Giant River Otter

The giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) is the largest member of the Mustelidae (the weasel family), reaching an impressive 1.8 m (6 ft). It is endemic to South America, being found only along the banks of the Amazon, Orinoco and La Plata rivers. These rivers provide the otters with both a home and a source of food; the vast majority of a river otters diet is fish, with the remainder made of crustaceans and other river creatures. River otters traverse these waters using webbed feet, powerful tails, and warm, waterproof coats. It is these coats, and the desire to obtain them, that started the decline of these beautiful animals in the early 1900’s.

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River otter eating a well earned fish.

Giant river otters are unlike the rest of the weasel family in a few important ways. The foremost amongst these is that they are social animals, living in cohesive and cooperative family groups typically of around three to eight members (though they can be up to twenty), focussed around a dominant breeding pair. These groups establish a territory that they defend aggressively against other otters. They are fearless and inquisitive, with no natural predators, and so often approaching human beings. This makes them extremely easy to hunt, which is particularly devastating to them due to their late sexual maturity and complex social life.

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A family group at play.

Poaching of river otters for their velvety pelts peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when as many as 3000 pelts were being exported every year. This poaching completely decimated the giant river otter population, and it is estimated that in 1972 there were as few as twelve remaining. In 1973 all trade in specimens or parts was declared illegal, and in 1999 they were given ‘endangered’ status, providing further protections. This has allowed the population to grow once again, and is currently estimated to lie between one and three thousand.

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River otters demonstrating their daring.

The return of this species to its rightful place along the watercourses of South America is being hindered by deforestation, to the point where habitat destruction and degradation is the greatest threat to their survival. It is believed that they have lost 80% of their available habitat in the last few decades, and what remains is now broken apart. There are breeding programmes to help the survival of this species, but they are not a species that has ever had much success in captivity; there are no recorded cases of successfully raising giant otter cubs without the presence of the parents. However with the introduction of large conservation areas in countries such as Bolivia and Peru, there is certainly still hope for their survival.

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Baby river otters in captivity.

[1] http://www.earthsendangered.com/profile.asp?gr=M&view=c&ID=11&sp=311

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_otter

[3] http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/giant-river-otter/

[4] http://www.outdoorconservation.eu/features-detail.cfm?featureid=37

Hyacinth Macaw

The Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) is the largest flying bird from the parrot family (Psittacidae), and is around 1 metre long measured from the tip of its beak to the end of the tail. It can be found in three main areas of Brazil: east Amazonia, Gerais do Manhão, and Pantanal do Mato Grosso, as well as in eastern Bolivia and Paraguay. In those regions Hyacinth macaws can find their main food source, the fruits of palm trees (namely Attalea phalerata and Acrocomia aculeata). Hyacinth macaws have a beautiful cobalt blue colour, bare yellow skin around its lower mandible, and black underwings [1, 2]. These striking features combined with an innate charisma makes it very popular, having become a tourist attraction in the Pantanal.

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Acrocomia aculeata fruit, the yummiest of them all. Photo by © 2006 Carla Antonini (Autoría propia.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ar (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ar/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These features are also a downside, as illegal trade has taken around 10,000 birds from the wild just during 1980s, not only to be traded as pets but also to use its feathers as decoration, leading this species to become endangered. Fortunately, today this practice is in decline. This lovely bird is not yet safe from danger: the continuous destruction of habitat for cattle-ranching and hydroelectric power stations has contributed to the species decline. This is mainly due to the destructions of manduvi trees (Sterculia apetala) where Hyacinth macaw makes its nest.

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A pair of Hyacinth Macaws and their nest in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Photo by Geoff Gallice from Gainesville, FL, USA (Hyacinth macaws) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only do they have to compete with other macaws for nesting sites, but there are also other animals that use these trees for the same purpose. Even more problematic is that only trees older than 60 years produce cavities large enough to be used as nesting sites for the macaws. Not only that, but a study performed by Pizo et al. [3] suggests that the availability of the nesting sites are dependent on its major nest predator, the Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), to disperse the seeds of manduvi trees.

