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FLORA AND FAUNA
Dutch fishermen give vanishing eels new lease of life
by Staff Writers
Nieuwendijk, Netherlands (AFP) Oct 07, 2013


Nicaragua gears up to aid threatened tapirs
Masaya, Nicaragua (AFP) Oct 05, 2013 - Nicaragua is pulling out the stops to try to aid threatened tapirs, an endangered mammal sometimes mistaken for anteaters or tiny hippos.

Experts in Nicaragua say the tapir's long gestation period, poaching and loss of habitat caused by logging have led to dwindling numbers of the distinct-looking animal.

"The tapir is the most endangered animal right now in Nicaragua, and in the world, because its gestation period is so long -- they are pregnant for 400 days -- so they are dying out," Eduardo Sacasa, a veterinarian in charge of Nicaragua's National Zoo tapir project, told AFP.

At home in forests of Central and South America, and Southeast Asia, tapirs have a fleshy prehensile nose able to help them grab leaves and breathe while swimming.

Aside from their long pregnancies, they usually have just one offspring per birth. They can grow as large as 300 kilos (660 pounds), live up to 18 years and have hooves similar to horses or rhinos.

The animals are nicknamed "the gardener of the forest" since they play a huge role in dispersing seeds.

Looking on at a pair of zoo-bred tapirs that will soon be released and tracked, Sacasa said of two-year-olds Maya and Carburito: "We'll see how widely they range, how they adapt... if they can survive. Or not."

In a few months, the pair will be flown on an army helicopter to Kahka Creek, a 650-hectare (1,600-acre) nature reserve on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.

It is a remote area where Sacasa said "many small farmers are willing to cooperate" with what the zoo is trying to do: "to save Nicaragua's tapirs." There are thought to be about 500 left in this country, down from 2,000 a few years back.

Hunted for food

The four different species of tapir around the world are all regarded as either endangered or threatened.

The Nicaraguan project also has been supported by American specialist Christopher Jordan from Michigan State University, the environment ministry and a local NGO.

In the nature reserve, there are 65 cameras that will help scientists keep an eye on how tapirs and other animals are faring, Sacasa explained.

Before it can release Maya and Carburito, the zoo is rushing to fence in the sprawling reserve. It is hoping to raise the $10,000 or so it needs with a social media campaign.

Tapirs are threatened in Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica, largely because they continue to be hunted for food by people, said Enrique Rimbaud, who leads the animal protection group Amarte.

He said the local regional government where the reserve is allows indigenous people to hunt up to four annually to eat, another factor endangering the animal's population.

On an autumn morning on a small Dutch canal, fisherman Aart van der Waal pulls up a fish trap stuffed with squirming eels -- not for the pot, but as part of a bold initiative to save the critically endangered species.

Weighed and recorded, the serpentine swimmers are then carried several hundred metres (yards) across a dike in a plastic bucket, before being released back into the water on the other side with an unceremonious splash.

Once in the Haringvliet, a North Sea estuary some 15 kilometres (nine miles) downstream, the rescued eels will complete their final freshwater swim, before tackling an arduous 7,000-kilometre journey to spawning grounds in the central Atlantic Ocean.

Twice a week, Van der Waal sets out on his flat-bottomed boat to pull up the traps as part of an ambitious plan to help save Europe's decimated eel population, an indicator species for the health of the continent's estuaries and seas.

As part of "Eels Over The Dikes", some 50 volunteers consisting of professional and recreational fishers backed by funds from a fishing-industry foundation, the Dutch government and the European Union, lend a hand to help these mysterious creatures get back to the sea.

Over the last three decades, European eel numbers have been devastated, falling by as much as 99 percent in some areas, according to EU figures.

One of the main reasons is that eels, which migrate from sea to fresh water and back, often find their paths blocked or are killed or injured when they swim through pump houses, sluice gates or hydro-engineering projects.

Poaching and over-fishing, pollution and climate change also play a role in the decline of the eel population, which "European member states are doing too little to save," European MPs said last month.

Young transparent eels are known as "glass eels" and they have become particularly prized in Asia over the last 15 years, mainly to be fattened in farms, as a result of which the price of glass eels in the mid-2000s exceeded that of caviar.

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its Red List of Threatened Species.

Eels are complex migratory animals, believed to hatch in the Sargasso Sea, before drifting back to continental shores on the currents.

Eels can live for more than 80 years, during which they swim many thousands of miles.

As young "glass eels", they enter freshwater systems which they use as nurseries to grow and mature, before heading back to sea.

In the low-lying Netherlands, reclaimed land called polders, surrounded by myriad small canals and ditches, form the ideal eel habitat.

Getting in and out of this "polder paradise" however presents the greatest obstacle to the eel, as water levels differ on both sides of the dikes.

"Because we have to constantly pump water across the dikes to the sea to stay dry, thousands of eels try to swim through the pumping stations and inevitably get caught in the blades," Van der Waal said.

'Eels are like kids'

Last year, the Sustainable Eel Fund Netherlands foundation (DUPAN) funded a pilot project to see whether it would be possible to catch the eels before they are sliced to pieces and carry them safely across the dikes.

The pilot project was a success, with some 4,600 eels safely transported across dikes at 11 pumping stations.

In April, May and June this year, the foundation's helpers released more than a million baby eels in lakes and canals across the country to restock their numbers.

Wednesday marked the official start of the "Eels Across The Dikes" project, backed with around 230,000 euros ($310,000) in funds from the Dutch government and European Union.

It will run around the country until December in 23 spots.

"The Dutch have been fighting against the water since the 13th century," said Alex Koelewijn, DUPAN's chairman.

"When we built coastal fortifications against the water we never took into account that there are fish that migrate from salt to fresh water or the other way around.

"The only and simple solution is to help the migrating eels across the dikes," he told AFP.

London-based Sustainable Eel Group chairman Andrew Kerr said eels are seen across the continent as "a very important indicator species."

"If eels suffer, it means that we're getting it wrong in terms of how we manage our wetlands and our oceans," he told AFP.

The Dutch project served as an example to other European countries, where thousands of eels face similar obstacles, he said.

"A project like this is part of the solution for saving our wildlife," said Kerr.

For Van der Waal, who's been fishing since he was a teen, it's personal.

"These eels are like kids, they need a little love," the burly fisherman laughed as he set out once more to pull up another eel-filled "fuik" (trap).

"We have to help them across these bumps, otherwise we may in the future have none of them left," he said.

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