Stealing the Rain from a Rainforest

ALERT’s Susan Laurance, from James Cook University in Australia, is leading an ambitious, million-dollar study to understand how droughts affect tropical rainforests.  Here she tells us about this challenging project and why it is so important:

Right now, much of the world is struggling to cope with a ‘Godzilla’ El Niño drought

The drought has been merciless, causing catastrophic fires and haze across much of Southeast Asia, unprecedented droughts and wildfires in western North America, and mass starvation from crop failure in New Guinea

Fiery future?

And there’s good reason to think future droughts might even be worse. 

First, leading computer simulations suggest global warming could strengthen future El Niño events and increase the frequency of serious heat waves.

Second, apparently new climate dynamics are appearing on Earth that could threaten large areas of rainforest.  Most notable among these are the unprecedented Amazon droughts – driven by exceptionally high sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean – that occurred in 2005 and again in 2010.

Finally, human land-uses are making rainforests far more vulnerable to droughts and fire.  For instance, forests that have been logged or fragmented are drier and have much heavier loads of flammable slash than do pristine forests.

And as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources.  Even ecosystems where fire was once foreign — such as the world’s deep rainforests — now burn with increasing regularity.

All this means that it’s vital to understand how droughts will affect rainforests – the world’s most biologically diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems.

Big science for a big problem

As I detail in a recent article in Australasian Science (which you can download here), my colleagues and I have recently set up some 3,000 clear plastic panels to create a ‘raincoat for a rainforest’ – inducing an artificial drought over several thousand square meters of the famous Daintree region in north Queensland, Australia.

A big advantage of our experiment – one of the few ever to study rainforest droughts in this way – is that we have a 47-meter-tall canopy crane at the site, so we can assess plant and animal responses at all vertical levels of the forest, from the ground to the tops of the most towering trees.

Our study is comparative: we want to understand how different groups of plants, such as various functional groups of trees, vines, shrubs, forbs, and epiphytes, are affected by drought.

We are looking at the survival, growth, and physiology of these plants in a variety of ways, as well as at the forest soil and microclimate.  Others are studying how insects and other fauna are affected by the drought.

Among our key goals is determining whether big trees are especially vulnerable to droughts, as suggested by recent research.   If so, then this could have profound implications – because big trees store huge amounts of carbon and provide food and shelter for an entire zoo of animal species.

We also want to learn whether certain kinds of plants have strategies – such as special water-carrying vessels in their tissues or other physiological tricks – that allow them to better survive droughts.  If so, these ‘drought winners’ could increasingly dominate forests if droughts become more intense in the future.

Not easy – but worth it

This study has not been easy – in truth it’s been a logistical nightmare to steal the rain from a rainforest.  But the study is now fully set up, and in the end we think it will be worth all the sweat and hard work. 

Rainforests are the biologically richest environments on Earth.  And if we’re going to subject them to more Godzilla-like droughts, then we need to know how they’ll respond – and whether they can sustain their stunning biodiversity into the future.

Wildife struggle in an increasingly noisy world

We live on an ever more-populous planet, pulsating with human-generated noises of every description.  As the din of humanity grows ever louder, what will this mean for wildlife?

White-crowned sparrow: stressed-out by noise

White-crowned sparrow: stressed-out by noise

It's an important question.  Across the U.S.A., for example, nearly nine-tenths of the population experiences artificially elevated sound levels.  In the world's oceans, noises from commercial shipping alone have risen an estimated 16-fold in recent decades.

The most ubiquitous noise-making structures humans create are traffic-laden roads, which already crisscross the Earth and are projected to increase in length by some 25 million kilometers by mid-century—enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times.

A recent study by Heidi Ware and colleagues used an innovative ‘phantom road’ to assess how road noise affects migrating bird species.

Working in Idaho, USA, the authors laid out an array of loudspeakers to mimic road sounds, which they turned on and off periodically to judge the birds' responses.  They also captured birds using mist-nets to assess their overall body condition.

The authors found that bird abundance declined by about a third near the phantom road, with some some noise-sensitive species avoiding the area.

In addition, even birds that remained near the phantom road often fared poorly, having lower body weight and worse overall condition than birds captured elsewhere. 

The authors attributed this to the fact that the birds were often startled by sudden road noises -- and so spent more time looking around for predators and less time feeding. 

A graph (sonogram) of road noises, above a logging truck.

A graph (sonogram) of road noises, above a logging truck.

This is particularly bad news for migratory birds, which are already stressed out by the huge exertions of migrating vast distances.  More noise disturbance could mean that more birds will starve to death while trying to migrate.

In an independent perspective piece on this article, ALERT director Bill Laurance emphasizes that the rapidly expanding footprint of roads and other infrastructure across the planet is invisibly degrading habitat quality for noise-sensitive species.

Laurance suggests that many kinds of species could be affected by human-generated noises. 

