Category Archives: endangered species

Cash or CleanUp? life in the oil polluted swampland

Image from http://cas2.umkc.edu/Geosciences/LCAM/NIGER_DELTA/PAGES/N_Sat_vali_Warri.htm

Nearly a decade after two catastrophic oil spills in the Niger Delta, a comprehensive clean-up has been launched in 2017 in the southern Nigerian region.

Earlier this month, crews of young men equipped with high pressure hoses began to attack the crude oil blighting the creeks and mangrove swamps where they live.  Workers from Bodo in Rivers State are beginning a three-year project that claims to mark a new approach to cleaning up the delta, the vast polluted swampland pumping the oil vital to Africa’s largest economy.

Four hundred workers will clear dead foliage and spilled oil before planting new mangroves. Where they are working is small but organisers hope the anti-pollution drive can be repeated elsewhere in the delta.

Unlike clean-up operations run routinely by oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, this one is backed by local communities and teams of scientists who will take samples of water, mud and soil in each area to measure progress and determine the best cleaning method.  Funded by Shell and its joint venture partners, the clean-up is the culmination of years of legal wrangling and international pressure to overcome animosity and mutual suspicion that have divided locals, government and oil companies.

Shell declined to say how much it was spending, while leaders see it as a glimmer of hope in a benighted land where many wells are not safe to drink from and fishing and farming are devastated.

“The Niger Delta is at a crossroads,” said Inemo Samiama, chairman of the Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI), managing the clean-up. “We have a lot of polluted sites. We need something we can refer to, some shining example.”

The work of BMI covers 10 sq km, a fraction of the 70,000 sq km Delta.  As workers walk through gnarled, dead mangrove roots in protective gear and masks, oil seeps into their footprints – remnants of spills for which Royal Dutch Shell admitted responsibility. Despite the optimism, environmentalists point out at BMI’s work rate, it will take 21,000 years to clean the entire delta and that’s not including the 10 years of legal battles it took to make it happen.  Communities in eight other Delta states are unhappy they have no clean-up plan, fuelling the resentment underpinning militant movements that hit production last year and helped tip Nigeria into its first recession in 25 years.  One group, the Niger Delta Avengers, has threatened a return to violence. They say government is not keeping its promises to clean up the delta and provide more jobs, money and infrastructure.

Bodo received support from British law firm Leigh Day, which negotiated a 55 million pound pollution settlement with Shell in 2015. Leigh Day said it agreed to freeze a separate case to force a clean-up via British courts in order to give the BMI a chance.  Ogoni, the wider area in which Bodo sits, was the subject of a 2011 UN Environment Programme report warning of catastrophic pollution in the soil and water.

King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi of the Ogale community is on the board of a wider Ogoni clean-up effort and is optimistic its own clean-up, due to start next year, will work. But he fears it will not be replicated elsewhere without another marathon battle in the London courts.“The only place you get legal success is the international courts,” he said.

Under Nigerian law, oil companies must begin cleaning up any spill within 24 hours. But the remoteness of spills and lax enforcement mean this rarely happens.  Ferdinand Giadom, a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt and technical advisor to the Bodo cleanup, said communities often block clean-ups in the hopes of cash settlements. Even in Bodo, works were delayed by two years due to local infighting.

Shell said most oil spilled last year was due to sabotage or theft for illegal refining. It also said communities block access to sites, making cleaning more difficult.

Excerpts from Anger on the margins of historic clean-up in Nigeria’s Delta, Reuters, Nov. 9,  2017

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Empathy and Understanding-Exporting Apes Alive

Daniel Stiles, a self-styled ape trafficking detective in Kenya, had been scouring Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp for weeks, looking for pictures of gorillas, chimps or orangutans. He was hoping to chip away at an illicit global trade that has captured or killed tens of thousands of apes and pushed some endangered species to the brink of extinction.

Malnourished and terrified apes have been seized across the world, in undercover busts or at border checkpoints, in countries as varied as France, Nepal, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kuwait. Two years ago, at Cairo’s international airport, the Egyptian authorities discovered a baby chimp curled up into a ball and stashed in a piece of hand luggage. Just this summer, the authorities in Cameroon stopped a smuggler at a roadblock who was trying to move 100 pounds of pangolin scales and a tiny chimp, not even a month old, hidden in a plastic sack...

Wildlife researchers say that a secret ape pipeline runs from the lush forests of central Africa and Southeast Asia, through loosely policed ports in the developing world, terminating in wealthy homes and unscrupulous zoos thousands of miles away. The pipeline, documents show, is lubricated by corrupt officials (several have been arrested for falsifying export permits) and run by transnational criminal gangs that have recently drawn the attention of Interpol, the international law enforcement network.

