Nine feet tall is gigantic by human standards, but when researcher and conservationist Michael Brown spotted a giraffe in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park that measured nine feet, four inches, he was shocked.
Giraffes have an average height of around 16 feet. Their necks alone can measure six feet. So why was this giraffe so much shorter?
"The initial reaction was disbelief," Brown, who is a conservation science fellow with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told The New York Times.
Scientists first spotted the Nubian giraffe, named Gimli, in 2015. Three years later, researchers found another short giraffe living on a private farm in central Namibia. That one, named Nigel, is an Angolan giraffe measuring eight-and-a-half-feet tall.
The researchers compared the two giraffes to each other, along with those of average height, The Hill explained. The comparisons revealed that the two giraffes had shorter legs than their similarly aged peers, caused by skeletal dysplasia, or dwarfism.
This is the first time that dwarfism has been documented in wild giraffe populations, Brown and his GCF colleague Emma Wells wrote in a paper published in BMC Research Notes last month. They noted how dwarfism has been observed in domestic animals, but rarely in the wild. Other incidents include a red deer in Scotland and an Asian elephant in Sri Lanka.
"Instances of wild animals with these types of skeletal dysplasias are extraordinarily rare," Brown said in a statement to GCF. "It's another interesting wrinkle in the unique story of giraffe in these diverse ecosystems."
The researchers are unsure what caused dwarfism in the two giraffes. In domestic animals, it is usually associated with inbreeding or a lack of genetic diversity, The New York Times explained. Researchers don't know if this is the case for the giraffes, but GCF noted that the giraffes in Uganda suffered significant population decline in the 1980s due to unrest and poaching.
While the giraffe population in Uganda is recovering, the overall population is in trouble across Africa. Their numbers have fallen 40 percent in the last 30 years, according to The Hill. GCF estimates that there are about 111,000 left in the wild in Africa.
"Giraffe are undergoing a silent extinction in Africa. The fact that this is the first description of dwarf giraffe is just another example of how little we know about these charismatic animals," GCF Director and Co-Founder Dr. Julian Fennessy said in a statement.
As for Nigel and Gimli's individual chances, Brown told The New York Times it was a good sign that both had survived to adulthood, since more than half of giraffes die beforehand. However, Brown thought they might have problems later in life because of their size.
"It's easy to imagine how this might make them more susceptible to predation since they lack the ability to effectively run and kick, which are two of the giraffe's most effective anti-predator tactics," Brown told The New York Times. "Additionally, given the mechanics of giraffe mating, I'd speculate that for both of these giraffes, mating would be physically challenging."
Nigel was last seen during a July 2020 survey but Gimli has not been seen since 2017. Researchers hope he will appear again soon.
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By John R. Platt
The straw-headed bulbul doesn't look like much.
It's less than a foot in length, with subdued brown-and-gold plumage, a black beak and beady red eyes. If you saw one sitting on a branch in front of you, you might not give it a second glance.
But this Southeast Asian native stands out in one notable way: It sings like an angel.
"It's arguably the most beautiful song of any bird," says Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor Conservation Research Society and an expert on Asian songbirds. "It's amazing," he adds.
The bird's beautiful voice serves a vital ecological purpose: Males use it to attract mates. The better the song, the greater the chance of finding a female and propagating the species.
But the song has also come with a terrible modern cost. Humans have come to value the bulbul's calls so much that they've collected the birds from almost every inch of their habitat. Captured birds, quickly caged, have been shipped to markets throughout Southeast Asia. Due to this overwhelming commercial demand, the species has disappeared from most of its range and is now critically endangered. Only a few pocket populations continue to hang on.
And the straw-headed bulbul is far from alone in this decline. Practically every songbird species in Southeast Asia faces a similar predicament. Many birds face the very real risk of imminent extinction, leaving some forests in the region eerily silent.
Recent research finds that several songbirds have become perilously close to vanishing — if they haven't been lost already.
One Indonesian bird, the Simeulue hill myna, has only just been described as genetically and morphologically unique from other lookalike species. It probably went extinct in the wild in the past two or three years, according to a paper published last spring in the journal Ibis. As the researchers wrote, "On multiple recent excursions to Simeulue, most recently in July 2018, we were unable to find the bird and learned from locals that there had been a great drive to catch the last survivors on the island in response to a wealthy person's bounty on these birds."
The paper calls this an "extinction-in-process" and warns that any remaining birds left in captivity may die without producing offspring. Even if they do manage to breed, the researchers fear they could be hybridized with other similar-in-appearance mynas, obscuring their genetic lineage.
That same phrase, extinction-in-process, has also been used to describe the Barusan shama, which according to a 2019 study published in the journal Forktail has become one of the most threatened of Asian songbirds due to rampant collection. It's now gone from all but one island.
Like the Simeulue hill myna, the Barushan shama's plight went virtually unnoticed for years because many taxonomists have classified it as a subspecies rather than a full species. Newer research finds that it's a species with four subspecies, few of which may now survive.
Not that the species/subspecies disputes matter too much at this point.
"Taxonomic debates about the rank of these forms should not stand in the way of trying to ensure the survival of what is clearly an evolutionarily distinct lineage," says Frank Rheindt, a biologist with National University of Singapore and senior or lead author on both of the papers.
So what happens to these birds once they're taken from the wild?
That's where the story gets even bleaker.
Songbirds are an important element of culture and tradition for many peoples in Southeast Asia. In Java, for example, it's almost assumed that every household will have at least one pet songbird. The more birds, the more prestigious the home.
But wild songbirds in captivity…well, they don't tend to last long.
"We've often called the caged songbird trade like cut flowers," says Shepherd. "The birds look nice. They're often inexpensive. You bring one home. It sits in a cage for a couple of days and it dies just like a cut flower. They're not expected to live."
And because many Asian cities feature massive markets full of birds that have been easily snatched from the wild — usually illegally — any bird that dies is relatively easy and inexpensive to replace.
Cages line the Malang bird and animal market on Java in 2016. Andrea Kirkby / CC BY-SA 2.0
Even bird traders don't put much value on their stock, since a new supply of wild-caught birds always seems to be waiting in the wings.
"I've seen some cages where the surviving birds are all sitting on top of dead birds in the cages," Shepherd says. "You can't see the floor of the cage. It's covered with a few layers of dead birds, and then there's some sick and half-dead birds perched on top of them. And they cost the dealers next to nothing. So, you know, even if they sell a few, they think they must be covering their costs or you wouldn't have a business model like that."
Although all of this seems to favor low-cost disposability, some species are captive bred by the thousands, and prices can soar for the right birds.
As with so many other groups of heavily traded species, the rarest birds fetch higher prices from collectors — a "better get them before they're gone" collector's mentality that pushes prices higher, drives further poaching and drives birds even closer to extinction.
The Simeulue hill myna, for instance, might have sold for about $100-$150, "certainly if a foreigner or non-Simeulue person asks," says Rheindt. "This is easily 2-4 monthly incomes for rural people on the island."
The Caged Bird Sings
Along with its rarity, a bird's appearance is clearly a valuable trait to collectors. Some of the birds are strikingly beautiful, like birds of paradise and the Javan white-eye.
A kingfisher, looking a little worse for wear, in the Malang bird and animal market in 2016. Andrea Kirkby / CC BY-SA 2.0
But the quality that typically drives up a bird's market price?
That, of course, would be the song.
A good song can earn a bird owner a big payday. Entire competitions have sprung up that offer cash prizes for the birds with the best songs — up to $50,000, according to some reports. On Java these events are known as Kicau-mania ("kicau" is Indonesian for "chirping").
The bird doesn't get much for his work. Perhaps some food and a chance to sing again.
But it can take a lot of human effort to inspire them to sing for their suppers.
"People will keep the male birds in captivity for a long time," says Shepherd. "Some birds don't want to sing in captivity and take a long time before they adjust to the point where they'll start to sing. Then they'll train the bird. They'll keep it near other males so it sings more frequently, because they naturally compete with their songs."
This forced companionship changes the very nature of the song.
