Wild horses in Mongolia

This video says about itself:

Pure Nature Specials – Wild Horses Return to China

3 February 2013

After many decades, the wild horses of West China return to their ancestral home range. Relentless poaching early last century wiped them out, but a new breeding program has restored 27 Przewalski’s horses.

From the BBC:

The world’s last truly wild horse is making a comeback

Most of the horses we think of as “wild” are just domestic horses gone feral. There is only one type of horse that remains utterly wild

By Jane Palmer

11 November 2015

In the majestic Mongolian landscape, where the vast grasslands meet the endless dunes, herds of horses rove. Neither tethered nor constrained by fencing, they run and graze on the arid, windswept steppes.

The very sight of wild horses symbolises freedom, but these Mongol horses are not truly wild. They are descended from domesticated horses, possibly from the same ones tamed by the armies of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

But for all the skills and passion of these “Hell’s Horsemen,” there remained one horse they never tamed: Przewalski’s horse. These horses are now the only truly wild horses anywhere in the world. After being driven to the brink of extinction, they are now making a slow recovery – but their future is far from guaranteed.

When the Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski visited China at the end of the 19th century, he was presented with the skull and hide of a horse shot on the Chinese-Russian border. A zoological examination determined that the remains were of a wild horse, and Przewalski’s horse received its official name. It’s pronounced “sha-val-skee”.

However, Mongolians had always named the horses “takhi”, which means “spirit” or “spiritual”. They regarded Przewalski’s horses as man’s messengers to the gods.

“They are sacred and symbolic to the local people,” says Claudia Feh, director of the Association for the Przewalski’s horse (TAKH). “It is taboo to kill them.”

The horses are short and muscular. They are smaller than most domesticated horses, reaching about 13 hands high at the shoulder, or a little more than 4ft (1.2m).

Their coat ranges from brown to dun, with a pale underbelly and muzzle. A dark dorsal stripe runs from the mane, down the spine, to a black-ish tail. Unlike domestic horses, their mane is short and stands upward, like a mohawk.

“They are wild and spirited,” says Feh. “They are the only wild horses on Earth, and they behave like it.”

It is unclear if they should be described as a separate species, distinct from domestic horses. But certainly the two are not completely alike. In October 2015, Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues published a study showing that Przewalski’s and domesticated horses have significant differences in genes that govern metabolism, muscle contraction, reproduction and behaviour.

Orlando’s team sequenced the genomes of 11 living Przewalski’s horses, representing all of the founding lineages, and five historical specimens dating from 1878 to 1929. They also obtained a tooth from the skull given to Przewalski.

Although the Przewalski’s horse genomes differed from those of domesticated horses, the two groups only diverged 45,000 years ago. “That represents a relatively short stretch in evolutionary time,” Orlando says.

If Przewalski’s horses do represent a true species, they are a young one. But for many decades it seemed that their story was going to be a short one.

In the late 18th century, herds of Przewalski’s horses ranged from the Russian Steppes east to Kazakhstan, Mongolia and northern China. But their numbers declined rapidly over the next few decades, due to a combination of hunting, harsh winters and increasing land use by humans.

Scientists saw the last wild Przewalski’s horse in 1969, in Mongolia’s Dzungarian Gobi Desert. Elderly herders have reported seeing the horses later. “But by the late 1970s they had totally disappeared,” Feh says.

As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Przewalski’s horse as “extinct in the wild“.

The only remaining Przewalski’s horses lived in zoos. In 1950 there were just 12. But an ambitious breeding program brought those numbers up to around 1,500 by the early 1990s.

With the survival of the species assured, scientists turned their attention toward returning them to freedom.

In 1994, they tried two reintroductions: in the Takhin Tal Nature Reserve in the Dzungarian Gobi Desert and at Hustai National Park in Mongolia. More recently, the horses have been reintroduced to other regions of Mongolia as well as Kazakhstan, Russia, Hungary and China.

Feh was among the scientists convinced that Przewalski’s horses could return to the wild. As a teenager, she was inspired by seeing 17,000-year-old paintings along the walls of the Lascaux Caves in south-west France, in which Przewalski’s horse look-a-likes prance and bound amid a throng of cattle, bison, stags and bears.

Struck by the freedom and abundance of ancient European wildlife, Feh began studying semi-wild horses. “I wasn’t just impressed with the beauty of the horses, but all the other animals that existed at the same time in our world that have now disappeared,” she says. “That just touched me.”

In 1992 she established TAKH, an organization dedicated to returning Przewalski’s horses to the wild and allowing them to flourish independently.

