Tag Archives: biodiversity

Unjustifiable Extinctions

Hydrostachys polymorpha. image from http://www.zimbabweflora.co.zw/speciesdata/image-display.php?species_id=124820&image_id=2

The world’s botanic gardens contain at least 30% of all known plant species, including 41% of all those classed as ‘threatened’, according to the most comprehensive analysis to date of diversity in ‘ex situ’ collections: those plants conserved outside natural habitats.

The study, in September 2017 in the journal Nature Plants, found that the global network of botanic gardens conserves living plants representing almost two-thirds of plant genera and over 90% of plant families.  However, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a significant imbalance between temperate and tropical regions. The vast majority of all plants species grown ex situ are held in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, some 60% of temperate plant species were represented in botanic gardens but only 25% of tropical species, despite the fact that the majority of plant species are tropical.

For the study, researchers analysed datasets compiled by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)….

“The global network of botanic gardens is our best hope for saving some of the world’s most endangered plants,” said senior author Dr Samuel Brockington, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences as well as a curator at the University’s own Botanic Garden.
“Currently, an estimated one fifth of plant diversity is under threat, yet there is no technical reason why any plant species should become extinct.   “If we do not conserve our plant diversity, humanity will struggle to solve the global challenges of food and fuel security, environmental degradation, and climate change.”

The plants not currently grown in botanic gardens are often more interesting than those that are, say the researchers. Hydrostachys polymorpha, for example, an African aquatic plant that only grows in fast flowing streams and waterfalls, or the tiny parasitic plant Pilostyles thurberi – only a few millimetres long, it lives completely within the stem tissue of desert shrubs.  Species from the most ancient plant lineages, termed ‘non-vascular’ plants, are currently almost undocumented in botanic gardens – with as few as 5% of all species stored in the global network. These include plants such as the liverworts and mosses.

“Non-vascular species are the living representatives of the first plants to colonise the land,” said Brockington. “Within these plants are captured key moments in the early evolutionary history of life on Earth, and they are essential for understanding the evolution of plants”

Excerpts from World’s botanic gardens contain a third of all known plant species, and help protect the most threatened, Press Release of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Sept. 25, 2016

Looking Desperately for an Air Bridge

Land reclamation in Bingzhou Peninsula (formerly, island) of the Dongzui Bay ,Tong'an District, Xiamen, China. Image from wikipedia

The spring of 2017 50 million waterbirds will move from their winter homes in South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Russia, Mongolia, northern China, the Korean peninsula, Japan and even Alaska. They rely on intertidal flats teeming with nourishing molluscs, worms and crustaceans, as well as plants, to supply the food that fuels their journeys.  Of the eight big flyways, the East Asian-Australasian is also the one displaying the sharpest decline in the number of birds. Of its 155-odd waterbird species, at least 24 are now globally threatened. They include the diminutive spoon-billed sandpiper, a wader whose numbers are down to fewer than 200 pairs.

Transiting one of the world’s most dynamic industrial regions is clearly taking a toll. Asia’s migratory waterbirds face immense pressures, from hunting, pollution, ingested plastic and competition from aquaculture. But the biggest disaster is the destruction of coastal way-stations. Since 1950 China has lost over half its coastal wetlands to “reclamation”. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Yellow Sea, into which the Yellow River flows, has lost over 35% of intertidal habitat since the early 1980s. An especially destructive moment was the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, for which a lot of heavy industry was moved from the capital to the coast.

Xianji Wen, who works for the WWF, describes the Yellow Sea as a “bottleneck” for the whole flyway: so many waders pass through it that the loss of habitat there is particularly consequential. Four-fifths of Asia’s red knots, having wintered in Australasia, stop on their way north at one spot, Luannan, east of Beijing. The bar-tailed godwit flies non-stop from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea—over 6,000km. After recovering there, the species flies non-stop again to its breeding grounds in the extreme north of Russia.  Populations of both species have crashed by over a third, probably because of coastal development…..

There is a silver lining, however. The vast middle class created by the region’s breakneck growth is becoming interested in conservation…In China several hundred birdwatchers gather for the spring migration by the Yellow Sea near the North Korean border. And Mr Wen says that local governments in China increasingly take pride in the acclaim they win for conservation schemes—several work with the WWF. In 2016 China and New Zealand even signed an agreement—an “air bridge” between the two countries—to protect the habitat of the bar-tailed godwits, whose annual departure, Maori mythology holds, is for the homeland of the ancestors who first colonised New Zealand.

South Korea’s conservation movement is feeble. But the government of North Korea, by failing to develop the country, has inadvertently preserved a greater share of valuable waterbird habitats. It recently agreed to designate one as a protected site under the “Ramsar” international convention on wetlands….

