In the diminishing refrains of a bird's call, signs of our world disappearing around us.
What happens to us as the wild world unravels? Vanishing, an occasional essay series, explores some of the human stakes of the wildlife extinction crisis.
Our small family knew bobolinks from a bird refuge four hours away. Each spring my partner and I made the trip to Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with our daughter in hopes of seeing the 90-plus species of migratory birds we typically spotted over the course of a binoculared weekend. As we headed West we anticipated the winnowing, sky-dance displays of Wilson's snipe, the oranges of Bullock's oriole flashing high in the cottonwoods, and the bright spots of sunshine that dart through riparian thickets — the yellow warbler.
But the bobolink was like a sentinel, the first to greet us each year.
When we found the bobolink's tuxedoed back and rambling song rising from the fields alongside the dirt road leading to our campground, we knew we'd arrived just where we should be — and right on time. This moment marked not merely the end of our drive but also the bobolink's astounding feat of flying over 12,000 miles since we'd last heard his call. Bobolinks, who tend to be seen singly, attested to the braiding of wings and land and sea, to the astonishing rhythm of spring's abundances, and to the persistent migrations of birds, songs and birders.
One year, just after a bobolink greeted us, we pitched camp at dusk beneath the cliff where hundreds of nesting cliff swallows performed their evening skyward wheelings. As our 5-year-old daughter worked, her little arms pounding tent stakes, she began to sing for the bobolink. Inspired by the bird's flitting from grassy perch to golden ground, by his piccolo song, we three found ourselves crafting a round.
You know rounds, those woven songs — three layered voices, each joining a line or two after the last until a trio of distinct melodies harmonizes in circling chords. The round ends in a perfect reversal of its beginning, the first voice departing the plaited strain, then the next, until final notes resolve into silence. Early in life, our daughter learned to hold her part as we sang rounds in the car, on the trail, paddling the canoe. We sang popular ones like "Dona Nobis Pachem," the elegiac notes of that repeated phrase evocative of a wood thrush fluting in pine forest: Give us peace, give us peace, give us peace. Other times, we made up the songs.
That night at the refuge, tent secured, we practiced new harmonies as the sun set in bronze browns over the distant squawks and trumpeting of sandhill cranes. Our completed round rang staccato notes rising and falling, like the bird's twinkling call (Allegro!):
You will miss Bobolink if you blink.
Bobolink, you make me think!
Bobolink made us think because we worked hard to find the bird as we drove into camp. Each breeding male requires a broad territory of tall-grass meadow, so we scanned a wide swath for yellow-backed head, black chest, black-and-white back. We surveyed fence posts and the heads of tall grasses. We rolled down the windows, batting back mosquitoes, hoping bobolink's chattering call might draw our ears and then our eyes. We had to pay attention.
In the years that followed, our bobolink round became a ritual we performed while setting up camp, celebrating his sentinel welcome and garrulous song. But then one year our song went unsung, our round vanishing with the bird.
We didn't see bobolinks that spring. Or the next. Maybe our timing was off, we thought. Most likely bobolinks were absent from those fields because they were suffering, their status "declining." During my lifetime alone, the global population of bobolinks has fallen by more than 65% — this according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which includes bobolinks in a list of species "most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions." So we sat in silence at the campground, our daughter wondering how a song no longer suited its own habitat.
Sure, we could sing other rounds, like the one made up of the words for numbers, each numeral corresponding to a note of the scale, complex in its dissonance but perfect for distracting little legs tired from hiking on mountain trails. Or growing girls mourning missing birds in quiet fields. There's also the funny round her dad made up, something about magpies sitting on fenceposts until they eat animal roadkill. ("Yuck, Dada," our daughter says before she joins in, too.) Yes, our daughter knows about nature red in tooth and claw, or beak and talon. She knows, too, about species death — that passenger pigeons, for example, were driven extinct across generations, disappearing entirely in the course of someone's childhood-still-in-progress.
In recent years the bobolinks have returned to the refuge fields. A wildlife biologist reports that their numbers are actually increasing there, but both she and I know better than to give up our concern, because the birds' presence at this one protected location belies their globally diminishing numbers. Without the deliberate preservation of more prairies, fields and meadows, without changes to the frequency of agricultural mowing across wide swaths of land, bobolinks may die off entirely.
Our daughter, now a teen prone to raising her eyebrows when we start singing rounds and to issuing occasional dramatic outbursts, says, "Nature is dying!" But her sentiment isn't just teenage angst. How can I express to her my grief over the very real possibility that her melodies will soon have no referents in the landscapes that inspired them? Will she become so accustomed to forms of life falling away that she thinks living means witnessing countless losses due only to human disregard? If so, how can she possibly feel safe loving her world? How can she feel safe loving anything?
For now, she knows two types of bobolink song. I hear them too sometimes, wafting from the occasional bird in the fields or from the reluctant lips of our teenager, who's thriving and becoming more complex. Unlike her earth.
I find myself mixing notes and phrases in my head, straining to make verses that fit her world, old refrains merging with new into a song more requiem than round:
Give her peace, give birds peace, make us think.
We will miss bobolink if we blink.
Rochelle L. Johnson is a writer, professor of environmental humanities and president of the Thoreau Society.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The charismatic animals could serve as flagship species for ocean conservation, according to researchers, but only if we understand their extinction risks.
By John R. Platt
Last month conservationists working with SeaLife Aquarium in Australia dropped 18 biodegradable "hotels" into Sydney Harbor and Port Stephens to help one of the region's most endangered species: tiny White's seahorses (Hippocampus whitei).
The hotels — which look like cages but have bars spaced out enough for the 5-inch seahorses to swim through — are sorely needed. Recent research indicates that some White's seahorse populations have fallen by as much as 95% due to commercial destruction of their marine habitats. The manmade domiciles — up to 100 of which will be deployed — will replace some of that lost habitat for both seahorses and their food. "A lot of marine growth such as sponges and coral will accumulate, and that provides a lot of food and shelter for the seahorses," David Harasti, a marine scientist with the Port Stephens Fisheries Institute, told Australia's 9News.
White's seahorses are not alone in their plight. Research published this May in the journal Oryx serves as the first comprehensive assessment of the extinction risk for syngnathiform fishes, which include seahorses, pipefishes, seadragons, trumpetfishes, shrimpfishes, cornetfishes and ghost pipefishes. (A few related groups, such as goatfishes and seamoths, weren't assessed for the paper because recent research shows they belong to a different taxonomic order.)
Collectively, the news for these varied and colorful species isn't good, nor is it complete. The researchers — including two members of the IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish & Seadragon Specialist Group — found that seahorses and their relatives face persistent threats from industrial trawl fisheries and habitat destruction, and to a lesser extent from pollution and trade. The 300 or so species often have limited ranges in coastal regions and freshwater lakes and rivers around the world, and many require specialized habitats, making them susceptible to disturbance.
As a result, researchers found, at least 6% of these species and up to 38% are threatened and at some risk of extinction.
Why the wide range? Despite seahorses' popularity and charismatic qualities — like their prehensile tales and egg-carrying males — many of the 300-plus syngnathiform species remain cryptic. No one knows how well they're doing or if they're at risk. The researchers labeled 97 species "data deficient," meaning they "could potentially be threatened."
Of the species that could be assessed, the researchers found that 14 out of 42 seahorse species were at risk, including one endangered species and 12 considered "vulnerable to extinction." Four additional seahorse species were discovered after the paper was submitted and aren't included in that count. Pipefishes — which look like seahorses but have straighter bodies — have five species at risk, including one that's critically endangered.
Pipefish. Jayvee Fernandez / CC BY 2.0
Luckily, the researchers evaluated 61% of these fishes as being of "least concern," meaning they're doing okay for now, but they still caution that this entire group of species needs targeted conservation efforts, especially in the estuaries of East and Southeast Asia and South Africa, where they face the most threat. The paper recommends "robust long-term monitoring programs … to evaluate population dynamics, fisheries, trade and habitat quality." The researchers also call for dedicated coastal surveys, potentially using community science efforts such as iSeahorse.
All of this, the researchers wrote, would not only help seahorses and their relatives but also neighboring species: "Limiting fishing mortality, in particular by constraining bottom trawling and other nonselective fisheries, and ensuring healthy habitats is important both for the syngnathids and for other aquatic species. Given that the order is nearly global, there is potential for syngnathiformes, many of which are highly charismatic, to act as flagship species for ocean conservation."
That's a tall order for these tiny fish, but perhaps this research can serve to round up the support necessary to conserve both the species and their coastal habitats — or at least to fill the knowledge gap so we can learn how those 97 data-deficient species fare around the world, and then protect them before it's too late.
John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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Solar power has been an energy source of growing importance in recent years, as technology has advanced and the cost of solar panels has declined sharply. As a result, many smaller sun-powered products have become available, from solar phone chargers to solar generators to outdoor solar lights.
Whether you're looking for ground lights or flood lights, illuminating your outdoor spaces with a wired system can be both an electrical challenge and an eyesore. Convenience, sleekness and sustainability are just a few reasons so many people are looking for the best outdoor solar lights.
In this article, we'll go over how solar lights work, show you some of the best solar lights available and help you decide whether solar-powered lighting is a good choice for your home.
6 Best Outdoor Solar Lights
The below table provides a quick summary of our recommendations for the best outdoor solar lights across six unique categories. We chose these products based on criteria including durability, ease of installation, ease of use, run time, cost and more.
|Best Outdoor Solar Lights||Our Award||Buy Now|
|Solpex Solar Ground Lights||Best Overall||Check Price|
|Brightech Ambience Pro||Best String Lights||Check Price|
|Beau Jardin Solar Pathway Lights||Best Path Lights||Check Price|
|AmeriTop Motion-Sensor Lights||Best Flood Light||Check Price|
|Brightown Solar-Powered Fairy Lights||Best Fairy Lights||Check Price|
|Sunnest Stainless Steel Outdoor Solar Lights||Best Lights Under $20||Check Price|
To dig into the advantages and disadvantages of each of these models specifically, keep reading.
