Professional Freelance Conservation Journalist

On Guard - Africa Goegraphic, June 2012

The use of dogs to protect livestock is well known, but donkeys? Anna Taylor explains how a strategy to safeguard cattle and big cats in Namibia is demonstrating that peaceful coexistence can be achieved.


Livestock farmers in Namibia have a hard time. They have to contend with one of the harshest climates in the world, and one that is often exacerbated by drought. Pests and diseases take their toll, and predators will snatch a cow, sheep or goat whenever they get a chance.


Many farmers perceive the big cats to be a major threat to livestock, especially in the commercial farmlands in north–central Namibia. They target cheetahs in particular, as most of these speedy predators live on private land and are attracted to the permanent water-points intended for livestock. In the 1980s roughly 7 000 cheetahs were removed from Namibian farmlands.


In a bid to protect cheetahs – and their livestock prey – the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) pioneered the use of Anatolian Shepherd and Kangal dogs to guard the farmers’ small animals. These particular dog species have a natural instinct to defend flocks of sheep and goats, and over almost two decades the use of them has reduced conflict between farmers and cheetahs. Commenting on the success of this now world-renowned initiative, CCF’s founder and executive director Laurie Marker says, ‘We have bred and donated more than 400 puppies since the beginning of this programme in 1994. We find that most farmers have reduced livestock loss and are very pleased with the dogs.’


When it comes to protecting cattle, however, the dogs are out of their depth, as the herds spread over too large an area for them to cover. For this purpose Florian Weise, the head researcher at the N/a’an ku sê Foundation (, has been promoting the use of ‘guard donkeys’ instead, as their senses are extremely acute and they are more aware of predators than cattle are.


Female donkeys (known as jennies) are used in preference to stallions, which may injure or even kill calves, and a pregnant mare is introduced into the herd. She is naturally protective of her young and will aggressively defend it from any predator. A bonus is that her foal grows up with the herd’s calves, bonding with them and wanting to protect them. ‘Most donkeys will approach a predator in their vicinity and attack it,’ explains Weise. ‘So instead of fleeing from it, as cattle generally do, the donkey is proactive and will chase it off. The predators in turn “learn” to avoid herds of cattle that are guarded by donkeys.’


Although some farmers have been using guard donkeys for several years, convincing those in Weise’s study area was not easy. ‘To be honest, the farmers I suggested it to initially thought I had lost my mind,’ he admits ruefully. Yet he managed to persuade them and, three calving seasons later, believes the experiment is successful. ‘We’ve seen a significant reduction in losses so far and the farmers are consequently keen to continue,’ he says.


A single donkey is needed to guard a herd of up to 100 cattle and it requires no additional care, making it an attractive proposition for farmers. At least 65 cattleowners now use guard donkeys in Namibia, demonstrating that ‘thinking outside the kennel’ can bring benefits to both people and wildlife.

How Rhino Horn Poaching Fuels Criminal Gangs in UK and Europe - The Ecologist, May 2012

Rhino poaching hits record high as criminal gangs target museums and exhibitions in UK and Europe to cash in on lucrative trade


The poaching of live rhinos for their horns, although certainly not a new phenomenon, is becoming an ever increasing threat to their survival. Despite an international ban on the trade of rhino horn since 1993, media reports have documented a growing number of incidents over the past few years, cumulating in a record high of 448 individuals killed in South Africa last year. Compared to the 333 animals that were killed in 2010 and just 15 animals a year on average only a decade ago, this is a worrying trend.


The sharp increase in recent years has been caused by the demand for their use in traditional medicines. Rhino horn has been used for centuries as a perceived cure for fever and rheumatism, but has become more popular as a growing affluent class in countries such as Thailand now have more money to spend on these products. A belief also seems to have taken hold in Vietnam that rhino horn can prevent, and even cure, cancer which, despite a lack of scientific evidence, has fuelled demand in this country too. Consequently, the price of rhino horn has soared to around £60,000 per kilo, twice the value of gold and platinum, and now more valuable on the black market than diamonds and cocaine.


This high value has attracted the attention of extremely organised criminal gangs. Always on the lookout for new and creative opportunities to make quick and easy money, they are now pursuing rhino horns held in museums, auction houses and private collections throughout Europe, including the UK. These gangs are targeting premises, and carrying out research and even hostile reconnaissance before stealing horns in overnight burglaries or ‘smash and grab’ style thefts in broad daylight. Since 2011, there have been 56 successful and 10 attempted thefts in the UK, Portugal, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Belgium.


Among the targets in the UK are Sworder’s Auctioneers in Essex, where in February last year, thieves stole a mounted rhino head worth £50,000. This was followed in May by the theft of a head from the Educational Museum in Surrey, and two horns stolen from the Ipswich Museum in July. Here, the thieves ignored the lavish gold burial masks in the Egyptian gallery and took only the horns, demonstrating their high value. Earlier this year, a display case containing a rhino horn was broken into during opening hours at Norwich Castle, but the thieves were disturbed by two members of the museum staff who managed to recover the horn, although the men escaped. 


In Europe, a hunting trophy of a rhino head was stolen from a pub in the Austrian province of Styria just last month. Other targets include the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History in Sweden, the University of Coimbra in Portugal, a museum in Liege in Belgium, and just three weeks after this particular theft, a horn was also stolen from the Royal Belgian Institute for National Sciences in Brussels. In France, four thefts from museums were made in 2011, including a particularly violent attack at the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris. The theft took place at lunchtime, with local media reporting that a paralysing gas was used on museum guards, who had to be treated in hospital.


At the Offenburg Museum in southwest Germany, rhino horns were stolen in February this year. Two people distracted the museum staff, while another two removed a rhino head from a wall. Just last month it was revealed that three Britons were stopped by Munich police in a stolen car, one of whom, thought to be from London, is accused of being involved in the crime.


Europol have been gathering evidence and intelligence on this new trend as part of their responsibility to monitor developments in the threat from organised crime in Europe. They have identified significant players in the theft of rhino horn as an “Irish and ethnically-Irish organised criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends.” The gangs involved are more commonly associated with drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling, and have exploited international auction houses in the UK, France, China and the USA to sell the horns.


