Tag Archives: endangered species

Yes, kangaroos are endangered – but not the species you think

The Conversation

Karl Vernes, University of New England

Do you know what kind of animal the mala, nabarlek, or boodie is? What about the monjon, northern bettong, or Gilbert’s potoroo?

If you answered that they are different species of kangaroo – the collective term for more than 50 species of Australian hopping marsupials – you’d be right. But you’d be in the minority.

Include nearby New Guinea, and the number of kangaroo species jumps to more than 70. Kangaroos are so diverse that they have been dubbed Australia’s most successful evolutionary product.

But sadly, not everyone is aware of this great diversity, so most kangaroo species remain obscure and unknown.


Read more:
Bans on kangaroo products are a case of emotion trumping science


This is brought into sharp relief by a new movie that premieres nationally this week called Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story. The filmmakers set out to expose the kangaroo industry, painting a picture of gruesome animal cruelty, an industry cloaked in secrecy, and the wholesale slaughter of an Australian icon.

The film, which includes brutal footage, also includes the claim that Australia’s kangaroos may be heading down the path of extinction.

The film has already screened in the United States and Europe to sold-out premieres, opening first in those places because they are important markets for kangaroo products.

But foreign audiences also probably know less about Australia’s major kangaroo species or the complexities of the kangaroo industry, and may perhaps be more easily swayed towards the filmmakers’ point of view.

Many US reviews have been positive about the film, although one review described it as “frustratingly one-sided”.

Most Australians, whatever their view on the kangaroo industry, would surely agree that if kangaroos are to be harvested, it should be done with minimal suffering. But are Australia’s kangaroos really at risk of extinction?

The iconic red kangaroo. Large kangaroos are typically widespread and secure, unlike many of their smaller cousins. Karl Vernes

On mainland Australia, four species are sustainably harvested, largely for their meat or fur: the eastern grey, western grey, common wallaroo, and Australia’s most famous icon (and largest marsupial), the red kangaroo.

The best scientific survey data, based on millions of square kilometres surveyed by aircraft each year, puts the combined number of these four kangaroo species currently at around 46 million animals.

This is a conservative estimate, because only the rangelands where kangaroos are subject to government-sanctioned harvest are surveyed. There is almost as much kangaroo habitat again that is not surveyed.

Of the estimated population, a quota of roughly 15% is set for the following year, of which barely a quarter is usually filled. Quotas are set and enforced by state governments, with the aim of sustaining population numbers.

For example, of 47 million animals estimated in 2016, a quota of 7.8 million animals was set for the following year, but only 1.4 million of these animals (3.1% of the estimated population) were harvested.

The wildlife management community is pretty much unanimous that the four harvested species are widespread and abundant, and at no risk of extinction.

Are non-harvested species at risk?

But what of the other forgotten 95% of kangaroo species? The conservation prognosis for these – especially the smaller ones under about 5.5kg in weight – is far less rosy.

The nabarlek – a small endangered rock wallaby from Australia’s northwest – has become so rare that its mainland population in the Kimberley seems to have disappeared. It is now only found on a few islands off the coast.

The boodie – a small burrowing species of bettong – was one of Australia’s most widespread mammals at the time of European arrival, but is extinct on the mainland and now found on just a few islands.

Gilbert’s potoroo holds the title of Australia’s most endangered mammal, clinging precariously to existence in the heathlands around Albany on Western Australia’s south coast. One intense wildfire could wipe out the species in the wild.

Meanwhile, if the alarming increasing impact of cats on our northern Australian wildlife continues, recent modelling suggests that the northern bettong – a diminutive kangaroo that weighs barely a kilogram – will disappear.


Read more:
Australian endangered species: Gilbert’s Potoroo


The list goes on: mala, bridled nail-tail wallaby, parma wallaby, woylie, banded hare-wallaby, long-footed potoroo, Proserpine rock-wallaby – all of these and more could slip to extinction right under our noses.

The culprits are the usual suspects: cats, foxes, land-use change – and our collective apathy and ignorance. Australia holds the title for the worst record of mammal extinctions in modern times, and kangaroos, unfortunately, contribute many species to that list.

Population modelling paints a grim picture for the northern bettong. Karl Vernes, Author provided

The theatrical trailer for Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story’ features a voiceover from a concerned kangaroo activist, who says:

If Australians really knew what happens out there in the dark, they would be horrified.

Indeed they might. But it’s not just the treatment of the abundant big four kangaroos that are harvested (yet secure) that should attract attention.

The ConversationIf we also look at the other 95% of kangaroo species that need our urgent attention, we might just be able to do something about their dwindling numbers – and the real kangaroo extinction crisis – before it’s too late.

