Podcasts and Video
Video: How many hearts does an octopus have? Why do some squid glow in the dark? CBC conservation biologist Samantha Cheng takes you through the world of cephalopods, from A to Z. Published by AMNH, June 2019.
The ABCs of Cephalopods with Conservation Biologist Samantha Cheng
Video: A new United Nations report says that up to 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction because of human activity. Ana Luz Porzecanski, Director of the CBC, joined Chris Jansing on MSNBC to take a closer look at the report and its implications. May 2019.
Podcast: The illicit wildlife trade is a multi-billion-dollar business that spans the globe. Dr. Mary Blair, Dr. Minh Le, and colleagues describe an integrative framework to help characterize and mitigate the wildlife trade. Published by BioScience Talks on October 11, 2017.
Video: CBC Scientist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant offered insights into black bear behavior and what humans can do to improve relations with this wide-ranging species at AMNH SciCafe on October 4, 2017.
SciCafe: Humans and Conflicts with Bears, Oh My!
SciCafe: Humans and Conflicts with Bears: Oh My! – Transcript
Rae Wynn-Grant (Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History): Hi, thank you guys so much. Thank you, Kira, for the amazing introduction.
I'm dually appointed as a postdoc in the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and the Education Department in the Youth Initiatives Program. And the CBC in general works to transform scientific knowledge into conservation action.
And we pride ourselves on being highly skilled in scientific research. So all kinds of research. You can see images of the fieldwork and those types of on-the-ground research that we do out in the field. Also, something called bioinformatics where we take biological information and advances in technology and fuse them together to answer questions about the world.
We also do a great job at capacity building, which means really getting into communities and making sure that all kinds of people have the skills that they need to be a part of the conservation field.
And last, we do a lot of convening, kind of like this. So getting groups of people together to talk about conservation issues and to solve problems together.
The CBC has been an incredible place for me to grow in my work and to be a researcher and to also learn from all of my colleagues who study species and study ecosystems that are endangered and threatened with extinction. So I'm extremely fortunate to be working with them.
And so, let's get into the meat of the talk, what you guys came for. And that's to talk about human-wildlife conflict. And to make sure that we're all on the same page, it's important to just get a general definition. What is human-wildlife conflict? And in general, it is what it sounds like: the unfavorable interactions between humans and wildlife. And it can be characterized in two different ways.
The first way is when wild animals damage or destroy human property or threaten human safety. And so the picture behind me is of a vervet monkey, which is a species prominent in East Africa—some of you guys may have had up-close and personal experiences with vervets—and it's just getting ready to chow down on a farmer's corn crops or maize crops, which is an important cash crop, and so it's thus threatening this farmer's livelihood. It's an issue of conflict.
The other way we can characterize human-wildlife conflict is in the reverse: the way that humans might disturb wildlife in their natural habitats. And so some wild animals have dens that might be in the same places that humans like to recreate. When we go camping or when we go hiking, it's possible we can disturb the dens of species like this arctic fox, here.
And so remember that human-wildlife conflict can be seen and viewed from both lenses, and that's also how I study it.
Human-wildlife conflict is also a global issue of extreme conservation importance. So on one hand, there are groups of conservation scientists and conservation practitioners who are working really hard to race extinction of important species. And yet, when animals come into conflict with humans, it can often create a sense of... an attitude against the species, and it can reduce the support that we have for conservation of these species.
And especially when it comes to predators—and I'm going to be talking about a predator species today—even the mere threat or the mere perception that predators might cause conflict, especially in areas with a lot of ranching and a lot of livestock, can lead to policies that ultimately are put in place to decimate the population.
So what does human-wildlife conflict have to do with bears? Some of you are probably well versed in human-bear conflict, but globally, there are many species of bears on this planet. And they are in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe. We have a lot of bears on all of those continents. No bears in Africa or Australia or Antarctica. Not yet, at least.
And, unfortunately, bears, although we love them to pieces, are often associated with different types of conflict. The cute guy on the screen is a sun bear. And in Indonesia, sun bears are pretty uncommon. They're definitely an endangered species, but we can often find them in coconut tree plantations. And coconut tree plantations have become pretty prolific across different islands in Indonesia. A lot of us like to drink our coconut water when we're thirsty, and that's driven the increase in coconut plantations. And unfortunately, these cutie pies just love to eat them as well, and can decimate the crops, again, leading to farmers not wanting to support efforts and conservation for some of these endangered species.
