Local News from All Over - Spring 2012

Around the World


Horns a Plenty

Pachyderms had a bad year in 2011: Data indicate that poaching of African elephants and rhinos has risen steeply.

TRAFFIC, a conservation group that monitors wildlife trading, reports that last year saw a record-breaking number of large-scale ivory seizures. Authorities confiscated at least 13 ivory shipments of more than 800 kilograms, double the number of large-scale seizures in 2010. This represents the death of some 2,500 elephants.

photo of a uniformed and armed man standing guard over a fire made of elephant tusksReuters, Noor KhamisA Kenyan park ranger stands guard as illegally poached elephant tusks are destroyed.

The upswing in seizures indicates a growth in ivory trafficking, rather than a successful crackdown. Zimbabwe-based Tom Milliken, who manages TRAFFIC’s Elephant Trade Information System, says the poaching is a consequence of China’s investment drive into Africa to secure the resources it needs to fuel its economic growth.

“We’ve reached a point in Africa’s history where there are more Asian nationals on the continent than ever before. They have contacts with the end-use market and now they are at the source in Africa,” Milliken says. Most of the illegal African ivory winds up in China or Thailand, where it is used in jewelry and art carvings.

A 1989 global ban on the ivory trade helped stem the slaughter of African elephants, but poaching continues. “The trade data suggest that thousands of elephants are being killed a year. I think central Africa has been brutally affected, especially Democratic Republic of Congo,” Milliken says. Poaching also occurs in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya.

The plight of the rhino is no better. In 2011, a record 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, up from 13 killings in 2003. Last year’s killings also include 19 critically endangered black rhinos.

Poaching gangs have become increasingly sophisticated, using helicopters, tranquilizers, body armor, night-vision equipment, and mercenaries experienced in rhino tracking. There are rumors of collusion by some park rangers seeking to cash in.

Dr. Morné du Plessis, chief executive of World Wildlife Federation-South Africa, says: “Rhino poaching is being conducted by sophisticated international criminal syndicates that smuggle horns to Asia. It’s not enough to bust the little guy. Investigators need to shut down the kingpins organizing these criminal operations.”

Demand for rhino horn is high in East Asia, particularly Vietnam, where it is used as a supposed cure for cancer and is also sometimes taken as a post-partying cleanser. We can infer from the continued high demand for the horns that it does not cure overindulgence any better than it cures anything else.

Reuters 12/29; Guardian 1/12


Show Stopper

Googut, a high-profile auction house in Beijing, has quietly postponed its auction of tiger bone wine and other en-dangered animal products. One might hope that this heralds a trend of firmer adherence to international trade law, but in this case the auction was stopped only by a haphazard combination of Chinese government agencies, the vigilance of an animal rights group, and the bold stubbornness of a lone reporter for the British daily, The Guardian.

It was the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) that first noticed hundreds of bottles of tiger bone wine, tiger-based spirits and liquors, and other illegal products such as rhino horn advertised in the catalog for the prominent Googut auction slated to take place in December. The IFAW informed China’s State Forestry Administration, which then released an notice urging all Chinese auction houses to adhere to wildlife laws and regulations. Googut was ordered to halt the sale of tiger bone wine.

The trade of products made from endangered species has been banned in China since 1993, but the law is not always enforced.

“In addition to China’s domestic trade ban, tigers and rhinoceros are protected by CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora] which prohibits international trade in their parts and products,” says Grace De Gabriel, IFAW’s Asia regional director. “However, we have seen a big surge of illegal trade in tiger bone and rhino horn around the world, often at auctions and disguised as ‘antiques.’”

The Guardian reporter Jonathan Watts attended the Googut auction, and observed that there was only a “partial clampdown” after the forestry administration’s notice. Many obviously illegal items were still up for sale, and uniformed police were “conspicuous by their absence.” After watching the sale of several spirits containing tiger parts, Watts revealed his journalistic identity to the auction house staff.

