Across Africa and Asia, an illegal trade worth $7 to $10 billion annually is threatening to annihilate elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, and others of the world’s biggest and most beautiful species. Conservation groups and governments are struggling to police the poachers and protect the animals, but the stretches of wild land they must patrol are far too big for their resources; will too little oversight, poachers are able to kill and trade undetected.
Biologists and conservation groups have found reason to hope they can stop the bloodshed: drones, or, more generally, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The World Wildlife Fund has seen in UAVs the potential to scan large areas for poachers, and earlier this year launched a pilot program in Nepal to try them out. And now, with $5 million in funding from Google, the WWWF will be able to expand its conservation-drone program at four (so-far unnamed) sites in Africa and Asia. The money was given as part of the first round of Google’s Global Giving Awards and will also go toward a tagging system and analytical software that will help rangers monitor wildlife and illegal logging across huge landscapes.
In one of the deadliest poaching massacres in decades, at least 200 elephants were killed at Bouba N’Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon, the Associated Press reports. That’s at least half of the elephants at the remote wildlife reserve.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the poachers have been arriving on horseback over the past few months, likely from Sudan and Chad. In the latest incident, soldiers arrived at the park but found they were too late — not to mention too few. One soldier reportedly died in the clash as Cameroonian forces attempted to deter the poachers. The remaining soldiers confiscated 49 tusks, indicating that 25 elephants had been killed in the ongoing massacre. The WWF and the European Union had been pressuring Cameroon’s government to take action, prompting the west African nation to send 150 soldiers to the park on March 1.
(PHOTOS: Elephants of Asia)
The increase in poaching has been triggered by growing demand for ivory in China and Thailand, where the tusks are smuggled largely to make ornaments. Under an international treaty to protect elephant populations, most countries have banned ivory sales. But as more and more Chinese middlemen arrive in Africa, illegal trade has only expanded.
The poachers responsible for the massacre in Cameroon have arrived heavily armed, often accompanied by herds of cattle and camels. They’ve moved to Cameroon after wiping out elephant populations in Chad and Central African Republic. WWF officials had long warned the Cameroonian government to better prepare itself as the poaching escalated over the past few years
The number of Monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico dropped 28 percent this year, according to a report released Thursday, a decline some experts attribute to droughts in parts of the United States and Canada where the butterflies breed and begin their long migration south.
Others say damage to wintering grounds in central Mexico’s mountains remains a factor in the decline, citing deforestation of the fir and pine forests they favor.
The numbers of butterflies spending the winter in Mexico have varied wildly in recent years.
Concern rose two years ago, when their numbers dropped by 75 percent in the wintering grounds, the lowest level since comparable record-keeping began in 1993. They partially recovered last year, when the number of butterflies nearly doubled from that record low point.
“Fluctuations in insect populations are normal. In the case of the Monarch, we have shown that these fluctuations are mainly due to climate conditions,” said Omar Vidal, head of World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, adding that “during 2011, the abnormal patterns of drought and rainfall in breeding grounds in Canada and the United States … could have caused high mortality rates and a lack of plants” on which the butterflies feed.
But others were more worried.
Lincoln P. Brower, an expert on monarch butterflies and zoology professor at the University of Florida said this year’s number is the third lowest since systematic monitoring began, adding “the current data indicate a continuation of the downward trend.”
Brower said the climate argument “ignores the fact that severe degradation of the Oyamel (fir) forest ecosystem has been and still is occurring.”
Vidal said a survey indicated that only about an acre (half-hectare) of trees were lost to deforestation last year, down two-thirds from the preceding year.
Illegal tree-cutting destroyed about 3.7 acres (1.5 hectares) in 2010, itself a decrease of 97 percent from 2009. At its peak in 2005, logging devastated as many as 1,140 acres (461 hectares) annually in the reserve.
The survey carried out by the WWF, private donors and Mexico’s National Commission on Protected Areas measures the millions of butterflies that arrive each year based on the number of acres of forest they cover. Since the butterflies “clump” together by the thousands on tree branches, apparently to conserve heat, counting individuals would be near impossible.
This year, the Monarchs covered 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) of forest, compared to 9.9 acres (4 hectares) last year and 4.7 acres (1.9 hectares) two years ago.
The highest documented migration occurred in 1996, when nearly 45 acres (18.19 hectares) of butterflies were spotted in the Monarch reserve, a series of mountaintops in a protected area west of Mexico City.