The Infected Elephant in the Room
Racked with tuberculosis, the patient lost 1,400 pounds in two weeks. That’s excessive weight loss even if you’re an elephant. For Packy, a senior citizen at the Oregon Zoo, the situation was critical. Veterinarians at the zoo started the pachyderm on an 18-month course of the same daily antibiotics that millions of people around the world who suffer from the bacterial infection take. The United States is currently in the midst of an elephant tuberculosis epidemic. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of tuberculosis in U.S. elephants—in a population of only 446. In June, a third elephant was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the Oregon Zoo, and this past November an infected elephant died in a California refuge.
The disease poses risks not just for the large land mammals but also for us. While most infectious diseases are not easily passed between species, tuberculosis is an exception. The bacteria can be transmitted by close contact or by droplets containing bacteria that float through the air after a sneeze or cough. Our current animal practices are driving the present epidemic.
Tuberculosis, like its vintage companions pertussis, measles, and mumps, was once all but gone from the United States. It re-emerged in the 1980s, a comeback corresponding to increased injection drug use and the HIV epidemic. After reaching a peak in 1992, TB rates have been falling for two decades in North America. Elephants are the exception. The elephant reservoir of the disease represents a stronghold of the bacteria, a persistent reminder that we can’t eradicate this stubborn killer.
Tuberculosis is thought to have killed more people than any other disease—more than the plague, leprosy, cancer, or HIV. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s population is infected with the bacteria. The disease kills 1.5 million people every year. While the disease, then known as consumption, was running rampant through Paris in the 19th century, a French military doctor, Jean-Antoine Villemin, established that the disease could be passed between humans and cattle. It was a remarkable realization, especially considering that the bacteria responsible for the disease had yet to be discovered.
Tuberculosis is caused by a curious group of bacteria called Mycobacteria. The microorganisms have a slick, waxy coat, allowing them to float in the air like a hazardous balloon. These tiny balloons are inhaled and make their way to the lungs. The bacteria thrive in the moist, oxygen-rich environment. After a few weeks, a person runs out of immune defenses and the bacteria grow unimpeded in the empty spaces within the lungs. The bacteria are particularly good at getting out again. The disease produces dry, heaving coughs that fling the tiny invaders out of the body. Hours after an infected person has left a room, the bacteria hang on, waiting for their chance to infect someone else, their waxy coats allowing them to bob in the air.
The treatment for TB is a 6- to 9-month course of antibiotics. Unfortunately, the drugs we have are beginning to falter. The same waxy coat that helps the bacteria fly through the air also helps the microorganisms develop resistance. Multi-drug resistance to our current antibiotics is on the rise throughout much of the world. The therapy also isn’t cheap. The cost runs typically $2,000 per patient. For an elephant, the price tag rises to $50,000.
On April 13, 1796, the first elephant to grace North America since the ice ages arrived by boat in New York City. For two bits, onlookers could gaze upon the majestic beast. The animal was sold to Hackaliah Bailey, a farmer in Somers, New York, and the first American circus was born. No one could predict that one day a human disease would threaten the very existence of elephants on the continent.
The first hint that TB might be a serious problem for elephants in North America came in 1996, when four Asian elephants owned by the Hawthorn Circus Corporation became ill. Three of the four elephants succumbed to the infection, and 11 keepers were found to harbor the bacteria, one of whom had an active infection. The elephants had been spread out around the country, leased to different circuses and zoos. Over the next decade, infected elephants began popping up all over the United States. As TB swelled in elephants, the humans in contact with them also found themselves at increased risk. In 2000, at the Los Angeles Zoo, 55 keepers tested positive, their bacteria a genetic match to the infected animal they handled—strongly implying, but not proving, that the keepers had acquired the infection from an elephant. When the USDA investigated, it found patient zero: an 11-year-old Asian elephant who died in 1981 at an animal facility in Richmond, Illinois. Aware that it would be impossible to track all 22 members of this index herd, by now spread far across the country, the federal government instead took immediate action. (The USDA would later learn that 41 percent of the animals from the Richmond facility were positive for TB.)