In response to this spate of thefts in Britain, the Natural Sciences Collections Association has listed some guidelines on their website for museums displaying rhino horns. They recommend that a security audit is carried out, and “if material is not secure it should be taken off display and put in a secure location.” They also advise not to publicise rhino material, as “thefts have targeted rhino horn that is on display or has been publicised in some way.”


Many museums are also replacing rhino horns with replicas to deter the thieves, including the Natural History Museum at Tring. In August last year, two rhino horns weighing 2kg each were stolen from their collection. Fortunately, the horns had already been replaced with fake horns that look almost identical to the real thing, after staff suspected that they were the subject of hostile reconnaissance just a week earlier. On the black market the horns would have fetched around £240,000, but the fakes were totally worthless.


Science, however, may prove the best way to catch those involved in these crimes. A pilot study is currently being undertaken by Dr Lucy Webster at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture and Dr Ross McEwing of TRACE Wildlife Forensic Network to create a rhino DNA database for museum specimens. A DNA profiling test is being developed to enable the identification of stolen horns seized by police, even if the horn is in powdered form. DNA will be taken from samples of rhino horn, collected by drilling a small hole into the base of the horn, and stored in the database. Dr Webster explains: “The rhino DNA database of museum specimens, once established, will allow enforcement to test for a link between the recovered horn and specific theft incidents. If there is a match, investigation can be focused using other forensic evidence, witnesses and suspects from both the theft scene and the smuggling operation. This will help enforcement to untangle the supply chain and identify those responsible from the theft to the attempted shipment.”


A DNA database is currently being used in South Africa to identify horns from white rhinos killed on game reserves, so a museum database would have real potential to tackle the threat of robberies and burglaries from natural history exhibits throughout the country. The museum database could also allow for comparisons to be made between current wild rhino populations, and those from over one hundred years ago, so would be a useful tool for research purposes.


As long as demand for traditional medicine from the Far East continues, the price of rhino horn will remain high, resulting in more and more rhinos being killed in the wild. Yet criminals operating in the UK and Europe do not have to travel far to cash in on this lucrative trade. It can only be hoped that this growing problem of break ins and thefts from museums and other institutions can be tackled with increasing vigilance on their part, and the development of innovative scientific techniques.

Fears as Secretarybird Population Plummets - Birdwatching, May 2012

Iconic African bird suffers disastrous couple of years, leading to serious extinction threat. 


The Secretarybird, one of Africa’s most extraordinary avian residents, has experienced a dramatic decline in numbers in recent years.  Its quirky appearance has made it a favourite among safari-goers. With black central streamers, feathered thighs and crest feathers, it is commonly believed to be named after a 19th Century clerk or secretary who wore tailcoats and knickerbocker trousers with a quill pen behind his ear.  Despite a widespread distribution, though, last year the species was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for birds threatened with extinction.


As recently as 2009, the Secretarybird was given the status of “least concern” due to its massive range of more than 15 million square kilometres across sub-Saharan Africa.  Just two years later, it is considered to have a decline of more than 30% over 10 years (or three generations) - the criteria for the category of “globally vulnerable.”  Surveys suggest that the current population does not exceed a five-figure number. 


Andy Symes, global species programme officer for Birdlife International says: “The uplisting of Secretarybird to vulnerable on the 2011 Red List was a worrying milestone in the fortunes of this iconic bird, and was particularly alarming as it was the latest in a series of formerly-numerous large sub-Saharan African raptors (including the martial eagle and hooded vulture) to show a significant deterioration in their conservation status.  Although the species seemed to be faring better in some areas than others it became obvious that a revision of the global Red List status was sadly needed.”


The decline can be attributed to a number of factors.  Poisoning, hunting and capture for trade contributes to the bird’s downfall.  However, with Africa’s rapidly expanding population, habitat loss caused by increasing urbanisation and the spread of agriculture is the major threat.  Intensive grazing of livestock and burning regimes are degrading much of their grassland habitat, as well as disturbing breeding.  


The total number of bird species threatened with extinction across the world stands at 1,253 (12.5 percent of all bird species).  Now that the secretary bird features on this list, plans are being formulated to prevent further decline, yet this won’t be easy, as Mr Symes explains: “National Parks and other protected areas are providing some protection for the Secretarybird in many countries, however the co-ordinated continent-wide conservation effort which will be needed to halt the global decline will prove challenging.  One initial key to this will be obtaining an improved estimate of the total population size and initiating a co-ordinated Africa-wide monitoring programme to more accurately track the population trend over time.  At the local scale, awareness-raising amongst local people such as livestock herders, especially where declines are known to be most severe, may help to reduce hunting and accidental poisoning, and further work to try to ascertain the impact of trade is also recommended.”  As birds are significant indicators of an eco-system’s heath, the rapid decline of such a widespread bird is worrying news for conservationists throughout Africa – it remains to be seen whether it can be reversed.

Warning as infectious salmon disease spreads from Europe's fish farms to Canada - The Ecologist

Discovery of the deadly salmon virus Infectious Salmon Anaemia in Canada is just latest likely example of disease spreading to wild fish stocks from the world's mega fish farms.

The rise of the farmed fish industry in recent years has been accompanied by the emergence of many infectious diseases of fish. One of the most recent and serious diseases is Infectious Salmon Anaemia. First detected in Atlantic salmon farmed along the southwest coast of Norway in 1984, it has since spread throughout the world. As the name suggests, ISA shows itself by a severe anaemia, with fish displaying pale gills, and often swimming close to the surface of the water, gulping for air. More insidiously, however, many fish show no signs at all until they suddenly die.

An outbreak of the ISA was detected in wild Pacific salmon last October, in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Outbreaks of this virus have previously been detected in fish farms in Chile and Scotland, and although not dangerous to human health, have had serious impacts on the industry and the communities who depend upon it.

Effective management of the diseases of aquatic animals can be problematic. Often, too little is known about the infection itself, and infections can spread via flowing water and populations of wild fish sharing the same waters as farmed fish.

