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Last Stand for the Garden of Eden

16. August 2019 - 23:26

The riot of roads exploding across our planet—bringing with it tsunamis of habitat destruction and biodiversity loss—at times seems almost unstoppable. 

But there are some places so special, such as Manu National Park in Peru, that they should remain free of the Pandora’s box of disruption that roads bring. 

The most biodiverse place on Earth

To wake at dawn under the forest canopy in Manu National Park is to experience Life.  Every niche, nook, and cranny is filled with it. 

The deep chorus of howler monkeys in morning pounds through your chest.  Over 800 species of birds fill the trees.  Alligator-like caiman roar in the oxbow lakes, while endangered giant otters gather in playful gangs. 

Jaguars are almost common here—some 6,000 of the giant cats are thought to prowl about the Park—and are one of 13 different cat species in this global biodiversity hotspot that just might be the most profound expression of life on Earth.

Manu National Park is the glistening gem in Peru’s protected area network.  The 1.7-million-hectare World Heritage site in the Texas-sized province of Madre de Dios (“Mother of God” in Spanish), is the only park in South America that protects the entire watershed of a major Amazonian tributary, from the high Andes to the Amazonian lowlands. 

No roads run through it…

Travel within Manu is by boat or by foot. Uncontacted indigenous people still live there despite the depredations a century ago by a wealthy rubber baron, Carlos Fitzcarrald.  

With no access to Manu, Fitzcarrald dismantled an entire steamship and had it portaged through 12 kilometers of unchartered rainforest to the Manu watershed—in the process killing hundreds of indigenous people.  The survivors fled and their decedents remain in voluntary isolation today as uncontacted peoples. 

Still no road runs through Manu.  But that could soon change.

Until now

A new road is being built illegally to the mouth of the Manu River.  This will sweep to the notorious, illegal gold mining fields near Boca Colorado—an environmental and social travesty so bad it drew the ire of Pope Francis.  In a 2018 visit to the region, he decried the illegal gold miners and their “devastating assault on life”. 

Mining, illegal loggers, and “agro-industrial monocultivation,” the Pope said, all threaten territories where indigenous people live.  These activities follow roads that slice and dice Earth’s ecosystems. 

Nothing on Earth rivals road-building as a threat to nature.  Not even climate change.

The road to Manu began encroaching on the region in the 1960s.  It left the adjacent forest in tatters from illegal logging and wildlife poaching—with thousands of giant otters, jaguars, and black caiman killed annually. 

Despite some setbacks, the fatal road’s expansion continues. Politicians with ties to illegal gold mining are pushing it hard.  And the governor of Madre de Dios, himself a former illegal miner, clamors for the road—now a mere 100 kilometers away from the mouth of the Manu River.

By hook or—more likely—by corrupt crook, this road will continue to assault Eden unless the world wakes up and acts decisively. If completed, it is expected to cause the loss of over 43,000 hectares of rainforest—the equivalent of 100,000 football fields.

The illusion of economic growth

The road is popular with local villagers because of the high cost of boat transport and the allure of quick economic growth. 

But just scratching the surface reveals an alternative truth.  Just take the section of the road that has been there for 30 years.  It has led to negligible economic progress.  Any wealth generated by illegal resource extraction has bled to outsiders.  

Elsewhere in the world, poorly planned roads in remote regions have to led, not to economic growth, but to increased local poverty as outside encroachers and foreign investors gobble up most of the profits.

This is a knife

As tragic as the Manu Road is, it is a mere scratch compared to the horrendous damage that will be inflicted by the newly approved Iñapari-Puerto Esperanza road on the northern boundary of Manu. 

Approved a month before the visit of the Pope, this 277 kilometer-long road will slice straight through one of the greatest untamed rainforest tracts in the world, centered on Alto Purus National Park. 

Using estimates of forest loss from the nearby Inter-Oceanic Highway in Peru (itself an economic and environmental disaster), the Iñapari-Puerto Esperanza road will destroy an incredible 275,000 hectares of primary forest. 

