The Earth

The Return of the Great American Jaguar

The story of tracking a legendary feline named El Jefe through the Arizona mountains

Photo credit Bill Hatcher
Photo credit:  Bill Hatcher

By Richard Grant

The jaguar known as El Jefe—The Boss—was almost certainly born in the Sierra Madre of northwest Mexico. Chris Bugbee, a wildlife biologist who knows El Jefe better than anyone, guesses that his birthplace was in the 70-square-mile Northern Jaguar Reserve in the state of Sonora. A team of American and Mexican conservationists do their best to protect the dwindling jaguar population there, and it’s within range of the Arizona border, where El Jefe made his fateful crossing into U.S. territory.

The gorgeous leopard-like rosettes were there in his fur at birth. Each jaguar has its own arrangement of these patterns, making individuals easy to identify. El Jefe has a heart-shaped rosette on his right hip and a question mark over the left side of his rib cage. Like all newborn jaguar cubs, he came into the world blind, deaf and helpless, and gradually acquired his sight and hearing over the first few weeks. By three months, the cubs have been weaned from milk to meat, but for the most part stay in the den. “It’s a lot of waiting around for mom to get back from a hunting trip,” says Bugbee.

By six months, the cubs are emerging under maternal supervision. Aletris Neils, a fellow biologist and Bugbee’s wife, studied a jaguar mother at the reserve in Sonora. “She would always stash her cubs on a high ridge while she hunted down in the canyons,” says Neils. “When she made a kill, she would carry the meat uphill to her cubs, rather than invite them down into possible danger.” Neils thinks El Jefe’s mother may have done the same thing, and that might partially explain his liking for high slopes and ridges as an adult, although all cats seem to enjoy a vantage point with a view.

We associate these sleek, swaggering, immensely powerful cats with Latin American jungles, where their populations are highest, but jaguars used to live all across the American Southwest, with reports of sightings from Southern California to the Texas-Louisiana border. They were hunted out for sport and their beautiful pelts and because they posed a threat to cattle. They were trapped and poisoned by semi-professional hunters who were paid a bounty by the federal government. The last recorded female jaguar in the United States was shot dead in Arizona in 1963.

El Jefe is the fourth documented male jaguar to make the border crossing in the last 20 years. Scenting the air for prey and threats and water, prowling through the night with the rocky ground under his cushioned footpads, conscious of the need for stealth and a safe place to sleep in the daytime, hyper­aware of sounds and movement, this young cat could never have known, or cared, that he was walking into a political firestorm.

First wolf pack found in California in nearly a century

Five gray wolf pups captured on a trail camera in Northern California in early August are members of the first established pack in the state in decades. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)
Five gray wolf pups captured on a trail camera in Northern California in early August are members of the first established pack in the state in decades. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

By Julie Cart

A gray wolf pack has established itself in Northern California, state wildlife officials confirmed on Thursday, the first family of wolves known in the state in nearly 100 years.

The group — two adult black-furred gray wolves and five 4-month-old pups — will be known as the Shasta Pack.

The announcement came after trail cameras in remote Siskiyou County captured a series of photographs in May and June of what appeared to be a wolf. Biologists retrieved scat samples and placed more cameras in the area, hoping for a better look.

On Aug. 9, the cameras photographed two separate black-furred wolves, believed to be adults. Five black wolf pups were photographed in the same spot. The evidence was in: It was clearly a pack.

State wildlife authorities last year added gray wolves to California’s endangered species list, even though no wolves were known to be in the state. Officials said they anticipated that wolves beginning to establish in Oregon would eventually find their way into California’s northern counties.

“We were really excited if not amazed” at how rapidly wolves have reappeared in Northern California, said Eric Loft, chief of the Wildlife Branch of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They have beat us to the punch.”

Nepal’s rhino numbers rise steadily thanks to anti-poaching measures

Country’s population of endangered one-horned rhinos now stands at 645 – up from 375 in 2005

 Nepal's rhino numbers rise steadily thanks to anti-poaching measures
A one-horned rhino drinks from a river in Janakauli community forest bordering Chitwan National Park, south-west of Katmandu, Nepal. Photograph: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

A surge in the number of endangered rhinos has brought some cheer to earthquake-hit Nepal.

The country has seen a steady increase in the number of rhinos over the past 10 years, making the country a global example of how poachers can be defeated.

The country’s population of one-horned rhinos, one of the most endangered species in the world, now stands at 645, according to figures released this week.

“At a time when the world is facing difficulties to protect and conserve the wildlife including rhinos, Nepal has seen an extraordinary improvement in wild life conservation,” said Diwakar Chapagain, an official at World Wildlife Fund.

“It is definitely a rare successful conservation story in the world, where park officials and the Nepalese army have managed to succeed in anti-poaching activities.”