British Columbia’s ISA outbreak in wild salmon was discovered by researchers from Simon Fraser University, led by Professor Richard Routledge. Samples were taken in May and June last year as part of a ten year study into the importance of the Rivers Inlet area to migrating juvenile sockeye salmon. “It was not until toward the end of the migration season, when we realized how few juvenile sockeye salmon we were going to be able to catch, that we began to consider possible causes of the low catch rate. ISAv was just one of several potential causes that we eventually considered,” said Professor Routledge. Samples from 48 wild salmon were sent to the reference laboratory at the University of Prince Edward Island, the global centre for tests to detect the virus. They confirmed the presence of ISA in two of the fish. Subsequently, three out of ten fish collected from a tributary of Fraser River, the biggest wild salmon river in the world, also tested positive for the ISA virus. The three fish were all different species: coho, chinook, and chum salmon, and all three died before they had spawned, although the cause of death has not yet been determined.

These results have not surprised many scientists, who see infection in the wild population as inevitable and point the finger of blame at nearby fish farms. Rivers Inlet, where the positive samples were taken, is just 60 miles from the nearest salmon farm, and although there is no definitive evidence, the fact that it was the European strain of the virus which was detected, seems to suggest that this is a distinct possibility. The aquaculture industry in British Columbia has imported millions of Atlantic salmon eggs from Norway and other countries in Europe for the past 25 years. Previously ISA had been found in ocean-going salmon, but was not deadly until it morphed into a virulent strain in Norway’s fish-farming pens. Poor aquaculture practices are thought to have contributed to the mutation, with unhealthy fish being fed antibiotics and living in densely packed pens. A diseased fish comes into close contact with many other fish, spreading ISA via urine, blood and other bodily fluids. As the fish farm has an open net, disease can be easily transferred to the outside world. Professor Routledge believes that the fish farms are “an important potential pathway for ISAv to be spread to wild Pacific salmon.”

Many have been campaigning for years against open net fish farming. The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR), comprising of groups working to promote safe salmon farming in British Columbia, has led efforts to develop a safe salmon farming industry. Will Soltau who works for the Living Oceans Society, one of the member groups, says that CAAR has “worked for the last decade to stop the expansion of open net-cage salmon farming in BC and advocate for transitioning the open net-cage farms into closed containment technology. That transition would separate the farmed fish from the wild fish and thereby eliminate a lot of the negative effect from the industry to the marine environment.” Unfortunately, the Canadian Government has not acted on advice and the industry has resisted change. “We are now faced with the possibility of this disease being introduced to the North Pacific Ocean for the first time and spreading in wild salmon stocks,” adds Mr Soltau.

Campaigners are right to be worried. In 2007, an outbreak of ISA in Chile decimated their lucrative farmed salmon industry. More than 100 fish farms were affected, with over a million fish being killed and 50% of workers losing their jobs. The cost of ISA over the last 4 years is estimated to be around US$2 billion, and the industry is yet to recover from the impacts of the disease.

Scotland too has had to tackle its own outbreaks. In 1998/99, ISA was confirmed at 11 sites, and suspected at 34 additional sites, scattered across virtually the entire salmon farming region. The cost to the industry was estimated to have amounted to £30 million. Ten years later ISA returned, although this time on a much smaller scale. Six infected sites in Shetland were confirmed and depopulated of fish, and only after 2 years of monitoring and testing were they declared ISA free.

In British Columbia, salmon farming and the wild commercial salmon sector combined provides over 3000 full-time equivalent jobs, and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the provincial GDP. Salmon sport fishing is also important to the economy, and is a significant employer. 

The news of ISA in British Columbia has surprised those in the industry. The British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association stated that their fish health departments regularly test farmed fish for ISA but have never found a positive result. In addition, the Canadian Government has conducted tests on the original wild samples.  They were sent to a laboratory at the University of Bergen in Norway, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that the lab found no evidence of ISA. However, this statement is misleading, as Professor Routledge explains: “The Norwegian lab was able to generate one positive test result on a sample from one of the two fish that had previously tested positive, but the result was not repeatable. One explanation for the discrepancy that seems highly credible to me is that the samples were by then degraded.” The samples were of too poor a quality for the results to be replicated so the CFIA announced, somewhat controversially, that the results were negative. 

Alexandra Morton, the marine scientist and outspoken wild salmon activist who collected the Fraser River samples, cannot understand the government’s response. “Why would government jump out and deny evidence of ISA virus in BC? If the samples were poor wouldn't it make sense to go back to the places where the positive tested fish came from and take their own samples? How can we take any confidence when government says everything is fine because the virus was found in poor quality samples?” She continues: “ISA virus is the most deadly salmon virus known, it plagues salmon farms worldwide but Canada is going to ignore the results from two of the top ISA virus labs in the world, because the samples were of poor quality?”

While the Canadian Government is playing down the fears of ISA, the United States Government has taken the opposite stance. In a statement released by senators from Washington State and Alaska, fears were expressed that the Canadian government may be too close to the multi-billion dollar industry. They called upon the United States to conduct their own tests, as “we should not rely on another government – particularly one that may have a motive to misrepresent its finding – to determine how we assess the risk ISA may pose to American fishery jobs. We have to get a coordinated game plan in place to protect our salmon and stop the spread of this deadly virus.”

As ‘Salmongate’ (as the North American press have dubbed this debate) continues, it is clear that more tests are needed to confirm the initial findings.  “I believe that top priority needs to be given to collecting, preserving, and analysing new samples under tight protocols to obtain more definitive evidence regarding the presence, geographic range, origin, etc., of the virus in the North Pacific,” says Professor Routledge.  The stakes are high, especially with so many people dependent on salmon-related industries in the Pacific Northwest. Campaigners are viewing the ISA outbreak as one reason why changes to aquaculture procedures are essential, but scientists admit that they are on a steep learning curve. Swift action is necessary, but no country has ever managed to completely eradicate ISA, and reverberations of this outbreak may be felt far and wide for many years to come.

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The MAPA Project - The Urban TImes

Africa is a big place, famous for incredible wildlife and stunning locations that attracts millions of tourists every year. Yet one ambitious project is attempting to map all of the continent’s protected areas to create a resource for conservationists, journalists, students and visitors. The Mapping Africa’s Protected Areas (MAPA) Project has enlisted the help of Google, Tracks4Africa and numerous volunteers to build a digital inventory, an online home for all useful information regarding protected areas.

