Truth Code: nature
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Σάββατο, 25 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

Credit: Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage

The two white rhinos were only 18 months old and due to return to the wild next week.

Poachers stormed into a rhino orphanage in South Africa earlier this week and killed two young rhinos, as well as brutally attacking staff and sexually assaulting one woman. A gang of poachers took staff hostage at the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal on Monday night, and hacked off the horns of two 18 month old white rhinos named Impi and Gugu. Gugu was killed instantly during the attack, but Impi survived the brutality. However, his injuries were so bad that he had to be put down the next morning. According to local media, the rhinos were due to have their horns safely removed next week in an attempt to protect them from poachers before they were released back into the wild, but evidently this came too late.

Thula Thula’s Karen Trendler told journalist Bonné de Bod in a Facebook Live video, “Is this another stage? That’s what we’ve been asking. There has been an increasing desensitisation, there has been an escalation in the violence in the poaching and the mutilation.” The rhinos at this orphanage had been taken there after their mothers were killed by poachers. In the wild, a rhino calf will often stand by its mother for days after poachers have killed her, with no food or water, until the calf is rescued by conservationists like those at Thula Thula.

Trendler described in an interview, “Impy survived a particularly brutal poaching. He stayed at his mother’s carcass for six days, moving away just a short distance to eat … because he was obviously very hungry and very thirsty. And when he came in, I still remember so clearly, sitting with this tiny little rhino who was covered in blood splatter from where they shot the mom, and he smelled terribly of carcass fluids, and … that reality hitting me — this is what rhino poaching is about, this is what these little guys go through.”
Credit: Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage
Yvette Taylor, a manager at Thula Thula and executive director of Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization told The Dodo, “The remainder of the rhino as well as Charlie our hippo orphan are doing well. They were initially very scared but have now settled back into a routine. The staff and volunteers have been absolutely amazing in keeping their focus on the care of the animals despite the trauma they have endured themselves. We have also had a vet onsite for the last 48 hours in case we need specialist care for any reason.”
Credit: Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage
Since the horrific attack, Thula Thula has received huge amounts of worldwide support, both through social media and those directly involved with conservation. This includes donations of over R400,000 ($31,242) to help them rebuild everything that the poachers destroyed, which includes all of the orphanage’s security cameras, as well as the care needed to keep all of the animals at the orphanage safe. Local reports claim that two suspects were arrested who are well known poachers from a notorious gang in the area, and were also found with a heavy-calibre hunting rifle and several rounds of ammunition. Support continues at Thula Thula as all staff members try to recover and rebuild after the attack whilst making plans for heightened security measures in the future.

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Τρίτη, 14 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

By Jessica Murray

The ocean bombing will affect the behavioral and breeding habitats of a range of marine life.

US Air Force bomb testing will disrupt the lives of hundreds of marine animals if the practice goes ahead. The testing of bombs around the waters just off the coast of Kauai, in Hawaii, could seriously affect the health of a number of different marine species that live in the area. If the tests are approved, they would begin in September 2017 and continue all the way through until August 2022. Michael Jasny, a leading expert in the law and policy of ocean noise pollution and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told The Dodo, “The Air Force has proposed dropping about 100 bombs per year, some as large as 300 pounds, on waters north of Kauai. It says it will keep whales and dolphins out of harm’s way by looking for them on the surface, but that’s no easy task in the heavy waters around the islands.”

Recent reports from The Dodo have claimed that the Long Range Strike Weapons Systems Evaluation Program would explode bombs and missiles that are being tested for military use above or just below the surface of the water. If this takes place, it could permanently deafen an estimated 36 animals, according to data on the population density of the area issued by the Air Force. Along with these statistics, a further 382 animals could also sustain temporary hearing loss due to the bomb explosions. The threat of hearing hindering is of particular concern for whales and dolphins as they navigate and communicate by sound, using their sense of hearing. Therefore the explosions could severely impact their behavioural patterns, meaning that the way that the animals breed, migrate, eat and nurse their young could all be disrupted.
An array of wildlife organisations including the NRDC, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Council for Hawaii, Earthjustice and the Ocean Mammal Institute sent a joint letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is the agency that is in charge of approving the explosion testing proposal. The letter urges the government to consider the huge impact that the bombing could have on the marine animals that live in the area, taking the animal’s safety into account. Jasny continued by commenting on alternatives that the Air Force should consider if the bombing tests cannot be entirely shut down. He said,

“At the very least, the Air Force should use the Navy’s network of hydrophones (or underwater microphones) to help detect these vulnerable species around its bomb site. And it should keep to the northern end of the training area, where the islands’ resident whales and dolphins are less likely to go. Otherwise, the Air Force would be taking unnecessary risks in one of the most remarkable spots for marine mammals on the planet.”