The USDA established new safety guidelines for TB testing in elephants and issued a temporary moratorium on elephant travel. At the same time, accusations over the elephant epidemic began to fly. In a 1998 court case, a private investigator working for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, testified that, “I was told by [the circus veterinarian] … that about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis, and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings.” These claims have never been substantiated but may have spurred the government agency to ensure regular TB testing. USDA guidelines dictate that once a year, elephants in the United States should have their trunks washed out with saline to get a sample to be analyzed. Blood antibody tests are also performed. But even these monitoring measures are not without flaws. The procedure itself is challenging, and the culturing the bacteria from these specimens has not proven reliable. Consequently, elephant managers don’t always know which animals are contagious, and the epidemic is worsening. Treating an elephant for TB has proven complex, with multiple cases of resistance to first-line human therapies, as well as difficulty in administering the drugs themselves and controlling their toxicity.
The problem started, strangely enough, with the Endangered Species Act, which led to restrictions on elephant imports into the United States. In response, the Disney Corporation, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Busch Gardens developed large elephant breeding facilities. Elephants are difficult to breed in captivity. Females have low rates of fertility, and there are limited numbers of mature males. The population in the United States has never been self-sustaining. Michael Fouraker, executive director of the Fort Worth Zoo, emphasizes the problem by saying: “Current breeding rates suggest that in 45 years, only 50 female elephants may populate zoos … without successful elephant births in the coming years, the North American Asian elephant population will face near-extinction.” With the pressure on, corporations established the first artificial insemination program for elephants. They also began breeding-loan programs in which zoo and circus animals were shipped all over the country. With animals moving far and wide, the stage was set for a disease outbreak.
In 2009, the first elephant-to-human transmission of TB was confirmed. In an outbreak in Tennessee, the bacteria were transmitted from a single elephant to nine keepers at an animal refuge. There is still much we don’t know about transmission between our species. In the Tennessee outbreak, some employees who were not in close contact with the infected animal still became infected. We can’t be sure how, possibly simply by sharing the same air.
TB isn’t a disease that’s typically transmitted from animals to humans. It usually happens the other way. Humans are the natural habitat for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. When animals become infected, it’s called “reverse zoonosis.” Cows, pigs, birds, meerkats, mongooses, and monkeys have all succumbed to the human bacteria. While a related bacterial species, Mycobacteria bovis, has been transmitted from cows to humans, usually by unpasteurized milk, elephants stand alone as the only recently documented cases of zoonotic transmission of M. tuberculosis.
This past April, Packy celebrated his 52nd birthday with a 40-pound cake. The elephant-friendly dessert was made with whole-wheat flour, fruits and vegetables, and five pounds of butter. Despite the celebration, Packy struggles with his infection. He has trouble taking his medication, suffering from a range of side effects and drug sensitivity. He’s not alone; millions of people have difficulty taking the therapy. The challenges mount in senior citizens like Packy, who is the oldest living North American elephant raised in captivity. In 1962 his birth caused a stir, as he was the first elephant born on the continent in 44 years. The newborn elephant made global headlines and was featured in an 11-page spread in Life magazine. Now he’s making headlines again, as four of the eleven people closest to him have tested positive for TB. He lives with his son Rama, also infected with TB, but who seems to be responding to medication. This one pachyderm family in Oregon highlights our vulnerability, both to the deepening tuberculosis crisis and to zoonotic outbreaks. How we respond is an important indicator of our and their future susceptibility to infectious disease.
The Airborne Acrobatics of Praying Mantises
Before they grow wings, young praying mantises use a different trick to move through the air, and they do so with amazing precision. Professor Malcom Burrows and his colleague Dr. Gregory Sutton shot high-speed film of 58 mantises performing 381 jumps and found the insects could execute a series of intricate, calculated movements that helped them complete jumps with incredible accuracy and speed.
Those steps, shown in the video above, have led the researchers to their next big question: Do mantises predict the movements necessary for a successful landing prior to takeoff, or are they able to make lightning-fast corrections while airborne?
"We now have a good understanding of the physics and biomechanics of the precise aerial acrobatics," said Sutton. "But because the movements are so quick, we need to understand the role the brain is playing in their control once the movements are underway."
Incredible Shrinking Ants
On the surface, superheroes and scientists don’t have a lot in common, but there are more parallels than you might think. In the Marvel universe, mad genius Hank Pym discovered how to shrink himself down to the size of an ant. In real life, researchers have figured out how to shrink actual ants. Unlike Pym, who used his size-changing powers to fight crime as Ant-Man, these scientists are using theirs to expose how genes are expressed.
