Return of the Neanderthals?

I know that my blog usually focuses on the endangerment and conservation of animals.  However, I think that the debate of brining back extinct species is a highly interesting and controversial one.  A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled ‘Should we bring extinct species back to life?’, which dealt with the possibility of de-extinction, and the consequences of resurrecting certain species.  This post is my follow up piece to it, which looks at scientists seeking to clone the ancient hominid species, the Neanderthal.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.  Image courtesy of National Geographic

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female. Image courtesy of National Geographic

At the moment, the Neaderthal genome is sitting as an abstract sting of billions of DNA letters in computer databases.  Scientists could possibly use this genetic blueprint to recreate a Neanderthal in the flesh.  In a relatively near future, developments in genetic engineering may just enable this advancement.  However, the major question is whether this resurrection should take place.

Since the world’s first cloned mammal (Dolly the sheep) in 1996, scientists have greatly improved and expanded cloning techniques.  In 2003, researchers brought an extinct species back to life – the bucardo, a type of wild mountain goat, however, the clone did not live longer than 10 minutes.

The process of cloning relies on a technique called nuclear transfer, which must start with an intact cell (either fresh or frozen) of that animal that would be possibly cloned.  There are, however, no intact Neanderthal cells.  In order to decode the Neanderthal genome, scientists had to piece many DNA fragments together, which were painstakingly extracted from 40 000 year old bones.  We still, however, do not know if cloning would actually be possible.

George Church, a Harvard geneticist, has proposed an alternative approach for cloning extinct animals where their genome has been sequenced.  It must start with a healthy cell of a species that is closely related.  Cloning a Neanderthal could possibly start with a stem cell from a modern human.  Through genetic engineering, scientists could make adjustments to a human cell’s DNA, so that  it would match the code of the Neanderthal.

A female Neanderthal reconstruction based on both DNA and fossil anatomy.  Image courtesy of National Geographic

A female Neanderthal reconstruction based on both DNA and fossil anatomy. Image courtesy of National Geographic

This is far from an easy task.  In the genome, there are millions of spots that are different between Neanderthals and modern humans.  Church describes a new technique called CRISPR which allows multiple sites to be edited in the genome at the same time.  This is a major step forward for genome engineering of mammalian cells.

Although the techniques are still too unsophisticated and expensive to actually recreate the Neanderthal genome, the idea could still be plausible.

If a human cell could actually be turned into a Neanderthal cell, it would then have to be implanted into a surrogate mother’s womb – either a chimp or a woman, which would then develop into a fetus.  This too would be a very challenging step, and it is known from previous cloning experiences to have a very high failure rate.  For example, with regard to the cloning of the bucardo: scientists created 439 eggs of the bucardo’s nuclei, whilst only 57 developed into embryos, 5 survived the full pregnancy term, but only one was born.  This failure rate could have a heavy physical, and emotional, toll on human surrogates.

Even if the clone did indeed survive, there are heavy and complicated issues of raising a Neanderthal.  Neanderthals were similar to humans in some ways; they created art, used tools and seemed likely to have the mental capacity for abstract thinking and language.  However, they were also very different.  They were extinct before the agricultural revolution, making it very unlikely for them to easily stomach our modern diets – heavy in diary and grains.  Their physical appearance is also very different: they were robust, short and stocky, with strong muscles and big heads.  A Neanderthal child could be far stronger than modern people, as well as being intellectually disabled.  Church points out that these ethical issues are crucial when considering any cloning project.

Some scientists are wondering and arguing if there is any valid scientific reason to bring this species back.   The environment and development, as well as the educational environment and cognitive stimuli surrounding anyone born now days would be completely different from one born into a Paleolithic environment.  Instead of bringing back a complete Neanderthal, some argue that it would be more useful and ethically correct to focus on creating only a few of its cells.  This could uncover biological differences between modern humans and Neanderthals, and allow anthropologists an improved understanding in the two species’ divergent evolutionary histories.

