Category Archives: endangered species

To Steal To Survive: the Illegal Lumberjacks of the Amazon

The Amata logging company was supposed to represent an answer to the thorny problem of how countries like Brazil can take advantage of the Amazon rainforest without widespread deforestation.  But after spending tens of millions of dollars since 2010 to run a 178-square-mile concession in the rainforest to produce timber sustainably, Amata pulled out in April 2020. The reason: uncontrolled wildcat loggers who invaded Amata’s land, illegally toppling and stealing trees.

Amata’s executives in São Paulo said that instead of promoting and protecting legal businesses, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration did next to nothing to control the illegal loggers who invaded the concession in the western state of Rondônia. “It’s a conflict area,” Amata Chief Executive Ana Bastos said of the land granted to the company. “Those lumberjacks steal our lumber to survive. If we try to stop them, they will fight back. It will be an eternal conflict.”

Since they pay no taxes and make no effort to protect certain species or invest in restoration, illegal loggers can charge $431 per square meter of lumber, compared with $1,511 per square meter of legally logged timber, concession operators said.  “It is like having a regular, taxpaying shop competing with lots of tax-free peddlers right in front of your door,” said Jonas Perutti, owner of Lumbering Industrial Madeflona Ltda., which also operates concessions in the Amazon…

“The organized crime that funds illegal activity in the Amazon—including deforestation, land grabbing, lumber theft and mining—remains strong and active,” said Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate scientist. “It seems [the criminals] aren’t frightened by the government’s zero-tolerance rhetoric or don’t believe it’s serious.”…

Wildcat loggers are among the Amazon’s poorest residents, and many feel they have an ally in Mr. Bolsonaro,[Brazil’s President]…“There’s much corruption in law enforcement, and consumers don’t care if the wood they are buying is legal or not,” said Oberdan Perondi, a co-owner of a concession that is five times as large as Amata’s and also competes with illegal loggers.

Excerpt from Paulo Trevisani and Juan Forer, Brazil Wanted to Harvest the Amazon Responsibly. Illicit Loggers Axed the Plan, WSJ, Oct. 28, 2020

Modern Slavery and the Collapse of Fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20-50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20bn a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. A huge amount of illicit fishing happens on licensed boats, too. They might catch more than their quota, or falsely declare their catch as abundant albacore tuna instead of the more valuable bigeye. In port fisheries inspectors are always overstretched. If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business. Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews… A lot of them are in debt bondage…. Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel

Too often, the ultimate beneficiaries of this trade are hard to hook because they hide behind brass-plate companies and murky joint ventures. Pursuing them requires the same kind of sleuthing involved in busting criminal syndicates. An initiative led by Norway to go after transnational-fisheries crime is gaining support. Much more cross-border co-operation is needed.

At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behavior and even identify illicit species being brought on board…. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

Above all, governments should agree at the World Trade Organization to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. 

Excerpt from Monsters of the deep: Illicit fishing devastates the seas and abuses crews, Economist, Oct., 22, 2020

What really happens in the seas? GlobalFishing Watch, Sea Shepherd, Trygg Mat Tracking

Just Forbid It – Fishing: Fishing and Marine Protected Areas

Fish, whether wild caught or farmed, now make up nearly a fifth of the animal protein that human beings eat….In this context, running the world’s fisheries efficiently might seem a sensible idea. In practice, that rarely happens. Even well-governed coastal countries often pander to their fishing lobbies by setting quotas which give little respite to battered piscine populations. Those with weak or corrupt governments may not even bother with this. Deals abound that permit outsiders legal but often badly monitored access to such countries’ waters. And many rogue vessels simply enter other people’s fishing grounds and steal their contents.

There may be a way to improve the supply side: increase the area where fishing is forbidden altogether.  This paradoxical approach, which involves the creation of so-called marine protected areas (MPAs), has already been demonstrated on several occasions to work locally. A new study “A global network of marine protected areas for food “in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…explores the idea of extending MPAs elsewhere. If the right extensions are picked designating a mere 5% more of the world’s oceans as MPAs—which would triple the area protected—could increase the future global catch of the 811 species they looked at by more than 20%. That corresponds to an extra 10m tonnes of food a year.

The idea that restricting fishing would permit more fish to be caught may seem counterintuitive, but the logic is simple. Fish in MPAs can grow larger than those at constant risk of being pulled from the ocean. Larger fish produce more eggs. More eggs mean more fry. Many of these youngsters then grow up and move out of the safe zone, thus becoming available to catch in adjoining areas where fishing is permitted…

MPAs are especially beneficial for the worst-managed areas, most of which are tropical—and in particular for overfished species…They also have the virtue of simplicity. The setting of quotas is open to pressure to overestimate of how many fish can safely be caught…This is difficult enough for countries with well-developed fisheries-research establishments. For those without such it is little more than guesswork…Setting the rules for an MPA is, by contrast, easy. You stick up a metaphorical sign that says, “No fishing”. Knowing who is breaking the rules is easy, too. If your gear is in the water, you are fishing illegally.

Excerpt from Fishing: Stopping some fishing would increase overall catches. Economist, Oct. 31, 2020

Turtle Eggs Can Fool Poachers

The InvestEGGator is used to reveal illegal trade networks and better understand what drives sea turtle egg poaching. The scientists deployed around a hundred of the fake eggs in sea turtle nests across four beaches in Costa Rica and waited. Each egg contained a GPS transmitter set to ping cell towers every hour, which would allow scientists to follow the InvestEGGator eggs on a smartphone app…Five of the deployed eggs were taken by unsuspecting poachers. The shortest route was roughly a mile, but one InvestEGGator traveled more than 80 miles, capturing what researchers were hoping for: the complete trade route, from the beach to the buyer. “Having that moment where the trade chain was complete….that was obviously a very big moment,” says Pheasey.

The InvestEGGator was the invention of Kim Williams-Guillén… The trick, says Williams-Guillén, was designing a device that looked and felt like a sea turtle egg while being precise enough to reveal trade routes. Sea turtle eggs are the size of ping pong balls, but unlike brittle chicken eggs, their shell is leathery and pliable. “Making [the trackers] look like eggs from far away was not going to be an issue, it was more making them feel like turtle eggs,” says Williams-Guillén. “One of the ways that [poachers] know that a turtle egg is good when they’re sorting their eggs is that it’s still soft and squishy.”…

Of the nests containing decoy eggs, a quarter were illegally harvested. Some of the eggs failed to connect to a GPS signal, while other eggs were spotted by poachers and tossed aside. Five of those poached eggs gave the team useful tracking data…This illegal trade network revealed that eggs are sold and consumed locally… The routes they discovered also suggest that most egg poachers in the area are individuals looking to make quick money, not an organized network.

Excerpt from Corryn Wetzel, 3-D Printed Sea Turtle Eggs Reveal Poaching Routes, SMITHSONIANMAG.COM, Oct. 7, 2020

De-Extinction: Horse Revival


A little baby horse named Kurt is a symbol of renewed hope for the survival of his kind. Born on 6 August 2020, he is the world’s first ever successfully cloned Przewalski’s horse, an endangered wild horse native to the steppes of central Asia. What makes Kurt even more exciting is that he was cloned from genetic material cryopreserved 40 years ago – reviving genetic diversity thought to have been lost decades ago…

Przewalski’s horses roaming the steppes declined dramatically after World War II, due to a combination of factors such as hunting, competition with livestock as humans moved into their territory, and severe winters. The last confirmed sighting of a Przewalski’s horse in the wild was in 1969. Luckily, some of the horses still remained in zoos. But not many. A total of 12 horses made up the ancestors of a captive breeding program – 11 Przewalski’s horses wild-caught between 1899 and 1902, and another caught in 1947. Thanks to this breeding program, there are around 2,000 individuals today. That’s incredibly impressive, but the growing population isn’t without problems.

Those 12 ancestor individuals represent what is known as a population bottleneck – when a species undergoes a severe reduction in numbers. From that point, a population can recover, but it can also be the beginning of the end. One of the reasons for that is lower genetic diversity. With less variation, a population is less able to adapt to potential stressors or changes to their environment…

Enter a Przewalski’s horse named Kuporovic, who lived from 1975 to 1998. An analysis of the captive breeding pedigree revealed that Kuporovic’s genome had unique ancestry from two wild founders. This meant he offered significantly more genetic variation than any of his living relatives, so in 1980, scientists took a sample and preserved it in San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo.  San Diego Zoo partnered with wildlife conservation group Revive & Restore and pet cloning company ViaGen Equine to create an embryo using Kuporovic’s genetic material. This embryo was implanted in a domestic horse (Equus ferus caballus) surrogate, and was born healthy after a normal pregnancy.

Excerpt from Scientists Clone an Endangered Przewalski’s Horse For The First Time, Science Alert, Sept 7, 2020

When Restoration Is Eradication: Palmyra Atoll

On the Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, conservation biologists are in the midst of a massive, unprecedented experiment. They are trying to rid this remote island of all but a few coconut palms. The gangly tree is an icon of idyllic tropical islands, but also an aggressive invasive species that crowds out native plants and animals. By removing 99% of Palmyra’s millions of palms, biologists hope to create more room on the atoll’s three dozen islets for indigenous forests and seabirds, including the world’s second largest colony of red-footed boobies…

Red footed booby

Ripping out the palms has long been on the list of restoration projects on Palmyra. First, however, managers decided to attack another invader, black rats, which likely arrived on ships during World War II. With no predators, rats multiplied into the tens of thousands. They ate the seeds and gnawed the saplings of native trees and attacked seabird colonies, including those of sooty terns, which nest on the ground. Rats are the key suspects behind the absence on Palmyra of eight other species of ground or burrow-nesting birds, including shearwaters and petrels, all found on central Pacific islands that have remained rat-free. The first attempt to eradicate the rats in 2002 failed, partly because Palmyra’s abundant land crabs out-competed the rodents for the poisonous bait. The crabs’ physiology allowed them to eat the poison—the anticoagulant brodifacoum—without ill effect.

The second effort was successful only after [researchers] radio-collared rats and discovered that the rodents liked to hang out in the crowns of coconut palms. The crowns became a convenient platform for stashing cotton gauze sacks of poison bait, delivered by workers firing slingshots or dangling from helicopters. Crabs do not reach the palm tops.

Once rats were exterminated in 2011, researchers watched with delight as native tree saplings began to spring from the forest floor. There were also happy surprises. Scientists discovered two additional species of land crabs that had likely gone undetected because voracious rats suppressed their numbers. And researchers realized they were no longer being bitten by Asian tiger mosquitoes, a pest that attacks during the day and can carry dengue and yellow fever. It appears the mosquitoes depended on rats rather than humans or birds for blood meals…

Excerpts from Ridding Paradise of Palms, Science, Aug. 28, 2020, at 1047

Global Nuclear Waste Movements: from Estonia to Utah

Regulators are weighing whether a local uranium company can import the material for processing at a mill near the border of a Native American reservation. For Energy Fuels Inc , the shipment represents an economic lifeline, after the company posted an operating loss of $7.8 million for the first quarter of 2020. Its president in March 2020 described the U.S. uranium industry as being “on the cusp of complete collapse.”
But for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe living near the facility – the only operational uranium mill in the United States – the proposal has stoked fears that tribal land will become a dumping ground for global radioactive waste. Both the White Mesa mill and the tribal reservation are in San Juan County, Utah’s poorest.

The mill, built in 1979, was only meant to process conventional uranium ores from the Colorado Plateau for up to 20 years, the tribe says. The Navajo Utah Commission and Navajo Nation have also that the company’s application be rejected. “The state of Utah must recognize and acknowledge the reality that the mill is far past its design life and no longer a conventional uranium mill, but, instead, a radioactive waste dump seeking to operate for decades, if not a millennium,” the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said in a document submitted to the state….

The 660 tons of powdered material in question, now sitting in 2,000 drums at a plant on the Estonian coast near the Russian border, would be Energy Fuels’ first-ever radioactive import from outside North America. The powder is a byproduct from tantalum and niobium mining by Estonian company Silmet, which contains uranium. But it cannot stay within Estonia, where there is no licensed facility for reprocessing radioactive material. Energy Fuels says there is enough uranium in that byproduct that it is worth processing. Opponents say Energy Fuels is simply taking in waste, which would be stored on site. According to Energy Fuels business from the shipment would help the company keep its 70 workers employed.

Energy Fuels anticipates demand for domestic uranium could rise, after the Trump administration in April 2020 proposed a $1.5 billion federal uranium reserve that would purchase uranium from domestic producers. Such a reserve, however, would need Congressional approval – a major hurdle. The reserve was one of the main proposals to come from a federal Nuclear Fuel Working Group aimed at reviving the U.S. uranium and nuclear industry. The United States currently imports over 90% of its uranium from abroad for its reactors.

Excerpts from Valerie Volcovicin Utah, a Debate Stirs Over Estonian Radioactive Waste, Reuters, July 16, 2020

The $4 Trillion Blackmail: The Amazon is Ours not Brazil’s

More than two dozen financial institutions around the world are demanding the Brazilian government rein in surging deforestation, which they said has created “widespread uncertainty about the conditions for investing in or providing financial services to Brazil”. The call for action, delivered in a letter to the Brazilian government on June 23, 2020, comes as concerns grow that investors may begin to divest from Latin America’s largest economy if Jair Bolsonaro’s administration fails to curb environmental destruction. “As financial institutions, who have a fiduciary duty to act in the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries, we recognise the crucial role that tropical forests play in tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity and ensuring ecosystem services,” said the letter, signed by 29 financial institutions managing more than $3.7tn in total assets.

“Considering increasing deforestation rates in Brazil, we are concerned that companies exposed to potential deforestation in their Brazilian operations and supply chains will face increasing difficulty accessing international markets. Brazilian sovereign bonds are also likely to be deemed high risk if deforestation continues.” Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has surged in Brazil since the election of Mr Bolsonaro, a rightwing former army captain, who supports opening the protected lands to commercial activity. In the first four months of 2020, an area twice the size of New York City was razed as illegal loggers and wildcat gold miners

Investors said they are particularly concerned about Brazil’s meatpacking industry, which risks being shut out of international markets over its alleged role in deforestation. Brazil’s JBS has been repeatedly accused by environmentalists of buying cows from deforested lands in the Amazon. In May 2020 more than 40 European companies, including Tesco and Marks and Spencer, warned they would boycott Brazilian products if the government did not act on deforestation. 

Excerpts from Investors warn Brazil to stop Amazon destruction, FT, June 23, 2020

Amazon Rainforest: Source of Food for Vegans, Meat-Lovers

In the first four months of 2020 an estimated 1,202 square km (464 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon, 55% more than during the same period in 2019, which was the worst year in a decade…Less attention has been paid to the role of big firms like JBS and Cargill, global intermediaries for beef and soya, the commodities that drive deforestation.  The companies do not chop down trees themselves. Rather, they are middlemen in complex supply chains that deal in soya and beef produced on deforested land. The process begins when speculators, who tend to operate outside the law, buy or seize land, sell the timber, graze cattle on it for several years and then sell it to a soya farmer. Land in the Amazon is five to ten times more valuable once it is deforested, says Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist. Not chopping down trees would have a large opportunity cost. In 2009 Mr Nepstad estimated that cost (in terms of forgone beef and soy output) would be $275bn over 30 years, about 16% of that year’s GDP.

Under pressure from public opinion, the big firms have made attempts to control the problem. In 2009, a damning report from Greenpeace led JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, meat giants which together handle two-thirds of Brazil’s exports, to pledge to stop buying from suppliers that deforest illegally. (The forest code allows owners to clear 20% of their land.) JBS, which sources from an area in the Amazon larger than Germany, says it has blocked 9,000 suppliers, using satellites to detect clearing.

The problem is especially acute in ranching, which accounts for roughly 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, nearly all of it illegal. “Cows move around,” explains Paulo Pianez of Marfrig. Every fattening farm the big meatpackers buy from has, on average, 23 of its own suppliers. Current monitoring doesn’t cover ranchers who breed and graze cattle, so it misses 85-90% of deforestation. Rogue fattening farms can also “launder” cattle by moving them to lawful farms—perhaps their own—right before selling them. A new Greenpeace report alleges that through this mechanism JBS, Marfrig and Minerva ended up selling beef from farms that deforested a protected Amazon reserve on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. They said they had not known about any illegality.

One reason that soya giants seem more serious than meat producers about reducing deforestation a network of investors concerned about sustainability, is that most soya is exported. The EU is the second-top destination after China. But companies struggle to get people to pay more for a “hidden commodity”… But few people will pay extra for chicken made with sustainable soya, which explains why just 2-3% is certified deforestation-free. ….Four-fifths of Brazilian beef, by contrast, is eaten in Brazil. Exports go mostly to China, Russia and the Middle East, where feeding people is a higher priority than saving trees. Investors, for their part, see beef firms as unsexy businesses with thin margins

According to soya growers, multinational firms failed to raise $250m to launch a fund for compensating farmers who retain woodland. “They demand, demand, demand, but don’t offer anything in return,” complains Ricardo Arioli….

Reducing deforestation will require consensus on tricky issues like the fate of tens of thousands of poor settlers on public lands in the Amazon, where half of deforestation takes place….

Excerpts from The AmazonL Of Chainshaws and Supply Chains, Economist, JUne 13, 2020

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Naked Commercial Whaling and Toxic Whale Meat

Scientific “research” was also the reason Japan’s government gave for continuing to kill whales in the vast Southern Ocean after a global moratorium on commercial whaling came into force in 1985. But international criticism along with environmental groups’ attempts to sabotage the annual hunt proved too costly to Japan’s reputation and purse (the government bankrolled the hunt). In late 2018 Japan declared it was giving up killing in the Southern Ocean .