We’ve long known that genes influence traits like size; taller parents tend to have taller children. But genes aren’t everything; they interact with environmental factors, and scientists’ understanding of what counts as the “environment” and how it contributes to gene expression has been murky at best. For instance, all sorts of outside factors affect how genes for size are expressed over our lifetimes: illnesses, the amount of sleep we get, what we ate as kids, what we eat now, and even what our mothers ate while we were in the womb. The new research with ants, published Wednesday in Nature Communications, has homed in on a mechanism by which the environment can influence genes, called DNA methylation.
DNA methylation starts in utero, and it’s an important step in embryonic development. During methylation, molecules that determine whether, where, and when certain genes will function are added to DNA. Abnormal methylation can lead to diseases like cancer and lupus.
Most methylation studies have focused on how the process can send an embryo down one developmental path or another—for instance, whether a larval honeybee becomes a lowly worker or a queen bee. In this new study, scientists showed that methylation can cause a continuum of differences. The researchers, from McGill and Stanford, noticed that carpenter-ant size was related to the amount of methylation of a size-regulating gene called Efgr, so they gave ants drugs to manipulate Efgr methylation. They found that ants with increased Efgr methylation grew bigger, while ants with decreased methylation were smaller. In fact, some ants they bred were of comic-book proportions: They were smaller than ants you’d find in the wild.
These studies offer a glimpse into how to influence gene expression. “You’re born and you die with the same genes, and that sometimes leads people to take a deterministic view: Why bother going on a diet if I was born with these genes?” lead author Sebastian Alvarado told me. These studies “give more credit to the role of environment.”
For Alvarado, these results also fulfilled a lifelong dream: using science to explain fiction. A long-time comic-book aficionado, Alvarado was excited to discover a possible real-world explanation for the Marvel universe character Ant-Man. One of the first things he did after the team made its discovery was call up Marvel Studios executive producer Kevin Feige to share the news. “His secretary hung up on me,” says Alvarado. “But she was probably just doing her job.” Here’s hoping that Alvarado’s next project sheds light on Wolverine’s healing powers.
It’s Amazing, It’s Absurd, and It’s Real
Hey everyone, here’s something I bet you didn’t think you’d see this week: a weasel riding on the back of a flying woodpecker! No, they’re not engaging in The Neverending Story cosplay. This incredible image, taken in Hornchurch Country Park in East London, captures the weasel in the middle of a poorly thought out attack.
The photographer, Martin Le-May, told me it began when he heard distress calls from the bird, a European green woodpecker, and turned to see it jumping up and down on the ground. These woodpeckers commonly feed on ground-dwelling ants, and the weasel must have initiated a sneak attack. Birds do what birds do, however, and once the bird righted itself it was airborne—but not free. Though weasels are known for their courage and brazenness, I’m not sure this one was prepared for this contingency. Le-May said the pair got about 10 feet off the ground before landing again, where the bird managed to free itself of the weasel and fly off, both creatures apparently unharmed. (See more photos of the encounter, below.)
All due credit to Martin Le-May for his quick shutter finger, and for reminding us that crazy nature is all around us.
Except when they are not. Despite Thursday’s hapless performance by the scores of people who couldn’t manage to capture two runaway llamas, it turns out that people are better at catching llamas than breeding them. Now that black llama and white llama are Internet celebrities, there may be a big demand for their genetic progeny. Fulfilling orders will not be easy.
Serious llama breeders, like most livestock breeders, prefer to use artificial insemination, but this is even more difficult for llamas than it is for other animals.
The first problem is that the llama reproductive cycle is not like our own. Humans and dogs and cows and many other animals ovulate in predictable cycles. Eggs are released whether or not sperm are nearby to fertilize them. But llamas are “induced ovulators.” This means that female llamas release an egg only after copulation. As one might imagine, this can make artificial insemination tricky.
Male llamas aren’t helping. Llama semen is thick and syrupy, with lethargic sperm at low concentrations. The male also doesn’t produce much volume—llamas are called, embarrassingly, “dribble ejaculators.” Mating tends to last a long time (up to an hour). And the sperm-gathering receptacle has to be kept at a realistic temperature.