For instance, might sensitive marine species, such as echolocating whales or migratory fish, avoid noisy regions such as high-volume shipping lanes or areas where naval vessels regularly pierce the oceans with high-intensity sonar?

Could echolocating bats be distressed by roaring airplanes or even by the steady whine of wind farms or other infrastructure? 

For that matter, might even hiking trails frequented by ecotourists or researchers reduce local wildlife activity, as has been observed in protected areas in California and Indonesia?

The oceans are getting noisier too.

The oceans are getting noisier too.

The findings of Ware et al. suggest that human-generated noises can be serious stressors for some wildlife.  This is an alarming prospect in a world ever more beset by human-induced noises.

For instance, nowhere in Costa Rica’s iconic La Selva Biological Reserve can one avoid hearing the incessant thrum of a nearby highway.  Many other nature reserves are suffering a similar fate, underscoring the urgency of limiting new roads in protected areas and devising strategies to limit noise disturbances where roads already exist.

For wildlife and for humans too, quiet places on the Earth are becoming increasingly rare and precious.

Could disease be driving extinctions of Australian mammals?

Across the vast savannas of northern Australia, mammal populations are collapsing.  Areas that once sustained healthy populations of native mammals are now ecological deserts, virtually devoid of life.  Three researchers from James Cook University, Sandra Abell, Penny van Oosterzee, and Noel Preece, believe that deadly pathogens might be partly responsible for this ongoing calamity:

Brush-tailed bettong -- a critter we don't want to lose.

Brush-tailed bettong -- a critter we don't want to lose.

One third of all mammal extinctions worldwide have occurred in Australia.  Here, 24 mammal species have been wiped out since European arrival -- and that number is still rising.

Loss of habitat, altered fire regimes, and predation by feral cats are all implicated in the recent mammal declines. The role of disease, however, is an understudied but likely contributing factor.

Disease can be deadly for wildlife.  For instance, facial tumor disease is rapidly killing off populations of the Tasmanian Devil.  Trypanosomiasis, introduced by black rats brought by sailing ships, drove the demise of two native species of rainforest rats on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean.

Tasmanian Devil with facial tumors -- not a pleasant way to go.

Tasmanian Devil with facial tumors -- not a pleasant way to go.

Now key populations of the Northern Bettong, an attractive wallaby-like animal endemic to north Queensland, is crashing possibly to extinction.

And just this week, endangered Saiga antelopes in Uzbekistan in Asia were reported to have suddenly collapsed, due to the combined effects of climate change and normally harmless bacteria that have evidently become lethal pathogens to the stressed animals.

Saiga Antelope -- another victim of catastrophic disease?

Saiga Antelope -- another victim of catastrophic disease?

We and colleagues have formed a multi-disciplinary group to tackle these declines.  We call ourselves the North Australia Wildlife Decline Disease Investigators.  Our acronym, NAWDDI, rhymes with "naughty".

Our group combines top wildlife ecologists and experts in wildlife disease, including one of the world’s leading experts in wildlife pathogens, Dr Peter Daszak, Director of the EcoHealth Alliance.

NAWDDI is being guided by hard-won lessons learned from the front line of the battle to save imperiled species.

One example is the Brush-tailed Bettong.  Thought to be secure in southwestern Australia, 90 percent of its population has vanished alarmingly over the last decade.  Valiant attempts to understand and halt its decline are providing valuable new insights for conservationists.

NAWDDI is working on a variety of fronts -- from advising on global policy to developing field protocols to make disease investigation a standard practice in researching declines of wild populations.

Disease must be considered early as a potential cause of the rapid and severe mammal declines in northern Australia.  We know that virulent pathogens have caused widespread extinctions or declines of many species worldwide -- from frogs, to Hawaiian birds, to African ungulates and apes, to North American bats.

Pathogens such as the chytrid fungus have driven at least 200 frog species to extinction.

Pathogens such as the chytrid fungus have driven at least 200 frog species to extinction.

Early detection saves money and time -- and could help us avoid the anguish of having to watch helplessly as charismatic mammals like the Brush-tailed Bettong follow the path of three of its sister species to extinction.

Why we simply must have predators

ALERT member John Terborgh is a scientist of enormous stature, whose many accomplishments include a rare MacArthur 'Genius' Award.  Here he tells us why predators are so crucial for the Earth -- a lesson with big implications for understanding nature and our future:

Amur Leopard -- just 70 left in the wild today.

Amur Leopard -- just 70 left in the wild today.

Forty-five years ago, three leading ecologists asked a question of child-like simplicity, “Why is the world green?”

We take a green world for granted, yet this deceptively simple question goes to the very heart of how ecosystems work.

The world is green, the trio argued, because predators limit the numbers of herbivores, thereby protecting plants and allowing them to flourish.

At the time this idea was floated, other ecologists were busy discovering that plants manufacture a potent arsenal of chemical compounds to deter herbivores -- everything from deadly toxins to chemicals that make them hard to digest. 

Far from being helpless, these other ecologists argued, plants actively defend themselves, and this keeps herbivore numbers down.  Under this scenario, predators aren't really needed to keep the world green.  

