Tagged: conservation

Once Thought Extinct, North America’s Rarest Mammal May Bounce Back

The black-footed ferret is returning to prairies, but it still faces steep challenges.

Text by James Owen, for National Geographic
Video by JJ Kelley & Katy Fox-O’Malley, for Dudes on Media

The black-footed ferret, North America’s rarest mammal, is returning to the western prairie 35 years after being declared extinct.

The comeback trail for Mustela nigripes began in 1981, when a ranch dog with a dead ferret in its mouth led to the rediscovery of a remnant population near Meeteetse in northwestern Wyoming. (See stunning pictures of the rarest animals on Earth.)

The last 18 survivors of that population formed the seed stock for a captive-breeding program that reintroduced the species to its former range at 25 sites from southernmost Canada to northern Mexico. Yet numbers in the wild remain low—fewer than 500, according to Peter Gober, recovery coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado.

A major hurdle is disease, particularly sylvatic plague, a flea-borne infection that appeared in North America in the early 1900s. Because the disease is non-native, the black-footed ferret—a member of the weasel family—has no natural resistance; neither does its prey, the prairie dog. (Related: [Video] “Why Do Prairie Dogs Do ‘The Wave’?“)

Prairie dogs are “pretty much all the ferrets eat,” Gober says. They also “provide shelter, because the ferrets make use of their burrows.

“There are quite a few prairie dogs in the West still, despite the fact that they’ve been reduced by 90 percent plus since historical times,” he adds. “The problem is that they fluctuate wildly, due to drought and because of this plague.”

The reintroduced ferret populations mirror these fluctuations. They “come and go” like “lights blinking on a Christmas tree,” Gober says. (Read about how scientists decide what species to save.)

Repopulating ferrets over a wide range of their old territory helps manage the risk of disease, but that requires access to suitable land with plenty of prairie dogs. “There’s a lot of raw habitat out there, but it’s degraded,” Gober says. Such habitat is typically found on livestock ranches, where historically prairie dogs haven’t been welcome. Because they compete with cattle for grass, millions were exterminated during the past century.

Wealthy landowners like media mogul Ted Turner are already on board with the program, but accommodating the ferrets’ increasing need for habitat will require financial support for the ranching community in return for tolerating significant numbers of prairie dogs.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so far has provided about a million dollars to a dozen landowners in Colorado, and hopes to expand the program to other states.

New hope also comes in the form of a recently developed vaccine to combat sylvatic plague.

Meanwhile, Gober and his colleagues in Colorado are breeding some 250 black-footed ferrets annually.

The team watches for signs of inbreeding due to the small size of the original genetic pool from those sole survivors found in Wyoming. But evidence from the field suggests that the ferret has been pulled back from the brink of extinction.

Historic U.S. Ivory Crush a Call to Global Action

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

Text by Bryan Christy, for National Geographic
Video by J.J. Kelley of Dudes on Media

Yesterday the United States government destroyed six tons of ivory, nearly all of the ivory in its possession.

It was a ceremony covered by media from around the world, including China CCTV television, Al Jazeera, HBO’s VICE, CBS, and Reuters. The International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund co-hosted the event with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In contrast to the Philippines, which in June used hacksaws, a small roller, and a backhoe to break up its ivory stock before sending it to be incinerated in a crematorium used for stray animals, the U.S. brought in a massive rock crusher capable of pulverizing 150 to 200 tons of material an hour.

A bulldozer picked up almost a quarter century’s worth of seized ivory carvings and raw tusks and delivered these remnants of elephants into the crusher’s maw. Moments later out poured what looked like bits and pieces of seashells you’d find walking along a sandy beach after a storm. The material will go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will design memorials for distribution to its facilities around the country.

It is hard not to become jaded by the elephant poaching crisis. I spent three years investigating and writing about the illegal ivory trade. Elephants I watched from a Land Rover in East Africa just two years ago are now most certainly dead. Everyone knows why. Africa lacks sufficient security in the bush to protect elephants. Criminal syndicates smuggle ivory by the ton, but their kingpins have remained invisible for decades. Corruption is rife in the field, at the ports, and in governments from Africa to Asia, where most illegal ivory ends up.

More of the Same?

Recently, several of the world’s largest conservation NGOs teamed up to launch a campaign as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. The campaign’s slogan—”Stop the Killing, Stop the Trafficking, Stop the Demand”—is so patently obvious that I find it insulting.

Supply, shipment, and consumption are the cornerstones of every form of international trade. To present them as a fresh perspective on an old problem is to trigger my worst fears as a criminal investigator: Nothing will change.

Why? Because the same conservation establishment that has presided over the state of affairs we see today can come up with nothing more innovative to address the elephant poaching crisis than saying: We should stop it.

