Bangkok, Oct 11 (AP/UNB) — Time is running out for Thailand's dwindling population of helmeted hornbills thanks to poaching of the exotic birds for the ivory-like casques atop their big red and yellow beaks.
The species, known by the scientific name Rhinoplax vigil, is listed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Currently, there are fewer than 100 of the birds in Thailand's forests," says Dr. Kaset Sutacha, chairman of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand and head of the Exotic Pet and Wildlife Clinic at Kasetsart University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bangkok.
"Critically endangered" is just a step away from "extinct in the wild" and two steps from becoming considered "extinct."
Demand from China is helping drive demand for their distinctive casques, "helmets" in French, which males deploy in battle. The material is used to make rings, pendants and other decorative items.
Worries over the species' survival intensified after the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC recently posted photos online of dozens of skulls of the endangered avian for sale.
A campaign on the change.org online petition site is pressuring the government to add the bird to Thailand's Wildlife Preservation List as soon as possible. It now lists 19 other species.
The bird is already on Thailand's official list of protected animals, but would get much better protection if it's included in the Wildlife Preservation List, Kaset said.
That "means we can get money, officers and tools from the government, including a national conservation plan designed just for this species," he said.
The population of the bird, found in Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of Myanmar and southern Thailand, is dwindling, the IUCN says.
Most types of hornbills have hollow casques. The helmeted hornbills' are a hard, solid block that in the illegal wildlife market is called "red ivory."
The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency says black market prices are up to five times higher than for elephant tusks.
China appears to be the main market for helmeted hornbill parts and products, though there is also demand in Laos and Thailand, says Elizabeth John, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia's senior communications officer.
TRAFFIC has spotted at least 546 hornbill parts, mostly casques of helmeted hornbills, for sale on Thai Facebook groups in the past five years.
The Bird Conservation Society of Thailand has seen the number of helmeted hornbills depleted over the past 40 years by deforestation and climate change.
"If we let the poaching goes on, it will wipe out the entire species in Thailand in no time," Kaset said.
Preeda Tiansongrasamee, a researcher who has lived in Budo-Sungai Padi National Park in the Budo range in Narathiwat province for 20 years, said hunters traditionally sought helmeted hornbills' casques and heads because they were thought to bring good luck.
"In the past, we could see heads of the bird in homes and people wore amulets made from casques," he said by phone. "That belief has faded away, but a new group of poachers has emerged who hunt the bird to cater to demand from outside Thailand."
Traders will pay villagers 5,000-6,000 baht ($165-$200) for a hornbill head, Preeda said he was told. Prices are double or triple that in cities and increase exponentially when sold overseas.
Preeda walks through the forest every day to check on the hornbills.
"Right now, there are two nests that have baby birds inside. We have to pray that the male will be safe and bring back food every day," he says. "Otherwise, the mother and its babies will die."
Local loggers tend to heed appeals not to cut down trees with hornbill nests, but poachers from elsewhere tend not to listen and sometimes threaten people who try to stop them, Preeda said.
A longstanding Muslim insurgency has complicated efforts to save the birds, since the rebels sometimes target forest rangers they consider to be on the side of the government, their enemy.
The bird is so imperiled it's likely to be added to the Wildlife Preservation List, said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a respected government consultant on conservation and development.
Last year, Thon got four species added to the list.
But implementing a conservation plan doesn't guarantee the species will survive, he said.
"It's not only the animals that we have to take care of. The people who live in the area should be looked after as well," says Thon.
"They have to survive and have a better life if they are to refrain from cutting trees, and poaching. Without cooperation from people, no conservation plan will last long."
New Delhi, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Authorities in Indian-controlled Kashmir will allow tourists back into the region two months after ordering them to leave because of security concerns amid an Indian crackdown, an official said Tuesday.
But tourists are unlikely to experience normal life in the disputed area or be able to use mobile internet or cellphones, which remain cut.
