Uncommon Ground

Endangered species

Rediscovering Adonis cyllenea

Adonis cyllenea

Adonis cyllenea – Photographed at the 8th International Alpine Conference, Nottingham, UK. Photo by Todd Boland (from the North American Rock Garden Society)

Adonis cyllenea was described in 1856 from a specimen collected in the Peloponnese Mountains of Greece (http://bit.ly/2xgG1lS). It was thought to be extinct in the wild until 1976 when it was rediscovered (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adonis_cyllenea). It was recorded in the Giresun province of Turkey in 1867 and was just rediscovered there (http://bit.ly/2vfDPcO). Occasionally, there is good news about plants that were thought to be extinct. Mostly when they disappear, they are gone for good.

Good news – China will ban ivory trade

Last July, the United States banned nearly all commercial trade in ivory. Last Friday, China announced that it will “end the processing and selling of ivory and ivory products by the end of March as it phases out the legal trade” (The New York Times).

There are some professionals who believe that legal trade in ivory promotes conservation. (See this article from The Guardian for some of the give and take.) The arguments are two-fold (from The Guardian):

  1. The ivory ban has made prices high and poaching lucrative. Enrico Di Minin and Douglas MacMillan
  2. Lifting Africans from poverty is the only way to save elephants. Rowan Martin

I haven’t studied the issue carefully, but I am not persuaded by their arguments. For one thing, Nitin Sekar and Solomon Hsiang point out in The Guardian that the limited legal trade in ivory established in 2008 seems to have increased the amount of poaching.

Rates of ivory poaching from 2004-2012

To be fair, with only 5 points from before the 2008 announcement of legal ivory sales and 6 points after, you’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate that a statistical model favoring a switch in poaching rates in 2008 is better than one where rates are simply increasing over time, but either way, the limited trade in ivory introduced in 2008 did not decrease the rate of poaching.

Point 2 is undeniably true. Lifting Africans from poverty is the only way to make lasting progress on any conservation problem in Africa. But that observation argues for promoting policies that directly reduce poverty, like increasing sanitation, enhancing access to health care, and strengthening education. Elephant poaching has increased since 2008, and prices of ivory are high. Is there any evidence that incomes of Africans have improved as a result? If there is, Martin Rowan doesn’t provide it.

That’s why I regard it as good news that China is shutting down its domestic ivory trade. A ban on the legal trade of ivory won’t shut down the black market, any more than a ban on cocaine in the US shut down the cocaine market here. But a ban on the legal trade of ivory will make it more difficult for black marketeers to hide. With strong enforcement, a ban will reduce the incentives to trade in ivory and the incentives for poachers.

Plants can be endangered too!

Yes. I know that if you’re reading this, you already know that there are thousands of endangered plant species in the world. You may even know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to protect them and how to prevent those that have small populations from declining even further. So why the title? Two reasons:

First, Mung Balding and Kathryn Williams have a very nice article in Conservation Biology explaining why plant blindness is such a problem. Here’s the abstract:

Plant conservation initiatives lag behind and receive considerably less funding than animal conservation projects. We explored a potential reason for this bias: a tendency among humans to neither notice nor value plants in the environment. Experimental research and surveys have demonstrated higher preference for, superior recall of, and better visual detection of animals compared with plants. This bias has been attributed to perceptual factors such as lack of motion by plants and the tendency of plants to visually blend together but also to cultural factors such as a greater focus on animals in formal biological education. In contrast, ethnographic research reveals that many social groups have strong bonds with plants, including nonhierarchical kinship relationships. We argue that plant blindness is common, but not inevitable. If immersed in a plant-affiliated culture, the individual will experience language and practices that enhance capacity to detect, recall, and value plants, something less likely to occur in zoocentric societies. Therefore, conservation programs can contribute to reducing this bias. We considered strategies that might reduce this bias and encourage plant conservation behavior. Psychological research demonstrates that people are more likely to support conservation of species that have human-like characteristics and that support for conservation can be increased by encouraging people to practice empathy and anthropomorphism of nonhuman species. We argue that support for plant conservation may be garnered through strategies that promote identification and empathy with plants.

Second, Robbie Blackhall-Miles (@fossilplants) has a passionate post in Gardens (the gardening blog at The Guardian) describing just how repugnant the trade in endangered plant species is.

Buying just one orchid illegally on the internet from Indonesia or a few snowdrops dug from the wild in Bulgaria fans the flames of a trade that has dire consequences for the world’s plant life. Buying one of these plants is exactly the same as buying a carved piece of ivory, a tiger skin or a gram of ground rhino horn. Wouldn’t you think twice about doing that?

OK. I can’t help myself. There’s a third reason. When you hear the phrase “endangered species” do you think of an orchid or a cycad, or do you think of a panda, a rhino, or a tiger? If a picture of an animal popped into your head first (and not just an animal, but a mammal), it shows how much work we have to do.


Balding, M., and K.J.H. Williams. 2016. Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12738

Good news for Channel Island foxes

Channel Island foxes

National Park Service photo via Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urocyon_littoralis_pair.jpg)

San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, Santa Cruz Island, and Santa Catalina Island are each home to a subspecies of Urocyon littoralis, a small fox about the size of a house cat. The species was included as one of a number of species for which endangered species listing was “possibly appropriate” in 1982 (http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/federal_register/fr650.pdf). By 2000, there were only 15 individuals on San Miguel, 15 on Santa Rosa, and 55 on Santa Cruz, and the four subspecies were listed as endangered on March 5, 2004.

On September 12, only a little more than 12 years after they were listed, the fox subspecies on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz will be removed from the endangered species list and the subspecies on Santa Catalina will be reclassified as threatened (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-08-12/pdf/2016-18778.pdf). There are now between 700 and 2100 individuals on the islands where subspecies are being removed from the list.

Foxes on Santa Catalina Island — a tourist destination — also are recovering but not as fast as their counterparts on the northern Channel Islands. Their numbers plummeted in the 1990s after an outbreak of canine distemper, presumably brought over from the mainland.

Federal officials downgraded the status of the Catalina foxes from endangered to threatened because disease outbreak remains a concern. (http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-channel-island-foxes-20160811-snap-story.html)

It’s not often we have good news about endangered species. My thanks and congratulations go out to everyone involved in bringing these animals back from the brink of extinction.