Category Archives: Mountains

Amur Tiger Population in Russia Rises Since 2010

Over the last decade, the Amur tiger population in Russia has increased to as many as 540. According to an interim census by the Russian government, there are between 480 and 540 tigers, including 100 cubs, over 58,000 square miles of habitat.

Around 2,000 specialists were involved in the field research using technologies like GPS tracking, satellite navigators and camera traps. These numbers represent an increase from the last census in 2005, which showed between 423 to 502 tigers.

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Image credit: Ronnie Macdonald / CC BY 2.0

Russia’s Far East has 95% of the global population of Amur tigers. Recent anti-poaching efforts in the area have been crucial to increasing numbers, including harsher punishments and newly established criminal charges for illegal hunting, storage and trafficking of the tigers. Head of WWF-Russia Igor Chestin says:

“I am pleased to see that the number of Amur tigers in Russia has increased in all the key areas where WWF has been working for many years. This success is due to the commitment of Russia’s political leadership and the tireless dedication of rangers and conservationists in very difficult conditions.”

Poaching is the principal threat to wild Amur tigers today, with such a high demand of tiger parts throughout Asia still in existence. The number of Amur tigers dropped to just 40 animals in the 1940s, but through conservation efforts, the population has come back from the brink of extinction.

Three Amur Tigers
Image credit: Tambako The Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0

As part of an effort to double global tiger numbers by 2022, the World Wildlife Fund is urging every country with Amur tigers to conduct a census. The goal, known as Tx2, requests urgent and comprehensive censuses across South East Asian countries with tigers. Leader of the WWF Tigers Alive Initiative Mike Baltzer states:

“The key is strong political support. Where we have it, in countries like Russia and India, we are seeing tremendous results. However, in South East Asia, where political support is weaker, we are facing a crisis. These countries stand to lose their tigers if urgent action isn’t taken immediately.”

Specialists in Malaysia have suggested that the country’s tiger population may have dropped to 250-340 from approximately 500, making it critical to perform a census there. Other countries in dire need of counting tigers include Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

Other countries, however, have been tracking their Amur tiger populations. In January, India released its latest census showing an increase in tiger population to 2,226 , up from 1,706 in 2010. Nepal, which has zero-tolerance for poaching, carried out a census in 2013.

Additionally, China is planning to count tigers this summer, Bangladesh and Bhutan are expected to release their official consensus later in the year and Russia will release its final results in October 2015.
 
 
Featured Image: Tambako The Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0

Mountain Gorilla in Uganda

Photo by Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0

Mountain Gorilla in Uganda

Isle Royale Wolf Population Down to Just Three Remaining

For the second year in a row, Lake Superior froze around Isle Royale National Park in Houghton, Michigan. This allowed wolves and other land animals to leave the island. But it could also have caused deaths within the dwindling wolf population.

After this winter, the Isle Royale wolf numbers were down to just three, as shown by the results of the 57th annual winter survey by Michigan Technological University, the longest-running predator-prey study in the world.

Six of the nine remaining wolves disappeared, but whether it was because they walked across the iced-over lake or simply died is still in question. Researchers know that one radio-collared wolf died, but the other missing five were not tagged and thus there is no way of knowing exactly what happened.

Wolves In The Snow
Image credit: Eric Kilby / CC BY-SA 2.0

The identity of the three remaining wolves can’t be verified until genetic testing is completed this year, but are suspected to be a male and female of 4 to 5 years old – close to the end of the average wolf life span in the wild – and a pup around 9 months old that is showing signs of genetic defects. Scientists believe that these last three wolves may not make it to next winter and that the deformed wolf may already be dead.

The deformities of the pup are a result of inbreeding, and a clear indication that the wolves are in desperate need of a “genetic rescue.” The wolves numbers have dropped since 2009 by 88%, from 24 to these three, which was probably due to such inbreeding.

Even if this pup were healthy, however, it would not necessarily be promising. With just three wolves, it is unlikely there would be a natural recovery within the population. A “genetic rescue” would entail transporting new wolves onto the island for breeding, which could naturally correct genetic problems like spine deformities and others issues.

But Michigan Technological University ecologists and co-leaders of the study John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson – who has worked on the study for more than 40 years – say it’s too late. Over the past six years, they have made a case for human intervention to no avail and now there’s little to no hope. Down to just three, the wolf numbers are too low and the older pair would not be very interested in mating with newly introduced wolves.

The only real chance for these wolves’ survival is if new members of the species come over to Isle Royale. Isle Royale initially got its wolves in 1949, when Lake Superior froze over and a pair came into the park. Through those two original wolves, the population increased, averaging 23 over the years with as many as 50 in the 1980s and 30 in 1995.

When the lake froze in 2013-2014, there was hope that some wolves might wander over from Canada, Michigan or Minnesota but instead one wolf left and was later killed. This winter, a new pair did enter the island but left again shortly and, unfortunately, did not intermingle with the resident wolves.

