Animal Defenders International
Animal Defenders International

International Wildlife Conference Declines to Increase Protection of African Lions

Animal Defenders International
Animal Defenders International

At the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), nine countries from west and central Africa proposed reclassifying African lions as needing the highest level of protection. Instead, the 182 countries in attendance at the 17th Conference of the Parties reached a “compromise” that will allow continued international trade in lion bones and other parts. 

The proposed ruling would have changed the listing of African lions (Panthera leo) from Appendix II to Appendix I, the highest protection possible. Animals in Appendix I—including Asian lions—are considered “threatened with extinction,” and it’s illegal to buy and sell them.

Such a ban can’t come soon enough for African lions, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. But it’s not just cats in the wild that need protecting; the bones and skins of lions in circuses, breeding facilities, and private reserves are sought after too. So conservationists proposed a total ban, one that would extend protection to both wild and captive-bred lions. Before the conference, organizations like Animal Defenders International enlisted celebrities to champion their cause.

Even Ricky Gervais took it seriously. “The survival of the African lion hangs in the balance,” he said in a statement. “We must stop blood-thirsty hunters from decimating our wildlife for a barbaric adrenaline rush or trophy piece to show off to their mates.”

But the issue is a complicated one: Trophy hunting, ecotourism, and trade in animal parts are enormous money-makers in some African countries, which means that governments aren't easily swayed.

Still, the lions’ danger was not written off altogether. Instead, conference attendees reached a compromise: African lions will stay Appendix II. There will be a zero export quota for commercial trade in lion bones, bone pieces, products, claws, skeletons, skulls, and teeth (but not skins)—except in South Africa. It will be legal to trade in unlimited quantities of all these items as long as they come from captive-bred lions.

In response to public outcry, one representative from the European Union (which helped finalize the arrangement) told The Guardian, “It is the nature of compromise that not everyone gets what they want."

The CITES delegate from Zimbabwe—former home of Cecil the lion—argued that hunting lions is necessary for their survival. “The coexistence of people and lions can only be protected by putting a value on lions,” he said in The Guardian, “through eco-tourism and sport hunting, with the money ploughed back into conservation.”

On the other side, Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade specialist for the World Wildlife Fund, told The Guardian, “WWF believes that, as with the trade of parts of captive-bred tigers, the trade in bone from captive-bred lion keeps demand for big cat bone alive, and complicates enforcement efforts.”

Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, agreed. “Countries not currently trading in lion bones will now want to join the trade,” she said in a statement. “To allow this beautiful animal to disappear from the wild would be a tragedy for us all, so we must not give up.”

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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