Monday, 26 June 2017

Turtle’s appearance in Nebraska Panhandle leaves experts scratching their heads - via Herp Digest

GERING, Neb. Jun 23, 2017 The discovery in Scotts Bluff County of a species of turtle whose western range was thought to be limited to the Nebraska Sand Hills has the state’s turtle world a bit abuzz.

Dr. Dennis Ferraro, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln specialist in the world’s amphibians, turtles and reptiles, plans to travel to Gering sometime next week to take samples of the turtle’s toenails for testing to determine the region where it has been living during the last year or two.

The clippings will be analyzed for their stable hydrogen and oxygen isotopes, which will help Ferraro match the turtle to bodies of water where it had been living and feeding. Rainwater has different chemical characteristics across Nebraska.

“This will help us learn if the turtle was transported to Scotts Bluff County or slowly moved away and has been living there,’’ Ferraro said.

Blanding’s turtles are found in Keith County, at least 100 miles down the North Platte River from where it was found in Scotts Bluff County. It would be the first of its species known to exist in the state’s Panhandle, Ferraro said.

“It’s three counties west of where it’s been found before,’’ he said.

The mature Blanding’s turtle was found by Patrick Closson of Gering and his son Max, 17, alongside Nebraska Highway 26 between Scottsbluff and Mitchell last week. The area is near irrigation canals and the North Platte River.

The Clossons stopped and picked up the turtle to prevent it from becoming roadkill and took it home.

Mary Ann Closson, who is accustomed to her husband and sons showing up with critters they find on fishing trips or other outings — she once hosted a large snapping turtle in the bottom of a 55-gallon barrel — said she had never seen a turtle like the hitchhiker that appeared at her door.

The turtle’s shell is a high dome surrounded by yellow spots.

“This turtle isn’t from here,’’ Closson said.

She took to the Internet and identified her guest as a Blanding’s turtle, and she learned that it is considered endangered throughout much of its range east and west of the Great Lakes and in Canada. It is common to abundant in the Sand Hills but still listed as a Tier 1 species, meaning it has the highest state protection.

Closson contacted Amanda Filipi, an outdoor education specialist at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Wildcat Hills Nature Center south of Gering. Filipi took in the turtle Monday and contacted her former mentor, Ferraro.

Filipi said the turtle appears to be always smiling. She introduced the turtle to Nebraska Game and Parks commissioners meeting in Gering and at the nature center this week.

Ferraro said it would be a big deal if studies show that the species’ range is moving west.

“If it’s just one that wanders, it doesn’t tell us much,’’ he said.

Ferraro said if the laboratory analysis indicates the turtle has been in Scotts Bluff County for a long time, researchers would scour the county’s wetlands for others.

“If we can find out where it’s from, we’ll get it back there,’’ he said.

Otherwise, the turtle could become an animal ambassador at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center.

Ferraro said it’s a “too common’’ occurrence to hear reports of people picking up a turtle from Nebraska Highway 2 in the Sand Hills and taking it home to their yard somewhere far away, only to have it wander off to be “discovered’’ by someone who contacts him.

“If that’s what happened here, it’s not a big deal,’’ he said. “It’s a mystery.’’

Crocodile Poaching Booms as Egypt Tourism Crumbles - via Herp Digest

Fewer foreign visitors and political chaos has led some Egyptians to turn to hunting Nile crocodiles as a source of revenue.

By Peter Schwartzstein, National Geographic, 6/23/17 

LAKE NASSER, EGYPT—If they’re small, you use the bulk of the boat to hustle them into the shallows, then snag them by hand, Mahmoud tells me. He should know, having spent the past decade poaching the scaly beasts around the southern city of Aswan.
If they’re medium-size, perhaps the length of a kayak, he says (he won’t tell me his family name because of the illegal nature of his work), you noose them with barbed wire traps. And if they’re monsters—up to 18 feet of whiplashing tail, bristling teeth, and relentless aggression—you dazzle them with a spotlight, entangle them in fishing nets, and subdue them with a shot to their exposed underbelly.

“There’s not a crocodile I can’t catch, or a hunting ground I don’t know,” Mahmoud bragged. “I’ve made my life doing this.”