Renowned ecologist John Terborgh, a member of ALERT, with 40 years of experience in Madre de Dios, says it might cost 100 times less to buy out the 1,200 or so residents of Puerto Esperanza and set them up with stately homes in the city, than to construct this deadly road. 

Why build it?  Beyond its catastrophic environmental impacts, the road will likely destroy some of the last uncontacted tribes in Earth, and will have dubious economic benefits for locals.  

What the road does do, however, is benefit a tiny number of corrupt opportunists—illegal loggers, miners, land speculators, and the like.

Hell on Earth

The terrible irony is that an economy based on sustainable use could be in reach for Peru, particularly as it strives to meet its Paris climate targets largely based on zero-eforestation promises.  

But land-use zoning plans are ignored, and the Madre de Dios region remains lawless.  Indigenous leaders, ready to take on the mantel of sustainability and with a global track record for protecting life, describe the current situation as hell on Earth.

ALERT often decries the calamity of road building in wild areas.  But there is no greater travesty than that taking place right now in Peru’s Amazonian Garden of Eden.

Kategorien: english

Protecting our Protected Areas from 'the Big Squeeze'

21. Juli 2019 - 3:41

Squeeze anything hard enough and something has to give—even to the point of collapse.  Protected areas, which are a cornerstone of our efforts to conserve nature, are no different. 

All around the world, protected areas are under tremendous pressure—not just from poachers and encroachers inside the reserves, but also by destructive forces immediately outside them.

For example, the iconic Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa, a protected area the size of Switzerland, sustains the world’s largest migration of land animals.  But new research shows that the margins of the Serengeti-Mara are being squeezed by overgrazing of livestock, soaring human populations, and cropping.

As a result, wildlife have been compressed into the core of Serengeti-Mara or into intensively managed parts of it, such as the World Heritage Ngorongoro Crater. 

Toppling Dominos

Like falling dominos, these squeezing effects affect not just wildlife but also a range of ecosystem processes.  In the Serengeti-Mara, the last domino to fall is the palatable grass itself—the basis of the ecosystem’s food chain.  Ripped out by starving wildlife, the severed roots destroy the ability of grass to absorb nutrients from the soil. 

In the Amazon basin, around 2 million hectares of forest are cleared or fragmented annually.  The edges of forest fragments can be squeezed to the point of implosion by microclimatic stresses and wind shear, which kill many trees and make the forest much more vulnerable to destructive fires. 

Such fires can penetrate at least 2.5 kilometers in from the edges, opening the rainforest to invasion by fire-loving weeds and grass. 

While 20 percent of the Amazon has been deforested, around 50 percent is being squeezed by edge effects.  The crushing endpoint is a landscape of fire-dominated savannah and scrubby vegetation. 

In many landscapes, as much biodiversity occurs outside protected areas as inside them.  In Equatorial Africa, for instance, some protected areas are embedded within relatively intact forests.  These areas outside reserves currently harbor three-quarters of all gorillas.

But a lack of park-guards, ebola outbreaks, proliferating roads and poaching, and intensive logging are all taking their tolls on the forests and wildlife.  Gorillas are declining precipitously, with populations crashing by 80 percent since the 1950s.

A study led by ALERT director Bill Laurance showed that, across the tropics, biodiversity declines inside protected areas are often driven in part by environmental threats, such as deforestation and fires, occurring outside the protected areas. 

Thus, the fate of our protected areas depends not only on protecting them but also limiting destructive changes in the habitats that immediately surround them. To quote the famed ecologist Daniel Janzen, “No park is an island.” 

We Know What to Do

The management of protected areas and their critical surrounding habitats is a massive challenge.  

A recent paper shows that biodiversity loss can be predicted from conservation spending.  Sixty per cent of global biodiversity declines occurred in only seven countries.  Beginning with the worst, they are Indonesia, Australia, USA (mainly Hawaii), Malaysia, China, Papua New Guinea, and India. 

