Local News from All Over: Spring 2013

Around the World


Eyes in the Sky

Drone warfare is coming to the African savannah.

The aerial surveillance technology – pioneered by the US military to locate and then bomb suspected terrorists – is poised to find a new use. Instead of attacking, it will be defending, in this case endangered rhinoceroses that are being killed by poachers.

photo of a rhinoceros in the shade on a dry plain; zebras in the backgroundphoto photoxpress.com / Frédéric LeviezRest easy – there are drones watching over you.

In December, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya launched a crowd-funding campaign on the website Indiegogo to raise funds for a drone that will assist with tracking rhinos and indentifying risks from poachers. Ol Pejeta is a privately owned reserve where animals roam freely over 90,000 acres of savannah grasses and flat-topped acacia trees. The conservancy is also home to four of the world’s last seven remaining northern white rhinos. Each of the rhinos has a round-the-clock armed guard to keep it safe. But conservancy staff say it’s not enough, and warn that increased poaching requires more advanced technology.

“It’s really difficult to fully track animals or poachers across such a huge area even with 160 rangers – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Rob Breare, an Ol Pejeta staffer. “We believe the drone will be a significant deterrent to poachers.… It will also enable us to quickly send a highly trained response team to an identified location if it reveals a threat.”

The aerial drones are similar to those used by the US military in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, but smaller and unarmed. They have wingspans of 10 feet, weigh about 10 pounds, and can be launched from a simple catapult; they cost around $50,000. The drones, dubbed “Aerial Rangers” by Ol Pejeta staff, will be equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared thermal imaging for night operations. Conservancy staff expects that a single flight of the electric-powered drones will be able to cover 10,000 acres, far more territory than a team of rangers on the ground.

Africa’s population of rhinoceroses is under threat from a surge in poaching unlike anything seen since the 1980s. Rising rhino horn demand from a newly prosperous China – where it is considered a cure for fever, rheumatism, and gout – combined with weak law enforcement have made the rhinos vulnerable. At least 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa last year alone, a huge increase from just five years ago, when only 13 were killed.

“The resurgence of poaching is a tragedy and one of the biggest reasons that we’re now talking about our last herds,” says William Kimosop, chief warden at a reserve in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

An estimated 20,000 white rhinos remain in the wild, almost all of them of the southern variety. There are about 4,200 black rhinos, a slightly smaller and more aggressive species that lives in thick brush instead of on the open grasslands. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers the black rhino to be critically endangered.

The use of aerial drones appears to be catching on as a new wildlife conservation technique. Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search engine company, recently gave a $5 million grant to the World Wildlife Fund to develop and implement technology to help with anti-poaching efforts. Part of that grant will go toward the deployment of drones in Africa and Asia.

Sunday Telegraph, 1/5; Mongabay 12/18/12


Insurance Scheme

When Himalayan pastoralist Chungda Sherpa found that three of his yaks had been killed by a group of snow leopards, he did what herders in Nepal have done for centuries – he tracked down the leopards and killed them. He located the remains of his cattle beside three sleeping snow leopard cubs, snatched the cubs and put them in a sack, and threw the sack in a nearby river. Then he was hit with a wave of regret.

photo of a snow leopard Himalayan pastoralists have have launched a livestock insurance program
to deter herders from killing snow leopards.

“From that night onward the mother snow leopard started crying from the mountain for her cubs, and my cattle were crying for the loss of their calves,” Sherpa, 48, says of the event that happened four years ago. “I realized how big a sin I had committed and promised myself that I would never do such a thing in the future.”

To deter other herders from hunting snow leopards to protect their animals, Sherpa and some of his neighbors launched an insurance program for livestock. Under the scheme, herders in Nepal pay 55 rupees (about $1.50) a year for each of their hairy yaks, a vital pack animal that is also kept for milk and meat. Herders are then paid 2,500 rupees (about $29) for any animal that is killed by a leopard. The leopards have a taste for goats, sheep, and yaks, and are often killed by humans in revenge for preying on herds or as a preventative measure.

Wildlife conservationists say the scheme appears to be working to dissuade herders from hunting the cats, and in the process is giving new hope for the endangered leopard. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that in the past 16 years snow leopard numbers have decreased by 20 percent. There are between 4,000 and 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. Experts believe that just 300 to 500 adult snow leopards remain in Nepal, and few people have ever seen the secretive “mountain ghost,” which lives at 16,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level.

“The (Himalayan) communities have been able to pay out compensation for more than 200 animals since the scheme started,” says Ghana Gurung, Nepal conservation director for the World Wildlife Fund. “The community members are the ones who monitor this, they are the ones who do the patrolling and they are the ones who verify the kills.”

