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NEWS

Throughout the past decade, valuable strides have been made in the studies of tiger health and recovery. A major finding in tiger health research occurred in 2001, when WCS field veterinarians and molecular scientists were first to genetically characterize and discover the presence of canine distemper virus (CDV) in the rare Amur tiger (also known […]

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Throughout the past decade, valuable strides have been made in the studies of tiger health and recovery. A major finding in tiger health research occurred in 2001, when WCS field veterinarians and molecular scientists were first to genetically characterize and discover the presence of canine distemper virus (CDV) in the rare Amur tiger (also known as the Siberian tiger). Now WCS teams are expanding their studies to better understand how the disease is spread to tigers and might impact the larger population.

Canine distemper virus is the second most common cause of infectious disease death in domestic dogs, but also poses a significant threat to endangered and non-endangered wildlife around the globe. With the pressures of habitat loss, poaching, depletion of prey species, and CDV, WCS scientists and conservationists remain tireless in their efforts to combat these risk factors and protect and grow the remaining tiger population.

It is now understood that canine distemper virus tragically causes abnormal behaviors among tigers before eventually killing them. This is a distressing realization because there are likely no more than 3,500 tigers left in the wild, and all of the living subspecies are currently listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Specifically, the Amur tiger is among the most endangered cat species on the planet, with only 400-500 individuals left across their range in the Russian Far East and China.

Since the discovery of distemper among Amur tigers, WCS has participated in further studies to delve into various transmission scenarios and impact. One study involves extracting genetic information from archived tiger tissue as well as from a variety of species in their territory. These samples are being tested and compared with the intent of pinpointing the most likely sources of infection among wild tigers. This testing is crucial in understanding the risk that the virus represents to wild tigers and local communities, and in developing methods to managing this risk, such as through the design of targeted oral vaccination programs.

WCS also participated in a study which extrapolates known CDV metrics to the larger tiger population. While the illness has been shown to lead to the deaths of individual tigers, its long-term impacts on tiger populations had never before been studied. The authors evaluated impacts on the Amur tiger population in Russia’s Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Zapovednik (SABZ), where tiger numbers declined from 38 individuals to 9 in the years 2007 to 2012. In 2009 and 2010, six adult tigers died or disappeared from the reserve, and CDV was confirmed in two dead tigers—leading scientists to believe that the disease likely played a role in the overall decline of the population. Using models, scientists were able to simulate the effects of the infection on isolated tiger populations of various sizes through various transmission scenarios. The study found that smaller populations of tigers are more vulnerable to extinction by CDV. Populations consisting of 25 individuals were 1.65 times more likely to decline in the next 50 years when the distemper virus was present. This was an alarming finding given that more than half the world’s tigers in 2010 were limited to populations of less than 25 individuals.

The results are alarming, but will allow teams to plan conservation strategies that address the finding and design new conservation approaches.

While canine distemper virus has presented an additional concern in tiger repopulation efforts, WCS has seen great success in the reintroduction of orphaned and rehabilitated tiger cubs back into the wild. In the spring of 2014, five young tigers were released into the wilderness of the Russian Far East as part of WCS’s effort to recolonize lost Amur habitat.

As studies increase our knowledge of the threats facing tigers and reintroduction efforts show success there continues to be greater hope for the overall survival of the species.

NEWS

The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population. The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census—an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa […]

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The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population.

The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census—an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa in response to the current escalating wave of poaching sweeping across Africa. The census will provide an essential baseline of data that can be used to inform conservation approaches toward protecting Africa’s savannah elephants.

The Mozambique survey is taking place in October 2014 and results will be available in early 2015. WCS will use three four-seater Cessna aircraft to fly over six protected areas and three other regions. Examiners in the plane will count both live elephants and elephant carcasses to understand the rate of poaching. Other large wildlife such as zebra and buffalo will be counted within the Niassa National Reserve.

“While I am aware that this survey very likely could bring shocking news about elephant numbers in Mozambique, I know that the results are critical to providing the hard data that the Government of Mozambique and conservation partners, including WCS, need to be effective,” said Alastair Nelson, Director of the WCS Mozambique Program. “WCS thanks the Government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID for coming together to make the survey happen.”

The last national elephant count in Mozambique was done six years ago in 2008 and put the total elephant population at 22,000. Within the Niassa National Reserve, which is home to Mozambique’s largest elephant population in the remote far north of the country, more than 4,000 elephants have been killed since 2010. The last count in Niassa was in late 2011, and at that time, an estimated 12,000 elephants were living in the reserve.

There is ample evidence to show that the continent-wide elephant poaching crisis is primarily affecting Mozambique. It is estimated that 100,000 elephants have been killed across Africa in the last three years alone, primarily by organized criminal networks that are also negatively impacting the security, governance, and development potential of local communities and African nations. Niassa Reserve has not been spared—one to two elephants are killed each day at the hands of these criminals, who enter the reserve armed with hunting rifles and AK-47s.

In western Mozambique, poachers are poisoning waterholes to kill elephants, a tactic which also kills all other wildlife. This is the same devastating practice that has been reported from neighboring Zimbabwe.

“We need this survey to count the live elephants and the carcasses,” said Nelson. “This information will help us know the actual population numbers, and where the elephants are getting hammered. Other information, such as the ratios of carcasses to live animals, of males to females, and of adults to juveniles will help us to understand what is happening in each elephant population. This will allow the Mozambican Government, WCS, and other conservation partners, to allocate our scarce resources for maximum impact. This, and other recent action, is the start of turning things around in Mozambique.”

By the end of 2014, the Great Elephant Census will have surveyed elephants in 18 countries, covering more than 80 percent of the savannah elephant range with the aim of counting 90 percent of Africa savannah elephants.

Altogether 50 scientists will complete thousands of aerial transects over 600,000 kilometers. In addition to the Wildlife Conservation Society, many African governments, the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, African Parks, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Elephants Without Borders, and Save the Elephants are participating in the survey. Survey teams will also explore how new technologies can improve on current aerial survey methods and allow for enhanced data gathering.