The Llanos – South America’s Wildlife Paradise

South America is a place I’ve written about very little on this blog and honestly, I don’t know why. It’s amazingly diverse, wild, and full of remarkable mammals in some truly pristine, remote places.

When most people think of South American nature, one place comes to mind above all else: the Amazon, that enormous labyrinth of rainforest that comprises the green heart of over a third of the continent and holds one in ten known species in the world. But what we forget is that there’s so much more to this amazing continent – the paramo and pajonal of the high Andes, the extraordinary and imperiled Atlantic forests, and enormous swamps of the Pantanal. These areas hold some of the continent’s most famous and iconic species – Spectacled Bear, Jaguar, Black Caiman, Anaconda, Maned Wolf, and more. But there’s one other fascinating region that somehow slipped under the radars of biologists and ecotourists alike: the Llanos.

The Llanos (the plains in Spanish) is a massive network of marshes and tropical savannas occupying much of the border region between Venezuela and Colombia, East of the Andes Mountains. Historically inaccessible and reputed to be a lawless and unsafe area, the Llanos received very little attention until recently. With the Llanos now secure and safe to visit, faunal surveys have uncovered a huge diversity of wildlife in the region, still untouched and holding very high densities of megafauna. Since then, a series of huge cattle ranches have been managed for conservation, providing a superb example of ranching coexisting with wildlife and ecosystem preservation. Many remote areas of the Colombian and Venezuelan Llanos are now the sites of innovative conservation efforts involving enormous ranches that safeguard impressive amounts of wildlife, particularly large reptiles, mammals, and birds.

Both the diversity and density of megafauna of the Los Llanos are among the highest anywhere in South America, rivaling the famous swamps of the Pantanal in the frontier region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The Llanos is famous for its large mammals, notably globally significant populatins of Giant Anteater, Capybara, White-tailed Deer, and Brazilian Tapir. Remote areas of the Llanos such as Hato el Cedral host numerous Jaguars and Pumas. Alongside these impressive species live  nearly 100 other mammal species, including endemics such as the Llanos Long-nosed Armadillo, small cats such as Ocelot and Jaguarundi, Pink River Dolphins, and primates such as Weeper Capuchin and Venezuelan Red Howler Monkey. The Llanos also hosts amazing bird life, with some stunning species such as the Sunbittern, Jabiru, and the unbelievably red, restricted-range Scarlet Ibis.

The Llanos is also known for its reptiles. This labyrinth of marshy plains and palm savannas is the stronghold for the Critically Endangered Orinoco Crocodile, one of the world’s rarest and least known crocodilians. It’s also home to the marvellous Mata Mata, an alien-looking wonder restricted to the Amazon and Orinoco Basins. Last, but not least, the region is home to monster Anacondas – some of the largest specimens ever recorded, some growing to over 5.5 m long!

So next time you’re looking to read a little about nature, search for the little-known and under-appreciated too. You might be amazed by what you find!

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Mexico’s Overlooked Diversity

When we think of nations that are biodiversity hotspots, our minds instantly wander to places like Ecuador, Peru, Australia, Madagascar, DR Congo, and India. So, it may come as a surprise that the third largest total of mammal species of any country is none of those nations – rather, it is Mexico.

A number of factors account for this impressive diversity (536 species, or about 1/10th of the world’s total). As a start, Mexico is located at the meeting ground of North American and tropical species – thus, in the mountains of Chihuahua, you can see White-tailed Deer, Black Bears, Chipmunks, Bobcats, and other familiar North American fauna while observing Howler Monkeys, Jaguars, Agoutis, and Tamanduas in the rainforests of Oaxaca and Chiapas. An then there are marvelous places such as El Cielo Biosphere Reserve and the Sierra Gorda where these two groups of fauna intermingle, with Black Bears occurring alongside Spider Monkeys! Add to that some seriously impressive altitudinal variation (sea level along the coast to 18500 feet on the summit of Pico de Orizaba), 9300 km of coastline, and significant rainfall variation (practically nil on the Northern Deserts to more than 2.7 m in Tabasco) and you begin to see how Mexico is something of a living laboratory for evolution. To give some statistics, Mexico is home to 50% of all species of pocket gophers and 65% of all species of kangaroo rats and pocket mice.

And if that’s not enough, one only needs to turn to the 1000+ bird species present in the Mexico and the country’s position as the world’s second great center of conifer diversity.