My work is looking at human-black bear conflict in the western Great Basin, or as I'll talk about it in this presentation, the Lake Tahoe Basin. You can see on the map on the right that the Lake Tahoe Basin lies in the western United States on the border of California and Nevada. And the pointer doesn't work too well, but in particular, I study a small population of bears—and there's an example of a bear that I caught on a camera trap—that is on the easternmost slopes of the Sierra Nevada. So the easternmost part of Lake Tahoe, which is in the State of Nevada.
And in general, I'm looking for trends. So I want to investigate, when it comes to conflict, what are some of the patterns, what are some of the trends that we see? And how can we solve the problem to better protect bears and better protect people and peoples' interest on these landscapes?
So a little bit about black bear ecology, for those of you who don't know. If you look at the map on the left side of the screen, the green color indicates the historic range of black bears. So a few hundred years ago, we found black bears in the northernmost parts of North America into central parts of Mexico all the way east and all the way west.
But the image on the right shows a huge reduction in that green space. And so, although in states like New York, which is up there and has a whole bunch of green, we know that there are active bear populations. I think the estimates right now are about 8,000 bears in New York State. There's a lot of the middle parts of the country that used to have bears that no longer have populations.
But there's bears out west where I work and bears out east where we live, and so it's important to figure out, how can we continue the increase of these rebounding populations, and what can we do to avoid conflict?
And just for the purposes of scientific accuracy, I just need to nail down this idea that these range maps that I showed you before are a great indication of what's generally going on, but if you look at the historic one on the left, you'll notice that although there's tons of green all over North America, the State of Nevada seems to be pretty absent of it, as if there were no historical bear records in Nevada. And so I am fortunate that my colleagues and I have worked really hard to prove that in the 1800s the pink splotches show locations of black bear populations in Nevada historically. And so a lot of these maps need to be updated to include that information.
On the right side in green, on the other hand, is the current range of black bears in Nevada, which is really tightly constrained to the Lake Tahoe Basin, which is the area that I work in.
So one of my favorite things about black bears is also probably one of the trickiest things about black bears, and that is the name in general. So the name black bear just delineates a species, so it makes us understand that they're separate from polar bears or panda bears or anything like that.
But black bears aren't always black. They can be a variety of colors. And the way I like to think about it is in comparison to human beings. So we're all the same species, but we don't all have the same hair color. And it's the exact same thing with black bears. They can have a variety of colors.
So out east, if we went up to the Catskills or the Adirondacks here in New York, we would find black bears to be pretty much jet black in color, and sometimes they might have those white patches that are so ubiquitous on their chest. The bears I work with out west are typically a cinnamon brown color, like the ones we see here on the bottom. And bears can be gray in color, they can be kind of a blue-black, they can be a blonde color, an ashy color, or even the famous Kermode bear, which was found in British Columbia, is stark white. And sometimes people confuse it with polar bears thinking that they've spotted polar bear out of its natural habitat.
And so what am I looking at when I am initiating a study on human-bear conflict? Honestly, I'm looking for, again, patterns and trends in conflict, as well as examining individual animals and taking a close look at their conflict behavior. I want to know what are the ecological—meaning the environmental—drivers of human-bear conflict as well as the social drivers. So what is the environment doing that is promoting this conflict, and then, what are the people doing that are promoting this conflict?
And so I do a lot of data analysis, I do a lot of fieldwork, which I'll talk about extensively. I do a lot of statistical modeling. I get a lot of help from my colleagues to figure out how they're dealing with human-wildlife conflict globally, and we try to put all the pieces together.
But when it comes to identifying conflict behavior, some of the easiest things we can do are just figure out where it's happening. And so this image is from a camera trap that I set right at the human wildland interface. So essentially, at the outskirts of town, where a town meets the forest. And it's a part of the Lake Tahoe basin that we are hoping not to find bears, because it's not a great place for them to be. It's a conflict zone. But here, we captured two young cubs with probably a mother bear nearby scrounging around and looking like they might be getting into trouble. So it alerts us that there are certain parts of the landscape that might be conflict zones that we need to provide management recommendations for in order to curtail the problem before it gets too bad.
So the big question I'm trying to ask to begin this work is, what is it that bears like? What exactly are they attracted to? And so like I said before, I do fieldwork, I collect data from the ground, I do statistical analyses, I make these spatially explicit predictive models that can use data from the past to project what might happen in the future, and I do some hardcore statistics. And I'm using RSF, or resource selection probability function models, using a logistic regression and an equation that looks a little bit like that.
And the results from all of this work have shown me that black bears in the Tahoe area are attracted to hard and soft mast, proximity to seasonal and permanent water sources. They're attracted to abundance of refugia and juniper and aspen woodlands. Or to boil that all down, they really want water, trees, and food.
