Wildife struggle in an increasingly noisy world

We live on an ever more-populous planet, pulsating with human-generated noises of every description.  As the din of humanity grows ever louder, what will this mean for wildlife?

White-crowned sparrow: stressed-out by noise

White-crowned sparrow: stressed-out by noise

It's an important question.  Across the U.S.A., for example, nearly nine-tenths of the population experiences artificially elevated sound levels.  In the world's oceans, noises from commercial shipping alone have risen an estimated 16-fold in recent decades.

The most ubiquitous noise-making structures humans create are traffic-laden roads, which already crisscross the Earth and are projected to increase in length by some 25 million kilometers by mid-century—enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times.

A recent study by Heidi Ware and colleagues used an innovative ‘phantom road’ to assess how road noise affects migrating bird species.

Working in Idaho, USA, the authors laid out an array of loudspeakers to mimic road sounds, which they turned on and off periodically to judge the birds' responses.  They also captured birds using mist-nets to assess their overall body condition.

The authors found that bird abundance declined by about a third near the phantom road, with some some noise-sensitive species avoiding the area.

In addition, even birds that remained near the phantom road often fared poorly, having lower body weight and worse overall condition than birds captured elsewhere. 

The authors attributed this to the fact that the birds were often startled by sudden road noises -- and so spent more time looking around for predators and less time feeding. 

A graph (sonogram) of road noises, above a logging truck.

A graph (sonogram) of road noises, above a logging truck.

This is particularly bad news for migratory birds, which are already stressed out by the huge exertions of migrating vast distances.  More noise disturbance could mean that more birds will starve to death while trying to migrate.

In an independent perspective piece on this article, ALERT director Bill Laurance emphasizes that the rapidly expanding footprint of roads and other infrastructure across the planet is invisibly degrading habitat quality for noise-sensitive species.

Laurance suggests that many kinds of species could be affected by human-generated noises. 

For instance, might sensitive marine species, such as echolocating whales or migratory fish, avoid noisy regions such as high-volume shipping lanes or areas where naval vessels regularly pierce the oceans with high-intensity sonar?

Could echolocating bats be distressed by roaring airplanes or even by the steady whine of wind farms or other infrastructure? 

For that matter, might even hiking trails frequented by ecotourists or researchers reduce local wildlife activity, as has been observed in protected areas in California and Indonesia?

The oceans are getting noisier too.

The oceans are getting noisier too.

The findings of Ware et al. suggest that human-generated noises can be serious stressors for some wildlife.  This is an alarming prospect in a world ever more beset by human-induced noises.

For instance, nowhere in Costa Rica’s iconic La Selva Biological Reserve can one avoid hearing the incessant thrum of a nearby highway.  Many other nature reserves are suffering a similar fate, underscoring the urgency of limiting new roads in protected areas and devising strategies to limit noise disturbances where roads already exist.

For wildlife and for humans too, quiet places on the Earth are becoming increasingly rare and precious.

Making the next ten years count for protected areas

On the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, ALERT member James Watson tells us about a hugely important paper he and colleagues published this week in the world-leading journal Nature.

Ten years have passed since the last IUCN global conference on protected areas.  During this time we've seen tens of thousands of new protected areas established on land and in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, protected-area support has fallen off dramatically, with an estimated 80% of such sites now being ineffectively managed.

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa  (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

It’s a massive shame.  When well administered, protected areas get results.  There is abundant evidence that protected areas, when well managed, protect threatened species and often store large quantities of carbon while delivering key ecosystem services, such as clean water and buffering against extreme weather.

Nevertheless, we show today in a paper in Nature that, while many nations talk the talk on protected-area creation, they often fail to walk the walk when it comes to ensuring these areas have adequate resources and oversight.

Poor financing of many protected areas is a core problem, but thornier challenges include the opening of parks to resource extraction and the loss of their special 'inviolate' status.  In our paper we document many cases where Ministries responsible for mining or logging issued leases on areas already designated as “protected.”

If the nations of the world continue to follow a business-as-usual approach, the broad targets set under the vital Convention on Biological Diversity won't be achieved.

A fundamental step-change is needed to align government policies so that Ministries dealing with development, resource extraction, and agriculture don't undermine those concerned with environment and conservation.