Between 2008 and 2011, over 20 teams of volunteers travelled hundreds of thousands of kilometres visiting all parks and reserves in Africa, mapping roads and relevant waypoints. This information was then loaded onto a layer in Google Earth, the MAPA layer. Once this was complete, the team did not stop there. The map was expanded to include all critical habitats, those areas that are not protected but should be, as well as conservation projects, highlighting the tireless work of thousands of under-appreciated people striving to save wildlife.

The map is illustrated with articles, pictures and videos to make Africa’s conservation project visible and accessible to everyone throughout the world. As Jane Goodall once said: “Only when people know will they care. Only when they care will they act. Only when they act can the world change.” The MAPA Project will provide up-to-date, accurate information to journalists and students of conservation, and allow the sharing of knowledge between researchers working on similar projects. Hopefully it will also inspire people to play their own role in wildlife protection. Crucially though, this will allow those with the money to fund conservation aware of the work that is being done, and what projects are in need of an injection of cash.

With more promotion of the project and help with the technical aspects, it is hoped that more and more projects will be listed on the MAPA layer, to build a complete picture of habitat protection and conservation in Africa. This free and easy to use resource is set to become a valuable tool in the fight to save Africa’s world famous wildlife and habitats.

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The Rise of the Smartphone Naturalist - The Urban Times

The power and popularity of the smartphone is being harnessed by conservationists and nature lovers throughout the world.  Apps are now being created for data collection, as an educational tool and to connect people with their local wildlife.  One such app, called the Instant WILD app for the iPhone, allows users to see live pictures of wild animals from motion-sensitive camera traps in locations as far afield as Kenya, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.  Devised by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), its creators hope that users will become ‘citizen scientists’ and alert them to sightings of possible new species.  Reported sightings of many other species will also help determine whether their populations are increasing or decreasing, an activity that would traditionally take scientists days of sorting through photographs. 

Other apps available now are Project Noah, which allows users to document encounters with wildlife and contribute to a potentially huge dataset.  Users can upload photographs to the iNaturalist app, where species can be identified by an online community, and iBats collects bat sound recordings to track changes in distribution or abundance of bats in the UK, Eastern Europe, Russia and Japan.

It is hoped that apps such as these educate and enthuse people about wildlife both at home and abroad, and encourage participation in conservation activities.  The ZSL boldly states that they will “revolutionise the way we monitor many of the rarest and most threatened species.” 

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StripeSpotter - The Urban Times

An automatic individual animal identification system, or, to give it its more catchy name, StripeSpotter, has been developed in the USA. Biologists and computer scientists from the University of Princeton and the University of Illinois have developed the system in order to make the identification of animals with prominent stripes or patches much easier.

Certain species have markings that are not easily differentiated by our human eyes, especially if the animals are nervous and never let a human get too close. However, such markings are as unique to that animal as our fingerprints are to us, and it is for this reason that the StripeSpotter is such a useful tool for conservationists.

This system works by compiling photographs of animals, such as tigers, giraffes or zebras. A rectangular patch from the animal’s flank is all that is needed to be stored in the system’s database. A low resolution image is produced from the rectangle by dividing it into horizontal bands (the StripeStrings) and designating each pixel as either black or white. This image, the StripeCode, can then be matched with any photograph uploaded to the system, allowing for simple identification of the animal.

StripeSpotter is able to cope with photographs taken under different light conditions or changes in body size between photographs of the same animal. It is also free to use and available to everyone, saving conservation organisations time and money. The only equipment necessary to use the system is a computer with internet access and, of course, a camera.

The reason why identification of individual animals is so vital to conservation is because it allows scientists to more accurately monitor wildlife populations. Changes to the population can be detected and the welfare of individual animals can be observed. Population estimates will also be much more precise, and considering the fact that the management of wildlife populations is based on population estimates, this means that more informed decisions can be made. Population monitoring has long played a critical role in wildlife conservation, which is why a technological advance such as StripeSpotter will become an invaluable weapon in the fight to save our threatened species.

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The Pot Plant Owl - Birdwatching Magazine

A wild Spotted Eagle Owl in South Africa has chosen a rather unusual place to nest.  For four years it has raised chicks in a pot plant on the balcony of Allan and Tracy Eccles at their suburban home in Johannesburg.  In August 2008, the couple noticed an owl sitting in the pot plant, but thought nothing of it until later that evening, when they spotted a single egg lying in the pot plant – an event that was to transform their lives, and make the “pot plant owl” an international star.

Although thrilled to be sharing their lives with the bird, the couple soon realised the true reason as to why the bird had set up home in such an unnatural location.  The owl and its mate, with whom it pairs for life, had been living on a wetland on the adjacent Green Belt, where it hunted for insects, rodents, birds and snakes, and nested on scrapings in the ground or in the forks of trees.   Sadly, early in 2009, bulldozers moved in and began felling the trees to make room for a property development on the edge of the already sprawling city.  Tracy says: “As much as we love the fact that owls come and nest so close to us, and we share in the wonders of the rearing of the chicks, it makes us sad to think that a wild predator has to resort to nesting in an urban environment with humans due to habitat destruction.”

Tracy and Allan decided that something must be done to save the owls’ habitat.  They contacted the Government departments that protect the environment to try to stop the development.  Yet the protests fell on deaf ears and, even though environmental laws were being broken, the felling continued until all the trees were gone and the wetland was devastated.

So the Eccles turned to a powerful new tool in the fight to save threatened species, the internet.  As well as writing a book documenting the story of the pot plant owls, they began an online petition to save the wetland.  Within just a few days they had reached 27 000 signatures, and are still gathering names today.  The Eccles also installed a webcam on their balcony, and now hundreds of viewers tune in every day on the website Africam to follow the lives of the birds, watching live hatchings and monitoring the chicks’ development. 

With global support and huge interest in the case, the petition was delivered to the South African Department of Agriculture and Forestry and, in June this year, the courts ruled that no development was allowed on the wetland site.  The developer is appealing the decision however, and the Eccles are worried: “We are nervous because a lot of original decisions are overturned at the appeal stage. Bribery does unfortunately occur,” Tracy explains.  

