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See a Jaguar, Save a Jaguar

Conservationists ponder pay-to-protect program to safeguard South America’s biggest cat

Picture the scene. You are floating down a river in Brazil’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest wetland. There you spot the muscular frame of a jaguar prowling on a far bank, South America’s biggest feline is out for a stroll. The next day that same jaguar happens to kill a cow at a nearby ranch and in return is shot by a rancher. Would you pay to save that cat?

Most ecotourists would, according to a study by Panthera. The non-profit, which is dedicated to the conservation of wild cats, found that 80 percent of tourists are willing to donate to offset the costs of jaguar predation. The study was part of an effort to assign a monetary value to South America’s biggest cat, the first of its kind to do so.

photo of pantherPhoto by Steve Winter/Panthera Brazil's Pantanal region is a stronghold for the panther, which is considered threatened across its range.

It’s an important finding, says Fernando Tortato, Jaguar Research Fellow for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, as conflict with jaguars is the main threat to their survival in the Pantanal. Showing ranchers that living with the beast is worth much more than killing it could be the key to staying rancher’s guns, he says.

The plan now is to develop a scheme to put this into action.

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Along its range, which stretches from the bottom of South America all the way up to the Mexican border with the US, the jaguar is considered threatened, much more so in some places than others. However, the Pantanal, which spans 140,000-square-kilometers across Brazil and small parts of Paraguay and Bolivia, is considered a stronghold for the species.  

For Panthera, the region is an important step in the organization’s Journey of the Jaguar, a trans-continental trek that will take scientists by air, land, and water across the jaguar’s range, and aims to bring attention to the urgent need to conserve the continent-spanning jaguar corridor. Recent studies have shown that there is only one species of jaguar, which means that for centuries, until human beings came along, jaguars have been connected throughout their range and able to maintain genetic flow. The jaguar corridor is the key to maintaining this flow.

“The Pantanal is like a hub,” explains Tortato. An abundance of prey and good quality, connected habitat has resulted in an incredibly high density of jaguars, he says. From the Pantanal, the cats can disperse to other …more

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US Switches Focus of its Bonn Event from Clean Energy to Fossil Fuels

One of US’s only public events, originally billed as promoting clean energy, now favors coal and nuclear power

The US has changed the focus of one of its few public events at the Bonn climate talks to emphasize coal and nuclear power, in a sign of the Trump administration’s goals at the talks.

COP23 conference in Bonnphoto by UNClimateChange, FlickrThe United States has changed the focus of one of its events at the climate change conference in Bonn to focus on coal and nuclear energy.

An event next Monday, opening the second week of the ongoing UN negotiations, was originally billed as promoting clean energy. However, it has since been changed to emphasise coal and nuclear power.

The event was first billed with the title Action on Spurring Innovation and Deploying Advanced Technologies but was subsequently changed.

The same event has now been retitled to: The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation. The speakers are listed as the same, but the explanation of the event’s focus has also changed markedly, from talk of “innovative solutions” and “transforming development pathways” to a strong statement in favor of fossil fuels.

It now reads: “It is undeniable that fossil fuels will be used for the foreseeable future, and it is in everyone’s interest that they be efficient and clean. This panel will explore how the US will be a leader in cutting carbon emissions through cleaner, more efficient fossil fuels and other energy sources.”

There was no explanation of the change. A US state department official declined to comment before the event but noted it would be open to all at the conference.

However, observers said the change was in line with the US government’s stance at the talks, which are focused on how to improve countries’ carbon-cutting targets under the Paris agreement of 2015.

Andrew Light of the World Resources Institute said: “Whoever the Trump administration is trying to target with this event, it isn’t people in the negotiating hall — they’re clearly focused on the booming global markets in renewable energy. At best, this event will be a curiosity, given the isolation of the US now in the international process.”

Although US president Donald Trump has begun the process of removing the US from the Paris agreement, this will not take effect, under the UN processes, until 2020. This means the US is still a party to the agreement and still present at the talks. However, …more

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Does End Justify the Means in Our Struggle to Save Species?

In Review: A River Below

Mark Grieco’s A River Below is an eye-popping documentary proving, once again, that truth is often stranger than fiction. This film’s plot has as many twists and turns as the Amazon River — the setting of  this true life saga of two biologists striving to use the news media to protect endangered species and then having to cope with the unintended consequences of their conservation crusades.

Grand Canyon Duskphoto by Luciana ChristanteThe Amazon's pink river dolphin lies at the heart of the eye-popping documentary A River Below.

At the heart of River is the pink river dolphin, one of the Amazon’s most remarkable creatures, which inspired Indigenous mythology much the same way as Europeans were inspired by unicorns. But there’s one crucial difference: Unlike unicorns, these long-nosed dolphins actually exist. Though perhaps not for much longer. In gruesome detail that’s definitely not for the cinematically squeamish, pink river dolphins are graphically depicted being hunted and slaughtered by fishermen and poachers, largely to be used as bait for fish such as the piracatinga or mota, a species of catfish also found in the Amazon. (The catfish, in turn, is shown being processed at industrial plants in more lose-your-lunch scenes)

Enter our South American scientist-protagonists, both of whom harness mass media in their different campaigns to save pink river dolphins from extinction. Sao Paolo-born Richard Rasmussen, who earned a biology degree at Ibirapuera University, is by far the flashier of the two. The longhaired, buff Rasmussen is a sort of Brazilian version of Australia’s Steve Irwin, the late “Crocodile Hunter.” Featured in the NatGeo Wild to the Extreme show, Rasmussen is introduced in River as a Brazilian “TV superstar,” who combines environmentalism with show biz razzmatazz, easily sliding into grins as he mugs for selfies with adoring fans.

Colombia-born Dr. Fernando Trujillo, is a marine biologist who established the Omacha Foundation in 1993 to promote conservation of river species and their ecosystems in South America and has worked closely with Native communities in the Amazon and Orinoco Basin. The award-winning Trujillo is a widely published academic. Although much less glitzy than the Tarzan-ish Rasmussen, the nose-to-the-grindstone Trujillo “appears frequently on wildlife television shows as an expert,” according to press notes.

Instead of being what Grieco calls just “another ‘Save the dolphin!’ issue documentary,” A River Below snakes into uncharted territory as Rasmussen and Trujillo separately enlist media to rescue the embattled pink river dolphin and other species. Rasmussen purportedly arranges …more

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Parques Para Todos: The NPS Fee Hike Is a Bump on a Longer Path to Equity

We can and must ensure equitable access to national parks while also investing in public lands infrastructure

My circle of professional friends and colleagues is abuzz with the recent announcement of the proposed National Park Service fee hikes that would increase the entry fees at 17 national parks, in some cases almost tripling the cost of a visit. Many have been interviewed and quoted for a variety of articles and news stories, which you can find here and here, and which I recommend you read. Nonetheless our quotes are brief snapshots of conversations we have been having for years about equitable access to our public lands – and this proposed fee hike serves only as a reminder that we must look at the landscape of this issue beyond the headline.

Grand Canyon Duskphoto by Joe Jiang / FlickrA National Park Service proposal to increase entry fees at 17 national parks (including the Grand Canyon, pictured) will harm efforts to improve access to public lands.

It is easy to stake positions on whether the fee hike is needed or not – the NPS says it will help address a maintenance backlog – and whether it will make access more difficult for communities that already have a lack of access to our national parks. To me, it takes a little more work to tease out the nuance and context necessary to understand why it is important to both invest in our public lands infrastructure and to ensure we have equitable access to parks, particularly as our nation’s demographics continue to shift with more diverse ethnic and cultural representation. Balancing these interests is imperative for the wellbeing of our public lands and our communities. Presenting the issue as an either/or conversation or a zero-sum game ensures we won’t move forward on this issue. We have seen this before in the environmental space when we frame a conversation of “economy vs. environment” or “jobs vs. conservation” for communities of color – especially when we know it is possible to have both.

First a few things I want state clearly:

  • Yes, we need to “fix our parks.” There has been an infrastructure maintenance backlog for years.
  • The physical and social infrastructure of our national parks will need to continue to change to reflect changing demographics – for example, creating picnic sites that can accommodate larger families than the typical nuclear family model, and of course including signage in other languages.
  • There is a real history of communities of color being excluded …more

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It’s Time to Ban Glitter

Glitter may be festive, but like other microplastics, it's a nightmare for human and animal health

All that glitters ain’t gold, or so the old adage goes. And when it comes to the glitter used in everyday cosmetics, specialty make-up, hair products and party paraphernalia, the negative effects on human health and the environment are indeed far from golden.

“They really do get into everything, and despite their tiny size, they can have a devastating impact on humans and non-human animals,” wrote Trisia Farrelly, a social anthropologist at Massey University in New Zealand and an expert in waste plastics, in an email to AlterNet.

Bright Pink Water Glitter Texture Shiny Color Microplastics like glitter accumulate in our oceans and lakes and create all sorts of health and environmental hazards.

Glitter is one member of a large family of microplastics – tiny little bits of plastic less than five millimeters in size. Think microbeads, microfibers, and fingernail-sized fragments of much larger plastic wastes that have broken down over time. When washed or flushed away, microplastics make their way into our oceans and great lakes, slowly accumulating over time, creating all sorts of health and environmental hazards, the full breadth of which is still being grasped.

For one, there’s the issue of how microplastics like cosmetic glitter – made by bonding aluminum with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – impact sensitive ecosystems. That’s because PETs leach out endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which, when eaten by marine life, can cause adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects, said Farrelly. In this recent study, microplastics are shown to significantly impact the reproduction rates of oysters.

