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.

 

Globally, governments are cracking down on environmental groups

In Cambodia, the government is threatening to "handcuff" environmental or civil-rights groups that cause public dissent.  In China, protesters are being harassed while draconian new anti-protest laws are being drafted.  In Laos, lands-rights activists are being harried.  And India is becoming a poster-child for anti-environmental fervor

Conservatives are trying to stop green groups from engaging in public advocacy and debates

Conservatives are trying to stop green groups from engaging in public advocacy and debates

Even in Australia, conservative politicians seem to be declaring war on environmental groups.  The conservative Tony Abbott government is currently considering new restrictions that would remove the tax-free status for any environmental group that engages in public debate or criticizes the government.

This comes on top of recent efforts by conservatives in Australia to ban environmental boycotts.  There has also been a mass defunding of voluntary environmental and heritage organizations, and moves to insert gag clauses into community legal centers. 

And a green group that exposed massive illegal logging in southern Australia is now facing possible prosecution by the Victorian state government.

Writing in the online journal The Conversation, ALERT members Susan and Bill Laurance decry the growing attempts by conservative governments and politicians to hamstring environmental groups.  You can read their article here.  

And while all this is happening, wealthy corporations continue to fund many 'community groups' that really are little more than industry mouthpieces.  These environmental wolves in sheep's clothing argue that global warming is a myth while pushing pro-growth, anti-environmental agendas. 

The only way to achieve any kind of balance in societies is to hear both sides of an issue.  The growing efforts by conservatives to damage and silence environmental groups is a danger that we all need to heed.

 

Will tigers survive in India?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud shares with us his views on tiger populations in India.  Once the dominant predator across much of Asia, the tiger today survives in just a tiny fraction of its former geographic range -- and with just a tiny fraction of its former numbers.

An Indian tiger (photo by Priya Davidar)

An Indian tiger (photo by Priya Davidar)

The latest tiger census in India shows that the number of tigers has increased, by nearly one-third. 

That is good news, indeed, because India is crucial for tigers.  The country sustains about 70% of the world's tigers but with only 25% of the world's remaining tiger habit.

This excellent result could be attributed to the interest and commitment of the people of India towards their natural heritage, the protection provided by the Forest Department, the efforts of scientists, and the enormous contribution of conservation organizations.

These findings should be celebrated and emulated in richer countries who talk about eradicating wolves -- such as Canada -- or decommissioning nature reserves -- such as Australia.

The finding that tigers have evidently increased has sparked a lot of reaction.  Journalists have celebrated the fact that the tiger is “saved”.   On the basis of the good news, the pro-development Government of India has wasted little time while proposing to build four-lane highways through several tiger reserves.

But is the tiger in India really safe?  To illustrate, I made a graph with 150,000 tigers -- a plausible number -- at the dawn of the Indian Civilization.  Ignore the massacres by British trophy hunters and imagine a smooth decrease of the tiger population over the past 3,000 years.

Tiger numbers fell to an all-time low in 2006 and have increased marginally over the past decade.  What overall trend do you see?

India's catastrophic decline in tiger numbers

India's catastrophic decline in tiger numbers

The recent increase in tiger abundance -– in spite of being good news -- is effectively invisible.

I am not a proponent of “repopulating” India with tigers, but what the graph suggests is that unless the tiger population recovers to several thousand individuals, the species is still tremendously vulnerable in India.

And if this is the status of tigers in India -- which sustains seven-tenths of the global population -- how will it fare elsewhere?

We should celebrate the good news that tiger populations in India have made a marginal recovery. 

But let's not forget that the species is still staring into the abyss -- the victim of catastrophic declines and not far from global extinction.

 

Dramatic spike in Amazon deforestation

For a quarter century, Brazil had the dubious distinction of being the 'world leader' in tropical deforestation.  Each year, an area of Amazon forest approaching the size of Belgium -- up to 3 million hectares -- was being destroyed.

Amazon rainforest under assault

Amazon rainforest under assault

Deforestation in the vast Brazilian Amazon finally began to decline around 2005.  That was about the time that the Catholic nun Dorothy Stang -- who fought to defend indigenous peoples and the Amazon rainforest -- was brutally murdered by a wealthy Brazilian cattle baron.

Most Brazilians, of course, were outraged.  President Lula sent the Brazilian army into the Amazon, and that seemed to mark the beginning of a dramatic decline in Amazon deforestation. 