Karl Vernes, Associate Professor, School of Environmental & Rural Science, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day

The Conversation

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On the prowl in the outback. Hugh McGregor/Arid Recovery, Author provided

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Cats kill more than a million birds every day across Australia, according to our new estimate – the first robust attempt to quantify the problem on a nationwide scale.

By combining data on the cat population, hunting rates and spatial distribution, we calculate that they kill 377 million birds a year. Rates are highest in Australia’s dry interior, suggesting that feral cats pose a serious and largely unseen threat to native bird species.


Read more: Ferals, strays, pets: how to control the cats that are eating our wildlife


This has been a contentious issue for more than 100 years, since the spread of feral cats encompassed the entire Australian mainland. In 1906 the ornithologist A.J. Campbell noted that the arrival of feral cats in a location often immediately preceded the decline of many native bird species, and he campaigned vigorously for action:

Undoubtedly, if many of our highly interesting and beautiful birds, especially ground-loving species, are to be preserved from total extinction, we must as a bird-lovers’ union, at no distant date face squarely a wildcat destruction scheme.

His call produced little response, and there has been no successful and enduring reduction in cat numbers since. Nor, until now, has there been a concerted effort to find out exactly how many birds are being killed by cats.

Counting the cost

To provide a first national assessment of the toll taken by cats on Australian birds, we have compiled almost 100 studies detailing the diets of Australia’s feral cats. The results show that the average feral cat eats about two birds every five days.

We then combined these statistics with information about the population density of feral cats, to create a map of the estimated rates of birds killed by cats throughout Australia.

Number of birds eaten per square kilometre. Brett Murphy, Author provided

We conclude that, on average, feral cats in Australia’s largely natural landscapes kill 272 million birds per year. Bird-kill rates are highest in arid Australia (up to 330 birds per square km per year) and on islands, where rates can vary greatly depending on size.

We also estimate (albeit with fewer data) that feral cats in human-modified landscapes, such as the areas surrounding cities, kill a further 44 million birds each year. Pet cats, meanwhile, kill about 61 million birds per year.

Overall, this amounts to more than 377 million birds killed by cats per year in Australia – more than a million every day.

Which species are suffering?

In a related study, we also compiled records of the bird species being killed by cats in Australia. We found records of cats killing more than 330 native bird species – about half of all Australia’s resident bird species. In natural and remote landscapes, 99% of the cat-killed birds are native species. Our results also show that cats are known to kill 71 of Australia’s 117 threatened bird species.

Birds that feed or nest on the ground, live on islands, and are medium-sized (60-300g) are most likely to be killed by cats.

Galahs are among the many native species being killed by feral cats. Mark Marathon, Author provided

It is difficult to put a million-plus daily bird deaths in context without a reliable estimate of the total number of birds in Australia. But our coarse assessment from many published estimates of local bird density suggests that there are about 11 billion land birds in Australia, suggesting that cats kill about 3-4% of Australia’s birds each year.

However, particular species are hit much harder than others, and the population viability of some species (such as quail-thrushes, button-quails and ground-feeding pigeons and doves) is likely to be especially threatened.

Our tally of bird deaths is comparable to similar estimates for other countries. Our figure is lower than a recent estimate for the United States, and slightly higher than in Canada. Overall, bird killings by cats seem to greatly outnumber those caused by humans.

In Australia, cats are likely to significantly increase the extinction risk faced by some bird species. In many locations, birds face a range of interacting threats, with cat abundance and hunting success shown to increase in fragmented bushland, in areas with high stocking rates, and in places with poorly managed fire regimes, so cat impacts compound these other threats.

Belling the cat

What can be done to reduce the impact? The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy recognises the threat posed by feral cats, albeit mainly on the basis of their role in mammal extinctions.

The threatened species strategy also prioritised efforts to control feral cats more intensively, eradicate them from islands with important biodiversity values, and to expand a national network of fenced areas that excludes feral cats and foxes.

But while fences can create important havens for many threatened mammals, they are much less effective for protecting birds. To save birds, cats will need to be controlled on a much broader scale.


Read more: The war on feral cats will need many different weapons


We should also remember that this is not just a remote bush problem. Roughly half of Australia’s cats are pets, and they also take a considerable toll on wildlife.

While recognising the many benefits of pet ownership, we should also work to reduce the detrimental impacts. Fortunately, there is increasing public awareness of the benefits of not letting pet cats roam freely. With such measures, cat owners can help to look after the birds in their own backyards, and hence contribute to conserving Australia’s unique wildlife.


