Category Archives: endangered species

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

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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Genetic Diversity: 29 crops and their wild relatives

wild edible plants. image from wikipedia

“Crop wild relatives”—the wild ancestors of cultivated plants—are a valuable weapon in the fight against hunger. Together with varieties used by traditional farmers, they contain a wealth of genetic diversity. Yet they are under-researched and under-collected. With their survival threatened by population growth and environmental damage, the race is on to find them before it is too late.

Climate change is expected to cause higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, changing the distribution of pests and diseases. Population growth will add to the pressure on productive land: the UN expects the number of people in the world to rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050. ...Dependence on a few staples worsens the consequences of any crop failure. Just 30 crops provide humans with 95% of the energy they get from food, and just five—rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum—provide 60%. A single variety of banana—Cavendish—accounts for 95% of exports. A fast-spreading pest or disease could see some widely eaten foodstuffs wiped out.

That makes it even more important to preserve the genetic diversity found in crop wild relatives and traditional varieties as an insurance policy. Alas, much of it has already disappeared. The FAO estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. As farming intensified, commercial growers favoured a few varieties of each species—those that were most productive and easiest to store and ship.

According to Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organisation based in Germany, in the 1800s American farmers and gardeners grew 7,100 named varieties of apple. Today, at least 6,800 of them are no longer available, and a study in 2009 found that 11 accounted for more than 90% of those sold in America. Just one, “Red Delicious”, a variety with a thick skin that hides bruises, accounts for 37%.

Seed banks are the best hope of preserving those that remain. Dehydrating and freezing seeds means that they can be kept for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years, and still sprout when given light and water (as botanists need to do on occasion). Some 7.4m samples are already in seed banks around the world, but huge gaps exist.

As part of a study to be published later this year, Colin Khoury and Nora Castañeda-Álvarez of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a research facility in Colombia, studied the state of conservation of more than a thousand crop wild relatives in seed banks. They found that for over 70% there were either too few samples for safety or none at all.

The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) in Sussex, part of Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, is the world’s largest wild-plant seed bank, housing 76,000 samples from more than 36,000 species. It co-ordinates “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change”, a $50m, ten-year international programme funded by Norway to collect and store wild relatives of 29 important crops, cross them with their domesticated kin and share the results with breeders and farmers. Its freezers are solar-powered and its vault is built to withstand a direct hit by a plane (Gatwick airport is close by). Other seed banks are more vulnerable. Staff at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, an institute once based in Syria, now found in Lebanon, shipped 150,000 samples to save them from being damaged in the former country’s civil war; seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed. The Philippines lost one to fire.

Located in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, CIAT is home to more than 300 scientists. It has a mandate from the UN to protect, research and distribute beans and cassava, staple foodstuffs for 900m people around the world. Its seed bank, housed in a former abattoir, contains over 36,000 samples of beans, more than any other seed bank, and varieties developed there feed 30m people in Africa.

For many years CIAT’s researchers concentrated on creating varieties that could cope with poor soils and drought. But they have now turned their attention to heat resistance. Earlier this year they announced that they had found heat resistance in the tepary bean, a hardy cousin of the common bean cultivated since pre-Columbian times in northern Mexico and America’s south-west. Crosses with commonly cultivated beans such as pinto, black and kidney beans show potential to withstand temperatures up to 5°C higher than those common varieties can cope with. Even a lesser increase in heat resistance, of 3°C, would mean beans could continue to be cultivated in almost all parts of central and eastern Africa, says Steve Beebe of CIAT’s bean-breeding programme...

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into effect in 2004 and has been signed by 135 countries and the European Union, identifies 35 food crops that are considered so important to global food security and sustainable agriculture that their genetic diversity should be widely shared. But it has worked less well than hoped. In 2013 a group of Norwegian researchers sent letters to 121 countries requesting seeds. Only 44 complied. Communication broke down with 23 and 54 did not even reply.

If a big crop were to fail, a single useful gene lurking in one wild relative could prevent calamity. PwC, an accountancy firm, values the genes derived from the wild relatives of the 29 crops regarded as most important by the MSB at $120 billion. Preserving the genetic diversity that remains would be an excellent investment.

Agricultural Biodiversity, Banks for Bean Counters, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 54

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Extreme Measures: Rhinos with Toxic Horns

rhino horn infused toxins. image from Rhino Rescue Project

[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

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National Parks and Interests: Peru

Perú map with vegetation. image from wikimediia

The Sierra del Divisor region in the Peruvian Amazon was identified as a biodiversity conservation priority back in the early 1990s. More than 20 years later and Peruvians are still waiting - some more desperately than others given all the narco-traffickers, illegal loggers and gold-miners in or near the region.

What’s so special about the Sierra del Divisor? It’s the “only mountainous region” anywhere in the lowland rainforest, according to Peruvian NGO Instituto del Bien Comun (IBC), while The Field Museum, in the US, describes it as “a mountain range” rising up “dramatically from the lowlands of central Amazonian Peru” and boasting “rare and diverse geological formations that occur nowhere else in Amazonia.” Its most iconic topographical feature is “El Cono”, an extraordinary peak visible from the Andes on a clear day.

