Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Most Trafficked Animal in the World: pangolin

Pangolin defending itself against lions. image from wikipedia

Pangolins are a smuggler’s dream. For defence, and when asleep, they roll themselves up into spheres, scales on the outside, to thwart any predator. That makes them easy to handle and pack. And handled and packed they have been, in enormous numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a worldwide wildlife-preservation organisation, reckons that more than 1m pangolins were traded illegally from their African and Asian homelands over the decade to 2014. That may be a conservative estimate. A paper published in 2017 in Conservation Letters calculates the number of pangolins hunted in central Africa alone as between 400,000 and 2.7m a year. Based on statistics such as these it seems likely that pangolins, of which there are eight species, four African and four Asian, are the most trafficked type of animal in the world.

Some are consumed locally. That is not necessarily illegal, for laws vary from place to place. International trade, though, is a different matter. Early in 2017 CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed all eight pangolins as part of what is known as Appendix 1. This means signatories to the convention (which most countries are) cannot permit them to be imported or exported.

Most of those that are, nevertheless, exported illegally from their homelands end up in China and Vietnam. In these countries pangolins’ meat is a treat and their scales are used in folk medicine, even though those scales are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, and thus have no medicinal value. Pangolin scales fetch as much as $750 a kilogram in China. A 12-tonne stash of them, the world’s biggest seizure, was found last summer by the authorities in Shenzhen….

Cracking down on poachers and traders is difficult, particularly in poor places…Part of the blame lies with ignorance. Awareness of pangolins is patchy. They are nocturnal and shy, and thus rarely feature on tourists’ tick-lists. That makes them a low priority, even to game-management authorities who know they are there. …The Hywood Foundation’s initiative is part of a larger effort in Uganda, sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government’s conservation agency. Now that pangolins are on the UWA’s radar, it has stepped up intelligence and investigative work on poachers and traffickers…At the consumption end of the trafficking routes, too, things are starting to happen…. In theory, eating pangolin meat (along with that of many other wild species) is already illegal in China—not for conservation reasons, but as a reaction to the outbreak of SARS, a fatal respiratory disease…Persuading people to stop using the animals’ scales may be harder.

Excerpts from  Conserving Pagolins: A Problem of Scale, Economist, Feb 3, 2018

Deforestation Tolerance: Amazon

Guianan savanna. Image from wikipedia

Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture 5 to 6 times as airmasses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west.  From the start, the demonstration of the hydrological cycle of the Amazon raised the question of how much deforestation would be required to cause this hydrolological cycle to degrade to the point of being unable to support rain forest ecosystems.

High levels of evaporation and transpiration that forests produce throughout the year contribute to a wetter atmospheric boundary layer than would be the case with non-forest.This surface-atmosphere coupling is more important where large-scale factors for rainfall formation are weaker, such as in central and eastern Amazonia. Near the Andes, the impact of at least modest deforestation is less dramatic because the general ascending motion of airmasses in this area induces high levels of rainfall in addition to that expected from local evaporation and transpiration.

Where might the tipping point be for deforestation-generated degradation of the hydrological cycle? The very first model to examine this question  showed that at about 40% deforestation, central, southern and eastern Amazonia would experience diminished rainfall and a lengthier dry season, predicting a shift to savanna vegetation to the east.

Moisture from the Amazon is important to rainfall and human wellbeing because it contributes to winter rainfall for parts of the La Plata basin, especially southern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay and central-eastern Argentina; in other regions, the moisture passes over the area, but does not precipitate out. Although the amount contributing to rainfall in southeastern Brazil is smaller than in other areas, even small amounts can be a welcome addition to urban reservoirs…

In recent decades, new forcing factors have impinged on the hydrological cycle: climate change and widespread use of fire to eliminate felled trees and clear weedy vegetation. Many studies show that in the absence of other contributing factors, 4° Celsius of global warming would be the tipping point to degraded savannas in most of the central, southern, and eastern Amazon. Widespread use of fire leads to drying of surrounding forest and greater vulnerability to fire in the subsequent year.

We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.

We believe that the sensible course is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but also to build back a margin of safety against the Amazon tipping point, by reducing the deforested area to less than 20%, for the commonsense reason that there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it. At the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties, Brazil committed to 12 million ha of reforestation by 2030. Much or most of this reforestation should be in southern and eastern Amazonia.

Excerpts from Amazon Tipping Point  by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Sciences Advances,  Feb. 21, 2018

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

image from wikipedia

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Let the Race Begin: Nuclear Saudi Arabia v. Iran

image from

In the desert 220km (137 miles) from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a South Korean firm is close to finishing the Arab world’s first operational nuclear-power reactor. The project started ten years ago in Washington, where the Emiratis negotiated a “123 agreement”. Such deals, named after a clause in America’s export-control laws, impose tough safeguards in return for American nuclear technology. When the UAE signed one in 2009, it also pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Both can be used to make nuclear weapons. Arms-control wonks called it the gold standard of 123 deals.

