Saving the White Lion

A few weeks ago, two white lion cubs were born in a Belgrade Zoo and are reported to be in great health.  A zoo volunteer reports that they will not, however, be staying there long.  This is due to both the popularity of the rare cubs and the exchange program in which the Belgrade Zoo participates.

White lions are not albino. Their coloring is a recessive trait that results from a less potent mutation in the same gene that causes albinism. Their condition, technically referred to as leucism, is characterized by reduced production of all pigments, not just melanin (as in albinism). White tigers are so colored because of a similar mutation.

Their white or light blonde coat makes these lions quite striking and has accorded them significant spiritual importance in Africa. Although the first recorded sighting of one of these big cats was not until 1938, they are thought to be indigenous to the Timbavati region of South Africa. Zulu shamans believe these cats come from the stars and inhabit Earth to fulfill a special purpose as messengers from God.  The white lions are a sacred animal in South Africa and have come to be regarded as guardians of the land.

Sadly, the presence of the white lions in their native habitat has dwindled because of the commercial demand from zoos and circuses. In addition, the cats are often used in camps where tourists go to pay to hunt various exotic African species.

One woman is fighting to protect these remarkable cats. In 2002, Linda Tucker purchased 5,000 acres of land in Timbavati, home to several white lions, and started the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT). Today, several lion ecologists live on the property to ensure the health of the animals and discourage poaching.  This approach seems to be working, as three small prides are thriving on the WLT land.   To watch a video of the white lion cubs in Serbia, click here.   Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset   Linda-Story-2


A New Hope in the Battle Against Poaching

Besides their size, elephants are extraordinarily intelligent animals known for their memories. Their brains have an especially large hippocampus, which means they have highly developed emotion processing abilities and strong memories. Elephants also have specialized neurons, present in human brains, that give them the ability to feel empathy and even develop social awareness.

Elephant poaching has long been a serious problem, but it seems that in recent years it has worsened. In 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banned international ivory trade. This did help bring about a decline in poaching. However, a one-off sale of ivory in 2008 by the governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe sparked new demand.

Today, poachers are slaughtering entire families of elephants using technology such as sub-machine guns, night vision goggles, even helicopters. And the ivory trade has not only impacted elephant populations. It has also spawned large amounts of organized crime in Africa. 1,000 rangers have been killed over the past 10 years trying to protect these elephants.

In Sierra Leone and Senegal, elephants have already gone extinct. At the current rate of one elephant being killed every 15 minutes, there will be none left in the wild by 2025. This would be extremely damaging to the ecosystems elephants are a part of because they are a keystone species – meaning they play a critical role in keeping an ecosystem healthy relative to their biomass or abundance.

When David Sheldrick, founding warden of Tsavo East National Park and prominent naturalist, died, his wife Daphne created the David Shedrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), a group that is now working to push elephants back from the brink. The organization boasts over 150 successful releases. Young elephants orphaned by poaching come in sick, tired, and malnourished. The caring keepers at the DSWT “nursery” care for and rehab them for eventual release back into the wild. Sometimes the calves are so traumatized that they refuse to eat and cannot sleep because of nightmares.

Raising these calves is made more difficult by the fact that in the wild, calves drink their mother’s milk until they reach 2 years of age, and are not fully weaned until 4-5 years of age. Sheldrick herself had to craft a milk that the calves could stomach (they are unable to digest the fat in cow’s milk). Her secret formula, discovered after years of trial and error, includes coconut milk and human baby formula.

The calves also need emotional support and are with their keepers 24 hours a day. Keepers sleep with the young ones to feed them throughout the night. After being released into the wild, one elephant, Eleanor, recognized her keeper 37 years later. The love the elephants have for their caretakers is further evidenced by the fact that former nursery elephants bring their own calves back to show them off to the keepers. Clearly, the DSWT is doing something right.


Obama Combats Ivory Trade

Inside a government warehouse in Denver, Colorado sat six tons of illegal elephant ivory. On November 14, all of it was be crushed in the jaws of a rock-crushing machine.  President Obama insisted upon this course of action, and “the crush” was done in front of visiting foreign dignitaries, as well as TV cameras.  The hope is that the President’s dedication to ending the illegal ivory trade will inspire other world leaders to do the same, as well as send a message to illegal traffickers that the trade will soon grind to a halt.  Those six tons of ivory, however, represent only a small fraction of the ivory circulating through the back channels of the illegal market. 

One way to combat the poaching is to pass laws making the trade less profitable and increase the penalty for those guilty, and the Obama administration is beginning to do just that.  Unfortunately, elephants have already been pushed to the edge.  Every day, roughly 100 elephants are killed for their ivory, feeding the voracious $10 billion dollar industry.  With a new surge in demand, traffickers now have the means to poach elephants using more advanced methods.  In Zimbabwe, poachers killed 300 elephants using cyanide. 

Aside from the obvious detriment to elephants, some nations descending into terrorist-induced chaos also have the ivory trade to blame.  Al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that attacked the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, obtains 40% of its funds from ivory blood money.  In 2012, incumbent secretary of state Hillary Clinton became so concerned with the terrorism link that she declared wildlife trafficking a national security threat. 


Pangolins at Risk

The small, often-overlooked pangolin is being seriously threatened by the illegal trade of both its meat and scales.  Unfortunately, business at the black market is booming.  Pangolin meat has become somewhat of a status symbol of the wealthy in China and Vietnam and the scales are widely used in East-Asian traditional medicines.

Pangolins are mammals, though they have scales, and are found in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia.  When frightened, pangolins curl up and may emit a foul-smelling acid similar to that of a skunk.  These animals are often referred to as armored anteaters because of their extremely long and extendable tongues which they use to feast on ants deep inside anthills.  Their nocturnal hours and shy habit of nesting high in trees do not get them much attention.  This is changing, however, as all eight species are subject to the growing threat of poachers.

Most recently, smugglers have been apprehended in France at the Charles de Gaulle airport, carrying 110 pounds of scales worth $100,000 on their way to Vietnam.  In Vietnam, 6.2 tons of frozen pangolin cargo was pulled from an incoming ship from Indonesia.

One reason that the problem of pangolin poaching is so serious is because captive breeding is very difficult and has not yet been successful.  This means that, should the wild populations reach dangerous lows, or become wiped out entirely, there will be no undoing the damage.  Even if captive breeding programs were developed, the infrequent birthrate of pangolins would not be enough to replace the pangolins in the wild at the rate they are being killed.

Conservationist Lisa Hywood rehabilitates pangolins at her facility in Harare, Zimbabwe for eventual release into the wild. Hywood has a particular fondness for one pangolin she has been raising for 18 months, named Chaminuka, who greets her when she comes home.

It is clear that these are remarkable animals.  The only question remaining is whether we will take the initiative to save them.


Aquifers Found in Kenya Have Great Potential

Aquifers are underground permeable rocks, gravel, silt, or sand that hold freshwater. Aquifers are found at varying depths, with those closest to the surface of the Earth getting more rainfall.

In the Turkana region of Kenya, the ground appears dry and unpromising. However, test drilling has revealed the presence of several large aquifers first spotted by UNESCO using satellite images and radar.  This technology was originally being used to locate oil underground.

These massive pools of freshwater are well needed. Turkana is extremely dry and was hit by a severe drought last year.  The hope is that the freshwater will become available in one month but regional violence may make it difficult for the water to reach the people of Kenya.

It is vital that this water be used sustainably. “Over exploitation” is a danger, but with responsible usage, this water could improve many lives.

Kenya Desert

Kenya Desert