Turtle smuggling discovered in China

This video says about itself:

12 February 2012

A total of 79 illegal alien live turtles were intercepted by inspection and quarantine authorities Saturday at an airport in Shanghai, east China.

From Xinhua news agency in China today:

Thousands of smuggled turtles seized in Shanghai

SHANGHAI, Jan. 31 — Shanghai customs said Sunday they seized more than 2,000 endangered turtles last November in what could be the city’s largest turtle smuggling case.

Customs officials said they discovered large numbers of live turtles hidden in six containers of crabs imported from Indonesia on Nov. 19. The containers were claimed by a Shanghai company.

Most of the turtles were endangered species including Amboina box turtle, pig-nosed turtle and spotted pond turtle.

The turtles are now in the care of local zoos, officials said.

The customs did not give more details, saying the investigation was still underway.

Environmentalists have warned China’s rising market for rare and exotic pets, such as turtles and snakes, has fueled smuggling.

Rare buntings discovered near Beijing, China

This video shows a rufous-backed bunting.

After Beijing birders discovered a European robin (very rare in China) …

From BirdLife:

Beijing buntings beguile birders

By Ed Parnell, Wed, 20/01/2016 – 06:01

Asia’s rarest bunting, the Rufous-backed Bunting Emberiza jankowskii, has been found wintering close to China’s capital – the first record of this globally threatened species in Beijing municipality for seventy-five years.

A single Rufous-backed Bunting was discovered at Miyun Reservoir, 80 km north-east of central Beijing, by local young birders Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao on 9 January 2016. By 13 January seven individuals had been found, with a remarkable nine buntings present on 15 January. (The municipality’s previous record was of two males seen near the Summer Palace in the winter of 1941.)

Rufous-backed Bunting Emberiza jankowskii – also known as Jankowski’s Bunting after Michel Jankowski, a nineteenth-century Polish zoologist exiled to Siberia – has declined drastically since the early 1970s, most likely as a result of the conversion of its grassland habitat to arable farmland and an increase in grazing livestock. This beautiful bunting is now known only from a restricted area of north-east China; the species formerly occurred in the far north-east of North Korea (its current status there is unknown) and the extreme south of the Russian Far East (there have been no Russian records since the 1970s). Consequently, the species is classified by BirdLife as Endangered.

Terry Townshend, a British birder living and working in Beijing, and the BirdLife Species Champion for Rufous-backed/Jankowski’s Bunting comments: “Given the relatively low density of birders in Beijing, it is possible that Jankowski’s Bunting has been overlooked in previous winters. However, I suspect that this winter is exceptional. Last year the government banned the growing of crops close to the reservoir, which provides drinking water for Beijing, so the area around the wetland has been left uncultivated. Grasses and other wild plants have produced a bumper crop of seed that is attracting large numbers of passerines – including a Beijing record flock of 5,600 Lapland Buntings at the end of November.”

The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife China Programme and China Bird Watching Society have been taking action for Rufous-backed Bunting on its breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia for several years, with surveys undertaken in 2014 discovering nine new breeding sites for the species. In addition, meetings have been held with the local authorities and a number of educational activities have been carried out at schools and villages close to its core breeding areas, to raise awareness of the bunting and its conservation.

Mike Crosby, BirdLife’s Senior Conservation Officer for the Asia Division, commented: “The discovery of a small flock of Rufous-backed Buntings close to Beijing is encouraging news for this little-known species, and perhaps indicates that at least part of the species’ population moves several hundred kilometres south from its breeding range during the winter. Improving our understanding of their wintering range is vital for our ongoing efforts to conserve this globally threatened songbird.”

To help with BirdLife’s work to save the species please visit our Save Jankowski’s Bunting Appeal page.

Projects on the breeding ground were aided by the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and Oriental Bird Club and were undertaken with the support of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

Waterbirds counted in China

This video says about itself:

2014 Balanga City Asian Water Bird Census

DENR, in coordination with the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and the City Government of Balanga, conducted a census of migratory waterbirds in Barangays Sibacan, Tortugas, Puerto Rivas Lote, Puerto Rivas Itaas, and Puerto Rivas Ibaba, on January 18, 2014.

Terns, Plovers, Black-winged Stilt, Sandpipers and Little, Intermediate and [Great] Egret as well as a rarely-seen Chinese Egret, fleeing the cold weather of their country of origin, were among those counted.

The yearly census, which aims to determine bird population, covers all Asian countries and is conducted in January. The first census in the Philippines was conducted in 2004.

From BirdLife:

Decade-long Citizen Science project counts China’s waterbirds

By Ed Parnell, Thu, 14/01/2016 – 18:01

Since 2005, more than 150 volunteers have taken part in the China Coastal Waterbird Census, which, in November 2015, published its third report on the state of the country’s coastal waterbirds

The coastal wetlands of China constitute some of the most important migratory, passage and wintering sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Unfortunately, the area also faces some of the world’s most serious conservation challenges. In order to protect and manage important sites along the flyway effectively, reliable data are desperately needed, making the China Coastal Waterbird Census – and the work carried out by its volunteers – of critical conservation importance.

“We discovered at least 10 sites of international importance for birds, yet still without proper protection”, said Bai Qingquan, one of the coordinators of China Coastal Waterbird Census Team.