The Southern Ocean is now a sanctuary. But it comes at a cost. Japan walked out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), accusing the anti-whaling members of failing to appreciate the cultural significance of whaling in Japan and of imposing their values on others. Freed from the IWC’s strictures, the government said commercial whaling would resume in Japan’s own extensive waters. But…whaling in home waters is troubling. Most whale populations in the Southern Ocean are healthy. In Japanese waters, stocks are less bountiful….

The whaling lobby is powerful in Japan. For now, the subsidies continue, supposedly to help ease the switch to nakedly commercial whaling but they coud be gone in two or three years. Other fleets complain that whaling gets far more than its fair share of subsidies for fisheries.

The challenges are immense. Whalemeat consumption has fallen from 230,000 tonnes a year in the early 1960s to 3,000 tonnes today, and whale is no longer cheap. Local whales have higher accumulations of toxins (such as a mercury) than those in the Southern Ocean. One packager of sashimi admits he sources his whale meat from Norway.

Excertps from Japan wants to catch whales. But who will eat them?, Economist, Apor. 25, 2020

Elephants and Cattle: Benefits of Co-existence

Wildlife and cattle can coexist.  In fact, elephants can help distribute nutrients into the soil, via their poop and their habit of knocking over trees…Common grass contained about 50% more nitrogen in the grazing areas with elephants than the areas without them, making that grass more nutritious. That should benefit both cows and smaller wildlife, such as gazelles….This is why ranchers must protect elephants.

Excerpts from Conservation Ecology: Elephants Restore Depleted Soil, Science Mag., Apr. 3, 2020, at 12

Can Traditional Medicine Cure COVID-19? China’s Take

Around the world officials are advising people to be wary of alternative treatments for covid-19. The opposite is true in China, where remedies known as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are being heavily promoted by the state. In January 2020, as the crisis escalated, the health ministry listed TCM treatments among those it recommended for the disease. It sent nearly 5,000 specialists to Hubei to administer them to patients (including sufferers at a sports centre in Wuhan that was turned into a TCM hospital for people with mild symptoms). Now China is keen to promote its remedies abroad.  TCM practitioners have joined Chinese medical teams sent to help manage outbreaks in Cambodia, Iraq and Italy. In mid-March, 2020 state media quoted a Tanzanian health official saying that China’s use of TCM for covid-19 may be “a model” for Africa to follow…

The use of animals in TCM sometimes involves appalling cruelty. One of the TCM remedies that the health ministry has recommended for use in the treatment of covid-19 patients includes powdered bear bile. In China this is often extracted from live bears kept in grim farms even though its active ingredient can be created synthetically. In February 2020 China banned the sale of wild animals as food—close contact in markets between live specimens and merchants may have helped the coronavirus to leap from animal to human. But the new rules do not prevent trappers and breeders from selling animal parts for use in TCM.

Officials do not say that traditional remedies can cure covid-19. But they do claim that TCM can reduce death rates by preventing patients with mild or moderate symptoms from developing more serious ones. They also say that TCM can speed up recovery. A website set up by China Daily, a state newspaper, called “Fighting covid-19 the Chinese way”, says that TCM can “remove the trash which causes illness”, leaving the virus “no room to survive”.

Excerpts from Fighting it the Chinese Way: Traditional Medicine, Economist, Apr. 11, 2020

Better Alive than Dead: The Crocodile Trade

Around 6m tonnes of bush meat are thought to come out of the Congo Basin each year… The trade has emptied out parts of the forest; 39% of it is at severe risk of over-hunting, the study says. Everything from bonobos (an endangered species of ape) to cobras, antelopes and, occasionally, elephants, appear at market stalls in Mbandaka.

Over-hunting has made life more dangerous for crocodile hunters. The number of dwarf crocodiles, once common in the Congo river, is dwindling. So hunters have to chase the ferocious Nile crocodile instead. There are plenty of those. Their scaly bodies stretch to six metres and they often kill humans. Stalkers in canoes go after them at night, shining a torch while stirring the water. “The crocodile does not like that,” says Mr Nyalowala. “He begins to writhe and then comes to attack.” As the animal pounces so do its pursuers, spearing it.

A live crocodile fetches more than a dead one in the markets in Mbandaka, so hunters bind their jaws and transport them some 200km downstream in their canoes. They sell for around $150 each. A teacher at a state school, by comparison, earns around $170 a month, though many did not get paid at all last year.

Croc in the pot: The toils and spoils of Congo’s crocodile-killers, Economist, Mar. 19, 2020

How to Create a National Park? Beat Up and Intimidate Indigenous Peoples

Armed ecoguards partly funded by the conservation group WWF to protect wildlife in the Republic of the Congo beat up and intimidated hundreds of Baka pygmies living deep in the rainforests, according to a UNDP investigation. A team of investigators sent to northern Congo by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to assess allegations of human rights abuses gathered “credible” evidence from different sources that hunter-gatherer Baka tribespeople living close to a proposed national park had been subjected to violence and physical abuse from the guards over years, according to a leaked draft of the report obtain by the Guardian in February 2020.

The allegations, reported to the UN in 2019, included Baka tribespeople being beaten by the ecoguards, the criminalisation and illegal imprisonment of Baka men, summary evictions from the forest, the burning and destruction of property, and the confiscation of food.  In addition, the UNDP’s social and environmental compliance unit heard how the ecoguards allegedly treated the Baka men as “sub-human” and humiliated some Baka women by forcing them to take off their clothes and “be like naked children”.

The report says: “These beatings occur when the Baka are in their camps along the road as well as when they are in the forest. They affect men, women and children. Other reports refer to ecoguards pointing a gun at one Baka to force him to beat another and guards taking away the machetes of the Baka, then beating them with those machetes.

“There are reports of Baka men having been taken to prison and of torture and rape inside prison. The widow of one Baka man spoke about her husband being so ill-treated in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been transported to the prison in a WWF-marked vehicle.”

The draft report, dated 6 January 2020, adds: “The violence and threats are leading to trauma and suffering in the Baka communities. It is also preventing the Baka from pursuing their customary livelihoods, which in turn is contributing to their further marginalisation and impoverishment.”

The $21.4m (£16.6m) flagship Tridom 11 project in northern Congo set up in 2017 with money from the WWF, UNDP, the European commission, US and Congolese governments and the Global Environment Facility, as well as logging and palm oil conglomerates, includes as its centrepiece a 1,456 sq km area of forest known as Messok Dja.

This global biodiversity hotspot is rich in wildlife, including elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, and has been lived in and used for the hunting of small game by the semi-nomadic Baka tribes for millennia. The WWF has pressed for it to be designated a protected area, or national park, for 10 years, on the grounds that it will reduce wildlife crime and act as an ecological corridor linking national parks in neighbouring Cameroon.

The WWF says the ecoguards were employed by the Congolese government, but admits contributing to their training and wages along with other funders through the Tridom interzone project (ETIC), a Congo government collaboration with WWF. It adds that there are no legal restrictions preventing Baka using the forests….The investigators also identified multiple failures of the UNDP to adhere to human rights policies and standards, and said little consideration had been given to the impact of the project on the Baka peoples….Investigators also said they found no evidence that the UNDP had taken into account the risk of co-financing the project with palm oil and logging companies whose work by its nature threatens large-scale biodiversity loss.

The report strongly criticises the way conservation is practised in central Africa. “The goal of establishing Messok Dja as a protected area was pursued by following the established patterns of conservation projects in the Congo Basin, which largely exclude indigenous peoples and treat them as threats rather than partners,” it says.

Excerpts from John Vidal, Armed ecoguards funded by WWF ‘beat up Congo tribespeople’, Guardian, Feb, 3, 2020

What Shrimp and Beef Have in Common? carbon footprint

Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle. A study conducted in 2017 by cifor, a research institute, found that in both these instances, by far the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint of the resulting beef or shrimp came from the clearing of the land. As a result, CIFOR concluded, a kilo of farmed shrimp was responsible for almost four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of a kilo of beef

Eating wild shrimp is not much better: catches are declining around the world as a result of overfishing. Trawlers can pull as much as 20kg of by-catch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp. And reports abound of the appalling treatment of workers on shrimp-fishing vessels, including human-trafficking and child labour. When UN investigators interviewed a sample of Cambodians who had escaped virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats, 59% of them reported seeing fellow crew-members murdered by the captain.


Most of the world’s shrimp and prawns come from Asia. The continent accounts for 85% of the farmed sort and 74% of the wild catch. Global sales were around $45bn in 2018 and are thought to be growing by about 5% a year. But the industry is controversial, not just because of its part in global warming. Razing mangroves also leaves coastal regions vulnerable to flooding. Many shrimp farms are unsanitary; ponds often have to be abandoned after a few years because of problems with disease and pollution.

All this has given one Singaporean company a brain wave. “Farmed shrimps are often bred in overcrowded conditions and literally swimming in sewage water. We want to disrupt that—to empower farmers with technology that is cleaner and more efficient,” says Sandhya Sriram, one of the founders of Shiok Meats. The firm aims to grow artificial shrimp, much as some Western firms are seeking to create beef without cows. The process involves propagating shrimp cells in a nutrient-rich solution. Ms Sriram likens it to a brewery, disdaining the phrase “lab-grown”….The hitch is that producing shrimp in this way currently costs $5,000 a kilo.

Excerpts from How artificial shrimps could change the world, Economist, Feb. 28, 2020

Beauty Secrets: Donkeys Exterminated for their Skin Collagen

Over the past 6 years, Chinese traders have been buying the hides of millions of butchered donkeys from developing countries and shipping them to China, where they’re used to manufacture ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine… Ejiao, in use for thousands of years, purportedly treats or prevents many problems, including miscarriage, circulatory issues, and premature aging, although no rigorous clinical trials support those claims. The preparation combines mineral-rich water from China’s Shandong province and collagen extracted from donkey hides, traditionally produced by boiling the skins in a 99-step process. Once reserved for China’s elites, ejiao is now marketed to the country’s booming middle class, causing demand to surge

Despite government incentives for new donkey farmers, farms in China can’t keep up with the exploding demand, which the Donkey Sanctuary currently estimates at 4.8 million hides per year. Donkeys’ gestation period is one full year, and they only reach their adult size after 2 years. So the industry has embarked on a frenzied hunt for donkeys elsewhere. This has triggered steep population declines. In Brazil, the population dropped by 28% between 2007 and 2017, according to the new report.

African populations are crashing, too, says Philip Mshelia, an equine veterinarian and researcher at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. After buying donkeys at markets, traders often drive large herds to slaughter, sometimes covering hundreds of kilometers with no rest, food, or water. Those transported by truck fare worse: Handlers tie their legs together and sling them onto piles or strap them to the top of the truck, Mshelia says. Animals that survive the journey—many with broken or severed limbs—are unloaded by the ears and tails and tossed in front of a slaughterhouse. Some meet their end in an open field where humans await them with hammers, axes, and knives.

For donkey owners, selling their animal means quick cash—now more than $200 in parts of Africa…

Ironically, the booming ejiao trade, along with a developing donkey dairy industry in Eastern Europe, has stirred scientific interest in donkeys.  Zhen Shenming, a reproductive biologist at the China Agricultural University in Beijing, says Chinese efforts are focused on increasing yields, for instance through artificial insemination…Chinese breeders are also testing new nutrition programs that expedite growth, leading to an adult-size donkey in only 18 months…

“They are very observant and sentient animals, and they create very strong bonds with other donkeys.” That’s one reason the current slaughtering practice, in which the animals often await their turn while watching other donkeys being beaten unconscious, slaughtered, and skinned is abhorrent.  “They’re certainly quite well aware of what’s happening and what’s to come,” McLean says. 

Excerpts from Christa Lesté-Lasserre Donkeys face worldwide existential threat, Science,  Dec. 13, 2019

How Sand Extraction Damages Ecosystems

The world uses nearly 50bn tonnes of sand and gravel a year—almost twice as much as a decade ago. No other natural resource is extracted and traded on such an epic scale, bar water. Demand is greatest in Asia, where cities are growing fast (sand is the biggest ingredient in concrete, asphalt and glass). China got through more cement between 2011 and 2013 than America did in the entire 20th century (the use of cement is highly correlated with that of sand).

Since the 1960s Singapore—the world’s largest importer of sand—has expanded its territory by almost a quarter, mainly by dumping it into the sea. The OECD thinks the construction industry’s demand for sand and gravel will double over the next 40 years. Little wonder then that the price of sand is rocketing. In Vietnam in 2017 it quadrupled in just one year.

In the popular imagination, sand is synonymous with limitlessness. In reality it is a scarce commodity, for which builders are now scrabbling. Not just any old grains will do. The United Arab Emirates is carpeted in dunes, but imports sand nonetheless because the kind buffeted by desert winds is too fine to be made into cement. Sand shaped by water is coarser and so binds better. Extraction from coastlines and rivers is therefore surging. But according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Asians are scooping up sand faster than it can naturally replenish itself. In Indonesia some two dozen small islands have vanished since 2005. Vietnam expects to run out of sand this year.

All this has an environmental cost. Removing sand from riverbeds deprives fish of places to live, feed and spawn. It is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangzi river dolphin. Moreover, according to WWF, a conservation group, as much as 90% of the sediment that once flowed through the Mekong, Yangzi and Ganges rivers is trapped behind dams or purloined by miners, thereby robbing their deltas both of the nutrients that make them fecund and of the replenishment that counters coastal erosion. As sea levels rise with climate change, saltwater is surging up rivers in Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among other places, and crop yields are falling in the areas affected. Vietnam’s agriculture ministry has warned that seawater may travel as far as 110km up the Mekong this winter. The last time that happened, in 2016, 1,600 square kilometres of land were ruined, resulting in losses of $237m. Locals have already reported seeing dead fish floating on the water.

 
Curbing sand-mining is difficult because so much of it is unregulated. Only about two-fifths of the sand extracted worldwide every year is thought to be traded legally, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. In Shanghai miners on the Yangzi evade the authorities by hacking transponders, which broadcast the positions of ships, and cloning their co-ordinates. It is preferable, of course, to co-opt officials. Ministers in several state governments in India have been accused of abetting or protecting illegal sand-mining. “Everybody has their finger in the pie,” says Sumaira Abdulali of Awaaz Foundation, a charity in Mumbai. She says she has been attacked twice for her efforts to stop the diggers.

Excerpts from Bring me a nightmare: Sand-Mining, Economist, Jan. 18, 2019

Viva Over-Fishing! Addicted to Over-Consumption of Fish

In 2015 world leaders signed up to a long list of sustainable development goals, among them an agreement to limit government subsidies that contribute to overfishing. Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (wto) were told to finish the job “by 2020”. They have missed their deadline. Overfishing is a tragedy of the commons, with individuals and countries motivated by short-term self-interest to over-consume a limited resource. By one measure, the share of fish stocks being fished unsustainably has risen from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015.

Governments make things worse with an estimated $22bn of annual subsidies that increase capacity, including for gear, ice, fuel and boat-building. One study estimated that half of fishing operations in the high seas (waters outside any national jurisdiction) would be unprofitable without government support.

 Trade ministers were supposed to sort it all out at WTO meeting in December in Kazakhstan. But the meeting was postponed till June 2020. Moreover, the murky nature of subsidies for unregulated and unreported fishing makes their work unusually difficult. Governments do not have lines in their budget that say “subsidies for illegal fishing”, points out Alice Tipping of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think-tank.

Negotiators are trying to devise a system that would alert governments to offending boats, which would become ineligible for future subsidies. That is tangling them up in arguments about what to do when a boat is found in disputed territory, how to deal with frivolous accusations and how to treat boats that are not associated with any country offering subsidies.

When it comes to legal fishing of overfished stocks, it is easier to spot the subsidies in government budget lines, but no easier to agree on what to do about them. America and the European Union, for example, have been arguing over whether to allow subsidies up to a cap, or whether to ban some subsidies and take a lenient approach to the rest. The EU favours the second option, arguing that where fisheries are well-managed, subsidies are not harmful. To others this looks like an attempt to ensure any eventual deal has loopholes.

Further complicating matters is a long-running row about how to treat developing countries. All WTO members agree that some need special consideration. But as an American representative pointed out at a recent WTO meeting, 17 of the world’s 26 most prolific fishing countries are developing ones. That means broad carve-outs for them would seriously weaken any deal.

China, both the world’s biggest fisher and biggest subsidiser of fishing, has proposed capping subsidies in proportion to the number of people in each country who work in the industry. But it is the world leader here, too, with 10m at the last count (in 2016). Other countries fear such a rule would constrain China too little.

