68 Elephants Massacred in Democratic Republic of Congo in Past 60 Days, Is Extinction Only Decades Away?
[Editor's note: The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said this week that 68 elephants have been killed in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past two months, with AFP reporting 30 killed in just over two weeks. Armed Militants have aggressively moved into the poaching business to use money from illegal ivory to buy food, weapons and ammunition.]
The poaching of elephants at Garamba Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is increasing at an unprecedented rate http://t.co/lceCZjw0ig
— Tito (@TitoElmasduro) March 26, 2015
A recent summit on elephant population and habitat has led to some dire predictions: the African elephant may go extinct within our lifetimes.
Putting the end date at just decades away, the African Elephant Summit, which hosted delegates from various Asian, European and African countries, focused on mitigating poaching and increasing elephant habitats around the continent.
The statistics presented are staggering. In the 1940s, there were thought to be around 3-5 million African elephants in the wild. These days conservation organizations are estimating only 500,000 to 700,000 elephants currently exist. The largest drops came during the 1980′s when the continent saw widespread turbulence. Rather than rising back up from the fall when stability took over much of the region, increased poaching has hastened the elephant’s population decline.
The summit highlighted the link between poverty, infant mortality and poaching, showing a correlation between desperate communities, and how susceptible they can be to engaging in the illegal wildlife trade.
Yet, despite these dire warnings, there is a small beacon of hope in the midst.
Uganda, which saw a dramatic loss in wildlife during the 1980 bush wars, has become an example to many African nations on how to reintroduce the species while combating poaching.
In 1982 the population of elephants in Uganda fell to the drastically low number of 2,000. Today, that number has more than doubled with more than 5,000 elephants roaming freely and steady population increases.
Although poaching still exists in Uganda’s national parks, the rate has fallen in recent years.
In 2010, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) noted that 25 elephants were killed by poachers annually in their national parks. However, thanks to new outposts, community outreach and advancing technology, by 2013 that number fell to just five elephants. In fact, although Uganda remains a transit hub for ivory poached in conflict zones such as South Sudan and the DRC, comparatively little ivory is sourced from Uganda.
Jossy Muhangi, a spokesman with the UWA, says to combat local poachers (who often sell to international syndicates), they’ve created intelligence agencies that go into local communities and attempt to discourage the hunting of bush meat and trading of ivory or pangolin skins. It is this community outreach that has led to several important tips on ivory smugglers, including a storehouse outside of Entebbe, where raw ivory was manufactured into trinkets.
He also says that increased ranger posts, both on lakes and on land, have helped discourage those that try to slip out by boat under the cover of darkness. It is this multi-pronged approach that has helped elephants continue to increase their populations around the country, while keeping poaching deaths at a regional low.
In fact, the Uganda Conservation Foundation measured a 40 percent increase in elephants coming to Uganda (from Democratic Republic of Congo borders) and a 24 percent reduction in elephants entering the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is likely due to sporadic fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and protection afforded to elephants within the Ugandan side of the park.
Although other countries around Africa have a myriad of different issues which contribute to high rates of poaching, it seems that addressing local factors such as poverty, as well as porous borders and a lack of highly trained anti-poaching task forces, can make significant headway in anti-poaching measures. This is a model many countries can emulate around the continent, ensuring that within our lifetimes, the African elephant remains an important member of the continent’s ecosystem.
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When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
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How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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