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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Operation Crash Nabs Traffickers, Brings Money to Rhino Conservation Projects

  rhinoPhoto by Eugene Wei / Creative Commons License

Stopping illegal wildlife trade is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so in 2011, our Office of Law Enforcement initiated “Operation Crash,” an ongoing effort to detect, deter and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhino horns.  If you are wondering why the operation has its name, “crash” is the term used to describe a group of rhinoceroses. Five years later, we are pleased to say that Operation Crash has been an enormous success, bringing numerous traffickers to justice and protecting rhinos in the process.

The significant impact of the operation has gained the people on the project accolades, and they have even been nominated this year for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, nicknamed a “Sammie.” The Sammies are the most prestigious awards for government employees, the “Oscars” of government service. Polls are now open to vote for the nominees.

Assets accumulated through illegal activities by convicted rhino horn smugglers in the United States are seized by agents when possible. In a 2012 case of a major rhino horn smuggler in California, the judge directed that the confiscated assets be used to help save rhinos in the wild through our Rhino Tiger Conservation Fund (RTCF). Established in 1994, the RTCF provides approximately $700,000-800,000 per year for on-the-ground conservation of African rhinos. The seizure in the California case yielded gold and jewelry worth more than $684,000, which were immediately sent to projects in Africa to save surviving rhinos.

The three projects that were supported with Operation Crash funds

  • Using modern technology to protect Africa's and Asia’s rhinos: security and monitoring workshop

This grant convened technology developers and field practitioners – for the first time – to identify available tech tools that could be adapted or customized for rhino conservation activities in order to ensure that all African range states and rhino custodians have access to the best technology available to protect wild rhinos. For this project, we worked with Nambia’s Ministry of Environment and Technology and Save the Rhino International.

  • Reintroduction of Black Rhinos to Sera Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

This grant assisted with the costs of establishing the first eastern black rhino reintroduction site on community-owned land in Kenya. The site has been fenced to include a closed rhino sanctuary of nearly 100 miles squared and received its first delivery of rhinos from other areas in Kenya in 2015.  Fauna and Flora International worked on this project.

In March, the Sera Community Rhino Sanctuary celebrated its first black rhino birth. According to a press release distributed by the Northern Rangelands Trust, “This is the first black rhino to be born on community land in northern Kenya for over 25 years, and demonstrates the strength of the growing community conservation movement. The calf also represents the community’s hopes that the Sanctuary can nurture a viable breeding population of black rhino; that could eventually help repopulate other community conservation areas.”

  • Black rhino population monitoring and protection management operations in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

This grant fortified protection of the North Luangwa ecosystem for the protection of Zambia's only black rhino population. The Frankfurt Zoological Society also worked on this project.

We cannot bring the rhinos whose horns are being traded illegally back to life, but thanks to the USFWS special agents who worked on the Operation Crash team, wildlife traffickers have been apprehended and sentenced to prison.  Although countless rhinos have been slaughtered for the illegal horn trade, the efforts by the Crash agents to redirect illegal proceeds to conservation projects in Africa will hopefully support the survival of those remaining rhinos in the wild.

Vote in the Sammies.


What’s So Funny?

  five green heronsSky watch: Five young green herons scan the sky avidly for signs of their next meal at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Photo by Roy W. Lowe

Animals don’t try to be funny. So why do some wildlife photos make us chuckle or laugh out loud?

Is it because we see ourselves – or imagine we do – in some animals’ body language or facial expressions? Or because we empathize when animals find themselves in what looks to be a jam? Or, sometimes, do our wildlife cousins just happen to show up next to a sign or a structure that adds delicious irony to their presence?

Whatever the reason, spending time at national wildlife refuges increases your odds of seeing wildlife antics and capturing some of them in photos to share with friends. 

“Try Not to Laugh” — this week’s theme in the National Wildlife Refuge System’s new series of online stories — looks at some of our favorite comical shots of wildlife on and off national wildlife refuges. Got some funny shots of your own? Share them with us for the next round. (We tell you how.) 

Here’s a preview:

  bearWhich-way bear: Hmmm. Right or left? Black bear at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Photo by Jackie Orsulak/USFWS

 bad hair dayBad hair day: A great blue heron chick tries out a punk look at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. In migration season, millions of birds stop to rest and feed in refuge wetlands in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Some stick around to nest. Photo by Brian Ferguson/USFWS 

Read the full story: “Try Not to Laugh.”