Mahmoud hunts the Nile crocodile, the world’s second largest reptile. Found across much of sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in large lakes and rivers, it’s renowned for its ferocious behavior. 

The Nile crocodile’s fortunes have veered from one extreme to the other over the millennia. From an object of veneration in some ancient Egyptian temples—and even the namesake of an entire city, Crocodilopolis—the species was extinct along the lower Nile by the 1950s as people encroached on its habitat.

The Aswan High Dam, finalized in 1970, created Lake Nasser, and with it a 250-mile-long croc-friendly mecca in Nubia, Egypt’s sparsely populated south. The species began recovering.

Now, thanks to a dwindling tourism industry and an unstable political system, the pendulum has swung back the other way as people look to make a profit off illegal sales of the reptile.

High prices for crocodile skin, meat, and penises—used as an aphrodisiac across East Africa— have attracted some professional hunters, even as larger numbers of impoverished local people try to muscle in on the trade.

On top of that, some lake fishermen are killing crocodiles to stop them gobbling up their catches of Nile perch and other fish, such as tilapia, environmental officials say. (Read about how tiger eyes and crocodile penises are hot on the black market.)

According to Mahmoud, smugglers are exporting record numbers of crocodiles—perhaps up to 3,500 eggs and hatchlings and a few hundred adult live crocs a year—abroad mostly via Egyptian ports, mainly to the Arabian Gulf.

The Egyptian government’s last large-scale survey of lake crocodiles, in 2008 and 2009, estimated the population at anywhere between 6,000 and 30,000. Its historic numbers are unknown.

Even with limited resources, Egyptian environmental officials have seen the species’ numbers decline precipitously in their 60-mile study area of Lake Nasser’s shorelines.

“The population was down by half between [2008 to 2009] and 2012, and then from [2015 to 2016], it was down again,” says Amr Hady, a researcher in the Crocodile Management Unit of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, which was established to watch over the lake’s largest residents.

“The habitat is the same, the pollution is the same. It’s because of the hunting,” Hady said in his Aswan office, where a small mountain of confiscated crocodile carcasses—all seized from the city’s airport and ferry port since 2013—gather dust in the corner.

If Nile crocodiles disappeared from Lake Nasser, the environment would suffer. Vociferous consumers of dead fish, insects, rodents, and invasive marine species, the reptiles occupy a key role in Lake Nasser’s ecosystem.

Moreover, part of the country’s heritage would disappear with it. The beasts were once so synonymous with Egypt that crocodiles often served as its symbol during the Roman era, says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

It’s illegal to hunt Nile crocodiles in Egypt, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as least concern, while noting its population is falling in many countries.

In 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that monitors global wildlife trade, downgraded Egypt’s Nile crocodiles from the highest level of protection.

This means that some trade in the species is permissible once a quota is agreed, but many hunters have interpreted this as legalizing their activities, Hady says.

“People always do what they must to survive—they make money where they can,” says Abdelhalim Tolba, whose family is heavily involved in the illicit and legal wildlife trade in Egypt. He estimates that his relatives illegally take at least 500 crocodiles from Lake Nasser every year.

“Right now, the crocodile is very much in demand.”

People in the Aswan area, just north of Lake Nasser, have long dabbled in small-scale crocodile poaching, but it wasn’t until the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011 and the ensuing chaos that hunting really took off.

Political instability and the specter of terrorism have tanked the tourism industry, hurting local economies that have long depended on foreign dollars. Hotel occupancy in Aswan fell by more than 70 percent between 2010 and 2015, says hotelier Hussein Mohammed, proprietor of the Suheil House. 

Guesthouse owners and tour guides have been struggling.

Many appear to have resorted to hunting crocodiles to make ends meet, for example by offering illegal hunting trips on the lake, promising skins as souvenirs. “You have to understand, they’re desperate,” Mahmoud says.

Meanwhile, villagers on the Nile’s west bank have been illegally raising crocodiles as tourist attractions. In some upscale lodges and hotels, staff occasionally offer guests hatchlings as gifts.