The insurance plan was established with a 1.2-million-Nepalese rupee donation from the University of Zurich. Since the insurance program was set up four years ago, no leopard is thought to have been killed in retaliation for livestock predation. A wide-ranging camera-trapping survey is now underway to determine the precise effectiveness of the campaign. Anecdotal evidence suggests the insurance program is working: Locals who watch for snow leopard scat and tracks believe that snow leopard numbers are growing. Now, Sherpa and other neighbors are hoping that protecting the cats will draw more international hikers to their region.

“Now with this insurance policy there will definitely be protection of the snow leopard and its numbers will increase,” Sherpa says. “If a tourist sees a snow leopard and takes a picture of it, there will be publicity of our region and more tourists will come.”

AFP, 12/26

Petyr and the Wolf

It’s about to be open season on wolves across a huge swath of Siberia.

Officials in Russia’s vast Sakha Republic have launched a war against wolves, which they say are devouring domesticated reindeer in increasing numbers and hurting pastoralists who depend on their herds for meat and transportation. There are an estimated 3,500 wolves living in the vast, India-sized republic (also known as Yakutia) that stretches from the Stanovoi Mountains in the south to the ice-clogged shores of the Arctic Ocean in the north. Officials in Sakha say the “optimal number” of wolves would be closer to 500, and have started a campaign to encourage residents to hunt down the predators.

photo of a man and a dead wolf in the snowphoto REUTERS / Viktor EverstovOfficials in Siberia’s vast Sakha Republic have launched a war against
wolves, which they say are devouring domesticated reindeer in
increasing numbers.

“The population is more concerned than ever about mass wolf attacks on farm animals,” Sakha President Yegor Borisov said at a January meeting of regional governments. “We must determine a clear plan of action.”

Borisov’s “plan of action” was outlined in a decree announcing the start of a three-month campaign of “special measures for regulating the quantity of wolves” in Sakha. Local governments in Sakha, home to a scant one million people, are expected to organize wolf-hunting brigades. The government will provide ammunition, fuel, and spare motor parts. Hunters will receive monetary rewards for each wolf shot, and the three hunters with the most kills will receive prizes of 1 million rubles, about $33,000.

According to state broadcaster Vesti, in 2012 wolves killed 16,111 domesticated reindeer and 313 domesticated horses, costing herders about $5 million in losses. It appears that wolf attacks on domesticated herds are on the rise because of a decrease in the number of hares as well as a decrease in the population of wild reindeer.

Russian environmentalists appear to be split on issue. Vladimir Krever, coordinator of biodiversity protection at the World Wildlife Federation in Russia, does not seem too concerned about the government-supported wolf hunting. “To minimize losses to predators is a completely normal human response in such a situation,” Krever says. “There’s nothing terrible about this.”

He also expressed doubt that hunters would be able to bring the population down to 500 even with the financial and material support from the government, noting that traps and the use of planes or helicopters to hunt the wolves are prohibited. “To shoot that many wolves is unrealistic,” he says.

Others environmentalists aren’t as cavalier. Some activists blamed locals who hunt hares for the increased attacks on domesticated reindeer, and urged Sakha officials to call off the hunt. “The reason for this is the unregulated and continuous hunting of hares,” a petition against the hunt said. The petition declared that shooting wolves “is hardly a heroic act.”

Reuters, 1/13

Boiling Over Rice

A controversial US-funded study in which a group of Chinese schoolchildren were fed genetically modified rice has led to China sacking three of its researchers for breaching the country’s laws governing research ethics.


Mekong Dam Moves Forward

In the Autumn 2011 edition of Earth Island Journal, we reported on the controversy over Laos’s plans to build the first mega-dam on the Lower Mekong River (“Dam Bad,” by Mike Ives). At that time, Laos agreed with downstream countries Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand to suspend construction on the $3.5-billion Xayaburi Dam until further environmental impact assessments were conducted. But last August, Ch. Karnchang PCL, the Thai construction company behind the project, said it had resumed work on the project. The company held a groundbreaking ceremony in November as Laos released plans for further dams on the Mekong.

In January, after months of staying quiet, Vietnam and Cambodia voiced their protest against Laos’s decision to start work on the dam and demanded that construction on the project be halted until further environmental review. At a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in the ancient Laotian capital of Luang Prabang, Cambodia and Vietnam accused Laos of misinterpreting the terms of the agreement. The commission – which is made up of representatives from the four nations – oversees the river’s development. It is bound by treaty to hold intergovernmental consultations before dams are built. But members have no veto over other nations’ actions.