Some llama farmers are content to let their animals fraternize naturally, but those devoted to llama breeding need to be able to analyze, freeze, ship, sell, and tinker with the starting material. Previous attempts at semen collection in llamas have included condoms, intravaginal sacs, vaginal sponges, electroejaculation, and fistulation of the penile urethra. There is some debate about the merits of the anesthesia-aided electroejaculation (in which electrodes placed in the animal’s rectum provide low-voltage pulses to stimulate ejaculation). But at least for now, the llama semen collection star is the artificial vagina.
The artificial llama vagina looks eerily similar to a hollow rubber human penis. It comes with a heating pad or water bottle to simulate the temperature of a real llama vagina and, often, a cuddly, life-size, stuffed-animal female llama (or female llama rear end). Sometimes the male is allowed to mount a real female and the semen is “redirected” into an artificial vagina held nearby as he mounts her.
During mating, the male llama vocalizes with what people call an “orgling” sound. I have never heard it, but I expect it sounds both adorable and disturbing. Unlike horses, which mount in a standing-up position, llamas copulate sitting down. Honestly, it looks much more relaxing.
There are several versions of the llama artificial vagina to choose from. You can order from a catalog if you like, or follow step-by-step DIY instructions. Semen collection has come a long way from the “long, black, used water hose confiscated from a deceased Ford” that pioneer Harold Hill described in a story about collecting semen from bulls in 1949.
In fact there is a bustling field of animal artificial insemination, with researchers, breeders, and professional collectors, and an industry to cater to their needs—though some still make their own vaginas from parts bought at home improvement stores. There are artificial vaginas for just about every animal anyone cares to breed, from tiny little contraptions for rabbits to huge hoses for horses. I found one artificial vagina for sale with attachment threads designed to be fitted to a baby bottle.
The fact that there is a semen collection industry makes sense, because we have been doing this for a long, long time.
According to legend, the first animal artificial insemination was performed by an Arab chieftain who stole semen from the horse of an enemy tribe. The first successful artificial insemination in dogs was recorded in 1784. In the 1880s a scientist documented a single human pregnancy after 55 attempts at artificial insemination, but the literature notes that his failures could have resulted from his erroneous belief that ovulation occurred during menstruation.
Yes, we have been interfering with breeding for centuries, but only recently have we enjoyed real success with llamas. Gathering the semen is difficult. Storing it is problematic. We did not know how to thin it out enough to be injectable. Inducing ovulation is tricky, and so is delivery of the semen goods.
The website of Taylor Llamas, a farm in Montana, details an expensive and painstaking experiment in llama embryo transfer, which, they say, finally produced healthy offspring in 1994. But it seems that few others have enjoyed success.
Research reported in the past year or so has detailed advances in cooling and storing semen, as well as diluting and extending it, both major hurdles that have plagued llama breeders. And within the past couple of months, two publications—one on llamas and alpacas, and one on mice (which are spontaneous ovulators, like humans)—have shown that substances in semen work to control female reproductive responses, and even may affect the health of offspring.
It is a heady time in llama reproduction. It’s amazing that for all we know, we still do not understand the role of seminal fluid, even our own, or how to genetically engineer a llama. But then again, a couple of llamas on the loose can evade our technologically advanced law enforcement, so maybe I am giving us a little too much credit.
Red Pandas Have Way More Fun In The Snow Than You Do
Take note, everyone. This is how you handle an unexpected influx of snow. You embrace it. You frolic in it. You roll around in it. You walk on your hind legs, hands held up in the air, a defiant look of joy plastered on your face. You treat it not as the wholly inconvenient white misery that it logically is, but as the glorious natural playground that it could potentially be.
Also, as the video above shows, it helps to be a red panda. Or, in the absence of actually being a red panda, it helps to have one on hand, as its sheer adorableness will help you temporarily forget the unceasing crush of winter’s cold embrace. Because, fact: No one has more fun than red pandas, blizzards be damned.
Thank you, Cincinnati Zoo, for reminding us all to embrace that cat-bear joie de vivre during these difficult, frigid times.
Evolution Works in Fast, Localized, Mysterious Ways
When I first stepped foot on California’s picturesque Santa Cruz Island, I was in awe. The foxes were tame, the jays were supersized, and the wildflowers grew like trees. I knew that islands were renowned for harboring unusual species. But I didn’t know that there was more to the biodiversity of this small island than met the eye—let alone that I would play a role in discovering it.
