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New Research: Save the Last Tiny Scraps of Native Vegetation

13. März 2019 - 5:42

Scientific thinking changes as new evidence comes to light.  One vital new insight is the importance of saving even tiny, isolated remnants of native vegetation.

Decades of research on fragmented habitats has shown that small, isolated patches of habitat are often ecologically depauperate — lacking top predators and large species, and suffering from a wide variety of ecological woes.

This research correctly shows the vital importance of protecting Earth’s vanishing wilderness areas

But such studies have also convinced some people that very small, isolated patches of native vegetation are nearly worthless.  In many places, these tiny remnants are being bulldozed and razed to the ground.

That, it turns out, is dead wrong. 


Here are three reasons why even tiny tufts of native vegetation can be critically important. 

1.  Saving Rare Biodiversity

Imagine a forested valley rich with species — some of which are unique to that valley, occurring nowhere else on Earth.  Then, the valley’s forests are cleared for agriculture, leaving just a football-field-sized patch of the original forest. 

Because it’s small and far isolated from other forests, we’d be tempted to think the single patch sustains only a few species, and so is relatively worthless in ecological terms. 

But because it’s the only habitat remnant in the valley, the isolated patch will often retain the last populations of wildlife, insects, plants, and other species that occur nowhere else on Earth.  This was the conclusion of a recent global-scale study in the leading journal PNAS.

So, we need to rethink habitat isolation.  To save biodiversity, highly isolated habitat remnants may actually be incredibly valuable.  That’s virtually the opposite of what we thought before, based on decades of studies on Island Biogeography Theory and fragmented ecosystems.

2.  Restoring Ecosystems 

Another new insight is that vestiges of native vegetation are also remarkably important for restoring habitats.  In many parts of the world—such as the famous “biodiversity hotspots” — habitat restoration is an urgent priority.

Imagine a landscape with just 1 percent of its native vegetation remaining, the rest having been destroyed.  And compare that to a landscape with no native vegetation at all.

If we allow these two landscapes to regenerate naturally, it turns out that even tiny remnants of native vegetation provide an enormous boost to species and ecosystem recovery.

This is because habitat remnants are a key source of seeds of native plants, and seed-dispersing animals and native pollinators. 

So, if we want to restore vegetation, saving the remnants of native habitat is vital — even if it’s just the last 1 percent.

3.  Other Big Benefits

Habitat remnants have many further values.  For instance, they provide stepping stones for mobile wildlife such as birds and bats.  Such animals disperse seeds and pollinate plants, helping to maintain gene flow across the landscape.

Habitat remnants also help purify water supplies, filtering out pollutants and reducing silt from soil erosion.

And native-vegetation remnants are important for people — providing valuable opportunities for recreation and nature education. 

Research has shown that people who grow up being exposed to nature value it a lot more those who don’t.


Wherever you live, have a close look at what is happening around you.  Almost everywhere, the last remnants of native habitats are being destroyed.  Some people call this “progress” — or “development”.

But new research is revealing that those small patches of vulnerable habitat are far more important to the environment than we’d previously understood. 

They’re lifeboats for biodiversity, and we must battle to keep them afloat.

Kategorien: english

Should Donald Trump Embrace 'Fake News'?

28. Februar 2019 - 0:22

When American President Donald J. Trump hears something he doesn’t like, he airily dismisses it as “fake news” — a product, he claims, of the biased, left-leaning popular media.

But who reads, spreads, and believes fake news? 

Nobody disputes there’s plenty of fake news flying around today.  Fake news has existed throughout human history but it’s being turbocharged now by the speed, connectivity, and pervasiveness of social media. 

Fake news has become such a force in our lives that the respected World Economic Forum lists it as one of the principal threats to our contemporary society

Just a few years ago, such a strong claim would seem far-fetched.  But the apparently significant impact of fake news on the 2016 U.S. presidential-election campaign — the campaign that brought Trump to power — has highlighted its remarkable potential. 

And it doesn't end with Trump.  More recently, fake news has been implicated in the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil

Ironically, because Bolsonaro is an authoritarian populist who also is widely feared by environmentalists, he is often called the “Tropical Trump.”


As bitterly as Trump supporters might dispute the claim, a growing body of empirical evidence suggests that Donald Trump may actually have ascended to the U.S. Presidency on the coat-tails of fake news.