Best Overall: Solpex Solar Ground Lights
Solpex's outdoor in-ground solar lights provide bright illumination without getting in the way or even really being noticeable until they're turned on. The high-quality system is designed to be exceedingly easy to install, is extremely durable in material and operates with ease, turning on automatically and running from dusk to dawn. Solpex's bright LED bulbs are perfect for providing your yard with guiding light year-round.
- Easy to install
- Weather-resistant and durable
- Efficient and effective
- More expensive than some competitors' models
- In-ground lights need more maintenance to keep clean and clear
Why Buy: If you're looking for an in-ground solar garden light that will truly wow your guests when they turn on, the Solpex Solar Ground Lights could be your best pick.
Best String Lights: Brightech Ambience Pro
String lights can be the perfect mood-setter, and using the Brightech Ambience Pro solar powered string lights ensures that you brighten your space reliably and efficiently. With a thorough two-year warranty and extensive weatherproofing and shatterproofing, these lights will hold up through most weather conditions while still appearing delicate enough for any setting — romantic, celebratory, relaxed or otherwise.
- Long lifetime
- Flexibility in installation and design thanks to clip-on bulbs
- Decorative cozy feel
- May not provide enough light for safety or security applications
- Heavier than non-solar string lights
Why Buy: To fill your outdoor space with a warm ambiance, Brightech's solar-powered outdoor string lights are a great option. The Edison bulbs give off a vintage feel that your guests are sure to appreciate.
Best Path Lights: Beau Jardin Solar Pathway Lights
To dot a pathway, garden or outdoor patio, using solar outdoor lighting eliminates the need for fragile and cumbersome wiring, and the Beau Jardin Solar Pathway Lights are some of the best ones out there at an affordable price. These solar path lights take seconds to install — simply use the spike to insert them directly into the ground — and are built to last for years.
- Easy installation
- Great value for money
- Extensive battery life
- Stylish appearance
- Made of plastic, so not as durable as more robust materials
- Provide accent lighting rather than full illumination that may be needed for some pathways
Why Buy: The Beau Jardin Solar Pathway Lights are the best outdoor solar lights if you're looking for affordability and quick installation. They're ideal for accent lighting during the darker hours, and buying multiple packs can allow you to light up a wider area.
Best Flood Light: AmeriTop Motion-Sensor Lights
Floodlights are critical for outdoor security, but if the lights burn out or aren't illuminating enough, then they can't do their job. That's why solar floodlights, and specifically the AmeriTop Motion-Sensor Lights, get high marks from us. They provide a wide angle of light to illuminate an expansive area brightly, and they do so using motion sensors in durable, waterproof fixtures.
- Wide angle is great for security
- Built-in motion sensor requires no additional power
- Highly durable, weatherproof design
- Designed for function rather than decoration, so they may not fit into your outdoor style
- Doesn't provide constant light (only on a motion sensor basis) so may not work for steady light applications
Why Buy: Floodlights can be critical for outdoor safety, and the AmeriTop Motion-Sensor Lights accomplish that efficiently with solar energy and built-in motion detection. We recommend them as the best outdoor lights to illuminate your entire yard for safety.
Best Fairy Lights: Brightown Solar-Powered Fairy Lights
Fairy lights provide the perfect touch of style and design to an outdoor area, and moving to solar lights eliminates the frustrating constraints of having to plug them in. We recommend the Brightown Solar-Powered Fairy Lights because of their quick charging, flexible design and warm light that's perfect to decorate for holidays, barbecues, parties, weddings and more. They also have eight light modes that range from slow fades to steady twinkling.
- Easy to shape into different designs
- Multiple lighting modes and patterns for customizability
- Great price
- More delicate in construction
- May not hold up as well in heavy snow or flooding
Why Buy: Solar-powered fairy lights are the perfect decorative addition to a yard or patio, and the flexibility the Brightown Solar-Powered Fairy Lights offer in design and operation can't be beaten for the price.
Best Lights Under $20: Sunnest Stainless Steel Outdoor Solar Lights
The best solar-powered outdoor lights don't have to break the bank. Sunnest's stainless steel landscape lights come in a pack of 12 for under $20 yet still deliver great functionality, appearance and ease of use. They can be installed to illuminate pathways, gardens or other outdoor areas.
- Attractive in design with cool white lights
- Ready to install in seconds
- Cheaper price means less durable over the long term when up against the elements
- Provides accent levels of lighting rather than full illumination
Why Buy: If you want to dip your toes into the solar outdoor light area without investing a lot of money right away, the Sunnest Stainless Steel Outdoor Solar Lights are your best bet to enjoy that initial experience and get hooked into more solar light solutions.
How Do Outdoor Solar Lights Work?
When choosing the best outdoor solar lights for your yard, it may be helpful to understand how these solar panels work.
You may have seen traditional solar panel installations on the rooftops of homes around you, businesses at which you shop or even installed in large outdoor solar farms owned by utilities. What's particularly intriguing about solar lights is that the technology used is more or less the same as these large-scale panels that are powering entire buildings.
Regardless of the size of a solar panel, it contains solar cells, which are made up of unique semiconductor materials like silicon. When sunlight strikes the cell, some of that energy is absorbed by the material via electrons being knocked loose and being able to flow freely (otherwise known as electricity!).
While standard types of solar panels may contain 36 to 48 solar cells connected together, solar lights are smaller in size and require much less electricity to run (particularly when paired with energy-efficient LED lights). The typical solar light will therefore use just four solar cells, but that's really the only difference from a solar technology basis.
The rest of the solar light comprises a battery, controller board, photoresistor and the light itself. During the sunny daytime hours, the four-cell solar panel will charge up the battery, typically receiving more than enough juice to run for the entire night.
The photoresistor's job is then to detect when light is no longer hitting the solar panel, at which point two things will happen: 1) the battery will stop getting charged, and 2) the controller board will tell the light to turn on. In that way, the solar light is always either charging or illuminating.
When morning strikes and the sun hits the photoresistor once again, the controller board will send a message to turn off the light, and the battery will begin accepting its daytime charge.
Types of Outdoor Solar Lights
Outdoor solar lights are a broad category, filling lots of niche needs and popping up in new opportune areas as the technology continues to improve. Because of their low installation threshold, falling prices and efficiency, solar outdoor lighting solutions can be ideal for countless scenarios, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Ground lights
- Path lights
- Landscape lights
- Motion or security lights
- Fairy lights
- String lights
- Hanging lights
- Post lights
Homeowners deciding which style of outdoor solar light they want to install should consider all the same factors as they would with traditional lighting technologies: What areas do they need to be illuminated for safety? What fits into the aesthetic of the outdoor area? What security needs can lights fill?
The advantage is that homeowners wise enough to go the route of solar lights will have fewer headaches with installation, will have their lighting last for a longer period of time before it needs to be replaced and can easily change their minds on lighting locations because no wiring is needed.
How Much Do the Best Outdoor Solar Lights Cost?
You may be sold on the technology and ease of outdoor solar lights, but how much will it set you back to purchase the best option out there? As with any advancing technology, the answer to that question can vary significantly depending on the choices you make. The answers to these questions, for example, will all have a material impact on price:
- How bright (i.e., how many lumens) do you need the lights to be?
- How efficient do you want the lights to be?
- How durable do you need the lights to be?
- How top-of-the-line do you want the materials and decorative nature to be?
For the bulk of the outdoor solar light market, regardless of your answers, each light system will typically cost between $20 and $50. If you really want to go with a high-tech system (which could mean higher-capacity batteries, more intelligent functionality, intricate customizations and more), it could end up costing over $200.
The best approach is to analyze your specific needs and then purchase accordingly.
Choosing the Best Outdoor Solar Lights for Your Home
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, outdoor solar lighting works quite well in most areas of the U.S., as it doesn't require an excessive amount of sunlight to charge up and work. This means that even on cloudy days or during winter, you'll still be able to light your way. Solar light adopters aren't only helping the environment, but they're also saving money via reduced energy consumption.
If you're ready to make the switch, identifying the best solar lights for your specific home and need is no small task. When picking the best outdoor solar nights for your need, some characteristics you're going to have to make decisions on include:
- Design, style and aesthetics
- Size of fixture
- Ease of use and control after installation (remote-controlled, connected to in-home smart device, manually controlled, etc.)
- Durability to weather and general wear and tear
- Expected lifetime before replacements are needed
- Overall system cost
FAQ: Best Outdoor Solar Lights
What are the brightest outdoor solar lights?
If you want the brightest outdoor solar lights, you'll want to look at floodlights or spotlights. These often have a higher lumen count and can light spaces better than string or ground lights. Our pick for the best solar-powered floodlight is the AmeriTop Motion-Sensor Light.
What is the best outdoor solar lighting?
We named the Solpex Solar Ground Lights the best overall choice for outdoor solar lighting. These lights are easy to install, ultra-efficient and hold up well in the elements.
What should I look for in outdoor solar lights?
When choosing the best outdoor solar lights for your home, consider factors such as design, brightness, durability and cost.
Do outdoor solar lights really work?
Yes, outdoor solar lights work just as well as traditional outdoor lights. According to the DOE, solar-powered outdoor lights work well in most areas of the U.S. because they don't require much sunlight. This means that even if you live somewhere with more gray days than sunny ones, you can still harness the sun's power to light your outdoor space.
By Tara Lohan
It's hard not to think about how hot it's been — even if you live somewhere that has escaped the heat in the past few weeks. When British Columbia clocks temperatures of 121° F, it gets the world's attention. As it should.
Here are six reasons why we need to be paying more attention to heat waves.
1. Deadly Numbers
Heatwaves may seem to lack the drama of other weather events with named storms and categorized wind speeds, but they're actually the most deadly severe weather event.
Last week's heat dome that locked the Pacific Northwest in a sweltering vice is an apt reminder. The prolonged stretch of record-high temperatures in British Columbia is estimated to have claimed around 300 lives. Another 76 deaths were reported in Washington and Oregon.
Across the world, things have been heating up — with deadly results. Between 1998 and 2017, heatwaves killed 166,000 people, the World Health Organization reports. That includes 70,000 who perished in Europe's 2003 heatwave.
