Are Australia's mysterious mammal declines spreading?

ALERT has previously reported on the enigmatic and alarming population declines of mammal species across northern Australia.  Now, it appears the declines could be even more widespread than previously suspected.

Bye-bye beautiful bettong?

Bye-bye beautiful bettong?

To date, the declines of smaller and medium-sized mammals, such as quolls, bandicoots, and native rodents, have been mainly documented in monsoonal forests and woodlands across Australia's top end -- such as those at Kakadu National Park, where the declines have been best studied

Additional research -- including interviews of Aboriginal communities in remote areas of northern Australia -- have shown the declines to be widespread in nature, extending over many thousands of kilometers. 

Now, recent research -- which has yet to be published -- suggests that the declines might even extend to northeastern Australia, to the wet tropical region of far north Queensland. 

In this area, live-trapping and camera-trap studies by Sandra Abell-Davis of James Cook University suggest that the tropical bettong, an endangered wallaby-like marsupial, may also be declining sharply.

Abell-Davis studied three areas that had formerly been live-trapped for the bettongs, using identical trapping methods.  She found that, on average, bettong numbers had fallen by more than 80%.

Abell-Davis emphasizes that her findings, while alarming, are still provisional.  She wants to trap more extensively for the bettong and use novel genetic analyses, to see if its numbers have fallen elsewhere in the region.  In fact, she is looking for volunteers to help with this important field work. 

A number of possible drivers have been suggested for northern Australia's mammal declines, with feral cats and altered fire regimes being among the leading suspects

Other suggested possibilities include foreign pathogens, changing rainfall regimes, overgrazing, foxes, and the introduced cane toad, which produces toxins deadly enough to kill virtually anything that eats it.

Whatever is going on, it raises frightening prospects for an Australian continent that has already suffered massive extinctions of its native mammals.

Study: Global urban footprint will triple by 2030

If you think cities are big and numerous now, just wait another 15 years.

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

By 2030, some 5 billion people will be living in cities -- many of them mega-cities that each sustain over 10 million residents.  And the total area affected globally by urban sprawl will triple, compared to that in the year 2000.

Those are just a few of the alarming predictions of a recent study by Karen Seto and colleagues, published in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Seto and her team also estimate that, by 2030, an additional 120 million hectares of land will be engulfed by cities -- an area the size of South Africa. 

Notably, some of the most dramatic urban expansion will occur in certain biodiversity hotspots -- regions with high biodiversity and large concentrations of locally endemic species that have already suffered severe habitat loss.

In fact, the most explosive urban expansion will occur in hotspots that have been relatively undisturbed so far by urban development.  These include the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspot.

In each of these biodiversity hotspots, the expansion in urban lands from 2000 to 2030 is expected to range from 900 to 1900 percent, according to the study.

Such changes reflect the dramatic growth in human populations still occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as increasing urbanization trends globally.

Other places slated for sharp increases in urban area include eastern China, Turkey, the Himalayas, and parts of Mexico.

The world that Seto and colleagues project is not a distant, dystopian future.  This is our near-term tomorrow. 

This will be our reality if we fail to address unbridled population growth in those regions of the Earth most at risk.

As Seto and colleagues show, our new reality will be a planet increasingly dominated by sprawling cities.  Whether those will be polluted, stressful cities or innovative, well-designed cities remains to be seen.

 

Palm oil chief grossly distorts facts about deforestation

Malaysia is one of the world's biggest producers of palm oil, but one of its top palm oil officials is again grossly distorting facts about the crop's role in deforestation.

Expanding oil palm in Sabah, Malaysia (photo by Rhett Butler)

Expanding oil palm in Sabah, Malaysia (photo by Rhett Butler)

At a recent conference in Borneo, Yusof Basiron, the dogmatic CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, argued that 80 percent of Sarawak's forests are "still undeveloped".  He further claimed that "there's no issue of deforestation", according to the Malaysian Star.

Basiron is full of bunk.  A recent scientific analysis showed that less than 20 percent of Sarawak is covered by intact forest.  Most of Sarawak's remaining forests have been heavily logged, and nearly 500,000 hectares of forest was felled for oil palm plantations between 1990 and 2010, according to a recent study.

