Australian government favors coal mines over environmental protection

Things are getting hot Down Under.  Australian researcher Dr April Reside tells us about the Australian government's scheme to gut key provisions of a vital environmental protections law.  And as if the planet weren't warm enough already, it's all about digging up and selling more coal. 

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

The conservative Tony Abbott government in Australia is proposing alarming changes to the country's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 -- a remarkable move that would prevent environment groups from challenging many damaging development projects.

This has all come to a head over the Carmichael Coal Mine -- a plan to build a massive mine in central Queensland in order to export 60 million of tons of coal to India each year. 

Coal, of course, is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and India's plan to burn it by the shipload for electricity is bad news for the planet.

The Abbott government is in a tizzy after after a community organization, the Mackay Conservation Group, challenged the approval of the Carmichael Mine in Australia's Federal Court. 

The community group says Environment Minister Greg Hunt didn’t properly consider the impact the mine would have on two threatened species, the yakka skink and ornamental snake.

The mine site also sustains the largest population of the southern subspecies of the Black-throated Finch, which is endangered. 

The implications of the mega-mine go well beyond a few imperiled species.  If the mine goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest in the world -- and the emissions from burning its mountains of coal would cancel out all gains made from Australia’s current emissions-reduction strategy.

On top of the frightening precedent it would set, the Abbott government appears to be double-dealing. 

There was an agreement among the Environment Minister, the mine's proponent (the Adani Group from India), and the Mackay Conservation Group that the mine's approval should be set aside temporarily, until the conservation issues could be properly considered by the Minister.  The parties agreed that the decision would be reconsidered in six to eight weeks.

But the federal government responded by attacking environmental groups opposed to the mine, calling them “vigilantes”. 

And now, the government wants to wipe out the right of environmental groups to challenge decisions that violate the EPBC law -- despite the fact that less than 0.4% of all resource-development projects have been halted under the EPBC Act. 

All this comes amid increasing calls by Australia's neighboring nations for a moratorium on new coal mines to prevent dangerous climate change.

The mine continues to attract heated controversy.  Building it would require a major upgrade to existing port facilities on the Queensland coast and could have negative impacts on critical wetlands, culturally important indigenous lands, and even the Great Barrier Reef

And despite all the fuss, many believe that the mine won't even be financially viable in the long term because of declining coal prices and India's pledge to halt coal imports in the next few years.

This isn't the first time the Abbott government has attacked environmental groups, and it may not be the last.  It's time to turn up the heat on the coal-loving Abbott government -- by signing this petition -- before it makes the world hotter for all of the rest of us.

Pangolins in peril: The most heavily hunted animals on Earth?

ALERT member Alice Hughes is based in China -- the global epicenter of demand for the illegal wildlife trade.  She tells us about a little-known animal whose fate is looking increasingly dire.

If you were to ask a member of the public what is the most hunted and trafficked species on Earth, chances are few would get it right.  In fact, many would never have even heard of it.

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

That animal is the Pangolin -- a creature so peculiar-looking that it seems to have been dreamed-up by a mischievous Creator. 

There are, in fact, eight species of Pangolins on Earth, all found in warmer regions of Asia and Africa.  While looking vaguely like an armadillo, pangolins are unique creatures that aren't closely related to anything else.

Prized as culinary delicacies and in some traditional 'medicines', Pangolins are hurting.  In just the last decade, an estimated one million Pangolins have been poached and illegally trafficked.  Nearly 220,000 of the animals were seized by authorities from 2010 to 2012, and that's likely just a small fraction of the number actually being traded.

To put these numbers in perspective, around 110 Pangolins are currently being seized for every seized rhino.  It's a big worry because pangolins are slow-breeding and solitary creatures. 

Recent seizures of illegal shipments, some involving tons of killed and frozen animals, hint at the scale of the international trade. 

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Hong Kong is a distribution hub for Pangolins between China and the rest of Asia.  Nine-tenths of all Pangolin seizures have occurred in China, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent four other Southeast-Asian countries.  China and Vietnam are considered the biggest markets for Pangolin products.

Yet few people in Southeast Asia understand the Pangolin's plight. 

A recent survey of 1,000 Hong Kong residents showed that 7% had never heard of Pangolins, 85% wrongly regarded Pangolin scales as medicinal, and 50% thought their meat was medicinal.  Moreover, 33% were unsure of the legal status of eating Pangolin and 11% regarded it as legal.

Unfortunately, similar confusion reigns throughout China.  In mainland China, the trading of older “certified” pangolin parts is legal, and trading certificates for wildlife products are widely forged and abused.

Pangolins are captured in the wild using a variety of methods.  Once in captivity their body weight may be almost doubled through force feeding or subcutaneous fluid injections, as Pangolins are sold by weight.  Professional traffickers sell Pandolins for hundreds of dollars per kilogram.

In just the last decade, Pangolins have gone from being so common that you could hardly fail to see them at night in Asians forests, to being so rare that Chinese rangers laugh if you ask them if Pangolins are in their park.  On being given 42 confiscated Pangolins earlier this year, rangers at Bac Ninh park simply resold them.

As a result of such intense exploitation, two of the Asian Pangolin species are now formally listed as endangered, and the remainder are clearly in trouble.  Unless strong actions are taken soon, we could witness the dramatic decline and even global extinction of several Pangolin species.