Islands have played a central role in the quest to uncover how evolution operates. A comparison of species on the Galápagos Islands and neighboring South America seeded Charles Darwin’s insight that similar species share a common ancestor. And later work on Darwin’s finches revealed that evolution isn’t just a slow, steady process spread out over millennia; it can occur rapidly and alter the characteristics of a population from one year to the next.
Islands are the test tubes of nature. Depending on the island (and the species in question), many of them are closed off, rarely playing host to immigrants. This isolation allows species to adapt to the characteristics of their particular island home without the potentially meddlesome influence of “foreign” genes brought in by individuals from faraway lands. That’s why islands are hotbeds for the generation of new species.
But, as I found out on Santa Cruz Island, evolution doesn’t stop there. The process can also generate biodiversity within islands, not just as you go from one island to another. This came to light during my Ph.D. research spent studying a brilliant blue bird called the island scrub-jay, found only on Santa Cruz.
After catching more than 500 jays across the island—which, at 97 square miles, is roughly the size of New York’s Staten Island—it became apparent that island scrub-jays aren’t just different from their sister species on the California mainland. The species also has different characteristics depending on where you look for it on the island, a finding my colleagues and I reported recently in the journal Evolution.
Island scrub-jays that live within pine forests in three different areas of the island have long, shallow beaks, which allow them to obtain food buried within the crevices of pine cones. Meanwhile, their next-door neighbors in oak forests have shorter, stouter beaks, which are better suited for hammering open acorns.
At first glance, this may seem like your prototypical case of evolution in action. But the reality is far from it. The oak and pine forests on Santa Cruz Island stand directly adjacent to one another, and the birds can and do fly between them. These findings contradict the long-held assumption that evolution generates adaptations that are fine-tuned to local characteristics of the landscape only when populations are separated on opposite sides of a barrier, like an ocean or a stretch of inhospitable habitat.
Surprising as these findings may be, a growing number of evolutionary biologists have reported similar stories.
Take the apple maggot fly. When Europeans first colonized the New World, apple maggot flies fed exclusively on the fruits of wild hawthorn. But when apple trees were planted in North America, some members of the species jumped ship and started to live and breed in adjacent apple orchards, becoming a commercial pest. The two groups evolved adaptations specific to their host plants and, over time, diverged to the point where they rarely mate with one another even though they live nearby. Clearly a lack of isolation didn’t prevent them from taking separate evolutionary paths.
Similar stories have been reported for cichlid fish in Nicaragua, spotted salamanders in the Eastern United States, and blue tits on the island of Corsica. These examples contribute to mounting evidence that our assumptions about the spatial scale of evolution—and specifically the importance of isolation—might be misguided, according to a 2014 paper published by a group of evolutionary biologists.
This means that more biodiversity may exist in nature than we have ever bothered to look for. Not necessarily diversity sufficient to declare two populations separate species, but a more subtle form that includes individuals that are “locally adapted” to different environments.
It’s important to figure that out because the amount of diversity within a species is one of the best predictors of its ability to adapt to changes in environmental conditions. In essence, evolution can do more when it has a wider variety of raw ingredients to work with. And, as climate change disrupts the environment, species the world over will need all of the tools at their disposal to keep up.
That could be especially true for the island scrub-jay. With a population of fewer than 3,000 individuals and a limited ability to move elsewhere, the species will have to adapt to any changes that crop up on the island—or it may go extinct. Protecting the full range of biodiversity contained within the species could be critical for its survival. As an added benefit, it could also make a visit to Santa Cruz Island that much more intriguing.
Look for a ceramic turtle in front of the store. That’s the signal. James knows it’s the spot to score red-eared sliders.
It’s a perfectly timed endeavor. Eight minutes before closing time, James (who asked that I not use his last name) dashes into a New York Chinatown tchotchke shop—located on Mott Street, just below Canal—with a wad of cash. The boxes are waiting for him. A shopkeeper, a woman in her 70s, struggles to wrangle them from a back room obscured by a curtain and boxes of paper fans. It looks like she ought to buckle under the weight, but she manages, and when he arrives, they are ready to be moved—quickly. He hands over $200: exact change. “100 cages, too,” he says. “The good kind.” He counts out another $100, and the woman shuffles away to retrieve them.
