Lesser bilby – the yallara



Lesser bilby – the extinct rabbit-eared bandicoot

On a personal note…I clearly remember the first time I saw a picture of a bilby. I was just staring at the photo thinking there’s no way this creature is legit: this must be a hoax, a digitally manipulated image of a rabbit and some kind of other rodent…
In fact, this is a recurring impression for me – certain animals simply look so beautifully unreal like they were fictional characters from a weird dream or an animated movie. Of course, it’s just a feeling evoked by the amazing diversity and whimsiness of our planet’s wildlife, but in some cases this impression proves to be right with time 🙂 : in 2018 Dreamworks released an animation short about a bilby meeting a chick in the dangerous outback of Australia.

Bilby – short animation
©Copyright Dreamworks via CartonBrew.com

I really hope Dreamwork’s short will gain the bilby a little exposure and support: obviously, the species actually exists (at least the greater bilby…) and it needs every help to keep it that way. So back to the facts:

Bilbies are rabbit-like marsupials also known by the name rabbit-eared bandicoot, endemic to the arid and semi-arid areas of central Australia. There are two bilby species: the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), slowly becoming endangered with around 9000 mature individuals living in natural populations and in captive colonies; and the lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura), already extinct.

The lesser bilby or yallara is relatively unknown to science: most of our knowledge is based on a 1931 description (On mammals from the Lake Eyre Basin) by H. H. Finlayson, who also collected 12 live specimens near Koonchera dune in north-eastern South Australia, where the species seemed to be abundant at that time.



The lesser bilby went extinct during the 1950s

Date of extinction: The lesser bilby most probably went extinct during the 1950s, but the exact date is unknown. According to the accounts of aboriginal Australians, the species might have survived into the 1960s; but the last physical evidence collected was a less than 15 years old skull found below a wedge-tailed eagle’s nest in the Northern Territory in 1967.

bilby stamp rabbit-eared bandicoot

bilby stamp rabbit-eared bandicoot

The bilby on Australian postage stamps from the late 1950s 

Range: As the lesser bilby was first described in 1887, there’s very little known about the original range and distribution of the species – at the time of the discovery, lesser bilby populations might have been severely decreased by foreign predators introduced to mainland Australia by European settlers in the late 18th century. The known range of the species is confined to the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts and the northern half of the Lake Eyre Basin in central Australia.

Habitat: Lesser bilbies used to inhabit arid, sandy dunes and deserts with spinifex vegetation (common collective name of the characteristic, hummock-forming bunchgrasses endemic to Australia), sandhill canegrass, tussock grass and mulga.



Spinifex – the characteristic vegetation of central arid areas in Australia
©Copyright Dr. Fiona J. Walsh / CC BY 2.0 

Description: The appearance of the lesser bilby was very similar to its surviving relative regarding the general shape and proportions of the body, the head and the tail. Bilbies have characteristic, elongated bandicoot muzzle; long rabbit-like ears; and long, furry tails. They have strong forelimbs and claws used for burrowing and digging for food; and they move with a cantering gait with the hind legs moving together and the front legs alternatively, often carrying their tail like a banner.

The fur of the lesser bilby was colored pale yellowish-brown to grey-brown, with lighter fur on its belly, limbs and tail. The body mass of adults was about 300-450 grams, a lot smaller than the greater bilby’s.

Bilbies are strictly nocturnal animals; they spend the daytime sleeping in their 2-3 m deep burrows. The lesser bilby had the habit of temporarily closing the entrance with loose sand while in residence. Bilbies have very limited eyesight – they’re almost blind – but their ears and nose are very sensitive. They are omnivores, feeding on anything from ants, termites and other insects through roots and seeds to small rodents.



Characteristic features of the bilby: the elongated muzzle and the long, rabbit-like ears

Being marsupials, lesser bilby babies spent a longer period in their mother’s pouch after birth. The females usually had twins and the species probably bred non-seasonally.

Cause of extinction: Competition with rabbits and other animals, degradation and loss of habitat, being hunted for food by aboriginal people and changes in the fire regime are all possible factors that contributed to the extinction of the lesser bilby; but the main reason was that the bilby was defenseless against foreign predators like the foxes and feral cats that were introduced to their ecosystem by humans. The main threats for the still surviving greater bilby are very similar. The national conservation program to save the greater bilby includes monitoring and protecting the wild populations from competitive animals and predators, and captive breeding with reintroduction of small groups into conservation areas of its former habitat.

