The hottest of the biodiversity hotspots?

Where's the planet's most biologically endangered real estate?  The answer might surprise you.

Can you guess what kind of cat this is?

Can you guess what kind of cat this is?

According to ALERT member Çağan Şekercioğlu, the answer is Turkey.  Çağan is an outstanding researcher and also directs the Turkish environmental organization KuzeyDoğa.  He shares his experience with us:

Turkey is the only country covered almost entirely by three of the world’s global biodiversity hotspots: the Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian, and the Mediterranean

At the nexus of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, Turkey’s location, mountains, and encirclement by three seas have resulted in spectacular biodiversity, making it ‘the biodiversity superpower of Europe’.

Of nearly 10,000 native vascular plant species, a third are endemic.  Large carnivores such as brown bear, wolf, Caucasian lynx, caracal -- pictured above -- striped hyena, and possibly even leopard, still roam the wild corners of this diverse country -- along with 78 million people.

Two papers I published in 2011 highlight Turkey’s growing conservation crisis, the worst in the country’s long and fascinating history.

Turkey’s globally important biodiversity in crisis” is a comprehensive overview of Turkey’s natural wealth and environmental problems.

Turkey’s rich natural heritage under assault”, published in Science, highlights the scale and extent of these threats -- in particular all the environmental laws that were weakened the past two years to make it easier to replace Turkey’s crucial habitats and protected areas with mines, dams, tourist resorts, and other types of “development”.

Not many places left for nature...

Not many places left for nature...

Turkey’s astonishingly rich biodiversity, especially for a temperate country of its size, is being destroyed rapidly.  

Unfortunately, Turkey lacks the biological ‘‘charisma’’ of many tropical countries and suffers from the international misconception that, as a nation that wants to enter the European Union, it must have adequate funds and priorities to support conservation.

These factors, combined with the Turkish public’s general disinterest in conservation and the government’s unrelenting pro-development obsession, have created a conservation crisis.

With Turkey’s biodiversity facing severe and growing threats, the country is now entirely covered by crisis ecoregions, most of them critically endangered.


Eco-crisis: The devastation of Borneo's forests

Warning: Do not look at this map if you don't want to feel depressed. 

The image shows how much of Borneo's biodiversity-rich forests have been destroyed or degraded in the last four decades -- and it's enough to ruin anybody's breakfast.

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species  (from Mongabay)

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species (from Mongabay)

From 1973 to 2010, the tropical rainforests of Borneo have been razed twice as fast as those elsewhere on the planet, according to a freely available study that just appeared in PLoS One.

In the paper, David Gaveau, Sean Sloan, and colleagues analyzed Landsat imagery to see how much of Borneo's mega-diversity forests have been cleared, burned, or degraded by industrial logging. 

It's not a pretty picture -- as also detailed here in the leading environmental website Mongabay.

In 1973, more than three-quarters of Borneo was blanketed by native forest, much of which was undisturbed or little disturbed, according to the study.

By 2010 nearly 17 million hectares of the forest -- an area larger than England, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined -- had vanished.

Echoing an earlier study that spanned all of Indonesia, industrial logging, oil palm, and wood-pulp plantations were apparently the biggest culprits, along with slash-and-burn farming.

Increasingly, large expanses of Borneo are dominated by selectively logged native forests.  As highlighted previously here at ALERT, these forests still retain considerable biodiversity and carbon, but are intensely vulnerable to being cleared or burned.

The challenge at hand for Borneo is clear, the study concludes.

It's vital to slow forest destruction, by safeguarding existing protected areas and especially by defending the selectively logged forests that now increasingly dominate the island.


Will an avalanche of private money help or hurt Africa?

"TRADE NOT AID".  Increasingly that's the catch-cry of some politicians and rock stars such as Bob Geldoff, when discussing Africa's future.  But will trade and private investment save Africa -- or merely open it up to predatory exploitation?

Tough choices ahead...  (photo by William Laurance)

Tough choices ahead... (photo by William Laurance)

That's a pressing question because Africa is in the midst of an investment gold-rushChina is investing over $100 billion annually just in African mining

Investors from India, Brazil, the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia are now pouring funds into ventures ranging from minerals and oil to infrastructure and timber. 