Saudi Arabia… has its own ambitious nuclear plans: 16 reactors, at a cost of up to $80bn. But, unlike the UAE, it wants to do its own enrichment. Iran, its regional rival, is already a step ahead. The most controversial provision of the nuclear deal it signed with world powers in 2015 allows it to enrich uranium. Iran did agree to mothball most of the centrifuges used for enrichment, and to process the stuff only to a level far below what is required for a bomb. Still, it kept the technology. The Saudis want to have it, too… Indeed, critics of the Iran deal fear that a Saudi enrichment programme would compromise their effort to impose tighter restrictions on Iran. But Donald Trump, America’s president, is less concerned. He has close ties with the Saudis. He has also pledged to revitalise America’s ailing nuclear industry. Among the five firms bidding for the Saudi project is Westinghouse, an American company that filed for bankruptcy last year. It would not be able to join the project without a 123 agreement…One is Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company, which is pursuing a frenetic sort of nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. In December it signed a $21.3bn contract to build Egypt’s first power reactor. Jordan inked a $10bn deal with the Russians in 2015. Despite their differences, particularly over Syria, the Saudis are keen to have closer ties with the region’s resurgent power [Russia]. King Salman spent four days in Moscow in October 2017, the first such visit by a Saudi ruler.

Excerpt from Nuclear Power in the Middle East: An Unenriching debate, Economist,  Feb. 10, 2018

The Power of Yes-Men

Agadez Niger Image from wikipedia

American military engagement in Niger is a $110 million drone base the U.S. is building about 450 miles northeast of Niamey in Agadez…Its existence was partially confirmed in February 2018, inadvertently, when it was discovered that Strava, a fitness app used mostly  by westerners, had released location data that showed the global movements of the users of workout trackers like Fitbit — and the data showed unusual activity in far-off Aguelal, Agadez, Niger.

On the southeast edge of the civilian airport, accessible by tracks in the sand used mainly to exit the town, is Nigerien Air Base 201, or in common parlance “the American base.” The base, scheduled for completion in late 2018, is technically the property of the Nigerien military, though it is paid for, built, and operated by Americans. It is being constructed on land formerly used by Tuareg cattle-herders. … The U.S. currently flies drones out of an airport in Niamey, but those operations will be shifted to Agadez once the new base is completed.

When asked to confirm the American presence in those areas of Niger, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Samantha Reho replied, “I can confirm there are approximately 800 Department of Defense personnel (military, civilian, and contractor) currently working in Niger, making that country the second-highest concentration of DoD people across the continent, with the first being in Djibouti at Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.”

The U.S. is just one of several Western militaries that have established and strengthened military ties to Niger over the past few years. France has had soldiers in the country since 2013, when it launched Opération Serval in neighboring Mali. In 2015, France reopened a colonial fort in Madama, close to the border with Libya — unthinkable during the times of Moammar Gadhafi; the Libyan leader maintained a sphere of influence in the region that would have been at odds with a French military presence. Germany sent its own troops in Niger to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission across the border in Mali, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel even visited Niger in 2017. And Italy recently announced it would send 470 troops to a French base in the north of Niger to fight migrant transporters….

The base in Agadez is about 6 square kilometers, though most of the land is yet to be developed. ….. The base is tucked away and hidden from Agadez first by the 8-to-10-foot wall that separates the city of 125,000 from the airport, and it is surrounded by a barbed wire fence with sandbags, so despite there being a few hundred Americans in Agadez, you would hardly know they were there unless you went looking. Both the Nigerien and the American governments prefer to keep it this way…

The man the middle is Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger. In power for six years, he has adopted a clear strategy for trying to keep control of things – by aligning himself closely with Europe and the United States, while presiding over an electoral system that his opponents describe as rigged. This is not a recipe for stability in a country that has had little of it since its founding in 1960, at the end of French colonial rule.

Issoufou is a trained engineer and a former secretary-general of Somaïr, a uranium mine that was run by the French company Areva. Until migration and terrorism, uranium was the focal point of outside, particularly French, interest in Niger. France’s electricity grid is powered by nuclear energy, and Areva’s uranium concessions in Niger provide up to one-fifth of the uranium necessary to power that grid. Issoufou’s predecessor, Mamadou Tandja, had sparred with the French over the concession, and in 2009, then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Niger to negotiate a deal on opening a new mine called Imouraren. After a $1.2 billion deal was struck, Tandja tried to reverse the constitution to stay in power for a third term, and after street protests, a group of low-ranking army officers carried out a coup d’état.

When the transition period ended with Issoufou’s election in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan caused a sharp downturn in global uranium prices. Areva dropped its plans for Imouraren, and Issoufouacquiesced to the French firm’s plans for delaying the mine until prices rose, denting economic growth prospects for the country. But despite losing out on Imouraren, Issoufou quickly became a donor darling and found that the closer he was to France and the West, the better his image and the more firm his hold on political power. Issoufou was criticized heavily for going to Paris to attend the “Je Suis Charlie” march in January 2015, and some human rights organizations view him as a lackey of the West. He works with Image Sept, a French firm with close ties to the Parisian political elite, to manage his image.A couple of months before his re-election in 2016, Issoufou jailed his main political opponent and former close ally, Hama Amadou of the Moden Lumana party….

