babu Ram YADAV
The Chitwan National Park has 296 gaurs as per the census in 2007, showing an increase of 98 individual animals from the last count a decade ago. Although not confirmed, gaurs are believed to be found in Triyuga of Udaipur district in eastern Nepal.
The gaur, also known as the Indian bison, is the largest wild cattle species in the world, measuring up to 2 metres at the shoulders and weighing up to 900 kg. In Nepal, the gaur is listed as protected animal, as vulnerable in IUCN Red Data Book, and is listed in Appendix I of CITES. With only around 1000 left in the wild, their numbers are declining due to over-hunting, habitat destruction and exposure to diseases of domestic cattle such as rinderpest, foot-and-mouth disease and anthrax.
Gaurs are found in eastern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, southern China, and the Malay Peninsula. They inhabit evergreen and deciduous forest hills and grassy clearings up to 2,500m.
Gaurs prefer to eat green grass, but in its absence will eat coarse dry grass, forbs, and the leaves of some trees and creepers. Despite their massive size, gaurs are wary and avoid contact with humans. They live in small herds, but the herd does not defend any specific territory. They prefer to stay around large forested areas along with grasslands to graze in.
(Yayasan Orangutan Indonesia)
In 2005, an Indonesian conservation organisation, Yayasan Orangutan, gathered some information and data about Banteng in Kalimantan. According to the local people, banteng were often seen at saltlicks in the forest. Although the team found their tracks and faeces many times in these saltlick areas, they were not completely convinced of these findings because it was possible that they belonged to domesticated cows that were common in Belantikan.
On November 20th, 2007, Yayorin team conducted another survey, and they found two well-preserved banteng tracks; one was about 12 cm x 11.5 cm and another one was about 14 cm x 13 cm. This implied the presence of a male and a female. In addition, the tracks were also found in a habitat dominated by bamboo trees.
On April 11th, 2008, two local villagers found twobanteng (mother and child) while on a hunting expedition. They killed the mother using spears and captured the calf.. Additionally, some villagers who regularly go into the forest to hunt pigs also encountered more than ten banteng between January and February 2008.
Bhopal, April 14 (IANS) The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department will move 20 bisons from the Kanha to Bandhavgarh national park as part of a long-term plan to boost the numbers of the endangered animal in the state, officials said here Monday. There are only 5,000-10,000 bisons left in India now. The new measure would ensure that its population is effectively spread out in the state so that they are not threatened in case of an outbreak of disease or hit by a natural calamity in one of the sanctuaries.
Bison, also called Gaur, is protected by Schedule - I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and is included in the Appendix I of the Conservation on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
According to the 1997 action plan of the International Union for Conservation of Nature for Asian Wild Cattle and Buffaloes, the estimated population of gaur in India is between 5,000 and 10,000.
“The number of the bisons is fast coming down. It has therefore become imperative to release these animals in other areas where they can multiply through natural breeding in a favourable environment,” Forest Minister Vijay Shah said in a statement.
“Since such a rehabilitation scheme for these animals is being initiated for the first time in the country, a team of forest officials is being sent to South Africa for training, which has the expertise and experience in the subject,” he said. The team will leave by the end of this month.
The five team members are Bandhavgarh park director Aseem Shrivastava, Kanha Tiger Reserve deputy director Shubh Ranjan Sen, Panna national park deputy director A.K. Nagar, veterinarian Sanjeev Gupta and Wildlife Institute of India's (WII) Parag Nigam.
Shah said: “To start with, a herd of 20 bisons would be released in Bandhavgarh national park , in a joint effort of the forest department and the Conservation Corporation Of Africa, a South Africa-based tourism company.”
By Andrea Thompson, Senior Staff Writer
Photo is of a bison and a calf in Yellowstone National Park.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society
Bison could make a big comeback all across North America over the next 100 years, a conservation group said today.
Bison once numbered in the tens of millions across the continent, but these icons of the American West were wiped out by commercial hunting and habitat loss. By 1889, fewer than 1,100 individuals remained.
1n 1905, the American Bison Society formed at the current Bronx Zoo headquarters of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and began efforts to repopulate reserves on the Great Plains with animals from the zoo's herd and other sources. Of the estimated 500,000 bison that exist today , only 20,000 are considered wild; the rest live on private ranches.
"One hundred years ago, through our efforts and the efforts of others, the bison was saved from extinction," said WCS President and CEO Steven E. Sanderson. "We are now looking 100 years from now, because we believe there is an ecological future for the bison in the North American landscape."
Researchers created a "conservation scorecard" that was used to evaluate possible areas that the keystone American species, whose grazing habits strongly shaped the ecology of North American prairies, could repopulate. To grade the potential areas, the researchers looked at the availability of existing habitat, the potential for interaction with other native species, such as elk, carnivores, prairie dogs and grassland birds, as well as the socio-economic climate of the regions.