It'd be a sad end for what might be the most heavily hunted animals on Earth.

 

Unconventional-gas mining: Are we grabbing a tiger by the tail?

In Australia, as elsewhere, huge efforts are being focused on exploiting unconventional-gas deposits.  Australian ecologist professor Steve Turton explains what it's all about and why it should be making us nervous. 

We hear a lot these days about unconventional gas.  What is it? 

Unconventional gas includes coal-seam gas, shale gas, and tight gas.  There's a heck of a lot of it on Earth but it's found in complex geological systems and can be devilishly difficult to extract. 

In its 2013 report, the U.S. Energy Administration estimated that recoverable supplies of shale gas totaled some 188 trillion cubic meters worldwide.  Known reserves occur in 41 different countries. 

And there's a lot of coal-seam gas too -- about 143 trillion cubic meters worldwide, according to a 2006 study.

This sounds like good news for an energy-hungry world, so what's the downside? 

For starters, like many forms of mining, unconventional-gas extraction has been implicated in a suite of nasty environmental impacts.  Some of these were highlighted in an independent report commissioned by the Australian Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, which focuses largely on coal-seam gas exploitation in Australia.

Why worry about coal-seam gas?  For starters, there are major surface impacts, with native vegetation being bulldozed for often-dense networks of roads and drilling platforms.  Fragmentation of forests is a common result, with potentially serious impacts on biodiversity. 

In farming regions, coal-seam gas operations can have large impacts on agriculture and forestry operations.  They can also pollute surface waters and have largely unknown impacts on vital groundwater resources.

Unconventional-gas production often competes with existing land uses, such as agriculture, plantation forestry, and urban areas, leading to heated conflicts among different users.  The Lock the Gate Alliance in Australia resulted from a conflict between farmers and coal-seam gas companies.  Expect wicked environmental problems to arise for irrigated agriculture and intensive grazing as well.

A big problem is getting rid of dirty water.  For coal-seam gas extraction, high-pressure water is pumped into wells to hydraulically crack ("frack") gas-bearing strata, releasing the gas.  The gas is pumped to the surface along with a lot of dirty water, salt, and chemicals liberated by the fracking process. 

Disposing of all this dirty water is a big problem.  Heavy rains can cause containment ponds to overflow, releasing the dirty water into nearby waterways.  

Compared with the surface risks of unconventional-gas extraction, we know much less about how groundwater is affected when mining shale gas and coal-seam gas.  A key worry is this: Could underground aquifers vital for irrigation and human uses be contaminated? 

What is the way forward for unconventional gas?   There is little doubt that production of unconventional gas poses a risk to biodiversity and groundwater.  We also know the industry often encroaches into high-value landscapes, competing with biodiversity conservation, the production of food and fiber, and sometimes even moving into urban or peri-urban areas.

Because the planet needs energy, it's clear that unconventional gas is not going to go away.  Managing its exploration and production will require a holistic landscape approach, taking into account cumulative impacts and strategic assessment frameworks

Where there are key unknowns –- as often occurs when one is dealing with groundwater –- the precautionary principle should be applied.  If we're uncertain about the environmental impacts that might arise, the wisest choice is simply not to drill.

Otherwise the tiger we're desperately trying to hang onto might just turn around and bite us.

 

Fears about continued large-scale land clearing in Queensland, Australia

Assoc. Professor Martine Maron at the University of Queensland and Professor Carla Catterall at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, are very concerned about large-scale land clearing Down Under.  Here they offers their views on current happenings in the vast state of Queensland:

A relaxation of environmental protection laws by the former conservative government in Queensland has spurred an alarming increase in rates of land clearing in this Australian state.

Forests and woodlands are still falling fast in Queensland.

Forests and woodlands are still falling fast in Queensland.

Despite a new, progressive government being elected early this year amid promises to reinstate direly-needed habitat protections, nothing has changed.

And growing concerns voiced by senior environmental scientists from across Queensland are being ignored.

In 2013, over twenty scientists spoke publicly of their fears that changes to legal protection of native vegetation would lead to a rise land clearing -- possibly even returning to previous record levels from 2000 to 2005, when Queensland had among the highest rates of vegetation clearing of any region on the planet.

The changes formerly introduced by conservatives removed vital safeguards for riparian vegetation and mature regrowth of endangered ecosystems, and reversed a ban on broad-scale vegetation clearing for agriculture.

At the time, the scientists’ concerns were dismissed.  But leaked figures this year show a dramatic spike in land clearing -- a tripling of the rate since 2010.

It seems likely that this recently reported surge in deforestation is connected with the relaxed safeguards and a cessation of prosecutions for illegal clearing.

Hundreds of thousands more hectares of native vegetation have now been approved by the Queensland government for conversion to agriculture in Australia’s north.  There are also worrying suggestions of ‘panic clearing’ of old-growth habitat.

Earlier this year, the group of concerned scientists again wrote to the newly-elected Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Paluszczuk, urgently seeking to discuss the situation.

In addition to their concerns about the many serious ecological impacts of reduced vegetation protection, the scientists are asking why there has been no release of 2012-2014 data from the government's vegetation-monitoring program.