We hope you’ll also check out our homepage, and share your thoughts, photos and videos with us on FacebookTwitter, Flickr and YouTube. Like what you see? Please share what you find with your friends and family. Thanks! And see you on a refuge!

Compiled by Susan Morse


Birds of a Feather Create Treaties Together

  snowy egretsSnowy Egrets at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

August 16 marked the 100th anniversary of a treaty signed between the United States and Canada, a treaty that has led to a century’s worth of conservation efforts aimed at protecting some of Earth’s most precious animals: migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty signed by these two nations (actually, Great Britain signed for Canada) in 1916 was the first of its kind and has proved to be a worthwhile investment. 

A century ago, birds were in trouble. Feathered hats were all the rage and wild birds were popular menu items in restaurants. Overharvest, combined with habitat loss, devastated populations. The demise of the passenger pigeon stands as an enduring example of the result. Luckily, the United States and Canada recognized the resounding need to protect these precious species and shared natural resources before other birds met the same fate. The result: an agreement to cooperatively manage and protect birds that migrate internationally. 

The treaty was not only the first of its kind to protect migratory birds, but actually among the first to protect ANY wildlife! And it has yielded real results, especially for waterfowl and wading birds. Nevertheless, the recent release of the report on The State of North America’s Birds highlights the many challenges that still lie ahead such as human population growth and climate change. For this reason, taking the time to celebrate this landmark treaty is particularly necessary. 

And a 100 years’ worth of commitment to this international partnership is truly cause for celebration. It allows us the chance to reflect on what our lives would be like if we were to lose these beautiful creatures. Imagine a world without ducks, hawks, songbirds. 

Plus migratory birds are important! They provide essential ecological and economic benefits to communities and the economy, whether it be by controlling pest populations (saving billions of dollars on the need to use toxic pesticides) or generating billions of dollars from plain old bird watching. Plus, their abundance, variety and accessibility combined with their beautiful songs and stunning colors, provide a means to connect people with nature. But, selfish though it may be, in the end, the presence of migratory birds in our skies can also be valuable indicators of environmental health which is crucial to our own wellbeing. So celebrate this treaty, if not for migratory birds, for yourself!

The fight for the future of these birds continues alongside partners that include Mexico, Japan and Russia. You can be a partner, too. This month, the United States and Canada are highlighting many ways that citizens can participate in conservation of our shared bird life. You can visit https://www.fws.gov/birds/index.php to learn more. Here’s to another 100!

 By Alexander Nicolas, External Affairs

Sundays with Bats

Pete Barlow, of our Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, remembers what got him hooked on bats and their ecosystem.

Mexican free-tailed batMexican free-tailed bat. Photo by Ann Froschauer/USFWS

If you have ever been flat on your belly, crawling through pristine darkness in what felt like the heart of the Earth, this blog may remind you to one of those most horrifying and amazing times in your life. 

As a 10-year old kid, and all the way up through adolescence, friends and I would gather flashlights and rope, and head over to crawl around in darkness for a few hours on Sunday afternoons in caves that skirted steep sloping mountainsides or farm fields in the Shenandoah Valley.  The constant temperature of the cave either gave respite from heavy summer heat or a release from the cold grip of winter days, and we would spend hours slogging around in muddy jeans until we had to go home for supper.  On winter days, wet clothes would freeze hard once we left the cave and our breath would show again as we bundled up in old coats and rode bikes home, frigid and exhausted.  On hot summer days, we’d wash muddy clothes in the river before heading home to horrify our parents with new rips in jeans and scratches on hands and knees.  On those sunny Sunday afternoons, as we waded through the labyrinths of Round Hill Cave, Onyx or Glade, we took the life around us for granted.  The chirps and flutters were seemingly a constant backdrop to this part of our childhood. 

Today, however, cave ecosystems are in peril, and the bats that we thought were too plentiful to ever be threatened, are on the verge of an irreversible collapse. 

Bat flying at entrance of caveA bat flying at the entrance of Mount Aelous Cave in Vermont. Photo by Ann Froschauer/USFWS

Of more than 1,330 bat species in the world, the majority feed on insects, and about 250 species of the awesome winged mammals also feed on the sweet nectar of flowering plants.  Habitat loss and mysterious diseases are threatening all bats. Cultural practices of fear and extermination still occur in many places around the world, and White-nose Syndrome and other threats couple to make for what will be a hard journey for these animals. 

Helping Bats

So what can we all do?

