Category Archives: endangered species

Killing the Rhinos with Community Involvement

rhino-poaching-update-590

Lieutenant General Berning Ntlemeza, head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (better known as the Hawks), of South Africa wants community involvement with poachers stopped.He told the Police Parliamentary Portfolio Committee that impoverished communities on the borders of the Kruger National Park were  “Heavily armed, wealthy poachers avoid hotels and hide in villages, waiting for night to fall before they sneak into the park to kill rhino and harvest horn,.... If communities don’t own or benefit from the park we are not going to win the fight against poaching,” he said.

Excerpts Communities supporting poachers must be targeted - Hawks boss, defenceWeb.com, Feb. 1, 2016

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6,000 km Pipelines, How Many Lawsuits against Shell, Nigeria

shell company logo--always a Shell, image from wikipedia

A Dutch appeals court ruled on December 18, 2015 that Royal Dutch Shell can be held liable for oil spills at its subsidiary in Nigeria, potentially opening the way for other compensation claims against the multinational. Judges in The Hague ordered Shell to make available to the court documents that might shed light on the cause of the oil spills and whether leading managers were aware of them.  This ruling overturned a 2013 finding by a lower Dutch court that Shell’s Dutch-based parent company could not be held liable for spills at its Nigerian subsidiary.

The legal dispute dates back to 2008, when four Nigerian farmers and the campaign group Friends of the Earth filed a suit against the oil company in the Netherlands, where its global headquarters is based.  “Shell can be taken to court in the Netherlands for the effects of the oil spills,” the court ruling stated on Friday. “Shell is also ordered to provide access to documents that could shed more light on the cause of the leaks.”  The case will continue to be heard in March 2016.  Judge Hans van der Klooster said the court had found that it “has jurisdiction in the case against Shell and its subsidiary in Nigeria”....

“There are 6,000km of Shell pipelines and thousands of people living along them in the Niger Delta,” he said. “Other people in Nigeria can bring cases and that could be tens of billions of euros in damages.”  In a separate case, Shell agreed in January to pay out £55m ($82 million) in out-of-court compensation for two oil spills in Nigeria in 2008, after agreeing a settlement with the affected community in the Delta.

Excerpt from Dutch appeals court says Shell may be held liable for oil spills in Nigeria, Guardian, Dec. 18, 2015.

Shell in Nigeria: the Attitude

Shell and the Nigerian Government

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Worst Environmental Disaster 2015: the Toxic Sludge of Vale/BHPBilliton Dam

the village after the disaster. Collapse of Bento Rodrigues dam maintained by BhpBilliton and Vale

The Bento Rodrigues Dam in Brazil collapsed on November 5, 2015...The dam had been used to store water and mineral waste from a nearby iron-ore mine. It had no alarm system and no good emergency plan or designated evacuation routes. According to the villagers, nobody was warned about the breach. “If the dam had collapsed at night, everyone would have died,” said Duarte Júnior, the mayor of the city that includes Bento Rodrigues.The dam was operated by Samarco, a joint venture between two multinational mining companies: Brazil’s Vale and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton. More than a month after the dam collapsed, it is unclear how long it will take for the ecosystem — and the economy — to recover. And two more dams in the area are at risk of collapsing.

After flooding the village, the wave of approximately 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mineral residue, enough to fill about 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, made its way to the Doce River. The river, which passes through 228 municipalities, is crucial to the region’s economic life. The mineral-waste sludge has devastated the area. Several companies had to suspend operations. Local fishermen are among the most severely affected. The water supply for Governador Valadares, a city of 300,000 people, had to be cut off for a week.

The companies involved insist that the muck poses no threat to human health. But two United Nations environmental experts declared that the mud contained “high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.” A report from the Institute for Water Management, a government agency in the state of Minas Gerais, found that the water’s arsenic levels were 10 times above the legal limit. Other samples collected at different points along the river contained high levels of mercury, iron, aluminum and manganese.

According to Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, the Doce River is home to 80 fish species, of which 11 are endangered and 12 are found nowhere else in the world.... The mud’s brown route across Brazil’s waterways is visible in NASA satellite images. Sixteen days after the dam broke, the tide reached the Atlantic Ocean, more than 400 miles downstream. It also spread into the Comboios Biological Reserve on the coast, a spawning area for loggerhead sea turtles and critically endangered leatherback sea turtles.  “The steps taken by the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton to prevent harm were clearly insufficient,” the United Nations environmental experts said in a statement, adding that it was unacceptable that it took three weeks for information about the water’s toxicity to surface. “The government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm, including exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals,” they said.

