Monday December 9, 2019
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Urban Jungle Might Be The Answer to Helping Some Endangered Species

Red-crowned parrots, now a part of the ecosystem in Southern California, are descendants of immigrants. They are originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, where they are now endangered.

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Red-crowned parrots, now a part of the ecosystem in Southern California, are descendants of immigrants. They are originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, where they are now endangered. Pixabay

At sunset every day, an almost deafening sound from the sky can be heard in a community just east of Los Angeles. It is the sound of parrots that have become a familiar part of life here.

“There’s poop everywhere,” said Havolynn Rose Owaleon. But she and many of the residents in this area have gotten used to the parrots.

“They’re not quiet at all, but you know, it’s something that you listen for, ’cause if I didn’t hear them on a daily basis, then I know something is really wrong,” Owaleon said.

Feathered immigrants

Red-crowned parrots, now a part of the ecosystem in Southern California, are descendants of immigrants. They are originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, where they are now endangered.

They were poached in their native habitat, arrived in the United States and sold as pets. Some of the parrots escaped or were released and have since multiplied and thrived in an urban environment.

“They are good at making a habitat for themselves in major cities, and this is what happened in Pasadena and East L.A. So, these are birds that live pretty much exclusively off of trees that are also not native to our area,” explained Ursula Heise, who teaches at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Department of English and at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

As transplants to Southern California, the red-crowned parrots have become such permanent fixtures that they are on the California Bird Records Committee’s list of birds in the state.

“They’ve been naturalized as California citizens,” Heise said.

The red-eared slider turtles bask in the sun at the University of California Los Angeles Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. These turtles are not native to California.
The red-eared slider turtles bask in the sun at the University of California Los Angeles Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. These turtles are not native to California. VOA

Cold-blooded immigrants

Often seen basking under the California sun near a body of water, red-eared slider turtles also are not native to the U.S. West Coast but originally immigrated here as pets, then were released or escaped into the wild. Native to the central United States, the turtles have adapted and thrived across the United States and around the globe.

“Because this species is so commonly exploited for food and the pet industry, it’s the one that gets released the most often,” said Brad Shaffer, UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science.

Urban haven

The success of the red-eared slider turtles and red-crowned parrots in the Los Angeles area have some academics wondering whether a city can be a place to help endangered non-native animals, similar to the role of a zoo but better.

“At least it’s living in the wild. It’s making its own living. It’s having the lifestyle that turtles or that parrots should have; it’s just doing it in a different place,” Shaffer said.

This is an example of how animals, birds in this case, have used human created structures, such as this building, and made it a home. It is a building on the campus of University of California Los Angeles.
This is an example of how animals, birds in this case, have used human created structures, such as this building, and made it a home. It is a building on the campus of University of California Los Angeles. VOA

“We have put up major buildings. We’ve put up expanses of concrete. We’ve introduced a completely different vegetation, and in many cases, that’s led to a reduction of biodiversity because a lot of our created habitat is not hospitable to the native species. But the other side of that is that we’ve created new ecological niches and new kinds of habitats,” Heise said.

These artificial habitats could become new homes for birds, bugs or other creatures whose native home may be threatened.

Shaffer said any non-native species that is introduced would have to be carefully picked to minimize the risk of causing harm to the existing wildlife population in the city and beyond.

“There’s always that danger, and I think the real question is, can we minimize that danger by doing sort of the best possible ecological science to be able to identify species that will thrive in cities and won’t thrive outside of cities?” Shaffer said.

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Even without human intervention, Shaffer warns that species will migrate outside of their native environment, potentially causing harm.

“I think we will have a lesser chance of that going on if we have some strong science behind it, compared to if we just sit back with our heads in the sand and wait,” Shaffer said. (VOA)

Next Story

It’s Time To Save Endangered Gorillas

Endangered gorillas can be saved with a lot of human help

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Humans need to save Gorillas. Pixabay

Deep in the rainforest of Volcanoes National Park, a 23-year-old female gorilla named Kurudi feeds on a stand of wild celery. She bends the green stalks and, with long careful fingers, peels off the exterior skin to expose the succulent inside.

Biologist Jean Paul Hirwa notes her meal on his tablet computer as he peers out from behind a nearby stand of stinging nettles.

The large adult male sitting next to her, known as a silverback, looks at him quizzically. Hirwa makes a low hum — “ahh-mmm” — imitating the gorillas’ usual sound of reassurance.