Previously, these data were released publicly each year, enabling independent analyses of land clearing rates and causes.

Four months later, there has still been no response from the Premier’s office. 

Queensland's Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection agreed to discuss these issues with the scientists, but his office has little say in matters of regulating native vegetation clearing (which, somewhat paradoxically, is controlled by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines).

Whether the new government in Queensland keeps its promise to reinstate habitat protection remains to be seen. 

But in the meantime, the alarming damage to Queensland's native ecosystems continues apace.

Not just rhinos: Hornbill horns fetch stunning prices in illegal wildlife trade

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes provides this commentary on the appalling impacts of the illegal wildlife trade on one of Southeast Asia's most magnificent birds:

While the exploding illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory is squarely in the global spotlight, the “golden ivory” of the Helmented Hornbill is fetching up to five times the market price of true ivory.  As a result, hornbill populations are plummeting across Southeast Asia.

More valuable than ivory

More valuable than ivory

Unlike other hornbill species, the Helmeted Hornbill has a solid 'horn' (known as a "casique") on the upper side of its beak that can weigh up to one-third of the bird's body weight.

And given its semi-translucent, golden color, the hornbill's horn has become a prized item for the wealthy.  At a cost of US$4-8 per gram, a single casique can bring around US$1,000.

Just in West Kalimantan, Borneo, an average of 500 birds a month were killed in 2013.  Yet only around 6% of these killed birds were confiscated by authorities. 

Under CITES -- the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species -- it is illegal to sell any part of a Helmeted Hornbill.  But that has had little real impact. 

In just a few minutes on the Internet here in China, one can easily find open sales listings for Helmeted Hornbill casiques. 

China is by far the biggest consumer of illegal Helmeted Hornbill parts, where the valuable casiques are often carved up and sold by the gram -- to be used for decorations or traditional 'medicines'.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Many of the poached birds are likely to come from protected areas, such as Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia, given that the species is rapidly losing much of its remaining forest habitat. 

In June, a poaching ring involving around 30 hunters was broken up in northern Sumatra.  Most of the killed birds were destined for China, according to the arresting authorities

In a recent report, an official from the Environmental Investigation Agency said, “There is little to no awareness about these birds.  Few buyers know what they are, let alone the impact the purchase of these products creates.”

For this spectacular species not to follow in the wing-beats of the passenger pigeon, swift action is needed.  The Helmeted Hornbill should be a high priority on the global conservation radar.

Illegal logging explodes in West Africa -- Chinese implicated

ALERT'S Pierre-Michel Forget shares this news from West Africa, where forests and wildlife are suffering a terrible toll.

Victim of illegal logging

Victim of illegal logging

Illegal logging is exploding in West Africa.  But where is all that illegal timber going?  The number one suspect among those on the ground: China.

The latest news of rampant illegal tree-cutting comes from Senegal, via the country's former Environment Minister, Haidar El Ali (for the French speakers among us, see also here, here, here, and here). 

The news from Haidar El Ali is alarming, to say the least.  In Senegal, 20,000 illegally cut tree trunks have recently been discovered. 

"The plundering of our forests is a scourge that is growing," said El Ali.

On 24 July, Senegalese President Macky Sall underscored his commitment to combat rampant timber cutting.

"It's an unsustainable phenomenon.  Every year we lose about 40,000 hectares of forest because of this criminal activity," said Sall.

Haidar El Ali said "The method used by traffickers is to pay for a license to cut firewood.  The trunks are then hidden at the bottom of the truck and covered with a layer of firewood or charcoal."

"The large quantities of wood suggest that this is international traffic to China, via Gambia in particular,” the former minister continued.

Lamenting that once-lush forests were now deserts, Haidar El Ali said "It is not a question of resources but of political will.  We can stop this traffic.  We must mobilize all Senegalese."

Ancient African tree headed for China

Ancient African tree headed for China

ALERT has highlighted the growing role of Chinese loggers and timber merchants in illegal logging activities across the developing world (for example, see here, here, and here). 

Just a few weeks ago, Myanmar (Burma) sentenced over 150 Chinese nationals to long prison terms for their role in illegal logging and timber smuggling in that nation.

Pierre-Michel Forget reminds us that In November, China will be attending the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris. 

"Given China's role as the world's biggest polluter and arguably the biggest forest destroyer, we have to tell their delegates emphatically that their alarming planet-degrading activities must stop," says Forget.

Nineteen rangers killed trying to save forest elephants

Elephants are not the only thing being slaughtered in Equatorial Africa.

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 19 park rangers have been murdered so far in 2015 -- and in just two national parks.

The rangers aren't being killed by poor subsistence hunters.  Those responsible are heavily-armed gangs of illegal poachers in search of forest elephants, which are gunned down or snared for their valuable ivory tusks.

Ivory today is fetching record prices in Asia, especially in China and various southern-Asian nations -- the dominant consumers of illegal ivory -- where it is used for carvings and other ornamental purposes. 

The 19 park rangers have all been killed in just two protected areas -- Garamba and Virunga National Parks -- two of the oldest national parks in Africa. 

It has been estimated that two-thirds of all forest elephants -- which are confined to the dense rainforests of Central and West Africa -- have been slaughtered in the last decade.