Sarawak aims to convert nearly a million hectares of additional land to oil palm by 2020, according to the leading environmental website Mongabay.com.  Much of that hand is held under native customary rights, suggesting the potential for large social conflicts in the future.

Basiron is renowned for making ridiculous pronouncements.  For instance, he has argued that oil palm has not caused forest loss in Malaysia -- a laughable assertion

He has also claimed that orangutans benefit from oil palm plantations by feeding on palm fruit, but in fact orangutans are commonly killed as pests in and around plantations -- and the plantations are rapidly replacing the native forests in Borneo and Sumatra that the apes require.

Finally, Basiron has fought efforts to clean up the palm oil industry -- attacking sustainability commitments and zero-deforestation pledges by some of the world's biggest palm oil producers and buyers.  

Palm oil is expanding internationally at a dramatic rate.  It's an important and highly productive crop, but its net benefits are hugely diminished when it's allowed to drive the destruction of the world's most biodiversity- and carbon-rich forests. 

Spreading gross distortions and lies about oil palm -- as is increasingly the habit of Yusof Basiron -- does nothing to improve the credibility of palm oil advocates.

 

Illegal loggers murder Peruvian forest campaigner

Illegal logging isn't just an environmental crime; sometimes it's a crime against people too.

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth...

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth...

In Peru, authorities say prominent forest campaigner Edwin Chota was murdered by illegal loggers, along with three other men.  They were shot in front of their fellow villagers.

The murdered men were all members of the indigenous Asheninka tribe, which lives in the remote Peruvian Amazon near its border with Brazil.  

Chota, a community leader in the Ucayali region, fought to expel illegal loggers who raided their forests.  He was well known internationally, having been featured in reports by National Geographic and the New York Times

Chota had received a number of death threats from the loggers he fought, and had repeatedly asked for protection from the Peruvian authorities.

A local indigenous leader told a newspaper that illegal loggers bound and shot Chota and his companions in their village in front of its inhabitants.  He said the loggers were seeking revenge after having been reported to the authorities.

According to The Guardian, Chota's widow and other villagers had to travel for six days by river to report the crime to authorities. 

A leader with Peru’s largest indigenous federation, Aidesep, called on the Peruvian government to do more to protect indigenous people from criminal mafias.  “These logging mafias can kill our brothers with impunity,” he told The Guardian.

A 2012 World Bank report -- which you can download free here -- estimated that as much as 80% of Peru’s logging exports are harvested illegally. 

Globally, illegal logging is thought to cost developing nations around $15 billion in direly needed revenues annually.  This figure approaches $60 billion annually if the environmental costs of illegal logging are included.

Illegal logging is increasingly dominated by large criminal gangs or mafias, some of which do not hesitate to assassinate those who stand in their way. 

In recent years scores of forest guards, campaigners, and concerned citizens have fallen. 

 

Dramatic erosion of world's last intact forests

Since 2000, more than 100 million hectares of the world's surviving intact forests have been seriously degraded -- by logging, road building, fragmentation, and other disturbances. 

That's an area three times the size of Germany.

Forests under assault... (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault... (photo by William Laurance)

These are the conclusions of a new analysis and report by the Greenpeace GIS Laboratory, University of Maryland, and Transparent World, with help from the World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia.

The report focuses on "Intact Forest Landscapes" -- large expanses of remaining forest land that survive in pristine or near-pristine condition.  Key findings include:

• Since 2000, over 8% of the world's intact forests have been degraded

• Almost 95% of remaining intact forests are in tropical and boreal regions

• The largest areas of degradation were in the northern boreal forests of Canada, Russia, and Alaska, and in tropical regions such as the Amazon and Congo

• Canada, Russia, and Brazil contain nearly two-thirds of the world’s remaining Intact Forest Landscapes, and accounted for over half of all forest degradation

Road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, was a key driver of forest degradation, with fires and forest clearing for agriculture having big impacts in some regions

The new maps on which these analyses are based can be analyzed using tools on the cutting-edge Global Forest Watch platform.  This is a dynamic, online forest monitoring and alert system that can detect changes in near real time.