The ConversationWe acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer (WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), David Paton (University of Adelaide), Alex Nankivell (Nature Foundation SA Inc.), Mike Lawes (University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Glenn Edwards (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to this article.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Calling deep sea species ‘monsters’ may harm their conservation

The Conversation

Carla Litchfield, University of South Australia

Fans of the movie Finding Nemo may remember the terrifying fish that scares Dory (a blue tang) and Marlin (a clown fish) at the bottom of a trench.

But in reality this “monster”, a black seadevil, is only about 9 cm long, which would make it about a third of the size of Dory and potentially smaller than Marlin or Nemo.

In 2014, researchers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute began studying a single black sea devil. It was caught and moved to a special darkroom laboratory designed to simulate its dark and cold natural habitat.

While this misconception or inaccuracy may seem harmless, it could pose problems for future conservation efforts, as people are more likely to support conservation of cute rather than creepy-looking animals.

While the angler fish is easily turned into a scary monster, the similar-sized tiny Pac-Man looking octopus is cute and popular with the public.

Deep sea commercial fishing nothing to celebrate

From 2000-2010, scientists described about 1,200 new species in the Census of Marine Life Program. While this figure may seem astounding, a further 5,000 individual dead creatures are in specimen jars, waiting to be described. The scientific process of describing new species is slow.

Specimens must be methodically collected, identified, and then the identity of new deep-water species must be confirmed.

People have always had a fascination for unusual creatures that they may never see. Many exotic land animals can be seen in zoos around the world, but few deep sea species are on display in aquaria. In the meantime, people on social media are hungry for images of strange and exotic animals of the sea.

As a result, a Russian fisherman working on deep sea commercial trawlers last year gained huge numbers of social media followers after posting photos and videos of some of the deep sea creatures caught on his ship, with some even stuffed by craftsmen on board.

 

Presumably, many of these specimens are bycatch, accidentally caught in nets trawling for other species popular with consumers. Sometimes bycatch, which includes marine mammals, is thrown back into the sea but it may end up on consumer plates.

If images are posted on social media by laypeople in a way that appears sensational and even heartless, and without any accurate information about the animals, then there is no resulting respect for these sea creatures or educational value. Simply viewing these creatures as freaks, ignores the importance of their role in keeping our oceans healthy.

A tripod fish deep below the Atlantic Ocean. NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Deep in danger

Most people will never spend time on a trawler fishing in deep oceans, but marine conservation and management policy depends on all of us being aware of the risks that human activities pose to marine ecosystems, such as deep water fishing, off shore mining and pollution.

If we call unusual deep sea animals monsters or demons or freaks, then we may harm their conservation as people are unlikely to connect with them or care about saving them.

On the other hand, their rarity clearly makes them popular on social media sites. For other species, this has resulted in increases in illegal trafficking for exotic pets, and aquariums. Deep sea species may potentially become illegally sourced taxidermy curiosities or food. Humans may end up eating these animals of the deep to extinction before their species are even known to science.

Rhinochimaera. NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Saving our ‘blue heart’

We still have so much to learn about deep marine ecosystems and their inhabitants, which have special adaptations for living in these typically cold and dark waters. With new submarines and technology, scientists are able to explore the ocean more easily.

The deepest part of any ocean is the Challenger Deep valley in the Mariana Trench, part of the Pacific Ocean, which is about 11,000 metres deep. By comparison, Mount Everest is about 8,550 metres tall.

The cold water of the North Atlantic, down to depths of about 1,800m, is home to the Greenland Shark, which can live for as long as 400 years!

A new species of beaked whale has also been discovered recently. It is smaller and darker than other beaked whales, perhaps because it forages for deep sea fish and giant squid at depths of up to 3,000m below sea level.

The public’s perceptions are often based on how ‘cute’ an animal is. NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Every habitat on earth is interconnected, and whatever we as humans do on the ground, or in the oceans has an impact on marine ecosystems. Removing deep sea predators and prey, and disturbing deep sea habitats, will change marine ecosystems in ways that we do not yet understand.

Some experts have compared the rapid global spread of unsustainable fishing technologies and practices to a pathological disease outbreak. Oceans are sometimes called the lifeblood of our planet, while rainforests are its lungs.

In reality, about 80% of our oxygen is produced by microorganisms in the oceans. This makes our oceans both the lungs and lifeblood of our planet. In fact, oceans are the blue heart of our planet and we must all try harder to save them.

The ConversationCarla Litchfield, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Eastern quolls edge closer to extinction – but it’s not too late to save them

The Conversation

Bronwyn Fancourt, University of Tasmania

Eastern quolls – small, fleet-footed and ferocious – are one of Australia’s few surviving marsupial predators. They were once so common in southeast Australia that when Europeans arrived the quolls were reportedly hyperabundant.