However, Mexico’s wildlife is under threat. With all these distinct microclimates harboring unique species, it’s easy to understand that many can go extinct within the blink of an eye if sufficient action is not taken to protect them. Take pocket gophers for example – burrowing rodents with relatively limited dispersal ability and a preference for fertile soils. These characteristics put endemic pocket gophers’ distributions squarely in areas that humans favor for agricultural and urban development – the result: the endemic Big, Tropical, and Alcorn’s Pocket Gophers are all critically endangered while the endemic, monotypic Michoacan Pocket Gopher is endangered. As a further example, look to Heteromyids (Kangaroo Rats and pocket mice) – generally seen as pests in desert wastelands – the San Quintin Kangaroo Rat is likely extinct, the Oriental Basin Phillips’ Kangaroo Rat reduced to less than a tenth of its former distribution, the Dalquest’s Pocket Mouse threatened by agricultural expansion, and the Lined Pocket Mouse not definitively recorded in decades. As a grim reminder of our impact on the environment in such biodiversity hotspots, look to the stunning Imperial Woodpecker – a two-foot long bird with a dagger-like beak and an imposing front-face red crest – that is now almost certainly extinct, reduced to a ghostly memory in the old growth pine forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental, now a region actively destroyed every single day by opium poppy and marijuana growers affiliated with the infamous Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels.

But despite some losses, there’s also reason for hope: Volcano Rabbits cling on in the heart of a megalopolis home to 20 million people; Mexican Wolves and California Condors have been successfully reintroduced to the Sierra San Luis and Sierra San Pedro Martir, respectively; and one of the world’s rarest pines, the incredible Martinez Pinon (Pinus maximartinezii), is the focus of a community conservation effort, the first of its kind in Mexico, in the Sierra Morones of Zacatecas. Recent surveys are revealing species previously thought extinct and expanding the ranges of others – take the rediscovery of the Big Pocket Gopher and range expansions of Rzedowski’s Pine as examples. If there’s one thing that can be said about Mexico’s wildlife, it’s that the nation’s biodiversity remains insufficiently known. This is a country where fabulous discoveries will continue to be routinely made as the nation’s remote mountains, deserts, and forests are opened up to science.

So maybe next time you’re thinking about enhancing your knowledge of the natural world, read a little about Mexico – I can guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you find. I sure was…

Venkat

The TL2 Forest: Africa’s Last Frontier

Deep in the heart of Africa lies the Congo basin, a legendary sea of emerald green tropical rainforest second only in size to the Amazon. This region is home to some of the planet’s most iconic, yet least known, wildlife – Eastern (Mountain and Eastern Lowland) and Western Lowland Gorillas, Central and Eastern Chimpanzees, Bonobo, Okapi, Forest Elephant, and Bongo – all hidden deep in the heart of an impenetrable wilderness.

Over the years, a scattering of places has been slowly opened up to outside attention – Dzanga Sangha, Ituri, Nouabale-Ndoki, and Salonga – as researchers have aimed to unearth the secrets of their wildlife. Increasingly, intrepid researchers are going remoter than ever before, exploring places so pristine and untouched that they are making an amazing array of discoveries – huge populations of Bonobos and Congo Peafowl in the Lomako-Yokolala Faunal Reserve, a distinct community of tens of thousands of naive Chimpanzees in the Bili-Uere, a forest-savanna mosaic of unparalleled diversity in the Chinko basin, and a monumental migration of almost a million antelope in South Sudan’s Boma-Badingilo ecosystem. But there’s one place to rule them all – a jungle so remote and untouched that even the locals rarely traveled there: the interfluvial rainforests between the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba Rivers, or TL2 forest, in the East-Central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The TL2 was brought to outside attention in 2007 by Drs. John and Terese Hart, two American researchers who had working in the DRC’s Ituri forest for decades previously. At the time, they were truly entering the unknown, exploring a place that at the time, was little more than a blank spot on the map. Accompanied by a team of Congolese naturalists, they found a sanctuary of amazing diversity forgotten by time…

Biogeographically, the TL2 forest is the meeting point of the faunas of the left and right banks of the Congo River. Here, species thought to never occur alongside each other such as the Bonobo and the Okapi – emblems of the left and right banks of the Congo respectively – were found living together. In this living laboratory of biodiversity, they found a stunning diversity of primates: 2 subspecies of Red-tailed Monkey hybridizing; the endemic Lomami Red Colobus, Kasuku River Wolf’s Monkey, and Lomami River Blue Monkey; and the incredible combination of Leopard, Four-toed Elephant Shrew, White-bellied Duiker, and Giant Pangolin. They even discovered an intact population of Forest Elephants of global significance, long safe from poaching. Most amazingly, they discovered a new population of the Dryad Monkey and a new species of monkey, the marvelous Lesula.

