Dec 17

Lionfish: Invasive Predators of the Deep


800px-Red_lionfish_near_Gilli_Banta_IslandNative to reefs in the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish is a member of the scorpion fish family. Growing upwards of 45 cm in length and 1.3 kg in weight, it is an aggressive, territorial species with very few predators likely due to the fact that they are venomous. Large spins located within the dorsal, anal, and pectoral fins are capable of delivering a mix of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and a neuromuscular toxin causing pain, swelling, respiratory distress, and, in some cases, paralysis. With a life span of 5-15 years, chemical arsenal, and a ferocious appetite, this is one species that knows how to survive.


In the mid-1990s, two of the recognized ten species of lionfish, Pterosis volitans and Pterosis miles, became popularlionfish_dnr_sc display specimens for aquarium enthusiasts. In part because of their unique red and brown pattern and radially displayed fins, lionfish are quite spectacular to see. While on display they proved to be active and some may even say aesthetically pleasing to watch. However, lionfish tend to not play well with others. In fact, they will usually eat all other cohabitants, a costly problem. It is assumed that because of the danger to owner and aquatic neighbor, a large number of lionfish were simply returned whence they came . . . or so owners thought. After all, the ocean is the ocean, right? It is known that in 1992 the wrath of Hurricane Andrew released 6 lionfish in costal waters around Florida. However, the first documented lionfish was found as early as 1985 in nonnative waters of the Atlantic Coast of the US. These data suggest irresponsible owners discarding unwanted fish in nonnative waters have been the catalyst to a recent ecological problem.


Lionfish-Distribution-USGS-11In 1999, divers near Miami commonly saw P. voitans and P. miles. In less than 10 years large numbers were observed throughout Jamaica and the Bahamas, as far south as Cuba and as far north as Delaware and New Jersey. By 2012, lionfish were dominating reefs and wrecks off the coasts of Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and the Gulf of Mexico. At present time, in this divers personal experience, it is hard pressed not to see at least one lionfish on every dive. As documented in a recent trip report, of four dive sites within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, lionfish were observed at all but one.

With the vastness of the ocean, why should we care that such a small fish seems to be thriving in nonnative waters? Lionfish are long lived and are very reproductively successful; every spawning event has the potential to add 30,000 individuals to the population. Armed with venom, these species have very few predators. Species of large grouper are known to inhabit both native and nonnative water; however, the grouper has been so overfished their current existence is in question. Being veracious predators themselves, lionfish simply displace other species or eat them. A recent study of stomach contents of lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico found no less than four species of smaller fish, several invertebrates, and mollusks in a single individual. In short, they eat everything. Lionfish appear to be both temperature and salinity tolerant, suggesting they can live quite comfortably in the ocean as well as estuaries and freshwater. Together with pelagic larval distribution, population densities have reached orders of magnitude greater than those in native ranges. The presence of the lionfish has the potential to disturb the trophic cascade of delicate marine ecosystems. Within native habitat predators would keep numbers manageable by targeting larvae and juveniles. At present, it appears that the lionfish is starting to take over.

Eradication of lionfish in order to protect our fragile marine ecosystems within coastal water is key. But, with few lionfish10Derby_estapenatural predators, how do we target a single species without harming others? Recently, lionfish round-ups and fishing derbies are helping jump start the removal of this pest. Some competitions have witnessed a one-day take of over 500 lionfish! Opening a year-round season on spearfishing has been introduced in Florida with great success.   Restaurateurs within the Caribbean have also been doing their part by putting lionfish on the menu. In a recent Huffington Post article, lionfish has a distinct flavor that could catch on as a delicacy.


The story of the lionfish is sadly one of many examples of how irresponsible pet ownership has lead to a compromise of native species and their habitat. More than ninety-five percent of our oceans are yet to be explored. We have the chance to understand our planet on a new level as we learn the secrets of this underwater world. It would be devastating if the act of stupidity by a few lead to the devastation of such a miraculous place before we even catch so much as a glimpse.