The national conservation program for the greater bilby also includes captive breeding in zoos.
©Copyright TVGreen on YouTube


The lesser bilby poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 


Vintage botanical illustrations

With all the modern imaging technologies today it’s easy to forget that even just 150 years ago the only way to illustrate any kind of book was by hand-made drawings and paintings. In the case of scientific works – be it a herbal for physicians and pharmacists, a gardeners handbook, or an account about the flora and fauna of some newly discovered territory – the perfect depiction of the subject with utmost attention to fine details was crucial and required not only scientific accuracy and the understanding of morphology but also great artistic skill.

From around the 1700’s, with the spreading of a more affordable book printing process these books became available for wider audiences; and the works of great illustrators like Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Anne Pratt, Georg Ehret, Maria Sibylla Merian, John James Audubon or Ernst Haeckel ( the latter two naturalists themselves) became fairly well known and popular.

One of my personal favorites among the lesser known illustrators of this era is Madame Berthe Hoola van Nooten, a Dutch artist who spent several years on the Dutch East Indies and made a beautiful botanical plate series illustrating 40 exotic plant species of the island of Java. The fineness, the delicate coloration, the accuracy and artistic details of her works are incredible – Fleurs, Fruits et Feuillages Choisis de l’Ile de Java (Flowers, fruits and plants from the island of Java) was published in 1863-64 in Brussels with descriptions of the 40 selected plants and excellently executed chromolithographs of the original drawings.

My family has been running an antique book shop for decades – through our connections I had the opportunity to access high resolution scans of these illustrations and digitally restore and clean them. You can check out all 40 illustrations in this gallery, art prints of the restored images are available in different sizes in my store.



Madagascar wildlife poster series

My new wildlife conservation awareness poster series is out featuring the amazing wildlife of Madagascar, a unique biodiversity hotspot with a range of endemic species severely endangered by the deforestation of the island.



This series was created in collaboration with Chances for Nature, a Göttingen (Germany) based non-profit organization working for the conservation of natural habitats and biodiversity. They have several ongoing projects around the world (you can read about them in detail on the CFN webpage); one of the locations is Madagascar. Among other things, they established an environmental education camp in the Kirindy Reserve in the western part of the island where they bring local children to the forest to observe the animals as closely as researchers do – many of the species featured on the posters occur in this relatively small area.

For now, the new series is available in my RedBubble store on posters, art prints, spiral notebooks and stickers. Similarly to the two original series I plan to create design versions more suitable for apparel and to write a blogpost about each of the species later.

As usual, my whole profit from the RedBubble sales goes to the Sea Shepherd . We are working to make this series available through other channels that would directly support wildlife conservation projects on Madagascar – so stay tuned for updates.


The addax – a desert specialist



Addax – the screw-horned antelope

One of the defining movies of my childhood was Jamie Uys’ 1974 nature documentary Animals Are Beautiful People. I remember the opening shots showing the sand dunes and flats of the Namib desert and the narrator’s voice: ‘The oldest and driest desert of the world…. You’d think nobody could make a living here.’ And then the movie shows the incredible animals and plants inhabiting that hostile and seemingly empty environment; and shows the other, ephemeral face of the desert by filming how the Kalahari turns into a meadow for a few weeks after a rain.

The Sahara – largest of all (non-polar) deserts – doesn’t appear in this movie; but the wildlife of the over 10 million km2 area (together with its southern Sahelian fringes) is just as uniquely adapted to the complex mosaic of arid and semi-arid lands of rocky plateaus, sandy dunes, basins, depressions, wadi systems, gravelly plans, arid grasslands and mountain ranges. Thanks to the extreme conditions these habitats have remained largely undisturbed by humans, and the main threat to the survival of most of the wildlife is the recent severe drought. For the last few hundred thousand years, the climate and the vegetation of the Sahara has alternated between hot desert and savanna grassland – this phenomenon is attributed to a 41 000 year cycle caused by the 2.5° precession of the Earth’s axis. Although currently we are in the dry period – with the next wet period expected in 15 000 years – the long droughts of the 1960-80s are considered rather extreme and induced a catastrophic expansion of desertification over the entire region with direct and collateral consequences affecting both the flora and the fauna of the desert.



Desert dunes of the Erg Chebbi in Northern Sahara
©Copyright  Ali Eminov / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Unfortunately there is one group of Saharan animals threatened not only by the extreme drought: large mammal species of the desert have been heavily overhunted in the last century with modern arms. The populations of these species are rapidly declining; many of them are facing the imminent threat of extinction. One of the critically endangered species is the Addax – or white antelope – with fewer than 100 individuals living in the wild.