However, this wilderness is under threat. Marauding bands of rebels and elephant poachers threaten the integrity of this intact ecosystem and the lack of governance at the regional level precludes the stability of this precious region. Extrajudicial killings, disappearances, extortion, and banditry are the facts of life here. Desperate poverty and widespread corruption and violence deal a harsh hand to the people of this remote part of the world.

Fortunately, there is hope – the TL2 project, founded by the Harts, aims to create a functional protected area in the landscape to save the Bonobos, Okapis, Forest Elephants, and Lesulas of this precious forest. In doing so, they hope to bring long-lost peace to this most deserving region. Read more at http://www.bonoboincongo.com/.

Getting to know the Pangolin

If you asked most people what the most traded wild mammal was, they might say the Rhino, perhaps the Elephant, or maybe even the Tiger. Well, in truth, it’s not any of these big, majestic animals – it’s a little known fact that the answer to that question is the Pangolin.

Now, wheat exactly is a Pangolin? Pangolins, members of the order Pholidota, are present in only one extant family today: Manidae. Pangolins are pretty unique and don’t really have any close relatives, but recent genetic work has revealed that they are aligned closest to cats. Out of the family Manidae there are three genera – Manis, Phataginus, and Smutsia, comprising 8 species in total. All of them look relatively similar – medium-sized, elongated animals with long tails and noses, looking rather like anteaters. But the pangolin’s most defining characteristic is its scales – tough, sharp, overlapping, shiny keratin plates that cover its body – a coat of armor that would make any predator, even Lions or Leopards, think twice about attacking it.

Sadly, the Pangolin’s armor coat – which protects it superbly in its natural habitat against predators it has evolved against for millions of years – is attracting interest from people: interest that could well drive it to extinction. The international trade in Pangolin scales, fueled by demand in East and Southeast Asia for traditional medicines, is coming close to wiping out Pangolins in the wild, worldwide, and almost no one knows about it (the fact that the Pangolin is traded 82 times more than Rhino, and 1000 times more than the tiger is particularly telling)! Take several recent examples from airports in Indonesia, Uganda, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Nigeria consisting of thousands of pounds of scales – to equate this to animals, these are hundreds to thousands of Pangolins! To compound matters further, many Pangolin species simply do not occur at high densities, so poaching at this level is truly clearing forests of these species. Take the example of the Chinese Pangolin, now Critically Endangered: this species, living in Vietnam and China, in other words, states at the heart of the illegal wildlife trade, has disappeared across large parts of its range and is rapidly declining in remaining populations in India and Myanmar, long relatively safe from the devastating poaching epidemic. Even the Sunda Pangolin, formerly more common in remoter forests, is now losing habitat throughout its Southeast Asian range due to the trade – much of which is practically unregulated in the region due to bureaucratic ineptitude and administrative corruption (for example in Vietnam, where police often actively support Pangolin trafficking). The remaining two Asian species, the Philippine and Indian Pangolins, despite facing slightly less poaching pressure, are still endangered and the situation is at great risk of spiraling out of control for both species, especially for the Philippine Pangolin, if the illegal trade cannot be controlled in short order.

For many years, the situation for the four African species – the Tree, Long-tailed, Giant, and Temminck’s Ground Pangolins – remained somewhat under control. Both survived in the relative peace of their habitats – the first three in the dense lowland rainforests of West and Central Africa, and the last in the pristine savannas of East and South Africa. However, recently, alarming evidence indicates that the formerly Asian trade is penetrating the forests and savannas of Africa, where formerly stable Pangolin populations are now under threat. Currently, the 4 species, which formerly only faced variable and seasonal pressure for the bushmeat market, are now hunted relentlessly by trained native poachers seeking to sell the valuable scales for international markets, while consuming the meat locally. The trade has grown to truly unsustainable levels and here, especially in West and Central Africa, African pangolins seem to be suffering the same fate as their Asian relatives.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time observing two rare and unique species of African Pangolins – the Long-tailed and Tree Pangolins – in the Central African Republic, specifically the Dzanga Sangha Reserve in the remote and pristine lowland rain forests of the Southwest. Here, in beautiful forests seemingly free of human presence, the Pangolin trade spreads free of government interference. The impressive, Giant Pangolin, once common in forests throughout the region, has now been pushed far from settlements due to extensive hunting, while the smaller Long-tailed and Tree species are seen in worrying numbers of local markets. Despite this worrying situation however, I find in Africa there are always lights of hope.