But by the 1960s they were extinct on the mainland, driven down by a combination of disease, poisoning, persecution and predation.

Despite their mainland demise, eastern quolls continued to thrive in Tasmania – until recently. Across Tasmania, quoll numbers declined by more than 50% in the 10 years to 2009 and show no sign of recovery.

Recognising this worrying decline, the quolls have recently been listed as endangered internationally and in Australia. This is a stark reminder of how quickly a common species can plunge towards extinction.

But the quolls can still recover, as long as we act now while we still have an opportunity. In research published in Wildlife Research, I looked at what caused the decline, and how we can help.

Change in the weather

Several factors coincided with the decline, but after five years of investigation I found that a period of unfavourable weather was the most likely explanation.

Eastern quolls prefer areas with low rainfall and cold winters. But an 18-month period of warm winters and higher seasonal rainfall during 2002-03 resulted in most of Tasmania becoming unsuitable for eastern quolls. This rapidly drove their numbers down. In fact, the amount of environmentally suitable habitat in this period was lower than at any other time during the previous 60 years.

With the frequency of extreme weather events predicted to increase over coming decades, the future for eastern quolls looks uncertain.

Eastern quoll numbers declined as unfavourable weather conditions reduced the amount of environmentally suitable habitat across Tasmania (grey shading). Fancourt et al (2015)

The predator pit

Interestingly, while weather conditions have since improved, eastern quolls have not recovered. With their numbers pushed so low, the remaining small populations can no longer breed faster than other threats kill them off. Historically, when quoll numbers were higher, they could cope with these threats.

Quolls are now trapped in what ecologists call a “predator pit”. Predators, cars, poison and a range of other threats are killing quolls as quickly as they can reproduce.

So population growth is in limbo – not because any threats have increased, but because small populations don’t have the capacity to outpace those same threats anymore.

Contrary to earlier predictions, feral cat numbers in Tasmania have not increased following declines in the Tasmanian devil population. Quoll populations could previously cope with the loss of a few quolls (mainly juveniles) to cats. However, that same number of quolls killed by cats is now potentially enough to wipe out any population growth, preventing the species’ recovery.

While feral cat numbers have not increased in Tasmania, cat predation of juvenile quolls could still be preventing their population from recovering. Bronwyn Fancourt

Numbers game

The key factor preventing quoll recovery is their current small population. Quoll numbers need a boost, increasing reproductive capacity so that they can once again outpace the threats they are facing. This could be done by supplementing small, surviving populations in Tasmanian with quolls from captive-breeding colonies, insurance populations or the wild population on Bruny Island (which is doing better than mainland Tasmania).

Reducing feral cat numbers at key sites in early summer could also help reduce predation as juvenile quolls enter the population. That would potentially increase juvenile survival and allow quoll populations to grow and recover.

Increasing survival rates of juvenile quolls in the wild is key to helping the species recover. Bronwyn Fancourt

Should quolls be reintroduced to the mainland?

Since word of the eastern quolls’ plight has spread, there has been increasing talk of reintroducing them to Australia’s mainland, where they disappeared more than 50 years ago. Such proposals are often well-intentioned and could potentially help restore some mainland ecosystems.

However, this could actually serve to drive wild populations in Tasmania closer to extinction, making the species’ recovery more difficult.

With only small populations persisting in the wild, removing only one or two individuals from a population could be enough to render that population functionally extinct – and once a population is functionally extinct it is on the path to total extinction.

Similarly, using quolls from captive colonies and insurance populations for mainland reintroductions further removes valuable quolls that could be used to repopulate and recover wild populations in Tasmania.

The eastern quoll’s persistence in Tasmania decades after it disappeared from the mainland suggests Tasmania is a far safer place for eastern quolls and offers them the best chance to recover. Removing them from a relatively safe place and reintroducing them to high-risk mainland sites filled with dingoes, foxes and toxic fox baits could actually hinder, not help, their recovery. For example, while baiting foxes may reduce the threat from foxes, it takes less than half of one fox bait to kill an adult female eastern quoll.

Mainland reintroductions should definitely be a goal in the longer term. But given the dangerously low numbers in Tasmania, we shouldn’t take Tasmanian quolls for high-risk mainland reintroductions until the Tasmanian population is safe. Once numbers in the wild have recovered, wild-sourced Tasmanian quolls could be reintroduced to mainland sites without putting wild populations at risk.

It’s time to act

Australia’s declining species face a slippery slope towards extinction. The key to recovery is understanding why the species declined, then acting while there is still time.

Australia’s history is littered with examples where delays and inaction prevented small populations from recovering, with some species now lost forever. The eastern quolls’ fate is not yet sealed. But we have to act now.

