The World Wildlife Fund recently publicized a Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature survey of the hippopotamus population in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That survey estimates that the hippo population has declined from a high of 29,000 in the early 1970s to only about 1,300 specimens today.
Of course the Democratic Republic of Congo has been racked by war and corrupt governance during much of that period, so it is hardly surprising that poachers and others have been killing hippos with impunity. What is genuinely surprising is the perverse effect that the ban on the trade in ivory has had on hippo populations. According to New Scientist,
In recent years, hippo meat has become a delicacy in parts of central Africa. Furthermore, the present worldwide ban on the trade in elephant ivory has meant hippo teeth, which can grow to 60 centimeters or more long, have become a valuable substitute.
This switch is darkly ironic, because hippos are now much rarer than African elephants. The global hippo population is now estimated at about 150,000, but there are more than half a million African elephants.
African nations where elephants are plentiful have repeatedly petitioned for a resumption of the world ivory trade (limited lifting of the ban, usually to sell pre-ban ivory stocks, has taken place occasionally since 1989).
Poaching causes hippo population crash. NewScientist.Com, August 29, 2003.
Poachers will wipe out hippos in Congo, WWF warns. Reuters, August 28, 2003.
Researchers at the Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts took a giant leap toward one of the hallmarks of science fiction depictions of genetic engineering by producing two clones from cells of a banteng that had died years earlier.
Back in the late 1970s the San Diego Zoo began preserving cell and genetic material from animals. Tissue samples from animals were stored within plastic vials and then preserved in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Centigrade.
One of the animals that they took tissue samples from was the banteng, a wild species of cow of which there are believed to be only 8,000 individuals in existence, and most of those at a single place — the island of Java.
The San Diego Zoo sent tissues samples from the banteng to Advanced Cell Technology which fused the genetic material from the skin of the banteng into cow eggs that had already had their own genetic material removed. Another company, Trans Ova Genetics, then implanted 30 such eggs into cows. Of the 30 implanted eggs, only two resulted in live births, and one of those animals had to be euthanized shortly after it was born.
The second animal appears to be thriving, however, and at least provides a proof of concept that this sort of thing is possible. ACT had previously used much the same procedure to clone a wild ox a few years ago, but the only live birth from that experiment died only two days later. Italian researchers in 2001 reported they had cloned an endangered wild sheep.
The major question left now is assuming the cloned banteng survives to the breeding age of six, will he be able to mate and produce offspring.
Oliver Ryder, a geneticist with the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, told Reuters that, “The fact that it can happen at all just astounds me. . . . At the time we did not know how this resource might be used, but we knew it was important to save as much information about endangered species as we could.”
Conservationists had mixed feelings about the success of the experiment, with some lamenting that it wouldn’t do much good to clone banteng if their natural habitat were not preserved as well. Karen Baragona of the World Wildlife Fund told CBS News,
If you don’t deal with protecting habitat and dealing with the root causes of endangerment, it doesn’t matter how many animals you’re able to produce in a lab and try to sort of fling back into the wild, they’re going to face the same fate as their wild counterparts.
Scientists clone long-dead animal. CBS News, April 8, 2003.
Endangered animal clone produced. The BBC, April 9, 2003.
The World Wildlife Fund has been getting a lot of grief from the usual suspects of late over its support over a Canadian plan to kill about a million seals over the next three years.
In 1970 there were only about 1.8 million harp seals in the North Atlantic, but today there are believed to be around 5.2 million. Saying that the seal population is now healthy, Canada authorized an expansion of seal hunting.
Hunters will be allowed to kill a total of 975,000 seals over the next three years, with a maximum in any given year of 350,000 seals. The Canadian government argues that the seal cull helps protect fish stocks as well as provide jobs.
But the announcement angered animal rights activists such as Brigitte Bardot (and when you’ve got a has-been actress opposing you, your options are really limited). Bardot wrote a letter to the World Wildlife Fund, which supports the plan, saying,
How can an organization that you preside over and that has no need to prove its reputation in the domain of the conservation of species anymore, defend such a scandalous position.
. . .
I have often supported WWF, given my image to some of its programmes, and I feel betrayed, it has attacked my most symbolic battle.
Similarly, the International Fund for Animal Welfare complained that the Canadian government planned to “devastate seal populations.” An IFAW press release quoted its president, Fred O’Regan, as saying,
The Canadian government has just returned to the 1800s in terms of animal welfare and conservation. Their decision raises a host of questions: Where is the scientific justification for killing so many seals? How will the government safeguard a much larger hunt against cruelty? Where are the markets for the pelts?
Meanwhile the World Wildlife Fund – Canada responded to criticism by saying that although it disagrees with the Canadian government’s position that seals are endangering fish stocks,
As long as the commercial hunt for harp seals off the coast of Canada is of no threat to the population of over 5 million harp seals, there is no biological reason for WWF-Canada to reconsider its current priorities and actively oppose the annual harvest of harp seals.
We were in contact with Canadian government officials before they set the new quota. Our ongoing conservation concern has been that the commercial hunt for harp seals should never endanger the population. We believe harp seals should thrive in the Atlantic Ocean around the Canadian coast, now and in the future.
Bardot slams WWF over seal cull. AAP, March 18, 2003.
Canada expands seal cull as environmentalists fume. Reuters, February 4, 2003.
Canada to Unveil Massive Seal Cull Plan. Press Release, International Fund for Animal Welfare, January 28, 2003.