Rainforest Trust Hosts Fourth Annual Partner Retreat for International Conservationists

Earlier this month, Rainforest Trust held the fourth annual Partner Retreat at the International Conservation House in Warrenton, Virginia. The Partner Retreat is a week-long opportunity for dedicated conservationists in the global Rainforest Trust network to connect with one another and staff. Each day, visitors participated in training and seminars in a variety of conservation management and outreach subjects.

The focus of the retreat has previously been on capacity building for chief executives and organizational leaders in conservation. But this year, the event focused on Rainforest Trust Conservation Fellows. “We changed the program this year as a reflection on our commitment to the Fellows and Guardians program,” said Mark Gruin, Acting CEO of Rainforest Trust. “We developed course content directly related to them to reinforce their personal and professional growth.”

Rainforest Trust Conservation Fellows. Photo by Rainforest Trust.

In the past few retreats, Rainforest Trust offered workshops covering dense topics like fundraising strategies and long-term conservation planning. But Fellows are on the front lines of conservation and spend the majority of their time working in the field. So instead of packing in as much detail as possible throughout the week, the agenda focused on a few practical conservation management topics.

One of the most important aspects of the Fellows work is conservation monitoring. Several of the workshops focused on surveying protected areas, including a training on the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART). SMART is a digital monitoring tool that allows users to measure, evaluate and improve the effectiveness of their patrols and conservation initiatives. Two experts from the conservation technology organization Wildlife Protection Solutions conducted the training, combining classroom and field work. They provided each fellow with a pre-loaded, field-ready smartphone and gave an overview of the software. The practice field exercises took place around Rainforest Trust’s campus. “The SMART training has immediate protection benefits,” said Gruin. “The Fellows will take a more-than-basic knowledge of the tool back to their organizations for more effective patrols and monitoring.”  

In addition to monitoring techniques, Fellows learned various methods of conservation storytelling. The Rainforest Trust Outreach team developed a series of in-depth communications workshops to refine Fellows’ skills and contribute to their organizations’ outreach. Workshop topics included written storytelling and best practices for social media. The team also interviewed each participant about their work to better understand and communicate their inspiring stories with the world. Rainforest Trust digital experts offered courses on filming and photographing wildlife in their natural habitat, including the use of drone technology.  

The retreat provided staff with the opportunity to talk with the Fellows face-to-face. This type of communication is usually difficult due to their busy schedules or remote locations. Throughout the week, Fellows often met with the Rainforest Trust Conservation team in small groups to discuss project-related issues.

Sharing stories from the field and socializing was a large part of the retreat. In addition to the daily lunches and dinners, Rainforest Trust staff volunteered their time to show the Fellows around Virginia. “For some of the Fellows, this is their first time leaving their country or even their village,” said Gruin. “Interacting with people from other cultures is so important for growth, not only amongst the Fellows, but for our staff as well.” This year, social activities included a local winery tour, walking around Historic Old Town Warrenton and visiting popular stores and restaurants.

The Fellows left with enhanced outreach and monitoring techniques, along with field supplies provided by Rainforest Trust. The retreat was an important success for all involved and Rainforest Trust plans to continue hosting Conservation Fellows at future retreats. “We hope the Fellows apply what they learned throughout the week in their work and find further motivation to continue paving the way in conservation,” said Gruin. “We recognize that our Fellows are the future of conservation and want to provide them with all the tools and training necessary to succeed.”

A collection of photos from the Partner Retreat. Photos by Rainforest Trust.

 

Header image: The Fellows enjoying Drone Training. Photo by Rainforest Trust. 

Voices From the Rainforest: Hassan Issa, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Calling Protected Areas Home

Hassan Issa is a wildlife and environmental enthusiast working as field assistant for Hirola Conservation Program (HCP) within the Bura East Conservancy in Kenya. Hassan is motivated by field-based conservation and is particularly interested in finding solutions that improve human-wildlife relations. He is particularly keen on saving endangered species such as the Hirola, Reticulated Giraffes and Grevy’s Zebra.

Hassan has an excellent understanding of the local environment and communities as he hails from the larger Garissa County. This has enhanced his capabilities and motivation to work with wildlife and the local community. One of his passions is photographing wildlife, which he says is one of the most effective ways of telling wildlife stories.

