Rainforest Trust Supports Effort to Rescue Snared African Leopard

Tokoloshe should have died within three weeks. That is the lifespan of other African Leopards caught in snares around their abdomen in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains. Although an illegal practice in South Africa, snares are popular in the region, used by landowners to trap bushmeat and eliminate predators.

But this apex predator has made it six months. Tokoloshe is surviving with a metal snare wrapped around her belly, surprising wildlife researchers and those hoping to rescue her. A camera trap spotted her in an unprotected area as recently as October 11. Currently, only 1 percent of the Soutpansberg Mountains are formally conserved, meaning that leopards and other endemic species must continually traverse private farms and other properties.

Tokoloshe captured on a game camera in May 2018. Photo by the Primate & Predator Project.

Rainforest Trust is working with one of our local South African partners, Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) to purchase such properties and convert them to reserves. Establishing the Soutpansberg Protected Area will give vulnerable wildlife space to roam without the threat of snares and conflict with humans. Conservation biologist and manager of the Soutpansberg Protected Area Oldrich van Schalkwyk shares that, unfortunately, snaring is on the rise in this region of South Africa. The growing human population is encroaching on leopard habitat, and “the economy is in a recession at the moment, increasing the need for bushmeat. Leopards caught in snares on the western Soutpansberg seem to be bycatch from the bushmeat trade, although the body parts such as skin, bones, canine teeth and dewclaws will be traded opportunistically.” These strained circumstances led to Tokoloshe’s snaring. But she’s lived with her body parts intact.

Durham University’s Primate and Predator Project (PPP) is tracking Tokoloshe with the intent to humanely trap her, remove the snare and treat her wounds. But Tokoloshe – named after an evasive sprite in Zulu mythology – never stays in one place long enough for traps to be set. Not surprisingly, capturing leopards is dangerous for both the animal and people involved. The PPP team also wants to cause as little disruption to other wildlife as possible while helping the snared leopard. “Although it’s emotional to see such a majestic animal suffer at the hand of man, and we would like to relieve her suffering by removing the snare and treat her wound immediately,” states van Schalkwyk, “we are always mindful not to accidently trap non-target leopards.” Van Schalkwyk was asked to assist PPP with rescuing Tokoloshe because of his seven years of experience trapping leopards via a non-invasive process. As part of the partnership with EWT, Rainforest Trust is sponsoring van Schalkwyk in this rescue effort and his role as manager of the Soutpansberg Protected Area.

Tokoloshe has been spotted in trail camera footage just occasionally. According to the project, her condition is deteriorated but stable. The snare is cutting into subcutaneous tissue and superficial abdominal muscles, but is not so tight as to tear deep into her belly. Theoretically, she could survive in this compromised state for a while, but the PPP and its supporters are anxious to remove the snare. Last month, PPP’s camera grid photos indicated Tokoloshe is traveling with a male leopard. If she becomes pregnant, the snare will quickly slice through her growing abdomen, slowly killing both the developing cub and Tokoloshe in the process.

EWT Field Ranger de-snaring a land parcel belonging to the Ndouvhada clan. As part of South Africa’s Land Reform Programme, this clan was repatriated ancestral communal land neighboring EWT’s Medike Nature Reserve, which is a newly formed reserve forming part of the Soutpansberg Protected Area Programme. Photo by Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Along with the potential of pregnancy, rescuers are worried because tracking information show Tokoloshe spending a lot of time on the farm where she likely picked up the snare in the first place. Rainforest Trust has already made funds available for EWT to purchase this property and other threatened land parcels to expand the Soutpansberg Protected Area. Negotiations for purchasing these properties is underway, but in the meantime, van Schalkwyk is organizing an Anti-Poaching Unit to perform community outreach. They educate the public on the dangers of using snares (valuable domesticated animals on farms are just as likely to be snared as wildlife) and spend much of their time de-snaring properties where leopards and other vulnerable wildlife live.