Local government spokesman Rohit Kansal said the decision was made after a review of the situation. Security restrictions "have now been withdrawn almost entirely from all parts of Jammu and Kashmir," he said.
He said the restrictions on the entry of tourists will be lifted on Thursday.
The government instructed tourists and Hindu pilgrims to leave on Aug. 2, three days before India stripped the Muslim-majority region of its statehood and decades-old semi-autonomy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist-led government also sent tens of thousands of additional troops to the region, already one of the most militarized in the world. It imposed a harsh security clampdown, cutting virtually all communications.
Indian troops arrested thousands of anti-India as well as pro-India activists, including some Kashmiri leaders who have historically accepted Indian rule over the region, in the days leading up to and after the revoking of its special status.
The moves touched off widespread anger, as one of the revisions allows anyone to buy land in the territory, which some Kashmiris fear will result in an influx of Hindus who would change the region's culture and demographics.
Authorities have since eased some restrictions and encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed indoors to show their defiance of Indian rule.
They have launched a campaign of refusal to resume their normal lives, confounding India at the cost of economic losses for themselves. Shops have adopted new, limited hours of operation in the early morning and evening.
Some tourist operators expressed surprise over the government's decision.
"When everything is shut, what kind of tourist will take a risk to come here without basic amenities like phones and public transport?" said Bashir Ahmed, a tourist operator whose business has been shut since August.
India "has always tried to use tourism as a sign of normality," said Nazir Ahmed, a Kashmiri schoolteacher.
Kashmir's pristine mountainous landscape, ski resorts, lake houseboats and apple orchards have long made it a tourist attraction. However, a full-blown armed rebellion has raged in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir since 1989 seeking a united Kashmir — either under Pakistani rule or independent of both countries.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and an Indian military crackdown. India accuses Pakistan of training and arming the rebels, a charge Islamabad denies.
Simmering tensions over Kashmir have also threatened to erupt into open conflict between India and Pakistan after New Delhi imposed the heavy restrictions in the area it controls. Kashmir is divided between the two nuclear-armed rivals, which both claim it in its entirety. They have fought two wars over its control.
Loibor Siret, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Saitoti Petro scans a dirt road in northern Tanzania for recent signs of the top predator on the African savannah. "If you see a lion," he warns, "stop and look it straight in the eyes — you must never run."
Petro points to a fresh track in the dirt, a paw print measuring nearly the length of a ballpoint pen. He walks along a few more yards reading tracks the way an archaeologist might decipher hieroglyphics, gleaning meaning from the smudges in the dust. A large male passed here within the past two hours, he says. "Here he's walking slowly, then you see his claws come out in the tracks. Perhaps he's running after prey, or from something else."
The tall, slender 29-year-old is marching with four other young men who belong to a pastoralist people called the Maasai. Beneath the folds of his thick cloak, he carries a sharpened machete. Only a few years ago, men of Petro's age would most likely have been stalking lions to hunt them — often, to avenge cattle that the big cats had eaten.
But as Petro explains, the problem now is that there are too few lions, not too many. "It will be shameful if we kill them all," he says. "It will be a big loss if our future children never see lions."
And so he's joined an effort to protect lions, by safeguarding domestic animals on which they might prey.
Petro is one of more than 50 lion monitors from communities on the Maasai steppe who walk daily patrol routes to help shepherds shield their cattle in pasture, with support and training from a small, Tanzanian nonprofit called African People & Wildlife. Over the past decade, this group has also helped more than a thousand extended households to build secure modern corrals made of living acacia trees and chain-link fence to protect their livestock at night.
This kind of intervention is, in a way, a grand experiment. The survival of lions — and many other threatened savannah species, from cheetahs to giraffes to elephants — likely depends on finding a way for people, livestock and wild beasts to continue to use these lands together, on the plains where the earliest humans walked upright through tall grass.
