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.


For wildlife, huge difference between different kinds of agriculture

We live in an increasingly human-dominated world, where once-intact native habitats are being rapidly fragmented into smaller 'islands' surrounded by a hostile 'sea' of human land-uses.  But for wildlife, not all human land-uses are equal.

Bobcats like having trees overhead

Bobcats like having trees overhead

A recent study in southern California shows that the bobcat, an important but shy wildlife species, is affected very differently by different types of farming.

Like most species, bobcats must move to survive.  Animals trapped in small habitat fragments live in populations too small to be viable.  Bobcats are therefore far more likely to survive if human-dominated lands surrounding habitat fragments are 'permeable' to their movements.

One way to make fragmented landscapes more permeable is to create movement corridors linking the fragments together -- what some have called "bandages for wounded landscapes". 

Another way is to use less-hostile types of agriculture that pose less of a barrier to sensitive species.  For bobcats, it turns out that orchards pose considerably less of a barrier to movements than do intensively cultivated row-crops such as maize, soy, and sugar beets.

Bobcats used row crops only rarely, and even then tried to dash through them quickly, evidently feeling highly vulnerable.  However, their movements in orchards were much more relaxed and similar to those in native habitats.

Studies in the tropics have similarly shown that agriculture that retains tree cover is often much more benign for nature. 

In the New World tropics, for instance, birds, bats, and many other species tend to be much more abundant in shade-cacao plantations (used for producing cocoa), where larger trees are retained or grown to shade the cacao trees, than in more intensively used lands. 

Bare-eyed antbird, an understory specialist in New World rainforests

Bare-eyed antbird, an understory specialist in New World rainforests

Wildlife diversity is especially high when native tree species are retained in the shade-cacao plantations, rather than using exotic fruit or timber species.  Another big bonus for wildlife is having native forest nearby the shade-cacao plantation.

However, shade-cacao is not a panacea for tropical species.  The most sensitive wildlife, such as understory birds, rarely use cacao and are mostly restricted to native rainforest.

The bottom line: native habitats are always the best, but when agriculture is unavoidable, not all types of farming are created equal.  Understanding how different farming methods affect wildlife -- and which wildlife species are most vulnerable -- will give us a leg up for managing and conserving nature.

Radio 'shock jock' attacks bid to silence eco-critics

Australian radio 'shock jock' Alan Jones is hardly a greenie. 

Jones in pontification mode

Jones in pontification mode

The flamboyant conservative commentator -- and wildly popular radio personality -- has declared that he doesn't believe in significant human-caused climate change and has suggested that Bob Brown, the former leader of the Australian Green Party, be taken out to sea and drowned.

So when someone of Jones' ilk comes out in strident opposition to the Australian government's scheme to hamstring eco-critics, it has to grab your attention.

What is going on? 

In a recent ALERT blog, we highlighted the scheme by the conservative Tony Abbott government to undercut its many environmental critics -- by making alarming changes to the country's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

This all arose over a government gambit to build one of the world's biggest coal mines.  After facing stiff environmental opposition, the Australian government responded by calling its opponents “vigilantes”.  It then proposed to wipe out the right of environmental groups to challenge decisions that violate the EPBC law.

This isn't the first time the Abbott government has attacked environmental groups -- but it might be the last, if Jones has his way.

Jones has lambasted the Abbott government, saying that "I may live nowhere near the Liverpool plains or the Great Barrier Reef, but I sure as hell am concerned that they are protected."

“The latest move by the Abbott government puts at risk not just our environment but our very democracy.  It is quite simply unbelievable," said Jones.

“This legislative restriction is divisive, it isolates us.  It means we are not allowed to care,” he said.

Jones has not attracted a lot of fans among the environmental crowd, though no one disputes he is unafraid to speak his mind. 

Maybe the Australian government will finally begin paying attention.  When a prominent and popular conservative turns around and bites it, perhaps it's time to start listening.


The divestment debate: Should we profit from climate-killing corporations?

Investors have long made money -- lots of money -- from corporations that exploit or trade in polluting fossil fuels.  As climate change worsens, calls to halt such investments have grown.  Here, Australian conservationist Wayne Branden outlines the case for divesting from corporations that profit while the planet burns:

“If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”  - Bill McKibben

An Urgent Task Ahead

In an effort to combat harmful climate change, 195 nations have agreed to limit average global temperature increases to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. 

This amount of warming could still possibly cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt, eventually raising sea levels by as much as seven meters.  Beyond that, it is estimated, things would get a lot worse.        

To have just a 50:50 chance of staying within the two-degree limit, it has been estimated that 88 percent of global coal reserves, 52 percent of gas reserves, and 35 percent of oil reserves must be left in the ground.  They must not be burned.  If they are burned, the analyses suggest, it will wreck our climate

And if these fossil fuels cannot be burned, then they will become stranded economic assets. 

Therein lays a serious conundrum -- because we are talking about really serious money.  Recently, Citigroup analysts suggested that stranded assets relating to fossil fuels could total up to US$100 trillion in value. 

Mining corporations don't want to hear any such nonsense.  The corporations intend to continue extracting all economically viable hydrocarbon deposits, regardless of their impact on the climate.  They have already discovered five times more hydrocarbons than can be safely burned without wrecking our climate.  And these corporations continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year -- exploring for more fossil fuels that must not be burned.

Big money, big power

The mining industry wields considerable political power -- notably in Australia and the U.S. -- but also in many other nations. 

Those who oppose big mining do so at their peril.  In Australia in 2010, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed a Resources Super Profit Tax on the mining industry -- which at the time was raking in massive profits. 