In the months preceding the U.S. presidential vote, a whopping 25 percent of tweets spreading news stories were sharing fake or extremely biased news, according to an article in Nature Communications.

An analysis in the world-leading journal Science scrutinized how fake news bounced around Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.  

The study found fake news was strongly concentrated among conservative voters, who were far more likely to read and retweet it — presumably because the false stories reinforced their conservative world views.

Similar trends were revealed by a study in Science Advances that examined Facebook activity during the U.S. presidential campaign.  Conservatives were much more likely than moderates or liberals to share articles from fake-news domains, which in 2016 were largely pro-Trump.

Researchers also found a strong age effect.  Users over 65 shared seven times as many articles from fake-news domains than did younger users — who were evidently better at spotting and ignoring fake news, given that they’ve grown up with the Internet.


Is fake news the enemy of conservative politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, or actually their friend?  The scientific evidence suggests that fake news is, on balance, helping to elect conservative politicians — politicians that are typically pro-development and weak on environmental issues.

If fake news were merely polluting real news with random distortions, it would be one thing. But the evidence suggests it is actually allowing unscrupulous users to make the playing field of democracy uneven and biased toward certain viewpoints. 

Researchers from many fields are now focusing on the threat that fake news poses to democratic societies and fair elections.

Some researchers are working on techno-fixes, such as altering the algorithms, search bots, and filters that underpin social media.

Others are taking a sociological approach, trying to teach consumers how to spot fake news.  Here, for example, are four tips from from Harvard University.

For the modern news consumer, underpinning just about everything is the application of commonsense and skepticism.  Notably, aspirations of critical thinking are a vital foundation of modern science. If fake news is the poison, then a healthy dose of skepticism is one of our best antidotes.

Maybe if Donald Trump had studied more science in school, then he wouldn’t be complaining so much about fake news. 

If anything, fake news seems to be Trump’s friend, not his foe. 


Kategorien: english

Will China Overrun Latin America?

18. Februar 2019 - 2:23

If you care about the mega-diverse ecosystems of Latin America and the Caribbean — and the economic health and welfare of its nations — you’ll want to read this brief essay about China’s role in the region’s development future.

Especially about the Amazon, Bolivia’s dam, and Jaguar fangs.


China is the biggest investor in Latin America — spending tens of billions of dollars each year on big road, dam, rail, mining, logging, and fossil-fuel projects. 

Those investments could explode with China’s Belt & Road Initiative — by far the biggest development scheme in Earth’s history.

The Belt & Road originally spanned 70 nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe.  But it keeps growing.  It now includes Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Arctic, encompassing 130 nations and much of the planet.

At present, the Belt & Road will involve roughly 7,000 new mega-projects with an incredible cost — perhaps $8 trillion in total.

If you really want to learn about the Belt & Road, watch this recent public lecture (by ALERT director Bill Laurance at the University of Queensland).  If it doesn’t scare you, you probably don’t have a pulse.

Unfortunately, no-one in China will see this lecture or anything like it.

Inside China, bad news about the Belt & Road is blocked by China’s government censors, its Great Internet Firewall, and a great deal of passive censorship — meaning no Chinese journalist who is sane would translate a negative story about the Belt & Road into Mandarin Chinese.

The Belt & Road is the scheme of President Xi Jinping — potentially China’s leader for life.  Thanks to Xi Jinping, the Belt & Road is officially inscribed into the Charter of the Central Communist Party, making it illegal for any Chinese citizen or media outlet to openly criticize it.

Inside China, there are few brakes on the Belt & Road.  Very little transparency.  No balance.  No open debate. 

It’s not the fault of the Chinese people.  It’s the fault of their authoritarian government.


And as the Belt & Road advances into Latin America and the Caribbean, there are very good reasons to worry. 

For one thing, Chinese companies and financiers commonly use corruption to get what they want—bribing even at the highest levels of a government.  

According to Transparency International, a highly respected organization, “There have been no investigations or charges ever laid in China against its companies, citizens, or residents for foreign corrupt practices”. 

That’s truly astonishing.  For Chinese firms and financiers, it’s OK — bribe away!

Furthermore, most Chinese corporations don’t reveal what they spent, where they spend it, or how much profits they make.  That’s why only a few Chinese firms are listed on international stock-exchanges, such as the Dow Jones or ASIC, which require financial transparency. 

