Ten ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction

Anthony Barnosky is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and he's one smart dude.  He's just written a brilliant essay entitled "10 ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction". 

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

As we all know, we are living in an age of biodiversity crisis.  Some believe we could lose up to three-quarters of all species on Earth in the coming century

Others believe the extinctions will be less severe, but even optimistic estimates suggest the age of humans -- the Anthropocene -- could be one of the greatest extinction events in Earth's 4.5-billion year history. 

Barnosky emphasizes that there's still time to avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction, but we need to pull our thumbs out and get moving -- today. 

We briefly summarize his 10 key messages below.  See his original essay for details about each suggestion:

1. Spread the word, to your family, friends, co-workers, and social media circle: the extinction crisis is real.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint.

3. Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.

4. Eat fish from only healthy fisheries.

5. Eat less meat.

6. Never, ever buy anything made from ivory -- or from any other product derived from threatened species.

7. Enjoy nature.

8. Adopt a species or become a citizen scientist.

9. Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women's rights to education and healthcare.

10. Don't give up.

Bottom line: We are not doomed to any particular fate, but we will be if we fail to confront the growing extinction crisis. 

A planet that's too hostile to sustain much biodiversity will not be a good place for people to live either.

 

Export markets are driving much of tropical deforestation

Why are tropical nations cutting down their forests?  Is it to feed and house their people?  To provide goods for their domestic markets?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Not so much.

In fact, a lot of deforestation is happening so that tropical nations can export stuff -- especially agricultural goods, timber, minerals, and oil -- to consumer nations. 

And who are the big consumers?  At least for major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy, and timber, the European Union and China rank as the biggest importers.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, an independent think-tank based in London and Washington, D.C.

The analysis focused on six of the most important tropical nations -- Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea -- as well as Argentina and Paraguay.  These countries produce a big chunk of the four internationally traded commodities (beef, soy, palm oil, timber) that were the focus of the study.

The study found that about a third of all deforestation could be directly attributed to those four export commodities.  And if one includes beef production in the Amazon, which is mostly 'exported' to the major population centers in southern Brazil, then exports of the four commodities account for a whopping 57% of all deforestation.

In all of the studied countries except for Bolivia and Brazil, export markets were the dominant drivers of deforestation.  Moreover, for most of the eight countries, the importance of export markets as a driver of deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions increased over time.

What this says is that much of tropical deforestation is being driven not by the needs of local people, but by growing global demand.  The E.U. and China are big sinners, but there's plenty of blame to spread around among other nations.

A lot of the food and timber we consume comes from tropical nations.  We all want to live well, but there is no free lunch.  Somewhere, a chainsaw is roaring and a bulldozer growling so that we can have cheap food and timber.

 

A plea to stop the land-grabbing in New Guinea

ALERT is reposting here parts of a recent blog by Lester Seri, a traditional landowner in Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea. 

Lester belongs to the Wo Ari Kawo tribe.  He is a Coordinator for Oro Communities Environmental Advocacy Network (OCEAN) Inc., which campaigns against illegal land, logging and oil palm issues in Papua New Guinea.

Earlier this week ALERT began a campaign against the massive land-grabs in Papua New Guinea known as Special Agricultural and Business Leases.  Lester's tribe is being plagued by one such land-grab.

A vista from Collingwood Bay (photo by Erik Wakker)

A vista from Collingwood Bay (photo by Erik Wakker)

My name is Lester Seri, and I have been mandated by the Wo Ari Kawo Elders to speak on behalf of them on Tribal land matters.

I am writing to you today because the people of Collingwood Bay urgently need you to support our struggle. 

My people -- the Maisin people -- along with our neighboring communities in Collingwood Bay have been fighting to protect our customary lands from illegal land grabs for logging and palm oil development for nearly three decades.

In 2002 we won a four-year court battle against the government for illegally leasing our land for logging and palm oil projects without the consent of the customary landowners. 