“In the absence of an agreement, other countries can disagree if they like but this can’t stop Laos,” says Jian-hua Meng, a specialist in sustainable hydropower at the World Wildlife Fund.

The Xayaburi Dam is seen as a test case whose outcome will be crucial for a series of 11 planned dams to harvest hydroelectricity from the lower Mekong basin. Environmentalists say the dam will likely have a devastating effect on downstream ecology and on the livelihoods of the 60 million people living in the Mekong watershed.

Reuters, 1/13;
The Nation, Thailand, 1/13

The study, which was conducted four years ago and published online by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August 2012, sparked off a media firestorm in China after Greenpeace put out a press release questioning the trial’s legitimacy. Some newspaper columnists accused the study’s main authors of using the kids as “guinea pigs.” Other stories likened the study to Japanese bio-warfare experiments on Chinese prisoners in World War II.

The genetically modified rice strain at the center of the controversy, called Golden Rice, is engineered to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. It was created in the late 1990s as an attempt to fight vitamin A deficiency, which is estimated to cause blindness in more than a quarter of a million children annually, largely in poor countries. The trial was designed to test how efficiently the beta-carotene is converted to the vitamin once ingested. Greenpeace has long attacked the project as a waste of money and a PR ploy by the biotech industry.

The US study team was led by Guangwen Tang, a nutrition scientist at Tufts University, and was partly funded by the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the US Department of Agriculture. On the Chinese side, the team included two researchers from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and one from the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences.

According to a December statement by the Chinese CDC – which investigated the matter following the furor – during a three-week period in 2008, 25 children at Jiangkou Central Primary School in Hengnan County were fed Golden Rice and 55 others ate either spinach or capsules containing beta-carotene in oil. But none of the children, their parents, or schoolteachers was informed that Golden Rice was involved in the trials. The consent form said the rice contained beta-carotene, but not that it was genetically modified or that it was Golden Rice. The CDC investigation says the scientists “meticulously concealed the reality” that the experiment involved Golden Rice. (An English version of the same form procured by reporters does not mention the rice is genetically modified, but does call it “Golden Rice.”)

The CDC statement accuses Guangwen of Tufts University of violating Chinese regulations and importing the rice into China without proper approvals. Andrea Grossman, assistant director of public relations at Tufts, says the university is concerned about the allegations and is reviewing protocols used in the 2008 research.

The incident has outraged the families of children who ate the Golden Rice. Some have refused to accept the 80,000 yuan (about $12,800) compensation offered by the Chinese government and have demanded a guarantee that the rice will not affect their children’s health. “If it’s safe, why did they need to deceive us into this?” one angry father said on Chinese state television.

The development of genetically modified rice has strong government support in China, the world’s top rice producer and consumer, but the public remains skeptical about its safety. The Chinese government approved the safety of one locally developed strain of genetically modified rice, known as Bt rice, in 2009, but commercial production has been delayed. Apart from genetically modified products, China’s vast food sector is still struggling to come to grips with food safety four years after a major scandal in which tainted milk powder was blamed for the deaths of at least six children.

Science, 12/12, 11/12; Nature, 12/12; Daily Mail, 11/12


Quicksilver Curbs

If you have one those one of those old-school glass thermometers at home, or use mercuric-oxide batteries to power your cool gizmos, you might have to find some replacements. Sale of these mercury-containing products will soon be banned.

slice of an info-graphicoil icon Thibault Geffroy / The Noun ProjectClick on this image to view a larger version

More than 140 countries have adopted the first legally binding global treaty to curb mercury pollution. Agreed upon during the January Minamata Convention on Mercury in Geneva, the treaty provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes, and industries that use or may release mercury. It sets enforceable limits on emissions of the highly toxic heavy metal that is widely used in chemical production and small-scale mining. Many products that contain mercury – such as batteries, thermometers, and some fluorescent lamps – will be phased out by a ban on their international sale by 2020.

“We have closed a chapter on a journey that has taken four years of often intense but ultimately successful negotiations and opened a new chapter towards a sustainable future,” says Fernando Lugris, the Uruguayan diplomat who chaired the negotiations.

When mercury, also known as quicksilver, is released into the air or water, it spreads worldwide and builds up in humans, mostly through fish consumption. The brains of fetuses and infants are particularly vulnerable to damage from mercury.

While acknowledging that the treaty is an important step forward, many environmental organizations expressed disappointment that the convention doesn’t go further. “The treaty will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions,” says David Lennett of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It will need to be improved and strengthened, to make all fish safe to eat.”

The treaty does not cover the mercury that is used as a preservative in medical vaccines. Nor does it set specific targets for reducing mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants and cement factories.