Apes are big business — a gorilla baby can cost as much as $250,000 — but who exactly is buying these animals is often as opaque as the traffickers’ identity.

Wildlife officials said that a handful of Western businessmen had also been arrested. But the majority of recent busts, they added, have been in Africa or Southeast Asia, usually of low-level traffickers or poorly paid underlings, not the bosses who control underground exports and travel abroad to make deals...

“They have consciousness, empathy and understanding,” said Jef Dupain, an ape specialist for the African Wildlife Foundation. “One day we will wonder how did we ever come up with the idea to keep them in cages.”...

But a baby was different, he said. There was a specific market for infant apes, so he would sell them alive, for at least $10 each, to local traders who would then smuggle them to Kinshasa and sell them to foreigners for many times that amount...

In Boende, a small town up another tributary of the Congo River, three hunters were recently caught with bonobo carcasses and sentenced to several years in a stifling colonial-era prison. The men said they were simply trying to feed their families by selling bonobo meat. But poaching an ape is a serious crime in Congo, and nonprofit wildlife groups have been assisting the Congolese authorities in prosecuting offenders.“There is a culture here to eat meat, meat from the forest,” said the town’s prosecutor, Willy Ndjoko Kesidi. “Me, I like fish.”  Mr. Kesidi expressed some sympathy for the hunters he had just jailed, saying that the prison where they were housed was a horrible place where many prisoners had died...

Many illegal wildlife transactions start online, specifically through Instagram or WhatsApp. Mr. Stiles has made several trips to the United Arab Emirates, which he considers a new hub for the illegal online wildlife business. Dealers in the Middle East have posted many pictures of apes for sale, sometimes advertising them as friendly pets for children...

Several years ago, the Indonesian police rescued a female orangutan who had been shaved and was being used as a prostitute at a brothel.

Excerpts from JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, Smuggled, Beaten and Drugged:
The Illicit Global Ape Trade, NY Times, Nov. 4, 2017

See also Stolen Apes (pdf)

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Unjustifiable Extinctions

Hydrostachys polymorpha. image from http://www.zimbabweflora.co.zw/speciesdata/image-display.php?species_id=124820&image_id=2

The world’s botanic gardens contain at least 30% of all known plant species, including 41% of all those classed as ‘threatened’, according to the most comprehensive analysis to date of diversity in ‘ex situ’ collections: those plants conserved outside natural habitats.

The study, in September 2017 in the journal Nature Plants, found that the global network of botanic gardens conserves living plants representing almost two-thirds of plant genera and over 90% of plant families.  However, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a significant imbalance between temperate and tropical regions. The vast majority of all plants species grown ex situ are held in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, some 60% of temperate plant species were represented in botanic gardens but only 25% of tropical species, despite the fact that the majority of plant species are tropical.

For the study, researchers analysed datasets compiled by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)....

“The global network of botanic gardens is our best hope for saving some of the world’s most endangered plants,” said senior author Dr Samuel Brockington, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences as well as a curator at the University’s own Botanic Garden.
“Currently, an estimated one fifth of plant diversity is under threat, yet there is no technical reason why any plant species should become extinct.   “If we do not conserve our plant diversity, humanity will struggle to solve the global challenges of food and fuel security, environmental degradation, and climate change.”

The plants not currently grown in botanic gardens are often more interesting than those that are, say the researchers. Hydrostachys polymorpha, for example, an African aquatic plant that only grows in fast flowing streams and waterfalls, or the tiny parasitic plant Pilostyles thurberi – only a few millimetres long, it lives completely within the stem tissue of desert shrubs.  Species from the most ancient plant lineages, termed ‘non-vascular’ plants, are currently almost undocumented in botanic gardens – with as few as 5% of all species stored in the global network. These include plants such as the liverworts and mosses.

“Non-vascular species are the living representatives of the first plants to colonise the land,” said Brockington. “Within these plants are captured key moments in the early evolutionary history of life on Earth, and they are essential for understanding the evolution of plants”

Excerpts from World’s botanic gardens contain a third of all known plant species, and help protect the most threatened, Press Release of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Sept. 25, 2016

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Shriveling the Salt Lakes of the World

Mountains of the Great Salt Lake in Winter. Image from wikipedia

Utah Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a depth of about 14 feet—nearly half its former average since it was settled by the Mormons 170 years ago. Under a controversial engineering plan, the lake would recede even further.  State engineers want to siphon off some of the river water that flows into the lake and use it for the Salt Lake City area’s booming population. Proponents say the plan, which calls for lapping up a fifth of Bear River’s current unused flow, is essential for meeting the region’s needs.

