Category Archives: biodiversity

How Rivers Die

Kapuas river: Indonesia

Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river support somes 3m people…One reason that the water is so murky is deforestation. Since the 1970s logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Illegal gold-mining compounds the problem. Locals tear up the riverbed with diggers or blast the banks with high-pressure hoses, then sieve the mud for gold. Mercury, which the miners use to separate gold from sediment, but which is poisonous to humans and fish alike, leaks into the river.

The riverbank is punctuated with corrugated-iron towers, which emit birdsong from loudspeakers. These are designed to lure swiftlets, who make their nests with saliva. The nests of swiftlets  are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac by many Chinese.* Deane, a shop owner, built his tower last December after seeing others do the same. He sells the nests to a wholesaler for about 15m rupiah ($1,025) a kilogram…

In Kapuas Hulu, an upstream district, half the population rely on the river for drinking water. A quarter have no toilet. Even where bathrooms do exist along the river, they are often floating cubicles with a hole in the floorboards. Cows and goats, living in wooden riverside cages, also defecate straight into the Kapuas

The Kapuas passes through seven districts. Midstream ones, such as Sintang and Sanggau, earn hefty tax revenues by encouraging palm-oil plantations. But downstream districts suffer from the resulting silt, traffic and run-off without receiving any of the benefits. The same problem occurs at a village level. Mr Hadi says that fishing by sprinkling poisonous leaves on the water (the stricken fish float to the surface) is forbidden but other village heads do not enforce the rules…

A study by CIFOR on the income of villagers living near the Kapuas river found that the best-paid palm-plantation workers earned 50% more than the most successful fishermen. (Gold miners made three times as much—and spent more on education.)…But the environmental damage is plain to see. The river here is brown, clouded by silt. A study published in 2016 found that levels of phosphates in the water, from fertilisers and villagers washing themselves with soap, are highest near urban areas and palm plantations.

Down in Pontianak, the river water is darker still, occasionally brightened by oil slicks. Water bottles and instant-noodle packets cling together to form plastic islands.

Excerpts from  Indonesia’s Longest River,  Economist, Aug. 25, 2018

*According to Wikipedia: Authentic bird’s-nest soup is made from nests of some species of swiftlet.  Instead of twigs, feathers and straw, these swiftlets make their nest only from strands of their gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants. Eating swiftlet nest material is believed to help maintain skin tone, balance qi (“life energy”) and reinforce the immune system… (Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The History of Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Table).

How to Relocate Elephants

Diamond producer De Beers said on July 23, 2018 it was relocating 200 elephants from its private reserve in South Africa to neighboring Mozambique, part of wider efforts to restore wildlife populations ravaged by conflict there.  The Anglo American unit said its 32,000-hectare (80,000-acre) Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve could support around 60 elephants but now had 270, causing “extensive damage to an ecosystem that must sustain a diverse wildlife population.”

The world’s largest land mammals have a jumbo-sized impact on their terrain and in many South African parks, which are fenced to contain them, populations have reached levels where the vegetation cannot support their numbers.  De Beers said the elephants would be moved 1,500 km (1,000 miles) to Mozambique’s Zinave National Park, which has over 400,000 hectares and an elephant population of only 60.  Mozambique’s wildlife numbers were badly hit by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1992. In more recent years, its remaining elephant populations have been targeted by ivory poachers.

The operation is being conducted with the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) conservation group, and De Beers said it was providing it with $500,000 to support anti-poaching efforts…Elephants are extremely social animals and family groups will be kept together for the translocation, a huge logistical undertaking that will include darting operations and the movement of tranquilized animals over long distances by road.

Excerpts from De Beers to move 200 elephants from South Africa to Mozambique, Reuters, July 23, 2018

7 Frozen Embryos and the Resuscitation of Rhinos

SUDAN, the last male northern white rhinoceros on Earth, died in March 2018. He is survived by two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, who live in a conservancy in Kenya. This pair are thus the only remaining members of the world’s most endangered subspecies of mammal. But all might not yet be lost. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin, in collaboration with Avantea, a biotechnology company in Cremona, Italy, is proposing heroic measures to keep the subspecies alive. In a paper published in Nature, he and his colleagues say that they have created, by in vitro fertilisation (IVF), apparently viable hybrid embryos of northern white rhinos and their cousins from the south. This, they hope, will pave the way for the creation of pure northern-white embryos.

Though stored sperm from Sudan and several other males are available, both Najin and Fatu now seem unable to conceive. This means, if the subspecies is to be preserved, that one or both of them will have to have some eggs removed from their ovaries and combined with stored sperm in a Petri dish;… and subsenquently implanted in the uterus of a southern white, who would act as a surrogate mother, with a reasonable hope of success.  That has not yet happened. The seven embryos are now in a freezer awaiting the results of research on how best to transfer them to surrogates. In the meantime, having proved their technique with these hybrids, Dr Hildebrandt and his colleagues now hope to create more embryos, this time using eggs from the two remaining female northern whites.