Record ivory prices are not the only reason for the demise of elephants.  Vast networks of new roads -- totaling over 50,000 kilometers in length from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s -- have been bulldozed into the Congo rainforest by commercial loggers. 

This has opened up the rainforest to a tsunami of hunters, leaving few safe places for the elephants to hide.

For the increasingly beleaguered forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, cadres of poorly-paid park guards are often the only thing standing between the last forest elephants and oblivion.

We should tip our hats to these brave warriors who are drawing a line -- and often laying down their lives -- to save imperiled wildlife.

And while we're remembering their courage, we should also continue to pressure the dominant ivory-consuming nations, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Laos, to finally clamp down on their illegal ivory trade -- which is exacting far too high a price on the world.

 

Growing concerns over 'Lawless Laos' -- paradise for poachers & smugglers

Dr Alice Hughes, an associate professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, shares her worries about rampant illegal activities in nearby Laos -- where wildlife smuggling flourishes unchecked by any legal enforcement.

A caged loris ponders its fate

A caged loris ponders its fate

Worry about Laos

While most Asian countries have at least begun outwardly to condemn the illegal trade of endangered species, Laos has not recorded a single illicit-wildlife seizure in over 25 years.

As a result, the E.U. law-enforcement agency Europol recently coordinated the largest-ever crackdown on international illegal wildlife trade -- which in four months seized over 1,300 elephant tusks destined for Laos.

As a landlocked conduit from Thailand and Cambodia, Laos offers an ideal staging post for the import of imperiled wildlife species and products into China and Vietnam.

Notably, Laos is home one of the world’s biggest international wildlife traffickers, the notorious Vixay Keosavang.  Vixay has so little fear of capture that wildlife shipments worth millions of dollars are sent directly to his home.

Though Laos claims it lacks the resources to screen imports, it is clear to many that officials profit from the rampant illegal trade -- as evidenced by a recent 'coffee bean' shipment intercepted in Bangkok, Thailand in April.

Thai customs officials had been alerted to the bogus shipment prior to it’s arrival.  But when Thai officials requested permission from the Laotian embassy to check the shipment, embassy officials denied their request and demanded its immediate release. 

Fortunately, Thai customs officers ignored the demand -- and discovered some 700 elephant tusks, totaling over 4,000 kilograms in weight, with an estimated value of US$6 million.

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

While revealing that corruption reaches right into heart of the Laotian embassy in Thailand, this shipment was only opened because of a new Thai military regulation issued in March. 

Prior to this, all shipments through Thailand had to be passed straight on to their intended destination -- undoubtedly resulting in the transport of thousands of threatened species that were illegally killed or captured.

The new Thai regulation has rapidly netted a number of major wildlife seizures.

And despite the mass interceptions of elephant tusks, to date this has not resulted in a single arrest in Laos.

Until rampant corruption is confronted and lawless Laos follows the official stance of its neighbors, it will continue to be a critically weak link for the enforcement of region-wide anti-trafficking efforts.

It's time to get tough.  Lawless Laos is a paradise for wildlife smugglers -- and a key conduit to China and Vietnam, the world's biggest consumers of illegal wildlife products.

The scariest things about climate change are what we don't know

Some argue that, when it comes to climate change, we should play down our uncertainties -- because climate-change deniers will just seize on those unknowns as an excuse for inaction.

Clinging to survival

Clinging to survival

But in a brief, highly topical essay just published today, TESS director Bill Laurance argues that scientists have to be entirely frank about uncertainty -- and that many of the scariest things about climate change are in fact the things we don't know.

Read the essay here

In just three minutes you can get a sense of what we we know, what we don't know -- and what we don't know we don't know about climate change.

 

China screams about arrest of its illegal loggers

The nation that is provoking more environmental degradation than any other today is very, very upset.

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Virtually everywhere one looks -- from the Asia-Pacific to Africa, and from Siberia to South and Central America -- China is behind hard-driving schemes to exploit the planet's natural resources. 

China is not only the world's biggest polluter in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is the largest global consumer of timber, construction minerals, iron ores, wildlife, and many other natural resources -- considerable amounts of which are obtained illegally, via corruption or smuggling.  

And through its massive investments in new roads, railroads, mining, dams, and other infrastructure, China is also substantially responsible for opening up many of the world's last remaining wild areas to exploitation.

China is upset because the nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has just handed out stiff jail sentences for illegal logging to more than 150 Chinese nationals.  The loggers were arrested in January following a crackdown on illegal forest activities.

Editorials in Chinese state-run media have expressed outrage at the arrests, demanding that those arrested be returned to China. 

For years China has sucked up timber and other natural resources in Myanmar, leading to growing frustration and resentment there.

A court in northern Myanmar -- where illegal logging has been especially rampant -- just handed out 'life' sentences to 153 Chinese loggers.  Such sentences typically run for 20 years in Myanmar. 

Despite the heated Chinese protests, the Myanmar government said it would not interfere in the judicial process. 

While the sentences are certainly severe, they reflect a growing view that Chinese investors, corporations, and workers often display a predatory attitude when working in foreign nations.

China is overwhelmingly the biggest global driver of the illegal wildlife trade, consuming vast quantities of ivory, pelts, bones, shark fins, and hundreds of other wildlife products, including those from a number of endangered species.

