Killing Koalas and Poisoning Prairies

ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, editor of the popular blog ConservationBytes, has just published a high-profile book on the environment, in concert with Stanford University luminary Paul Ehrlich.  He tells us about what sounds like a galvanizing, no-holds-barred read:

My chance meeting with Paul Ehrlich in 2009 at Stanford turned out to be auspicious, and has culminated this week with the publication of our book, "Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie. Australia, America and the Environment".

Prairie dogs: Persecuted to the edge of extinction

Prairie dogs: Persecuted to the edge of extinction

With scores of books and hundreds of scientific papers under his belt, Ehrlich has been tackling major environmental issues since the 1960s.  Perhaps best known for "The Population Bomb," a global best-seller, Ehrlich also has a long-time interest in Australia, having visited nearly every year over the last four decades. 

Together we have observed at first hand the similarities and differences of Australia and the US, through the eyes of environmental and evolutionary scientists.

So, why write a book about the environmental tragedies currently unfolding in two completely different countries at opposite ends of the Earth?  As it turns out, Australia and the US have much more in common environmentally than one might think, and not necessarily in a good way. 

Despite our vastly different floras and faunas, population densities, and histories of human colonization, there is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both countries are now experiencing.  As such, we have a lot to learn about avoiding each other's mistakes.

Drowning for oil

Drowning for oil

Our new book highlights the history of rapid and continent-wide environmental degradation in both countries -- starting with the first arrival of humans and continuing to this day.

We inventory the cumulative ecological damage in both countries, and weave a sad story of rapid colonization by Europeans resulting in species extinctions, massive deforestation, and industrial toxification.

Environmentalism began to awake in the mid-20th Century, first in the US and later in Australia.  Today, both countries’ precarious environmental foundations are being eroded with the rise and growth of anti-science and anti-environment plutocracies and theocracies.

We are two scientists who are sufficiently furious at the state of our global environment and society to forget about political correctness.  We are willing, even eager, to recruit you into the growing mass of determined people striving to divert society from its “business as usual” path toward disaster. 

Koalas struggle to survive as Australian forests are razed and felled

Koalas struggle to survive as Australian forests are razed and felled

Frankly, we are disgusted with the way that politicians and the press ignore the realities that civilization is sliding toward irreversible environmental damage, and that most universities are failing to provide leadership to change our course. 

We tire of the erosion of public education in both nations, overlooked or encouraged by politicians who would never be elected by a public that had a basic understanding of environmental science.

For too long, Australians and Americans have been biting the hand that feeds their great successes.  It is high time to make sweeping changes to fix the damage already done, and to avoid the ensuing catastrophes that are increasingly imminent.

Australia and America are great nations, but we are both highly susceptible to our own greed and stupidity.  In Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie, we argue, it is high time to change that.


Will tigers survive in India?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud shares with us his views on tiger populations in India.  Once the dominant predator across much of Asia, the tiger today survives in just a tiny fraction of its former geographic range -- and with just a tiny fraction of its former numbers.

An Indian tiger  (photo by Priya Davidar)

An Indian tiger (photo by Priya Davidar)

The latest tiger census in India shows that the number of tigers has increased, by nearly one-third. 

That is good news, indeed, because India is crucial for tigers.  The country sustains about 70% of the world's tigers but with only 25% of the world's remaining tiger habit.

This excellent result could be attributed to the interest and commitment of the people of India towards their natural heritage, the protection provided by the Forest Department, the efforts of scientists, and the enormous contribution of conservation organizations.

These findings should be celebrated and emulated in richer countries who talk about eradicating wolves -- such as Canada -- or decommissioning nature reserves -- such as Australia.

The finding that tigers have evidently increased has sparked a lot of reaction.  Journalists have celebrated the fact that the tiger is “saved”.   On the basis of the good news, the pro-development Government of India has wasted little time while proposing to build four-lane highways through several tiger reserves.

But is the tiger in India really safe?  To illustrate, I made a graph with 150,000 tigers -- a plausible number -- at the dawn of the Indian Civilization.  Ignore the massacres by British trophy hunters and imagine a smooth decrease of the tiger population over the past 3,000 years.