Hassan in the field. Photo by Hirola Conservation Program.

Why did you become a conservationist?

It is actually a coincidence because I had originally set out to be a humanitarian worker and a peace ambassador. This was informed by the unfortunate violent extremism that was affecting my home area and the neighboring counties. After graduating high school, I chose to study Development Studies for my undergraduate program. When I completed my coursework in 2017 I had to look for an internship, that is where I met with Dr. Abdullahi Ali who was the mentor I needed. He introduced me to conservation.

After going to the field and interacting with wildlife and seeing the positive impact it had on the society, I immediately knew it was the career path I wanted to take. I was impressed by the impact the HCP and their international partners had on our poor rural society. This inspired me to see the bigger picture of conservation. In turn, I now mentor several younger rangers that I have recruited to be future leaders of conservation for our region.

 

What inspires you most about being a Conservation Fellow?

The most inspiring thing is the fact that I know there are young people out there who are like-minded and are working on the same goal: to protect endangered wildlife and the environment. Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk to both the North and South Poles once said “the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it,” so I am inspired by my colleagues’ work to make this planet a better place than they found it.

“Conservation is important because it helps in protecting earth’s resources including air, water, soil and living things from exploitative human impacts. Conservation will ensure these resources benefit the current and future generations to come.”

Tell us about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist.

In October 2018, we started implementing the second phase of the Hirola habitat restoration program at the Ishaqbini Conservancy and the Bura East Conservancy. We planted different species of grasses such as Cenchrus ciliaris, Eragrostis superba and Enteropogon macrostachyus, which we identified would do best in that environment and also have significant nutritional values for Hirola.

I was in charge of the field operations. I established grass islands where we worked together with over 50 local people to get rid of Acacia reficiens, an invasive species that makes it hard for native grass to grow. Over a period of 40 days, we planted the grasses on 60-acre plots in each conservancy. I feel like this is my greatest achievement as a conservationist to date because I have not only changed the face of the landscape, but I have also improved the habitat for Hirola and other wildlife species in the sense that there will be an abundance of pasture in the area.

 

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

One of the major challenges we face is poaching, especially for giraffes. The poachers mainly use wire snares which they attach to trees in the hopes that it sticks in the giraffe’s neck or foot. We have been able to rescue a good number by collaborating with mobile veterinary units from Kenya Wildlife Service.

“Leaving my family and friends at home and going to live in the wilderness is the hardest part for me, although ironically, there is nothing I enjoy more than sleeping in the open sky night while staring at the stars and waking up to the chirping of the birds.”

Tell us about a conservation success.

A conservation success story for the organization is the increased protection of Hirola habitat by establishing new conservancies and subsequently the gradual recovery of the Hirola population. This has brought pride to the neighboring community which has seen the media attention and created renewed interest for conservation by the County Government of Gaissa.

Another success story is definitely the reduced number of poaching incidents that we have witnessed over the past two years. This has been possible because of increased patrols and our recent campaign of educating the community that lives around the conservancy. More importantly, our team also documented new populations of poorly understood populations of endangered mammals, such as African wild dogs, Haggard’s Oribi and Grevy’s Zebra.

 

Header image: Critically Endangered Hirola. Photo by Hirola Conservation Program. 

Artist Donates 10% of Proceeds to Rainforest Trust

London-based artist Abigail Brown dedicates her career to creating art inspired by the world’s unique and endangered species. And last month, she collaborated with Rainforest Trust on a project with direct benefits to wildlife. She drew a series of endangered animals and donated 10% of the profits from each print to Rainforest Trust.

Brown has had a fascination with animals since childhood. “I’m not too sure why it’s always been animals,” she said. “If it’s an echo of childhood toys or a desire to have a pet but never being allowed one, animals have always had the strongest appeal to me.”  

Her passion carried over into her career, where she creates animal-related artwork through various media.

Pangolin and her pangopup. Art by Abigail Brown.

In school, she focused on painting and drawing. But after graduating with a degree in Surface Decoration and Printed Textiles, she explored working in fabric. She practiced stitchwork and creating 3D pieces by making animal plush toys. In more recent years she has moved into sculpture. “I have been working with paper mâché, metal, wood-carving and ceramics,” said Brown. “It is always centered on the animal kingdom and with a great fascination for seeking out the lesser-known weird and wonderful species.”