And so what about people on this landscape? So this is one of my favorite images, because this is the landscape that I have grown to know so well, and the mountain range that you see is the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and this picture is from this past summer, so it's snowcapped usually year-round. And this picture is being taken from the Pine Nut mountain range, which is east of the Sierras. And so in between those two ranges is what we call the Washoe Valley. And the Washoe Valley is prime bear habitat. I mean, it has the water, the food, and the trees all in abundance.
And people are moving in. So you might not be able to tell too well from this picture, but little towns that were dotting the landscape are becoming bigger towns or smaller cities. Small roads are becoming larger highways in this area. And what was once forest is being cleared for agriculture. So it's the perfect storm of different influences that are a prime attractant for conflict.
And so what is it that people in the Tahoe area like? Well, as you can see from this very satisfied looking person on this green, people in Tahoe are looking for a lot of the similar things: water, trees, and food.
And since we're attracted to the same resources, we're all hungry all the time—humans and bears—we like to eat a lot of the same things, I like to eat cows, bears like to eat cows, we're really coming into a place of tremendous conflict potential.
And so the interesting thing about humans is, not only do we like the same resources as bears, but we are introducing what we call anthropogenic resources, or in other words, human food sources, into the landscape. So like I said before, when we're clearing forests in order to make agriculture, it's really attractive to a bear to just go after the slow-moving, easy target for dinner instead of having to chase down a deer or fish for salmon.
People are building their homes in these cul-de-sac communities and planting decorative fruit trees that they can use for some of their cooking. Well, you know, bears like that too, and so they're going to come right out of the forest to eat some of that fruit. People are installing decorative koi ponds in their backyards because they have so much space in Nevada, unlike New Yorkers. That sounds like a dream to have a koi pond. They have all this space, and so they're putting little ponds in their yard and then getting really upset when their big goldfish turn up missing. And, of course, the always ubiquitous and easily understood attractant to trash.
Unlike some other bear species, black bears are omnivores, and so they eat tons and tons of meat, especially in the Lake Tahoe ecosystem, but they can also survive off of non-meat sources of food. And humans are pretty wasteful, and trash is really exciting for them. It's another easy way for them to get tons and tons of calories in the region.
And so when we have this bear behavior of raiding trashcans that people just leave out, conflict is likely to happen. And we need to make sure that everyone is aware of what to do when it happens, but also how we can avoid it.
And so the picture on the right is one that I took on one of my first outings when I was just learning how to respond to bear conflicts. And you can see a nicely manicured lawn and a tranquilized bear, so we shot it with a tranquilizer so that it would get knocked out, and then we were going to take it back into the forest from where it came.
And those guys in the picture are from the sheriff's office. So they're the local police, and they were posing with the tranquilized bear for a picture. So the person who called the bear conflict in called the wildlife authorities, who I was with, and then also called the police, because they were afraid. They were terrified. And luckily, we all arrived at the same time, and the wildlife authorities were able to show the police officers how we remove bears from conflict situations, but it doesn't always go that way.
So what do I do when we capture a conflict bear like the one in the previous image? So there's a lot to be done. The first thing we want to do is tag that bear. We want to give it a physical marker so that we know we can look for it in the future. And usually it's an ear tag, and so it'll be a colorful blue or red or green ear tag that we can see from a distance. And so when people call in bear reports in the future, we can say, did you see a tag? What color was it? Did you get the number of it? And we can figure out if this is a repeat offender.
The other thing we like to do is take DNA samples. So we really want to get to know what's going on with the bear population in general, and getting these hair or blood samples is a great way for us to get that genetic work started.
And finally, we look at the health of the bear and the condition of the bear. It's possible that some animals that are more prone to conflict are doing it because they're not as healthy. They're not as strong. Maybe they have a low body weight. Maybe they're a little bit sick, and so eating garbage is a lot easier than going and hunting for food. But sometimes that's not the case, and we need to understand why a really healthy bear, or a bear with... a young bear that has a really far future ahead of it will be engaging in this conflict.
And so we take as much information as we possibly can to get these details of the bear, and we can then look at all the different types of reports. So when we tally all of this information together... And I'm really fortunate to be working on this project, because the little-known fact is that it's the longest running black bear project in the entire United States, so it's been going on for over 20 years. I've been a part of it for about six.
And if I just give you some of the information from 2014, we can see that a lot of the bear reports are actually just bear sightings. So when people are calling in a conflict, it's because, hey, I saw an animal. I saw a bear. It's in my backyard. I saw a bear across the street. I think I see a bear in my tree, and I'm afraid and I'm nervous. Please come help.