Excerpts from The World Trade Organization: What’s the Catch, Economist, Jan 4, 2020

When the Fish are Gone: As Bad as it Could Get in the Yangtze River

China imposed a 10-year commercial fishing ban in January 2020  on the Yangtze – the first ever for Asia’s longest river – in a bid to protect its aquatic life.  Facing dwindling fish stocks and declining biodiversity in the 6,300km (3,915-mile) river, the Chinese government decided seasonal moratoriums were not enough. The ban will be applied at 332 conservation sites along the river. It will be extended to cover the main river course and key tributaries by January 1 2021, according to a State Council notice.   Dam-building, pollution, overfishing, river transport and dredging had worsened the situation for the waterway’s aquatic species.  Fishermen using nets with smaller holes and illegal practices such as the use of explosives or electrocution have also contributed to the river’s decline

 President Xi Jinping warned that the Yangtze River had become so depleted that its biodiversity index was as bad as it could get, saying it had reached what could be described as the “no fish” level… Back in 1954, the annual catch from the Yangtze was about 427,000 tonnes, but in recent years it had been less than 100,000 tonnes.
According to an official estimate, about 280,000 fishermen in 10 provinces along the Yangtze River will be affected by the ban. Their 113,000 registered fishing boats will be grounded or destroyed. The government has allocated funds to help those affected find alternative work and provide them with welfare and retraining. To counter illegal fishing, he said river authorities would be equipped with speedboats, drones and video surveillance systems. Fishermen would also be recruited to patrol the river.

Excerpts from China bans fishing in depleted Yangtze River for 10 years to protect aquatic life, South China Morning Post, Jan. 3, 2020

Dirty Little Secrets: Farming Tigers for their Meat and Bones

The area around the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a swathe of north-western Laos..is famous for its tigers. Not wild ones, which have nearly all been killed in Laos, but captive animals, illegally trafficked and bred for their parts, which sell for thousands of dollars. 

A century ago, around 100,000 tigers roamed the world’s jungles. Because of habitat loss and poaching, there are fewer than 4,000 wild ones today. More than twice as many are being held in at least 200 farms across East and South-East Asia. These range from small backyard operations to enclosures breeding hundreds in “battery-farm style”, says the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO focusing on wildlife crime.  Breeding tigers and trading them and their parts is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but this treaty is widely flouted in Asia because of poor law-enforcement and high demand for tigers. Belief in their medicinal properties has deep roots, especially in China. Tiger-bone wine, skins and jewelry featuring claws and teeth are status symbols. In Laos, carcasses can sell for as much as $30,000, officials reckon.

Some criminals choose to operate in Laos because…the government of Laos is allegedly complicit. America’s State Department recently reported that Laos was one of three countries that had recently “actively engaged in or knowingly profited from the trafficking of endangered or threatened species”. In 2016 an investigation by Britain’s Guardian newspaper found the Lao government had licensed two tiger farms and cut lucrative deals with wildlife traffickers smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of endangered animals—including tigers—through Laos.

The government has a 20% stake in Golden Triangle SEZ, a resort complex run by Zhao Wei, a Chinese businessman whom America’s Treasury last year accused of engaging in illegal trade in wildlife, as well as trafficking drugs and people (he denies the allegations). With its flashy casino and hotels, the SEZ is designed to attract Chinese tourists (gambling is illegal in China). In 2014 and 2015, EIA investigators found that restaurants in the SEZ were advertising “sauté tiger meat” and tiger-bone wine; shops were selling tiger skins and ivory tusks. Near the casino, 26 tigers stalked the length of their enclosure, destined for the slaughterhouse. Their bones were to infuse rice wine. Since the EIA’’s report, these establishments have closed.

Excerpt from: Tiger Farms in Laos: Law of the Jungle, Economist, Nov, 30, 2019

How to Save the Rhino: Fake Rhino Horns Flood the Market

Rhinoceros horns are big business. Traditional Chinese medicine uses them to treat rheumatism and gout… And Yemeni craftsmen carve them into dagger handles. A kilogram can thus command as much as $60,000, so there is tremendous incentive for poachers to hunt the animals. Since almost all rhinoceros populations are endangered, several critically, this is a serious problem. Some conservationists therefore suggest that a way to reduce pressure on the animals might be to flood the market with fakes. This, they hope, would reduce the value of real horns and consequently the incentive to hunt rhinos.

That would require the fakes to be good. But Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at Oxford University, reckons his skills as a forger are up to the challenge. As he writes in Scientific Reports, he and his colleagues from Fudan University, in Shanghai, have come up with a cheap and easy-to-make knock-off that is strikingly similar to the real thing.  The main ingredient of Dr Vollrath’s forged horns is horsehair. Despite their differing appearances, horses and rhinos are reasonably closely related. Horses do not have horns, of course. But, technically, neither do rhinos. Unlike the structures that adorn cattle and bison, which have cores made of bone, the “horns” of rhinoceros are composed of hairs bound tightly together by a mixture of dead cells.  Examination under a microscope showed that hairs collected from horses’ tails had similar dimensions and symmetry to those found in the horns of rhinos. 

The next task they tackled was making a suitable glue. This is made from a fibrous protein-rich glue of the sort produced naturally by spiders and silkworms. They bundled the treated horse hairs as tightly as they could in a matrix of this glue, and then left the bundles in an oven to dry.  The result was a material that, with some polishing, looked like rhino horn….DNA analysis would certainly reveal fakes, but such analysis is complicated and therefore hard to do in the sorts of back rooms in which rhino-horn sales tend to take place. The forgeries passed other tests with flying colors, though…

Excerpts from How to forge rhinoceros horn, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

For more details see Creating artificial Rhino Horns from Horse Hair

When Logging Works: “Every Part of the Tree”

The rapacious industrialisation of the Finnish forest, which covers three-quarters of the country’s landscape, looks the antithesis of tree-hugging environmentalism. The forest is home to wolves, bears, deer and many other species of wildlife, and its trees lock away carbon that would otherwise be in the air, warming the atmosphere. Yet Metsä Group, which operates the Äänekoski pulp mill, claims the very opposite.  Metsä is ultimately controlled by a co-operative belonging to more than 100,000 families who have each owned large chunks of the forest for generations. For every tree harvested, four saplings are planted. These are allowed to grow for a few years and are then thinned to encourage the best specimens to develop vigorously. The thinnings, however, are not wasted. They are sent to the mill. The mature trees, meanwhile, are harvested when they are between six and ten decades old. The consequence of this husbandry, according to Finland’s Natural Resources Institute, is that the annual growth of trees in Finland exceeds the volume of felling and natural loss by over 20m cubic metres, despite the increasing demand for wood.

As for the mill itself, Metsä’s stated aim is to make best use of every part of a tree, both to maximise the value of its wood and, where possible, to continue to lock up its carbon. To this end, besides the bread-and-butter business of turning out planks and plywood, the firm has come up with several new ideas. Three are of particular interest. One is a better way of converting wood pulp into fibre that can be turned into textiles. A second is to produce plastic-free cardboard cartons which can be used as food containers and then recycled. The third is to find employment for lignin, a by-product of the pulping process which is, at the moment, usually burned…

Metsä has also teamed up with Itochu, a Japanese trading company with a large clothing business, to make fabric that will compete with oil-based synthetic fibres and provide an alternative to cotton, the growing of which requires a lot of land, irrigation and pesticides. Some fabrics—rayon, for example—can be made from wood….

The complex processes involved in processing wood result in several “sidestreams”. These are wastes that become raw materials for other processes. They include sulphuric acid, which is re-used by the mill, and biogas, tall oil (a byproduct of papermaking) and lignin—carbon-rich materials burnt to produce electricity. This powers the mill, and yields a surplus which is exported to the national grid. As a consequence, unlike some wood mills, the Äänekoski plant uses no fossil fuels.

Excerpts from Sustainable Forestry: If you go down to the woods today, Economist, Oct. 19, at 75

Saving the Giraffe from Trophy Hunting and Meat Production

In August 2019, countries agreed to monitor trade in giraffes and their body parts to help conserve the species, now deemed vulnerable to extinction. From 1985 to 2015, the wild giraffe population shrank by about 40% to approximately 68,000 adults. The declines were especially sharp in eastern and Central Africa where giraffes’ savanna and forest habitat has been turned into farms and the animals are poached for meat; most trophy hunting of giraffes happens in southern Africa, where populations have been increasing… The only figures on trade in giraffe parts show that about 40,000—including hides, carved bones, and hunting trophies such as mounted heads—were brought into the United States from 2006 to 2015.

Excerpt from Giraffe Trade to Be Tracked, Science, Aug. 30, 2019

The Disappearing Birds

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported in the September 2019 Issue of Science Magazine…  Five  years ago, PM Rosenberg a conservation biologist decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.  “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. 

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States….

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,  Science, Sept. 20, 2019

The Truth About Forest Fires

BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa.  It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past.   More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia  spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality.  But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.

Haze Pollution

In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas.  The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade.  Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.

The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010.  There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin.  For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest.  “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century.  The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined.  Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad.  Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.

Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels.  “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC.  According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years.  In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.

Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different.  Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest.  Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities.  “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.

Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC

What You Can Do with $1 Million: Saving the New Zealand Parrot

Scientists in New Zealand have genetically sequenced every adult kakapo.  The kakapo, a cuddly bird that lives in New Zealand, is not designed for survival. Weighing up to 4kg, it is the world’s fattest and least flighty parrot. It mates only when the rimu tree is in fruit, which happens every few years.  It evolved in the absence of land-based predators, so instead of soaring above the trees it waddles haplessly across the dry forest floor below. When it stumbles across something that might kill it, it has the lamentable habit of standing still….Such oddities turned the kakapo into fast food for human settlers—and for the cats, rats and possums they brought with them. It seemed extinct by the 1970s, until scientists stumbled on two undiscovered populations in the country’s south. These survivors were eventually moved to small predator-free islands, where the Department of Conservation has spent decades trying to get them to breed…Its patience may finally be rewarded. The rimu was in fruit this year, and more than 80 chicks hatched after a bumper crop, making this the best breeding season on record. Many have survived into adolescence, increasing the number of adult kakapos by a third, to 200 birds.

But another threat to the kakapo is a lack of genetic diversity, because of low numbers and inbreeding. This is one reason why fewer than half of kakapo eggs hatch. By sequencing the genome of every living bird, scientists can identify closely related individuals and prevent more inbreeding by putting them on different islands. Well-matched birds cannot be forced to mate, but artificial insemination is also proving effective. Every bird is fitted with a transmitter to track its slightest movement. If a female mates with an “unsuitable” male, the process can be “overridden” with another bird’s semen. Time is of the essence, so drones are being used to whizz kakapo sperm to the right place.

All these efforts cost almost nz$2m ($1.3m) this breeding season. Yet the kakapo’s future still looks precarious. Earlier this year a fungal disease tore through the population. And tiny as the number of kakapos is, space is running out on the two islands where most of them live. New predator-free havens must soon be found. 

Excerpts from How eugenics is saving a pudgy parrot, Economist, Aug. 31, 2019

The Biopiracy Backlash

Indonesia‘s rich biodiversity and complex geology have lured scientists from abroad for centuries. But a law adopted on 16 July 2019 by Indonesia’s parliament may convince some to go elsewhere. The legislation includes strict requirements on foreign scientists doing research in Indonesia, including the need to recruit local collaborators and a near-ban on exporting specimens, along with stiff sanctions, including jail time, for violators.

Muhammad Dimyati, director-general of research development at Indonesia’s Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education (commonly known as RISTEK) in Jakarta, says the law is needed to protect Indonesia’s natural resources and develop the country’s research enterprise. But some Indonesian scientists fear the consequences. “Our international collaborations will be stifled,” says Berry Juliandi, a biologist at Bogor Agricultural University and secretary of the Indonesian Young Academy of Science. Indeed, marine biologist Philippe Borsa of the French Research Institute for Development in Montpellier says the law—and an increasingly unfriendly climate for foreign researchers—is a reason for him not to return to Indonesia, where he has studied the phylogeography of stingrays.

The new law also establishes the National Research Agency, a giant new institution that may subsume most government research centers, including the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta. Details still need to be fleshed out, but some scientists worry the new agency will concentrate too much power in a few hands. The law’s most contentious provisions, however, are those that apply to foreign researchers.

From now on, their research has to be “beneficial for Indonesia.” They need to get ethical clearance from an Indonesian review board for every study, submit primary data and published papers to the government, involve Indonesian scientists as equal partners, and share any benefits, such as the proceeds from new drugs, resulting from the study. Researchers can’t take samples or even digital information out of the country, except for tests that cannot be done in Indonesian labs, and to do so, they need a so-called material transfer agreement (MTA) using a template provided by the government.

In most cases, violators will lose their research permit, but some offenses carry steeper penalties. Scientists who fail to obtain a proper permit will be blacklisted for 5 years; repeat offenders risk a $290,000 fine. Failure to comply with the MTA requirements is punishable by 2 years in prison or a $145,000 fine. ..Indonesia has become increasingly concerned about biopiracy.  In 2018,, for instance, a dispute erupted over a genetic study of Sulawesi’s “sea nomads”—an indigenous fishing group that appears to have evolved bigger spleens to store oxygenated blood during long dives. Indonesian researchers called it an example of Western “helicopter science.”. 

Megalara garuda

A 2017 document introducing the new law, signed by RISTEK Minister Mohamad Nasir, singled out another alleged example: the discovery of Megalara garuda, a giant venomous wasp, on Sulawesi, published in 2012 by entomologist Lynn Kimsey of the University of California (UC), Davis, along with a German researcher who found the same insect in a Berlin collection. LIPI entomologist Rosichon Ubaidillah tells Science that he and a junior colleague collected the wasps and that he suggested the name garuda—a mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia—during a visit to UC Davis. But neither of them was a co-author on the paper; Ubaidillah was mentioned in an acknowledgement, his colleague not at all. Kimsey violated a memorandum of understanding between LIPI and UC Davis, he adds. LIPI, enraged, asked Kimsey to return the wasps she took home.

Excerpts from Dyna Rochmyaningsih, Indonesia gets tough on foreign scientists, Science, July 26, 2019

Low Risk-High Rewards: Killing Endangered Species

The animals’ meat, hides and, above all, tusks are money-spinners. East Asia is the biggest market for ivory and for many illegally traded products, such as animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—tiger bones, rhino horns, pangolin scales—or in its cuisine—pangolin meat, for example. In July,  2019 the authorities in Singapore seized 8.8 tonnes, about 300 elephants’-worth, of ivory, along with 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales, from some 2,000 of the anteaters, the world’s most widely trafficked endangered mammal. The annual profits of the trade in illegal wildlife products are estimated at between $7bn at the low end and $23bn. This makes it the fourth-most profitable criminal trafficking business, with links to others—slavery, narcotics and the arms trade..

Athough China is trying to curb illegal trade, it is also promoting TCM as one of its civilisation’s great contributions to the world. It has indeed made breakthroughs, such as artemisinin, now a widely used defence against malaria. Artemisinin is isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, a herb employed in TCM….Conservationists are alarmed that in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave TCM respectability by including diagnoses for 400 conditions in its influential International Classification of Disease. 

The WHO approved in June 2019 a new version of its International Classification of Diseases, a highly influential document that categorizes and assigns codes to medical conditions, and is used internationally to decide how doctors diagnose conditions and whether insurance companies will pay to treat them. The latest version, ICD-11, is the first to include a chapter, chapter 26, on TCM.

Excerpts from How to curb the trade in endangered species: On the Horns, Economist, Aug. 10, 2019; The World Health Organization’s decision about traditional Chinese medicine could backfire, Nature, June 5, 2019

Who Owns the Riches of the Melting North Pole

A competition for the North Pole heated up in May 2019, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science…

Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits…..Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise, Brazil

To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. …CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.

The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive)

Lomonosov Ridge, Amerasian Basin

Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin” where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up…

There’s also a proposal to make the North Pole international, like Antarctica (South Pole), as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”

Richard Kemeny, Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science, June 21, 2019

How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

Who to Save? Forests or Farmers

Agriculture continues to present the biggest threat to forests worldwide. Some experts predict that crop production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world at the current pace of population growth and dietary changes toward higher meat and dairy consumption. Scientists generally agree that productivity increase alone is not going to do the trick. Cropland expansion will be needed, most likely at the expense of large swathes of tropical forests – as much as 200 million hectares by some estimates. 

Nowhere is this competition for land between forests and agriculture more acute than in Africa. Its deforestation rate has surpassed those of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Sadly, the pace shows no sign of slowing down. Africa’s agriculture sector needs to feed its burgeoning populations- the fastest growing in the world…. What’s more, for the millions of unemployed African youth, a vibrant agriculture sector will deliver jobs and spur structural transformation of the rural economy. Taken together, the pressures on forests are immense. Unless interventions are made urgently, a large portion of Africa’s forests will be lost in the coming decades – one farm plot at a time.

The difficult question is: what interventions can protect forests and support farmers at the same time? 

To tackle these complex challenges, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has launched a new initiative: The “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) in Sub-Saharan Africa: Managing Trade-Offs Between Social and Ecological Impacts”  Read more

Excerpts from XIAOXUE WENG et al Can forests and smallholders live in harmony in Africa?, CIFOR, June 3, 2019

How Nuclear Explosions Affect the Deep Ocean

Radioactive carbon released into the atmosphere from 20th-century nuclear bomb tests has reached the deepest parts of the ocean, new research finds.  A new study in AGU’s journal Geophysical Research Letters finds the first evidence of radioactive carbon from nuclear bomb tests in muscle tissues of crustaceans that inhabit Earth’s ocean trenches, including the Mariana Trench, home to the deepest spot in the ocean.

Mariana Deep Ocean Trench

Organisms at the ocean surface have incorporated this “bomb carbon” into the molecules that make up their bodies since the late 1950s. Crustaceans in deep ocean trenches are feeding on organic matter from these organisms when it falls to the ocean floor. The results show human pollution can quickly enter the food web and make its way to the deep ocean, according to the study’s authors.