You can read more about the main findings in this press release

Kudos to the groups that produced this report for a vital and timely analysis.

 

Will mining company save or destroy the species named after it?

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements tell us about a conservation drama playing out in Malaysia. 

In Southeast Asia, the mining of limestone karst -- rugged mountains or pinnacles of limestone that are the remnants of ancient coral reefs -- is big business. 

In fact, the entire construction industry would grind to a halt if it wasn’t for a valuable commodity from karsts -- the limestone needed for cement.

Apart from being important sources of groundwater, limestone karsts are also key habitats for certain plant and animal groups that, in turn, provide important ecosystem services for humanity.

In particular, the nectar-feeding Dawn Bat, which is the principal pollinator for fruit-producing durian trees, require limestone caves to roost in.

As limestone karsts disappear across Southeast Asia, so will the bats, and the durian fruits along with them.

The famous durian fruit, much prized in Southeast Asia (photo from www.molluscan.com)

The famous durian fruit, much prized in Southeast Asia (photo from www.molluscan.com)

In Peninsular Malaysia, more than 500 limestone karsts are scattered across the landscape.  Because of their isolation from one another for millions of years, limestone hills only a few kilometers apart can host unique species found nowhere else on Earth.

 It's no wonder that these rugged geological formations are regarded as arks of biodiversity.

A limestone karst (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

A limestone karst (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

From one such limestone karst in the state of Perak, Malaysia, I discovered a bizarre snail species in 2008.  This snail, Opisthostoma vermiculum, is now the only land snail in the world with four axes of coiling.  It was also considered to be one of the top 10 species discovered in 2008.

Within the same state in Malaysia, scientists recently discovered a new snail species on another limestone karst, known as Kanthan Hill, that is currently being mined.  Aesthetically, the shell of this new species makes less of a statement than O. verimiculum, but it is making a huge statement in conservation circles.

The newly discovered Lafarge snail (from Vermeulen & Marzuki (2014) Basteria 78: 31-34)

The newly discovered Lafarge snail (from Vermeulen & Marzuki (2014) Basteria 78: 31-34)

The scientists who discovered this snail named it Charopa lafargei, after the international mining company Lafarge that owns the mining concession in which this snail was discovered. 

Kanthan limestone hill, home to a number of unique endemic species, including a new snail (photo by Ong Poh Teck/Basteria).

Kanthan limestone hill, home to a number of unique endemic species, including a new snail (photo by Ong Poh Teck/Basteria).

This endemic snail is already threatened with extinction because of Lafarge’s massive quarry.  It will soon be listed as a Critically Endangered Species. 

Apart from this snail species, Kanthan is also home to nine plant species on Malaysia's Red List of Endangered Plants, one Critically Endangered spider, one gecko, and two other land snails found nowhere else in the world. 

Lafarge has undertaken some initial steps to protect the unique Kanthan wildlife, including a biodiversity assessment.  This is, however, considered insufficient to secure the future of the endangered fauna and flora found there.

Now there are calls for Lafarge to engage leading international biologists to conduct surveys of plants and animals in and around the quarry, leading to habitat and species management recommendations that are publicly available and peer-reviewed.  Till then, quarry expansion should be prohibited.

Beyond this issue, what’s urgently needed is a conservation assessment that ranks limestone karsts in Malaysia according to their suitability for preservation or quarrying.  This national-level exercise should consider the biological, geological, economic and cultural importance of each individual hill. 

Unfortunately, getting funding for this from industry and government has been extremely tough.  But it's an urgent task -- the stakes for some of Southeast Asia's most unique biodiversity could not be higher.

Indonesia plans to destroy another 14 million hectares of forest

How big is 14 million hectares of forest?  Imagine an area five times the size of Belgium.  Or imagine 28 million football fields.