"Some birds pick up notes and sounds from other species," Shepherd says. "Some of the species that are disappearing, they're just training birds. They're not even the ones used in competition. They just keep them beside other the species that compete so they have a more complex and unique song in the competition."
After that, it's a bit like a dog show.
"Everybody takes their bird in a cage and there are songbird judges. They walk around and listen to the song and there's big cash prizes for the bird with the best." (Most recently, these competitions have moved online due to COVID-19.)
Through all of this, the gift nature gave these animals to help propagate their species — song — ends up driving them toward extinction.
This makes the trade similar to trophy hunting, which values the biggest animals or those with the most beautiful features. "The strongest bird in the wild, the one with the greatest song, would be the one that would pass on his genes," Shepherd says. "Those are the ones being removed from the wild. So, you know, only inferior birds are left behind."
Unlike trophy hunting, however, where an elephant's tusks can theoretically trade hands in perpetuity, a bird's song is ephemeral — sung once, then lost to time.
Shepherd says the Asian songbird crisis went virtually ignored for many years. Relatively few scientists studied it, and funding for conservation remained scarce. That's been a costly delay.
"One of the interesting and sad things is that lot of the species that I worked on in the early Nineties, the ones I tried to raise the alarm on, are now gone or almost gone," he says. "And then the ones I was working on that were extremely common at the time are now the next wave that's disappearing."
Fortunately, that's started to change. For one thing, scientific research about the trade and affected species continues to pick up. One of the most worrying studies came out last August and found that Java now has more songbirds in cages than in its forests. The study found that one species, the Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla), now has fewer than 50 birds remaining in the wild, while 1.1 million live on the island in captivity.
Meanwhile governments, NGOs and other researchers have also stepping up their game. Conservation experts came together in 2015 to hold an event called the Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit. Two years later they formed the IUCN Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group, which had its first official meeting in 2019. And over the past five years governments have started to take action, including seizing several large shipments of poached birds, although the trade remains mostly illegal and unsustainable.
Local groups have helped, too, which brings us back to the Simeulue hill myna and Barusan shama. A Simeulue-based organization called Ecosystemimpact set out to help the two birds at the beginning of 2020. Although their efforts were hampered by the COVID pandemic, they're still trying to acquire any captive birds they can find to keep them out of the trade. If they do rescue any Simeulue hill mynas — such as four juvenile birds that reportedly recently turned up for sale on Facebook — they'll need a permit from the government to breed them.
Even then, saving them from extinction won't be easy.
"Hill myna are notoriously hard to breed, requiring large, tall aviaries with good vantage points over forested areas," says program manager Tom Amey. "It's not out of the question that hill myna will breed within our aviaries, but given their specific requirements, we feel it is unlikely." They're working on raising funding for new aviaries designed specifically for hill mynas.
They also hope to educate the community, to turn its love of captive birds into one that also supports wild populations.
"There is a distinct lack of bird song on Simeulue, especially within close to medium proximity of [human] habitation," says Amey. "Our ambition is to bring the beautiful sounds of songbirds back to Simeulue's forests and culture. Songbirds have played an important role in Simeulue culture and many members of the community wish to see them return."
As with everything in the past year, progress to protect Asian songbirds has slowed down of late. "Unfortunately, the COVID crisis has been a huge, but legitimate, distraction from the global fight against extinction, and very little attention has been paid to such issues in the last few months," says Rheindt.
Once the pandemic recedes, Shepherd suggests that tourism may play an important role in keeping birds alive, uncaged and in their natural habitats.
"There's a very big birdwatching community," he says, "and I think working with the community and with the birdwatching tour guides to raise awareness of the benefits of having songbirds around is important. The birdwatching industry's worth millions. I think we need to raise awareness of the fact that you can lose your birds, but also awareness of the facts that having birds around is good for the environment, it's good for your mental health, it's good for all kinds of things — but it's good for the economy."
Until those messages resonate more than the ka-ching of a cash register, however, Asian songbirds will remain in crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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Throughout Texas, there are a number of solar power companies that can install solar panels on your roof to take advantage of the abundant sunlight. But which solar power provider should you choose? In this article, we'll provide a list of the best solar companies in the Lone Star State.
Our Picks for the Best Texas Solar Companies
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Sunpro Solar
- Longhorn Solar, Inc.
- Solartime USA
- Kosmos Solar
- Sunshine Renewable Solutions
- Alba Energy
- Circle L Solar
- South Texas Solar Systems
- Good Faith Energy
How We Chose the Best Solar Energy Companies in Texas
There are a number of factors to keep in mind when comparing and contrasting different solar providers. These are some of the considerations we used to evaluate Texas solar energy companies.
Different solar companies may provide varying services. Always take the time to understand the full range of what's being offered in terms of solar panel consultation, design, installation, etc. Also consider add-ons, like EV charging stations, whenever applicable.
When meeting with a representative from one of Texas' solar power companies, we would always encourage you to ask what the installation process involves. What kind of customization can you expect? Will your solar provider use salaried installers, or outsourced contractors? These are all important questions to raise during the due diligence process.
Texas is a big place, and as you look for a good solar power provider, you want to ensure that their services are available where you live. If you live in Austin, it doesn't do you much good to have a solar company that's active only in Houston.
Pricing and Financing
Keep in mind that the initial cost of solar panel installation can be sizable. Some solar companies are certainly more affordable than others, and you can also ask about the flexible financing options that are available to you.
To guarantee that the renewable energy providers you select are reputable, and that they have both the integrity and the expertise needed, we would recommend assessing their status in the industry. The simplest way to do this is to check to see whether they are North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certified or belong to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) or other industry groups.
Types of Panels
As you research different companies, it certainly doesn't hurt to get to know the specific products they offer. Inquire about their tech portfolio, and see if they are certified to install leading brands like Tesla or Panasonic.
Rebates and Tax Credits
There are a lot of opportunities to claim clean energy rebates or federal tax credits which can help with your initial solar purchase. Ask your solar provider for guidance navigating these different savings opportunities.
Going solar is a big investment, but a warranty can help you trust that your system will work for decades. A lot of solar providers provide warranties on their technology and workmanship for 25 years or more, but you'll definitely want to ask about this on the front end.
The 10 Best Solar Energy Companies in Texas
With these criteria in mind, consider our picks for the 10 best solar energy companies in TX.
SunPower is a solar energy company that makes it easy to make an informed and totally customized decision about your solar power setup. SunPower has an online design studio where you can learn more about the different options available for your home, and even a form where you can get a free online estimate. Set up a virtual consultation to speak directly with a qualified solar installer from the comfort of your own home. It's no wonder SunPower is a top solar installation company in Texas. They make the entire process easy and expedient.
Sunpro Solar is another solar power company with a solid reputation across the country. Their services are widely available to Texas homeowners, and they make the switch to solar effortless. We recommend them for their outstanding customer service, for the ease of their consultation and design process, and for their assistance to homeowners looking to claim tax credits and other incentives.
Looking for a solar contractor with true Texas roots? Longhorn Solar is an award-winning company that's frequently touted as one of the best solar providers in the state. Their services are available in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, and since 2009 they have helped more than 2,000 Texans make the switch to energy efficiency with solar. We recommend them for their technical expertise, proven track record, and solar product selection.
Solartime USA is another company based in Texas. In fact, this family-owned business is located in Richardson, which is just outside of Dallas. They have ample expertise with customized solar energy solutions in residential settings, and their portfolio of online reviews attests to their first-rate customer service. We love this company for the simplicity of their process, and for all the guidance they offer customers seeking to go solar.
Next on our list is Kosmos Solar, another Texas-based solar company. They're based in the northern part of the state, and highly recommended for homeowners in the area. They supply free estimates, high-quality products, custom solar designs, and award-winning personal service. Plus, their website has a lot of great information that may help guide you while you determine whether going solar is right for you.
Sunshine Renewable Solutions is based out of Houston, and they've developed a sterling reputation for dependable service and high-quality products. They have a lot of helpful financing options, and can show you how you can make the switch to solar in a really cost-effective way. We also like that they give free estimates, so there's certainly no harm in learning more about this great local company.