Yet, in 2012 this SAME land area was leased again to suspect middlemen landowner companies and ultimately sold to Malaysian palm oil company Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK).  When I and several other landowners heard that our lands had been leased without our consent again, we took our case to court once more.

In May of this year, the National Court of Papua New Guinea declared the two leases claimed by KLK illegal again and ordered them to be cancelled.  While this court victory was important, KLK has not yet left Collingwood Bay and our struggle continues.

The people and the forests of Collingwood Bay need your support now more than ever.  Please stand with us now and tell KLK to leave Collingwood Bay immediately! 

KLK was forced to give up two leases on customary lands through the court case, but the company still claims a third lease in Collingwood Bay called Lot 5.  In recent communications, KLK has stated that it has no intentions to leave Lot 5, despite the fact that it is within Maisin customary lands and holds primary forest and small patches of ‘kunai grass’ that our people use annually for game hunting.

As a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and through its own voluntary commitments, KLK has also pledged not to clear primary forests, High Conservation Value Forests, or High Carbon Stock forests, so there is absolutely no way KLK can develop palm oil on Lot 5.  Therefore, there is absolutely no reason for them still to be here, yet they are.

Rainforests being cleared for oil palm in New Guinea

Rainforests being cleared for oil palm in New Guinea

Join me in telling KLK it’s time to pack its bags and leave Collingwood Bay for good. 

Our people have been fighting companies like KLK for too long, and we are fed up with their attempts to undermine our local economies and culture and rob us of our rich natural resources.  Our paramount chiefs have said no to these forms of development, and they have said no to palm oil development in Collingwood Bay.

The forests and cultures of the Collingwood Bay people are at stake if KLK proceeds.  We urgently need your voice to send this message to KLK loud and clear: No palm oil development and no KLK in Collingwood Bay!

In solidarity, Lester Seri.

ALERT's campaign to defend Papua New Guinea's rainforests

Today, ALERT is launching a press release to highlight a serious peril to the rainforests and indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a South Pacific nation with one of the world's largest surviving tracts of tropical forest.  And it is among the most culturally diverse regions on Earth, with more than 800 distinctive tribes, each with their own unique language.

But in recent decades the forests of PNG have come under assault from predatory logging, land-clearing, and mining.

Some of the worst offenses are known as 'Special Agricultural and Business Leases' (SABLs).  SABLs span a vast expanse of PNG -- more than 5 million hectares -- over 11% of its entire land area.

The SABLs are notorious not only for their serious environmental impacts, but also because they are seen as corporate land-grabs that are robbing indigenous groups from their traditional land rights. 

Most of these leases are for 99 years in duration -- an eternity for an indigenous group that relies on its forest and traditional lands for survival.

The PNG government initially set up the SABLs as a way to encourage large-scale development, such as oil palm plantations.  But many of the SABLs have been snapped up by foreign logging corporations that are using them to dodge PNG's forestry laws -- to log the rainforests illegally.

In response, there has been an outcry in PNG, especially from indigenous groups.  This eventually forced the government to launch a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the SABLs.

The Commission found so many problems, abuses, and outright illegalities that it recommended the government cancel or phase out most of the SABLs.

But the PNG government has so far failed to do so -- at least for the biggest and most damaging SABLs.  Why?  There is a distinctive whiff of something not right here.

ALERT's press release, on the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia next month, underscores a critical peril to one of the world's most biologically and culturally diverse regions.

 

The man who loves global warming

Alan Oxley is a man many people love to hate.  Why? 

Inhale deeply and it'll all be fine...

Inhale deeply and it'll all be fine...

Oxley, a former Australian trade ambassador, is one of the leading hired guns for environmentally damaging industries -- such as big coal miners, rainforest loggers, and oil palm producers. 

Oxley's latest stunt?  He's fighting the efforts of universities and other shareholders to divest from heavily polluting industries, such as massive coal mines and other fossil fuels.