Expect lots more forest devastation in Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Expect lots more forest devastation in Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

That's how much native forest Indonesia plans to fell by 2020, mostly for industrial pulpwood and oil palm plantations -- and mostly on the mega-diversity islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where vast expanses of forest have already been lost in recent years.

Indonesia has become the world's biggest forest-destroying nation, overtaking Brazil for that dubious honor.  Annual rates of forest loss in Indonesia accelerated markedly from 2000 to 2012.

The plan to clear another 14 million hectares of native forest was confirmed last week by Hadi Daryanto, secretary-general of Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry. 

Much of the forest to be converted has been selectively logged, but recent studies have shown that such logged forests still sustain very substantial biodiversity and carbon storage, and still perform most of the important hydrological functions of old-growth forests.

In recent years Indonesia has accepted up to $1 billion in funding from Norway to help slow rates of forest loss and to improve forest management, in order to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. 

This latest announcement has many shaking their heads and wondering just what Norway's generous funding has actually achieved

 

Last chance to save the world's primary forests

ALERT member James Watson tells us about important new research on the world's last surviving primary forests.

The Congo’s primary forests as seen from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda (Photo © Liana Joseph)

The Congo’s primary forests as seen from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda (Photo © Liana Joseph)

Primary forests -- those largely free from industrial-scale land uses, and where natural processes still dominate -- provide maximum ecosystem benefits to humans and nature. 

Primary forests are essential for biodiversity conservation, and in the face of a rapidly changing climate they will provide critical refugia for many vulnerable species and sustain the maximum natural adaptive capacity.

However, new research by my colleagues and I -- which you can download free here -- has shown how threatened the world's primary forests are.  Just one-quarter of all primary forests still survive on Earth, with a mere 5 percent of these found in protected areas.

Despite increasing global awareness, annual rates of primary-forest loss remain as high as 2 percent in some countries.

Importantly, our study found that half of the world's primary forests occur in five developed nations -- the USA, Canada, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand -- and the time is ripe for these nations to show leadership and promote the conservation of remaining primary forests as an urgent matter of global concern.

This is critically important in international negotiations -- such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- as all fail to distinguish primary forests from industrial production forests, degraded forests, or even plantations.

Now is the time to underscore the vital importance of vanishing primary forests and their crucial benefits for nature and human welfare.

 

Where on Earth should roads go and not go?

"The best thing you could do for the Amazon is to blow up all the roads."

Road to ruin? (photo by Rhett Butler)

Road to ruin? (photo by Rhett Butler)

Those might sound like the words of an eco-terrorist, but it's actually a direct quote from Eneas Salati, a forest climatologist and one of Brazil's most eminent scientists.

Salati was saying it straight: far too often, roads open up a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- allowing illegal loggers, miners, hunters, or land speculators to invade forests and other native ecosystems.  The results are often disastrous for nature.

But societies need roads -- for economic growth, to access land and natural resources, and for scores of other reasons.  Where on Earth should roads go and not go?

Today, in the leading journal Nature, ALERT director Bill Laurance and a team of co-authors from Harvard, Cambridge, Melbourne, James Cook and other universities present a global strategy for road building. 

Their paper advances a strategy for zoning and optimizing road locations, by assessing the relative environmental costs and economic benefits of road construction for every square kilometer of land on Earth.

You can download the paper for free here

And here is an insightful News & Views piece that Nature published about the article. 

And here is a popular, easy-to-read article that hits all the key points.

This paper has striking implications.  It shows the most critical areas to keep road-free, the areas where roads can have the greatest benefits for improving human welfare and food production, and the places where environmental conflicts are most likely to arise in the future.

By 2050, it's expected that there will be 25 million kilometers of new roads -- enough to circle the Earth more than 600 times. 

Nine-tenths of these new roads will be built in developing nations that sustain the biologically richest and most environmentally important ecosystems on the planet.

Deciding where this avalanche of new roads will go -- and not go -- is among the most critical environmental challenges we have ever faced. 

Conservation priorities for Malaysia--a megadiversity nation in peril

A critical time for Malaysian nature...

A critical time for Malaysian nature...

