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 new land-use tsunami imperiling the tropics

Oil palm, oil palm, oil palm.  For years we've heard that a tidal wave of oil palm expansion is one of the biggest and fastest-growing threats to the world's rainforests.

But there's a new peril in town: rubber.  And it's also spreading like a destructive tsunami.

Spreading like wildfire

Spreading like wildfire

Two recent papers -- by Eleanor Warren-Thomas and colleagues and by Antje Ahrends and colleagues -- have underscored just how desperate the situation is becoming, especially in Southeast Asia.

As a result of escalating demand for natural rubber, plantations are increasingly gobbling up large expanses of land in Southeast Asia and the Asian mainland, as well as tropical Africa and Latin America. 

For instance, vast expanses of native forests have been cleared for rubber plantations in southern China,  which sustains many of that nation's biologically richest ecosystems

The current global production of rubber  (from Warren-Thomas  et al.  2015)

The current global production of rubber (from Warren-Thomas et al. 2015)

Warren-Thomas et al. see a rapidly worsening situation.  To meet expected demand, they estimate that from 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares of new rubber plantations -- an area up to three times the size of Belgium -- will be needed by 2024, threatening in particular significant areas of Asian forest, including many protected areas.

Expect especially rapid increases in rubber plantations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia, say the authors.

Ahrends and colleagues emphasize that rubber is now expanding into many areas that are ecologically marginal for rubber production.  In Southeast Asia, they estimate that 57% of the rubber plantations are currently vulnerable to droughts, erosion, frost, or wind damage.

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks  (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

In 2013, for instance, typhoons in Vietnam alone destroyed over $US250 million in rubber plantations.  And future climate change could make conditions across Southeast Asia even worse for rubber, they contend.

The worst news of all is that native forests and other habitats are often being cleared for rubber production.  For example, say Ahrends et al., between 2005 and 2010, over 250,000 hectares of natural tree cover and 61,000 square kilometers of protected areas were converted to plantations in tropical and subtropical Asia.

This is scary news for the environment, for it suggests that a 'second tsunami' of forest-destroying plantations for rubber could soon follow just on the heels of the explosive expansion of oil palm.

 

Rate of tropical rainforest destruction leaps by 62 percent

Globally, tropical rainforests are getting hammered even faster than we thought.  This is grim news indeed for the planet's biologically richest real estate.

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia  (photo by William Laurance)

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia (photo by William Laurance)

That's the conclusion of an important new analysis that used detailed Landsat data to assess deforestation rates from 1990 to 2010, in tropical nations that contain about 80% of the world's remaining rainforests.

The study, led by Do-Hyung Kim of the University of Maryland, USA, contrasted average rates of tropical deforestation between 1990 and 2000, and between 2000 and 2010. 

The authors found that the net rate of forest loss (the deforestation rate minus the rate of forest regeneration and afforestation) jumped from 4 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 6.5 million hectares per year in the 2000s -- a 62 percent increase overall.

In the 2000s, Brazil was the fastest forest-destroying nation worldwide, according to the authors.  However, its deforestation rate in Amazonia began falling in the mid-2000s and is now just 25% or so of its former rate.

Southeast Asia is the major tropical region in the worst shape, with less forest than either the New World or African tropics and the highest relative rate of forest loss.

Deforestation rates are relatively modest in Africa but are accelerating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar -- both vital hotspots for biodiversity.

Notably, the University of Maryland study differs in its conclusions from a major analysis by the FAO (United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization). 

The FAO study concluded that deforestation had fallen in the 2000s, relative to the 1990s, but the University of Maryland researchers say the FAO missed important centers of deforestation that were obvious in their satellite analyses.

Clearly, it's time to redouble our conservation efforts in the tropics -- or we may be remembered as the generation that stood by and watched the rainforests die.

 

 

 

What's the biggest killer of people in developing nations? The answer will surprise you.

If you had to guess the biggest killer of people in the developing world, what would you say?

A funeral pyre in India...

A funeral pyre in India...

HIV/AIDS?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Malnutrition? 

Nope.  Pollution.

According to a recent essay in Ensia magazine, in 2012, air, water, and other forms of pollutants killed some 8.4 million people in developing nations.  That's more people than died from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.

And by these measures, mortality from Ebola is a mere drop in the bucket.

Pollution not only kills people directly.  It often worsens or increases the incidence of other diseases, such as heart disease, cancers, respiratory diseases, chest infections, and diarrhea. 

Scientists are increasingly warning people with health concerns -- such as obesity, diabetes, and respiratory problems -- to stay indoors during periods of rush-hour traffic, when air pollution is heaviest.

Globally, some 9 million people die from pollution annually, according to the World Health Organization.  Given that over nine-tenths of these deaths occur in developing nations, it is apparent that deadly pollution is increasingly a problem concentrated in the developing world.

As Southeast Asia continues to see heavy smoke palls from forest burning that send thousands of people to hospitals, and as plumes from forest fires stretch for thousands of kilometers across the Amazon, we have to remember that environmental destruction doesn't just kill nature.

It kills lots of people too.

 

Roads to ruin: Southeast Asia's most environmentally destructive highways

Roads scare the bejeezus out of many scientists because they often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- such as unleashing illegal deforestation, logging, hunting, mining, and land speculation. 

Far too many roads are forest killers...

Far too many roads are forest killers...

For that reason it's crucial not to put roads in the wrong places -- such as wilderness areas, places with vital environmental values, or locales with lots of endangered or endemic species.

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) have just published a major analysis of the environmentally most damaging roads in Southeast Asia -- one of the most imperiled and biologically important areas of the planet

This analysis -- which you can download for free here -- identifies the worst roads in Southeast Asia, especially those likely to endanger native mammals and imperil surviving forests.

In total, 16 existing roads and another 8 planned roads were identified as serious 'nature killers'. 

These roads would imperil more than a fifth of all the endangered mammal species in the region, mainly by promoting forest destruction and illegal hunting and wildlife trade.  

A key element of the paper is 10 recommendations to limit road impacts in Southeast Asia.

Far too often, roads are the first step toward ecological Armageddon.  We all have to do more to educate the world about the crucial role that roads play in endangering nature. 

The paper led by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is an important step in the right direction.


In smoke-choked Asia, fires beget more fires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fire alert: Could 2014 be 'the year from hell'?

When it comes to wildfires, 2014 might be a doozy.

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

ALERT member Tom Struhsaker has passed along a recent news report about the intense smoke now blanketing much of Southeast Asia, thanks in large part to rampant forest burning in Sumatra.  This is doubly frightening given that rainfall in Sumatra has been normal in recent months.

In Sumatra, over 50,000 people have had to be treated for respiratory distress.  And so far more than 200 Malaysian schools have had to be closed because of the acrid smoke.

But things could get a lot worse.  Climate scientists have been agog at recent temperature readings in the Pacific Ocean, which have been 6 degrees Celsius higher than normal

Such high temperatures are a harbinger of El Niño events--and such high readings suggest we might be heading for a mega-Niño.  

That's a big worry, because El Niños can cause major droughts and monsoon failure in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as parts of the Amazon. 

Climatologists say we could suffer a severe drought like that in 1997-98, when wildfires razed large expanses of Borneo and Sumatra and the Amazon.  

Forewarned is forearmed.  Governments in the Asia-Pacific region and Amazon need to be ready to impose and enforce burning bans across vulnerable areas. 

Without such bans, 2014 might be the year from hell--both for people and forests.