Excerpt from Canaries in the Coal Fumes, Economist, Apr. 22, 2017

Regulation of Deep-Sea Fishing by Depth: the scientific facts

setting a trawl. image from wikipedia

A study published in 2009 suggested that in all but the deepest of their waters—those with a seabed closer than 1,500 metres to the surface—yields had dropped by 70% over 25 years. Even in the abyss below that depth, the fall was 20%. To try to stem this decline the European Union, which regulates fishing in much of the area, is proposing to limit the depth at which trawling can take place. This would, in effect, create a marine reservoir below that level, a form of protection additional to the system of species-specific quotas that already exists. The question is where the line below which trawl-gear is forbidden should be drawn. And, until now, there have been few scientific data to inform that decision.
This has just changed, however, with the timely publication, inCurrent Biology, of a study by Jo Clarke of Glasgow University and Francis Neat of Marine Scotland Science, a government agency. Their work suggests that the appropriate cut-off would be at a depth of 600 metres—below which the ecological damage caused by trawling increases substantially.

Ms Clarke and Dr Neat derive their conclusion from data collected between 1978 and 2013 by Marine Scotland Science and the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews. These data record species caught, and also the depths of the trawls that caught them, which ranged from 250 to 1,500 metres.

The researchers note that biodiversity increases with depth. On average, an extra 18 fish species show up with each 100-metre increase. Many of these, though, are of little commercial value. Such so-called by-catch gets thrown back, but by then most of it is dead. And that, particularly because deep-sea species tend to grow more slowly than those which live near the surface, and have lower fecundity rates, can have profound effects on ocean ecology.  Trawls at 300 metres, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat found, have a ratio of catch to by-catch (in terms of weight) of five to one. At 600 metres the ratio is around three to one. At 800 metres, though, it is ten to nine; at 1,000 metres one to one; and at 1,200 metres, one to two.

Based on these findings, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat suggest that a trawl limit of 600 metres would be a suitable compromise between commercial reality and ecological necessity.

Excerpts from Fisheries: Drawing the line, Economist, Sept.  5, 2015, at 80

A Humanitarian Crisis for the Sake of Conservation: the Sengwer in Kenya

Kerio River, Kenya

For decades, the Kenyan government has attempted to evict indigenous people from the forests of Embobut and Cherangany, in the western county of Elgeiyo Marakwet. Past tactics have even included torture and setting fire to homes, those affected say…The government – accused in recent weeks of preparing to carry out yet another forced eviction – maintains that communities living in 12 forest glades must leave so it can rehabilitate the degraded forest and the water services it provides to the surrounding regions and beyond.

“This is a government initiative aimed specifically at conserving the country’s second-largest water tower – nothing else,’’ said Inspector Stephen Chessa, who works for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and is in charge of the Embobut eviction…

But one forest warder who preferred to remain anonymous told Thomson Reuters Foundation he and his colleagues had been instructed to evict forcefully anyone who resists the move.  On Monday, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed deep concern about this prospect, urging the Kenyan government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer indigenous people are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous peoples”.  Most families are asking for more time to assemble their things and harvest crops before leaving the forest.   But Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the KFS, said families would not be given extra time and the evictions would continue as planned. “They have no reason to continue staying in the forest – they were compensated,’’ he said.

The situation is complex because there are different communities living in Embobut: the Sengwer indigenous people; groups displaced by disasters and political violence; and others who have come to benefit from cultivation opportunities.  “Why should the government treat us equally with the victims of post-election violence and landslides?’’ asked Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum. “The forest is our home – our case is different, it’s not fair at all.”…According to Article 63 of the constitution, community land shall be vested in and held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, culture or similar community of interest. Community land consists of ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based rights organisation, said the government’s justification for evicting people is forest conservation, but research has long since shown that forests are best preserved not by evicting ancestral communities but by supporting them to regain secure rights to their land.  Payments to evictees by the government are “intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues”, Kenrick said. “According to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted, and accepted or rejected the proposal,’’ he added.  Kiptum, however, claims the Sengwer were not consulted, did not sign anything, and have not agreed to hand over their land for the small amount of money that has been paid into some people’s bank accounts.  “You cannot create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of conserving biodiversity while there are other ways of doing it better,” said Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in nearby Eldoret town. He also called for an audit of the compensation process.

Excerpts from Caleb Kemboi, Indigenous rights clash with forest protection in Kenya, Reuters, Jan. 17,, 2014

See also Biodiversity and Human Rights

The Politics of Fighting Biopiracy: European Union

Pelargonium Sidoides.  Image from wikipedia

The European Union is debating a biopiracy law requiring industry to compensate indigenous people if it makes commercial use of local knowledge such as plant-based medicines.  Under the law – based on the international convention on access to biodiversity, the Nagoya protocol – the pharmaceuticals industry would need the written consent of local or indigenous people before exploring their region’s genetic resources or making use of their traditional know-how. Relevant authorities would have the power to sanction companies which failed to comply, protecting local interests from the predatory attitude of big European companies.

A German pharmaceutical company’s dealings in South Africa [is an example of biopiracy].  Pelargonium sidoides, a variety of geranium known for its antimicrobial and expectorant qualities, has been used traditionally by indigenous communities in South Africa for centuries to treat bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. It also stimulates the nervous system, so has been used in the treatment of AIDS and tuberculosis.  In 2000, the German company Schwabe made significant profits on Umckaloabo, a product derived from the geranium, without compensating local communities. It then filed patents claiming exclusive rights to the medical use of the plant.