This is a formula for promoting bad business practices, social abuses, environmental crimes, and predatory development. 

These are massive risks for the 130 host nations that China wants to exploit for minerals, fossil fuels, timber, food, and land, as well as for ports and other geopolitical assets. 

Giant risks also abound for the myriad investors from around the world that are being asked to help to pay for the Belt & Road — investors that could potentially contribute trillions of dollars to the venture.  Unless these investors are careful, they could lose vast sums of money and take gigantic hits on their reputations.


How will the Belt & Road impact on Latin America and the Caribbean?  You could write a book.  Here are three examples:

1.  Killer Dam: In Bolivia, Chinese mega-firm Sinohydro is building a major dam that will rip through the heart of Carrasco National Park — a jewel of tropical biodiversity. You can see a 30-second video about it here (and here in Spanish).

2. Assault on the Amazon:  In Brazil, President Bolsonaro — an authoritarian populist with an extreme pro-development agenda, often called the “Tropical Trump” — is turning to China to help it fund an assault on the Amazon.  With Chinese support, Bolsonaro wants to crisscross the Amazon with new roads, railroads, dams, mines, and other big development projects — potentially shredding the world’s greatest rainforest and imperiling its many indigenous groups.

3. Slaughtering Jaguars: China is the world’s biggest consumer of wildlife and wildlife parts.  This is now impacting the magnificent Jaguar, which is being hunted down across Latin America for its fangs, pelt, and bones — in order to feed an insatiable Chinese market.


Nobody could argue that Latin America and the Caribbean don’t urgently need smart economic and social development. 

But there’s a world of difference between well-conceived development that benefits a wide cross-section of society, versus ill-advised, often predatory projects that leave host nations mired in debt. 

Such ‘bad’ projects tend to enrich a few powerful people — such as certain politicians and land developers — but the rest of the population gains little or falls behind economically.

Many bad projects also create environmental crises — creating long-term social and economic problems for the host nations.

ALERT’s scientists and economists are calling out the Belt & Road juggernaut— underscoring its exceptional dangers and excesses, of which we see far too many. 

Just don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Kategorien: english

Borneo Road-Building Spree Among ‘World’s Scariest’ Environmental Threats

28. Januar 2019 - 6:24

The Southeast Asian island of Borneo sustains some of the world’s most important surviving rainforests — among the oldest and biologically richest forests on Earth. 

But an ambitious road-building spree by the Indonesian government will fragment and destroy vast areas of the island’s rainforests, according to an authoritative study (available here and also see this compelling video).  Its authors include several members of ALERT.


“You’d be hard-pressed to identify scarier threats to biodiversity anywhere on Earth,” said Dr Mohammed Alamgir, an ALERT member and lead author of the study.

“Borneo’s forests and rare wildlife have already been hit hard, but planned roads and railways will shred much of what remains, slicing across the largest remaining forests,” said Professor Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia, one of the co-authors.

In a global sense, these threats are especially worrisome.  Despite suffering major forest loss since the 1960s, Indonesian Borneo — a region known as Kalimantan — still sustains one of the world’s largest expanses of tropical forest, spanning some 37 million hectares (93 million acres).

The new roads and rail projects are part of an ambitious plan by the Indonesian government to expand infrastructure, in large part to accelerate logging, mining, oil palm plantations, and other forms of intensive development. 

“For wildlife such as an Pygmy Elephants, Sun Bears, Bearded Pigs, and Bornean Orangutans, this is the worst possible news,” said ALERT director Bill Laurance, another co-author.  

To find food and shelter, such wildlife species must move to survive.  Their mass migrations to find food occur during frequent famines in the rainforest.

Such famines occur because many trees in Borneo and elsewhere in Southeast Asia produce fruit and seeds in a highly staggered and patchy manner.  This means wildlife must migrate over large distances to find food — or face starvation. 

Borneo is crisscrossed by numerous migratory pathways for animals — some spanning hundreds of kilometers in length.  

Red lines show some known migration routes of Bearded Pigs in northeastern Kalimantan, Borneo.

Alarmingly, many of these pathways have already been disrupted.  Many more will be destroyed by the new road and rail projects and all the forest exploitation they would bring.