Having studied the horses’ behaviour, Feh believed that their ability to form cohesive family groups that stayed together would be critical to their survival. So instead of taking horses directly from captivity to Mongolia, she spent a decade raising them on a 400-hectare tract of land on the remote Causse Méjean plateau in southern France.

“It is quite a harsh environment there, and I look on it as a sort of training camp because they learned how to survive,” Feh says. As expected, the horses formed small family groups.

At the same time, Feh scoped out relocation sites.

In 1996, she settled on the remote region of Khomiin Tal, a 2,500 sq km tract of land in western Mongolia. “You go there and you can just breathe,” Feh says. “You have this impression that the sky is inside your head. It’s a place to be wild.”

n preparation for the horses’ arrival, TAKH built a fence around a 135 sq km release site to allow the vegetation to grow. They also negotiated with local herders, to ensure they would keep their domestic horses out of the reintroduction site.

In 2004, after ten years of preparation, TAKH reintroduced four groups of horses to Khomiin Tal. Upon arrival, the horses formed their family groups and successfully kept wolves at bay.

But threats to the horses abound.

“There is a certain amount of risk involved in reintroducing these animals,” says Chris Walzer of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna in Austria. “You just have to learn some of them are going to not make it.”

In 2009, Mongolia experienced a brutal winter or “zud”, in which temperatures dropped as low as -47 °C. Despite the efforts of the scientists and local herders, more than half the Przewalski’s horses in Takhin Tal perished, due to cold and lack of food.

Feh’s site had enough forage and not one horse died. Nevertheless, the 2009 zud cast doubt on whether the horses can successfully survive in a country with such extreme weather – especially if man-made climate change makes it even more extreme.

However, the biggest challenge to the Przewalski’s horses may come from within: from their DNA.

Although Przewalski’s horses have 66 chromosomes and domestic horses have only 64, the two can mate and produce fertile offspring. That means they could hybridise themselves out of existence by mating with domestic horses.

This process has already begun. When the first foals were bought over to zoos in the 19th century, they were accompanied by domestic Mongolian mares that provided milk.  Many people believed that one of the most famous Przewalski’s horses, Theodore, was sired from one such domestic mare and a Przewalski stallion.

“We tested the genome of Theodore and found it to be a mix,” Orlando says. Along with other genetic tests, this shows that the two populations have been interbreeding, even after humans domesticated the horse about 5,500 years ago.

“But the tests that we’ve done showed that they were probably not mixed so much as people have previously thought,” Orlando says. Only some of the living Przewalski’s horses are mixed.

The other big problem for Przewalski’s horses is that the current population derives solely from 12 individuals. That means they are all rather genetically similar, perhaps too similar to survive.

The scientists compared the levels of genetic diversity within the current Przewalski’s horse population with the levels of diversity in other horse populations, such as Icelandic horses. Overall, the Przewalski’s horses are less genetically diverse.

“But at the same time, their diversity is fairly comparable to some breeds that are not endangered,” Orlando says. “There’s no reason to believe that there’s not enough diversity in the Przewalskis for them to survive.”

The risk is that the horses have had to mate with close relatives, which would mean they each carried multiple copies of harmful genes and thus became more prone to genetic illnesses. “If you’re inbred, you might have some copies of the same gene that will be deleterious,” Orlando says.

He found that all the horses are inbred, but some are “really, really heavily inbred” while others are far less so.

These two pieces of information could prove vital. “You could start informing the conservation biologists about which one to pick and which one not to pick to breed out for the next generation of those horses,” Orlando says.

Currently, the reintroduction sites in Mongolia are home to 350 horses between them. “Starting from zero individuals 25 years ago, this is success,” Feh says. “But they will need monitoring and indirect assistance from human beings for a long time.” In particular, they rely on help from local herders.

Feh’s goal for Mongolia is to reach three populations of 1500 horses, enough to be robust. Already, the reintroductions have been successful enough for the IUCN to reclassify the horses from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered“.

“When we started, I knew each and every horse by its name, where it came from, where it was born. And each and every one that died was a sort of minor catastrophe,” Walzer says. “Now we really are looking at it on a population level.”

Feh hopes to hand her project over to a local non-governmental organization within the next year. Hustai and Takhin Tal are already being run by Mongolians. With their long history of caring for horses and deep knowledge of their landscape, it seems likely they will prove to be the best possible carers.

“The goal of this project is to have as many Przewalski’s horses as possible,” says Feh. “We want them to survive for the next 3 million years.”