Although the public comment period on this proposal has now finished, the NMFS can still be contacted on the matter through this address In addition to this, you can add your name here to speak up for the animals that cannot defend themselves and risk being seriously implicated by the acts of the US Air Force.

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Τετάρτη, 8 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

It’s often argued that everything our ancestors did and said gets stored into our brains. Their experience and knowledge gets passed down from generation to generation. This may explain why we know or react to certain things without having any prior knowledge.

Kulning is an ancient herding call used in the Scandinavian region. The call is a high pitch tone that can reach long distances. The herding call sounds more like a haunting and sad melody meant to echo through mountains and alleys.

It was getting late and foggy on a magical night when Swedish artist Jonna Jinton wanted to try kulning. She wanted to find out if the animals would answer to the call their own ancestors heard when the women called them. Kulning might just be one of the most beautiful and enchanting sounds ever made.

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Δευτέρα, 6 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

Credit: Bored Panda
The Ayam Cemani is one of the most exotic and mysterious breeds of chickens in the world.

Now and again, mesmerizing and rare species of the animal kingdom present themselves. And, we’ll bet this is the first time you’ve ever beheld a completely black chicken. The unique bird, known as the Ayam Cemani, is one of the most exotic and mysterious breeds in the world, reports CemaniFarms. From the chicken’s silky feathers to her internal organs, she is completely black.

Reportedly, the effect is caused by a condition called fibromelanosis, which is a harmless genetic mutation. When the bird is in embryo, extra melanin seeps into the creature’s tissues, resulting in incredibly rare Cemani chicks.

The Cemani is from Indonesia and has inspired Javanese folklore since the 12th century. Some believe the bird’s blood is a delicacy of spirits that bring power and wealth, and even serves as a good luck charm.

One thing’s for sure, the rare chicken is a creature to marvel at!
Credit: Bored Panda

Credit: Bored Panda

Credit: Bored Panda

Credit: Bored Panda

Credit: Bored Panda

Credit: Bored Panda
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Σάββατο, 4 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

Humanity has only just begun to tap the surface about the mysteries held by the vast oceans which cover so much of this Earth. Scientists are regularly discovering new species of animals in the deep sea and experts are even uncovering the early stages of proof for lost continents and perhaps even lost civilisations. One such newly discovered continent has recently been located at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, between India and the island nation of Madagascar. It is believed that the continent once covered the ocean up to the point of the East African island of Mauritius. 


Geologists have long been fascinated with the rocks on the island of Mauritius as some of the mineral fragments uncovered there are around 3 billion years old. This is significantly older than the relatively young island which was created approximately ten million years ago as the result of extreme volcanic activity. It was speculated that these highly ancient fragments had originated in a lost continent located deep beneath the island nation. Now, these suspicions have been confirmed. 

Researchers working at the University Witwatersrand in South Africa have been using a novel imagining technique known as mass spectrometry to investigate these suspicious. They discovered that the mineral fragments had been transported to the island by travelling lava emanating from underneath the sea. This indicates that there is a continental crush beneath Mauritius. According to Professor Ashwal, the lead author on the team’s report, this continent would have once “formed part of the ancient nucleus of Madagascar and India.” 

Experts have suggested that this lost continent, which they have dubbed Mauritia, would have been an incredibly dangerous place in the past. The region would have been covered with volcanoes and would have experienced both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on a fairly regular basis. According to the researchers, it is likely that the continent was fragmented by this intense seismic activity which would have occurred in the region from the early Cretaceous period onwards.

According to Alan Collins of the University of Adelaide, more and more lost continents have been discovered in recent years, including underneath his homeland of Western Australia. “It’s only now as we explore more of the deep oceans that we’re finding all these bits of ancient continents around the place, ” he said. 