Coal, after all, is just about the worst fuel imaginable from a global-warming perspective, because it has such a high carbon density China's growing reliance on coal -- it's now building an average of one new coal-fired generating plant per week -- is a key reason why it's blasted past the U.S. to become the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Thanks to massive coal consumption, China's carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed.

Thanks to massive coal consumption, China's carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed.

Oxley's latest crusade follows notable divestment initiatives by Stanford University and, most recently, by Australian National University.  That two leading academic institutions are selling off their investments in industries that drive global warming is sending a chill down the spines of those heavy polluters.

The fact that Oxley has joined the fray shows just how nervous the big polluters are becoming.  Rushing to Oxley's aid was the arch-conservative Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who also criticized Australian National University.   

The big polluters are not really worried about losing investments from a few universities.  They are, however, petrified by the thought that this trickle of divestment initiatives could become a flood -- that it could become positively unfashionable to invest in big polluters.

For that reason, the big coal miners are happy to keep lining the pockets of Alan Oxley -- the man who seems to love global warming.


ALERT confronts US Ambassador about roads

U.S. Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn loves roads.  He sees them as the salvation for many of the world's ills.

If only we had more roads, he argues in a recent essay in National Geographic Online, then rural communities worldwide would be happier, healthier, and wealthier -- and even less likely to be harassed by extremist groups that prey on isolated communities.

In truth, Ambassador Quinn has a point -- but he is only telling half of the story.  Roads are often good for people but can also be devastating for the environment.  The trick is to decide when roads are environmentally 'good' or 'bad'.

ALERT director Bill Laurance has written an opposing essay in National Geographic Online -- one that tries to bring a bit more balance to the issue of roads.  It's worth two minutes to read this rebuttal.

Laurance argues that roads should generally be avoided in wilderness areas, parks and other protected areas, and places with concentrations of endangered or locally endemic species.

Sadly, roads are expanding explosively today, and far too many roads are 'bad' -- opening a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as poaching, illegal deforestation and forest burning, illicit gold mining, and predatory land speculation.

We are living in the most dramatic era of road expansion in human history.  It is estimated that, by 2050, we will have another 25 million kilometers of roads -- enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.  Nearly every surviving wilderness area on Earth -- from the Amazon to Siberia, and New Guinea to the Congo Basin -- is under assault from roads. 

From an environmental perspective, we are blazing along a road to ruin

Let's hope that road enthusiasts like Ambassador Quinn start to get the message.  Roads are, at best, a double-edged sword. 

And far too often, the sharp edge of the sword is pointed at nature's throat.

ALERT's campaign to save island paradise from loggers

ALERT today is launching a campaign to help tell the world about Woodlark Island -- a small but important paradise off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea.

At least 42 different species -- including the beautiful Woodlark cuscus, a native marsupial -- are endemic to the island, living nowhere else on Earth.  And the island has harbored traditional cultural groups who have lived there sustainably for thousands of years.

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

That's alarming because a Malaysian logging company is about to assault Woodlark Island, with plans to log up to half of the island using heavy-handed industrial extraction methods.

Many of the island's native landowners are worried, because the foreign logging company, Karridale Limited, has evidently secured logging rights to the entire island.

Much remains unknown about Karridale Limited's intentions.  The company has been far from forthcoming about its plans, and has been accused of consulting inadequately with the island's traditional inhabitants.

This is an issue to watch closely.  Careful, small-scale logging is one thing.  But far too often, aggressive Malaysian logging corporations have run rough-shod over native forests and peoples

Today, ALERT is issuing a press release to over 800 media contacts about Woodlark Island -- urging those who care about nature to watch over and defend this small but unique corner of the world. 

The future of an island paradise is at stake.

Please share with your networks.

Sign petition to help stop Thailand 'death-trap' highway

ALERT has been leading international efforts to oppose a scheme that will imperil one of Thailand's most important protected areas (see here for an earlier blog).

Death-trap for a river otter

Death-trap for a river otter

The protected area is the the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai (DPKY) Forest Complex, a World Heritage Site in central Thailand renowned for its outstanding biodiversity. 