Learning giant panda language in China

This video says about itself:

Giant panda bears in the forest – David AttenboroughBBC wildlife

4 April 2008

Giant panda bears are the only known bear to be active during the winter months. See rare footage of them in the wild with the help of spy-cam.

From Tech Times:

Scientists In China Decode ‘Language’ Of Giant Panda

By Katherine Derla

November 7, 1:12 AM

Chinese scientists who studied the language of giant pandas at a conservation center in the Sichuan province were able to decipher 13 different vocalizations. Researchers found that male giant pandas make ‘baa’ sounds like a sheep when wooing mate. The female giant pandas then respond by making bird-like sounds (chirping) when they’re interested.

Baby pandas (cubs) make ‘wow-wow’ sounds when they’re sad. When they’re hungry, the make ‘gee-gee’ sounds to prompt their mothers into action. Cubs also say ‘coo-coo’ which translate to ‘nice’ in human language.

The research team recorded the giant pandas‘ vocalizations in various scenarios which included nursing the cubs, fighting and eating to analyze the voiceprints.

“Trust me – our researchers were so confused when we began the project, they wondered if they were studying a panda, a bird, a dog, or a sheep,” said China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda head Zhang Hemin, who lead the study. The research team has been analyzing panda linguistics since 2010.

Panda cubs learn to bark, shout, chirp, and squeak to express what they want. The researchers found that adult giant pandas are typically unsocial animals, making their mothers the only language teacher they ever had. When a mother panda won’t stop making bird-like sounds (chirping), she could be worried about her cubs. Like a dog, she barks when a stranger goes near her babies. In general, barking can be translated as “get out of my place.”

Understanding how giant pandas communicate can be valuable in their conservation, especially in their natural habitat in the wild. Findings coupled with conservation efforts will benefit future generations. Looking forward, the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda is looking into the creation of a “panda translator” using a voice-recognition software.

In the ocean, bottlenose dolphins and calves whistle to call each other when they’re out of visual contact: Mom calls Junior using his signature whistle, and he echoes it back in acknowledgement. In the Venezuelan jungle, when green-rumped parrotlets and their offspring get separated, they do the same thing as the dolphins: here.

Chinese lesbian student sues government about homophobic textbooks

This 11 November 2013 video is about the Hong Kong LGBT Pride parade.

From the BBC today:

China: Gay student sues ministry over textbooks

A university student is suing China’s education ministry over academic textbooks that describe homosexuality as a “disorder”, it’s reported.

Chen Qiuyan launched the legal action after she found the books in her university library, some of which suggested gay people could be “cured” with electroshock therapy, Xinhua news agency reports. A court in Beijing has accepted the case, which calls for the textbooks to be removed. “Homosexuals are already under great pressure,” says Ms Chen, who filed the case under an alias but has since spoken to US media using her real name. “Additional stigma from textbooks will cause direct harm. The ministry should bear the duty to monitor and supervise such content.”

Ms Chen, who studies at a public university in southern Guangdong province, had been consulting the library books after feeling confused over her own sexual orientation. “I thought textbooks must be authoritative,” she tells the New York Times in a telephone interview. “After reading them, I was terrified. I was even more afraid to admit that I’m gay.”

China stopped categorising homosexuality as a mental illness in 2001, but dozens of textbooks published after that time still describe it as a “disorder”, Xinhua says citing an investigation by a regional NGO. Last year, a Beijing court issued a landmark ruling against a clinic offering “gay conversion therapy”, the first case of its kind in the country.

Amur falcon, first ever in France

This video says about itself:

5 June 2012

Male Amur Falcon on temporary territory in Hebei, China. Filmed using a Swarovski Scope, 25x50WA Lens, DCA and Panasonic Lumix G2.

From the Tarsiger Twitter account today:

Amur Falcon, Falco amurensis 2[d] c[alendar] y[ear] male at Assais-les-Jumeaux, Deux-Sevres, W France – the 1st record for France and 12th for W[estern] P[alaearctic] if accepted

One would expect these birds, nesting in north Asia, to migrate to India and to South Africa rather than to France.

Good Chinese crested tern news

This 2014 video is called The Bird of Legend: Chinese Crested Tern.

From BirdLife:

Brave efforts pay off in doubly-successful project to restore colonies of Chinese Crested Tern

By Shaun Hurrell, Thu, 13/08/2015 – 10:39

The Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini is one of the rarest birds in the world. Only rediscovered 15 years ago, after its assumed extinction for six decades, this Critically Endangered seabird has a very small population size and only three breeding sites are known.