James starts loading the haul into his sedan, idling out front on Mott. The backseat is filling with boxes. Each contains 100 live turtles.
The elderly woman sees him chatting to passersby and dashes outside, shrilly assuring people that the boxes are “just turtle food.” She’s not fooling anyone: Tiny tails and speckled shells are visible through the air holes. Plus, each cardboard container is emblazoned with the words “Live Animals.”
Back inside, below the cash register, six turtles, each the size of a peach pit, paddle in a takeout container inside a shallow woven plastic basket. The water is murky and there’s not much space to swim. Nor is there a spot to perch, a light emitting UVB rays, or a heat source keeping the water between 75 and 95 degrees—all common recommendations for turtle husbandry.
James is a consummate salesman. “I’ve never had a real job,” he boasts. “I started out selling shoes and T-shirts on the side of the street, and now I’m branching out into real estate.” But today, he’s a turtle trafficker, selling to carnivals all over the East Coast. “Kids love them,” he says. Turns out, it’s a lucrative business. He brags, “We can make as much as $7,000 in one day.”
The high demand means that he needs a lot of turtles. He drives into the city from Philadelphia every Thursday to replenish his supply.
On another evening, after James’ visit, the old woman isn’t feeling so cautious. She lounges on the steps in front of the crowded shop, openly hawking her wares. She jabs a paper fan toward potential customers and calls, “Turtles inside, turtles inside!” A mother and preteen daughter turn into the store. “How much?” they ask. There’s a rapid-fire exchange in Chinese, and then a response: “$15 for two, including the container and food.” A group of tourists fawns over the hatchlings. “I wish we could take one on the plane,” one of them squeals. There are a few takers. The mother and daughter leave a few minutes later with a turtle sloshing around in a plastic container. The girl holds the terrarium up, inspecting it. There’s no attempt to stay under the radar today.
Chinatown is the epicenter of the black-market industry devoted to trafficking the petite paddlers. In the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, set in the city, four red-eared sliders emerge from their sewage-strewn lair to fight crime and devour pizza. But in reality, there aren’t any adolescent heroes in half-shells splashing beneath the streets—contrary to the premise of the show, these terrapins are kind of the bad guys.
The non-native sliders have escaped or been introduced all along the East Coast, where they have hunkered down and beat out locals such as painted and box turtles for prime grub and nesting turf. Many are former pets discarded by their owners.
The “scourge of the sliders” is upon us, according to the New York Daily News. The critters likely migrate to New York via shipments from commercial farms in the American South, where many are bred for international export. The World Chenolian Trust estimates that nearly 31.8 million turtles were exported from the United States between 2002 and 2005 alone. Most departed from ports in New Orleans, Miami, Dallas, or Los Angeles, mainly destined for Asian food markets. More than 400 of these shipments contained at least 100,000 turtles at a time.
The tiny turtles are illegal to sell. The FDA’s 1975 Public Health Services Act banned the peddling of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. Like many other reptiles, these swimmers can carry salmonella bacteria and pose a health risk to kids and immunocompromised adults. These groups are most likely to contract salmonellosis, marked by nasty fever, diarrhea, and intestinal cramps. (Granted, outbreaks have also been pegged to bacteria-riddled poultry, hedgehogs, and even produce such as cantaloupe, cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, and tomatoes, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the turtle ban prevents an additional 100,000 infections per year.)
Despite the ban, red-eared sliders have been observed in the wild throughout the boroughs, and as far away as Buffalo and Rochester. On its website, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society warns that it can’t accept any new requests to foster these creatures, saying that many thousands of sliders have been turned over. (The turtles grow quickly and have a life span of up to 40 years.) Animal rights groups such as PETA also rally against the sales and laud passersby for reporting shops that shill the creatures. Law enforcement agents seized 22 turtles from an NYC shop in 2013.
So far, James hasn’t gotten caught. Others have. In the summer of 2013, a vendor at the California Mid-State Fair faced criminal charges for distributing red-eared sliders as prizes when contestants successfully tossed ping-pong balls into rings. Officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confiscated 65 turtles from the man’s stall—some as young as two weeks old and the size of a quarter, according to the Tribune, a newspaper in San Luis Obispo.