  • Most bats either hibernate or spend daytime hours in caves or other dark places. Studies show over and over again that bats are more active and vital in areas of undisturbed habitat, where light pollution is at a minimum. We have to work toward keeping the stars bright in the night sky by turning off unnecessary lights.
  • We need to take non-lethal steps to keep bats from roosting in inappropriate places. 
    But you can't exclude bats while they have pups! You will block moms out and babies in. Contact your state wildlife agency and find out what it recommends for humane exclusion.
  • Be careful not to disturb bat roosting areas, especially during hybernation. 
  • Educate yourself about caves, and enjoy them responsibly. Clean clothes and equipment between visits to different areas, and spread your love of these areas and their richness of life with your daughters and sons. 

healthy hibernating big brown batsHealthy hibernating big brown bats. Photo by Ann Froschauer/USFWS

Insect-eating bats are vital in part because they prey on some of the most damaging agricultural pests, and in an age when we need to protect all of our pollinators, every single bat matters

It was only through those early Sunday afternoons that I fell in love with these special creatures and their homes.  Let’s teach the next generation why it is so important to protect all of the unique life around us, and let life fully live. 

'Fishing' in the Salt Marsh

  nekton samplingInterns Drew Collins, Bridget Chalifour, Kim Snyder and Nadine Hyde in action. Photo by Susan C. Adamowicz/USFWS

Last month, Bridget Chalifour told us what a salt marsh intern does and why she happily does it. Today, she explains a key part of her job.

Sometimes, when Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge salt marsh interns are asked what they are up to, we simply say, “fishing.” Baits and tackles, however, aren’t exactly standard equipment for our average fishing trip. But suspense and excitement certainly aren’t missing from our fishing adventures, where we dive into waist-deep mud and catch everything from shrimp to eels.

  nekton samplingThe team heads to the next sampling site. Photo by Susan C. Adamowicz/USFWS

Our fishing trips are actually called nekton sampling. Nekton is any kind of free swimming fish or crustacean. A day of sampling nekton begins with hauling one-square-meter throw traps, mesh-fabric ditch nets, salinity readers and other various instruments into the marsh. There, we scout out our pre-determined sampling points – randomly selected bodies of water, like ditches, pannes, pools and creeks. In larger, broader pools or creeks, one person hoists the throw trap over her or his head, sprints toward the water and heaves the trap in to ambush the nekton. The team then rushes into a glorified mud bath of salty water to begin measuring water depth, temperature and salinity. Using a large dip net, we sift out, record and release any nekton we find within the trap, from the tiniest mummichog fishes to massive green crabs.

For me, the greatest fun can be found using a ditch net. The ditch net is deployed in narrower creeks and ditches, and features two fabric “doors” at either end which lift via strings to trap fish. After waiting for 20 minutes, two people approach the ditch net from either side of the ditch. They then crawl through the grass —in a fashion not unlike a lion stalking its prey — to simultaneously seize their strings and heave the doors up, capturing fish inside.

Nekton sampling is not only enjoyable, but also an excellent tool for evaluating the integrity of a salt marsh. It is one part of the Salt Marsh Integrity (SMI) Assessment Project that aims to determine marsh health and functioning through measuring factors such as vegetation transects, bird surveys, and surface elevation changes. Data from the fish that we catch will serve to provide best management actions for the marsh, and help scientists determine preservation goals and measure successes. So it’s true, nekton sampling isn’t at all like an ordinary fishing trip – it’s so much more!

Refuge Road Trip: See America Wild

  Merritt IslandNo matter where you travel along I-95, there’s a national wildlife refuge adventure awaiting you. This photo shows Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo by Connie Foreman/USFWS volunteer

Americans are a motoring people.  The average driver logs some 13,400 miles each year.  And of all America’s interstates,  I-95 – which runs from the Canadian border south to Miami and goes through 15 states — is the most traveled highway in the country. 

Better yet, I-95 is teeming with wildlife adventures. You just need to know where to look:  At national wildlife refuges. This week we have an amazing I-95 road trip for you. Use the map as your guide.  Here’s a sample of what you will find: 

In New England, we feature Great Bay Refuge in New Hampshire, Great Meadows Refuge in Massachusetts and the Rhode Island Refuge Complex with its five coastal refuges.  The refuge with the most recognizable name -- Rachel Carson Refuge in Maine -- has paddling, fishing, plenty of trails and the chance to see egrets, ibis, New England cottontail, roseate terns and tiny piping plovers. 

In Connecticut, you can visit Stewart B. McKinney Refuge, which has wonders in each season, including hiking trails through designated Important Bird Areas and the chance to see harbor seals in the winter. 