But researching these species over the years has also made her more aware of their plight. This knowledge fueled her decision to incorporate raising awareness of the various threats to wildlife in her work. 

Critically Endangered Hirola. Art by Abigail Brown.

A few years ago, Brown met Rainforest Trust’s Chief Conservation Officer, Angela Yang. Yang came across Brown’s Okapi sculpture and commissioned her to make a series of endangered animal sculptures for the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016. When Yang joined Rainforest Trust, she made sure to inform Abigail of the organization’s mission.

Now occupied with so much work in other mediums, Brown has had less time to draw. But she started up again when her husband

gave her an iPad. She began using a drawing app, which inspired her to develop a project that would help her practice while benefiting an important cause.

“It struck me that a wonderful project would be one that helped a greater purpose: highlighting some of the planet’s endangered species,” said Brown. “It seemed like a great idea to approach Angela [Yang] about, so that the prints I made could benefit an organization helping those animals, with the hope that people might feel encouraged to make donations.”

Critically Endangered Saola. Art by Abigail Brown.

The collaboration has benefited both parties. The Rainforest Trust team has enjoyed working with Brown and learning more about her work. And Brown has been able to practice drawing again and learn about the species Rainforest Trust protects. “Working with the teams at Rainforest Trust introduced me to many species I hadn’t ever heard of,” she said.  “It was equally informative for me as my audience.”

 

Visit Brown’s website to learn more about her and purchase a print.

 

Header image: The Rainforest Trust Conservation Team holding their prints. Photo by Rainforest Trust. 

New Reserve Protects Bonobos in Congo Rainforest

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to the Congo Basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. Despite having some of the highest biodiversity levels on Earth, the Congo Basin is one of the world’s least protected and most vulnerable forests.

The DRC also suffers from widespread poverty — a result of decades of war and infrastructure neglect. The country’s interior communities have had to fend for themselves, and many residents make a living from traditional fishing or small-scale agriculture. Forest resources might supplement a family’s few chickens or ducks. But these options don’t always offer a living income.

This combination of poverty, isolation and a lack of infrastructure is a challenge to wildlife conservation in the DRC. But new laws offer communities the right to partner with conservation groups to manage their own forests. Conservationists and communities can now work together to save forests and expand community self-governance.

A community in the region. Photo courtesy of ABC.

With this in mind, Rainforest Trust and local partner Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC), also widely known as Lola ya Bonobo in the U.S., set out to create the Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve in the Équateur Province. And last month, the governor of the province signed a declaration to designate the site as a protected area. Ekolo ya Bonobo, covering 117,412 acres of mostly swamp forest, is home to wild Bonobos.

The Bonobo, the closest living relative of the Chimpanzee, is one of the Congo’s most iconic and threatened species. The species is endemic to the DRC’s rainforests and the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as “Endangered.”

Ekolo ya Bonobo is home to a diversity of unique flora and fauna. Besides Bonobos, the forest contains Giant Ground Pangolins, Leopards, Grey Parrots and three of the DRC’s four crocodile species. Bushmeat hunting is a significant threat to wildlife like crocodiles, monkeys and antelopes. While Bonobos suffer from habitat loss and poaching throughout the DRC, they have not been the direct targets of poaching in this area. This stems from both local taboos and increased awareness led by ABC’s community engagement programs.

An Endangered Bonobo. Photo courtesy of ABC.

The communities of Ilonga-Pôo, Baenga and Lisafa are the customary owners of the forest, though most of the protected area is remote and uninhabited. The Lopori and Matoku Rivers separate the villages and the town of Basankusu from this forest. Though these towns are closest to the forest, most hunters come from outside the region. But community leaders have limited influence to enforce protection commitments.

The project began by confirming the community’s interest in conserving this land. Much of this initial success was due to ABC’s long history of conservation and outreach in the area. Over the past decade, the communities and Bonobo conservationists have worked together to increase education and health resources. This community involvement continues in the new protected area, where they will manage the reserve alongside ABC. Eventually, they hope to recognize the area with the national Environment Ministry, who will then also help manage the reserve.