Rod Cassidy, owner and operator of the Sangha Lodge, a property catering primarily to ecotourists seeking to explore the verdant tropical rainforests, has taken to trying to save the local Pangolins too. For the last several years, he has instructed the lodge staff the seek out live Pangolins being sold in the bushmeat markets and buy them. At this point, Rod, after weighing and briefly rehabilitating them, releases them back into the relatively well-protected forest close to the lodge, where for the most part, the animals live peaceful lives free of human interference feasting on ants deep in the dense tangles of undergrowth.

It was at Sangha that I got to meet my first Pangolins. Here, I observed two orphans raised to adulthood, something unprecedented for these two species, which have never been reared in captivity before. I had the unique opportunity to observe these remarkable animals, wandering, feeding, and sleeping – something that will undoubtedly become increasingly rare in the future given the severity of their population declines in large parts of their ranges. I even had the chance to observe a wild Tree Pangolin being released back into the forest, an amazing experience, and had the opportunity to learn about the unique struggles that go into rearing these unusual and amazing mammals. In the end, I was glad to hear that both orphans show substantial promise in surviving in the forest on their own.

So next time someone starts talking to you about the Rhino or Elephant poaching epidemic, why not add a little something unique to conversation by mentioning the Pangolin – the world’s most traded mammal that heartbreakingly few know about.

Africa’s Unknown Elephant: the Forest Elephant

Everyone who has ever thought of going on safari in the African savannas or even watched a nature documentary on TV knows about the African Bush Elephant. Huge and tall, with triangle-shaped ears (often jokingly referred to as Africa-shaped ears!), the Bush Elephant has become an indelible symbol of Africa’s wilderness in the minds of many. But there’s a relative of the Bush Elephant that comparatively few recognize: the Forest Elephant, which makes its home in the impenetrable rainforests of Central Africa’s Congo Basin – one of the wildest and most remote places left on Earth.

For millennia, the Forest Elephant remained relatively free from the onslaught of ivory poaching, mainly due to its elusive habits and preference for some of the harshest and most inhospitable regions of Africa. However, as logging roads begin to open the heart of the equatorial rainforest to poachers and prospectors, these unique animals are increasingly under threat. The Forest Elephant, just determined to be unique enough from the Bush Elephant to be classified a new species, is now approaching dangerously close to extinction.

– What makes the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) different from the Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana)?

The Forest Elephant differs dramatically from the Savanna Elephant in terms of both morphology and behavior, almost as much as tigers differ from lions or the Savanna Elephant differs from the Asiatic Elephant. Upon first glance, the primary characteristic of the Forest Elephant immediately apparent is the size – these animals are much shorter and smaller than their Savanna cousins, with shorter and stouter legs. This all makes sense if you examine these characteristics from an evolutionary perspective, where a short stature is a beneficial adaptation in a dense forest habitat. Forest Elephants also have rounder, more circular ears compared to the triangular ears of the Savanna Elephant, and the defining characteristic that is causing their demise – straight, pink ivory.

Behaviorally, they also travel in small family groups of only 2-3 animals (often mothers and young), while males generally travel alone or in small herds. By comparison, Savanna Elephants generally travel in herds ranging from a dozen animals up to more than 500.

– Forest Elephants are in peril

The primary threat to Forest Elephants is poaching for ivory, extremely valuable in Asian markets (especially so for the straight-tusked Forest species); this however is an indirect effect of two main factors expanding their influence in the elephants’ primary habitat in the NW, C and NE Congo basin: expansion of industrial logging, and civil unrest.

The recent expansion of commercial logging into regions such as the Northwest Republic of Congo, Northeast Gabon, and Southwest Central African Republic, and Southeast Cameroon, has deprived the Forest Elephant of arguably its most important defense – the remote nature of its habitat. With logging roads now leading into once pristine habitat, not only can timber companies access this land to harvest pristine regions of primary forest – depriving Elephants of habitat – but, more worryingly, poachers can also gain easy access to some of the most remote areas of forest imaginable, places where access would have required month-long hunting expeditions before.

