By Kamila Abdurashitova
Perfumery might seem like a fairly benign business. It's about personal scent more than anything else. But as one of the largest global luxury industries, perfume-making can have a significant impact on certain plants and animals valued for their rare scent profiles. Most perfume formulations are hidden behind one word on perfume labels, usually "Parfum" or "Aroma," which makes it difficult for a consumer to know if a product is made using ethically sourced ingredients. Sustainability of raw materials used in perfumery has not always been a primary concern for consumers, but environmental consciousness regarding the issues seems to be growing.
Most perfumes are designed using synthetic ingredients these days, but there's been a resurgence when it comes to use of more natural and organic materials, and some perfumes have so-called "mixed-media" blends that use both synthetic and natural products. Though synthetic ingredients are typically cheaper, there are certain benefits to natural perfumes that are attracting attention from manufacturers and consumers alike, including the fact that they are less likely to trigger allergies, asthma or headaches. Nevertheless, use of natural ingredients can be problematic. Some raw plant materials have been so overexploited by perfume makers and worshipped by perfume lovers that they are now threatened with extinction, and use of animal derived materials raises serious ethical concerns.
The perfume industry is one of the biggest consumers of precious oils extracted from plants. Although many plants are cultivated specifically to meet consumer demands, there are some wild plants that are targeted by the industry. Most of these are highly appreciated by perfumers because of their rarity, difficulty in harvesting, and because they have a unique scent profile and add outstanding nuances to perfume formulations.
Sandalwood, which is used both in perfumery and traditional medicine, is one example. It is harvested primarily in India, where it is now almost extinct in the wild. The Indian government enacted strict regulations on sandalwood harvesting in the 1960s, and as a result, production in the country has fallen significantly. But sandalwood is still listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist. With sandalwood threatened in the wild, Australia has entered the sandalwood market and is producing the trees sustainably. Environmentally responsible perfume brands usually mention the origin of sandalwood if it is used in their formulations.
Though cultivation can offer an alternative to unsustainable wild harvesting, it also poses challenges. Trees like sandalwood and aquilaria—another tree commonly targeted for perfume production—are slow growing. It takes a long time for them to mature, and maturity is essential for oil extraction. But this means that for farmers, it takes several years, sometimes up to ten years, for returns on their investment. And when supply can't keep up with demand, poachers turn their attention to wild incense trees, particularly in the case of aquilaria. (Aquilaria trees are sought after for agar resin, which is formed when the trees are infected with mold.) In some cases, these poachers are destroying the wild population of century-old trees. In Hong Kong—which translates to fragrant or incense harbor in Cantonese—agarwood is close to extinction in the wild with almost all oldest and largest trees having been illegally felled.
"Poachers look for older trees that are naturally infected, as they have more value, so these trees will increasingly be threatened," Gerard McGuirk, sales director for Asia Plantation Capital in Hong Kong, which is trying to save the trees by running aquilaria plantations, told the BBC. "Now in Hong Kong, you'd be lucky to find a tree that's 30 years of age."
In addition to the threats posed to certain plants, there are animal welfare concerns related to perfume making. Animal products have been slowly disappearing from perfumes in recent years, but some brands still, unfortunately, use them, and the trend is actually being revived by some niche perfume brands. Animal products—including castoreum from beavers, glandular secretions from civet cats, perineal secretions from endangered musk deer, and ambergris, a substance produced by the digestive system of sperm whales—were traditionally used as fixatives in old perfume formulas. (Fixatives are used to stabilize perfumes and to slow down the rate of evaporation.) Scents like those derived from musk and civet can now be produced synthetically, but due to high demand for natural perfumes, some brands have not prioritized use of synthetic ingredients.
These animal-derived materials are in most cases cruelly produced. Ambergris is the one possible exception—it is typically considered cruelty free as it is a type of whale waste and can be found on beaches and oceans after being expelled by whales. Its use in the U.S. is still illegal because sperm whales are listed as an endangered species, and the Endangered Species Act prohibits the use of any product from an endangered species, but it continues to be harvested in Europe, and remains one of the rarest ingredients in the industry today.
But even with ambergris, there concern about whale poaching. Eleonora Scalseggi, co-owner of essential oil company Hermitage Oils, says that on a few occasions, her company has been approached by people trying to tell large quantities of low quality ambergris. "Now in my opinion, these are clear signs of ambergris coming from poaching," she said. "Floating ambergris gets found stranded in relatively small amounts. It is rare that large pieces are found, and even in that case it's never many kilos. To me having many kilos of fresh ambergris in a single piece on hand means that a whale has been recently killed. It can of course come from a dead beach stranded whale, too, but the suspicion is too high."
Secretions from civet cats is problematic ingredient. In Ethiopia, for example, civets are captured from the wild and kept on family farms, a practice that goes back centuries. Animals are typically kept in small cages in which they can hardly move. The cages are located in dark rooms without any daylight or ventilation with a constant source of fire to create a smoke-filled atmosphere—higher temperatures are believed to facilitate musk production. Due to high temperature fluctuations between the day and night, stress, and painful extraction methods, there is a high rate of mortality among captured animals.
Castoreum derived from beaver sacs has always been a popular perfume ingredient, especially in high end perfumes. Although many designer perfumes have substituted it with synthetic ingredients, the natural form can be found in niche perfumes. It was so popular in early perfume creations and for medicinal purposes that by the sixteenth century, beavers had been hunted to extinction in Scotland. (In 2016, the rodent was reintroduced to its natural habitat.) It is expensive and almost impossible to get secretions from live beavers, so they must to be hunted and killed—and sacs removed and tinctured—to get this perfume ingredient.
Perhaps, one of the most notorious non-ethical animal products is deer musk. Although the use of musk has decreased, today six musk subspecies are listed as endangered on the IUCN Redlist, and the seventh is listed as vulnerable (IUCN Red List). Deer populations are still decreasing and the main threat is illegal hunting for musk extraction for the perfume industry as well as for medicinal use in Russia, Mongolia and China. Deer musk can be extracted from live animals but they are typically killed to remove their glands. Musk is taken from male deer, and to find one deer who will yield enough musk to be profitable, about 25g, experts estimate that three to five deer are killed. Non-target animals are also often all killed by hunters looking for deer.
Perfume makers can take several routes towards sustainability. Rare raw materials can either be sustainably sourced, replaced with other natural oils with similar fragrance profiles, replaced with synthetic options, or avoided completely when no sustainable options exist. Though even some of these options can be tricky. For example, some synthetic options are not considered eco-friendly, and some plant oils are sold under common names, but extracted from several different plants, making it extremely difficult to control export certification.
From the point of view of an eco-conscious consumer there is only one way to guarantee that perfumes are sustainable and cruelty-free: check how transparent a perfume brand is. While it is still quite a new trend, several small indie brands have begun to pave the way to a more responsible approach to perfume production and ingredient sourcing, and improving transparency in the process, and a few well-established perfume companies have begun to make sustainability commitments as well.
You do not have to stop using perfumes if you are an environmentally conscious consumer. Rather, you must be more cautious when buying the next bottle, and look for brands that respect nature and whose ethos is not only about using ethically sourced raw materials but also promoting sustainability across the industry.
Kamila Abdurashitova, also known as Kamila Aubre, is a freelance writer and an independent perfumer. She has an MA in Political and Social Sciences from Lancaster University. At the moment she lives in Belgium and designs natural perfumes as well as promotes an eco-conscious approach to beauty and perfume products.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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By Stephanie Koorey
May is late autumn in the southern hemisphere, and as we creep closer to winter, Canberra, Australia's capital city, is carrying out its annual, and controversial, kangaroo cull. With some pride, the city is known as the "bush capital" due to its wide corridors of native grasslands and gumtree and casurina tree woodlands, and an abundance of accompanying wildlife. As the city sprawls, it is displacing native habitats. At the same time, suburban lawns and sports ovals offer appealing alternative spaces for some animals, particularly our largest and most mobile grazing species, the eastern grey kangaroo. Due in part to the near disappearance of the kangaroo's main natural predator, the dingo or wild dog, and declines in traditional Indigenous hunting, kangaroo populations have exploded over recent decades.
The annual killing by shooting of kangaroos is a slaughter of a creature intricately associated with Australia. The kangaroo is immortalized on our coat of arms, the logo of our world-renowned airline, Qantas, the star of the stilted but global hit '60s TV series "Skippy," not to mention a major a tourist drawcard.
Yet the Canberra government says the adaptable eastern grey also poses hazards as its numbers grow. While the government has been grappling with appropriate, effective and socially-acceptable responses to the kangaroos since the 1990s, in 2014, they categorized the eastern grey kangaroo as a "controlled native species," paving the way for culls to take place and becoming the first Australian government to publish a government policy on the marsupials and conservation. In May 2017, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government issued an updated management plan for the species. This plan identified three areas of concern regarding the proliferation of eastern grey kangaroos in the region: environmental, economic and social. The plan was finalized following community consultations which occurred earlier in the year.