Three more eggs have been laid this year, bringing the total number of eggs laid in the pot plant to twelve.   The story of this famous owl and those trying to save the wetland it needs to survive, not only demonstrates the resilience and adaptability of birds, but also shows how the internet can be a powerful tool in the fight to save species under threat.

To sign the petition to save the wetland, go to

To watch the birds live, go to

Project Eagle - Birdwatching Magazine

The protection of an iconic species, the Golden Eagle, was increased last year with the designation of six new Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in its Scottish habitat.  This is a major boost to the conservation of a species faced with threats to their ever-diminishing habitat as well as to their lives.  The process of designation began when the Scottish Government made a request to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to identify new sites for protection, based on scientific studies.  A consultation process led by SNH targeted land owners and users, relevant industries and organisations as well as members of the public.  Broad support for the plans led ministers to approve the new sites last October.   RSPB Scotland welcomed the news, announcing that they were “delighted at the decision” and stating: “This is a major step forward…These new SPAs are amongst the best places in western Europe for these great birds.” 

The core areas for Golden Eagles are in north and west Scotland.  Eight SPAs specifically for Golden Eagles were already in existence, but there was a gap in the coverage, with no SPAs in the mountains of the Scottish mainland west of the Cairngorms, which meant that the population was not fully represented.   The six new sites cover an area of more than 350,000 hectares, and will add eighty breeding territories to the original eight sites, increasing the proportion of the UK population under protection from around 12% to around 28%. With the UK supporting approximately 8% of the total European population of Golden Eagles, it is a significant contribution to Europe’s conservation efforts.

As a member state of the European Union, this country has a responsibility to designate SPAs for any rare or vulnerable bird. In 1979, the UK adopted The Council Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds, more commonly known as the Birds Directive.  This was the first ever EU Directive on nature conservation, a result of increasing concern over pollution, habitat loss and unsustainability causing the decline in Europe’s wild bird populations.  It is now one of the most important pieces of nature legislation and a vital legal tool for conservation, as it recognises that all wild birds are a shared heritage, and that their protection requires international co-operation.  The Directive emphasises the need to protect habitats for endangered, as well as migratory, birds, primarily by establishing a coherent network of SPAs. 

The monarch of the skies has only just held on in Scotland, with 442 breeding pairs recorded in the most recent survey in 2003.  Golden Eagles had disappeared from England and Wales by 1850, and from Northern Ireland by 1912.  During the 18th and 19th Centuries, they were considered to be vermin.  They were killed by sheep farmers who perceived them to be killing their livestock, even though it is rare for eagles to kill live sheep.  Instead they eat them mainly as carrion, even though white sheep must stand out like beacons against the dark Scottish hills.  They were also one of many victims of Victorian egg collectors, perhaps exacerbated by increased coverage of the railway network, allowing quicker and easier access to previously inaccessible locations.  Egg collecting can cause rapid declines as Golden Eagles are slow breeders, making only one breeding attempt each year and rarely laying a replacement clutch. 

Declines were aggravated by the shooting of the birds by gamekeepers who were annoyed by the birds flying overhead – this causes grouse to fly wildly in all directions rather than over the guns, making them harder to shoot.  Ironically, the shooting skills of the gamekeepers became a benefit to Golden Eagles.  Gamekeepers were highly valued soldiers and often the first to be sent to fight.  The two World Wars helped the number of birds to increase in the absence of gamekeepers, and this is thought to be one reason why they did not disappear completely from Scotland.  They were also aided by the remoteness of the Highlands and Islands, and the 1954 Birds Act, which made the killing of Golden Eagles an offence.

The classic DDT story of the 1960s affected all birds of prey, with the insecticide accumulating in the body tissues of prey animals and becoming most concentrated in animals at the top of the food chain.  Birds such as Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys and White-tailed Sea Eagles that feed on carnivorous and insectivorous prey (with more links in the food chain) suffered from a great accumulation of chemicals.   Golden Eagles, by feeding more on herbivorous mammals, were less affected.  Even so, chemical use resulted in widespread breeding failure in Golden Eagles due to egg-shell thinning and egg breakage. 

More recently, Golden Eagles are threatened by those simply sharing their environment.  People now have more leisure time and are there is a growing enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits.  Although unintentional, activities such as hill-walking, climbing and mountain biking can cause the eagles to abandon their nests or territories, as they are highly sensitive to disturbance.

The designation of the new SPAs will raise awareness of the harm these activities can inflict.  However, their main role will be to protect Golden Eagles from one major threat, habitat loss.  The nature of the eagle’s lifestyle means that they require a mosaic of habitats throughout the year.  Changes to the landscape can result in a lack of feeding and breeding opportunities.  Removal of sheep and an increase in deer culling deprives the eagles of carrion, their primary source of food in winter.  During summer, they feed on live prey such as Ptarmigans, Mountain Hare and Red Grouse.  To do this they require open foraging areas, but where large areas of afforestation has occurred, their prey becomes inaccessible through the trees once the canopy has closed over.  Excessive burning of heather causes these areas to be replaced by grass, again causing a reduction in prey.  For Golden Eagles, less prey means lower breeding success.  The SPA designation will promote sustainable land use within these sites and ensure the stability of habitats.

Within an SPA all legal activities can continue (as long as they do not adversely affect the birds or their habitat) but when new plans are proposed, the implications for the site must be considered.   Heather Kinnin from Scottish Natural Heritage explains:  “If it can not be ascertained that a proposal would not adversely affect the integrity of a SPA it can not be given the go-ahead by the regulatory authority unless there are no alternatives and there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest.”  She continues: “The planning authority would need to take Golden Eagles into account when deciding whether or not to grant planning permission for any new proposals within or close to the SPA boundary.”

The new SPAs will also bring wider benefits to local communities.  The SPA status can aid business opportunities within that area and, because they are such good places for wildlife, help to promote ecotourism such as responsible viewing projects.  SPAs encourage a diverse rural economy and, according to a 2007 survey, the number of land managers engaged in tourism activities is double that of land managers in non-designated areas.  With nature tourism bringing at least £1.4 billion to Scotland’s economy each year, it is clear that our second largest bird of prey brings great benefits to the country.  