The Thai government wants to enlarge an existing road through the heart of the park into a much larger, four-lane highway. 

From an environmental perspective, this project is truly dangerous -- greatly increasing the potential for road-kill of wildlife as well as incursions of illegal hunters and loggers into the park.

In response to our initiative, the German group Rainforest Rescue has launched an online petition that has so far collected nearly 60,000 signatures. 

The petition will soon be presented to the Thai Government via its Ambassador in Germany and to the Thai tourist board.

Please sign this petition.  It'll just take 30 seconds to add your voice to a growing global chorus of concern about this ill-advised 'death-trap highway'.


Will new supercrops feed the world and help save nature?

We live in a hungry world -- and one that will soon grow much hungrier.  Global food demand is expected to double by mid-century because of rapid population growth and changing food habits.  Producing that much food could require a billion hectares of additional farmland -- an area the size of Canada.

But if we develop new high-yielding 'supercrops' and farm them intensively, could we feed the world with less land and thereby spare some land for nature?  Many have argued in favor of this idea.

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

But a new study published in the leading journal Science suggests the opposite: supercrops will actually encourage more habitat destruction for agriculture, especially in the species-rich tropics.

The authors argue that new varieties of palm oil, which are highly productive and profitable but grow only in the tropics, are simply going to keep spreading apace.  That's because there's so many different uses for palm oil, including for many food items, cosmetics, and biofuels, that demand for it will remain high.  

And, as palm-oil production rises, its price will likely fall, meaning that it will increasingly out-compete other oil-producing crops, such as canola (rapeseed), sesame seeds, and peanuts.

This, the authors say, will simply shift the footprint of agriculture from areas such as North America and Europe to mega-diversity regions such as the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What's the answer to the tsunami of oil palm and other profitable tropical crops?  There really is only one alternative: we need proactive land-use zoning to determine where agriculture should and should not go -- to ensure it doesn't just overrun nature.  And we need better law enforcement to reduce illegal deforestation.

And we direly need to limit the explosive expansion of roads into wilderness and high-biodiversity areas.  By 2050, it's expected that we'll have an additional 25 million kilometers of new paved roads -- with nine-tenths of these in developing nations that sustain many of the world's biologically richest ecosystems.

There really is no other option.  Supercrops may help feed a hungry world, but if they're not constrained they will destroy much of nature in the process.

 

Global rally against devastating wildlife poaching

The last few decades have been deadly for wildlife.  Since the 1970s, over half of all animals on Earth -- mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish -- have disappeared, according to a major analysis by WWF.  And overhunting -- often by illegal poachers -- is one of the biggest reasons.

Mom killed by poachers...

Mom killed by poachers...

In response, there's just been the first-ever global rally against poaching, focusing specifically on the devastation of elephants and rhinos.  In 136 cities and towns across six continents, thousands of demonstrators voiced their strident concerns about this issue.

The rally echoed the stark messages of the WWF Living Planet Report, which assessed the state of 10,380 populations of 3,038 wildlife species across the Earth.

According to the report, the situation is worst in poorer countries, where wildlife numbers have fallen by 58% on average, between 1970 and 2010.  Latin America had the biggest declines, with 83% of all animals lost in the last 40 years.

Some of the most imperiled species include African forest elephants, whose numbers have plummeted by an estimated two-thirds in just the last decade, following a massive rise in poaching for ivory.

Marine turtles have fared just as badly, falling by 80% in abundance in the last 40 years, the report concludes. 

As the situation grows more desperate for many species, some conservationists are beginning to devise innovative tactics in an effort to combat poaching.  For instance, an Australian-led team is using research on human behavior in an effort to modify attitudes toward rhino poaching in Vietnam.

In Kenya, the situation has grown so desperate that shoot-to-kill orders have been given to park ranges in an effort to combat heavily-armed poachers.  Globally, hundreds of park and wildlife rangers have been murdered by poachers in recent years.