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Πέμπτη, 2 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

We’ve all heard of the 7 Natural Wonders of the world. These include the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, and Mount Everest. But to be quite honest with you, the world is so vast that I don’t think its fair to use numbers. There are wonders found in all forms of nature.

Take trees as an instance. I had no idea that the most unique and breathtaking creations of Mother Nature could be trees. People from all over the world travel to these various destinations in order to marvel at the sight of these wondrous sights.

Trust me, these trees are unlike any you’ve ever seen.

1. 125-year-old Rhododendron – Canada
This Rhododendron is one of the largest of its kind, and it’s found in Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada.

2. Japanese Maple – Oregon
Located in the Japanese Garden in Washington Park, Portland, Oregon, this Japanese Maple is vibrant and gorgeous with its display of numerous colors.

3. Wisteria Tunnel – Japan
Located in Ashikaga Flower park as well, the Wisteria Tunnel features a extensive display of the varieties of Wisteria and provides an excellent escape to “Wonderland.”

4. Baobab Trees – Madagascar
Baobab trees can grow to be nearly 100 feet tall and almost 35 feet wide. Their large trunk stores 31,700 gallons of water for use during the dry droughts in Madagascar. Baobab Avenue near Morondava, Madagascar, is widely known as the home of the world’s grandest Baobab trees.

5. Rainbow Eucalyptus – Hawaii
Found in Hawaii, New Guinea, and other tropical islands in the Northern Hemisphere, the Rainbow Eucalyptus looks like a tree that has been hand painted by talented artists. The intense colors of the tree appear when the bark sheds its outer layers. It almost looks like a kaleidoscope of colors with its irregular patterns. The unique colors include green, maroon, blue, and orange.

6. Tree of Tule – Mexico
With the largest trunk of any tree, the Tree of Tule is slightly larger than the Giant Sequoia. It’s somewhere between 1200-3000 years old, and it’s located in Oaxaca, Mexico.

7. Dragon Blood – Yemen
The Dragon Blood tree has a distinctive shape with the leaves growing from the tips of its youngest branches. Native to Yemen and the Indian Ocean, it’s called the Dragon Blood because of its vibrant red sap. This sap is used as varnish for violins, all-purpose dyes, and medicinal benefits.

8. The Leaning Trees – New Zealand
Mother Nature blows on these trees at an angle to create the “lean.” Located between the South Pole and the equator, the dramatic shape of these trees give a visual representation of the tough weather conditions in the area.

9. Avenue of Oaks – South Carolina
Planted in the 1790s, the Avenue of Oaks is a 3/4 mile long trail that features stunning oak trees.

10. The President – California
Reported by National Geographic to be the 2nd largest Giant Sequoia in the world, the President is a staggering 241 feet tall with a diameter of 27 feet. This giant redwood is found in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California.

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An circle of ice was spotted spinning in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River near North Bend, Washington, on Saturday, January 7.

The stunning winter sight was the result of water flowing around the river bend spinning a sheet of ice against the surrounding ice to create a smooth disc, according to Fox Q13 Chief Meteorologist Walter Kelley

Credit: Kaylyn Messer via Storyful

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More than 200 dolphins were recently sequestered into a tiny cove near Taiji, Japan, where the community’s infamous annual dolphin slaughter is set to take place in a matter of days.

Dolphins are one of the most well-known and beloved marine animals, which explains why they are prominently featured in zoos, aquariums, and other venues offering animal-based entertainment. Though the popularity of dolphins is based on their intelligence, playful antics, and capacity for making connections with humans, this popularity has spawned a dark side that has exposed some of nature’s most lively creatures to the worst of human behavior. The dolphins that people have come to know and love didn’t just magically appear in captivity – they were captured by force and sold to the highest bidder. Not only that, these “show” dolphins are oftentimes the sole survivors of brutal dolphin slaughters where those not deemed fit for tourism and aquatic park attractions are butchered for their meat via one of the most horrific and cruel killing techniques in use today.