Range: The addax was historically widespread throughout large areas of the Sahara and its bordering Sahelian grasslands, but over the past century and particularly over the last few decades the range of the species has been drastically decreasing. Once found in all countries sharing the Sahara Desert, today there’s only one remaining addax population in the wild in the Termit/Tin Toumma region – a narrow band of desert between eastern Niger and the Djourab sand sea in western Chad -; with some occasional vagrants in southern Algeria and a possible small group in central Mauritania, based on unconfirmed reports.
A few hundred addaxes have been reintroduced into fenced enclosures in their former range and habitat in Tunisia and Morocco, with slowly increasing numbers. The captive population is estimated to be around 6000 individuals globally (in Europe, North-America, Japan, Australia and the Middle East); partly in managed breeding programs of zoos, partly in private collections and on ranches in the USA where they are kept and bred for hunting.

The addax used to inhabit all major habitat types of the Sahara
©Copyright Coke Smith

Habitat: Addaxes are desert-dwellers, the species has been recorded in all major habitat types of the Sahara except the mountainous areas; they inhabit even the most arid territories with extreme temperatures and less than 100 mm annual rainfall. They have a preference for firmer sand sheets and flatter areas between sandy dune fields where they can graze on ephemeral annual pastures and more permanent perennial vegetation.
The addax is a nomadic species with movements following the food source available at the moment – they penetrate deep into the central arid Sahara after rainfall makes the desert bloom and move out of the desert to the bordering Sahel regions during the drought to find shade and grazing.

Critically endangered addax antelope
©Copyright Coke Smith

Description: The addax (Addax nasomaculatus) – besides the rhim gazelle, also endangered – is the most desert-adapted African antelope: it has anatomical, physiological and behavioral characteristics allowing the utilization of extremely desolate, inhospitable and arid habitats. The species is also known as screw-horned antelope: its most recognizable feature is the beautiful, long spiral double horn that can reach over one meter in length with one to three twists.
Male addaxes have a shoulder height of about 95-115 cm and a body weight of around 100-125 kg – females are a bit smaller and lighter. They have a stocky build, relatively short and sturdy legs for an antelope, and broad hooves with flat soles and strong dewclaws suitable for traveling efficiently on sandy terrain – they have adapted to endurance of extreme conditions of the desert rather than to speed. The coat of the addax changes seasonally: in the hot summer it is almost white to reflect radiant heat; in winter it turns into smoky grey while the belly, the legs and the hindquarters remain white. They have dark brown hairs between the horns and a conspicuous X shaped white mask over their greyish nose. They have a short, slender tail ending in a tuft of black hair.



Portrait of an addax
©Copyright Josh More  / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0  

Addaxes are primarily grazers, eating mainly grasses; but they also consume leaves of shrubs, leguminous herbs and bushes, water-storing plants such as melons and tubers, perennials turning green after the rain, and – if there are no grasses available – they browse leaves of small trees like Acacia too. The addax has physiological functions highly adapted to desert life; these antelopes are able to survive without water utilizing only the moisture from their food and the dew that condenses on plants. They conserve the moisture by excreting dry feces and concentrated urine and they are able to tolerate a daily rise of 6 °C in their body temperature before they need to resort to nasal panting to cool down. They feed at night and early morning and spend the day resting in shaded areas and depressions that provide them protection from direct heat of the sun and sandstorms.

The addax is the most desert adapted African antelope
©Copyright Coke Smith

Addaxes are social animals, herds usually contain up to 20 members – both male and female -, with a strong social structure based on age and led by the oldest female. Breeding peaks during winter and early spring, females deliver one calf after a 9 month gestation period.



Female addax and calf in winter colors
©Copyright Greg Goebel / CC BY-SA 2.0

Threats: The addax has been hunted historically with traditional methods for its meet, skin and horns by nomad peoples of the desert and by European trophy hunters; but the rapid decline of the population started at the end of the 1940s with the advent of the lethal combination of modern firearms and off-road vehicles. The extreme drought periods of the second half of the 1900s resulted in general reduction of pasture lands, forcing the addax from the more secure arid area to the Sahelian steppes where it was more exposed to exploitation.

