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Inside the Complicated World of Online Wildlife Trafficking

You’ve heard of Cecil’s dentist killer, but for tens of thousands of other exotic animals, internet marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist are the biggest threat

If you live in the continental US, have $4,850 and an Internet connection, this large, full-body, mounted African lion, with a shaggy red mane, can be yours.

“This is a fantastic buy for someone who wants a good Lion,” the eBay ad reads. “This mount will make an awesome decoration in any home, office, hunting lodge, lake house, lodge homes, cabin, bar, etc.”

Cecil the lionPhoto by Vince O'Sullivan US authorities have launched an investigation into the illicit killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist. But illegal wildlife products are all too easily trafficked within the country.

The listing makes no mention of how the animal was procured, nor whether it was legally imported. So perhaps this stuffed, reclining lion for $870 is better suited to the discerning trophy-buyer. Its seller, African Game Industries, assures you that this lion was imported with all of the necessary permits and was inspected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It does not offer to produce the paperwork.

On Thursday, in the wake of public outcry over the illegal killing of Zimbabwe’s most recognizable lion, Cecil, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to act on illegal hunting.

A frustrating fight

But controlling wildlife trafficking is increasingly difficult for law enforcement, in no small part due to online marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist. Although many popular digital trading posts have adopted regulations to attempt to curtail illegal sales of plants and animals, enforcement can be a nightmare.

The Office of the US Trade Representative estimates that wildlife trafficking and related environmental crimes are worth anywhere between $70bn and $213bn annually.

The Obama administration’s attempt to fight trafficking has been frustratingly slow, as far as animal welfare groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are concerned.

Last year, pointing to the catastrophic uptick in the slaughter of African elephants and the US’s position as the world’s second largest ivory market, FWS said it would ban the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. It wasn’t until last weekend, however, while visiting Kenya, which Obama formally proposed the new restrictions, which are now subject to …more

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Kathmandu’s Uncoordinated Attempt to Manage Earthquake Debris

In the absence of a workable government action plan, citizens have begun recycling and rebuilding on their own

Even before the data was calculated, Dr Alka Sapkota, a young environmental expert with the Nepal government, knew the administration would be unable to efficiently clear the massive amount of debris left behind by the April 25 earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. The figures confirmed it: Nepal’s Kathmandu valley generated approximately 3.94 million tons of debris. “An equivalent of nearly 11 years of waste was generated in one day,” Sapkota is quick to remind me when I probe her about the delay in clearing the debris.

Nepal post earthquakePhoto by courtesy of Asian Development BankThe Kathmandu valley generated about 3.94 million tons of debris after the April earthquake. While it’s encouraging to see citizens manage their own debris, there is growing concern about the way potentially hazardous material is being handeled.

A major chunk of the detritus in this unplanned metropolis consists of construction material: bricks, concrete, wood, tin, broken furniture, wires, electronic equipment, and other scrap. Most buildings in the area are made of reinforced concrete, or mud and mortar with either tiled or corrugated iron sheet roofs. “Eighty percent of this debris in Kathmandu will be recycled – with or without the government’s help,” assures Sapkota, who works for the government’s Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre.

The Nepalese government plans to pull down all the severely damaged buildings, sort out concrete and bricks that cannot be reused, crush these materials and create recycled bricks or filling material for roads and other structures. Debris that is contaminated by lead infused paint or contains asbestos, pesticides, and acids is to be appropriately processed before being reused or cast away.

But so far government has no clear action plan in place on how this will get done. It is still working on formulating a process that will enable it to collect the debris, process it, and employ it in the reconstruction effort.

But even if a plan were put in place, does Nepal have the equipment and know-how for such an ambitious task?

“We have some equipment, I mean, there are equipment in the country, some of this is privately owned and really expensive to take on hire, but if we can get them and formulate a good policy we have enough expertise,” Sapkota says. However, …more

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Carrizo Plain National Monument is ‘One of the Best Kept Secrets in California’

The remote monument protects the single largest native grasslands in the state

At dawn I lit out toward a cluster of sandstone spires overlooking the Carrizo Plain National Monument at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley. I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the grasslands cloaked in tidy tips, California poppies and owl’s clover.  I counted 81 Tule elk that morning browsing on the carpet of wildflowers. It felt like a timeless moment in old California.

photo of tidy tips flowersall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this image to view a photo essay from the Carrizo Plain

In 2001, President Bill Clinton deemed Carrizo Plains a national monument, protecting the single largest native grasslands remaining in California. At 250,000 acres, the monument has come to be known as “California’s Serengeti” for its herds of Tule elk, pronghorn antelope and black-tailed deer. In fact, its Tule elk herd is one of the fastest growing herds in the state, with about 400 animals. The monument harbors more endangered species than anywhere else in the Golden state. Those animals include the California condor, antelope ground squirrel, giant kangaroo rat, San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard.

The sweeping landscape is also the biggest protected habitat along the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for North American birds, making it a bird watcher’s paradise.  Roughly 200 avian species have been recorded on the Carrizo Plain. It’s especially good for raptors and the ravens that harass them. 

But it isn’t all plains. This 50-mile stretch of protected land includes the Temblor and Caliente Mountain Ranges and Soda Lake, the largest natural alkali lake in the state. This lake is a unique sight, whether it’s full of water and frolicking birds, or dried out with dust devils spinning across it.

All of this natural beauty and diverse wildlife sits in California’s Central Valley, better known for industrial agriculture than for wildflowers. This location may help explain why, as the Bureau of Land Management puts it, the “Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the best kept secrets” in the state.

I typically make three to four trips a year out to the Carrizo Plain. Its silence, dramatic landscapes, flora and fauna are intoxicating. Every time I head out there I see and photograph something I hadn’t seen the time before. I’m already planning …more

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Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute

California Parks are urging campers to clean up after themselves, in a novel effort to protect the endangered marbled murrelet

When campers register at the headquarters of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, they receive the usual trail map and, for the past couple years, instructions on how to be “crumb clean” and why this matters to the fate of the endangered marbled murrelet, a seabird about the size of a robin.

California State Parks launched its  “keep it crumb clean” campaign to educate visitors about the importance of never feeding wildlife and picking up after themselves. The campaign has been propelled forward by a 2014 lawsuit settlement agreement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which had claimed the government was failing to protect the bird under its new general plan for Big Basin. The planned expansion of public uses and infrastructure in the bird’s habitat exacerbated the species’ risk for extinction, according to the lawsuit.

Marbled MurreletPhoto by USFWS The planned expansion of public uses and infrastructure in the marbeled murrelet's habitat exacerbated this small seabird's risk for extinction.

“Education is such a big part of the solution,” says Shaye Wolf, a wildlife biologist and the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Most park visitors would be heartbroken to learn their trash is contributing to the decline of this beautiful, endangered seabird … What we’re trying to do with the settlement is educate and increase public participation in the solution.”

The marbled murrelet’s low reproductive rate makes it especially vulnerable. A mature female lays only one egg high in the mossy branches of ancient coast redwoods (or other conifer such as firs) that stretch up the Pacific coastline from central California into Oregon, Washington, and as far north as Alaska. The parents take turns incubating the egg and flying miles away to the ocean to eat herring, smelt and anchovies and then returning to feed the nestling. A mere month or so after hatching, a chick will make its first flight to the ocean. That is, if it survives till then.

Murrelets face a mighty foe in corvid predators — mainly Steller’s jays and ravens that are intelligent enough to know food follows humans. When these birds finish foraging around people, they notice murrelet nests high in the trees and attack the eggs and chicks. Jays are a natural part of …more

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Obama’s Clean Power Plan Hailed as US’ Strongest Ever Climate Action

Hundreds of businesses including eBay and Nestle back federal rules to cut emissions and switch away from coal to clean energy

Hundreds of businesses including eBay, Nestle and General Mills have issued their support for Barack Obama’s clean power plan, billed as the strongest action ever on climate change by a US president.

The rules, announced on Monday, are designed to cut emissions from power plants and have been strengthened in terms of the long-term ambition as originally proposed by the president last year, but slightly weakened in the short-term in a concession to states reliant on highly-polluting coal.

Wind turbines by a rural roadPhoto by clarkmaxwell/FlickrThe rules are expected to trigger a “tsunami” of legal opposition from states and utilities who oppose the plans, which will significantly boost wind and solar power generation.

White House adviser Brian Deese said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules represented the “biggest step that any single president has made to curb the carbon pollution that is fuelling climate change”. The US is the world’s second biggest carbon emitter after China.

The rules are expected to trigger a “tsunami” of legal opposition from states and utilities who oppose the plans, which will significantly boost wind and solar power generation and force a switch away from coal power. Republican presidential hopefuls moved quickly to voice their opposition, saying they would be economically damaging.

But 365 businesses and investors wrote to 29 state governors to strongly support the rules, which they said would benefit the economy and create jobs.

Mindy Lubber, who is attending the launch ceremony of the rules on Monday and is the president of Ceres, a network of investors that organized the letter, said: “The clean power plan is the right measure at the right time. It’s a flexible, practical and economically sound blueprint to transition America toward a low-carbon future.”