Australia’s place near the top of the list of shame reflects its appalling record of habitat loss and a shocking plunge in recent environment funding.

The good news is that we know how to save nature.  Regional- and landscape-scale approaches to protect ecosystems are well established.  And there’s no need to delay—these principles can be put in place right now

But to ensure the survival of nature, we must reduce the pressures that plague so many of our reserves. It’s not just about protecting protected areas, but also sparing the lands immediately around them from “the big squeeze.”


Kategorien: english

What Price is the Rainbow?

22. Juni 2019 - 1:45

What do these three things—climate regulation, diarrhea, and water quality—have in common?

The surprising answer: intact forests.

Forests are famous for their vital role in storing carbon.  But new research is revealing equally critical benefits of forests in regulating the planet’s temperature and providing stable supplies of fresh water.  

The moisture from forests can be thought of as rainbow water because of its colors: green (water used and emitted by plants), blue (water we drink), and grey (water we waste).

Green Water

Most policy and legislation deals with the blue and grey part of the rainbow—the water we drink and waste.  

But that leaves out all the water from plants.  Via the process of evapotranspiration, which results from photosynthesis, forests emit trillions of tonnes of water into the atmosphere each year. 

This creates clouds that reflect sunlight back into space, reducing planetary warming.  And those clouds also produce vital rainfall.

For instance, at least 40 percent of the rainfall over land, and up to 50-70 percent of the rainfall in the Amazon, originates from forests.

Novel but controversial research even suggests forests might act as regional “biotic pumps”. As clouds build up over a forest and condense into rainfall, low-pressure systems are formed that suck rain-bearing coastal winds into dry continental centers.

But this pump only works if the forests between the coast and interior areas are intact.  If the forests are cleared or fragmented, then the biotic pump breaks down. 

If this idea is valid, then the value of intact forests for maintaining productive climates for farming, power generation, fisheries, the environment, and other values may be grossly underestimated.

Forests are also important for maintaining stable local climates.  Areas cleared for crops are from 1.5 to 6.5 degrees Centigrade hotter than those with intact forests, because the former lose much of their shade and evaporative cooling.  Such heating has major impacts on human health, diseases, and agricultural productivity.

Hot, dry conditions also lead to fire.  In 2015 alone, the blanket of haze that perennially covers much of Southeast Asia led to economic losses of up to $45 billion, and tens of thousands of premature deaths.

Blue Water

The West African nation of Malawi lost 14 percent of its forests in a decade.  In a scientific first, research showed a direct relationship between deforestation and clean drinking water.  The decline in clean freshwater was equivalent to a 9 percent reduction in rainfall.

The best-known case for the water-purifying role of forests is New York City.  Instead of a massive filtration plant, New Yorkers invested around a billion dollars by restoring forests in the nearby Catskill mountains.  

The Catskill forests cost just a fraction of a high-tech approach to water filtration.  And how well did it work?  Now, more than 140 cities around the U.S. are considering similar watershed conservation rather than building expensive filtration systems.

The largest cost-benefit analysis ever conducted in the tropics also found that forests, even selectively logged ones, are a highly cost-effective way to produce clean water.

Intact Forests are Healthy

There are also clear pathways from deforestation to human sickness.   

In Cambodia, deforested areas have a markedly higher incidence of diarrhea.  The same seems to be true in Flores, Indonesia.  And in Borneo, deforestation is leading to an increase in malaria. 

One key reason is the heating of once-shady forest floors.  This increases the temperature of pooled water, which promotes breeding of mosquitoes—the most important disease vectors.  

There are also fewer trees to transpire water, so the ground becomes swampy and more likely to sustain disease.

And as loggers and developers penetrate ever-deeper into forests, they inevitably encounter new pathogens endemic to remote areas.  The Zika virus emerged from the forests of Uganda.  Dengue, Chikungunya, and Yellow Fever also likely came out of African forests.