There was a crackdown on illegal deforestation and burning.  Long-existing environmental laws were finally being enforced.  New protected areas and indigenous lands helped to stave off massive forest clearing.  And moratoria on forest clearing by big soy and cattle producers helped.

As a result. annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by at least 75 percent.  Many in the world -- including ALERT scientists and the leading environmental website Mongabay -- heralded this as an example of improving forest governance in Brazil.

Well, the sad news is that the era of rampant Amazon deforestation may be returning.

According to a recent letter in the world-leading journal Nature by ALERT member Philip Fearnside -- arguably the world's greatest authority on the Amazon environment -- the battle to slow Amazonian deforestation is far from over. 

According to Fearnside, the Brazilian currency, the Real, has plummeted in value, making foreign exports such as soy, beef, and timber much more profitable.  This, of course, promotes additional forest clearing.

Further, many new legal and illegal roads continue to expand apace in the Amazon -- opening a Pandora's box of environmental problems -- and the designation of new protected areas has effectively been frozen.

Roads to ruin in the Brazilian Amazon

Roads to ruin in the Brazilian Amazon

In addition to all this, Brazil's annual expenditures on environmental enforcement have fallen by 72 percent, according to Fearnside.

As a result, deforestation rates, compared to last year, have spiked dramatically

Does this herald a return to the 'bad old days' of slash and ruin in the Amazon?

According to Fearnside, "The forces that speed or slow Amazon deforestation are continually shifting, and downturns in clearing like the one we had from 2005 to 2014 can’t be counted as a victory in the 'battle for the Amazon'". 

And just last week, China announced a plan to punch a 5,300-kilometer railroad across the Amazon -- impacting some of the most vulnerable and biologically rich areas of the basin.

"In the long term, the basic forces driving deforestation continue to grow," says Fearnside. "These include the building of ever more roads, the arrival of more and more people seeking land and more and more investment in agriculture, ranching and logging."

Clearly, we can't take anything for granted.  The battle to save the Amazon is far from over.




China to punch 5,000-kilometer railroad through the Amazon

Environmentalists are howling about China's US$30 billion plan to drive a major railroad right across South America -- cutting through imperiled environments such as the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, the Cerrado, the southwestern Amazon, and the Andes Mountain Range.

Train trouble dead ahead

Train trouble dead ahead

The railroad, which will be 5,300 kilometers long in total, will begin at Rio de Janeiro on Brazil's Atlantic coast and terminate at the Pacific Ocean.

The trans-Amazonian railway was announced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to unveil billions in other investments and trade deals during an eight-day South American tour.  In addition to Brazil, China is targeting Peru, Colombia, and Chile during this trip.

The rail line will be designed to increase exports such as soy, iron ore, and timber to China.  Conservationists and scientists are expressing fears about its potential to open up large swaths of virgin forest and indigenous peoples to large-scale development pressures.

"This massive project could be the death knell for a significant fraction of South American biodiversity and a knife to the heart of the Amazon’s hydrological cycle," said ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy, a former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents.

The route will cut across South America's most biologically diverse environments.

The route will cut across South America's most biologically diverse environments.

China is also promoting other major infrastructure projects in Latin America, including a massive canal through Nicaragua and a railway across Colombia. 

Informed observers expect heated resistance to the Trans-Amazon Railroad from environmental and indigenous-rights advocates. 

Fortunately, not all mega-projects like this come to pass, though many do.  Let's fervently hope this is one that never gets off the drawing board.

The next big environmental crisis: Indonesian New Guinea

We had a bit of fun with our 'Drop Bears' blog last week -- which was based on a legitimate scientific paper but was entirely in jest -- but we're being deadly serious now. 

In brief, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea -- one of three great remaining tropical wildernesses on Earth -- is under dire assault.  This is an issue that should light up the radar of conservationists throughout the world. 

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

The other half of the island of New Guinea -- the nation of Papua New Guinea -- has certainly suffered its share of environmental ills, with rampant industrial logging and mining development, severe fires in the highlands, and the notorious SABLs -- Special Agricultural and Business Leases -- that have often been snapped up by foreign logging firms and now span some 11% of the nation's land area.

But the situation in Indonesian New Guinea -- the Provinces of Papua and West Papua -- is, if anything, even worse.  And it is likely to become one of the major rainforest crises of our time.

