The Egyptian Vulture

 Africa, Asia, Birds, Deserts, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mountains  Comments Off on The Egyptian Vulture
May 062010
HomeAfrica, Asia, Southern Europe
HabitatHot, dry regions
Favorite FoodCarrion, eggs, cow manure, rotted plants
LengthUp to 28 inches
WeightUp to 4 pounds
Threatspoaching, poisoning

With its wrinkled yellow face and feathery locks like white hair, the Egyptian vulture has a strangely human look of cunning. Once a common sight across the dry expanses of Africa and Asia, these small scavengers are now endangered, driven to the fringes of their former range by forces out of their control.

Egyptian vultures are small for carrion birds, not much bigger than crows. And like crows, they have a broader capacity for problem solving than most birds. There’s no better example of their ingenuity than their behavior around ostrich eggs on the African savannah. An unguarded ostrich nest is a boon for any animal, especially a scavenger in regions with fierce competition for food. However, such a small bird can’t get into such an imposing egg without help. So over thousands of years, these crafty vultures have developed proficiency in a very powerful adaptation. Tools.

That’s right. Tools aren’t just for humans and those in the animal world most like us. Egyptian vultures are one of the few birds that can truly make use of tools in the wild. Once a bird has located an egg, it will search the surrounding ground for a suitable stone, pick it up in its beak, and hurl it down on the egg repeatedly. All it needs is a crack in order to pry the egg open with its beak before 300 pounds of angry ostrich mother discovers what it’s up to.

Egyptian vultures need to be wily because they so often get muscled out of the pecking order at carcasses by other vultures. Even if they do reach a dead animal first, they’re not powerful enough to tear meat from a fresh kill. They must wait for stronger scavengers like hyenas and white-backed vultures to shred the flesh for them.

Nowadays, the Egyptian vulture is a rare sight in much of Africa and Asia where up until very recently it boasted impressive numbers. Ironically, these birds that help stall the spread of disease to humans have been pushed to the brink under the mistaken belief that they spread it. Also, improved veterinary medicine has done wonders for livestock, but has wreaked havoc on these birds once certain chemicals enter the food chain and poison them. Strange how the first bird ever protected by law (in Ancient Egypt) is now facing such grim prospects in a more enlightened age.

*filmstrip photo provided courtesy of belgianchocolate on Flickr Creative Commons

The Orangutan

 Asia, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Orangutan
May 042010
Home – Borneo and Sumatra (South Pacific)
Habitat – Tropical forests
Niche – Arboreal herbivore
Favorite Food – Fruit (especially figs)
Height – Up to 4.5 feet
Weight – up to 300 pounds
Status – Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, Bornean orangutans endangered
Threats – Loss of Habitat, illegal pet trade, poaching

Of all the faces of the forest, few look so much like our own. The “Man of the Woods,” a great ape covered head to foot in thick red hair, lives in the forests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in the South Pacific. He is the orangutan.

Orangutans are the largest apes on earth after the gorillas of Africa, but shaped much differently. Gorillas are heavy and stocky, suited for life on the floor of the dense jungle canopy. Orangutans are built for life in the trees above. Long limbs power these swinging great apes from tree to tree bent under their weight to shorten distances. Young orangutans are lighter and able to swing further than the oldest and heaviest who live life at a slower pace. In a way, the youngsters move like their slimmer cousins to the north, the gibbons.

The man of the woods doesn’t kill animals to eat unless you count insects. Most of what an orangutan puts in his mouth is fruit and he’s content with what the trees provide. Food, shelter, and recreation are all found in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra for these mostly solitary folk on a life journey that can last many decades.

The man of the woods can’t live without it, and there’s not much left. Many years ago, people set aside national parks to protect patches of forest from the fate they’d likely suffer if unprotected. For a while, the heat of fires and roar of power saws were kept at bay. But wads of cash under the table go far in the developing world. Those who can afford it have a taste for wooden furniture and palm oil, and when there’s demand, supply follows. On islands with small economies and high levels of poverty, timber and agriculture are crucial to those who call them home. Economies, laws, and livelihoods collide in this unique corner of the South Pacific. For the orangutan, things are complicated indeed.

There aren’t many men of the woods still living in the great Indonesian forests. On Sumatra, several thousand remain, enough to fill a small town in your own corner of America. In Borneo, tens of thousands of orangutans still roam the forests not yet felled. Things could be worse. 60,000 orangutans is better than 10. But the numbers aren’t going up.

*filmstrip photo provided by Chi King

Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouth Asia
Habitattemperate mountain forests
Nichearboreal omnivore
Favorite Foodbamboo
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 13 pounds
Threatsloss of habitat

The red panda couldn’t look more different than the better-known giant panda. Aside from a similar color pattern on its face, this member of the raccoon family is a far cry from the gigantic black and white panda in terms of looks. It’s much more raccoon-like, with a slender body and a long, bushy tail that helps it balance in the trees of Southern Asia where it lives.