It does beg the question, though, is a bear sighting actually a conflict? It's up for debate. However, trash, bears getting into trash is a huge one. So that's definitely a disturbance in communities and can cause some unsafety.
The third most popular conflict type from 2014 was breaking and entering, and that is never good. No matter what species is breaking and entering into your home, you definitely don't want that. So there are many of these conflicts that we know that we need to start mitigating immediately.
What do we do when we have a repeat offender or when we get a call saying, I saw a bear, the bear is eating my trash, it's breaking and entering, you need to come catch it.
The first thing we do is what I'm doing in this picture of blatantly disobeying the danger: keep out sign, and we set these big barrel traps. We bait the traps with something either extremely sweet and yummy or extremely savory. So in this picture, you might not be able to see, at the bottom of the image you see really colorful pastries, so that is rainbow swirl cake from Walmart. And they're a big contributor to this work. They give us all of their stale, baked goods for the purposes of attracting bears that love to eat garbage, and they do. But we're also equally as likely to set bear traps with sardines and anchovies and some of those smokier, saltier flavors.
So we set these traps hoping to catch a bear that's causing problems, and then we go immediately to tranquilize it, do the processing that I showed you before, and then release it back into the forest from where it came. The idea is that hopefully it won't return to a conflict zone.
The other part of what I do goes back to what I said at the very beginning, in terms of looking at human-wildlife conflict from the wildlife perspective. So ways that humans can be harmful to animals directly.
And when it comes to black bears, we're usually looking at the denning behavior of mother bears. So I showed a picture of an artic fox before. They have really important dens, but so do black bears. They're hibernating species. So all winter, they go to sleep for five, six months at a time, and they're not supposed to wake up. But with human recreation really common, especially in the western U.S., black bears can be disturbed by people doing cross-country skiing across their dens or hiking or camping nearby or any type of outdoor recreation.
The critical thing is that when mother bears give birth in their dens during hibernation and then get disturbed, they wake up out of their hibernative state, and they can abandon their dens, thus abandoning their cubs, and the cubs don't survive. That decreases the survival of the population and can be a leading cause of population decline; possibly local extinction. So it all goes together. Humans have a huge impact.
This is a picture of me. I'm really excited, because I found a bear in a den, which is not an easy thing to do, and this is a large female that we captured who built her winter den right underneath, within 100 meters, of a highway overpass. And so that's an interesting place for her to build a den, and so there are questions about why this female felt that that was a safe location, but unfortunately, it's also part of a highway overpass that allows for pedestrian traffic, and so there is the possibility that people recreating in the wintertime could wake her up, disturb her, and then she would abandon her den with her cubs.
So when we go back to looking at the spatial distribution of conflict, so what parts of the landscape are they happening, I'll reintroduce you to where we are in the landscape in the western United States. And then if we zoom in on Lake Tahoe, you can see the different pink dots on parts of the lake indicate locations of bear conflicts in terms of bears raiding trashcans.
And what we've been able to find over time is that there are hotspots of these conflicts. So if you'll notice, in the northern tip of the lake, there's an area called incline village, and that's a small town full of people, and it seems to be a hotspot for bears feeing on garbage. And what's notable about this hotspot is that all around the lake and all around the eastern portions of the lake where I'm doing my work, there is tremendous human development. So it's not just a high human population density in Incline Village. It's all the way surrounding the lake. And so there must be something either ecological or something social about that area that is contributing to the high incidents of conflict, there.
And we want to relate it to how bears are moving on the landscape. So we're doing a lot of collaring of bears that are not conflict animals, the ones that are not getting into trouble, the ones that we can only find way back in the hills in the forest that never come into town. And so when we have the data from these collared animals, and you can see the map has these points that are building on each other and building on each other, those are the animals that are not raiding peoples' garbage cans. And we like to look to see if there's overlap in that habitat use. If there is, maybe it means that people need to do a better job of wrapping up their attractants to bears. But if there isn't overlap in a lot of places, that might mean that there's something about these bears that is different than their other comrades that are attracting them to these areas.
So it's all part of a larger study to understand the ecology of the species in this landscape.
I know this is an unfortunate picture of a mother bear with her cubs, again getting into some trash, but there's a cool part of this story. And one of the interesting findings that we have from the long-term study is that this behavior is not necessarily passed down through generations. So it's not hereditary. Meaning a mother bear in the Lake Tahoe ecosystem that introduces her cubs to garbage at a young age, that kind of shows them how to get into these garbage cans and feed on human food, that doesn't mean that her cubs will grow up to replicate that behavior.