People in the know say its only a matter of time before environmental chaos descends in Indonesian New Guinea.  First, the government there places little emphasis on the rights of the island's many indigenous communities, who have lived on their traditional lands for millennia.

Second, the Indonesian government has transmigrated millions of Javanese and other Indonesians to New Guinea, displacing traditional peoples and destroying native ecosystems in the process.  This program has been enormously unpopular with native New Guineans.

Third, oil palm is exploding across Indonesia New Guinea.  The Indonesians have a saying, "Sumatra was yesterday, Borneo is today, and New Guinea is tomorrow", reflecting their wildly ambitious plans to expand oil palm, logging, mining, and other developments across the island at the expense of native ecosystems.

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction (from Mongabay.com).

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction (from Mongabay.com).

And finally, Indonesia President Joko Widodo has just announced a scheme to build a 4,000 kilometer-long 'Trans-Papuan Highway' across Indonesian New Guinea.  This has the potential to open up the island like a flayed fish, exposing it a range of new environmental pressures -- the results of which are often fatal for forests and biodiversity

We've been accustomed to hearing about environmental crises in Borneo, Sumatra, and the Amazon.  Unless the international community can convince the Indonesian government to change its tack, get ready to start hearing a lot more about environmental crises in Indonesian New Guinea too.

 

Deadly Australian drop bears are much more abundant than previously thought

A new analysis in the respected journal Australian Geographer suggests that Drop Bears -- a predatory and highly feared relative of the Koala Bear -- are much more common and widely distributed in Australia than was previously believed.

(a) An adult Drop Bear; (b) A Drop Bear attacking its prey.

(a) An adult Drop Bear; (b) A Drop Bear attacking its prey.

The Drop Bear (Thylarctos plummetus) is known to favor dense forests and has been blamed in the past for the unexplained disappearances of several tourists and hikers in Australia.  It is predominantly arboreal and typically attacks by dropping onto its prey from above.

The study, conducted by Volker Janssen at the University of Tasmania, used sophisticated remote-sensing and spatial modelling techniques to estimate the geographic range of the Drop Bear. 

The species was formerly thought to be confined to just a few locales, but it now appears to be widely distributed across Eastern Australia and parts of the far north and far southwest of the continent. 

"I have to say this study makes me pretty nervous," said Miriam Goosem, a field biologist at James Cook University in north Queensland.  "I work in a lot of dense forests and if Drop Bears really are that common, then my job suddenly seems quite a bit more dangerous."

"People tend to think of the Saltwater Crocodile as our most dangerous species, and I suppose that's true if you're near the water.  But in forests, the Drop Bear is definitely the animal that scares me the most," said Dr Goosem.

"I think we need to get the word out to tourists, as many of them don't know about Drop Bears," said Goosem. 

"I'd say if you're coming to Australia and plan to go hiking in the forest, be afraid.  Be VERY afraid."

 

 

Eastern-Australian forests projected to be global hotspot of deforestation

The following is a synopsis of an article published today in The Conversation by Martine Marone of the University of Queensland and ALERT director Bill Laurance.

When we think about global deforestation, certain hotspots spring to mind.  The Amazon.  The Congo.  Borneo and Sumatra.  And… eastern Australia?

Forests continue to fall in Australia (photo (c) Martin Taylor, WWF)

Forests continue to fall in Australia (photo (c) Martin Taylor, WWF)

Yes, eastern Australia is one of 11 regions highlighted in a new chapter of the WWF Living Forests report, “Saving forests at risk”, which identifies the world’s greatest deforestation fronts –- where forests are most at risk –- between now and 2030.

So why is WWF putting Australia in the naughty corner?

The report uses projections of recent rates of forest loss to estimate how much we are on track to lose over the next 15 years.  The estimates for eastern Australia range from 3 million to 6 million hectares.  In particular, it points the finger of blame at recent and foreshadowed changes to environmental legislation.  These changes have already removed protections for well over a million hectares of Queensland’s native vegetation.

Australia’s rate of vegetation clearing still dwarfs our efforts to replant and restore bushland by much more than 100,000 hectares every year.  This is mostly driven by vegetation loss in Queensland.  And although these rates of loss were, until recently, slowing, recent reports suggest they have rebounded sharply.