Crustacean

According to researchers, water containing carbon-14 can take centuries to circulate throughout the ocean, but the food web drastically accelerated the process. “There’s a very strong interaction between the surface and the bottom, in terms of biologic systems, and human activities can affect the biosystems even down to 11,000 meters,” said Weidong Sun, a coauthor of the study, “so we need to be careful about our future behaviors.”

RADIOACTIVE CARBON FROM NUCLEAR BOMB TESTS FOUND IN DEEP OCEAN TRENCHES
AGU Press Release, 8 May 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Assisted Evolution: Engineering Coral Reefs

Imagine ecologists cultivating whole new breeds of trees to restock a devastated wilderness…. Coral conservation has traditionally focused on minimizing damage from insults such as water pollution, invasive starfish, and destructive fishing or tourism. In the Caribbean, some conservationists have worked to “replant” damaged coral. But Gates and Van Oppen [two scientists]  have something more intrusive in mind. They want to try to alter the genetics of coral or the microbes that live on it. They dubb the effort “assisted evolution.”

Coral’s most remarkable characteristic—being an animal that is part plant—is also its Achilles’ heel in a hotter world. Normally, coral polyps—the individual coral organisms, which resemble a sea anemone the size of a pinhead—live in harmony with their algal partners, which help feed the polyps and give corals their bright colors. But during heat waves, the relationship sours. Overheated polyps perceive the algae as an irritant and eject them like unwanted squatters. The coral is left bleached, bone-white and starving. If the heat persists, the coral won’t take in new algae and can die.  The bond between coral and algae is complicated, however, and still not fully understood. Just 25 years ago, for example, researchers believed that coral housed just one variety of symbiotic algae. Now, they have identified hundreds. And they are just beginning to examine the role played by the coral’s microbiome, the menagerie of bacteria that inhabit a coral polyp.

Coral bleaching right.

But the complexity also offers multiple paths for scientists trying to forge a less fragile bond between coral and algae. Today, four major lines of research exist: One involves cross-breeding corals to create heat-tolerant varieties, either by mixing strains within a species or by crossing two species that would not normally interbreed. The second enlists genetic engineering techniques to tweak coral or algae. A third tries to rapidly evolve hardier strains of coral and algae by rearing them for generations in overheated lab conditions. A fourth approach, the newest, seeks to manipulate the coral’s microbiome…

In 2018, Cleves [scientist] became the first to report successfully using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on coral. CRISPR is often touted as a method for making genetically modified species. But Cleves says he isn’t interested in creating new kinds of coral. Rather, he sees CRISPR as a tool for deciphering the inner workings of coral DNA by knocking out, or disabling, genes one by one. He hopes to identify genes that might serve as “master switches” controlling how coral copes with heat and stress—knowledge that could help researchers quickly identify corals in the wild or in the laboratory that are already adapted to heat.

Either way, such efforts to re-engineer coral reefs make people such as David Wachenfeld, chief scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority here, uneasy. The authority is supposed to protect the reef and regulate activities there. In the past, that meant a hands-off approach. Now, he concedes that “it is almost inconceivable that we’re not going to need these tools.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about any of this. This is crisis management.”

He ticks off a list of potential difficulties. Scientists focused on breeding heat-loving coral have to avoid weakening other key traits, such as coping with cold. Introducing a new coral on the scale needed to make a dent on a network of 2900 reefs spanning an area half the size of Texas is a daunting challenge. Even in its damaged state, the Great Barrier Reef still contains hundreds of millions of corals—enough to swamp the genetic impact of new coral species…

Could some kind of “super coral,” as some researchers have dubbed them, also run amok in delicate coral ecosystems.

Excerpts from  The Reef Builders, Science, Mar. 22, 2019

The Pristine Waters of Alaska and Big Oil: Exxon Valdez

Thirty years ago this Sunday, at just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound off the south coast of Alaska. No-one was hurt, but the ship’s hull was ruptured, and of the 1.26m barrels of crude on board about 258,000 spilled into the water. The National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that the causes of the accident included the failure of the ship’s master to provide a proper navigation watch “because of impairment from alcohol”, as well as inadequate personnel training and deficient management oversight.

In terms of volume released, the spill does not make the list of the world’s largest, but it was one of the worst in US waters. The harm caused by a spill is also not a direct function of the quantity of oil: a release in the cool waters of Prince William Sound, where oil breaks down more slowly, could be more damaging than a larger volume in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperatures are warmer and there are more plentiful microbes that thrive on natural oil seeps. The location of the spill also added to its emotional impact: the pictures of the oil fouling the pristine waters of Alaska shocked the world.

Exxon Valdez Clean up

Even decades after the spill, there was still evidence of the oil visible on some of the beaches in the region. Exxon agreed to pay $900m for restoration to settle damages claims from the state and federal governments, and the work of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the use of that money, goes on. The Pacific herring population in Prince William Sound has collapsed since the early 1990s, although it is not clear whether the spill was responsible, and other wildlife such as sea ottershave recovered.

For the oil industry, the disaster was transformative. Single-hulled tankers began to be phased out, to be replaced by safer double hulls, first in the US and then worldwide. The process was accelerated after the sinking of the tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999, an accident that was considered one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

For Exxon in particular, the Valdez spill prompted a fundamental rethink of its safety culture and practices. The company developed what is called its Operations Integrity Management System, a framework that “puts safety at the center of everything we do”. By the time that Rex Tillerson ran ExxonMobil, in 2006-16, the company could rightly boast of having a safety record that was admired across the industry, and its OIMS was widely emulated….But any employer’s highest duty is to make sure workers can do their jobs safely and go home at the end of the day, and on that measure Exxon has performed better than its peers. Any workplace death is one too many, of course, but over the past decade Exxon has suffered significantly fewer than other leading oil companies.

Excerpts from Ed Crooks,  The Exxon Valdez spill 30 years on, Financial Times, Mar. 22, 2019

A Swamp of Oil Pollution: Ogoniland

Status of Cleaning up Oil Pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria:

According to the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), the clean-up of Ogoniland is bugged with identity crisis, procedures, processes and overheads. Perception of corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, complex decision making, internal crisis of choice between Ogoni and the Niger Delta….The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011 after series of protests of oil spillage in the community that culminated to the death of Ken Sarowiwa and eight others.  The report  made recommendations to the government, the oil and gas industry and communities to begin a comprehensive cleanup of Ogoniland, restore polluted environments and put an end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination in the region…

Pollution of soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, sediments and swampland.  In 49 cases, UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 metres. At 41 sites, the hydrocarbon pollution has reached the groundwater at levels in excess of the Nigerian standards permitted by National Laws..

Excerpts from Ogoni: Cleanup Exercise by Authorities Questioned by Civil Society Groups, UNPO, Mar. 12, 2019

How to Save the Rhino? Torture and Kill Civilians

In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit WWF  with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people…WWF has provided high-tech enforcement equipment, cash, and weapons to forces implicated in atrocities against indigenous communities…Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units, according to reports and document

 WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages…The charity has operated like a global spymaster, organizing, financing, and running dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.

The charity funnels large sums of cash to its field offices in the developing world where staff work alongside national governments — including brutal dictatorships — to help maintain and police vast national parks that shelter endangered species. But many parks are magnets for poachers, and WWF expends much of its energy — and money — in a global battle against the organized criminal gangs that prey on the endangered species the charity was founded to protect.  It’s a crusade that WWF refers to in the hardened terms of war. Public statements speak of “boots on the ground,” partnerships with “elite military forces,” the creation of a “Jungle Brigade,” and the deployment of “conservation drones.”  WWF is not alone in its embrace of militarization: Other conservation charities have enlisted in the war on poaching in growing numbers over the past decade, recruiting veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach forest rangers counterinsurgency techniques

The enemy is real, and dangerous. Poaching is a billion-dollar industry that terrorizes animals and threatens some species’ very existence. Poachers take advantage of regions ravaged by poverty and violence. And the work of forest rangers is indeed perilous: By one 2018 estimate, poachers killed nearly 50 rangers around the world in the previous year. But like any conflict, WWF’s war on poaching has civilian casualties.

Indigenous people living near one park in southeast Cameroon described a litany of horrors incuding dead-of-night break-ins by men wielding machetes, rifle butt bludgeonings, burn torture involving chilis ground into paste, and homes and camps torched to the ground. Their tormentors in these accounts were not poachers, but the park officials who police them. Although governments employ the rangers, they often rely on WWF to bankroll their work.  …Documents reveal WWF’s own staffers on the ground are often deeply entwined with the rangers’ work — coordinating their operations, jointly directing their raids and patrols alongside government officials, and turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.

Iindigenous groups — both small-fry hunters and innocent bystanders — say they suffer at the hands of the rangers.  Nepal’s park officials were given this free rein decades ago, shortly after WWF first arrived in Chitwan in 1967 to launch a rhinoceros conservation project in a lush lowland forest at the foot of the Himalayas. To clear the way, tens of thousands of indigenous people were evicted from their homes and moved to areas outside the park’s boundaries..

The park’s creation radically changed their way of life: Now they must scrape together money to buy tin for their roofs, pay hospital bills, and farm new crops. They also live in fear of the park’s wild animals, which, while rising in number thanks to anti-poaching efforts, have destroyed crops and mauled people to death.  Rhinoceros horns can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. Professional poachers offer a tiny portion to locals who assist them, which can be hard for impoverished residents of villages to turn down.

Chitwan’s forest rangers work alongside over 1,000 soldiers from the park’s army battalion. Nepalese law gives them special power to investigate wildlife-related crimes, make arrests without a warrant, and retain immunity in cases where an officer has “no alternative” but to shoot the offender, even if the suspect dies….. Indigenous groups living near Chitwan have long detailed a host of abuses by these forces. Villagers have reported beatings, torture, sexual assaults, and killings by the park’s guards. They’ve accused park officials of confiscating their firewood and vegetables, and forcing them into unpaid labor.

WWF’s work with violent partners spans the globe. In Central Africa, internal documents show the charity’s close involvement in military-style operations with both a repressive dictatorship and a notoriously fierce army. …The park’s management plan says WWF will help organize raids, known as “coup de poings,” on local villages suspected of harboring poachers. A confidential internal report found that such missions, frequently conducted in the dead of night with the help of police units, were often violent.

Excerpts from WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People, BuzzFeed News

Who is Afraid of Bats?

More than 50,000 of the fruit bats are thought to have been killed in Mauritius since 2015, in an attempt to protect fruit in orchards.  The bats – also known as flying foxes – are resorting to eating in orchards to survive because only 5 per cent of Mauritius’s native forests remain, animal experts warned.  Fruit bats are vital for biodiversity as they pollinate flowers and scatter seeds, enabling trees and plants to grow and spread, according to conservationists.  But populations of the flying foxes have fallen by more than 50 per cent in four years, said Vincent Florens, an ecologist at the University of Mauritius. Some believe fewer than 30,000 now remain.

The first cull, in 2015, killed 30,000, and in a second cull, the following year, 7,380 were targeted.  The latest cull involved 13,000.  Prof Florens said he believed the number killed is much higher than the 50,300 government figure.  “The culls took place late in the year, when many mothers were pregnant or had babies,” he told National Geographic. “You shoot one bat and basically kill two.” Others were likely to have been injured and died later, he said.

Scientists are supporting a lawsuit against the government on grounds of animal welfare violations to prevent any more culls…Mahen Seeruttun, Mauritius’s minister of agro-industry and food security, told FDI Spotlight: “We have a large population of bats who will eat fruit crops.

Excerpts from Endangered fruit bats ‘being driven to extinction’ in Mauritius after mass culls kill 50,000, Independent, Mar. 4, 2019

From Savior to Villain: Biofuel from Palm Oil

Globally, average palm oil yields have been more or less stagnant for the last 20  years, so the required increase in palm oil production to meet the  growing demand for biofuels  has come from deforestation and peat destruction in Indonesia.  Without fundamental changes in governance, we can expect at least a third of new palm oil  area to require peat drainage, and a half to result in deforestation.

Currently, biofuel policy results in 10.7  million tonnes of palm oil demand.  If the current biofuel policy continues we expect by 2030:
• 67 million tonnes palm oil demand due to biofuel policy.
• 4.5 million hectares deforestation.
• 2.9 million hectares peat loss.
• 7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over 20 years, more than total annual U.S. GHG emissions.
It must always be remembered that the primary purpose of biofuel policy in the EU and many  other countries is climate change mitigation. Fuel consumers in the European Union, Norway  and elsewhere cannot be asked to continue indefinitely to pay to support vegetable oil based
alternative fuels
that exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change.

The use of palm oil-based biofuel should be  reduced and ideally phased out entirely.  In Europe, the use of biodiesel other than that produced from approved waste or  by-product feedstocks should be reduced or eliminated.
In the United States, palm oil biodiesel should continue to be restricted from generating  advanced RINs under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Indonesia should reassess the relationship between biofuel mandate, and its  international climate commitments, and refocus its biofuel programme on advanced biofuels from wastes and residues. The aviation industry should focus on the development of advanced aviation biofuels  from wastes and residues, rather than hydrotreated fats and oils.

Excerpts from Dr Chris Malins,  Driving deforestation: The impact of expanding palm oil demand through biofuel policy, January 2018

In Feb. 28, 2019, Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, pulled out of more than 33 palm oil companies over deforestation risks.

100 Ways to Finance Criminal Cartels Logging Forests

The report – Green Carbon, Black Trade (2012) – by UNEP and INTERPOL focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world set aside the environmental damage. It underlines how criminals are combining old fashioned methods such as bribes with high tech methods such as computer hacking of government web sites to obtain transportation and other permits. The report spotlights the increasingly sophisticated tactics being deployed to launder illegal logs through a web of palm oil plantations, road networks and saw mills. Indeed it clearly spells out that illegal logging is not on the decline, rather it is becoming more advanced as cartels become better organized including shifting their illegal activities in order to avoid national or local police efforts. By some estimates, 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the volume of wood traded globally has been obtained illegally…

The much heralded decline of illegal logging in the mid- 2000s in some tropical regions was widely attributed to a short-term law enforcement effort. However, long-term trends in illegal logging and trade have shown that this was temporary, and illegal logging continues. More importantly, an apparent decline in illegal logging is due to more advanced laundering operations masking criminal activities, and notnecessarily due to an overall decline in illegal logging. In many cases a tripling in the volumes of timber “originating” from plantations in the five years following the law enforcement crack-down on illegal logging has come partly from cover operations by criminals to legalize and launder illegal logging operations….

Much of the laundering of illegal timber is only possible due to large flows of funding from investors based in Asia, the EU and the US, including investments through pension funds. As funds are made available to establish plantations operations to launder illegal timber and obtain permits illegally or pass bribes, investments, collusive corruption and tax fraud combined with low risk and high demand, make it a highly profitable illegal business, with revenues up to 5–10 fold higher than legal practices for all parties involved. This also undermines subsidized alternative livelihood incentives available in several countries.

[It is important to discourage] the use of timber from these regions and introducing a rating og companies based on the likelihood of their involvement in illegal practices to discourage investors and stock markets from funding them.

Excerpts from Nellemann, C., INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme (eds). 2012.Green Carbon, Black Trade Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the Worlds Tropical Forests. A Rapid Response Assessment United Nations Environment Programme

Can Gucci Save the Steppes of Mongolia?

 Essential to the identity and economy of Mongolia—more than half of the country’s 3 million people live there—the grasslands are under increasing threat from overgrazing and climate change. Multiple studies over the past decade have shown that the once lush Mongolian steppe, an expanse twice the size of Texas that is one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands, is slowly turning into a desert. An estimated 70% of all the grazing lands in the country are considered degraded to some degree…. 

The collective here of a little more than 100 families is at the center of an unusual effort, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to turn space-based maps of the grasslands into a tool for making grazing more sustainable. Supported by the world’s largest mining company and a luxury apparel giant, the pilot effort uses data gathered by NASA and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to help herders find places where the vegetation is healthy enough to sustain their voracious herds.

 Meanwhile, development, especially mining, has exponentially increased water usage. Twelve percent of rivers and 21% of lakes have dried up entirely. An increasing number of people, vehicles, and heavy equipment put additional stress on the land.  But one factor stands out: overgrazing, which, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has caused 80% of the recent decline in vegetation on the grasslands.

Mongolia is now the world’s second-largest cashmere producer, after China. Goats, which account for more than half of all grazing animals on the grasslands, can be more lucrative than other livestock, but they’re also much more destructive than the sheep they’ve replaced because they eat roots and the flowers that seed new grasses=s.

WCS’s Sustainable Cashmere project may offer part of the solution. The project, whose budget the organizers won’t disclose, is funded by mining giant Rio Tinto, which runs a massive copper mine not far away, and Kering, the French luxury apparel giant that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and other brands that need cashmere. Both aim to help offset their impact on the Mongolian environment, a requirement of Rio’s mining agreement and part of Kering’s corporate social responsibility program.

Excerpts Kathleen McLaughlin, Saving the steppes, Science, Feb. 1, 2019

Rhinos with Toxic Horns

[S]ince rhino poaching isn’t slowing, horn “unmarketing” must become more aggressive. A cunning approach has been devised by a South African firm, Rhino Rescue Project (RRP). For about $600 per beast, RRP drills two holes into a sedated rhino’s horn and pumps in a secret cocktail of toxins into its fibres. Consume powder from that horn and expect a migraine, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, or, after a big serving, permanent twitching due to nerve damage, says RRP’s co-founder, Lorinda Hern. Signs warn of the dangers of illegal horn. RRP has treated more than 300 rhinos in South Africa since 2010. Since the horn is dead material, the firm says there is no danger to the animal.  A private reserve near the northern South African town of Phalaborwa paid RRP to treat about 30 rhinos. “We’re trying anything,” says one of the owners. Locals were invited to watch so word would spread. Poacher incursions dropped from about two a month to just four in two years, with no losses.