In the past, local security services cracked down on illegal wildlife trafficking, even conducting shop-to-shop searches in Aswan’s downtown bazaar. But since the 2011 revolution, there’s been none of that.

The governor’s office, responsible for local administration, is loath to pick a fight over animals at a time of hardship, and the security services are preoccupied with other types of smuggling—drugs and weapons, for instance—and with foiling political dissent. (Read about unusual wildlife smuggling busts.)

“The police are not a big obstacle because they know that this is just good people making their living,” says Assad Tolba, Abdelhalim’s brother.

Because there are increasingly fewer and smaller fish in Lake Nasser, some fishermen reason crocodiles are to blame, and kill them out of revenge.

“They’re enormous, so obviously they have huge appetites,” says Abdullah Salem Abdelaziz, a fisherman who plies the lake’s northwestern reaches with his two young sons.

But that supposition, according to biologists, is misguided. The crocodiles actually have relatively small stomachs, and they mostly eat species unappealing to fishermen, such as catfish, says Sherif Baha El-Din, co-founder of Nature Conservation Egypt, a local nonprofit.

Some fishermen have also gone into the trafficking business, looking to supplement their meager earnings by selling a croc or two on the black market.

“You have fisherman who catch these things, and they just want to make an extra buck, so they put these things on the market,” says El-Din.

The problem could get worse as more fishermen from farther north and places like Lake Qarun, where pollution has eviscerated fish stocks, move south into the Lake Nasser area, El-Din adds. (Also see “Nearly 400 Rare Baby Crocodiles Saved From Becoming Purses.”)

As with the police in Aswan, marine authorities appear to be turning a blind eye, according to Abdelaziz.

“In the past they supervised everything,” he says. “They actually weighed your catch and checked to make sure you hadn’t caught small fish. But what happens now is that you can take anything—small fish, all the fish in the lake, crocodiles, and no one will notice.”

Some smugglers ferry live crocs across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia to be sold as household ornaments. According to Mahmoud, crocs have allegedly been hidden in shipments of frozen vegetable shipments out of the port of Safaga.

“The Saudis alone could take 10,000 a year if they were available,” Abdelhalim Tolba says.

Other smugglers send crocodile meat abroad, especially to Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. (Many Muslims won’t consume carnivorous animals due to their religious beliefs.)

Crocodile skins are big business. After skinning an animal, hunters soak it in saltwater, then leave it to dry in the dark, before selling it on to leather dealers, usually in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.

“It’s a real art—it’s ruined if it sees any sunlight,” says Assad Ibrahim, a former hunter who now works as a tailor just off Aswan’s riverside boardwalk. (See pictures of the life-giving Nile.)

He once sold large skins for around $400 a pop, most of which ended up in China, he says. By the time they’ve been treated, and molded into clothing accessories, they can sell for up to $2,500 a wallet.

Then there’s the appetite for crocodile genitalia. According to Ibrahim, some Egyptians—and people in East Africa—eat the animal’s penis (the largest ones sell for more than $100) crushed up with honey and ginger, believing it will improve their sex lives.

The fate of Egypt’s Nile crocodiles depends on how authorities in Cairo respond. The Crocodile Management Unit is severely underfunded, with only two researchers on staff.

The small team has no access to aerial surveillance, which is necessary to properly survey Lake Nasser’s jagged 3,700-mile shoreline. “It’s a big issue, you often feel like you’re working alone,” Hady says.

Coordination among the dozen or so ministries and agencies responsible for managing the lake and its wildlife is poor, according to an agricultural official, who spoke off the record for fear of publicly criticizing the government. He says that enforcement of wildlife protection laws is so lax that some of those involved in the trafficking business genuinely appear to believe what they’re doing is legal—in particular due to the change in the species’ CITES designation.

And no one has yet come up with a plausible plan for what the hunters and smugglers could do instead. Jobs are scarce in rural areas, and so there’s little incentive for them to change their ways.

“Maybe 30,000 or 40,000 depend on [reptile dealing] as our main source of bread,” Abdelhalim Tolba says, and with large crocodiles selling for up to $1,200 each, it will be difficult if not impossible to staunch the illicit trade.

