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A new, low-tech solution is helping the Masai people in northern Tanzania outwit their age-old nemesis, lions, in a nonviolent manner. The big cats routinely raid Masai cattle in the villages, and the herders, whose life centers around their cows, hunt down and kill lions in retribution.
photo Wikimedia Commons / Steve Pastor
Lion numbers in the region have declined by 50 percent since 2003 as a result of killings by villagers, as well as habitat fragmentation and loss. But a new kind of cattle pen, known as a living wall, is helping keep livestock safe from lion attacks, and the cats safe from Masai spears.
The living wall combines plantings of the indigenous African myrrh trees (Commiphora africana), interlinked with chain-link fencing, to reinforce corral walls. As the trees grow, their interlocked crowns create an impenetrable barrier, which, unlike chain-link alone, cannot be scaled by lions and other large carnivores. The trees’ root system also prevents hyenas from tunneling into the cattle pen from below. About 360 of these lion-proof fences have been built in 12 communities in the Masai steppe region over the past five years, and there is a long list of villages waiting for installation.
There have been no lion attacks in any of the villages where these fences have been installed, says Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld, executive director of the African People and Wildlife Fund, the US-funded charity which is sponsoring the Living Wall project.
Traditionally, the Masai have built bomas – livestock enclosures out of the branches of thorny acacia trees – to protect their animals from predators. These rough hewn barriers, however, deteriorate quickly and are relatively easy for predators to penetrate during their nocturnal hunts. The living walls, by contrast, last a very long time and cannot be breached. The use of live trees also helps with habitat protection by reducing the need to repeatedly cut the non-regenerating acacia thorn trees for the bomas.
In the approximately 2,000-square- mile area where the living walls have been introduced, there are far fewer human attacks on lions today than there were a decade ago, Lichtenfeld’s research shows. She has found that in communities where the Masai would kill an average of six or seven lions a year, big cat-killings fell to fewer than one after the fences were installed.
The project is allowing the lion population to gradually recover, says Lichtenfeld: “In the past couple of years, we’ve documented in our camera trap data larger prides of females, more cubs and sub-adults, healthier and bigger lions – all signs that lion numbers are beginning to rebound.”
Elsewhere in Africa, however, the big cats are not faring so well. Lion numbers have been declining throughout the continent, and the species has now vanished from 80 percent of its historical range. There are at best 35,000 lions left in all of Africa – down from over 100,000 just half a century ago.
—The Guardian, UK, 4/14; African People & Wildlife Fund
Indonesia’s Muslim clerics are rooting for wildlife. In March, the nation’s top religious body, The Indonesian Council of Ulema, issued a fatwa against poaching and wildlife trafficking and called on the country’s 200 million Muslims to protect endangered species.
The council declared that illegal hunting and trading of endangered species are haram (forbidden) under Islamic law. “Whoever takes away a life kills a generation. This is not restricted to humans, but also includes God’s other living creatures, especially if they die in vain,” council official Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh told reporters.
The fatwa, or religious decree, comes at a time when global wildlife trafficking is at record highs, and as Indonesia’s diverse and vibrant wildlife faces increasing threats from development, logging, and agricultural expansion. Illegal palm oil farming in national parks, in particular, has led to the destruction of key habitats for tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans.
Under Indonesian law, wildlife trafficking can carry a maximum five-year jail sentence and a 100 million rupiah ($8,800) fine. In practice, however, traffickers are rarely prosecuted, and those who are charged generally receive minimal sentences.
The idea for the fatwa came after the Muslim council members traveled to Sumatra last September, where they visited Tesso Nilo National Park and spoke with conservation groups, government officials, and local communities.
Although the fatwa is not legally binding, the council hopes that it will bridge the gap between law and enforcement. “People can escape government regulation,” says Hayu Prabowo, chair of the council’s environment and natural resources body. “But they cannot escape the word of God.”
The council also hopes the fatwa will influence policy in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Specifically, the fatwa recommends that the Indonesian government conduct effective monitoring of forest areas, review permits issued to companies that cause harm to endangered species, restore critical habitat, and uphold the law against anyone threatening conservation efforts.
However, fatwas declared by the council aren’t always honored by Indonesia’s Muslim population. In the past, the council has issued several fatwas – including decrees against yoga, smoking, and attendance at Christmas celebrations – that have been largely disregarded. Nonetheless, wildlife conservation groups describe this fatwa as a positive step. “It provides a spiritual aspect and raises moral awareness which will help us in our work to protect and save the remaining wildlife in the country, such as the critically endangered tigers and rhinos,” says Nyoman Iswara Yoga of World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia, which assisted the council in developing the fatwa.