The study, detailed in the April issue of the journal Conservation Biology, found that a diverse range of landscapes could play host to a resurgence in the bison population . General sites identified by the researchers were grasslands and prairies in the southwestern United States, Arctic lowland taiga in Alaska, and large swaths of mountain forests and grasslands across Canada and the United States. Parts of the Mexican desert could also again support herds that once lived there.
"The bison is one of the great living symbols of North America," said study leader Eric Sanderson of the WCS. "This assessment shows us what is possible; that with hard work and ambitious goals, we can restore this iconic species to a surprising amount of its former range over the next century."
Other groups contributing to the report include the new American Bison Society, some Native American groups and some ranchers.
WEST YELLOWSTONE, Montana, March 4, 2008 (ENS) - Bison advocates and local landowners today asked federal and state officials to stop capturing and slaughtering Yellowstone bison in a cattle-free zone outside the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park, until a review is conducted of changes in land ownership in the Horse Butte area.
"The government has been killing our nation's last remaining wild bison, claiming it is necessary to prevent the spread of brucellosis to cattle on the Horse Butte Peninsula," said Michael Mease, campaign coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign. "There are no more cattle on Horse Butte, so that excuse rings hollow. It's about time the people in charge get behind the locals who support wild bison being on Horse Butte without harassment by the government."
Bison are hazed back into Yellowstone National Park.
(Photos courtesy Buffalo Field Campaign)
Horse Butte is a 24,000 acre peninsula consisting of federal and private land that extends westward from the west boundary of Yellowstone National Park into Hebgen Lake. The peninsula is surrounded on its north, west, and south sides by the lake.
Yellowstone bison typically migrate to the area in late winter and spring seeking forage only to be met by state and federal officials operating a bison trap that has already been used this winter to ship 30 wild bison to slaughter.
Recent land management changes have eliminated cattle grazing from the Horse Butte peninsula. A court order ended grazing on a National Forest grazing allotment on Horse Butte in 2002.
Last year, new owners purchased the sole remaining cattle grazing operation on the peninsula, removed the cattle and declared their property open to Yellowstone bison.
Those purchasers, Rob and Janae Galanis, are among 39 Horse Butte landowners who joined the Buffalo Field Campaign in calling for a halt to the capture and slaughter of bison on Horse Butte given the complete absence of cattle from the area year-round.
"When we purchased the Munns Ranch, one of our goals for the property was to willingly remove the last cattle from the Butte. However, yearly cattle grazing on the ranch has kept the grasses down, which has helped deter potential grass fires on both the ranch and the Butte and has also kept down the spreading of noxious weeds," said Rob Galanis.
"For these reasons, we believe the ranch must continue to have a grazing component, which we hope to achieve naturally by allowing the bison to continue migrating out of Yellowstone National Park and on the ranch, as they have historically always migrated. To help achieve this goal we renamed the ranch The Yellowstone Ranch Preserve, the YRP, and posted the YRP as a 'Bison Safe Zone' to create a sanctuary for bison activity. In order to achieve this goal the hazing and slaughter of bison by the Department of Livestock on the Butte must cease," he said.
The bison advocates submitted their request to federal and state officials in the form of a letter written on their behalf by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. The letter asks the officials to stop capturing and killing Yellowstone's bison and to initiate a new environmental impact study to assess changes to an Interagency Bison Management Plan in light of the changed circumstances on Horse Butte.
"The government promised the public an adaptive management plan for bison; now it is time for them to adapt their management," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso. "The government's bison plan was created at a time when cattle grazed across much of Horse Butte every summer. Now that the cattle are gone the plan needs to be changed to become more tolerant of Yellowstone's iconic bison."
The bison advocates wrote that, in addition to its "unnecessarily brutal treatment of bison," the government's continued implementation of aggressive bison management is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
A Yellowstone bison is killed and removed from the range.
State and local governments spend more than $2 million each year to haze, capture and slaughter Yellowstone bison in the interest of an ever smaller group of livestock operations outside park boundaries, the advocates say.
Agents use helicopters, snowmobiles, off-road vehicles, and motorcycles to haze bison that leave the western Park boundary. Agents capture those bison that do not flee from this hazing and test them for exposure to brucellosis; those testing positive are shipped to slaughter.
During winters, such as the current winter, when the Yellowstone bison population exceeds 3,000 animals, agents are authorized to capture and ship to slaughter all bison leaving the west park boundary, without testing any for exposure to brucellosis. Agents shoot bison that cannot be hazed or captured.
"The government is spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to protect cattle that aren't even here," said Mease. "It doesn't make sense and it is no way to manage some of our nation's most revered wildlife. The bison slaughter on Horse Butte should stop."
Horse Butte is prime calving habitat for the Yellowstone buffalo, as the peninsula has south-facing slopes that green up early in the spring. Hebgen Lake and riparian wetlands along the Madison River provide habitat for trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, bald and golden eagles, and moose. Grizzly bear, grey wolf, elk, black bear and coyote all inhabit Horse Butte.