There are some signs of progress. In 2016, the Egyptian Ministry of Environment announced its intention to start raising crocodiles—in partnership with the army—on a farm a few miles from Lake Nasser. They’ll take eggs from the lake, incubate them, and then harvest a certain number of crocodiles every year for legal sale in skins.

With the lake’s crocodile population acting “as an open bank,” Hady says, both the authorities and local villagers, some of whom will be hired to work on the farm, will, in theory at least have a stake in protecting the wild population.

Egypt’s Nile crocodiles have come back before, and there’s reason to hope they can do it again.

Society in Tiger works to preserve indigo snake in North Ga. mountains- (Orianne Society) - via Herp Digest

By Nick Bowman, Gainesville-Tmes 6/22/17 

There’s a den of snakes in Tiger, and all the South should be happy about it.
North Georgia’s Orianne Society is dedicated to the conservation of reptiles, amphibians and their habitat in the South and the nation, working to preserve a rich natural history of the region’s less-loved but no less important creatures.

Among them is the eastern indigo snake, the largest snake in North America and a threatened species throughout its range, now mostly limited to southeastern Georgia and Florida.

Through a combination of working with landowners, habitat restoration and reintroduction, the society is hoping to create sustainable populations of the animals in northern Florida and southern Alabama and Mississippi, areas where it’s functionally extinct.

Eastern indigos live for about 12 years in the wild. The black snakes with burnt orange faces are unique to the American South and can travel large areas in the summer in their search for food.

In the winter, they group together in the burrows of the gopher tortoise to survive the cold. To save the eastern indigo, The Orianne Society, the largest reptile conservation organization in the United States and a global leader in the work, is trying to preserve the tortoise.

That work happens in the field, the longleaf pine forests and sandhills of the Deep South and the Eastern Seaboard, but is headquartered in an unsuspecting white house on Old Fruit Stand Lane in the little Rabun County community of Tiger.
Visitors to the wooden home are met with the slap of loose screen doors, the tired creak of wooden floors and the angry shake of rattlesnakes. There are eastern diamondbacks, canebrakes and pygmy rattlesnakes, venomous critters native to the South, sitting in their enclosures against the walls of the main room. And they’re loud.

Elsewhere in the building are the odd copperhead, king snakes, corn snakes and tortoises.

They sit right outside, and in the case of the copperhead, inside the office of Chris Jenkins, CEO and founder of The Orianne Society, who leads the 14-member organization working to preserve the eastern indigo snake in the South.
“We don’t do advocacy, lobbying, litigation, any of that,” Jenkins said in early June. “We do boots-on-the-ground, get-your-hands-dirty type of conservation.”
Usually that means starting fires.

In the pre-European South, wildfires were routine in the brush underneath the tall pines — so routine that the pines themselves are fire resistant, according to the Alabama-based Longleaf Alliance, another group dedicated to preserving the unique habitat.

With homes, roads and other infrastructure in place, residents of the South are less interested in letting fires sweep through their backyards and across interstates. Jenkins and his employees use “prescribed fires” to get “the most bang for the buck” in specific areas to restore longleaf pine forests by clearing underbrush and consuming non-pine trees.

“Really what we’re doing is managing that habitat for gopher tortoises,” Jenkins said. “We’re improving the habitat; we’re trying to turn as much as that habitat back to what it was pre-European.”

That looks like savannah: open grasslands on sand with a low density of large pine trees. Gopher tortoises survive on the grass and use the nutrient-poor soil to dig their burrows.

“The place that the snakes need – they absolutely need these tortoise burrows or they cannot survive in Georgia — those animals are declining and becoming more rare in their own right,” Jenkins said.

Habitat restoration for the tortoise and work for the indigo snake are happening side-by-side. Through a center in Florida, the society is hatching indigo snakes for reintroduction in restored habitats in Alabama and Mississippi. More than 100 snakes have been released in the past eight years.

There are between 40 and 70 snakes in captivity depending on when eggs are hatching and when the snakes are being released back into the wild.
For now, the snakes are concentrated in the peninsula of Florida and in southern Georgia.