But critics note that the diversion would cause the lake to drop by almost a foot, according to state estimates, eventually exposing 30 square miles of lake bed and potentially worsening the dust storms that regularly blanket the region and ruining a fragile wetlands habitat.

The debate echoes concerns heard in many other arid parts of the world. Salt lake ecology is especially delicate and requires a certain amount of fresh water to maintain a saline balance. Brine shrimp, for instance, could die off if the water becomes too salty.

In the Middle East, diversion of the Jordan and other rivers that feed the Dead Sea has shriveled the famous body of saltwater and its once robust tourism. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to about 10% of its original size after diversions.

Critics, including environmental groups and affected businesses, say that under the new diversion plan lake-dependent businesses such as brine shrimp fishing would suffer, as would farmers whose land could be inundated upstream if existing dams are raised to retain more water. In all, the lake accounts for an estimated $1.3 billion in annual economic output, according to Utah State University, much of it from the shrimping industry, as well as mineral extraction and tourism.

The plan would also destroy wetlands along the lake shoreline that provide food and habitat for an estimated eight million birds, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group opposed to the project.

But proponents say the diversion of up to 72 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the needs of a city of one million for a year—is needed to forestall anticipated shortages for one of the fastest-growing regions in the country....“If Utah continues to grow, it’s not a matter of if but when we are going to need more water,” said state Sen. Stuart Adams, the Republican majority whip, who sponsored a bill to begin funding the estimated $1.5 billion project.

Excerpt from Utah Searches for Water Solution, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2017

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Whale Wars and 2017 Armistice

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society flag. Image from wikipedia

Environmental activists are abandoning their annual anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, saying Japan’s threat to defend its fleet is too daunting.  Capt. Paul Watson, the founder of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, said Japan’s threat to dispatch its military was unprecedented.“For the first time ever, they have stated they may send their military to defend their illegal whaling activities,” Capt. Watson said in a statement Tuesday. “The Japanese whalers not only have all the resources and subsidies their government can provide, they also have the powerful political backing of a major economic superpower.”

The Japanese embassy in Canberra, Australia, didn’t immediately respond to Sea Shepherd’s announcement, but it previously accused the group of sabotage and “acts of violence which seriously endangered the safe navigation of vessels.”  Some of Sea Shepherd’s tactics include ramming whaling vessels and throwing stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese ships. In January 2010, one of Sea Shepherd’s boats sank after a collision with a whaling vessel.

The group’s decision to suspend its campaign after 12 years leaves Japan’s fleet free to resume whaling through the coming Antarctic summer without disruption. Japan’s whaling fleet reported in 2016 killing 333 minke whales, with plans to cull about 4,000 whales over the next 12 years under a quota set by the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo.

The International Whaling Commission put in place a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The next year, Japan embarked on a cull that it said was in the name of science, not commerce. Japan says it has a right to monitor whales’ impact on the fishing industry, though it also claims they are an important part of its cultural and culinary heritage.

Activists say scientific whaling is aimed at circumventing the 1986 ban.Last month, Japan’s Parliament passed a series of laws allowing for the protection of commercial whaling fleets. The International Court of Justice ruled against Japan in a scientific-whaling case in 2014.  Australia’s government condemned Japan’s new whaling laws in July 2017 saying they weren’t consistent with the 2014 ruling. Tokyo has withdrawn from the court’s jurisdiction with regard to whaling cases...

Capt. Watson said Sea Shepherd would resume anti-whaling efforts in the future, not only against the Japanese, but also in opposition to Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic whaling. “This is what we have been doing for 40 years,” he said.

Excerpts from  Foes of Whaling End Campaign, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 30, 2017

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Policing the Amazon Jungle

Transamazon Highway, image from wikipedia

The small town of Apui sits at the new frontline of Brazil’s fight against advancing deforestation...  The home of 21,000 people in southern Amazonas state was long protected by its remote location from illegal loggers, ranchers and farmers who clear the forest.  Now those who would destroy the jungle are moving in from bordering states, following the Transamazon Highway, which is little more than a red-dirt track in this part of the rainforest.

First come the loggers, who illegally extract valued lumber sold in far-off cities. The cattle ranchers follow, burning the forest to clear land and plant green pasture that rapidly grows in the tropical heat and rain. After the pasture is worn out, soy farmers arrive, planting grain on immense tracts of land...