An image taken at a farm near El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain where Neanderthal fossils were found.  This demonstrates how a modern human woman compares with a Neanderthal woman.  Imagine courtesy of National Geographic newswatch

An image taken at a farm near El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain where Neanderthal fossils were found. This demonstrates how a modern human woman compares with a Neanderthal woman. Imagine courtesy of National Geographic News Watch

Neanderthal bones were found in a Croatian cave with pieces of viable genetic material – in 2010 these bones were scoured and scientists released the first draft of the neanderthal genome.  It revealed, among other things, that Neanderthals had actually interbred with ancestors of the modern humans.  This information rocked the field of anthropology.  It is very plausible that the Neanderthal biology could actually show us something about the issues and diseases that humans are facing now.  Knowledge of the evolutionary process could possibly guide us towards possible treatments.  You could possibly take a human immune cell, and alter it to be more Neanderthal-like, and see whether it would have the same kind of capacity in responding to pathogens. For example, modern humans carry genetic mutations that are linked to celiac and autoimmune diseases, which Neanderthals did not carry.Neanderthals had strong muscles and dense bones; adjusting the human biology to make it more Neanderthal-like may be able to treat muscle wasting and osteoporosis.  Comparing human and Neanderthal cells could even assist researchers in fighting modern ailments.

However, for the time being, the technology for researching the Neanderthal biology remains far our of reach.  Although, it could only be a matter of time…

Is legalizing the trade in rhino horn the solution to poaching?

There are a number of conservationists and independent rhino farmers lobbying for the international ban on rhino horn trading to be removed, and for a legal market to be created.  The South African government is currently considering this option, and could put forward a proposal at the 2016 Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  This would allow for the legal sale of rhino horns.  However, the support of two-thirds majority from the 178 member states of CITES would be required.

Poachers killed 688 rhinos in South Africa last year.  This was mainly in the Kruger National Park, where the largest population of white rhinos is housed.  In April 2013, the government released a press statement indicating that 203 rhinos had been killed since the start of the year.  Poaching numbers in South Africa have just about doubled each year for the past five years.  According to scientists, if poaching continues to accelerate, all of Africa’s rhinos in the wild will be extinct in about 20 years.

Rhino horn is worth more than gold on the black market, which places rhinos in the centre of a bloody poaching war.  (Image courtesy of Brent Stirton/ National Geographic)

Rhino horn is worth more than gold on the black market, which places rhinos in the centre of a bloody poaching war. (Image courtesy of Brent Stirton/ National Geographic)

Rhino poaching is widely known to be a major problem in South Africa.  There have been proposals to lift the ban since 1977, igniting debate concerning whether a legal market would actually reduce poaching.    It is difficult to draw a definite conclusion about the type of outcomes a legal market would evoke. Chris Galliers, the Biodiversity Programme Manager of WESSA Rhino Conservation said, “There may be pros and cons to legalizing the trade, and perhaps it may not be a case of whether to trade or not, but how to trade.”

Advocates look to a legal market as the solution to poaching.  A tightly controlled and regulated market could lend support to the persistent Asian demand, and, if it is effectively administered, provide a cheaper, wiser and more reliable option rather than trading in the black market with criminal cartels.  This would attract buyers to the legal trade, and hopefully terminate the illegal market.  However, as Galliers points out, there may not be an efficient enough mechanism which could effectively distinguish between a legally traded horn and an illegal one – “will this not end up ‘legalizing’ illegal rhino horn stocks?”

Advocates propose that, in order for a legal market to be effective, there must be an independent body that would act as a central selling organization.  This organization would report to CITES and control the selling of rhino horns to registered buyers.  A percentage of the income from sales would go towards conservation efforts and strengthening initiatives against poaching.  Galliers said, “Currently the hunting of rhinos may offer the most controllable opportunity for the trade in rhino horn as a trophy rather than for use.”  Perhaps a legal market could also prove to be more humane to rhinos, due to the fact that rhino horn is made of keratin, which is also found in human hair.  Keratin will grow back after being cut.  A minimal risk to the rhinos would be sedating them and shaving off their horns, opposed to hundreds of rhinos being slaughtered for their horns, and then left to die.

Opponents of a legal market argue that lifting the ban would stimulate black market trade that is already booming in parts of Asia.  Rhino horn is sold for 65 000 dollars per kilogram, this is more than its weight in gold or cocaine.  Galliers explains how it is unlikely for poachers to halt their trade in accordance to the creation of a legal market: “Will the current poacher give up ‘free’ access to a resource he currently enjoys?  The black market trade and all those involved will do their best to remain ‘employed’ in this lucrative business – they are acting illegally, and so who says that if trade is opened that they will come out and expose themselves?”  Of course criminal syndicates could still arrange ways around the legal market.  They could do this even through simple marketing strategies, as Galliers demonstrates: “Illegal traders may shift market preference as we have seen with other wildlife products, for example, they market the fact that wild rhino horns have great medicinal properties and therefore more value than farmed ones.”

