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With well documented physical and mental health benefits of being in nature, the theme of this year's World Environment Day – 'Connecting People to Nature' – the United Nations is highlighting the vast benefits, from food security and improved health to water supply and climatic stability, that clean environments provide to humanity.

“This is our environment. It is the keystone of a sustainable future. Without a healthy environment we cannot end poverty or build prosperity,” said Secretary-General António Guterres in a video message on the Day, commemorated annually on 5 June.

Pointing to land, water oceans, forests, and “the air that we breathe,” the UN chief reaffirmed that everyone has a role to play “in protecting our only home,” including using less plastics, driving less, wasting less food and “teaching each other to care.”

“On World Environment Day – and every day – let us reconnect with nature. Let us cherish the planet that protects us,” concluded Mr. Guterres. World Environment Day is the largest global day for positive environmental action. This year, the main celebrations are hosted by Canada. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says thousands of people across six continents are joining massive clean-ups of beaches and parks, countries are protecting 1,600 square kilometres of land, and over 30 iconic landmarks, including the Empire State Building, 'Christ the Redeemer' statue in Rio, and Niagara Falls, will light up in green.

The 2017 edition of the Day coincides with the opening at UN Headquarters in New York of The Ocean Conference, the first-ever high-level global meeting on conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda resolves “to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources,” in particular, the Agenda's associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 14 and 15 focus on respectively conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources and on protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of land ecosystems. “Our entire modern life, with its skyscrapers and smartphones, stands on a delicate foundation of natural systems,” said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim in remarks on the Day. “Today, these foundations are shaking, undermined by man-made climate change, deforestation and extinctions. No amount of advanced technology will save us if we destroy and pollute our natural lifeblood.”

Billions of rural people around the world spend every working day 'connected to nature' and appreciate their dependence on natural water supplies and how nature support their livelihoods in the form of fertile soil. They are among the first to suffer when ecosystems are threatened, whether by pollution, climate change or over-exploitation.

In line with the theme of the Day, 'Connecting People with Nature,' Irina Bokova, the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, invited everyone to take time out from busy lives and to visit one of UNESCO's sites – including Biosphere Reserves, many Global Geoparks and iconic World Heritage sites – often overlying

key strategic surface or groundwater resources and which bring together more than 2,000 exceptional sites around the world.

Source: UN News Centre

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By Daniel Stiles

Wildlife conservationists and law enforcement officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of the Internet in marketing and trading protected wildlife species. Before the Internet, live wild animals, plants and their products were normally traded in physical market places, auction houses or shops. Sellers and buyers congregated physically to trade, which set certain limits on the numbers of traders who could participate and the quantity of products that could be sold and shipped around the world.

With the arrival of the Internet, thousands of traders can communicate instantaneously with one another in cyber-space and sell millions of items at the touch of a key. Traders can use e-commerce websites and social media platforms, such as Instagram, WeChat, Twitter and Facebook, to advertise wildlife with photographs showing a multitude of items. They all have private messaging functions between users, which can allow illegal trading to take place behind closed doors. WhatsApp, Snapchat and other private communication applications can also be used to negotiate illegal trades out of sight of law enforcement. Payments increasingly are being made with various cyber-wallet apps.The Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS), hosted by Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, has been investigating online trading of great apes for about two years now, collaborating closely with the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetahs and great apes share the unfortunate distinction of being popular exotic pets of the wealthy in the Middle East, former Soviet Union countries and elsewhere. The exotic pet and rare species industries make extensive use of cyber-space to conduct trade. Critically endangered CITES Appendix I species such as great apes and cheetahs can attract very high prices from buyers for unscrupulous traffickers, and they have organized suppliers in source countries, creating sophisticated wildlife trafficking networks.

PEGAS sees many types of emojis in great ape pet posts on Instagram, accompanied by comments such as, “I want a monkey [sic]”, “I love these guys”, “Where can I get one” and so on.

Well-meaning posts of photos of loved exotic pets, especially when made by influential people, unwittingly stimulate others to emulate them by acquiring their own exotic pet, usually through illegal trade, as many of the species are CITES Appendix I.

Showing children with great ape pets drives the trade, as both parents and children who see the posts will get the idea that it acceptable, even desirable, to acquire a chimpanzee or orangutan baby pet.

Other posts are more insidious, with a ‘For sale?’ query being common. The question is often answered instructing the potential buyer to communicate through a WhatsApp number or direct messaging. Occasionally, actual prices will be given in plain view of any observer.

Some posts might even promote others going into the business, as they show dealers with expensive cars and nice houses.

Many posts create the impression that the ape is having a wonderful time and is enjoying its role as a pet, but other posts capture the reality, the despair and loneliness that the ape experiences, and its end destination when it ceases to be cute and cuddly – a cage.

