Stealing the Rain from a Rainforest

ALERT’s Susan Laurance, from James Cook University in Australia, is leading an ambitious, million-dollar study to understand how droughts affect tropical rainforests.  Here she tells us about this challenging project and why it is so important:

Right now, much of the world is struggling to cope with a ‘Godzilla’ El Niño drought

The drought has been merciless, causing catastrophic fires and haze across much of Southeast Asia, unprecedented droughts and wildfires in western North America, and mass starvation from crop failure in New Guinea

Fiery future?

And there’s good reason to think future droughts might even be worse. 

First, leading computer simulations suggest global warming could strengthen future El Niño events and increase the frequency of serious heat waves.

Second, apparently new climate dynamics are appearing on Earth that could threaten large areas of rainforest.  Most notable among these are the unprecedented Amazon droughts – driven by exceptionally high sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean – that occurred in 2005 and again in 2010.

Finally, human land-uses are making rainforests far more vulnerable to droughts and fire.  For instance, forests that have been logged or fragmented are drier and have much heavier loads of flammable slash than do pristine forests.

And as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources.  Even ecosystems where fire was once foreign — such as the world’s deep rainforests — now burn with increasing regularity.

All this means that it’s vital to understand how droughts will affect rainforests – the world’s most biologically diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems.

Big science for a big problem

As I detail in a recent article in Australasian Science (which you can download here), my colleagues and I have recently set up some 3,000 clear plastic panels to create a ‘raincoat for a rainforest’ – inducing an artificial drought over several thousand square meters of the famous Daintree region in north Queensland, Australia.

A big advantage of our experiment – one of the few ever to study rainforest droughts in this way – is that we have a 47-meter-tall canopy crane at the site, so we can assess plant and animal responses at all vertical levels of the forest, from the ground to the tops of the most towering trees.

Our study is comparative: we want to understand how different groups of plants, such as various functional groups of trees, vines, shrubs, forbs, and epiphytes, are affected by drought.

We are looking at the survival, growth, and physiology of these plants in a variety of ways, as well as at the forest soil and microclimate.  Others are studying how insects and other fauna are affected by the drought.

Among our key goals is determining whether big trees are especially vulnerable to droughts, as suggested by recent research.   If so, then this could have profound implications – because big trees store huge amounts of carbon and provide food and shelter for an entire zoo of animal species.

We also want to learn whether certain kinds of plants have strategies – such as special water-carrying vessels in their tissues or other physiological tricks – that allow them to better survive droughts.  If so, these ‘drought winners’ could increasingly dominate forests if droughts become more intense in the future.

Not easy – but worth it

This study has not been easy – in truth it’s been a logistical nightmare to steal the rain from a rainforest.  But the study is now fully set up, and in the end we think it will be worth all the sweat and hard work. 

Rainforests are the biologically richest environments on Earth.  And if we’re going to subject them to more Godzilla-like droughts, then we need to know how they’ll respond – and whether they can sustain their stunning biodiversity into the future.

Bizarre story in the Washington Post

Sometimes truth is weirder than fiction.

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon  (photo by Bill Laurance)

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon (photo by Bill Laurance)

Two days ago (21 November 2014) the Washington Post ran a story entitled "Deforestation vs. daily life: The logging industry in Nigeria is fueling both", by Nicole Crowder, a staff photo editor.

The story was odd for two reasons.  First, via a tapestry of photos shot by Akintunde Akinleye of Reuters, it portrayed Nigeria's rainforest loggers in a remarkably sympathetic manner. 

This is understandable and forgivable.  Loggers are human beings, and like all of us are struggling to survive in an increasingly populous, hard-edged world.  While readily conceding that much forest harvesting in Nigeria is illegal, the images portrayed the loggers as humble battlers, scrabbling to make a living by carving great trees into sawn timber.

Second, and far more remarkably, the story grossly misstated the impact of logging and deforestation in Nigeria.  It claimed that Nigeria lost "just over 2 million hectares of forest annually between 2005-2010 due to agricultural expansion, logging and infrastructure development". 

That figure is massively wrong.  According to data compiled by Professor Matt Hansen from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch, forest loss in Nigeria from 2001 to 2012 ranged from a low of around 40,000 hectares per year to a peak of about 150,000 hectares per year.  

One doesn't have to be a math whiz to see that the actual deforestation figures -- or at least the best-available scientific estimates -- are a tiny fraction of those reported in the Washington Post

I was initially bemused by the story because the reported deforestation numbers, if true, would have put Nigeria on par with the Brazilian Amazon in the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s, when that region had the dubious distinction of being the overwhelming epicenter of global forest destruction

I lived and worked in the Amazon for much of that period, and it was a time of catastrophic forest loss and burning -- with palls of smoke from massive fires forcing airports to close and causing sharp spikes in cases of respiratory distress.

If forest destruction in Nigeria was happening as fast as the Post reported -- at a pace that rivaled that in the Amazon -- Nigeria's forests would have vanished in a heartbeat.

At ALERT we pride ourselves on our scientific stripes, but even we make mistakes from time to time.  However, we are not professional journalists.  When a legendary newspaper like the Washington Post gets its reporting so badly wrong, it does give one pause. 

-Bill Laurance

Does 'vampire' squirrel have world's fluffiest tail?

Just when you thought it was safe to go outside again, comes this news from the rainforests of Borneo: The legendary 'vampire' squirrel evidently has the biggest, fluffiest tail of any mammal in the world.

More tail than squirrel...

More tail than squirrel...

