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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2006 > Around the World

Around the World

Local News from All Over

 

AFRICA

West African Black Rhino Feared Extinct

While its cousins are slowly recovering, the West African black rhino is feared to be extinct. Last seen in northern Cameroon, there has been no sign of the rhinos within the last year, according to the African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) of the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission.

“As a result this subspecies has been tentatively declared as extinct,” says Dr Martin Brooks, AfRSG chairman. Meanwhile, the northern white rhino is dangerously close to disappearing, with population numbers at an all time low.

“Restricted in the wild to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recent ground and aerial surveys conducted under the direction of African Parks Foundation and the AfRSG have only found four animals. Efforts to locate further animals continue, but we must now face the possibility that the subspecies may not recover to a viable level,” Brooks continued.

There is good news, though. The southern white rhino, whose numbers were as low as 50 a century ago, have made a dramatic recovery. Today there are around 14,540. Also in the last two years, the continental black rhino population has grown by 3.2%, from 2,410 in 1995 to 3,725.

IUCN, 7/27

Green tax cuts

Leaders in Africa recommended cutting taxes on fertilizers as one of twelve measures to start a “Green Revolution” to alleviate hunger in Africa.

Currently, one-third of sub-Saharan Africans face recurrent famine and malnutrition, partly resulting from soil depletion.

“Population pressure now compels farmers to grow crop after crop thereby mining the soil of its nutrients, “ Nigerian President Olusegun Obansanjo explained to heads of state, private sponsors and farming ministers at the Africa Fertilizer Summit in Abuja, Nigeria (June 9-13, 2006).

farmed countryside in Africaphotos.comAfrican farmers may get a tax break.

Even though more than 70% of Africa’s population is directly involved with farming, most farmers cannot afford fertilizer and yields per person have fallen over the last 40 years. If soil depletion continues at the same rate, yields will decline by 30% in the next 15 years. Soil depletion also contributes to desertification and thus increases the rate of deforestation for farmland. Ecosystems, such as the Serengeti plains and the Kalahari savannahs in the south are severely threatened.

By eliminating taxes and tariffs on fertilizer and fertilizer raw products, leaders hope to reduce famine and protect land from further deforestation.

But just as important as obtaining cheap fertilizer is the method of application. Steve Twomblow, a leader in ICRISCAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), advocates “micro-dosing,” a technique where farmers use beer bottle caps (yes beer bottle caps) to focus key nutrients where they are needed rather than wasting them. Combined with organic fertilizers, farmers could improve soil structure and water-holding capacity, thereby increasing soil fertility. ICRISAT is now pressing agribusinesses to make fertilizer available in smaller, more affordable packets.

– Planetark, 6/14, Treehugger, 6/13

African Icecaps Melting

Icecaps on Rwenzori Mountains, located on the Congo-Uganda border, are expected to disappear completely within the next 20 years due to global warming. A group of British and Ugandan scientists who have surveyed the mountains for the last ten years found that the glaciers are shrinking by about 32 feet every year. From 1987 to 2003, the area of the ice field was reduced by half. This decline corresponds with a steady increase in air temperature over the last forty years.

Richard Taylor, a British scientist who led the study, said, "Recession of these tropical glaciers sends an unambiguous message of a changing climate in this region of the tropics."

The equatorial icecaps on the Mountains of the Moon, as they are also called, are one of just four tropical glaciers outside of the Andes. A century ago, the glacier covered 2.5 square miles, today only half a square mile. Meltwater from the glacier provides water to rivers and lakes that feed into the Nile River.

"Considering the continent's negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions," said Taylor, "it is a terrible irony that Africa, according to current predictions, will be most affected by climate change."