So, what price is the rainbow and the intact forests that sustain it?

Nothing less than life itself.

Kategorien: english

Calling All Hackers – Our Endangered Wildlife Needs You!

16. Mai 2019 - 13:40

All around the world, forests and other ecosystems are falling silent — their wildlife populations having been decimated by illegal hunting and wildlife trading. 

The Internet is a central part of this killing ground — with much of the illegal trade happening online.  If you know your way around the Net, how about using your talents to combat the slaughter of rare and spectacular species?

Massive Trade

The trade in illegal wildlife and wildlife parts is massive — estimated to be worth over $23 billion per year, making it one of the most profitable criminal enterprises in the world.

This trade involves far more than elephant tusks and rhino horns.  It also impacts thousands of other species including big cats, hornbills, orangutans, gorillas, songbirds, sharks, lizards, frogs, and rare plants such as orchids

For instance, a recent report by the wildlife group TRAFFIC found 80 species openly for sale on Facebook in Peninsular Malaysia.  More than 90 percent of those species are legally protected by Malaysian law, and yet they’re being bought and sold freely online.

Much of the global trade in wildlife is driven by high demand from Asia.  In recent months a shipment apprehended in Hong Kong contained remains of nearly 14,000 slaughtered pangolins.  In the Philippines, over 1,500 rare turtles were seized in four suitcases at Manila Airport.  In Thailand, criminals were recently arrested with endangered tiger remains worth $20,000.

Death for Sale

Most countries have signed up to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—which makes it illegal to trade in imperiled species.  But the already-massive black trade just keeps growing.  Why?

Annual number of illegal wildlife transactions as estimated by CITES.

As we all know, the Internet has transformed global markets — allowing consumers to buy almost anything anywhere, while remaining relatively anonymous and easily communicating across territorial borders. 

Most of the illegal wildlife trade is happening right before our eyes — on legitimate internet-auction sites and social-media apps.  Internet-savvy people could play a tremendous role by making the tech companies that own these sites aware of the illegal trading—and pressuring them to shut them down. 

Most tech companies are willing to help.  For example, the giant online trader Alibaba recently signed an agreement with TRAFFIC pledging zero tolerance of the illegal wildlife trade.

Another strategy is to disrupt the tricks that illegal traders use to subvert the law.  One of the commonest strategies is the the use of code words.  For example, a recent study found 19 different codewords being used to sell illegal ivory in Europe. 

Another study of four major eBay sites found illegal wildlife items were mostly identified with just six code words.  In theory, this should make it easier for hackers to identify the traders and help shut down their websites.

Heroic Hackers?

ALERT is calling on the world’s hacker and computer-keen communities to attack illegal wildlife trading — because the black trade is growing so fast, and because the Internet is so integral to its operation. 

This could seriously hurt the illegal traders, who are often very difficult to prosecute directly.  To be charged, they must first be caught red-handed with protected species in their possession. And even if convicted, the penalties for their crimes in many nations are often little more than a slap on the wrist.

But there’s a weak link in the traders’ strategy — they need the Internet to connect with their buyers.  We don’t have to stop their trade entirely — just throw sand in their gears often enough that it becomes harder and less profitable. 

That will force many traders out of business.  Others might be driven onto the Dark Web—where encryption and a lack of searchability is the norm — but that would hugely diminish their trade, as the Dark Web is poorly understood and avoided by most users. There’s virtually no illegal wildlife trading on the Dark Web.

Following the horrific massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, there’s been a giant push underway to get tech companies around the world to combat terrorist activities—to make it harder for terrorists to communicate and publicize their heinous attacks online. 

This is hugely admirable.  We need the same kind of resolute effort to fight the daily devastation of nature.  Heroic hackers could help us save many of our most charismatic and imperiled species.


Kategorien: english