Educational programming for Bonobo conservation. Photo courtesy of ABC.

The reserve will train anti-poaching patrols with the legal right to prosecute hunters. It will also monitor wildlife over time and investigate biodiversity hotspots. The results of species surveys will inform complementary conservation education efforts.

This work is an important step forward for great ape conservation. But only significant and sustainable improvements in the communities’ economy will ensure long-term biodiversity protection. Hence, the project will continue to carry out community-led socioeconomic work that will guide effective and sustainable development efforts.

A view from along the Lopori River. Photo courtesy of ABC.

“The rainforests of the Congo Basin deserve the world’s conservation attention,” said Paul Salaman, President of Rainforest Trust. “But the communities of this area deserve our support as well. I’m pleased Rainforest Trust and ABC found success on this community-driven project to protect one of the world’s great ecosystems.”

This project was made possible through gifts to the Rainforest Trust Conservation Action Fund and the SAVES Challenge. Special thanks to Harvey and Heidi Bookman for their leadership support.

Header photo courtesy of ABC.

Ecuadorean Reserve Expanded for Increased Species Movement

Rainforest Trust and partner Fundación Jocotoco have once again expanded the Narupa Reserve. This month, 159 acres were purchased in the Napo bioregion of northeast Ecuador, 75% of which are primary, pristine forest habitat. Established in 2006 to save a large block of eastern Andean foothill forest, the reserve also consists of old growth and young secondary forest and abandoned pasture lands which will, in time, regrow into woodland.

The Endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagle. Photo courtesy of Roger Ahlman.

Landscape restoration is critical in the Napo region. The forests here are suffering from illegal logging and conversion to agricultural land. But reserve expansion provides vital habitat for endemic bird species like the Endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagle and vulnerable migrants like the Cerulean Warbler. Birders have recorded over 1,000 bird species in the Napo region, exemplifying the importance of this humid montane forest. This month’s purchase also includes wetland habitat for at least four Endangered amphibian species, including the Puyo Giant Glass Frog.

This expansion is part of a larger conservation goal to connect the Narupa Reserve with the Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park to the north and the Antisana Ecological Reserve to the west, two larger protected areas. This strategic ecological corridor will benefit threatened Andean species and allow birds and mammals to move between large expanses of rainforest freely. Camera trap surveys have confirmed the presence of Pumas, Ocelots and Brazilian Tapirs in Narupa.

“Facilitating animal movement in this increasingly fragmented landscape is of the utmost importance,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “Habitat encroachment is rampant, with extractive industries bringing more roads and more people to the rainforest. But species studies have already shown us that the Narupa Reserve is effective in protecting wildlife long term. And the project has the continued support of the Ecuadorean people living nearby. They embrace the reserve, which is essential for its long-term success.”

 

This purchase was made possible by the SAVES Challenge and the Rainforest Trust Conservation Action Fund. Special gratitude goes to the March Conservation Fund and Artenschutzstiftung Zoo for their leadership gifts.
Header image: Habitat in the Narupa Reserve. Photo by Fundación Jocotoco.

 

World Turtle Day: Rainforest Trust Guardians at the South African Tortoise Conservation Trust

Rainforest Trust would like to celebrate this World Turtle Day by highlighting the recently expanded Geometric Tortoise Preserve and our long-time partner South African Tortoise Conservation Trust (SATCT). The hard work and dedication of SATCT staff, many of whom serve as Rainforest Trust Guardians, make the ongoing protection of tortoise habitat possible. The preserve is home to 25% of the remaining species population.

In 2015, we worked with SATCT to designate the 810-acre Geometric Tortoise Preserve to safeguard shrubland for the Critically Endangered Geometric Tortoise. Before the preserve was created, nearly 95% of the species’ habitat was lost to metropolitan development and agricultural encroachment from ranches and vineyards. This land transformation left the Geometric Tortoise population dwindling at fewer than 1,000 individuals. Both the species and land would have continued to degrade without protection. So Rainforest Trust supported the founding of the preserve, and this month, we helped SATCT expand the protected area by an additional 49 acres. 