ENS, 5/17; Science and Development Network, 5/18

Seychelles seashells

Rising sea temperatures result in lasting destruction of coral reefs, according to researchers studying the reefs in the Seychelles where damage from a massive bleaching can still be seen. Between autumn 1997 and spring 1998, the ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean rose to unprecedented levels, an event attributed to the El Niño phenomenon. As a result of the increased temperatures, 90 percent of the coral were bleached. Bleaching occurs when coral suffer from a stressful environment, the most common stressor being increased temperatures.

colorful underwater invertebratephotos.comAfrica's coral reefs are in trouble

While the short-term effects were devastating, the researchers found that the reefs have been unable to recover in the long-term. "Reefs can sometimes recover after disturbances," said Nick Graham, the lead researcher, "but we have shown that after severe bleaching events, collapse in the physical structure of the reef results in profound impacts on other organisms in the ecosystem and greatly impedes the likelihood of recovery."

Four local fish species that depended on the reef for food and shelter are now believed to be extinct, and six more are critically low. In the hardest hit areas of the reef, the diversity of fish species has decreased by 50 percent, a loss that could destabilize the ecosystem. The future of the reefs looks pretty bleak as further destruction of coral reefs is expected as a result of global warming.

ENS, 5/15; BBC, 5/16

ANTARCTICA

Tourism Boom Threatens Antarctic Wilderness

If only those penguins weren’t so darn cute…

penguns on an ice floe, icebergs in the sea in the backgroundphotos.com

Polar scientists and government officials gathered in Scotland to discuss among other things the environmental impact of the rapid increase in tourism to Antarctica. In the last 8 years the number of tourists has quadrupled to 32,000.

Once the realm of only the hardiest researchers, cruise liners have begun to venture to the southernmost reaches of the planet. This has raised concerns over the pollution from these monstrous vessels, as well as the safety of navigating the ships through icy Antarctic waters. Scientists at the meeting called for stricter regulation of tourist activities in the Antarctic. Currently, the industry voluntarily monitors itself through the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators.

"Recent evidence indicates that regional melting, north and south, is taking place at a worrying rate, and faster than we thought," said Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey. "The consequence for the future of mean sea level alone justifies the polar regions as the subject of special scientific attention."

PlanetArk, 6/13

ASIA

China to clean up air for the Olympics

China has two years to clean up its act, and its air, before Beijing—one of the most polluted cities in the world—hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics. Their pollution problem stems in part from China’s economic boom and subsequent embrace of modern conveniences. With car ownership and energy consumption expected to continue its rapid ascent, it’s estimated that China’s pollution could quadruple in the next 15 years. Already, researchers say, 30,000 Chinese die every year from air pollution—a combination of sand, soot, and dust particles that clog Beijing’s air.

In an effort to show off their environmental savvy to the rest of the world, China has promised a “green Olympics” and has already begun cleaning up its most polluting factories and cutting back on burning coal. To ensure their goal, Chinese officials have enlisted their top environmental scientists to solve their pollution woes. With a budget of $2 billion for environmental clean-up, the Chinese say they are hoping to make lasting changes, not just a quick-fix for the two weeks of the Games.

Chicago Tribune, 5/18

Like Oil and Water

Backed by citizens concerns, environmental and political officials are blowing the whistle on the recent pumping and burning of “black oil” in the valleys and reservoirs near the Tigris River.

Ahmed Mahmoud, an engineer in charge of environmental monitoring, said most of the villages depend on water from well and reservoirs, twelve of which sit immediately between the river and the oozing bogs. He added that “at least some of the black oil was already seeping into the river.”

In response to citizens complaints in Baiji, Governor Qaisi formed a technical committee to investigate and write a report on the severe environmental consequences if the practice was not stopped.

“Black oil,” or lower fuel grade oil, accounts for almost 40% of petroleum processed by Iraq’s refineries. It is a thick, viscous substance that used to be exported for further refining.

After the 1992 trade embargo, excess oil and other refinery by-products were pumped into the mountains where countless miles of caves and fissures were supposed to contain limitless volumes. This has not proven to be the case. The oil slips through rocky terrain and eventually reaches groundwater, thus polluting rivers and civilian water supply.

With the lifting of the embargo in 2003, Iraq began to export “black oil” again, but the U.S.-designed reconstruction program has still not effectively solved the problem of overproduction.