There are a number of conservation groups opposing a legal market.  They believe that legislation would pump demand for rhino horn to a point which the market would be unable to sustain.  Criminals markets would then flourish parallel to the legal one, as is the case with abalone in South Africa being severely threatened due to poaching.  Galliers points out that creating a legal market could be both detrimental and beneficial, and we cannot say for certain.  We still do not fully understand the illegal trade.  Galliers reiterates how there is a lack of accurate information regarding the nature and the scale of the demand.  “Can supply meet demand? Will we not be fueling a demand that we will never be able to meet?  We need to be targeting the reduction of demand and breaking down the myths associated with the use of rhino horn.”

A ranger holds a rhino horn that was taken from a dead rhino shot by poachers in Kenya.  In Vietnam, a rhino horn is believed to have curative powers, and is sold for up to $65 000 dollars on the black market.  (Image courtesy of Roberto Schmidt/APG/Getty Images)

A ranger holds a rhino horn that was taken from a dead rhino shot by poachers in Kenya. In Vietnam, a rhino horn is believed to have curative powers, and is sold for up to $65 000 dollars on the black market. (Image courtesy of Roberto Schmidt/APG/Getty Images)

An example of an effective legal market of animal parts, which also encouraged conservation, would be the trade of crocodile skins.  During the 1980s, this trade allowed a shift toward sustainable crocodile ranching, opposed to wild crocodiles being slaughtered.  However, the example of ivory is a very different case.  In 2008, China had legally bought ivory from stockpiles from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.  However, there was a significant spike in illegal ivory sales in China after this.  The Chinese government purchased ivory for 157 dollars per kilogram, but sold it for no less than 1500 dollars per kilogram.  Then there were retailers that traded ivory products for about 7000 dollars, according to an Environmental Investigation Agency report.  This same report states that up to 90% of ivory entering the market in China is illegal.   Illegal ivory is now cheaper than legal ivory, which has led to the greatest surge in poaching since it was banned in 1989.  In dealing with the possibility of legalizing the trade in rhino horn, Galliers has pointed out: “We need to learn lessons from the disastrous sale of ivory.”

Opponents of the legal trade are concerned that governments would be unable to effectively provide police support for the rhino horn market, and argue that corruption is very likely to be a problem.  Police arrested four South African National Parks officials last year, as they were connected with rhino poaching.  There is an obvious need for government to be offering more protection against rhino poaching.  Galliers points out a need for a less fragmented and more efficient approach to fight poaching, with increased investment into the acquisition. There must be access to more reliable information, as well as a selective process of people who are “employed with the right qualifications, skills and attributes for their job”.  Galliers also highlights the need for an increased capacity to deal with the situation, “from field rangers through to forensic specialists”.  There must also be an improved judicial system, “where rhino poaching is elevated in significance in terms of prosecution time and sentences.”  There must also be a greater political will to end rhino poaching.  Galliers explains how there must be greater pressure from international and diplomatic levels; he uses putting pressure on Mozambique and demand states as an example.  There should be a well run and accurate database of rhinos in South Africa, as well as improved education and awareness.  Galliers said, “Government needs to play their role at every level, as they hold the key to making the biggest difference.  However, this does not mean that civil society should not shoulder some responsibility as well.”

Legalizing the trade of rhino horn is indeed a highly controversial conservationist issue.  We may not know exactly what the demand for rhino horn really is, and we do not know how opening a legal market for rhino horn would affect this demand.  However, we know that if the door to a legal market is opened, it would be impossible to close that door if need be.

Government must take more effective action against rhino poaching, however, rhino poaching is a major issue that civil society should be aware about.  (Image courtesy of James P. Blair/ National Geographic)

Government must take more effective action against rhino poaching, however, rhino poaching is a major issue that civil society should be aware about. (Image courtesy of James P. Blair/ National Geographic)

Sharing 96.4% of human genes and Critically Endangered: the Orangutan

Orangutans are known to be highly intelligent creatures – they share 96.4% of human genes.  Orangutans, with their distinctive red fur, are the largest arboreal mammal and spend most of their time in trees.  Orangutans play a crucial role in seed dispersal in their tropical forests.  They have a very low reproduction rate, which makes their populations extremely vulnerable.  Females give birth to one baby at a time every 3 to 5 years.  Therefore their species take a very long time to regenerate after population declines.  As human pressures continue to increase, orangutans face an increasing threat of extinction.