So that's counterintuitive. We often think that cubs are learning from their mothers. But in fact, we've done some genetic work to find that cubs that were fed garbage by their mothers at a young age do not necessarily grow up to be cubs that continue that behavior. They can be the cubs that grow up to stay far in the forest and never get into conflicts. That's really important, because it means behaviors can change and that these animals are adaptable, and that gives us a lot of hope for how we can mitigate the conflict.
So let's talk about mitigating the conflict. In the western United States, there's been a big push in lots of different states with bears to use bear-proof garbage cans. That is the number one thing we can do to mitigate this conflict. It's also something that we're promoting in eastern states, so including New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. That is the number one thing that we're really pushing.
In the state of Nevada, where I work, it's not yet a law for people to use bear-proof garbage cans. It's completely optional. But we are finding strong evidence to suggest that when people lock up their garbage in, admittedly, really difficult-to-use garbage cans, it reduces the risk of conflict.
The other thing we're asking people to do is change the human behavior. Bear behavior can only be changed but so many ways, but what we can do is, when we're done grilling and having barbecues, clean the grill; put it inside. Maybe take down that birdfeeder that bears keep coming around. Also, all of those yummy smelling things you have in your garage when you go to Costco and you store all your fruit snacks and whatnot in the garage, get rid of those. Even the dog and cat food that you have in the garage, even your dog and cat, maybe put them somewhere else so that they're not an attractant to bears.
So one more note on conflict mitigation, and I'm almost ready to wrap up, and that is my favorite mitigation strategy and the furriest and friendliest mitigation strategy are these guys right here. These are Karelian Bear Dogs. They're not used by regular citizens in the west. They're used by researchers like me and the people that I work with for aversive conditioning. So when we trap the conflict bear and we take it back to the forest, we don't just release it, but we release it and then get these dogs to chase it away.
Karelian Bear Dogs are a Russian breed of dog that were originally used in the Far East for hunting bears. And we use them in the western United States to help us locate bears—they have a great sense of smell—and also to chase bears away. So somehow, these little guys are not very afraid of these big guys when we're releasing them. They love the chase. And so this is actually a bear that is being chased by Karelian Bear Dogs. So if the picture were extended, they would be there in the corner just nipping at their heels. And they're a really good way. So the idea is that a bear will eventually associate getting into that garbage can or getting into that bird feeder with having this annoying dog trying to bite it as it runs away. And we're hoping that it gives a bear a sense of, I am never doing this again.
Now, I'm almost ready to conclude the talk, but I would be remiss in concluding without mentioning the impact of climate change, especially in the current environment that we're dealing with politically and environmentally. It's important to acknowledge how climate change influences all of the work that I'm doing. So, as if human-bear conflict in the western U.S. weren't a big enough issue, climate change adds a whole new bag of worms to tackle. And it's really screwing with a lot of the science we're doing, and we're being challenged with figuring out new mitigation strategies in light of it.
So the best example I can give goes back to hibernation again. So black bears hibernate during the winter, and in the western U.S., they initiate their hibernation from environmental cues. So the temperature drops. The precipitation increases in the form of snow. And when that doesn't happen, when the temperature doesn't drop at a certain time in November and when the snowfall doesn't start to accumulate, some bears can get really thrown off. Their biological cycles just don't understand what's going on. Some of them, then, don't hibernate, or they don't hibernate in time. And, although the temperature hasn't dropped all the way and although the snow hasn't started piling up, there's a lack of food resources, now.
That either means that these bears starve to death because of the climate change impacts, or it means that they go even more for the garbage, even more for the dogs and cats, even more for the cows and those koi fish in the ponds.
And so when we have bears walking around like this with a late snowfall looking for food that doesn't exist, it just throws a whole other wrench in the human-bear conflict issue.
And so, to conclude, bears are an important part of ecosystems in the West. They're an important part of the ecosystems in the East as well. And in the spirit of coexistence with wild animals and in the spirit of promoting the conversation of these species, it's really important to understand the role that humans play in preventing conflict and increasing the populations of these species on our landscapes. It benefits the ecosystems that thus benefits us, and we can live in a more harmonious way with our wild neighbors.
So thank you very much.
Video: CBC Scientist Dr. Mary Blair discusses how research on these endangered animals can contribute to a better understanding of wildlife trafficking and the risk of zoonotic disease spread at AMNH SciCafe on March 1, 2017.