The most infamous of these slaughters takes place annually near the community of Taiji in the Wakayama prefecture of Southern Japan. The event, commonly known as the Taiji dophin drive hunt, lasts for months, often from September to March and is carried out by a small, select group of local fisherman who clings to the annual carnage as an important display of “traditional fishing culture.” However, the hunt itself is a modern invention made possible only by the use of motorized boats. As the hunt begins, fishermen begin to herd small groups – known as “pods” – of dolphins into the cove. Fishermen use metal bars which bang along the sides of their boats, producing a sound that irritates and stresses the dolphins by disrupting the sonar they use to navigate and orient themselves. After being herded, the dolphins, who are often agitated, are enclosed into small pens by nets and left to calm down overnight before they are taken into captivity or butchered within the same, small holding pens in which they were originally sequestered. For most of the history of the slaughter, the kill method used involved the slitting of the dolphins’ throats, who then died due to exsanguination. However, the Japanese government banned this method and then replaced it with one even worse. Now, dolphins are killed by driving a metal pin into the dolphins’ necks, which is intended to cut the brainstem and lead to a more rapid death. However, several veterinarians and behavioral scientists evaluated the current kill method  used at Taiji and concluded that “This killing method….would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.”
Taiji Cove during a previous dolphin hunt, Credit – Dolphin Project
Now, the conservation watchdog Sea Sheperd has reported that Japanese hunters spotted a super-pod of over 200 dolphins early Friday morning. The dolphins were herded into an enclosure in the Taiji cove where a majority of them await a grisly fate. According to Sea Sheperd, “at least 200 bottlenose dolphins are spending their final live moments in the cove in Taiji, netted off and awaiting potential captivity or slaughter.” They added that “many, many juveniles and many dolphins [are] spy-hopping, displaying scared and unnatural behavior.” Considering that dolphins are scientifically recognized as sentient beings, such behavior indicates that they are well aware of the fate that awaits them. According to Sea Sheperd and other observer groups, the slaughter of this particular super-pod is set to take place at some point this weekend.

Though groups like Sea Sheperd are in attendance to monitor and expose the situation, there is little they can do for fear of arrest as a heavy police presence descends upon the cove during Taiji’s seasonal slaughter. Those who attempt to interfere with the hunt are arrested before they can get anywhere close to stopping the bloodbath as the Japanese government has been very vocal in its support of the dolphin hunts despite international outrage about the treatment of dolphins as well as the high mercury content of the butchered dolphin meat that is then marketed within Japan. Under current Japanese law, the Wakayama prefecture is allowed to annually hunt and kill up to 2,026 dolphins and porpoises, a high number designed to protect the whale and dolphin fishermen who insist that this practice is a tradition. However, as the Sea Sheperd team noted, “There are many frightened babies with their mothers. This is not tradition, this is not culture; this is cruelty, this is torture.”

This article (Hundreds Of Dolphins Trapped, Awaiting Infamous Annual Slaughter In Japan) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the author and True Activist.

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Τετάρτη, 4 Ιανουαρίου 2017

Humans have long thought themselves to be the smartest animals on the planet, but evidence continues to reveal that even with little shared DNA – animals are catching up, and perhaps even surpassing our own evolutionary intelligence.

Some philosophical perspectives suggest that this anthropomorphic egocentrism is misplaced, since all creatures, not just people have ‘mind,’ which is capable of evolving toward higher levels of consciousness. We share a quarter of our DNA, after all, with a single grain of rice, but there is something even more intelligent in our design, and many believe it permeates everything.

The Buddhists and Taoists regularly call for us to be mindful of all sentient beings, while the suppositions of panpsychism, the view that mind (psyche) is everywhere (pan), reaches back into ancient Greece and the teachings of Miletus and Plato.

Terrence McKenna supposes that the Universal psyche has been given an extra push overtime. He theorizes that animals moved to grasslands as the North African jungles receded after the ice age. These animals grazed on whatever they could find, including psilocybin-containing mushrooms growing in the dung of ungulate herds. McKenna suggests that the psychedelics in the animals’ diets helped to create synesthesia, and then language, followed by additional higher-intelligence skill sets.

McKenna argues that when mushrooms disappeared from their diets another 12, 000 years later due to climate change, animals simply regressed back to less intelligent primates.