As you travel into the mid-Atlantic, stop at John Heinz Refuge in Philadelphia, where you can paddle through the largest freshwater marsh in Pennsylvania or see wildlife from observation platforms along 10 miles of trails.  Or go to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck Refuge in Virginia to see bald eagles in any season. 

Finally made it to Florida? It’s a state filled with refuges, and we feature three, including  Archie Carr Refuge, renown as the Western Hemisphere’s most significant area for loggerhead sea turtle nesting.  Nearby is the nation’s first wildlife refuge – Pelican Island

The road trip is part of the Refuge System’s series of weekly online stories that use photos to highlight national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts and marine national monuments.  Look for a new story on the Refuge System homepage each Wednesday.

Making a Difference for Conservation on Rough Seas

  TiglaxThe Research Vessel (R/V) Tiglax (pronounced TEKH-lah) sails up to 20,000 nautical miles each summer in support of science and conservation within 3.4-million-acre Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brian Salem/USFWS

By Shaun Sanchez, deputy chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System

I’m no seaman, I admit. I’m proud to be a wildlife biologist. But nine days on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Research Vessel (R/V) Tiglax vividly showed me how the intersection of the two professions strengthens both the Service and the critical research being done for and by universities, partners and other federal agencies. 

RELATED:Tiglax Photo Story 

A few facts stand out: The research and monitoring coming from the Tiglax is outstanding because we have dedicated professionals from both specialties. Day-to-day operations are seamless, thanks to Captain Billy Pepper, who has been at the helm for more than 20 years, and his crew. And gender plays no role: Women and men work side-by-side in tight quarters and often on rough seas to do work that makes a difference for conservation. 

I boarded the Tiglax in Homer, Alaska, on July 14 and debarked at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on July 22. During my days on the 120-foot ship, we stopped at a number of islands in the National Wildlife Refuge System that hadn’t been visited by Service staff and some cases anyone in quite some time.  

Some of the islands are part of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 3.4 million acres and is home to seabirds that live and breed nowhere else. Other islands are part of Kodiak Refuge, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month. We also visited two other refuges: Alaska Peninsula and Becharof.

  sea lionsThe Tiglax carries marine biologists, other scientists and land managers from various agencies, conservation partners and universities to destinations from Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Islands and beyond. En route they see a diverse array of marine wildlife, including sea lions. Photo by Brian Salem/USFWS

The trip focused on how refuges coordinate on seabird conservation and similar management challenges such as invasive species and operating in remote locations. We looked at the results of fox eradication within Alaska Maritime Refuge, and celebrated when we didn’t see any on the islands. However, our celebration was cut short when we saw impacts that cattle were having on a fragile island ecosystem.  As we traveled the sea, we resupplied staff at a field camps on Chowiet Island. 

The sights from the Tiglax are amazing. I saw humpback and fin whales nearly every day. And each night, we were treated to presentations by biologists on a range of subjects. Where else do we pack so much knowledge and dedication into such a small space?

Ready to ship out?  Be prepared for long, intense days, potentially rough seas and a level of camaraderie found in few other places. 

Have landlubber legs like I do? Then check out the Tiglax story this week on the Refuge System homepage.

This Old House – Conservation-Style

  Timber Point houseThe Ewing home. Photo by Kim Snyder/USFWS

Intern Benjamin Bristol explains why Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine preserves an old summer cottage.

In 2011, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge acquired a large peninsula on the southeastern coast of Maine called Timber Point from the Ewing family, who had owned the land since the 1920s. This rich point of land came with the family’s home and a handful of small outbuildings that the refuge now maintains, and as of this summer, they are open to the public and an important part of the Timber Point trail. But what business does a wildlife refuge have preserving an old summer house?

The “cottage,” a large but humble structure on the southeastern edge of the peninsula, has stood for 85 years through fire, storms and humans. The architect, Charles Ewing, once said, “This place is all about the land.” Indeed, his vision extended beyond the buildings themselves to the landscape that they would change and shape. It wasn’t the summer cottage his family considered their home, but rather the world the cottage gave them access to: the coastline, woods, water and nearby Timber Iisland—the beautiful variety native to this part of the world. They were an industrious and thrifty family who knew how to use wildlife respectfully, carefully incorporating themselves into their environment.


Now the Ewing estate stands as a monument to responsible land use in a dynamic landscape. On one side of the house are shady woods, on the other the ocean.