Rainforest Trust hopes to share good news about Tokoloshe soon. If she is freed from her snare, she will one day enjoy a new protected area in South Africa’s threatened Soutpansberg Mountains.

Snares gathered from one property by the Anti-Poaching Unit funded by Rainforest Trust. Photo by Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Conservation Basics: An Elephant in the Forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

Here at Rainforest Trust, we use data – a lot of data – to conserve habitats for endangered species. We need to know where the species lives, how many of them there are and how best to conserve said species.

But that knowledge is always changing. Our Rainforest Trust scientists are constantly reflecting on the central question: How do we determine the most effective strategies for conservation when we can’t be certain of everything that might affect those strategies?

We use the power of collective knowledge to overcome uncertainty. A vague concept, I know. But let me explain. Take, for example, the case of the Congo’s elephants.

Somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is an elephant. At the moment I write this piece, the elephant – the specific individual – might be sleeping. It might be eating, drinking, cavorting with another elephant or partaking in whatever other activity a wild elephant in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo might partake in.

I don’t know where, exactly, the elephant is at this precise moment or if any other elephants are nearby. I don’t know if the elephant is sick, well-fed, hungry, stressed or relaxed. I know nothing about this specific elephant. But I know an elephant is somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

African Forest Elephants. Photo by Caroline Granycome/Flickr

As a society, we know elephants are somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since we, as a species (humans), know an elephant exists somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I, as an individual, know an elephant exists somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And now I’ve told you. So now you know.

We can infer facts about the elephant based on general trends, but with less certainty. We know what it (probably) eats. We know how big it will (probably) become. We know how old it will (probably) grow to be. We know the individual is an African Forest Elephant, as opposed to an African Bush Elephant (although African Bush Elephants live in the DRC, too, we’ll assume I’m writing about an African Forest Elephant), but we aren’t sure if that distinction is between a species or a subspecies.

There are other tidbits of information we probably don’t know. We probably don’t know where this elephant was born. We probably don’t know what other elephants this elephant has encountered. We probably don’t know how far this elephant has travelled in the past two weeks. We may know these things, but we probably don’t.

Finally, there are some details we definitely don’t know. We don’t know if this elephant has a recurring itch on its left ear. We don’t know where this elephant will go tomorrow. We don’t know when or how this elephant will die.

Science is both fueled and limited by uncertainty. Science discovers the undiscovered, sees the unseen and recognizes the unrecognizable. But science requires certainty to move forward, state assumptions and take the next step. In conservation, science necessitates action and action necessitates science. But if we don’t know everything, how can we do anything useful? Uncertainty can be paralyzing, but paralysis is unacceptable because conservation inaction leads to extinction.

I couldn’t find any photographs of the Dodo. Because extinction is permanent.

And extinction is permanent.

As conservation grew – from a pastime to a field of study to an industry – the science and conversation around it only grew more and more complicated. This was good! The sharing of ideas, knowledge and inquiries, discussions at conferences, community meetings and camping trips, newly published papers, books and films, and policy, law, economics, biology, chemistry, geology, geography and fashion all add to the field of conservation. Every one of these methods is useful and inspiring, but not always global or continuous.

But these developments also meant that conservation science became more and more complicated. So as conservation grew – from a pastime to a field of study to an industry – fewer and fewer people were fully in the know.

We’re going to change that.

It’s completely understandable if you don’t understand the nuances of the science and policy of wildlife conservation. But I bet you know animals exist. You probably know some species are endangered and some species are not. You probably don’t know every step in the decision-making process, or who decides what is Endangered or Vulnerable or of Least Concern. You definitely don’t know how to save every species. But we need to find the solutions to protect every species on the planet. Not only pandas, lions and bees, but every moth, tree, fungus, protozoan, sea cucumber and anglerfish needs our help. Every. Single. Species.

And you (that’s right, you) play an important role in getting that done.