SciCafe: The Search for Slow Lorises
Mary Blair (Director, Biodiversity Informatics Research, AMNH):
Before I get into slow lorises, which is what we're going to talk about at length, I want to tell you a little bit about the research center that I work in here at the museum. It's called the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, and we work to leverage museum science, technologies and collections to forward and advance research to conserve biodiversity around the globe. And we do that by transforming diverse knowledge from different sources and perspectives into action for biodiversity conservation.
This is one of the places we work. This is a shot from Vietnam. This is Crocodile Lake in Southern Vietnam in Cat Tien National Park. I've only been working in Vietnam since 2011 when I first came to the museum, but museum scientists have been working there for more than 20 years, describing more than 50 new species and helping to support establishment of protected areas to conserve biodiversity.
In addition to lovely landscapes like these, there are a lot of amazing species that are unique to Vietnam because of its special geography, and we call these endemic species. I'm going to show you a slide show of some of the favorite things that I've seen over the years in Vietnam.
This is a Calotes lizard, or a changeable lizard. It will change colors before your eyes. I just almost stepped on this guy just walking around in the same national park, in Cat Tien National Park.
This is a Malayan pit viper. Gorgeous pink snake. I'm a huge snake fan, and this is one of the most beautiful ones, in my opinion.
This is a sunbird, an olive sunbird. These are the hummingbirds of Asia. They also drink flower nectar, and they're gorgeous and very small.
And this, this is a douc langur, or a douc monkey, we would say. As a primatologist, I love working in Vietnam. There are 27 different species of primate. That's a lot for one country to have. And a lot of those primates are unique, they're endemic, to Vietnam.
This is a juvenile male red-shanked douc, and even though he's still a juvenile, he's got a big gut, as you can see there. He uses a multi-chambered stomach to ferment mature leaves, so that's why he has such a big gut.
Before I show you more of my favorite primates in Vietnam, let's just get on the same page about what a primate is.
This is another primate, another endemic-to-Vietnam primate, the Con Dao macaque.
And here are some other primates you might be familiar with. This is a gorilla, right? A primate. Everybody's cool with that, right? This is a howler monkey. And this is my Uncle Ernie.
[laughter] Hi, Uncle Ernie. I love you.
So, I'm a primate. Uncle Ernie's a primate. All of you are primates. And what do we have in common? We have forward-facing eyes. We have relatively short noses. We have toenails and fingernails instead of claws. We have opposable thumbs, which are great for grasping. And we have long, slow lives for our body size compared to most other mammals, so we live a long time. And we have only one or two babies at a time. Primates are also highly intelligent, have highly social behaviors, often live in groups and like to take care of each other.
So, those are primates.
And primates are very important to their forest communities, and this is one reason why. I'm wondering if you guys have any idea what this is a photo of. This is feces, various feces that I have collected with my own hands over the years from various monkeys. And I think you can see that it's full of seeds. Primates like to eat fruit—I love to eat fruit—and as the seeds pass through our guts, they're actually more able to germinate and turn into plants.
So, primates do an amazing service for their forest community, and they're really important to overall biodiversity.
Let's talk about biodiversity for a minute, too. By "biodiversity," I mean the variety of life on earth at all of its levels from genes to ecosystems and the processes and cycles that maintain that diversity. And biodiversity is important to us. It's important to people. Why is that? It provides us with food, shelter, fuel, medicines. It allows for pollination and seed disbursal, so primates would be an example of that service. Other services it provides: climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, agricultural pest control. Bats, for example, are really great at pest control for a lot of agricultural products.
And in addition, there are cultural reasons why we might value biodiversity. We might have spiritual or religious reasons to value a certain place or area, and biodiversity might actually shape who we think we are and our relationships to one another.
So, there are a lot of reasons why biodiversity is important to us. It's important to our health and our wellbeing.
Now that we're on the same page about that, back to awesome primates that I like.
Okay, this is an amazing, amazing animal. This is the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. It is one of the most endangered animals in the world. There are only 250 animals left, and they're all in isolated groups in northern Vietnam.
And finally, we come to the slow loris. This is a pygmy loris, and you can already see there's some things that are different about it compared to the other primates we've been looking at. It's smaller. This picture is taken at night. Lorises are the only nocturnal primates in Vietnam, "nocturnal" meaning they're more active at night than during the day. The rest of the primates are diurnal, or active during the day.
And lorises are also different in that they're a little more solitary than the other primates. They're at low densities. They're very few and far between. They prefer to forage alone, although they do still have some social behaviors. And that makes them difficult for researchers to find. In fact, we have a lot less information, there's been less research done, on this group compared to the other primates in Vietnam.
So, we need to learn more, but what we do know is that they're strongly threatened by illegal wildlife trade.