No nation consumes more tropical timber than China.  It has been heavily criticized both for failing to support illegal-logging measures internationally and for pursuing mainly raw logs from timber-exporting nations. 

China's addiction to timber

China's addiction to timber

Raw logs, which are unprocessed, provide only minimal employment, industrial development, and income for timber-exporting countries, and thus are the least profitable way for a nation to exploit its forests.

Last April, Myanmar banned the export of raw logs.  But many Chinese loggers have paid little attention to the new law and have been engaged in smuggling rings that have effectively stolen huge quantities of Myanmar's timber.

Timber smuggled into China from 2000 to 2013 was worth nearly US$6 billion, according to Myanmar government estimates.

Unless China reigns in its aggressive tactics, expect more backlash from developing nations that are feeling ripped-off.  No matter how much China screams about it. 

 

Growing blight on the Amazon rainforest

Moonscape. 

That's the term that springs to mind when one sees this growing scourge across the Amazon.

Death knell to rainforests (image by Greg Asner)

Death knell to rainforests (image by Greg Asner)

In Peru.  In the Guianas.  In Brazil's Amazonian states of Amapá and Pará.

The blight is illegal gold mining, and it's imperiling ever-greater swaths of the world's greatest rainforest.

ALERT has reported on illegal gold mining in the world's rainforests before -- see here, here, and here -- but it is a story worth repeating, because it is an environmental crisis that continues to escalate.  In Peru, for example, the pace of forest destruction from illegal mining has tripled since 2008.

In the Amazon, as elsewhere, gold mining doesn't just threaten rainforests.  It is a severe threat to aquatic ecosystems, drowning streams and rivers with dense sediments and toxic mercury. 

The mercury builds up in aquatic food chains -- increasing from aquatic plants to small animals to fish to larger predators -- with some Amazonian people now having 14 times the accepted level of mercury in their bloodstreams. 

As gold mining expands, so does its threat to indigenous peoples -- such as the Yanomami tribes in northern Brazil, the Kayapo people in the southern Brazilian Amazon, and many other remote tribes in Peruvian Amazonia.

Amazon moonscape

Amazon moonscape

Few areas are safe.  Miners have invaded many Amazonian parks and indigenous reserves, poached wildlife, corrupted indigenous peoples, spread infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria, and murdered park guards

There are some who characterize small-scale illegal gold mining as 'artisanal' and relatively benign environmentally -- but don't be fooled.  It's impacts on rainforests and native peoples like those in the Amazon are severe and growing rapidly.

 

The new land-use tsunami imperiling the tropics

Oil palm, oil palm, oil palm.  For years we've heard that a tidal wave of oil palm expansion is one of the biggest and fastest-growing threats to the world's rainforests.

But there's a new peril in town: rubber.  And it's also spreading like a destructive tsunami.

Spreading like wildfire

Spreading like wildfire

Two recent papers -- by Eleanor Warren-Thomas and colleagues and by Antje Ahrends and colleagues -- have underscored just how desperate the situation is becoming, especially in Southeast Asia.

As a result of escalating demand for natural rubber, plantations are increasingly gobbling up large expanses of land in Southeast Asia and the Asian mainland, as well as tropical Africa and Latin America. 

For instance, vast expanses of native forests have been cleared for rubber plantations in southern China,  which sustains many of that nation's biologically richest ecosystems

The current global production of rubber (from Warren-Thomas et al. 2015)

The current global production of rubber (from Warren-Thomas et al. 2015)

Warren-Thomas et al. see a rapidly worsening situation.  To meet expected demand, they estimate that from 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares of new rubber plantations -- an area up to three times the size of Belgium -- will be needed by 2024, threatening in particular significant areas of Asian forest, including many protected areas.

Expect especially rapid increases in rubber plantations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia, say the authors.

Ahrends and colleagues emphasize that rubber is now expanding into many areas that are ecologically marginal for rubber production.  In Southeast Asia, they estimate that 57% of the rubber plantations are currently vulnerable to droughts, erosion, frost, or wind damage.

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

In 2013, for instance, typhoons in Vietnam alone destroyed over $US250 million in rubber plantations.  And future climate change could make conditions across Southeast Asia even worse for rubber, they contend.

The worst news of all is that native forests and other habitats are often being cleared for rubber production.  For example, say Ahrends et al., between 2005 and 2010, over 250,000 hectares of natural tree cover and 61,000 square kilometers of protected areas were converted to plantations in tropical and subtropical Asia.

This is scary news for the environment, for it suggests that a 'second tsunami' of forest-destroying plantations for rubber could soon follow just on the heels of the explosive expansion of oil palm.

 

The global villains and heroes of tropical forest destruction

The Earth may well be experiencing its sixth mass-extinction event and the rapid destruction of tropical forests is a key reason for this.  Who is responsible for the ongoing decimation of rainforests?

The high cost of deforestation (Photo (c) Tantyo Bangun)

The high cost of deforestation (Photo (c) Tantyo Bangun)

After an exhaustive data-collection effort, the Global Canopy Programme, a UK-based scientific and conservation organization, has just released a 'ratings agency' for rainforests. 