The conservation community can’t save the planet on our own. We don’t have the necessary time or capacity to protect every species of spider, let alone every species. So you have two options. You can take the route leading to a hilarious yet meaningful memoir the New York Times Book Review will call “surprisingly refreshing and heartfelt” and quit your job, move to Alaska and hand-rear orphaned caribou to release to the wild. If you think that’s your calling, by all means, please do so. But you don’t need to and I actually encourage you not to.

We need bankers, writers, factory workers, farmers, lawyers, politicians, air traffic control officers, grocery store clerks, retirees, students, actors, Olympic speed skaters, plumbers, recreational golfers, Yankees fans, Red Sox fans, people who don’t like baseball, people who’ve never heard of baseball, people who have heard of baseball but don’t feel one way or the other about baseball and everyone else to be aboard the Biodiversity Express. Stay where you are, keep doing what you’re doing and keep conservation in mind. By learning a little more about how conservation works, you might end up with a bigger appreciation of how important conservation is.

Look at all those potential conservationists!

I’m going to help you start doing that by unraveling some of the nitty-gritty. This series will explore how Rainforest Trust uses conservation science and everything it entails. We have big plans for conservation and want you all to understand exactly why our work is vital. I, on your behalf, will ask little questions to get to the bottom of the big questions: Who does the research? What information do we need to assess species status? Where does the Black-bellied Pangolin live? When did the Yangtze River Dolphin become functionally extinct? Why is the Giant Panda no longer listed as Endangered? Why should you care? How are we at Rainforest Trust using this information to protect our planet’s species?

Science is about uncertainty, but uncertainty does not consume science, nor does it immobilize it. (See Appendix I of the official IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria, titled “Uncertainty.”) We need not know every detail to save our planet. We only need to keep learning.

We need you to be an advocate for conservation. But that starts with a foundation of understanding. So let’s begin with the knowledge that somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is an elephant.

Cameroon’s First Marine & Terrestrial National Park Announced

The government of Cameroon announced last Friday the creation of its first marine and terrestrial national park, an effort that was made possible by Rainforest Trust and local partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society (CWCS).

Terrestrial and aquatic habitats of Douala-Edea. Photo courtesy of CWCS.

The declaration upgraded the Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve, first created in 1932, to national park status, and it approved a nearly 350,000-acre expansion that includes mangrove forests, rivers, wetlands and marine habitats. Collectively, this expansion and conversion actively safeguard a total of 741,000 acres, almost the size of Yosemite National Park.

“This critical Key Biodiversity Area was at grave risk from growing pressure to deforest and destroy its megadiverse rainforests,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “The designation of this huge National Park is a vital step towards permanently protecting the precious natural resources of Cameroon hand-in-hand with local communities and the government.”

The Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve, recently identified as one of the most important conservation landscapes in Central Africa, had unprotected land parcels, mangrove forests and freshwater and marine habitats that are integral to the overall health and sustainability of this coastal land and seascape. With this new designation level and expanded area, the Douala-Edea National Park will protect both the integrity and connectivity of this amazing ecosystem, which includes habitats as diverse as the species that live within them.

Chimpanzees. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

“There is no doubt this major conservation breakthrough could not have been achieved without resolute engagement and financial support from Rainforest Trust,” National Coordinator of CWCS Dr. Gordon Ajonina said. “We are proud to say Rainforest Trust funding helped speedily move the gazettement process forward, including improvements in infrastructure, purchasing equipment for game rangers and motorcycles and engine boats for marine patrols.”

There are the Endangered Green Turtle and the Central African Chimpanzee, one of West Africa’s most imperiled primates, as well as other increasingly rare primate species such as the Vulnerable Gabon Black Colobus Monkey. Numerous species of forest antelope and small populations of Vulnerable West African Manatees, Leatherback Turtles, Olive Ridley turtles and African Forest Elephants also live in the area. There are more than 70 waterbird species documented, in addition to many migrant species that use the rivers and rich wetlands as important stops on annual migrations.

This protected area was made possible by the Conservation Action Fund. All gifts to the Conservation Action Fund are matched through the SAVES Challenge and used 100 percent in support of our programs.