“I’m here,” Hirwa is trying to say. “It’s OK. No reason to worry.”

Hirwa and the two great apes are all part of the world’s longest-running gorilla study — a project begun in 1967 by famed American primatologist Dian Fossey.

Yet Fossey herself, who died in 1985, would likely be surprised any mountain gorillas are still left to study. Alarmed by rising rates of poaching and deforestation in central Africa, she predicted the species could go extinct by 2000.

Instead, a concerted and sustained conservation campaign has averted the worst and given a second chance to these great apes, which share about 98% of human DNA. Last fall, the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the status of mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered,” an improved if still-fragile designation.

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The population of mountain gorillas is vulnerable. Pixabay

It wouldn’t have happened without an intervention some biologists call “extreme conservation,” which has entailed monitoring every single gorilla in the rainforest, periodically giving them veterinary care and funding forest protection by sending money into communities that might otherwise resent not being able to convert the woods into cropland.

Instead of disappearing, the number of mountain gorillas — a subspecies of eastern gorillas — has risen from 680 a decade ago to just over 1,000 today. Their population is split between two regions, including mist-covered defunct volcanoes within Congo, Uganda and Rwanda — one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries.

“The population of mountain gorillas is still vulnerable,” says George Schaller, a renowned biologist and gorilla expert. “But their numbers are now growing, and that’s remarkable.”

Once depicted in legends and films like “King Kong” as fearsome beasts, gorillas are actually languid primates that eat only plants and insects, and live in fairly stable, extended family groups. Their strength and chest-thumping displays are generally reserved for contests between male rivals.

Every week, scientists like Hirwa, who works for the nonprofit conservation group the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, gather data as part of long-term behavioral research.

If they see any health problems in the gorillas, they inform the staff at Gorillas Doctors, a nongovernmental group whose veterinarians work in the forest. The vets monitor wounds and signs of respiratory infections, but intervene only sparingly.

When they do, they almost never remove the animals from the mountain.

“Our hospital is the forest,” says Jean Bosco Noheli, a veterinarian at Gorilla Doctors. When his team goes into the field to address a gorilla emergency, they must carry everything they might need in equipment bags weighing up to 100 pounds — including portable X-ray machines.

Schaller conducted the first detailed studies of mountain gorillas in the 1950s and early ’60s. He also was the first to discover that wild gorillas could, over time, become comfortable with periodic human presence, a boon to researchers and, later, tourists.

Today, highly regulated tour groups hike in the Rwandan rainforest to watch gorillas.

Ticket revenue pays for operating costs and outstrips what might have been made from converting the rainforest to potato farms and cattle pastures. About 40% of the forest already was cleared for agriculture in the early 1970s.

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Gorillas share about 98% of human DNA. Pixabay

“With tourism, the tension is always not to overexploit,” says Dirck Byler, great ape conservation director at the nonprofit Global Wildlife Conservation, which is not involved in the Rwanda gorilla project. “But in Rwanda, so far they’re careful, and it’s working.”

The idea of using tourism to help fund conservation was contentious when conservationists Bill Weber and Amy Vedder first proposed it while living in Rwanda during the 1970s and ’80s. Fossey herself was skeptical, but the pair persisted.

“The wonder of the gorillas’ lives, their curiosity, their social interactions — we felt that’s something that could be accessible to others, through careful tourism,” Vedder says.

Figuring out the balance of how many people could visit the forest, and for how long, was a delicate process of trial and error, Weber says.

In 2005, the Rwandan government adopted a model to steer 5% of tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to build infrastructure in surrounding villages, including schools and health clinics. Two years ago, the share was raised to 10%.

To date, about $2 million has gone into funding village projects, chief park warden Prosper Uwingeli says.

“We don’t want to protect the park with guns. We want to protect and conserve this park with people who understand why, and who take responsibility,” he says.

The money from tourism helps, but the region is still poor.

Jean Claude Masengesho lives with his parents and helps them farm potatoes. About once a week, the 21-year-old earns a little extra money helping tourists carry their bags up the mountain, totaling about $45 a month. He would someday like to become a tour guide, which could earn him about $320 monthly.

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The obstacle is that most tour guides have attended college, and Masengesho isn’t sure how his family can afford tuition.

“It’s my dream, but it’s very hard,” he says. “In this village, every young person’s dream is to work in the park.” (VOA)