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.

 

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.

 

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.


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'.


ALERT launches campaign to save imperiled Thai forest

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

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

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

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

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

From an environmental perspective, this project is truly dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperiled parks -- the 'new normal'?

Protected areas are our single best hope for conserving nature.  But as the human populace expands, more and more parks are facing a growing array of threats.  Are imperiled parks becoming the 'new normal'?

Too many pressures on parks... (photo by William Laurance)

Too many pressures on parks... (photo by William Laurance)

As examples, here's a smattering of recent news about imperiled parks:

- A British petroleum corporation will soon begin seismic testing inside Virunga National Park, a famed World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Just last week, Virunga's Chief Warden was gravely wounded by unknown gunmen, and in the last decade more than 140 park rangers have been murdered there. 

- In Thailand, illegal logging is so plaguing another World Heritage site, the Dong Phayayen - Khao Yai Forest Complex, that the IUCN has recommended it be classified as a "World Heritage Site in Danger".  The Thai government is now making a belated attempt to combat illegal logging in the park.

- A recent study by E. Bernard and colleagues has documented 93 instances in which national parks in Brazil have been downsized or de-gazetted since 1981.  Such actions have increased markedly in frequency since 2008, the authors say.

- As highlighted in recent ALERT blogs and press releases, national parks in Ecuador, New Zealand, and Australia are also facing an array of new challenges.

An apt analogy is the little Dutch boy, desperately sticking his fingers into a dyke that is springing ever more leaks. 

But what choice do we have?  Even a struggling park is far better than no park at all.