—Mongabay, 3/14; The Guardian, UK 3/14
As the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet grew increasingly desperate through the month of March and searchers darted about the Indian Ocean following potential clues offered by satellite imagery and radar data, their efforts were hampered first by misinformation and bad weather, and then, unexpectedly, by garbage.
The prolonged hunt for MH370, which went missing on March 8 with 239 people on board, was unable to confirm plane debris, but it did confirm something else: Even the remotest parts of the ocean are plagued by human detritus. As the search for the missing Boeing 777 moved to a remote part of the Indian Ocean hundreds of miles off the Australian coast, officials said the vast quantities of trash bobbing in the water was making the Sisyphean search for wreckage from the flight all the more complicated.
Garbage floating on ocean waves looks an awful lot like plane debris, says Malcolm Spaulding, a former oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island who has been involved in search and rescues since the 1970s. “We essentially have had satellite-based images that give us tantalizing information that there might be a debris field,” he says. But it was hard to figure out if anything in the debris field was actually associated with the accident.
“It isn’t like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjayan told reporters. “It’s like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean.”
Vast garbage patches enmeshed in giant ocean gyres were first discovered more than a decade ago. Ocean gyres are large, rotating ocean currents that accumulate floating debris in their calm centers. “It’s like a toilet bowl that swirls but doesn’t flush,” says Charles Moore, a California-based oceanographer who is often credited with discovering an enormous stretch of floating debris in the midst of the North Pacific Gyre in 2003 – since dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
There are five major oceanic gyres worldwide, with several smaller gyres in Alaska and Antarctica. With billions of people living near coastlines around the world, human waste inevitably migrates into oceans via waterways or is flushed out during storm events. According to a recent estimate, 20 million tons of plastic waste enter the marine environment every year. The circulating currents merge together trash of all varieties – plastic bottles, remnants of space shuttle rocket boosters, fishing equipment, debris from shipping containers, and other flotsam. “Everything that humanity does is reflected in the debris out there,” says Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who studies sea-bound trash.
This pollution isn’t just an impediment to search and rescue operations – it’s also a serious threat to marine life. Sea turtles are known to eat and choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Albatross feed colorful plastic pieces to their young, causing them to starve to death. Much of this plastic, up to 70 percent by one estimate, sinks to the bottom, harming seabed dwellers.
—Christian Science Monitor, 4/14; ClimateProgress, 4/14; NRDC, 4/14
Clean Air Blitz
At the opening of the annual Chinese Parliament meeting in early March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the government there is declaring a “war on pollution.” To help combat the horrific smog over its cities, the Chinese government is turning to a technology most often associated with the United States’ “war on terror”: drones.
As if to prove it was serious, a week after the announcement the Chinese government tested out an unmanned aerial vehicle with a glide parachute – also known as a parafoil drone – over an airport in central China’s Hubei province. The drone was carrying hundreds of pounds of “smog-clearing chemicals.” The chemical catalyst reacts with pollutants in the air and freezes them, and the pollutants then drop to the ground.
For several years China has been using fixed-wing aircraft to spray the anti-smog chemicals over major cities. The parafoil drones will be able to carry three times the cargo-weight of common planes and their operation will cost the government about 90 percent less.
The Chinese government is desperate to do whatever it can to reduce the smog over its cities. Horrible air quality has become a heated political issue in recent years as a rising middle class clamors for better environmental conditions. The smog in Beijing is so awful that it has been compared to the “effects of a nuclear winter.” Almost all Chinese cities monitored for pollution last year failed to meet state standards.
The aerial drones could also be used for crop seeding and emergency rescues, according to the Xinhua news agency. Perhaps most importantly, they can also fly in terrible conditions, including the low-visibility from the smog itself. Engineer Guo Haijun says, “Even in thick fog the UAV could fly an accurate route.”
—Reuters, 3/10; Daily Mail, 3/10.
Not many furniture stores have a signature menu item, but furniture maker Ikea is as world-famous for meatballs as it is for its dining room sets. In an effort to green its menu, Ikea will be giving its popular meatballs a makeover, expanding its offerings to include vegetarian and chicken options in the coming year.
Ikea sells an estimated 150 million beef and pork meatballs every year. And that adds up. Farming processes generate high carbon dioxide emissions, and cattle have high emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In 2013, food sold in Ikea stores around the world generated 600,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That amounts to the average annual emissions of 126,300 passenger cars.
“We are aware of the meat issue with greenhouse gases,” says Joanna Yarrow, head of sustainability for Ikea in the United Kingdom. “We are looking at all our food products from a sustainability perspective but specifically meatballs. They are very popular, and they are also our most carbon-intensive food item on our menu.”