Who is right?  In theory, it should be simple to find out: just remove the predators from an ecosystem and see what happens. 

Wolves -- widely persecuted but trying to make a comeback in parts of North America and Europe.

Wolves -- widely persecuted but trying to make a comeback in parts of North America and Europe.

But it's one thing to remove little predators such as insects and spiders.  Getting rid of big predators, such as wolves, lions, or jaguars, is a far taller task.  To perform such an experiment properly, one would need to fence off huge areas, some with predators and prey, some with prey alone, and others with neither. 

The cost of such an ambitious experiment would be so high that, to this day, nobody has tried it.  As a result, ecologists are still arguing about why the world is green.

An Accidental Experiment

But purely by accident, an unplanned experiment in Venezuela created the right conditions to test the 'Green World' hypothesis.  There, a massive expanse of forest flooded by a hydroelectric dam created hundreds of artificial islands.  The smallest islands were barely the size of a tennis court; the biggest, at hundreds of hectares, would span a dozen large golf courses.

My students, colleagues, and I studied these islands for 14 years.  And what we found is enormously exciting -- and scary.

The largest islands had enough habitat to support both predators and their prey.  But as island size declined, fewer and fewer species of predator remained.  Once below 10 hectares in size -- equivalent to about 20 football fields -- the predators vanished entirely. 

The Harpy -- king of eagles.

The Harpy -- king of eagles.

At this point you have an ecosystem with a few species of herbivores -- particularly howler monkeys, an iguana, a type of tortoise, and leaf-cutter ants -- but nothing to eat them.

With little to keep herbivores in check, did these islands stay gloriously green, or collapse ecologically?  

Ecological Collapse

What we observed was ecological chaos.  Herbivores attacked foliage in all parts of the forest. The first plants to be killed were seedlings, cut up and carried away by leaf-cutter ants, while howler monkeys and iguanas defoliated trees and vines in the canopy.

Without predators, leaf-cutter ants can decimate a forest.

Without predators, leaf-cutter ants can decimate a forest.

Small saplings were the next to disappear under the herbivore onslaught, followed by larger saplings and woody vines.  Finally, after a decade or more, big canopy trees began to die, standing leafless, ghost-like.

By the end of our study, the once-verdant forest was a degraded tangle of shrubs and vines -- a pathetic vestige of their original diversity.

And while herbivores had won, they ultimately brought about their own self-destruction.  In the end, the decimated islands barely sustained any life at all.

The trio of ecologists -- the architects of the 'Green World' hypothesis -- were right.  We need predators to keep our planet verdant and healthy, and to maintain biodiversity.

Alternative States

The 'alternative state' of a predator-free island is alarming.  Equally worrisome is that we can get there in a variety of ways.  Killing off predators is one way -- and we humans are very good at doing that.

Another way is flooding an ecosystem with nutrients, a process called "eutrophication".  This can happen, for example, if we carelessly use farming fertilizers, which then leach into waterways and other ecosystems.  Biodiversity depends on a balance, and tip that balance too far one way and nutrient-loving species dominate while excluding many other species.

Depressing 'alternative states' can arise for other reasons too, such as disrupting natural fire regimes or introducing exotic species that fundamentally change ecosystems.

But for me, the widespread decimation of predators is the most worrisome way that we are disrupting the natural world.  For that reason, I strongly support efforts to 're-wild' ecosystems -- to reintroduce big carnivores such as wolves, grizzy bears, and tigers to regions where they once held sway.  

Arctic fox in the summer.

Arctic fox in the summer.

Rewilding sizable parts of the world will not be easy.  There are many who will object -- out of fear or ignorance or potential risks to their livelihoods. 

But the world needs predators.  I have been studying nature for a long time, and one thing I have learned is that biodiversity utterly depends on them.

Bringing the science we need to maturity and explaining it to policymakers and the public is a vital goal for our next generation of conservationists.

The Indonesian Inferno: A Completely Preventable Crisis

Could things be any crazier in Indonesia?

Forests engulfed in flames

Forests engulfed in flames

Scientists have been warning for many months that the Asia-Pacific region will face 'Godzilla' this year -- a fire-breathing El Niño drought of frightening severity. 

Devastating air pollution from Indonesian forest and peatland fires -- especially in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea -- have become a virtually annual event.  Add a major El Niño drought to the mix -- as is happening now -- and the situation is inevitably a lot worse.

Predictably, the burning season this year has turned into an international disaster.  Among the more notable calamities:

- Because of the dense, choking smoke, schools and airports across large expanses of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have had to be repeatedly closed; Micronesia and the Philippines are also suffering.

- Hospitals in burning centers In Indonesia have reported large spikes in the number of people in respiratory distress, with medical authorities warning people not to go outside.

Heavy human toll

Heavy human toll

- Singapore has launched legal actions and arrested high-ranking employees from several forest-destroying corporations that are headquartered there, leading to a major diplomatic spat with Indonesia.