The exact cause of the breach has not yet been determined. Samarco’s chief executive officer suggested that a seismic tremor near the mine may have caused it, but public prosecutors suspect negligence by the company. Brazil’s press is criticizing the federal government in Brasília for failing to monitor the dam. The National Department of Mineral Production employed only four people in the whole state of Minas Gerais to inspect 735 dams.

Excerpt from  Vanessa Barbara, Brazil’s Toxic Sludge, NY Times, Dec. 17, 2015

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How Weather Change Alleviates Climate Change

Cessna 441conducts cloud-seeding flights on behalf of Hydro Tasmania. image from wikipedia

Maharashtra is one of the largest and wealthiest of India’s 30 states, with 110 million residents. It encompasses Mumbai and other large cities, plus vast swaths of farmland. Like other agricultural regions of India, it’s in its third consecutive year of drought. More than 80 percent of its farms depend on rain for irrigation, and agriculture production has dropped by almost a third since 2013. The human impact has been severe—1,300 debt-trapped farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra in just the past six months.In July, 2015 the state’s minister of revenue, Eknath Khadse, took a gamble: He hired Koliwad to carry out a $4.5 million cloud-seeding program over three months and across 100 square miles in the middle of the state, the largest campaign of this kind ever attempted in India.

So Koliwad called Weather Modification Inc., the world’s largest private aerial cloud-seeding company, based in Fargo, N.D. WMI’s chief executive, Patrick Sweeney, developed a five-year technology transfer program with Koliwad that’s now in its first year. Pederson and other WMI staff are training Indian pilots, meteorologists, and Doppler radar technicians to seed clouds.

Sweeney has seeded clouds all over the world for more than 20 years, but the Maharashtra project is unique in that the circumstances are so dire. “The hardest part is managing expectations,” he says. “People in Maharashtra are hoping for a cure-all to drought. They come out and dance in the streets when it rains, they hug our pilots and say, ‘Do it again.’ But we can’t guarantee that the clouds will be there—and willing to cooperate.”..

Despite the uncertainty, the industry is on the rise. According to the World Meteorological Organization, more than 52 countries have active cloud-seeding operations—up from 42 four years ago. In the U.S. last year, 55 cloud-seeding projects were reported to NOAA. There’s even a luxury cloud-seeding market emerging—one European company, for instance, charges a minimum of $150,000 to guarantee good wedding weather by forcing clouds to rain in the days before the event....

Sweeney also built ICE (Ice Crystal Engineering), a company that makes cloud-seeding chemicals and supplies flares to 25 countries. ICE adds a decent sidestream of income for Sweeney, with revenue of about $3 million a year. But the bigger advantage is that it helped WMI become the only aerial seeding company that “does a full turnkey,” says Neil Brackin, WMI’s president—meaning it customizes and operates the planes and radars, manufactures the flares, and flies the missions.

They do have competitors. There are 34 private companies worldwide that do weather modification, but there’s no bigger rival in aerial cloud seeding than the Chinese government, which spends hundreds of millions a year seeding clouds in 22 of its 23 provinces, both to clear pollution above cities and to enhance rainfall for farming. China has yet to allow private companies to enter its market, but Sweeney is making inroads; he sold his first cloud-seeding plane to Beijing last year.

Thailand’s government has a Bureau of Royal Rainmaking, with hundreds of employees that WMI helped train, though the program’s still using old technology—releasing mounds of table salt from trap doors in the bellies of its planes. And when the Argentine government took over the cloud-seeding program WMI built for the country, it cut costs. Soon after, two pilots died seeding clouds above a mountain, and the project was suspended...

Brackin adds that while scientists want to achieve a 99.99 percent probability that a technology consistently works, the industry doesn’t need that kind of certainty or consistency to succeed. He likens cloud seeding to a cutting-edge medication that’s still in development: “If you’re dealing with a serious ailment and you were offered a medicine that had a 60 percent chance of working, or even 20 percent, would you take it? You probably would.”