Even if they succeed, though, it will be a long haul back for the northern white rhino. Members of any new generation resulting from IVF will have then to be bred with each other to create subsequent generations—with all the risks of reduced biological fitness which such incest entails. It is not so much a gene pool that Dr Hildebrandt is working with as a gene puddle.

Then there is the question of what to do with the resulting animals. Analysis of other rhinoceros species, both in Africa and Asia, points to a viable population in the wild needing to be at least 500 strong. Even if such a group could be created, and not collapse from lack of genetic diversity, releasing it into the tender mercies of what remains of Kenya’s savannah would be risky.

Excerpts from Animal Conservation: Drinking in the last-chance saloon, Economist, July 7, 2018, at 66.

Running out of Beaches: sand miners and builders

For a place that depends on sun-and-sand-seeking tourists, Fort Lauderdale, Florida has a big problem: Its beaches are disappearing.  The Florida city has been fighting a defensive battle against nature for decades. The sand that lines its shores is constantly being swept out to sea by wind, waves and tides. In the natural course of things, that sand would be replenished by grains carried by the Atlantic’s southward-moving currents. That’s what used to happen. Today, however, so many marinas, jetties and breakwaters have been built along the Atlantic coast that the flow of incoming sand has been blocked. The natural erosion continues, but the natural replenishment does not.

For many years, Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale sits, solved its vanishing-beach problem by replacing the sand with grains dredged up from the nearby ocean floor. Nearly 12 million cubic yards of underwater grains have been stripped off the sea bottom and thrown onto the county’s shores. But by now, virtually all of the accessible undersea sand has been used up.  The same goes for Miami Beach, Palm Beach and many other beach-dependent Florida towns. In fact, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, nearly half of the state’s beaches have suffered “critical erosion.” Florida isn’t an anomaly. Beaches are disappearing all across America and around the world, from South Africa to Japan to Western Europe. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey warned that unless something is done, as much as two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches may be completely eroded by 2100…

Massive coastal development blocks the flow of ocean-borne sand. In many countries, including the U.S., river dams also cut off sand that used to feed beaches. The widespread practice of dredging up river sand to use for making concrete makes the problem worse. Researchers at the South African Institute of International Affairs believe that sand mining has slashed by one-third the flow of river sand that feeds the beaches of Durban, South Africa; and in the San Francisco Bay, environmentalists warn that massive sand dredging may be starving nearby beaches.

In some places, outlaw sand miners are hauling away the beach itself. In Morocco, Algeria, Russian-occupied Crimea and elsewhere, illegal miners have stripped entire beaches for construction sand, leaving behind rocky moonscapes. Smugglers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia load beach sand onto small barges in the night to sell in Singapore.

Having thwarted the natural processes that used to feed beaches, people are now replacing them with artificial ones. The easiest and cheapest method is to suck up grains from offshore and blast them onto the beach through massive pipes. But having run out of offshore sand, many towns in southern Florida are left with no choice but to dig their sand from inland quarries and haul it to the coast one roaring, diesel-spewing truck at a time. Tourists and locals hate the noise and traffic, and county officials hate the extra cost, which can be easily double that of dredged sand. Desperate officials are even talking about importing sand from the Bahamas.

The costs add up fast. The price of renourishing a beach can reach $10 million per mile. Broward County alone has spent more than $100 million replenishing its beaches in a multiyear project launched in 2015. More than a few places, such as Atlantic City, have already racked up tabs of well over $100 million by themselves. All told, nearly $9 billion has been spent in the U.S. in recent decades on artificially rebuilding hundreds of miles of beach, according to researchers at Western Carolina University. Florida accounted for about a quarter of the total. Almost all of the costs are covered by taxpayers.

Dredging up ocean sand clouds the water with stirred-up grains and muck. Suspended in the water, those particles can block life-giving sunlight from reaching coral reefs. And when the grains settle, they can suffocate the reefs and whatever creatures are living on them.  Moreover, beach sands are themselves home to a multitude of creatures. Besides the obvious ones—clams, crabs, birds, plants—they shelter all kinds of nematodes, flatworms, bacteria and other organisms so small that they live on the surface of individual sand grains. Despite their tiny size, these creatures play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down organic matter and providing food for other creatures. Dumping thousands of tons of imported sand on top of these organisms can obliterate whole colonies of them.

Beaches are bulwarks that can protect lives and property from storms and rising seas in our climatically imperiled world….The U.S.’s densely populated eastern seaboard is already getting a taste of what that means. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it killed 159 people and damaged or destroyed at least 650,000 homes. The storm struckhardest in areas where beaches had eroded, leaving little or no buffer between cities and the raging wind and waves. On the other hand, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, renourished beaches in New York and New Jersey prevented an estimated $1.3 billion in damages that Sandy otherwise would have inflicted.