So is Ikea giving the traditional beef and pork meatballs the boot? Not quite. According to Yarrow, they may “tweak” the recipes to decrease environmental impacts, but beef and pork options will remain on the menu, alongside new climate friendly alternatives.
Can’t See London, Can’t See France
Smog isn’t new to London. Author Charles Dickens famously described the heavy haze that in his time blanketed the city as “a London particular.” But when the metropolis was smothered in dense, milky smog for days in late March, it raised much alarm among its denizens. Comparisons to Beijing’s chronic smog problems flew thick and fast.
photo Kevin Lallier
The United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said its air quality index had spiked to its highest, and most dangerous, level of 10 across south England, the Midlands, and East Anglia. The index is based on measurements of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone, among other pollutants.
Those with lung and heart conditions were told to avoid strenuous activity outdoors while people suffering symptoms of pollution – including sore eyes, coughs, and sore throats – were advised to cut down on outdoor activities. The culprit, apparently, was a mix of dust blowing in from the Sahara Desert, emissions from continental Europe, low southeasterly winds, and domestic pollution.
The same noxious mix of Saharan dust and urban air-pollution sources affected other parts of Europe, too. London’s smog problem came just two weeks after Paris experienced a multi-day air quality crisis. French officials had to take measures to discourage driving, such as making the city’s vast public transportation system free, allowing only vehicles with either odd or even license plate numbers to drive on alternate days, and reducing speed limits on city streets. Brussels and Amsterdam also reported bad air days during the same period.
A satellite operated by the European satellite agency EUMETSAT captured the Saharan dust being swallowed up by a storm that swept into northwest Africa, Spain, France, and the UK during the last three days of March. The winds associated with this storm transported the dust 2,000 miles northward, according to the UK Met Office. “We usually see this happen several times a year when big dust storms in the Sahara coincide with southerly winds to bring that dust here,” the Met Office’s Paul Hutcheon wrote in a blog post.
Saharan dust can affect far more than just European air quality. By hitching a ride with high altitude winds, dust can be carried across the North Atlantic Ocean during the summer Atlantic hurricane season. When large amounts of dust are present, hurricane formation tends to be suppressed, because the dust interacts with cloud droplets in ways that prevent thunderstorms from transitioning into tropical storms and hurricanes. An unusually high amount of Saharan dust, for example, was implicated as one of the causes of 2013’s unexpectedly quiet Atlantic hurricane season.
In Europe, the haze diminished within a few weeks, but it sure gave Old World cities a taste of what Beijing’s chronic smog problem feels like.
—Mashable, 4/14; The Guardian, UK, 4/14; The Economist, 3/14
For decades, dams and river diversions built in the twentieth century have prevented the Colorado River from completing its journey to the sea. Now, an unprecedented transnational experiment is attempting to restore the flow of the river to the Gulf of California.
The mighty Colorado, which over millennia has carved the Grand Canyon, once flowed freely from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. These days it dies after it crosses the US-Mexico border. The southernmost dam on the river – Mexico’s Morelos Dam, near Yuma, AZ – diverts nearly all of the river water into an aqueduct that serves agriculture and homes in Tijuana. South of the dam, the river channel travels about 75 miles to the Gulf of California. Except when filled by rains, the channel is bone dry.
But in March, river water began pouring into the channel again as part of a landmark agreement between the two countries. The International Boundary Water Commission first released water from Lake Mead in Nevada. Then, a few days later, it lifted the gates at the Morelos Dam and sent water gushing toward the barren Colorado River delta. During the course of eight weeks, the program released an estimated 105,000 acre-feet of water downriver.
Although there have been experimental high-flow water releases in the Colorado River in the past, such as one last year from Lake Powell designed to spread sediment in the Grand Canyon, this is the first “pulse” for the delta. The pulse, in the planning stage for some time, is part of a five-year bi-national pilot project designed to reinvigorate the delta environment. An amendment approved two years ago to a 1944 water-sharing treaty between the two countries established new rules for sharing water in times of drought and committed both nations, often at odds over water, to conducting the pulse experiment.
Conservationists hope the water will revitalize the delta and bring back trees, animals, and aquatic life that were once abundant in the region when it was flush with water decades ago. The release is also intended to help Mexican farmers grow their crops. Experts from both countries will study the effects of the release, which was designed to mimic a flood produced by a spring snowmelt.
However, the release provided only a smidgen of what would have flowed before the dams were built, officials say. It’s unlikely that most of water will reach the Gulf of California; much of it will soak into the soil or be left standing in parts of the channel. Part of the impetus for the experiment is to determine whether a healthy delta system can be maintained without a lot of water.
Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, water and wetlands program director of the Mexican conservation group Pronatura Noroeste, says the region is resilient. “Just a little bit of water makes a big difference here,” he says. But he acknowledged the limits of the restoration project. “We cannot restore the delta to what it was 100 years ago,” he says. “What was then wetlands is now farmland, and we need to respect that.”
The pulse is the only water release planned so far. At the end of the five-year pilot project, US and Mexican officials will review findings and discuss whether other discharges should be made.
—AP, 3/14; LA Times, 3/14
Black bears living in Yosemite National Park are beginning to return to their natural diet of foraged wild foods thanks to a campaign to keep human food away from the animals.
photo Johan Doe
Fifteen years ago, bear-human interactions reached a crisis level. In 1998, there were more than 1,500 encounters between black bears and people as the bears raided campgrounds and broke into cars in search of groceries and leftovers. The diet of human junk food was bad for bear health: Many showed signs of rotting teeth due eating sugar-rich foods pilfered from humans. And sometimes the encounters were deadly for the animals. In the 1990s, Yosemite rangers killed about seven or eight “problem bears” each year.
So the National Park Service launched an initiative to install bear-resistant food-storage containers and to crack down on people who left out food. The campaign appears to have worked. According to a recent study by researchers at UC-Santa Cruz, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the human food in Yosemite bears’ diet has dropped 63 percent since 1998. The researchers were able to track the bears’ diet by studying hair samples taken throughout the park and comparing these to earlier hair samples.
Today, the animals eat about the same amount of human food as they did in 1915, when the park had a few thousand visitors annually, compared to the more than 4 million people who visited the park last year. The number of bear-human interactions dropped to just 155 in 2012, while now only one or two bears a year have to be put down for persistently approaching people.
For decades, including well into the 1960s, park rangers used to feed bears and invite visitors to watch the spectacle from bleachers. “It was entertainment,” says park spokesman Scott Gediman. No longer. Today the focus is on keeping wildlife wild.
“One of the big things is to put more focus into prevention management,” says researcher Jack Hopkins. “Take care of the problem at its root, which is removing human food from the landscape and keeping it in a place where animals cannot get to it.”
This Is Your Forest on Drugs
Drug trafficking has a new victim: Central American forests. According to a recent report, heightened drug interdiction polices in Mexico are pushing drug trafficking organizations farther south, spelling trouble for protected forests in Guatemala and Honduras.
When Mexico began to crackdown on the drug trade in 2006, drug cartels began pushing more aggressively into Central America. They established new trade routes for transporting South American cocaine, seeking out remote, lightly populated forest regions with minimal police presence. Many of these trade routes pass through the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that intersects several countries and incorporates a number of protected areas. The corridor is home to endangered species, including tapir and jaguars.
The new report, pusblished in the journal Science, draws attention to the correlation between drug trafficking and deforestation in the region. The authors emphasize that in eastern Honduras deforestation more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, a period that correlates directly with strengthened anti-drug trafficking efforts in Mexico. In Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park deforestation has increased between five and ten percent since 2007.
“Drug trafficking is causing an ecological disaster in Central America,” says Kendra McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University and co-author of the report. “These protected ecological zones have become the hub for South American cocaine.”
According to the report’s authors, the growing presence of drug traffickers in remote Central American forests is contributing to deforestation in at least three ways. First, traffickers build infrastructure to accommodate airplane and boat shipments to the region. That means cutting down forests for clandestine roads and landing strips.
Second, drug traffickers must launder their drug-related profits. They often do this through agricultural enterprises, deforesting large tracts to make way for ranches or oil palm plantations. Traffickers are also incentivized to invest in large “narco-estates” in order to monopolize an area and keep out rival trafficking organizations.
Third, trafficking brings an influx of guns and money to these remote regions. The lack of state presence in the region leaves Indigenous groups particularly vulnerable, and many have reported property loss at the hands of drug traffickers. “The Indians are either chased off their land, or recruited by drug traffickers – voluntarily or by force – to fell trees and work on their farms,” says Matthew Taylor, another author of the report.
Government officials continue to respond to drug trafficking with supply-side tactics. Such efforts seems to have simply encouraged traffickers to move operations even farther south, into Nicaragua. The report’s authors urge policy-makers to rethink their strategies and to utilize demand-side drug reduction policies. Because, according to McSweeney, “such a purely repressive strategy will not solve the issue.”
—The Guardian, 4/15; Mongabay, 3/12