The research team used satellite images and computer models to estimate the impacts of the expanding road and rail network across Indonesian Borneo. 

They found the roads would reduce “forest connectivity”— the degree to which forests are spatially linked together — sharply, by 34 percent in total.

This is an alarming figure, indicating a giant leap in fragmentation and loss of Borneo’s surviving forest tracts.

If completed as planned, the projects will sharply increase forest fragmentation and reduce forest connectivity for wildlife (forests with different colors are in separate, isolated tracts).

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the new roads and rail projects will also open up the forests like a flayed fish, allowing illegal colonists, poachers, and miners to invade and cause even more forest disruption.

On top off this, the study shows that the new projects will slice through or degrade 42 national parks and protected areas in Indonesian Borneo, making them far more vulnerable to illegal poachers and encroachers and road-kill by vehicles.  Many parks in Indonesia are largely devoid of wildlife because of chronic poaching.


These projects and their aftermath are scary for biodiversity.  But they will also have major impacts on people, by increasing destructive flooding, and causing major greenhouse-gas emissions from deforestation and forest burning. 

The Borneo fires are also a major cause of the severe, noxious haze that regularly blights Southeast Asia.  In 2015 alone, the haze may have caused the premature deaths of over 100,000 people.

Indigenous Dayak peoples in Borneo are also vulnerable.  Foreign logging, oil palm, and mining corporations have hugely disrupted the island’s traditional inhabitants, destroying many of the forests, wildlife, and swidden-farming plots on which they have long relied. 

Big foreign investors, commonly from China, have been associated with serious corruption and bribery of Indonesian government officials

As a result, many high-risk projects — with dubious benefits and massive environmental and socioeconomic risks — have been approved, secretly sold to the highest bidder.


According to the study, the worst projects in terms of disrupting Borneo’s forests include (1) roads in the provinces of West, East and North Kalimantan, (2) several major new Trans-Kalimantan roads, and (3) freeways and rail lines in East Kalimantan.

Tthe most dangerous segments of the planned and ongoing projects, in terms of their likely impacts on forests and wildlife.

The first step in building opposition to these environmentally devastating projects is increasing public understanding of just how bad they will be. 

Right now, that is the top priority, with groups such as ALERT, the Borneo Futures initiative, and LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People) trying to generate public interest.

You can help by spreading the word widely too — to friends, colleagues, and journalists.

This new research provides a scientific slam-dunk to support such efforts — showing that these aggressive projects will be like a dagger in the heart of Borneo’s rainforests.


Kategorien: english

The Most Mind-Blowing Eco-Stories of 2018

18. Januar 2019 - 20:57

ALERT continued its remarkable growth in 2018—all thanks to you.  We’re now reaching around 15 million people yearly, with up to 2 million readers on any particular week.

Here are the most singular stories from ALERT in 2018—some of the hottest and most mind-blowing environmental issues of the year.


Out of 37 new blogs in 2018, these three drew the strongest reactions from readers.

Is China So Big It Only Listens to Itself?

China is the overpowering driver of environmental change in the world today.  Does it care what anyone else thinks? Over 30,000 people commented on or liked this blog.

Fatal Fences Are Decimating Nature

Fences are spreading all over the planet, greatly disrupting wildlife movements.  Over 27,000 readers reacted to the story.

Investors Beware: Infrastructure Projects Are Collapsing

Some 25,000 people reacted to this account of the precarious nature of big infrastructure projects.  Many projects are now failing, leaving huge environmental damage and financial losses in their wake.


ALERT videos provide snapshots of critical eco-issues.  Out of nine new videos in 2018, here are the three most popular.

China’s Belt & Road: The Biggest Environmental Peril This Century

The Belt & Road is the biggest development project ever—involving thousands of projects and trillions of dollars across much of the world.  Its environmental impacts will be stunning. More than 800,000 people watched this video while 22,000 commented or shared it.

Hidden Challenges of the Trans-Papuan Economic Corridor

Papua, or Indonesian New Guinea, is one of the world’s greatest wild areas and an epicentre of biological and cultural diversity. It’s being sliced apart by a massive road network that will open up the forest like a flayed fish. This blog drew 730,000 viewers and over 12,000 reactions. 