Excerpt from Saving the Rhino: A dilemma of horns, Economist, Aug. 8, 2015, at 42

Enclosure of the Commons: High Seas

Sunken coral islands, floating rainforests, giant undersea volcanoes or even spires of rock resembling sunken cities: none of these sites can be inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are found in the High Seas, outside of any national jurisdiction. A report launched today by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explores the different ways the World Heritage Convention may one day apply to these wonders of the open ocean, which covers more than half the planet.  Titled World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time has Come, the reportpresents five sites that illustrate different ecosystems, from biodiversity-rich areas to the natural phenomena that can only be found in the depths of the ocean. Each of these sites could be recognized as having outstanding universal value, a key principle of the World Heritage Convention, where spectacular qualities of certain sites are seen to transcend national boundaries.

The five sites discussed are: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome (Pacific Ocean), a unique oceanic oasis, which provides critical habitat for a thriving marine life, including many endangered species; the White Shark Café (Pacific Ocean), the only known gathering point for white sharks in the north Pacific; the Sargasso Sea (Atlantic Ocean), home to an iconic ecosystem built around a concentration of floating algae; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field (Atlantic Ocean), an 800 meter-deep area dominated by carbonate monoliths up to 60 meters high; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean…

Although these sites are far from our shores, they are not safe from threats, whether it be climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation or plastic pollution…The report explores three ways in which the protection of the Convention could be expanded to protect these zones in the high seas.

How to Kill One Million Fish: Murray-Darling

But it took a viral video posted on 8 January 2019 to drive home the ecological catastrophe that was unfolding in the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. In the footage, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, identified as local residents, stand knee-deep among floating fish carcasses in the Darling River, near the town of Menindee. They scoff at authorities’ claims that the fish die-off is a result of the drought. Holding up an enormous, dead Murray cod, a freshwater predator he says is 100 years old, McBride says: “This has nothing to do with drought, this is a manmade disaster.” Arnold, sputtering with rage, adds: “You have to be bloody disgusted with yourselves, you politicians and cotton growers.”

Scientists say McBride probably overestimated the age of the fish. But they agree that the massive die-off was not the result of drought. “It’s about taking too much water upstream [to irrigate farms] so there is not enough for downstream users and the fish,” says Quentin Grafton, an economist specializing in water issues at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, blamed “policy failure and mismanagement” in a 19 January 2019 report, but called drought a catalyst.

Excessive water use has left river flows too low to flush nutrients from farm runoff through the system, leading to large algal blooms, researchers say. A cold snap then killed the blooms, and bacteria feeding on the dead algae sucked oxygen out of the water,   This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, the national government adopted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, touted as a “historic” deal to ensure that enough water remained in the rivers to keep the ecosystem healthy even after farmers and households took their share.

In 2008, the federal government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wrestle with the problem. In 2010, a study commissioned by the authority concluded that farmers and consumers would have to cut their use of river water by at least 3000 but preferably by 7600 gigaliters annually to ensure the health of the ecosystem. Farmers, who saw their livelihoods threatened, tossed the report into bonfires.  The final plan, adopted as national law in 2012, called for returning just 2750 gigaliters to the rivers, in part by buying water rights back from users. “It was a political compromise that has never been scientifically reviewed,” Williams says, adding that “climate change was never considered in the plan, which was a dreadful oversight.”..

Grafton says there are also suspicions of widespread water theft; up to 75% of the water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. Farmers are also now recapturing the runoff from irrigated fields that used to flow back into streams, and are increasing their use of ground water, leaving even less water in the system, says Mike Young, an environmental policy specialist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In February 2018, such issues prompted a group of 12 academics, including scientists and policy experts, to issue the Murray-Darling Declaration. It called for independent economic and scientific audits of completed and planned water recovery schemes to determine their effects on stream flows. The group, which included Williams and Grafton, also urged the creation of an independent, expert body to provide advice on basin water management. Young, who wasn’t on the declaration, wants to go further and give that body the power to manage the basin’s water, the way central banks manage a country’s money supply, using stream levels to determine weekly irrigation allocations and to set minimum flow levels for every river.

Excerpts from Dennis Normile, Massive fish die-off sparks outcry in Australia, Science, Jan. 22, 2019.

Caring for the Third Pole

The Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains [the Himalayas], often termed the Third Pole, contain more ice than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctic. This region is also the source of the nine largest rivers in Asia, providing fresh water, food, and other ecosystem services to more than 1.5 billion people…In recent decades, air temperature at the Third Pole has warmed significantly faster than the global average…Meanwhile, intensive anthropogenic activities, such as overgrazing, deforestation, urbanization, and expansion of infrastructure projects such as construction of roads, dams, and electrical grids, are causing widespread landcover changes within the region.

Together, these changes are altering the Third Pole’s biogeochemical cycles and pushing the fragile ecosystem toward degradation and possible collapse, which would cause irreversible harm on a regional and global scale. To avoid this, all nations must meet the standards laid out in the Paris Agreement. At the regional level, we strongly urge the relevant nations (including Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tajikistan) to cooperate in addressing these impending threats through systematic changes to management policies. Rapid and unprecedented coordination will be necessary, including a regional cooperation treaty and formation of a cross-border biodiversity conservation plan for the Third Pole region. Meanwhile, any infrastructure projects undertaken must be environmentally sustainable, and a practicable grazing management policy should be adopted.

Excerpts from Jie Liu, Protect Third Pole’s Fragile Ecosystem, Science,  Dec. 21, 2018

Saving the Scarlet Macaw

“Apu Pauni” is the name for the scarlet macaw in the indigenous Miskitu language.  This brightly coloured parrot is the national bird of Honduras. It is said that it once traveled the skies throughout the country and that its song was heard by the ancient Mayans.

Today, the largest wild population of macaw in the country is believed to be in the eastern region of ​​La Moskitia, …The “Apu Prana” (“the beauty of the scarlet macaw” in theMiskitu language) Community Association responsible for the initiative and the centre received training in hospitality, eco-tourism and business management….Although most of the bird monitoring processes are carried out by men, who walk up to six hours into the forest on the edge of the community, it is the women are responsible for caring for the birds in the rehabilitation centre.  “This is where we bring the captured scarlet macaws*, those that do not have wings, those that are sick, even abandoned chicks.

The Mavita community has been recognized internationally by the Mesoamerican Society for Biology and Conservation for its efforts in the conservation….The “La Moskitia” project was implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Excerpts from Guardians of the scarlet macaw, UN Development Program, Press Release,  May 9, 2018

*Poachers climb trees where the parrots nest and pinch the chicks before they learn to fly. People in China, Australia and Middle East pay $6 000 online. In 2014 not one newborn parrort reached adulthood in its native land, Economist, Jan. 12, 2019, at 30

The Bloody Hunt: Whale-Meat Hunger

Japan’s 26 December 2018 announcement that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling in its own waters and unabandon large-scale whaling ion the high seas under the mantle of scientific research triggered fierce criticism around the world.

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice sided with the critics in a suit brought by Australia, ordering Japan to halt its Antarctic whaling research. (The case did not address Japan’s North Pacific research programs.) Japan canceled its Antarctic research cruises for a year, then resumed them under new programs it deemed compliant with the court’s ruling.

In its scientific programs, Japan has harvested thousands of minke whales and smaller numbers of other species. Numbers have fallen, in part because demand for whale meat has dropped, and may fall further when whaling is limited to a commercial hunt in coastal waters.  The International Whaling Commission (IWC) concedes that the current population of several hundred thousand minke whales in the Antarctic is “clearly not endangered.” But the fight is no longer just about sustainability; whaling opponents say the bloody hunt for the majestic mammals is simply inhumane. IWC rejected the Japanese proposal, and the meeting adopted a resolution emphasizing that IWC’s purpose is to ensure the recovery of cetacean populations to preindustrial levels and reaffirming the moratorium on commercial whaling. That one-two punch triggered Japan’s December announcement.

Now Japan’s whaling efforts will shift to its own coastal waters and the 320-kilometer exclusive economic zone around them. Whether whales there will now be at risk is a subject of debate. The Northern Hemisphere minke population as a whole “is not threatened,” says Cooke, but waters near the Koreas and Japan are home to an “unusual and possibly unique” population, called the J-stock, that breeds in the summer instead of the winter, he says.  Japanese fishers already catch about 100 minke whales each year in these waters, Komatsu says. (Rather than the traditional harpoons, they use nets, which is allowed under the IWC moratorium.) But increasing the harvest with harpoon whaling could put pressure on the J-stock. Japan’s December  2018 announcement said catch limits will be set “to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources” but provided no details.

Shifting consumer tastes and a growing environmental awareness have already led to a steep decline in Japanese whale meat consumption, from 203,000 tons in 1965 to just 4000 tons in 2015. Three major fishing companies appear to have no interest in commercial whaling. Cooke suspects Japan will go the way of Norway, where “a niche operation is feeding a niche market but with decreasing interest in the market and decreasing interest in going whaling.”…Although Japan intends to continue to participate in IWC as an observer, it will no longer contribute to the group’s budget. (In 2017, it provided about 6% of IWC’s $2.7 million total income.)

Excerpts from , ennis NormileWhy Japan’s exit from international whaling treaty may actually benefit whales, Science, Jan. 10, 2018

Making a Fortune from Climate Change

Eleven years ago Dharsono Hartono, a former JPMorgan Chase & Co. banker, spotted what he thought was a new way to make a fortune: climate change.The plan was to snap up rainforest in Borneo, preserve it from logging and sell carbon credits to big polluting companies in the developed world. The earth’s temperature was rising, and this was a way to profit by confronting the problem.  Investors around the world have poured money into assets like once-frozen farmland in Canada and groundwater basins in California, betting that warming temperatures will raise their value.  Another bet has been on what some investors hope will be the most profitable outcome of a warming climate: government regulation of carbon emissions. Those who correctly anticipate future government responses to climate change are likely to reap profits.

Mr. Hartono went in big. His company’s rain forest, a humid and swampy expanse home to orangutans and clouded leopards, is twice the size of New York City and has one of the largest carbon stores of any such project in the world.  Mr. Hartono has sold just 20% of his credits to environmentally conscious corporations voluntarily buying credits, and has lost around $20 million, burning through $5 million to $10 million a year in recent years. Other investors in Indonesia and Latin America who made similar bets, including one backed by Australian bank Macquarie Group , failed to sell credits and abandoned their rain-forest projects…

Only after actor Harrison Ford visited the project to shoot a documentary on climate change, and raised the issue with Indonesia’s forestry minister, did final approval come for most of the concession in October 2013. For an initial payment of around $3 million to the Indonesian government, Mr. Hartono’s company gained the rights to the forestland for 60 years.  By then, however, some environmentalists were questioning private carbon-selling projects like Mr. Hartono’s. They argued that buying up and preserving rain forest to sell credits wouldn’t decrease net deforestation, since palm-oil barons would simply work around the few protected plots in the forest.  U.S. legislation that would have put a price on carbon failed during the Obama administration. The European Union’s carbon market doesn’t include tropical forests amid worry that low-cost credits generated there would make it affordable to pollute…

The Paris climate accords are expected to lead to an international carbon market after 2020, where countries that exceed emissions targets can purchase offset credits from countries that reduce emissions beyond their targets, potentially opening up new opportunities for Mr. Hartono.

Excerpts fom One Man’s Money Draining Bet on Climate Change, WSJ, Dec. 27, 2018

The Most Highly Polluted Mammals: Killer Whales

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are among the most highly polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)–contaminated mammals in the world, raising concern about the health consequences of current PCB exposures.  Until they were recognized as highly toxic and carcinogenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used widely. Their production was banned in the United States in 1978, though they are still produced globally and persist in the environment. Persistent organic compounds, like PCBs, magnify across trophic levels, and thus apex predators are particularly susceptible to their ill effects. Desforges et al. looked at the continuing impact of PCBs on one of the largest marine predators, the killer whale. Using globally available data, the authors found high concentrations of PCBs within killer whale tissues. These are likely to precipitate declines across killer whale populations, particularly those that feed at high trophic levels and are the closest to industrialized areas.

Jean-Pierre Desforge, Predicting global killer whale population collapse from PCB pollution, Science, Sept. 28, 2018

Amazon Turtles are Back! Thanks to Local Vigilantes

The historically over-exploited Giant South American Turtle is making a significant comeback on river beaches in the Brazilian Amazon thanks to local protection efforts, say researchers at the University of East Anglia.  Their results, published in Nature Sustainability, show that Giant Turtle populations are well on their way to full recovery on beaches guarded by local vigilantes. There are now over nine times more turtles hatching on these beaches than there were in 1977, equivalent to an annual increase of over 70,000 hatchlings.  The beach survey showed that, of over 2000 turtle nests monitored on protected beaches, only two per cent were attacked by poachers. In contrast, on unprotected beaches, poachers had harvested eggs from 99 per cent of the 202 nests surveyed.The beach protection programme along the Juruá river is part of the largest community-based conservation programme in the Brazilian Amazon. Beaches are guarded on a shoestring budget by local communities carrying out round-the-clock beach surveillance throughout the five-month turtle breeding season.

Prof Carlos Peres, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and a senior author on the study, said: “This study clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of empowering local management action by stakeholders who have the largest stake and a 24/7 presence at key conservation sites. The beaches protected by local communities represent noisy islands of high biodiversity, surrounded by lifeless unprotected beaches, which are invariably empty and silent.”

Excerpts from Amazon turtle populations recovering well thanks to local action, Nov. 3, 2018

Sequencing All Species: the Earth BioGenome Project

In the first attempt of its kind, researchers plan to sequence all known species of eukaryotic life—66,000 species of animals, plants, fungi, and protozoa—in a single country, the United Kingdom. The announcement was made here today at the official launch of an even grander $4.7 billion global effort, called the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), to sequence the genomes of all of Earth’s known 1.5 million species of eukaryotes within a decade.

In terms of genomes sequenced, the eukaryotes—the branch of complex life consisting of organisms with cells that have a nucleus inside a membrane—lag far behind the bacteria and archaea. Researchers have sequenced just about 3500 eukaryotic genomes, and only 100 at high quality.

The U.K. sequencing effort—dubbed The Darwin Tree of Life project—will now become part of the EBP mix…Also announced today was a memorandum of understanding for participating in EBP. It has been signed by 19 institutions, including BGI Shenzhen, China; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and Sanger. 

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Researchers launch plan to sequence 66,000 species in the United Kingdom. But that’s just a start, Science, Nov. 1, 2018

Meddling with Nature: Is it Right? Is it Fair?

Many envisioned environmental applications of newly developed gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR might provide profound benefits for ecosystems and society. But depending on the type and scale of the edit, gene-edited organisms intentionally released into the environment could also deliver off-target mutations, evolutionary resistance, ecological disturbance, and extinctions. Hence, there are ongoing conversations about the responsible application of CRISPR, especially relative to the limitations of current global governance structures to safeguard its use,   Largely missing from these conversations is attention to local communities in decision-making. Most policy discussions are instead occurring at the national or international level even though local communities will be the first to feel the context-dependent impacts of any release. ..

CRISPR gene editing and other related genetic technologies are groundbreaking in their ability to precisely and inexpensively alter the genome of any species. CRISPR-based gene drives hold particular import because they are designed to rapidly spread genetic changes—including detrimental traits such as infertility—through populations of sexually reproducing organisms, to potentially reach every member of a species. Villages in Burkina Faso are weighing the release of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes that could suppress malaria. Nantucket Island residents in the United States are considering the release of genetically engineered white-footed mice to deplete Lyme disease reservoirs. New Zealand communities are discussing the possibility of using genetic methods to eliminate exotic predators.

But what if a gene drive designed to suppress an invasive species escaped its release site and spread to a native population? Or if a coral species gene edited to better adapt to environmental stressors dominated reef ecosystems at the expense of a diversity of naturally evolving coral species and the fish that depend on them ? The gravity of these potential outcomes begs the question: Should humans even be meddling with the DNA of wild organisms? The absence of generally agreed on answers can be used to support calls for moratoria on developing and releasing genetically altered organisms, especially those with gene drives (6).

However, the promising benefits of environmental gene editing cannot be dismissed. Gene drives may provide a long-sought-after tool to control vectors of infectious disease and save millions of human lives. Projects to conserve ecosystems or promote species resilience are often intended to repair human-inflicted environmental damage. Put simply, either using this technology irresponsibly or not using it at all could prove damaging to humans, our welfare, and our planet.

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has enlisted an expert technical panel to, in part, update its Cartagena Protocol (of which the United States is not a party) that oversees transboundary transport of living modified organisms to accommodate gene drive–bearing organisms. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is also developing policy to address the release of gene-edited organisms. Although the CBD and the IUCN offer fora to engage diverse public feedback, a role largely fulfilled by civil society groups, none of these agencies currently use the broad and open deliberative process we advocate….