This scheme -- called "Forest 500" -- identifies the governments, corporations, and investors that are either driving or saving tropical ecosystems and their imperiled biodiversity.

Overall, Forest 500 evaluates the actions of 50 governments, 250 companies, 150 investors, and 50 other 'power brokers'.

Who are some of the biggest sinners and heroes

Among nations, the global heroes include Liberia, Colombia, and several E.U. nations such as Norway, all of whom are working to slow deforestation.  China, India, and Russia rank among the biggest sinners for having aggressive policies to source tropical commodities and weak commodity-import policies.

Surprisingly, despite a growing number of 'zero deforestation' claims in the rhetoric of many corporations, the Forest 500 study suggests that less than 10% of the companies evaluated really have an overarching commitment to this goal. 

Six corporations, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, get top scores for improving their policies.  A number of Asia-based corporations are big-time sinners.  Privately-owned corporations tend to rank more poorly than do publicly-traded ones, which are more prone to pressures from consumers and investors.

Among other power brokers, financial institutions based in Europe tend to have better policies than do those based in Asia or North America.  In general, banks tend to have better policies than do insurance companies, hedge-funds, and sovereign-wealth funds. 

Globally, the study concludes, investors in the U.S. are the dominant owners of stock in major forest-destroying corporations.

The Forest 500 analysis is an excellent effort to highlight who in the world is working to save tropical forests -- and whose hand is on the axe.

 

Mysterious black leopards finally reveal their spots

Researchers have devised a clever technique to tell black leopards apart -- a trick that may end up saving their skins.  

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

The researchers have been studying leopards on the Malay Peninsula -- where almost all of the big cats are jet black. 

Elsewhere across its range in Africa and Asia, the leopard is pale colored with distinctive black spots.

Experts have no idea why the Malay leopards are black and, until recently, could not tell them apart, hindering research and conservation efforts.

But the researchers have now devised a simple method to solve the problem by manipulating the mechanism of automatic cameras.  Such cameras are increasingly being used to study animals in the wild.

“Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it’s only activated at night”, said Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, an ALERT member and coauthor from James Cook University in Australia. 

“However, by blocking the camera’s light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes,” said Clements.

With the infrared flash firing, the seemingly black leopards suddenly showed complex patterns of spotting.  These spots could be used to distinguish different animals, and help estimate the population size of the species.

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash (images (c) Rimba).

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash (images (c) Rimba).

The researchers tested this method in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia.  “We found we could accurately identify 94% of the animals,” said Clements.  “This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation.”

The researchers want to use their new method to study black leopards in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia -- where there is abundant prey but few leopards are seen. 

It’s thought widespread poaching is largely to blame. 

“Many dead leopards bearing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been discovered in Malaysia,” said ALERT director and coauthor Bill Laurance, also from James Cook University.

Laurance said that leopard skins and body parts are increasingly showing up in wildlife-trading markets in places such as on the Myanmar-China border.

At the same time, suitable leopard habitats are disappearing faster in Malaysia than perhaps anywhere else in the world, as forests are felled for timber and replaced with oil palm and rubber plantations.

“Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital,” said Laurie Hedges from the University of Nottingham-Malaysia, who was lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management

“This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal,” said Hedges.

New technologies allow real-time monitoring of rampant forest destruction

New high-tech methods are giving scientists and conservationists a fighting chance to detect illegal deforestation -- before it's too late to save imperiled forests.  Here, Matt Finer, a researcher who's long worked in the western Amazon and Andes, tells us about his efforts to map the array of growing threats to the forests of Peru.

Imperiled primates in Peru

Imperiled primates in Peru

The Andean Amazon still has large tracts of mega-diverse, carbon-rich, and relatively intact tropical forest, making it one of the top conservation priorities in the world. However, the array of threats facing the region is rapidly growing.

A key problem hindering conservation and management efforts in the Andean Amazon is a lack of near real-time deforestation information. In recent years, we've seen major advances in tracking deforestation, but this information is often given to authorities far too late for enforcement action.

Two new satellite-based monitoring systems, Global Forest Watch and Terra-i, have made major strides towards real-time deforestation monitoring.

However, these systems, which are global-scale and based on moderate-resolution (250-500 meter) satellite data, often need further analysis to be relevant for Amazonian conservation.

The organization I work with, the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), is using Landsat imagery (with 30-meter resolution) and special software (known as CLASlite) to rapidly detect forest loss.

ACA recently launched a new web portal, known as MAAP -- the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project -- to make our results widely available. We're focusing initially on the Peruvian Amazon, with plans to expand to Bolivia and Ecuador.

Three of our reports (Images #1, #5, and #6) focus on the spread of illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Notably, we found deforestation encroaching into the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve and entering the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

Red, black, and yellow areas show the growing threat of illegal gold mining

Red, black, and yellow areas show the growing threat of illegal gold mining

Images #2 and #9 map a so-called “sustainable” cacao operation that is actually clearing expanses of primary forest. The focus of an ALERT campaign, the legality of this deforestation is highly questionable.

Images #3 and #7 show that we can detect new logging roads. This is vital because illegal logging is challenging to detect with satellite imagery. But now we can readily find logging roads and point authorities to where illegal loggers are likely active.

