Monday, June 20, 2011

Cat Superheros

We took advantage of the gathering of cat researchers to a group shot of the attendees who have been supported by the work of the Clouded Leopard Project and the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. From left to right: Andrew Hearn, Gilmore Bolongon, David MacDonald, Susan Cheyne, Andreas Wilting, Joanna Ross, me, Jennifer McCarthy, Maureen O'Keefe (CLP), and Azlan Mohamed. It's so great to be able to hang out with these guys and learn even more about their work!
Cats and Civets and Otters, Oh My!
Ever heard of a Hose's civet? How about a Borneo ferret badger or collared mongoose?? These are a few of the 24 carnivore species at the center of attention of this week's conference in Borneo. Yesterday, each species was profiled in terms of research history, distribution, and threats and the overwhelming outcome was that our knowledge of most of these creatures is abysmal.

One of the primary goals of the conference is to gather all existing and historical records on known locations of Borneo's carnivores into a single database that can then be used to create models predicting the distribution of each species. Prior to the conference, researchers completed questionnaires detailing locations of specimens from camera traps, actual sightings, road kills, etc. In addition, collection locations were amassed from specimens in natural history museums as well as from historical research publications. These data were then combined with maps of Borneo's climate, topography, and human activities and habitat alteration. The result is a Habitat Suitability Index map that serves as a very rough predictive model of where the species may occur which can drive further research and conservation planning.

Here's what the Sunda clouded leopard HSI looks like. The colors represent the probability that the species will occur in the area with dark red being the highest, the warm tones intermediate, and the blue tones being low probability.

However, it is extremely important to note that there are several factors that influence these maps and limit their predictive power. First, the records used for modelling use actual location data, the maps are strongly biased toward Sabah, the Malaysian state in the far north of Borneo as that is where most research efforts have been undertaken. Therefore, that weights the habitat there more strongly and may inaccurately indicate too low of a liklihood of a species occuring in regions that have been little studied. There are also issues with maps being out of date, especially in terms of habitat alteration. Therefore, it may show a high probability of a species occuring in an area that has been transformed into a palm oil plantation. However, these maps are an important first step in being able to determine the gaps in research efforts and point out how species distribution may relate to protected areas and influence conservation planning.

I was very impressed by the technical expertise and determination required to collate all this information for each species. It was also amazing to hear the feedback from the researchers assembled as they relayed their experiences encountering (or not encountering!) these fascinating species that have so far mostly flown under the radar of wildlife conservation attention.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Southeast Asian Wildlife Trade Report
The Symposium began this morning with a pretty depressing, albeit critical update on the status of Southeast Asian carnivores in the wildlife trade by Chris Shepherd, regional director of TRAFFIC, an organization focused on monitoring the market of wildlife. Despite all the efforts to address this issue, Chris reported that the Asian trade now is bigger than ever and has reached crisis proportions where we may be near the tipping point of large scale species loss. This loss is driven by an insatiable appetite for wildlife and wildlife products in Asia, particularly China, although the U.S. is another major market for smugglers of illegal wildlife products.

The reasons for trade Chris profiled are the usual suspects: skins, trophies, medicinal uses, and meat. Some scary new statistics:  a recent one-day survey in a notorious wildlife market on the border of Thailand and Myanmar netted a count of 120 clouded leopard skins! A survey of restaurants in peninsular Malaysia resulted in 900 found to be serving wild meat, including bear, civets, and tiger. And hundreds of thousands of civets are exported from Vietnam to China each year.

In the case of carnivores such as civets, many species targeted are almost certain to be depleted before research has even made a dent in studying them. There is little baseline data on populations so the impact of trade is virtually unknown. So why is trade in these species escalating without any appreciable way to stop it?

First, while tiger and clouded leopard trade may draw attention, small carnivores have no real flagship species to draw support and don't attract the attention of conservation donors. Small carnivores are also a low priority for wildlife law enforcement, and most people know little about this group of animals including researchers, enforcement agencies, and the public in general. There are tools of wildlife laws, CITES treaties, and the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, but these tools cannot be successful without prioritizing study of impacts and enforcement. In addition, the laws protecting these species vary considerably; on the island of Borneo there are four different sets of laws with little cooperation and collaboration among the governments.

Chris summarized his presentation by making the following recommendations:
  • Initiate long-term monitoring of the status of small carnivores
  • Measure the impact of trade and hunting on these species
  • Increase enforcement efforts and support for these efforts
  • Assess and amend national legislation to provide better protection
  • Standarize laws and enforcement procedures
  • Address hunting issues when conducting conservation planning
  • Identify funding strategies to support small carnivore conservation efforts
  • Develop materials to raise the profile of small carnivores and concern for their conservation
It's quite an ambitious list and time is running out, but hopefully this meeting will be an important step in giving these species the attention and priority needed for their conservation on Borneo.
Borneo Carnivore Symposium, Day One
Maureen and I made it to Borneo and have had a great first day at the Symposium. Last night was the icebreaker and it was fun to start getting reacquainted with some of the folks we've met and have been working with over the last few years. With such a far-flung cat conservation network, it's wonderful to have an opportunity to come together every once in a while like this. There are nearly 200 people from 15 countries attending the meeting which is supported by both the CLP and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. The meeting is focused on the 24 species of carnivores inhabiting the island of Borneo, including the five cat species (Sunda clouded leopard, flat-headed cat, bay cat, marbled cat, and leopard cat), civets, mongoose, and otters.

Today was a very full day of interesting introductory papers. We began with a comprehensive overview of the Asian wildlife trade which I will detail in more depth next. Then the rest of the day was devoted to a review of carnivore research methodology. The methods discussed were: community surveys, transects, conservation genetics, live trapping, telemetry, camera trapping, and landscape modeling. Each discussion focused on determining the best methodology for answering a particular study question, the pros and cons of each method, planning for implementation, and ways to maximize the efficacy of each technique. Much current information was presented and I look forward to updating our website to reflect the status of each of these methods.

I look forward to tomorrow's program of species-specific reports. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two Cubs Born at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium!

Exciting news: last night Chai Li delivered two healthy cubs! They've already been started on the bottle and are doing great so far. Maureen and I leave for Borneo in a couple of hours so I won't be able to share posts about them for the next three weeks. Never fear, though - just become a Facebook fan of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium to follow their every move and hear about all the happenings surrounding the opening of the new Cats of the Canopy exhibit!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Borneo Bound
This week, fellow CLP Board member Maureen O'Keefe and I are heading to Borneo to attend the Borneo Carnivore Symposium in Kota Kinabulu, Sabah, Malaysia. This meeting will bring together a host of field biologists and others interested in carnivore research and conservation. We are taking advantage of this gathering to host a workshop on carnivore education after the Symposium. The CLP and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is hosting this workshop to plan the development of carnivore education in the region.

Additionally, Maureen and I will be delivering carnivore education kits to several non-profit conservation organizations. These kits will be used in their outreach programming to local communities. The kits contain a variety of carnivore and herbivore skull replicas and associated activities, a clouded leopard costume, books, coloring pages, and a carnivore card matching activity. These kits were funded by contributions to the CLP as well as a generous donation from the Point Defiance Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

Maureen and I will also be joining a small group of Symposium attendees on a post-conference trip to several protected areas to view wildlife and field study sites. After our time in Borneo we will also visit Kerinci National Park in Sumatra to deliver another kit and meet with park staff and educators there as well. We have a very full trip planned and hope it will be productive in advancing conservation efforts for clouded leopards and the other carnivores! I'll try to post a few updates from the road as online access allows.