Saving rock iguanas on Hispaniola


This video says about itself:

Cyclura ricordi – Video Learning – WizScience.com

11 September 2015

The “Hispaniolan ground iguana“, “Ricord’s ground iguana”, “Ricord’s rock iguana”, or “Ricord’s iguana” is a critically endangered species of rock iguana.

It is found on the island of Hispaniola, and is the only known species of rock iguana to coexist with the rhinoceros iguana. Its natural habitat is dry savanna within three subpopulations in the southwestern Dominican Republic. It is threatened by habitat loss due to agricultural encroachment.

Its generic name is derived from the Ancient Greek “cyclos” meaning “circular” and “ourá” meaning “tail”, after the thick-ringed tail characteristic of all “Cyclura” iguanas. Its specific name is a Latinized form of French Biologist, Alexandre Ricord’s last name; Ricord first wrote of the species in 1826.

Morphological and genetic data indicate that the closest living relative of “C ricordi” is “C. carinata” of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Ricord’s iguana is a large species of rock iguana with a body length of 49–51 cm in males and 40–43 cm in females with an equally long tail. Ricord’s iguana’s toes are articulated to be efficient in digging and climbing trees.

Their body color is a grayish green flat color marked by five to six bold pale gray chevrons alternating with dark gray to black chevrons. In adults, the dark chevrons are less contrasting than in juveniles. Ricord’s iguana’s eyes have a dark almost black iris and red sclera.

This species, like other species of “Cyclura”, is sexually dimorphic; males are larger than females, and have more prominent dorsal crests as well as larger femoral pores on their thighs, which are used to release pheromones.

From BirdLife:

Digging deep to save Rock Iguana

By Ali North, 13 Sep 2016

This robust, prehistoric looking species is fighting for survival with all populations covering an area of less than 100 km2.

The soil is hot to touch, the temperature reaches over 37° C in the early morning hours, and someone is covered in dust, lying face down on the ground with their head in a hole in the sand. Not an uncommon sight in certain areas of dry forest on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

What could at best be considered unusual behaviour, or even mistaken for illegal activity – egg stealing, a threat facing many reptiles across the globe, is a scientist – Dr Stesha Pasachnik – conducting vital research to help save a large reptile from extinction. The Ricord’s Rock Iguana Cyclura ricordii is a stocky, prehistoric looking creature that occurs in just four sub-populations on Hispaniola (an island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

Classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, the species is fighting for its survival, with a total range of less than 100 km2 and an uncertain global population estimate of fewer than 4,000 individuals. The threats facing this island endemic are broad, and are exacerbated by its restricted range: illegal hunting, predation and disturbance by introduced mammals, agricultural expansion and charcoal production are all ramping up the pressure.

In the early 2000s, a Species Recovery Plan was developed by the IUCN and its implementation brought together five partner organisations. Grupo Jaragua (BirdLife in the Dominican Republic) was one, whose contributions have been instrumental in building a greater understanding of the species and raising environmental awareness among local communities. Ground surveys have revealed the existence of a handful of critical nesting sites, including a population in Haiti that was previously thought to be extinct. These sites, locally called fondos, are small areas with deep dirt/clay soils where the iguanas can dig and lay their eggs in synchrony with the rainy season.

One of the most dense concentrations of iguana nests is Fondo de La Tierra, a conservation area of 26 hectares purchased in 2010 by Grupo Jaragua with funding from the International Iguana Foundation. Since 2006, four fondos have seen a three-fold increase in Ricord’s Rock Iguana nest numbers. Research by Grupo Jaragua, INTEC University in Santo Domingo, Mississippi State University and San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research is helping to better understand population size, genetics and the ecology of this and another iguana – the Vulnerable Rhinoceros Iguana Cyclura cornuta. This explains the dust-covered scientists, excavating nests to determine hatching success and retrieve temperature loggers.

Using camera traps and frequent field surveys, Grupo Jaragua has also been able to document and help control one of the many threats facing Ricord’s Rock Iguana: invasive alien species. These include cattle and donkeys (which degrade iguana habitat) and cats, dogs, and mongoose. (which prey upon iguana hatchlings and adults). President of Grupo Jaragua, Yolanda León, adds:

“We are also documenting the severe habitat destruction caused by charcoal production and have been actively involved in advocacy activities to reduce this illegal activity. We are working with journalists, filmmakers, and social media to document and expose the situation”.