It was a great conference -- with representatives from 45 nations and lots of outstanding research being reported (ALERT director Bill Laurance gave a keynote talk, and ALERT members Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, James Watson, and Pierre-Michel Forget also spoke).

SCB-Asia has released an important Resolution about priorities for conservation in Malaysia, which you can download here.  Following are a few of the key messages:

- It's urgent for Malaysia to take immediate actions to strengthen biodiversity conservation at both federal and state levels -- especially as the nation had the world's highest rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2012

- Safeguarding the nation's natural capital will be vital for Malaysia to meet its development goals while honoring its commitment to retain 50% of its land under natural forest cover

- It's crucial to support the Central Forest Spine master plan, which is a core strategy for conserving Peninsular Malaysia's remarkably biodiverse forests and maintaining connectivity among shrinking forest blocks

- Malaysia and its states need to strongly support the country's Multilateral Environment Agreements, such as the vital Heart of Borneo initiative

- It's essential to curb illegal encroachment in Malaysia's protected areas, including poaching and illegal logging and land clearing

Our congratulations to SCB-Asia for a terrific conference and for taking a leading role in promoting environmental conservation and sustainable development in Asia.

 

ALERT launches campaign to save imperiled Thai forest

ALERT is helping to spearhead an international campaign to oppose the Thailand government’s plan to dramatically enlarge a roadway through one of its most important natural areas. 

Big roads mean big impacts on wildlife (photo © WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong)

Big roads mean big impacts on wildlife (photo © WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong)

A press release from ALERT is being distributed today to over 800 media outlets worldwide.

A two-lane road, called Highway 304, cuts through the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai (DPKY) Forest Complex, a World Heritage Site in central Thailand renowned for its outstanding biodiversity.  Now the Thai government wants to enlarge it into a much larger, four-lane highway.

From an environmental perspective, this project is truly dangerous.

The DPKY area is a hotspot for nature — the largest tract of surviving forest in central Thailand and a globally famous tourist destination.  It sustains a wealth of wildlife including Asian elephants, Gaur, Dhole, Leopards, several species of hornbills and gibbons, and over 2,500 plant species.

ALERT scientists fear that a greatly enlarged highway will fragment the park’s wildlife populations, increase road kill of animals from fast-moving vehicles, and make it easier for illegal loggers and poachers to invade the park.

Unfortunately, plans to enlarge the highway were fast-tracked by the current Thai government, and there was minimal opportunity for expert opinion or public comment

Opposition to the road project has been led by a Thai environmental group known as the Stop Global Warming Association -- but that group and Thai conservationists direly need international publicity and support.

The United Nations could declare the area a World Heritage Site in Danger if the government doesn’t show a stronger commitment to protecting this globally unique ecosystem.

Many believe the plan to expand Highway 304 should never have been proposed in the first place.  Enlarging the highway could irreparably damage one of Thailand’s most vital ecosystems — and that would be a global tragedy.

In smoke-choked Asia, fires beget more fires

Southeast Asia is accustomed to intense smoke and haze from forest burning, but in June 2013 air pollution reached the highest level ever recorded -- hitting life-threatening levels in Singapore, for instance.  This alone was scary enough, but there is an even more frightening side to the story.

Scary new fire dynamic... (photo by William Laurance)

Unlike virtually all previous mega-fire events in the region, the June 2013 fires didn't occur during a drought.  That is unprecedented

Even in a year with normal rains, fires -- especially in central Sumatra, where forests are being devastated for oil palm, pulpwood plantations, and slash-and-burn farming -- raged out of control.

New research by David Gaveau and colleagues -- which you can download free here -- has uncovered an alarming explanation for this new fire dynamic. 

Previous degradation and burning of forests is making them hyper-vulnerable to new fires, even during relatively wet conditions.

Gaveau surveyed the aftermath of the Sumatra burning and found that much of it was caused by slash-and-burn farmers.  And most of the burned land was degraded forest or peat-swamp that had already been burned once before. 

The previous burning left behind dead and dying trees, stumps, and slash that became highly flammable with just a few days of dry weather -- unlike an intact rainforest, which only becomes flammable after a prolonged and intense drought.