"Powered by the Texas sun." That's the official tagline of Alba Energy, a solar energy provider that's based out of Katy, TX. They have lots of great information about solar panel systems and solar solutions, including solar calculators to help you tabulate your potential energy savings. Additionally, we recommend Alba Energy because all of their work is done by a trusted, in-house team of solar professionals. They maintain an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and they have rave reviews from satisfied customers.
Circle L Solar has a praiseworthy mission of helping homeowners slash their energy costs while participating in the green energy revolution. This is another company that provides a lot of great information, including energy savings calculators. Also note that, in addition to solar panels, Circle L Solar also showcases a number of other assets that can help you make your home more energy efficient, including windows, weatherization services, LED lighting, and more.
You can tell by the name that South Texas Solar Systems focuses its service area on the southernmost part of the Lone Star State. Their products include a wide range of commercial and residential solar panels, as well as "off the grid" panels for homeowners who want to detach from public utilities altogether. Since 2007, this company has been a trusted solar energy provider in San Antonio and beyond.
Good Faith Energy is a certified installer of Tesla solar technology for homeowners throughout Texas. This company is really committed to ecological stewardship, and they have amassed a lot of goodwill thanks to their friendly customer service and the depth of their solar expertise. In addition to Tesla solar panels, they can also install EV charging stations and storage batteries.
What are Your Solar Financing Options in Texas?
We've mentioned already that going solar requires a significant investment on the front-end. It's worth emphasizing that some of the best solar companies provide a range of financing options, allowing you to choose whether you buy your system outright, lease it, or pay for it in monthly installments.
Also keep in mind that there are a lot of rebates and state and federal tax credits available to help offset starting costs. Find a Texas solar provider who can walk you through some of the different options.
How Much Does a Solar Energy System Cost in Texas?
How much is it going to cost you to make that initial investment into solar power? It varies by customer and by home, but the median cost of solar paneling may be somewhere in the ballpark of $13,000. Note that, when you take into account federal tax incentives, this number can fall by several thousand dollars.
And of course, once you go solar, your monthly utility bills are going to shrink dramatically… so while solar systems won't pay for themselves in the first month or even the first year, they will ultimately prove more than cost-effective.
Finding the Right Solar Energy Companies in TX
Texas is a great place to pursue solar energy companies, thanks to all the natural sunlight, and there are plenty of companies out there to help you make the transition. Do your homework, compare a few options, and seek the solar provider that's right for you. We hope this guide is a helpful jumping-off point as you try to get as much information as possible about the best solar companies in Texas.
Josh Hurst is a journalist, critic, and essayist. He lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife and three sons. He covers natural health, nutrition, supplements, and clean energy. His writing has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.
A young male, OR-93 traveled hundreds of miles from an area southeast of Mount Hood, Oregon, to California's central Sierra Nevada mountain range, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced Friday. The agency said he traveled farther south into California than any previous collared wolf. His trek is also the longest tracked journey of any gray wolf during the last century, The Guardian reported.
"OR-93's historic trek so far south into California's central Sierra Nevada is thrilling news for wolf recovery throughout the West – and underscores that species recovery is not isolated to separate states; what happens in the Northwest greatly affects the success of wolves in other states, and vice versa," California Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife Pamela Flick said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch.
OR-93 hails from Oregon's White River pack, according to the CDFW. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs fitted him with a tracking collar in June 2020 within his home territory. At some point he left the area, likely in search of new territory and a mate. He reached California's Modoc County by the beginning of February; by the end of the month, he had traveled to Alpine County, between trans-Sierra State Highways 4 and 108. He then passed into Mono County. This put him just east of Yosemite National Park and marks the first time a wolf has been known to approach the park in more than 100 years, The Associated Press reported.
The wolf is the 16th one to travel into California, and most have hailed from Oregon. However, this journey is notable from a conservation standpoint for two reasons. For starters, OR-93 is the first wolf from the White River pack to enter the state, which is important for the population's diversity.
"As the first known member of the White River Pack from western Oregon to disperse into California, OR-93 also importantly brings the potential for increased genetic diversity to our state," Flick said. "We look forward to watching the journey of California's newest wolf, and we will continue to welcome gray wolves back to their historical home in the Golden State."
OR-93's epic journey also places him in a habitat with enormous potential for wolves.
"We're thrilled to learn this wolf is exploring deep into the Sierra Nevada, since scientists have said all along this is great wolf habitat," Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in an email to EcoWatch. "He's another beacon of hope, showing that wolves can return here and flourish as long as they remain legally protected."
California's wolves were eradicated in the early 20th century following a concerted campaign by the livestock industry. The first wolf to return to the state in 2011 included another Oregon wolf, named OR-7. There are now fewer than a dozen wolves living in California, including the Lassen pack, which has produced pups every year between 2017 and 2020, according to CDFW. Another pair of wolves has also been spotted in Siskiyou County, and scientists think they will produce pups this spring.
While the Trump administration removed federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves, they remain listed as an endangered species within California. CDFW Spokeswoman Jordan Traverso told the San Francisco Chronicle that OR-93's incredible journey proved the protections were working.
"We have a burgeoning population," she told the Chronicle. "It's exciting."
However, not everyone shares her excitement. The presence of wolves in the state has concerned ranchers.
"There are diverse constituencies with varying viewpoints — we do our best to walk that tight rope," Traverso told the San Francisco Chronicle.
There have been some wobbles on that walk. The seven-member Shasta pack, the first wolf pack to be discovered in California in almost 100 years, disappeared months after being found in 2015, the CBD said. The disappearance followed the pack's implication in two livestock casualties, and there are concerns they may have been poached.
Defenders of Wildlife called for more strategies to reduce livestock and wolf conflicts as wolves' California presence increases. Meanwhile, OR-93's success in the state will likely depend on more personal matters.
"Given the time of year, we assume OR-93 has traveled such a long way in search of a mate," CBD's Weiss said. "I hope he can find one."
By Sharon Guynup
The Brazilian Amazon is hemorrhaging illegally traded wildlife according to a new report released Monday. Each year, thousands of silver-voiced saffron finches and other songbirds, along with rare macaws and parrots, are captured, trafficked and sold as pets. Some are auctioned as future contestants in songbird contests. Others are exported around the globe.
Fish bound for ornamental home aquariums also pour out of the Amazon, including the tiny, iridescent blue and red cardinal tetra. Arapaima fish — also known as pirarucù, one of the world's largest freshwater fish — are caught illegally, "laundered" amidst captive-bred specimens and shipped to the U.S. in large numbers.
Other fish are headed for the dinner table, as are freshwater turtles and their eggs, while tapir, peccary and other mammals are sold in Brazil as bushmeat. Jaguar teeth, heads and skins are shipped to China.
Millions of animals are being illegally captured and traded live and in parts in a thriving Brazilian black market, according to the report, produced by TRAFFIC, a UK-based nonprofit that studies the trade. "The pervasive and uncontrolled capture of wild animals and plants for the illegal trade is having grave consequences for Brazilian biodiversity, the national economy, the rule of law and good governance," it says.
Lack of Data Hides Trafficking
Deep-dive research by biodiversity consultant Sandra Charity — who wrote the 140-page study with Juliana Ferreira, executive director of the nonprofit conservation group Freeland Brasil —focused on Amazon rainforest species and closely investigated the domestic bird trade.
Importantly, the researchers found that an ever-increasing segment of the illegal trade launders poached animals via a sprawling, legal captive breeding industry — a network that specializes in birds, which have a huge domestic market in Brazil.
The authors also discovered that few government agencies have kept records or reported solid data that quantify the true scope of the problem. In many cases, records did not even identify the species or number of animals seized by authorities, while data coming from the Amazon was "notoriously scarce."
"Significant seizures are made on a daily basis by Amazon state law enforcement, and we did not have access to their data," Ferreria said, adding, "from what we saw, [the illegal trade] is even bigger than we imagined."