Grupo Jaragua has trained 400 teachers about the species’ ecology and the importance of iguana conservation to help foster positive attitudes towards the species, while the use of native and endemic plants in an agroforestry programme, alongside the promotion of bee-keeping as a biodiversity friendly activity, is ensuring that critical habitat for iguanas, birds and other wildlife will remain for generations to come. To ensure the future of Ricord’s Rock Iguana and the habitat it relies on, conservation organisations on the island really are having to dig deep. However, through a huge collaborative effort involving research, land protection and local engagement, there is now genuine optimism that the decline can be reversed.

This is just one of many non-avian species that are the focus of work by the BirdLife Partnership across the globe. A recent survey, supported by the Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation, revealed that 74% of BirdLife Partners are conducting work that benefits or focuses on taxa beyond birds. Over 370 projects were identified worldwide, with Grupo Jaragua’s work on Ricord’s Rock Iguana being just one of over sixty projects involving reptiles.

Fossil flower discovery in Dominican Republic amber


This video says about itself:

Dominican amber with insect fossils under a microscope

23 April 2012

Dominican amber is amber from the Dominican Republic. Resin from the extinct species Hymenaea protera is the source of Dominican amber and probably of most amber found in the tropics.

Dominican amber differentiates itself from Baltic amber by being nearly always transparent, and it has a higher number of fossil inclusions. This has enabled the detailed reconstruction of the ecosystem of a long-vanished tropical forest.

Dominican amber dates from Oligocene to Miocene, thus about 25 million years old.

From Oregon State University in the USA:

Ancient flowering plant was beautiful, but probably poisonous

February 15, 2016

Researchers today announced the discovery of the first-ever fossil specimens of an ‘asterid‘ — a family of flowering plants that gave us everything from the potatoes to petunias and our morning cup of coffee. …

Researchers today announced in the journal Nature Plants the discovery of the first-ever fossil specimens of an “asterid” — a family of flowering plants that gave us everything from the potato to tomatoes, tobacco, petunias and our morning cup of coffee.

But these two 20-30 million-year-old fossil flowers, found perfectly preserved in a piece of amber, came from the dark side of the asterid family — they belong to the genus Strychnos, which ultimately gave rise to some of the world’s most famous poisons, including strychnine and curare.

Poisons that would later find their way into blow-gun weapons, rat control, Sherlock Holmes stories and the movie “Psycho” appear to have had some of their ancestral and biological roots in the prehistoric jungles of what’s now the Dominican Republic, researchers say.

“The specimens are beautiful, perfectly preserved fossil flowers, which at one point in time were borne by plants that lived in a steamy tropical forest with both large and small trees, climbing vines, palms, grasses and other vegetation,” said George Poinar, Jr., a courtesy professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and one of the world’s experts on plant and animal life forms preserved in amber.

“Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past,” Poinar said. “It shows that the asterids, which later gave humans all types of foods and other products, were already evolving many millions of years ago.”

Asterids, the researchers noted in this study, are among Earth’s most important and diverse plants, with 10 orders, 98 families, and about 80,000 species. They represent about one-third of all the Earth’s diversity of angiosperms, or flowering plants.

And one ancient genus, which has now been shown to be inherently toxic, existed for millions of years before humans appeared on the planet.

“Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way,” Poinar said. “Each plant has its own alkaloids with varying effects. Some are more toxic than others, and it may be that they were successful because their poisons offered some defense against herbivores.

“Today some of these toxins have been shown to possess useful and even medicinal properties.”

As natural poisons that humans came to understand and use, two extracts from plants in the Strychnos genus ultimately became famous — strychnine and curare.

Strychnine had practical uses for decades as a pesticide, and was often the deadly component of rat poison. But it also captured the imagination of writers, and was used by Norman Bates in the movie “Psycho” to kill his mother and her male companion. In small doses, it can increase mental and muscular activity.

Curare has an even stranger history. Sir Walter Raleigh may have first encountered it in 1596 when he observed poison arrows in South America, where natives also developed the poison in blow-gun darts to paralyze hunted prey. Curare was featured as the murder weapon in one Sherlock Holmes novel, and in lower doses it has been used as a muscle relaxant in surgery.

There are now about 200 species of Strychnos plants around the world, in forms ranging from shrubs to trees and woody climbing vines, mostly in the tropics. They are still being studied for medicinal properties, such as for the treatment of parasitic worm infections and even as drugs to treat malaria.

