The Indonesian Inferno: A Completely Preventable Crisis

Could things be any crazier in Indonesia?

Forests engulfed in flames

Forests engulfed in flames

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy human toll

Heavy human toll

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

 

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.

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.