As a top predator the Golden Eagle is an indicator of the health of natural environment, but is also a bird of great cultural importance, being a symbol of Scotland and a flagship for nature conservation.  Heather Kinnin says: “Golden Eagles help people both at home and abroad identify with Scotland and its wildlife.  Golden Eagles embody the wild and rugged landscape of the Highlands and Islands which so many visitors from both the UK and abroad come to experience.”

Sadly though, even with all the benefits an SPA can bring, the harsh reality is that the new sites will do very little to protect Golden Eagles from their biggest threat of all, illegal killing.  This problem still persists to this day, with 24 birds poisoned between 1989 and 2009.  Richard Evans from RSPB Scotland says:  “There is a limited amount that site designation can do to address this, as the main obstacle here is the enormous difficulty faced by the police in enforcing wildlife law and investigating bird of prey persecution in particular.”  As carrion feeders, Golden Eagles are especially vulnerable to poisoned baits, but also fall victim to shooting and trapping, particularly in the central and eastern Highlands where grouse moors are the predominant land-use.  Successful prosecutions have been made against those possessing illegal chemicals used in the poisoning of Golden Eagles, however none has been made against anyone for killing a bird.  Linking a bird death with an individual is problematic.  Campaigns by the RSPB and other organisations are on-going and, with a greater awareness, continual pressure is being put on the Scottish Government to recognise widespread condemnation of illegal persecution and to promote more rigorous enforcement. 

With large tracts of their former range remaining unoccupied, growth and expansion of the Golden Eagle population is the goal for conservationists.  New demands are being placed on the landscape, such as the search for renewable energy, yet the historical problem of illegal killing endures.  The expanded network of SPAs will ensure that a greater number will be better protected from habitat loss, but persecution must be stopped to ensure the future of our most secretive and majestic bird.    

Can algae-eating fish save our coral reefs? The Ecologist 

Coral reefs are under threat from all quarters - rising temperatures, ocean acidity, fishing practices... But can clever management of certain fish species help the reefs to recover their former glory?


Coral reefs cover an area of less than a quarter of one percent of all the earth’s marine environment, yet they are one of the world’s most diverse habitats, supporting one third of all fish species, and have been growing in the world’s oceans for 450 million years.


Corals are colonies of tiny individual animals, known as polyps. Formation begins when free-swimming larvae attach to new land created by volcanic activity. The larvae then grow into polyps, and lay down calcium carbonate (chalk) cups that form the reef.  Coral grows only on the very thin top layer and, over time, end up sitting on top of hundreds of metres of chalk, constantly growing upwards.


A young Charles Darwin became enthralled by coral reefs on his epic Beagle voyage, and made their formation the subject of his first scientific publication. On seeing them in the Indian Ocean in 1836, he wrote in his journal, 'we feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals!'


Yet these mountains cannot grow alone. Attached to the coral are microscopic algae that photosynthesise sugars. To do this, algae use sunlight and nutrients which the coral has absorbed from the water or gained from feeding on plankton. Some of the sugars are passed back to the coral from the algae, thus maintaining a mutually beneficial arrangement.


It is the algae, not the coral, that gives the reef such incredible colours, but when conditions are not optimal for algal growth, the relationship breaks down and the algae leave the coral. The reef is left pale and lifeless in a process known as bleaching, which has the potential to devastate coral reefs. Nadia Bood from WWF explains: 'Reefs are sensitive to climate change. Ocean temperatures need only to increase by one or two degrees Celsius over relatively short time periods for reefs to undergo bleaching. Coral death may occur when such stress is severe or prolonged.'


Climate change is now their greatest threat, and many scientists view coral reefs as early warning systems of a changing planet. In the words of Steve Jones in his book Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise, they have become 'a canary in the ecological coalmine'.


Coral 'phase-shifts'

Globally, 15 per cent of coral cover is under imminent threat of loss within the next 10-20 years. Reefs are also suffering because of their proximity to land.


'Rapid coastal population growth, habitat alteration and unsound tourism activities have increased the exploitation of reef ecosystems, thereby threatening the health of the reef,' says Bood. 'Siltation resulting from deforestation, erosion, dredging, mining and other land-altering activities, is a significant factor contributing to reef degradation.' Large quantities of mud and sand run-off from the land smother reef organisms, and block out the light algae need to survive.


It is clear that the algae upon which coral depend are jeopardised by man’s activities. However, if the opposite happens, and algae survive and grow a bit too well, a 'phase-shift' occurs. The reef changes from being dominated by coral, to being dominated by algae, and spells disaster for the reef, as the algae can out-compete coral for space to grow. This happens when the herbivorous fish that eat the algae, and keep its growth in check, are removed due to overfishing.

Scientists from Exeter University have demonstrated that one particular species, the parrotfish, effectively controls algae, and should therefore be targeted for protection. Lead researcher Professor Peter Mumby says: 'parrotfish consume algae and while algae are a natural part of any reef, too much algae causes problems for corals. It reduces the space available for larval corals to settle and recolonise the reef, and algae also abrade living coral, causing their growth to slow down, and sometimes direct overgrowth and death.'


The study was carried out over two and a half years in the Bahamas, where coral has suffered from bleaching. In heavily fished areas, no increase in coral cover occurred, but inside marine reserves, where fishing is banned, cover increased by an impressive 19 per cent. The presence of parrotfish allowed corals to grow freely without competition from algae, highlighting the role the fish play in the ability of coral reefs to recover from serious damage.


The identification of this important species means that governments can now put legislation in place to protect parrotfish and hence secure the future of reefs, as well as the local communities dependent on fishing. 'Most fisheries species require a complex reef habitat and this is built by corals. Parrotfish help ensure that the corals can build this habitat and therefore help ensure the long term sustainability of the wider fishery,' said Professor Mumby.