Across Africa, the number of lions has dropped by more than 40 percent in two decades, according to data released in 2015 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, putting lions on the list of species scientists consider "vulnerable" to extinction. They have disappeared from 94 percent of the lands they used to roam in Africa, what researchers call their "historic range."
The biggest reason for lion's retreat is that their former grasslands are being converted into cropland and cities. Losing habitat is the top risk to wildlife in Africa and globally. But on open savannahs where lions still roam, poaching for body parts and revenge killings are the next most significant threats.
Lions are respected as worthy adversaries in Maasai culture. Anyone who harms more than nine is said to be cursed. But avenging the death of a prize cow wins respect, like dueling to avenge a lost family member.
These retaliatory killings have become more deadly in recent years, as many herdsmen have switched from spearing individual lions to leaving out poisoned carcasses, which can decimate a pride of lions, along with other animals that might feed on tainted meat.
But what if the triggering conflicts could be prevented? "Our elders killed and almost finished off the lions," Petro says. "Unless we have new education, they will be extinct."
And so he hikes the steppe, looking to teach people how to live more peaceably alongside large predators.
On a July morning, he stops suddenly and points toward a tree-lined ravine. The tracks he's been following have veered off the road, so he thinks the lion moved toward a stream in the gorge. The footprints must be recent because there are not yet bits of grass strewn on top.
As his team walks toward the gulley, they hear cow bells jingling. "We should go and check if anyone is coming this way," says Petro. "We need to warn them." They soon find two young shepherds — pre-teen boys — sitting under an acacia tree, playing with small yellow fruit like balls in the dirt. Their two dozen cattle are meandering toward the ravine.
Petro kneels to greet the boys, then advises them about the lion. The men help the boys to turn their herd around, with a high whistle the cows recognize, sending them grazing in a safer direction. Petro knows most of the families near here; later, he will make a home visit.
In most corners of the planet, humans and big predators don't easily co-exist. When forests and savannahs are converted to farms and cities, the land ceases to be suitable habitat for most large animals. And predators lingering on the edge of cultivated lands are often demonized, or exterminated — witness the heated debates about allowing gray wolves on the margins of Yellowstone and the French Pyrenees.
But on the elevated plains of northern Tanzania, pastoralists have long lived alongside wildlife: grazing their cows, goats and sheep on the same broad savannahs where zebras, buffalo and giraffe munch grass and leaves — and where lions, leopards and hyenas stalk these wild beasts.
It's one of the few places left on Earth where coexistence may still be possible, but it's a precarious balance. And what happens here in Tanzania will help determine the fate of the species; the country is home to a more than a third of the roughly 22,500 remaining African lions, according to data from researchers at the University of Oxford.
There's some evidence that recent steps taken to mitigate conflict are working.
In 2005, the village of Loibor Siret (population 3,000) on the Maasai steppe saw about three predator attacks on livestock each month. In 2017, the number had declined to about one a month. The biggest change in that interval was that about 90 village households built reinforced corrals, which are much more effective than the older barriers of tangled thorn bushes at keeping predators away from livestock.
Although protecting animals in pasture is a trickier challenge, the lion monitors helped to defuse 14 situations in 2017 that might have led to lion hunts, according to records collected by African People & Wildlife.
While the number of lion hunts in the region is dropping, they do still sometimes happen. In July, one of the field patrols submitted a report about a recent revenge killing, including a photograph of a dead lion with its four paws and tail removed — an old ritual for collecting talismans.
Despite such setbacks, the local lion population is beginning to bounce back.
Within a study area monitored by the nonprofit Tarangire Lion Project, the monthly count of lions hit a low of around 120 lions in fall 2011 — down from about 220 lions in 2004. But the population started to recover in 2012, reaching more than 160 lions by 2015.
"Once you make lions safe, their numbers can recover quickly," because lions reproduce rapidly, says Laly Lichtenfeld, an ecologist and co-founder of African People & Wildlife.