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A baby orangutan. Photograph courtesy of http://www.orangutan.org

“Orangutan” means “man of the forest” in the Malay language.  They live solitary existences in lowland forests.  There are two species of orangutan: the Sumatran and the Bornean.  The two species differ slightly in behaviour and appearance, with both having shaggy red fur, but the Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair, and Borneans reportedly have closer social bonds.  Both these species have experienced dramatic population declines.  There were over 230 000 orangutans in the world a century ago, but today the number of Bornean orangutans is estimated to be at about 41 000 (enlisted as Endangered), and the Sumatran orangutans at about 7 5000 (enlisted as Critically Endangered).

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The highly intelligent, piercing eyes of an orangutan. Photograph courtesy of http://www.orangutan.org

The orangutan is Asia’s only great ape.  Their habitats are rapidly disappearing in order to make way for agricultural plantations, such as oil palm plantations.  Deforestation is also a huge problem: there is illegal logging within protected areas, and unsustainable logging in orangutan habitats, which are major threats to their survival.  Today, over 50% of orangutans live in forests outside of the protected areas, where the forests are managed by palm oil, mining and timber companies.

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Deforestation in Borea, what is left of an orangutan habitat. Photograph courtesy of http://www.commercialpressuresonland.org.

Unfortunately, orangutans are large and slow targets, which makes them easy targets for hunters.  They are hunted for food, or they are killed when they enter into agricultural areas and destroy crops, which often occurs when orangutans cannot find sufficient food in the forest.  Females are more frequently hunted.  When a female is caught with offspring, the babies are often kept as pets, and the pet trade is a huge problem.  For each orangutan that enters Taiwan, it is thought that as many as 3-5 additional individuals die in the process.  There have been recent enforcements in the Taiwan law, which has reduced the importation of orangutans.  However, the trade continues to be a threat in Indonesia where there is still a large demand for orangutans as pets.  There is also trade in orangutan skulls in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

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A baby orangutan – many of which are traded illegally on the pet trade. Photograph courtesy of http://www.orangutan.org

Efforts towards orangutan conservation include conserving and protecting orangutan habitat, promoting sustainable agriculture and forestry, anti-poaching, and ending the illegal pet trade.  WWF does work in Sumatra and Borneo to secure wider forest landscapes and to secure well-managed protected areas in order to connect sub-populations of orangutans.  Orangutan populations are monitored, and there is also work done on ecotourism and providing community based support for orangutan conservation.

This video is from http://www.orangutan.org.  It shares important, insightful information about orangutans, their major threats, and conservation work.

An emergency meeting to deal with elephant massacres in Chad and Cameroon

Central African governments have met to collaborate and conduct an emergency plan to stop the mass elephant killings.  This is in the aftermath of the biggest episode of elephant poaching in 2013.  However, does the meeting not mark an effort that is just too little, and too late?

On the 14th and 15th of March, at least 86 elephants were slaughtered in Chad, near the Cameroon border.  This included over 30 pregnant females.  Even more sickeningly, the calves were then shot, or just left to die.

This image reveals the elephant carcasses that were left after the shocking and sickening massacre of March 14- 15.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This image reveals the elephant carcasses that were left after the shocking and sickening massacre of March 14- 15. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This massacre, whether incidentally or accidentally, took pace during the closing hours of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference meeting, where elephants were high up on the agenda.  This massacre occurred just weeks after 28 elephant carcasses, with all their ivory tusks removed, were discovered in the Lobeke and Nki National Parks of Cameroon.  There were also at least 15 carcasses in four different locations across the Central African Republic.  These massacres all followed a number of reports of Sudanese poachers that were crossing over CAR and heading towards Chad and Cameroon.  Both the governments of Chad and Cameroon responded to this warning, but neither could find and stop the poaching gangs.

This crisis was acknowledged and a three-day emergency meeting on the poaching of elephants was held Yaounde, Cameroon from March 21 to 23.  The Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) organized the meeting.  The meeting’s participants were made up of ministers of foreign affairs, defense and wildlife protection, it also included representatives from organizations such as the SOS Elephants and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as representatives from the United Nations Development Program.

