Category Archives: endangered species

Fish Poachers in Africa

trawler. image from wikipedia

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

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The Silent Environmentalists

Serendipity Berry. Image from wikipedia

Elephant ears are leafy vegetables. African locusts are tree-borne legumes. All are standard fare in various parts of Africa. What they also have in common is that they are, from the point of view of plant breeders, orphans. They are neglected by breeders because they are not cash crops. Conversely, they are not cash crops because they are neglected by breeders.

That neglect matters. The cereals which dominate human diets—rice, wheat and maize—have had their yields and nutritional values boosted over the years by scientific breeding programmes. In the modern era of genomics, they have had their DNA scrutinised down to the level of individual base pairs, the molecular letters in which genetic information is written. They are as far removed, nutritionally, from their ancestors of as little as two centuries ago as those ancestors were from the wild plants which begat them. Orphan crops have yet to undergo such a genetic revolution.

Even for adults, a lack of calories and essential nutrients is harmful. For children it can be devastating. Poor childhood nutrition leads to stunting—inadequate bodily development, including the development of the brain. A report published by the World Health Organisation on November 16th, 2017 suggests that almost a third of Africa’s children, nearly 60m of them, are stunted. And stunted children grow into adults unable to achieve their potential. Researchers at the World Bank reckon the effects of stunting have reduced Africa’s GDP by 9-10% from what it would otherwise be.

One way to reduce stunting would be to improve the crops that Africans, particularly those in the countryside, actually eat—in other words, orphan crops. Such improvement is the purpose of two recent, interrelated projects that are now getting into their strides. Both are based in Nairobi and are conducted under the auspices of the World Agroforestry Centre, an international non-governmental research organisation. One is the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC). The other is the African Plant Breeding Academy. The AOCC’s task is to obtain complete sequences of the DNA of 101 neglected food crops...

Breeding and disseminating new crops is a long-winded business, but a DNA-based approach has already shown promise. One scientist who is embracing it is Robert Mwanga of the International Potato Centre. Dr Mwanga was an early proponent of the scientific improvement of African crops. His own work, for which he was awarded the World Food prize in 2016, is on sweet potatoes. The varieties of these root-tubers that were popular in Uganda, his native land, and other parts of Africa in the mid-1980s, when he began his studies, are deficient in vitamin A. A lack of this vitamin damages children’s eyesight and opens them to infection by such things as measles. This is a disease that can kill, and, if it does not, it can cause brain damage.  Starting with Asian varieties that had more vitamin A in them, Dr Mwanga bred a dozen strains that are vitamin-A rich and have more dry matter (and thus more calorific value) than African landraces. He then led a campaign to encourage local farmers to adopt his novelties—which they did...

Julia Sibiya of the University of KwaZulu Natal, in Durban, meanwhile, is working on sorghum, another under-studied African crop. She is also working with Dr Achigan-Dako to set up MoBreed, a pan-African collaboration with the self-appointed task of improving ten orphan crops, including Kersting’s groundnut, the African custard apple and fonio, a type of millet.

Happiness Oselebe... is even more ambitious. Dr Oselebe works at Ebonyi State University in Nigeria. Not content with improving existing crops, she wants to create a new one by domesticating serendipity berries. These are wild vines that produce a protein 3,000 times as sweet as table sugar. That, she thinks, could be the starting-point not merely for something grown for local consumption, but of an industrial-scale cash crop.

Excerpts from Nutrition and Genetics in Africa, Economist, Nov 25, 2017

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They Still Exist! Ancient Forests in Europe

450-year-old oak in Białowieża National Park, Poland. Image from wikipedia

The future of the the Bialowieza forest that straddles the frontier between Poland and Belarus pits competing visions of environmental stewardship and economic development, and of Poland’s path under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Last month the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to fine Poland for ignoring an earlier order to halt logging in parts of the forest protected under EU law—in effect, nearly all of the 60,000 hectares of it that lie in Poland. In July 2017 UNESCO, the guardian of the planet’s human and natural wonders, urged the government to end logging or risk Bialowieza’s demotion from a world heritage site to one “in danger”, causing anger in Belarus, whose half of the forest would also be affected...[T] Bialowieza’s towering oaks, hornbeams and spruces, plus the European bison and other endangered species that roam beneath their canopies, offer a unique glimpse of the continent’s ecological past...

Today Poland’s forestry service insists that it, too, is being a responsible steward. The felling being condemned by Brussels was necessary, it argues, to prevent dead trunks from collapsing onto cyclists and walkers (the EU court decision exempts cutting on safety grounds, but argues that the Poles have gone much further)...

Many local residents shrug off such worries in any case. Those with ties to the long-declining lumber industry regard rotting wood as a wasted resource. The larger number engaged in tourism fret that rows of lifeless trunks put visitors off rather than lure them. “How many people will come to see dead trees?” huffs Jerzy Sirak, the mayor of Hajnowka, a town on the western edge of the forest...

Quite a few, reckons Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who as prime minister in 1995-99 doubled the national park’s size to its current 10,500 hectares. Bialowieza’s value, he argues, lies in being a laboratory for natural processes, not a museum cabinet stacked with a preordained mix of species, much less a source of wood. Even with the recent uptick in revenues from logging, the forestry service spends a net 20m zlotys ($5.5m) a year on Bialowieza. Given low lumber prices, closing that deficit would require logging on a scale no one is willing to contemplate. Tourists, meanwhile, spend around 72m zlotys (20 million dollars) annually in the area, according to one study.

NGOs’ long-standing demand to place all of Bialowieza under full protection, as Belarus did with most of its part in 2012, faces opposition from local authorities that suspect eco-absolutism will curb growth. “We used to look to Poland as an example; now they look to us,” observes a Belarusian ecologist wryly.

PiS looks unmoved by environmental arguments. It dismisses protests by concerned scientists, NGOs and ordinary citizens—which range from signing open letters to chaining themselves to tree-harvesters—as political attacks by foreign and domestic opponents of its “Poland first” nationalism

Excerpt from Poland: Saving the Trees, Economist,  Oct. 7 2017

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Coercive Greening: debt-for-sea

image from wikipedia

The Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 mostly tiny islands, whose collective area, at 460 sq km, is only about a third of London’s. But the country’s granite islands and coral atolls sit within an exclusive economic zone of 1.4m sq km. It is here, in the ocean, that conservationists are working on a new way for small countries to protect their marine environment.

The Seychelles’ economy relies on tourism and tuna. These depend on healthy seas. But paying for conservation is a challenge, says Didier Dogley, the environment minister. So last year the country struck a deal with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an American NGO. It promised to protect 30% of its waters by 2020—half of this area will be off-limits to fishing. In return, TNC bought up $21.6m of debt owed by the Seychelles to the Paris Club of international creditors. It will allow the country to pay it back at a lower interest rate over a longer period.

The complex deal took four years to thrash out. Still, not everyone is happy. Some fishermen worry that their favourite spots will become no-go zones....The blue economy is a new idea, but like the green economy it is catching on. The World Bank is backing a planned $15m “blue bond” for the Seychelles, which will fund sustainable fisheries. TNC is planning its own blue bonds, which would underpin deals similar to the one it agreed with the Seychelles. “I can see doing a billion dollars of these deals in a decade,” says Rob Weary, TNC’s financial guru...Already Mauritius is looking to copy parts of the Seychelles deal. Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and the Comoro Islands have also shown interest.

Excerpts from The Seychelles: Debt Relief for Dolphins, Economist, Sept. 9, 2017

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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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