Says Craig Packer, a biologist and founder of the Lion Center at the University of Minnesota, who is not involved in the project: "These conflict-mitigation efforts clearly help lions, although there's always the question of whether they're going to last 20 or 50 years with a growing human population."
Wildlife refuges are sometimes not a sufficient answer — at least for species that require large ranges.
Within the boundaries of Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, lions sleep on open river banks and dangle from tree branches — they are, after all, cats — often ignoring the squadrons of open-top safari tour vehicles passing by. Here, they are mostly safe. But the protected area of the park is only a portion of the land that these lions and their prey depend upon. Large migratory animals range widely, and on the parched savannahs of eastern Africa, they mostly follow the rains.
The zebras and wildebeests that spend the dry months inside Tarangire National Park move outside the park during the wet winter months, where they munch on more nutritious grass and give birth to most of their calves. And lions, leopards and cheetah trail behind them, roaming widely on the Maasai steppe.
"The animals in Tarangire spend so much of the year outside the park, you could never put a fence around it — a fence that blocked migration in and out of the park would kill it," says Packer.
Increasingly scientists are realizing that lands outside national parks must also be considered in conservation strategies. In a study published in March in the journal Science, researchers linked the access and condition of lands surrounding Tanzania's famous Serengeti-Mara ecosystem to the health of wildlife inside the park. Overgrazing and fire suppression on the edge of the park, for instance, "squeezed" the animals into a smaller area within it, they found.
"The current way of just thinking about the borders of protected areas isn't working," says Michiel Veldhuis, an ecologist at University of Leiden in the Netherlands and a study co-author. When devising conservation strategies, he says, "we need to think about how to include people living next to protected areas."
Those people can be skeptical. Some people in nearby villages say they aren't happy about Petro's efforts.
"We don't want to hear lions roar at night," says Neema Loshiro, a 60-year-old woman selling handmade jewelry spread out on a cloth on the street of Loibor Siret. The only wildlife she wants nearby are giraffes and impalas because "they're pretty and don't attack people or eat crops."
Still, attitudes are evolving. Petro Lengima Lorkuta, Saitoti Petro's 69-year-old father, killed his first lion when he was 25, hurling a spear after the cat attacked his largest bull. In those days, he says, "If you killed a lion it showed that you were a strong warrior."
Since his extended family moved into a new ranch home and erected a reinforced corral four years ago, he says they have not lost any livestock to predators. "The modern fence is very helpful," he says.
"Now I love to see lions," just not too near his home — and he supports his son's efforts to educate neighbors about avoiding predator conflicts.
Petro still rises each day at dawn to take the cattle to pasture, as his ancestors have done for generations. But the culture is changing in many ways: Rather than allowing his father to arrange his marriages, as most young Maasai men do, Petro wooed his two brides.
"We expect the growing generation to get more education than us," he says, "and therefore to know the importance of wild animals."
Beijing, Oct. 8 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Want to learn new skills? Instead of googling or signing up for offline courses, an increasing number of young Chinese now choose to watch short videos online.
Whether it's cooking tips or language skills, Internet users can learn from a variety of video content posted on popular short-video sharing apps such as TikTok, known as Douyin in China.
By the end of August, there were more than 54,000 users dubbed as "knowledge creators" with more than 10,000 followers each on Douyin, while more than 12.8 million short videos with informative content were released on the platform, according to Douyin.
"Short video apps are becoming new learning platforms for Chinese," said Wang Yuping, deputy head of the China Research Institute for Science Popularization.
To facilitate systematic learning through short videos, the institute recently partnered with Douyin and its parent firm ByteDance to train the "knowledge creators" and encourage them to compile their videos into albums for better learning experience.
Alto Rio Guama Indigenous Reserve, Oct 5 (AP/UNB) — They hunt with bows and arrows, fish for piranhas and gather wild plants, while some watch soap operas on TV or check the internet on phones inside thatch-roof huts.