The environmental concerns relate to claims of the overgrazing of native grasses by kangaroos, leading to further degradation of the habitat, and harm to threatened species like grassy woodland bird species, lizards and invertebrates. This includes birds that nest or rely on grassy ground cover for food and insects, such as the hooded robin and brown tree creeper, and reptilian grassland specialists such as the earless dragon, striped legless lizard, and pink tailed worm lizard. Threatened invertebrates include grassland specialists such as the golden sun moth and Perunga grasshopper. The grasses themselves and other small plant species that are difficult to locate and measure such as native orchids, lilies and daisies, are also under stress.
The economic and social concerns relate to rural business stress—particularly on rural farmlands overgrazed by kangaroos—as well as community concerns over the best ways to manage the kangaroo population. There's also the cost of road accidents and the distress caused to drivers—an Australian insurance company estimated that 90 percent of all road accidents involving animals across the ACT and Canberra region were caused by vehicles colliding with kangaroos. In winter, the collision rate increases, as days are shorter and visibility is decreased. Across the capital, roadsides are scattered with carcasses of large and small eastern greys until they are collected and disposed of.
The local ACT government has initiated what it considers to be a responsible response to the kangaroo issue. While their numbers are said to fluctuate considerably in Canberra and adjacent areas, the regional eastern grey population was said to be around 30,000 in 2017. More than 2,500 kangaroos were killed in the 2017 cull, an increase over the 2016 cull in which 2,000 were killed, including more than 500 pouch young known as joeys. The animals are culled on reserve land around the city. (Canberra isn't the only place where kangaroos are killed—some 1.6 million kangaroos were culled across Australia in 2015.)
The cull is divisive.
"No-one in government likes doing this, but as responsible land managers I think the community understands that we have a job to do here to get the ecological balance right," then ACT government Territories Minister and Green Party member Shane Rattenbury said of the culls in 2015 as reported in the local newspaper, The Canberra Times. "I think it is interesting that people who claim to be animal welfare activists are prepared to go and support just one species at the expense of other species such as birds and lizards, when in fact the whole ecosystem is under threat."
The ACT Conservation Council, a community environmental protection group, supports the cull. As explain in its policy stance: "In the absence of more effective existing alternatives, the Conservation Council recognises the need for culling in circumstances of demonstrated over-grazing and the need to protect endangered ecological communities and nature reserves that support a range of species."
Other wildlife and animal rights groups oppose the cull, citing lack of evidence that it actually protects the environment, concern that kangaroo populations are over-estimated, and objections over how the kangaroos are killed.
The Australian branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty against Animals (RSPCA) and local Animal Defenders Office are both against the cull. The RSPCA calls for the Federal and State and Territory governments to review their kangaroo management practices. The organization questions the necessity of the cull to protect other species, and is particularly concerned about the cruelty of how the kangaroos are shot, especially females with joeys in their pouch. These pouch young are supposed to be clubbed in the head or decapitated under the government management plan, but are often either shot, predated upon, or die slowly from hunger or thirst.
Animal Liberation ACT calls the cull by shooting "barbaric," and questions the ethics of killing healthy animals including their young.
Independent scientists also question the validity of the claim that excess numbers of eastern greys are causing habitat and species loss. In an interview The Canberra Times in 2016, Dr. Daniel Ramp, a conservation biologist, stated "There are populations of legless lizards doing perfectly well in areas where there are lots of kangaroos in Canberra. What we have is a reserve management issue, not a kangaroo management issue." Reserve management in this context relates to better management of the abundant wide swathes of government land and all the species that inhabit them.
Others have stated that the kangaroo's migration patterns, as well as factors that may be leading eastern greys to breed younger and faster, are not being studied or considered within the government plan.
In efforts to reach a more humane and socially acceptable management of kangaroos, a contraceptive for the eastern grey, called GonaCon, was developed by the federal government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. In conducting trials and refining delivery protocols for the contraceptive, the ACT government spent over AUD 600,000 (around $500,000 US). The contraceptive is delivered by injection, and is supposed to keep females infertile for up to six years.
Delivering the contraceptive is notoriously trickly, however, as kangaroos are agile and fast (they can bound at up to 60 kilometers, or just under 40 miles, an hour). In a trial, around 500 female eastern greys were injected with the contraceptive in 2017. Some hoped the cull would be cancelled as a result, but it proceeded.
If, as proponents of the cull claim, the numbers of eastern greys are increasing annually, despite repeated culls, surely this indicates that current measures are not working. Yet neither are the attempts to get widespread and effective use of the contraceptive. Given that there still is nowhere near agreement on whether or not the kangaroos are adversely affecting the biodiversity of the region, perhaps what's needed is more research and some new ideas for a more humane management program.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Faith Rudebusch
For 12,000 years, wolves have roamed Southeast Alaska's rugged Alexander Archipelago—a 300-mile stretch of more than 1,000 islands mostly within the Tongass National Forest. Now, their old-growth forest habitat is rapidly disappearing, putting the wolves at risk. As the region's logging policies garner controversy, a new study examines what the wolves need in order to survive.
Largely isolated from mainland wolves by water barriers and the Coast Mountains, the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) is widely considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf genetically distinct from other North American populations. In the 1990s and again in 2011, conservationists sought to protect the island wolves under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied these petitions—most recently, in January 2016.
Despite their decision not to list the subspecies, in their analysis, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service highlighted Prince of Wales Island as the area of greatest concern for the archipelago wolves, due primarily to impacts of logging and trapping. Bigger than the state of Delaware, Prince of Wales is the largest island in Southeast Alaska and the fourth-largest island in the U.S., after Hawaii, Kodiak Island and Puerto Rico. The island's lowland hills are blanketed with temperate rainforests of spruce and hemlock and strewn with winding rivers and fjords.
Much of Prince of Wales' scant human population of fewer than 5,500 residents makes its living from the island's natural resources—uranium mining, commercial fishing, hunting and harvesting timber. The Tongass, which covers most of the island, is the last national forest where the logging industry can legally clear-cut old-growth timber. "The trees are huge ... it's been the epicenter for the logging industry in Alaska," said Gretchen Roffler, a wildlife research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).
When commercial logging reached Prince of Wales in the 1950s, it hit full force. Between 1954 and 2004, 94 percent of the "contiguous, high-volume old-growth—the big trees, the really high-quality timber—was harvested," according to John Schoen, retired senior conservation biologist with ADF&G. "That's a huge impact."
"Prince of Wales Island is basically a patchwork of the remaining old-growth and then second-growth in various stages of reforestation," Roffler said. "Everything from clear-cuts to older second-growth."
Today, logging roads etch elaborate curlicues into the island's topography. The extensive road system provides hunters and trappers with easy access to the wolves, which are simultaneously prized for their pelts and regarded as competitors that steal hunters' deer. According to Roffler, 60 wolves were hunted or trapped last year, 2 illegally. The total number of wolves killed without permits is, of course, impossible to obtain. Roffler said that ADF&G estimated that 231 wolves inhabited Prince of Wales and surrounding smaller islands in the fall of 2017.
Although hunting and trapping have the potential to eradicate wolves in the short-term, habitat loss from logging poses an even greater long-term challenge for wolf survival, said Roffler, whose study of wolves on Prince of Wales was recently published in Forest Ecology and Management. Logging primarily affects wolves by reducing habitat for deer, their primary source of prey. To learn more about which pieces of the fragmented landscape the wolves tend to frequent, Roffler and her team distributed radio collars among 13 wolves in 7 packs. The radio collars transmitted wolf locations for up to two years per animal, allowing unprecedented insight into their movements.
Roffler and her colleagues found that the island wolves used a variety of habitats: open meadows, marshy muskegs, salmon streams and even recent clear-cuts seasonally accommodated these adaptable animals. Wolves avoided areas with high road densities during the spring denning season and summer, but strongly selected these areas during the winter. They spent much of the fall and winter hunting Sitka black-tailed deer in low-volume, old-growth forest. There, the tree canopies act as umbrellas, catching much of the snow. According to Schoen, deer need old-growth forests to access food during the winter.
Roffler's research showed that wolves, like deer in previous studies, consistently avoided younger forests. Logged 25 to 30-plus years ago, young-growth conifer forests replace clear-cuts in accordance with the ecological principle of succession. The trees' interlocking branches keep light from reaching the forest floor, where few plants are able to grow. Deer, along with most other wildlife, can find almost nothing to eat in such forests. Coined "succession debt" by scientists, this legacy from prior logging operations will impact wildlife for more than a century.
Wolves are considered habitat generalists, existing in a broad range of habitats and ecological conditions worldwide. "They live in deserts and outside of urban areas; they live in forests and out in the mountains and in the grasslands," said Roffler. "But they are really strongly avoiding the older clear-cuts on Prince of Wales Island. And that's significant because there's a lot of land area moving into that kind of forest."
In an attempt to salvage this new kind of habitat for wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service recently began pre-commercially thinning the trees. But the wolves in Roffler's study didn't show any preference for the thinned forests. "The thinning treatments… haven't been very effective at creating better habitat for wolves," Roffler said. "And when we say better habitat for wolves, we probably really mean better habitat for deer, because that's why wolves would most likely be going into these forests."