Other signatories included Unilever, L’Oreal, Levi Strauss, L’Oreal, Staples, renewable energy company SunEdison and Trillium Asset Management, which manages $2.2bn in assets. It is the largest group of businesses to support the rules so far.

The final rules propose a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030 on 2005 levels, up from the initial proposal of 30 percent. However states will only have to comply by 2022 rather than 2020 as originally proposed, and will be able submit their plans on meeting the targets by 2018 …more

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“Hope Is the Thing with Feathers”

Western burrowing owls have found sanctuary on the grounds of a California prison, providing inspiration for the women inside.

Once a month, I facilitate a meditation group at a women’s prison in California. I leave my cell phone, cash, and lipstick in the car—inside, they’re contraband—and take with me only pens and paper. As I walk towards the prison, small ground-dwelling owls keep vigil at the entrances to their burrows. Long-legged, with huge yellow eyes, they watch me warily, and if I come too close, hop into their holes, heads bobbing up to keep me in view.  

Burrowing Owl guarding its nestPhoto by Numb Photo/FlickrThe burrowing owl used to exist in much greater numbers across North America. Although protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, its population has been steadily declining.

Inside, I’m escorted to the chapel, where inmates wait seated in a circle on the floor. I read a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye or Pablo Neruda, or some passage that speaks to the women’s lives inside. We talk about forgiveness, finding compassion, staying present with difficulty. We talk about loss and devastation. Then we write, an endeavor akin to meditation in my experience: the practice of receiving the world by letting it inhabit and blow through you like a breeze.

The women in the meditation group are inside mostly for drug and immigration offenses. Many are wives and mothers. Their individual reasons for incarceration are usually unknown to me, though there have been notable exceptions. One former inmate was incarcerated for her role in the politically motivated crimes of the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground. When I first started volunteering at the prison, this inmate was the respected elder in the weekly meditation group. She walked with a limp from a gunshot wound to her leg. She died in 2010, just a few weeks after she was paroled. Her irrepressible spirit was a lamp of hope for other inmates, and for me, too. She was elegant and charismatic, open-eyed, quietly but fiercely determined. She wore lipstick with her regulation khakis and wrote dazzling poems. She found a way to thrive in the most unlikely of places—prison—not unlike the burrowing owls outside.

On the prison grounds, there’s a wild, winged kingdom in defiant contrast to the gray hardscape and razor wire—Canada geese, wild turkeys, herons, and Athene cunicularia hypugaea, the Western Burrowing Owl. Named for the Greek goddess …more

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Evidence at TransCanada’s Keystone XL Permit Renewal Hearing Sheds Light On Serious Pipeline risks

Just because TransCanada continually states that the Keystone XL pipeline will be the safest pipeline ever built, doesn’t mean it is true.

The company’s pipeline construction record is facing intense scrutiny in America’s heartland, where many see no justifiable rationale to risk their water and agricultural lands for a tar sands export pipeline.

New documents submitted as evidence in the Keystone XL permitting process in South Dakota – including one published here on DeSmog for the first time publicly – paint a troubling picture of the company’s shoddy construction mishaps. This document, produced by TransCanada and signed by two company executives, details the results of its investigation into the “root cause” of the corrosion problems discovered on the Keystone pipeline.

TransCanada Corporation is continuing its push to build the northern route of the Keystone XL pipeline. On July 27, the company appeared at a hearing in Pierre, South Dakota, to seek recertification of the Keystone XL construction permit that expired last year.

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission must decide if TransCanada can guarantee it can build the pipeline under the conditions set in 2010, which it must do in order to have the permit reapproved.*

High-profile spills and other incidents already tar TransCanada’s safety record. The company faces at least two known ongoing investigations by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The incident records of the southern route of the Keystone XL (renamed the Gulf Coast Pipeline) and the Keystone 1 Pipeline call into question TransCanada’s claim that its pipelines are among the safest ever built.

Over the last couple of years TransCanada’s public relations team, with the help of friendly regulators, have kept critical evidence away from the public and quashed many media inquiries.

But evidence of TransCanada’s poor performance continues to emerge. Earlier this year, DeSmog obtained documents revealing extreme external corrosion in a section of the Keystone 1 pipeline that was only two years old.

 This figure from TransCanada's “root cause analysis” report shows damage to the Keystone pipeline.

Documents the group obtained during discovery show that the corrosion occurred dangerously close to the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

“Talk about a near miss,” Robin Martinez, a lawyer for the grassroots citizens group Dakota Rural Action fighting to …more

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