By the beginning of the 21th century the number of addaxes plummeted to near extinction – the wild population was estimated to be around a few hundred individuals. During the last two decades growing regional insecurity, migrants, and the illicit trade of arms and drugs has significantly increased the traffic and illegal hunting in the remote, formerly undisturbed habitats of the addax. Poaching has also increased because of hunting by mining, military and administrative personnel of the Chinese oil industry’s installations in Niger, the last remaining reserve of the addax.

The Termit/Tin Toumma region in Niger is the last reserve of the wild addaxes
©Copyright Coke Smith

In spring 2016, an extensive aerial and ground survey of the experts of the IUCN and the Sahara Conservation Found had found only three individuals in the Termit/Tin Toumma Reserve of Niger – an area considered as the key habitat of the addax. Fortunately later that year and during 2017 new surveys in Chad and Niger revealed a few small groups – still less than hundred individuals – of addaxes, giving hope that with joint efforts and engagement of the governments and wildlife services of both countries and with the expert help of several conservationist groups an effective action plan can be implemented to save this remaining population.


The addax poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 



The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo – back to the canopy



Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo

Tree kangaroo might sound like an oxymoron to someone not familiar with the wildlife of New Guinea, but these arboreal macropods really do exist and inhabit the tropical rainforests of the island and the far northeastern territory of Queensland, Australia. In fact, the evolutionary history of tree kangaroos is a beautiful example of how life will always adapt to a new habitat to fully exploit its environmental carrying capacity.

Looking at the map one would naturally assume that the wildlife of New Guinea is similar or closely related to the fauna and flora of the other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. This supposition proves to be rather untrue: though New Guinea’s flora is a mixture of tropical rainforest species with Asian origin and typically Australasian plants, the second largest island of the Earth is inhabited overwhelmingly – and surprisingly – by animals of Australian origin.



New Guinea’s endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo
©Copyright Zweer de Bruin / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The explanation lies in the geological history of the region: unlike the rest of the archipelago, New Guinea with the surrounding smaller islands is part of the Australian continental plate called Sahul and not the Sunda Shelf (extension of the Southeast Asian continental shelf). Sahul had separated from Antarctica and South America by the beginning of the Miocene; and kept slowly drifting northwards, colliding with the Sunda Shelf about 15 million years ago.
For long periods from the Miocene until the Holocene, today’s Australian mainland and New Guinea were linked by a land bridge during the repeated episodes of glacial advance when sea levels fell more than 100 meters and Sahul was exposed as dry land. Similarly, from time to time the Sunda Shelf used to be a continuous land mass connecting southeastern Asia and the Indonesian islands – Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Bali. In these periods the migration and distribution of species on the mainland and the respective future islands was unrestricted, but a barrier of a wide deep-water sea-channel along/above the colliding edges of the two continental shelves kept most species from crossing, and thus Asian and Australian wildlife – especially fauna – mostly separated.
However, many plant species have managed to spread through the channel; and as Sahul kept slowly drifting north to the tropical zone and the climate has gradually changed, the lush vegetation of the Asian tropical forests started to invade and replace the original flora on the northern territories of the shelf, developing into an entirely new habitat. This vegetation was quite different from the native flora, providing superior quality food in comparison with the plants of that age that were adapted to the more arid climate of the Australian landmass.
Only few animals – mainly bats and birds – have been able to cross the stretches of open water between the shelves; and the absence of leaf monkeys or any leaf-eating mammals occupying the canopy of the average Asian tropical forest left this niche of the new forests empty, presenting an evolutionary opportunity.



Tree kangaroos inhabit montane and lowland tropical forests of New Guinea and northeastern Australia
©Copyright Stu Rapley / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Around that time, rock-wallabies were abundant in northern Australia. Rock-wallabies are terrestrial kangaroos, but some of their species have a propensity to climb trees to feed on the flowers, fruits and leaves. Molecular evidence – genetic studies show that the Proserpine rock-wallaby is the closest living relative of tree kangaroos – strongly suggests a rock-wallaby ancestor around 5-7 million years ago that moved in into the new habitat and has slowly adapted to the arboreal lifestyle, evolving over time into a dozen of new species today known as tree kangaroos.
At the end of the last glacial period about 12 000 years ago the rising sea level separated New Guinea from the Australian mainland: most species of tree-kangaroos live now in the tropical forests of the islands, only two species are native in Queensland. Most tree-kangaroos are endangered, with decreasing populations threatened by hunting for food and by habitat loss: one of the endangered species is the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo, also known as ornate tree kangaroo.

