The plight of tropical migratory species

So much remains unknown about the tropics, including the extent to which species living in these environments migrate seasonally.  Dr Lisa Davenport has worked for many years in the tropics, especially the Peruvian Amazon.  Here she tells us about her intriguing work on a particular migrator, and its broader implications for nature conservation:

A foraging Black Skimmer

A foraging Black Skimmer

An unknown number of tropical species, such as certain birds, bats, and moths, migrate up and down elevational gradients over the year, tracking seasonal changes in the abundance of fruits, nectar, or insect prey. 

Others, notably birds such as warblers and some raptors, undertake much longer-distance migrations, wintering in the tropics while breeding in far-away temperate regions.

Manu National Park in Peru, where I have long worked, also has its share of migrators, along with being one of the most biologically stunning places on Earth.  Certain fish, birds, and mammals at Manu appear to move large distances during the course of the year. 

But as we begin to learn more about these migratory species, we increasingly suspect they could be vulnerable to escalating human pressures in this region.

Growing pressures

For instance, just downstream of Manu, on the Madre de Dios River, huge areas of river and riparian forest are being devastated by illegal gold mining.  Among these impacts is contamination of the rivers by toxic mercury, which is used by miners to separate gold from river sediments.

An illegal gold miner scours the forest soil  (photo by William Laurance)

An illegal gold miner scours the forest soil (photo by William Laurance)

Since 2010, biologists at Cocha Cashu Biological Station at Manu have used cutting-edge satellite telemetry to track some of the park’s rare and endangered birds -- many of which are very poorly known.  One key reason to do this is to learn where these species go when they move outside the park, where they may be highly vulnerable.

In a new study, I and my colleagues report our research on Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), an elegant bird that skims over water surfaces while flying, in order to catch unwary fish.  To do this it uses its uniquely elongated lower beak, which it drags through the water and which instantly snaps shut when it contacts a fish. 

We found that Skimmers tagged in Manu move extremely long distances both during and outside their breeding season. 

A Black Skimmer feeds its chick

A Black Skimmer feeds its chick

'Albatrosses of the Amazon'

I would liken our Black Skimmers to “Albatrosses of the Amazon" -- they fly surprisingly long distances, even in the breeding season, and seem to soar effortlessly. 

We found that some Black Skimmers move not only to other watersheds in Peru but even to other nations, including Brazil and Bolivia, during their breeding season.  Unfortunately, some of these areas are being severely degraded by illegal gold mining. 

Remarkably, some of the birds tagged inside Manu even crossed the Peruvian Andes -- flying above 5,000 meters in altitude to cross the towering Andes mountains -- in order to spend their non-breeding season along the Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile. 

But the Skimmers face hazards on the Pacific coast as well.  Many of the natural wetlands they need for feeding are being severely depleted by the extraction of freshwater for agriculture

Some Skimmers may go even farther afield.  One bird radio-tagged in Manu moved not to the Pacific but southeast to Bolivia and then even further to Paraguay.  Its transmitter stopped at that point but it may have been heading to Argentina’s Atlantic coast, where large numbers of Skimmers are known to summer.

New threats on the horizon

With rising development pressures, threats to large-distance migrators like Black Skimmers will only increase.  Both Peru and Brazil plan to dramatically increasing the damming of wild rivers in the Amazon and Andean headwaters.   Agriculture and mining activities are also expanding apace.

Scores of new dams are being planned (yellow) in the Amazon-Andes region (blue symbols indicate existing dams).

Scores of new dams are being planned (yellow) in the Amazon-Andes region (blue symbols indicate existing dams).

Species that need freshwater for survival and migration, and the ecological processes that sustain such species, will be intensely vulnerable

The recent collapse of a poorly constructed mining dam on the Doce River in Brazil devastated aquatic wildlife across a vast area that stretched for more than 500 kilometers to the sea. 

The lax environmental standards that allowed this catastrophe to occur should give us all pause, as we consider the avalanche of new development projects slated for the greater Amazon region.

Especially alarming is how little we know about the ecology of the Amazon and its many natural denizens -- some of which evidently traverse and require vast areas of habitat for survival.

 

Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...   (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

The world's two most dangerous environmental trends

What are the two biggest direct threats to our natural world?  One could debate this question endlessly but here are my personal candidates for two recent developments that are especially environmentally perilous:

Growing perils for nature...

Growing perils for nature...