Roffler says that deer are wolves' primary food source. As deer populations decline, she predicts that wolves will switch to other forms of prey. She found that beavers, seasonally available salmon, bear cubs and adult bear carcasses (abandoned by hunters) all contribute to the island wolves' diets. But Schoen is less optimistic, stating that Prince of Wales residents depend on successful deer hunts to feed their families. He believes that as succession debt reduces deer populations, hunters will increasingly target wolves, legally or illegally, as they are perceived as depleting deer populations.
For decades, the Forest Service has struggled to reconcile the ecological value of 200- to 500-year-old trees with their economic value as timber. In December 2016, the agency, in consultation with scientists and members of the public, approved a 16-year plan to transition away from old-growth logging to the exclusive harvest of previously logged lands.
Alaska's Senator Lisa Murkowski and the logging industry don't like this plan. During a February roundtable discussion with Senator Murkowski, panelists lobbied to keep their access to the forest, according to Alaska Public Media. Timber company representatives pointed out that their lumber mills can't process smaller trees. Senator Murkowski pushed for riders to the 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill that would have voided the expiration date on old-growth logging and allowed new road construction in the Tongass (new roads are normally banned in National Forests); the bill passed without the riders.
"The timber industry wants to log the high-volume, big-tree stands," said Schoen. "It's like picking the M&Ms out of a bag of GORP." Since 2014, Schoen has collaborated with other preeminent scientists working to end clear-cutting in the old-growth forest. "I think, if the timber industry had the opportunity, they would continue clear-cutting the rare, big tree, old-growth forest in the Tongass for probably the next 10 to 15 years, until those valuable trees were gone. After that, they would pull out." Disheartened by how long the Forest Service has taken to protect these trees, he adds, "That kind of forestry is unsustainable and would do great damage to the fish and wildlife resources of the Tongass, the only national forest where old-growth is still allowed to be clear-cut."
Former chief of the Forest Service Mike Dombeck recently argued for protecting Tongass old-growth in the New York Times. Dombeck concluded, "To restart road building in Alaska's most pristine national forests will only repeat history, leading to more lawsuits and uncertainty while undercutting the region's economic bases of fishing and tourism."
"I think there's a serious conservation concern," said Schoen. "The science community recognizes that old-growth forests are rare. They're highly valuable, not just for deer or wolves or marbled murrelets or goshawks. They're valuable really as an endangered ecosystem."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
By Maia Danks
The U.S. military has plans to create genetically modified marine organisms that can be used as underwater spies for the military. Fantastic as this idea may seem, the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has actually launched a new program that aims to tap into the "natural sensing capabilities" of marine organisms, who are highly attuned to their surroundings, to track enemy traffic undersea.
The project out of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, called the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program hopes to use everything from bacteria to large fish to find underwater vehicles by recording the creatures' natural reactions to these vehicles and sending the data to an outside base.
A recent press release about the program said it would "study natural and modified organisms (emphasis added) to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles."
"Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone," the release said, explaining the program's reasoning. "Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains—tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark."
The program is currently seeking proposals that would help capture the responses of marine organisms—both natural and transgenic—to the presence of underwater vehicles, interpret those responses and relay them to a network of hardware devices.
It is unclear right now as to how this will happen. DARPA has stated that "intelligent mammals" and endangered species will not be used in the experiments or in the program itself, but it has been vague as to how it defines "intelligent mammals." Questions as to the involvement of dolphins and other marine mammals arise, particularly since the U.S. Navy, is notorious for holding nearly 100 dolphins captive in San Diego, conducting experiments on them and using them for military purposes.
Though the program states that if any modified organisms are used it would require "appropriate environmental safeguards to support future deployment," it is highly likely that a genetically modified marine organism released into the ocean will interbreed with an organism of the same (or similar) species whose genes hadn't been tinkered with. And as the animals breed with each other, they will cause more and more of their kind to adopt the genetically modified traits. With time, the entire ocean could be filled with GM creatures and that could lead to changes in marine ecosystems that we can't even begin to anticipate.
DARPA has said it would create and test modified species strictly in "contained, biosecure facilities." But as this VICE report points out, "to actually deploy modified species, the military would have to release them into the wild, where they could drive out, outeat, or outbreed unmodified species."
Another worry with genetically modified sea creatures is the likelihood that humans will consume them. With the amount of fishing and by-catch that currently happens around the world, it is inevitable that many people will end up consuming the GM animals. (While there has been no conclusive evidence linking GM food to negative health impacts, concerns remain that GMOs may cause yet unknown genetic changes, allergies or other serious harm to human health.)
These concerns apart, forcing these creatures to be spies for the U.S. military is inherently, morally wrong. No animal should be a tool for the military. Animals should not be treated as objects that can be altered and used for their natural gifts. They should be valued for what they are, and for being a part of ocean ecosystems.
It is clear that DARPA needs to stop this program. As the creators of the program, it has the ability to discontinue it and place its resources and abilities in more beneficial areas of technology. It needs to understand that the repercussions of a program like this will affect more than just the military; it will hurt the ocean, its creatures and the people who depend on it.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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By Brooke Maree Williams
Bordered by Devon and Somerset counties and dropping away steeply to the Bristol Channel, the hilly, open moorland of Exmoor in southwest England is a place of freezing wet winters with driving winds. Vegetation here is tough and of little nutritional value. Only the hardiest of creatures endure in this harsh environment. The Exmoor pony is one of them, though it's currently listed as "endangered" by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Unique among the mountain and moorland breeds, Exmoor ponies are distinctly recognizable by their uniform bay, brown or dun color and lighter, oatmeal-colored markings around their nose and eyes. The hair on their coats is set in such a way that water simply runs off their backs, away from their eyes and other vulnerable body parts. Their coats in winter are composed of two different layers—fine, springy hairs grow against the skin providing an insulation layer, while the top layer is coarse, greasy and water-repellant. Snow falling on their bodies simply sits until it is shaken off, rather than melt and cause precious body heat to be lost.
During winter, the Exmoor pony's winter coat is composed of two different layers, which allows it to retain body heat during the English moor's freezing wet winters.Thomas Haeusler
It is believed that these ponies derive from the original prehistoric horse that made the trek from Alaska to Britain some 130,000 years ago. There is mention of the ponies of Exmoor as early on as in the Domesday Book—a manuscript record of the "Great Survey" of much of England and parts of Wales completed in AD 1086. Along with the Przewalski's horse of Mongolia, these primitive ponies provide an insight into what the original horses must have looked like many thousands of years ago.
"Their characteristics all represent adaptations to surviving harsh elements, living on poor food supply and avoiding predators; none even hint at people selectively breeding them for an unnatural purpose," said Sue Baker, author of Exmoor Ponies: Survival of the Fittest.
"Their history suggests that they are minimally altered from the indigenous British wild pony and were the raw material for the development of many, if not all, the other British native pony breeds. Their genes are therefore the reservoir of all that is required for a free-living pony. Not only has the primitive appearance survived in the Exmoor but also natural behaviors in terms of herd life, food selection and survival instincts. Given enough of the right habitat, they have no need of us."
These tough little animals were initially known as "horsebeasts" due to their robustness and strength. Initially, they roamed free in Exmoor, which for many centuries was a designated royal hunting forest where the king or queen of England and their cohort could hunt red deer. The isolation of the moor helped maintain the breed's genetic integrity. The number of ponies on the moor varied over the years, rising to about 1,000 at times according to records, and they were managed by a warden, along with the cattle and sheep that were grazed on the moor. After Exmoor was sold to private owners in 1818, many of these ponies were sold to individuals and were used on farms for ploughing, pulling carts and for transportation. Some of these ponies also became the foundations for new breeding programs. However, the majority of the herds still roamed free on the moor in designated areas.
The Exmoor Pony Society was established in 1921 to watch over the preservation of the breed and ensure that they remained an important part of their natural habitat. Popularity of the Exmoor as children's ponies peaked in the 1930's, largely due to the success of the books written by Golden Gorse and the future of the breed appeared to be quite solid.
Before the World War II began in 1939, the wild ponies on the moor numbered around 500. But the War brought tragedy for the breed. While some ponies served their country in mounted home guard units, many more became casualties of war. Gates to the moors and private paddocks were left open, ponies were used as target practice and stolen by hungry nearby city-dwellers. By the time the War ended in 1945 there were just 50 Exmoor ponies left on the moor. The breed was at great risk of extinction and if it were not for the dedication and work of a number of conservation groups and individuals it may not have recovered.
It was a joint effort bringing the breed back from the brink. With so few ponies left, it was imperative that genetic diversity was maintained as much as possible and that the resilience of the breed was kept intact.
Mary Etherington from the Royal Dick Veterinary College was a keen supporter of the breed and helped raise national awareness of the importance of the preservation of the breed, including getting London Zoo to exhibit two ponies in 1948 to help bring attention to the dire situation these animals were in. The Exmoor Pony Society put in place strict quality control and inspection protocols to preserve the integrity of the breed while bringing the numbers back up.
Today, about 150 Exmoor ponies roam free on the moor and many more are being reared on farms in other parts of the United Kingdom. There are around 500 breeding mares and 100 licensed stallions throughout England, and about 3,000 Exmoor ponies worldwide. But though their numbers are on the rise they are still recognized as a rare breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the Farm Animal Genetic Resource Committee.
They are regularly rounded up for health checkups, which include procedures such as worming and hoof trimming. Young ponies are often captured and sold at auctions to private owners or stud farms. Recently the ponies have been doing well at the prestigious Horse of the Year Show in Britain.
In recent years, there has been a growing understanding of the ponies' conservation value as well. The characteristics that make them so well adapted to the harsh conditions of the moor has proven to be instrumental in maintaining the integrity of that landscape. Their strong jaws, for instance, enable them to survive on poor quality vegetation such as gorse, shrubs and coarse grasses, while leaving the more delicate flora alone.
"For conservation purposes they have a number of things in their favor," said Susanna Baker who works with the Yorkshire Exmoor Pony Trust, a charity that grazes these ponies in various locations around Yorkshire. "They are independent, self-sufficient and adapted to British conditions." Baker has a working knowledge of these ponies and sees them as a valuable asset to environmental conservation.
"They thrive on poor forage and do a sterling job eating vigorous vegetation that out-competes more fragile plants," she said. Baker also explains that while other mountain and moorland breeds may be suitable depending on the local conditions, the Exmoor have not been bred to suit a human purpose or human perception of beauty and are closer to a wild pony than other breeds.
Today, wild Exmoor pony herds are managed throughout Britain. A herd was even exported to the Czech Republic in 2014 in an effort to re-introduce wild ponies over there. That program was such a success that in 2015 a second consignment of ponies was sent there. The aim of this particular project is to revitalize land in the Czech Republic that has been over-farmed and restore it to its former beauty and productiveness.
In most parts of the world true wild-type horses and ponies are non-existent, being either wiped out through hunting or their native characteristics bred out via human selection. The ponies are not only a benefit to the environment but their presence attracts visitors and creates awareness around environmental conservation. When asked about the future of the breed, Sue responds: "Exmoors inspire great devotion and so the breed will probably be secure in terms of overall numbers."
The grazing Exmoor pony herds in other parts of the United Kingdom give the breed extra insurance, for if a natural disaster or disease were to wipe out the main populations on Exmoor, the breed's genetics would not be lost. These tough little ponies, though still classed as rare and endangered, are definitely on the way up and will hopefully be around for many years to come.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
By Matt Blois
A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess's door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.
"Shortly thereafter the lights went out," he said. "Then the engine came around and on the loud speaker said you must evacuate."
Frank DeMartino—who runs a shop in Ventura that sells bird feeders and birdseed—has organized the last three counts in Ventura. He started the 2017 Christmas Bird Count in Ventura harbor.Matt Blois
Burgess and his wife drove to a friend's house in a different part of town. The first night, they just wanted to know that their home was safe, and thankfully it was. The Thomas Fire burned many of their neighbors' homes that night, but their cul-de-sac was spared. Burgess spent the two weeks following the fire living at a friend's house, organizing the northern sector of Ventura's annual Christmas Bird Count.
The count in Ventura was originally scheduled for Dec. 17, 2017 but the Thomas Fire—now the largest ever recorded in California—burned more than half of the survey area, and organizers had to postpone it until Dec. 30, 2017 because they couldn't get to many of the those areas.
For the first few weeks of December, smoke filled the Ojai Valley where Burgess leads a count, and fire crews had taken over the Lake Casitas Campground where groups normally search for birds by boat. Even weeks after the worst of the fire had passed, the city of Ventura wouldn't let the birders into several parks damaged by the fire. While the fire made it difficult to organize the count, surveying birds immediately after the fire also presented a unique opportunity.
With nearly four decades of Christmas Bird Count data from Ventura, scientists will be able to compare this year's observations with historical data to understand how birds respond to fire. While the fire was devastating for the people who lost their homes, many species of wildlife in Southern California are adapted to live with fire and in some cases take advantage of it. For scientists, it can be difficult to find funding for research immediately following a fire, but citizen scientists like the volunteers at the Christmas Bird Count can fill that gap.
Every year since 1900 bird lovers across the U.S. have ventured out into their communities around Christmas to count birds, reporting their observations to the Audubon Society so that scientists can use the data. Birdwatchers in Ventura started collecting data in 1980.
This year, Frank DeMartino—who has organized the last three counts in Ventura—started at the Ventura harbor. DeMartino runs a shop in Ventura that sells bird feeders and birdseed. About 10 others showed up to help count.
The Thomas Fire was still burning in parts of the Los Padres National Forest on the count day, but near the beach there were few obvious signs of it. Instead of looking for clues about the fire in burn areas, DeMartino looked for birds.
He spotted a small, grey bird flitting through the branches of a tree near a freshwater pond. It had a dark black eyebrow and a yellow stripe on top of its head. Much to his delight, it was a species he had only seen once before, a golden crowned kinglet. "These birds are usually in the mountains," DeMartino said. "You can draw whatever conclusions you like from that."
While it's hard to find a pattern in one unusual bird, DeMartino said it's possible that some of the species that normally live in the hills above Ventura have temporarily moved to the unburned areas in town. He made a special effort this year to get more people to count birds in their backyards because he suspected that's where many displaced birds might have gone.
Mark Mendelsohn, a biologist for Mountains Restoration Trust who works closely with the National Parks Service in Southern California, said birds likely did flee to urban areas or islands of vegetation within the burn. "Obviously, the ones that can will often fly away," he said. "Wildlife—including birds—kind of hunker down or take refuge in those unburned areas." He said fires don't generally kill birds directly because they can usually escape the flames. It's when the birds start returning to burned areas that fires really start to affect them.
Mendelsohn had published a study in the journal Fire Ecology in 2008 showing that changes in vegetation following a fire can affect which species inhabit a burn area. The study found that for several sites near San Diego the diversity of bird species stayed about the same following a large fire, and in one area diversity actually increased. However, the fires did reduce shrub and tree cover in two types of shrub habitat, opening up a landscape that was previously covered with vegetation.
Birds that prefer areas with lots of vegetative cover—such as wrentits and spotted towhees—started to disappear from areas of burned coastal sage scrub. Meanwhile, birds like lazuli buntings, which prefer open areas, started to show up in areas of burned chaparral that normally have lots of vegetative cover.
However, getting this kind of information immediately following a fire can be difficult, Mendelsohn's study, for instance, used bird survey data collected before the fires, but the researchers didn't survey birds again until about 18 months after the fire.
Marti Witter, a fire scientist with the National Parks Service in Southern California, said it's hard for scientists to start a study right after a fire because they can't plan for it ahead of time. When they start a new project, scientists normally need to apply for grants and design experiments. By they time the study starts, much of the interesting data has already come and gone.
"Some of the best studies have data starting a year after, a year and a half after," she said. "People are not going out and doing surveys immediately post fire … You're missing the manpower and research infrastructure to go out and do it in those first few months."
Witter said that's where citizen scientists, like the birders from the Christmas Bird Count, can step in. Citizen scientists don't need to wait for grants, they can start studying the effects of fire as soon as it's safe.
At the end of the Christmas Bird Count in Ventura, all the birders gathered at a church near the edge of the burn area. Everyone brought some food, and there were ice chests with beer and wine. Volunteers sat around folding tables telling war stories while they ate dinner. Eventually, Frank DeMartino called for everyone's attention towards the front of the room. He started reading off the names of all the bird species in the county. Participants shouted out if they had seen the bird that day, and DeMartino checked off the species they found. He tallied 172 species, more than many were expecting given the low turnout after the fire.
In many ways it wasn't that different from any other year. The most notable observation was DeMartino's sighting of the golden crowned kinglet, but in general volunteers found the same species they normally do.
While the Thomas fire destroyed hundreds of homes, and killed a firefighter, most of the birds had apparently kept on living. They flew out of harm's way into unburned patches of forest or into backyards in Ventura County. As the vegetation starts to regenerate, they'll slowly return to the hills they normally inhabit where another group of birders will find them in a future Christmas Bird Count.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
By Bibi Farber
The food you ate today was probably sold in plastic packaging, the vehicle you transport yourself in has plastic components, be that a car, bus, bike, train, plane, boat, kayak ... the computer you are reading this article on, even the charger and the wall socket protector … just look around.
It wasn't always this way. We have seen an explosion in the last 65 years. From 1950 to 2013, plastic production went from 1.7 million tons to 300 million tons a year. Then consider that all the plastic that has been produced since its inception is still here. It has not biodegraded, it has not been absorbed by the earth. It is, on the contrary, leaching toxic chemicals and causing destruction to the ecosystem on an unprecedented scale, choking and poisoning our ecological balance.
The dangers are visible, obvious and urgent–and paradoxically, microscopic, out of sight and not of great concern to the mainstream.
As a culture, we have been duped into thinking that recycling is enough of a step in the right direction. Certainly, any plastic we can keep out of the landfills and oceans is great, for whatever time that item is reused or recycled. But it simply postpones the plastic's destructive path and does not mitigate the damage. It's estimated only 25 percent of plastic is recycled anyway. The U.S. has one of the lowest overall recycling rates of any developed nation.
Worse, it keeps us consuming the stuff because we believe if we are recycling, it's ok.