Mainstream science says that it is only subtle refinements in our brain’s architecture that allows us to be “smarter” than most other animals. While dogs can’t yet compose music, birds do it every day. Perhaps the expression is not as complex as a violin concerto, but even the most rarefied composer has looked to nature for musical inspiration, if not immaculate intelligence.

No matter what drives our evolution, though, there is clear evidence that it is changing – obviously in people – but perhaps more subtlety in animals from a number of species.

Footage of animals learning to use tools provides evidence of this evolutionary shift happening to all of us on earth, not just the human race, but there are other indications of intelligence as well. We all seem to be awakening together.

If consciousness is truly primordial and all things are just “minds in a world of mind” it would explain some of the fascinating behaviors of animals in recent times.

Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have caught New Calendonian crows carrying two items at once using a stick – a feat normally only seen in the human race. First one crow slipped a wooden stick into a metal nut and flew away, and just a few days later another crow conducted a similar behavior, carrying a large wooden ball with a stick.

Octopuses exhibit amazing abilities, including short and long-term memory. They’ve even been known to sneak aboard fishing vessels and pry open crabs caught be fishermen – no tools needed. They are also such great escape artists, they can squeeze through openings no bigger than their eyeballs.

Scientists also have documented monkeys called Serra da Capivara capuchins making stone “tools” that bear a striking resemblance to early human implementations for digging, cutting meat, or opening nuts. The sharp rock “tools” made when the moneys bang one rock on top of another are so similar to ancient tools made by early humans, that archeologists are having to rethink giving credit to previous human civilizations.

Chimps in Bakoun, Guinea recently stunned scientists when they were found using long twigs like fishing poles, dragging the rods in water to scoop up algae that they could then eat. The footage is an affront to the notion that people are the only intelligent creatures with an ability to consciously evolve.

Even bees are exhibiting more complex behaviors. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have discovered that bumblebees can learn how to carry out complex instructions, and then pass that knowledge along to other bees in the hive.

Scientists set up an experiment with three artificial flowers containing sugar-water and attached pieces of string to each flower. They were then placed inside a clear, Plexiglas panel with just the strings poking out. Researchers were curious to see if the bees could problem-solve and get the ‘nectar’ from the fake flowers.

Out of a control group of 110 bees, only two figured out how to pull the strings to get to the nectar. They did this with no training. A second group was then ‘trained’ by gradually moving the flowers out of reach gradually. This group did much better. 23 out of 40 learned to pull the strings to get the reward.

Amazingly, when a new group of bees was introduced to the problem, 60 percent were able to pick up the new skill simply by observing the other ‘trained’ bees access the reward.

Researchers learned that the transmission of knowledge (consciousness) does not require sophisticated cognitive abilities which only humans currently have, and that many animals may have more intelligence than we have given them credit for.

So, where do we draw the line for consciousness evolution? Do we stop at vertebrates, or primates? The nervous system of insects may not be as complex as ours, with the capability of transmuting energy through the chakras as ancient martial artists and yogis have done, but even with minds totally unlike ours, it appears that all sentient beings are indeed evolving toward a grander design and expanded intelligence.

About the Author

Christina Sarich is a writer, musician, yogi, and humanitarian with an expansive repertoire. Her thousands of articles can be found all over the Internet, and her insights also appear in magazines as diverse as Weston A. PriceNexusAtlantis Rising, and the Cuyamungue Institute, among others. She was recently a featured author in the Journal, “Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and Healing Arts,” and her commentary on healing, ascension, and human potential inform a large body of the alternative news lexicon. She has been invited to appear on numerous radio shows, including Health Conspiracy Radio, Dr. Gregory Smith’s Show, and dozens more. The second edition of her book, Pharma Sutra, will be released soon.

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Τετάρτη, 28 Δεκεμβρίου 2016

Few animals in zoos are actually endangered; the rest are showcased to the public for entertainment purposes. Gaston Lacombe’s “Captive” series aims to expose this.

While the intention behind starting zoos might have been honorable, many have, unfortunately, become more similar to a car collection than an animal conservation effort.

As animal rights organization PETA has said, wildlife in captivity often “spend much of their time pacing, walking in tight circles, swaying or rolling their heads, and showing other signs of psychological distress.” Obviously, animals will always do best in the wild, roaming free in their natural setting, rather than living in poorly decorated and artificially lit living spaces.