Different societal views about the human relationship to nature will therefore shape decision-making. Local community knowledge and perspectives must therefore be engaged to address these context-dependent, value-based considerations.  A special emphasis on local communities is also a matter of justice because the first and most closely affected individuals deserve a strong voice in the decision-making process…Compounding this challenge is that these decisions cannot be made in isolation. Organisms released into local environments may cross regional and even international borders. Hence, respect for and consideration of local knowledge and value systems are necessary, but insufficient, to anticipate the potentially ramifying global implications of environmental release of gene-edited organisms. What is needed is an approach that places great weight on local perspectives within a larger global vision…

The needs of ecosystems could also be given voice to inform deliberative outcomes through custodial human proxies. Inspired by legislative precedent set by New Zealand, in which the Whanganui River was granted legal “personhood,” human representatives, nominated by both an international body like the IUCN and the local community, would be responsible for upholding the health and interests of the ecosystems in question. Proposed gene-editing strategies would be placed in the larger context of alternative approaches to address the public health or environmental issue in question…

An online registry for all projects intending to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment must be created. Currently, no central database exists for environmental gene-editing applications or for decision-making outcomes associated with their deployment, and this potentially puts the global community at risk…A global coordination task force would be charged with coordinating multiple communities, nations, and regions to ensure successful deliberative outcomes. As a hypothetical example, genetic strategies to eliminate invasive possums from New Zealand must include representatives from Australia, the country likely to be affected should animals be transported outside the intended range. Similarly, the African Union is currently deliberating appropriate governance of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes to combat malaria on a regional scale. 

Excerpts from Natalie Kofl et al.,  Editing nature: Local roots of global governance, Science Magazine, Nov. 2, 2018

De-Extinction: Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon

The Crispr-Cas9 system consists of two main parts: an RNA guide, which scientists program to target specific locations on a genome, and the Cas9 protein, which acts as molecular scissors. The cuts trigger repairs, allowing scientists to edit DNA in the process. Think of Crispr as a cut-and-paste tool that can add or delete genetic information. Crispr can also edit the DNA of sperm, eggs and embryos—implementing changes that will be passed down to future generations. Proponents say it offers unprecedented power to direct the evolution of species.

The technology is widely used in animals. Crispr has produced disease-resistant chickens and hornless dairy cattle. Scientists around the world routinely edit the genes in mice for research, adding mutations for human diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s in a search of possible cures. Crispr-edited pigs contain kidneys that scientists hope to test as transplants in humans.  Crispr has been discussed as a de-extinction tool since its earliest days. In March 2013 the conservation group Revive & Restore co-organized the first TedXDeExtinction conference in Washington, D.C. Revive & Restore was co-founded by Stewart Brand, the creator of the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog and a vocal advocate for a passenger pigeon revival.

The last known passenger pigeon—a bird named Martha—died in captivity at a Cincinnati zoo in 1914….The first step was to sequence the passenger pigeon genome…Sequencing an extinct species’ genome is no easy task. When an organism dies, the DNA in its cells begins to degrade, leaving scientists with what Shapiro describes as “a soup of trillions of tiny fragments” that require reassembly. For the passenger pigeon project, Shapiro and her team took tissue samples from the toe pads of stuffed birds in museum collections. DNA in the dead tissue left them with tantalizing clues but an incomplete picture. To fill in the gaps, they sequenced the genome of the band-tailed pigeon, the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative.

By comparing the genomes of the two birds, researchers began to understand which traits distinguished the passenger pigeon. In a paper published last year in “Science,” they reported finding 32 genes that made the species unique. Some of these allowed the birds to withstand stress and disease, essential traits for a species that lived in large flocks. They found no genes that might have led to extinction. “Passenger pigeons went extinct because people hunted them to death,” Shapiro says

.Revived passenger pigeons could also face re-extinction. The species thrived in the years before European settlement of North America, when vast forests supported billions of birds. Those forests have since been replaced by cities and farmland. “The habitat the passenger pigeons need to survive is also extinct,” Shapiro says.  But what does it mean to bring an extinct species back? Andre E.R. Soares, a scientist who helped sequence the passenger pigeon genome, says most people will accept a lookalike as proof of de-extinction. “If it looks like a passenger pigeon and flies like a passenger pigeon, if it has the same shape and color, they will consider it a passenger pigeon,” Soares says.

Shapiro says that’s not enough. Eventually, she says, gene-editing tools may be able to create a genetic copy of an extinct species, “but that doesn’t mean you are going to end up with an animal that behaves like a passenger pigeon or a woolly mammoth.” We can understand the nature of an extinct species through its genome, but nurture is another matter. 

After he determines how passenger pigeon DNA manifests in the rock pigeons, Novak hopes to edit the band-tailed pigeon, the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative, with as many of the extinct bird’s defining traits as possible. Eventually, he says, he’ll have a hybrid creature that looks and acts like a passenger pigeon (albeit with no parental training) but still contains band-tailed pigeon DNA. These new-old birds will need a name, which their human creator has already chosen: Patagioenas neoectopistes, or “new wandering pigeon of America.”

Excerpts from Amy Dockser Marcus, Meet the Scientists Bringing Extinct Species Back From the Dead, WSJ, the Future of Everything, Oct. 11, 2018

Sucking the Life out of Deep Sea

Those involved in deep-sea mining hope it will turn into a multi-billion dollar industry. Seabed nodules are dominated by compounds of iron (which is commonplace) and manganese (which is rarer, but not in short supply from mines on dry land). However, the nodules also contain copper, nickel and cobalt, and sometimes other metals such as molybdenum and vanadium. These are in sufficient demand that visiting the bottom of the ocean to acquire them looks a worthwhile enterprise. Moreover, these metals seldom co-occur in terrestrial mines. So, as Kris Van Nijen, who runs deep-sea mining operations at Global Sea Mineral Resources (gsr), a company interested in exploiting the nodules, observes: “For the same amount of effort, you get the same metals as two or three mines on land.”

Though their location several kilometres beneath the ocean surface makes the nodules hard to get at in one sense, in another they are easily accessible, because they sit invitingly on the seabed, almost begging to be collected. Most are found on parts of the ocean floor like the Clarion Clipperton Zone (ccz), outside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of littoral countries. They thus fall under the purview of the International Seabed Authority (isa), which has issued 17 exploration licences for such resources. All but one of these licences pertain to the ccz, an area of about 6m square kilometres east-south-east of Hawaii.

The licensees include Belgium, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea, as well as several small Pacific island states. America, which is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that established the isa, is not involved directly, but at least one American firm, Lockheed Martin, has an interest in the matter through a British subsidiary, uk Seabed Resources. And people are getting busy. Surveying expeditions have already visited the concessions. On land, the required mining machines are being built and tested. What worries biologists is that if all this busyness does lead to mining, it will wreck habitats before they can be properly catalogued, let alone understood.

 Some of the ccz’s creatures stretch the imagination. There is the bizarre, gelatinous, yellow “gummy squirrel”, a 50cm-long sea cucumber with a tall, wide tail that may operate like a sail. There are galloping sea urchins that can scurry across the sea floor on long spines, at speeds of several centimetres a second. There are giant red shrimps, measuring up to 40cm long. And there are “Dumbo” octopuses, which have earlike fins above their eyes, giving them an eerie resemblance to a well-known cartoon elephant…Of 154 species of bristle worms the surveyors found, 70% were previously unknown. 

the Whale fossils, sea cucumbers and shrimps are just the stuff that is visible to the naked eye. Adrian Glover, one of Dr Amon’s colleagues at the Natural History Museum, and his collaborators spent weeks peering down microscopes, inspecting every nook and cranny of the surfaces of some of the nodules themselves. They discovered a miniature ecosystem composed of things that look, at first sight, like flecks of colour—but are, in fact, tiny corals, sponges, fan-like worms and bryozoans, all just millimetres tall. In total, the team logged 77 species of such creatures, probably an underestimate.

Inevitably, much of this life will be damaged by nodule mining. The impacts are likely be long-lasting. Deep-sea mining technology is still in development, but the general idea is that submersible craft equipped with giant vacuum cleaners will suck nodules from the seafloor. Those nodules will be carried up several kilometres of pipes back to the operations’ mother ships, to be washed and sent on their way.

The largest disturbance experiment so far was carried out in 1989 in the Peru Basin, a nodule field to the south of the Galapagos Islands. An eight-metre-wide metal frame fitted with ploughs and harrows was dragged back and forth repeatedly across the seabed, scouring it and wafting a plume of sediment into the water…. The big question was, 26 years after the event, would the sea floor have recovered? The answer was a resounding “no”. The robots brought back images of plough tracks that looked fresh, and of wildlife that had not recovered from the decades-old intrusion.

Conservation and seabed minerals: Mining the deep ocean will soon begin, Economist, Nov. 10, 2018

Preserving Snow Leopard for Eternity

The breeding of the highly-endangered snow leopard in the Himalayan nature park Himachal Pradesh resort (India) is set to begin with zoo authorities in Darjeeling agreeing to lend it a pair.  “The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling is providing us a pair of snow leopards for conserving bloodlines of the highly endangered species in the participatory zoos,” state Chief Wildlife Warden S.S. Negi told IANS….

In 2004, snow leopard Subhash and his sibling Sapna were brought to Kufri, 15 km from the state capital Shimla, from Darjeeling under an exchange programme.Officials said the breeding programme couldn’t be initiated as they belonged to the same bloodline. Sapna died of disease in 2007…

The Darjeeling zoo is internationally recognised for its 33-year-old conservation breeding programme for the snow leopard, with 56 births.

Forest Minister Thakur Singh Bharmouri said the central government-funded Snow Leopard Conservation Project of Rs.5.15 crore ($758,000) is under way in the Spiti Valley, which lies in the state’s northernmost part and runs parallel to Tibet.The programme would take care of restoring the snow leopard’s habitat, he said. Studies by the state wildlife department show the presence of seven to eight snow leopards per 100 sq km in the Spiti Valley.The department is already monitoring the habitat, range and behaviour of snow leopards in the Valley through camera traps (automatic cameras).As per the information gleaned from these devices, the snow leopard population is estimated to be 28 in Spiti and its nearby areas, and 29 in the rest of the state.

“We will soon start radio-collaring five to six snow leopards in Spiti and other areas to monitor their behaviour and, of course, habitat and range,” an official of the state’s wildlife wing told IANS.  Each radio collar costs around Rs.300,000 and can send signals for at least 18 months. “But the cost of procuring data sent through radio collars is quite expensive,” he said.

The problem of starting the radio collar installations is the non-availability of tranquillising drugs in India as prescribed by our international partner, Snow Leopard Trust,

Excerpt from Himachal to begin breeding the highly-endangered snow leopards,  India Live Today, June 28, 2016

The 500 Cases of Marine Pollution

An international law enforcement operation against maritime pollution has revealed hundreds of violations and exposed serious cases of contamination worldwide.  Codenamed 30 Days at Sea, the month-long (1-31 October) operation saw some 276 law enforcement and environmental agencies across 58 countries detect more than 500 offences, including illegal discharges of oil and garbage from vessels, shipbreaking, breaches of ship emissions regulations, and pollution on rivers and land-based runoff to the sea.  More than 5200 inspections have resulted in at least 185 investigations, with arrests and prosecutions anticipated.

“Criminals believe marine pollution is a low-risk crime with no real victims.  This is a mistake and one which INTERPOL and our partners are addressing as demonstrated by this operation,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.  Cases of serious contamination included the dumping of animal farm waste in Philippine coastal waters where local communities collect shellfish and children play.  In Germany, a vessel discharged 600 litres of palm oil into the sea. Ghana uncovered gallons of waste oil in large bottles thought to be illegally dumped at sea.  Authorities prevented an environmental disaster in Albania by securing waters around a sinking vessel containing some 500 litres of oil. Similarly, the pollution threat resulting from the collision of two ships in French waters was contained thanks to preventive action during the operation.

Innovative technologies permitted authorities to detect offences, including the use of satellite images (in Argentina and Sweden), aerial surveillance (Canada and Italy), drones (Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan) and night vision cameras.

Excerpt from Marine pollution crime: first global multi-agency operation, Interpol Press Release, Nov. 13, 2018

 

Peruvian Amazon: Oil Pollution & Human Rights

On September 15, 2018 indigenous federations from the Amazonian Loreto region of northern Peru scored a small victory in the fight for community rights. Representatives from four federations signed an agreement with the Peruvian government and the state-owned enterprise PetroPerú that acknowledges prior consultation as part of the new contracting process for petroleum Block 192. Under the new agreement, Block 192 will undergo a community consultation process before PetroPerú awards a new contract for operating the oil field…

Under the formal resolution with Prime Minister César Villanueva, the Ministry of Energy and Mining, and PetroPerú, the government will complete the community consultation for Block 192 between December 2018 and March 2019.

Extending across the Tigre, Corrientes, Pastaza and Marañón river basins in Peru’s remote Loreto province, Block 192 is the largest-yielding oil field in Peru, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s production. The government plans to continue production of oil at the block for another 30 years, adding to the almost 50 years of oil activity in the region. The oil field is currently operated by Canadian-based Frontera Energy, whose contract with PetroPerú is set to expire in September 2019.

American-based Occidental Petroleum discovered oil in the region in 1972 and a succession of companies, including the Dutch-Argentinian conglomerate Pluspetrol, left Block 192 (previously Block 1-AB) heavily polluted. While Peru’s Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement fined Pluspetrol for violations, the Peruvian government remains in a protracted legal fight with the oil giant. A majority of the fines are outstanding and Pluspetrol denies any wrongdoing, despite settling with a local community in 2015.

For over 40 years, the indigenous Kichwa, Quechua, Achuar, and Urarina peoples who live near the oil field have been exposed to salts, heavy metals and hydrocarbons. According to a 2018 toxicology study by Peru’s National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health, over half of the indigenous residents in the region’s four basins have blood lead levels that surpass international recommended limits. A third have levels of arsenic and mercury above the levels recommended by Peru’s Ministry of Health…

The actual cost of cleaning up Block 192, along with neighboring Block 8, would approach $1 billion. To make matters more challenging, the $15 million fund of Peruvian government is almost exhausted..”

Excepts from Andrew Bogrand, Righting the many wrongs at Peru’s polluted oil Block 192, Nov. 2, 2018

Cryopreservation of Endangered Species

In paper in 2018 in Nature Plants, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, detail for the first time the scale of threatened species that are unable to be conserved in seed banks. The paper reveals that when looking at threatened species, 36 per cent of ‘critically endangered species produce recalcitrant seeds . This means they can’t tolerate the drying process and therefore cannot be frozen, the key process they need to go through to be safely ‘banked’.

In the paper, Kew scientist Dr. John Dickie, former Kew scientist Dr. Sarah Wyse, and former Director of Science at Kew Prof. Kathy Willis, found that other threatened categories and global tree species list also contain high proportions of species that are unbankable including 35% of ‘vulnerable’ species, 27% of ‘endangered’ species and 33% of all tree species.

Among these species are important UK heritage trees such as oaks, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts, as well as worldwide food staples like avocado, cacao, and mango. This latest research reveals that the scale of plants unable to be conserved in seed banks is much higher for threatened species. The issue is particularly severe for tree species, especially those in tropical moist forests where a half of the canopy tree species can be unsuitable for banking…

Currently, seed banking is the most commonly practiced way of conserving plantsoutside of their natural habitats. Seed banking works as an ‘insurance policy’ against the extinction of plants in the world—especially for those that are rare, endemic and economically important—so that they can be protected and utilised for the future.

[The scientists proposed]cryopreservation—a form of preservation using liquid nitrogen which offers a potential long-term storage solution for recalcitrant seeds. In seed banks, seeds are dried and frozen at -20°C whereas cryopreservation involves removing the embryo from the seed and then using liquid nitrogen to freeze it at a much colder temperature of -196°C…As well as allowing ‘unbankable’ species to be stored, cryopreservation also helps to extend the lifespans of orthodox seeds that otherwise have storage lives that are too short at -20°C.

Excerpts from Seed banking not an option for over a third of threatened species
November 2, 2018, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Biggest Bang for the Buck: Which Species to Save

Faced with a gulf between the species in need and the available resources, some scientists are pushing an approach that combines the cold-blooded eye of an accountant with the ruthless decisiveness of a battlefield surgeon. To do the greatest good, they argue, governments need to consider shifting resources from endangered species and populations that are getting too much attention to those not getting enough. That could mean resolving not to spend money on some species for which the chance of success appears low, such as the vaquita, an adorable small porpoise now down to fewer than 30 animals in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

The term “triage”—from the French verb trier, meaning to sort—was born on the battlefields of Napoleonic Europe. Faced with a flood of wounded soldiers, French military doctors conceived of a system to decide who got medical attention and who was too far gone. The idea reached conservation biology as early as the 1980s. But in recent years it has moved from scientific journals to the halls of policymakers, thanks in part to an Australian mathematician and conservation scientist, Hugh Possingham.

Over the following decade, Possingham and others worked to create formulas that could point to the most efficient way to spend money on species preservation. They tried to quantify answers to key questions: What will species restoration projects cost? How likely are they to succeed? How distinct and important is each species? What actions will benefit multiple species or entire ecosystems, bringing the biggest bang for the buck?…

Today, conservation spending is influenced by a complex array of factors, including how close a species is to extinction and the pressure brought by lawsuits, lobbying, and media coverage. The result, Possingham and others argue, is that money is often poured into costly long shots or charismatic organisms, whereas species that could be secured for a relatively low cost go wanting.

A dozen years ago, New Zealand became the first nation to test Possingham’s approach. A nation filled with unique species, some 3000 of them at risk, the country is a poster child for the extinction crisis. But New Zealand had no clear process for setting conservation spending priorities, recalls Richard Maloney, a senior scientist in the country’s Department of Conservation in Christchurch.