2. Yep, Climate Change
Not surprisingly, climate change is making things worse. An increase in global temperatures has resulted in a rise in the frequency of heatwaves. In the years to come, climate change is expected to also make heatwaves more severe and longer lasting.
As people pump up the air conditioning and stay indoors, that also puts increased pressure on the electrical grid. New research found that these extreme weather events are triggering more failures of critical infrastructure.
Power failures, for example, have jumped 60% since 2015. The combination of excessive heat and blackouts in major U.S. cities would have calamitous results. In Detroit, the researchers found in their modeling, that could mean 450,000 exposed to dangerous temperatures and a whopping 1.7 million in air conditioning-reliant Phoenix.
3. The Dangers of Humidity
The most recent deadly heatwave hit the arid West, increasing concerns about wildfires.
An aerial image of the McKay Creek fire in British Columbia acquired by the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 on June 30, 2021 during the region's record-breaking heatwave. NASA
Our bodies sweat to help keep us cool. But when the relative humidity is too high that moisture from our skin can't evaporate as well and we don't cool down. Scientists have identified the related wet bulb temperature of 95° F as the upper limit of what we can tolerate when conditions are both hot and extremely humid.
By midcentury, models predict, climate change will make wet bulb temperatures near 95° F a reality. But new research shows that areas in South Asia, the coastal Middle East and the coastal southwest of North America are already hitting that critical point.
4. Inequity Makes It Hotter
Not all people will face the same risks — even if they live in the same cities. Neighborhoods that lack tree canopy and green space, and have more road surfaces and large buildings, could be as much as 20° F hotter.
A 2020 study of 108 cities published in the journal Climate found that areas with higher temperatures are almost always the same neighborhoods that have experienced historic racist housing policies such as "redlining."
"This study reveals that historical housing policies may, in fact, be directly responsible for disproportionate exposure to current heat events," the researchers wrote. Another recent study in Nature Communications found that people of color have a higher risk than whites of high heat exposure in all but six of the largest 175 cities in the United States.
5. Wildlife at Risk
People aren't the only ones feeling the heat. The Pacific Northwest's recent heatwave also threatens cold-water-loving salmon. The Columbia and Snake rivers this year are seeing temperatures within two degrees of the "slaughter zone" that killed 250,000 sockeye in 2015, The Seattle Times reported.
When water temps rise above 62, #salmon are "more vulnerable to disease, and as temperatures climb higher, they wil… https://t.co/idBET1J1Vy— NWF - Idaho (@NWF - Idaho)1624993175.0
The heatwave hit at the peak of the sockeye run, and also when spring and summer chinook and steelhead are migrating. Some fish are being pulled out of the river and trucked to hatcheries for spawning.
"We are crossing the line to temperatures that can be disastrous for fish," Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, told The Seattle Times. "I would say the outlook is pretty grim."
6. Vicious Circle
The hotter it gets, the more fortunate people who have air conditioning crank up the dial and the longer they'll need to leave it running. In a fossil-fuel driven world, that means even more emissions that will continue heating the planet.
Already 10% of global electrical use is from people trying to stay cool with air conditioning and electric fans, according to the International Energy Agency. Expect that number to climb as temperatures get hotter and more people become able to afford A/C.
The International Energy Agency reports that over the next 30 years, air conditioning may be one of the top drivers of electricity demand. "Without action to address energy efficiency, energy demand for space cooling will more than triple by 2050 — consuming as much electricity as all of China and India today," the agency reports.
That makes the need for high-efficiency cooling extremely vital. Not to mention more widespread use of renewable energy and, of course, drastically curbing climate emissions.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Ajay Bijoor
Efforts to broaden local participation for the conservation of this rare cat are currently ongoing across its global range.
Wildlife photographers have been known to wait weeks for the opportunity to capture the mysterious snow leopard on film. Climate change and other threats may soon make these beautiful cats even harder to spot, but a wide coalition has established a mission to protect them.
Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)
Shy and elusive by nature, the snow leopard is found across the mountain ecosystems of Central Asia. This medium-sized cat has a tail as long as its body and thick, smoky-gray fur patterned with rosettes that allows it to survive in extreme cold.
Where it's found:
Throughout the mountains of Central Asia in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
IUCN Red List status:
Vulnerable, with a decreasing population trend.
Snow leopards have survived alongside pastoral and agropastoral communities that inhabit the mountain ecosystems of Central Asia for generations. Conflicts between herders and leopards all too often lead to retaliatory killings, which are a persistent threat to the species. Decreasing numbers of prey species across their global range also threaten snow leopards' survival. They're vulnerable to illegal hunting, as well, due to a demand for their fur and body parts used in traditional Asian medicine. Large-scale changes in land use across snow leopard range and emerging threats triggered by climate change are likely to compound these risks to the species in the future.
Notable conservation programs or legal protections:
The Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) is an alliance of all 12 snow leopard range countries, nongovernmental organizations, multilateral institutions, scientists and local communities, all united by one goal: saving the snow leopard and its habitat. Key targets include securing 20 large landscapes across the global snow leopard range, initiating a global effort for population assessment of the world's snow leopards (PAWS), and building capacity for conservation across range countries by working with local communities.
My favorite experience:
I remember an incident when a snow leopard was often seen close to a village where we work. This particular old individual was attacking livestock, since it was no longer capable of finding prey in the wild. While villagers faced losses, they were patient and did not harm the animal, as they recognized its advanced age and knew that a lot of visitors and tourists frequented the village to see this animal. When the leopard died of old age after a couple of weeks, the villagers retrieved its carcass and gave it an honorable cremation, fit for any respected resident of their community. The relationship people share with nature and wildlife is layered and hard to define.
Ajay Bijoor works with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in India. He loves to explore and understand social-ecological interactions between people and nature. Ajay and his team at NCF focus on implementing community-led conservation efforts across some snow leopard landscapes in India. Their work is supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and the Snow Leopard Trust, and is carried out in collaboration with the Wildlife Wing of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Carla B. Possamai and Sarisha Trindade
As the rainforests of Brazil disappear, so do their unique inhabitants. A tiny monkey represents the dangers faced by much of Brazil's biodiversity but also illustrates the opportunity we have to save them.
The buffy-headed marmoset (Callithrix flaviceps)
This miniscule marmoset is a small, neotropical primate that weighs just 1 pound (460g) on average. It's endemic to the Atlantic forests of the southeastern region of Brazil, where it has the smallest distribution of any species in the Callithrix genus.
Courtesy Mountain Marmosets Conservation Program
Buffy-headed marmosets have a light, gray-brownish coat, with a cream-colored face, a yellowish-beige head and neck, and short, yellowish ear tufts. One endearing characteristic is the grayish shade of the fur above their eyes, which gives their faces a clownish appearance.
Where it's found:
These marmosets live mainly in the Atlantic forest fragments in the states of Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. They range from south of the Rio Doce in Minas Gerais into the mountainous region of Espírito Santo state. The southernmost part of the species' range extends west into eastern Minas Gerais, where it's found in scattered localities in the Rio Manhuaçu basin as far as the Manhuaçu municipality.
The range of the species distribution overlaps with that of buffy tufted-ear marmoset (C. aurita), where a natural hybridization zone occurs.
The species inhabits areas that have suffered the effects of numerous anthropogenic pressures through extensive fragmentation and deforestation of forests due to expansion of urban areas, mining and agricultural activities. This has led to the replacement of native flora by pastures, coffee and eucalyptus plantations, as well as harmful activities like burning that are associated with agricultural expansion.
Peter Schoen (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In addition to these threats, the introduction of invasive primate species such as the common marmoset (C. jacchus) and black-eared marmoset (C. pencillata) precipitated a serious increase in competition and hybridization with the buffy-headed marmoset. Hybridization is particularly concerning as it leads to the loss of the genetic characteristics and could ultimately be a cause of extinction if the current scenario persists.
Another serious threat to the species comes from emerging diseases such as yellow fever, which since the last epidemic outbreak in 2016 has eliminated countless individuals of the species in the wild. We estimate that this has led to a sharp drop in C. flaviceps in some regions.
IUCN Red List status:
The buffy-headed marmoset status has only recently been updated to critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to a drastic population reduction. This decline is in large part the consequence of habitat destruction, the effects of hybridization and competition with invasive marmoset species, and the yellow fever epidemic that has reduced at least one of the more significant subpopulations by 90%.
Notable conservation programs or legal protections:
The Brazilian Ministry of Environment, through the ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), has created National Action Plans that aim to prioritize conservation actions to support endangered species. The National Action Plan for the Conservation of the Atlantic Forest Primates and the Maned Sloth (PAN PPMA), created in 2018, covers 13 native species, including the buffy-headed marmoset and the closely related buffy-tufted marmoset, also an endangered species.
There are also initiatives for the conservation of marmosets, such as the Mountain Marmosets Conservation Program, which has been working in collaboration with several researchers and national and international institutions to put into practice the actions established by the PPMA PAN.
Through this program a series of guides, protocols and decision keys are currently being developed to conduct studies and research with C. flaviceps. and C. aurita. One of the actions originated from this international project was the creation of the Mountain Marmosets Conservation Center at the Federal University of Viçosa, which is the first center of primatology in the world focused exclusively on both mountain marmosets, and in developing conservation activities in situ and ex situ.
Our favorite experiences:
Carla: My favorite experience with this species came at a moment of great stress and concern.
I was conducting a primate community assessment at my study site, at the Private Protected Reserve of Natural Heritage — Feliciano Miguel Abdala in Caratinga, Minas Gerais, following the yellow fever outbreak that hit the southeastern region of the Atlantic forest late in 2016.
This site was once known for having one of the most important subpopulations of the species. However, the forest had become eerily quiet, and after several months of intense field work there were no signs of the groups that used to range this 4 square mile (1,000-hectare) forest fragment. I began to suspect the worse and to fear that the marmosets had been decimated and perhaps become locally extinct.
Fortunately, while I was conducting this monitoring, I finally managed to locate a couple of groups. It was a tremendous relief to me to see these animals and to know that they had not become locally extinct. Since that time I have been keeping track of these primates and I hope that our work will lead us to new findings and benefit their conservation in the wild.
Sarisha: I'm currently studying the buffy-headed marmoset at Macedônia Farm, a private natural reserve in Ipaba, a small town located in central Minas Gerais. Here I lead a population survey to contribute knowledge about the species locally and to develop conservation strategies.
There hadn't been any previous studies focusing on the species in this region, and we only had a few reports of their historic presence. Nevertheless, we managed to discover a few healthy and large groups, bringing a positive perspective for the species in the area.
For me, my favorite experience with this species has been observing these animals in the wild, in what remains of their natural habitat. The buffy-headed marmoset is a remarkable little primate, so for me it is these moments during fieldwork where I can appreciate their beauty and witness their dexterity in the trees.
What else do we need to understand or do to protect this species?
To effectively conserve this marmoset we need urgent studies concerning the occurrence of hybridization, interaction with the invasive species and the impacts of deforestation and yellow fever.
On top of that, there are significant knowledge gaps regarding their general behavior and ecology that we would like to fill by conducting further research.
- Ferrari, S. F. (1988). The behaviour and ecology of the buffy-headed marmoset, Callithrix flaviceps (O. Thomas, 1903) (Vol. 1988). University College London.
- Ferrari, S. F. (2009). Social Hierarchy and Dispersal in Free-Ranging Buffy-Headed Marmosets (Callithrix flaviceps). The Smallest Anthropoids, 155–165. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0293-1
- Hilário, R. R. (2003). Padão de Atividades, Dieta e Uso do Habitat por Callithrix flaviceps na Reserva Biológica Augusto Ruschi, Santa Teresa, ES. Ecologia, May 2009, 1–115.
- Malukiewicz, J. (2019). A Review of Experimental, Natural, and Anthropogenic Hybridization in Callithrix Marmosets. International Journal of Primatology, 40(1), 72–98. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10764-018-0068-0
Carla B. Possamai is a biologist/primatologist researcher affiliated with the Brazilian ONG Muriqui Institute of Biodiversity. Possamai is the coordinator of the Primate Community of Caratinga project in Caratinga, Minas Gerais, which has been focusing on the studies and conservation actions regarding the buffy-headed marmosets amongst other critically endangered primate species. This project is currently funded by the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation through Global Wildlife Conservation. Carla is also a long-term collaborator with Dr. Karen Strier at the Muriqui Project of Caratinga.
Sarisha Trindade is a veterinary/master's student at the Department of Animal Biology at Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil. Her research focuses on the ecology and conservation of Callithrix flaviceps in a natural private reserve and surrounding forests located in Ipaba, a small city in central Minas Gerais. This research is financed by the cellulose company Cenibra in partnership with the Department of Forest Engineering of Federal University of Viçosa. She also works in the Mountain Marmosets Conservation Center at the Federal University of Viçosa.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Danielle Beurteaux
In 2013 authorities at Bangkok's main airport busted a smuggler carrying 54 ploughshare tortoises from Madagascar crammed in a suitcase. The seizure of what amounted to about 10% of the critically endangered species' wild population made news around the world.
What happened to those animals later did not generate as many headlines, says Jan Schmidt-Burbach, head of wildlife research and animal welfare at World Animal Protection.
Half of the tortoises died soon after their rescue — a surprise, he says, because the animals are tough and should have been able to survive. The rest went to a government rescue center in Thailand, only to end up among a group of animals that later disappeared and were suspected stolen. That second suspected crime was possible, in part, because there was resistance from center managers, he says, to marking the tortoises' shells to make them traceable.
Cases like this illustrate two of the biggest problems with the fight against the illegal wildlife trade: the scarcity of regulations for the treatment of animals after they've been rescued, and the lack of data regarding what happens to them.
"That lack of transparency with confiscated wild animals opens doors to laundering and just inappropriate handling," says Schmidt-Burbach.
International pressure to tackle the illegal wildlife trade has increased in recent years. But a resulting increase in successful seizures of live wildlife also means authorities are often overwhelmed with animals, including species that require specialized care or are dangerous.
A trafficked falcon seized in Spain during Operation Thunderbird. Interpol / USFWS
A recent paper published in the journal Animals examines what happens to these creatures, and why. Focusing on Southeast Asia, a wildlife trading hot spot, the researchers found that illegally traded wildlife are often not handled in a way most beneficial to the animals due to a combination of corruption, exploitation, and lack of policy, funding, expertise and capacity.
"Yes, they were essentially rescued," says conservation scientist Shannon Noelle Rivera, the paper's lead author. "But seizure does not mean rescue by any means, and a lot of times they end up right back in the trade."
Handled correctly, some of these animals could be successfully returned to their home habitats and help replenish populations of threatened species. Instead, they are often kept in captivity, in centers that lack the expertise, funding or the will to care for them properly.
Others disappear back into the wildlife trade. Sometimes it's because corrupt officials sell them back into the illegal wildlife market. Other times it's because directives to care for seized animals often lack the resources to do so. Many are released en masse, whether the environment is suitable or not, because that's the easiest thing to do.
As Rivera's research found, large amounts of lizards, snakes and birds are being released haphazardly and not in their native habitats: "The wrong species are getting dumped all over the place," according to a source quoted in the paper. This puts the animals at risk of dying, becoming invasive, overwhelming the ecosystem, or carrying new diseases to other fauna and humans.
The Vagaries of "Disposal"
Other researchers say the paper, although limited to Southeast Asia, reflects a global problem.
"The key themes they've identified definitely ring true," says Neil D'Cruze, global head of wildlife research at World Animal Protection and an academic visitor at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford. The best outcome, he says, is not just about following laws but ensuring the animals' wellbeing.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement to regulate wildlife commerce, has guidelines for what it terms the "disposal" of rescued animals. The three options include returning them to wild, captivity or euthanasia, with the latter, as the CITES resolution states, "the simplest and most humane option available."
But tracking which option countries choose has been difficult. D'Cruze co-authored a study in 2016 that found 70% of CITES signatory countries didn't provide any data on animal disposals on their mandatory animal trade reports because they weren't required to do so at the time. CITES finally added a field for this information in 2018, but it's still not compulsory. Indeed, more recent research found that only 32% of CITES signatory countries had even submitted the mandatory reports.
Once an animal is trafficked, it's often considered lost to conservation, says Rivera, who also points out that the term "disposal" comes with the connotations of discarding.
"Just ethically looking at the exploitation and corruption that can continue after the confiscation is really important," she says. "We're trying to stop [wildlife trafficking] through a lot of enforcement measures," but what happens to the animals next "just kind of slips under the radar."
Many animals end up in various forms of captivity of extremely varying quality of care. Some sites that position themselves as true sanctuaries are actually little more than thinly veiled tourist attractions, or are reliant on tourism dollars for funding, which can create a cycle of keeping animals in perpetuity. There is also a lack of transparency about the source of these animals — some facilities have been linked to the illegal wildlife trade.
"Trying to understand where these facilities are getting their animals is extremely difficult," says Rivera.
Stronger legislation, political support, a reduction in demand, global participation, and wildlife seizure management are among Rivera's recommendations. A registry of rescue centers, with licensing, oversight and inspections would be a good start, she says.
D'Cruze agrees that any care centers must have strict guidelines to follow that mean they are genuine sanctuaries and lifetime care facilities.
"That means no selfies and cuddling with the cubs, no performances or tricks or unnatural behaviors, no walking with them on a leash," he says.
The Complexity of Releases
Of course, if at all possible, an animal rescued from the wildlife trade should be returned to its native habitat.
But releasing a trafficked animal is much more complicated than finding an open field or a forest. These animals are often wounded, malnourished or dehydrated, or they've potentially been exposed to pathogens when they were held in close contact with other animals and species. They often require quarantine or specialized veterinary care, expensive prospects that require expertise and commitment from governments.
"Even if there is expertise and funding, the next biggest hurdle tends to be doing it properly and mitigating the risks of harming wild populations," says D'Cruze. That includes minimizing other animals' exposure to diseases and releasing animals in areas with enough territory to sustain populations. Also, some captive animals have imprinted on humans to the extent that they can't take care of themselves in the wild, can be come nuisance animals, or are particularly vulnerable to hunters.
One success story is the Wildlife Alliance's work with the Cambodia government to create a protocol for animals from seizure through to release or lifetime care. Thomas Gray, former director of science at the nongovernmental organization, calls the repopulation of native animals around the UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat "a fantastic success story." But, he cautions, "only a tiny proportion of the animals from the wildlife trade have been able to be released there."
Over the years, says Gray, thousands of snakes, turtles and other reptile species have been released into the wild in Cambodia by the Wildlife Alliance and the government. Yet there is no post-release information on whether they survived and what, if any, effects they had on their environments.
Snakes awaiting release in 2008.Wildlife Alliance
"We're assuming that they are surviving," he says. "We're assuming that we're returning them into the right places ecologically. And we're assuming that they're not having an impact on the ecology of the places where they are released. And I think those are all safe assumptions, but there's no hard data that supports that."
Can This Problem Be Solved?
Much of the burden to manage the results of the illegal wildlife trade is on the countries where these animals were seized or sourced, says Rivera. But the market demand for these exotics comes overwhelmingly from elsewhere. According to recent research, wealthy nations are driving this trade — the so-called WEIRD countries: western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. The biggest market by far is the U.S., with France and Italy trailing.
That's why one of Rivera's recommendations is for global participation in managing seizures, particularly when the source or intervening countries don't have the resources. "We can't just leave this up to countries that are doing the most seizures, or countries that have the most wildlife trade demand."
D'Cruze agrees. If countries allow the legal importation and trade of exotic animals, he says they should help manage the consequences, especially as the legal and illegal trade are linked with, for example, poached animals being passed off as legal, captive-bred animals.
And law enforcement and seizures alone aren't enough — what happens afterwards is equally, if not more, important, according to the experts.
"All interventions need to be designed in such a way that the care of any live animals are explicitly built into your interventions," says Gray. And it's particularly important for any entity funding this work to encourage governments to create protocols for these animals, he says.
The process of developing those protocols starts with better information. The current lack of data means we're missing the opportunity to develop and refine approaches for post-seizure release into the wild, and for finding ways to repopulate endangered species' populations.
"I think if we were able to show how to do it successfully, or even how to do it unsuccessfully, then we can start rehabbing these animals a lot better and have that be a more viable option," says Rivera.
Danielle Beurteaux is a science writer based in Montréal.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Tara Lohan
The Biden administration greenlighted a major new solar development in May. The Crimson Solar Project will stretch across 2,500 acres of public lands in the desert of Southern California and provide enough electricity to power 85,000 homes.
The 350-megawatt photovoltaic facility takes the country another step toward meeting the administration's stated goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half in the next 10 years. A White House statement in April proclaimed that when it comes to tackling climate change, "The United States is not waiting, the costs of delay are too great, and our nation is resolved to act now."
Already Biden's team has approved the first utility-scale offshore wind project in the Atlantic and taken a big step in the more complicated effort to develop wind energy in the Pacific Ocean's deeper waters.
Expect the pace of new renewable energy projects — including utility-scale solar like Crimson — to continue to accelerate. That's a good thing — except when this urgency collides with the glacially slow pace of life in desert ecosystems that haven't experienced much previous construction, roads or other development. There, researchers say, we may need to proceed with more caution and more information.
"In the desert, you're really talking about going into an undeveloped ecosystem," says Steven Grodsky, assistant unit leader of the USGS New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and a professor at Cornell University. "And anytime you have a major disturbance in an ecosystem that has a generally low frequency of natural disturbance, you might shake things up a bit."
Grodsky and colleagues have spent years researching how solar projects could affect soil, plants and animals in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Some of that research has been published, more is forthcoming, and much, much more is still needed to better understand how the region's ecosystems will fare.
"All of those [greenhouse gas reduction] goals entail really aggressive buildouts of renewable energy, which is a great thing in the sense that we can supplant and displace fossil fuels," he says. "But that also gives us an opportunity to be able to guide the sustainable development of these renewables."
And to do that, we'll need to better understand how solar developments may affect various plants and animals.
Long-lived and slow-moving, the desert tortoise is perhaps the poster child for the pace of life in the desert — and an example of the threats that disturbances can cause.
Road-building, urban development, livestock grazing and off-road vehicles have devastated the tortoises, which spend a large chunk of their 80-year lifespan in burrows. The combination of threats has led to the Mojave Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
A Mojave Desert tortoise. USFWS
Now more solar development, and the bulldozers and fences that come with it, have added another threat. And it's one that will be felt by more than just tortoises. The area is also home to burrowing owls, kit foxes, desert iguanas, kangaroo rats, and hundreds of rare plant species.
Grodsky is currently conducting a study on federal land run by the Bureau of Land Management in the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone, an area designated for large-scale solar development about 250 miles east of Los Angeles in the Sonoran Desert. "We are working to get a better understanding of how the solar facilities might affect animal movement and their use of corridors," he says. "So things like desert kit foxes, coyotes, bobcats, badgers."
He and colleagues have already been studying the interactions between pollinators and plants, including queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus) and Mojave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia), in other areas with solar developments.
"What we found so far is that solar development is likely affecting soils, which is in turn affecting where and how Mojave milkweed can grow, which is affecting butterfly species that lay eggs on, and have caterpillars that eat, Mojave milkweed," he explains.
A lot of the research is ongoing, and findings are preliminary, but one thing is clear already: Disturbing desert soils is a big deal.
"If you disrupt soils and then remove vegetation, that can have effects on ecosystems," he says. "The more intensive the disturbance of desert soils and plants, you're really opening up an opportunity for invasive species colonization." So solar developments could stamp out native plants and also cause invasive ones to proliferate.
How the sites are prepared for development can make a difference in the ecological impacts. Some sites are bulldozed. That's the worst-case scenario for all native plants.
Other times plants are mowed, which can be less disruptive. But it really depends on what's growing.
Cacti and Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) respond poorly to both those scenarios. "In our study, we found seven years after site preparation they hadn't recovered," says Grodsky. Creosote bushes (Larrea tridentata), however, appear to grow back after they're mowed, but it takes a while. Again, desert life is slow.
Site preparation isn't the only factor that can affect soil and plants. A study led by Karen Tanner of the University of California, Santa Cruz examined how the shade and runoff from solar panels affect common and rare plant species. The seven-year investigation found that in good rainfall years the shade suppressed plant growth for the rare Barstow woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum mohavense). In contrast, additional runoff from the panels increased the population of the common Wallace's woolly daisy (E. wallacei), which was unaffected by the shade.
"There's a need to reconcile rare species conservation and green energy goals, and our work highlights some pitfalls that can hinder effective management of rare plant populations in the desert southwest," the researchers concluded.
It's possible that tweaking some of the way solar facilities are constructed and managed could aid more plants and animals. Preliminary research suggests that leaving some habitat patches within solar projects could have positive conservation benefits.
"I think that there could be alterations to the design of desert solar facilities, the spacing between individual arrays, and the creation of habitat passes within solar fields at varying sizes," says Grodsky. "If we are going to put solar facilities in these ecosystems, let's try to make sure they have the least impact on soil, plants and animals."
At a solar facility built in Nye County, Nevada in 2017, fences around the property's perimeter were built with openings in places to allow desert tortoises and other species to pass through and access the habitat within the development. Panels were also placed 18 inches higher off the ground than the industry standard to better help vegetation return.
An opening in a perimeter fence that allows wildlife to access habitat inside the solar facility. USFWS
"Research and monitoring studies are underway to investigate the ability of native plants to persist under solar panels and how well the project area functions as habitat for wildlife," according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Other projects are experimenting with combining pollinator-friendly plants and solar projects to create more ecological benefits.
Location, Location, Location
Of course there's another option for reducing the harm to desert ecosystems from solar development — don't build there in the first place.
A 2107 study led by Madison Hoffacker of the University of California, Davis focused on other options in California, including using the built environment — such as solar panels on existing rooftops, arrays on salt-affected lands that can no longer be used for farming, and "floatovoltaics" on the surface water of reservoirs.
The researchers found more than 3,200 square miles of available surfaces in just California's Central Valley that would be good for solar development and not in conflict with agricultural uses or protected conservation areas.
"There's this competition for finite land resources between all these competing land uses, including renewable energy development, agriculture, conservation and urbanization," says Grodsky. But finding ways to co-locate projects for multiple benefits or using marginal lands could help reduce the need to dig up more of the undisturbed desert.
Inevitably, though, more solar projects will be built in the desert, and it will be important to understand where they'll have the least impact and how to best manage them with desert species in mind, he says.
"Now's the time for researchers in the ecological community to do our part, to conduct the research and to ensure that the development is as informed as possible about the ecological effects," he says.
That will take buy-in from developers, incentives, policy and much more funding.
There's also a disparity when it comes to timing. Life and science move slowly in the desert, but progress does not.
"Renewable energy development is growing faster and faster," he says. "But scientists need to go and collect field data for at least a couple of years to get anything worthwhile, and then you have to analyze it and write it up. So you're talking about four years, and within those four years you could have another 20 large-scale solar facilities built."
Trying to ensure research and information keeps pace with development will remain a challenge. But more and more companies are realizing that building projects sustainably is better in the long run, he says. That may be because of better PR, lower mitigation costs down the road or environmental ethics.
"But I do think that in the end, the most sustainable solar energy development will end up being a win for everyone," he says. "Industry, the general public and natural resource managers will all benefit."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Minh Minh Nguyen
First recognized as a new species in 1993, the large-antlered muntjac is already critically endangered and heading fast toward extinction. As muntjac go, the large-antlered is the largest species, but muntjac in general are small members of the deer family Cervidae. The species is facing a "quiet extinction," hidden away in a miniscule global range in the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam.
Large-antlered muntjac, also known as the giant muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis)
Large-antlered muntjac are a rich, dark brown overall and stand approximately 2 feet (60 cm) high at the shoulder. In common with many deer, they have a white underside to the tail, which is typically raised when alarmed. Like other muntjac they have simple, two-tined antlers, long pedicels and unique paired frontal glands on the rostrum between their eyes. Males, like other male muntjac, have long, sharp canine teeth they use in fighting.
Female large-antlered muntjac. Minh Nguyen / Association Anoulak and Nakai-Nam Theun National Park Authority
Where It's Found:
Annamite Mountain forests of Laos and Vietnam
IUCN Red List Status:
Widespread intensive snaring throughout their small range is the number-one problem. This snaring is driven by a booming wildlife trade that encompasses the derivatives of many species — from well-known products of tigers and pangolins to gelatin derived from primate bones, turtle shells and medicinal plants. The large-antlered muntjac isn't a particular focus of the trade, but snares are indiscriminate. Trade is booming because of the economic and population growth of East Asian countries. Roads, dams, mines and other infrastructure investments make things worse, and because of sustained economic growth these are on the rise.
Illegal wildlife snares in Laos. Bill Robichaud / Global Wildlife Conservation / CC BY 2.0
Notable Conservation Programs or Legal Protections:
NGOs are trying but have no concrete success yet. Foundation Anoulak and Asian Arks are potentially poised to make a difference, but unfortunately even the species' legal protection does little to help.
My Favorite Experience:
In 2015 I saw my first wild muntjac. I was so enthralled by its cautious yet gracious movements and the delicacy of its existence that I immediately knew I wanted to do all I could to save the species from extinction. Going to the forest in Vietnam had always been sad, knowing of the challenges facing distinctive wildlife from rampant poaching. So seeing an animal, especially a large mammal, is always an exhilarating experience when, for a moment at least, I can forget about life's problems.
I love observing animal behavior, but seeing it in the wild, from a muntjac, is almost an impossibility. More often I get a sense of joy looking through camera-trap photos thinking about the behavior I might be observing in a series of photos — perhaps a fawn chasing back and forth around its mom. These are the moments that I'm hoping to see more often in my camera-trap photos; hopefully, when their population has recovered, I can see them in real life.
What else do we need to understand or do to protect this species?