Uniformed police arrived soon after, and made a show of locking one of the showroom doors, but the auction continued. Watts was then pressured to leave by a number of security personnel, but he refused. When the auctioneer arrived at the cases of tiger bone wine – perhaps the most anticipated item in the catalog – he announced a “postponement” instead of calling for bids. There were audible groans of disappointment from the audience.

Watts speculates that the auction may have continued without his presence. And while the IFAW has commended the forestry administration’s action to block the trade of illegal animal products, it’s possible that the latest notice will go the way of other, previous decrees: unenforced and ignored.

Reuters, 12/6; IFAW, 1/11

Back from the Dead

It appears that reports of the Miller’s grizzled langur’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The langur, a species of monkey, was believed to be extinct. In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put the Miller’s grizzled langur on its list of endangered species. That same year, a team of biologists failed to find any of the monkeys during an expedition to see if it still lived. Scientists assumed the langur had probably perished after losing more than 50 percent of its natural habitat across Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and the Thai-Malay peninsula. It seemed another victim of the logging, mining, and agricultural expansion that has occurred in Southeast Asia in the last two decades.

photo of an animal in a treephoto courtesy W. FellStill here: Biologists snapped this photo of the Miller’s grizzled langur,
thought to be extinct.

Then a team of Canadian, America, and Indonesian scientists managed to positively identify a group of the langurs. Photos captured by their camera trap show that the langur lives in an area where it was not known to exist. The team’s expedition took them to a region of mostly undisturbed rainforest in East Kalimantan, Borneo. The Wehea Forest is known to contain at least nine nonhuman primates, including the Borneo orangutan and the gibbon.

The discovery “was a surprise since Wehea Forest lies outside of the monkey’s known range,” say Brent Loken of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. “Future research will focus on estimating the population density for [the langur] in Wehea and the surrounding forest.… While our finding confirms the monkey still exists in East Kalimantan, there is a good chance that it remains one of the world’s most endangered primates,” he says.

The expedition biologists say the investigation was especially difficult given the mountainous terrain and thick forests of the Kalimantan region. The area’s remoteness is an asset and a liability, as it helps protect the primate (and other endangered species) but also makes it hard for scientists to gather information so they can help safeguard the animals.

“I believe it is a race against time to protect many species in Borneo,” Loken says. “It is difficult to adopt conservation strategies to protect species when we don’t even know the extent of where they live. We need more scientists in the field working on understudied species such as Miller’s grizzled langur, clouded leopards, and sun bears.”

Environment News Service, 1/24


No Fracking Way

After thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets to oppose hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, the Parliament of the Balkan nation overwhelmingly voted to put an indefinite moratorium on the controversial practice also known as fracking.

photo of demonstratorsReuters, Tsvetelina BelutovaProtesters filled the streets in cities across Bulgaria to demand a moratorium on gas drilling.

In January, protesters rallied in six major Bulgarian cities to call for a new law to ban fracking. The citizen-activists said they feared that exploring for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing would poison groundwater, trigger earthquakes, and pose other serious public health hazards. Olga Petrova, a student who attended the protest in Sofia, the capital, said: “I am opposed because we do not know what chemicals they will put in the ground. Once they poison the water, what shall we drink?”

The rallies came in response to an agreement signed last summer between the Bulgarian government and Chevron to start testing for shale gas reserves in northeastern Bulgaria. Officials in the center-right government tried to ease public concerns by saying that the deal only allowed for test drilling, not gas extraction itself. And, government officials said, the discovery of gas reserves could help Bulgaria ease its dependence on Russia, which supplies most of the country’s gas.

Many Bulgarians were unconvinced. The public was especially worried about the fact that most of the gas exploration was to take place in the Dobrudzha region, which is Bulgaria’s main grain producer.

The street demonstrations prompted the government to quickly reverse course. Just three days after the rallies, the Bulgarian Parliament voted 166 to 6 to ban the natural gas extraction technique across the country, including its territorial waters in the Black Sea.

In the past couple of years, natural gas fracking has become as divisive an issue in Europe as it is in the United States, where the practice started. Romania and Serbia are preparing for exploration tests, while Poland – desperate to break its reliance on Russia – expects gas production to start in 2014. France banned fracking in July. Britain has suspended deep-excavation practices near the town of Blackpool after minor earthquakes last spring.

Reuters, 1/14; AP, 1/17

Air Pressure

Under pressure from the US airline industry, the Obama administration is mulling legal retaliation against the European Union’s new law that requires global airlines to pay for carbon emissions on flights to and from its 27 member countries.

The threat is just the latest in the air war over the EU’s efforts to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions. Congress is already considering legislation that would exempt American airlines from the EU’s cap and trade system and the White House warned last year that it would “respond appropriately” if the EU did not reconsider the measure or seek a negotiated settlement through the United Nations.

But neither occurred before the law took effect on January 1, prompting outcry from airlines globally. Airline carriers say the EU law amounts to a new tax at a time when they are wrestling with historically high fuel costs and softening demand in domestic flights, especially in the US.

Under the EU scheme, airlines are expected to pay taxes on 15 percent of the carbon they emit. According to the International Air Transport Association, the EU’s emission trading system could cost airlines $1.6 billion (£1.02 billion) this year. Assuming airlines pass on these extra costs to customers, the surcharge on a ticket for a flight from the US to a EU country could rise from $2.30 today to about $27 by 2020. These prices are still significantly lower than the extra costs airlines have passed on to consumers because of fuel price hikes in recent years.

Many airlines are already passing along the cost of this new tax to consumers. American Airlines, US Airways, Delta, and United Airlines have imposed $3 surcharges on fares purchased in the US for European routes. Germany’s Lufthansa has also told passengers to brace for higher prices.

There is no consensus yet on what, if anything, the US government should do unilaterally or in concert with other nations like China and India that are also upset with the law. One option the US could pursue to pressure EU policymakers would involve charging European airlines to maintain access at US airports. This strategy was used by the United States in a recently concluded dispute with Argentina over landing fees. Some within the Obama administration believe a complaint should be filed with UN’s civil aviation body in Montreal. There, an attempt could be made to craft a global strategy for combating carbon emissions.

Europeans, who aim to lead the world in fighting carbon emissions, counter that they have always been willing to find a solution. They note the UN opted against a broad approach several years ago. “We’re unhappy that we get all this resistance when we’re talking about a problem that needs addressing,” says Günter Hoermandinger, environment counselor for the EU’s Washington delegation.

EU officials believe the tax would prompt aircraft operators to invest in more efficient planes. They say that including aviation in their emissions trading system will have a smaller impact on prices than if the same environmental improvement were to be achieved through other measures such as a fuel tax.

Reuters, 1/12; International Air Transport Association

Green Giant

A French urban planning consultancy wants to drape the Eiffel Tower’s mass of wrought-iron struts and rivets with a mantle of 600,000 plants.

The idea, which so far has not been endorsed by Paris City Hall or the company that operates the Eiffel Tower, would transform the 300-meter structure into something akin to a very tall, and living, Christmas tree.

image showing a plant-covered eiffel towerRendition by Les Petits SuissesBig, tall, and green all over: An artist’s rendition of
a plant-cloaked Eiffel Tower.

Ginger, the consultancy promoting the idea, issued a statement saying the project would symbolize the reconciliation of nature and mankind as the world’s population heads for nine billion, seven billion of whom would live in urban areas. “Should it not be the duty of engineers to imagine a new future where nature is brought back into the heart of the city?” the statement said.

Clad in a new coat of living greenery, the Eiffel Tower could be expected to provide a perch for many insects and birds, among them perhaps the not-so-welcome pigeons that irritate many city-dwellers.

There’s also the question of whether the tower, covered in plants, would resemble a disguised cell phone tower more than any earthly tree.

According to Le Figaro newspaper, which leaked many of the technical aspects of the proposal, the idea would be to start work in early 2012 by connecting 12 tons of tubing to the tower’s struts. Thousands of hemp or sack-cloth bags carrying soil and a large variety of plants would be added gradually, working from the bottom upwards in the same way as a plant grows, over the second half of 2012.

The project would amount to the most ambitious remake in the life of the tower, originally built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World’s Fair. Some 200 million people have visited the tower since its construction, making it the world’s most visited paid monument and perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Paris.

The plan to green the tower is, for now, only a pipe dream. Following the leak in Le Figaro, SETE, the company that operates the tower, issued a statement saying neither it nor Paris City Hall was associated with the proposal.

Reuters, 11/30

Organic Hoax

That slice of delicious, organic Italian salami might look rather tempting, but beware: Organic food exported from Italy may not always be what it seems.

In December, Italian police made seven arrests and seized 2,500 tons of food as part of an investigation into the export of fake organic foods. Officials say 700,000 tons of falsely labeled “organic” products valued at €220 million ($295 million) had been sold over several years across Italy and in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

The people arrested included executives from three agro-business companies – Sunny Land, Sona, and Bioecoitalia – as well as the local director of a certifying body from the Marche farming region of central Italy.

Italy’s main association of organic producers, Associazione Italiana Per L’Agricoltura Biologica (AIAB), said the inquiry “sheds light on the weaknesses of the sector in controls over the import of raw materials, particularly those used for livestock like soya and barley.” It said there were insufficient checks in the production of organic bread and pasta.

The organic sector in the European nation is booming, in contrast to farming in general, and to some that’s just another opportunity to turn a profit. Italy’s organic food sector has an annual revenue of €3 billion – triple what it was 10 years ago. The country has the highest number of organic producers and organically cultivated land in Europe. The AIAB suggested that mafia infiltration could have played a role in these food scandals.

Incidentally, Italy is also a leader in solar installations. In 2009 it installed more solar panels than the United States. No word yet on whether the mafia wants a piece of that pie as well.

AFP, 12/6

North America

What’s in a Name?

Think of it as a Big Ag battle royale. In one corner stands the corn lobby, desperate to repackage high-fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) after having been stung by persistent criticisms that the product is fueling America’s obesity epidemic. In the other corner is the sugar lobby, determined to make sure that is has exclusive rights to the name of something that nutritionists know is bad for our health.

The fight began in 2010 when the Corn Refiners Association proposed changing the name of high-fructose corn syrup to the more saccharine “corn sugar.” The trade group filed a formal petition with the US Food and Drug Administration asking for permission to use the term “corn sugar” on food packaging, and while waiting for a response from government officials it launched an advertising campaign to introduce the term to the public. The corn refiners said the new name “more accurately describes this sweetener and helps clarify food products labeling for manufacturers and consumers alike.”

Sugar growers weren’t amused by the corn lobby’s sweet-tongued efforts. They filed a lawsuit against the corn association alleging that the $50 million “corn sugar” ad campaign “misleads the consuming public by asserting falsely that HFCS is natural and is indistinguishable from the sugar extracted from sugar cane and sugar beets.” The lawsuit notes that use of corn syrup increased 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990 and that the rise “bears a strong temporal relationship to the growth in American obesity.”

In response, the corn refiners say that, in fact, the sugar producers are the ones misleading the public. “The sugar industry is wrongfully alleging that high-fructose corn syrup (a sugar made from corn) causes health issues that do not arise from consuming cane and beet sugar,” says Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association. The corn refiners complain that the sugar industry is “trying to stifle free speech” and vilify its products.

Some consumer groups are siding with the sugar growers. The National Consumers League has sent a letter to the FDA urging the agency to reject the renaming petition. “Questions have been raised concerning the potential links to obesity and a variety of obesity-related health conditions including diabetes and heart disease,” the letter says.

Public health experts say both sides are missing the point: Americans consume too much sugar already, no matter what it’s derived from. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, says that switching from the four-letter acronym HFCS to “corn sugar” is “about marketing, not public health.”

“If the FDA decides to approve the change, it will not alter the fact that about 60 pounds each of HFCS and table sugar are available per capita per year, and that Americans would be a lot healthier consuming a lot less of either one.”

AFP, 12/1

All Shook Up

The natural gas rush occurring across North America has been blamed for a slew of environmental and public health problems. Improper disposal of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has been linked to fish deaths in creeks and rivers. Some landowners complain that explosive methane has leaked into their water wells. Rural communities unaccustomed to the thrum of fossil fuel extraction say that unceasing heavy truck traffic and all-night lights on drilling rigs are ruining the character of bucolic areas.

photo of a seismograph charting a quakeistockphoto.comSmall temblors across the US appear to be connected
to the increasingly common practice of injecting
fracking wastewater deep underground.

It may be time to add another item to fracking’s list of negative impacts: earthquakes. Hundreds of small temblors from Oklahoma to Ohio appear to be connected to the increasingly common practice of injecting fracking wastewater deep underground.

A 4.0 New Year’s Eve quake in Youngstown, Ohio, prompted officials to shut down five wells that were being used to dispose of the waste fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The tremor was the eleventh to hit northeastern Ohio since December 2010, when D&L Energy Inc. began injecting drilling brine 9,200 feet underground. Shaken by seismic activity that’s unusual for the region, Youngstown Mayor Charles P. Sammarone decided to buy earthquake insurance for his home. “Information is needed to make the homeowner and the residents feel safe,” says Sammarone, who is calling for a moratorium on injection well activity “until we can conclude it’s safe.”

The state of Arkansas already has such a moratorium. Earlier in 2011, officials there put a temporary halt to fracking after the state experienced a surge of earthquakes as companies developed the Fayetteville Shale.

Scientists are scrambling to figure out the degree to which fracking is responsible for the rash of small earthquakes. It appears that the increased seismic activity isn’t connected to the drilling and gas extraction itself, but instead is related to the need to dispose of millions of gallons of contaminated fluid from each drilling site. Pushing large amounts of water far below the earth’s surface appears to lubricate the fault lines and cause earthquakes in places otherwise free of them.

“It basically greases the wheels of the earthquake process that is there naturally and causes the earthquakes to occur at lower stress levels than they might normally have needed to occur,” says Larry Brown, who chairs the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University.

As the oil and gas industry launched a massive expansion in hydraulic fracturing across Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, the number of earthquakes in areas where wastewater was injected back underground surged tenfold. The New Year’s Eve tremor in Youngstown fits the pattern. According to data from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the earthquake occurred at the same depth as the wastewater well, about two miles below the surface.

“There is a relationship between when they started to inject the well, and [when] the earthquakes started near the bottom of the well, so it’s unlikely to be coincidental,” says John Armbruster at Lamont-Doherty.

Scientists say there is a way to minimize the risks of even small earthquakes – conducting seismic surveys to assess the tracts of rock where the drilling fluid is supposed to be put before disposal. But there’s a catch: Such surveys can cost as much as $10 million apiece. And even though the gas industry is earning record profits, that’s a price drillers are unlikely to pay.

Bloomberg 1/4; Reuters 1/4

graphic by Ian Umeda and Lilli Keinänen

Alien Colony

The mysterious collapse of honeybee populations during the past few years has had scientists grasping for explanations. Researchers have suggested a slew of culprits including habitat loss, viruses, and even electromagnetic interference from cell phone signals, though the latter theory was quickly debunked. Now a new study from San Francisco State University suggests yet another possible factor – a parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis, that lays its eggs in the bees’ abdomens.

photo of a bee on a flowerVernon Swanepoel

Like a scene out of the movie Alien, the eggs eventually hatch and the newborn flies burst out of the bee, killing it in the process. Even before they hatch, the fly eggs can infect bees’ brains and cause unusual behavior, such as fleeing the hive. The hive abandonment may be the primary cause of colony collapse disorder, posits a study that was published in the scientific journal PLoS One in January. Knowing they are infected by the parasite, the bees flee the hive so it won’t spread. This causes the hive population to dwindle until the colony is no longer viable.

The theory was unveiled by John Hafernik, a biology professor at SF State, after he found fly pupae surrounding some dead bees he had collected and stored. Hafernik’s research team found that a few days after the fly lays its eggs in a bee’s abdomen, the bee exits the hive, often at night, in a curious flight to nowhere. Hafernik’s team described the affected bees as zombies, flying erratically with no sense of direction. Once the bee dies, as many as 13 fly larvae crawl out of the bee’s neck.

Researchers found evidence of the fly in 77 percent of the hives sampled in the San Francisco Bay Area, California’s Central Valley, and in South Dakota.

But the plot thickens. Yet another study, published simultaneously in PLoS One, points to agricultural pesticides as a possible cause of colony collapse disorder. Pesticides, of course, have long been implicated in the die-offs. The new study by researchers at Purdue University pinpoints a specific group of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics for short), and one in particular called clothianidin.

Instead of being sprayed, neonics are used to treat seeds and are absorbed by plants’ vascular systems. They end up attacking the central nervous systems of bees that come to collect pollen. Virtually all genetically engineered Bt corn is treated with neonics.

The latest statistics show that the US honeybee population dropped 35 percent between 2006 and 2009. Some beekeepers have lost so many bee colonies that they are eligible for disaster relief from the US Department of Agriculture. Similar mass die-offs have occurred in Europe, China, and Japan.

Finding the root cause of the die-offs is crucial because the continuing loss of bee populations could critically affect our food systems by placing the more than 70 crops they pollinate – from almonds to apples to blueberries – in peril.

Environmental News Network, 1/12; Grist.org, 1/12

South America

Gold Strike

Demonstrators in Peru resumed protests in January against plans to develop a massive, $4.8 billion opencast gold mine in the Peruvian Andes, saying they fear the mine will harm their water supplies. The Conga mine project in the country’s Cajamarca region is majority owned by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp, the second largest gold-mining company in the world.

Protests broke out in early December when a general strike against the mine resulted in clashes with police that left dozens injured and prompted the Peruvian government to impose a state of emergency in parts of the country. Soon after, the country’s deputy environment minister, Jose De Echave, resigned, calling the official environmental impact report on the project “weak, outdated, and lacking in credibility.”

Following the violence, Newmont called a halt to development on the project.

Cajamarca is one of Peru’s most heavily mined regions. Many residents mistrust the new project because it is an extension of nearby Yanacocha mine, Latin America’s largest gold mine, which is nearing the end of production. Yanacocha has a history of troubled relations with neighboring farmers and ranchers as well as with city dwellers downstream who claim the mine has contaminated their water supplies.

Located 12,140 feet above sea level, the Conga project involves moving the water from four lakes high in the mountains into reservoirs the company would build. It is slated to begin production in 2015.

Those opposing the project, including Cajamarca’s political leaders, say the reservoirs do not adequately replace the lakes, which also provide water for agriculture and irrigate pasture for livestock. Cajamarca is also Peru’s leading dairy and livestock region, and activists fear that pollution from the mine could affect agriculture.

“I’m sure the population will keep defending its water resources,” says Gregorio Santos, the Cajamarca governor, who has helped lead the protests. Santos says the protesters want a new study of the mine’s environmental impact and would like the government to facilitate a dialogue with Newmont about the issue.

Newmont officials say its plans have been drawn up in consultation with local communities and meet the highest environmental standards. The public has had ample opportunities to raise any issues about the mine in the past, says company spokesperson Omar Jabara.

The dispute is a test for President Ollanta Humala, who is trying to balance the needs of the mainly poor people who elected him with the demands of the mining industry, one of the engines of Peru’s economy. Mining accounts for 61 percent of the country’s export income.

AP, 12/1; BBC 11/11

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