- This year, carbon pollution from rampaging Indonesian peat fires alone have exceeded the carbon emissions produced by the entire United States economy.

- Politicians in Indonesian Borneo recently wore face masks to Parliament, to protest the rampant fires, and have threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Indonesian federal government.

- The respected Indonesian forest expert and ALERT member, Dr Erik Meijaard, has recently called the nation's fires the "biggest environmental crime of the twenty-first century".

Given such an environmental, social, and political crisis, the Indonesian government must be moving heaven and earth to fight the fires and set the nation on a better course, right?


Rather than implementing a large-scale fire ban this year, the Joko Widodo government has vacillated, saying the fires are a "not a problem you can solve quickly" with "no easy solutions", opting instead for localized actions and belated half-measures.

In addition, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are currently established a new Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries.  High on the Council's agenda is dropping recent 'zero-deforestation' pledges made by a number of major forest-exploiting corporations, such as those that produce oil palm and wood pulp in Indonesia.  If successful, this will only worsen future fire crises.

Remarkably, Indonesia has a crucial tool available to it -- near-real-time data on fires and deforestation produced by Global Forest Watch.  With comparable data and the will to levy fines against those burning illegally, Brazil has been able to greatly reduce the number of illegal fires in the Brazilian Amazon.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

No nation today is destroying forest faster than Indonesia.  The Indonesian government can come up with any number of excuses -- many fires are lit by smallholders, corruption is rampant, land tenure is often uncertain. 

The bottom line, however, is that the Indonesian government has both the capacity and the authority to declare and enforce large-scale fire bans.  Huge inroads could be made, especially in drought years.

What the government has been lacking, so far, is the political will to do so.

Killing Koalas and Poisoning Prairies

ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, editor of the popular blog ConservationBytes, has just published a high-profile book on the environment, in concert with Stanford University luminary Paul Ehrlich.  He tells us about what sounds like a galvanizing, no-holds-barred read:

My chance meeting with Paul Ehrlich in 2009 at Stanford turned out to be auspicious, and has culminated this week with the publication of our book, "Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie. Australia, America and the Environment".

Prairie dogs: Persecuted to the edge of extinction

Prairie dogs: Persecuted to the edge of extinction

With scores of books and hundreds of scientific papers under his belt, Ehrlich has been tackling major environmental issues since the 1960s.  Perhaps best known for "The Population Bomb," a global best-seller, Ehrlich also has a long-time interest in Australia, having visited nearly every year over the last four decades. 

Together we have observed at first hand the similarities and differences of Australia and the US, through the eyes of environmental and evolutionary scientists.

So, why write a book about the environmental tragedies currently unfolding in two completely different countries at opposite ends of the Earth?  As it turns out, Australia and the US have much more in common environmentally than one might think, and not necessarily in a good way. 

Despite our vastly different floras and faunas, population densities, and histories of human colonization, there is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both countries are now experiencing.  As such, we have a lot to learn about avoiding each other's mistakes.

Drowning for oil

Drowning for oil

Our new book highlights the history of rapid and continent-wide environmental degradation in both countries -- starting with the first arrival of humans and continuing to this day.

We inventory the cumulative ecological damage in both countries, and weave a sad story of rapid colonization by Europeans resulting in species extinctions, massive deforestation, and industrial toxification.

Environmentalism began to awake in the mid-20th Century, first in the US and later in Australia.  Today, both countries’ precarious environmental foundations are being eroded with the rise and growth of anti-science and anti-environment plutocracies and theocracies.

We are two scientists who are sufficiently furious at the state of our global environment and society to forget about political correctness.  We are willing, even eager, to recruit you into the growing mass of determined people striving to divert society from its “business as usual” path toward disaster. 

Koalas struggle to survive as Australian forests are razed and felled

Koalas struggle to survive as Australian forests are razed and felled

Frankly, we are disgusted with the way that politicians and the press ignore the realities that civilization is sliding toward irreversible environmental damage, and that most universities are failing to provide leadership to change our course. 

We tire of the erosion of public education in both nations, overlooked or encouraged by politicians who would never be elected by a public that had a basic understanding of environmental science.

For too long, Australians and Americans have been biting the hand that feeds their great successes.  It is high time to make sweeping changes to fix the damage already done, and to avoid the ensuing catastrophes that are increasingly imminent.

Australia and America are great nations, but we are both highly susceptible to our own greed and stupidity.  In Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie, we argue, it is high time to change that.

Bushland destruction escalates in Queensland, Australia

Martin Taylor is a conservation scientist with WWF-Australia who has published ground-breaking analyses of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, threats to whale habitats, and the effectiveness of conservation actions in Australia.  Here he tells us about an alarming rebound in destruction of native forests and woodlands in Queensland.

Many ecologists may be surprised to learn that Australia is among the global list of top deforestation offenders

In the vast state of Queensland, nearly 500,000 hectares of native woodland was being cleared each year before a 2006 ban on broad-scale clearing.  In relative terms, this was on par with the worst levels of Amazon deforestation.

