Wildlife focus: Lives in the balance

Over the past year, while some species have been pushed further towards extinction, others have come back from the brink. Peter Marren rounds up the wildlife winners - and losers - of 2006



The polar bear's grip on the Arctic ice is slipping and now it is expected to join the official list of threatened species, as reported in The Independent today. Numbers have declined by between 17 and 22 per cent, and the world population of about 25,000 bears is expected to fall by 30 per cent over the next 35 to 50 years. The main cause is global warming. The polar pack ice is melting fast; in summer it is now separated from land by a wide belt of sea. This means that the "fat time", when the bears can catch seals easily, is decreasing. It also forces the bears to swim, using up their fat reserves. The result: drowned and starving bears, and fewer baby bears to replace them. In May the polar bear was listed for the first time as a vulnerable species worldwide.


The future looks brighter thanks, ironically, to bird flu. In Britain the trade in wild birds was put on hold in 2005 after bird flu was diagnosed among quarantined animals. Now Tony Blair has promised that he will push for a permanent ban on imports. With its "perfect mix of brains and beauty", this most popular of talking parrots is in huge demand. One of the world's most intelligent birds, it is said to have the intellectual capacity of a five-year-old, but the emotional development of "a particularly terrible two-year-old".


The Sahara is getting too hot and dry even for animals adapted to harsh environments. The Dama gazelle roams in small herds, feeding on acacia bushes and managing without water for weeks on end. It has just been declared "critically endangered". One problem is poaching, but a more fundamental one is climate change. There is less high-quality food for the gazelles. Their population has crashed by 80 per cent in the past 10 years. At this rate, the only survivors will be the 200 or so animals in zoos and wildlife parks.


It's a big fish. It grows to the weight of a grizzly bear and the length of a crocodile, and is probably the world's biggest freshwater fish. It lives on the bottom of the Mekong river, its beady eyes and toothless mouth ready to take what prey the river provides as it snakes past the paddies and forests of Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. On the face of it, the Mekong catfish is a loser, not a winner as it is caught for food, its roe is prized as "Laotian caviar". Far more are caught than nature can replace, and data suggest that the fish has declined by 80 per cent in the past 13 years. Though it is legally protected, the law is not enforced. However, behind the decision by 60 Thai fishermen, in June 2006, to stop catfish netting in honour of the 60th accession of the king of Thailand there surely lies a real concern for this creature - there is even talk of it becoming the country's national fish.


Half a century ago there were tens of thousands of tigers in the wild jungles and swamps of the Indian subcontinent. The most recent estimate is around 1,500, but even that may be over-optimistic. Last year one of India's famous Project Tiger reserves, set up in the 1970s to preserve the tiger in perpetuity, was declared tiger-less. In other reserves, numbers have fallen well below the minimum sustainable population of 50. A new census suggests that numbers of the Indian breed of tiger, known as the Bengal tiger, have halved. But this result is politically sensitive, and publication of the report has been delayed indefinitely.

The reason for the downfall is poaching. Every part of a tiger is potentially valuable, from its whiskers (supposedly a remedy for toothache) to its tail (a claimed cure for skin diseases). Most valuable are the skins, worth $15,000 (£7,600) each on the black market. Illegal trade in dead tigers reached a new height in 2005 when hundreds of skins were seen on open sale in Tibet. In other parts of the tiger's world habitat, such as Siberia and Sumatra, a crackdown by police and customs has reduced poaching. But the outlook for the mighty Bengal tiger looks bleak.


There are many species of these brightly coloured tropical frogs. Some 65 of them have disappeared since 1980. Many more could have died out in their remote jungle hideaways. What ails the frog? They inhabit high, humid cloud forests in Central and South America, some of which are legally protected as National Parks. So while habitat destruction may be a factor, it cannot account for an unparalleled mass-extinction of the whole group. The deadly agent seems to be a fungal disease which smothers the skin of the frog and eventually kills them. Alan Pounds, the expert on harlequins, points to "extreme climatic events" as the cause. Weather in frog country is changing. The days are getting cooler and cloudier, the nights warmer, and periods of drought are getting more frequent.

"Disease is killing the frogs," says Pounds, "but climate change is pulling the trigger."


The thick-kneed, bug-eyed stone-curlew is one of the strangest-looking European birds. Not long ago, it would have been near the top of a poll of the British bird least likely to succeed. Nesting in bare, arable fields, it was vulnerable when the ground was rolled and harrowed in the spring, just when chicks were hatching. But, led by the RSPB, we rose to the curlew challenge. Wherever there was sufficient open wild grassland, little strips were custom-ploughed to coax them to stay and nest. This year has produced the best season in living memory. In southern England some 116 stone-curlews bred and a record 100 chicks were ringed. The bird has hit the government's biodiversity target five years early.


True hummingbirds are confined to the New World. But 2006 saw more sightings in northern Europe than ever before of a creature that does a passable hummingbird imitation: the hummingbird hawk-moth. This Mediterranean native migrates northwards but lacks a return instinct and is normally killed off by cold weather. Now, it is surviving the chill.If this is global warming in action, it's one of the happier manifestations.


The Chinese have finally cracked how to breed the giant panda, the symbol of endangered species the world over. Captive animals normally lack sex drive and stubbornly refuse to mate. But Wolong research centre in south-west China has got around the problem by showing them "panda-porn" videos of mating pandas. This year a record 27 baby pandas were born in captivity, most of them in China. The authorities hope to be able to release 20 to 30 animals per year to boost the wild population and improve genetic diversity. The other good news is that there are more wild pandas than was thought. An analysis of the DNA in panda droppings suggests that there are about 3,000 of them, twice as many as the previous estimate. China plans to create "bamboo corridors" from one panda sanctuary to another to enable the animals to roam more widely.


"The red squirrel has lost," says Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University. He believes that the vast sums of money spent on trying to control the non-native grey squirrel and preserve the native reds are a waste of time. The grey is not only bolder, stronger and greedier, it also spreads a virus that kills the reds but spares fellow greys. And there's nothing we can do about it, says Harris. Some disagree. Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, is pressing for a bounty of £2 or £3 per tail, which he claims would eradicate the grey squirrel from Scotland within a few years. But the Forestry Commission has calculated that the cost of a campaign to stamp out grey squirrels would be disproportionate to the damage they do. The best hope for the red squirrel, says Professor Harris, is on islands where there are no greys. The most promising sanctuaries are the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Arran and Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. That is, if the grey squirrel doesn't find its way to them on board the ferry.

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