Sierra del Divisor is home to numerous river headwaters feeding into key Amazon tributaries, eco-systems, and a tremendous range of flora and fauna, some of which are endemic, some endangered or threatened - and some with the most wonderful names. Giant armadillos, jaguars, cougars, Acre antshrikes, curl-crested aracaris, blue-throated piping guans and various kinds of monkeys, including the bald - but very red-faced - uakari, all populate the region. Effectively, it forms part of a vast “ecological corridor” running all the way from the Madidi National Park in Bolivia in a north-westerly direction along much of the Peru-Brazil border.

21 indigenous communities and 42 other settlements would benefit from the Sierra del Divisor being properly protected, states the Environment Ministry, while ultimately over 230,000 people in Peru depend on the region for food and water, according to the IBC. In addition, in the absolute remotest parts, it is home to various groups of indigenous peoples living in what Peruvian law calls “isolation.”

In 2006 Peru’s government established a 1.4 million hectare temporary “protected natural area” in this region called the Sierra del Divisor Reserved Zone. Six years later a government commission agreed it would be converted into a national park, and, all that remains now, after a painful administrative process, several key advances made this year and indigenous leaders lobbying various ministries, is for Peru’s Cabinet to approve it and the president, Ollanta Humala, to sign off on it. That is how it has stood since early May 2015 - and still nothing....

Why such a delay indeed, this year or in the past? Might it have something to do with the infrastructure integration plans for the region, such as the proposed - and effectively already underway - road between Pucallpa, the Peruvian Amazon’s current boom city, and Cruzeiro do Sul across the border in Brazil? Or the proposed railway between the same two cities ultimately connecting to Peru’s northern Pacific coast, declared in the “national interest” some years ago? Or the proposed railway running all the way across South America from Peru’s Pacific coast to Brazil’s Atlantic coast, a long-mooted project which has received so much media coverage recently because of Chinese interest in financing it and the visit by China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to Brazil and Peru in May?

Or might the delay be explained by oil and gas industry interests? Perupetro, the state company promoting oil and gas operations, tried to open up what would be the entire southern part of the park for exploration before backtracking in 2008, while the London Stock Exchange-Alternative Investment Market-listed company Maple Energy has been pumping oil for years in a concession just overlapping the west of the proposed park. More significantly, Canadian-headquartered company Pacific Rubiales Energy runs a one million hectare oil concession that would overlap the entire northern part of the park if it was established, and conducted its first phase of exploratory drilling and seismic tests in late 2012 and 2013 in what would be the park’s far north. Clearly, it wouldn’t be good PR for either Pacific or Peru to explore for oil in, or exploit oil from, a national park, although it wouldn’t be the first time a concession and park have overlapped. Indeed, according to the IBC, it has been agreed that Pacific’s “rights” to operate will be respected if the park is created.

Excerpts from David Hill Peru stalling new national park for unique Amazon mountain range, Guardian, July 29, 2015

see also Oil  Pollution  Amazon Peru

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How to Regulate Mining in the Deep Seabed


mineral exploitation,pacific ocean, locations, image from wikipedia

Interest in mining the deep seabed is not new; however, recent technological advances and increasing global demand for metals and rare-earth elements may make it economically viable in the near future  Since 2001, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has granted 26 contracts (18 in the last 4 years) to explore for minerals on the deep seabed, encompassing ∼1 million km2 in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans in areas beyond national jurisdiction However, as fragile habitat structures and extremely slow recovery rates leave diverse deep-sea communities vulnerable to physical disturbances such as those caused by mining (3), the current regulatory framework could be improved. We offer recommendations to support the application of a precautionary approach when the ISA meets later this July 2015....

The seabed outside of national jurisdictions [called the “Area” in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)] is legally part of the “common heritage of mankind” and is not subject to direct claims by sovereign states. The common-heritage principle imposes a kind of trusteeship obligation on the ISA, created under UNCLOS in 1994, and its member states, wherein “the interests of future generations have to be respected in making use of the international commons”; those interests include both resource exploitation and environmental protection ...

Efforts focused on the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) in the abyssal Pacific provide a useful model. The CCZ as the largest known concentrations of high-grade polymetallic nodules, with potentially great commercial value . The scale of impacts that would be associated with nodule mining in the CCZ may affect 100s to 1000s of km2 per mining operation per year . In 2007, an international workshop brought together expert representatives from ISA and the scientific and international ocean law communities to develop design principles and recommendations for a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the CCZ off-limits to mining, to be considered by the ISA as part of a regional environmental management plan. The workshop used a recent assessment of biodiversity, species ranges, and gene flow in the CCZ to develop recommendations honoring existing mining exploration claims while incorporating accepted principles of ecosystem management ..