The miners ran an A$22 million public-relations campaign against the Rudd Government.  In just six weeks, Rudd was out, and the campaign had effectively un-seated a democratically elected Prime Minister

To prevent real action on climate change, corporations fund pseudo-science denialist groups.  They also hire public-relations advisers and lobbyists, and they donate to politicians’ election campaigns.  In this way, they have been able to strongly influence government policy and legislation.  

Do the Right Thing

In the fight against apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s, international divestment and economic embargoes helped to starve that regime of funds and legitimacy.  Divestment became a powerful tool in the battle to do what was right.

Divestment can also reduce the legitimacy of the big carbon-polluting corporations.  The global campaign to divest from fossil fuel industries has been led by an organization known as "".  Founded by Bill McKibben, it derives its name from the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide considered to be safe, 350 ppm. 

More recently, The Guardian newspaper has teamed with to run its own “Keep it in the Ground” campaign -- an effort to advance the divestment initiative.

Divestment can be undertaken at both personal and institutional levels.  Massive amounts of money are held in personal bank accounts and retirement funds.  In Australia, for example, all of the biggest banks are major investors in coal, oil, and gas projects. 

In Australia, banks are being pressured not to invest in a massive coal-mining project that would double Australia’s coal exports.  Environmental groups have successfully lobbied 12 major international banks not to fund this project.  Recently, Australia’s Commonwealth Bank also withdrew its support -- partly because of environmental pressures and partly because of declining coal prices.

Retirement funds are also invested heavily in fossil fuels.  Globally, around 55 percent of retirement funds are invested in fossil fuel projects, while less than two percent is invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy.  Some larger funds offer low fossil fuel-investment streams, and some smaller funds do not invest in fossil fuels at all.

Interest in fossil fuel divestment is growing, with more and more institutions pledging either partial or full divestment.  These include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association, and the Guardian Media Group.  This is just a sampling -- a full list can be seen here.

Universities Are Getting Smart Too

A growing number of universities -- from the U.S., UK, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere -- have also pledged to divest either partially or fully.  But they're catching plenty of heat.

In Australia -- where coal mining is king -- Australian National University dared to adopt a partial divestment policy in October 2014.  The Australian Financial Review subsequently ran 53 articles attacking ANU, twelve of them on its front page. 

The newspaper is owned by Fairfax Media, which includes among its shareholders Gina Rinehart, a mining billionaire. 

Such vigorous attacks suggest the mining industry sees divestment as a significant threat to their political power base.

Running Scared

By itself, divestment might not strongly affect the share prices of wealthy mining corporations.  But its effects could be potent nonetheless. 

It could weaken the moral license of big polluters, reducing their political power.  By stigmatizing the industry, it can limit its ability to do business and exert political influence.  It then becomes easier to convince governments to start doing better in terms of their policies and legislation. 

The divestment wave is growing.  And as it grows, more and more people will realize that coal, oil, and gas are bad investments.  Not just a bad and weakening source of profits, but a morally bad choice for our planet, our children, and our future.

Are degraded tropical forests worth saving?

Humans are increasingly dominating the tropical world.  For conservationists and researchers alike, a key question is this: To what degree will human-degraded habitats be able to sustain tropical biodiversity?

Conserving specialists is the trickiest part

Conserving specialists is the trickiest part

A new study by Ricardo Solar and colleagues, just published in the leading journal Ecology Letters, has some compelling answers for us.

The study involved ambitious field research on a range of organisms -- plants, birds, bees, ants, and dung beetles -- in the Brazilian Amazon.

The researchers found that intensive land-uses, such as cattle pastures and soy farming, basically blitz biodiversity. 

Only a small fraction of all species can survive in these heavily exploited areas, and they tend to be similar kinds of species -- disturbance-loving generalists that are good at living in highly degraded habitats.

Not much biodiversity here

Not much biodiversity here

The same pattern happens again and again, regardless of which group of organisms one is studying.  This consistency gives one a lot of confidence in the authors’ conclusions.  Intensive land uses such as crop production and ranching are generally really bad for biodiversity.

However, the authors also show that, for disturbed or regenerating forests, the pattern is more complicated.  In these areas, you can get richer and quite different sets of species living in different places. 

This means that these altered forests still harbor quite a lot of biodiversity, especially when one looks across the entire landscape and adds up all the different species living in the various kinds of altered forests. 

It’s not as much biodiversity as you’d find in undisturbed, old-growth rainforests, but there’s still a lot of biodiversity there.

Hence, any kind of forest has value for biodiversity -- even if it is quite heavily damaged. 

Old-growth rainforests are definitely the best, especially for conserving really specialized species.  But we definitely shouldn’t ignore the importance of forest regrowth, habitat fragments, and logged forests either. 

Moreover, above and beyond providing a home for biodiversity, disturbed or regenerating forests can play important roles in carbon storage, hydrological functioning, soil conservation, and water purification.

The bottom line: All forests are good.  The less disturbed they are, the better.  But we shouldn't ignore the value of any kind of forest for aiding tropical biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Australian government favors coal mines over environmental protection

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

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

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

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

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

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

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

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Forests and woodlands are still falling fast in Queensland.

Forests and woodlands are still falling fast in Queensland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More valuable than ivory

More valuable than ivory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

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

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

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

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

Illegal logging explodes in West Africa -- Chinese implicated

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

Victim of illegal logging

Victim of illegal logging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient African tree headed for China

Ancient African tree headed for China

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

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

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

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

Nineteen rangers killed trying to save forest elephants

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

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

Epic slaughter of wildlife and brave park guards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A caged loris ponders its fate

A caged loris ponders its fate

Worry about Laos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clinging to survival

Clinging to survival

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

Read the essay here

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


China screams about arrest of its illegal loggers

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

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China's addiction to timber

China's addiction to timber

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

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

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

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