The development of the Internet and access to hundreds of millions of new users in recent years, coupled with social media platforms and the ability to create closed groups and private accounts, has resulted in the burgeoning ability of live animal suppliers, middlemen dealers and buyers to engage in active illegal trading of protected species. The markets can be much larger than physical markets, because thousands of group members located in many countries can be involved. For example, TRAFFIC documented 70,000 members affiliated to just 14 groups on Facebook in one country (Malaysia) selling a wide variety of CITES Appendix I animals.

PEGAS began monitoring social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook in March 2015, after reading a Zoo News blog about a wildlife trafficker using social media to sell exotic animals in the UAE.

Starting with that one trafficker, PEGAS checked out the Instagram followers, Facebook friends and people making comments to posts to establish an ever-widening network of fellow animal dealers, and those buying them as pets and prestige display trophies. There is nothing like driving around the streets of Dubai or Doha with a chimpanzee kitted out in designer clothes and sunglasses to make a statement: “Look at me, I’m cool.”

A few months later Patricia Tricorache of the Cheetah Conservation Fund contacted PEGAS and provided a wealth of additional information regarding online exotic animal trading. The CCF and PEGAS have been collaborating since then, building up a cheetah and great ape database of online wildlife trafficking. We see many other endangered species being trafficked as well in the course of our investigations.

Methodology

PEGAS conducted an update count of the individual great apes that it has seen posted on Instagram and Facebook accounts as of early May, 2017. Only those apes that were in the possession of the person posting were counted. Many exotic pet dealers and owners know each other and reposts of their respective photos on two or more other account sites are common. Care was taken to count only the ape in the original account photo or video. Some great apes are pets that owners have posted many times, sometimes over the course of two or three years. PEGAS recorded the names of the pets and took care not to count the same ape more than once. In addition, some people have more than one Instagram or Facebook account and post great ape photos and videos on them all. For example, PEGAS has seen the exact same post on up to ten different accounts, due both to repostings by the same person on different accounts they own, and/or by friends or followers on their respective accounts.

To complicate matters, some people have closed accounts – or had them closed by Zuckerberg’s people after complaints about illegal trading and/or abusive posts – and opened new accounts. PEGAS has found some, but not all, of the new accounts (if new accounts were created). The fact that owners usually put the apes in children’s clothes helps with identification, particularly with reposts. PEGAS has even seen dealers repost great apes from another account and offer them for sale. It is unknown whether these were scam sales offerings or were done with the owner’s knowledge and permission.

PEGAS classed accounts as dealers (D) or owners only (O). Some dealers are also great ape pet owners (D/O). PEGAS was surprised to see cases in which dealers would sell great apes that they had named and kept as pets for themselves or their children for several months, and for whom they had shown great affection.

Traffickers also made reposts of great ape photos from sites not engaged in trade, whether to mislead investigators or just for fun is not known. Traffickers posted great apes from International Animal Rescue, from various sanctuaries, from zoos and safari parks, from animal-theme websites, and even of Koko the gorilla. Most exotic animal dealers know now that a number of investigators are watching them. One dealer in particular has started doing this fairly recently, along with making reposts of his posts made originally two or three years ago. PEGAS thinks he is doing this to confuse the watchers.

In spite of trying to take care to avoid the methodological pitfalls described above, the figures presented should be considered as plus or minus about 10 percent, as a certain amount of guesswork was involved in deciding whether a post was a repost of the same ape, or which account was the actual original account making the photo/video post. This type of work is enormously time-consuming and further work is needed to figure out who actually owns each account and who first posted each ape seen. Few Instagram accounts provide the name of the owner and some Facebook accounts have fake names or nicknames. The posts go back to 2011, but the great majority have been made since 2014.

 Results

PEGAS has been monitoring social media accounts in thirteen countries. PEGAS knows of other countries where online dealers are based, but time is not available to extend to them. In fact, PEGAS does not have the time to monitor properly the thirteen it is currently looking at.

The most active region for great ape trafficking is the Middle East, followed by Southeast Asia. Africa is not well represented because they rarely post photos of great apes on personal accounts, knowing that their sale is illegal and that there are investigators watching their accounts. For whatever reason, African dealers do not seem to use Instagram as much as the other dealers do, preferring Facebook. There may well be closed member Facebook groups where dealing takes place that PEGAS hasn’t found yet.

Thus far, 98 individuals have been found posting photos of great apes that they have at one time possessed personally. Of these, 52 are dealers and 46 are owners only, and 7 are both. It should be understood that even the owners only are also engaged in great ape trafficking, as it takes two to tango. Trafficking consists of a seller and a buyer. Both are engaged in illegal trade (although the CITES Secretariat made an exception for China in one infamous trafficking case involving up to 150 great apes). The actual names and contacts are known for 45-50 of these.