– NY Times, 6/19

A Nepalese Situation

After a recent ceasefire between the Nepalese government and Maoist insurgents, conservationists were able to enter Royal Bardia National Park (Bai Valley) for the first time in two years.

And it doesn't look good. Scientists and park staff report that most of the endangered tigers and rhinos in the critical habitat have disappeared.

An assessment of the park was conducted May 21-24 by a 40-member team of park personnel, IUCN and WWF staff. The survey team confirmed the presence of only three tigers, down from an estimated of thirteen in 2001. The rhino population plummeted from 70 translocated rhinos in 1986 to a mere three rhinos.

"Given the probable growth rate over a period of 12 years, there should have been more than 100 rhinos in this area," says WWF Nepal research officer Kanchan Thapa, who was part of the survey team. "This would be a viable population."

The loss of the animals is the result of poachers taking advantage of insufficient anti-poaching controls in the tiger and rhino habitat, a part of the park which has been controlled by the Maoist faction.

In 2004 Maoist insurgents detained and assaulted four members of a rhino monitoring team and since then the region has been deemed too dangerous.

But the recent ceasefire may signal a positive change. With a political climate of peace and a habitat that is still largely intact, there is hope that the tiger and rhino populations can recover.

– ENS, 6/1

Himalayan forests disappearing

mountainous forestphotos.comForest in Bhutan

Another biodiversity hotspot is expected to vanish unless conservation efforts are ramped up. Nearly one quarter of the plant and animal species that call the Himalaya their home, including black bears, tigers, leopards, and golden eagles, could disappear by the end of the century. A team of Indian researchers says deforestation is to blame. Between the 1970s and 2000, 15 percent of the forest cover was lost. By 2100, that number will soar to 50 percent.

More disturbing is the fact that the Indian government seems unaware of the problem because it relies on official government estimates, which forecast that the forest cover will actually increase by 40 percent. With these figures in mind, several hydroelectric dams are in the works—projects that will only further devastate the dwindling forests.

The researchers looked at high-resolution satellite images of the region from 1972 to 2001 to measure the changes in forest cover. The Western Himalaya was especially hard hit by deforestation with only one third of the forests expected to survive the century. The researchers called these conservative estimates since it’s likely that the growth of the region’s population and agriculture will further increase deforestation rates.

New Scientist, 5/18

Ibis Rediscovered

Three members of the northern bald ibis species, thought to be extinct until four years ago, were recently tagged in Syria.

Currently, the northern ibis is classified as Critically Endangered - there are only 13 species left in Syria and 100 breeding pairs in Morocco. Scientists from BirdLife Middle East and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and tagged three of the seven adults, in order collect more data on the species. By following their migration and locating their specific winter home, scientists should know how and why their numbers are so low, an aid for conservation efforts.

Ibrahim Khader, head of BirdLife Middle East, said the survey was challenging fieldwork, but that scientists "knew [the ibises] were in Palmyra because of reports from Bedouin nomads and local hunters....without this tracking project, the bird would have been consigned to history and hieroglyphics."

– BBC, 7/24

EUROPE

UK government to go carbon neutral by 2012

The British government has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2012. In an effort to model sustainable behavior for the rest of the country, all government agencies will prevent the release of as much carbon as they produce.

This will save an estimated 800,000 metrics tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 750,000 cars off the road. They will be focusing on six major areas to meet this goal— carbon dioxide emissions, energy efficiency, waste, recycling, biodiversity, and water consumption.

After reaching carbon neutrality, the British government plans to reduce emissions from public buildings by 30 percent by 2020. In addition, they plan to cut water consumption and increase energy efficiency by 2020.

They are trying to send the message that reducing your ecological footprint is something that every citizen can do, and the government is taking the lead.

"Making the shift to a more sustainable lifestyle is one of the most important challenges for the 21st century," said Tony Blair. "The reality of climate change brings home to us the consequences of not facing up to these challenges. I want the public sector to take a lead on doing things sustainably - through the way we run central government and through the way we buy goods and services."

ENS, 6/13

Lynx for Life

The Iberian lynx is the most critically endangered cat species, but a recent on-site conservation program in the Valle de Yeguas (Sierra Morena, Andulusia) is helping to recover their numbers.