Another important threat to Forest Elephants that ultimately leads to poaching is civil unrest. Some of the largest populations of Forest Elephants inhabit some of the most unstable regions on Earth, such as the CAR and Democratic Republic of Congo. As a specific example, the Ituri Forest in the remote and far-flung Orientale province of the Northeastern DRC once contained one of the largest individual populations of Forest Elephants. While it still holds impressive numbers of this species, it has suffered huge losses due to the constant lawlessness and civil unrest prevalent in the region. Because the central government and military exercise such weak control over the region, poachers have essentially had free reign over the region’s elephant populations over the last couple of decades.

As a result of poaching (primarily associated with these factors), Forest Elephant populations throughout Africa have declined by almost 60%.

This is a problem as Forest Elephants are a keystone species, essential to the health of Central Africa’s rainforest ecosystems. Forest Elephants are often thought of as nature’s gardeners, for their effects on the forest vegetation ranging from seed distribution, to maintenance of forest cover. Here, they provide an essential service to other forest inhabitants by creating large trails through the impenetrable vegetation and keeping select mineral and water sources clear of trees, providing essential nutrients for other forest wildlife, as well as the elephants themselves. In the Northwest Congo basin, these mineral clearings where wildlife gathers are called bais, the most famous of which is Dzanga Bai.

– Dzanga-Sangha: a last refuge for the Forest Elephant

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve, located in the remote and peaceful Southwest corner of the CAR, a country otherwise marred by conflict and strife. This beautiful region, one of the wildest and most pristine rainforest parks left in Africa, is home to Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bongos, Leopards, and of course, almost 4000 Forest Elephants!

The park’s centerpiece is arguably Dzanga Bai, perhaps the most famous natural spectacle in the Congo basin and one of Africa’s most magical places. In the Bai, a huge clearing several football fields in size, small Forest Elephants families emerge from the forest and meet and mingle with other families, often in congregations of over 100 animals – perhaps the only place in the world where Forest elephants can be observed in these numbers. In this unique place, families which may not have seen other elephants in months, meet, mingle, mate, and reunite.

This bai is also exceedingly important due to its contributions to Forest Elephant research. Andrea Turkalo, a WCS-sponsored American researcher has spent nearly 30 years in the bai, observing the behavior of these elephants every day. Over this time, she has recorded nearly 4000 elephants using the bai, identified through a variety of characteristics such as ear shape and patterning, tusk size, and more, and created identification cards with specific names for each animal. This research, the only long-term demographic study of Forest Elephants in history, has gained innumerable insights into the behavior and daily life of this unique and important species.

However, even in this unique place these Elephants are in danger. In May 2013, following the collapse of the CAR’s central government due to a military coup caused by the rebel group Seleka, Sudanese elephant poachers infiltrated the bai (having received backing by the resident Seleka official) and killed around 30 Elephants. The Elephants left the bai, not returning for 10 days, mortally afraid of the poaching threat.

In more ways than one, this incident was eye opening. The bai, thought of as a natural treasure through the Central African region, was now not so hidden from poachers as biologists and conservationists once believed. Everyone involved understood that once the poachers knew of the bai, they would surely be planning to come back. As a result, Nir Kalron, an Israeli security consultant, installed a complex anti-poaching system at the bai, with a series of security cameras relaying feeds straight to the rangers at park headquarters. A ranger team was deployed at the bai specifically to protect the elephants and efforts were made to ensure the poaching incidents of 2013 never occur again. As of now, they have been successful, holding through the rise and fall of the anti-Balaka and other turbulence of 2014.

Today, the park is peaceful as ever and already accepting adventurous visitors to experience the natural wonders. If you’ve ever thought of going, now is the time to do so. The park and its employees need the funds and the only way to ensure a safe future for the elephants of Dzanga bai and other wonders of the park is through sustained tourism dollars and international support. If you cannot visit, at least provide a donation on the Dzanga-Sangha park website to help ensure a safe future for these unique and valuable Elephants.

Thanks,

Venkat

California’s Rarest: The Humboldt Marten

Anyone familiar with the montane fir forests of the Rockies or Sierra Nevada is probably familiar with the American Marten, a fast, agile, cat-sized weasel with a knack for catching chipmunks and squirrels. Well, it’s a little-known fact that the rainy forests of California’s Northwest – a globally-important biodiversity hotspot and one of my favorite regions of the state to explore – is home to a Marten subspecies of its own, the Humboldt Marten (Martes americana humboldtensis).