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Sep 15

Conservation Achievements in the Pantanal as an UNESCO World Heritage Area and one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands, the Pantanal covers 188,000 ha in western central Brazil.  Bordering Bolivia and Paraguay, this freshwater ecosystem, fed by the Cuiabá and Paraguay rivers, is home to a variety of species found nowhere else on Earth.  Modern pressures and an ever-growing human population continue to pose challenges for wildlife conservation and habitat preservation.  Research projects centered on such species as the lowland tapir, giant river otter, and jaguar work relentlessly to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and secure safe rangeland to ensure wildlife are protected and given the opportunity to thrive as they once did.

Since the late 1970’s, Panthera’s Drs. George Schaller and Howard Quigley have been working on an ongoingJaguar comprehensive ecological field study on jaguar in the Pantanal.  One of the biggest threats to jaguars is conflict with beef farmers around the Pantanal region.  Farmers clearing land to plant crops or make room for cattle grazing has not only compromised jaguar habitat but also prey availability.  Using data collected from an almost 40 year study, jaguar conservationists have been able to gather insight on the lives of these magnificent creatures, i.e., where and when they travel and hunt, reproduction, genetics, etc.  Conservation efforts by Panthera working with national and local governments, as well as nongovernmental conservation groups have facilitated educational outreach programs helping locals understand why it is important to learn to live in peaceful coexistence with the jaguar and farmers better livestock husbandry practices to decrease the chance of a conflict with a jaguar and minimize environmental impact.  In addition, the establishment of the Jaguar Corridor Initiative will help reconnect jaguars via a genetic corridor from Mexico to Argentina.

Lowland TapirAlthough not as well known as the jaguar, the lowland tapir plays a significant role in maintaining the ecosystem of the Pantanal.  Looking a bit like a cross between a pig and a horse with a very flexible proboscis, tapirs are critical for seed dispersal, prey items for large predators like the jaguar, and shaping the landscape as they move through the area.  One of four existing species found on two separate continents, the lowland tapir is considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN.  Conflicts with humans via habitat destruction and hunting are currently the biggest threats to this unique megafauna.  Using radiotelemetry and camera traps, conservationists with the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative lead by Dr. Patricia Medici are gaining a better understanding on the social complexities, reproductive physiology, and distribution pattern of the lowland tapir.  These data will allow for conservation plans to be written to guarantee species survival.  Considered a keystone species, the tapir is considered fundamental for overall biome longevity.

Giant river otters remain endangered throughout their fragmented range.  Otter populations were decimated inGiant River Otter the 1950s and 1960s due to hunting for their pelts.  It was once thought total otter numbers were as low as under 100 individuals.  Conservation efforts have yielded in a significant increase in giant river otters over the last 30 years; however, habitat degradation, conflict with fishermen, and depleting food sources remain an ever-present threat.  Conservation projects focusing on reproduction, environmental requirements (den sites), and diet have helped otter biologists develop long-term management initiatives.

The Pantanal is home to over 80 mammalian, 650 bird, 50 reptilian, and 400 fish species, some of which are unique to this area.  Through persistence and passion, conservation groups are gaining ground to secure precious habitat and help in the overall survival of some amazing creatures. As it is seen all around the world, human-wildlife conflict appears to be the underlying cause of habitat degradation and loss of populations.  Gathering data to better understand how wildlife utilizes, contributes, and travel through their habitat gives conservationists a foundation on which to build long-lasting conservations plans.  What we learn today can be applied to not only help future generations of wildlife but also humans within the breathtaking Pantanal.


For more information on the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative and Dr. Patricia Medici please check out the following links:


You can find more information about Panthera’s work with the jaguar at the following link:

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Jul 30

Essence of Pakistan’s Wildlife and Biodiversity: An Overview of the Problems and Conservation Needs

Sunil Nawaz, MSc Zoology, M.phil Microbiology Scholar
Natasha Zarish M.Sc Zoology M.Ed Science Education


Pakistan is blessed with several natural beauties including indigenous wildlife (including several rare endangered species), beautiful mountains of Himalayas, deserts of Cholistan and Thar, Manmade forests like changa manga forest as well as several natural resources from the Baluchistan trails. It also holds second tallest mountain K-2, which is a really challenging tourist attraction in terms of mountain climbing. Four seasons bloom each year to their fullest, and rain fall of 12-14 inch per year average lead to make Pakistan a very fertile agricultural land.