The newly expanded preserve requires a large amount of maintenance from staff. Invasive tree species often make their way into the habitat, which is detrimental to native plants and wildlife that rely on them. Hermanus van der Ross and the other Rainforest Trust Guardians commit their time to clearing these trees and their seeds before the rainy season, which allows for the region’s natural vegetation to thrive. “We burned the alien trees after cleaning them from the habitat. That way, when the rainy season starts, the Fynbos starts to come back and grow,” said Ross.

A significant portion of the unique Fynbos ecosystem lies within the preserve. The Fynbos is small lush belt of shrubland that sits on the Western and Eastern capes of South Africa. Known for its exceptional biodiversity, it is home to many rare and threatened plant species and other wildlife. Over 9,000 plant species live in the Fynbos and more than two-thirds of them are found nowhere else on Earth. Less than half of the original Fynbos remains intact today, making the preserve and the people who work to protect it crucial to ecosystem survival.

Guardian Pieter Jack is passionate about conservation in the area and maintaining it for years to come. “It makes me proud to help in conservation and to protect the tortoises and field,” said Jack. “We had to see that this area must be managed and the flora and fauna must be protected for the next generation.”  

A collection of photos from the Geometric Tortoise Preserve. Photos by SATCT.

 

Header image: A Geometric Tortoise on the preserve.

Two Rainforest Trust Partners Win Whitley Awards

This week, two conservationists supported by Rainforest Trust won the prestigious Whitley Award. Ilena Zanella from Misión Tiburón won for her work creating a reserve in Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce, a critical nursery habitat for the Endangered Scalloped Hammerhead. And in Ghana, Caleb Ofori-Boateng from Herp Conservation Ghana won for his work creating the Onepone Endangered Species Refuge and protecting the Critically Endangered Togo Slippery Frog.

Each year, an expert panel of academics chooses the Whitley Award winners. The winners are granted one year of funding and a significant profile boost. This achievement pushes their stories to an international audience and increases their project’s visibility.

In May 2018, Rainforest Trust worked with Misión Tiburón to designate the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary in Golfo Dulce. The sanctuary protects over 10,000 acres of habitat necessary for the Scalloped Hammerhead and other species in Golfo Dulce’s rich array of biodiversity. This project brings the coast guard and local fisherman together to halt illegal hammerhead fishing and evaluate management decisions regarding juvenile shark populations. It will also double the number of students involved with Misión Tiburón’s education program.

Children participating in the education program. Photo by Misión Tiburón.

The Onepone Endangered Species Refuge, established in August 2018, safeguards 847 acres of threatened habitat for the Togo Slippery Frog and the plethora of other threatened species in the forest. The project’s success is heavily dependent on the local communities. Herp Conservation Ghana works alongside members of nearby communities to manage wildlife and reduce hunting. They’re also restoring damaged habitats, including replanting 20,000 trees to prevent erosion and sedimentation. This project will benefit both the forest’s resident species and the surrounding communities.

Caleb holding a Togo Slippery Frog. Photo by HERP Conservation Ghana.

The Whitley Award, sometimes referred to as the “Green Oscar,” raises awareness of world-changing projects in part by releasing short films narrated by Sir David Attenborough. They also provides PR assistance and distribute publicity materials world-wide to champion their winners. Rainforest Trust is honored to work with these incredible partners.

 

Header image: Endangered Scalloped Hammerhead. Photo by Misión Tiburón.

Endangered Species Day: Louis the Pangolin

On this Endangered Species Day, Rainforest Trust wanted to share a story from Oldrich Van Schalkwyk. Oldrich is a dedicated Conservation Fellow who recently helped organize a sting operation to rescue a pangolin being offered for sale.

Unfortunately, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and, as such, are on their way to extinction. Poachers value them in particular for their scales, believed to cure a variety of diseases in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to the rapid decline of Asian pangolin species, poachers have started targeting African pangolin species to sell in Asia.

Oldrich finds Louis under a cupboard. Photo by Endangered Wild Trust.

Earlier this month, Oldrich, a program manager for Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), caught word that a Temminck’s Ground Pangolin was being offered for sale in a village in Limpopo, South Africa. A brave informant, who then helped with the sting, provided this information. That informant began a fake negotiation with the sellers while Oldrich, EWT and local rangers planned the sting. They intended to rescue the pangolin and get him to safety.