Bugs, Bugs Everywhere

Rainforest Trust is currently in production on a series of documentary films centered around stories of tropical conservation. But here on the blog, we’ll provide some of the behind-the-scenes anecdotes of film production.

I’m two inches above the water in a hollowed-out canoe. It’s an hour before sunset. The canoe is zipping into a giant lake dotted with tree trunks that will become invisible to us after the sun sets and the new-moon sky provides no light to this light-pollution-free corner of the Peruvian Amazon. The water is filled to the brim with piranhas and caimans. I have $5,000 worth of camera equipment in my lap. And we have one chance to film a giant, silver fish with a habit of leaping out of the water called the arowana.

So, needless to say, I’m feeling some pressure to make sure everything goes well.

It’s our first full day in Wuicungo, a small town on the Tapiche River in an expansive and isolated corner of the Peruvian Amazon. The town’s chief, Roberto Tafur, is the main character for our first film. Roberto has been leading this community, its fisherman’s association and a federation of all the communities along the Tapiche and Blanco (nearby river) basins in their fight to protect the surrounding forest from outsiders coming in to log and fish.

Because in Wuicungo, fishing isn’t only about food. Fishing is about being the start of an international supply chain worth millions of dollars.

Silver Arowana (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum) are prized as aquarium fish in East Asia. The fish is a status symbol — often selling for hundreds of dollars per fish. People used to keep Asian Arowana (Scleropages formosus), but authorities banned Asian Arowana trade in the 1980s due to declining wild populations in their native Borneo. So people turned to the not-banned, still-impressively huge Silver Arowana.

A Silver Arowana

But Silver Arowana don’t live in Borneo, or anywhere near East Asia. They live in South America. So, during the 1990s, trade in Silver Arowana increased around tributaries of the Amazon.

Neglected and ignored for decades, indigenous communities in the far corners of Peru’s Amazon Rainforest have had to find innovative ways of supporting themselves and their families in the modern, global economy. Many communities turned to farming and some to cattle ranching. Some communities even became part of logging or mining operations, because despite these operations destroying the forests, they provide needed income. But Wuicungo, while in the depth of the rainforest, is surrounded for miles by wetlands and lakes. So farming and ranching are off the table.

But the lakes are filled with hundreds of species of fish. And one of those species happens to be worth hundreds of dollars a piece for millions of people thousands of miles away. So for Wuicungo, the arowana is more than an opportunity to make a little money — it’s an opportunity for stability and economic self-determination. Now, thanks to management plans developed by the community along with Rainforest Trust and our Peruvian partner, the Center for the Development of an Indigenous Amazon, Wuicungo’s arowana harvest is ecologically and economically sustainable.

So as I sit in that canoe, I know that to tell this story well on film we need to get good footage of the arowana.

We’re heading out at night because the arowana are easier to spot at night — both for photography and for the fishermen. So Katie Schuler, our film’s director, will film with our low-light capable camera while I run the LED light panels.

The author (right), and Katie Schuler, the film’s director, on the way to film arowana

The sun sets on the lake and the nighttime ecosystem springs into action. Nighthawks and bats soar low over the water, nabbing the insects that are chewing up our arms, faces and ankles. The caimans peek above the water, their eyes reflecting orange from our headlamps. Small fish ride the wake of our canoe and fall into our laps.

After a while we reach the shallows where arowana are abundant. The peki-peki motor shuts down and a canoe paddle takes over. The sounds of lake, no longer drowned out by engine noise, hum around us.

And then we spot one! An arowana!

I throw on the lights, the camera rolls and we move the canoes around to get a good look at it. Everything is going right according to plan.

Except for an itching on my shoulder. And another on my shin. And a few itchy spots on my neck. I crane my neck to inspect myself — and then sit frozen in fear.

Now, the lake is more of a wetland. And we all know wetlands are full of insects. And what do insects love more than life itself (often quite literally)?

Light.

And what do I have in my hand?