But despite its enormous beauty, Pakistan has many pests which are ruining it by illegal hunting, poaching and unattended wildlife disease impact (i.e. Newcastle disease in wild peacock). Deforestation and lack of biodiversity conservation laws are eradicating Pakistan’s biodiversity at a massive scale.


In 2012, National Assembly Standing Committee on Climate Change was distressed to know that bustards and the Siberian cranes are hunted arbitrarily. Both these species of migratory birds flying into Pakistan all the way from Siberia during the winter months are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cities) with around 14,000 other endangered species in Pakistan including birds, other animals and plants.


The meeting channeled their thoughts to find out the source of such illegal hunting and came to an awkward result that members of Royal families from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia, have been given licenses to hunt endangered migratory birds, such as Bustards, despite the stringent restrictions. The meeting observed that it was the Foreign Office that issued hunting licenses to such personalities.


Laws are there to stop such hunting campaigns, but often the officials who control such events become lawless in greed of money. Such laws are also present to stop poaching of wildlife specially endangered species. In August 2012, a group of young individuals were arrested in Bahawalpur accused of illegal hunting and poaching of wild animals. The district administration officials said they have recovered four deer, 28 black and 11 brown partridges and 20 quails from them. The officials held that three of those arrested are government servants. These deer and other animals were captured from Laal Sohanra National Park, which hosts as many as 432 deer in the 600-acre area.



MarkhorIn some areas and National Parks of Pakistan Game hunting is being practiced successfully to control and fulfill the hunter’s desire of hunting and to finance the conservation efforts for those animals. For the trophy hunting of Kashmir markhor, as the program began, three hunters from US paid as much as $150,000 per trophy – for every markhor hunted, $105,000 was returned to the community for a total of $315,000. Slowly but surely, the markhor population began to recover. Last year too at least 48 permits have been issued on exorbitant fees to legally hunt wild goats. The impact of such projects over the country has shown its results in years. In 1986, there were less than 200 Suleiman markhors and Afghan urials in their natural habitats in Baluchistan, but a 2010 survey showed their populations had increased to 3,500 and 3,000, respectively.


Leopard2Beside all the pleasures of game hunting there is another side of the picture as well, some shepherds who have lost their cattleLeopard1 that are being hunted by wild carnivores often kill such attackers to reduce the attacks. In 2011, a snow leopard wrecked havoc in a remote valley of Gilgit one night, killing 68 goats in six separate incidents. As a result after few months there was several news of snow leopard being killed by locals as a protection measure. Such boundaries are not being controlled here. Human interrupts the wild lands in terms of recreational activities and the results turn fatal for both.  (Photos courtesy:


The snow leopard is a rarely sighted animal in fact the only detailed and the first ever video documentary on it came out in Snow_leopardrecent years by BBC, which was shot in chitral and gilgit sites. Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist, and cameraman Mark Smith (who had worked on the Planet Earth segment) spent a further 18 months filming snow leopards in the Hindu Kush for the BBC film Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth

Such beauty of Pakistan has to be conserved at any cost. But all efforts go in vane without a proper check and balance on it. Beside hunting and poaching, lack of proper disease control is also a major problem for wildlife and biodiversity in Pakistan. A recent study by sub-continent’s eminent scientists revealed that Newcastle disease which is caused by avian paramyxovirus serotype-1 (APMV-1), that is also branded as Newcastle disease virus (NDV). It is a highly contagious viral disease that affects domesticated and wild bird species throughout the world. The disease is endemic in Pakistan and represents major threat to the economy of the country. From 2009 to mid 2012, many outbreaks of Newcastle disease have been reported to World Organization for Animal Health from Pakistan as well as neighboring countries. Most of the outbreaks have been reported from Iran and India that shares border with Pakistan. Even with some of the reports from selective regions only and surfacing of novel NDV (5i) from Pakistan, it is of the essence to screen and characterize the NDV throughout the country (Muhammad U Sohail et al-2013).


Last year, in 2012, Pakistan lost 300 peacocks to the deadly Newcastle virus. This year, since June, at least 60 more peacocks have died owing to the same disease, five of which died in a span of just two days. The overall population at risk is around 80000 which threatened of extinction from Pakistan if proper control measures are not practiced soon. Around 40 million chickens have died due to this massive attack of ND virus.