The discovery of these two fossil flowers, researchers said, suggests that many other related plant families could have evolved in the Late Cretaceous in tropical forests. Their fossil remains, however, still await discovery.

The co-author of this study, Lena Struwe, is an expert on plants in the strychnine family, Loganaceae, and is a plant biologist at Rutgers University.

Saving forests, wildlife in the Dominican Republic


This 2008 video is called Birds and Nature of the Dominican Republic.

From Birdlife:

Tentative first steps for forest restoration in the Caribbean

By Veronica Anadon , Tue, 15/09/2015 – 10:47

The rapid deforestation of a Dominican Republic National Park is finally receiving the attention it deserves from the country’s authorities and civil society, thanks to a project which is addressing the root causes of its destruction.

The forest of the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, including the only known nesting site for the Endangered Black-capped Petrel and one of the most important wintering refuges for Bicknell’s Thrush (Vulnerable). It is also home to an enormous number of Caribbean endemic species, including La Selle Thrush, Hispaniolan Crossbill, Hispaniolan Amazon and Hispaniolan Parakeet as well as the shrew-like Hispaniolan Solenodon. Yet despite its protected status, the forest has suffered huge forest clearance from illegal farming.

In just 15 years, nearly a third of the forest on the southern side of the Park has been converted to agriculture. Land has been appropriated to put in place sharecropping systems and large avocado plantations exploiting cheap labour, using large quantities of agrochemicals, or clear felling for charcoal.

All this began to change when the Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation came in to support Grupo Jaragua, (BirdLife in the Dominican Republic). The Foundation made timely land purchases to link Bahoruco with neighbouring Jaragua National Park, has directed public opinion and outrage at this situation and is supporting a strategic planning planning process to save Bahoruco alongside the Ministry of the Environment and other key stakeholders, including the farmers.

To get to this point, Grupo Jaragua conducted surveys to establish and map the most critical areas for wildlife, existing farms, and understand the causes of deforestation. It raised awareness of the Park’s importance and its vulnerability, and, working with a national newspaper, it exposed the situation.

Changing attitudes and winning support from local communities is fundamental to the Park’s long-term future. The project targeted them with TESSA – BirdLife’s Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment. Communities were given a chance to air their views and concerns, as well as being shown how much they depended on the forest. They were taught about the forest’s role in preventing soil erosion, helping water retention, and preventing floods. And four communities were given support in establishing biodiversity-friendly farming and forestry enterprises, such as growing wild oregano and producing local honey.

These are the tentative first steps in the difficult task of halting deforestation and restoring these damaged forests.

Dominican Republic’s national parks threatened


This video, in Spanish, from the Dominican Republic, is called Trailer Reserva de la Biosfera: Jaragua, Bahoruco y Enriquillo.

From BirdLife:

The Persistent Tragedy of Sierra de Bahoruco: The Case of Las Mercedes

By Grupo  Jaragua, Fri, 12/12/2014 – 15:09

For years we have been deeply worried about accelerated deforestation of Jaragua and Sierra de Bahoruco National Parks, core zones of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo (Dominican Republic). The aggressive expansion of agriculture in the park is simply incompatible with the preservation of these unique forests and their associated biodiversity. Now, new developments near the settlement of Las Mercedes are especially worrying and in need of attention.

Earlier this year, we encountered this near Las Mercedes, within the limits of Jaragua National Park.

What is the situation?

We found that an area within the boundaries of Jaragua National was wrongfully designated for agricultural purposes: 25 hectares of natural forests were cleared to grow corn and pumpkins near the village of Las Mercedes (Pedernales Province). Most of this deforestation took place within the boundaries of Jaragua National Park, in the corridor area linking it with Bahoruco National Park. Both of these protected areas are part of Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve, and have been designated as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), Key Biodiversity Sites and Alliance for Zero Extinction Site because they provide habitat for many endemic and endangered species.

Affected species in this area include many bird species, such as the Hispaniolan Parrot Amazona ventralis, but also species from other taxa such as the endemic Hispaniolan Solenodon Solenodon paradoxus.

Deforestation in these areas implies loosing key habitat for many endangered species—leading to related problems such as the loss of water retention for the Pedernales river watershed. Moreover, this destruction serves absolutely no long-term purpose, as destruction of these forests to establish crops is unsustainable and will not solve local poverty problems. Most of the thin fertile soil layer will be washed away after a couple of harvests in these limestone hills (with often steep slopes), and the remaining area will be useless as habitat and as agricultural land.