The global rally against poaching is an admirable attempt to raise awareness about the critical role of illegal wildlife hunting.  It's come not a moment too soon. 

 

It's not just big corporations that are killing Indonesia's forests

Corporations are easy targets as environmental bad-guys -- they're big, faceless, wealthy entities.  And in countries like Indonesia, many corporations -- including oil palm, wood pulp, timber, and mining companies -- have had bad environmental records.

But it's an oversimplification to blame the corporations for everything, as Indonesia-based conservation scientist Erik Meijaard argues in a recent editorial.

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

Meijaard homes in on an uncomfortable truth: half or more of all forest destruction is evidently caused by smallholders -- farmers and locals who burn or log forests, often illegally.

In a recent email message, Meijaard adds that deforestation is also being driven by small- and medium-scale investors.  "These are not small, poor, disadvantaged farmers, but government and law enforcement officials, local legislature members, local business people."

One key problem is that the rule of law in Indonesia is so lax, and corruption so rampant.  Even those who get caught usually find it easy to bribe their way out of trouble.

Indonesia's newly elected president, Joko Widodo, was originally trained as a forester, and he is being urged to follow through on his campaign promises to "eradicate illegal logging, illegal fishing, and illegal mining" and "enforce environmental laws".

In politics, promises are cheap.  Action is what counts.  And despite plenty of talk and promises in the past, Indonesia now has the world's highest rate of forest loss.

A number of mega-corporations in Indonesia have recently pledged to halt their forest-destroying ways.  The jury is still out on these promises.

But it's going to take a broader effort -- to enforce the law and protect environments from all illegal exploiters, large and small -- to save Indonesia's vanishing forests.

 

Our biggest environmental crisis -- by far

The Ebola epidemic.  The Syrian crisis.  The murderous Islamic State campaign. 

These might sound like serious worries at the moment, but by the end of this century they'll seem about as frightening as a cricket match.

Our biggest crisis

Our biggest crisis

Why?  Because the Earth will have up to 13 billion people then, according to the latest demographic projections.  And the population won't even have stabilized yet.

These are astounding conclusions, and they result from the most robust population projections yet conducted, by a team of leading demographers using the latest United Nations data.  The results appeared recently in the world-leading journal Science.

Why does our population continue to skyrocket?  A key explanation: Africa.  Unlike much of the rest of the world, fertility rates (the average number of children borne per woman) haven't fallen in Africa. 

Fertility rates have also remained stubbornly high in the predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East -- and these are growing rapidly as well.

Conclusions like this should scare us all, but Europeans should be petrified.  Legal and illegal immigrants are already streaming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, in some cases causing serious social and economic conflicts. 

Concern over this has led to a resurgence of anti-immigration political parties across Europe.   

But imagine the situation in the year 2100, when Africa's population has quadrupled.  When the population of Nigeria -- already teetering on the edge of political and economic chaos -- has increased by 500%. 

Today's steady stream of desperate immigrants will become a tsunami.

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

There's one vitally important lesson here: It doesn't have to be this way.  Populations in Africa and the Middle East are exploding because women there don't have access to adequate family-planning information and contraception

It's also happening because educational and economic opportunities for young women are inadequate.

There's a very simple way to stabilize population growth.  Delay the age of reproduction.  If a woman has her first child at, say, 23 years old, instead of 18, everything changes.

She has fewer children.  Those children are better-off economically.  As a result, they have better educational opportunities, and are healthier.  And rates of divorce and domestic strife are, on average, much lower. 

As they grow up, children from such families are far less likely to become involved in crime, or to be unemployed and socially disenfranchized -- a key correlate of violence and radicalization of young people by extremist groups.

It all comes down to delaying the age of reproduction -- everything else follows from this one simple change.

If we want to avoid a truly calamitous future, we have to tell our politicians -- loudly and emphatically and often -- that they must invest in family planning and educational opportunities for young women. 