Bull Moose Lunchbreak
Image credit: Ray Dumas / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the meantime, the moose population is growing at 22% a year, causing another worry for the area. The last four years has seen such light wolf predation that moose now have 1,250 of its species. Within five or so years, they will grow faster than their habitat can sustain and their numbers will then drop drastically.

But once there is available food again, the moose population may not bounce back as expected, due to the species stripping the land of its ability to produce food. This is why Isle Royale needs wolves to naturally hunt them and keep the habitat-to-population ratios in balance. Vucetich and Peterson write in the annual report:

“Concerns remain that the upcoming increase in moose abundance will result in long-term damage to the health of Isle Royale’s vegetative community.”

So far, there are no intentions for humans to introduce new wolves to the national park. Isle Royale is making a new management plan, which could recommend such introduction, but it will be years before the plan is adopted.
 
 
Featured image: Gary Kramer, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources / CC BY-ND 2.0

Pronghorn Antelope at Wind River Mountain Range

Photo by Tom Koerner, USFWS Mountain-Prairie / CC BY 2.0

Pronghorn Antelope at Wind River Mountain Range

Nearly Extinct ‘Magic Rabbit’ Spotted For the First Time in 20 Years

With only around 1,000 of the species left, the Ili pika or “Magic Rabbit” is one of the most endangered species on the planet. It is only 20 centimeters or approximately 8 inches long and lives in the Tianshan mountain range in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. And despite it’s adorable, teddy bear-appearance, this mammal is actually related to rabbits and hares, as part of the Ochotonidae family.

Conservationist Li Weidong discovered the creature, formally known as Ochotona iliensis, in 1983 and named it after his hometown Ili. Last July, Weidong spotted the rare creature for the first time since the early 1990s and, luckily, was able to take these photographs.

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Weidong estimates that the Ili pika’s numbers have declined approximately 70% since its discover. He tells CNN:

“I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered. If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty.”

When Weidong first came across the Ili pika in 1983, no one knew or heard of it. It was declared a new species when two years later, Weidong found two more of the mammals. For the following decade, Weidong and his colleagues conducted several studies, including an official count of the species at 14 different sites.

But in 1992, Weidong began work with the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection and thus the Ili pika went unstudied, unseen and unnoticed for the next decade. In 2002 and 2003, Weidong returned to conduct a new census of the elusive mammals. But he and his volunteers found nothing, despite 37 days of searching.

Fortunately, Weidong and Arizona State University biologist Andrew Smith were able to analyze droppings and snow tracks, calculating an estimated 2,000 of the mammals still in existence. This number, however, represented a drop from the 2,900 in 1990s. The research was published in 2005 and it was recommended to the world that the Ili pika should be listed as endangered.

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In 2007, Weidong retired early to return to studying the disappearing species he discovered 25 years earlier. And in 2014, He and a group of 20 volunteers conducted a survey with infrared cameras, finally spotting an Ili pika. As he attempted to photograph it, the creature jumped and skirted over Weidong’s feet, earning it the nickname “Magic Rabbit” from the volunteers. Although they caught a glimpse of one during this investigation, they sadly estimated less than 1,000 Ili pikas existed.

Weidong funds his research himself, with the help of some donations and grants from organizations. However, it is not lack of funding, but lack of official recognition for these creatures that upsets Weidong. For instance, the animal is not included on on China’s List of Wildlife under Special State Protection nor on the Department for Wildlife and Forest Plants Protection list. In 2008, the Ili pika was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but no official organization or team is dedicated studying or protecting it.

Weidong and his volunteers are calling for the establishment of a nature reserve to help protect the animal. He explains to CNN:

“This tiny species could be extinct any time. They don’t exist in the sites where they used to be anymore…I’m almost 60, and soon I won’t be able to climb the Tianshan Mountains. So I really hope that an organization will have people study and protect the Ili Pika.”

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So what exactly is causing this species to disappear? The Ili pika live on the rock faces of Tianshan mountain range and feed on the grasses found at higher elevations. But its habitat is being affected by climate change, as rising temperatures cause glaciers to recede and the altitude of permanent snow in the mountains to rise. This forces the Ili pika to retreat to the mountain tops. Originally, the mammal was found at elevations between 3,200 to 3,400 meters and now they can be found at 4,100 meters up. Weidong tells CNN:

“They have nowhere else to retreat.”

Other potential causes of species decline include disease, as well as the Ili pika’s inability to alert one another of danger due to being solitary and non-vocal.

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Images via CNN and Li Weidong.

Herds at Mt. Kilimanjaro

Herds of animals in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Amboseli National Park, Kenya, East Africa
Photo by Diana Robinson / CC BY-ND 2.0

Herds of animals in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Amboseli National Park, Kenya, East Africa