Gaveau calls these degraded areas "forest cemeteries" -- places where damaged, regenerating forests become prone to a final, fiery death -- and spewing out massive quantities of greenhouse gases in the process.

Central Sumatra has become a poster-child for forest devastation, and now this new research shows that its damaged forests are far more prone to killer fires -- fires that can also have a lethal impact on human populations living in the region.

 

China's massive role in illegal logging

China produces more wood and paper products than any nation on Earth.  Sadly, much of it comes from illegal timber.

Bound for China...

Bound for China...

China's timber is mostly imported from developing nations -- especially from the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America -- as well as Siberia. 

And much of that timber is illegal -- effectively stolen, because no royalties or taxes are paid.  Or the timber is acquired by bribery.  Or it results from logging in places that shouldn't be logged -- such as national parks and protected areas.

Illegal logging takes a terrible toll on native forests and is a massive driver of deforestation and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.  It also robs developing nations of tens of billions of dollars yearly in direly needed revenues -- funds that could be used for schools and hospitals, for instance.

China has been criticized for its role in illegal logging for many years -- and for good reasons.  ALERT director Bill Laurance has frequently voiced his concerns -- for instance, see here, here, here, and here.

And now a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggests that China's belated efforts to limit illegal logging are far too limited. 

New logging guidelines issued by China -- which are entirely voluntary -- do not regulate importers of illegally-logged timber into China, said the EIA. 

Instead of voluntary standards, the Chinese government should establish binding and enforceable laws for its timber importers, just as the E.U., USA, and Australia have done.

“As the world’s biggest importer of illegal wood, and in light of extensive irrefutable evidence that Chinese companies are complicit in driving destructive illegal logging and timber smuggling, China needs to move beyond unenforceable voluntary guidelines and take unequivocal actions to prohibit illegal timber”, said the EIA.

Remnants of an Indonesian rainforest...

Remnants of an Indonesian rainforest...

China is playing with fire here.  As it fails to clean up its act, its wood-product-exporting corporations become increasingly vulnerable to boycotts and other consumer actions.  Such actions can have a big impact on a corporation's market share.

Of course, China is not alone.  For instance, South Korea, India, and Thailand are also major importers of illegal timber.

But when it comes to illegal timber imports, China is the biggest, hungriest bear in the room.  And so far this bear has done far too little to limit its burgeoning appetite for illegal timber.


Habitat fragmentation disrupts forest carbon cycles

We all know that fragmenting forests is bad for biodiversity.  But it's also bad for the planet -- because it screws up carbon cycles, makes forests more likely to burn, and promotes global warming. 

Fires... not natural in rainforests (photo by Mark Cochrane)

Fires... not natural in rainforests (photo by Mark Cochrane)

Prior studies, including those led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and ALERT member Tom Lovejoy, have shown that fragmented forests in the Amazon lose a lot of their carbon.  This is evidently because the hot, dry conditions near forest edges kill many trees.  Additional trees are snapped or toppled by wind gusts near edges.

This is bad news because the carbon stored in the trees eventually decomposes and ends up as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. 

Laurance and colleagues estimated that the fragmentation of tropical forests creates up to 150 million tons of atmospheric carbon emissions per year -- equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Great Britain.  And this 'fragmentation effect' is on top of the massive carbon emissions that result from forest destruction.

And now a new study shows that habitat fragmentation also slows down the rate of organic decomposition.  This occurs because the warm, dry conditions near forest edges inhibit wood-eating fungi, which are important decomposers.  In the new study, the rate of decomposition near forest edges was about half that in forest interiors.

This means that dead trees, limbs, leaves, and other woody material will accumulate near edges.  Why is this important?  What happens if you take a lot of fine woody material and dry it out? 

It becomes very, very easy to burn.

In the Amazon, fragmented forests are hugely vulnerable to fires.  Not only does forest fragmentation create a lot of dry, flammable material near forest edges, but cattle ranchers like to burn the pastures surrounding the fragments -- to control weeds and produce a flush of new grass for their cattle.  Many of these fires burn the forests as well.