Range: The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo is endemic to the island of New Guinea; the current range of the species covers the mid-montane regions of the Central Cordillera from the Indonesian border to Milne Bay province. Historically it used to occur in lowland areas too but now it’s locally extinct: rapid deforestation of these regions has destroyed most of its habitat.

Habitat: Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos inhabit montane and lowland tropical forests, they adapted to a canopy-dwelling lifestyle.



Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos have two golden stripes on their back and every individual has a unique pattern of rings and blotches on their tail
©Copyright  C Steele / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Description: The anatomy of the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi) is a great example of a living transitional form of evolution. Tree kangaroos have several features clearly showing the adaptation to arboreal lifestyle; but their general anatomy is still close to the ground-dwelling ancestor and is rather unsuited to a life in the canopy of trees. They have shorter and broader hind limbs with ankle joints that are modified from the highly specialized ankles of terrestrial hopping kangaroos to allow the foot to be rotated to grip branches; their arms are proportionally larger and stronger; they have rubbery pads on the soles of their feet and their paws and large, curved claws; their tail is lighter built and they use it well to balance while moving; and – unlike hopping kangaroos – they can move their hind limbs independently. But compared with perfectly adapted tree-dwelling animals like monkeys, possums or squirrels they are still clumsy climbers.

Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos have a body length of around 55-80 cm with a tail length of 70-85 cm. They have maybe the nicest coloration among tree kangaroos: their short, wholly fur has a soft reddish-brown shade; they have a greyish-brown face and light golden underbelly, throat and limbs. Two longitudinal golden stripes run on their back where they have a characteristic vortex of hair. Every individual has a unique pattern of brown and golden rings and blotches on their tail.



Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos eat large quantities of leaves
©Copyright Nathan Rupert / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos feed mainly on leaves of the forest trees; but occasionally they consume flowers, fruits, cereals and even insects. They have a sacculated stomach with fermenting bacteria to digest the large quantities of fibrous foliage. They are active in the morning and afternoon, except near human settlements where they are mostly nocturnal.

Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos are solitary and territorial animals. Being marsupials, females have a well-developed pouch opening forward. They have one young per birth after a 21-38 days gestation period, and the joey grows for almost a year in the pouch before first leaving.



Endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos in the Melbourne Zoo
©Copyright Tim Williams / CC BY 2.0 

Threats: Except humans there are virtually no predators or competitors for Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos in their habitat; the species – as all tree kangaroo species – is primarily threatened by uncontrolled hunting for meat and extensive habitat destruction. The lowland tropical forests of the island had been almost completely eliminated and replaced by plantations – coffee, rice, palm oil and wheat – and farm gardens of locals; and logging continues in the montane areas for timber, mining and more agricultural land.


The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 


The globe-horned chameleon – individualist of the rain forest



The globe-horned chameleon is one of the chameleon species endemic to Madagascar

Chameleons are fascinating creatures for many reasons. They have a couple of morphological features and unusual abilities that make their appearance truly unique and somewhat bizarre: their hands and feet are fixed in a grasping position to help them cling to branches – arboreal species also have a prehensile tale for that, accurately curled up like a spiral when resting; they have extra-long, extensile tongues for catching insects at a distance sometimes bigger than their own length; they have unique, bulging eyes that can turn and focus independently giving them a full 360 degree view –  they can see in both visible and ultraviolet light; and they are most recognized for their ability to change their skin coloration and pattern – contrary to popular belief, the main reason for that is not camouflage but to convey their emotions and to communicate with mates.

Chameleons come in many sizes from 15 mm up to 75 cm; many of them have variously sized and shaped casques, horns, crests or other protrusions or appendages on their heads, and spikes along their spine from neck to tail.  They have a characteristic swaying gait rocking slowly back and forth between each step taken. Unlike other animals, they continue to grow throughout their lives, shedding their old skin in pieces.



Endangered globe-horned chameleon
©Copyright Linda de Volder

These extraordinary, colorful lizards live in warm habitats – ranging from humid forests to deserts – of mainland Africa, Madagascar, southern Europe, some regions of the Arabic and Indian peninsulas and the island of Sri Lanka. From the more than 200 known chameleon species (according to the IUCN listing) 85 can be found on Madagascar. Many of them are endemic to the island – Madagascar has an 88 million years long history of relative isolation, 90 percent of its wildlife can be found nowhere else on the planet. This unique wildlife and ecosystem is severely threatened by different activities of the island’s growing human population – the globe-horned chameleon is one of Madagascar’s 28 chameleon species assessed as endangered or critically endangered.

