The dolphin is found in almost all seas and oceans of the world, and even some rivers. Their amazing intelligence, creativity, playfulness and complex culture captures the hearts and minds of humans around the globe. But these fascinating creatures are continuously under threat from human activities, including marine pollution, habitat degradation, hunting, low frequency sonar and fishing gear.
Many dolphin species face an uncertain future. The Amazon river dolphin and the Ganges river dolphin are critically or seriously endangered. The critically imperiled vaquita — the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise — is being driven extinct, with only around 50 remaining.
Pesticides, heavy metals, plastics, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants that do not disintegrate rapidly in the environment concentrate in predators such as dolphins. Injuries or deaths due to collisions with boats, especially their propellers, are also common. Various fishing methods, most notably purse seine fishing for tuna and the use of drift and gill nets, kill many dolphins. In some parts of the world dolphins are killed in harpoon or drive hunts.
Complex, Social, Intelligent, Playful
Dolphin brains are larger and, in some ways, more complex than human brains. They have such significant brain power it stops them from sleeping. Their sophisticated language allows them to trace other dolphins up to six miles away. They even have names for one another. They communicate with a variety of low sounds that humans cannot hear. They also use echolocation – sending sounds through water to bounce off objects to determine their shape, size and distance.
Dolphins form complex social groups. They crave physical attention and stroke each other. They use tools and pass their knowledge through a family line. They reason, problem-solve and comprehend ideas. They plan ahead. They have advanced math skills. They blow bubbles that vary in exact amplitudes to detect fish, then subtract values found with their echolocation to confirm the target.
Dolphins love to play. They follow ships and ride bow-waves like human surfers. They play catch, tag and other games with each other, and also enjoy playing with other animals. Dolphins swim onto the nose of humpback whales, who then raise themselves out of the water so the dolphins slide down their heads - both animals enjoy the game.
Threats From The Fishing Industry
The modernization of the fishing industry has resulted in far more fish caught annually than half a century ago. Sophisticated fishing techniques are responsible for the depletion of fish in the oceans by one-third. For the dolphin, whose main intake is fish, especially tuna, this scale of commercial over-fishing has come as a death knell.
Fishing gear continues to pose the most significant threat to dolphin conservation worldwide. Scientists estimate that each year more than 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are caught and killed in fishing gear. These animals are unintentional “bycatch” of commercial fisheries and either drown or are tossed overboard to die from their injuries. Fishing nets are now made of much tougher material, and dolphins getting routinely trapped in them is a common occurrence. One such menace is the gill-net, which when vertically hung trap the fish by their gills. In addition, trawl nets, driftnets, and longline gear are responsible for the lives of almost 60,000 dolphins each year. Many fishermen kill dolphins because the dolphins cause damage to their nets.
Dolphins are also hunted as a form of delicacy in parts of Asia, South America and Africa. Dolphins fall prey to "drive hunting", a hunting method where boats converge and crowd around the mammals driving them towards a beach or bay. This form of hunting has accounted for the lives of thousands of dolphins each year, a phenomena vividly depicted in the documentary "The Cove".
Massive dolphin hunts are being carried out to obtain dolphin teeth for use in wedding ceremonies. Thousands of dolphins have been killed by villagers in Fanalei where a single dolphin tooth is worth 70 cents.
Noise pollution in the form of ocean shipping, seismic testing for the purpose of oil and gas exploration, and underwater blasts carried out for military tests have had a serious effect on the dolphins acute sense of hearing. Chronic noise from human activities has a big impact on these animals, since it interferes with their acoustic signaling – increased background noise can mean animals are unable to hear important signals, and they tend to swim away from sources of noise, disrupting their normal behavior. Noise pollution could also be the reason for mass strandings of dolphins on various beaches each year.
Litter & Toxic Pollution
Colossal amounts of waste entering the sea every day have also added to the dolphin's woes. Plastic bags, toxic chemicals and heavy metals are some of the pollutants that have accidentally become food for the mammals. Pesticides cause failure of immune systems in dolphins and affect their reproductive abilities. As a consequence, many dolphins have been found carrying cancerous tumors.