At the same time, there's an urgent need to invest in protected areas to ensure their vital goals are achieved, and to identify new protected areas critical to nature conservation -- areas that can be established and maintained with care and imagination.

Achieving these goals on our increasingly crowded planet will not be easy.  A nation's progress should be measured not merely by the amount of land it protects, but also by the ecological connectivity of its protected lands and their capacity to sustain biodiversity while producing long-term social and economic benefits.

It's a massive challenge, but failure is not an option.  We must succeed -- for the future of nature and for our future as well.

 

Scientists slam Australia for being, well, stupid

Our apologies to the many millions of Australians who did not vote for the Tony Abbott government.  For those that did, one of the world's top scientific organizations has a nuanced message for you:

You are idiots.

Don't blame me -- I didn't vote for him!

Don't blame me -- I didn't vote for him!

Mind you, the organization -- the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, which is meeting in Cairns, Queensland this week -- did not actually say that. 

What they said was that they had a great number of issues and concerns with the Abbott government's approach to climate change, national parks, World Heritage sites, illegal-logging legislation, endangered species, and renewable-energy initiatives

But what they really meant was this: If you voted for the Tony Abbott government and care a whit for the environment, you need to have your head examined.

The ATBC is the world's largest scientific organization devoted to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  Several ALERT members, including Priya Davidar, Pierre-Michel Forget, Tom Lovejoy, and Bill Laurance, are former presidents of the Association.

The Cairns conference has delegates from 55 nations, many from developing countries.  Most of those delegates found it incredible that a relatively wealthy nation like Australia could justify so many anti-environmental actions by blaming its economy -- which in fact is quite robust.

Yesterday Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the Australian Green Party, gave a keynote talk at the conference.  She castigated the Abbott government's environmental stance -- and received a standing ovation.

Virtually everyone agrees: The Tony Abbott government is sending an appalling message to the world, especially to developing nations that are often making far bigger commitments to nature conservation with far less national wealth.

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. 

 

New Zealand opens up park for oil and gas exploration

it's not just Ecuador that is gambling with the future of its parks for oil.  As ALERT member Craig Morley reports, New Zealand is getting in on the act too:

Not happy in New Zealand...

Not happy in New Zealand...

The New Zealand Government is opening up over 4,600 square kilometers of conservation land for petroleum exploration.  This land is on the West Coast region of the South Island and includes almost all of Victoria Forest Park, the largest forest park of its type in the country.  

Victoria Forest Park is not a National Park per se, but rather a 'Schedule 4 Forest Park'.  However, the New Zealand Department of Conservation describes it as having untouched pristine landscapes with rivers, lakes, and mountain scenery, as well as pristine beech forest.  Great spotted kiwi, an iconic species unique to New Zealand, can also be heard at night.

Pristine forest... home to Kiwis and lots more

Pristine forest... home to Kiwis and lots more

The Green Party says the Energy Minister should be embarrassed for failing to realize he's offered up conservation land for petroleum exploration.  When interviewed, the Energy Minister, Simon Bridges, didn’t even know where the Victoria Forest Park was located. 

Big areas being opened up for potential petroleum development...

Big areas being opened up for potential petroleum development...

The last few years have seen major protests against mining-exploration activity on land administered by the Department of Conservation.  The key question is: will this trend of exploring Forest Parks for fossil fuels continue, and will our hunger for energy “accidentally expand” into our treasured National Parks as well?  

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.

World park body slams Australian PM over 'no more parks' vow

ALERT's press release last week criticizing Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's ill-advised 'no more parks' pledge (see blog below) has been followed today by a major blast from the world's leading park body, the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA).

Now I see the PM's logic...

Now I see the PM's logic...

In an open letter, 114 Australian members of the WCPA decried the PM's stance and Australia's resulting loss of international leadership in nature protection.

The letter follows Abbott's widely publicized speech to a timber industry dinner last week when he vowed not to "lock up" any more forests in national parks.

The Abbott government also plans to remove World Heritage protection for 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian wilderness.

As detailed in blogs below, these latest steps follow a series of highly dubious actions that will weaken park and environmental protections in Australia.

 

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.