The sellers were anxious to make the trade and the time window for rescue was closing. The sellers made it clear that if the sale didn’t go through within the hour the pangolin would go to someone else. So the team arrived at the scene as soon as possible. But the suspects fled before the team could arrest them.

“When you rescue animals from these situations, it is important to remember that you are dealing with organized crime. The animal lives are in danger, but human lives may also be in danger,” said Schalkwyck. “When I arrive at a scene like this, I am initially on “autopilot” and focused on following the proper legal procedures, because the animal is evidence.”

Eventually, woman and child in the house led the team to a small cluttered room.  Among the wreckage, Oldrich found the distressed pangolin hiding under a cupboard.

“The room was filled with chainsaw blades, it was awful. Once the scene was secure, there was a sense of urgency to get him to safety,” said Schalkwyk. “Though he seemed to be in relatively good condition, we wanted to get him a medical examination, because the wounds are not always visible.”

Upon rescue, Louis (the pangolin) was under immense stress and dehydrated. The team rushed him to Medike Nature Reserve, a Rainforest Trust-funded property, where he could eat, drink and rest. The following morning, the African Pangolin Working Group picked up him to begin full rehabilitation. They named “Louis” after the South African town he is from, Louis Trichardt. After rehabilitation, they will release him back onto the reserve. Rangers can then continue to monitor his health.

“Now we want to release him onto the Rainforest Trust property because it is the right habitat and has an active patrol,” said Schalkwyk. Our researchers will continue to watch him before his hard release into the wild.”

For over 30 years, Rainforest Trust has worked to safeguard habitat for endangered species like the pangolin. Our Fellows, like Oldrich, will continue to dedicate their work in the field to ensuring the long-term survival of these species.

 

The Vulnerable Temminck’s Ground Pangolin. Photo by Daivd Brossard.

 

 

Voices from the Rainforest: Oldrich Van Schalkwyk, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Conservation and Kinship with Animals

Oldrich Van Schalkwyk was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. He joined Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) in September 2017 as the manager of the Soutpansberg Protected Area. In his current position, Oldrich is tasked with establishing an inclusive conservation-oriented protected area that offers sustainable livelihood options to local communities. His mandate also includes the protection of threatened wildlife and important ecosystems, many of which are endemic to the western Soutpansberg. Rainforest Trust helped to form the Medike Nature Reserve, which is a part of the Soutpansberg Protected Area.

Oldrich fitting leopard “BB” with a tracking collar. Photo by Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Why did you become a conservationist?

Since I can remember, I’ve always had a love for the natural world. I spend most of my free time in the outdoors. However, from the onset of national television in 1976 in South Africa, it became quite clear to me as a young boy, that our planet was in trouble. It upset me greatly to see documentaries, broadcasted so nonchalantly about logging of tropical jungles or whaling. For instance, it propagated the prosperity which came with the industrial revolution, but with no regard for the amazing species and ecosystems which it destroys. I decided early on that I wanted to live a life which made a difference and stand up for the defenseless, whether man, beast or the habitat we share.

 

“Being a Fellow allows me to fulfill my dream of living a purpose driven life. Rainforest Trust offers us a great support structure, and allows us to expand and conserve new critically important biodiverse areas.”

 

Tell me about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist.

The 17th of September 2008 marks the date on which I first captured a leopard on a trail camera in the Soutpansberg Mountain of South Africa. It was a young territorial female, named CC, due to a unique “cc” pattern on her right flank. I was to closely follow her life over the next four years as she raised her cubs and just do what leopards do, until she was sadly killed in mid July 2012, by a poacher’s snare which caught her around her left front paw. This devastating event made me even more determined to rid the Mountain of snares and lobby for the creation of a large protected area.

About a year after CC’s death, I fitted a satellite collar to her adult son, BB. This allowed us to follow his movements over the next 15 months to give us a better insight into the ecology of these elusive apex predators. Around four months later, we received a call from a neighbouring community informing us that a cattle farmer renting grazing from them wanted to poison a cattle calf carcase. The calf was killed the previous night by a leopard. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk to the farmer, and convinced him not to kill the leopard and that we would assist him in fortifying his cattle enclosure.