In four years, “the population in the Valle de Yeguas has tripled to 25 animals, with double the number of breeding females”.

There are only two biologically viable populations in Andulusia, Spain – one in Donana and one in Andujar-Cardenax, a region of the Sierra Morena. While the Donana population has declined, the Sierra Morena population has stabilized at 60-70 lynxes.

The area has also been repopulated with 6,000 rabbits, although there is legitimate concern that the introduction could have the opposite effect. In previous introductions, rabbits carried RHD, a viral infection that decimated their population and in turn lead to the starvation of lynxes.

The rabbit is the Iberian lynx’s main food source and key to its survival. The decline of the lynx accelerated in the 1970’s when myxomatosis and VHD whipped out the rabbit population. Moreover, lynxes must contend with continuing human encroachment - namely loss of habitat and deadly road accidents. The building of dense road networks – without conscientious planning – poses one of the greatest threats for conservation.

There are glimmers of hope, though. Biologists and conservationists are putting increasing pressure on national authorities to improve the habitat of old lynx areas for a hypothetical reproduction. And over the last couple years, captive breeding has proven to be moderately successful, so that combined with habitat restoration and in-situ conservation, the Iberian lynx can recover.

– IberiaNature, 6/23

Charged Up

batteries close-up photophotos.comThe European Union has passed a strict new battery recycling law.

Under the new EU battery law, producers must finance the collection and recycling of a million tons of batteries and pay for media campaigns which encourage consumers to recycle their portable batteries.

Nearly 95% of automotive and industrial batteries are recycled as they contain lead and other valued materials. Large battery volumes also reduce the cost of collection and recycling

The incentive to recycle portable batteries is less so, because it does not generate profits, but with 160,000 tons of portable batteries placed on EU market every year, the directive should be environmentally and economically beneficial.

The greatest challenge is to motivate consumers, but with the investment in collection sites, recycling and education programs, companies are held responsible for their buyers.

– PlanetArk, 6/6

OCEANIA

Outrigger Outlawed

barren lava summit, with snow and observatories photo
Photos.comMauna Kea

Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, the Pacific’s tallest mountain at 13,796 feet above sea level, has been a sacred site to Hawai’ians since time immemorial. The volcano is also a battleground of sorts. NASA plans to build up to six telescopes at a cost of $50 million to augment existing equipment at the W.M. Keck observatory, which is managed by the University of Hawai’i. The Outrigger Telescopes Project's is part of NASA's Origins Program, designed to gather information on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Native Hawai’ian groups object to the plans, citing the cultural importance of the peak. Environmentalists demand a full accounting of the environmental impact of the project, which would further develop important habitat and affect the source of drinking water for the entire island of Hawai’i.
Opponents won an important victory in early August when Hawai’i Third Circuit Judge Glenn S. Hara reversed a conservation district use permit granted the University of Hawai’i's Institute of Astronomy to build the new telescopes. The judge said that construction could not proceed until a comprehensive management plan for the summit of Mauna Kea was adopted. Opponents of the scopes, including the Sierra Club, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, and the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, claimed that without a comprehensive management plan, the project ran the risk of increasing at risk of hazardous and sewage waste contamination, and increased risks to endangered species, and would threaten Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights.

– ENS, 7/7

NORTH AMERICA

Gonna take a rising ocean of calamine lotion

Well, there’s another reason to skip summer camp. According to a six-year study conducted by Jaqueline E. Mohan of the Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole, MA), poison ivy thrives on carbon dioxide (CO2) and increases its toxicity when synthesizing extra CO2. So with climate change and increased CO2 levels, scientists predict that poison ivy’s nasty rash-producing oil, urushiol, may get even nastier.

Prior the study, researchers set up tree-high pipes to blow either regular air or extra carbon dioxide into various “landscape patches” of ecosystems around the world. The CO2 was set at levels predicted for 2050 and Mohan and her collegues monitored the ivy and other plants growing in a pine forest “landscape patch.”