Roughly 7,989 square kilometres (3,085 square miles) of forest were destroyed in 2016, a 29 percent increase from the previous year and up from a low of 4,571 square kilometers in 2012, according to the PRODES satellite monitoring system.

Then there are the fires.  Apui ranked first in the country for forest fires in the first week of August 2017, according to the ministry.

At their best the environmental agents can slow but not stop the destruction. They raid illegal logging camps, levy large fines that are rarely collected and confiscate chainsaws to temporarily impede the cutting.  Costa acknowledges that the roughly 1,300 environmental field agents who police a jungle area the size of western Europe have a difficult task, at the very least.

Excerpt from Brazil’s agents of the Amazon fighting loggers, fires to stop deforestation, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2017

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Can’t See them but Can Feel them: data against fish poachers

Iceland ship versus UK ship at the third Cod War (image from Wikipedia)

Australia is at the forefront of efforts to combat poaching. Its patrol ships have chased illegal trawlers almost as far as South Africa, a distance of 4,600 miles, to stop the plunder of prized Patagonian toothfish—sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass.  Australian government scientists and Vulcan Inc., Mr. Allen’s private company, have developed a notification system that alerts authorities when suspected pirate vessels from West Africa arrive at ports on remote Pacific islands and South America.

The system relies on anticollision transponders installed on nearly all oceangoing craft as a requirement under maritime law. These devices are detectable by satellite.  A statistical model helps identify vessels whose transponders have been intentionally shut off. Other data identifies fishing boats that are loitering in risk areas, such as near national maritime boundaries...

“On one hand you can’t see them [if their transponder is switched off], but on the other it means they’ve just flagged themselves as avoiding surveillance, and as a risk indicator, that’s at the top of the list,” he said...

And a third of all fish sold in the U.S. is believed to be caught illegally. Seafood consumption in wealthy nations has soared in recent decades, increasing reliance on imports. Between 1980 and 2014, U.S. seafood consumption rose 60%, with imports now meeting 90% of the demand, according to Global Fishing Watch and the World Wildlife Fund....

Illegal fishing causes commercial losses of up to $23 billion a year world-wide, according to the U.N....

The researchers’ satellite-based tracking tool will begin operating in October 2017 and will be free to access. It was set up in response to a treaty aimed at eradicating illegal fishing that came into force on June 2016.The Agreement on Port State Measures...

China is the world’s largest seafood producer, followed by Indonesia, the U.S. and Russia. The most critical area for poaching is off the coast of West Africa, where illegal, unauthorized and unregulated fishing accounts an estimated 40% of fish caught, according to the World Ocean Review. Other areas of concern include the western and southern Pacific and the southwest Atlantic. Illegal trawlers contribute to overfishing that threatens marine ecosystems and food security in some of the poorest countries.

Last year, Argentina’s coast guard opened fire on and sank a Chinese trawler that was fishing illegally in its waters. South Korea’s coast guard fired on Chinese poachers several months later.  Australian authorities have said geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, a rich fishing ground, may be driving more illegal fishing vessels into the South Pacific from China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Excerpts from Trawling Scientists Find a Better Way to Reel In Illegal Fishing, Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2017

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The Mad Killing Spree: Rhinos in South Africa 2017

white rhinos image from wikipedia

According to news reports,  there appeared to be no letting up in the “relentless rhino poaching onslaught” in South Africa... The country...was on track to lose more than a thousand rhinos for the fifth straight year.
Unofficial kill figures show the country has lost 483 rhinos to poachers in the first five and a half months of 2017.

Excerpts from Poachers kill six rhino in one night in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, DefenceWeb, July 5, 2017

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At Least Preserve Something

Pendjari National Park

Benin is hiring scores of extra park rangers and bringing in conservation scientists to rehabilitate part of West Africa's largest wildlife reserve, which contains big cats and thousands of elephants that have largely died out elsewhere in the region. The W-Arli-Pendjari (WAP) complex is the region's biggest remaining expanse of savannah, covering more than 30,000 sq km of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The tiny nation has partnered with NGO African Parks for the 10-year project centred on the 4,800 sq km Pendjari National Park, part of WAP and seen as the most viable tourist hub for the area, officials involved told Reuters.

"Pendjari is an opportunity for Benin and the region," Jose Pliya, director of Benin's national tourism agency, told Reuters. "This partnership will help us make it a sustainable tourism destination and a lever for development and employment for Beninoise."

Boosting ecotourism faces challenges, not least because jihadists are thought to have infiltrated parts of the wider reserve. France, former colonial master of the three nations straddling the park advised it citizens against all travel to the Burkina Faso side of the expanse.