Unfortunately, forest destruction in the protected areas near Pedernales is a recurrent problem. In fact, BirdLife International has already recognised the entire area as a IBA in Danger, recognising threats from agriculture, human disturbance and gathering of terrestrial plants.

We have reported incidents similar to this one at Las Mercedes for over a year now. In total, we already saw the loss of 35km2 of humid forest (or 30% of the total extent of humid forest). Due to bad governance of local environmental authorities, two types of agriculture production systems are increasingly being established at the expense of protected area lands. One is a sharecropping system, consisting of land leases to landless farmers (usually Haitians) for production of short cycle crops (beans, corn, pumpkins, etc.); the other involves the establishment of large avocado farms that target the export market.

As a result of our earlier reports, in April 2013, the Ministry of the Environment sent a technical commission to assess the situation. Despite this commissions’ condemning report, confirming our worries, nothing changed and forest destruction kept increasing—as did our frustration.

In this recent case, we can firmly prove the complicity of local environmental authorities in the destruction of these forests. For example, we took hold of the permit for clearing, which was signed by the authorities involved and we established that the Provincial Environment Director did not know (or pretended not to know) the boundaries of protected areas in his care.

After a visit of two journalists (Diario Libre), the Ministry temporarily suspended the Provincial Director (Leovigildo Méndez) and an associated technician (Rodolfo Méndez) until an investigation was conducted. However, we fear that the political connections of the Provincial Director, also ex-governor of the Province, could soon revert this situation.

What are we doing?

This particular area has already been destroyed. But, concerned citizens and scientists are now contacting the press in an effort to avoid future destruction of protected areas.

We hope that we can avoid the future destruction of forests in protected areas, but for this we need considerable international attention and pressure. We welcome any support, and invite you to contact Grupo Jaragua directly if you think you can help with any aspect of this challenge.

Finally, we are currently contacting high-level officials in the Dominican Republic, asking them the following: “As Dominicans worried about the loss of this irreplaceable natural heritage, we kindly request your aid in putting a halt to the destruction of forests within park limits. To this end, we propose the immediate creation of a commission tasked with solving the root causes of the illegal agriculture expansion in the humid forests of Jaragua and Bahoruco—similar in terms to the Special Commission created for Los Haitises National Park in 2013 (Presidential Order 360-13). This Commission should be enabled to take binding decisions and will need to include representation of civil society groups and individuals concerned with this issue. “

Fingers crossed!

Archbishop’s secret child porn archive discovered


Archbishop Wesolowski

From the Corriere della Sera in Italy:

Child Porn Found [on] Former Nuncio’s Computer

Józef Wesołowski knew how to use technology to make illicit internet connections. Grave violation of duties

by Fiorenza Sarzanini

ROME – Monsignor Józef Wesołowski kept a secret archive on a computer at the Santo Domingo nunciature. The 66-year-old Polish former archbishop, arrested three days ago for paedophilia by Vatican gendarmes at the order of Pope Francis, had more than 100,000 files containing pornographic photos and videos. Some were downloaded from internet and others the victims themselves were forced to take. The prelate stored part of this chamber of horrors on his own laptop. Images show youngsters aged between 13 and 17 being humiliated for the camera, filmed naked and forced to have sexual relations with each other or with adults. Inquiries to discover others involved continue as investigators seek anyone who may have aided Wesołowski to procure minors or taken part in sex acts. The charge sheet explicitly mentions “offences committed in complicity with persons unknown” and case documents make it clear that Vatican investigators have already found evidence that will help them to identify the offenders. The case file pieces together the picture of an affair that looks anything but over and could still produce more spectacular revelations. Wesołowski is suspected of belonging to an international network that extends well beyond what has emerged so far.

Four volumes and deleted photos

The extent of the network emerges clearly from an expert IT report that reconstructs the activities of the Santo Domingo nuncio, who was recalled by the Holy See a year ago and then defrocked. In the report, experts underline “the particular ability of the defendant to use electronic instrumentation that can be procured for illicit connections. The defendant pursued these actions in a manner that was strongly compulsive”.