According to local folk tales, the animal -- which actually goes by the prosaic name of 'tufted ground squirrel' -- has a fondness for fresh blood.  The 35-centimeter-long squirrel will reputedly spring onto the back of a live deer in order to gash its neck and drink its blood.

While many biologists have doubts about the squirrel's blood-swilling habits, no one can doubt the spectacular dimensions of its tail.  According to a recent essay in Science, the squirrel has the biggest, fluffiest tail (relative to its body size) of any mammal species alive.

The tail doubles as an umbrella...

The tail doubles as an umbrella...

Rather charmingly, the dimensions of the squirrel's tail were worked out by a 15 year-old, Emily Mae Meijaard -- the daughter of the well known conservation scientist Erik Meijaard.

But sadly, the vampire squirrel's rainforest home is under siege.  Indonesia is now the world's fastest forest-destroying nation, and the rate of forest loss is evidently accelerating. 

Even worse, the squirrel is only known to live in undisturbed, old-growth rainforest -- which is rapidly vanishing in Borneo.

Perhaps the vampire squirrel needs to develop a taste for loggers and bulldozer drivers...

Indonesia now biggest 'forest killer'

It's a dubious honor: Indonesia is now officially the world's biggest destroyer of forests.  What's more, the pace of forest loss appears to be accelerating.

High price for biodiversity...

High price for biodiversity...

Any way you look at it, Indonesia is a mega-diversity nation for plants and animals.  And virtually nowhere else on Earth has more endangered species, including the tiger, orangutan, clouded leopard, and Sumatran and Javan rhinoceros.

Satellite data reveal that, from 2000 to 2012, Indonesia destroyed its native old-growth forests at a stunning pace, losing over 6 million hectares (15 million acres).  That's an area almost the size of Ireland.

Meanwhile, deforestation in Brazil -- formerly the no. 1 forest feller -- has declined substantially in recent years

Equally alarming is that deforestation appears to be worsening in Indonesia, despite major international initiatives to slow forest loss there.  In 2012, the country cleared 840,000 hectares of its old-growth forests, more than any year in the preceding decade. 

Accelerating deforestation in Indonesia  (from Mongabay)

Accelerating deforestation in Indonesia (from Mongabay)

Brazil, whose forests are much more extensive, lost just 460,000 hectares in 2012.

It's a label no nation should want: Indonesia is now the undisputed global 'leader' in destroying its native forests

Mega-corporation still destroying forests, despite green pledge

Does the mega-corporation APRIL -- which has cleared more than a million hectares of native forest in Sumatra, Indonesia -- speak with a forked tongue? 

Rainforest clearing in central Sumatra by APRIL  (photo by William Laurance)

Rainforest clearing in central Sumatra by APRIL (photo by William Laurance)

That certainly seems to be the case, based on recent photos of forest destruction in Sumatra, captured by Greenpeace.

APRIL made headline news earlier this year with a high-profile 'no-deforestation pledge'.  Many observers had doubts, however, including ALERT director Bill Laurance in this essay.

APRIL -- also known as Asia Pacific Resources International Limited -- is one of the world's biggest producers of paper pulp.  Much of this has come from clearing native forests in Sumatra -- turning rainforest trees into pulp and then planting exotic tree species in their place.

Rainforest timber stacked up outside APRIL's wood-pulp plant in Sumatra  (photo by William Laurance)

Rainforest timber stacked up outside APRIL's wood-pulp plant in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

APRIL has long been criticized for its forest-destroying ways -- see, for instance, this TV interview with Bill Laurance on Australia's Foreign Correspondent program -- but seemed to be turning over a new leaf with its no-deforestation pledge.

Alas, the doubting Thomases may have been correct.  APRIL claims the new, large-scale forest destruction is consistent with their pledge -- but 'no deforestation' means 'no deforestation', right?

Carnage for forest elephants

In 2001 genetic analyses confirmed what researchers in Africa had long suspected: the forest elephant is a unique species, distinct from its larger cousin, the African savanna elephant. 

That knowledge makes the current devastation of forest elephants--which live in the shrinking rainforests of Central and West Africa--all the more alarming.  In just the last decade, two-thirds of all forest elephants have been wiped out.  These animals are victims of growing human populations, the rapid proliferation of roads in African forests, and especially the burgeoning global trade in illegal ivory.

Nowhere left to hide... forest elephant in Gabon (photo by Carlton Ward).

Nowhere left to hide... forest elephant in Gabon (photo by Carlton Ward).

The only encouraging aspect of this story is growing awareness of the problem.  China is finally acknowledging and beginning to address its huge role as a consumer of illegal ivory (see our blog below) and other governments are also taking action.  For instance, the Obama administration just announced a series of anti-wildlife-crime measures, including a crackdown on illegal ivory.

For the beleaguered forest elephant, such actions are not coming a moment too soon...

World's biggest oil palm producer criticized for breaking pledge

Wilmar, the world's biggest producer of palm oil, has been heavily criticized for holding a sham public hearing in Balikpapan, Indonesia.

Make way for oil palm...

Make way for oil palm...

Wilmar made headlines recently for its pledge to stop clearing any habitats considered of 'High Conservation Value' (HCV)--such as native forest and carbon-rich peatlands. 

But in Balikpapan, Wilmar held a recent public hearing in an attempt to have an important, wildlife-rich forest tract classified as non-HCV, so it could then clear that forest.  But it didn't invite conservation groups or scientists--the very people who were most concerned and best informed about the forest--to the meeting.

Incensed NGOs and scientists have decried Wilmar's tack, saying it violates the spirit and intent of its no-deforestation pledge.

Clearly, Wilmar will have to be watched closely in future to see if it upholds its key promises.  When it comes to such things, actions speak louder than words.