Range: The globe-horned chameleon is endemic to Madagascar, with a current distribution range restricted to a relatively small area of around 675 km² (based on the size of the residual forest patches around the locations of confirmed sightings) in the central highlands between elevations of 1200-1500 meters.

Habitat: The residual humid montane rainforest of the central highlands. Globe-horned chameleons live in the mid-upper stories of the forest; they prefer areas with old, big trees, mossy branches and twined lianas, often alongside streams.

Calumma globifer, female

Female globe-horned chameleon
©Copyright Matthias Markolf All rights reserved

Description: The species was first described by German zoologist Albert Günther in 1879. The globe-horned chameleon belongs to the larger chameleon species: females are a bit smaller than males, with a body length of around 15/17 cm and a tail of 30/39 cm, respectively.

Globe-horned chameleons have a backwards directed flat casque on their head – the species is also known as flat-casqued chameleon -, and males have two small globular nose appendages. They don’t have spikes on their back and the scalation of their skin is heterogeneous. Their color range – as by many chameleon species – covers different shades of brown, yellow, green and gray; on their side from head to tail they have a wider horizontal stripe with variable colors and usually three or more diagonal stripes. Males have a whitish-yellowish pattern on their throats.

Calumma globifer

Close-up of a male globe-horned chameleon – also known as flat casqued chameleon – showing both eponymous features
©Copyright Matthias Markolf All rights reserved

Globe-horned chameleons – as all chameleon species – are insectivores, hunting by projecting their tongue to capture the prey. They are diurnal, live solitarily and are often aggressive towards other members of their own species, showing their emotions by rapid color change. There’s no information about the breeding and mating habits of the species, it’s only known that females lay around two dozen eggs in a clutch.

Threats:  As most chameleon species of Madagascar the globe-horned chameleon is mainly threatened by the rapid loss and degradation of the island’s original forests. The continuous deforestation of Madagascar started with the arrival of humans around 2350 years ago and accelerated rapidly in the second half of the 20th century – around 40 percent of the forest areas were lost in that period, making altogether 90 percent of the original forests gone. Forest loss is largely attributed to the traditional slash-and-burn agricultural method imported to the island by the earliest settlers, (partly illegal) logging for charcoal and construction materials, and recently the increasing demand in land suitable for cattle grazing and coffee plantations. The increased exploitation of natural resources as a repercussion of the political events of the last decade had dire consequences for the island’s wildlife and forest conservation: several species are threatened with extinction.



The Ambohitantely Forest Reserve located 140 km northwest of Antananarivo
©Copyright Ambohitantely.blogspot.com

Chameleons are popular pets all around the world and the globe-horned chameleon is also threatened by illegal trade – the legal export of all Calumma species is currently suspended on Madagascar.


The globe-horned chameleon poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 


The mottled eagle ray – little known species of the oceans



The mottled eagle ray

If you spend some time browsing in the IUCN database of species you get to realize two scary and disturbing things – I mean statistically, because the database for the most part is a disturbing and infuriating read on its own… There are over 15 000 species categorized as DD (data deficient), meaning we don’t have enough information about those plants and animals to be able to assess how threatened they are; and more than 50 percent of the critically endangered and endangered species also need research on basic knowledge like life history, ecology, population size or distribution. Among them the whole diversity of wildlife is represented; they live in various habitats from forests to deserts, in land and marine regions of all biogeographical areas. These species might be easily extirpated by humankind from the planet forever without even really knowing them before – not that I would think it makes a real difference for the victims, but anyway.

One of the marine species with very deficient information is the mottled eagle ray (Aetomylaeus maculatus), assessed as endangered.



Mottled eagle rays are endangered by demersal fishing methods
©Copyright  Keith DP Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Range: Mottled eagle rays have sporadic distribution in the Indo-West Pacific along the coastal waters of the South China Sea and Indonesia, the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka and the Gulf of Oman. They no longer occur in the Gulf of Thailand.

Habitat: The species appears to be naturally uncommon, occurs on the inner continental shelf to depths of about 60 m over soft sandy substrate, also inhabits mangrove creeks and protected sandy channels to a depth of at least 18 m.

Description: The mottled eagle ray can grow up to 78 cm disc width, has an exceptionally long – over six times the length of the body – spineless tail and a distinctive color pattern of stripes and patches. It is an active swimmer, travelling long distances; feeds on crustaceans and mollusks. Mottled eagle rays are ovoviviparous (the embryos feed initially on yolk then receive additional nourishment from the mother by indirect absorption of uterine fluid enriched with mucus, fat or protein). The species is suspected to have a low fecundity, up to 4 offspring per litter.