Following the advice of leading conservationists in Southeast Asia, I've been pursuing research to better understand the dynamics of the snaring and the impact it has on the large-antlered muntjac. Currently there's no data on how parameters such as snare density or spatial distribution affect population viability for any Annamite species. So, questions like "how large an area can a patrol team effectively cover?" simply can't be answered.
Better informed, strategic in situ conservation management is needed to save the species. The species has been disappearing so fast, however, that "just in case" ex situ conservation breeding has been recommended.
Minh Minh Nguyen is working to conserve the large-antlered muntjac amongst the brilliant diversity of the Annamite region. Minh and her team's work is supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and the Saola Working Group, and is conducted using permits granted through a collaboration between Nong Lam University and the Chu Yang Sin National Park. Minh is currently a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University, supported by scholarships from the AAUW – International Fellowship, the Wildlife Conservation Network and Colorado State University, where she hopes to gather as much support as she can to change the fate of the species she loves. She's also passionate about education, particularly empowering new generations of conservationists, and continues to mentor undergraduate students back home in Vietnam. When networking with conservation colleagues, she always tries to find opportunities for people new to conservation to get involved.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Tim Lydon
You're right if you think you've been hearing a lot about container ships lately. One off the coast of Sri Lanka that was carrying 25 tons of nitric acid and other cargo suffered an explosion after containers caught fire on May 20 and burned for more than a week, littering the beaches with plastic pollution. And in March all eyes were on the Suez Canal, where a 1,300-foot-long container ship turned sideways and gummed up international trade with a six-day-long traffic jam. Maybe you've also had your shoes, bike or other online purchases delayed because of backed-up ports near Los Angeles.
But less attention surrounded a spate of container-ship accidents in the Pacific Ocean this past winter. It included one of the worst shipping accidents on record, which occurred near midnight on Nov. 30 as towering waves buffeted the ONE Apus, a 1,200-foot cargo ship delivering thousands of containers full of goods from China to Los Angeles. In remote waters 1,600 miles northwest of Hawai'i, the container stack lashed to the ship's deck collapsed, tossing more than 1,800 containers into the sea.
Some of those containers carried dangerous goods, including batteries, fireworks and liquid ethanol.
"This is a massive spill," says oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked marine debris from container spills for over 30 years. The ONE Apus lost more containers in a single night than the shipping industry reports are lost worldwide in an entire year.
More photos from the ONE APUS, set 4 https://t.co/DAbmXln0hA— Maritime Cyprus Intl news forum (@Maritime Cyprus Intl news forum)1607433139.0
It was also only one of at least six spills since October that dumped more than 3,000 cargo containers into the Pacific Ocean along shipping routes between Asia and the United States. They include the loss of 100 containers from the ONE Aquila on Oct. 30 and 750 containers from the Maersk Essen on Jan. 16. Both ships encountered rough weather while delivering goods to the United States.
Experts say these types of spills, which tend to fly under the public's radar, put containers into the sea that pose potential hazards to the health of the ocean and put everything from mariners to wildlife at risk.
"They're like time capsules of everything we buy and sell, sitting in the deep sea," says Andrew DeVogelaere, NOAA research coordinator at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California. Those lost containers may harm wildlife and ocean health, he says, by crushing aquatic habitats or introducing new seabed features that change biological communities or even aid the spread of invasive species. They can also release hazardous cargo such as the 6,000 pounds of sulfuric acid that went into the sea when the Maersk Shanghai lost containers off of the North Carolina coast in 2018.
Despite that potential for danger, no one is tracking the lost containers in the Pacific and opinions vary about where they will come to rest. Many are likely on the ocean floor, but an unknown number may have ruptured and disgorged their contents, which typically include many thousands of consumer items made of plastic. They could float for years in the ocean or wash ashore in Alaska, Hawai'i or other locations.
To date, the only debris known to come ashore from this winter's accidents are giant waterlogged sacks of chia seeds, which hit Oregon beaches in December following the loss of six containers from a ship near the California coast. Federal biologists were still cleaning smelly globs of the seeds from threatened snowy plover nesting habitat in April.
The accidents come at a time when the container shipping industry we all rely on is under unprecedented strain. In April the National Retail Federation reported a 10th consecutive month of record-high imports from Asia to the U.S. West Coast, driven by skyrocketing online shopping tied to the pandemic.
It's led to backed-up ports, delayed deliveries, and shortages of empty containers, conditions that are forecast to continue. But in a trick of the pandemic tied to both U.S. shopping patterns and Chinese factory schedules, it also put more cargo ships on the water during fall and winter, the stormiest time of year in the Pacific.
Some experts say the changes may represent a new normal for trans-Pacific container shipping. If that's true, more spills may lie ahead — prompting calls for greater transparency and accountability from shippers.
Decades of Debris
"I'm considered persona non grata by the shipping industry," Ebbesmeyer says when asked if he knew anything about what was aboard the ONE Apus or where it might be headed. "They blackballed me years ago. They didn't like me shining a light in a dark place."
That dark place is the inside of a shipping container. Back in the 1990s Ebbesmeyer began applying his oceanography skills to tracking debris from what seemed like an ever-increasing number of container accidents. One year it was 28,000 rubber bath toys shaped like ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs that spilled from a single container lost in the North Pacific. Another year it was 61,000 Nike sneakers from a handful of containers, also in the Pacific.
With a friend at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, he calculated how far the flotsam would travel. Over close to a decade, beachcombers around the world confirmed their predictions with reports of debris from Texas to Australia to the United Kingdom.
"As an oceanographer, I want to know how the ocean works," Ebbesmeyer says. Following the debris helped him understand ocean currents and the destination of the marine debris that even by the 1990s was on the rise. But as Ebbesmeyer's work gained notoriety, he says the industry went mum. And what little light had been shed inside shipping containers flickered out.
But the accidents didn't stop. In 1997 a single container lost from a ship in near England spilled 5 million Lego pieces, which still wash ashore today.
There were 8,100 of these Lego links or 'axles with eyes' in the shipping container that fell off the Tokio Express… https://t.co/xytVGgUokE— Lego Lost At Sea (@Lego Lost At Sea)1620630653.0
In the early 2000s, it was computer monitors landing on beaches from California to Alaska. Ebbesmeyer says the shippers seldom disclosed how many items were lost, and he suspects the same silence will surround the ONE Apus and other recent spills.
"If they'd share what's in the containers," he says, "we might predict where the debris will land and possibly organize a response." Spilled goods travel the waters differently depending on their weight and materials; if the scientists know those details, they can anticipate where the products will eventually land. By tracking this trash, oceanographers could learn more about where currents and winds carry other debris, too. And, says Ebbesmeyer, it might compel shippers to help pay for cleanup, an expense coastal residents and agencies usually absorb today.
But shippers seem as tight-lipped as ever. Beyond reporting the presence of certain hazardous materials, they have not released details about the 3,000 missing containers.
Who's Minding the Ship?
According to the industry trade group the World Shipping Council, 6,000 container ships traverse the oceans every day, moving 226 million containers annually. The ships sail a dizzying array of routes among more than 200 ports and are registered in countries around the world. But because they spend much of their time on the high seas outside any one nation's jurisdiction, governance is a mix of regulations and voluntary best practices that don't require tracking or recovering debris from lost containers. That only happens when losses occur in nearshore waters where the United States or another country claims jurisdiction.
The Panama-flagged Ever Given causes disruptions in the Suez Canal in March. National Ocean Service Image Gallery
"We usually read about it in the news," says Catherine Berg, scientific support coordinator at NOAA's Emergency Response Division in Alaska. Berg says no formal mechanism is in place for reporting high-seas shipping container accidents like the ONE Apus to the U.S. government. And no funding exists for NOAA scientists to track the debris, although they occasionally perform informal modeling.
Officers with the U.S. Coast Guard Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu, Hawai'i, tell a similar story. They say shippers report container spills as a courtesy but that the agency lacks authority or funding to investigate, unless containers directly threaten U.S. shores. Instead, following the ONE Apus spill, the Coast Guard issued a notice to mariners about the hazard of floating containers, which some sailors call "steel icebergs" for their deceptively low profile on the water. The notice expired after a couple of weeks, with the assumption containers had sunk, ruptured or dispersed.
On the open seas, the shipping trade is primarily governed by the International Maritime Organization and other United Nations groups. Among their primary tools is the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty, originally signed in 1914. It was last amended in 2016 with new rules on weighing of containers, intended to lessen spills.
In 2014 the IMO also endorsed an updated code of practice for cargo ships, which addresses packing, stacking and lashing of containers. Although shippers frequently blame losses on rough weather, as happened in each of last winter's Pacific Ocean accidents, investigation often reveals underlying problems in lashing and other practices that occur before a ship even leaves port. That happened in May 2020 when the APL England lost 43 containers near Australia, forcing popular Sydney beaches to close as authorities cleaned a debris field of appliance parts, plastic boxes and face masks.
The updated code of practice is only voluntary and does not include provisions for tracking lost containers or revealing their contents. But continued cargo accidents may be forcing a change.
In 2019, when the MSC Zoe lost 280 containers in heavy weather between Portugal and Germany, volunteers and Dutch troops spent months cleaning Wadden Islands' shores of toys, furniture and smashed televisions. Following the accident, which investigators also blamed on poor lashing, the Council of the European Union submitted a draft proposal for a new IMO rule requiring better reporting of containers lost at sea. If passed, and depending on the rule's terms, it could one day address Ebbesmeyer's decades-long concerns over shipper transparency.
Also following the MSC Zoe, the Dutch government commissioned a review of shipping practices and technologies that could aid in tracking containers, including equipping them with satellite tags. Echoing Ebbesmeyer's experiences, the report said it is "hard to track down" what lies within lost containers and that improvement would require industry cooperation and investment.
Industry support may be gaining. The World Shipping Council, which has supported past amendments to SOLAS, is a cosponsor of the proposed new rule, according to the organization's spokesperson Anna Larsson.
"We really support all and any fact-based measures to improve safety," Larsson said in an email.