Trends remain difficult to track, however, since seizure data alone represents a mere fraction of animals illegally pulled from the wild. But it is clear from existing data that there is an uptick in smuggling of some species, including jaguars: seizures increased by 200% from 2012 to 2018.
The lack of comprehensive data, the report notes, tends to play down the importance, as well as concealing the severity, of Brazilian trafficking — undermining enforcement efforts, legal attention and the funding needed to fight it.
But the study warns that the illegal trade is having serious consequences not only for the animals seized, but for entire species, ecosystems and people, not just in the Amazon but around the globe. The current COVID-19 epidemic, for example, caused by a coronavirus that jumped from wildlife to humans, has reminded the world that trafficking in wild animals is not merely a conservation issue, says Ferreira. It's both a public health issue and a biosafety issue.
An overarching national strategy is needed now to deal effectively with the problem, said the research team.
Impact on the Amazon
Today's vigorous, deadly commerce has helped speed the demise of 1,173 species that are either facing extinction or have already vanished in Brazil. Often the largest, strongest, most beautiful animals are lost, impacting the entire population. For example, the trade targets male birds with their showy plumage, while the few survivors of a species remaining in the wild can become inbred, weakening the gene pool and genetic resilience.
The scope of the plunder has also sparked concern over broader, cascading ecosystem impacts, says Ferreira, who explained that regularly taking animals from wild populations creates a domino effect, dismantling the biological and physical systems that sustain all life on Earth.
For example, without birds that act as pollinators and seed-dispersers, trees and plants that many creatures rely on for food disappear. Tropical forests also act as huge carbon vaults, mitigating climate change and extreme weather; they offer buffers from flooding and provide drinking water for millions of people. Losing millions of animals every year to trafficking could lead not only to empty forests, but eventually cause whole ecosystems to crash.
Trafficking as Global Organized Crime
The wildlife trade is also gaining increasing attention because of its lawless perpetrators: transnational criminal trafficking networks span the globe, make huge profits and cultivating massive corruption. Their illicit supply chain extends from the Amazon to almost every continent.
The Global Environment Facility (GEF) describes the illegal wildlife trade as "one of the most lucrative illegal businesses in the world." It's ranked as the world's fourth largest source of criminal earnings, generating up to U.S. $23 billion annually. With so much money changing hands under the table, the trade has even become a global national security issue.
But even though environmental authorities may seize illegally traded animals and apprehend some smugglers, the study notes that law enforcement is not targeting the kingpins who mastermind the trade or its supply chains. As a result, this shadowy underworld industry thrives as it breeds widespread corruption, bribery, fraud, forgery, money laundering and smuggling.
Unfortunately, "Existing legislation does not consider wildlife trafficking a 'serious crime,'" and there are numerous loopholes and inconsistencies in laws, the report says. Since the illicit trade is such a lucrative business, mild penalties offer little deterrent. A six- to 12-month "detention" is common, which is just restriction of freedom — not jail time — or is negotiated down to a stint at community service.
In addition, the report documented extensive evidence of widespread fraud by both private and commercial breeders in Brazil who forged permits, mislabeled species declarations, and tampered with government-issued identification rings to sell illegally-acquired songbirds alongside those they legally breed. This particular market is largely domestic, feeding an entrenched Brazilian culture that keeps songbirds as pets. IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, estimated that in 2015 alone, some three million passerine birds were fraudulently listed with the government — 75% of all that were registered.
Curbing Amazon Trafficking
While the goal of the new report was not to make a comprehensive assessment of the international trade, the authors found that foreign buyers are driving much of it. "It seems that some Asian countries are sourcing more species in Brazil, such as sea cucumber, sea horses, ornamental fish, jaguars and shark fin," Ferreira said, adding that the U.S. is a top consumer of ornamental fish and leather made from pirarucu skin. Birds, amphibians and reptiles typically sell to European collectors, and the Middle East is a market for Amazon raptors.
Digital commerce — the internet, social media and messaging groups — have become key "sales offices" for wild animals and the products made from them. The "merchandise" itself is moved in every way imaginable: via cars, buses, boats, planes and overnight courier services. Human "mules" have been arrested with birds or eggs taped to their bodies or concealed in clothing. A porous, 8,000-mile border between Brazil and eight Amazon neighbors creates an easy flow. The Peruvian and Colombian borders in the Northwestern Amazon form a "particularly relevant hub" for trafficking, the report noted.
Combatting the trade requires that it be recognized and treated as a serious crime. More complete data is also needed that will allow for strategic planning and strengthened law enforcement, says lead author Sandra Charity. Stronger national laws that target professional traffickers would also allow for the implementation of the UN Convention on Organized Crime, she said.
Without a market, there is no commerce, so educating consumers is key, concludes Ferreira.
"Ultimately, it is a matter of choosing why we are buying that animal, or wildlife product, and if it is worth it …. Cultures are dynamic and need to evolve. We need to start to change the way we view wildlife as commodities," she said, and "we also need to understand that loving an animal does equal imprisoning them."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Marie Quinney and Gabriela Martinez
This article is part of The Davos Agenda.
During 2020, many of us saw images of deserted urban areas being reclaimed by animals and heard reports of carbon dioxide emissions plummeting as transportation ground to a halt. A new analysis shows that the U.S. had reached its lowest level of emissions in three decades.
It would be easy to assume that COVID-19 allowed nature to thrive. However, we must not prematurely celebrate nature's comeback.
Far from downplaying glimmers of hope and beauty that were welcomed interruptions to an otherwise difficult year, acknowledging that these have little impact in the long run will serve us better to achieve meaningful progress.
The outlook on the coming decade may be bleak if we do not seize the narrowing window of opportunity that we have to make systemic changes. By doing this, we can both prevent similar crises in the future and create sustainable, healthy and equitable jobs, societies and economies. The pandemic made an unquestionably strong case for a shift towards a net-zero, nature-positive global economy and, thankfully, we have the knowledge and the tools to make it happen.
Nature Bouncing Back?
Amidst the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy entering a global recession, you could be forgiven for thinking that it wasn't all bad news.
We were inundated with delightful images of previously unseen animals strolling through city streets. Mountain goats explored Welsh towns, deer were spotted congregating outside metro stations in Japan and pumas took to the streets of Santiago, Chile.
Many ecosystems also appeared to have been given time to regenerate, being temporarily spared humanity's polluted hand. The canals of Venice famously turned clear and plants started to make a comeback in built-up areas such as parks and city squares.
Similarly, due to the slowdown of economic and social activities, air quality improved in many places around the world, including megacities including Delhi, London, New York and various cities in China. Global CO2 emissions and total nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions decreased by as much as 30% and, as car traffic plummeted and industrial production slowed down, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions followed. It seemed that at least the atmosphere was benefiting from the global pandemic.
NO₂ levels in the air above India (U.S. date format). World Economic Forum
Lockdowns also highlighted both a fundamental human need for nature and the divisions between those who had access to it and those who did not. For those with a balcony, view of nature or a garden, the lockdowns may not have felt as oppressive. People craved their own patch of green and marvelled at the sight of animals roaming around freely. Nature, we may have thought, was healing.
Sadly, however, the breather that nature appeared to get is not only temporary but is extremely localized. Other areas have not been having the same luck.
Nature Loss and Climate Change on the Rise
If not for COVID-19, the year 2020 would have been remembered for environmental disasters that continued despite scattered improvements. COVID-19 news domination was punctuated by reports of wildfires, flooding, tropical storms and the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
As pollution levels decreased in many cities, the effects were countered by increased emissions from home activities. Although nitrogen dioxide declined sharply in Italy, China and New Zealand, COVID-19 responses triggered the increase of global ozone concentrations, which contributes to climate change.
Lockdowns in countries with high levels of biodiversity also restricted the ability of governments and communities to protect wildlife. Incidences of illegal poaching and deforestation increased in South America, Asia and Africa. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 30% in March 2020 compared to the previous year and forest fires lit by land grabbers broke records in Colombia. Illegal fishing is also on the rise in many areas, with fishermen taking advantage of a drop in enforcement capacity.