Image #8 shows how Landsat and high-resolution imagery can be combined to map a new illegal coca plantation, in this case deep within the proposed Sierra del Divisor National Park.

Finally, Image #4 reveals a rapidly emerging threat, oil palm. Oil palm has caused major impacts in Southeast Asia and is quickly expanding in central and northern Peru.

In the near future, MAAP will continue tracking deforestation in the Andean Amazon while aiming to promote better law enforcement and policies to reduce illegal forest loss.

To receive our reports, just email us (maap@amazonconservation.org) with the word "Subscribe" in the subject line.

MAAP is a groundbreaking effort to shine a light on environmentally irreplaceable areas where illegal loggers, miners, and forest destroyers are running rampant.  Please help us to save some of the world's most biologically rich and imperiled ecosystems!

Want clean water? Save your forests!

Cities can ensure they have a cheap and abundant supply of clean water by protecting and regenerating forests in their surrounding watersheds, according to a major analysis just undertaken in Malaysia.

Forests are a vital source of clean water -- and important for lots of other reasons too.

Forests are a vital source of clean water -- and important for lots of other reasons too.

Jeffrey Vincent from Duke University, USA and his colleagues have just published the largest cost-benefit analysis ever conducted in the tropics, and they find that pristine and even selectively logged forests are very cost-effective ways to produce clean, drinkable water. 

Vincent and colleagues ran their analyses under a wide range of scenarios.  They used as a baseline the costs of standard water-treatment plants, which are often required to make polluted water safe to drink.

The authors found that the relative advantages of forests depend on local circumstances, with the financial benefits being greater in some situations than others. 

Also, if one factors in profits that can be made by exploiting the forests -- such as by converting them to agriculture -- then the numbers could change. 

The problem, of course, is that waters that drain off of agricultural lands are often polluted by fertilizers, pesticides, and organic wastes, making expensive water-treatment necessary.

The authors argue that, beyond water purification, intact forests have many other financial and non-financial values. 

For instance, they store large stocks of carbon, and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

They also can harbor enormous biodiversity while helping to attract substantial income from ecotourism.  Remarkably, it's currently estimated that protected areas across the world attract some 8 billion visits annually, underscoring their financial value for local communities.

Furthermore, via the process of evapotranspiration, forests emit enormous quantities of water vapor.  For example, one-third to one-half all the rainfall that falls on a tropical forest is quickly recycled back to the atmosphere, as water vapor.

This water vapor (plus natural organic aerosols emitted from forests) help to form clouds, which in turn reflect solar radiation back into outer space, thereby reducing global warming. 

Forests are natural cloud-makers.

Forests are natural cloud-makers.

Such clouds also help to produce life-giving rainfall during the dry season -- when forests are most drought-stressed and prone to fires.

Finally, forests are very good at reducing destructive floods.  They tend to act like giant biological sponges, trapping water and releasing it slowly, thereby reducing downstream flooding.  Especially in areas where forests are denuded, flooding can cause billions of dollars in damage and costs thousands of lives each year.

The conclusion: It's increasingly becoming apparent that it's smart to conserve pristine and selectively logged forests -- even when one uses just hard, cold economic logic. 

 

Protesters decry 'feeding frenzy' of African mining investors

Africa has become a feeding ground for foreign investors hoping to strike it rich by exploiting the continent's mineral resources. 

In London last week, a group of protestors disrupted a major event designed to attract new investors -- which was entitled "Mining on Top in Africa" -- arguing that an avalanche of new investment is posing huge environmental and social risks for African nations.

Africa shouldn't be for sale, argued the protestors

Africa shouldn't be for sale, argued the protestors

The protestors included members of international and British environmental and social-rights groups, including the Gaia Foundation, London Mining Network, War on Want, Divest London, Global Justice Now, and Stop Mad Mining, among others.

In addition to disrupting the proceedings, the protestors presented to the conference organizers a letter signed by 56 different environmental and social organizations (including ALERT) that underscored their many concerns.

They also distributed a list of ten case studies in which foreign-funded mining operations have had disastrous consequences for African nations.

Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars are pouring into African nations for mining projects.  China alone is investing over $120 billion annually, with India, Brazil, Russia, Canada, and Australia also making huge private investments there.

These investments are having many impacts.  For one thing, they are providing an economic impetus for a stampede of road and infrastructure expansion.  At present, there are plans for 29 massive "development corridors" -- almost all prompted by mining investments -- that will open up huge swaths of wild and semi-wild areas to a range of new human pressures, such as poaching, logging, and habitat destruction.

"Development corridors" driven by mining could open up Africa to massive exploitation.

"Development corridors" driven by mining could open up Africa to massive exploitation.

Beyond this, huge influxes of foreign funds for mining can promote large-scale bribery and corruption, which is already an endemic problem in many African nations. 

Large foreign investments can also fuel inflation.  A few become fabulously rich from big mining projects but many others are left behind -- and often struggle just to put food on the table or pay their rent.

Beyond this, many have questioned the value of so-called "Corporate Social Responsibility" investments by mining corporations, claiming they are little more than greenwashing designed to make the corporation look good but often have few real benefits for local communities.