The results can be devastating.  Satellite images show that fragmented forests in drier parts of the Amazon virtually 'implode' in the first few years after fragmentation -- the result of a withering recurrence of destructive, edge-related fires. 

The bottom line: One of the best things we can do for forests is not to fragment them. 

This isn't just about conserving a few pretty birds or butterflies.  By reducing forest fires and rampant carbon emissions, it's about keeping our planet more livable for all of us.

 

Cute, funny eco-videos to light up your day

Caring about the environment doesn't have to be all doom and gloom.  It can also be entertaining, informative -- and even funny. 

There's nothing to fear...

There's nothing to fear...

Here are three videos, sent to us by ALERT followers, that each teach us something different about the environment.  All are very short.  Be sure to watch all three.

1) Ratel's night out.  An amateur production from India that quickly tells us about efforts to study a rare and elusive animal, the ratel or honey badger (with thanks to Annapoorna Daithota).

2) Invasion of the yellow crazy ants!  A clever video that shows how invading species can disrupt nature, and what we can do about it (with thanks to Alice Crabtree).

3) Stop the environment -- before it stops us.  An irreverent look at environmentalism (with thanks to Thiago da Silva).

In an era in which technology is making it ever easier to produce and disseminate such videos, we shouldn't underestimate their capacity for reaching -- and hopefully influencing -- a diverse global audience. 

 

'Blood gold': Illegal miners devastating rainforests

How bad a threat is illegal gold mining to the world's rainforests? 

Mining moonscape in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Mining moonscape in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Have a look at these four short videos of illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon, Peru, Ghana, and Indonesia.  They clearly show the devastation wrought by illegal miners.

Alarming videos like these raise several issues:

- Widespread invasions of the world's shrinking wildernesses illustrate how rapid population growth and poverty conspire to imperil natural environments and indigenous peoples

- A key impetus for rampant illegal (and legal) mining is the rising price of gold

- Illegal mining is often an organized criminal activity that has much wider corrupting influences on societies

- Increased enforcement is direly needed to protect parks, wilderness areas, and indigenous lands from illegal mining 

- Government officials can be pressured to focus effort on enforcement if the public knows about -- and decries -- the illegal mining crisis

In recent years we've heard often about the severe social and environmental costs of 'blood diamonds' and 'blood ivory'.  Clearly, it's time we started talking about 'blood gold' as well.

 

Junk Food, Junk Earth

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud has had a gustatory revelation and lost nearly 10 pounds (4 kilograms) in the process.  He tells us how our own health and that of the Earth are inextricably linked:

I recently bumped into the book The New Evolution Diet by Art de Vany, an economist.  I was immediately convinced by his arguments.

Time to eat like a caveman...

Time to eat like a caveman...

For most of human history our ancestors ate meat, fish, vegetables, and fruits.  Our body is not well adapted to handle sugars or the toxicity of grains and milk.  We should strive to mimic the diet of our hunter-gatherer forebears.

Our ancestors also faced an uncertain world and their 'exercise' consisted mostly of long walks interspersed by occasional sudden efforts, like running from a hungry lion.

So, the natural complement to a natural diet is fun exercises involving bursts of intense exercise, such as sprints.  Eat as much as you want so long as you follow the natural diet, and exercise when you feel like it, for fun. 

Do this, de Vany argues, and you'll look like a tribal man or woman: lean, light, muscular.

What would happen if everybody adopted this 'evolutionary diet'?

Obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some arthritis would virtually vanish.  We would need more gardens, we'd replace cereals with tree orchards (which is good for the soil), and we'd rewild the Earth so we could have lean bush meat.

In addition, we should ensure that our rivers and oceans provide fresh fish and are not the waste dumps they are now becoming

Surprise!  Our ecological scenario might actually be far better than it is at present.

Those who create mathematical models have a saying: “garbage in, garbage out”.  This means that, independently of the quality of their models, if the data are bad, their conclusions are bad.

The situation with our food is analogous: “garbage in, garbage outside”.  If you eat the wrong food, you get the wrong Earth.