They paint their faces with dyes from seeds to prepare for battle and also use video technology to fight illegal loggers and other threats.
Daily life in the remote Tembe indigenous villages in the Amazon jungle of Brazil mixes tradition and modernity.
They bathe in muddy brown rivers in the mornings, and play soccer in sandy fields wearing jerseys from European teams like Chelsea in the afternoons.
In a Brazilian state ravaged by deforestation and thousands of fires, the Tembe shoot photos and video to document the cutting of trees in their land by loggers and share them on social media. They also recently met with a non-governmental group that offered the tribe drones and GPS devices to track the encroachers in exchange for harvesting wood sustainably. And like their ancestors, they plant trees to teach their children the value of preserving the world's largest rainforest, which is a critical bulwark against global warming.
"I tell my children: I planted for you, now you have to plant for your children," Cidalia Tembe said in her backyard at the Tekohaw village, where she grows fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs.
"These are our home remedies," she said. "We don't go to pharmacies in the city, we make our own medicines. We have more faith in what's ours."
She also proudly pointed to four sugarcane plants — each tended by one of her children — and avocados, coconuts, lemons and acai, the Amazonian berry that's a vitamin-packed breakfast staple in Brazil.
"This is paradise," her husband Muti Tembe said. "You don't see any smoke from cars that pollute because we don't have any. In the city, at midday it gets too hot. ... Here, you're at ease and you don't hear the noises. Only the calls of birds," he said as birds chirped on trees.
One of the trees was planted by Muti's grandfather, a Tembe chieftain and Tekohaw founder. For generations, members of the tribe have extracted a black dye from that Jenipapo tree in the couple's yard to paint their body during celebrations.
During the rite of passage that can last for days, tribe members also hunt monkeys and birds that they later cook, while the young who come into adulthood jump, sing and mimic bird sounds with other members of the tribe inside a communal hut to banging of feet on the floor and the shaking of rattles.
About 2,000 Tembe live in their 1,080-square-mile (2,766-square-kilometer) Alto Rio Guama homeland, which can only be reached after long journeys on boats or on dirt roads. Villages along the Guama and Gurupi rivers that divide the reserve can range in size from a few dozen people to hundreds. The indigenous reserve is officially protected, but it's constantly under siege by loggers who illegally try to extract prized hardwood.
The Amazon, 60% of which is in Brazil, is also home to 20% of the earth's plant species, many of which are found nowhere else.
Satellite data from the Brazilian Space Agency has shown a sharp increase in deforestation and forest fires in the past year. In August, the agency issued an alert that fires in the Amazon had increased 84% in the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period in 2018.
Concern about the Amazon's rainforest, has heightened since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office this year with calls to loosen protections for nature reserves and indigenous lands.
"We have to fight for the trees that allow us to breathe," said Gleison Tembe of the small village of Ka' a kyr, which in their native tongue means Green Jungle.
"The Amazon, nature, is my mother, because it raised me. The animals that it takes care of give us strength. My children only eat natural food and it all comes here from the forest, he said. "So, why deforest?"
In a corner, he dried fish in the blazing sun on a grill held by bricks. Inside his home, some of his children and nephews gathered around a cellphone on a purple hammock to watch a children's cartoon on YouTube. Later, during a short forest trek, his 7-year-old daughter Emilia climbed on a fallen tree that had burned and pointed a bow and arrow that she made with branches.
"This part used to be a native forest. This was primary jungle. But the fire arrived and it cleared the land," said Emidio Tembe, Emilia's grandfather and the Ka' a kyr chieftain who named the village.
"Our concern here is the food, the cutting of wood, the fires," said Emidio, who recently traveled to the state capital of Belem to sell his wooden handcrafts at a book fair.
"They worry us because we feed ourselves with fish, birds, what we hunt from the forest. So, for us, it's extremely important to remain in the forest, listening to the sounds of birds, the calls of the animals."