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China and the Mekong Delta: Water Savior or Water Tyrant?

Blaming the drought on irregular weather, without acknowledging the impacts of upstream dams and climate change, is an act of intentional misinformation

The Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia is facing its worst drought in recent history, causing food and water shortages for over half a million people living along the Mekong River.

photo of Nuozhadu DamPhoto by International Rivers The Nuozhadu dam is the largest dam on the Mekong River.

The Chinese government has made headlines amidst the disaster for its decision to release water from upstream dams on the Mekong that lie within China’s borders. 

Chinese ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a news briefing last month that China “hopes it can be of help in alleviating the drought downstream.” The water will be released until mid-April from the Jinghong dam, with the stated purpose to benefit the lower Mekong delta nations of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Originating in the remote Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong flows 3,000 miles through China's Yunnan province, northeast Myanmar, and parts of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before merging with the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. The river has the world’s most productive inland fishery and is a major source of livelihood for millions of people. 

The Chinese ministry and media blame El Niño weather for the massive drought that has damaged 160,000 hectares of rice paddies in the Mekong Delta, left 600,000 people facing drinking water shortages, and will result in losses up to $2 million. But Vietnamese officials say while El Nino is partly to blame, the real cause of the water shortage is  excessive construction of more than 10 hydropower dams on the upper stream of the river

Little reporting on the issue has linked the drought to the dams, despite such comments by Vietnamese officials. Mekong River conservationists, on the other hand, have been quick to draw connections. Niwat Roykaew, chair of Chiang Khong Conservation Group, believes the drought is caused by the six major man-made reservoirs on the upstream portion of the Mekong that lie within China’s borders.

“The Mekong River has a cycle. Rainwater in the monsoon season refreshes the snowpack and raises water levels,”  Roykaew said. “Snow melts in the dry season when the water levels are low. We don’t need more water from dams in the dry season. We need to sustain the natural circle that feeds the ecosystems and …more

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Cozumel’s Deer, Once Feared Locally Extinct, Found Living in the Jungle

Recent sightings ignite hope for species thought to have disappeared from the Mexican island

It has been about 10 years since local environmentalists and conservationists sadly concluded that the last of the wild whitetail deer — odocoilesis virginiansis yucatanensis — had disappeared from Mexico’s Isla Cozumel. Despite private conservation efforts and awareness campaigns starting in the 1980s, locals believed the species had been hunted to extinction on the island by 2000.

photo of Cozumel whitetail deerPhoto by Tati Biermas Photographer Tati Biermas captured Cozumel’s elusive whitetail deer on film this past October.

A local photographer, Tati Biermas, recently proved this assumption wrong. Biermas is one of the only people to capture these elusive and greatly missed members of the island on film in more than a decade. Her role as island tour-guide and photography teacher regularly takes her into secluded areas of Cozumel where she photographs herons, crocodiles, coatis, and many more wildlife species in their natural habitats. 

"I saw them on the other side of the island... at the end of a lagoon south of Rancho Buenavista," Biermas says of her latest encounter with the wild deer this past October. This was only her second encounter with the species in 16 years, but she's not alone in her discovery. Reports of deer sightings are on the rise, particularly on the south and west sides of the island.

Cozumel’s whitetail deer is a smaller version of the Canadian and American whitetails, with ancestral roots throughout Mexico’s Quintana Roo and the Yucatan regions. A subspecies of the larger northern deer, the yucatanensis of Cozumel are the same species found on the nearby mainland. According to local historians, the deer were brought to Isla Cozumel in the 19th century by Mayan refugees who were fleeing the Caste War of Yucatán. Originally farmed as a dietary staple, some deer escaped the small family farms and bred throughout the island. As the island’s human population increased from just a few hundred residents to tens of thousands, the deer faced increasing threats from over-hunting. (Actual population numbers are unavailable since tracking the remaining deer is so difficult.)

For residents and tourists alike, part of the charm of Isla Cozumel is the fact that it has been left largely undeveloped by people. Perched just a few miles off the Quintana Roo mainland of Mexico, the island is home to diverse species …more

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Strawberries Top Dirty Dozen List of Produce Containing Pesticides

Report finds 146 different pesticides on fruit and vegetable samples tested by federal agencies

Keep your hands off those strawberries folks! Unless they are organic that is. Apparently nearly all conventionally grown strawberry samples tested by federal officials had detectable pesticide residues, and some had traces of as many as 17 different pesticides lingering around.

photo of strawberriesPhoto by bionicgrrrl In California, where most US strawberries are grown, each acre of strawberry field is treated with a whopping 300 pounds of pesticides.

With summer and its bounty of luscious fruits and vegetables just around the corner, the Environmental Working Group has come out with its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of produce that are heavily contaminated with pesticides, and this year strawberries get top billing on the list of foods to avoid.

The popular berry — the average American eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year — displaced apples, which headed the list the last five years running.

Once a seasonal crop, strawberries are now grown almost all year long with the help of heavy doses of pesticides. In California, where most US strawberries are grown, each acre of strawberry field is treated with a whopping 300 pounds of pesticides. Of this, more than 60 pounds are conventional chemicals that may leave post-harvest residues. Most of the rest are fumigants — volatile poison gases that can drift into nearby schools and neighborhoods.

EWG’s update of its “Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce” reports that 98 percent of conventional strawberry samples tested by the US Department of Agriculture had detectable pesticide residues. Of those, 40 percent had residues of 10 or more pesticides. Some of the chemicals detected on strawberries are relatively benign, but others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems.

“This is the first year that strawberries topped the list, and I was surprised by how heavily contaminated they were,” Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst, told EIJ. “What’s worse is that the residues are well within the limits of laws regulating pesticides in food in this country. Most people don’t even know that there are pesticide residues in their produce that stays on even after washing.”

In total, the EWG report — which is based on results of more than 35,200 produce samples tested by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration — found 146 …more

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Armenian Brown Bears Moved to Sanctuary After Months of Behind-the-Scenes Efforts by Activists

Plight of animals in Gyumri Zoo highlights the broader problem of private zoos in Armenia

Earlier this month, two brown bears, Masha and Grisha were relocated from the cramped quarters in a zoo in the Armenian town of Gyumri to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Romania, bringing to a happy end to more than six months of efforts to rescue them.

Two brown bears in a sanctuaryPhoto courtesy of Libearty SanctuaryMasha and Grisha were set free in the training area at the Libearty sanctuary

The bears and three lions had been living a miserable life in captivity in a privately-owned zoo in Gyumri. The zoo had been featured in the British tabloid, Daily Mail, back in January as “the world’s saddest zoo.” The article, which went viral, said that the animals were starving and had been left to die by the owner who had abandoned the facility.

Sadly, the story neglected to mention that there were individuals and organizations in Armenia, including Earth Island Institute’s Armenian Environmental Network (AEN), that had been in the process of rescuing the animals, and were also working to address the broader problem of private zoos in Armenia.

Back in October 2015, the owner of the Gyumri Zoo announced that he was ill and could no longer care for the animals. Because there is no animal sanctuary in Armenia and it takes an immense amount of resources and space to care for such animals, local organizations and activists initially didn’t quite know what do. The issue was made more complicated by the fact that there are no clear animal welfare laws in place that are applicable in this case, and enforcement of the few regulations that do exist is extremely weak. The fate of the animals was not looking so good.

Although animal welfare isn’t a main focus of AEN, we have helped with such situations in Armenia in the past. For example, we worked with local and international activists and organizations in 2010 to close down a new dolphinarium in Armenia. This time too, I saw an opportunity for AEN to do what we are good at: help build local capacity in Armenia and garner international support.

The Gyumri Zoo has been criticized for years because of the miserable living conditions of its animals. The Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC)  made a film …more

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Mass Coral Bleaching Now Affecting Half of Great Barrier Reef

Climate change and strong El Niño cause hundreds of kilometres of reef to bleach, as higher temperatures stress the coral

The mass coral bleaching event smashing the Great Barrier Reef has severely affected more than half its length and caused patches of bleaching in most areas, according to scientists conducting an extensive aerial survey of the damage.

Great Barrier ReefPhoto by By Steve Parish/Courtesy of Lock the Gate AllianceThe mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef is part of what the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has called the third global bleaching event – the first occurred in 1998.

“The good news with my last flight is that I found 50 reefs that weren’t bleached, so that may be the southern boundary,” said Terry Hughes from James Cook University. Hughes is the head of the national coral bleaching task force, which has been conducting flights over the length of the reef, mapping bleached areas and recording the severity of the damage.

Climate change and a strong El Niño have caused hundreds of kilometers of the reef to bleach, as the higher water temperatures stress the coral, and they expel their symbiotic algae. If the bleaching is bad enough, or the temperatures remain high for long enough, the corals die, putting the future of reefs at risk.

The mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef is part of what the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has called the third global bleaching event – the first occurred in 1998.

Initial reports suggested only the most northern and remote areas of the Great Barrier Reef were bleaching, but as aerial surveys have continued, scientists have struggled to find a southern boundary.

The latest find of a stretch of unaffected reefs around Mackay was a small piece of good news, Hughes said.

But he said its significance would be unclear until reefs further south were examined.

“It may be a false southern boundary,” Hughes said. The reefs around Mackay have unusually large tides, which might have pulled in cooler water and saved the coral there.

bleached staghorn coralPhoto by Matt KiefferDead staghorn coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Coral bleaching has caused bleached patches across most of the Great Barrier Reef.

So far, the surveys reveal there are severely bleached reefs almost as far …more

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A Few Square Feet of Scotland

We take from nature, rape and pillage the wild places again and again. Yet it is possible to give back too

It was bordered on two sides by high walls, and on the third by tall trees and the grounds of a cathedral. Beyond the open side was the river.

flock of geese flying in dusky skyPhoto by Ronan/FlickrI was on the flight path for the geese returning from Iceland. The great trails of skeins passed right over my tiny garden

When I moved into the tiny house at the end of the street it was late autumn. There was almost no light in my rooms, which was shut out by the high walls and the trees – what little of it there was to begin with. The days were wild with wind; rain blattered against the windows and the trees roared like the masts of ships. At night it was eerie; I felt far out at sea in some great galleon. Then one day when I was outside in that tiny piece of ground that was mine I saw the moment the rain turned to snow. I had never thought of it before and I saw it now, and a great silence fell as those ballerinas of snowflakes twirled from the grey sky.

All I possessed were some 10 square feet of ground, the first I had owned in all my life. There was nothing special about them. A lawn with a narrow flowerbed along one edge. I stood at the back door and watched as the grass  flickered and turned grey with the first snow of winter. In the middle of my lawn were two stout metal poles, carrying a curve of washing line. The spring would be a new beginning. I had no idea what I would do, but I knew I wanted to do something with it.

I was on the flight path for the geese returning from Iceland. The great trails of skeins passed right over my tiny garden, and I felt proud, as though they had chosen that path intentionally. I went out every morning now with bread for the birds. There wasn’t so much as a bird table, but I cut a plank of wood into a simple oblong and set it down on the lawn, above the first thumb-deep settling of snow. Now my few square feet of ground were graced by the flights of blackbirds …more

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Tigers Declared Extinct in Cambodia

Government approves reintroduction plan in effort to save the iconic species

Due to years of illegal poaching and loss of habitat, tigers are now “functionally extinct” in Cambodia, conservationists conceded for the first time Wednesday. 

photo of redwood climbPhoto by LotseIndochinese tigers at Tierpark Berlin. There are now more tigers living in captivity than in the wild.

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Cambodia, the last tiger seen in Cambodia’s wild was in 2007 from a hidden camera set up in the Eastern Plains Dry Forest Landscape in Mondulkiri Protected Forest.

“Today, there are no longer any breeding populations of tigers left in Cambodia, and they are therefore considered functionally extinct,” the conservation group said in a statement.

The AFP reported that Cambodia’s dry forests used to be home to scores of Indochinese tigers, but intensive poaching of both tigers and their prey has devastated the population.

But in a major effort to save the iconic species, on March 23 the Cambodian government approved its “Cambodia Tiger Action Plan” that would import tigers from abroad and introduce them to the Mondulkiri Protected Forest.

Keo Omaliss, a government official in charge of wildlife, told the Associated Press that Cambodia is considering negotiating with the governments of India, Malaysia and Thailand to bring at least seven to eight tigers to live in the forest to breed and repopulate.

“This would be the world’s first transnational tiger reintroduction and will be based on best practices developed from successful tiger reintroductions within India,” WWF-Cambodia said.

Un Chakrey, communications manager for WWF-Cambodia, told the New York Times that the tigers could be introduced as soon as 2020.

The AFP reported that the new habitat will be protected against poachers by strong law enforcement and action to protect the tigers’ prey. The entire project is estimated to cost $20-50 million.

The Cambodia Tiger Action Plan also follows the objective of 13 tiger range countries to double the number of wild tigers in the world to more than 6,000 by 2022, which is the next Year of the Tiger. The global aim is also known as “Tx2.”

The 13 Tx2 countries are: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Representatives from these countries will meet at the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi next week to discuss the Tx2 plan.

“This conference …more

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