The 98 individuals posted approximately 169 chimpanzees and 92 orangutans that they held in their possession, 261 in all. Although photos were seen of bonobos and gorillas, none of them appeared to be in the possession of the person posting them. A few of the dealers were either known or suspected of dealing in bonobos or gorillas from other sources, but the social media sites have not offered evidence to date.

Many of the dealers and owners know each other, and a few networks have been stitched together. Key dealers in South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa all are mutual Facebook friends or Instagram followers. There is much more research to be done to work out the networks of suppliers, middlemen and buyers.

Discussion

The 261 great apes seen in the thirteen countries is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many accounts and groups that have not been fully researched or even found yet. Some of the more active dealers, particularly in South East Asia, remove the posts from their accounts after the animals have been sold. So if an investigator does not monitor the account for the days or weeks that it is up for sale, it will not be seen.

There is also the problem of law enforcement. Even when the names and contacts of traffickers are known and reported to the relevant authorities, with copies of the incriminating posts, they will not take action. They claim it is too much work to gain a conviction and they have higher priorities. Some NGOs and individuals campaign to have the social media sites closed down, but that can be counter-productive as the trafficker then simply establishes a new site and increases his security settings and is much more careful about whom he lets gain access to it. Shutting down an account does not stop the trafficking.

About the only way to be sure of law enforcement is to set up a sting, as occurred in Thailand last December involving PEGAS, where two traffickers were arrested and two baby orangutans were seized. The police were involved at the outset and there was close cooperation between PEGAS, the police and the collaborating local NGO. This is expensive and can take months of work to achieve. Until laws are in place to make it easier for the police and legal system to arrest and convict traffickers on the basis of posts alone, the undercover sting will remain the only option.

If one includes how the great apes that were killed during the capture of the infants and how many infants would have died during transport, the 261 successfully smuggled great

apes probably represent about 2,000 ape deaths. This has to stop.

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By Colin Jackson

Anyone visiting Kenyan coastal towns or hotels cannot avoid noticing the large number of noisy black birds frequenting piles of rubbish, congregating on telephone wires, chasing chickens and also very likely stealing food off your plate in the restaurant.

Welcome to our most abundant resident, the House Crow or Corvus splendens (formerly the ‘Indian House Crow’) which is a member of the family Corvidae, but an alien species of crow to Africa.

In Kenya we have six species of indigenous crow, but only one on the coast, the black-and-white Pied Crow (Corvus albus), which is also commonly found alongside the House Crow but in far fewer numbers.

The House Crow is indigenous to the Indian sub-continent and was introduced to East Africa first in Zanzibar in 1891, initially as a form of ‘pollution control for rubbish dumps, but by 1917 was rated as a pest with a bounty awarded for any dead crow or egg brought in.

The crow later spread to mainland Africa and up to Mombasa where it was first recorded in 1947. From there it spread north and south becoming ‘common’ in Malindi in the late 1980s and is now in all the coastal towns and inland as far as Voi.

There is now even a small population recently established in Makindu, some 280 kilometres inland, and unconfirmed reports of it being in Machakos. It has become a serious pest in many places in Africa from Cape Town to Djibouti.

Like so many introduced alien animals and plants worldwide, it has been extremely successful, proliferating into the large numbers of birds that can be seen today -- counts as much as five years ago in Malindi reached 5,000 birds; Mombasa probably has a population of several hundred thousand and in 2009 the population in Tanzania was estimated at over one million.

Voracious predators

As with most alien, introduced species, the House Crow has created a number of problems both in the natural ecosystems and for human communities. One can argue that the crows feed on the organic rubbish discarded by people and therefore perform an important cleaning job without which the trash problem would be far worse. This is of course true within limits, but in fact the problems far outweigh the advantages of this:

* The House Crow is an extremely voracious bird predating other small (indigenous) birds’ nests, eating the eggs and young and destroying the nest. As well as direct predation, they will also specifically harass and mob a wide variety of birds for no apparent reason other than to cause distress. I have personally seen a House Crow chase a Crab-plover off the beach in Watamu and continue to mob it for 2-300 metres across the water. This behaviour has led to a decline in the diversity of indigenous bird species where crows occur.

* House Crows predate on small reptiles and mammals thus reducing the wider biodiversity in areas where they are found.

* House Crows cause direct and severe losses to agriculture and animal husbandry, taking eggs and chicks of free-range poultry, attacking new-born kids and calves, and feeding on germinating maize, sorghum and other crops. Crows are extremely effective predators and will even work in teams -- one to distract the adult chicken while another will snatch one of the now unguarded chicks. People along the Kenya coast have lost significant sums of money investing in chicken farming only to have them annihilated by House Crows. Villagers have also said that they are afraid to leave their small children unattended outside for fear of attack by aggressive House Crows.