In the midst of this tidal wave, it's worthwhile to consider the trials and tribulations of one major effort to bring private investment to Africa -- a campaign that ultimately precipitated the suicide of the main investor, who had been heavily criticized for his efforts.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, writer Christiane Badgley tells the story of the U.S. corporation Herakles Farms and its ongoing attempt to establish a massive oil palm plantation in Cameroon.

But despite the almost-messianic leadership of its director Bruce Wrobel, Herakles Farms has come under fire both within Cameroon and internationally.

ALERT member Joshua Linder played an important role in this story, with help from other ALERT researchers including Tom Struhsaker, Tom Lovejoy, Corey Bradshaw, Lian Pin Koh and Bill Laurance. 

These scientists helped to raise the alarm about this project and its potential to have grave environmental impacts in a global biodiversity hotspot.

The issue of aid versus private investment for developing nations is not a simple one, but anyone thinking seriously about this issue needs to read Badgley's article. 

For Africa -- in the midst of an investors' feeding frenzy -- there are few easy answers and many dangers ahead.

Heated conservation debate over India's most critical ecosystem

The Western Ghats is India's biologically richest and arguably most imperiled ecosystem--not just a global biodiversity hotspot but considered one of the "hottest of the hotspots".

ALERT members Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar weigh in on a heated debate about the future of these imperiled forests:

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

Glowing reports on how well India’s forests are connected in the Western Ghats come at a time when there is active debate over laws with teeth that could potentially remove human encroachments in highly sensitive areas.  But unfortunately the media seem to be saying “all is well” in a very untimely fashion.

Reality is less rosy and the Western Ghats are replete with conservation proposals that never worked.

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is one of these.  The reserve lies at the center of the largest populations of Asian elephants and Bengal tigers in the world.  Since its inception 30 years ago, it has remained a set of separate reserves—never managed as an integrated whole, as should be the case for Man and Biosphere reserves.  There has been no improvement in the management of biodiversity and endangered wildlife, and the contrast between wild habitats and developed areas has never been so stark. 

The next buzz is a proposal to establish Ecologically Sensitive Areas.  This idea has been bulldozed by its proponents as the scheme that will save the Western Ghats.  However, it is basically an empty blue-print that says that most of the Western Ghats should be preserved—a consensus view ever since the Western Ghats were declared a global biodiversity hotspot.

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

In India, concrete, practical solutions are proposed every day without effect.  In 1995, for example, Stephen Sumithran proposed a beautiful plan to reconnect the habitats of the endangered Nilgiri tahr that would have tripled its population in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.   This plan had no effect on the ground because it was not implemented.

Grandiose schemes in the Western Ghats have only contributed to weakening conservation efforts because they have not been grounded in reality.  Their motto seems to be “think globally, don’t act locally”.

Debate about forest conservation scheme in India

Things are heating up in India.  ALERT member Priya Davidar and her colleague Jean-Philippe Puyravaud provide this perspective on a key conservation issue there.  Their focus is a plan to reconnect fragmented rainforests in the Western Ghats--some of the most biologically important real estate in India.

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Davidar and Puyravaud's comments follow:

The BBC article How India is building Asia’s largest secure forest network (20 March 2014) asserts that since 2012, the state of Karnataka has declared nearly 2,600 square kilometers of forests as protected areas, linking a series of national parks in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.  These forests would connect with adjoining forest areas in neighboring states.

We congratulate the Karnataka Forest Department for this initiative, but this information has not been made public in India.  Where there have been initiatives to add forests to the protected-area network, it is not at the scale indicated in the article.  Given the high price of land in India, the suggested plan would cost billions of dollars, far more than the entire budget of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

At present, the protected-area “network” in Karnataka is chopped up by highways, pipelines, dams, railroad tracks, and human settlements.  Wild elephants are dying there because they can't access water in the dry season.  Parks and reserves are under enormous pressure from fuelwood harvesting, cattle grazing, pollution, plant invasion, violent fires, poaching, and unmanaged tourism.  In some national parks, the tourism pressure is so high that connectivity within the protected areas themselves is threatened.

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

The BBC article comes at the same time that a proposed high-tension power line would slice through forests in the heart of the “secure forest network”, from Mysore to Kozhikode.  This project would be followed by a four-lane highway and railway line.  Funds have been sanctioned for surveys on these projects without considering alternative routes or proper environmental impact assessments.

The bottom line: Optimism about the proposed Karnataka Corridor needs to be tempered with caution.  These vital forests are far from secure and there are many challenges ahead.