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Toco toucan, an example of complex interspecies interaction. Photo by cp channel uploaded by benjli (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cpchannel/221158822/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to increased public awareness lead by researchers and educators, the Hyacinth macaw now stands a better chance of survival, having been downlisted from endangered into vulnerable in 2014 by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species [4]. There is an ongoing project in the Pantanal do Mato Grosso denominated “Hyacinth Macaw Project” (Projecto Arara Azul in Portuguese) aiming to protect this species in their natural habitat, perform biological research and provide environmental education [2]. This project was started in 1990 by Dr. Neiva Guedes, after she saw the majesty of 30 hyacinth macaws in the wild, and afterwards learned about their endangered status. In 1999 WWF-Brazil became a great partner of the project running up to this day [5].

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A happy Hyacinth Macaw couple. Photo by Ltshears (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

References

[1] http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=1543

[2] http://web.archive.org/web/20021111023725/http:/www.wwf.org.br/english/informa/sitearara_projeto.htm

[3] Marco Aurélio Pizo, Camila I. Donatti, Neiva Maria R. Guedes, Mauro Galetti, Conservation puzzle: Endangered hyacinth macaw depends on its nest predator for reproduction, Biological Conservation, Volume 141, Issue 3, March 2008, Pages 792-796

[4] http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/summary/22685516/0

[5] http://www.projetoararaazul.org.br/arara/Home/OProjeto/tabid/53/Default.aspx

Feauted photo: Hyacinth Macaw, saying hello to visitors. Photo by Sunira (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Brazilian Rosewood: Dalbergia nigra

Brazilian Rosewood is a tree endemic to the central regions of the Atlantic Forest, a tropical and subtropical broadleaf forest that traces the south eastern coast of Brazil. This forest is one of the most diverse regions in the world, and though less famous than the Amazon it is much more at risk. By 2003 it was estimated that 92% of the Atlantic Forest had been lost, with the remnants largely consisting of small separate areas which at the time it contained approximately 11,000 endangered species [1].

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Of the roughly 22,000 plant species native to the Atlantic Forest [2] the distinctive Brazilian Rosewood, at around 40m, is amongst the tallest [3]. It is listed Vulnerable on the ICUN list of threatened species and in 1992 it was given the highest level of protection offered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It currently only grows in small, fragmented populations, and attempted regeneration of the species so far has had a very low level of success.

Why is it in danger?

Much of the damage to the Brazilian Rosewood population comes from the general destruction of the Atlantic Rainforest, which began centuries ago when Europeans began to colonise South America. Recently this has been spreading due to, amongst other things, the large scale conversion of native forest into monoculture such as soy or tobacco plantations, and the the Atlantic Forest’s unfortunate situation alongside two of the biggest cities in the word, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

This widespread habitat loss is not however the only thing endangering this important species, and for a long time the Brazilian Rosewood has been the victim of targeted logging. The timber of his species has many desirable characteristics. Besides it’s beautiful grain, colour and the rose-like scent of it’s heart wood, which have made it a popular furniture material since the 18th century, it is highly resonant, emitting a metallic ring when cut correctly, and it is this property that has made it one of the most highly sought after materials for the creation of stringed and woodwind instruments, and now the guitar, since as long ago as the late Renaissance.

It is for these reasons that there has long been a trade in Brazilian Rosewood from South America to Europe, and that over time this trade has resulted in the Brazilian Rosewood population dropping to a vulnerable level.

What is being done about it?

Trade in any Brazilian Rosewood has been highly restricted since its addition to CITES in 1992, and any logging of the species is now illegal. This has not however proved enough to stop the trade, which is still ongoing, and there are still vendors in the UK claiming to sell the wood with no mention of the need for documentation. The European Commission is working closely internationally, particularly with the USA, to reduce the illegal trade as far as possible, and the conservation status of this species is now well known amongst luthiers (the makers of stringed instruments), and there are other high quality alternative species available that are not restricted by CITES.

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Beyond this, there are organisations in Brazil attempting to create sustainable plantations of this species to simultaneously address the demand for the wood, thus protecting the remaining trees, and to provide the local community with income.

Between these local and international efforts, and the increasing protections of what remains of the Atlantic Forest, the fate of this species is my no means sealed already, but it will likely take a continued and strengthened effort, as well as the regeneration of much of its broken and fragmented habitat.

 

References

[1] Galindo Leal, Carlos, and Ibsen de Gusmão Câmara. 2003. The Atlantic Forest of South America: biodiversity status, threats, and outlook. Washington: Island Press.

[2] Atlantic forest | ARKive

http://www.arkive.org › Eco-regions › Atlantic forest

[3] http://globaltrees.org/threatened-trees/trees/brazilian-rosewood/