Many people I spoke to in Niger feel their country has had its autonomy usurped by Westerners. “The reality is that Niger is not at a level where it can say yes or no to the French or Americans. … We only have sovereignty on paper,” said Djibril Abarché, president of the Nigerien Human Rights Association.

Exceprts from Joe Penny, Drones in the Sahara, the Intercept, Feb. 18, 2018

Cleansing the Oil Tanker

The oil spill that hit the Fujairah coast on January 25, 2018 was the result of tankers illegally cleaning out their holds.  That is according to the general manager of Fujairah port (UAE), Capt Mousa Murad, who has called for 24-hour monitoring of ships to tackle the issue.  “The recent oil spills have been caused by tank cleaning by passing ships,” Capt Murad told The National on Tuesday.  “Especially when tankers change from [carrying] one product to another,” he said, implying that the spills are made up of residue cleaned from within the tanks.  He said the oil “comes from international waters and could hit Dibba, Fujairah or Khor Fakkan.”…, a pro-bono website that monitors the flow of oil at sea and investigates oil spills, previously suggested that January’s spill was caused by a ship-to-ship transfer.Ship-to-ship transfers happen when a smaller vessel supplies a larger one with oil and spills from overflow can happen through negligence or by accident.

Excerpts from Fujairah oil spill caused by tankers ‘illegally cleaning their holds’ The National UAE Edition, Feb. 14, 2017

Handcrafted Terror

Skywalker X8

An attack on Russian forces in Syria on January 5th, 2018 by 13 home-made drones is a good example of “asymmetric” warfare..The craft involved in these attacks resembled hobbyists’ model aircraft. They had three-metre wingspans, were built crudely of wood and plastic, and were powered by lawnmower engines. Each carried ten home-made shrapnel grenades under its wings.  The drones were guided by GPS and had a range of 100km. The electronics involved were off-the-shelf components, and the total cost of each drone was perhaps a couple of thousand dollars. The airframes bore a resemblance to those of Russian Orlan-10 drones, several of which have been shot down by rebel forces in Syria. The craft may thus have been a cheap, garage-built copy of captured kit.

Guerrillas have been using commercial drones since 2015. Islamic State (IS), one of the groups active in Syria, makes extensive use of quadcopters to drop grenades. In 2017 alone the group posted videos of over 200 attacks. IS has also deployed fixed-wing aircraft based on the popular Skywalker X8 hobby drone. These have longer ranges than quadcopters and can carry bigger payloads. Other groups in Syria, and in Iraq as well, employ similar devices. Their use has spread, too, to non-politically-motivated criminals. In October, four Mexicans allegedly linked to a drug cartel were arrested with a bomb-carrying drone…

Existing defences are not geared up to cope with small drones, which are difficult to spot, identify and track, and which may be too numerous to stop. Jamming might be thought an obvious solution….Many jammers, with names like Dedrone, DroneDefender and DroneShield, have already been employed by various countries. …Drones are, however, becoming increasingly autonomous. This means there is no operator link to jam…But new technologies such as optical navigation (which permits a drone to compare its surroundings with an on-board electronic map, and thus to know where it is) will make even GPS jammers useless. Hence the need for “kinetic solutions”, to shoot drones down.

Small drones are surprisingly hard targets, however. Iraqi forces in Mosul used to joke that trying to deal with an IS drone attack was like being at a wedding celebration: everyone fired their Kalashnikovs into the air with no effect. A recent American army manual …suggests that rather than aiming directly at a drone, the entire squad should fire their weapons at a fixed point ahead of it, hoping to bring the small drones down with a curtain of fire. The manual also advises commanders that the best course of action may be “immediate relocation of the unit to a safer location”….

A similar problem applies at sea, where billion-dollar ships might have their defences overwhelmed by squadrons of cheap, jerry-built drones. The mainstay of American naval air defence is Aegis, an orchestrated arrangement of radars, computers, missiles and cannons. The short-range element of Aegis is a Dalek-like, rapid-fire cannon called Phalanx, which spits out 75 rounds a second and can shoot down incoming cruise missiles. This will not cope well with lots of small drones, though. The navy is now upgrading Aegis’s software to handle multiple simultaneous incoming targets by scheduling bursts of fire to destroy as many members of a swarm as possible. It is doubtful, however, whether one gun could account for more than a handful of attackers coming in from all directions at once. An unclassified study suggests that it could be overwhelmed by as few as eight [handcrafted drones].

Developers of drone-countering measures hope to overcome that by using laser weapons…An American army document from 2016 thus emphasises the importance of stopping drones “left of launch”—that is, before they can take off. IS drone workshops and operators have been attacked to stop the drone threat… Until adequate defences are in place, then, guerrilla drone swarms will be a real danger.

Excerpt from Buzz, buzz, you’re dead, Economist, Feb. 10, at 70