On the plus side, the treaty will require countries to install mercury filters and scrubbers on new coal-fired power plants. It also includes measures to reduce mercury use in small-scale gold mining, although it stops short of an all-out ban. Mercury releases from small-scale gold mines – which are often illegal – more than doubled to 727 metric tons between 2005 and 2010, overtaking coal-fired power plants as the main source of pollution from the metal.

The Minamata Convention – named after the Japanese city where people were poisoned in the mid-twentieth century from industrial discharges of mercury – needs ratification from 50 countries to go into effect.

Joe DiGangi, a science adviser with the advocacy group International POPS [persistent organic pollutants] Elimination Network, says that while the treaty was “a first step,” it was not tough enough to achieve its aim of reducing overall emissions. He noted there was no requirement that each country create a national plan for how it will reduce mercury emissions. “Countries that do not want to do this can escape quite easily,” he says.

UN News Service, 1/13; Reuters, 1/13; Al Jazeera, 1/13

Cats Out, Birds Back

One of the world’s rarest seabirds has returned to its original home on Ascension Island nearly 180 years after it was wiped off the island by feral cats.

In November, ornithologists spotted two Ascension frigatebirds sitting on nests on the remote, volcanic island in the South Atlantic. The two birds are the first of the species to breed on the island since Charles Darwin visited in the early nineteenth century. Ascension Island is a British territory.

photo of a bird on the ground; it's throat-pouch inflatedphoto Laura GoochRare Ascension frigatebirds have returned to their original island home
after 180 years.

Until now, the birds had survived only in a small colony on nearby Boatswain Bird Island – a one-square-kilometer rocky outcrop – where they were considered to be highly vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. Their return to the island after which they are named has raised hopes that the vulnerable bird may be rescued from extinction.

The news marks the success of a project that has cost British taxpayers more than £500,000 ($812,610) and has involved the eradication of hundreds of feral cats that had been eating frigatebird chicks.

“We are absolutely overwhelmed,” says Derren Fox, a conservation officer on Ascension. “We thought it would take decades for the Ascension frigate to come back and breed after we had got rid of the island’s feral cats. But we have already succeeded after only a few years. This suggests we have a real chance of saving the Ascension frigate.”

The project’s success also raises hopes of saving colonies of other species threatened by feral animals. These include populations of seabirds and amphibians on Montserrat, Gough Island and South Georgia, which are all ravaged by rats, mice, and other wild creatures.

In the early nineteenth century, Ascension Island was home to more than 20 million seabirds, mainly masked boobies, black noddies, brown noddies, and Ascension frigatebirds. The frigatebird was considered to be the most important because it was endemic to the island. Adult frigatebirds are about 30 inches in length and the males have distinctive red sacs on their chests that they inflate during courtship.

Around 1800, rats, accidently introduced by settlers, began to kill off chicks. Cats were imported to kill the rats. But the cats ended up joining the rats in the killing of frigatebird chicks. “By the time Darwin visited the island in 1836, there were only a few frigatebirds left and the last few were killed off not long after he left,” says Clare Stringer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has played a key role in re-establishing Ascension frigatebirds on the island. A small colony of about 10,000 survived on Boatswain Bird Island, which didn’t have any cats.

In 2002, the RSPB launched a program to eradicate Ascension’s feral cats, and in 2006 the island was declared to be feline-free. “It has taken six years to get frigatebirds to start to recolonize the island since we got rid of the feral cats and frankly it could have taken much longer,” says Fox. “We now have two nests being tended by parent birds and that should encourage a lot more to settle here in future.”

The Guardian, UK, 12/12; WildlifeExtra.com, 12/12

North America

Nicotine Patch

Some birds in Mexico City are taking recycling to the next level. Sparrows and house finches in the megacity are using old cigarette butts to construct their nests and, according to ornithologists, the technique might not just be a matter of using a readily accessible building material. The birds might be trying to inoculate themselves and their chicks from harmful parasites.

When Dr. Constantino Macias Garcia noticed that birds in Mexico City were using old cigarette butts in their nest construction, he hypothesized that the butts might not be all bad. He knew that many birds in the wild incorporate aromatic plants into their nests to decrease parasite loads. He also knew that tobacco’s nicotine is a natural insecticide that has been used on crops to deter arthropods and control ectoparasites (parasites that live on the surface of a host) that afflict poultry. It stood to reason that urban birds would be translating their wild tendencies to the human environment by capitalizing on nicotine’s natural insecticide.

Garcia and his team tested their hypothesis by examining the nests of sparrows and finches in Mexico City. They found that more than 80 percent of the nests contained at least one smoked cigarette butt. One nest had 48 butts woven into its construction.