The brightest light for miles in this moonless, light-pollution free corner of the Amazon Rainforest.

So every insect around has spotted me and decided to enjoy this light. And I am covered in them. Moths, katydids, flies, crickets and gnats cover our canoe, myself and Katie. But the worst are the cicadas.

Now before you laugh at the wildlife conservationist who’s afraid of insects, I have to tell you a story about cicadas.

In Eastern North America, some cicada populations live in a 17-year cycle. Every 17 years, millions, if not billions, of the insects come out of the ground over a few counties, buzz everywhere, cover every surface, devour trees and over-satiate the raccoons and birds who eat them. Ecologically, it’s called “masting,” whereby a population will multiply all at once to increase the individual’s chance of survival. With so many cicadas, it’s impossible for the predators to eat them all. After the few weeks, the news eggs are in the ground, all the cicadas die and 17 years later those eggs will repeat the same macabre dance.

A cicada – potentially one of many, many cicadas.

From a scientific perspective, it’s magnificent. For a nine-year-old kid out camping in the middle of it, it’s a nightmare.

Yes, ever since that ill-fated camping trip I’ve had whatever the opposite of a penchant is for our winged, exoskeleton-adorned friends. It’s not personal — well, actually, it’s personal. My point is that I understand the trivial irrationality of a phobia of flying, hefty insects. But that’s what a phobia is: a trivial irrationality.

So there I am: in the middle of a lake, in charge of manning a light panel, needing to make sure we get the footage we have one chance to capture while covered in the nemesis of the part of my brain controls disgust.

Maintaining my cool, I tried first to kick one of the nastiest cicadas away from me. This turned out to worsen the situation. This cicada screamed when I kicked it. Yes, screamed. Like a human. It sounded like a small human screaming.

I would not do that again.

But as I debated other options for removing said cicadas, a new emotion fell over me. It was the calm that comes from complete, total and inescapable inevitability.

There was nothing I could do to eliminate the arthropods crawling on my person.

Calm from inevitability is a strange sensation. I looked at the cicadas and surmised, “They should worry me. But I don’t care.” When it came down to it, I had no options but let the cicadas make a home on my legs, arms and back. So I did.

But my self-reflection didn’t last long. We had spotted another arowana, a big one, and I was back in action as we filmed. This feeling lingered for the rest of the night — through the caiman scrambling in one of the canoes, through the arowana jumping up and into Katie’s lap and through the long, dark journey out of the lake complete with barely dodging tree trunks and careening sideways from hidden sandbars. We got great footage, the camera equipment made it back safe and no boats or filmmakers were harmed in the making of said movie.

A new dawn was upon me — a world where my childhood-induced phobia of winged insects was to become a thing of the past. Oh, the wonders that awaited me in this upcoming, freer reality!

But that night, as I reached for my tent zipper, I spotted, mere inches from my hand, a 4-inch long creature known as a mole cricket. With a name like “mole cricket,” I hope I don‘t need to explain how grotesque these fellas are.

“Yikes!” I cried, leaping back.

Ah, well. Maybe I’ll find that new reality next time.

New Species of Coffee Tree Named for Conservationist

Soon we may all be giving up pumpkin spice for a different kind of latte, thanks to a newly identified species from the coffee family (Rubiaceae) recently discovered in eastern Panama.

New species Notopleura sallydavidsonae in flower. Photo courtesy of ADOPTA.

The new-to-science plant, Notopleura sallydavidsonae, was described yesterday by Rodolfo Flores and co-authors in Webbia – The Journal of Plant Taxonomy and Geography. It was named in honor of Sally Davidson, Rainforest Trust’s board member. Davidson is a longtime supporter of Rainforest Trust, serving on the board almost since the organization’s conception 30 years ago. She is a passionate conservationist who also owns the Clyde’s restaurant chain.

“I am so honored to have this beautiful coffee bush in Panama named for me, and I must return someday to see it in flower,” Davidson said. “Working with Rainforest Trust has been an important part of my life for many years now, and this honor came as a great surprise and is very much appreciated.”