Threats: The mottled eagle ray – as all marine animals in its habitat – is severely threatened by a variety of inshore demersal fishing methods (bottom trawls, gillnets, trammel nets) frequently used in its entire range. Fisheries tend to retain eagle rays as a ‘collateral catch’ and sell them to local fish markets. The high level of exploitation of these habitats combined with the low fecundity and natural rarity of the mottled eagle ray can lead to the extinction of the species very quickly.

And that’s it, we know nothing else about mottled eagle rays…



Mottled eagle rays have a distinctive color pattern of stripes and patches
©Copyright  Keith DP Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0 


The mottled eagle ray poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 


The Western black rhino – doomed to extinction



Western black rhino – extinct subspecies of the black rhinoceros

The modern age history of rhinoceroses has been like a rollercoaster, and odds are that’s not going to change in the near future. During the 19-20th centuries all five extant rhino species were hunted to the brink of extinction: the black rhino population reached a record low of 2400 in 1995, the four other species all had at some point of their story only a few dozen living specimens. Two of them – the Javan and the Sumatran rhino – have each only one population today with estimated 50-80 individuals; both species are critically endangered. Thanks to conservation efforts, by the end of the 20th century the white rhino and the greater one-horned rhino were able to recover to populations of a few thousand – only to face the danger of extirpation again because of the current surge in poaching to satisfy the increasing demand for rhino horns.



All five rhino species have been hunted historically for their horns – Indian greater one-horned rhino hunting

Rhino horn has been highly prized and sought after by several cultures for many reasons for over a thousand years, and Asia has been considered the leading consumer for decades, but this recent surge of demand is clearly connected to one country: Vietnam. In the first decade of the 21th century wealthy classes of Vietnam started to regard buying, consuming and gifting rhino horn as a status symbol. This is supported by an underlying belief in health benefits: rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years – even nowadays, neglecting all scientific evidence of their complete ineffectiveness – but the notion that it is the cure for everything from hangover to cancer is recent, and the latter one is spread by some well-respected Vietnamese doctors.

And as if the dire situation in Vietnam wasn’t enough, in November last year (2018) China announced that they will allow the regulated trade of rhino horn, tiger bones and animal parts of other endangered species used in traditional Chinese medicine again. Currently the implementation of lifting the ban that has been standing since 1993 is postponed because of the international outcry aroused by the announcement – maybe the time should be spent on convincing people willing to give thousands of dollars for a few ounces of rhino horn to choose the much more economical equivalent and chew on their fingernails instead…

Sadly, it is quite certain that four subspecies will not have a future at all: the Indian Javan rhino is thought to be gone extinct before 1925, and after decades of being hunted by poachers three more subspecies eventually went extinct in the first years of the 21th century. Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino, had to be euthanized in March 2018 leaving only 2 females of his subspecies alive in the world; the last known individual of another Javan rhinoceros subspecies (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) was shot and killed in April 2010 in Vietnam – this subspecies was already thought to be extinct for a while when a tiny population was rediscovered in 1988; and the first victim of the century was the Western black rhino, wiped out completely sometimes in the first decade.



The last Western black rhinos resided in Cameroon
©Copyright Save The Rhino

Date of extinction: The date and the circumstances of the death of the last Western black rhino are unknown – even the time of the last legit sighting is hard to tell –, but there’s no doubt it was killed by poachers for its horn. A WWF survey in 2001 found five live specimens in Cameroon and reported the possibility of three more unconfirmed individuals. In 2004, a nongovernmental organization (Symbiose) reported that they found evidence of over 30 western black rhinos still living in Cameroon – that quickly turned out to be a lie: the trackers faked rhino footprints to keep their jobs. In 2006, parallel surveys of the WWF, the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, and a renewed 6 month long field survey of Symbiose conducted on the species’ common roaming ground in Cameroon’s Northern Province failed to find any traces of living specimens. After the usual 5 years waiting period the IUCN eventually changed the status of the Western black rhino from critically endangered to extinct in 2011.

Range: The Western black rhino once used to roam large areas of central and western Africa from south-eastern Niger to South Sudan. The last population lived in Cameroon.

Habitat: Western black rhinos used to inhabit the savanna areas of sub-Saharan Africa; they preferred areas with thick scrub and bushland, gallery woodlands and marshes over the vast grassland.