Climate change is another serious threat to the dolphins. The gradual warming of the seas and oceans are driving dolphins into cooler and deeper waters where food sources for the creatures are hard to come by. Habitats of certain species of dolphins found at the confluence of river and ocean waters (brackish waters) are being severely affected by rising ocean levels. Scientists question if dolphins can adapt to such changing conditions.
The story of freshwater dolphins or river dolphins is not very dissimilar to their cousins of the seas. While the Amazon river dolphin numbers in ten of thousands in their natural habitats of the Amazon and Orinoco river systems, they face dangers from tribesmen and fishermen with whom they have to compete for a depleting fish population. In countries like Colombia and Brazil, the dolphin is used as bait by those active in the mota catfish trade.
The Ganges river dolphin, once numbering nearly 100,000, have been reduced to under 2,000 now, making it a seriously endangered species. Its habitat, the Ganges River, flows through some of the mostly densely populated regions of the world, the Northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The existence of such human population results in direct killing, illegal construction of dams and barrages, rampant fishing, pollution occurring from open defecation by millions on a daily basis, and toxic material draining in from thousands of industrial units lining the river.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins, inhabitants of the Mekong and Irrawaddy river deltas of South-East Asia, is one species which is witnessing a turnaround of sorts. Hunted down ruthlessly over the years by the illegal wildlife trade, just about 90 of these unfortunate mammals exist now in a 120-mile stretch of the Mekong river in Cambodia. But the stunning discovery of nearly 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins in the freshwater regions of the faraway Bangladeshi mangrove forests skirting the coast of Bay of Bengal has given this species hope.
Hundreds of dolphins are held in captivity. They are sentenced to a life of confinement deprived of normal social and environmental interaction. Confined to tanks as small as 24 feet by 24 feet wide and 6 feet deep, the reverberations from their own sonar bouncing off walls can drive them insane. Tanks are kept clean with chlorine, copper sulfate, and other harsh chemicals that irritate animals' eyes, causing many to swim with their eyes closed. They are often forced to learn tricks through food deprivation. Marine parks may withhold up to 60 percent of food before shows so that the animals will be "sharp" for performances. The stress of captivity is so great that some commit suicide.
Millions chimpanzees once thrived in the forests of 25 different African nations. Today, their populations have been reduced to only 5 nations and their numbers have plummeted to between 150,000 and 300,000. Without immediate action, humans' closest living relative could be lost in only 15 years.
Humans are largely responsible for chimpanzee population declines. In addition to poaching, which plagues areas of Africa, deforesting and farming are quickly eliminating the habitats of chimps.
Legal and illegal logging is rapidly depleting habitat for chimpanzees. Agriculture is stripping away forests at alarming rates. Changes in climate may be the biggest threat of all to chimpanzees. Climate change is expected to wipe out many forest areas in the coming decades.
The Nigerian chimpanzee dwells in jungles along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Weighing 70 kilos and reaching heights of nearly 6 feet while fully standing, this species is the most endangered of all the chimpanzee species. There are only 1,500 of them left in the Gashaka-Gumti National Park in Nigeria, a forest reserve.
The Eastern chimpanzee is a native of Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and the southern fringes of South Sudan. They also feature in the 2007 IUCN Red List of most endangered species.
Once a sub-Saharan species found in areas far beyond the Niger River, the Western chimpanzee now lives only in the forests of coastal countries of West Africa like Guinea, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Liberia and Ivory Coast. There are about 20,000 to 55,000 individuals, as per the most recent count.
The Central chimpanzee is a native of Central Africa and can be found in the dense equatorial forests of the Congo River Basin in countries of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo. They are the most populous of all species, with a count of over 100,000 individuals.
The Bonobo, or the pygmy chimpanzee, is found only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Its habitat is ensconced in the southern bank of the powerful Congo River and has lent this species a different set of characteristics from other chimpanzees. It reaches a standing height of just under 4 feet, weighing in the range of 35 to 60 kilos. Bonobos appear distinctly slender when compared to other chimpanzees. There are about 30,000 to 50,000 of these creatures in their exclusive habitat in the equatorial forests of the southern Congo River basin.