Even the argument for conservation hits a few flat notes. Few animals in captivity are endangered, as Zoos prefer to showcase exotic species to wow the public. This is entertaining to humans, but not beneficial for the animals.

To be fair, there are beneficial organizations aiding in the conservation of endangered animals. The San Diego Zoo, for example, cares for Nola, one of the last four Northern White Rhinos in the world. Without their aid, she would likely be killed by poachers within days.

But, overall, it is the minority seeming to be investing in the well-being of the animal long-term, and this is likely why most animals in captivity live shorter lives than they do in the wild

This is exactly what photographer Gaston Lacombe sought to convey when shooting his series entitled Captive”. The pictures below expose the conditions many animals live in each day, detached from their natural origin.

Photo Credits: Credit: Gaston Lacombe
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Τρίτη, 20 Δεκεμβρίου 2016

The rare deep-sea fish made its video debut after researchers recorded the animal off the coasts of Hawaii and California.

Video observations of Hydrolagus cf trolli, the pointy-nosed blue ratfish, from the Northeast Pacific ocean represent a range extension for the species and are the first ever of this animal alive, in its natural habitat. The species was originally described from specimens collected off New Caledonia in 2002. It was named in honor of Alaskan artist Ray Troll because of his fascination and appreciation for this strange group of fishes known as chimaeras.

For more information visit:
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute:
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories:
Pacific Shark Research Center:

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Credit: Jaimen Hudson

Drone photographer captures gentle, curious interaction between endangered whales and paddle boarder.

No matter what your stance is on the increasing use of drones today, everyone can agree that drone photography can yield some pretty breathtaking results. Jaimen Hudson, a self-proclaimed “quadriplegic with a quad-copter,” is a drone photographer who specializes in taking shots over the ocean and by the beach.

The Australian-based photographer was shooting one day when he told ABC News that, “David Price, who lives close by, was just making his way over to the whales on his stand-up paddle board, and they were really inquisitive and come up to meet him.”

The whales were to Southern Right Whales, whose numbers have dwindled because of hunting. Luckily, though there are an estimated 10,000 left in the wild, these numbers are increasing recently because of the abolishment of hunting these whales.

Watch the footage below to see these beautiful, gentle giants up close and interacting with this paddle boarder. You can also follow Jaimen Hudson on Instagram to see more amazing images.
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Παρασκευή, 9 Δεκεμβρίου 2016

In peril: a male saiga antelope. BBC NHU/Chadden Hunter

Planet Earth II: why more than 200,000 saiga antelopes died in just days

On the remote steppes of central Kazakhstan, a truly extraordinary – and tragic – event unfolded in May 2015. Female saigas gathered in huge numbers to give birth on the open plain over a period of just 10 days – and a BBC camera crew and the research team they were with watched them die in their hundreds of thousands in the space of just a fortnight. The animals are captured in the latest episode of BBC nature documentary Planet Earth II.

But why did this mass death happen? By gathering like this, for as short a time as possible, the saigas swamp their main predator, wolves, with food so that each individual calf is less likely to be eaten. The calves are born large and well-developed – in fact, saigas have the largest proportional birth weight of any wild ungulate – so that they can outrun a predator within just a few days. They also need to give birth in a short time in order to coincide with the peak of lush grass before the summer heat of this harsh continental plain dries the vegetation.

An example of this incredible spectacle was filmed by another BBC camera crew for their pioneering programme about nature in the former Soviet Union, Realms of the Russian Bear, shown in 1994. The enormous herds of the time can be seen here.

But much has happened in the interim. The saiga was poached to near-extinction in the early 2000s for their horns and meat as the Soviet Union collapsed, and was listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2001.

However, by 2015, conservation work by governments, scientists and NGOs was paying dividends; overall numbers had risen from its nadir of an estimated 50,000 in the early 2000s to around 300,000 in early 2015. One central Kazakhstan population, in particular, was responsible for the vast majority of this increase – and this is where the Planet Earth II camera crew headed for their shots of the calving spectacle in 2015.