Black rhinos roam the vast savannas of sub-Saharan Africa
©Copyright Gerry Zambonini / CC BY-SA 2.0

Description: The Western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was one of the four subspecies – according to the taxonomical scheme adopted by the IUCN – of the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). With an average of 140-180 cm height at the shoulder, 3-3.75 m body length and 800-1.400 kg weight it was considerably smaller than the other African rhino, the white rhinoceros. The names of both species are misleading as the white rhino is actually grey and the black rhino’s skin varies from brown to grey – they are not truly distinguishable by color.
African rhinos share a common ancestor and are generally quite similar in their appearances – thick skin, massive body with a broad chest, short neck, large head with two horns on the snout, and ears with a relatively wide rotation angle – but besides their size there are minor but very important differences, developed as adaptations to their differing diet and feeding habits. White rhinos are grazers: they eat grass, preferring the shortest grains of the open savanna grasslands; they have a distinctive flat broad mouth, a ‘square’ lip. Black rhinos adapted to browsing: they eat foliage and all leafy parts, branches, shoots and fruits of bushes and smaller trees; they’ve developed a strong, prehensile ‘hooked’ upper lip to grasp the leaves and twigs. The black rhino’s head is also smaller and held higher while white rhinos have a prominent muscular hump to support their larger head.





The clippers and the lawn-mower: black rhinos have prehensile lips adapted to browsing on leafy plants, white rhinos have square lips adapted to grazing on grass
©Copyright Bernard Dupont / CC BY-SA 2.0  and Martha de Jong-Lantink / CC BY 2.0

Besides their range, Western black rhinos had some less conspicuous features to distinguish them from the other three black rhino subspecies: they had a square based horn, some distinctive chewing apparatus characteristics, and their scientific name – longipes – refers to their longer distal limb segment.

All black rhinos usually spend their time browsing for food in the morning and evening hours and rest during the hot midday period, preferably wallowing in a mud pool to cool down and as a protection against parasites. They regularly visit water holes using the same trails that elephants use – they can live up to 5 days without drinking in drought periods.

Adult black rhinos generally live in solitary, except the mother-calf relation and while mating; young adults frequently form loose associations. Thanks to their deadly horn, thick skin and imposing size rhinos don’t really have any natural predators, except some rare cases of lion or crocodile attack. Black rhinos also have a reputation of being very aggressive, attacking at everything perceived as a threat – even at each other, often causing serious injuries resulting in death. Recent research shows that – in contrary to widespread belief – rhino’s eyesight isn’t particularly poor; although they rely more on their keen ears and excellent sense of smell.

Black rhinos have no mating season. Females have a single calf after a 15 month gestation period; the youngsters stay with their mother for about 2-3 years. Life expectancy in natural conditions is 35-50 years.



Eastern black rhino baby, a critically endangered black rhino subspecies
©Copyright Tambako the Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0 

Cause of extinction: At the beginning of the 20th century around one million black rhinoceroses roamed the savannas of Africa; for most of the century, the population of the Western black rhino was the largest among the subspecies. All black rhino subspecies were heavily hunted in the first decades of the 1900s by ‘sportsmen’ and trophy collectors; with the increasing industrial agriculture farmers and ranchers regarded them as crop pests and decimated their numbers.

Rhino horn has been sought after as a valuable material for special, traditional carved items in the Middle East and Asia; it is still frequently used to prepare the handle of a ceremonial knife called janbiya in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In the early 1950s, Mao Zedong started to promote so called ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ to counter Western influences: as rhino horn was – absolutely falsely – believed to be able to ‘cure’ several ailments, poaching rapidly increased, and with the dwindling population of rhinos all over Africa and Asia the market value of 1 kg horn reached 50 000 USD.  Between 1960 and 1995 98 percent of all black rhino populations were wiped out.

By the 1980s there were only two countries left in Africa with Western black rhinos: Cameroon had around 110 and Chad around 25 individuals living in their territory, with no known specimens in any zoos. The Chad population was eliminated within the next decade; and by the end of the century Cameroon had only 10 Western black rhinos, partly living in isolation without any hope to find each other and start breeding.

The WWF was the only organization coming up with a preservation plan to save the Western black rhino (1999), but unfortunately in lack of local conservation capacity and government commitment the program has never had a chance to be carried out, and the Western black rhinoceros was wiped out from the planet.



With the recent surge in poaching all rhino species are in danger
©Copyright Dolf Botha / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 


The Western black rhino poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife.