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First arrested on suspicion of spying, then set free only to be hunted down and cooked up – things didn’t work out well for Menes the white stork.
The unfortunate episode occurred in Qena, in southern Egypt, when a fisherman carried out a “citizen’s arrest” on the stork after spotting an unusual metallic device attached to its feathers. Suspecting the device was a camera and the stork a winged spy acting on behalf of foreign powers, the fisherman turned the bird over to local police.
The cops summoned local veterinary experts. An inspection took place. To everyone’s relief, the stork turned out to be bearing nothing but a wildlife tracker, apparently fixed to its feathers by French scientists researching birds’ migratory paths. The device was no longer working.
The white stork, which Nature Conservation Egypt named “Menes,” was then released into a conservation area in southern Egypt. It soon flew to an island in the Nile, where it was caught and reportedly eaten by villagers, just days after its flight to freedom.
“Storks have been part of the Nubian diet for thousands of years, so the actual act of eating storks is not in itself a unique practice,” Nature Conservation Egypt said in a Facebook post. “However, the short-lived success story of getting Menes released was not enough to keep him safe till he exited Egypt,” the post said. “Egypt has long suffered from issues of uncontrolled hunting. However, it is important to always balance the needs of local communities with the needs of nature and biodiversity conservation. We truly are saddened by the tragic end to Menes’ journey.”
Mahmoud Hassib, a government official who oversees Egypt’s southern protected areas, denied that the bird had been eaten, though he said he didn’t know the exact cause of death.
Menes is not the first fowl to have fallen afoul of Egyptian authorities amid the paranoia fueled by the ongoing unrest there. In January, state media reported that a stricken carrier pigeon had been sent to Egypt’s criminal investigation department after being found with a suspicious microfilm.
Conspiracy theories involving animals (and, usually, Israel) seem to abound in the region. In 2010, an Egyptian official said Israel-controlled sharks could be involved in a number of tourist attacks in the Red Sea. Last December, an eagle in Sudan found carrying an Israeli tag was accused of being a Mossad spy. And in August a kestrel was held in Turkey on suspicion of working for the Israeli security services.
—The Guardian, 9/13; The Independent, 9/13
See You in Court
When governments fail to fight climate change, then citizens have to take matters into their own hands.
Several locals have done just that in Riau, a district on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Eight residents there partnered with environmental groups and filed a lawsuit against the Indonesian government in September seeking recompense for actions contributing to climate change. The plaintiffs claim that government officials were negligent in carrying out their responsibilities to manage Riau forests, and they seek reimbursement for subsequent health problems, financial losses, and decreased quality of life.
The defendants include Indonesia’s president, the environment minister, the forestry minister, and Riau’s governor. The residents argue that unlawful logging permits were granted to industrial timber and palm oil companies, which burned forest despite immense hazards to local communities.
“The president of the Republic of Indonesia should take responsibility for the actions of the forestry minister, the environment minister, and the governor of Riau, who recklessly granted concessions,” according to Suryadi, a lawyer with the Riau Climate Change Advocacy Team.
Paper and palm oil industries often clear Indonesian forest with fire. Burning peatland is particularly destructive, given that peatlands sequester more atmospheric carbon than other types of forest. Such burning practices are a major driver of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The plaintiffs cited climate change impacts such as increased flooding, uncertain planting seasons, fishery unpredictability, and increased agri-cultural pests. In addition, burning affects many Indonesians’ health. “The worst is that the wildfires occur every year and the smog is very unhealthy for humans’ respiration,” says M. Yusuf, a 69 year-old Serapung local. “It makes it hard for us to do daily routines and work.”
“There’s no more forest and many of the wild animals enter the residence. We feel threatened in doing our daily activities,” says Tarmidzi, a 56-year-old resident of Jumrah.
If the villagers were to win their case, it would be precedent-setting, and likely open the floodgates to other legal challenges against governments that have failed to address global warming.
—Eyes on the Forest 9/10; Mongabay 9/13
Nabbed by the Collar
In a story that seems ripped from an episode of the espionage thriller Homeland, a hacker in India was able to break into the location data of a tiger’s GPS collar, apparently in an effort to find and then kill the animal for its valuable pelt and organs.
In recent decades, radio collars have become an essential tool for biologists and government agencies to track the movements of threatened wildlife. But if poachers were able to snatch the information from a radio collar, it would allow them to locate their prey without having to bushwhack through the jungle for days or weeks.
That apparently was the goal of a hacker based in the city of Pune who seized the location data of a tiger living in the Satpura Tiger Reserve in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The three-year-old male, known to conservation officials as P-211, wasn’t harmed by the episode, but Indian wildlife officials say they will continue to monitor its location closely to make sure it’s not being hunted.
Today only an estimated 1,700 tigers remain in the wild in India, a sharp decline from the tens of thousands that lived there a century ago. Poaching is one reason for the drop; poachers killed at least 30 tigers last year, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
The radio-collar hacking appears to be the first of its kind, and it threw Indian officials into confusion. Only three people had access to the location data of the tiger’s collar, and no one has been able to figure out how the hacker – who has not been identified – was able to break through the password protections. Indian officials even struggled with how exactly to register the case. Should it be a cyber crime in the state of Maharashtra, where the hacker was based? Or a poaching attempt in Madhya Pradesh, where the tiger lives?
The confusion soon exploded into disagreement, as forestry officials and biologists at the Wildlife Institute of India bickered over who had jurisdiction over the case, who was supposed to have access to the location data passwords, and why the tiger had recently been transported from one reserve to another.
Meanwhile, no one has been arrested in the case.
And the tiger? It continues to roam its protected area. But its radio collar has been deactivated – for its own safety.
—Times of India, 9/21 & 10/1; The New Indian Express, 10/8
The roar of a tiger is fabled to cause grown men to faint. Now new research shows that the big cat’s blood-curdling cry could also be a cause for comfort. Recordings of tiger growls have been shown to scare away marauding elephant herds in India.
As wildlife habitats shrink in this thickly populated South Asian nation, there’s been a rise in human-elephant conflicts. Wandering wild elephant herds cause huge damage to crops and that often leads to violent clashes with villagers. Between 2003 and 2009, at least 226 people and 87 elephants died in such clashes in India, according to the Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
Researchers have been working for years to figure out ways to keep the pachyderms away from crop fields. Now a new study published in the journal Biology Letters claims playing recordings of tiger growls might do the trick.
The study, by University of California-Davis animal behavior scientist Vivek Thuppil and psychologist Richard G. Coss, looked at the nighttime behavior of elephants in villages bordering two animal reserves in the Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala. The researchers used infrared beam sensors to automatically trigger off playbacks of leopard and tiger growl recordings as elephants approached a crop field.
Analysis of the elephants’ movements showed that they retreated quickly and silently on hearing the tiger growls. But the calls of leopards – which, unlike tigers, do not prey on young elephants – prompted the elephants to linger in the area while trumpeting and grunting aggressively.
If tiger growl playbacks are deployed continuously near fields they could prevent elephants from raiding fields, Thuppil says. The sound could also warn villagers of invading elephants, potentially avoiding dangerous contact, he says.
Other experts are not sure if this approach will succeed in the long run.
“Many such experiments on predator call replay have been tried on elephants, but the primary drawback is that elephants ultimately realize the hoax,” says Sushant Chowdhury, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India. The researchers counter that most of these studies explored the behavior of African elephants during the day. In contrast, the nocturnal behavior of Indian elephants is poorly understood.
—ScienceDev.net, 10/13; Times of India, 10/13
Riding the Waves
In September, officials in Scotland approved the largest tidal energy project in Europe, giving a boost to a technology that has been overshadowed by other renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.
The project, located in Scotland’s Pentland Firth, will employ tidal turbine technology, submerging under the water’s surface 1,500-ton turbines that will be powered by ocean currents. The company behind the project, MeyGen Ltd, plans to unroll the technology in phases, starting with a demonstration project of up to six turbines, and expanding to provide 86 megawatts of electricity to Scotland’s Highlands – enough to power roughly 42,000 homes. “This exciting development in the waters around Orkney is just the first phase for a site that could eventually yield up to 398 [megawatts],” says Scottish Energy Minister Fergus Ewing.
Approved after an in-depth siting and environmental review process, the Pentland Firth project will be monitored closely for its impact on the marine environment. The environmental impacts of tidal turbines are not yet well understood, but researchers believe they may include noise disturbances during installation and operation, loss of seabed habitat, and injury to fish, whales and other marine wildlife resulting from collision with turbines.
“The Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters region is an internationally important area for wildlife, and we are committed to continuing research with interested parties to ensure that the exploitation of this clean, predictable, and sustainable energy resource is done so in a manner that does not have a detrimental effect on the species and habitats in the area,” MeyGen’s Ed Rollings says.
“As a global leader, Scotland can create green electricity, reduce climate emissions, and generate new jobs,” Dr. Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland said in a supporting statement.
Despite such support, there are still significant obstacles facing the project, not least of which is the question of how the tidal energy will be connected to the national energy grid. MeyGen has secured an agreement for 253 megawatts of electricity to be delivered in phases through the National Grid from 2014 through 2019, but beyond that, questions loom about grid connectivity.
Other European tidal projects too, have been met with opposition. Just days after Scotland approved MeyGen’s tidal turbine project, the UK rejected a tidal barrage project proposed on the Severn River, citing environmental and financial concerns. A previous Severn estuary project, using ebb-only technology, was rejected in 2010.
Financial and environmental uncertainties have also hindered development of ocean energy projects in the United States. But this may be changing. In August, the US Department of Energy awarded $16 million toward development of more efficient tidal and wave energy technologies. “Wave and tidal energy represent a large untapped resourced for the United States,” says David Danielson, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “and responsible development of this clean, renewable energy source is an important part of our all-of-the-above energy strategy.”
—BBC, 9/16; Bloomberg, 9/18; Sustainable Business, 9/20
Clean Up the Fridge
Attention shoppers: The freezer case on aisle five might be responsible for fueling global climate change and depleting the ozone layer.
In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice filed a complaint alleging Safeway was in violation of the Clean Air Act on two counts: The grocery chain failed to repair refrigerators leaking HCFC-22 in a timely manner in accordance with government requirements, and also failed to keep accurate refrigerator maintenance records.
photo Adisa / Bigstock
Rather than engage in a lengthy legal battle, Safeway settled with the EPA, agreeing to pay $600,000 in civil damages and reduce its corporate leak rate from 25 percent to 18 percent. The agreement includes 659 of the supermarket chain’s 1,400 stores. The EPA says the settlement involves the largest number of facilities to be brought into compliance with the Clean Air Act’s regulations governing refrigeration.
The Montreal Protocol of 1986 initiated a global plan to phase-out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are found in aerosols, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). Although the protocol represents a pivotal step to protect the ozone layer, these substances are still in use in many old refrigeration systems, with grave consequences. HCFC-22, for example, not only contributes to ozone depletion, but is also a greenhouse gas with a heat-trapping potential that is 1,800 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
Under the Montreal Protocol, an import and production ban on HCFC-22 will take effect in the US in 2020, and all HCFCs will fall under the ban beginning in 2030. Additionally, at the September G-20 summit in Russia, the US and 34 other countries signed an agreement to phase-out another class of refrigeration chemicals – hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – in favor of CO2 or natural refrigeration technologies. Today HFCs only account for about 1 percent of global warming. But scientists have warned that without a ban, HFCs could be a major climate change driver by mid-century.
Safeway isn’t the only grocery chain having problems with leaky refrigerators. A recent study by the Environmental Investigation Agency found that 12 major retailers – including Costco, Whole Foods, and WalMart – have a problem with fugitive emissions. Some chains are starting to address the issue. Whole Foods is opening up an HFC-free store in Brooklyn, and many WalMart stores use a combination of HFCs and natural refrigerants.
Leaky refrigerators may not be the first issue that comes to mind in discussions about climate change. But it is exactly this type of everyday problem that must be addressed if we are to solve the climate change puzzle. Fixing something as mundane as refrigeration turns out to be pretty cool.
—Environmental News Service, 9/5; Capital News Service, 10/21
Few sights are more inspiring and downright adorable than hatchling sea turtles scuttling their way across a beach towards the ocean. In parts of the southeast Atlantic coast, the little critters are hatching in record numbers this year, much to the jubilation of sea turtle conservationists.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service says the unprecedented number of turtle nests in the region this year is a sign that 35 years of conservation efforts are finally paying off.
In Florida, the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge had nearly 1,150 green sea turtle nests, more than double the record it set two years ago. And in the nearby Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge – which has the largest concentration of green sea turtles in North America – there were 10,420 turtle nests by late August, breaking the refuge’s 2011 record of 5,505 nests, the USFWS reports.
“We’ve had a banner year for green sea turtles,” says Hobe Sound Refuge manager Bill Miller. The three-and-a-half-mile refuge nesting area on Jupiter Island holds about 2,500 turtle nests, including several hundred nests of the larger and equally endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles.
The Florida coast accounts for 90 percent of all sea turtle nest sites in the continental United States and is home to the largest nesting aggregation of threatened loggerhead turtles in the Western Hemisphere. The area also supports the highest density of endanggreen sea turtles in North America.
The number of sea turtle nests has also been increasing farther up the coast, in South Carolina. In early September, loggerhead nests at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina topped 1,900 – about 200 more than last year – making it the highest nest count there since 1978, the year the species became federally protected. The numbers for loggerhead nests were above average in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, says Ann Marie Lauritsen, acting national sea turtle coordinator for the USFWS.
Researchers aren’t yet sure if weather changes or other environmental factors are responsible for the comeback. But they’re encouraged that decades of federal protection and conservation efforts, along with offshore protections by fisheries, are paying off. “It takes 30 to 35 years for these turtles to reach maturity,” says Sarah Dawsey, manager of the Cape Romain National refuge. “We’re just now seeing those turtles who were first protected in 1978 coming back to nest.”
Sea turtles still face many risks, including poaching, boat traffic, ocean pollution, and coastal lighting – which draws hatchlings inland instead of toward the ocean.
—Reuters, 9/13; Defenders of Wildlife, 9/13
Sometimes it’s no fun being right.
For six years, organic farmers and sustainable food activists warned US regulators that if they approved genetically modified alfalfa, it would be a disaster for many growers. The biggest threat, they cautioned, would be uncontrollable cross-pollination that would spread GM alfalfa into the fields of other farmers who wanted to stay GM-free – a reasonable worry given that alfalfa is easily pollinated by bees and other insects that forage over miles.
Now the warning has come true.
photo Photographhunter / Bigstock
In August, an alfalfa farmer in Washington state had his crop rejected for export because it contained traces of genetically modified alfalfa. GM critics say the incident proves that non-GM farmers will end up bearing the cost of any cross-pollination that leads to contamination.
“Co-existence is a myth,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “We don’t know how to control contamination. They say biotech is just another tool in the toolbox. That is not true. It’s a tool that takes over all the other tools and makes them worthless.”
The US Department of Agriculture first moved to approve GM alfalfa in 2005. But environmental groups and some seed companies sued the agency and, in 2006, forced it to rescind approval after a federal court found that the USDA had not conducted a proper environmental review. At one point the USDA considered only allowing restricted plantings of GM alfalfa, to try to isolate it from non-GM crops. Then, in 2011, the agency went ahead and approved unrestricted GM plantings.
After confirming that the Washington alfalfa farmer’s crop did, in fact, contain Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready alfalfa, the USDA announced that the contamination didn’t warrant any government action because the cross-pollination constitutes “a commercial issue.”
The commercial implications are exactly what many farmers are worried about. Alfalfa is the major feed source for dairy cattle and other livestock, a crop worth roughly $8 billion. Exports of alfalfa hay have been rising, and hit a record $1.25 billion in 2012. US growers are worried that GM cross-pollination could cost them their international markets. Many overseas buyers test all shipments to ensure they don’t contain GMOs, which consumers in Asia and Europe are skeptical of. Just this summer, Japan and South Korea temporarily halted imports of US wheat after a GM variety was found growing in a field of conventional wheat in Oregon.
Some agricultural experts are now warning farmers that, before they start planting, they should test every bag of alfalfa seed to establish whether it is genetically modified.
“It’s now on the farmers,” says Steve Norberg, a forage specialist at Washington State University. “When they are growing for sensitive markets, they are going to have to beware. This is really just starting.”
—Reuters, 9/11, 9/16, 9/17
Sloth Export Foiled
A recent attempt by Dallas World Aquarium officials to remove critically endangered pygmy three-toed sloths from an island in Panama got nixed by local police and residents, caused an international uproar, and sparked off an intense debate on conservation methodologies.
Pygmy three-toed sloths are critically endangered, with fewer than 100 individuals found only on the small Panamanian island of Isla Escudo de Veraguas. A team working for Dallas World Aquarium, which has been involved in conservation efforts on the island, captured eight of these sloths in September and tried to ship them via a private jet from the Bocas del Toro province airport.
According to Luis Sigler, the aquarium’s staff biologist, six of the rare animals were being relocated to Dallas in order to establish a captive breeding population. The remaining two were to be shipped to a private animal center in Colon, Panama, where tropical birds and other animals are bred for export.
The aquarium had all the required animal export and research permits from Panama’s National Environmental Authority. But some local police officers became suspicious when they saw the sloths being carried in loading crates at the airport. The paperwork aquarium staff produced didn’t convince the Bocas del Toro authorities, who hadn’t received any word of the impending sloth export.
As word of the planned export spread, local residents, tourists, and community leaders began gathering around the airport, demanding the sloths be released. During the ruckus, some of the protesters reportedly threw rocks at the plane and trapped the aquarium staff, including chief executive Daryl Richardson, in a van and threatened to release them only once the sloths were freed.
The aquarium staff was eventually forced to turn the sloths over to the locals, who released them back on the island.
While the aquarium’s interest in setting up a captive breeding program to save this rare species might be well intentioned, the devil lies in the details. Three-toed sloths are very difficult to keep in captivity, says Bryson Voirin, a pygmy sloth expert who has been working on sloth conservation in Panama for 10 years. They often do not survive or reproduce. Nearly all attempts to maintain sloth populations outside the tropics have failed. The animals’ diet and habits are still not well understood.
“The idea of an external breeding program to increase the number of pygmy sloths sounds logical and noble at first, but when you consider that it’s hard enough to just keep common three-toed sloths alive in captivity, let alone breed them, it seems highly unlikely that a satellite breeding population in Dallas would have yielded anything more than at best a few sloths surviving in captivity in a foreign zoo, but more likely eight fewer surviving pygmy sloths in the wild,” Voirin says.
Several other leading conservationists criticized the aquarium, pointing out that it hadn’t developed a comprehensive management plan in consultation with experts on the species, as well as with local stakeholders.
“I fail to understand why Dallas World Aquarium did not consult with the experienced researchers prior to exporting these animals,” says Dr. Mariella Superina, chair of the IUCN Anteater, Sloth, and Armadillo Specialist Group. “Furthermore, I fail to understand how [the Panamanian government] approved the export of roughly 10 percent of the wild population if this species has never been kept in captive conditions.”
—Mongabay, 9/13; Dallas Morning News, 9/13; Phys.org, 10/13
No Money Down
When it was announced in 2007, Ecuador’s Yasuní ITT-Initiative to protect an area of the Amazonian rainforest from oil drilling was hailed as a historic conservation effort. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said he wouldn’t allow oil extraction in parts of Yasuní National Park if international donors agreed to reimburse Ecuador for half of the lost revenues of the estimated 846 million barrels of oil underneath the forest. Environmentalists called the idea “unprecedented.”
Six years later, the only adjective that fits is “unsuccessful.”
In August, Correa announced he was abandoning the initiative after failing to come up with the $3.6 billion he was asking for to protect the 2.5 million-acre rainforest, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Ecuador had only managed to attract $13 million in donations and another $116 million in pledges.
Then, in early October, the Ecuadorian Congress approved drilling in two concessions in the park, a biodiversity hotspot that is supposed to have more tree and insect species in a single hectare than in all of the US and Canada combined. The park is also home to two Indigenous tribes, the Waorani and the Taromenane, that live in the forest in voluntary isolation.
Environmentalists say the failure to fund the Yasuní Initiative rests on Correa. They say the government’s 2008 default on its international debt, combined with mixed messages from the president’s office, sowed doubts among international donors. President Correa, meanwhile, blames the international community. “It was not charity that we sought. It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change,” he told a national television audience when announcing the end of the initiative. “Sadly, we have to say that the world has failed us.”
Ecuadorian environmentalists are now gearing up for a last-ditch effort to save the park – a national referendum to put Yasuní off-limits forever. Organizers have six months to collect the signatures of 680,000 Ecuadorians (five percent of the population) to hold a plebiscite on the fate of Yasuní. If the issue goes to a popular vote, it would be a major test of Ecuadorians’ commitment to preserving their Amazonian terrain. Past public opinion polls showed that 80 percent of Ecuadorians were in favor of the Yasuní Initiative. But that support may be eroding as the government runs frequent television and radio spots promising that any drilling will use the latest technology to limit environmental impacts – and promises that drilling monies will be used to fund schools and hospitals. The government gets about half of its revenue from the petroleum industry.
“The government has plenty of resources to position its message, and it has great capacity to move the public, but we are confident on this issue,” says Esperanza Martinez, president of the Ecuadorian group, Accion Ecologica. “The amount of information that exists and the number of people who believe in conserving Yasuní will give us positive results [in the referendum].”
There are good reasons to be optimistic that voters might support closing Yasuní to oil drilling. Ecuador is the only country in the world with a constitution granting legal rights to ecosystems. And the country’s large and influential Indigenous population has a deep respect for nature.
Alberto Acosta, who unsuccessfully challenged Correa in this year’s presidential election and who was one of the main backers of the rights-of-nature campaign, is urging Ecuadorians to take the long view. “The oil will run out,” Acosta says. “Sooner or later, we will have to face that challenge.”
—Environment News Service, 10/9