Logging sharply increases fire risk for endangered forests

The Mountain Ash forests of southeastern Australia are renowned for supporting the world's tallest flowering plants.  Sadly, clear-cut logging and fierce fires have devastated these once-magnificent forests, with just a tiny fraction of the original old-growth forest remaining.  Now a new study shows that logged forests are far more likely to burn than those that have never been logged.

Razed forests...

Razed forests...

The study, led by Chris Taylor and renowned forest-expert David Lindenmayer, was based on careful statistical analysis of past fire and logging histories.  It found that younger forests -- those logged 7-36 years previously -- were far more likely to suffer intense fires during dry conditions.

Logged forests, they found, had an altered structure and flammable slash in the understory, which made the forests much more vulnerable to intense fires.

The intense fires have a huge impact on native wildlife, particularly the endangered Leadbeater's Possum, which requires mature forest for survival.  Such mega-fires have also killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of homes and private properties in southeastern Australia. 

The authors argue that current logging is creating a long-term legacy, making the small patches of surviving old-growth forest much more vulnerable to devastating fires in the future. 

Halting industrial logging, they argue, is the only solution for the endangered Mountain Ash forests.

Explosion of illegal roads in the Amazon

The Amazon is the world's greatest rainforest.  Will it survive in perpetuity?  Those who study Amazon conservation fear one thing most of all: roads.

In wildernesses such as the Amazon, roads often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as illegal logging, colonization, hunting, and mining.  A new study shows a great deal of illegal road building in the Amazon, with loggers and ranchers likely being key culprits. 

Road to ruin... (photo by Rhett Butler)

Road to ruin... (photo by Rhett Butler)

A key finding of the study: For every kilometer of legal road in the Amazon, there are nearly three kilometers of illegal roads.

The study (which you can download for free here) was led by Chris Barber of South Dakota State University, a remote sensing expert, and included ALERT director Bill Laurance, who has long studied Amazon roads and their environmental impacts.

The study also found that 95% of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs within 5.5 kilometers of roads

This startling figure shows that, of all human activities, it is roads that most directly determine just where natural environments are likely to be destroyed and degraded.

Ecologists who study roads can be a little messianic at times, arguing that new roads in wilderness areas are an overriding proximate cause of environmental devastation.  Studies like that by Chris Barber and his colleagues show just why they fret so much. 

 

Big risks for the world's biggest coal mine

Nandini Velho, an outstanding young Indian researcher who is currently studying for her doctorate in Australia, is worried that Australians might be making a big mistake by launching what could eventually become the world's biggest coal mine.  Here's her take on things:

Anything for coal...

Anything for coal...

In 2012, the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, visited Mundra, a port and special economic zone located in the state of Gujarat in western India.  His trip to India promised “huge benefits.”

But here in India, Mundra usually reminds us of the poor track-record of the Adani Group, an Indian conglomerate that focuses on big energy and agribusiness projects. 

That's a serious worry because the Australian government has now given clearances for a truly massive coal mine in Queensland, known as the Carmichael Coal Mine -- to none other than Adani.

The projected carbon emissions from this mine -- most of its coal would likely be burned in China and India -- would exceed that of 52 different nations.  For instance, its resulting emissions would be four times that produced each year by the entire nation of New Zealand.

The poor track record of Adani is facilitated by well-oiled crony alliances with the Gujarat state government.  This is where Narendra Modi, India’s newly elected and scandal-tainted prime minister, formerly governed.

Political scandals in Gujarat state have become legend in India.  India’s Comptroller and Auditor General recently revealed the state exchequer (finance minister) has lost more than $20 million in just the first phase of the Adani-owned Mundra port.

In addition to such financial scandals, the Mundra port project has had serious environmental costs -- including large-scale destruction of mangroves, degradation of creeks, saltwater incursions, and encroachment of pastoral lands.  

In its pro-development zeal, the Queensland government evidently learned little about environmental risks, corruption, and predatory alliances during its visit to India.  And Australia's staunchly pro-development federal government seems just as oblivious.

Both might be in for some hard lessons if they choose to deal with Adani.