Finally, foreign investments tend to drive up the value of national currencies, sometimes dramatically.  This makes other industries such as tourism and agricultural and manufacturing exports less competitive.  As a result, the economy becomes less diversified and stable -- and more prone to a 'boom and bust' when the minerals run out.

According to Hannibal Rhoades from the Gaia Foundation, one of the organizers of the protest, "Foreign investors can smell blood in the water in Africa right now.  They're after quick profits but we see huge long-term risks to Africa's natural wonders and native societies if this feeding frenzy isn't brought under control."

 

 

 

 

 

The corruption scandal engulfing Papua New Guinea

Hearing about a bad deed is one thing.  Seeing it with your own eyes is something else altogether.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Think, for example, about the riots that engulfed Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers who were filmed viciously beating Rodney King

Or the firestorm that engulfed National Football League star Ray Rice in the U.S.  Rice reported to his team that he and his wife had had an altercation and that he'd struck her in an elevator.  The NFL was inclined to fine and forgive Rice until a video of the actual incident emerged.  It now remains unclear whether Rice will ever play NFL football again.

Alas, we are now seeing a comparable scandal in Papua New Guinea.  Everyone in the know is aware that corruption is a serious problem in PNG

But this shocking tape -- filmed with a hidden camera -- shows in graphic detail just how bad things have become.  Indeed, one of the most alarming elements of the video is just how matter-of-fact those interviewed are about how one actually goes about bribing high officials in PNG.

It's worth a few minutes to watch this short documentary -- it's well produced and more than compelling. 

And here's an intriguing teaser: One of the main 'bad guys' in the tape actually has an intimate financial and personal connection to one of the world's most popular rock bands. 

Ever hear the hit song "Go Geronimo" by the Australian rock band Sheppard?  

After seeing this short documentary, I doubt you'll ever think of that song the same way again.

 

Protected areas do far better when governments work to make them succeed

Why do some protected areas do a good job of protecting their biodiversity whereas others struggle to keep the poachers and illegal loggers out?

Protecting biodiversity takes effort -- but it's worth it (photo by William Laurance)

Protecting biodiversity takes effort -- but it's worth it (photo by William Laurance)

In a new analysis published in Biological Conservation, ALERT members Corey Bradshaw and Bill Laurance, along with colleague Ian Craigie, argue that it largely comes down to national commitment.

When you factor out national-level variables like population size, socioeconomic differences, and the like, one big conclusion jumps out at you. 

Nations that are serious about protecting their protected areas -- and by that we mean they designate most of their reserves into IUCN categories I-IV, which enjoy the greatest legal protections -- their reserves and biodiversity fare a lot better.

In many nations -- China being an obvious example -- few reserves are fully protected.  Rather, the reserves can also support a range of human uses, such as limited hunting, natural-products harvests, logging, and land clearing.  Such reserves fall into the IUCN categories V and VI.   

However, reserves that are nominally fully protected include things like national parks, World Heritage sites, and wildlife preserves, where conservation of nature is the top priority.

In their analysis, Bradshaw and colleagues tried to factor out all the complicating factors that can bedevil such national-level comparisons.  The result was that the "high-protection" nations did a lot better overall than the "lower-protection" nations in terms of maintaining the biological health of their reserves.

The answer is appealing intuitively and makes sense.  The more you invest in protecting nature reserves -- and that means not only defending the reserves but also striving the limit the threatening land-use changes immediately around them -- the better their biodiversity fares.

Conserving nature is often not cheap.  For that reason, nations that make a real commitment to protecting their imperiled reserves and biota should be recognized and heartily applauded.

 

Is China finally cracking down on its deadly trade in illegal ivory?

Dr Alice Hughes, an Associate Professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, has been tracking discussions in China about the country's massive trade in ivory -- a trade that has led to an epic slaughter of elephants across Africa and AsiaShe shares with us her views of recent developments there.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

The history of the Chinese Ivory trade is not what might be expected by outsiders. 

In 2002 the ivory trade in China was virtually nonexistent.  However, Chinese government regulations put in place that year classed ivory trade and craft as “intangible cultural heritage”, which came to threaten the future of elephants globally.

Over the past decade, ivory prices have risen by nearly 800 percent -- and have tripled in just the last few years.  Demand in China has boomed, fed by small annual releases of seized stock and a weak licensing system -- with around 60% of licensed traders found to be in violation of the law. 

Beyond that, there are an estimated five illicit traders for every licensed trader -- leading to a profound lack of transparency that has essentially prevented trade reporting and law enforcement.

That the Chinese government announced on May 28 to “phase out” the ivory trade in China is a good omen -- with the government symbolically crushing over 600 kilograms of seized ivory in Beijing. 

But what this means in reality depends entirely on which measures to limit the domestic ivory trade will actually be implemented.

The government's announcement to halt ivory imports earlier in the year (26 February) added little to existing policies.  And for the recently announced phase-out to have a real impact will require banning all legal trade in ivory, and strict enforcement.  This is likely to be unpopular with China's growing middle class and senior officials.

Since the announcement on May 28, changes within customs and international trade procedures have commenced.  But there have been no clear statements of plans to deal with China's domestic trade.

Until China takes strong internal measures to reduce domestic supply and demand -- and develops better strategies to police its porous borders for illegal ivory -- the fate of the world's wild elephants will remain precarious.