It is not ok. According to The Davos Report by the World Economic Forum the oceans will contain, by weight, more plastic than fish by 2050. And, 77 percent of manmade waste that enters the ocean stays at the bottom. The waste enters the oceans via streams, rivers, drainage and all manner of marine vessels and fishing activities. Looking at the water's surface, you'd never know you're looking at a garbage patch. It's the microscopic plastic particles, small as a grain of salt, which fish mistake for food. The damage is vast: There are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every single square mile of the ocean, the United Nations Environment Program reported.
The anti-plastics movement is now evolving from simply recycling. Today the goal is to radically reduce our collective plastic footprint, with a major shift in lifestyle and some promising new earth-friendly materials.
Here are some options:
1. Innovative Natural Packaging: Mushrooms Replace Styrofoam
While polystyrene, known as styrofoam, takes thousands of years to decompose, a new mushroom-mycelium packaging made by Ecovative Design, can be disposed of simply by throwing it in the compost where it will biodegrade within weeks. It's solid, does not smell and can be "grown" to fit any package specifications. It's even edible, but perhaps not so tasty! Companies like IKEA and computer giant Dell are already using this amazing product.
Exciting developments are on the horizon for one of the strongest fibers known to man. Plastic can now be derived from plant cellulose. At least 16 U.S. states have legalized industrial hemp production for commercial purposes and 20 states have passed laws allowing research and pilot programs. Hemp is an extremely efficient crop that grows up to 60 feet in just 90 days. It requires few pesticides and no herbicides.
The company Hemp Plastic has a composite material that can be molded for any number of plastic items. Hemp plastic is said to be 5 times stiffer and 2.5 times stronger than polypropylene plastic, which is used in everything from packaging, to lab equipment and textiles. There are thousands of plastic replacement hemp products on the market right now, including for furniture, electronics, fiberglass and other construction materials. Even door panels of some BMW's, Mercedes and Bugatti are manufactured using a hemp fiber basis.
3. Renewable Wood Pulp
Innovia, headquartered in the United Kingdom created NatureFlex products. They look like any plastic food packaging that one might expect to be used for nuts or dried fruit. However they are made from sustainably sourced, renewable wood pulp. They have a high moisture barrier and are fully biodegradable, even in the ocean. In 2010, the company tested its products in seawater and discovered that nearly all disintegrated within four weeks.
Bioplastics are a new type of plastic made from plants. Though there is much less carbon dioxide produced during production, it does have a product footprint. Bioplastics also release carbon dioxide during the biodegrading process and do not biodegrade easily in all environments. Some in fact, do not biodegrade at all. However, they are less toxic than regular plastics.
5. Make it Package Free
Since we can't easily find products packaged in eco-friendly wood cellulose, hemp or mushroom mycelium in our stores just yet, the best place to start is to be aware of all packaging and make every effort to reduce it.
Beginning in Germany, but now all over the world "packaging free" stores are emerging. These stores are designed to sell items in bulk, from pinto beans to hair conditioner. Just bring your own containers, weigh them, fill them up and pay by the pound as you check out. But we don't have to wait for a new store to open. Many health food stores are implementing this system for the items in the bulk section, so you can say goodbye to hundreds of pounds of extraneous packaging (glass, metal, paper and plastic) right away.
Lauren Singer lives a Zero Waste lifestyle in NYC. She is one of the founders of The Package Free Shop, a retail store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "We offer everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle in one place," she says. "For us living a package free life means that we are avoiding single use plastic and disposable products to the best of our ability."
In the store, you will find products like bamboo toothbrushes, re-useable cotton rounds for sustainable make up application and removal, and remember those stainless steel ice trays? Just pull the lever and the ice pops out perfectly every time. They sell steel airtight food containers and glass, organic cotton or bamboo replacements for hundreds of household items. Beauty and personal care products are sold in bulk, and in tins and glass jars. They also ship the goods to you, completely without plastic! All shipping materials are 100 percent recyclable and 100 percent compostable. Even the tape is made of paper.
Search here for packaging free stores in the U.S. and Canada: Litterless
Search here for packaging free stores worldwide: Bepakt
Life Without Plastic is another great example of a one stop online shop for safe, high quality ethically sourced, stylish and earth friendly alternatives to plastic products. You can see how to easily replace all that plastic in your kitchen. Use what you have—but there is no need to ever bring home any more.
Take a few minutes to look online at the thousands of new companies now making the plastic free life practical and affordable. Women's make up and personal care products no longer require relentless plastic consumption. How about flip flops made from natural rubber? Purrfect Play makes a whole line of plastic free pet toys.
7. Zero Waste Lifestyle
Zero waste is a term that rallies the goal that all waste will be recycled, composted, repurposed, and preferably never produced in the first place. There are zero waste restaurants and hotels, even stadiums and conference centers. Cities from Buenos Aires to Taiwan to San Francisco have passed zero waste resolutions, with innovative and ambitious plans to reduce consumption, extend recycling, and increase composting.
Zero waste is a revolution in the relationship between waste and people. It is a new way of thinking: There is no "away" when we throw away. We're just parking it somewhere else, at a tremendous cost.
With every purchase you make, consider the importance of the plastic-free future. A few things may cost a few more dollars initially. But the rewards of establishing a new precedent for how we shop, package, eat and consume have never mattered more. When it comes to plastic, it will always be here. Support the alternatives, starting now.
Learn more about the many impacts of plastic pollution at Earth Island's Plastic Pollution Coalition.
Bibi Farber is a songwriter and musician who feels passionately about environmental issues. For four years she published a daily video blog NextworldTV, (still online at www.nextworldtv.com) on topics ranging from food politics and homesteading skills to alternative energy and other solutions for a sustainable future: www.bibifarber.com.Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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By Sabrina Gyorvary
Auntie Punleu has spent most of her life on Koh Dambang, an island set in the middle of the Mekong River in Cambodia. A small, grandmotherly woman, she paints an idyllic picture of life there.
"We catch fish as our main food every day. We eat fish nearly six days a week," she said. With her gentle strength and keen knowledge of community affairs, people on the island look to her as a natural leader. "My children and grandchildren have enough food to eat every day and they are healthy. We do not need to spend money to buy fish. We do not need to beg people for them. They come naturally from the river."
The Mekong River is threatened by a mega-dam project in the Sambor District, one of 11 large hydropower dams planned for the river's lower mainstream.International Rivers
A few kilometers away, Uncle Songom, a resident of the quiet riverside village of Svay Chek, echoed Punleu: "My family have enough food and my children are healthy because of the Mekong River."
Punleu's story is replicated up and down the riverbanks. The livelihoods and cultures of 60 million people in the lower Mekong Basin are intimately connected with the Mekong River's natural cycles. Boasting one of the world's most diverse and productive inland fisheries, the Mekong supplies people in the region with approximately 80 percent of their protein needs. For families living on the margin, the river is an invaluable source of both protein and income.
But this vital lifeline is now at risk, and families like those of Punleu and Songom face an uncertain future. Regional governments are pushing forward a series of large-scale hydropower dam projects that are threatening the Mekong's abundant fisheries, and consequently the food supply of millions.
This past September saw the inauguration of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, a project that fisheries experts warn will block fish migrations on two of the major tributaries of the Mekong River, the Sesan and Srepok rivers, causing a 9.3 percent drop in fish biomass for the entire river basin. The dam is also expected to flood 36,000 hectares, displacing about 5,000 people. The plans for these large-scale projects are typically conceived and approved in secret, and the communities who stand to lose the most are never consulted.
Free Online Tool Lets You Assess Dam Projects Around the World https://t.co/ydZDlPBf5b @worldresources @FuturePowerG— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1502488861.0
Punleu's island is now facing inundation by one such project: the proposed Sambor Dam. The dam would be located on the Mekong River's mainstream at Sambor town, Kratie Province, Cambodia. This would be one of 11 large hydropower dams planned for the Mekong River's lower mainstream. (In total, some 200 dams are already built, under construction, or planned on the Mekong River system.)
The dams that clogged rivers in the American west in the twentieth century decimated salmon populations, blocking their access to traditional spawning grounds. Now it looks like the same sort of catastrophe is headed for the Mekong, but on an even larger scale. The Sambor Dam alone would block major fish migrations between Southern Laos and Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, destroy critical deep pool fish habitats, and interrupt the river's hydrological, sediment, and nutrient cycles, impacting the river's wider ecology.
Combined, the 11 dams on the lower Mekong would block the major fish migrations that are essential to the life cycle of around 70 percent of the Mekong River's commercial fish catch. This would result in a total estimated fishery loss of 26 to 42 percent, placing at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people.
This would be devastating to Cambodia food security. The country's per capita consumption of inland fish is among the highest in the world and its people depend on fish for nearly three-quarters of their protein intake. According to one estimate, Cambodian fishers pull between 289,000 to 431,000 tons from the Mekong every year.
And impacts would extend beyond those to fish. In addition to providing Cambodia's main source of protein, the Mekong supplies water for the cultivation of rice in an area where irrigated land is scarce. "We can grow rice even in the dry season by pumping water from the river to our rice paddies," Puleau explained. "The river is absolutely essential to us."
The Mekong River supplies water for the cultivation of rice, as well as for drinking and other household uses. International Rivers
The Mekong also serves as the community's only reliable source of water for drinking and household use. "The river is central to our daily lives," said Bunleap, a homemaker and mother of three on Pdau Island. "Not only do we bring water from the river to cultivate our rice fields and vegetable gardens, we also use it for cleaning, cooking and drinking."
Dams upstream are already changing the river, and the area's residents are no longer able to count on the Mekong to meet their needs.
Just five years ago, Punleu's son-in-law could earn 300,000 Riel (US $75) per fishing trip. He made two to three trips per week. This income provided a critical safety net, helping the family cope with unexpected shocks such as hospital bills. Now her son-in-law earns only 100,000 Riel (US $25) per trip—his income has declined by two-thirds.
When asked about the reason for this sharp decline, Punleu said, "I suspect upstream dams could be one of the reasons." So far, seven megadams have been built on the upper Mekong in China, and construction is well underway on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in neighboring Lao PDR. Despite these projects' profound impacts on the food security of Cambodia, they have proceeded with no transboundary environmental impact assessments, and no consultation with affected communities downstream. "I need more information regarding these dams' impacts," said Punleu.
Bunleap's family is also finding it harder to catch fish. Five years ago, the fish they caught for sale provided a crucial source of income. "Now we usually only catch enough fish to eat within our family, and sometimes, we don't even catch enough to eat," she said. "I don't know why. Now we sometimes have to buy fish to cook. My husband has had to change his career from fishing to work as a logger."
Punleu, too, is seeing more family members go off to the forest to log trees. She's saddened by this turn of events, and well aware of the unsustainability of this new enterprise. "What career will we have in our village when there are no more forests to log?" she asked. "In the future, if this decrease in fish continues, making a living will become more and more difficult, and my children's nutrition will suffer. This could really harm my children's health."
Punleu's fears are well founded. A 2013 report financed by Danida, Oxfam, and the World Wildlife Fund shows that the combined impact of mainstream dams and population growth could reduce consumption of fish in Cambodia from 49 kilograms per person per year to as little as two kilograms by 2030. This would have a profound impact on child nutrition in a country where nearly 40 percent of children under five are chronically malnourished, more than 28 percent are underweight, and roughly 11 percent are acutely malnourished.
Songom shares Punleu's concern. "If the fishing gets any worse, I'm scared that I won't be able to feed my family," he said. "I am worried that my children and grandchildren won't have enough food to eat every day, and that they'll get sick."
Five years ago, many people in Bunleap and Songom's villages caught fish not only for their daily meals, but also to make supplemental foods like prohok (fermented fish) that can be stored long-term. For many poorer Cambodians, prohok is the only affordable source of complete protein available year-round, and it's crucial to the country's most vulnerable communities.
Fish and fish products like prohok are critical sources of iron. Already in Cambodia, an estimated 70 percent of pregnant women and 74 percent of children under the age of five suffer from iron deficiencies. Iron shortages rob people of energy, ultimately perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
A decline in fish could also result in weakened muscles and bones associated with calcium deficiency; body-wasting and memory-loss associated with zinc deficiency; decreased resistance to disease from insufficient Vitamin A; and mental retardation caused by too little iodine.
Food security is a foundation on which other important forms of development are built, and wild-capture fisheries are a vital source of nutrients to rural families throughout the Mekong region. As such, protection of wild-capture fisheries should be central to poverty-reduction efforts.
Cambodia still has time to pull back from this path. The Cambodian government could embrace the innovative renewable and decentralized electricity technologies like wind and solar, which are now available and cost-competitive, and could help Cambodia avoid these large-scale and destructive mega-dam projects. By adopting national energy policies that encourage investment in these new energy technologies, the Mekong governments could start growing sustainable, modern economies without losing the many benefits that healthy rivers bring. Punleu, for one, would thank them.
All names have been changed to protect people's identities.
Sabrina Gyorvary is the Mekong Program Coordinator for the global river protection group International Rivers.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
By Stephen Wells
For more than six years, the Animal Legal Defense Fund fought tirelessly to save a tiger named Tony from a cage in the parking lot of a Louisiana truck stop. Sadly, we received news last week that Tony had died of kidney failure after spending 16 years confined to his cage, living and dying as a roadside attraction. Tony's plight is a microcosm of the problems with our legal system, a system that treats sentient beings as property and affords disproportionate political influence to their captors and abusers.
Tony was born into captivity, sentenced from birth to a life of exploitation, a gimmick used by his owner Michael Sandlin to sell gasoline at the Tiger Truck Stop. It doesn't take a degree in veterinary medicine to know that a truck stop is no place for a tiger. But veterinarians and animal behaviorists weighed in emphatically on Tony's behalf. Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a doctor of veterinary medicine with decades of experience with captive large cats, personally visited Tony and concluded that he was "exploited to the detriment of his welfare."
Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, concluded that Tony's enclosure was completely unnatural and totally unfit, and that the manner in which Tony was kept at the Tiger Truck Stop fell significantly below the bare minimum required to ensure his psychological welfare.
The state legislature and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) recognized that keeping wild animals in captivity causes immense animal suffering and threatens public safety, so they banned the private possession of tigers. But the agency bowed to pressure from the Tiger Truck Stop and issued it a grandfather permit to keep Tony in spite of the ban.
In early 2011—moved by Tony's suffering and the passion of his supporters—we sued LDWF, arguing that the truck stop wasn't eligible for a grandfather permit. And we won. The trial court ruled that because the truck stop violated a local ordinance prohibiting the ownership and exhibition of tigers, it couldn't qualify for a permit. The court ordered LDWF to revoke the permit and prohibited it from issuing any new permits. The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision, leaving the Tiger Truck Stop and Michael Sandlin with an unlawfully possessed tiger and no permit to keep him.
That should have been the end of it.
LDWF should have seized Tony and sent him to a sanctuary where he could have lived out the last six years with grass under his paws, fresh air in his lungs and caretakers who prioritized his well-being. Instead, Tony would spend the next six years as a victim to a lethargic legal system that failed him at every turn, notwithstanding the indefatigable efforts of his legal advocates.
What Went Wrong?
At the root of the problem is the fact that in the U.S., animals are property. And any time one asserts the rights of property against the rights of its owner, the game is rigged. Tony's "owner," Michael Sandlin, was able to exploit a narrative of private property rights under siege, claiming over and over again that he had a God-given right as an American to own a tiger.
Sandlin even filed his own lawsuit, arguing that Louisiana's ban on tigers violates his property rights. We intervened against Sandlin in the case to defend the ban and the right of the government to prohibit the inhumane captivity of wild animals. The case has been pending for more than five years. Although we expect Sandlin's lawsuit to lose, as a delay-tactic to keep Tony trapped at the truck stop, it succeeded spectacularly.
Another troublesome aspect of our legal system also doomed Tony to die at the truck stop: The undue influence of money in politics and the corruption of the political process by those who abuse animals.
In 2014, Sandlin convinced his state senator, Rick Ward, to introduce a bill to exempt Tony—and only Tony—from the state ban on big cats. The bill carved out a retroactive exemption to place Sandlin above the law that applies to all other Louisiana citizens, co-opting the legislature to undo the legal victory that revoked the truck stop's permit.
Despite our on-the-ground efforts to stop the bill in Baton Rouge, it passed and was signed into law by then-governor Bobby Jindal. We challenged the new law as an unconstitutional "special law"—a giveaway to a private special interest at the expense of the public interest. But the lawsuit was bounced on a procedural technicality to a different court, then languished, awaiting a ruling from the court that didn't come quickly enough to spare Tony.
All told, we filed four lawsuits, intervened in a fifth lawsuit, and fought legislatively for Tony's freedom. Tragically, it wasn't enough to overcome the lethargy of the courts to act—and the corruption of Louisiana politics.
But we will hold our grief over Tony's death in our hearts and our memories as we continue to fight to prevent Michael Sandlin and the Tiger Truck Stop from replacing Tony with another tiger, and as we fight for the liberation of other wild animals from cruel captivity.
While we have had numerous legal victories for captive wildlife—from lions to tigers to bears and more—we remain committed to fighting for animals using the laws we do have—while simultaneously working to transform the legal system to recognize the obvious: Animals are more than just "property."
By Ron Johnson
Last week, energy company TransCanada pulled the plug on its 2,800-mile Energy East Pipeline and Eastern Mainline projects, which would have shipped 1.1 million barrels of crude oil from the Athabasca tar sands to refineries in eastern Canada. The move was celebrated as a victory by environmentalists and Indigenous people pushing for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
"This is a tremendous battle victory in the greater fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground and for climate justice for Indigenous nations," Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network's Keep It In The Ground project, said in a statement.
The announcement, Goldtooth said, "supports the validity and strength of an Indigenous rights-based approach to win these battles. All along the Energy East pipeline route First Nations took a stand to defend their inherent rights, protect their water and Mother Earth and resist the colonial actions of Canada and its oil regime."
TransCanada Terminates Energy East Pipeline https://t.co/TGs1QvRyuI @Greenpeace @Sierra_Magazine— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1507327512.0
But the work is far from over—three other massive tar sands pipeline projects representing millions of barrels of oil per day loom in the distance.
Depending on who you talk to, there are a few explanations for TransCanada ending the billion-dollar Energy East project, which happens to be the second major pipeline project to be cancelled following the end of the $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline in 2016. Theories include relentless resistance, especially from Indigenous communities whose traditional territories and waters were located on or near the pipeline route, as well as over-regulation by various levels of government and forecasts of a continuing dip in global oil prices and production that made the project less economically attractive.
The Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, a coalition of First Nations and Native American tribes across North America, attributed the pipeline's demise to grassroots activism.
"Both the Northern Gateway fight and this Energy East one show that when First Nations stand together, supported by non-Indigenous allies, we win," Grand Chief Serge Simon of the Mohawk Council of Kanestake said on behalf of the Treaty Alliance.
TransCanada, however, said the decision to abandon the project had less to do with the protests and land claims and more about not wanting to deal with a more stringent and unclear regulatory framework.
In a letter (pdf) to the National Energy Board upon cancellation of Energy East, TransCanada explained that "there remains substantial uncertainty around the scope, timing and cost associated with the regulatory review of the Projects." It said that due to "the existing and likely future delays resulting from the regulatory process, the associated cost implications and the increasingly challenging issues and obstacles facing the Projects, the Applicants will not be proceeding."
There is little doubt that since the 2016 election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has stepped up its regulatory and environmental assessment efforts. Trudeau's government made serious commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change as well as to the rights of the country's First Nations. For instance, the government required that both the upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions be considered during the approvals process for Energy East, and for all other pipeline projects in the country.
Proponents of Energy East, including the opposition Conservative Party of Canada, criticized Trudeau's government for bungling the pipeline project by piling too many reviews and regulations on TransCanada, and costing the country thousands of jobs and a massive injection into the economy. "Terrible news this morning about Energy East pipeline. Make no mistake, Justin Trudeau is to blame," was the word from newly elected Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, the day the news became public.
But Jim Carr, Canada's minister of natural resources, defended the government's position. "TransCanada Pipelines' decision to cancel the Energy East Pipeline project was a business decision," he said in a statement, emphasizing that three additional pipeline projects are currently either under construction or close to it: TransCanada's Keystone XL; Enbridge's Line 3 replacement project between Hardisty, Alberta and Superior, Wisconsin and American energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
"Our government has two major export pipelines that are now under construction, and a third is expected to start soon," he said. "The Trans Mountain expansion and Line 3 projects alone represent over $11.6 billion in investment and will support thousands of jobs."
Global oil prices have indeed weakened since 2014, and as a result the forecast for future oil production has been lowered to the point where if all pipelines were built, there would be competition to keep them all at capacity. According to University of Alberta's Andrew Leach, Canada will have more than enough pipeline capacity to handle future growth if the last three pipelines are completed. One of the pipelines is TransCanada's Keystone XL, so why would the company want two of its own pipelines competing against each other? Or so the theory goes.
This is exactly why anti pipeline activists are cautioning against complacence. "It will be a hollow victory if either Kinder Morgan, Line 3 or Keystone XL are allowed to steamroll over Indigenous opposition and serve as an outlet for even more climate-killing tar sands production," Chief Simon said.
Grassroots activists in Nebraska and Western Canada that will have much to say before any of these remaining pipelines gets built.
In Nebraska, a regulatory body that will rule on the fate of the Keystone XL project this November. But even if approved, local activists have vowed to continue fighting it..
Meanwhile, despite being all but approved by the government, Kinder Morgan faces serious opposition to its Trans Mountain expansion, especially from British Columbia First Nations who have not given consent to the pipeline crossing traditional and unceded territories. Seven First Nations, two environmental groups and the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver have mounted a legal challenge against Trans Mountain and the case is currently being heard in court. And given that the new provincial government in BC won the election in part because of a commitment to fight the Kinder Morgan project, the fight seems set to intensify as all sides dig in for the final showdown.
As hard as the oil companies push their agenda, there will be those who stand up and resist.
With President Donald Trump rewriting the climate change denial handbook and pushing dirty coal like it's a new miracle energy source, the world is waiting to see what happens in Canada. Will the Trudeau government greenlight the exploitation of the country's massive fossil fuel reserves and move us farther and faster towards catastrophic climate change or will it be climate smart and stick to its Paris promises?
As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said: "The climate math is sadly simple—the carbon contained in Alberta's tar sands must stay there. Nothing else that Canada could do to help stabilize Earth's climate matters anywhere near as much."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
By Rina Herzl
Picture an animal enrobed in a fiery, jigsaw-patterned coat. A creature of such majestic height that it towers amongst the trees. As your eyes make their way up its long neck that appears to defy gravity, you find crowned atop its head two Seussian, horn-like protrusions framing dark, curious eyes fanned by lashes. In its truest sense, the giraffe fits the description of a creature plucked from the pages of a fantastical story. Even its species name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the ancient Greek belief that the giraffe is a peculiar camel wearing the coat of a leopard. Meanwhile, the Japanese word for giraffe and unicorn are one and the same.
Today, we continue to walk the Earth with these awe-inspiring creatures, which range across much of Africa. But giraffes are facing what many are calling a "silent extinction." Public awareness and global action is critically due. "These gentle giants have been overlooked," appeals Sir David Attenborough in BBC's Story of Life documentary series aired in late 2016, urging that "time is running out."
As word begins to get out about the difficulty giraffes are facing, a small, committed cohort are fighting for the species. They are working diligently in the field to learn more about the animals and their populations, cooperating with governments to preserve land giraffes depend on, and collaborating with communities to conserve their wildlife. Meanwhile, others are championing for giraffes on the legal frontlines, advocating for further protections. In particular, wildlife advocates have called for great protections at the international level, as well as domestic restrictions on trade in giraffe parts in the U.S.
The sharp decline of giraffe numbers over the past three decades led to an official change in their conservation status in December 2016, when the giraffe was "uplisted" from Least Concern status to Vulnerable—more specifically, "Vulnerable to Extinction" in the wild—on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. (Listings under the IUCN don't come with specific protections, but provide valuable information about species' status as well as attention to the threats they face). In making the decision, the IUCN cited an ongoing population decline of 36 to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. This represents a change from approximately 106,191 to 114,416 mature individuals in 1985 down to 68,293 in 2015. (It's important to note that this population count is of mature individual giraffes, as giraffe reproduction is inherently slow to replace lost population. A long gestation period of 15 months typically yields only one calf, and those calves are vulnerable to predation by wild dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. Approximately 50 to 75 percent of all young giraffes perish due to predation, one of the highest mortality rates among animals).
Giraffes' updated IUCN conservation listing is "a wake-up call," said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Giraffe scientists and conservation NGOs are all working to raise awareness of the giraffe crisis and prevent it."
One of these efforts is currently playing out in the U.S. where the giraffe is not currently protected by law. In April 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Natural Resources Defense Council filed a legal petition to protect giraffes under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). An endangered listing under the ESA would come with a ban on most imports and sales of giraffe trophies, bone carvings and other giraffe "products." A listing would also send an urgent message to the world community to protect this majestic species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet responded to the petition, though the 90-day period within which the agency is supposed to respond has passed.
"The Endangered Species Act is one of the most effective tools for species conservation," said Sanerib. "Given the significant imports to the U.S. of giraffe bones, bone carvings, skins, and trophies, the U.S. is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes and an ESA-listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports."
Aggregate giraffe populations are on a downward trend in Africa, but some of the nine giraffe subspecies are suffering worse than others. The Masai giraffe population, the tallest of the subspecies with a darker star-shaped pattern coat, halved between 1985 and 2015. The number of reticulated giraffes, which live in the horn of Africa and have a bright neatly-patterned coat, declined nearly 80 percent in the same period. Roughly 400 West African giraffe remain in Niger and Nubian giraffe number at only 650. Today, giraffes have become extirpated or locally extinct in at least seven African countries and have vanished from most of West Africa. It's not all bad news, though: Certain populations, including ones in Tanzania and and South Africa, are growing due to breeding for legal game hunting and tourism.
Biologists have found that, unlike other species, giraffe will not associate or interbreed between subspecies. For example, in Kenya, three species coexist, the Masai, Reticulated and Nubian giraffe, and though they may encounter one another they each maintain a unique genetic makeup and do not interbreed. Dr. Julian Fennessy comments that giraffe are "so much more unique than many other species out there that do interbreed and have viable offspring."
This brings into focus that: While giraffe populations are plummeting, scientists are still making discoveries about giraffes. For example, giraffes are currently recognized as one species with nine subspecies. Each subspecies visually distinguishable by their different coat patterns. This understanding, however, may be changing: Recent scientific analyses suggest that giraffes may be four or even up to nine distinct species. Kirstie Rupport, who works on giraffe conservation in Kenya for San Diego Zoo Global, believes giraffes are finally gaining "heightened conservation attention" given these recent discoveries. She reminds us that this research "shines a light on how little we know about a species that is so iconic and how little we know relative to other big species."
These genetic findings could be cause to separate the species taxonomically. Once separated, those species facing greater threats would merit protections under international law, including endangered or critically endangered listings on the IUCN Red List. In 2007, Dr. David Brown, a biologist who did an extensive genetic study on giraffe, said that "lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the brink. Some of these populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection." Ten years later, international protection is still lacking.