In three of the past five years there has been no rhino poaching at all. In 2002, 37 rhinos were killed by poachers, leading many experts to express deep concern over the future of the one-horned rhino in the country. By 2005 the population stood at only 375. Since then, numbers have risen dramatically.

Monarch Migration Plunges to Lowest Level in Decades

 The monarch population has declined with extreme weather and changes in farming that have diminished its source of food. Credit Travis Morisse/ The Hutchinson News via Associated Press
The monarch population has declined with extreme weather and changes in farming that have diminished its source of food. Credit Travis Morisse/ The Hutchinson News via Associated Press

The number of monarch butterflies that completed an annual migration to their winter home in a Mexican forest sank this year to its lowest level in at least two decades, due mostly to extreme weather and changed farming practices in North America, the Mexican government and a conservation alliance reported on Wednesday.

The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas disclosed at a news conference in Zitácuaro, Mexico.

That was a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.

Will elephants still roam earth in 20 years?

CNN — At the start of the 1980s there were more than a million elephants in Africa. During that decade, 600,000 were destroyed for ivory products. Today perhaps no more than 400,000 remain across the continent, according to Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington, who is widely recognized as an authority on the subject.

It is a tragedy beyond reckoning and humanity needs to pay attention to the plight of the elephants before it is too late.

In the past few years an epic surge in poaching has resumed the killing, thanks to the penchant for ivory in the Asian market — especially in China, where ivory is now selling for over $1500 a kilo.

Recently, Julius Kipng’etich, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, made a plea at the Library of Congress in Washington in an unprecedented appeal for the world to save Kenya’s and Africa’s elephants from the plague of poaching that has in recent years seen the decimation of tens of thousands of them.

Slaughter of the African Elephants

In Amboseli National Park in Kenya, a herd of savanna elephants moved toward hills where they would spend the night.

THERE is nothing a mother elephant will not do for her infant, but even she cannot protect it from bullets. About a year ago, poachers attacked a family of forest elephants in central Africa. The biologist who witnessed the attack told us that wildlife guards were completely outgunned. In the end, an elephant mother, riddled with bullets and trumpeting with pain and fear, was left to use her enormous body to shield her baby. Her sacrifice was for naught; the baby was also killed.

Such is the reality facing African forest elephants today.

This mother and child were just two of the tens of thousands of forest elephants that have been butchered over the past decade. A staggering 62 percent vanished from central Africa between 2002 and 2011, according to a study we have just published with 60 other scientists in the journal PLoS One. It was the largest such study ever conducted in the central African forests, where elephants are being poached out of existence for their ivory.

In China and other countries in the Far East, there has been an astronomical rise in the demand for ivory trinkets that, no matter how exquisitely made, have no essential utility whatsoever. An elephant’s tusks have become bling for consumers who have no idea or simply don’t care that it was obtained by inflicting terror, horrendous pain and death on thinking, feeling, self-aware beings.

Gray wolf takes to California but is unlikely to find a mate here

A photo from a hunter's trail camera appears to show OR7, the young male wolf that has traveled more than 3,000 miles since leaving his pack in northeastern Oregon. (Associated Press)
A photo from a hunter’s trail camera appears to show OR7, the young male wolf that has traveled more than 3,000 miles since leaving his pack in northeastern Oregon. (Associated Press)

Like many out-of-state visitors, the lone gray wolf that trotted across the border from Oregon has taken a liking to California.

He went back and forth between the two states a handful of times after his initial crossing into Siskiyou County on Dec. 28, 2011. But since spring, the young male has remained in the Golden State, loping across forests and scrublands, up and down mountains and across rural highways in California’s sparsely populated northeast.

The first wild wolf documented in California in nearly 90 years, he has roamed as far south as Tehama County — about halfway between the border and Sacramento — searching for other wolves, and a mate.

Timing a Rise in Sea Level

The fast-retreating Sheldon Glacier in Antarctica. A collapse of a polar ice sheet could result in a jump in sea level.

Thirty-five years ago, a scientist named John H. Mercer issued a warning. By then it was already becoming clear that human emissions would warm the earth, and Dr. Mercer had begun thinking deeply about the consequences.

His paper, in the journal Nature, was titled “West Antarctic Ice Sheet and CO2 Greenhouse Effect: A Threat of Disaster.” In it, Dr. Mercer pointed out the unusual topography of the ice sheet sitting over the western part of Antarctica. Much of it is below sea level, in a sort of bowl, and he said that a climatic warming could cause the whole thing to degrade rapidly on a geologic time scale, leading to a possible rise in sea level of 16 feet.

While it is clear by now that we are in the early stages of what is likely to be a substantial rise in sea level, we still do not know if Dr. Mercer was right about a dangerous instability that could cause that rise to happen rapidly, in geologic time. We may be getting closer to figuring that out.

An intriguing new paper comes from Michael J. O’Leary of Curtin University in Australia and five colleagues scattered around the world. Dr. O’Leary has spent more than a decade exploring the remote western coast of Australia, considered one of the best places in the world to study sea levels of the past.