Forests falling fast in Queensland (photo by Kerry Trapnell)

Forests falling fast in Queensland (photo by Kerry Trapnell)

Queensland’s 2006 ban is considered to be the primary means by which Australia was able to meet it’s emissions target under the Kyoto Protocol.  Land clearing rates fell dramatically after the ban.

Rates of Queensland bushland clearing fell after 2006 but are now on the rebound (adapted from WWF’s Bushland Destruction report).

Rates of Queensland bushland clearing fell after 2006 but are now on the rebound (adapted from WWF’s Bushland Destruction report).

But the respite from rampant clearing changed when a conservative, pro-development government took power in Queensland in early 2012 -- although that new government had promised to retain the existing vegetation protections.

In 2013, they broke that promise.  Among other things, they:

- Reversed the 2006 ban on broad-scale clearing of primary forests, for a new class of “high-value agriculture” -- which turned out to be anything but high value.  They allowed massive clearing of primary forest in Cape York, which was only recently suspended when it was pointed out that nationally endangered species were being harmed.

- Removed protection from 700,000 hectares of high-conservation-value secondary forests.

- Allowed massive broad-scale clearing under unscientific, self-assessed codes that proceeded under the guise of forest “thinning”.

- Made it harder for the government to prosecute illegal clearing, by raising the burden of proof.

As a result of these attacks on land clearing laws in Queensland and elsewhere, eastern Australia earned a dubious place among 11 global deforestation fronts identified by WWF International.

And remarkably, despite the fact that a much more progressive government was elected in Queensland in February 2015, nothing has yet been done to restore land-clearing controls.

Sadly, this means that landholders are rapidly clearing as much land as they can out of fear that the laws will tighten again -- engaging in so-called “panic” clearing.

Lots of wildlife being harmed -- a Pied Monarch from Queensland.

Lots of wildlife being harmed -- a Pied Monarch from Queensland.

A recent WWF analysis and “map of shame” shows just how bad things have become, with Queensland land-clearing rates very much on the rebound.

Leading Queensland ecologists have expressed great alarm at the rebound and called for urgent restoration of the land-clearing laws. 

Will Queensland's new government do the right thing?  Or are we looking at a return to the 'bad old days' -- in which Queensland was among the most egregious forest and woodland destroyers on the planet?

The 'Chicken from Hell' and other bizarre new species discovered in 2015

The Chicken from Hell was not a creature you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

Though just two feet long, this feathered, bird-like dinosaur had big claws, razor-sharp teeth, and in all likelihood a very nasty disposition.

Paleontologists discovered the Chicken from Hell -- also known by its scientific name, Anzu wyliei -- just this year. 

New Discoveries

Researchers describe 'new' species all the time.  Sometimes these are living creatures that have escaped detection until recently.  For instance, it's been estimated that 60-70 percent of all insect species may be undescribed scientifically, particularly as a result of many unknown species living in the canopy of tropical rainforests.

In other instances -- such as the Chicken from Hell -- they're extinct beasts that have only recently been discovered, typically from fossils.

Believe it or not, there's a group of scientists that come up with a "Top Ten" list of newly discovered species each year.  In addition to the dino-hell-chicken, here are a few of the other top 10 new species for 2015:

Cartwheeling Spider

This creature, which lives in sand dunes of the Moroccan Desert of Africa, has a unique way of escaping from predators: it rolls into a ball and cartwheels away, sort of like an arachnid snowball.

The X-Phylum

Talk about a discovery.  This strange beast, which was found in the sea near Victoria, Australia, looks rather like a mushroom.  But it's so bizarre that scientists think it might actually represent an entirely new Phylum of animal.  

Crikey, that's like discovering the first Chordate -- the group that includes all vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.  Or the first Mollusk -- which includes all clams, snails, octopus, squids, and their allies.

Parasitic Coral Plant

This peculiar plant doesn't look like a plant at all -- and it certainly doesn't live like one.

Rather than producing its food via photosynthesis, as other self-respecting plants do, this organism is a dedicated parasite, sucking the life-blood from the roots of its host plant.

For that reason it's not even green -- it doesn't have chlorophyll. 

This newly-described species lives in the Philippines, but its relatives are found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world.  In tropical Australia, one of its relatives is colloquially called the "Penis Fungus" -- but of course it's not a fungus and any resemblance to a penis is entirely unintentional.

Lessons for Us

Such remarkable discoveries remind us that there's still an enormous amount about life on Earth that we do not yet know. 

That much of the planet's biodiversity could vanish before we even have a chance to discover it or learn it secrets is surely one of our greatest tragedies -- a tragedy that might be largely avoided if we truly get serious about conserving nature.


Savanna birds show surprising vulnerability to climate change

Dr April Reside of James Cook University has just spent several years studying birds that live in Australia's tropical savannas, with an eye to assessing their potential vulnerability to climate change.  You don't have to be a bird-lover to find some of her conclusions alarming.