Mass mortality

They accompanied a research team organised by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, which also contained researchers from the Royal Veterinary College, intent on monitoring calving to learn more about saiga ecology.

However, the saiga’s strategy of intense birth effort, compressed in time and space, comes at a cost. This is a time of huge physiological stress for the females, making them prone to disease and birth-related mortality, and the weather is unreliable and calves often die from exposure. Most years, things go well, but the ecological history of saigas is littered with mass mortalities from disease in the calving season. In fact, the reason why the student from the Royal Veterinary College was out monitoring calves was because of a large die-off in the calving area of another population only a few years before.

But nothing prepared us, or the camera crew, for what transpired in 2015. As they gathered to give birth, an increasing number of females became weak and uncoordinated, dying in a matter of hours. Soon a vast area stretching over hundreds of kilometres was littered with corpses. The calves followed soon after; within any given aggregation of tens of thousands of animals, it appeared that every single animal died over a period of a few days.

This mass die-off was a terrible tragedy. It sparked a worldwide search for answers, some more outlandish than others – aliens were mentioned on social media a few times.

As saiga scientists, we had mixed feelings; both a sense of personal devastation for the species which we care about, and curiosity to solve a fascinating scientific puzzle. What possible mechanism was there which could kill apparently all the individuals in a herd so very quickly? This is not how infectious disease normally works; infections spread through populations over time, and apart from anything else it is not in the parasite’s interest to wipe out its entire host population.

This pointed to some non-infectious route; perhaps an environmental toxin or weather abnormality? But what kind of consistent environmental factor could affect so many animals almost simultaneously over a huge area (168,000 km²; bigger than England and Wales combined), in an environment that is naturally variable in weather and vegetation at this time of year?

Thanks to a grant from the UK government’s NERC Urgency Fund, together with generous donations from conservation charities and from individuals worldwide, we quickly got to work to form an international, interdisciplinary team to study the disease and its causes.

Led by Richard Kock at the Royal Veterinary College, with colleagues from the Kazakh government’s Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, the universities of Oxford and Bristol, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and other institutions, we include ecologists, rangeland scientists, vets and spatial modellers. We sent a team into the field to collect samples from the environment and dead and dying saigas within a week of the first individuals starting to die.

Finding the answer

On one level, we have now found the answer; the proximate cause of death was toxicity from infection by opportunistic bacteria found naturally in the animals’ respiratory tract – Pasteurella multocida. But the next question is – why did these usually harmless bacteria become virulent? What was the environmental or internal trigger, either reducing the animals’ immunity to these bacteria or triggering virulence in the bacteria, or both?

In exploring these questions, our research is a Russian doll; as we take off a layer of explanation we find more questions within. We have gone back to old field notes from the Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan for 1988 when a similar mass mortality occurred; reviewed research on mass deaths in other species; looked for differences in the vegetation composition between the 2015 die-off and in other years; and built statistical models to explore changes in temperature and rainfall over a range of different temporal and spatial scales.
We also tested tissue and environmental samples for a wide range of toxins, as well as other disease-causing agents, in case some underlying infection was involved. So far, the evidence points towards a combination of short-term but landscape-scale weather variation and physiological stress from calving causing a cascading effect of virulence. There’s no evidence for environmental toxins, other underlying infections or (as yet!) alien influence.

There has been huge public interest in this event, both within Kazakhstan and globally. People want quick answers and they want us to find solutions so that this will never happen again.

It seems, however, that we won’t be able to give the comfort that is wanted; in fact, it is likely that with climate change these types of event will become more rather than less prevalent. However, we do have one clear and strong message: resilient and abundant populations of saigas are required, with strong protection from poaching.

This is a species that lives life on the edge, vulnerable to mass death but able to recover very rapidly. But this means it needs to be in large numbers in open rangelands to survive. This massive, very public, disaster has opened up new opportunities for us as saiga researchers and conservationists to make sure the saiga gets the protection it needs to flourish and keep providing the stunning annual spectacle which drew the BBC crew to its remote steppe home in the first place.

The Conversation
EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity, University of Oxford; Eric Morgan, Reader in Veterinary Parasitology, University of Bristol, and Richard Kock, Professor of Wildlife Health and Emerging Diseases, Royal Veterinary College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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