COVID-19 has also halted the nature-based tourism industry. In many countries, communities relied on this as a source of income, in addition to these funds being used to protect nature. For countries like the Seychelles and Vanuatu, tourism accounts for 30% and 45% of their GDP, respectively. The economic crisis may prevent such tourism from returning for quite some time, while conservation is unlikely to be perceived as a priority for government spending.
The improvements witnessed in biodiversity and emissions during the lockdowns are unlikely to remain, and the situation is on course to get worse than before the pandemic. For the climate, there is historical precedent for this. There were also dips in emissions during the 2008 financial crisis, yet emissions bounced back as economies recovered.
Today, experts are concerned that global emissions in 2021 will rise beyond 2019 levels. In addition, many countries have been loosening environmental regulations and, in some countries, early recovery packages were targeted towards bailouts for oil and high-carbon infrastructure.
Human activity is destroying our natural world. World Economic Forum Nature Risk Rising
Towards a Net-Zero, Nature-Positive Recovery
While the lockdowns provided a glimpse of how life could be different for our planet, this will only be the case through decisive and deliberate action. It shouldn't take a pandemic, with devastating consequences on millions of lives, to let nature reappear and emissions drop. Rather than being good for the environment, COVID-19 only showed us how unsuitable our current socioeconomic systems are.
Some stimulus packages are acknowledging the importance of placing nature at the heart of our recovery, and in September world leaders pledged to reverse nature loss by 2030. However, on average, the pandemic is likely to reinforce negative environmental trends with stimulus packages in only seven of 25 major economies estimated to have a net positive impact for the climate and nature.
As world leaders discussed stimulus and recovery packages to keep the economy afloat, milestone global meetings to decide how to address biodiversity loss and climate change had to be postponed to 2021. These are critical opportunities to reset our economies and societies for the better. Governments and businesses must focus on addressing some of the increasingly indefensible realities of our societies and economies that this pandemic has uncovered. For example, they must ensure that economic activity is regenerative, rather than destructive, to nature, that businesses reduce their carbon footprint, and that there are sustainable, equitable jobs.
As the World Economic Forum's recent reports have found, more than half of the world's GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature, and opting for a nature-positive economy in key sectors could create 395 million jobs by 2030. We are likely to, therefore, pay a high price in the future for overlooking its importance in decisions made today.
Similarly, in the High Ambition Coalition's Statement on Resilient Recovery, it stressed the importance of aligning green measures from stimulus packages with climate ambitions. The UN's 2020 Emission Gap Report highlighted that recovery investments in climate action could cut up to 25% off the emissions projected for 2030. Countries need effective policies to support zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reduce fossil fuel subsidies, stop new coal plants and promote nature-based solutions.
The pandemic transcended borders in more ways than one. We saw unprecedented levels of international cooperation, with information sharing and the deployment of healthcare personnel and equipment. It also taught us that, when we work together, we can enact great change. This needs to be channelled into the fight against nature loss and climate change too.
COVID-19 offered many the chance to stop and reflect on the sort of world we belong to. If nothing else, the pandemic revealed that our economies are inherently vulnerable to shocks. Images of animals reclaiming once-bustling city streets, and a dip in greenhouse gas emissions were a relief during a time of such angst, but they are exceptions that are likely to be long forgotten unless we work towards a better future. Designing net-zero, nature-positive stimulus packages is key in preventing future outbreaks, improving economic and environmental stability and enabling people to live healthier, more fulfilling lives.
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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By Leilani Chavez
Knowledge of the Philippine pangolin, the only pangolin species in the country, is scant. Sightings of the animal are rarer still. But unlike other pangolin species around the world that teeter on the brink of extinction, a new study suggests that with the appropriate conservation measures, the Philippines' endemic pangolin still has a shot at bouncing back.
In a study published last December in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, researchers conducting a comprehensive survey found that Philippine pangolins (Manis culionensis) have been spotted in 17 of the 24 municipalities in Palawan, the island province that's the only place on Earth where this species occurs.
"This is promising for the Philippine pangolin and suggests it is not too late to establish conservation efforts across the species' range," lead author Lucy Archer, from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), tells Mongabay.
An Enigmatic Species
So little is known about the Philippine pangolin that even as the IUCN considers the species to be critically endangered, there is no accepted estimate for its baseline population. The scientific literature suggests the species was never common, and interviews with Indigenous communities carried out in 2018 suggest it has been in sharp decline since the 1980s, the IUCN notes.
However, the newly published survey gives reason for optimism.
Similar comprehensive surveys assessing locals' knowledge of pangolins, done in West Africa for the giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and in China and Vietnam for the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), show that locals strongly believe that their pangolin species are extinct: sightings are rare or non-existent. This isn't the case with the Philippine pangolins: locals are still seeing them, albeit very rarely, and the number of areas where they can be found is high.
"Compared to similar studies on pangolin species elsewhere, these results suggest that Philippine pangolin populations may not have reached the critical levels shown by Chinese pangolins in China and Vietnam, or by giant pangolins in Benin," Archer says. "This provides some hope for the species."
The survey ran from January to June 2019 and helps establish the species' distribution area based on residents' sightings. Locals call the animal balintong, which means "somersault," in reference to its habit of rolling away to hide from danger.
The Philippine pangolin was until 1998 thought to be a separate population of the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), which occurs across much of Southeast Asia, but not the Philippines. Its recognition as its own species coincided with a local poaching boom: high demand for pangolin scales in China and Vietnam, combined with increased enforcement on known Sunda pangolin trafficking routes, saw traffickers turn their attention to the Philippine pangolin.
Range of the four Asia pangolin species: the Chinese, Indian, Sunda and Philippine pangolins. A mix of colors within the maps indicates an overlap in the different species' distributions. The species' ranges are based on the IUCN Red List assessments (IUCN 2014). Note: The distribution maps are currently being updated by the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group. Image courtesy of University of Adelaide / TRAFFIC. Image courtesy of University of Adelaide / TRAFFIC
Local conservationists also link an increase in Chinese projects in the Philippines to growing demand for pangolin meat in restaurants in Manila catering to the influx of Chinese workers and visitors. In a span of two years, Philippine pangolins became one of the most trafficked species in the country, pushing them to critically endangered status both on the IUCN and the national red lists.
Initial trafficking seizures often turned up shipments carrying both pangolins and various turtle species. But since 2018, Philippine authorities have been intercepting shipments consisting solely of pangolin parts. In September 2019, authorities in Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan, made the largest-ever seizure of Philippine pangolin scales: 1,154 kilograms (2,545 pounds), for which at least 3,900 pangolins would have been killed.
From 2018 to 2019, local authorities seized 6,894 Philippine pangolins, according to a recent report released by wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC. The figure is alarming, conservationists say, because there are no clear estimates for how many of the animals remain.
But while researchers are racing against time to save the local pangolin population, studies are limited by the pangolin's peculiar and cryptic habits. Pangolins are solitary, nocturnal, non-vocal and semi-arboreal. While these traits haven't been enough to protect them from poachers, they make it very difficult to study the species in the wild, Archer says.
"Imagine walking through a forest at night and trying to find something that makes little noise and might be found alone up a tree," she says. "It would take a lot of time and effort!"
These cryptic behaviors result in low detection probabilities, meaning the chances of spotting one, even if it's nearby, is "very small," Archer adds.
"General biodiversity surveys therefore rarely record pangolins and so specific targeted monitoring methods are needed," she says. "However, such methods are still in development for pangolins so we don't yet have accepted or standardized monitoring methods... partly because they are so difficult to find which therefore makes the development of such methods difficult!"
Locals Offer Clues
This is where the study by Archer and her team comes in. It adds to the existing knowledge base by drawing from what's called local ecological knowledge (LEK), a type of data that builds on first-hand observations or interactions of locals in an area where a species can be found.
"LEK is based on the premise that local people can often hold more information and provide important information and knowledge on rare species that utilize the same environments as them," Archer says. "It is clear from this result that local people hold a wealth of important knowledge on wildlife in their local areas — they are the real experts."