And so I went to the ivory crush without much real hope, and I did my job as a journalist.

“What does your machine normally do?” I asked the man on the rock crusher.

“It takes big rocks and turns them into smaller rocks,” he said. And I wrote that down.

Promising Signs

But then I began to hear things I hadn’t heard before. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Judy Garber announced a one-million-dollar bounty on the head of Laotian wildlife trafficker Vixay Keosavang and his syndicate under the State Department’s Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program. Here was a real crime-fighting technique being applied to wildlife trafficking.

I listened as IFAW’s Grace Gabriel told me a story of how China’s new president’s “Tiger and Fly” anti-corruption campaign has led to a drop in sales of luxury watches, expensive liquors, and other extravagant “gifts” commonly used to bribe officials. During my investigation in China, ivory retailers told me that government and military officials buying luxury gifts for superiors were customers for their best ivory.

I heard several people, including Ginette Hemley of the WWF, call for a ban on the domestic U.S. ivory market. It is illegal to bring ivory into the U.S., but it is legal to buy and sell ivory domestically. Legal domestic markets are a loophole that enables trade in many of the worst ivory trafficking problem countries, especially China.

And then, near the end of a day of speeches, I watched as actress Kristin Bauer van Straten reached into her pocket in the middle of her speech and pulled out an ivory bracelet her father, a World War II veteran, had brought home to her mother.

“This is a thing,” she said, holding the bracelet. “This is not life.” She added her family heirloom to the pyre of ivory to be destroyed.

Kenyan Paula Kahumbu ended the day by recounting her visit last week to Ivoryton, Connecticut, which, she said, once processed 100,000 African elephants a year into combs, piano keys, and billiard balls. Kahumbu said America’s recognition of its role in the ivory trade was a lesson for China. She read a message from Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who congratulated the U.S. and asked the American government to join Kenya in enacting a ban on domestic ivory trade.

As I was leaving, people began discussing the possibility of a nationwide program for people to turn in legal ivory they have in their homes but don’t want to keep in light of today’s elephant slaughter.

This is something many Catholic priests have asked me since my story “Ivory Worship” was published in National Geographic magazine. “Do I have to get rid of my ivory?”

There are even smaller things people can do to help. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe pointed to a U.S. Postal Service truck offering “Save Vanishing Species” stamps for sale.

And so it was a day of more than crushing the teeth of dead elephants. It was a day of turning the big rock of wildlife crime into smaller rocks of human action.

US Crushed Ivory

Gyre Project: What is it?

A Dudes on Media production for National Geographic.

Marine debris — mostly plastic — does not dissolve and stays in oceans for decades. And it kills. Every day, marine debris kills seabirds, whales, fish, dolphins, seals, turtles, and manatees that either mistake the debris for food or become ensnared and often strangled.

We at Dudes on Media believe that caring for our planet is one of the most important things we can do as a species. Our trash is becoming the cultural archeology of our time. Is that how we want to be remembered? We like to share this message with films, but we strongly feel they should never feel like medicine. They should be fun to watch, take you along on an adventure and even celebrate comedy.

In a new series for National Geographic, we’ll follow an international team of scientists, artists, and educators as they launch an expedition to study marine debris in the remote waters of Alaska. Traveling 450 nautical miles, they will stop to observe, document, and collect some of the trash that is changing our planet.

Here is a sneak peek of what’s coming later this year.

GYRE is an original National Geographic Web Series coming September 2013.

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Dudes in the Everglades

The American alligator is a rare success story of an endangered animal not only saved from extinction but now thriving.

On Sunday, April 7th, Florida will celebrate its first official “Everglades Day.” Established by the Florida Legislature, Everglades Day honors South Florida’s unique wetland ecosystem, the wild inhabitants who live there and all the passionate Floridians working to conserve this magical place. JJ traveled down to the Glades for a week to film the spots for PBS.

It was a week of sweat, mud, guano, more mud and salt water. I loved it.” Recounted JJ after returning home.

As a tribute, WLRN will run a month-long TV and radio series entitled, “Guardians of the Everglades” which will profile people from a variety of different backgrounds but who are bound by a common desire to save our state’s national treasure for future generations.

These Guardians include an energetic conservationist working with roseate spoonbills in Florida Bay, a worldly environmentalist with a passion for parks, a dedicated water expert focused on Everglades restoration projects and an airboat guide with a unique take on what makes the Everglades special.

The series was produced by our good friends at Everwild Media in association with Dudes on Media for WLRN Miami.

The American alligator is a rare success story of an endangered animal not only saved from extinction but now thriving.

The alligator is a rare success story of an endangered animal not only saved from extinction but now thriving.