In a recent article in The Conversation, we wrote of the alarming figures suggesting large increases in land clearing, which coincided with the changes to vegetation protections under the former Newman Government in Queensland.  The state’s new Labor government is currently considering whether or not to revoke these changes.  There have been suggestions that they may not reinstate the previous protections for native vegetation.

Most of the nations highlighted in the WWF report, such as Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are in a starkly different economic situation to Australia.  At least some deforestation will be an inevitable part of their economic and social development.

Arguably, it is the responsibility of wealthier countries to help such nations to follow more-sustainable development pathways -- though we will face many challenges in doing so.  But should Australia, as a wealthy, developed economy, continue to rely on deforestation for our own development, we can hardly ask differently of others.

It is time to think about the end-game of land clearing in Australia, and what we are willing lose along the way.  If we genuinely want to achieve a reversal of deforestation by 2020, then we need to see significant policy changes.  And they need to happen now—sooner rather than later.

So which future for us?  Will we choose the path of forest sustainability, with the tradeoffs it requires, but also the lasting rewards it will bring?

Or will we sacrifice sustainability for short-term gains, as underscored in the alarming projections of the WWF report?  These are vital decisions with starkly different futures, and we can only hope that our state and federal governments make the right choices.

Could tropical species be intensively vulnerable to global warming?

On 12 January 2002, Cambridge University doctoral student Justin Welbergen was studying the behavior of a large colony of flying foxes in subtropical eastern Australia.  What he witnessed that day shocked him.

Doesn't like the heat... a grey-headed flying fox.

Doesn't like the heat... a grey-headed flying fox.

It was a hot afternoon, and as the thermostat climbed above 40 degrees Centigrade, the giant bats became obviously distressed.  They began fighting over shady spots in the canopy.  Then they began licking their wrists and flapping their wings in a desperate effort to cool themselves.  

Finally, as the temperature hit 42 degrees C, they began to die -- in the thousands.  On that day at least 3,500 bats died, in nine different nearby colonies.  Females and juveniles were especially vulnerable.

What Welbergen observed was a phenomenon that has now been seen elsewhere -- from mass disappearances of lizards in Mexico to the dramatic population collapse of the white lemuroid possum in north Queensland rainforests.

Possum in peril... the white lemuroid ringtail (photo (c) Michael Trenerry)

Possum in peril... the white lemuroid ringtail (photo (c) Michael Trenerry)

There are two striking conclusions from these observations.  First, to the surprise of many, tropical species may be the most vulnerable of all organisms on the planet to global warming.  Second, it isn't a steadily rising thermostat that endangers most species, but short, intense pulses of unusually warm conditions -- heat waves.

Why are tropical species so vulnerable?  In short, many are thermal specialists.  Think, for instance, about a polar bear -- our traditional icon for global warming.  It has to deal with temperatures ranging from, say, minus 50 degrees C in winter to plus 35 degrees C in summer -- a huge range of temperatures.

But tropical species are different.  Lowland tropical species, for instance, might see temperatures ranging from just 25 to 35 degrees during the course of a normal year -- a far narrower range.  As a result, they can become much more thermally specialized.

Where temperatures vary the most in the tropics is as a function of elevation.  On average, for every thousand meters that one goes up in elevation, the temperature drops by 6 degrees C.  

What that means is that tropical species are not just thermal specialists, they also tend to be elevational specialists.  Species tend to be adapted for the very warm lowlands, or for the cooler mid-elevations, or for the wet, cloudy high elevations, where conditions are almost chilly.

And it's the high-elevation specialists -- such as the white lemuroid possum -- that a lot of scientists are really worried about.   

Many tend to be locally endemic species, because their populations are genetically isolated from other populations on different mountaintops.  Hence, they have small geographic ranges and, often, small population sizes.

And they may be intensely vulnerable to global warming.  As temperatures rise, the geographic ranges of many high-elevation species in the tropics are predicted to shrink and fragment -- potentially disappearing altogether.  For instance, in the Australian wet tropics, most upland-endemic species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are predicted to disappear entirely if temperatures should rise by more than 4-6 degrees C.

It's a frightening prospect, and it suggests that global warming could have far wider-reaching impacts than many might suspect -- especially in the tropics, the world's biologically richest real estate.