Davidson receiving this honor. Photo courtesy of Rainforest Trust.

Rainforest Trust is currently working with its Panamanian partner Asociación Adopta el Bosque Panamá (ADOPTA) to expand the Cerro Chucantí Private Nature Reserve by 127 acres, with an expected completion date of later this month. This is the second expansion project the two conservation organizations have undertaken in their short two-year partnership. In 2016, Rainforest Trust and ADOPTA expanded Cerro Chucantí by 260 acres, bringing the total area protected within the reserve to 1,556 acres or nearly twice the size of Central Park.

There have been many discoveries of species new to science in Cerro Chucantí, including plants, salamanders, frogs and snakes. The geographic isolation of this massif or “sky island” has allowed its flora and fauna to differentiate considerably, so that it contains a number of locally endemic rainforest species.

Interior view of Cerro Chucantí Private Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of ADOPTA.

“While Rainforest Trust’s mission is to protect tropical habitat to save threatened species, the discovery of species new-to-science within our protected areas reinforces the importance of safeguarding these vital habitats. Not only are there numerous threatened species in need of protection, but there could be just as many species that need to be discovered before they become extinct,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “We are very pleased and proud that our longstanding board member, Sally Davidson, has been honored with this namesake Rubiaceae.”

Species new-to-science are being discovered all across the tropics, the most biodiverse region of the planet. For example, Rainforest Trust’s Ecuadorean partner Fundacion EcoMinga announced in July that a new orchid species, Pleurothallis chicalensis, had been discovered in the Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador. Rainforest Trust has helped EcoMinga add some 900 acres to the reserve, with several more projects in the works slated for completion in 2019.

Rainforest Trust is currently compiling a list of new species discovered within its protected areas, with plans to host a “Species Legacy Program” at the international conservation organization’s 30th anniversary dinner in December. As it stands now, Rainforest Trust will auction off the naming rights to up to 12 new species as a way to increase both funding for and awareness of its projects, impacts and progress in saving species from extinction.

This protected area was made possible by the Conservation Action Fund. All gifts to the Conservation Action Fund are matched through the SAVES Challenge and used 100 percent in support of our programs.

Land Purchases Expanding Vital Atlantic Forest Protections in Brazil

This year, Rainforest Trust has helped purchase two additional land parcels for a total of 225 acres — twice the size of the Vatican City — in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro’s Lagoinha Valley. The area contains high-quality Atlantic rainforest and the Guapiaçu watershed, which offers verdant scenery with abundant streams of fresh water. The international conservation organization teamed up with its long-time Brazilian partner REGUA, from whom the protected area gets its name, to complete these purchases that are now under the local partner’s conservation management portfolio.

“We are very pleased to have been able to work with REGUA since 2007 to protect critical habitats in Brazil,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “These latest purchases fill in and protect a mosaic of important areas for conservation.”

The first property purchased, called Armênio, was completed in February 2018. Of its 52 acres, half is naturally forested and the other 26 acres have been cleared for cattle pastureland. Our local partner has already completed fencing around the property and has plans to implement its proven reforestation methodology on the cleared portion. The second parcel — the 173-acre Vidal property — contains high-quality Atlantic rainforest adjacent to an existing REGUA property and was purchased just last month. These properties were at risk of being purchased by developers and cleared for homes.

Endangered Southern Muriqui. Photo courtesy of REGUA.

Together, these two new acquisitions will expand protections for numerous endemic and threatened species in the REGUA protected area, including the Endangered Crowned Solitary Eagle, which has a very small, fragmented population within South America, and the Endangered Southern Muriqui, the continent’s largest and rarest primate. The two properties will also function as a buffer to contiguous primary forest found at the higher altitudes of REGUA.

This protected area was made possible by donations in support of our work with REGUA and in particular the Michael Louis Charitable Trust and the Felburn Foundation. All gifts to support our projects are matched through the SAVES Challenge and used 100 percent in support of our conservation action.