Excerpts from Vince Beiser, The Battle for our Beaches, Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2018

See also The World in a Grain

The Game-Changers: oil, gas and geothermal

image from UNESCO

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has decided to degazette parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to allow for oil drilling. Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the decision to open up Virunga and Salonga national parks – a move that is likely to jeopardise a regional treaty on the protection of Africa’s most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla…The two national parks are home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species. Salonga covers 33 350 km2 (3,350,000 ha)of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks….

On 7 April, 2018, a council of ministers from the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development. The inaugural ministerial meeting set the deadline for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty.

The Virunga National Park (790,000 ha, 7 900 km2)is part of the 13 800 km2 (1 3800 00 ha) Greater Virunga Landscape, which straddles the eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda.  The area boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It also boasts a Ramsar Site (Lake George and Lake Edward) and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (in Queen Elizabeth National Park). It is the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift – home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.

According to the Greater Virunga Landscape 2016 annual report, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was half the yearly average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures. It cites a case study on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted, with over 230 sentenced….The GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way. ..

Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996. Militias often kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the park for both meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda. The profits fund the armed groups’ operations.

Over 80% of the Greater Virunga Landscape is covered by oil concessions and this makes it a target for state resource exploitation purely for economic gain.


2015: Until recently, in GVL, extraction of highly valued minerals such as gold and coltan, were largely artisanal. The recent discovery of oil, gas and geothermal potential, however, is a game-changer. Countries are now moving ahead in the exploration and production of oil and gas, which if not properly managed, is likely to result in major negative environmental (and social) changes. Extractive industries are managed under each GVL partner state policy guidelines and legislation. Concessions for these industries cover the whole of the GVL, including the World Heritage Sites as well as national protected areas . Since 2006, Uganda discovered commercial quantities of oil in the Albertine Graben and production in Murchison will begin within the next few years. The effect of the extractive industries, similar to and contributing to that of the increase in urbanization is the increased demand for bush meat, timber and fuel wood from the GVL.

Excertps from Duncan E Omondi Gumba, DRC prioritises oil over conservation, ISS Africa,  July 11, 2018//GREATER VIRUNGA LANDSCAPE
ANNUAL CONSERVATION STATUS REPORT 2015

 

How to Market Freshly-Poached Ivory

I n spite of a ban, illegal ivory trading still flourishes in the European Union, as traders use a loophole allowing exchange of very old pieces, an Oxford University study sponsored by a campaign group found.

European law allows ivory obtained prior to 1947 to be traded freely. Ivory obtained after 1947 but before 1990 can be sold with a government certificate, while selling ivory obtained after the global ivory trade was banned is illegal.

Campaign organisation Avaaz purchased more than 100 pieces of ivory from 10 different EU countries to undergo carbon testing at Oxford University. Scientists concluded 75% of the ivory was from after 1947 and 20% was ivory obtained since 1989.  Many traders use the provision which allows free trade of old ivory to illegally trade newer ivory, fuelling the market and incentivising the killing of elephants, Avaaz said.

Exceprts, Illegal ivory breezes past EU law – campaign grou Reuters, Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Lead and Mercury in the Seas

image from wikipedia

The levels of lead and mercury in the sea reduce noticeably following concrete actions to limit their release, recent research at the IAEA using nuclear techniques has shown. The banning of leaded petrol and the closure of a mercury discharging plant have led to decreases in pollution levels over 10-15 years.

This is the case for lead, which when consumed by fish which is in turn eaten by people, can cause damage to the human nervous system and internal organs. Many different activities such as mining or smelting in metallurgy and the burning of coal as well as lead’s use in batteries, paint, ceramics and other everyday items can release it into the environment. The biggest source of lead pollution in the last century was related to the use of leaded petrol.

As part of efforts to develop new methods to determine the source and levels of lead pollution, researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories analysed sediments from the Baltic Sea and the Caribbean Sea. In mapping the pollution history in a sediment core from the Baltic coast of Germany, researchers could clearly observe that within 10 to 15 years of phasing out lead in petrol by 1996, lead pollution levels in the sea had decreased..

In addition, IAEA researchers have successfully developed methods to use lead isotope ratios to determine the source of lead pollution and assess whether it is naturally present or the result of anthropogenic activities, since natural and anthropogenic lead sources will show different isotopic fingerprints and isotope compositions….

IAEA scientists’ analysis of a dated sediment core in a Caribbean bay shows total mercury (Hg) levels rapidly decreased after the closure of a discharging plant…Mercury was used in an alkali plant there as a catalyser, and in the 1970s, high concentrations were found in water, sediments and marine organisms as a result of discharges from the plant.  Years later, after the plant had been closed, IAEA researchers showed, by analysing sediment core taken from the bay, that levels of total mercury had started to decrease.  While remnants of this pollution are still buried in the sediment, acute toxicity has been greatly reduced.

Excerpts from World Oceans Day 2018: Regulating Lead and Mercury Releases has Decreased Marine Pollution, IAEA Press Release, June 8, 2018