Red pandas prefer dense temperate forests below the tree line on mountain slopes in Asia. The trees allow them access to the tender leaves and shoots of bamboo and as shelter from predators. Red pandas feed primarily on bamboo, but supplement their diet with fruit, grubs, eggs, and small animals. They communicate with others of their kind primarily by smell, marking territories with any number of secretions and excretions. In the world of the dense forest, animals like the red panda must rely on senses other than sight.

Females bear litters of between one and five offspring in nests built into hollow tree trunks and attend to all of the parental care. Not unlike some human relationships, the male involvement in fostering the new generation ends with mating.

Like many other animals dependent on trees, the red panda has fallen victim to loss of its natural habitat. As the forests have fallen in Southern Asia in the past half century, so have the numbers of red pandas in the wild. They are now exceedingly rare and there may be as few as 2500 left.

African Wild Dogs

 Africa, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mammals  Comments Off on African Wild Dogs
Jan 062010
photo provided courtesy of Rennett Stowe on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeAfrica
Habitatvaried, from open grassland to scrub forest, desert, and mountainous regions
Nichesocial pack hunter
Favorite Foodgazelle
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 80 pounds
Threatshabitat destruction, hunting, disease

African wild dogs are pack hunters, using cunning and strength in numbers to take down large prey like wildebeest on the open grasslands of East Africa. Although they are smaller than gray wolves, another well-known pack hunter, they are perhaps the most social dogs on earth, and use their developed behaviors to take down prey faster and larger than themselves. The packs average about 7 or 8 individuals, but some can grow as large as 20. Because of the size of the packs and their wide movement, African wild dogs hunt at least once a day to snare enough food.

Few predators are as formidable as a pack of African wild dogs. Individuals can run at sustained speeds of over 30 miles per hour for up to 3 miles without tiring. Their endurance is matched with an uncanny ability to execute intricate plans of attack, especially to catch animals that evade lead dogs. Usually the packs will attack smaller mammals like gazelles, but occasionally will take on large animals like zebra and wildebeest. When attacking the latter, the dogs will charge a herd in an attempt to separate the weak or sick individuals. Moving in, they will clamp down on the prey’s tail and lip, while other members of the pack bite at its underside to bring it down.

Like gray wolves, African wild dogs exhibit a strict hierarchy within the pack, with a dominant male and female seated at the top. However, these dogs are different in that there are twice as many males as females and all the males are related to each other in a pack. The dominant male gets mating rights and mating usually only occurs between him and the dominant female. Simultaneous births of litters do occur and when they do, they threaten the bonds of the pack. During these situations, fights break out and females battle each other for the right to raise the next generation, which often results in the youngsters being torn to pieces in the fight. Unlike other social dogs in the wild, the aggression with African wild dogs is usually confined to the females of the pack rather than the males.

photo provided courtesy of I Love Trees on Flickr Creative CommonsAfter decades of persecution, habitat loss, and disease, the remaining populations of African wild dogs are scattered and thin. There are now fewer than 10,000 African wild dogs left in their natural habitat. Aside from their considerable natural adaptability, the one hope remaining for these amazing mammals is a strong conservation effort.

The Fossa

 Africa, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Fossa
Dec 302009
photo provided courtesy of laverrue on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeMadagascar
HabitatTropical Rainforest
NicheApex Predator
Favorite FoodLemurs
Body Length23 to 30 inches
Weight20 to 30 pounds
ThreatsHabitat Loss, Illegal Hunting

The fossa is among the most unique of endangered Madagascar animals. It’s the largest carnivore roaming the fourth largest island on earth, stalking a territory of nearly two square miles in its hunt for other mammals. A solitary hunter with the ability to leap great distances and climb trees, it is one of the most specialized carnivores on earth, though scarcely bigger than a housecat.

Fossas belong to the mongoose family – small, agile hunters of the Old World – but in appearance, they resemble lean cats. They have the same short jaws, large frontal eyes, and rounded ears, but fossas are in no way related to felines, instead occupying their own special subgroup in the mongoose family. They are the apex predators of Madagascar, hunting all over its remaining rainforests. To soften its approach on a hunt, the fossa can retract its claws like a housecat and has excellent eyesight, allowing it to hunt at night.

Despite its formidable array of offensive weapons, it’s unlikely the fossa will be able to hold out much longer in the wild if deforestation in Madagascar continues at its present rate. These animals depend on thick foliage to launch ambush attacks on prey. They also maintain low population densities and without expanses of forest to stake out a large territory, individuals cannot survive. Driven from its traditional rainforest home and deprived of its traditional sources of prey, the fossa has been forced to move into human territory, often killing livestock for food. To protect their livelihood, farmers and ranchers have resorted to trapping and killing fossa, which has further impacted their numbers.