Several conservation campaigns are working at national and international level by governmental as well as nongovernmental organizations for controlling of hunting, eradication of poaching, enhancing the breeding of wild animals, tagging and vaccination of wild animals.












Scans from high school biology book


In the educational syllabi, recent syllabus change at high school level biology books has been able to develop greater interest of students for biodiversity conservation. Special chapters are included in the book regarding biodiversity conservation. They give a sound account of what wildlife and biodiversity of Pakistan includes, what are its problems and what simple steps can be taken by students to take care of biodiversity of Pakistan.


With all this I urge the readers to contribute their energies to conserve the essence of natural beauty of Pakistan taking one step at a time.



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Jun 07

World Oceans Day: Why it Should Matter to All of Us

coral reefDid you know that 8 June is World Oceans Day? Like all days of designated observance, World Oceans Day was started to bring a yearly awareness, in this case to the state of our underwater world. Although water makes up ~70% of Earth’s surface, our seas remain one of the most unique, important, and yet unexplored parts of our world. As vast as our marine areas are, they are also extremely fragile, quickly being destroyed from an ever-increasing pressure by an ever-increasing human population. I suppose it is easy to dismiss what we do not see on a daily basis; out of sight, out of mind. However, as goes the ocean, goes the rest of the planet.

Since 2012, a number of positive changes have taken place to safeguard the ocean and the amazing creatures that call it home. The horrific act of shark finning robs the ocean of over 140 million sharks annually. Yes you read that correctly, more than 140 million sharks are killed so their fins can be used as a soup ingredient or false cure in a nonscience based medicine. From the smallest to the largest, no shark is safe. Taking a step in the right direction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently voted to add eight sharks to the threatened species list. Working with the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the IUCN hopes their new listing will help conserve sharks. Keep in mind, this does not ban the trade of sharks and their fins, it simply increases the pressure to regulate the trade. Fortunately, individual countries have voted on legislature to ban the catching of sharks and use of their parts. Only with global support will sharks have a fighting chance.

On an international scale, a number of countries are taking responsibility for our oceans by designating protected areas within the marine environment that border their coastlines. Belize, island nations in the South Pacific, Cuba, and countries in the Caribbean all have marine parks to conserve and protect breeding areas for marine species both in and around the water. Currently, Australia has 3.1 million km2 within 59 marine parks protected. In addition, the United States has selected 400,000 km2 of “no-take areas” in over 223 marine preserves. However, as much progress has been done, more is required. Of all the 5, 880 protected areas around the world, marine parks only make up 1.17% of the worlds oceans.

Overfishing is a huge concern for the overall health of the oceans. The over harvest of large fish populations have forced commercial fishing vessels to fish deeper. Trawling is a fishing method in which nets are pulled behind boats. Net depths are set to skim the ocean bottom, which not only allows for capture of deep-sea species but also causes disruption to habitat like deep-water reefs. Overfishing at any depths puts an increase pressure on marine environments. To combat overfishing, Monterey Bay Aquarium is empowering the public with the choice to choose. Monterey Bay has developed a Seafood Buyer’s Guide, available on the web at and also as in app for smart phones and tablets. The Guide gives consumers information about purchasing seafood species, listing them in order of good, better, and best choices, as well as species not to purchase. Once the demand stops, the overharvest will too.

bycatch-whalenation.orgAs I type this, there is a floating island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean the size of the US state of Texas or 696, 241 km2. That is larger than all the protected marine areas within US waters. The island of rubbish is a great example of consumerism gone awry. Of the more than 280 million tons of plastic produced globally each year, less than 40% is recycled; leaving 60% to live out its long life buried in a land fill or finding a new home on the high seas. Plastic in all shapes and sizes pose huge threats to marine life as it can be deadly when ingested and entangle animals causing them to drown. By simply practicing the 3Rs, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, everyone can make a difference for ocean survival. Eliminating waste removes the environmental threat. It truly is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

The bottom line is that it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of our oceans and protect marine species. The choices we make today regarding what we consume will be the deciding factor of our planet fate. Huge strides have been taken to protect our beautiful ocean and the inhabitants within, but so much more needs to be done. So please join in on this World Oceans Day and pledge to be part of the solution and no longer the problem. Helping our seas help us too.

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