1) The G20's stunning plans for infrastructure expansion

Believe it or not, the leaders of the G20 nations -- the world's 20 largest economies -- committed during their recent global summit in Brisbane, Australia to spend an astonishing 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030

This staggering sum will come from a variety of sources, such as public-private partnerships, pension funds, bilateral aid, and the major development banks.  This will be the single biggest financial transaction in human history -- and the environmental impacts will be Earth-shaking

Expect massive increases in roads, hydroelectric dams, mining projects, gas lines, and power lines, all across the planet.  Such projects will open up many of the world's last surviving wild areas and lead to an avalanche of new development pressures.

2) The rise of the Chinese and Brazilian development banks

An equally alarming trend is that the nature of infrastructure funding is changing. 

Large funding bodies such as the World Bank and the African, Asian, and Inter-American Development banks -- which, after many years of bearing criticism, have worked to develop and implement some environmental safeguards -- are increasingly being supplanted by the heavily funded and far more aggressive Chinese (AIIB) and Brazilian (BNDES) development banks. 

We've previously critiqued BNDES, but the Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is, arguably, even worse.

The Chinese and Brazilian banks are funding massive numbers of developments worldwide, and generally place a much lower priority on environmental concerns than do many other infrastructure funders and donors.      

Conservationists and scientists will have to redouble their efforts to meet the challenges posed by these two landmark -- and alarming -- trends.

-Bill Laurance

 

Neotropical rainforests under assault from infrastructure & mining

Everywhere you look across Central and South America, native ecosystems are being imperiled by an avalanche of new mining and infrastructure projects. 

Forests under assault in Panama  (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Consider just three examples:

- In Nicaragua, a massive interoceanic canal project threatens vast expanses of rainforest and other ecosystems.  It will imperil 4,000 square kilometers of forest and wetlands, slice across several key nature reserves, and cut through the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor.  This issue is so worrisome that the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world's leading scientific organization devoted to tropical research, issued a special resolution of concern.

- In Brazil, many protected areas are under assault from mining.  A paper just published in the leading journal Science shows that at least 20% of all Brazil´s strictly protected areas and indigenous reserves -- an area larger than the UK and Switzerland combined -- are under consideration for mining projects.  More than 44,000 square kilometers of Brazil's protected areas have been lost to mining and other developments since 2008.

- Across the Amazon basin and Andes, at least 150 major hydroelectric dams have been proposed or are under construction.  These projects will not only flood large expanses of forest but their associated road projects will imperil some of the basin's most remote and biologically important areas.  For instance, it is estimated that 12 dams proposed for the Tapajós River in Brazil would result in nearly 1 million hectares of additional forest loss by 2032.

Who is responsible for this tsunami of forest-destroying projects?  There is no single cause, but China's unquenchable thirst for natural resources, the aggressive Brazilian development bank BNDES, and ambitious regional development schemes such as IIRSA are all leading contributors.

No one wants to halt responsible economic development, but this is a feeding frenzy.  Unless scientists and conservationists have a louder voice, some of the world's most important environments could be lost forever.

 

Will the World Bank increase eco-destructive loans?

Alarm bells are ringing.  Leaked emails suggest the World Bank -- once notorious for lending hundreds of billions of dollars for environmentally destructive projects -- could be easing loan conditions for a range of risky projects.

Not happy with the Bank...

Not happy with the Bank...

Environmentalists and human-rights campaigners are up in arms because the leaked emails suggest the Bank is considering a radical step -- making more than $50 billion in public funds available annually for large power, mining, transport, and farming projects that frequently have major environmental impacts.

The leaked emails -- which were seen by The Observer newspaper in the UK -- suggest senior officers at the Bank are worried about the repercussions of such loans, fearing they would lead to an increase in "problem projects".

In the past, some World Bank loans have come under intense fire for causing large-scale environmental damage and social disruption in the Amazon, India, Indonesia, Africa, and elsewhere.

The emails suggest the Bank may expand the use of "biodiversity offsetting" -- which allows developers to destroy nature in one place if they compensate for it elsewhere.  Many conservationists view such measures with suspicion.

The World Bank and its subsidiaries loan billions of dollars annually to over 100 countries to alleviate poverty.  It is the world's largest development institution.

The Bank was lambasted in the 1980s and 1990s by environmental and social-rights activists for its damaging lending policies and because it is dominated by industrialized countries

Since then the World Bank has improved its record to a degree, bringing in more environmental and social safeguards, but the leaked emails have many worried that the Bank's bad old days might be returning.