But while it has been used in conservation, particularly in community-led conservation efforts, locals' knowledge of their environments remains a largely underutilized data source. "Its benefits lie in being able to collect lots of information over wide geographical areas over a relatively short time frame and at low costs — this study took place over 6 months," Archer says.
"Hopefully, studies like this will aid the development of such methods as new monitoring methods can be trialed in areas where we at least know the species exists. We can also use local knowledge to target specific habitats and places where people have recently seen the species," Archer says.
Eighty-seven percent of respondents in the Palawan survey could identify and provide information on the Philippine pangolin, but said sightings are rare or very rare, even compared to other threatened species. This points to an urgent need to establish localized conservation initiatives, the study says. And the survey notes a high level of general local support for wildlife protection, particularly of the pangolin.
"With high knowledge levels and high willingness to be involved in conservation efforts reported by respondents in this study, I think local people are really well placed to help guide and develop conservation efforts," Archer says.
The study forms the basis for ZSL's conservation action and community engagement in the municipality of Taytay in northern Palawan, one of the identified conservation priority areas. Archer says a second phase involves using camera traps to monitor the species, which will hopefully aid in creating a community conservation area.
"We hope this will provide a useful body of information that local governments and conservation organizations can use to inform conservation efforts, and which future research can be compared to in order to track trends in species status and threats," she says.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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While studies have shown that primates can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, this is the first time the virus has been passed to great apes, as far as scientists are aware.
"Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well," San Diego Zoo Safari Park executive director Lisa Peterson said in the press release. "The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery."
Members of our gorilla troop tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Aside from some conges… https://t.co/8nzpISp7qm— San Diego Zoo Safari Park (@San Diego Zoo Safari Park)1610395212.0
Zoo staff first became concerned about the gorillas Jan. 6 when two of them began coughing. So they sent fecal samples to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System (CA HFS) to test them for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Preliminary tests did show that the virus was present in the troop Jan. 8. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) then confirmed the presence of the virus in three gorillas on Monday. However, Peterson told The Associated Press Monday that eight gorillas who live together are all believed to be infected.
The zoo suspects the infection first passed to the gorillas from a member of their care team, who also tested positive for the virus. The individual was asymptomatic and wore a mask around the gorillas at all times. The zoo has been closed to the public since Dec. 6, NBC7 San Diego reported.
"There is some question: Did it come human-animal? That's being determined and want us to respect that process," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said, as NBC7 San Diego reported. "But nonetheless, that's long been a concern – human to animal transmission – but our beloved gorillas, obviously, we are concerned about."
The zoo noted it is unclear how the gorillas will react to the virus, since it has never been observed in apes before. However, conservationists have been concerned since the pandemic started that the disease might spread to great apes. Gorillas have been known to die of human respiratory viruses like the common cold. In March of 2020, 27 experts from the Great Ape Health Consortium wrote an open letter calling for all great ape tourism to pause and for field work to be reduced to protect wild gorillas from catching the new disease.
The gorillas in San Diego are western lowland gorillas, according to The Associated Press. Poaching and disease have decreased this type of gorilla's population by more than 60 percent in 20 years, the World Wildlife Fund said.
For now, the San Diego gorillas are receiving vitamins, fluids and food, but they are being monitored by veterinarians and the zoo is talking to experts who have treated coronavirus in humans in case the gorillas get worse. Any information the zoo officials acquire will be shared with scientists, health officials and conservationists to protect gorillas in the wild.
While no other great apes have contracted the virus, it has spread to other zoo animals, mostly large cats, The Guardian reported. All of them have recovered. The virus has also been reported in farmed and wild minks and some cats and dogs.
The USDA said that the risk of animals passing the virus to people is currently considered low, but encouraged those who are infected or think they may be infected to stay away from pets or other animals.
Director of viral diagnostics at the University of California San Francisco Charles Chiu told the San Francisco Chronicle that the important thing to determine from a public health perspective was if the gorillas had all contracted the virus from one person or spread it amongst themselves. The latter would be much more serious.
"Then you can have an ongoing source of infection, and ongoing source of new variants that in turn can be transmitted back to humans," Chiu said. "It's very worrisome."
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USO / Getty Images
By Rocky Kistner
Despite their massive size, African forest elephants remains an elusive species, poorly studied because of their habitat in the dense tropical forests of West Africa and the Congo.
But the more we learn about them, the more we know that forest elephants are in trouble. Like their slightly larger and better-known cousins, the bush or savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), forest elephants (L. cyclotis) face rampant poaching for their majestic ivory tusks and the growing bush meat trade. More than 80% of the population has been killed off in central Africa since 2002.
Today fewer than 100,000 forest elephants occupy their dwindling habitat. Conservationists worry they could soon head toward extinction if nothing is done.
Richard Ruggiero / USFWS
And now a new threat has emerged: A study published this September found that climate change has resulted in an 81% decline in fruit production in one forest elephant habitat in Gabon. That's caused the elephants there to experience an 11% decline in body condition since 2008.
But other research, also published in September, suggests a possible solution to both these crises.
Elephants and Carbon
It all boils down to carbon dioxide.
Forest elephants play a huge role in supporting the carbon sequestration power of their tropical habitats. Hungry pachyderms act as mega-gardeners as they roam across the landscape searching for bits of leaves, tree bark and fruit; stomping on small trees and bushes; and spreading seeds in their dung. This promotes the growth of larger carbon-absorbing trees, allowing forests to sequester more carbon from the air.
A July 2019 study by ecologist Fabio Berzaghi, a researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, estimated that if forest elephants disappeared African forests would lose 7% of their biomass — a stunning 3 billion-ton loss of carbon.
And they're not unique in this oversized role, although the closest equivalent lives in an entirely different type of habitat.
Last year a team of researchers led by Ralph Chami, an economist and assistant director at the International Monetary Fund, published a groundbreaking report on the monetary value of great whales, the 13 large species that include blue and humpback whales. The study accounted for whales' enormous carbon-capturing functions, from fertilizing oxygen-producing phytoplankton to storing enormous amounts of carbon in their bodies when they die and sink to the seafloor. After also including tourism values, Chami's study estimated each whale was worth $2 million, amounting to a staggering $1 trillion for the entire global population of whales.
Kaitlin Thoreson / National Park Service
"It's a win-win for everyone," Chami says of his economic models, which place a monetary value on the "natural capital" of wildlife, including the carbon sequestration activities of whales and elephants. "By allowing nature to regenerate, [elephants and whales] are far more valuable to us than if we extract them. If nature thrives, you thrive."
Soon after the publication of Chami's whale study, Berzaghi called and asked if the economist could run the numbers on forest elephants too. Chami agreed, and this September they published the results. The elephants, they calculated, are worth about $1.75 million each due to their forest carbon sequestration value alone.
Even more importantly, they found that if forest elephants were allowed to rebound to their former populations, their carbon-capturing value would jump to more than $150 billion.
And as climate change worsens, Chami says forest elephants will become even more valuable in terms of their carbon sequestration role — and as individuals. "The loss of their habitats has the impact of causing them more stress and to have fewer babies," he says.
Turning Numbers Into Action
Despite these stunning, if theoretical, numbers, the researchers knew they needed a financial plan that could be implemented and sustained in the real world.
That starts with keeping elephants alive.
Poachers receive pennies on the dollar for elephant tusks that, once they finally reach consumers, can fetch prices of up to $40,000 on the illegal ivory market.
Gavin Shire / USFWS
Chami says that pales in comparison to the $1.75 million an elephant could be worth for its carbon sequestration services, an amount that works out to roughly $80 a day over an elephant's 60-year average lifetime.
But how do you deliver that value to the people who live near elephants, including people who perhaps currently poach the animals? Chami turned to worldwide carbon markets, which encourage countries or companies to offset their greenhouse gases by investing in restorative measures in other parts of the world.