Reef mowers

Another study that set out to monitor the recovery of coral reefs from 'phase-shifts' made some surprising discoveries. A team of scientists led by Professor David Bellwood of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, deliberately triggered a shift to severe algal dominance, a 'weedy' state, on the Great Barrier Reef by covering certain areas with cages to keep fish out. The scientists then set up underwater cameras to monitor what happened when the cages were removed.


Disappointingly, on particularly weedy patches, parrotfish merely pecked at the growth, and made little impression. However, another fish came to the rescue. 'These batfish showed up and got stuck into it,' said Professor Bellwood. 'In five days they halved the amount of weed. In eight weeks it was completely gone and the coral was free to grow unhindered.' It came as a surprise to the researchers, as this species of batfish was previously thought to feed only on invertebrates.


Two years later, another helpful herbivore appeared on the scene. Schools of up to 15 rabbitfish were recorded feeding at more than ten times the rate of other herbivores.


'The rabbitfish is not a fish you tend to take a lot of notice of,' said Bellwood. 'Like its terrestrial namesake, it is brown, bland and easily overlooked – but it could be very important when it comes to protecting the Great Barrier Reef. We hadn’t seen it previously at this site despite conducting over 100 visual censuses. This made its appearance in numbers sufficient to check the weedy growth all the more remarkable.'


These new discoveries made up for the disappointment of learning that parrotfish, with their ability to 'mow' algae, cannot reverse well-established, thick algal blooms. But neither can we rely on batfish and rabbitfish to save coral reefs, as they are threatened in many parts of the world. Their large size makes them attractive to spear-fishermen, and the more herbivores are removed from the ecosystem, the more the algae will flourish, causing problems for the reef.


Helping the herbivores

Total fishing bans are a successful way of protecting herbivores, as used in marine reserves, but it is estimated that 25-35 per cent of marine habitats should be no-fishing zones to provide effective protection, and this could cause conflict with growing coastal communities. Designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) may go some way to solve this problem. Inside these areas, fishing is allowed but restricted and harmful fishing methods discouraged to ensure sustainability of both reef and fisheries, and recent research has proved this to be effective in the long term.


Dr Elizabeth Selig from Conservation International analysed MPAs in 83 countries and found that 'on average, coral cover in protected areas remained constant, but declined on unprotected reefs. The benefits to coral generally increased with the number of years that they were protected.'


However, our climate is changing, and even the best protection will not save coral reefs from this particular threat. 'The benefits from MPAs likely will not be great enough to offset losses from coral bleaching as a result of ocean temperature increases,' said Dr Selig. 'It is imperative that we work at national and international levels to reduce the activities that cause climate change.'


Hundreds of millions of people in the tropics depend on coral reefs, not only for food and income from fishing, but also because reefs protect the shoreline by acting as a natural buffer against storms. Well-managed eco-tourism can also generate vast sums of money in some of the poorest countries in the world. It must be proven that a healthy, functioning reef is more valuable than a dead one.


Coral reefs, long a symbol of the beauty of nature, are now a symbol of its decline, but if the threats to vital herbivorous fish are addressed, there is hope for the future. Nevertheless, the threats faced by reefs today now are unprecedented in their long history.

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Water Voles at Loch Leven NNR -

The water vole is the UK’s most endangered, and most rapidly declining, mammal. They have a small body size of just 35 cm and a secretive nature, so sightings are very rare. They inhabit watercourses throughout the country in a series of colonies, between which the voles move through dispersal and colonisation. This movement maintains a larger population over a wider area, called a metapopulation.

Yet with numbers falling dramatically, this system is failing as colonies of water voles are being wiped out, resulting in increased isolation of the remaining individuals. With no other colonies close enough to allow an influx of new individuals, water voles have now disappeared from approximately 95% of the sites they occupied early in the 20th Century. This was around the time when numbers began to decline. Land use changes, including riverbank management and drainage, have caused the loss and fragmentation of riparian and wetland habitat.

Yet it has been within the past 50 years that the most dramatic decline has occurred, caused by the introduction of the American mink to breed on fur farms. Escapes were inevitable, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, mink were breeding and thriving in the wild. Against these fierce predators, water voles have no escape. While their usual anti-predator strategies of diving into water and the soft mud underneath, or into their burrows, are effective against native avian predators, American mink are fast runners and highly effective swimmers. Female mink are even slim enough to fit through narrow burrow entrances, leaving water voles with no place to hide.

The rapid spread of American mink coincided with a rapid decline of water voles and, combined with habitat change, resulted in just 16% of sites within the UK being occupied by water voles in 1996, when a nationwide survey took place. Earlier in 2006, a study was conducted at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve, in Perthshire in Scotland. This is an extremely important site for local wildlife as it is Scotland’s largest lowland loch, covering 1,824 hectares.

Its eutrophic (nutrient rich) water allows plentiful plant and invertebrate life, which in turn supports numerous fish species including brown trout and pike. It is also the home of thousands of birds including cormorants, osprey and 10% of the world’s population of pink-footed geese. This has given
Loch Leven the designations not only of a National Nature Reserve, but also a Site of Special Scientific Importance, a Special Protection Area and a RAMSAR wetland site of international importance. However, this site is not a stronghold for water voles. Even though there is an abundance of ditches and burns flowing into the loch, surveys to locate water vole field signs such as burrows and latrine sites revealed that numbers here are just as low, with only around 0.3 individuals per 100 metres. The footprints of American mink were also discovered, so can be confidently stated as the cause of their downfall at Loch Leven.

One ray of hope is that, even with the presence of mink, water voles have not been completely eradicated. Scientists now recognise the positive effect that another species of riparian mammal has on water voles. Otter are also present at Loch Leven, and previous studies have shown that in areas where otter are thriving, mink are often in decline. Otters, with a larger, more streamlined body, out-compete mink for aquatic prey, such as fish and crustaceans. When alternative terrestrial prey is limited, mink have been forced out of areas within as little as four years.

Trapping has traditionally been considered the best way to control mink, but to have much impact must be extensive and consistent throughout the year. However, as mink are so virulent and can travel over great distances, trapping alone has not always been effective. Otters are a more natural solution to increasing water vole numbers, and encouraging their growth and spread into new areas will also help reverse this native species’ own recent decline.