As for those that are recovered? Some are relocated to turtle rescue sites, but the FDA recommends humane disposal. Since turtles are cold-blooded, this generally involves freezing them into stupor. Any person hawking the small turtles or turtle eggs risks a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail for each violation.
It’s surprisingly easy to get in on the turtle trafficking game. Shopkeepers brag that they can fulfill bulk orders overnight, offering a quick way to make a buck, or $7,000. With stalls overflowing with pashminas and $3 T-shirts, Chinatown lures tourists and locals willing to weather a crowd for a shoddy bargain. Sometimes they leave with faux-jade trinkets, and other times with a swimming souvenir.
Drones Help Rangers Fight Poachers
In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa for their horns, which end up in Asia as supposed cures for a variety of ailments. An estimated 30,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year for their tusks to be turned into trinkets. The world loses three rhinos a day and an elephant every 15 minutes. Simply stated, this is an unsustainable situation.
Our team at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies has created a new multifaceted approach to combat poaching in Africa and Asia. We devise analytical models of how animals, poachers, and rangers simultaneously move through space and time by combining high resolution satellite imagery with loads of big data—everything from moon phases, to weather, to previous poaching locations, to info from rhinos’ satellite ankle trackers—and then applying our own algorithms. We can predict where the key players are likely to be, so we can get smart about where to deploy rangers to best protect animals and thwart poachers.
The real game changer is our use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which we have been flying in Africa since May 2013. We’ve found that drones, combined with other more established technology tools, can greatly reduce poaching in those areas where rangers on the ground are at the ready to use our data.
In the past 10 years, the poaching of elephants and rhinos has increased exponentially, primarily because it’s a very lucrative criminal business. Rhino horns can fetch more than $500,000 or more than $50,000 per kilogram—more than the cost of any illegal narcotic—and a pair of elephant tusks can reach $125,000. Most of these illegal activities are run by Asian criminal syndicates, and there are well-founded beliefs that some of these proceeds are being funneled to political extremists in Africa.
Technology is a marvelous tool, but it must be the right solution for a particular problem. Engineering solutions that might work with the U.S. military looking for people planting improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan will not necessarily work in the African bush, at night, searching for poachers. The most challenging question about how UAVs are used in Africa is when and where to fly them.
Africa is too big to be simply launching small drones into the night sky with the hope of spotting rhinos or poachers by chance. This is where the analytical models come into play. Based on our models, we know, with near 90 percent certainty, where rhinos are likely to be on a particular night between 6:30 and 8:00, prime time for killings. At the same time, by mathematically recreating the environment when previous poachings have occurred, we have a very good idea of when and where poachers are likely to strike.
We don’t have to find poachers, we just need to know where the rhinos are likely to be.
For example, a large proportion of poachings occur on the days around a full moon; it makes sense since that’s when poachers can easily see their prey. In one area where we have months of experience, we discovered that nearly every poaching occurred within 160 meters of a road. It’s simple. The poachers are driving the perimeter of the park in the late afternoon, spotting animals near the park fence; they return just after sundown, kill the animal, and drive away. We pile on the data, and the algorithms do the rest.
The key is that the satellites, the analytics and math, and the UAVs are integrated into a solutions package. We crunch the data, and the model tells us precisely where we should deploy our rangers on any specific night so they will be in front of the rhinos and can intercept the poachers before they reach the target animal. After all, there’s no value in rangers patrolling parts of the park that these animals are unlikely to ever visit. Consider that South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the size of the state of New Jersey. Like a bank robber who robs banks because that’s where the money is, we want our rangers to be near the rhinos because that’s where the poaching is.
On our first UAV flight in South Africa, the UAV flew to our pre-determined spot and immediately found a female rhino and her calf; they were within 30 meters of a major road. We decided to circle the drone over the rhinos, and within minutes a vehicle stopped at the park’s fence. Three individuals exited the car and began to climb the fence to kill the rhinos. Our rangers had been pre-deployed to the area; they arrested the three poachers in less than three minutes. This episode has been repeated dozens of times over the past 20 months.