Excerpts from  Amanda Little . Weather on Demand: Making It Rain Is Now a Global Business, Bloomberg, Oct. 28, 2015

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Stopping Demand for Endangered Species Products

when the buying stops the killings can too

[O]n October 15th China announced a one-year ban on the import of ivory hunting trophies from Africa, closing a big loophole. Wildlife activists are delighted....The world’s elephant population has dived from 1.2m in 1980 to under 500,000 today. In 1989 the sale of ivory was banned worldwide. But in 1999 and again in 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a conservation pact, allowed the sale of stockpiles of ivory from southern Africa to China. The countries vowed to use the proceeds for conservation; China claimed it had a robust registration system that would keep illegal ivory out. But conservationists rightly predicted the concession would fuel more smuggling and so more killing.  Permitted sales became a cover for illegal ones. In 2010-12 about 100,000 elephants were slain for their tusks. In the past five years, Mozambique and Tanzania have lost half their elephants to poaching...

Despite strong demand for ivory among China’s rising middle class, attitudes may gradually be changing. As of 2012, nearly half of Chinese people saw elephant poaching as a problem, according to a survey by WildAid. The figure has been boosted by the support of celebrities. Yao Ming, a basketball player, and Jackie Chan, an actor, appear on posters everywhere with the message: “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” The government has donated $200m worth of media space every year since 2008.

Opinion on ivory has shifted fast, says Mr Knights, partly because of the success of another campaign, to protect sharks. In the markets of Guangzhou, the global centre for the trade, dried shark fins have fallen from 3,000 yuan ($470) per kilo five years ago to 1,000 yuan today, as Chinese people abjure shark-fin soup, a delicacy.  WildAid raised its voice over that issue, too, but more important was the Communist Party’s ban in 2013 of shark-fin soup at official banquets, part of a drive against corruption and excess. The Hong Kong government followed, as did airlines and hotels. A survey in 2013 found 85% of people said they had stopped eating shark-fin soup in the past three years.

One scourge is untouched by all this: the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. More than 1,200 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2014 in South Africa alone, up from just 13 killed in 2007. This partly reflects a huge rise in demand in Vietnam, but China is also a consumer. Ground rhino horn is believed to cure fever and improve sexual performance. One kilo can cost up to $70,000.

Ominously, some African nations now want a one-off sale of rhino-horn stocks, as happened twice with ivory. To secure this, South Africa must win two-thirds of the member states at the next CITES conference...

Excerpts from Animal conservation: The elephants fight back, Economist, Nov. 21, 2015, at 44

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And Then There Were None: Sumatran Rhinos

Sumatran rhinoceroses Emi and Harapan in the Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio, United States. Image from wikipeidia

The last Sumatran rhino in the Western Hemisphere began a journey on October 30, 2015 from Ohio, United States to its ancestral southeast Asian homeland on a mission to help preserve the critically endangered species. ...Conservationists hope Harapan can mate with one or more of the three females in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park....Numbers of the two-horned "hairy rhinos," descendants of Ice Age wooly rhinos, have fallen by some 90 percent since the mid-1980s as development of their forest habitat and poachers seeking their horns took their toll. Including three Sumatran rhinos in a sanctuary in Malaysia, only nine are in captivity globally.  Harapan's departure ends the Cincinnati Zoo's captive breeding program for the species that produced three rhinos....Indonesian officials are anxious to get Harapan to their sanctuary. They have said they don't want to be dependent on other countries in conservation efforts by sending rhinos to be bred abroad, but welcome technological or scientific assistance for their breeding program.Conservationists and government officials met in Singapore in 2013 for a Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit to discuss ways to save the species.
Excerpts from DAN SEWELL, Sumatran Rhino Begins US-Asia Trip to Ancestral Home, Associated Press, Oct. 30, 2015

 

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Climate Change–procrastinators and their victims

KIRIBATI. image from http://climatechange.dreamhosters.com/_old/CAUSES-EFFECTS/KIRIBATI.jpg

Global carbon emissions were 58% higher in 2012 than they were in 1990. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from just under 340 parts per million in 1980 to 400 in 2015.  To stand a fair chance of keeping warming to just 2°C by the end of the century—the goal of global climate policy—cumulative carbon emissions caused by humans must be kept under 1 trillion tonnes. Estimates vary but, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the total had hit 515 billion tonnes by 2011. Climate Interactive, a research outfit, reckons that if emissions continue on their present course around 140 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases will be released each year and temperatures could rise by 4.5°C by 2100. And even if countries fully honour their recent pledges, temperatures may still increase by 3.5°C by then.