To activate that proposed value, Chami brought together a group of conservation, business technology and economic experts to develop a pilot project that could promote the protection of forest elephants in Africa. Together, they aim to create a legal framework and a secure financial distribution system that would use of carbon markets to pay local communities to protect forest elephants. Individual elephants would be tracked using satellite technology to ensure their safety. As long as the elephants remain alive, communities could receive regular payments from a carbon market funded by corporations, individuals and governments to offset their pollution. Elephants could become "living assets" for countries that protect them.
Those assets could add up. Chami says the population of 1,500 elephants in Gabon's Loango National Forest would provide $2.4 million in annual revenue.
"We need to build a market around living elephants," Chami says. "The poachers can become the caretakers."
That's an exciting concept to wildlife experts, who have already had some success empowering communities through tourism. But for elephants that live in remote areas of African forests, tourism is less of an option. A market that places a value on elephants for their global carbon sequestration and climate contributions opens a new opportunity for support.
"It potentially changes how people think of the value of elephants," said Ian Redmond, a renowned African conservationist who's working with Chami and others to fund forest elephant protection efforts.
Redmond says he's thrilled about this new plan because it incentivizes locals to protect their natural resources, not exploit them.
"It's a gamechanger, not just for its ecological benefits, but for poverty reduction," he says. "It's a mechanism of change for people in the forest for people who before now only get money if they kill something. Now there's an economic incentive to protect the elephants and their carbon-rich habitat so everyone benefits, locally and globally."
The trick, the experts say, is getting money dispersed fairly and securely to local communities. Chami's team says the revolution in new secure financial networks such as blockchain, the building block of digital monetary systems like Bitcoin, can help establish a monetary system that can be more efficient and transparent than traditional banking systems. Africa's ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing in these new digital monetary technologies, which, though not perfect, can be a positive anti-corruption tool in the murky world of international carbon markets and debt swaps sometimes linked to fraud and influence peddling.
Walid Al Saqqaf, a startup founder and technology expert who produces the weekly podcast Insureblocks, is working closely with Chami and conservationists like Redmond to tap into global carbon exchange markets and create a framework for local funding efforts. Al Saqqaf says the secure nature of blockchain technology can attract international governmental agencies as well as private sector banks and insurance companies who will increasingly want to offset carbon footprints by investing in carbon-sequestering natural resources. "We take a toxic asset such as carbon and transform it into carbon for social good," Al Saqqaf says.
The group is setting up technology, legal and science working groups to develop a cohesive plan that could go into effect next year, although the conservation team says it's too early to announce specifics of the pilot program. They say they are in early discussions with African governments hoping to protect their elephants as well as private enterprises interested in offsetting carbon emissions.
A Ticking Clock, But Forward Motion
Meanwhile the threats from both climate change and poaching continue. A study published this June found that, despite efforts to reduce the ivory trade, elephant poaching rates remain "near their peak and have changed little since 2011."
The rapidly growing risks of extinctions, fueled in part by climate change, have pushed the team to quickly get their ground-breaking plan up and running. "We are in a race against time," Al Saqqaf says.
While the work on elephants remains on the drawing board, Chami's earlier study on the economic value of whales has already started generating real-world action. A G20 working group recommended this year that member countries take whales into account for their climate mitigation and ecosystem values. In Chile a national initiative is using Chami's economic model to help design a project called the Blue Boat Initiative, a sophisticated satellite and sea-based plan supported by the Chilean government to protect whales from ship collisions.
"The valuation of ecosystem services is very relevant because it allows us to show the oceans are not only a raw material," says Patricia Morales, general manager of Fundacion Cortes Solari, a private foundation that supports the Blue Boat Initiative and other climate and environmental issues. "We need to move from the current paradigm to the blue economy."
Chami says the positive global response to their work is rewarding, but it's far from complete. His team — which plans to apply this methodology to other species — knows the dire state of the natural world, and the challenges of creating new international funding and conservation models are huge. But Chami and his colleagues say that by "translating science into dollars," researchers can build a powerful market-based mechanism that can reverse society's incentive to destroy the natural world.
"We need to learn to live in balance with nature," Chami says. "Our sustainability depends on protecting our ecosystems."
Rocky Kistner is an environmental journalist and a former broadcast television and radio reporter and producer. He writes for a variety of online publications and lives near DC, raising two daughters and a beagle named Wilma.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Malavika Vyawahare
Humans are driving species to extinction 1,000 times faster than what is considered natural. Now, new research underscores the extent of the planet's impoverishment.
Extinctions don't just rob the planet of species but also of functional and phylogenetic diversity, the authors of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argue. "They are much newer ideas than species richness, so not as much exploration has been done about patterns of decline in these two metrics, particularly globally," said Jedediah Brodie, first author of the study and conservation biologist at the University of Montana.
For example, rhinos loom large in public imagination but are, in fact, marching into oblivion. The Bornean rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), a subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros, has gone extinct in Malaysia. "It is such a tragedy because it's an iconic and culturally important species," Brodie said, "but also because they are super important both functionally and phylogenetically."
A baby African elephant at Kruger National Park. Rhett A. Butler
Harvesting animals for subsistence or sale is the greatest threat to land-dwelling mammals, the new study found. About 15% of people in the world depend on wild animals, particularly vertebrates, for food. But hunting, illegal and legal, also feeds the global supply chain for wildlife and wildlife parts.
Rhino populations plummeted in the second half of the 20th century; they are heavily poached for their horns, and their ranges have shrunk dramatically over the decades. Of the five existing rhino species, three are critically endangered.
The study focused on terrestrial mammals, one of the most extensively studied groups. They used the IUCN Red List, the most widely cited and comprehensive compilation of endangered species and the threats they face.
By removing animals from their habitats, humans also remove them from ecosystems in which they evolved and play critical roles. To gauge the consequences is not a simple calculus.
"Say there are twenty species of grazing animals and only two species of seed-eating animals. If two species of the grazers go extinct, that doesn't have that much impact on the functional diversity because there are still eighteen grazers left," Brodie said. "But if the two species of seed-eating animals go extinct, it has a huge impact on functional diversity because all of a sudden you've lost this entire ecological function."
In both cases, Brodie said, the species richness would decrease by two, but the effects would be very different.
A Bornean rhino. Jeremy Hance and Tiffany Roufs / Mongabay
Despite their fearsome reputation and bulk, rhinos, some of which can weigh as much as two cars, are herbivores. Bornean rhinos are one of the few large-bodied frugivores and herbivores on Borneo, an island shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is also home to another herbivore, the island's famous pygmy elephants. However, rhinos eat different plants than the elephants, so losing them would alter plant seed dispersal and plant evolution.
The research shows that extinctions driven by human activities lead to a more significant decline in functional diversity than if species were randomly going extinct.
"Some species groups are very vulnerable. Be an antelope, and people want to eat you. Be a parrot, and people want you as a pet. Live only on Cuba — as a subfamily of mammals does — and you're in trouble," said Stuart Leonard Pimm, an ecologist and leading authority on the extinction crisis, who was not involved in the recent study. "This leads to a disproportionate loss of ecological function as human actions drive species to extinction."
The disappearance of species doesn't just wipe away entire ecological functions. It also leads to the irredeemable loss of evolutionary history. Millions of years of evolution are encoded into species that coexist with humans today; to lose them is to lose that biological heritage.
The disappearance of the remaining five rhino species would sever an entire evolutionary lineage, the Rhinocerotidae family that arose about 40 million years ago, from the tree of life.
"They are the last remnants of what was a hugely diverse and amazing family found all across the world in the not too distant past," Brodie said of Rhinocerotidae, which counts more than 40 extinct species.
But conservationists warn that it is not just wholesale extinctions that we should be worried about, but also disappearing populations — what Brodie and his co-authors call "biotic annihilation." Only one in every 10 dramatic declines in populations results in extinctions, but those losses have repercussions for ecosystems which experience them.
"Species extinction is an endpoint, and it's a really, really, bad endpoint. Before that happens, species will start to go extinct in individual countries first," Brodie said. "The focus on population decline is really important because it's in some ways a better illustrator of the magnitude of the extinction crisis."
