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Human effects on wildlife worse than radiation: Chernobyl study

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New York: A team of international researchers has discovered abundant wildlife population at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear accident that released radioactive particles into the environment and forced a massive evacuation.

Abundant with moose, roe deer, wild boar and wolves, the disaster site in Ukraine looks more like a nature preserve than a disaster zone – nearly 30 years after the world’s largest nuclear accident, the researchers reported.

Previous studies in the 1,621-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone showed evidence of major radiation effects and significantly reduced populations of wildlife.

For the first time since the Chernobyl accident, researchers have long-term census data that reveal thriving wildlife populations in the zone.

Our data are a testament to the resiliency of wildlife when freed from direct human pressures such as habitat loss, fragmentation and persecution,” said study co-author James Beasley, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina, US.

“The multi-year data clearly show that a multitude of wildlife species are abundant throughout the zone, regardless of the level of radiation contamination,” Beasley noted.

“This does not mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming and forestry, are a lot worse,” team coordinator Jim Smith, professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in Britain explained.

The number of moose, roe deer, red deer and wild boar living in the zone are similar to numbers in nearby uncontaminated nature reserves in the region, the results showed.

The census data on wolves in the area indicated they are seven times greater in number than those living in the nearby reserves.

Aerial census data collected from 1987-96 revealed rising numbers of moose, roe deer and wild boar in the zone.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

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Rescue Efforts For Wild Puerto Rican Parrot In Motion

Scientists also are now collecting new data on the number of predators at El Yunque, including el guaraguao, a red-tailed hawk that hunts Puerto Rico parrots.

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Puerto Rican Parrot
A Puerto Rican parrot eats inside one of the flight cages in the Iguaca Aviary at El Yunque, Puerto Rico, where the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service runs a parrot recovery program in collaboration with the Forest Service and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, VOA

Biologists are trying to save the last of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots after more than half the population of the bright green birds with turquoise-tipped wings disappeared when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and destroyed their habitat and food sources.

In the tropical forest of El Yunque, only two of the 56 wild birds that once lived there survived the Category 4 storm that pummeled the U.S. territory in September 2017. Meanwhile, only 4 of 31 wild birds in a forest in the western town of Maricao survived, along with 75 out of 134 wild parrots living in the Rio Abajo forest in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, scientists said.

And while several dozen new parrots have been born in captivity and in the wild since Maria, the species is still in danger, according to scientists.

 

Puerto Rican Parrots
Parrot eating a fruit. Flickr

 

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Gustavo Olivieri, parrot recovery program coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources.

Federal and local scientists will meet next month to debate how best to revive a species that numbered more than 1 million in the 1800s but dwindled to 13 birds during the 1970s after decades of forest clearing.

The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments launched a program in 1972 that eventually led to the creation of three breeding centers. Just weeks before Maria hit, scientists reported 56 wild birds at El Yunque, the highest since the program was launched.

But the population decline is now especially worrisome because the parrots that vanished from El Yunque were some of the last remaining wild ones, said Marisel Lopez, who oversees the parrot recovery program at El Yunque for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Puerto Rican Parrot
These two Puerto Rican parrots were photographed at the aviary in El Yunque National Forrest after Hurricane Maria. Flickr

“It was devastating. After so many years of having worked on this project…,” she stopped talking and sighed.

The Puerto Rican Amazon is Puerto Rico’s only remaining native parrot and is one of roughly 30 species of Amazon parrots found in the Americas. The red-foreheaded birds grow to nearly a foot in length, are known for their secrecy and usually mate for life, reproducing once a year.

More than 460 birds remain captive at the breeding centers in El Yunque and Rio Abajo forests, but scientists have not released any of them since Hurricane Maria. A third breeding center in a forest in the western rural town of Maricao has not operated since the storm. Scientists are now trying to determine the best way to prepare the parrots for release since there are such few birds in the wild they can interact with, and whether Puerto Rico’s damaged forests can sustain them.

One proposal scientists

Puerto Rican Parrot
When in flight, some of the PR Parrots show their beautiful blue primary feathers. Flickr

Scientists are tentatively planning to release 20 birds next year in Rio Abajo.

Another proposal is to release more parrots in Maricao, which was not as heavily damaged by Maria.

“Our priority now is not reproduction. … it’s to start releasing them,” Lopez said, adding that breeding centers can hold only so many parrots.

But first, scientists need to make sure the forests can offer food and safe shelter.

Jessica Ilse, a forest biologist at el Yunque for the U.S. Forest Service, said scientists are collecting data about the amount of fruit falling from trees and the number of leaves shed. She said the canopy still has not grown back since Maria and warned that invasive species have taken root since more sunlight now shines through. Ilse said that many of the large trees where parrots used to nest are now gone and noted that it took 14 months for El Yunque’s canopy to close after Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989 as a Category 3 storm.

Puerto Rican Parrot
Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program. Flickr

Scientists also are now collecting new data on the number of predators at El Yunque, including el guaraguao, a red-tailed hawk that hunts Puerto Rico parrots. Without a canopy and proper camouflage, wild parrots have become an easy target.

Ilse said local and federal scientists plan to help the forest recover through planting. By the end of November, they expect to have a map detailing the most damaged areas in El Yunque and a list of tree species they can plant that are more resistant to hurricanes.

Also Read: India To Release 8 Endangered White-Backed Vultures In The Wild

“People keep asking us, ‘How long is it going to take?'” Ilse said.

But scientists don’t know, she added.

“The damage is more extensive than [hurricanes] Hugo and Georges. … It’s been a complete change to the ecosystem.” (VOA)