The ConversationBronwyn Fancourt, Honorary Research Associate, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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How curiosity can save species from extinction

The Conversation

Merlin Crossley, UNSW Australia

If I had been given one wish as a child I, it would have been that the Tasmanian tiger wasn’t extinct. To me extinction was a tragedy. I expect that many people feel the same way.

But it is not easy to save dwindling populations and prevent extinctions. Sure it takes money, but it also takes knowledge. One simple story about butterflies illustrates the complexity of ecosystems and shows how important research and understanding are to preserving biodiversity.

It is the story of the European butterfly, the large blue or Phengaris arion (Maculinea arion in older literature).

In Australia we have lots of butterflies and literally countless moths; the total number is not known. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, virtually all species have been described.

I visited England several times as a child, and at one stage I sought to see as many of the 60 different species of butterfly as possible. But I was particularly keen to see the large blue because it was rare. It was the first butterfly recorded in the British Isles in 1795 and was much prized by collectors for the very simple reason that it was so scarce.

But over the years the known populations gradually died out and it was given protected status. Britons made efforts to fence off reserves where it remained but, oddly, its numbers continued to decline. By 1979 it was declared extinct in Britain.

But why had all the steps to save this iconic species failed?

One researcher from Oxford University, Jeremy Thomas, led a team of large blue experts to investigate the ecosystem in which it existed. The first step was to try to understand the butterfly. And there was a lot to understand.

A pretty butterfly that hides a remarkable life cycle.
PJC&Co, CC BY-SA

Interdependence

It is a remarkable species. The female lays eggs on wild thyme flower buds. Each caterpillar bores into the bud and eats the growing seeds. It needs all the energy in the seeds to survive, and if more than one caterpillar is sharing the bud they will fight things out in a cannibalistic bout until only one remains. This is a taste of things to come.

After about a week eating the seeds and flower it drops to the ground and waits until it is found by a special species of ant. It excretes a substance that feeds the ant, but also influences the ant’s behaviour. The ant goes and fetches fellow ants that carry the caterpillar down into the nest.

Once inside the nest the caterpillar does a remarkable thing: it feeds on ant larvae until it finally pupates. When it is ready to emerge as a vulnerable new butterfly it begins making sounds that appear to appease the ants. It then emerges, protected by a guard of ants, and climbs up out of the nest to stretch out its wings.

The critical point is that the large blue doesn’t just depend on any old species of ant, but on very particular species. It has evolved to exude chemicals that influence red ants of the species Myrmica sabuleti or M. scabrinodis.

These ants also have very specific requirements, this time in terms of temperature and moisture. If the ground is too hot or too cold they don’t thrive and other species take over.

Ground temperature and moisture depend on the height of the grass. The grass needs to be short, so grazing is important. It turns out that fencing off reserves actually interfered with the life cycle of the butterfly because the grass grew too long, and the ground wasn’t right for the ants.

Similarly, the spread of myxomatosis and reductions in the rabbit populations also meant the grass grew too tall, again altering ground temperature and helping drive the decline in large blue populations.

Due to the careful work by Jeremy Thomas and colleagues, all this is now known. Fortunately, unlike the Tasmanian tiger, the large blue was extinct only in the British Isles, and not in mainland Europe, thus it has been possible to re-introduce it into Britain.

It has also been possible to manage the habitat to allow grazing so that the ant colonies thrive and the butterfly also seems to be doing well.

Parts of the odd life cycle of this butterfly were known as far back as 1915, but there was no understanding of the connection to the ecosystem and landscape, so the vital step of controlling the grazing was not considered.

The large blue has been successfully returned to Collard Hill
in the Polden Hills in Somerset.

Curiosity

The story shows how things can be complex and inter-connected, and that only by understanding all the facets can one intercede to put things right. It also illustrates how the careful application of science can make a difference.

One can never tell when and how, or even if, new knowledge will ever be useful. Scientists collect knowledge partly because they want to improve the world, but often just out of curiosity.

Sometimes curiosity driven research is criticised as self-indulgent, and unlikely to make a real difference to our circumstances. Sometimes it is said that researchers should just go straight for the biggest problems and tackle them straight on, or that research should be aimed purely at applications. This is increasingly heard these days given the new emphasis on innovation and the commercialisation of research.

But in reality we need science most when we have tried tackling the problem and got stuck. Everything people had tried to preserve the large blue had failed. Only knowledge provided a way forward.

Curiosity driven science often provides solutions when we are stuck and without it we will sometimes remain stuck forever. In the case of the Tasmanian tiger I believe we are stuck forever, but there are many other things to preserve and careful in depth science can make a difference.