The final declaration realised that national initiatives taken to combat illegal trafficking and poaching had failed.  It emphasized that countries involved in the ivory supply chain (whether in origin, transit, or destination) need to coordinate efforts so to stop the transnational, organized crime networks operating throughout the region.  The plan was adopted in extreme urgency to combat poaching.  It includes: the mobilization of military forces in Cameroon and Chad to support the anti-poaching brigades; the exchange of intelligence regarding the movement of the poachers; a mechanism for inter-state coordination and the initiation of national coordination units; an implementation of a tripartite agreement that allows for the intervention of multi-country brigades; and criminalizing poaching and the illegal ivory trade, so that penalties equal those of organized transnational crimes.

This is inside the CEEAC emergency meeting.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This is inside the CEEAC emergency meeting. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

Internationally, penalties for wildlife crimes are known to be especially low.  For example, in Ireland on March 19, two rhino horn dealers were each fined $650 for smuggling eight rhinos.  The horns themselves were valued at $650 000 on the black market.

This CEEAC meeting plan realises and acts for the larger actions taken against elephant poaching, namely: the need for transnational, coordinated efforts, the need to treat elephant and other wildlife killing and the illegal trade in ivory and other wildlife parts as severe crimes; and a call for effective enforcement through prosecutions, harsher penalties, and advanced operational techniques to curb the illicit trade.

There is still a need in financing the implementation of the CEEAC emergency plan, as well as for longer-term actions.  A $2.3 million budget and timetable of actions were laid out, however, there is still an unclear status of financial commitments.  The final declaration of the meeting was for a call for the global community and other partners to come forward and offer money.

There is still lingering political instability in the CAR.  Very recently, rebels seized the capital and President Francois Bozize` fled the country.  This turmoil implies that poachers would be able to continue to roam the CAR with freedom and a sense of immunity.

There have been sightings of the Sudanese poachers from the air and from the ground.  The poachers seem to have broken into smaller groups of 10 to 15 members each, and are widely dispersed.  However, the exact locations and particular movements of the poachers in Cameroon and Chad are unconfirmed, and the reports do not seem to be entirely accurate.  The Chadian troops have already been pursuing poachers.  The Chadian President has deployed a many troops to hunt the poachers, and is determined to catch them before they leave Chadian territory.  There has been a violent and vehement exchange of gunfire between the regular army in Loumobogo, near the CAR, and groups of poachers.  The authorities have seized 30 tusks, and Chad is reportedly ready to declare a total war on the poachers.

These are brave troops of the Chadian anti-poaching forces.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

These are brave troops of the Chadian anti-poaching forces. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

Tens of thousands of elephants have become the victims to a storm of high ivory prices that are driven by a soaring Chinese demand.  The elephants are left to be even more vulnerable due to the low risk of traffickers getting caught, and menial penalties for those who are caught.  There is also a lack of priority at local and political levels to act seriously enough against elephant poaching.  Chad is encouragingly actively pursuing the poachers, however, the situation in the CAR and Cameroon remains less clear.  The bottom line remains as the Sudanese poachers still out there, and still relentlessly and ruthlessly hunting.

This picture was taken in the Zakouma National Park, which was once home to 150 000 elephants.  Today only 550 remain.  Image courtesy of www.nytstore.com

This picture was taken in the Zakouma National Park, which was once home to 150 000 elephants. Today only 550 remain. Image courtesy of http://www.nytstore.com

The face of Climate Change: the Polar bear

Classified as marine mammals, Polar bears spend most of their lives on the Atlantic Ocean’s sea ice.  Polar bears spend over 50% of their time hunting for food, however only 2% of their hunts are successful.  The biggest threat to the survival of Polar bears is the loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change.  Other important threats include over-harvesting, industrial impacts and human-polar bear conflicts.

Photo courtesy of WWF

Photo courtesy of WWF

The latest data from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group shows that Polar Bears face a high estimated risk of future decline, because of climate change.  Climate change leads to the ongoing loss of sea-ice habitat, which resulted in Polar Bears being enlisted as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008.  Polar bears play a very important role in the overall health of the marine environments, as they are at the top of the food chain.  Their existence depends upon sea ice: they are then directly impacted by climate change. Polar bears therefore serve as an important indicator species.