A camera trap was placed at the enclosure and revealed it was BB who killed the calf. This all took place about a mile south of where his mother was killed. I’m happy to report that BB walked the full term of 450 days with his collar until it automatically dropped off and was retrieved. His data gave us valuable insight into the secret life of leopards in the rugged Soutpansberg. BB is still thriving today as a territorial male on the far western Soutpansberg and EWT has since placed several guardian dogs, protecting the livestock farmers’ animals against any stock losses.

 

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

In South Africa, it seems that we have less and less federal support in protecting our natural environment. However, I suppose that’s why you have non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and we will continue to fight the good fight alongside other passionate NGOs like Rainforest Trust.

 

What has surprised you the most in the field?

The dedication of men and woman I share my occupation with. They have to make so many personal sacrifices and sometimes face insurmountable odds, even risking their very lives for the sake of saving a species.

 

“Humanity’s very existence depends on conservation. We are really saving ourselves. Not just in terms of our livelihoods, through the ecosystem services that our natural environment provides, but it is also for good mental health.”

 

What is the hardest part of your job?

Over the years I had the privilege to personally get to know the wildlife under my custodianship. For years, I have shared the life of individual animals I research, even feeling a leopard’s heartbeat in the palm of my hand when fitting a satellite collar, or intimately getting to know each rhino’s unique character while guarding them against poachers. Then one day having to stand at the dead body of one of “your” leopards caught in a poacher’s snare or having to witness a gruesome scene of the senseless slaughtering of a rhino. To me, they are more than animals, they are my friends.

 

The Bird That ‘Came Back From the Dead’

Thanks to an obscure evolutionary phenomenon, a small flightless, chicken-sized bird was able to bring itself back from extinction.

A new study from the University of Portsmouth and Natural History Museum in London revealed that the White-throated Rail — also known as the Aldabra Rail — has gone extinct and returned back from the dead over the course of tens of thousands of years.

The species’s ancestors were native to Madagascar, but, due to population growth, large flocks would often emigrate from the island. The flocks who flew to the north and south drowned in the ocean. Predators ate the groups who travelled west and landed in Africa. But those who ventured east were the luckiest, colonizing a few isolated ocean islands, including Aldabra. Aldabra, a ring-shaped atoll in the Indian Ocean, became their home. Since there were no real predators to fly away from on the atoll, the rail’s continued evolution left them flightless. Unfortunately, this meant they were unable to escape when sea level rose and inundated Aldabra. The atoll flooded and disappeared, wiping out all resident flora and fauna on the island, including the White-throated Rail.

White- throated Rail. Photo by Charles Davies.

But sea levels fell during an ice age several thousand years later. And somehow, the rail’s ancestors from Madagascar appeared again and recolonized the atoll. “Only on Aldabra, which has the oldest paleontological record of any oceanic island within the Indian Ocean region, is fossil evidence available that demonstrates the effects of changing sea levels on extinction and recolonization events,” said study co-author David Martill, of the University of Portsmouth.

Researchers studied two sets of fossils from the species: two pre-flood wing bones dating back 136,000 years compared to a post-flood leg bone around 100,000 years old. They also examined specimens of modern rails, of both the birds that could fly and those that could not. They found that the pre-flood bones were incredibly similar to the bones of the flightless rails that currently exist in that they showed an advanced state of flightlessness. The ankles in the leg bone from the post-flood fossil showed distinct evidence that it was evolving toward flightlessness. Meaning, the original species from Madagascar evolved into the same species of flightless rail on Aldabra after the extinction event, within a span of only a few thousand years. The White-throated Rail is still alive and flourishing on the atoll today.

“These unique fossils provide irrefutable evidence that a member of the rail family colonized the atoll, most likely from Madagascar, and became flightless independently on each occasion,” said the lead researcher for the study, Dr. Julian Hume, avian paleontologist and Research Associate at the Natural History Museum. “Fossil evidence presented here is unique for rails, and epitomizes the ability of these birds to successfully colonize isolated islands and evolve flightlessness on multiple occasions.”

This process of extinction and recolonization follows an extremely rare phenomenon called “iterative evolution.” Iterative evolution is the repeated evolution of a species from the same ancestor at different times in history. This is the first time iterative evolution has occurred in rails and one of the only known and the most significant instance of iterative evolution in any bird population.

 

Header image: The Aldabra atoll. Photo by UNESCO.