The most critical issue is not how far or how long a UAV can fly but how fast a ranger can be moved, in the bush at night, to successfully intercept poachers. The UAVs are simply our eyes in the night sky. Watching their live infrared video streams, we move our rangers as if they were chess pieces. Even with great math, we have some variance, and that means we might be 200 meters off a perfect positioning. The UAVs can see poachers at least 2 kilometers from the rhinos. So we have 45 minutes to move our people into the most optimal position, based on our real-world trials of how quickly they can move through the bush at night.
We’ve had hundreds of night flights with more than 3,000 flight hours in the past 20 months, and here is what we’ve learned. First, on the first few days after we begin operating in a new area, we arrest a number of poachers, and they’re being prosecuted to the fullest extent of local laws.
Second, our models are heuristic in that they are constantly learning and self-correcting, on the lookout for changes in the patterns they’ve identified. This is critical since poachers will try to change their behavior once they learn that they are at an extremely high risk of apprehension. The sheer number of animals being killed shows us that, up until the UAVs take to the air, most poachers have been able to operate with impunity.
The most important finding is that in every area where we have put our solutions package to work and the UAVs are flying, poaching stops with five to seven days. Period—it stops. Tonight we are flying in a very challenging area in southern Africa—we don’t identify our flight operations so as not to alert the poachers—and over the past 90 days, there has not been one single poaching incident. Four months ago, this region was losing several rhinos a week.
The good news is that we have proof of concept and proof on the ground that UAVs can make a tremendous difference. The bad news is that the poachers are moving to regions where we are not operating. To really address the challenges of poaching in the region, all the nations in southern Africa should be willing at least to test our system in their most critically endangered areas.
Our solution to the poaching problem lies in the combination of satellite monitoring, great math, properly positioned rangers, and UAVs flying precise flight paths. It works.
A Perversion of Science
Two years ago, Western Australia announced a plan to indiscriminately kill large sharks in an attempt to make beaches safer. This shark cull was widely condemned by scientists and inspired Western Australia’s largest-ever public protest. Many species of large sharks are listed as threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The best available scientific evidence suggests that culls like this do not significantly lessen the risk of sharks biting swimmers. And there are many less environmentally destructive ways to actually make the beach safer for swimmers, such as aerial patrols that alert people when a shark is nearby. The indiscriminate cull policy was abandoned last fall under pressure from the national government, but the Western Australian government reserved the right to kill specific sharks believed to pose an “imminent threat.”
A few weeks ago, one of the first sharks was targeted under this imminent-threat policy. It was identified based on data from a scientific telemetry tag that revealed that the shark was near a popular tourist spot called Warnbro Sound. Although a shark whose exact location is known poses no risk whatsoever to beachgoers—because you can simply not go into the water near where the shark is—the government decided to try and kill the shark.
These telemetry tags are a critical tool of scientific research. They help protect both people and threatened species of sharks by revealing how sharks use the available habitat. The tags are also used to study other important aspects of shark biology, including digestive physiology, three-dimensional habitat use, and the sounds found in their environment.
These tags are not designed to help fishermen or anyone else track and kill sharks (despite conspiracy theories from some fringe environmental activists). In fact, the data they collect is invaluable for conservation efforts. Using a tool designed for scientific understanding of a threatened species to track and kill that species is a perversion that infuriated scientists and conservationists. Researcher Andrew Fox of the Fox Shark Research Foundation told the Guardian that this “goes against everything we stand for,” and is a “complete waste of money, resources and time.” Fox is considering keeping the data from his tags secret if the government continues to abuse scientific tools in this manner.
Perhaps worst of all, the Western Australian government blatantly lied to concerned scientists about how these telemetry tags would be used. “There was concern amongst scientists from the first announcement of the imminent-threat policy that scientific tags would be used to help track and kill sharks,” Christopher Neff of Sydney University told me. He was explicitly told by a government official that telemetry tags would not be used in this manner, a lie that officials have continued to tell even after they were observed using tags to track and attempt to kill a shark. “It is clear that this is a system where scientific tags are being used destructively—to specifically track and kill great white sharks,” Neff said. “These actions take a step backwards in beach safety by killing sharks who are part of an early warning system and they take a step backwards in shark conservation by suggesting that we cannot share the ocean with sharks.”
After days of trying and failing to kill it, Western Australia Fisheries officers abandoned the search for this tagged shark in Warnbro Sound. The imminent-threat policy, however, remains in effect.