Changing their classification, however, won't be easy. Should it happen, it will "be a very slow process and more work on classical taxonomy will be required before initiating this change," said Stephanie Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
So, what is ultimately causing the decline of giraffe populations? As with species the world over: human-created pressures. Giraffe declines across the continent are tied to to habitat loss, civil unrest, illegal hunting and poaching, and ecological changes (like those related to mining activity and climate change). In each country and region, the specific threats vary.
With respect to habitat, Rupport points to "the need for conservation partnerships, both in the private and public sectors to protect those large tracts of land, not just for giraffes, but also for the many African megafauna that really need it in order to survive." Coexistence between humans and wildlife is a palpable issue in biodiverse regions across the globe. Giraffes are a species that do little to disrupt human livelihood in these regions and even still the "establishment of community conservancies [in Kenya] really has given a lot of hope for coexistence between pastoralist people in this region and wildlife," Rupport said.
In Uganda, there is a growing interest in oil exploration, right in the heart of giraffe range. As a preventative measure, Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority "translocated" or moved 18 Rothschild's and Nubian giraffes across the Nile in 2016, to protect giraffes from the potential impacts of prospective oil mining.
In Kenya, an ongoing drought is posing a problem. No longer an issue reserved for polar bears living at the edge of the planet, climate change is now impacting giraffes as well by exacerbating drought conditions. Across Africa and other parts of the world, climate change impacts vegetation through desertification—a process by which fertile land becomes desert—negatively impacting people and wildlife alike. Rupport described that "[This] past year Kenya really faced an extreme drought and is still in the midst of it." She added, "When [giraffes] face extreme drought in these places the regeneration of grass for livestock and for wildlife species is really compromised." This not only impacts availability of food for wildlife, but also that for humans, and can lead communities to resort to hunting wildlife for bushmeat, as found by Rupport and Derek Lee of the Wild Nature Institute. As well, with smaller ungulates perishing due to increased drought, lion predation increases on giraffe young. Rupport states "climate change—at least, extreme drought and connecting that to climate change—is one of the most pressing challenges in this region that we're facing on a daily basis."
"Across central Africa and parts of eastern Africa poaching has been a really big threat in recent years," said Dr. Julian Fennessy. In Kenya and Tanzania giraffes are experiencing dramatic increases in illegal killing for their meat as well as for trophies. These are regions in which giraffe numbers are already under considerable strain, and illegal hunting is emerging as a real threat to the species. TRAFFIC, a leading NGO working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants, is prioritizing giraffes in their investigative work and is planning "to carry out work on giraffe trade in parts of East Africa, in response to the rising number of reports we've encountered of giraffe parts in trade." And though illegal hunting is becoming a greater issue, many advocates, including Sanerib, argue that legal hunting is also contributing to the decline of giraffes.
Legal trophy hunting for all species continues to give rise to heated debate in the conservation community regarding whether it is a viable conservation tool. "If well-managed, trophy hunting is a form of sustainable use that can provide direct income and benefits from wildlife resources to local communities," said Dr. Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC. The key term to question here is whether it is "well-managed." However, evidence is mounting against hunting as a conservation tool. Research suggests that little money made from big game hunting actually goes to local communities and the amount dedicated to conservation efforts itself is negligible. That same study found that trophy hunting makes up as little as 1.8 percent of tourism revenues across the continent. Growing evidence also suggests that legal trophy hunting can compromise the genetic health of a species and that it engenders illegal hunting and wildlife crime. (Read more about the debate on legal hunting as a conservation tool here).
What conservationists agree on is that urgent action is needed for the protection giraffes. Currently, giraffes are not internationally protected by trade laws or by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES regulates and restricts the international trade of threatened species; as giraffes are listed as Vulnerable, they just miss the mark to gain protection, despite the fact that some subspecies on the brink. "Giraffes are not protected under CITES and we know that the U.S. is a significant importer of giraffe trophies," said Sanerib. Between 2006 and 2015, an average of 374 giraffe trophies were imported into the US per year. That is more than a giraffe a day.
The Center for Biological Diversity and their petition co-sponsors believe protection under the ESA is critical. "The U.S. is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes and an ESA-listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports," said Sanerib.
And this fall, the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species will decide whether to protect giraffes, which periodically and cyclically cross international borders or did so historically, under that convention. Angola proposes listing giraffes on CMS Appendix II, which would require the establishment of agreements to protect and restore species habitat.
Though there is much to be done, it seems considerable strides are being made to learn more about giraffes and to protect them, from enacting greater legal protection and employing concerted anti-poaching measures to improving land-use planning and developing stewardship programs with local communities.
"I think giraffes capture our imaginations to begin with, but the more we learn about these animals the more fascinating they become," said Sanerib. "Raising awareness about the decline of giraffes is so important, we have to halt their decline before it is too late."
This is just the beginning of a giraffe recovery. With growing concern over their decline will hopefully propel the public to call on NGOs, governments, scientists, communities and advocates to come together to protect and elevate this remarkable species so that it may thrive on our planet once again.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
By Zoe Loftus-Farren
As an environmental reporter, it's not every day that I get to communicate good news—the state of our environment often feels pretty bleak. But today, at least, there is a victory to celebrate: Thanks to the persistence of a small group of prison ecology advocates, the support of their allies, and the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prisoners rights and environmental justice advocates have a new tool to add to their activist arsenal.
This summer, the EPA added a "prisons layer" to its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. Known as EJSCREEN for short, the tool can be used by the public to assess possible exposure to pollutants that might be present in the environment (i.e., land, air and water) where they live or work.
The new layer allows the public to overlay the locations of the country's 6,000-plus prisons, jails and detention centers with information about environmental hazards like superfund and hazardous waste sites, something the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center has been pushing for as part of its campaign for the EPA to consider prisoners within an environmental justice context. For the prison ecology movement, which addresses issues at the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental degradation, it could be a game changer.
"It's huge," said Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center. "It's one of those things that I think if you just look at it quickly, it seems almost mundane to have added a layer to this existing map. And in the absence of a movement present to actually use it for something, it could be meaningless…. But in the presence of what we've been doing over the last three years, of building this national movement and organizing model of looking at prisons from an environmental justice perspective … this is pretty massive."
The Prison Ecology Project was thinking of creating it's own map in the absence of an EPA version. And during our own reporting on toxic prisons earlier this year, Earth Island Journal and Truthout attempted to create a map of prisons and superfund sites across the country, but were stymied by a lack of adequate mapping tools.
Tsolkas thinks the tool will prove valuable in the fight against new prison projects. Prisons are often built on marginal lands that, after having been mined, logged or otherwise contaminated, may not be seen as suitable for any other use. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a subdivision division of the U.S. Department of Justice, doesn't typically address the impact of prison-siting decisions on the health of prisoners when completing federally mandated environmental impact statements (EIS).
That was originally the case with the proposed construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in Letcher County, Kentucky. The BOP's initial environmental impact statement for the project didn't mention the potential environmental impacts—like mining-related pollution and water contamination—on the estimated 1,200 people who would be held at the prison if it were built. A revised EIS released earlier this year (following extensive comments by groups like the HRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity), mentions some of the health implications for prisoners, but does not provide a robust discussion of the impacts. According to HRDC, this EIS may represent the only example of an environmental review in which the BOP has made any mention of prisoner health. The final EIS for the new prison is still pending. (Read more about the status of the Letcher County proposal).
Tsolkas said that the new EJSCREEN prison layer implicitly endorses HRDC's contention that the BOP must consider prisoner health when evaluating the Letcher County project, and others like it.
"What the BOP has been saying is that they basically have no reason, no mandate, nothing that points them to have to look at environmental justice concerns related to prisons," Tsolkas said. "And having the EPA include prisons on the EJSCREEN basically implies the opposite, that federal agencies now need to look at prison populations when they're considering the placement of industrial facilities including prisons themselves."
The new prison layer may also give prison ecology advocates the edge they need to go on the offensive. "Instead of reacting to abuses in existing prisons or responding to proposals for new prisons, we can actually initiate campaigns, and say, 'Hey, this overpopulated prison has documented issues with x, y, and x.," Tsolkas explained. "So we can create campaigns basically using the EJSCREEN tool."
Tsolkas said he'd like "to give a shout-out to the folks at the environmental justice office of the EPA" for making the prison layer a reality. But he'd still like to see more from the agency, especially in the form of a robust national prison-inspection program.
Such a program is not without precedent. The EPA's Region III office—which covers the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, DC—used to run a "prisons initiative" to improve environmental compliance at prisons and jails across the region. Under the imitative, which ended in 2011, the EPA conducted inspections at prisons, and engaged in outreach and training work.
In a written statement, the agency said it ended the prisons initiative because it "felt prisons in the Mid-Atlantic region were able to ensure environmental regulation compliance by themselves." It seems, however, that there is still room for improvement: A recent investigation by Earth Island Journal and Truthout found that mass incarceration impacts the health of prisoners, prison-adjacent communities, and local ecosystems across the U.S.
"It shouldn't be like pulling teeth," Tsolkas said, referring to the difficultly of getting EPA inspectors out to prisons. "We have hundreds of letters from prisoners across the country saying the water is dirty. It shouldn't take that much to get an EPA representative to go…. They have a key to get into the prisons that most of us don't have short of visitation and breaking laws."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.