The latest report, which covers the period from 2010–11, presents a huge amount of information about China’s coastal avifauna. A total of 161 species were recorded during the survey, including 21 globally threatened species.

Peak counts occurred during April’s northward migration period, when almost 266,000 individual waterbirds were logged from 111 species. Twenty per cent or more of the entire population of the following globally threatened birds were recorded during the latest census: Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea (Critically Endangered: 103), Saunders’s Gull Saundersilarus saundersi (Vulnerable: 5,451), Relict Gull Larus relictus (Vulnerable: 6,005), Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor (Endangered: 561) and Siberian Crane Leucogeranus leucogeranus (Critically Endangered: 700).

“The China Coastal Waterbird Count, which is organised and implemented solely by volunteer bird watchers has lasted for 10 years and is a great example of Citizen Science”, said Vivian Fu, Assistant Manager of Hong Kong Bird Watching Society/BirdLife International China Programme. “The findings of the census not only display significant scientific value, but also contribute to the conservation of sites and species of international importance. We hope that more and more people will join us in future.”

The report, which is written in Chinese, with an English summary and annotations, can be downloaded here (PDF, 55 MB).

The China Coastal Waterbird Census has been coordfinated by the The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife Hong Kong) and over the years has received support from the following donors: the Darwin Initiative; Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong; Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust; the Tolkien Trust; the Asian Waterbird Conservation Fund; and Ford Green Awards.

Spectacular Geminid meteor shower in China

This video says about itself:

Chinese Star Gazers Witness Peak of Geminid Meteor Shower

15 December 2015

Star gazers in some parts of China had the opportunity to witness the peak of the Geminid meteor shower on early Monday and Tuesday mornings.

As the most consistent and active annual shower, the Geminids were seen from Monday to Tuesday. As the date of its highest intensity being at dawn on Dec. 15, star gazers can see 120 meteors per hour with interference of moonlight.

Star gazers in Taiyuan, capital of north China’s Shanxi Province, went to the mountains to catch views of the Geminids.

“One student has seen more than 60 meteors….I will count the number. It is very exciting,” said Yang Jun, one star gazer.

As the Geminids are always seen in December, star gazers must keep themselves warm if they want to watch it outdoors. Although it was quite cold, they chose to lie on the ground rather than stay in their cars to enjoy a better view.

“The Geminid meteor shower is hard to witness and there are only three good chances to see them. So we should seize every opportunity. Lying on the ground will give us a wider view of the meteors unlike inside the car where it is much warmer but we can see fewer meteors,” said Yin Jian, another star gazer.

More on this is here.

From timeanddate.com:

In 2016, the Quadrantids [meteor shower] will peak on January 4. A third quarter Moon will make for good viewing conditions. Astronomers suggest that observers try their luck after midnight on January 4.

Star gazing for children on Dutch Texel island, 18 December 2015: here.

Ancient tomb discovery in China

This 9 December 2014 video says about itself:

The 2,000 Year-Old Mummified Body of Lady Xin Zhui HD – Archaeology Documentary

Mummies from various dynasties throughout China’s history have been discovered in several locations across the country. They are almost exclusively considered to be unintentional mummifications. Many areas in which mummies have been uncovered are difficult for preservation, due to their warm, moist climates. This makes the recovery of mummies a challenge, as exposure to the outside world can cause the bodies to decay in a matter of hours.

An example of a Chinese mummy that was preserved despite being buried in an environment not conducive to mummification is Xin Zhui. Also known as Lady Dai, she was discovered in the early 1970s at the Mawangdui archaeological site in Changsha. She was the wife of the marquis of Dai during the Han dynasty, who was also buried with her alongside another young man often considered to be a very close relative. However, Xin Zhui’s body was the only one of the three to be mummified. Her corpse was so well-preserved that surgeons from the Hunan Provincial Medical Institute were able to perform an autopsy. The exact reason why her body was so completely preserved has yet to be determined.

From daily The Independent in Britain:

Ancient Chinese tomb dating back 2,500 years uncovered to shed light on obscure kingdom

The little-known Luhun kingdom existed between 638BC to 525BC

Matt Payton

6 December 2015

Chinese archaeologists have uncovered a 2,500-year-old- tomb thought to contain the skeletons of an ancient royal family.

The tomb in Luoyang city, Henan province, is believed to originate from the relatively-unknown Luhun Kingdom, which only lasted 113 years between 638BC and 525BC, according [to] People’s Daily Online.

Thought to be the tomb of a Luhun nobleman or royal – copper belts and ceremonial pots were discovered along with a nearby burial pit complete with chariots and whole horse skeletons.

The excavation began in 2009 after a spate of grave robbing in the area, which hosts around 200 different ancient tombs, <a href=”http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/1885832/chinas-ancient-treasures-under-siege-army-tomb-raiders&#8221; target=”_blank”>South China Morning Post reports.

Due to the tomb’s size, which is at 21 feet long, 17 feet wide and 28 feet deep, experts believe it to be the resting place of a royal family who wielded little political power.

The tomb had suffered from damage caused by water and grave robbers, but the interior coffin was protected by plaster and a coffin board.

The horse burial pit contained the skeletons of 13 horses and six chariots. The horses had been carefully arranged on their sides, with decorations placed on their carcasses.

It is hoped the tomb will help historians gain a better understanding of the movements of the migratory Rong people, an ethnic minority which made up the population of the short-lived Luhan kingdom.

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.