Although springtime's calmer weather has replaced the winter storms that battered cargo ships, it's likely whatever debris from recent spills that has not sunk to the bottom of the Pacific is still floating out there somewhere. But with so little known about the containers and their contents, it's unclear where the debris is headed.
"Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's on the seafloor," says Ebbesmeyer.
He gives the example of a container full of plastic telephones in the likeness of the comic-strip cat Garfield that spilled from a ship along the European coast in the 1980s. For decades, cables and shards of orange plastic mysteriously washed ashore from the phones. The mangled container that once held them was finally discovered in 2019, wedged deep in a French sea cave that's underwater much of the year.
Thousands of other containers must lie on sea bottoms along the world's shipping routes, says NOAA's DeVogelaere.
In what is possibly the only study of its kind, DeVogelaere keeps his eye on a shipping container lying in 4,000 feet of water at the Monterey Bay sanctuary. It was one of 24 that toppled from a Taiwanese cargo ship in 2004 and was serendipitously discovered by one of NOAA's remotely operated vehicles conducting unrelated research. Since 2011, DeVogelaere has monitored ecological change around the container, noting colonization by species not typically found in the immediate area. This year his team will investigate whether the container's anti-corrosive paints, which can be toxic, may also have an ecological effect.
"We're impacting an environment that we haven't even begun to understand," he says of the seafloor.
DeVogelaere's container, which has so far remained latched shut, holds more than 1,100 steel-belted radial tires. He knows this only because it happened to land in a nearshore federal sanctuary, putting it under U.S. jurisdiction. Through a lengthy legal process, NOAA won a $3.25 million settlement from the shipper.
Such settlements take time but can occur when containers spill in nearshore waters. For instance, when the Hanjin Seattle lost 35 empty containers near Canada's west coast in 2016, officials won a modest settlement to help pay for removal of foam insulation that littered wildlife habitat along miles of national park and First Nations beaches.
After the Svendborg Maersk lost 517 containers in the Bay of Biscay in 2014, French officials ordered the company to map sunken containers to identify commercial fishing hazards. And a settlement following the 2011 wreck of the MV Rena in New Zealand, which also caused an oil spill, included cleanup of tiny plastic beads that still wash ashore today.
Those beads, like the Legos, computer monitors and Garfield phones, hint at the unknown contribution of container spills to marine plastic pollution, which is increasingly understood to harm birds, whales, fish and other animals through both ingestion and entanglement.
Although the World Shipping Council tracks cargo accidents, which it says lose an average of 1,382 containers annually, no one knows their true ecological impact.
But Ebbesmeyer remains concerned. He likens each spill to dumping a big box store into the ocean.
"That plastic never goes away," he says. "It drifts around in the water or flies overhead in the stomachs of seabirds. It haunts you over time."
Tim Lydon writes from Alaska on public-lands and conservation issues. He has worked on public lands for much of the past three decades, both as a guide and for land-management agencies, and is a founding member of the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation. His writing has most recently appeared in The Revelator, Yes Magazine, Hakai Magazine, The Hill, High Country News, and elsewhere.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Kelly Heber Dunning
As summer approaches, reports of the return of leisure travel are beginning to emerge following the unprecedented shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the world's most popular tourism destinations have begun to plan an eventual reopening, exploring what their "new normal" will look like.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused most of these sites to fall silent, including one of the world's busiest cruise-ship ports: the docks on Grand Cayman Island. In April 2020, the global pandemic shut down the island's port, which normally saw the arrival of dozens of cruise ships and thousands of tourists every month. The Cayman Islands was the only Caribbean nation to voluntarily halt its cruise economy, prioritizing the safety of its residents. Local businesses, hurt by the loss of tourism dollars, have already started going under; iconic local spots that make up much of the community's social fabric, for tourists and locals alike, are being lost.
A cruise ship visits Grand Cayman in 2019. David Reber / CC BY-SA 2.0
Soon, though, the ban on cruise ships will undoubtedly lift, and tourism will slowly return. And when that happens, the residents of Grand Cayman and nearby islands may find themselves worrying about another major threat posed by these cruise companies, one that runs the risk of being drowned out by the disruption caused by the pandemic.
In 2019 the Cayman Islands government announced a plan to move forward on a massive new port project in George Town Harbor, supported by two major cruise-ship operators. Without this project, cruise ships visiting the island must anchor offshore and shuttle passengers back and forth with smaller vessels — an important aspect of the local economy with historic roots in the coastal community.
The new project, estimated to cost $200 million, would allow cruise ships to come all the way to shore by building deep new docks capable of accommodating four cruise ships at a time, each of which could bring thousands of additional visitors to the island, according to the cruise companies and government supporters.
But getting to this point would require dredging 22 acres of George Town Harbor's seabed, destroying 10 to 15 acres of fragile coral reefs in the process.
If that happens, another vital part of the fabric of Grand Cayman life would be lost.
Coral vs. Corporate Influence
Given its role in the global financial industry, the Cayman Islands may seem like the last place in the world where rule of law and good governance would be a problem. Yet even here, the ever-growing power of multinational corporations to transform environmental policy is starting to be felt.
It didn't used to be this way.
As I wrote in my recent scientific study on the Cayman Islands, their effective marine park system has stood out as a model for coral-reef management since it was put in place in the 1980s. This area is known for its vibrant coral reefs, well-protected through the ever-expanding network of marine parks. The Cayman Islands have strict constitutional provisions and laws for protecting coral reefs, as well as international environmental policy commitments. Caymanian history and culture are also closely tied to the reefs. The first dive tourism spots in the Caribbean blossomed from Bob Soto's little backwater dive shop on "Cheeseburger Reef" into today's multimillion-dollar dive tourism trade.
Despite the history and good governance, the cruise industry — notably Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines — had, prior to the pandemic, announced plans to move ahead with their plans to build the new docking facility on George Town Harbor.
Fragile Reefs, Questionable Science, Vague Promises
Those docks would devastate the local ecology. A 2015 environmental impact assessment estimated that the project would not just destroy 15 acres of reef but also negatively affect another 15 to 20 acres of adjacent habitat and pose risks to the 26 coral species in the harbor — two of which are critically endangered.
Coral disease and bleaching from elevated surface temperatures have already put the Cayman Islands' coral reefs on the ropes; this could be the knockout punch.
R9 Studios / CC BY 2.0
The cruise companies pushing the infrastructure project have argued that there's a way to mitigate this damage, but their proposed solution doesn't hold much water.
They worked with the government on a plan that would pay an engineering company and a Florida-based NGO to relocate every coral lost or replant lab-grown corals in place of the ones they can't relocate. By my estimation, the partners would need to replant and grow more than 3 million corals to make up for this destruction — triple the stated replanting goal.
The government's replacement goal is based on the absurd notion that a reef is simply an independent collection of corals humans can easily re-create — a bold assumption, and one yet to be supported at the proposed scale.
The reality is that reefs are slow-growing, highly complex assemblies of living and non-living things that take centuries to develop. This promised "replanting" technology is scientifically unproven at best and greenwashing at worst — meant to soothe the conscience of those troubled by the grave choice to destroy a beloved coral reef with deep meaning to its community.
The government has promised vague jobs and economic benefits if the project is built. And the CEO of Royal Caribbean, Michael Bailey, promises no taxpayer money will be used to pay for the dock.
This is not true. The Caymanian government will hand over $2.32 in tourism taxes per passenger to the cruise lines that it would otherwise collect for the citizens of Cayman. Caymanians are, therefore, paying for this infrastructure, despite mounting environmental problems on the island including a trash pile so large that locals call it "Mount Trashmore."
Votes and Courts
There is some hope in this case, thanks to Caymanian community organizing.
Two years ago, Caymanian citizens successfully organized and secured a referendum through a robust people's movement. Community groups like Cruise Port Referendum Cayman (CPR Cayman) implemented an aggressive ground campaign with no outside financial backing, organized only by volunteers. They focused on educating the public on the risks and uncertainties underpinning this project. Their efforts triggered a public referendum, originally scheduled for Christmas 2019, the first in Caymanian history.
The status of the referendum is currently being worked out in the courts, and it's important that we pay attention. Currently, prominent members of CPR Cayman are acting as watchdogs to ensure the referendum, if it is ultimately held, will take place in a fair and impartial way. Before the court challenge, activists protested the original referendum, which was intentionally scheduled at the holidays, a time when many are simply not on the island — an incredibly cynical move, since under the Cayman constitution a missing vote counts as a de facto "yes" for the port.
Despite community opposition, cruise corporation leaders are actively speaking out in support of this project's resumption, with Michael Bayley, the CEO of Royal Caribbean, saying that they will make a decision to resurrect the pier project in the coming months.
That's why it's so important that we follow this ongoing case — CPR Cayman makes regular updates to their Facebook page — as local community activists continue to contest the project in court. Should our "New Normal" following the COVID-19 pandemic allow companies to break environmental laws for private gain?
Why do these reefs matter so much? They're what we would call "democratic reefs," easily accessed from the shore by the public using free parking lots and open stairs. Multiple generations of Caymanians have taken the quick swim out and snorkeled with their children. One man who spoke up at a 2019 community meeting told the story of how his father, he, and now his son all took the name "Eden" after the iconic Eden Rock Reef, which will be wrecked by this project.
For people like Eden and his family, this isn't just an environmental issue — this is about social justice. Coral reefs come with benefits for communities. They protect islands from hurricanes, provide food, attract tourism dollars and have deep cultural meaning. Lower-income people feel the loss of these services more intensely than those with more. Will the "replanted" reefs replace natural ones effectively? Or will low-income communities bear the consequences while foreign companies and scientists-for-hire sail home with increased profit? The losses for locals will stack up with eroding beaches erode, exposed homes, empty fishing grounds empty, and an end to their snorkeling trips with their children.
The number of people standing up to this project continued to grow in 2020, even during the pandemic. This drew scorn of powerful government leaders such as McKeeva Bush, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who called community organizers "rascals" in public.
What happens next? Premier Alden McLaughlin hinted back in mid-April 2020 that he had grown weary of this dispute, suggesting that the vote will not happen during the current political term due to the pandemic.