The ConversationMerlin Crossley, Dean of Science and Professor of Molecular Biology, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Traditional Chinese Medicine vs. Endangered Species

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, December 2015, Vol 35 No 4, under the title ‘Bad Medicine’).

One of the distinguishing features of traditional Chinese culture has been the unusually high value placed on rare animal and plant products – the rarer they are, the more valuable they are.  This high value applies to both formal dining and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

By definition, endangered species are extremely rare.  In western cultures (and increasingly so in modern China) endangered species are more highly valued alive than dead.  The demand for rare TCM ingredients has become one of the major threats to the survival of endangered species such as rhinoceroses, tigers, Saiga antelopes, and seahorses.

TCM is a broad range of claimed health treatments sharing common concepts that have been developed in China from traditions more than 2,000 years old.  TCM includes various forms of herbal remedies, acupuncture, massage, exercise and dietary practices.  It is widely used in China, and also in the West as a variety of so-called ‘alternative medicine’.

Not only is TCM a threat to endangered species, but there is also a dearth of evidence for its efficacy.  A Nature editorial has described TCM as ‘fraught with pseudoscience’, and said that the most obvious reason why it hasn’t delivered many cures is that the majority of its treatments have no logical mechanism of action.  Worse still, some TCM ingredients have been shown to be dangerously toxic to humans and other mammals.

What is TCM?

It is important to distinguish TCM from mainstream medicine as practiced in China.  Most hospitals and clinics in China are run by the government, practising scientific or what we would describe as western medicine.  TCM is administered in private clinics, run by practitioners who generally do not have a western medical education.  In the past, TCM practitioners learned their trade from their parents (mostly from their fathers); but more recently they have been studying TCM at universities in modern China.

TCM holds that the body’s vital energy (chi or qi) circulates through channels, called meridians, that have branches connected to bodily organs and functions.  Concepts of the body and of disease used in TCM reflect its origins in pre-scientific culture, similar to the ‘theory of the four humors’ dating from Hippokrates in ancient Greece.  The idea of vital energy or vitalism is similar to that of the ancient Roman surgeon Galen, and which endures in naturopathy and other varieties of western quackery today.  These similarities are most likely a coincidence, as there is no historical record of communication between China and ancient Greece or Rome.

The underlying philosophy of TCM is based on Yinyangism – the combination of the concepts of Yin and Yang with what is known as the Five Elements theory.

Yin and yang are ancient Chinese concepts representing two complementary aspects that every phenomenon in the universe can be divided into, including the human body.  Analogies for these aspects are the sun-facing (yang) and the shady (yin) side of a hill, as shown in the iconic Yin and Yang symbol below.  In TCM, the upper part of the human body and the back are assigned to yang, while the lower part is believed to have the yin character. Yin and yang characterization also extends to the various body functions and disease symptoms.

Yin Yang

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Five Elements theory (also known as Five Phases Theory) presumes that all phenomena of the universe and nature can be broken down into five elemental qualities – represented by wood, fire, earth, metal and water.  In this way, lines of correspondence can be drawn as shown in the following diagram.

5 elements

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Complex rules apply to the interactions between the Five Elements.  These interactions have great influence regarding the TCM model of the body, which places little emphasis on anatomical structures.  Instead, TCM is mainly concerned with various functional entities (which regulate digestion, breathing, aging etc.).  While health is perceived as harmonious interaction of these entities and the outside world, disease is interpreted as a disharmony in such interactions.  TCM diagnosis aims to link disease symptoms to patterns of underlying disharmony, for example by measuring the pulse, inspecting the tongue, skin, and eyes, and examining at the eating and sleeping habits of the patient.

Traditional Chinese herbal remedies account for the majority of treatments in TCM.  They also comprises the aspects of TCM that are of most threat to endangered species.  However, the term ‘herbal remedy’ is a bit misleading in the sense that, while plant elements are by far the most commonly used substances, animal and mineral products are also utilised.

History of TCM

Herbal remedies have been used in China for more than 2000 years. Among the earliest literature are lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, exemplified by the manuscript Recipes for 52 Ailments, found in tombs sealed in 168 BC at Mawangdui, an archaeological site located at Changsha in China’s Hunan province.

The doctrines of TCM are rooted in ancient books such as the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon from first century BCE and the Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and Miscellaneous Illnesses from the third century CE.

Written in the form of dialogues between the legendary Yellow Emperor and his ministers, the Inner Canon was one of the first books in which the doctrines of Yinyang and the Five Elements were synthesised into the TCM model of the body.  The subsequent Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders focused on herbal remedies rather than acupuncture, and was the first medical work to integrate Yinyang and the Five Elements with herbalism.

Succeeding generations augmented these works, as in the Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs, a 7th-century CE Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.  Arguably the most important of these later works is the Compendium of Materia Medica compiled during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644CE) which is still used in TCM today for consultation and reference.