“You could draw a line south of I-16 and east of I-75,” Jenkins said of southeast Georgia, “and the majority of the remaining indigo snakes in Georgia are within that southeastern block.”

Through reintroduction and habitat restoration, the society is hoping to push their range back across Georgia, through Alabama and into western Mississippi.
They’re spending so much time on the two species because of how they affect the rest of the food chain in the South.

Tortoises create shelter critical to a huge number of other animals. About 350 other species, from owls to snakes, use the burrows throughout the year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And Jenkins said the indigo snake acts as an “umbrella species” because of its tendency to cover large distances.

Because other snakes make up half of its diet — eastern indigos eat anything from other indigo snakes, copperheads and eastern diamondbacks — the animal is a “predator of predators,” he said. They’re at the top of the food chain, and to stay there they have to cover a huge area, sometimes up to 3,000 acres.

“Just imagine a tiger in India. A mouse in India is going to have a relatively small home range,” Jenkins said. “Tigers, you can imagine, are covering hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of square miles.”

That travel moves them through different kinds of habitat and eating different kinds of prey. A traveler that high on the food chain has plenty of opportunities to be killed. If they’re still around, it means the environment is in relatively good shape.

“Because indigo snakes use such big areas, because they use different types of habitats – they use these sandhills and then they leave the sandhills and they go into the swamps — so to adequately protect and indigo snake you need to protect its prey resources. You need to protect relatively large areas and you need to protect different types of habitat,” Jenkins said. “If you can effectively do that using this umbrella concept, you’re just going to protect a lot of other things.”

Beyond habitat destruction, many of the snakes are simply being killed by people — gassed in burrows by hunters looking for rattlesnakes, run over by cars or met in the backyard with a shovel.

Indigo snakes, as with all snakes, are an important part of the Southern ecosystem, and eat many of the nuisance animals people hate.

“You wouldn’t go out in your backyard and shoot every songbird that you see. People have this innate fear of snakes, but if you see a snake in your backyard it’s no different than that songbird. It’s just another animal,” Jenkins said, adding that “indigo snakes are snake predators. (They) eat venomous snakes; they eat copperheads; they eat diamondbacks. They eat all types of snakes. Oftentimes people are more concerned about venomous snakes ... that is one value that oftentimes people put on indigo snakes.”

Mareeba crocodile farmers says farms would support opportunity for egg harvest trials, Cairns, Australia - via Herp Digest

Tom Volling, The Cairns Post, 6/22/17

A CROCODILE farmer has welcomed plans to run a wild egg harvesting trial in a small Cape York community as his Mareeba property continues to expand.
It comes after Environment Minister Stephen Miles visited Pormpuraaw to see the community’s half-empty crocodile farm and declare his support for a scientific trial.

But some are suggesting the Northern Territory’s crocodile management plan is proof enough that harvesting is a viable option.
Melaleuca Crocodile Farm owner Juergen Arnold said it was a step in the right direction.

“It works in the Northern Territory ... that is the right way to start with,” he said.
“Harvesting would keep the population down a bit in the long term, but it wouldn’t solve the current problem.”

Mr Arnold said there would definitely be demand from Queensland crocodile farmers, with his own property currently growing and building new pens.
“We are on the right path and if there would be eggs available for a reasonable price, we would be interested,” he said.

“Whether it is to apply for A harvesting licence or buying them.”
The Environment Department plans to work with an academic researcher, but that is yet to be finalised.

“Our plan to allow crocodile egg harvesting continues and we are seeking a scientific partner to work with us,” Minister Miles said.

“The key part of that program is whether they can harvest eggs without impacting the crocodiles and their habitat.”

No timeline for the trial has been foreshadowed.

Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, who travelled to Pormpuraaw in the 80s as a crocodile farmer, said he did not believe trials were needed.

“The reality is this is a tried and proved practice that has been in operation now in the Northern Territory for the past 30 to 40 years,” he said.

“It will work, simple as that ... the thing that concerns me is they are not allowing broad enough scope to make it viable.”

Me Entsch said egg harvesting would create jobs for the small Aboriginal community and improve conservation.
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