These are the two different species of loris that are in Vietnam. There are eight or nine or probably more species across South and Southeast Asia, but these are the two in Vietnam. On the left, we have the pygmy, which is a smaller loris and it's more orangey, and on the right is the Bengal loris, which is fuzzier. You can see that she, this one, has fuzzier ears, and it's about twice the size actually. It's hard to tell from the photo.
These are both endangered with extinction because of illegal wildlife trade. That's the major threat to these animals.
What is the wildlife trade? By "wildlife trade," I mean use of wildlife or wildlife products by humans for human consumption. This trade, it's the third-largest black market in the world behind the arms and drugs trades. It's extremely profitable, and it threatens biodiversity. It's also a threat to global development, human health and security.
Here, I'm showing you, in case you're curious, a photo of snake wine from Vietnam. These are snakes in alcoholic rice wine, and this is sold as a medicinal alcohol.
Vietnam is a particularly important place to be asking questions about the wildlife trade. It's somewhere where trade continues to be rampant at very high levels, even though there's a lot of recent efforts by the local government and by international governments to try and control the trade better. It just keeps going, and going strong.
Vietnam is also a thoroughfare country from other parts of Southeast Asia for trade to East Asia and beyond, so because of its geographic location, it's also a really important place to think about wildlife trade.
And wildlife trade is a major problem for lorises. They're traded for different kinds of medicines, as food, but as you probably noticed, they're very cute and actually one of the biggest demands for them in trade is as exotic pets. You may have seen them on YouTube eating rice balls, being tickled. It is very likely that those animals were obtained illegally. Most of those videos come out of Russia and Japan, which is well outside of their known range, and it is illegal to trade in lorises across borders.
Unfortunately these animals can be sold for as much as $6,000 or $8,000 in Japan. The demand is very high.
But they don't make very good pets. Number one, they're poisonous, and I don't have time to talk about that in the talk, but I really hope that one of you asks me about it in the question-and-answer session. So, not a good idea to have a poisonous pet in general.
In addition, they eat a very diverse and difficult diet for someone to maintain in captivity. They eat a lot of tree gum and sap, and they also eat a lot of insects and small vertebrates. They don't eat bananas and rice.
Okay. Now, in addition to a threat to lorises, wildlife trade also poses a threat to us, to humans, and I'm going to give you three reasons why. The first is the threat of zoonotic disease transmission. A zoonotic disease is a disease that is passed between animals and humans, and these types of diseases are responsible for 75 percent of current emerging diseases of threat to humans today. So, think about Ebola, Zika, West Nile; these are all zoonotic diseases. All of the scary ones are zoonotic.
And here, I'm showing you a map put together by the USAID Predict Project. This is a map of predicted hot spots of zoonotic disease transmission produced by a global sampling of particular species that are most at risk to transmit diseases to humans. That includes a lot of mammals like bats and primates and also birds, and those groups are also highly traded in the wildlife trade. And here, the red is showing the biggest hot spots where transmission is most likely. The arrow is showing you Vietnam, so it's clearly a hot spot.
And here, I'm showing you alerts for confiscations in wildlife trade at major ports just in the last year, and a bigger, redder circle means more confiscations. And again, Southeast Asia and Vietnam is a hot spot for wildlife trade.
So, predicted zoonotic disease transmission overlaps with hot spots of wildlife trade, and it's likely that it makes the hot spots even hotter.
The second reason why wildlife trade is a threat to humans is that it poses economic and security risks. Unfortunately huge transnational criminal networks are a part of wildlife trade because there's higher payoff and lower risks than arms and drugs trades. And unfortunately that means they're willing to take risking human lives as a result of this trade. Over a thousand protected-area rangers have been killed in the last ten years due to these criminal syndicates.
In addition, communities that depend on wildlife, for example, for tourism revenue, they have economic risks and losses because of wildlife trade problems.
And lastly, as I mentioned before, biodiversity is important to us as humans. It's important to our health and our wellbeing, and wildlife trade is a threat to species and ecosystems and biodiversity at a systematic scale. So, it's also a problem for us because of that.
All right. On to what I have been doing in response to these issues.
A few years ago, with our long-time partners in Vietnam we came together to recognize that there are major knowledge gaps about slow lorises and their biology and that wildlife trade is a major threat to them and many other species in Vietnam. So, we set out to understand what the drivers and patterns of trade in lorises are in Vietnam.