Cry for help... the Papuan Frogmouth is vulnerable to climate change.

Cry for help... the Papuan Frogmouth is vulnerable to climate change.

When it comes to species being vulnerable to climate change, many people think of polar bears -- or other species that are highly specialized to local conditions.

A lot of research has focused, for example, on mountain-top endemics -- species reliant on cool, misty mountains whose habitat could shrink and collapse with rising temperatures.

Fewer people are thinking about widespread, generalist, common species -- why would they be of concern?

Many birds in the Australian tropical savannas are widespread generalists.  This is probably because they are adapted to highly variable conditions, and need to continually travel about to find the next source of food –- usually flowering trees or pulses of insects after recent rains.

Vast expanses of northern Australia are dominated by tropical savannas.

Vast expanses of northern Australia are dominated by tropical savannas.

Such ephemeral food sources might become increasingly rare or thin on the ground if conditions get tougher with climate change.  So, these widespread generalist species might be more vulnerable to climate change than many have expected.

I investigated the vulnerability of 243 bird species found in Australian tropical savannas to climate change.  To do this I incorporating a range of different factors: their sensitivity to fire, their dietary breadth, their range size, and their abundance.

I also incorporated the amount of suitable climate space each species was likely to have by the year 2085, under a severe climate-change scenario.

The critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot is another big worry.

The critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot is another big worry.

I found that many savanna species that are restricted to the Cape York Peninsula are particularly vulnerable to climate change.  Alarmingly, this includes endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot and the endangered Buff-breasted Buttonquail.

However, some species that occur across the northern savannas might actually benefit from climate change -- at least if rainfall changes as some projections indicate.

We will have to keep monitoring the species, particularly those that are already declining and likely to be severely impacted by climate change. 

A key strategy is to devise plans of how to intervene if necessary.  To do that, we might have to make tough choices in the future.  For instance, might some species have a better chance of persisting in zoos than in the wild?  Might major changes in burning, grazing, or land-clearing practices -- possibly putting us as odds with powerful agricultural interests -- become necessary?

My in-depth work on savanna birds shows me that we can't worry just about polar bears or specialized moutaintop species.  We also need to fret about lots of other wildlife in which climate change could make their battered and dwindling populations even more vulnerable to severe stresses in the future.


The assault on India's protected areas and endangered wildlife

ALERT member Priya Davidar, a leading Indian ecologist, tells us about growing threats to India's protected areas and the imperiled wildlife they harbor:

Shrinking refuges for Asian Elephants.

Shrinking refuges for Asian Elephants.

Terrestrial protected areas constitute less than 4.9 percent of the geographical area of India and harbor many endangered species.  These reserves suffer severe fragmentation and a variety of diffuse human-related disturbances.

For example, the survival of the Asian elephant and the Bengal tiger in India hangs by a thread because they are increasingly confined to small isolated protected areas. 

Given the precarious conditions of such emblematic and endangered species, environmental clearances in protected areas -- such as permissions to disrupt parks for new mining or infrastructure projects -- are a serious affair. 

Such environmental clearances have to be approved by a statutory body, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.

Unfortunately, in the name of 'development', pressures on the last remaining wild refuges are growing. 

India's One-horned Rhinoceros is just clinging to survival.

India's One-horned Rhinoceros is just clinging to survival.

India's conservative national government has reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife -- by conveniently choosing experts who are rapidly approving projects in crucial wildlife habitats, including five tiger reserves.

Among the controversial clearances is the proposed expansion of National Highway 7 through one of the vital corridors between Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves.

By degrading the corridor, this highway will reduce dispersal of the tiger and consequently its long-term viability in one of the finest tiger habitats in the world.

Bengal Tiger in the wild

Bengal Tiger in the wild

Another contentious decision was the approval of the 52 kilometer-long Sevoke-Rongpo railway line in North Bengal.  This railway has killed over 40 elephants between 2004 and 2012. 

The new National Board for Wildlife also cleared a proposal to construct a road through Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, which will doom India's only nesting ground for flamingoes. 

Notably, the previous Board had unanimously rejected the proposal, after a site inspection conducted by an expert committee.

Another astonishing clearance was given for a major dam in Zemithang Valley, in the biologically crucial region of Arunachal Pradesh.  This is one of two essential wintering grounds for the black-necked crane, a highly vulnerable species.

Black-necked cranes

Black-necked cranes

Everywhere one looks, protected areas seem to be under assault. 

India's current government seems determined to advance 'development' at all costs.  But will diminishing the nation's critical wildlife areas -- which have already suffered greatly -- bring the kind of development that India really needs?


Choking on smoke: The growing curse of Indonesia's wildfires

A war of words has erupted in Southeast Asia as rampaging fires and choking smoke plumes stoke regional tensions between Indonesia and its neighbors. 

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Dense smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia have forced flight cancellations and school closures across the region, as diplomatic tensions heat up.

