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.

 

Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave  (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics  (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

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. 

 

Eco-crisis: Deadly assaults on park guards growing

Defending nature can be dangerous work.  Just ask the park guards at Virunga National Park in the Democratic of Republic of Congo.

Peril abounds for gorillas (photo by John Fa)

Peril abounds for gorillas (photo by John Fa)

In the last decade more than 140 guards have been killed at Virunga in an effort to hold at bay poachers and armed militant groups.  The park is a World Heritage site, famous as home to a quarter of the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas, and an abundance of other African wildlife.

The latest victim of violence is the Chief Warden of Virunga, Emmanuel de Merode, who is also a member of the Belgian royal family.  Merode was shot and gravely wounded on Tuesday by three gunmen in the park. 

For years, Merode had led efforts to defend the park and its wildlife from a growing tide of lawlessness in the region. 

Park guards in many parts of the world have died while attempting to defend their reserves from illegal poachers, gold miners, loggers, and drug traffickers. 

The assault on a royal is underscoring what for many is seen as a growing crisis: A rising tide of violence and criminality among poachers and encroachers, which often operate in organized gangs.

Guards also struggle to hold at bay growing numbers of impoverished people living near parks--people who see the wildlife, timber, and other resources in parks as a potential source of food or income. 

Just as those who fight bravely in wars are often hailed as heroes, we should also recognize the gallantry of those who are fighting--and even dying--to protect Earth's most vital places.