Climate change forces polar bears to spend much more time onshore.  They then come into contact more regularly with Arctic communities.  Unfortunately, these interactions usually end in polar bear- human conflicts and sometimes end badly for both the bears and the humans.

Photo courtesy of news.sciencemag.org

Photo courtesy of news.sciencemag.org

In the Arctic, most industrial development has only been on fairly small pieces of land.  A new ocean is emerging with the retreating of the summer sea ice, this allows for more opportunities of industrial development at sea and on larger sections of land.  However, the retreating sea ice causes polar bears to spend longer periods on land for denning.  This all places industrial activities and polar bears on a potential collision course.  Offshore petroleum operations and installations are predicted to increase in number.  It is highly likely that this will affect polar bears and their habitats in several ways.  This includes polar bears coming into contact with spilled oil (which would be fatal), an oil spill affecting the entire food chain, and there would be disturbance from noise generated from onshore and offshore oil operations.  An increase in Arctic shipping would also represent a threat to polar bears.  If traffic by oil tankers, cargo ships and barges increase in Arctic waters, so would the risk of oil spills and human disturbance increase.

Climate change poses the biggest threat to polar bears.  Polar bears rely on the sea ice, on which they can rest, breed and hunt seals.  The shorter sea ice season has reduced the length of time the bears can hunt for their prey.  Polar bears end up spending the summer without enough feeding, so they have to rely on fat stores from the previous summer in order to survive.  Many polar bears face malnutrition and possible starvation, particularly females with cubs.

Photo courtesy of DS World's Lands

Photo courtesy of DS World’s Lands

In order to effectively address and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears, there must be a strong global response to address the challenges of global warming.  WWF has successful instigated the creation of a global management plan for polar bears.  For more information about what WWF is doing, please click Here.

Many Arctic areas have effective polar bear monitoring and management plans.  However, unsustainable hunting still seems to be happening in some places.  Scientists are presently monitoring the movement and weight of polar bears in the Arctic.  They are working towards understanding the impact of different threats, such as the expansion of Arctic industry and climate change, and the effects that they have on different polar bear populations.  By tracking polar bears, scientists are able to map their range and observe how habitat may change over time concurrent to changes in sea ice, and therefore examine how polar bears change and adapt to this.

It must be ensured that whatever industrial development takes place in the Arctic is sustainable, and that it does not further damage ecosystems and wildlife populations.  Fortunately, there is collaboration between conservationists, scientists and local people in opposing gas and oil development in regions that are too ecologically vulnerable to be exposed to possible spill risks.  There is also work in preparing Arctic sensitivity maps, to help maritime vessels stay clear of ecologically vulnerable places.

Photo courtesy of DS World's Lands

Photo courtesy of DS World’s Lands

This video shows the Umky Patrol: Sharing knowledge about polar bears across the Arctic.

SA and Vietnam sign a deal against rhino poaching

This is a university assignment which involved analyzing three articles with topics that were high on the news agenda.  I chose to look at South Africa and Vietnam meeting to sign a deal which hopes to diminish the poaching of rhinos in South Africa.

Rhino poaching has been named South Africa’s top newsmaker for 2012.  The media has depicted Vietnam to be the main culprit in the slaughter of hundreds of these endangered species, because rhino horns are illegally traded for use in traditional Asian remedies.  The three articles, which this essay seeks to analyze, deals with the memorandum of understanding that was signed between Vietnam and South Africa.  This memorandum deals with efforts to diminish rhino poaching in South Africa.  This topic made major headlines, both nationally and internationally.

Article One: “Vietnam signs rhino-poaching pact with SA”

This article appeared on the IOL website on December 12, 2012.  IOL, or Independent Online news, is a news and information website based in South Africa, and reports on breaking news from across the country.  Independent Newspapers runs the IOL website, and controls several newspapers including The Cape Argus, The Star and The Cape Times; all included on the IOL website.  This is an example of synergy, where different parts of the same organisation collaborate in order to enlarge profit (Wasserman and Botman, 2008: 6).  However, this Independent Newspapers banner poses a problem for South African media, because it is able to monopolize the market by owning a number of newspapers.  This diminishes the opportunity for a broad range of opinion and news stories to circulate in the media, as each newsagent is expected to support the principle values of the monopoly that controls them.  Therefore, it raises the question of the possibility of a news source to be entirely objective (Boudana 2011: 385).