It has to happen now -- today.  And our biggest focus should be Africa and the Middle East, as well as other rapidly growing regions of the developing world. 

Forget about the latest screaming headlines -- the crises of the moment.  This is our biggest crisis -- the one that, most of all, will determine the ultimate fate and health of our planet.

 

Climate change could threaten our beer

OK, now it's getting serious.

Enough is enough!

Enough is enough!

We all know that climate change is threatening our environment.  And our economies.  And our livelihoods. 

But now it appears that climate change could imperil the very foundations of our society.

Our beer.

That's right -- in a recent meeting with Australian Green Party Leader, Senator Christine Milne, researcher Peter Gous emphasized the likely impacts of global warming on beer production.

"It only takes one hot day" to destroy a crop of grain, said Gous.

This is a frightening prospect given that state-of-the-art climate models project up to a 1.5-degree Centigrade (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in average temperature by 2030. 

Add that on top of your average heat-wave, and you could get a serious crop-killer.

This is just one example of the complex -- and often highly disturbing -- ways that climate change could affect our future.

A forthcoming book, Climate Peril, by author John J. Berger, attempts to tease out many of these potentially alarming effects -- on nature, the economy, human health, society, and national security.

According to Berger, we're missing the boat by failing to consider critical interrelationships among effects such as drought, fire, disease, water shortages, habitat destruction, endangered species, resource collapse, energy production, and the economy.

Although a top-flight scientist and energy expert, Berger's book is remarkably easy to read. 

He argues at the outset that there's almost no way we're going to limit global warming to a 2-degree Centigrade (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) increase in average temperature, as many have hoped.

He then shows, again and again, how climate change is likely to provoke cascades of destabilizing changes.

To select just one from a wealth of examples: a strong drought can destroy crops and livestock, which in turn impacts on food processors, farm-equipment suppliers, and labor markets. 

This in turn can grind down local and regional economies, depressing real-estate values.

And this can then force economically stressed people to migrate elsewhere, weakening the social fabric of a community, harming mental and physical health, and promoting domestic violence.

Berger's book is one of the very best I've seen on climate change -- on understanding how it could impact on virtually every facet of our life, society, economy, and environment.

There's a lot more at stake here than just our beer.

 

ALERT urges Indonesian president to protect imperiled forest

ALERT has joined an international effort to urge the outgoing Indonesian President to protect the spectacular Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra -- the only place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinoceros still coexist.

Final refuge for a vanishing world

Final refuge for a vanishing world

The Leuser Ecosystem is severely imperiled by massive road-building and development schemes, as well as illegal logging, mining, poaching, and forest burning. 

In December 2013, ALERT issued its very first press release, its first major conservation campaign, and its first international petition drive in support of efforts to protect the Leuser region.

The Leuser conservation campaign is growing -- first with an outpouring of support from scientists, academics, and economists around the world for nominating the Leuser Ecosystem as a World Heritage Site.

Then came the historic Tripa court case -- which levied a massive fine against palm oil company PT Kallista Alam for illegally clearing peat swamp forest in Leuser.  The company's director was sent to prison.

And then a delegation from the European Union visited Aceh to offer the Governor there support for a more sustainable development plan for Aceh, including the Leuser Ecosystem. 

A key focus of these efforts is cancellation of the so-called "Aceh spatial plan", which is seen as a major threat to the region.

ALERT is co-signing an open letter to the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, urging him to cancel the Aceh spatial plan before leaving office next month.

The letter to the President will be featured in a press release in Jakarta next week, on the eve of the U.N. Climate Summit in New York, which the President will be attending.

The President has frequently claimed to support efforts to protect Indonesia's native forests, which have suffered massively in recent decades.  He now has an opportunity to do so -- helping to save a spectacular jewel of Indonesia before the eyes of the world.

Organizations and influential individuals who wish to co-sign the open letter can do so by immediately contacting leuserecosystemwhs@gmail.com.

 

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.