We've done field work all across the country, and in June I'm going to go back to some new sites in northern Central Vietnam to fill in some of those gaps there. I'm very excited. And what we do is we visit a site. We sit down with the director of the national park and the scientific staff. We talk about where the best places are to camp, where it's safe, where have people seen lorises. We go set up camp, and we go out in the daylight to decide where we're going to walk that night. So, we'll either physically mark the trail or we'll use a GPS unit that I'm holding there. That's because the forest looks completely different at night. It's very easy to get lost and not find where you had intended to go.
So, then, we wait for the sun to set, and we put on a huge headlamp, and I brought one here to show you. This is a red-filter LED headlamp, and it can go really far. Can you see that over there? Yeah, it's a major spotlight, and it shines super—it's called a Super Spot. It shines very far away, and it will pick up just the slightest shiny thing. It will pick up a raindrop at the top of a tree. I can see that shining back at me.
So, everything will shine back at you in the dark. I'm just going to test you and see what you think. Here, this shined back at me one day. What do you guys think it is? What do you think? A bat? It was a sac of beetle larvae. [laughter] It was this. I know, I was surprised, too.
Sometimes we'll just see one really tiny, shiny spot, and it will be the compound eye of a spider from really high in a tree.
So, everything will shine back at you, and it's a little overwhelming at first, but when you see a loris, it is unmistakable. They have huge eyes, and the color of the red filter perfectly highlights the natural reflectants at the back of their retina. And so, it's really bright. And they're curious about us, so they'll keep staring at you, so it's very easy to tell them.
This is just a quick video to show you what it looks like if we're lucky enough that we can get a spotlight on them. When we do see one, we try to take a photo first, actually, because we're really interested in the coloration patterns on the face, which might help us tell species apart.
We take notes on what kind of tree they're in, what species, how high are they in the tree, how far is it off the trail, what are they doing, are they looking for food, are they just kind of hanging out. We write all of this information down.
And sometimes we see other really cool stuff, too. On the left here is a common palm civet, and this is an oriental bay owl. I was really excited to see that one. And this is a huge flying squirrel. It's, like, this big. It was awesome.
And sometimes we wake up things that are trying to sleep. [laughter] These are two macaques, and the male here is a little displeased that we woke him up, but the female seems to be sleeping, still. [laughter] So, I think it was okay in the end. Fifty-fifty.
All right. So, we watch the loris for a while, and if we're really lucky, it poops. This is gold for us. [laughter] We collect the poop, and we use it for genetic analysis, and we combine the samples that we collect in the field with samples from museums. We're able to get DNA from 100-plus-year-old historical museum specimens, from museums all over the US and also all over Vietnam, and we've combined all these sequences together to get a reference database from which we can pinpoint differences between loris populations. And when a confiscation happens, we can figure out where it came from.
I just want to highlight that most of the lab work has been done by students. On the left is graduate and undergraduate students at Hanoi University of Sciences in Vietnam, and they've done all the lab work on the field-collected samples and the museum samples in Vietnam, and on the right is one of the many undergraduate students—this is Alora from Columbia University, who did the lab work here upstairs on the Eighth Floor on our specimens here from the museum. It wouldn't have been possible without them.
Our reference database allows us, as I mentioned, to figure out where a confiscated loris came from. As an example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service sent us a bunch of samples that were confiscated here at US airports, and we were able to match the nucleotides—those are the different letters there along in a line, our DNA sequence—and we could match them exactly with a pygmy loris from Laos.
And this is really helpful because it can help us understand where are hot spots of trade, where should enforcement be targeted, where are a lot of lorises coming from. And if there's a healthy individual confiscated that might be reintroduced back into the wild, we can make sure that it's reintroduced somewhere where it's likely to survive.
Within Vietnam, we found something really interesting. We found that most of the confiscations in Northern Vietnam are coming from the south, so there's a clear northward pattern of trade for lorises. This is consistent with what other researchers have found with some other species as well.
In addition to the research that we've been doing, we're also working to build capacity, build the skills for other researchers and Vietnamese students to continue and expand on this work and grow our database for all threatened vertebrates in the entire region. This is a shot from a workshop that I co-led in Hanoi at the university there on using genetics to develop this kind of database.
We're also bringing our research to the level of government officials and scientists. Over the last three years, we've had a series of workshops where we communicate our results at this level to help inform management. And that's really what we're trying to do here is use rigorous science to inform forward-thinking management that will help to reduce this really complex problem of wildlife trade.
Thank you so much.
[End of audio]
Video: The number of slow lorises in Vietnam is on the decline due to factors including illegal wildlife trade. Dr. Mary Blair co-leads a project that aims to gather essential population data for the Bengal slow loris and the Pygmy slow loris. AMNH October 2016.
Slow Loris Conservation in Vietnam
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