The article’s opening line reads as follows: “With SA having lost 618 rhinos so far this year, it is hoped that the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam could stem the poaching.”  This immediately places a large amount of blame and responsibility on Vietnam, as if Vietnam is the primary villain in rhino poaching.  Even if this is truthful, the audience is reading about Vietnam painted as the sole cause for the rhino deaths in South Africa.

South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, is importantly portrayed and seems to take an active, crucial role in the anti-poaching actions in South Africa.  However, the Vietnamese farms minister Dr Cao Duc Phat, the Vietnamese “counterpart” who signed the agreement, is not quoted at all.  The audience is unaware of his opinion, or of his stance in dealing with anti-poaching.  The only information we have from the Vietnam side is that of a spokesman stating the farms minister has proposed a ban on the import of all rhino specimens.  A quote in the article states: “demand in Vietnam is believed to be driving ‘the rapacious illegal trade in rhino horn'”.  The article also includes information of a “booming market” for luxury products and conspicuous consumption in Vietnam.  Agenda setting is the process regarding the angle at which issues are reported, or the issues that are portrayed as being the most important (Scheufele and Tewsbury, 2007: 297).  In this article, the news source has placed the issue of rhino poaching, and Vietnam’s role in this, on the media agenda.  This is indicative of priming, which is the effect that agenda setting has on audience perspective on topics that the media presents.  The audience will develop ‘activation tags’ effecting how the information is processed (Scheufele and Tewsbury, 2007: 298).  The audience will rely on previous activation tags about rhino poaching, which has been very prominent in South African news in recent years.

How the story is organised, and the meanings that are imagined around it, is how the story is framed (Scheufele and Tewsbury, 2007: 306).  There are media frames and audience frames.  How the journalist frames the article is the media frame, and how the audience processes the received information is the audience frame (Scheufele and Tewsbury, 2007: 306).  This article is obviously not told from a personal or intimate account, yet it is quite emotional in its portrayal of the rhinos being poached and slaughtered.  Vietnam is portrayed as being rather relentless and ruthless in its consumption.  The diction includes ‘rapacious’, ‘illegal’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘conspicuous consumption’, ‘criminal syndicates’, ‘end-use market’, ‘tarnishing’, and ‘unmitigated tragedy’.  This all frames Vietnam’s role in rhino poaching in South Africa in a very specific manner, and guarantees the audience framing the ordeal in a very particular manner.

Article Two: “South Africa signs rhino deal in Vietnam”

This article appeared in the Mail and Guardian on December 10, 2012.   The Mail and Guardian is an important and trusted South African newspaper.  This article reads very similarly to the IOL news article.  A large focus is again placed on Edna Molewa.  It highlights her hope for both countries to come together and work towards a memorandum.  The opening line reads; “Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs, has finally signed a memorandum with her counterpart in Vietnam.”  The use of the word “finally” suggests that there has been some kind of a delay or postponement in the action against rhino poaching.  It is unclear whether the blame is placed upon South Africa or Vietnam, until further on in the article where it explains how Molewa had tried other attempts that were “turned down” because Vietnamese officials were “not available”.  The article’s format emphasizes the story’s typical hard news feature (Bull, 2010: 330).  It is written in the ‘inverted triangle’ format, with the most pressing questions being answered first: the memorandum itself and the agreement between the two countries, as well as what South Africa is doing in particular against the rhino poaching scourge.  The peripheral information comes towards the end of the article: information about Vietnamese cooperation in the middle of the article, and concluding with wildlife monitoring groups, and their role in the issue of the signing of the memorandum.

The sources for this story come mainly from quotes from the prominent people involved in the memorandum.  This is namely, Edna Molewa, Dr Cao Duc Phat and Dr Naomi Doak, the coordinator of Traffic (a wildlife trade monitoring group) of Southeast Asia.  It is crucial to look at the issue of objectivity when analyzing news pieces.  Objectivity is not necessarily about detachment or neutrality, but it concerns the truth, and cooperation between reality and thought (Boudana, 2011: 385).  In this particular article, we can see that the reporter seems to have tried to be objective and fair.  The reporter has included information from the South African side, the Vietnamese side, and even peripheral groups.  Vietnam is given more of a chance at an explanation, and their thoughts and goals are able to come through in the article.  However, it still seems as though Vietnam is framed as somewhat of a villain in this article.  The audience is invited to view South Africa and its rhinos, Vietnam, and outside wildlife monitoring groups in a triangular relationship.  The audience can then construct opposing relationships, trustworthy versus unreliable sources, and ultimately good versus evil.