But the BirdLife International Partnership including the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife Partner), are proud to announce the wonderful news that the Chinese Crested Tern has had its most successful breeding season since its rediscovery, thanks to a project to restore a breeding colony on Tiedun Dao, in the Jiushan Islands – where over 70% the global population (at least 52 birds) were attracted and stayed to breed!

Also as part of this successful project, conservation groups and volunteers from mainland China, Hong Kong and USA successfully initiated the first ever tagging operation of Chinese Crested Tern and other seabirds on Jiushan Islands, where 31 birds were fitted with numbered bands on their legs so more can be learned about the species in order to continue to save them from extinction.

Simba Chan, Senior Conservation Officer of BirdLife Asia Division, braved a severe typhoon to ensure the colony’s breeding success: for the second year running he physically stayed on the island throughout the season to monitor and protect the birds, and dissuade illegal egg-collectors.

As a result, at least 25 breeding pairs of Chinese Crested Tern formed and at least 16 chicks hatched and successfully fledged. The >52 birds were attracted to this safe nesting site by the team’s decoys and sound playback system as in 2013 and 2014.

In addition, 2015 is the first year that birds have been attracted to all three known breeding sites: the Jiushan Islands and the Wuzhishan Islands of Zhejiang Province, and the Mazu Islands along the coast of Fujian Province each having successful breeding records, as compared to only the Jiushan Islands in 2014.

Chinese Crested Tern is listed as Critically Endangered by BirdLife International as the authority on birds for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, now has an estimated population of less than 100 individuals. Taking the figure of 13 (minimum estimation) chicks fledged from Tiedun Dao in 2014, within two to three years the number of breeding Chinese Crested Terns could have doubled from the original number when project was initiated in 2010 – when the global population was no more than 50 birds!

The thoughts of the colony were paramount in Simba Chan’s mind when a super-typhoon hit Tiedun Dao in the midst of the breeding season:

“Although the typhoon was very strong and hit us directly, less than 5% of the colony were casualties because we maintained vegetation to shelter the colony, and tried to discourage the chicks from moving down to the shore before the typhoon hit the island. This shows how we could apply our scientific observations from the previous year to improve the survival rate of the terns.”

A Partnership of hope for Chinese Crested Tern and more

Initiated by the Xiangshan Ocean and Fishery Bureau, the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History and the Wild Bird Society of Zhejiang in 2010, the project shows the benefit of a team of partners working to secure the future of this species.

“The main reasons for the success of the project are sound scientific methodology, good planning, and commitment from all sides,” says Simba Chan.

The decoys and audio playback technology to attract the birds to the safe island were developed by Dr Stephen Kress of Cornell University and the National Audubon Society (BirdLife in the USA) and proved very effective from the outset.

Regarding follow-up work, Simba Chan added: “This year, we will work with Burung Indonesia (BirdLife in Indonesia) to promote awareness at potential wintering sites for the recovery of these birds. Suitable transmitters are being considered for tracking the migration of Chinese and Greater Crested Terns in the coming years to reveal their migratory route.”

“We also aim to encourage cooperation between China and other countries in Asia for joint actions in seabird study and conservation”, said Vivian Fu, Assistant Manager BirdLife/Hong Kong Bird Watching Society China Programme.

The regular monitoring and banding of terns was documented by China Central Television. The documentary will be shown throughout China on major television channels in late 2015 and will bring a greater awareness of bird conservation among the general public in China – important for all the depleted seabird populations along China’s coast.

“The restoration project is not only important to save Chinese Crested Terns from extinction, but also has significance to wildlife conservation in China,” said Simba Chan.

“It has clearly shown local communities have a strong wish to revert the dire situation of many endangered species.”

“With all this we are bringing a species that was believed to be extinct only 16 years ago back into recovery.”

The Chinese Crested Tern restoration project was initiated by the first international seabird symposium in China in 2010. After the abandonment of breeding colony of Chinese Crested Tern on the Jiushan Islands because of illegal egg-collection in 2007, the Wild Bird Society of Zhejiang and the Xiangshan Government worked with BirdLife on a public awareness programme to stop seabird egg collection and consumption. Ground work started using decoys and audio attraction in 2013 to bring the birds back and was very successful from the start.

The project consists of a team of partners working together to save the Chinese Crested Tern from extinction: the Xiangshan Ocean and Fishery Bureau, the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History, the Wild Bird Society of Zhejiang, BirdLife International, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife Partner), and the tern restoration team from Oregon State University.

This project was only made possible with the generous support of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, the Endangered Species Fund from the State Forestry Administration of China, and the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme supporter Mark Constantine.

The Xiangshan Ocean and Fishery Bureau and the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History also provided significant logistical support which helped make the project such a resounding success.