In a bid to do better, officials asked Possingham to help craft a plan for spending roughly $20 million per year. The result was a list of 100 top-priority species, developed using a formula that balanced costs and benefits. In general, highly threatened species unique to New Zealand and ended up at the top of the list. But it also included representatives from a variety of species and took into account the cost and likelihood of success. Before that process, the government was working to recover 130 species. Now, more than 300 are getting attention, Possingham says.  But for every species or population at the top of such lists, one is at the bottom. And that can lead to agonizing choices

But saving th Canadian caribou might mean keeping the species on life support for decades… When Mark Hebblewhite, a caribou biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula, looks at how maps of woodland caribou habitat overlap with Alberta’s oil and gas deposits, his response is: Get real. Hebblewhite doubts the government will ever summon the will to impose the development restrictions necessary to save all herds. He points to a 2010 study indicating that such restrictions could mean forgoing extraction of oil, gas, and timber worth more than $125 billion in Alberta alone…

Instead of focusing on the most feeble herds, Canada should instead protect habitat in key areas where caribou populations still stand a good chance, he argued in a 2017 Biological Conservation paper. “We’ve prioritized the most screwed populations,” Hebblewhite says. “All I’m saying is that we prioritize the winners.”

That idea makes biologist Alana Westwood uncomfortable. A Vancouver, Canada–based scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative,… If Canada isn’t willing to take the necessary steps, she suggests officials rename its law “the ‘recover species that are most easy to accommodate under business as usual act.’”…”It’s an easy way out for managers who don’t have the balls to make tough decisions, and therefore we lose species after species,” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has often sparred with Possingham in public forums. One problem, he argues, is that giving up on a species also means abandoning a potent tool to rally the public and the courts. Sometimes charismatic animals such as California condors or polar bears can help build political support for saving endangered species or habitats more broadly….

And some species stand for entire ecosystems, Pimm adds. Consider the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. The innocuous songbird lives in Florida’s Everglades, where water diversions threaten its marsh habitat. The species might not rank high in a triage system—in part because other populations of related seaside sparrows exist. But because of how the U.S. Endangered Species Act is structured, efforts to protect the sparrow have required policymakers to reallocate water, benefiting the entire ecosystem. “I’m afraid we have to make more complicated decisions than the simple recipes that Hugh comes up with,” Pimm says.

Possingham concedes that triage is not suited to every situation. Europe, for example, has wealthy countries and few native endangered species, which makes saving them all realistic. And sometimes a species is so culturally important that it gets special treatment. New Zealand, for instance, has departed from its triage system to give priority to protecting 50 cherished species, including five species of kiwi birds, the nation’s mascot.

Excepts from Warren Cornwall With limited funds for conservation, researchers spar over which species to save—and which to let go, Science Magazine, Sept. 6, 2018

How Rivers Die

Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river support somes 3m people…One reason that the water is so murky is deforestation. Since the 1970s logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Illegal gold-mining compounds the problem. Locals tear up the riverbed with diggers or blast the banks with high-pressure hoses, then sieve the mud for gold. Mercury, which the miners use to separate gold from sediment, but which is poisonous to humans and fish alike, leaks into the river.

The riverbank is punctuated with corrugated-iron towers, which emit birdsong from loudspeakers. These are designed to lure swiftlets, who make their nests with saliva. The nests of swiftlets  are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac by many Chinese.* Deane, a shop owner, built his tower last December after seeing others do the same. He sells the nests to a wholesaler for about 15m rupiah ($1,025) a kilogram…

In Kapuas Hulu, an upstream district, half the population rely on the river for drinking water. A quarter have no toilet. Even where bathrooms do exist along the river, they are often floating cubicles with a hole in the floorboards. Cows and goats, living in wooden riverside cages, also defecate straight into the Kapuas

The Kapuas passes through seven districts. Midstream ones, such as Sintang and Sanggau, earn hefty tax revenues by encouraging palm-oil plantations. But downstream districts suffer from the resulting silt, traffic and run-off without receiving any of the benefits. The same problem occurs at a village level. Mr Hadi says that fishing by sprinkling poisonous leaves on the water (the stricken fish float to the surface) is forbidden but other village heads do not enforce the rules…

A study by CIFOR on the income of villagers living near the Kapuas river found that the best-paid palm-plantation workers earned 50% more than the most successful fishermen. (Gold miners made three times as much—and spent more on education.)…But the environmental damage is plain to see. The river here is brown, clouded by silt. A study published in 2016 found that levels of phosphates in the water, from fertilisers and villagers washing themselves with soap, are highest near urban areas and palm plantations.

Down in Pontianak, the river water is darker still, occasionally brightened by oil slicks. Water bottles and instant-noodle packets cling together to form plastic islands.

Excerpts from  Indonesia’s Longest River,  Economist, Aug. 25, 2018

*According to Wikipedia: Authentic bird’s-nest soup is made from nests of some species of swiftlet.  Instead of twigs, feathers and straw, these swiftlets make their nest only from strands of their gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants. Eating swiftlet nest material is believed to help maintain skin tone, balance qi (“life energy”) and reinforce the immune system… (Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The History of Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Table).

How to Relocate Elephants

Diamond producer De Beers said on July 23, 2018 it was relocating 200 elephants from its private reserve in South Africa to neighboring Mozambique, part of wider efforts to restore wildlife populations ravaged by conflict there.  The Anglo American unit said its 32,000-hectare (80,000-acre) Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve could support around 60 elephants but now had 270, causing “extensive damage to an ecosystem that must sustain a diverse wildlife population.”

The world’s largest land mammals have a jumbo-sized impact on their terrain and in many South African parks, which are fenced to contain them, populations have reached levels where the vegetation cannot support their numbers.  De Beers said the elephants would be moved 1,500 km (1,000 miles) to Mozambique’s Zinave National Park, which has over 400,000 hectares and an elephant population of only 60.  Mozambique’s wildlife numbers were badly hit by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1992. In more recent years, its remaining elephant populations have been targeted by ivory poachers.

The operation is being conducted with the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) conservation group, and De Beers said it was providing it with $500,000 to support anti-poaching efforts…Elephants are extremely social animals and family groups will be kept together for the translocation, a huge logistical undertaking that will include darting operations and the movement of tranquilized animals over long distances by road.

Excerpts from De Beers to move 200 elephants from South Africa to Mozambique, Reuters, July 23, 2018

7 Frozen Embryos and the Resuscitation of Rhinos

SUDAN, the last male northern white rhinoceros on Earth, died in March 2018. He is survived by two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, who live in a conservancy in Kenya. This pair are thus the only remaining members of the world’s most endangered subspecies of mammal. But all might not yet be lost. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin, in collaboration with Avantea, a biotechnology company in Cremona, Italy, is proposing heroic measures to keep the subspecies alive. In a paper published in Nature, he and his colleagues say that they have created, by in vitro fertilisation (IVF), apparently viable hybrid embryos of northern white rhinos and their cousins from the south. This, they hope, will pave the way for the creation of pure northern-white embryos.

Though stored sperm from Sudan and several other males are available, both Najin and Fatu now seem unable to conceive. This means, if the subspecies is to be preserved, that one or both of them will have to have some eggs removed from their ovaries and combined with stored sperm in a Petri dish;… and subsenquently implanted in the uterus of a southern white, who would act as a surrogate mother, with a reasonable hope of success.  That has not yet happened. The seven embryos are now in a freezer awaiting the results of research on how best to transfer them to surrogates. In the meantime, having proved their technique with these hybrids, Dr Hildebrandt and his colleagues now hope to create more embryos, this time using eggs from the two remaining female northern whites.

Even if they succeed, though, it will be a long haul back for the northern white rhino. Members of any new generation resulting from IVF will have then to be bred with each other to create subsequent generations—with all the risks of reduced biological fitness which such incest entails. It is not so much a gene pool that Dr Hildebrandt is working with as a gene puddle.

Then there is the question of what to do with the resulting animals. Analysis of other rhinoceros species, both in Africa and Asia, points to a viable population in the wild needing to be at least 500 strong. Even if such a group could be created, and not collapse from lack of genetic diversity, releasing it into the tender mercies of what remains of Kenya’s savannah would be risky.

Excerpts from Animal Conservation: Drinking in the last-chance saloon, Economist, July 7, 2018, at 66.

The Game-Changers: oil, gas and geothermal

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has decided to degazette parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to allow for oil drilling. Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the decision to open up Virunga and Salonga national parks – a move that is likely to jeopardise a regional treaty on the protection of Africa’s most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla…The two national parks are home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species. Salonga covers 33 350 km2 (3,350,000 ha)of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks….

On 7 April, 2018, a council of ministers from the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development. The inaugural ministerial meeting set the deadline for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty.

The Virunga National Park (790,000 ha, 7 900 km2)is part of the 13 800 km2 (1 3800 00 ha) Greater Virunga Landscape, which straddles the eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda.  The area boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It also boasts a Ramsar Site (Lake George and Lake Edward) and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (in Queen Elizabeth National Park). It is the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift – home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.

According to the Greater Virunga Landscape 2016 annual report, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was half the yearly average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures. It cites a case study on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted, with over 230 sentenced….The GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way. ..

Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996. Militias often kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the park for both meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda. The profits fund the armed groups’ operations.

Over 80% of the Greater Virunga Landscape is covered by oil concessions and this makes it a target for state resource exploitation purely for economic gain.


2015: Until recently, in GVL, extraction of highly valued minerals such as gold and coltan, were largely artisanal. The recent discovery of oil, gas and geothermal potential, however, is a game-changer. Countries are now moving ahead in the exploration and production of oil and gas, which if not properly managed, is likely to result in major negative environmental (and social) changes. Extractive industries are managed under each GVL partner state policy guidelines and legislation. Concessions for these industries cover the whole of the GVL, including the World Heritage Sites as well as national protected areas . Since 2006, Uganda discovered commercial quantities of oil in the Albertine Graben and production in Murchison will begin within the next few years. The effect of the extractive industries, similar to and contributing to that of the increase in urbanization is the increased demand for bush meat, timber and fuel wood from the GVL.

Excertps from Duncan E Omondi Gumba, DRC prioritises oil over conservation, ISS Africa,  July 11, 2018//GREATER VIRUNGA LANDSCAPE
ANNUAL CONSERVATION STATUS REPORT 2015

 

How to Market Freshly-Poached Ivory

In spite of a ban, illegal ivory trading still flourishes in the European Union, as traders use a loophole allowing exchange of very old pieces, an Oxford University study sponsored by a campaign group found.

European law allows ivory obtained prior to 1947 to be traded freely. Ivory obtained after 1947 but before 1990 can be sold with a government certificate, while selling ivory obtained after the global ivory trade was banned is illegal.

Campaign organisation Avaaz purchased more than 100 pieces of ivory from 10 different EU countries to undergo carbon testing at Oxford University. Scientists concluded 75% of the ivory was from after 1947 and 20% was ivory obtained since 1989.  Many traders use the provision which allows free trade of old ivory to illegally trade newer ivory, fuelling the market and incentivising the killing of elephants, Avaaz said.

Exceprts, Illegal ivory breezes past EU law – campaign grou Reuters, Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Resurrection Story: the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef, which runs for 2,300km along the coast of Queensland, is one of the icons of environmentalism. Conservationists constantly worry that human activity, particularly greenhouse-gas-induced global warming, will harm or even destroy it….Reef-forming corals prefer shallow water so, as the world’s sea levels have yo-yoed during the Ice Ages, the barrier reef has come and gone. The details of this have just been revealed in a paper published in Nature Geoscience by Jody Webster of the University of Sydney and her colleagues…. They discovered that it has died and then been reborn five times during the past 30,000 years. Two early reefs were destroyed by exposure as sea levels fell. Three more recent ones were overwhelmed by water too deep for them to live in, and also smothered by sediment from the mainland. The current reef is therefore the sixth of the period.

The barrier reef’s ability to resurrect itself is encouraging. But whether it could rise from the dead a sixth time is moot. The threat now is different. It is called bleaching and involves the tiny animals, known as polyps, which are the living part of a reef, ejecting their symbiotic algae. These algae provide much of a polyp’s food, but also generate toxins if the temperature gets too high, in which case the polyp throws them out. That causes the coral to lose its colour.  Polyps can tolerate occasional bleaching, but if it goes on too long, then they die. In the short term, therefore, global warming really does look a serious threat to the reef. It would, no doubt, return if and when the sea temperature dropped again. But when that would be, who knows?

Excerpts from Conservation: A Great Survivor, Economist, June 2, 2018, at 78

A Glimmer of Hope: protected areas

Globally, one-third of protected land is under intense pressure from road building, grazing, urbanization, and other human activities, according to a new study in the 18 May 2018 issue of Science…Nations around the world have committed to preserving biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), through protected status designations ranging from nature reserves with strict controls on human impact to regions where people can extract natural resources in a sustainable way. This study suggests that many of these nations are failing to meet their conservation goals.

James Watson, a researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society and an author of the study, noted that 111 nations currently claim they have meet their obligations under the CBD based on the extent of their protected areas. “But if you only counted the land in protected areas that are not degraded, which play a role in conserving biodiversity, 77 of these nations don’t meet the bar. And it’s a low bar.”

Watson and a team of researchers decided to take advantage of a recently released human footprint map to look at the degradation of protected areas. “The results are quite staggering,” said Watson. “We found that 2.3 million square miles — twice the size of Alaska — was impacted by road building, grazing, logging, roads and urbanization. That is 32.8% of all protected land — the land set aside by nations for the purpose of biodiversity conservation — that] is highly degraded.”  Regions that were found to be particularly burdened by human activity include western Europe and southern Asia.

In terms of protected land that is free of any measurable human pressure, 42% could be classified as such; however, many of these areas are within remote regions of high-latitude nations, such as Russia and Canada.

Some conservation efforts have been fruitful, though. “We did see glimmers of hope,” said Watson…. (e.g., the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, and Niassa Reserve in Mozambique)

Protected areas designated after 1993 have a lower level of intense human pressure within their borders than those previously designated, the authors found. They suggest this may indicate that more recently designated areas were targeted as protected spaces because they were recognized as being under low human pressure.

Exceprts from Michelle Hampson, One-Third of World’s Protected Areas under Intense Human Pressure, American Association for the Advancement of Scicence,  May 16, 2018

Extreme Markets: the fascination for wild genitalia

Tomohon, in the highlands of North Sulawesi, Indonesia is …the “extreme market”. There is certainly something extreme about the serried carcasses, blackened by blow torches to burn off the fur, the faces charred in a rictus grin.   The pasar extrim speaks to Sulawesi’s striking biogeography. The Indonesian island straddles the boundary between Asiatic and Australian species—and boasts an extraordinary number of species found nowhere else. But the market also symbolises how Asia’s amazing biodiversity is under threat. Most of the species on sale in Tomohon have seen populations crash because of overhunting (habitat destruction has played a part too)…

An hour’s drive from Tomohon is Bitung, terminus for ferry traffic from the Moluccan archipelago and Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. These regions are even richer in wildlife, especially birds. Trade in wild birds is supposedly circumscribed. Yet the ferries are crammed with them: Indonesian soldiers returning from a tour in Papua typically pack a few wild cockatoos or lories to sell. One in five urban households in Indonesia keeps birds. Bitung feeds Java’s huge bird markets. The port is also a shipment point on a bird-smuggling route to the Philippines and then to China, Taiwan, even Europe. Crooked officials enable the racket.

The trade in animal parts used for traditional medicine or to denote high status, especially in China and Vietnam, is an even bigger racket. Many believe ground rhino horn to be effective against fever, as well as to make you, well, horny. Javan and Sumatran rhinos were not long ago widespread across South-East Asia, but poaching has confined them to a few tiny pockets of the islands after which they are named. Numbers of the South Asian rhinoceros are healthier, yet poachers in Kaziranga national park in north-east India have killed 74 in the past three years alone.

Name your charismatic species and measure decline. Between 2010 and 2017 over 2,700 of the ivory helmets of the helmeted hornbill, a striking bird from South-East Asia, were seized, with Hong Kong a notorious transshipment hub. It is critically endangered. As for the tiger, in China and Vietnam its bones and penis feature in traditional medicine, while tiger fangs and claws are emblems of status and power. Fewer than 4,000 tigers survive in the wild. The pressure from poachers is severe, especially in India. The parts of over 1,700 tigers have been seized since 2000.

Asia’s wildlife mafias have gone global. Owing to Asian demand for horns, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa leapt from 13 in 2007 to 1,028 last year. The new frontline is South America. A jaguar’s four fangs, ten claws, pelt and genitalia sell for $20,000 in AsiaSchemes to farm animals, which some said would undercut incentives to poach, have proved equally harmful. Lion parts from South African farms are sold in Asia as a cheaper substitute for tiger, or passed off as tiger—either way, stimulating demand. The farming of tigers in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam provides cover for the trafficking of wild tiger parts. Meanwhile, wild animals retain their cachet—consumers of rhino horn believe the wild rhino grazes only on medicinal plants.