But in 2010 the patents were cancelled following appeals from the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa and the Bern Declaration in Switzerland, calling the patents “an illegitimate and illegal monopolization of genetic resources derived from traditional knowledge and a stark opposition to the Convention on Biodiversity.”…[The] law would help protect biodiversity and ensure that the people from the region are adequately compensated for their resource and their traditional know-how. …The need to ensure the property rights of indigenous populations becomes more pressing as industry looks more and more to plant and animal-based cures to common diseases.Only 16 countries have ratified the Nagoya protocol. The European Union and its 24 of its 27 member states have signed the convention, but are yet to ratify it. When they do, Nagoya should soon reach the 50 states needed for it to come into force…  “The 16 states are countries in the South…

Excerpts, EU ponders biopiracy law to protect indigeneous people, EurActiv, April 26,  2013

See also EU portal on Biodiversity and Benefits Sharing

See also article on Alice v. Schwabe

Drones and the Rhino: the militarization of conservation

SAAF-15_Squadron-BK117.  Image from wikipedia

Rhino poaching has now been evaluated to a priority crime in South Africa…  This was confirmed by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa ahead of the 16th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Thailand. The top-level meeting of the world’s major environmental bodies started in Thailand today and runs until March 14.

With 128 rhino already killed by poachers this year, well up from the 80 for the corresponding period last year, the National Joint Operations Centre, co-ordinated by the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigations, has moved rhino poaching up on its priority rating list.  Molewa also said Cabinet had emphasised the need for more technology, specifically in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to be pushed the way of rhino anti-poaching forces. These are currently comprised mainly of SANParks rangers supported by elements of the SA National Defence Force as well as police, customs and excise inspectors from SA Revenue Services and any number of NGOs.

SANDF elements are first and foremost deployed for border protection in the park but where manpower allows, assist rangers in anti-poaching operations. The SA Air Force has also, again where resources allow, made assets available for anti-poaching operations. This has seen a pair of BK-117s of 15 Squadron C Flight in Kruger to assist with aerial surveillance.

Leading South African private sector defence industry conglomerate, the Paramount Group, has also committed itself to the rhino anti-poaching effort. It has made a Seabird Aviation Seeker light observation aircraft available to Kruger via the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. The additional eye in the sky is a boost to Kruger’s own fleet of helicopters, light observation and fixed wing aircraft.The SANParks flagship late last year announced a more militaristic approach to stopping rhino poachers. This saw retired SA Army major general Johan Jooste join the national conservation organisation’s anti-poaching set-up as its head.

Excerpts, Rhino poaching now a priority crime, DefenceWeb, Mar. 4, 2013

Inuit against the Greens: polar bears and climate change

polar bear skins. image from wikipedia

The Inuit see the animal as a fierce predator, a cultural symbol and a valuable source of food, warmth and money in a part of the world where all three are in short supply.Yet to animal-welfare and green groups in warmer places the polar bears are both an icon in the fight against climate change and an animal under threat of extinction. The melting of the Arctic’s ice cap, which the bears use as a hunting platform, means the estimated population of between 20,000 and 25,000 will decline sharply, they say. They see hunting the bears as an anachronism and want international trade in bear pelts and parts, already severely restricted, completely banned.

These opposing views are set to clash at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an intergovernmental agreement, between March 3rd and 14th in Bangkok. Having failed at the previous meeting of CITES in 2010, the United States is again leading a move to switch the polar bear from Appendix II of the convention to Appendix I, which would ban trade in all but “exceptional” circumstances. The American proposal is backed by Russia but opposed by Canada, Norway, Denmark (which represents Greenland) and the CITES secretariat.

The debate promises to be emotional. What it lacks are facts. The Americans acknowledge that only eight of the 19 known groups of polar bears have been surveyed since 2000. Of the remaining 11, four have never been surveyed. The submission relies on a controversial forecast undertaken for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 that suggests the decline in sea ice will lead to the disappearance of two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by 2050.  Should the United States obtain the two-thirds majority needed to change the bear’s status, it will be a blow to the Inuit. Their trade in walrus tusks and narwhal horns has dried up because of curbs on sales of ivory designed largely to protect elephants. The trade in seal pelts and meat was curtailed by a 2009 import ban by the European Union, though this granted a limited exemption to indigenous peoples.

In Canada polar bears are hunted under annual quotas set by territorial governments. The Inuit trade bear pelts, claws and teeth, and sell some of the quota to trophy hunters, who employ local guides and buy local supplies…..

Countries which want to become observers at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body, will be reluctant to vote against Canada, Norway and Denmark on the issue. Canada takes over as chairman of the council in May. Still, it will take resolve to stand up to the United States, also a council member, and the array of animal-welfare and environmental groups backing its position.

The Inuit also argue that if the problem is climate change, to ban trade in polar bears is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. That was the argument of the European Union’s environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, when the European Parliament debated the issue earlier this month. But the MEPs still voted in support of the American position.

Canada’s Inuit: Polar-bear politics, Economist, Feb. 23, at 36