The cute, rare denizen of California’s coastal temperate rainforest used to occur along the coast from Fort Ross, Sonoma County, up to the Oregon border. However, this subspecies, unlike some other Martens, if very specific in its habitat preferences: they are practically restricted to old growth Redwood or Douglas-fir forest with a dense understory and sufficient snags. Sadly, this habitat has been largely destroyed in Northwest California, with the remaining habitat fragmented and localized to specific small areas, with very little connectivity between the remaining old-growth stands. Large-scale trapping campaigns in the 1950s practically sealed the deal. Not recorded for 50 years, they were feared extinct until USFS scientist Keith Slauson found a small population clinging on in the remote forests of the Siskiyou Mountains at the Humboldt-Del Norte County border, north of the Klamath River.

The remaining habitat of California’s last Humboldt Martens is one of the state’s last untouched wildernesses, an extremely rugged jumble of steep, rocky, densely vegetated ridges, heavy timber, and wild, rocky creeks. Detections of today’s remaining martens are clustered around two main regions: the old growth forests along the headwaters of Blue and Bluff Creeks, and the fog-laden serpentine pine forests of Red Mountain. This is perhaps one thing that makes the Humboldt Marten so unique – it’s ability to cling on in two vastly different habitats: densely vegetated old growth Douglas Fir and rocky, sparsely wooded maritime serpentine forest of Lodgepole Pine and Western White Pine on coastal ridges. However, even in the marten’s last bastion, all is not well. Between 2001-2 and 2007-8, a significant decline in the marten’s population (about 40%) was recorded, with significantly larger impact in the serpentine woodlands. Research into the Humboldt Marten’s habitat preferences indicate that increased logging in the Old Growth forests has pushed them into the maritime serpentine, less than optimal habitat by Marten standards. But they’re still clinging on here, stably breeding and feeding on Chipmunks and Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels in the rocky outcrops among dense manzanita, scrub oak, and ceanothus, a bit of a change from the Douglas Squirrels, Tree voles, and Cleithrionomys of the old growth.

To make matters worse, the USFWS rejected a proposal to list the Humboldt Marten as a threatened DPS (Distinct Population segment) due to its close relationship with martens in Oregon, also uncommon.

But when it comes this marten, it’s not all bad news. Recently, Martens were documented to have moved into Prairie Creek Redwoods SP. How they got there, nobody exactly knows – as Prairie Creek, south of the Klamath, is pretty far from the known habitat of the marten to the north. Further, substandard second-growth habitat connects the two regions for the most part. However, there was nonetheless cause for joy – as the Humboldt Marten’s survival or recolonization in Prairie Creek represents the first records of this mammal in the redwood zone in more than 50 years! Perhaps one day, we might see martens bounding through the redwoods once again in California’s parks, a once-small population having expanded well beyond the sheltering ridges and forests of its present home. We can all hope…

Venkat

In Search of the Riparian Brush Rabbit – San Joaquin River NWR, 2015

A few months ago (at the end of February), I went to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of California’s Central Valley to try to observe the rare Riparian Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani riparius) in the wild. I’m happy to report that I was successful!

The Riparian Brush Rabbit is one of California’s rarest mammal taxa, state endangered, and with a range encompassing a handful of tiny remnant riparian forest patches in the northern San Joaquin Valley, near where it converges with the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. This area once contained a healthy mosaic of marshes, swamps, canals, rivers, and woodlands, regions where the rabbit was once abundant, but intensive land use and modification of this area (primarily for agriculture) has changed the majority of the region’s wildlife habitat for the worse. Now, the Riparian Brush Rabbit occurs in 3 areas: the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Frank’s tract and Lodi, Caswell Memorial State Park along the San Joaquin River, and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge (SJRNWR), where animals were reintroduced to newly restored riparian forest. Out of all these areas, SJRNWR contains the largest population today.

I had received information that the best place to look for the rabbits was in the restroom compound surrounding the main parking area, but all I could find here were Desert Cottontails (at any rate, the habitat looked wrong for Brush Rabbit). So, I walked towards the riverine forests along Ingram Creek to the North of the main parking lot along the levee trails. I saw many Desert Cottontails, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, California Ground Squirrels, Great Horned Owls, Sandhill Cranes, and finally, 1 precious little Brush Rabbit at the edge of the trail in an area of dense vine thicket underneath Cottonwood and Valley Oak forest (excellent habitat). I tried looking for any more, but couldn’t find any – not unexpected due to the shy nature of the rabbits and the dense habitat.

We returned to our car and left the refuge right as the gates were about to close – a fun little outing, a cool animal to add to the list, and just another reminder that you don’t need to go to some remote national park deep in the Amazon or Congo to see endangered wildlife – there’s plenty of it “right in your backyard”, no matter where you live.

Venkat