ALERT member Pierre-Michel Forget has just given a wonderful 30-minute interview on this topic.  Forget is a highly authoritative scientist -- a former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and now Vice-President of the Society for Tropical Ecology.  He asks, what would just a 1 degree C increase in temperature do to tropical forests and their species?

It's definitely worth a half-hour to hear this enlightening lecture -- and to share it with your colleagues and students. 

The bottom line is this: Given that tropical ecosystems are so rich in species and thermal specialists, the best icon for global warming might not be a polar bear -- but a tropical white possum or flying fox.

 

Heated debate over boreal forests

ALERT is achieving a new milestone today by hosting its first scientific debate.  This focuses on the fate and condition of the world's vast boreal forests.

Clearcut logging in a Canadian boreal forest

Clearcut logging in a Canadian boreal forest

The debate arose over a recent paper led by Nick Haddad and colleagues (of which ALERT members Tom Lovejoy and Bill Laurance were coauthors).  Haddad and colleagues asserted in their paper -- and also conspicuously in their various press coverage -- that the only two remaining areas of large, intact forest on Earth were the Amazon and Congo Basin.

Boreal forest researcher Jeff Wells takes serious issue with this contention.  Below is Wells' complaint, followed by a response from Nick Haddad and another of his coauthors, Joe Sexton, who actually conducted the analyses at the heart of this scientific tussle.

All this is then followed by a synopsis of the debate by boreal forest expert Corey Bradshaw, an ALERT member and professor and senior researcher from the University of Adelaide in Australia.  Bradshaw was not involved in either study. 

Read away!

THE COMPLAINT BY JEFF WELLS

The paper “Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth’s ecosystems” by Nick Haddad and 23 co-authors published in the 20 March, 2015 issue of Science Advances provided an incredibly important documentation of the many and varied negative impacts to biodiversity that result from human-caused large-scale fragmentation of intact forest habitats.  Although there are regional differences in the ways in which fragmentation impacts various biodiversity features, the effects are largely generalizable across the world’s forests.

There are a few regions of the globe where there remains large tracts of forest that are not fragmented by human activities—so-called primary forests.  These areas have been mapped in a number of ways over recent decades and all show five large areas of remaining primary forest.

The largest are the North American Boreal Forest, the Siberian Boreal Forest, the Amazon Forest followed by the Congo Basin Forest and the forests of New Guinea and other parts of Indonesia. In fact, some analyses indicate that the world’s largest single intact blocks of forest habitat are now found in the Amazon and in Canada’s Boreal Forest.

Given these facts it was astonishing and disappointing to see in the paper, a map purporting to show forested areas of the globe that are most impacted by fragmentation (defined in the paper as “the division of habitat into smaller and more isolated fragments separated by a matrix of human-transformed land cover”) that portrayed the North American boreal forest as heavily fragmented rather than intact as it truly is.  In the paper the authors write that they are presenting “a global analysis of the fragmentation of forest ecosystems, quantifying for the first time the global hotspots of intensive historical fragmentation.”

They go on to say that their analysis showed that “nearly 20% of the world’s remaining forest is within 100 m of an edge — in close proximity to agriculture, urban, or other modified environments…”

Clearly the implication in this statements and others in the paper is that the mapping analyses presented in the paper intends to portray the world’s forest ecosystems that are most impacted by anthropogenic fragmentation.  In fact, the map in the paper shockingly indicates that the most northern portions of the Boreal Forest region of North America are among the most fragmented in the world.

Anyone with knowledge of northern and Arctic regions would likely be rather astonished by this portrayal given the incredible lack of human industrial fragmentation in this remote and generally inaccessible part of the world. The inaccurate and misleading map and analysis is the result of a mischaracterized data set that labels natural fires, intact peatland and tundra (far from any human industrial footprint) as the same as clearcuts, areas cleared for agriculture or mines, roads, powerlines and other human caused fragmentation.

While as a scientific issue this mischaracterization is serious enough, more troubling is the fact that media stories about the paper included quotes attributed to the first author like this one in a story in The New Yorker:

“There are really only two big patches of intact forest left on Earth — the Amazon and the Congo — and they shine out like eyes from the center of the map.”

Or this statement in Climate Progress:

“Haddad was surprised by the degree that Boreal forest in Canada and Siberia has already been sliced up.”

These statements are fundamentally incorrect and are a serious blow to conservation initiatives in the massively large, truly intact Boreal Forest region of North America where incredible efforts are underway that are succeeding in achieving some of the world’s largest forest conservation gains.