Their research maps out the relationship between species richness and functional and phylogenetic loss for individual countries to aid national-level policymaking.
The work shows that habitat destruction results in more functional diversity loss in Indonesia, Argentina and Venezuela. "This suggests that instead of focusing on harvest management and human diets, conservation actions in these areas might be better directed toward protected areas and land use policy to best conserve this component of biodiversity," the researchers write.
The study also found that climate change is emerging as a major driver of biodiversity loss. What remains to be seen is how these relationships pan out for other animal groups, like reptiles, amphibians and birds.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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More than 350 elephants have died in Botswana since May, and no one knows why.
Poaching has been ruled out, because no tusks have been removed from the elephants' bodies, but it is possible the animals are dying of a disease that could spread to the human population.
A catastrophic die-off of elephants is happing in northern Botswana, and no one knows why. It’s vital that a team o… https://t.co/G4VlI5hZJA— Niall McCann (@Niall McCann)1593612416.0
Botswana's tourism ministry first said that it was investigating the deaths in mid-May, when 12 dead elephants were found over two weekends in the country's Okavango Delta, Phys.org reported at the time.
By the end of May, 169 elephants had died, and that number had more than doubled by mid-June, The Guardian reported.
"This is totally unprecedented in terms of numbers of elephants dying in a single event unrelated to drought," McCann told BBC News.
But despite the scale of the deaths, the government has not yet completed testing of the animals to determine the cause, earning the criticism of conservation groups.
"There is real concern regarding the delay in getting the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing in order to identify the problem — and then take measures to mitigate it," Environmental Investigation Agency Executive Director Mary Rice told The Guardian. "The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears … and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking."
The government, meanwhile, attributed the delay to the coronavirus pandemic.
"We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so," Dr. Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana's department of wildlife and national parks, told The Guardian. "The Covid-19 restrictions have not helped in the transportation of samples in the region and around the world. We're now beginning to emerge from that and that is why we are now in a position to send the samples to other laboratories."
Taolo said the government had confirmed 280 out of 350 reported deaths and is working to confirm the rest.
Local reports indicate that animals of all ages and sexes are dying, with some spotted wandering in circles, a sign of neurological damage. The cause is likely a poison or disease, but experts are not sure which.
More than 100 elephants died in October 2019 in a suspected anthrax outbreak, Phys.org reported, but McCann told BBC News he had tentatively ruled out anthrax as the cause of the most recent deaths. Cyanide poisoning used by poachers is another possibility, but scavengers are not dying after eating the carcasses, The Guardian pointed out.
"It is only elephants that are dying and nothing else," McCann told BBC News. "If it was cyanide used by poachers, you would expect to see other deaths."
Botswana hosts the world's largest elephant population at more than 135,000 animals, about a third of all the elephants in Africa, Phys.org pointed out. The Okavango Delta, meanwhile, is home to 10 percent of Botswana's total population, or around 15,000 animals. African elephants are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Botswana was considered one of the safest countries for elephants until recently, Science Alert pointed out. But the government made a controversial decision to lift its elephant hunting ban in May of 2019, and poaching is on the rise. An Elephants Without Borders study published in Current Biology last year found that new elephant carcasses in northern Botswana had increased by 593 percent between 2014 and 2018 and that at least 385 elephants had been poached between 2017 and 2018.
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The mother and calf were confirmed dead Tuesday in Ijara, Garissa County by community members and rangers from the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy, according to a press release.
"This is a very sad day for the community of Ijara and Kenya as a whole," conservancy manager Mohammed Ahmednoor said in the press release. "We are the only community in the world who are custodians of the white giraffe. Its killing is a blow to tremendous steps taken by the community to conserve rare and unique species, and a wakeup call for continued support to conservation efforts."
SAD NEWS😢: @IshaqbiniHirola Community Conservancy, Garissa County loses two famous white giraffes to poachers. For… https://t.co/8ULLnKRfAi— @nrt_kenya (@@nrt_kenya)1583845248.0
The Kenya Wildlife Service had been called to the sanctuary after it was reported that the two giraffes had not been seen for some time, CNN reported. When their skeletal remains were found and photographed, it was estimated that they had been dead at least four months. The Kenya Wildlife Service is now investigating the deaths.
Only one white giraffe is left in the conservancy, a male who is believed to be the only one now living, according to CBS News.
The female white giraffe was first spotted with a pale calf in 2017 by a villager out herding animals, according to The New York Times. It is not known what happened to that first calf, or if its coloring changed as it grew older. But the female gave birth to a second calf, according to CNN, and the rare animals drew visitors to the park and went viral on social media.
The giraffes' rare coloring was due to a genetic condition called leucism, which stops some skin cells from producing pigment, The New York Times explained. It is different from albinism in that animals with leucism can still produce melanin in their soft tissue, and their eyes are usually dark rather than red. It has been documented in birds, lions, fish, peacocks, penguins, eagles, hippos, moose and snakes, according to BBC News.
"This is a long-term loss given that genetics studies and research, which were significant investment into the area by researchers, have now gone down the drain," Ahmednoor said in the press release. "Further to this the white giraffe was a big boost to tourism in the area."
A white giraffe calf was also reported in Tanzania in 2015, according to The New York Times, but CNN reported that it is not known what became of her.
Giraffes in general are threatened by poaching and habitat loss across Africa, where their population has fallen by 40 percent in 30 years, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.
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Four poachers in Uganda were arrested for killing one of the country's rare silverback mountain gorillas, according to CNN.
Rafiki was one of Uganda's best known and most beloved gorillas. The 25-year-old gorilla was part of the famed Nkuringo gorilla group that lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and is popular with tourists. Mountain gorillas are an endangered species.
There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas in existence. Those low numbers caused the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to describe the death as a "very big blow," according to the BBC.
The UWA tweeted out a picture of Rafiki along with a statement about the arrest.
We have arrested four people over the death of Rafiki, the Silverback of Nkuringo Gorilla group in Bwindi Impenetra… https://t.co/2YrppFf2B5— Uganda Wildlife (@Uganda Wildlife)1591948793.0
The statement said that one of the detained men had been found in possession of wild hog meat, rope and wire snares and spears. It also said that an investigation of Rafiki's death "after a postmortem report revealed that the Silverback sustained an injury by a sharp device/object that penetrated its left upper part of the abdomen up to the internal organs."
If the four men accused of killing Rafiki are convicted, they will face a life sentence or a fine of $5.4 million for killing an endangered species, according to the BBC. In the statement, the man who speared Rafiki claimed that they were in a group to hunt in the park when they came across a group of gorillas, and that Rafiki charged at them.
Rafiki first went missing on June 1, but his body was found the next day. At the time Rafiki died, the Nkuringo group had 17 gorillas, the release said. The silverback was the dominant male in the group that also included three blackbacks or younger mature males, eight adult females, two juveniles and three infants, according to the UWA, as CNN reported. Adult mountain gorillas have the distinctive silverback shading.
The group was the first to reside in the southern section of the park that is home to about half of the world's mountain gorilla population.
This group led by Rafiki was described as habituated, meaning that its members were used to human contact.
"The death of Rafiki leaves the group unstable and there is the possibility that it could disintegrate," Bashir Hangi from the UWA told the BBC. "It has no leadership at this time and it could be taken over by a wild silverback."
If a wild silverback became the dominant male of the group, it might start to shun human contact, which would negatively affect tourism, according to the BBC.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site near Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a 120 square-mile patch of dense tropical forest that is home to primates, elephants, antelopes and other wildlife. Nearly 400 mountain gorillas live there, which is roughly half the world's population, and, by far, the park's largest attraction to tourists, as Reuters reported.
As the BBC reported, mountain gorillas are restricted to protected areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. In addition to making a habitat in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the species extends out to a network of parks in the Virunga Massif range of mountains that make up the borders of the three countries.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the species' prospects from critically endangered to endangered, after intensive conservation efforts, including anti-poaching patrols, paid off.
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