To better police the park, the project will recruit 10 officers or specialists, train 90 guards, set up a satellite communications network and put a 190 km fence around it, a joint statement from African Parks and Benin said.

Excerpts from Moves to save part of west Africa’s last big wildlife refuge, Reuters, June 2, 2017

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The Final Development Frontier

glacial lake Tsho Rolpa, Nepal.

While India, Pakistan and China have all developed massive hydropower plants along the Himalayan mountains, Nepal’s civil war and political instability scared off investment for decades.  Now, thanks to an inclusive peace process that allowed the country’s main rebel leader to be elected prime minister twice, the focus is shifting to Nepal. Hydropower projects worth billions of dollars are in progress, with geologists and investors scouring the landscape for more.

Government surveys show Nepal’s abundant water resources can feasibly yield hydropower equal to more than 40% of U.S. output, a 40-fold increase from today. Officials project almost a third more hydropower capacity will come online this year. More than 100 projects under construction—over 40 since last year—and others in development will yield at least a tenfold increase in the next decade to 10 gigawatts of power, they say.

Nepal is ramping up its development of hydroelectric power plants in the Himalayas, but building in the region can be risky work. Photo: Brian Sokol for The Wall Street Journal  “There’s such an energy shortage that any project you build will find a market,” said Allard Nooy, CEO of InfraCo Asia, a development body funded by the U.K., Swiss and Australian governments that is financing one hydro project and seeking to develop two more.

Still, power companies don’t face an easy ride.  Among the hurdles are natural ones: earthquakes, landslides and inland tsunamis from glacial lakes as warmer temperatures prompt ice melt. Two years ago a series of massive quakes killed 9,000 people and shattered the country.

Opposition from environmental groups is another difficulty, especially for a new generation of dam projects. In the past, the World Bank and Japan’s Asian Development Bank have withdrawn support for projects amid opposition from environmental groups that say large dams can damage natural habitats like wetlands, threaten migratory fish stocks, and displace traditional farming communities.

Activists are concerned over the effects hydropower projects have on the environment and communities. Here are some of their top worries.

Displacement Dams flood valleys and in many cases require communities to abandon their land. A number of dam projects under consideration in Nepal would require whole villages to relocate.
Earthquakes A growing body of research suggests large dams can trigger quakes by adding pressure to areas near fault lines, a phenomenon known as “reservoir-induced seismicity.”
Wildlife Projects can disrupt the natural migration of fish and other river life. Environmentalists in Nepal are particularly concerned about the country’s small population of endangered Ganges River Dolphins.
Seasonal River-based hydropower projects, which are popular in Nepal, only generate electricity when water is flowing, making them less effective in the dry season. Dams can generate power in any season.

The greater stability has boosted momentum for rising investment in the Himalayas—a region dominated by Nepal, India and Bhutan that is considered the final development frontier in South Asia. Hydro energy projects are the biggest focus.  “The only resource we have, like the Arabian countries have oil, is water,” said Chhabi Gaire, project manager at the Rasuwagadhi Hydroelectric Project, a 1f11-megawatt plant under construction near China’s border.

Funding for projects is increasingly coming from Nepalese working abroad, says the Nepal Electricity Authority. Their remittances reached $6.7 billion in 2015, according to the World Bank, more than even Thai and South Korean workers abroad sent to their own countries.  Meanwhile, India’s cabinet approved $850 million in February to build a plant on Nepal’s Arun River that would export most of its energy to India. A month earlier, the Chinese-state owned China Three Gorges Company agreed to a joint venture with Nepal’s government to build a $1.6 billion hydropower plant on Nepal’s Seti River, also mainly for electricity export to India...

Workers on Nepal’s hydropower projects face sometimes deadly risks in the steep mountain valleys of the Himalayas such as landslides, falling boulders and flash floods...  [T] he 456-megawatt Upper Tamakoshi project, funded by a group of Nepal’s major banks and pension funds, is now under construction and set to open in mid-2018 with a reservoir to enable energy generation in the dry season.  It’s is also a risky project.

To the East the dangerous glacial lake Tsho Rolpa threatens to burst its banks. To the West, the Gongar river routinely spits boulders the size of two-story buildings over the valley wall. A bridge the developers built over the Gongar was swept away in a flash flood during monsoon season. Landslides triggered by quakes swept away swaths of the access road. To keep working, project developers built a steel truss bridge and drilled a new road tunnel through a collapsed valley wall.  Moreover, the project is built on such volatile terrain that the turbines and delicate transmission equipment were buried 460 feet beneath the surface.

Excerpts from In the Himalayas, a New Power Rises: Water, Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2017

 

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