Tiger numbers fell to an all-time low in 2006 and have increased marginally over the past decade.  What overall trend do you see?

India's catastrophic decline in tiger numbers

India's catastrophic decline in tiger numbers

The recent increase in tiger abundance -– in spite of being good news -- is effectively invisible.

I am not a proponent of “repopulating” India with tigers, but what the graph suggests is that unless the tiger population recovers to several thousand individuals, the species is still tremendously vulnerable in India.

And if this is the status of tigers in India -- which sustains seven-tenths of the global population -- how will it fare elsewhere?

We should celebrate the good news that tiger populations in India have made a marginal recovery. 

But let's not forget that the species is still staring into the abyss -- the victim of catastrophic declines and not far from global extinction.

 

ALERT scientists tell G20 leaders to stop the 'infrastructure insanity'!

This has been a big week for ALERT. 

In the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5 kilometers of a road  (Google Earth).

In the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5 kilometers of a road (Google Earth).

On March 5, the top-ranked journal Current Biology published a hard-hitting paper -- led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and including ALERT member Tom Lovejoy, former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents -- that the G20's plan for infrastructure expansion bordered on ecological insanity.

In case you haven't been following this story, during its meeting late last year in Australia, the G20 leaders -- who lead the world's 20 biggest economies -- pledged to invest $60-70 trillion US dollars globally in new roads, hydroelectric dams, power lines, gas lines, mines, fossil-fuel projects, and other infrastructure over the next 15 years.

To put that number in perspective, the current value of all infrastructure across the entire planet today is roughly $50 trillion

So, we're talking about more than doubling the amount of global infrastructure in a very short period of time.

Road kill.  Roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas often have fatal impacts on nature  (©WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Road kill.  Roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas often have fatal impacts on nature (©WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Nobody is denying that the world needs better and more infrastructure -- especially developing nations trying to improve their economic and social conditions.

But to subject the planet to an unprecedented tsunami like this is almost unfathomable.  The environmental consequences -- the impacts on nature and native ecosystems -- simply boggle the mind

One bit of good news is that the Current Biology paper is being used as the scientific foundation -- by scores of the world's top scientists, environmental leaders, and other luminaries -- to lobby the G20 leaders to back down from their pledge to hyper-drive global infrastructure

The paper lays out nine specific recommendations to help make infrastructure projects environmentally safer and more sustainable.  It's no magic bullet, but if taken seriously these recommendations could make a real difference.

Let's hope the G20 listens.  If they don't, they'll be guilty -- and this is no exaggeration -- of promulgating the worst environmental calamity in human history.

 

Ten ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction

Anthony Barnosky is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and he's one smart dude.  He's just written a brilliant essay entitled "10 ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction". 

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

As we all know, we are living in an age of biodiversity crisis.  Some believe we could lose up to three-quarters of all species on Earth in the coming century

Others believe the extinctions will be less severe, but even optimistic estimates suggest the age of humans -- the Anthropocene -- could be one of the greatest extinction events in Earth's 4.5-billion year history. 

Barnosky emphasizes that there's still time to avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction, but we need to pull our thumbs out and get moving -- today. 

We briefly summarize his 10 key messages below.  See his original essay for details about each suggestion:

1. Spread the word, to your family, friends, co-workers, and social media circle: the extinction crisis is real.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint.

3. Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.

4. Eat fish from only healthy fisheries.

5. Eat less meat.

6. Never, ever buy anything made from ivory -- or from any other product derived from threatened species.

7. Enjoy nature.

8. Adopt a species or become a citizen scientist.

9. Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women's rights to education and healthcare.

10. Don't give up.

Bottom line: We are not doomed to any particular fate, but we will be if we fail to confront the growing extinction crisis. 

A planet that's too hostile to sustain much biodiversity will not be a good place for people to live either.

 

Study: Global urban footprint will triple by 2030

If you think cities are big and numerous now, just wait another 15 years.

Our new normal?  (photo by William Laurance)

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

By 2030, some 5 billion people will be living in cities -- many of them mega-cities that each sustain over 10 million residents.  And the total area affected globally by urban sprawl will triple, compared to that in the year 2000.