Regardless of the presence or absence of American mink, without adequate habitat, water vole recovery is not possible. More surveys are required to identify the specific features preferred by water voles which will allow more suitable habitats to be managed or created.

Loch Leven, for example, it has been shown that narrow and shallow watercourses are preferred by water voles due to the lower risk of burrows becoming flooded; and flowing water is preferred to static water as it brings nutrients and promotes dense vegetation growth used for food and cover. It was also shown that cattle grazing is detrimental as trampling leaves banks unsuitable for their extensive burrow systems and cattle also limit food availability, a serious issue as water voles consume approximately 80% of their own body weight daily. Future management at Loch Leven will therefore include fencing off ditches to reduce disturbance to water voles.

This is just one example of how surveys can provide a detailed picture of the status of the water vole in a particular area. The more sightings of this mammal, or of the field signs they leave behind, that are reported, the more knowledge scientists will have to identify the aspects of habitats that need to be modified in order to maximise population growth. With a greater the awareness of local areas where this extremely endangered animal still exists, there is a greater chance of the survival of the water vole.

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Is your Cat Controlling Your Mind?

We cat owners have always known that we are at the mercy of our cats.  Now, this has been scientifically proven.

Inspired by her own cat Pepo, Karen McComb and her team at the University of Sussex set out to prove that cats have mastered a trick intended to motivate their owners to feed them.  They have shown that cats use a special kind of call, a high-pitched cry that is embedded within a low-pitched purr.  The purr is pleasing to our ear, but the cry is intended to annoy us, and make it hard for us to ignore our hungry felines.

In theory, cats should not be able to produce low frequencies, as their vocal folds are too small.  Yet, cats can slowly vibrate the muscles beneath their vocal folds to produce the familiar rumbling purr.  This leaves the inner edges of the folds free to produce a separate cry.  By embedding the cry within the purr, they are far more likely to get away with this solicitation.

The study, published in Current Biology, tested human responses to different types of purring.  During playback experiments, these food-seeking calls were judged by the 50 participants to be far less pleasant, but more urgent.  This was even noted by those who are not cat owners. 

On further examination of the exact frequency of the special call, McComb found a peak that is similar to the cry of a human infant in distress and can trigger a sense of urgency in the human brain, exploiting our natural tendencies for nurturing offspring.

McComb believes that this cry is always present at low levels when cats purr, but becomes greatly exaggerated when it manages to illicit a response from its owner.  However, not all cats have adopted this form of mind control.  Of the 10 cats used in the study, the cry was only identified in those cats living in single-person households, and was never emitted in the presence of a stranger.  When cats have a one-on-one, long-term relationship with their owner, they can spend years perfecting the art of demanding food, resulting in a very well trained owner.  As this study proves, and Karen McComb points out:  “Cats are very good at getting their own way.”

The Bullfighting Ban

The parliament of Catalonia in Spain has taken a crucial step towards banning bullfighting in the region.  In December last year, the first of three votes were held, in which MPs voted in favour of a debate on a complete ban, due to be continued this year with a second vote in February.  

The vote was in response to a petition launched by the anti-bullfighting platform PROU, meaning “enough”, which collected over 180,000 signatures.  The British charity the League Against Cruel Sports was also involved in the campaign and regards this decision as a huge step forward.  One of their campaigners Florian Leppla said:  “This is a great opportunity for MPs to honour strong opposition against bullfighting in Catalonia.  They could also lead the way for similar laws in other regions and ultimately Spain as a whole.”

The Canaries became the first Spanish region to ban the “sport” in 1991.  A campaign has been underway for several years to ensure that Catalonia follows this example.  In 2004, public protests and a petition with almost 250,000 names called for abolition, and in 2006 the regional parliament voted in support of including bullfighting in animal cruelty laws.  The region’s capital Barcelona, along with 22 other towns, has now declared themselves to be “anti-bullfighting.”

However, it will require a change in the law to ensure the closure of La Monumental, Barcelona’s last remaining bullring, frequented mainly by curious tourists.  Here, approximately 100 bulls are killed every year during bullfights.  For 15 minutes, the bull is taunted and stabbed with spears and daggers designed to cause intense pain and blood loss.  The Matador finally kills the weakened bull but often pierces the lungs instead of the heart, causing the bull to die drowning in its own blood. 

Bullfighting still has its supporters, who see it as an important part of traditional Spanish culture and believe that a ban would violate the basic freedoms of bullfighting fans.  According to Luis Corrales, the director of Defensa de la Fiesta, an organisation that protects and promotes bullfighting, “it would be a cultural and intellectual loss if bullfights were banned.”

Yet increasingly it is seen not as a sport, but as a form of animal torture, and the popularity of bullfighting across Spain is clearly diminishing.  The animal protection group Adda conducted a survey showing that 71 per cent of Catalans are opposed to bullfights, and a 2006 poll reported that only 19 per cent of Spaniards younger than age 24 are interested in bullfighting.  PROU representative Anna Mola argues that “making animals suffer for fun” does not fit in with “the new values of the society of the 21st century.”

With the decline in popularity apparent in traditional bullfighting countries like Spain, the bullfighting industry is desperate to export bullfighting to other countries.  It has been introduced in Poland, Russia and Egypt without success.  However, one country is now making serious plans to stage bullfights as early as next year – China.  This was attempted several years ago in Shanghai, but generated too much criticism from animal protection organisations and the Chinese media for them to continue.  Nonetheless, the current attempt is a serious one.  It has the backing of the famous bullfighter Manolo Sanchez who, according to Spanish newspapers, has made a deal with the Chinese government.  A bullring and a bull breeding farm are to be built in Beijing close to the Great Wall as part of a Spanish amusement park, complete with tapas bars and flamenco shows.  The bullring is due to open in October this year, inaugurated with two bullfights.  From next year, China plans to hold 16 bullfights a year, with the misguided hope of attracting more western tourists.

Just as the anti-bullfighting movement made a breakthrough in Spain, it is obvious that the bullfighting industry will not give up that easily.  Public pressure, and the work of animal rights organisations, will continue to force the industry to close bullrings, and not re-open them elsewhere.  Perhaps one day, this out-dated form of entertainment will remain firmly in the past.