The sea turns out to be a reliably unsteady companion—always beautiful but hardly ever keeping to itself.Like any structure built into the coast, the Ewing house has a weathered history. It met with the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which is still one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the United States, as well as a rogue wave in 1978. In 1991, a nor’easter that joined with a hurricane—now known as the “the 1991 Perfect Storm”—sent a stone the size of a bowling ball through the house and lodged sea snails in the dining room woodwork, still imbedded there today. Literally, this house’s relationship to the ocean has been up, down and rocky.

None of this is quite as impressive as this land’s ability to withstand the un-ebbing force of development that has consumed most of the southern Maine coastline. Life likes edges, and the south coast is by far the most biologically diverse part of the state -- some of the most vibrant wildlife habitats form where land meets water. Timber Point is home to hundreds of bird species, as well as countless insects, mammals, amphibians and plants native to Maine, many of them threatened or endangered.  The south coast is also by far the most developed.  As 157 acres of relatively undisturbed habitat on a densely populated stretch of coast, Timber Point is an outstanding exception.

When the Ewing family left their home, they wanted it to stay that way. In a simple house on the coast, we preserve a peculiar but bright symbol of conservation.

Truth, Justice and the Conservation Way


In describing the team of superhero law enforcement officers who work together to battle wildlife crime, our Pacific Region borrowed a quote from Superman: “There is a right and wrong in the universe, and the distinction is not hard to make.”

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Caribbean Wildlife Enforcement Network Proposed to Combat Trafficking

  Caribbean Wildlife CollageClockwise from top left, photo credits in parentheses: Cuban Amazon (Donar Reiskoffer), hawksbill sea turtle (Sylvain Corbel), queen conch (Sean Nash), blue iguana (Don Taylor). All images available under a Creative Commons license.

Good news in the Caribbean’s fight against wildlife trafficking, reports Bruce Weissgold, a Senior CITES Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has worked on policy issues extensively in the Caribbean, particularly related to iguana conservation and wildlife trafficking.

Wildlife trafficking in the Caribbean threatens such celebrated species as parrots and macaws, critically endangered rock iguanas, marine turtles, corals, and the highly valued queen conch and spiny lobster. In response, 11 Caribbean countries including the United States, conservation groups and intergovernmental organizations came together last month to increase cooperation to combat wildlife trafficking in the region.

The participating countries recommended forming a cooperative Caribbean Wildlife Enforcement Network – a CaribWEN - to increase information sharing, provide a platform for capacity building and training, improve capacity for criminal investigations, and manage law enforcement operations and border inspections.  A CaribWEN could also raise awareness about the problem of wildlife trafficking among the people of the Caribbean and its governments, as well as tourists.

 Similar networks exist in Southeast Asia, Central America, Africa, and the European Union. They can provide insight and models to help guide best practices for a CaribWEN.

The Caribbean is a region of exceptional biodiversity, with many species found only on a single island, and it is threatened by illegal and unsustainable harvest and trade of at-risk species. Wildlife trafficked from the Caribbean to high-demand markets around the globe is sold as food (the Queen conch, shark fins, sea turtle meat and spiny lobster), jewelry (coral), souvenirs (sea turtle shells) and pets (iguanas, snakes and parrots). As drug- and human-smuggling continue in the region, so does wildlife trafficking. 

Transnational criminals in the Caribbean are involved in the trafficking of local wildlife as well as the smuggling of protected wildlife from Central and South America through Caribbean nations to markets in China, Europe and the United States. Countries in the region face significant challenges patrolling vast coastlines, screening a large volume of people departing the region by air and cruise ship, as well as inspecting a large volume of air and ocean cargo originating and moving through the region.

Additionally, tourists - most from the United States - often unwittingly purchase protected native wildlife  at roadside stands or souvenir shops, and then try to bring the item home. Tips for travelers can be found in our buyer beware brochure.

  Caribbean Wildlife meetingPhoto by Neil Gardner/USFWS

The recommendations of the workshop participants and their public outcomes statement will be presented to the Second Global Meeting of Wildlife Enforcement Networks to be held during this fall’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The countries that participated in the workshop were the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and the United States.

Through our offices of International Affairs and Law Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work with meeting participants, other organizations and donors and U.S. federal agencies to develop a CaribWEN and make it operational. We are also working with partners including JetBlue and the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance to encourage Caribbean residents and visitors to be informed and buy informed so they do not contribute to illegal wildlife trade.

The workshop was organized by the Wildlife and Forest Crime program of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the CITES Secretariat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of State. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of State, the European Union and the government of the Bahamas.

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