The world is already 0.75°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution....

Melting glacier ice, and the fact that warmer water has a larger volume, mean higher sea levels: they have already risen by roughly 20cm since 1880 and could rise another metre by 2100. That is perilous for low-lying islands and flat countries: the government of Kiribati, a cluster of tropical islands, has bought land in Fiji to move residents to in case of flooding. Giza Gaspar Martins, a diplomat from Angola who leads the world’s poorest countries in the climate talks, points out that they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. Money alone, he argues, will not fix their problems. Without steps to reduce emissions, he predicts, “there will be nothing left to adapt for.”...

For every 0.6°C rise in temperature, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water grows by 4%, meaning storms will pour forth with greater abandon. The rains of the Indian monsoon could therefore intensify, cutting yields of cereals and pulses.

Climate change seems also to be making dry places drier, killing crops and turning forests into kindling. Forest fires in Indonesia, more likely thanks to the current El Niño weather phenomenon, could release 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 5% of annual emissions due to human activity, says Simon Lewis of University College London. In recent months fires have swallowed more than 2.4m hectares of American forests. Alaska suffered 80% of the damage—a particular problem because the soot released in these blazes darkens the ice, making it less able to reflect solar radiation away from the Earth.

Developments in the Arctic are worrying for other reasons, too. The region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, a trend that could start a vicious cycle. Around 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon are held in permafrost soils as frozen organic matter. If they thaw, vast amounts of methane, which is 25 times more powerful as a global-warming gas than carbon dioxide when measured over a century, will be released. One hypothesis suggests that self-reinforcing feedback between permafrost emissions and Arctic warming caused disaster before: 55m years ago temperatures jumped by 5°C in a few thousand years...

And on September 29th Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned that though measures to avoid catastrophic climate change are essential, not least for long-term financial stability, in the shorter term they could cause investors huge losses by making reserves of oil, coal and gas “literally unburnable”.

Excerpts from Climate Change: It's Getting Hotter, Economst, Oct. 3, 2015, at 63

 

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Natural Resources Markets in China: upcoming

fish ponds near Daye, Hubei, China, Image from wikipedia

A nationwide  carbon-trading scheme, to be set up in 2017, is the most visible example of a broader trend in China towards using market mechanisms in environmental matters...[A] reform plan issued by the government on September 21st, 2015  laying out the basis of future policy, talks about developing “a market system which allows economic levers to play a greater role in environmental governance”. If the plan is to be believed, China will go further than any other country in developing environmental market mechanisms.

The plan talks of selling “green” bonds, ie, those financing projects certified as environmentally sound. The government will improve financial guarantees for low-carbon projects. But those are becoming common. More fundamentally, the reform says China will separate the ownership of all natural resources from the rights to use them—and sell the usage rights at market.

This is much more radical. The idea is rooted in communist dogma, which says all natural resources—land, rivers, minerals and so on—are collectively owned. The reform plan begins by calling for a massive Domesday-like inventory of who owns what, whether central government, provincial governments or lower tiers. It then says, with utter insouciance, that “with the exception of natural resources which are ecologically important [eg, national parks], the ownership rights and use rights for all other natural resources can be separated”. And, having separated them, the usage rights can be bought and sold, rented out, used as collateral or as the basis of loan guarantees, and so on.  

The carbon-trading scheme suggests what this could mean in practice. It is like a market in energy-usage rights, with the carbon treated as part of the cost of using fossil fuels. A market in water rights will also be set up. Trials will be held in Gansu and Ningxia, two north-western provinces. The plan talks cryptically of setting up a “natural resource asset exchange”.

Excerpts from Markets and the environment: Domesday scenario, Economist, Oct. 3, 2015, at 46

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The Nightmare of Preserving Biodiversity

Fruit of Myristica Fragans

Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.

That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”

Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.

Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines...The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.

Excerpts from Botany and bureaucracy: A dying breed, Economist,  Sept. 12, 2015, at 55

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