In 1950, Chairman Mao Zedong made a speech in support of TCM which was influenced by political expediency, because of a shortage of science-based doctors and also for national unification purposes.  However, Zedong did not personally believe in TCM or use it.

Efficacy and safety

Scientific investigation has found no physiological or histological evidence for traditional Chinese concepts such as qi, meridians, or acupuncture points.  The effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine remains poorly researched and documented.  For most products, efficacy and toxicity testing are based on traditional knowledge rather than laboratory analysis.  Pharmaceutical research has explored the potential for creating new drugs from traditional remedies, with few successful results.

A review of cost-effectiveness research for TCM found that studies had low levels of evidence, but so far have not shown beneficial outcomes.  A 2012 Cochrane review found no difference in decreased mortality when Chinese herbs were used alongside Western medicine versus Western medicine exclusively.

Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch writes: ‘TCM theory and practice are not based upon the body of knowledge related to health, disease, and health care that has been widely accepted by the scientific community. TCM practitioners disagree among themselves about how to diagnose patients and which treatments should go with which diagnoses. Even if they could agree, the TCM theories are so nebulous that no amount of scientific study will enable TCM to offer rational care.’

TCM has been the subject of controversy within China.  In 2006, the Chinese scholar Zhang Gongyao triggered a national debate when he published an article entitled ‘Farewell to Traditional Chinese Medicine,’ arguing that TCM was a pseudoscience that should be abolished in public healthcare and academia.  The Chinese government however, interested in the opportunity of export revenues, has taken the stance that TCM is a science and has continued to encourage its development.

Since TCM has become more popular in the Western world, there are increasing concerns about the potential toxicity of many traditional Chinese herbal remedies including plants, animal parts and minerals.  Some of these products may contain toxic ingredients or are contaminated with heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, thallium and cadmium – constituting serious health risks.  Botanical misidentification of plants can cause toxic reactions in humans.  These products are often imported into western countries illegally without government monitoring or testing, thus increasing the safety risks.

Many adverse reactions are due misuse or abuse of Chinese medicine.  For instance, the misuse of the dietary supplement Ephedra (containing ephedrine) can lead to adverse events including gastrointestinal problems as well as sudden death from cardiomyopathy.  Products adulterated with pharmaceuticals for weight loss or erectile dysfunction are some of the main concerns.  TCM herbal remedies have been a major cause of acute liver failure in China.

Threats to endangered species

As mentioned earlier, TCM herbal remedies can include animal parts as well as plants.  Some TCM textbooks still recommend preparations containing animal tissues, despite the lack of evidence of their efficacy.  Parts of endangered species used as TCM herbal remedies include rhinoceros horns, tiger bones, Saiga antelope horns and dried seahorses.

Poachers supply the black market with these rare animal parts, with rhino horns literally being worth their weight in gold.  The horns are made of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails.  They are ground into dust and used as TCM ingredients.  In Europe and Vietnam, rhino horn is falsely believed by some to have aphrodisiac properties, but this belief is not part of TCM.

Ceratotherium_simum_pair_Sabi_Sands

White Rhinoceros and calf caked in mud. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a result of this demand, the world’s rhino population has reduced by more than 90 percent over the past 40 years.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List identifies one of the five modern rhino species as recently extinct and three as critically endangered.  The West African Rhinoceros was declared totally extinct in November 2011. The northern sub-species of the White Rhinoceros is presumed extinct in the wild, with only a few individuals left in captivity.  As of 2015, only 58-61 individuals of the Javan Rhinoceros remain in Ujung Kulon National Park, Java, Indonesia. The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was reportedly killed in 2011.  There were 320 Sumatran rhinoceroses left in 1995, and these had dwindled to 216 by 2011.

In 1993, China signed the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty and removed rhinoceros horn from the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia, administered by the Ministry of Health.  In 2011, the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the United Kingdom issued a formal statement condemning the use of rhinoceros horn.  A growing number of TCM educators is also speaking out against the practice.  Discussions with TCM practitioners to reduce the use of rhino horn, has met with mixed results, because some TCM practitioners still consider it a life-saving medicine of a better quality than its substitutes.

Tigers once ranged widely across Asia, from Turkey in the west to the eastern coast of Russia. Over the past 100 years, they have lost 93% of their historic range, and have been largely eliminated from large areas of Southeast and Eastern Asia.