* Being a natural scavenger and ‘thief’, House Crows are particularly effective at stealing food from stalls and even from customers’ plates in restaurants and hotels.

* A significant proportion of House Crows diet is human-generated rubbish, which is often carried some distance from the rubbish dump to eat. This spreading of decomposing rubbish clearly increases the risk of spreading disease. Furthermore, below the regular roosting and breeding sites considerable ‘guano’ can build up from the droppings -- which if in an urban area can also cause pollution and risk of disease for humans. House Crows have in fact been shown to be carriers of up to eight human parasites. Crows also make a lot of noise -- which for many can be significant ‘noise pollution’.

Over the last 25 years considerable experience has been gained from House Crow control programmes in Djibouti, Malindi, Mombasa and Zanzibar. In Zanzibar, trapping and a carefully supervised poisoning using a specialised avicide, a poison specifically designed for birds, reduced the House Crow population in Zanzibar town by 95 per cent, and over the whole island by 75-80 per cent in five years.

Crow traps can indeed be very effective (between 2011 and 2013 some 1,580 crows were caught and killed in traps in Watamu), however they are very labour intensive, require constant supervision and maintenance and also regularly trap birds of prey such as African Goshawks (Accipiter tachiro) attracted into the trap by the ready feast of crows.

Effective poisoning

Other methods have also been employed with varying success -- pricking (and therefore killing) eggs, paying a bounty for every crow or egg brought in by members of the public, and even direct shooting of crows. While these all can work to a certain extent, really only the poisoning has been proved to be at effective on a large scale.

Poisons, quite rightly, raise a lot of concern for anyone aware of conservation issues in that they are directly to blame for the extreme crash of many raptor populations and in particular our vultures. However, the poison used, Starlicide, was first produced in the United States specifically to control European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) where they are a major introduced alien pest. As poisons go, it is particularly ‘safe’ as it only affects the bird eating it directly (anything eating the dead bird is unaffected as the poison metabolises very fast).

Furthermore, the way in which it is used means that extreme care is taken to ensure that only House Crows take the poisoned bait through careful observation and monitoring of poisoned bait by a trained poisoner. Any other species of bird or animal such as dogs et cetera that

might look interested in eating it are immediately chased off -- but in fact, House Crows are so voracious anyway that they effectively out-compete anything else from taking the bait.

The same poison was used in a poisoning programme in Watamu and Malindi between 1999 and 2005 coordinated locally by A Rocha Kenya, a conservation organisation based in Watamu, with support from Turtle Bay Beach Club and the Driftwood Club together with the Malindi Green Town Movement, Malindi Museum Society and other local hotels. It was a very low-level programme, but which within a year had reduced crow populations to a mere five or six birds in Watamu and 30-40 in Malindi.

North and south of Mombasa, by contrast, successful initial control work carried out in the 1990s was not followed up and the pest has re-established itself.

Crow eradication makes economic sense

In 2005, however, the Pest Control Products Board disallowed further importation of the poison due to the correct procedures not having been carried out to register it officially in the country, which, to be fair does make sense. However, there has been little obvious will from the government to support and facilitate any attempt to regularise the importation of the poison and careful monitoring of its use.

Reducing House Crow populations provides great economic and conservation benefits, and control techniques are now well understood and highly effective. In Tanzania a full on crow eradication programme has been in operation since 2010 and well over half a million House Crows have successfully been killed.

However, a concerted and well-coordinated push is required using all means possible in all locations where House Crows occur in order to eradicate them. Indeed, poison is really only effective for large numbers of crows -- when you get down to only a handful remaining, probably putting a handsome bounty on the head of each crow and spreading the word among the local vijana (youth) would be the most effective way of eliminating the last few.

House Crows are a voracious and aggressive pest that directly and significantly impact both local indigenous biodiversity and humans. One thing is certain, that if the menace is not rapidly met head on and dealt with very soon in Kenya, House Crows will be found in Nairobi where, with the prolific levels of organic waste left open in a multitude of locations, they will rapidly increase in number and will be effectively be impossible to control, let along get rid of.

A focussed, concerted effort should immediately be made, led by Kenya Wildlife Service whose remit is to protect our indigenous biodiversity, to eliminate crows from all inland sites using direct control methods while pushing the process of getting Starlicide registered with the Pest Control Products Board. Thereafter a tightly controlled programme of poisoning should take place at all major urban centres along the Kenyan coast.

Only in this way do we have any hope of seeing a return of our local wildlife and of protecting the livelihoods of hundreds (and likely thousands) of Kenyans who currently are struggling under the ‘curse of the black crow’.

 

Colin Jackson works with A Rocha Kenya in Watamu

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