In 2012, the ISA pioneered a precautionary approach in the CCZ when it provisionally adopted the deep seabed's first environmental management plan that included Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs), a modified version of the recommended MPA network from the 2007 workshop. The design principles used in developing the APEIs included (i) compatibility with the existing legal framework of the ISA for managing seabed mining and protecting the marine environment. (ii) minimizing socioeconomic impacts by honoring existing exploration claims; (iii) maintaining sustainable, intact, and healthy marine populations; (iv) accounting for regional ecological gradients; (v) protecting a full range of habitat types; (vi) creating buffer zones to protect against external anthropogenic threats (e.g., mining plumes); and (vii) establishing straight-line boundaries to facilitate rapid recognition and compliance (12)....

Meanwhile, the ISA continues to grant exploration contracts for large areas of other deep-sea habitats in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. Preexisting or new exploration claims (up to ∼75,000 km2 for nodules) can erode the effectiveness of protected-area networks by preempting protection of critical habitats and by limiting population connectivity by causing excessive spacing between MPAs. We thus recommend that the ISA consider suspending further approval of exploration contracts (and not approve exploitation contracts) until MPA networks are designed and implemented for each targeted region.

Excerpts from L. M. Wedding et al., Managing mining of the deep seabed, Science 10 July 2015:
Vol. 349 no. 6244 pp. 144-145

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How to Build Climate Resilience in Ecosystems

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Some ecosystems show little response [to climate change] until a threshold or tipping point is reached where even a small perturbation may trigger collapse into a state from which  recovery is difficult .  ....[S}uch collapse may be altered by conditions that can be managed locally.... [This] provides  potential opportunities for pro-active management....[C]rises in iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites illustrate that such stewardship is at risk of failing. The term “safe operating space” frames the  problem of managing our planet in terms of staying within acceptable levels or “boundaries” for global stressors [Such as climate change]....

Obviously, local interventions are no panacea for the threats of climatic change. For example, melting of arctic sea ice with its far-reaching ecological consequences cannot be arrested by local management. However, ways of building climate resilience are emerging for a variety of ecosystems, ranging from control of local sources of ocean acidification  to management of grazing pressure on dry ecosystems,World Heritage Areas.

The Doñana wetlands in southern Spain provide the most important wintering site for waterfowl in Europe. They contain the largest temporary pond complex in Europe, with a diversity of amphibians and invertebrates. Despite the site’s protected status, the marshes are threatened by eutrophication due to pollution and reduced flow of incoming streams, promoting toxic cyanobacterial blooms and dominance by invasive floating plants that create anoxic conditions in the water. In addition, groundwater extraction for strawberry culture and beach tourism also has major impacts.  Little has been done to control these local stressors, leaving Doñana unnecessarily vulnerable to climate change. UNESCO has just rated this World Heritage Site as under ‘very high threat’.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system in the world. In response to multiple threats, fishing has been prohibited since 2004 over 33% of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and efforts have begun to reduce runoff of nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and sediments from land. However, these interventions may be too little, too late. Approximately half of the coral cover has been lost in recent decades, and the outlook is “poor, and declining” with climate change, coastal development and dredging as major future threats. The World Heritage Committee has warned that in the absence of a solid long-term plan, it would consider listing the reef as “in danger” in 2015.

More available online Creating a Safe Operating Space for Iconic Ecosystems By M. Scheffer et al, 2015

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Slavery and the Fishing Industry

slavery. image from wikipedia

Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, laboured unpaid for six months on a Thai ship fishing illegally in Indonesian waters...naval patrols came close, but the crew would evade them. He had been forced aboard at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. It was the first time he had ever seen the sea.

Mr Maung’s story is told by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity, in a recent study of trafficking and piracy in Thailand’s seafood industry. The country hosts tens of thousands of trafficking victims, by conservative estimates, many from Myanmar, as well as from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many of them sweat on trawlers or in vast fish-processing plants. Some were duped by recruitment agents; a few were kidnapped. Others are migrants who were waylaid by traffickers while travelling through Thailand.

Overfishing is partly to blame. Average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. Such meagre pickings have driven local workers out of the industry and encouraged captains to seek ultra-cheap alternatives. Boats now fish farther afield and stay at sea for months at a time, making slavery harder to spot.

International pressure is mounting. The American government ranks Thailand among the least effective of all countries in fighting trafficking, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Food firms in Europe and North America—who together purchase about a third of Thailand’s fish exports—seem concerned. Last year the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised tougher enforcement. At a press conference this month, the authorities said they had identified nearly 600 trafficking victims in 2014.

But cynics worry that the military government in power since a coup last May will turn a blind eye again once the immediate threat to exports fades. Frank discussion of the business seems to be discouraged. Two journalists in Phuket—an Australian and a Thai—may face a defamation trial for republishing sentences from a Reuters article alleging that navy personnel had helped traffickers. In January  2015 campaigners forced the government to drop a plan to put convicts to work on fishing boats—a policy probably intended to dampen demand for bonded labour. A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.

Excerpts, Slavery and seafood: Here be monsters, Economist, Mar. 14, 2015, at 62

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