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South Chinese Tiger. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1940s, the Siberian tiger was on the brink of extinction with only about 40 animals remaining in the wild in Russia. As a result, anti-poaching controls were put in place by the Soviet Union and a network of protected zones were instituted, leading to a rise in the population to several hundred. Poaching again became a problem in the 1990s, when the economy of Russia collapsed. In 2005, there were thought to be about 360 tigers in Russia, though these exhibited little genetic diversity.  However, in a decade later, the Siberian tiger census was estimated to be from 480 to 540 individuals.

The remaining six tiger subspecies have been classified as endangered by IUCN. The global population in the wild is estimated to number between 3,062 and 3,948 individuals, down from around 100,000 at the start of the 20th century, with most remaining populations occurring in small pockets isolated from each other, of which about 2,000 exist on the Indian subcontinent.

Major reasons for tiger population decline include habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and poaching.  Demand for tiger parts for use in TCM has also been cited as a major threat to tiger populations.  Having earlier rejected the Western-led environmentalist movement, China changed its stance in the 1980s and became a party to the CITES treaty. By 1993 it had banned the trade in tiger parts, and this diminished the use of tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine.  Nevertheless, the illegal trading of tiger parts in Asia has become a major black market industry and governmental and conservation attempts to stop it have been ineffective to date

The Saiga antelope is a critically endangered species that originally inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe zone from the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and Caucasus into Dzungaria and Mongolia. They also lived in Beringian North America during the Pleistocene. Today, the dominant subspecies is only found in one location in Russia and three areas in Kazakhstan.  Fewer than 30,000 Saiga antelopes remain.  Organized gangs illegally export the horn of the antelopes to China for use in TCM herbal remedies.

Saiga_Antelope_Skull_and_Taxidermy

Saiga antelope: skull and taxidermy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Demand for the horns has wiped out the population in China, where the Saiga antelope is a Class I protected species, and drives poaching and smuggling.  Under the auspices of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), also known as the Bonn Convention, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Concerning Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use of the Saiga Antelope was concluded and came into effect 24 September 2006.  The Saiga’s decline being one of the fastest population collapses of large mammals recently observed, the MoU aims to reduce current exploitation levels and restore the population status of these nomads of the Central Asian steppes.

Seahorse is the name given to 54 species of small marine fishes in the genus Hippocampus. ‘Hippocampus’ comes from the Ancient Greek word hippos meaning ‘horse’ and kampos meaning ‘sea monster’.

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Drying seahorses for TCM. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Because data is lacking on the sizes of the various seahorse populations, as well as other issues including how many seahorses are dying each year, how many are being born, and the number used for souvenirs, there is insufficient information to assess their risk of extinction, and the risk of losing more seahorses remains a concern. Some species, such as the Paradoxical Seahorse may already be extinct. Coral reefs and seagrass beds are deteriorating, reducing viable habitats for seahorses.

Seahorse populations are thought to be endangered as a result of overfishing and habitat destruction. Despite a lack of scientific studies or clinical trials, the consumption of seahorses is widespread in traditional Chinese medicine, primarily in connection with impotence, wheezing, nocturnal enuresis, and pain, as well as labor induction.  Up to 20 million seahorses may be caught each year to be sold for such uses.

Import and export of seahorses has been controlled under CITES since 15 May 2004. However, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, and South Korea have chosen to opt out of the trade rules set by CITES.  The problem may be exacerbated by the growth of pills and capsules as the preferred method of ingesting seahorses. Pills are cheaper and more available than traditional, individually tailored prescriptions of whole seahorses, but the contents are harder to track. Seahorses once had to be of a certain size and quality before they were accepted by TCM practitioners and consumers. Declining availability of the preferred large, pale, and smooth seahorses has been offset by the shift towards prepackaged preparations, which makes it possible for TCM merchants to sell previously unused, or otherwise undesirable juvenile, spiny, and dark-coloured animals. Today, almost a third of the seahorses sold in China are packaged, adding to the pressure on the species.

Dried seahorse retails from US$600 to $3000 per kilogram, with larger, paler, and smoother animals commanding the highest prices. In terms of value based on weight, seahorses retail for more than the price of silver and almost that of gold in Asia.

The traditional practice of using endangered species is becoming controversial within TCM.  Modern TCM texts discuss substances derived from endangered species in an appendix, emphasizing alternatives.

Like other varieties of quackery, TCM offends our sense of rationality by being a useless waste of time and money.  But it is also harmful to humans and other species, in terms of diversion from effective therapies, risks of toxicity and threats to the survival of endangered species.

Tim Harding B.Sc. is a former Director of Flora and Fauna, in charge of protecting endangered species in Victoria.

References

Stephen Barrett. “Be Wary of Acupuncture, Qigong, and ‘Chinese Medicine’

Ian Musgrave et al What’s in your herbal medicines? The Conversation, 13 December 2015.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction

(more to be added)

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