Economic Risks of the Belt & Road Project

Beyond its environmental impacts, the Chinese Belt & Road venture also has great economic risks, many hidden or poorly understood and with layers of corruption.  More than 370,000 viewed this video and 6,000 reacted to it. 



ALERT has blasted into the Twitter-Verse in a big way, with 307 tweets in 2018.  Here are the four tweets that drew the biggest reactions in terms of how many people read, liked, or retweeted them.

In New Guinea, massive road-building by Indonesia will fragment and deforest vast tropical rainforest and imperil indigenous groups, say experts

Asia’s aggressive poaching spreads: Chinese nationals in Bolivia are convicted of illegally trafficking poached jaguar teeth and body parts

Bad EIAs: Why we can’t rely on Environmental Impact Assessments to protect our environment


Spectacled flying foxes die during a heatwave in Cairns, Australia




Kategorien: english

Want to Save Nature? See A Psychologist

7. Januar 2019 - 3:05

If you want to motivate people to protect nature, start by talking to a psychologist.

This isn’t because you’re crazy—but because you’re human.  

It turns out that understanding how humans think can be a huge advantage for convincing them to support conservation.

I’m Totally Rational

Most of us think we’re perfectly rational.  In fact, much of the time we’re not rational at all.

Behavioral psychologists and social scientists have long known that our choices are swayed by sweeping tides of unconscious influences.   

One example is loss aversion: people place a greater value on avoiding a loss than on making a gain—even if there’s no difference in the overall outcome. 

For instance, if you want your employees to work harder, it turns out it’s much more effective to tell them they’ll lose money for failing to meet a target than giving them a bonus for reaching it.

In a conservation context, loss aversion could help the public be supportive of new nature reserves.  A new marine park sounds like a great idea if people understand it will help maintain existing fish stocks in a region, preventing long-term losses from overfishing of key breeding sites—and thereby taking advantage of their natural loss aversion.

Nudge Me

Another psychological strategy is nudging.  The decisions people make can be strongly influenced by how information is provided to them, and by using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions.

For example, most people are quite happy to see their body organs donated to others after they die, to help save lives.  A single donor might save a half-dozen lives this way—and the life that gets saved by such a policy might even be your own.

If you make organ donation a voluntary option when people apply for their driver’s license, few will choose it.  But make it the default option and most people are fine with the idea and don’t opt out. 

Nudging for nature is a developing art but researchers and policy makers are beginning to explore it, as has great potential to encourage better decisions.

Bag of Tricks

Yet other peculiarities of how our minds work—so-called cognitive biases—could provide big benefits for nature conservation, but have barely been explored.

The status quo bias describes our strong emotional attraction to the current state of affairs—the status quo.  It’s especially common in complex situations where there is considerable uncertainty—such as many real-world scenarios.  “When in doubt, stick it out” seems to be the motto.

So, for conservationists, explaining how a new development project will change peoples’ lives in diverse and unexpected ways may be effective.  Many people don’t realize, for example, the diverse economic and social risks involved in many big development projects—and when they do, they are less likely to support them.

Anchoring bias is another mental oddity: our tendency to rely heavily on the initial information we receive—and less on subsequent information, even if it’s more reliable. 

So, conservationists should be active and gregarious in their outreach efforts—reaching out to a diversity of different audiences and to children, for instance.  There’s little sense in preaching to those already converted to nature conservation, even if it’s far easier to do so. 

At ALERT, for instance, we use many strategies to reach political conservatives and those in fields such as finance, economics, agriculture, industry, and engineering—audiences that traditionally have mixed views about conservation priorities.  Sure, this invites criticism from some quarters, but it’s better than being unheard.

Conservation Psychology?

It’s clear that conservationists have a great deal to learn from psychology.  For example, so many people get overwhelmed by bad news about the environment.  How do we get our messages about conservation issues out to the general public without turning them off?

How do we combat disinformation and claims of ‘fake news’?

How do we get people to make smart decisions that are in our long-term interest when we’ve been programmed to think in the short term—about daily news cycles, quarterly profit statements, and bi-annual political elections?

This is almost all new terrain for humanity.  As a species, we’ve never been challenged like this before, cognitively or otherwise. 

There’s actually a field in academia called “Conservation Psychology”.  It’s not well known or widely discussed. 

But maybe it should be.


Kategorien: english