Excerpts from  Wasting Wildlife, Economist, Apr. 21, 2018, at 36

The Super-Corals

By some estimates, half of the world’s coral has been lost since the 1980s. Corals are delicate animals, and are succumbing to pollution and sediment from coastal construction. Also to blame are sewage, farmland run-off and fishing, all of which favour the growth of the big, fleshy algae that are corals’ main competitors for space. (The first two encourage algal growth and the third removes animals that eat those algae.) But the biggest killer is warming seawater. Ocean heatwaves in 2015, 2016 and 2017 finished off an astonishing 20% of the coral on Earth. This is troubling, for countless critters depend on coral reefs for their survival. Indeed, such reefs, which take up just a thousandth of the ocean floor, are home, for at least part of their life cycles, to a quarter of marine species. Losing those reefs would cause huge disruption to the ocean’s ecosystem. So researchers are looking for ways to stop this happening.

A growing number of scientists reckon that an entirely different approach to saving coral is needed. If oceans are changing faster than coral can adapt via the normal processes of evolution, why not, these researchers argue, work out ways to speed up such evolution  One way to do this would be selective breeding. Most species of coral spawn on just one or two nights a year, a process regulated by the lunar cycle, the time of sunset and the temperature of the water. The sperm and eggs released during spawning meet and unite, and the results grow into larvae that search for places where they can settle down and metamorphose into the stone-encased sea-anemone-like polyps that are the adult form. In the wild, the meeting of sperm and egg is random. Some researchers, however, are trying to load the dice. By starting with wild specimens that have survived a period of heat which killed their neighbours, they hope to breed heat resistance into the offspring.

This is the tack taken, for example, by Christian Voolstra of the Red Sea Research Centre in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. He describes it as “making sure super papa and super mama meet and reproduce”. Corals bred in this way at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, on Oahu, survive in water that is warm enough to kill offspring resulting from normal, random reproduction.

The reason corals die when the surrounding water gets too hot is that the microscopic algae and bacteria which live on and in their tissue, and are their main food sources, are sensitive to small changes in temperature. When stressed by heat these symbionts start producing dangerous oxidants. This causes the polyps to eject them, to ensure short-term survival. The reef thus turns ghostly white—a process called bleaching. Bleached coral is not dead. But unless the temperature then drops, the polyps will not readmit the algae and bacteria, and so, eventually, they do die.

Polyps that survive one such ordeal will, however, fare better if temperatures rise again. The second time around they have acclimatised to the change. Some species, indeed, can pass this resilience on to their offspring by a process called intergenerational epigenesis. The Hawaii Institute’s efforts to develop hardier corals thus include administering a near-death experience to them. Ruth Gates, the institute’s director, says the goal is to create reefs “designed to withstand the future”. The institute’s first such reef will probably be grown inside Biosphere 2, an enclosed ecosystem run by the University of Arizona.

Another approach, taken by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Queensland, is to crossbreed corals from different places, to create hybrid vigour. The results of such crosses are unpredictable, but some survive heat greater than either of their parents could cope with.

The artificial breeding of corals is, though, constrained by their cyclical breeding habits, so researchers at the Florida Aquarium, on Tampa Bay, are trying to speed the process up. The operators of the aquarium’s “coral ark” nursery stagger lighting and temperature patterns to fool the animals into releasing their gametes on a day of the researchers’ choosing. This also permits the co-mingling of sperm and eggs that would not normally meet, thus allowing new varieties to be created. According to Scott Graves, the aquarium’s boss, half a dozen such varieties show most promise of heat resistance, but the team is generating thousands more, “just like a seed bank”, as a backup.

A coral’s fate is tied so closely to the algae and bacteria which live in its tissues that, as Dr Gates puts it, it is best to think of the whole thing as “a consortium of organisms”. This is why scientists at AIMS are keen also to produce algae that withstand higher temperatures without releasing the oxidants that lead coral to kick them out. They are doing so using a process which Madeleine van Oppen, a researcher at the institute, calls “directed laboratory evolution”. In the past few years her team have grown more than 80 generations of algae, repeatedly culling those organisms most susceptible to heat stress and also to acidification, another curse of a world with more carbon dioxide around than previously. The resulting algae release fewer toxins and photosynthesise better in warm water than do their wild brethren..

[A]fter the trauma of bleaching, polyps do extend a preferential welcome to algae that have greater levels of heat tolerance. His team are thus now using special lights to bleach corals. Polyps “stress hardened” in this way will be planted on wild reefs in coming months…

This raises the question of whether the genomes of coral, algae and bacteria might be edited for greater robustness. According to Dr Voolstra, more than ten laboratories around the world are trying to do so. His own team has successfully inserted genetic material into about 30 larvae of a coral called Acropora millepora. Editing corals’ heat thresholds in this way is, he reckons, about five years away.

Whether they are created by selective breeding or genetic engineering, supercorals, the thinking goes, would not need to be placed on reefs in astronomical numbers… That thought, however, does not please everybody. Some object in principle to the idea of releasing human-modified creatures into the wild, or feel that amelioration of this sort is a distraction from the business of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. Others have pragmatic concerns—that corals bred to survive warming seas might suffer handicapping trade-offs. So regulators have been cautious. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, for example, will probably require that the hybrid organisms AIMS hopes to test in the open reef are removed before they begin spawning. …[T]he alternative, of doing nothing, is the equivalent of “ just throwing our hands up in the air and saying, ‘OK, we’re prepared now not to have coral’.” For the world’s oceans, that loss would be catastrophic.

Excerpts from Accelerating Evolution: Refreshing Reefs, Economist, Mar. 17, 2018, at 75

A Slow-Burning Tragedy

Charcoal is one of the biggest informal businesses in Africa. It is the fuel of choice for the continent’s fast-growing urban poor, who, in the absence of electricity or gas, use it to cook and heat water. According to the UN, Africa accounted for three-fifths of the world’s production in 2012—and this is the only region where the business is growing. It is, however, a slow-burning environmental disaster.

In Nyakweri forest, Kenya, the trees are ancient and rare. Samwel Naikada, a local activist, points at a blackened stump in a clearing cut by burners. It is perhaps 400 years old, he says. The effect of burning trees spreads far. During the dry season, the forest is a refuge for amorous elephants who come in from the plains nearby to breed. The trees store water, which is useful in such a parched region. It not only keeps the Mara river flowing—a draw for the tourists who provide most of the county government’s revenue. It also allows the Masai people to graze their cows and grow crops. “You cannot separate the Masai Mara and this forest,” says Mr Naikada….

Nyakweri is hardly the only forest at risk. The Mau forest, Kenya’s largest, which lies farther north in the Rift Valley, has also been hit by illegal logging. Protests against charcoal traders (!) broke out earlier this year, after rivers that usually flow throughout the dry season started to run dry. In late February a trader’s car was reportedly burned in Mwingi, in central Kenya, by a group of youngsters who demanded to see the trader’s permits. At the end of February 2018 the government announced an emergency 90-day ban on all logging, driving up retail prices of charcoal by 500%, to as much as 5,000 shillings a bag in some cities.

The problems caused by the charcoal trade have spread beyond Kenya. In southern Somalia, al-Shabab, a jihadist group, funds itself partly through the taxes it levies on the sale of charcoal (sometimes with the help of Kenyan soldiers, who take bribes for allowing the shipments out of a Somali port that Kenya controls). The logging also adds to desertification, which, in turn, causes conflict across the Sahel, an arid belt below the Sahara. It forces nomadic herders to range farther south with their animals, where they often clash with farmers over the most fertile land.

In the power vacuum of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rampant charcoal logging has destroyed huge swathes of Virunga National Park. That threatens the rare gorillas which tourists currently pay as much as $400 a day to view, even as it fuels the conflict.

In theory, charcoal burning need not be so destructive. In Kenya the burners are meant to get a licence. To do so, they have to show they are replacing the trees they are cutting down and that they are using modern kilns that convert the trees efficiently into fuel. But, admits Clement Ngoriareng, an official at the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the rules are laxly enforced. Some suspect that powerful politicians stymie efforts to police burners.

Excerpts from A Very Black Market: Illegal Charcoal, Economist, Mar. 31, 2018

Choked by Hyacinths: Lake Victoria

The report, Freshwater biodiversity in the Lake Victoria Basin (2018), assesses the global extinction risk of 651 freshwater species, including fishes, molluscs, dragonflies, crabs, shrimps and aquatic plants native to East Africa’s Lake Victoria Basin, finding that 20% of these are threatened with extinction. Of the freshwater species assessed, 204 are endemic to the Lake Victoria Basin and three-quarters (76%) of these endemics are at risk of extinction.

The African Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), for example, is declining in the Lake Victoria Basin largely due to overfishing, poor fishing practices and environmental degradation as wetlands are converted to agricultural land. The lungfish is considered a delicacy for some local communities and is an important local medicinal product, used to boost the immune system and treat alcoholism. The lungfish is also traded at market, making it important to the local economy.

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by surface area. Its catchment area includes parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. Also referred to as ‘Darwin’s Dreampond’, Lake Victoria is known for its high levels of unique biodiversity. The Lake Victoria Basin harbours immense natural resources including fisheries, forests, wetlands and rangelands….

Pollution from industrial and agricultural sources, over-harvesting of resources and land clearance are among the primary threats to biodiversity in this region. Invasive species also present an important threat to native biodiversity in the basin, affecting 31% of all species and 73% of threatened species. The purple flowered Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) was accidentally introduced to Lake Victoria from South America in the 1980s, and at its peak covered close to 10% of the lake surface in dense floating mats. These mats reduce the oxygen and nutrient availability in the water column, which negatively affects native biodiversity. Opportunities for harvesting and exploiting the Water Hyacinth, for example by using the species as fuel in bio-digesters for energy production, are under investigation.

Excerpts from Livelihoods at risk as freshwater species in Africa’s largest lake face extinction – IUCN Report, IUCN Report, Apr. 30, 2018

Target Practice on Orangutans

Estimating the number of orangutans is difficult. Researchers have to extrapolate from the number of nests observed. (The apes build new ones to sleep in each night.) A new study published in Current Biology finds that the number of orangutans on Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, declined by some 148,000 between 1999 and 2015, leaving fewer than 100,000. Within the next 30 years, another 45,000 could disappear. The decline has been steepest, naturally, in areas where the jungle has been razed to plant palm-oil trees. But it is areas that are still forested that account for most of the fall in the orangutan population. This suggests that hunting and crueller activities—carcasses have been found maimed and riddled with airgun pellets—are also taking a bloody toll, says one of the study’s authors, Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute, a research organisation in Germany…

Local officials still push for more palm-oil plantations, mines and roads. But tourism in Sumatra’s Gunung-Leuser National Park shows the value of leaving the jungle, and its inhabitants, alone. A night and two days of climbing and crawling in search of orangutans can cost a visitor around $100…Eco-tourism can benefit orangutans, too, if controlled. But tourists often get too close to the animals, risking the transmission of disease, or leave rubbish in the forest…

Excerpts from Orangutans: Money Swinging from Trees, Economost, Feb. 24, at 2018, at 30

The Balding Forests of Australia

Most deforestation takes place in poor countries. In richer places, trees tend to multiply. Australia is an unhappy exception. Land clearance is rampant along its eastern coast, as farmers take advantage of lax laws to make room for cattle to feed Asia. WWF, a charity, now ranks Australia alongside Borneo and the Congo Basin as one of the world’s 11 worst “fronts” for deforestation.

The worst damage occurs in the north-eastern state of Queensland, which has more trees left to fell than places to the south, where agriculture is more established… Its bulldozers are at present busier than they have been for a decade. They erased 395,000 hectares of forest, including huge tracts of ancient vegetation, between 2015 and 2016—the equivalent of 1,000 rugby pitches a day. As a share of its forested area, Queensland is mowing down trees twice as fast as Brazil.

Australia has lost almost half its native forest since British colonialists arrived, and much of what remains is degraded. For a time, it seemed that the clear-cutting might come to an end: in the early 2000s several state governments passed bills to reduce deforestation. But in the past decade these have been wound back in every state. Queensland’s land clearance has more than doubled since conservatives loosened its forestry law in 2013, allowing farmers to “thin” trees by up to 75% without a permit. Neighbouring New South Wales recently enacted a similar rule.

Conservationists blame powerful agricultural lobbies. These retort that controls on land clearance push up food prices and cost jobs. Family farmers lament that trees obstruct the big machinery needed to keep their land productive. … In 2014 a landowner in New South Wales murdered an environment officer who was investigating illegal bulldozing. (Authorities in the state are examining at least 300 cases of illegal tree-clearing.)

Yet clearing land eventually hurts farmers too because, without trees, soil erodes and grows saltier. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, spurring global warming, and reduces regional rainfall…. Loss of habitat has brought many species, including the koala, to the brink of extinction.

Chainsaw massacre: Deforestation in Australia, Economist, Feb. 24, 2018

The Most Trafficked Animal in the World: Pangolin

Pangolins are a smuggler’s dream. For defence, and when asleep, they roll themselves up into spheres, scales on the outside, to thwart any predator. That makes them easy to handle and pack. And handled and packed they have been, in enormous numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a worldwide wildlife-preservation organisation, reckons that more than 1m pangolins were traded illegally from their African and Asian homelands over the decade to 2014. That may be a conservative estimate. A paper published in 2017 in Conservation Letters calculates the number of pangolins hunted in central Africa alone as between 400,000 and 2.7m a year. Based on statistics such as these it seems likely that pangolins, of which there are eight species, four African and four Asian, are the most trafficked type of animal in the world.

Some are consumed locally. That is not necessarily illegal, for laws vary from place to place. International trade, though, is a different matter. Early in 2017 CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed all eight pangolins as part of what is known as Appendix 1. This means signatories to the convention (which most countries are) cannot permit them to be imported or exported.

Most of those that are, nevertheless, exported illegally from their homelands end up in China and Vietnam. In these countries pangolins’ meat is a treat and their scales are used in folk medicine, even though those scales are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, and thus have no medicinal value. Pangolin scales fetch as much as $750 a kilogram in China. A 12-tonne stash of them, the world’s biggest seizure, was found last summer by the authorities in Shenzhen….

Cracking down on poachers and traders is difficult, particularly in poor places…Part of the blame lies with ignorance. Awareness of pangolins is patchy. They are nocturnal and shy, and thus rarely feature on tourists’ tick-lists. That makes them a low priority, even to game-management authorities who know they are there. …The Hywood Foundation’s initiative is part of a larger effort in Uganda, sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government’s conservation agency. Now that pangolins are on the UWA’s radar, it has stepped up intelligence and investigative work on poachers and traffickers…At the consumption end of the trafficking routes, too, things are starting to happen…. In theory, eating pangolin meat (along with that of many other wild species) is already illegal in China—not for conservation reasons, but as a reaction to the outbreak of SARS, a fatal respiratory disease…Persuading people to stop using the animals’ scales may be harder.

Excerpts from  Conserving Pagolins: A Problem of Scale, Economist, Feb 3, 2018

Deforestation Tolerance: Amazon

Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture 5 to 6 times as airmasses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west.  From the start, the demonstration of the hydrological cycle of the Amazon raised the question of how much deforestation would be required to cause this hydrolological cycle to degrade to the point of being unable to support rain forest ecosystems.

High levels of evaporation and transpiration that forests produce throughout the year contribute to a wetter atmospheric boundary layer than would be the case with non-forest.This surface-atmosphere coupling is more important where large-scale factors for rainfall formation are weaker, such as in central and eastern Amazonia. Near the Andes, the impact of at least modest deforestation is less dramatic because the general ascending motion of airmasses in this area induces high levels of rainfall in addition to that expected from local evaporation and transpiration.

Where might the tipping point be for deforestation-generated degradation of the hydrological cycle? The very first model to examine this question  showed that at about 40% deforestation, central, southern and eastern Amazonia would experience diminished rainfall and a lengthier dry season, predicting a shift to savanna vegetation to the east.

Moisture from the Amazon is important to rainfall and human wellbeing because it contributes to winter rainfall for parts of the La Plata basin, especially southern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay and central-eastern Argentina; in other regions, the moisture passes over the area, but does not precipitate out. Although the amount contributing to rainfall in southeastern Brazil is smaller than in other areas, even small amounts can be a welcome addition to urban reservoirs…

In recent decades, new forcing factors have impinged on the hydrological cycle: climate change and widespread use of fire to eliminate felled trees and clear weedy vegetation. Many studies show that in the absence of other contributing factors, 4° Celsius of global warming would be the tipping point to degraded savannas in most of the central, southern, and eastern Amazon. Widespread use of fire leads to drying of surrounding forest and greater vulnerability to fire in the subsequent year.

We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.

We believe that the sensible course is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but also to build back a margin of safety against the Amazon tipping point, by reducing the deforested area to less than 20%, for the commonsense reason that there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it. At the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties, Brazil committed to 12 million ha of reforestation by 2030. Much or most of this reforestation should be in southern and eastern Amazonia.

Excerpts from Amazon Tipping Point  by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Sciences Advances,  Feb. 21, 2018

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Fish Poachers in Africa

In Sierra Leone nearly half the population does not have enough to eat, and fish make up most of what little protein people get. But the country’s once-plentiful shoals, combined with its weak government, have lured a flotilla of unscrupulous foreign trawlers to its waters. Most of the trawlers fly Chinese flags, though dozens also sail from South Korea, Italy, Guinea and Russia. Their combined catch is pushing Sierra Leone’s fisheries to the brink of collapse.

Sierra Leone is not alone in facing this crisis. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 90% of the world’s fisheries are dangerously overexploited. The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a think-tank funded by America’s defence department, reckons that about a quarter of fish caught off Africa’s shores are taken illegally.

Excerpt from Poachers afloat: Why Sierra Leone is running out of fish, Economist, Dec. 16, 2017