Those are just a few of the alarming predictions of a recent study by Karen Seto and colleagues, published in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Seto and her team also estimate that, by 2030, an additional 120 million hectares of land will be engulfed by cities -- an area the size of South Africa. 

Notably, some of the most dramatic urban expansion will occur in certain biodiversity hotspots -- regions with high biodiversity and large concentrations of locally endemic species that have already suffered severe habitat loss.

In fact, the most explosive urban expansion will occur in hotspots that have been relatively undisturbed so far by urban development.  These include the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspot.

In each of these biodiversity hotspots, the expansion in urban lands from 2000 to 2030 is expected to range from 900 to 1900 percent, according to the study.

Such changes reflect the dramatic growth in human populations still occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as increasing urbanization trends globally.

Other places slated for sharp increases in urban area include eastern China, Turkey, the Himalayas, and parts of Mexico.

The world that Seto and colleagues project is not a distant, dystopian future.  This is our near-term tomorrow. 

This will be our reality if we fail to address unbridled population growth in those regions of the Earth most at risk.

As Seto and colleagues show, our new reality will be a planet increasingly dominated by sprawling cities.  Whether those will be polluted, stressful cities or innovative, well-designed cities remains to be seen.

 

Will Australia have to kiss some species goodbye?

Goodbye, Gouldian Finch.  So long, Orange-bellied Parrot.  Fare thee well, Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat.

And while we're at it, let's say arrivederci to New Zealand's Kakapo and Indonesia's Javan Rhino.

Bye-bye birdy?  A kaleidoscope of Gouldian Finches.

Bye-bye birdy?  A kaleidoscope of Gouldian Finches.

All are critically endangered species, balanced precariously on the edge of survival.  According to some of Australia's top ecologists, including ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, we might have to let them fall into the abyss.

The hotly debated issue of biological triage was the focus of ABC's Lateline TV show last night.  In it, Bradshaw and others argued that, given thin resources and too many endangered species, we may have to give up on some species altogether.

It's not a topic most biologists or conservationists want to think about, but Bradshaw and colleagues say it is time we had the debate. 

It's a tough issue.  Many endangered species have a coterie of dedicated people who've devoted years of their lives to rescuing them.  Such folks don't want to hear that it's all for naught.

Bradshaw has raised this issue before, in 2011, generating a mushroom-cloud of controversy that reverberated around the world

Whatever your views, given the rapidly changing state of the world, it's pretty clear this won't be the last time we'll be forced to confront this issue.

 

Press release: ALERT confronts Australian PM over 'no more parks' vow

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has infuriated environmental scientists with his recent 'no more parks' vow.  In response, ALERT issued a press release today decrying the PM's ill-advised tack.

Don't blame me--I voted for the other guy!

Don't blame me--I voted for the other guy!

The press release highlights the need for more--not fewer--protected areas in critically threatened ecosystems in Australia, such as the imperiled Mountain Ash forests of Victoria

It also highlights the stunningly poor example that Australia is now setting internationally, via Abbott's actions. 

The press release is already garnering attention both in Australia and overseas.  See also the related blog on ConservationBytes.com by ALERT member Corey Bradshaw.

 

Earth's big predators 'being decimated'

Being the 'king of the jungle' is not as fun as it sounds.  An international research team has just published a paper in Science showing that most of the 31 largest mammal predators on Earth are in dire straits.

Tigers in trouble (photo by Priya Davidar).

Tigers in trouble (photo by Priya Davidar).

These mega-predators, which include tigers, polar bears, wolves and sea otters, among others, are being decimated by habitat loss and human persecution.  Only a quarter of the species, such as the American black bear and puma (mountain lion), are showing some signs of population stability. 

Most predators are in precarious shape.  The tiger, for instance, is clinging to survival in just 7% of its original geographic range and just 5% of its original numbers.

The authors go beyond describing the ongoing decline of big predators; they also highlight the varied ecological consequences.  Large predators can play a dominating role in ecosystems, having profound impacts on many other species and ecosystem processes.

One of the coauthors of the study, Euan Richie of Deakin University in Australia, has written a lively summary of its key conclusions and implications. 

Clearly, one of the greatest challenges humankind faces is maintaining living space for species that need large expanses of habitat to survive.