Canada’s Boreal Forest region (an area of approximately 5.6 million square kilometers) is estimated to contain 25% of the world’s remaining primary forest within its Boreal Forest region, storing a minimum of 208 billion tonnes of carbon, supporting some of the world’s largest populations of northern large mammals including some that undertake the world’s last large-scale annual migrations and hosting 1-3 three billion nesting birds, most of which migrate south to populate temperate and tropical forests.

This vast intact forest region continues to be inhabited by to hundreds of indigenous communities that maintain their cultural traditions including harvesting native fish and wildlife for subsistence.

Over 870,000 square kilometers of new protected areas have been established across Canada’s Boreal Forest region in the last 15 years and the governments of Ontario and Quebec are pursuing conservation visions that together would strictly protect (IUCN categories I-IV) an additional 858,000 square kilometers of intact, primary forest. 

In the Northwest Territories, over 425,000 square kilometers of new protected areas and interim protected areas are the result of leadership of indigenous governments that have developed sophisticated land-use plans combining traditional knowledge and Western science approaches.

What is particularly tragic is the portrayal of North America's Boreal Forest as one of the parts of the world that is most highly fragmented by human industrial activities.  Scientists and conservationists working in the world's last wildernesses should become more familiar with the threats across ecosystems and regions, in order to accurately portray reality on the ground.  This will allow us to protect these ecosystems while there is still time to do so.

A boreal forest in flames

A boreal forest in flames

THE RESPONSE BY NICK HADDAD AND JOE SEXTON

Dr. Wells’ comments regarding the ecological importance of boreal forests are valuable.  The boreal forest houses enormous stocks of carbon; is the origin of many major rivers transporting nutrients to and from the Arctic Ocean; and its trophic system provides essential ecosystem services to human communities.  Dr. Wells confirms what is shown in our Figure 1 when pointing out that the boreal forest is one of the greatest remaining expanses of forest on Earth.

We agree with Dr. Wells’ assertion of the conservation value of boreal forest, and our global forest analysis in no way contradicts it.  Compared to temperate and tropical forests, the boreal forest is much less impacted by human land-use change. 

Whereas the forests of temperate and tropical biomes (except the interior forests of the Amazon and Congo Basins) are heavily fragmented by human land use, edges of the boreal forest are primarily natural.  Boreal-forest edges arise predominantly from climatological and edaphic features (i.e., the taiga-tundra ecotone), from hydrological features (the prevalence of rivers and small water bodies), and from acute disturbances such as fires and insect outbreaks (see a recent comparison of natural and human created edge effects in boreal forest).

Whereas logging impacts some regions — including much of British Columbia and Scandinavi— these areas are a comparatively small portion of the total area.  Yet even this distinction is increasingly eroded by human impacts, as recent fires in the Siberian boreal forest have been found to be largely human in origin.

It is currently impossible to discriminate natural from human-induced edges, and so our global analysis did not attempt to do so. This contrasts with our experimental analyses which comprise the bulk of our paper, and which are focused on effects of human-caused fragmentation.

In retrospect, we should have emphasized this distinction; we regret the confusion it created.  Our Figure 1 does not “portray the world’s forest ecosystems that are most impacted by anthropogenic fragmentation,” (Wells’ assertion) but instead simply maps globally the distance of each forest pixel to the forest’s edge.  Regardless, Wells’ assertion that the boreal forest is not fragmented raises an important distinction between natural and human-created edges.

Many of the effects of natural and anthropogenic fragmentation are identical — sunlight and wind penetrate a forest edge regardless of its origin. However, many edge effects — including species invasions, especially by species associated with humans — are not.

As is often the case with the conveyance of scientific findings to the public, the popular media focuses on one or two key points and disregards complexities.  The primary objective of our paper was to synthesize long-term experiments documenting the effects of habitat fragmentation. The spatial analysis of forests was included to alert our audience to its global footprint, whether natural or anthropogenic. 

Given one figure and two short paragraphs, we could only portray this complexity from one aspect — namely habitat edges.  The popular media focused on the Amazon and the Congo forests, the two areas with the least areas of edge, but did not cover the distinction between natural and anthropogenic disturbance.