Then there’s the domino-like effect of microplastics through the food-chain, for the sheer volume of microplastics consumed by seafood-loving humans is staggering. This study from the University of Ghent found that Europeans who eat shellfish can consume as much as 11,000 microplastics per year. But what are some of the long-term implications from glitter passing through the food-chain?

PETs attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants and pathogens, adding an extra layer of contamination. When those at the bottom of the ladder – like molluscs, sea snails, marine worms, and plankton – eat pathogen or pollutant-carrying particles of glitter, these minuscule poison pills can concentrate in toxicity as they move up the food chain, all the way to our dinner plates, said Farrelly.

“When we eat Kai moana [Maori term for seafood], we are taking on these toxins,” she wrote. “When they enter the gut, the toxins and pathogens are very easily taken up.”

A growing body of research …more

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Living With Wildfires

Can California rebuild with a better plan for the fires that will come again?

The 2017 Northern California wildfires, which have damaged or destroyed over 8,000 homes and buildings, scorched more than 200,000 acres, displaced 100,000 and killed at least 42 people, are, as Governor Jerry Brown put it: “one of the greatest tragedies California has ever faced.”

burned down development in santa rosaPhoto by tonynetone/FlickrGiven that increasing number of homes are being built right next to wilderness areas, it’s not surprising that the October wildfires in northern California quickly turned into an urban conflagration that burned down entire suburban subdivisions.

The scale of this human tragedy is unprecedented but not inexplicable given the increasing number of homes that are being built next to wilderness areas. California is the third-largest state in the country but it’s also heavily populated. Many homes here are situated at what’s called the “wildland-urban interface” — areas where natural landscapes and manmade structure meet, making it easy for wildfires to spread into suburban and ex-urban communities.

What’s more, our changing weather patterns are likely to make such fires more frequent. As Climatewire reported, global warming will make vegetation drier, increase the chance of lightning strikes, extend the warmer seasons and even intensify winds such as the Diablo winds — the dry, nearly hurricane-force winds (also called Santa Ana and Sundowner) that blow from the interior towards the California Bay Area coast during fall. All of these are triggers for wildfires, which have long been a natural part of the California landscape.  

Now, with massive re-construction looming after devastating losses, can California re-build with a better plan for the fires that will come again?

Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist who specializes in wildfires in the American West is clear in his response: It's an enormous mistake to simply rebuild without real introspection. "We have always had fires, even big fires," says Hanson, who is also the director of Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project.  "These ecosystems need fire, and we have a lot of people living in areas where fires must occur."

In other words, there's a reason that fire is one of nature’s key elements. To accept fire's necessary role in the ecosystem, it has to be thought of as necessary as wind or rain.  That's not to say that immense fires should be allowed to run rampant; rather, Hanson proposes three key steps to help prevent the massive infrastructure destruction of the recent Northern California fires: create a defensible space around homes, make …more

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When the Sheep Turn Black with Soot, War’s Toxic Legacy Can No Longer Be Ignored

The battle for Mosul has left the city shrouded in smog

The smoke that billowed from the burning oil fields was so thick it blocked out the sun. By the time I reached Qayyarah, where Islamic State fighters had set fire to 19 oil wells, a film of black soot had settled over the Iraqi town like toxic snow. Even the sheep had turned black.

photo of burning oil fieldsPhoto by NASAAn August 2016 satellite image captures smoke from the Qayyarah oil field fires. The fires left a film of toxic black soot over the Iraqi.

Pools of thick oil ran in the streets. In the sky above the town, the black smog mixed with white fumes from a nearby sulphur plant that the jihadists had also set on fire as they retreated. The plant burned for months, spewing as much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere as a small volcanic eruption. Hundreds of people were hospitalized.

The fires may have been extinguished, and Isis ousted from the city, but the environmental devastation caused by the battle for Mosul will linger for decades. The destruction of hospitals, weapons factories, industrial plants and power stations has left behind a toxic cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful waste. Many of these pollutants are mixed up with unexploded bombs and mines in the vast amount of rubble generated by the fighting.

Our team has already found high levels of lead and mercury in Mosul’s water and soil. This is the toxic legacy of one of the fiercest urban battles of the modern age.

When we measure the brutality of war, we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. In the din of battle and the rush to treat and shelter its survivors, the toxic legacy of war is often ignored — as is the long-term damage to the health of millions of people forced to live amid the pollution.

There is nothing new in the waste generated by war. Parts of Belgium and France are still suffering from the contamination of heavy metals used in the weapons of the first world war. In Vietnam, the herbicide Agent Orange, sprayed to strip trees of foliage that gave the enemy cover, has caused birth defects, cancers, skin disorders and mental disability.

When bombs fall, the environment suffers. In Colombia, which hosts 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, half a century of war …more

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