That doesn't mean the port project is dead. It's just been pushed down the line for the next people who take office. "It will be another government that deals with that," McLaughlin said. Given the support expressed by leaders in the cruise industry, many believe this project will resume when cruise tourism resumes.
It may seem odd to talk about this while the world is just beginning to emerge from the pandemic, but the attention we pay to COVID-19 may distract us from closely watching corporations that stand to gain from the proposed destruction of coral reefs. This may be the window of opportunity the government needs to quietly move ahead while we're distracted with recovery.
We must unify as "rascals" to oppose corporations that continue to push their anti-environment agendas forward around the world. We must reject the false promises of scientists-for-hire.
If being a "rascal" means opposing the immoral destruction of coral reefs, consider me a rascal.
When and if the vote happens, I encourage the people of the Cayman Islands to vote no on the referendum. Likewise, I urge the people of the Cayman Islands to unite against companies violating their environmental laws. The returns are not worth the risks, namely the loss of their iconic reefs.
I encourage the U.S. public, and the wider world, to hold the cruise industry accountable for these types of immoral bypasses of domestic and international environmental policy. The industry's shocking record of customer safety amidst the pandemic remains in the news, but this is hardly its only sin. You only need to look to the industry's poor environmental record in the Bahamas to see what might happen in the Caymans moving forward.
If the reefs are destroyed and the restoration fails or even partially succeeds, the Caymanian people will be left to clean up, while the cruise industry continues to rake in record profits.
It is unethical to destroy coral reefs because they do not belong to us. They belong to everyone, and that includes future generations. If the project goes ahead, I hope that corporate leadership from the cruise industry will explain to young Eden, and other young Caymanians, why they cannot snorkel the reefs that their parents once did.
Kelly Heber Dunning is an assistant professor of conservation governance at Auburn University and a 2020 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Early Career Fellow. She received her Ph.D. in Natural Resources from MIT and MSc in Environmental Policy from Oxford and is the author of Managing Coral Reefs (2018), a scientific book on coral reef management.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or its employees.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Charles Emogor
The white-bellied pangolin is one of eight evolutionary distinct pangolin species split equally between Africa and Asia. They're among the very few mammals with scales and have a tongue that, when pulled out of its cavity, is longer than their entire body, which measures about 30 inches. These gentle and somewhat quirky animals should be celebrated, but instead they're often killed for their unique scales, believed in some cultures to harbor medicinal properties.
White-bellied pangolin, also known as the tree or three-cusped pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)
White-bellied pangolins look like armadillos, except that they have scales, not rings. They get their name from the white patch on their bellies, one of the few areas not covered in scales. These scales are made of keratin and overlap each other, acting as the animals' main defense against predation. With the help of their long tongues, these toothless mammals feed almost exclusively on ants and termites and roll into a ball when threatened. Adults usually grow to about 3-4 pounds.
Where It's Found:
Tropical lowland forests and secondary forests in 23 west, central and east African countries make good habitat. These pangolins also live in savanna-forest mosaic and dense woodlands.
IUCN Red List Status:
Although no formal population estimate exists for white-bellied pangolins across their range, the species was recently reclassified from vulnerable to endangered to reflect the increasing magnitude of threats to their survival.
Like all pangolin species, white-bellied pangolins are threatened by overexploitation for their meat and scales, which are consumed as food and in traditional medicine, respectively. However, the growing demand from Asia for the scales of African pangolins is disproportionately affecting white-bellied pangolins, since they're the most common African pangolin species. In addition to poaching, white-bellied pangolins are threatened by habitat loss.
Notable Conservation Programs or Legal Protections:
The Convention on the International on the Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) restricts the international commercial trade in all pangolin species, including their derivatives. National laws in many white-bellied range countries also prohibit their killing, with anti-poaching patrols conducted in their habitats to deter poachers and enforce these laws.
My Favorite Experience:
Seeing my first living white-bellied pangolin after more than a decade of being a pangolin enthusiast filled me with excitement and hope. My challenging 11-hour hike into the heart of Nigeria's Cross River National Park to monitor these mammals was a success, as I found and tagged about five of them. Seeing these animals in their natural environment was even more exciting, as I had only ever seen their carcasses and scales on display in wild meat markets.
What Else Do We Need to Understand or Do to Protect This Species?
While scientists are working to further understand the ecology and dynamics of the illegal pangolin trade to inform science-based conservation actions, governments of countries where pangolins exist and those involved in their trafficking should establish laws protecting pangolins (where they do not already exist) and uphold already-enacted laws. Governments and the public can also support pangolin conservation through increased anti-poaching patrols and the arrest and prosecution of poachers and traffickers, as well as campaigns to increase awareness of their plight.
Charles Emogor is a National Geographic explorer studying the ecology of the white-bellied pangolin for his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. Charles is from Nigeria and has been fascinated by pangolins from a very early age. He recently founded Pangolino, which uses art to communicate the science of pangolin conservation and raise awareness of these scaly anteaters.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Tara Lohan
In early May scientists discovered a plume of smoke wafting from a smoldering sequoia that ignited during 2020's Castle fire, which set California's Sequoia National Forest alight last August.
The fiery remnant is the result of another too-dry winter in California and an ominous marker for the beginning of the 2021 fire season, which experts say looks "grim" for California and across much of the West.
March and April were the driest in more than 126 years for Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, and the third and fourth driest for California and Colorado. Oregon, meanwhile, had its driest April ever. Things are predicted to continue to be both hotter and drier than normal across the West and Plains, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
That combination, driven by climate change, caused record-breaking wildfires last year. And this year could be similar.
"More frequent drought, hotter summers and warmer and drier autumns, tied to climate change, are stacking the deck for large and destructive fires during the heart of the fire season," The Washington Post reported. "And this year, a lack of rain in spring could mean fires arrive early in some areas."
An increase in the size and number of fires is also driving more research. Here's what scientists have found recently about how wildfires are affecting ecology and communities:
1. California's Troubling Trends
If it seems like wildfire danger is getting worse in California, that's on target.
A new study published in Nature Scientific Reports found that the frequency and total area burned by wildfires in California have both increased significantly in the past 20 years. Wildfire season is now longer, and the yearly peak comes a month earlier.
The researchers also found geographic changes. "Hotspots" with severe fire risk — once limited to Los Angeles County — are now found in other parts of Southern California and across northern parts of the state. "Natural wildfires became more concentrated in Northern California," the researchers found. But "human-caused wildfires have even emerged [in] new hot spots… along the west coast and the Sierra Nevada mountain range."
Climate change and human land-use activities are the major drivers of these increases, but the expansion of the "wildland-urban interface" and continued development now also put more people and property in the way, according to the study.
2. Midwest Flames
The West isn't the only part of the country battling increasing blazes. A state of emergency was declared in Wisconsin on April 5 as wildfire season there arrived two weeks early.
"Between 2016 and 2020, Wisconsin averaged 742 fires per year and lost 1,200 acres to fires," The Guardian reported. But just four months into this year, there were already 365 fires, totaling 1,518 acres.
The state is expected to see its biggest fire season in five years.
3. Learning From Australia
Of course, everything is relative.
Last year 4 million acres burned in California wildfires. That's dwarfed by the 46 million acres consumed in Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires.
Wildfire is a natural part of many ecosystems in Australia and beneficial for some species. But research is beginning to show some of the short-term effects of Australia's recent fires on plants and wildlife.
A Koala in a tree near the Tambo Complex bushfire in Australia, Jan. 2020. BLMIdaho / CC BY 2.0
Recent research found that the critical habitat of more than 830 native vertebrate species was affected. Seventy species lost nearly one third of their range, with 21 of those species already at risk of extinction before the fires.
Another study found that more than 800 vascular plant species were "highly impacted." The ranges for 116 species were entirely burned and another 173 lost 90% of their habitat.
"The megafires occurred within globally significant biodiversity hotspots with high richness and endemism across important plant groups," the researchers wrote.
The good news is that many of the affected plants are resilient to fire, although the researchers say that some areas may not be able to recover. "The massive biogeographic, demographic and taxonomic breadth of impacts of the 2019–2020 fires may leave some ecosystems, particularly relictual Gondwanan rainforests, susceptible to regeneration failure and landscape-scale decline," they wrote.
4. Landscapes Shifting
Landscape-scale changes as a result of climate change and wildfires are happening elsewhere, too. A study published in Ecosphere found that when a wildfire in southwest Colorado's Rocky Mountains follows a severe bark beetle outbreak, Engelmann spruce trees are unable to recover.
The loss of conifers following that one-two punch is likely to lead to more quaking aspens taking root, and a possible shift in forest type — and the species that depend on those trees.
Changes are afoot in California too, particularly in chaparral. That ecosystem is made up of assemblages of native woody shrubs found along many of the state's coastal foothills and inland mountain slopes. The natural interval for fire return to chaparral is between 30 and 150 years, but in some places that's been shortened to just 10 years.
Not all species are able to adapt to that change. Some chaparral shrubs are being replaced by weedy annual grasses, which in turn drive more fires in an unfortunate feedback loop.
An increase in the frequency and severity of fires in chaparral also threatens an oft-overlooked part of the ecosystem: lichen, which play a key role in retaining moisture in the soil and providing food for wildlife.
A new study found that while most lichen don't survive wildfires in chaparral, they can recolonize in the decades following. However, with fires happening more frequently, we're likely to see "substantial lichen biodiversity losses in chaparral shrublands."
5. Fighting Fire With Fire
Parts of California's chaparral may be seeing too much fire, but other areas are still in fire deficits after a century of fire suppression policies. Land managers are beginning to see that bringing fire back to the landscape can be an important tool, though.
Aja Conrad (Karuk Tribe Environmental Workforce Development & Internships Division Coordinator) uses a drip torch to light a prescribed burn in Orleans, CA. Jenny Staats
Of course, Indigenous communities already knew that and have employed cultural burning practices for millennia. Some of that Indigenous environmental knowledge is being shared by tribes like the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk in Northern California.
But there are still many barriers to prescribed burns, including air-quality regulations and the capacity and funding to implement projects.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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