Garcia’s team then used heat pads to attract ectoparasites to the nests. The researchers used nests with unsmoked cigarette butts as a control for their experiment. Smoked cigarette butts retain substantial quantities of nicotine and other compounds, whereas the unsmoked cigarette butts are mostly innocuous cellulose fibers. Nests containing smoked cigarette butts had significantly fewer ectoparasites than those with unsmoked cigarette butts. According to Garcia, birds can likely detect the nicotine in spent cigarettes, just as birds rely on olfaction to select insect-deterrent plants in the wild.

The researchers cautioned that the nicotine nests might be just a happy accident, and that the birds may be selecting cigarette butts for other desirable qualities such as fluffiness, warmth, and availability. Further research is required before biologists can know for certain if the practice is a kind of self-medication.

Garcia and his team also warn that nicotine is also a potent neurotoxin. Fledglings living in cigarette nests may be parasite free, but they’re still slumbering in a stew of chemicals. In the long run, the nicotine nests could do more harm than good.

BBC, 12/5; Biology Letters, 12/5

Back to the Tap

On January 1, the Boston suburb of Concord, MA became the first community in the United States to ban the sale of single-serving bottled water. The new town bylaw was the result of a relentless three-year campaign waged by a local resident, 85-year-old Jean Hill. Concord residents approved the measure in April 2012 by a vote of 403-364 during a town meeting, and the measure went into effect at the start of this year.

In the growing battle against bottled water, it was sort of like the shot heard around the world.

Photoxpress_3347658.jpgphoto photoexpress / Yury ZapUnwanted: single-serving bottled water
are now outlawed in Concord, MA.

“The bottled water companies are draining our aquifers and selling it back to us,” Hill told The New York Times in a 2010 interview. “I’m going to work on this until I drop.”

The new law prohibits the sale of “non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less.” Coke, Pepsi, and other sugary drinks are exempted.

Stores found selling single serving bottles of water will receive a warning at the first offense. The second offense comes with a $25 fine; repeated violations come with a $50 fine.

According to the website Ban the Bottle: “In 2007, Americans consumed over 50 billion single serve bottles of water. With a recycling rate of only 23 percent, over 38 billion bottles end up in landfills.”

Statistics like that were too much for Hill, who hoped that her campaign would encourage the use of tap water and address the problem of plastic pollution.

In the 2010 interview, Hill said: “All these discarded bottles are damaging our planet, causing clumps of garbage in the oceans that hurt fish, and are creating more pollution on our streets.”

AFP, 1/2; Mother Earth News, 1/3


Moving Day

Afraid that international efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions aren’t moving fast enough to halt impending sea-level rise, the government of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati is making plans to relocate its people to another homeland.

Kiribati consists of 32 coral atolls and one coral island. Most of the atolls are only a few feet above sea level, and already Kiribati’s 100,000 people are experiencing the impacts of rising waters. Erosion is gnawing at coastlines and crops are dying due to salt-water intrusion.

Kiribati President Anote Tong says he is worried that Kiribati – along with other island nations like Tuvalu, Tokelau, and the Maldives – could become “stateless” due to global climate change. “Time is running out,” Tong says. “We’ve had communities that have had to relocate because their previous village is submerged. It’s no longer there.”

For Tong, the inconclusive climate talks that took place in Doha, Qatar in December revealed how badly out of touch the wealthy and larger countries are when it comes to the unfolding consequences of global warming. “[The negotiations] aren’t relevant to us,” Tong said. “The reality is that we’re already facing problems. We [in Kiribati] are not talking about economic growth; we’re not talking about standards of living. We are talking about our very survival.”

Frustrated with the never-ending procrastination on checking greenhouse gas emissions, the Kiribati government is implenting a Plan B. The government’s best hope is to build seawalls and plant mangrove swamps to repel rising seas and allow for life to continue on Kiribati as it has for centuries. If that doesn’t work, the Kiribati government is prepared to relocate its population to other countries.

Kiribati has purchased 5,000 acres in Fiji to grow food for Kiribati citizens. In a worst-case scenario, that land could be used to provide homes for relocated communities. “If all the land we’re staying in now was totally swamped, maybe it would provide an alternative in the future,” Tong says. East Timor has also offered land if needed.

The Kiribati leadership is considering another solution: constructing artificial islands to live on. The government expects to present engineering plans for fake islands to international donors sometime this year. Tong says the expensive endeavor would only be possible if rich nations paid for the construction as a kind of reparations for fueling climate change in the first place.

“Man-made islands are expensive,” Tong says, “but climate change itself is expensive. It could cost the future of this planet.”

AFP, 12/1

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