Singapore has slammed "shocking" statements from Indonesian officials who made light of the crisis.  In return, Indonesia accused Singapore of being "childish".

Dramas over choking smoke have become an annual soap opera in Southeast Asia as Indonesia continues to raze its forests.

Singapore is now taking legal action against major corporations, including the massive pulp producer Asia Pulp & Paper, that are regarded as key drivers of forest and peatland loss in nearby Sumatra, Indonesia.

In response, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the recurring fires and smoke were a long-term problem and would require time to be solved.

Fires are used as a quick and cheap way to clear forests and peatlands, with massive forest clearing underway on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.  Native forests are being destroyed for oil palm and pulp plantations, and for slash-and-burn farming.

Since 1997, mega-fires have become a virtually annual event each dry season.  A strong El Niño drought this year -- called "Godzilla" by some -- is increasing rainfall deficits across Indonesia and elsewhere in the western Pacific region.

The fires and smoke are rapidly worsening.  In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, air quality has hit hazardous levels, tens of thousands have suffered respiratory illnesses, numerous flights have been cancelled, and schools have been closed.

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Last week, Singapore's air pollution index hit hazardous levels, prompting officials to close all schools and distribute protective face masks.  Schools were also closed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Satellites detected more than 2,000 fire "hotspots" last week in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

As fires increase, officials in neighboring countries are growing increasingly frustrated.  Singapore has arrested seven corporate officials and suspended the business licenses of four corporations that are headquartered there.

Although many fires are started by small-scale farmers, large corporations are also responsible for burning both directly and indirectly.  By building new roads and exploiting large areas of native forest, corporations open up many areas to new human pressures.

Indonesia could and should enforce a major fire ban, but it would require a concerted effort on the part of the Widodo government.  Widespread corruption in the region is hindering efforts to enforce existing restrictions on fires and forest clearance.

Until the raging fires and smoke are brought under control, expect more hot words from Indonesia's increasingly frustrated neighbors.


Selling Noah's Ark? The collapse of Asia's bird biodiversity

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes gives us a perspective on the daunting challenge of the illegal wildlife trade, which seems to have a global epicenter in Asia.

Popular species: spectacular Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise from Indonesia

Popular species: spectacular Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise from Indonesia

If you have ever ventured into the forest you will know the whine of insects, and the ringing calls of birds that envelope you as you breathe in the humid air. 

Now, imagine that forest without the calls of the birds or the rustle of vertebrate life.  You are imagining the forests that are fast becoming a reality across much of Asia, under the relentless pressure of hunting for various forms of trade.

Indonesia is one such case.  As a global biodiversity hotspot for birds, it now finds itself a market for their extinction.  A TRAFFIC survey released this week found an incredible 19,000 birds of 206 species for sale -- at just three markets in Jakarta and in just three days.  And only 2 percent of these birds were legally harvested.

Among the birds found in Jakarta markets, 41 species are endemic (unique) to Indonesia.  Further, nine of the species are classed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, four of which are Endangered or Critically Endangered.

The stunning number of birds found in just three days suggests that the annual sale of birds in Indonesia would involve hundreds of millions of individuals, including many globally endangered species.

Birds for sale in a Jakarta market (Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC)

Birds for sale in a Jakarta market (Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC)

A Songbird Crisis Summit will be held in Singapore this week to highlight the illegal bird-trade crisis, and to seek strategies to secure a future for birds across the region.

Without rapid action to enforce existing laws and enact new regulations, we will undoubtedly witness the extinction of bird species from across the Asian region.  These forests may no longer ring with the calls of species found nowhere else on Earth.

How well do community-managed lands promote nature conservation?

When it comes to conserving nature, how well do the vast expanses of land managed by local and traditional communities fare compared to formal protected areas?

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

This is becoming an increasingly topical and key question, with some arguing that community-managed lands garner local support for conservation and are therefore a better long-term strategy for protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

Others, however, assert that formal protected areas -- such as national parks, World Heritage sites, and other kinds of reserves -- are generally the best strategy, protecting vulnerable species and populations that rarely survive outside of such areas.

Who is right?  The answer, it seems, is (1) not so simple, and (2) clouded by a serious lack of reliable data.

Advocates of community-managed lands often blend at least two different arguments together: such lands are seen as socially and economically beneficial and important for securing the land rights of traditional or rural landowners, while also benefiting nature. 

Such advocates often assert that, because community-managed lands produce tangible local benefits, they are likely to be more viable in the long term than protected areas -- a sizable number of which are being imperiled to varying degrees by human encroachment.

The devil, however, is often in the details. 

For example, in a recent study in northeastern India, Nandini Velho and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) found that Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary -- a protected area famed for its rich biodiversity -- protected quite different sets of species than did nearly lands managed by resident tribes.

The study, based on animal-sign surveys, camera-trapping, and interviews of local residents, concluded that:

- Eaglenest harbored much larger numbers of large-bodied wildlife species, such as Asian Elephants and Gaur, a species of wild cattle, that are vulnerable to poaching. 