The results showed that poison ivy flourished with about “50 percent extra carbon dioxide, showing more photosynthesis and more efficient water use.” Moreover, for the extra CO2 vines, about 20% of the urushiol oil was in chemically unsaturated forms, versus 15% unsaturated for regular air vines. The unsaturated forms of urushiol oil are responsible for painful skin reactions.

And it’s bad news for the plant kingdom. Studies have suggested that poison ivy and other CO2-loving vines could change forest dynamics all together. Vines don’t use their carbon harvest to grow trunks or other supports, so CO2 goes directly into producing new leaves. So with an increased abundance of vines, trees will choke and eventually die.

– Science News, 6/3

Toxic Produce

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it will phase out the use of "AZM" (azinphos-methyl), a highly toxic pesticide that has been poisoning farmworkers for years.

In 2001, the EPA documented AZM’s risk to farmworkers, but it allowed continue use of the pesticide because other less toxic pesticides would cost more. Farmworker advocates challenged that decision in a Seattle federal court because the EPA failed to cover the human and environmental costs – the poisoning of workers, “take-home” exposures to families, and pollution of rivers and streams.

"EPA had turned its back on the men, women, and children who are threatened by an extremely hazardous pesticide that should be replaced with new safer alternatives," said Shelley Davis, attorney for the Farmworker Justice Fund. "It is time to make that shift
now."

The organizations that filed the lawsuit included United Farm Workers of America ("UFW"), Sea Mar Community Health Centers, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste ("PCUN").

After prolonged consideration, the EPA released its draft decision to phase out all uses of AZM by 2010 with some uses phased out by 2007. The decision would also eliminate aerial spraying, reduce application rates and require medical monitoring of workers entering fields sprayed by AZM.

AZM’s history dates back to the 1950’s, after it was derived from nerve agents used in World War II. Exposure to AZM can cause “dizziness, vomiting, seizures, paralysis, loss of mental function, and death.” A high price to pay for our pretty peaches.

– Earthjustice 6/12

SOUTH AMERICA

Extinct frog comes back to life

A South American frog, once thought to be extinct, was spotted in its native Colombia in early May. The painted frog, which is only found in the Boyaca region of Colombia, was last seen in 1995. But the discovery by Professor Carlos Rocha of the Pedagogical and Technological University of Colombia gives conservationists hope that other species may be rediscovered as well. It was thought that the frog was killed off by a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis that has ravaged amphibian populations worldwide.

"The scientific importance of the finding must motivate us to adopt urgent measures toward saving the last of these amphibians, both in the wild and through captive breeding programs," said Fabio Arjona, executive director of Conservation International in Colombia.

BBC

Knock, Knock You’re Sued

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and two Peruvian indigineous groups are suing the Department of Homeland Securities, federal agencies and import companies for allowing contraband Peruvian mahogany to enter into the U.S.

Nearly all of Peru's mahogany exports are logged illegally, of which 80 percent is shipped to the U.S. Hugh Reitz, president of imports for TBM and and T. Baird laims that Peruvian mahogany is rarely used for furniture and only for "high-end" product. But the fact is, Peruvian bigleaf mahogany is not a renewable resource and experts predict that Peruvian mahogany will be commercially extinct within 5-10 years.

Victor Kamena, vice president for Native Federation of Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), a coalition of 27 indigineous Peruvian groups sees the illegal logging as both a threat to the environment and indigineous peoples. "Our claim is just and supported by the law -- to get respect for our right to life and our territory."

FENAMAD has been fighting for years to stop illegal mahogany logging in native reserves, while Racimos de Ungurahui, a national indigenous rights group based in Lima, Peru, plays a key role in protecting territories for indigneous peoples.

NRDC and its Peruvian partners filed a lawsuit stating that mahogany importation violates both the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

The suit calls for federal agencies to stop all illegally traded Peruvian mahogany from entering the U.S. and for importers to forfeit illegal products already in the country.

– NRDC, 6/6

Around the world was compiled by Alison Bodenstab, Zoey Burrows, and Liz Savage.

   

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