Agenda setting in this article again shows how the issue of rhino poaching in South Africa has been engaged on the media agenda.  This agenda setting is part of priming the audience to view the issue of poaching of one of South Africa’s “treasures” as a major problem.  This is not inevitably a biased point of view, as there does not have to be bias involved in order for the audience to be primed in a particular way (Boudana 2011: 392).  Even in the absence of bias, priming will always occur.

Article three: “Rhino poaching: South Africa and Vietnam sign deal”

This article is sourced from BBC News Africa.  BBC news has a global network of journalists reporting on regional and current world news.  This is very different from the first two articles which both came from South African news sites.  It is clear that the issue of rhino poaching, and the memorandum that was signed between South African and Vietnam gained international attention and is globally newsworthy.  This article includes more information about rhino poaching statistics, the demand and value of rhino horn for use in Asian remedies, the profits urging Vietnamese hunters and general information about the effects and results that this new memorandum could lead to.  This article seems to be more objective to the previous two, perhaps because the reporter and news site is further removed from the issue at hand, and is reporting from a peripheral point of view.  The agenda seems to include broader issues, as that of rhino slaughtering in recent years, the consequences for the conservation and the issue of traditional remedies that exploit this endangered species.  In this article, the audience is primed to see South African and Vietnamese authorities as equals as they sign the deal to curb rhino poaching, this is particularly evident in a quote which is used in the article: “The deal could mark a turning point in efforts to protect rhinos because it represents the first official pact signed by both countries”.

In general, one can conclude that the media has largely casted Vietnam as a major cause and felon of rhino poaching in South Africa. These three articles all focus on the same issue, yet the different strategies that are applied by the news sources all foreground different views.  One can take a part and analyze the articles by looking particularly at the newsworthiness, objectivity, news-site ownership and monopoly, framing, priming and agenda setting of the articles.

The poster child for endangered species: The giant panda

 

 

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The majestic and peaceful giant panda, with its distinctive black and white coat, is considered to be a national treasure in China, and is adored throughout the world.  The giant panda is seen as a sort of ambassador for all endangered species, as it is a well-recognized symbol of international wildlife conservation.  It has been the famous WWF logo since its founding in 1961.

Photo courtesy of weblessons.com

Photo courtesy of weblessons.com

The panda is the rarest member of the bear family.  Wild pandas only live in isolated mountainous regions of central China, where the high bamboo forests are wet and cool.  They have an insatiable appetite for bamboo, and eat 9 to 12 kilograms of it every day.  Pandas play an important role in the forests where they live, as they spread seeds and facilitate growth of vegetation.  The pandas’ habitat is in the geographic and economic heart of China, which is home to millions of people.  In order to increase the quality of life for the local populations, this area needs to be more sustainable.  Pandas bring significant economic benefits to local communities through ecotourism.

 

The Yangtze Basin in China is the panda’s main habitat.  However, the habitat is the heart of booming China.  Railways and roads are increasingly fragmenting the forest, and this isolates panda populations and inhibits mating.  Forest destruction also reduces the bamboo resources which pandas need to survive.  The Chinese government has established over 50 reserves for the pandas, but only about 61% of China’s panda population is protected by the reserves.

 

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Photo courtesy of WWF

According to WWF, there are about 1600 giant pandas left in the world today, which categorize them as Endangered species.  By the end of 2006, there were 180 pandas reported in captivity in Mainland China, and about 20 in other countries.  Hunting continues to be an ever-present threat.  The poaching of pandas for their fur has been reduced due to strict regulations and greater public awareness of the pandas’ protected status.  However, there are hunters seeking to hunt other animals in panda habitats, and pandas are killed accidentally.

 

Working towards protecting the giant panda includes increasing the area of panda habitat under legal protection; patrolling against illegal logging, encroachment and poaching; creating green corridors to connect isolated pandas; continued monitoring, research and establishing local capacities for nature reserve management.  WWF has been assisting the Chinese government’s National Conservation Program for the giant panda and its habitat.  This has resulted in the reserves now covering over 3.8 million acres of forest.

Photo courtesy of China.org.cn

Photo courtesy of China.org.cn

 

For more information please see National Geographic  – the Giant Panda