Józef Wesołowski had “more than 100,000 files of a sexual nature, to which must be added more than 45,000 deleted images”. Investigators were alerted by the discovery of an archive on a Vatican-owned computer “divided into four volumes and containing about 130 videos and more than 86,000 photographs”. The former archbishop had saved the rest on the laptop he used mainly when he was travelling. The material, which is classified by type, shows dozens of young girls engaged in sexual activities but the preference is for males.

Network of accomplices and email traffic

The report reconstructs all the relevant data traffic, including visits to gay sites and Wesołowski’s correspondence. Analysis of his network connections, email and other writings stored on the hard disk could reveal the identity of those with whom he exchanged images and provide leads to his accomplices. Investigators are confident that Francisco Javier Occi Reyes, the deacon arrested by Dominican police in June 2013 who subsequently blew the whistle on Wesołowski in a letter to the Vatican hierarchy, is only a pawn in a much bigger game. Now they have extended their inquiries to all the countries where Józef Wesołowski was based before he went to Santo Domingo. Above all, they want to investigate people with whom he was in frequent contact.

Testimony of three children

Wesołowski is believed to have solicited dozens of children but the case file names only three minors and their mothers as prosecution witnesses who have elected to denounce the horror and violence to which the prelate subjected them. They have confirmed what the Dominican police had partially reconstructed with the help of a local TV journalist who had conducted an investigation into Józef Wesołowski’s double life. One of the charges faced by the former priest is that he “acted, as a high-ranking member of the church hierarchy, in grave violation of his institutional duties in such a way as to cause damage to the public image of the state and the Holy See”. This is understood to be what convinced the Pope to approve the exceptional measure of house arrest.

Nuncio claims “I can explain”

When he was brought before prosecutors to be served with a detention order last Tuesday, Wesołowski said he wanted to make a statement: “I can clear my position and explain the mistake”. He was informed that he could do so with a lawyer, even though the evidence against him is overwhelming. It was this that led to action being taken against him so quickly. There was a serious risk that the nuncio would be arrested on Italian territory at the request of the Dominican authorities and then extradited. In that case, he would have had to be imprisoned until proceedings with the Holy See were completed. Prosecutors, acting in full collaboration with the Santo Domingo judicial authorities, preferred to avoid this situation. Józef Wesołowski will be questioned in the next few days and could face a fast-track trial, in compliance with international treaties on violence against minors.

English translation by Giles Watson

Article in Italian here

26 September 2014

Wesolowski update, June 2015: here.

Archbishop dismissed for sexual abuse


This video is called Vatican tribunal convicts former envoy of sex abuse.

From Associated Press:

Jozef Wesolowski, Vatican Ex-Ambassador, Convicted Of Sex Abuse

By Nicole Winfield

Posted: 06/27/2014 9:26 am EDT Updated: 2 hours ago

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican‘s former ambassador to the Dominican Republic has been convicted by a church tribunal of sex abuse and has been defrocked, the first such sentence handed down against a top papal representative.

The Vatican said Friday that Monsignor Jozef Wesolowski was found guilty by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in recent days, and sentenced to the harshest penalty possible against a cleric: laicization, meaning he can no longer perform priestly duties or present himself as a priest.

Wesolowski has two months to appeal. He also faces other charges by the criminal tribunal of Vatican City, since as a papal diplomat he is a citizen of the tiny city state.

The Holy See recalled the Polish-born Wesolowski on Aug. 21, 2013, and relieved him of his job after the archbishop of Santo Domingo, Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez, told Pope Francis about rumors that Wesolowski had sexually abused teenage boys in the Dominican Republic.

Dominican authorities subsequently opened an investigation, but haven’t charged him. Poland, too, opened an investigation into Wesolowski and a friend and fellow Polish priest.

Wesolowski is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be investigated for alleged sex abuse, and his case raised questions about whether the Vatican, by removing him from Dominican jurisdiction, was protecting him and placing its own investigations ahead of that of authorities in the Caribbean nation.

The Vatican has never said how Wesolowski responded to the charges and hasn’t provided any contact information for his lawyer.

The case is particularly problematic for the Vatican since Wesolowski was a representative of the pope, accused of grave crimes that the Holy See has previously sought to distance itself from by blaming the worldwide sex abuse scandal on wayward priests and their bishops who failed to discipline them, not Vatican officials.

The case has also been delicate because Wesolowski was both ordained a priest and bishop by his Polish countryman and former pope, St. John Paul II.