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

- However, the community-managed lands supported a number of smaller species, including several of high conservation significance such as the Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, and Golden Cat.

The Velho et al. study is notable for being one of very few that have compared matched protected areas with nearby community lands, using carefully standardized sampling in each area.  Clearly, more rigorously-designed studies like this are much needed.

In addition, when assessing the effectiveness of community-managed lands for nature conservation, other issues can become very relevant.  For instance:

- Are community-managed lands being used to augment protected areas, or replace them?  The latter could be a much higher-risk strategy for nature, whereas the former is likely to be beneficial.

-  There could be a big difference in environmental impacts when long-term local residents or indigenous peoples are involved, versus recent immigrants.  The latter may much more environmentally destructive, as evidenced by massive deforestation in government-sponsored agrarian settlements in the Amazon and transmigration programs in Indonesia.

-  Rapid population growth can defeat community-based conservation.  Many areas can sustain sparse to moderate populations but become unsustainable when human numbers swell.  This is a serious issue in many developing nations.  For instance, in Papua New Guinea, escalating human numbers are increasing a range of social and environmental pressures on traditional lands.

Some highly preliminary conclusions: Community-managed lands are no panacea but under the right circumstances, they can clearly help to augment traditional nature-conservation efforts such as protected areas.  Determining just when and how community lands become part of the solution is an urgent priority.

The global collapse of the great animal migrations

In our modern world we are accustomed to seeing large-bodied species in decline.  Elephants, rhinos, tigers, whales, sharks, big trees -- the list goes on and on.

But there's another large biological phenomenon that is at least as vulnerable -- the great animal migrations.

Move or die: Cape Buffalo in Africa

Move or die: Cape Buffalo in Africa

Seasonal movements are crucial to the survival of most migratory animals.  And nearly everywhere one looks, migrations are collapsing.

In the plains of the American Midwest, the once-thunderous migrations of Bison and other large wildlife have virtually disappeared.

In northern Cambodia, the great migration of Asian Elephants, Gaur, and other large mammals -- known as the "Serengeti of Indochina" -- have vanished.

On the island of Borneo, large-scale movements of Bearded Pigs and Sun Bears -- in response to pulses of fruit availability -- are collapsing and causing massive animal die-offs, as poignantly illustrated by this video of a starving Sun Bear.

In the western Pacific, stunning annual migrations of shorebirds -- with some species traversing from Alaska to Australia and back each year -- are being rapidly eroded by runaway development of coastal shorebird-foraging sites, most dramatically in China and the Koreas.

Critical feeding ground for stressed-out migrants

Critical feeding ground for stressed-out migrants

In the Mojave Desert, a proposed solar-energy project would imperil the seasonal migration of Bighorn Sheep -- as highlighted recently by ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy and Harvard biologist Edward Wilson.

And in the iconic Serergeti Plain of Africa, a proposed highway would slice directly across the route of migrating wildebeest and scores of other wildlife species, potentially imperiling the greatest surviving migration on Earth.

David Wilcove at Princeton University has long studied animal migrations and their demise.  He makes a key observation: nobody has ever set out to destroy a great migration. 

Instead, migrating animals are being forced to endure an ever-growing array of human pressures -- new roads, dams, farms, cities, overhunting, persecution, and myriad other threats. 

And then, one day -- seemingly without warning -- the migration just stops.  The salmon runs collapse.  The last surviving Passenger Pigeon disappears.

As humans gobble up ever more of the planet, saving the Earth's last great migrations is going to be one of the greatest of all challenges facing conservationists. 

That it is an enormous challenge makes it not one bit less important. 

Will 'Godzilla' mega-drought cause global crisis?

Will this year’s El Niño drought turn into an eco-catastrophe?  In an article published today, ALERT's Susan and Bill Laurance say there are lots of danger signs already:

- because of its exceptional intensity, NASA experts have already labeled this drought "Godzilla", arguing it could be the strongest El Niño in living memory

- previous mega-droughts driven by El Niño have degraded large expanses of the Amazon, with a single fire consuming over three million hectares of drought-choked rainforest, farmlands, and indigenous territories in 1997-98

- fires spurred by past mega-droughts have rampaged across Indonesia and burned huge expanses of Borneo

- in New Guinea, the frequency of wildfires has already risen dramatically in recent months, currently running at about triple the rate of previous years

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea (Philip Shearman)

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea (Philip Shearman)

- worldwide, seven of the ten hottest years on record occurred during or immediately after an El Niño year

- Australia's Daintree Drought Experiment suggests that severe droughts could potentially devastate the region's rainforests

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

- rapidly expanding land-use changes, such as habitat fragmentation and logging, are making ecosystems far more vulnerable to droughts and fire

- as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources, greatly increasing fire risk

The article on the "Godzilla drought" -- which you can access here -- argues that we must take urgent action if we're to avoid battling a fire-breathing monster.