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Giant panda no longer ‘endangered’ but iconic species still at risk:

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the positive change to the giant panda’s official status in the Red List of Threatened Species, pointing to the 17 per cent rise in the population in the decade up to 2014, when a nationwide census found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild in China.

“For over fifty years, the giant panda has been the globe’s most beloved conservation icon as well as the symbol of WWF. Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world’s wildlife and their habitats,” said Marco Lambertini, WWF Director General.

But we need to keep perspective. Something similar is happening with tigers, whose census sizes are finally increasing after a century of continuous decline. But we’re talking bounce back to 4,000! This is still a small and vulnerable population. Genetically, depending on the details of the structure, 100 to 1,000 are probably enough for viability. But genetics isn’t everything. Some random stochastic event (e.g., look at what happened to the Tasmanian devil) could wipe out a few thousand quickly, and we’d be up against our heels.

• Category: Science • Tags: Conservation 
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320px-Tigress_at_Jim_Corbett_National_Park This isn’t a good time to be into charismatic megafauna. Mostly due to habitation destruction the numbers are not going in the right direction. There has been a precipitous decline in the number of lions over the past 20 years. This is probably a good thing for rural Africans, but ideally I envisage a future where most agricultural work will be so high productivity that cities will suck up a lot of this labor (even in the United States economic growth is in a few large urban areas).

But I happily note that this year we seem to have hit the bottom (hopefully) for the number of tigers, World’s wild tiger count rising for first time in a century:

The world’s count of wild tigers roaming forests from Russia to Vietnam has gone up for the first time in more than a century, with some 3,890 counted by conservation groups and national governments in the latest global census, wildlife conservation groups said Monday.
The tally marks a turnaround from the last worldwide estimate in 2010, when the number of tigers in the wild hit an all-time low of about 3,200, according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum.

India alone holds more than half of them, with 2,226 tigers roaming reserves across the country, from the southern tip of Kerala state to the eastern swamps in West Bengal, according to its last count in 2014.

This is down from ~100,000 in 1900, with declines pretty much every year. Part of this is probably basic economics: the last refuges of tigers are probably the most marginal for farmland. Additionally, economic development and cultural changes are probably having some effect. But the census here is very small. And there are genetic concerns if you look at the sizes for some nations:

Bangladesh, 106; Bhutan, 103; Cambodia, 0; China, more than 7; India, 2,226; Indonesia, 371; Laos, 2; Malaysia, 250; Myanmar, no data available; Nepal, 198; Russia, 433; Thailand, 189; Vietnam, fewer than 5.

For a large mammal a bottleneck of ~100 is probably not a major genetic concern, though some of these populations have been through many decades of small population size. But in terms of sustainability 100 is too close to the edge, so that a low population year might result in some genetic problems, which would result in more problems down the line.

• Category: Science • Tags: Conservation, Genetics 
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Credit: Tierrascott

In the 1980s I was fascinated by the pictorially oriented books on the wildlife of the world which dated to the 1960s and 1970s. One of the great conservation success stories of that era were the Saiga antelope of Eurasia. In 1920 there were only 1,000-2,0000 Saia left in the world. By the 1960s their numbers were in the millions. And so it was until the 1980s.

But the combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union, for which the Saiga was a notable conservation success, and the rise of the Chinese economy, have resulted in another crisis for the Saiga. Today their number is between 10,000-50,000, in a few fragmented regions. And yet this is still higher than their early 20th century bottleneck! The Saiga clearly have the capacity to recover from dramatic population crashes. The key, to be frank, is to keep the Saiga a viable population as China ascends up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

• Category: Science • Tags: Conservation, Environment 
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I really love the fact that I live in the early 21st century for a host of reasons. That being said, one aspect that’s certainly true is that when it comes to charismatic natural variety and geography there are very few “blank spots” on the map. You can get a sense of what I’m talking about if you browse National Geographic from the early 20th century. Most of the map had been filled in, but there were still nooks and crannies waiting to be illuminated. So I always find stories like this interesting, because they capture a sliver of the wonder that once was so commonplace, Snow Leopard Population Discovered in Afghanistan:

The Wildlife Conservation Society has discovered a surprisingly healthy population of rare snow leopards living in the mountainous reaches of northeastern Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, according to a new study.

The paper is in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor:

The Wakhan Corridor in northeast Afghanistan is an area known for relatively abundant wildlife and it appears to represent Afghanistan’s most important snow leopard landscape. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been working in Wakhan since 2006. Recent camera trap surveys have documented the presence of snow leopards at 16 different locations in the landscape. These are the first camera trap records of snow leopards in Afghanistan. Threats to snow leopards in the region include the fur trade, retaliatory killing by shepherds and the capture of live animals for pets. WCS is developing an integrated management approach for this species, involving local governance, protection by a cadre of rangers, education, construction of predator-proof livestock corrals, a livestock insurance program, tourism and research activities. This management approach is expected to contribute significantly to the conservation of snow leopards and other wildlife species in the Wakhan.

• Category: Science • Tags: Biology, Conservation 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"