The paper, published July 28 in Nature Geoscience, focuses on a warm period in the earth’s history that preceded the most recent ice age. In that epoch, sometimes called the Eemian, the planetary temperature was similar to levels we may see in coming decades as a result of human emissions, so it is considered a possible indicator of things to come.

Examining elevated fossil beaches and coral reefs along more than a thousand miles of coast, Dr. O’Leary’s group confirmed something we pretty much already knew. In the warmer world of the Eemian, sea level stabilized for several thousand years at about 10 to 12 feet above modern sea level.

The interesting part is what happened after that. Dr. O’Leary’s group found what they consider to be compelling evidence that near the end of the Eemian, sea level jumped by another 17 feet or so, to settle at close to 30 feet above the modern level, before beginning to fall as the ice age set in.

In an interview, Dr. O’Leary told me he was confident that the 17-foot jump happened in less than a thousand years — how much less, he cannot be sure.

This finding is something of a vindication for one member of the team, a North Carolina field geologist, Paul J. Hearty. He had argued for decades that the rock record suggested a jump of this sort, but only recently have measurement and modeling techniques reached the level of precision needed to nail the case.

Construction of Giant Dam in Brazil Threatens Part of Amazon Region

The construction of a giant dam in the Amazon region of Brazil is threatening parts of the world’s largest rainforest. But the indigenous tribes living here are keeping quiet in return for millions of dollars in promises.

They search for dead meat, and rummage through the trash. They come from the forest and live on the city’s waste. They’re called “urubus” in northern Brazil, black vultures with curved beaks and lizard-like heads.

The old people say the birds bring bad luck. There are now thousands in the city of Altamira, more than ever before. They blacken the sky when seen from a distance, and at closer range their silence is unsettling. Black vultures, lacking the vocal organ found in birds, the syrinx, rarely make any noise at all.

“The urubus,” says Bishop Erwin Kräutler, “are an unmistakable sign that the city is in chaos.” Kräutler, a native Austrian, is the bishop of one of the world’s large prelatures, which is larger than Germany. He talks about chaos, speaking into every camera that’s pointed at him, and he speaks loudly — too loudly for the big landowners, the corporations and the government. His enemies have placed a bounty on the bishop’s head for the equivalent of almost €400,000 ($543,000), and even the largest newspaper in northern Brazil wrote that it was time to “eliminate” him.

Bishop Kräutler is now 73. He’s been living in Altamira, on the edge of the rainforest and in the middle of the Amazon region, for almost 50 years. For the last 30 years, he has been fighting the construction of the dam directly adjacent to the city, a project that is financially lucrative for many in the area.

He and his friends from environmental organizations advise the victims, file lawsuits against government agencies and plan rallies. He has spoken with prosecutors and the country’s supreme court, has met with the president twice and was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize, but all to little avail.

Wolves Under Review

 A gray wolf in 2008. The only wolf populations to have protection going forward would be Mexican wolves in southern Arizona and New Mexico.
A gray wolf in 2008. The only wolf populations to have protection going forward would be Mexican wolves in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Credit Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Associated Press

In June, the Fish and Wildlife Service prematurely proposed to end federal protection for gray wolves in the lower 48 states in the belief that wolves had fully recovered from near eradication in the early 20th century. This was politics masquerading as science. The Fish and Wildlife Service would love to shed the responsibility of protecting large carnivores, like the wolf and the grizzly bear, and hunters and ranchers throughout the Rocky Mountains would love to see wolves eradicated all over again.

By law, a decision like this one — to remove an animal from the endangered species list — requires a peer review: an impartial examination of wolf numbers, population dynamics and the consequences of proposed actions. But science and politics have gotten tangled up again. The private contractor, a consulting firm called AMEC, which was hired to run the review, removed three scientists from the review panel. Each of the scientists had signed a May 21 letter to Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, criticizing the plan to turn wolf management over to the states.

Poisoned Fields: The Painful Evacuation of a Japanese Village

A family in Ishinomaki praying by a grave on Monday. At an estimated 300 billion euros, the catastrophe is the most expensive natural disaster ever.

Contamination levels in the Japanese mountain village of Iitate are higher than in some parts of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Its evacuation has been a painful process for residents — and many are more afraid of resettlement than they are of radiation.

Why on earth didn’t she notice anything? It’s a question that preoccupies Mieko Okubo. Why didn’t she see the signs?

If she had only been more attentive, perhaps Fumio, her father-in-law, would still be alive today. He would be sitting with her at the table, gazing out at his rice fields through the open terrace door, just as he had done for years.

“Do we have to leave Iitate?” Fumio asked on April 11, when Japan’s NHK television network reported that their village was probably going to be evacuated.

“If they say so on TV,” she had replied off-handedly.

“Do we really have to go?” Fumio had asked again, and his daughter-in-law had thought nothing of it.

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