We share Dr. Wells’ eagerness to overcome the current technical inability to discriminate natural from human-induced vegetation change in the satellite record.  We and a large community of researchers are working on precisely this problem.  We look forward to specifying the agency of habitat fragmentation in the years to come.

To reiterate, we agree with Dr. Wells about the great need to conserve boreal forest.  We are at the same time pleased that Dr. Wells recognizes our study’s central finding: that human-induced habitat fragmentation threatens forests across the globe, leading to long-term decline in the diversity and function of ecosystems.

Long-term experiments and global analysis of the extent, pattern, and dynamics of forest change will continue to advance understanding of the impact of and conservation prospects for landscapes fragmented by people.

Massive stockpile of boreal timber

Massive stockpile of boreal timber

A PERSPECTIVE FROM AN INDEPENDENT EXPERT, COREY BRADSHAW

Missing the forest despite its trees

Despite its immense size, there is little doubt that the ugly second cousin of forest conservation is the boreal region covering much of Alaska, Canada, Fennoscandia, and Russia.  Indeed, extending some 1.4 billion hectares, of which well over 60% is found in Russia alone, the entirety of the boreal forest is more than double the area of the Amazon forest.

Yet despite this massive expanse, the impressive biota it shelters, and its important contribution to the global carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles, the boreal is an oft-overlooked region in terms of global conservation priorities and possibilities.

The exchange between Haddad & Sexton and Wells regarding the former researchers’ recent paper highlights this problem, of which even many expert ecologists are often only vaguely aware.  Wells takes particular issue with Haddad and colleagues’ assertion that the boreal forest is highly fragmented, claiming to the contrary that the (North America) boreal forest is “… truly intact … ”.  While Haddad and Sexton respond that they did not differentiate between ‘natural’ and human-caused fragmentation, my view is that the exchange misses some important concerns about the state of the boreal forest.

Wells correctly points out that the boreal zone in North America is “massive”, but can his other claim -- that it is “truly intact” -- stand up to scrutiny?  Citing one of my own papers from 2009 to demonstrate (correctly) that the boreal forest of North America holds a stunning array of species, Wells neglects to highlight that in that same paper we also identified the extensive, artificial fragmentation that has occurred there and in other parts of the boreal zone over the last few decades.

For example, we showed clearly that only 44% of the entire biome is considered to be ‘intact’, defining the term precisely as “areas over 500 square kilometers, internally undivided by infrastructure (e.g., roads) and with linear dimensions greater than 10 kilometers”. 

Satellite imagery has also confirmed that between 2000 and 2005, the boreal biome experienced the largest area of gross forest cover loss compared to any other.  Despite recent evidence that so-called edge effects (characteristics of a disturbed matrix that penetrate some distance into habitat fragments) are probably of a smaller spatial magnitude in boreal compared to other biomes, it is disingenuous to claim that North America’s boreal forests are “truly intact”.

Wells' perspective also ignores the intense historical and current fragmentation to the largest boreal forest region in Russia.  Between 1988 and 1993, Russia lost an average of 1.1 million hectares of forest per year due principally to logging.  An increase in fire and insect outbreaks due to direct (fire) and indirect (climate-driven insect outbreaks) human pressures has eroded the area even further.

Add these observations to mounting evidence that the boreal forest has already or is about to become a net carbon source due to direct (logging, fire) and indirect (climate change, insect outbreaks) human influences, and it is counter-productive in any conservation sense to purport that the boreal zone is anything but a highly modified and increasingly disturbed biome.

I can understand that anyone used to the images of forest devastation from South East Asia, the Amazon, or many parts of Central Africa might be convinced that the boreal forest is comparatively intact -- for it is indeed relatively more contiguous.  However, the extent of the boreal fracturing can be easily missed if not observed from broader spatial scales.

From my own personal experience in northern Alberta over 20 years ago, the sight of a vast expanses of boreal forest criss-crossed with seismic exploration lines and clearcuts from logging testify viscerally to our capacity to modify even the seemingly infinite spans of remote boreal wilderness.  While the boreal forest might not have the same human population densities or experience the same degree of legal and illegal forest conversion as the tropics, it is nonetheless a highly and increasingly stressed ecosystem.

Fortunately, we still do have the opportunity to limit the worst ravages that deforestation, climate change and fire could wreak there, but we have to get a lot more serious about measuring, recognizing, and limiting the damage that we as a society seem so desperate to render.