Threats to Chimpanzees
Chimpanzees can adapt to both terrestrial and arboreal environments, but prefer dense forests. It is among trees where they are most at home. Chimpanzees are synonymous with trees, which is one reason why it is so essential to protect the forests they live in.
Logging results in the massive loss of forest cover every year. The growing numbers of poor humans are forced to clear forests to sustain themselves, leading to loss of habitat for the chimpanzees. The hardest hit is the Nigerian-Cameroon species that is on the brink of extinction. Many farmers use agriculture techniques that strip the soil of nutrients and quickly render it unusable, requiring more forests to be cleared.
In Tanzania's Gombe National Park, it’s the influx of refugees from strife-torn regions like Rwanda and Burundi that have taken a toll on the forest cover. The 35-sq-km park is not sufficient to cater to the needs of chimpanzees. Since they are large in size, they need more calories from sufficient food intake than such a restricted habitat can provide. This leads them to venture beyond the precincts of the park in search of food. Raiding nearby farms for maize, vegetables, and sometimes fruit, puts them in direct confrontation with man – a situation that has led to the deaths of many apes. Examples like the Gombe National Park have become widespread throughout the continent and heighten the risk for the chimps' survival.
Population pressure and consequential poverty drive many Africans to hunt for chimpanzee meat. Hunger is one reason. The other is the trade in bushmeat (the meat of wild animals as food). A family that has no sustainable income can live off the bushmeat trade, where they can earn anything from $1,000 - $3,000 in a year. This is more so the case in populous West African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal.
Recent research reveals that the biggest threat to chimpanzees could come from climate change. Huge forest areas are likely to be wiped out in the next 50 to 60 years. While those dwelling in the deepest rainforests of Central Africa and DPR may somehow survive, habitats of forest areas of lesser expanse, like the Cameroon-Nigerian mountain jungles, are likely to perish.
Like humans, chimpanzees are susceptible to numerous diseases. Ebola and AIDs are no exception. This is one reason why so many of these animals are inhumanely kept in labs as models for biomedical research. Chimpanzees caged in such lab environments suffer from extreme mental stress emanating from boredom, confinement, and fear of experiments carried out on them.
Chimps may possess numerous traits in common with man, but that does not justify them being made a “pet” or kept in confinement in labs or zoos for man's benefit or entertainment. They must be recognized as creatures of the wild.
We need to conserve our precious forests for the protection of its denizens. Foremost in our minds should be the safeguard of chimpanzees, the most significant link to man's past.
Coral reefs, rainforest of the sea, are one of nature's most remarkable creations - teaming with thousands of unique and valuable plants and animals. More than one-quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs for their survival. Humans depend on the survival of coral reefs too. Coral reefs provide a natural wave barrier which protects beaches and coastlines from storms and floods.
Coral reefs have existed on our planet for over 50 million years, but recently we have lost over 20% of the world's reefs in just the last 20 years. Up to 70% of the reefs may be destroyed by humans in the next few decades if we don't take immediate action.
The biologists have seen the future, and their message could not be clearer: Living coral reefs are the foundation of marine life, yet all over the world they are dead or dying because people are destroying them, killing them at a catastrophic rate. Already 10 percent are lost, and scientists say 70% of all corals on the planet will be destroyed in 20 to 40 years unless people stop doing what they're doing: pollution, sewage, erosion, cyanide fishing, clumsy tourism, and get serious about saving the coral reefs now. There's hope yet. Reefs are resilient and they bounce back quickly when protected.
Protection is the real solution and it's ordinary people who are making it happen. Government efforts in much of the world have been frankly pathetic: late, weak, underfunded, unenforced. Persian Gulf oil states pass useless pollution laws then ignore them. Indian Ocean poachers outwit and outnumber British Royal Navy patrols. Ecuador stalls for decades while tourism explodes in the delicate Galapagos, only to enact a plan that makes it worse. The status quo scarcely wavers: relentless destruction of coral reefs.
In those bright spots where people are changing the way they treat the reefs, you'll find students, divers, biologists, concerned citizens of all stripes transformed into activists and volunteers...taking matters into their own hands to protect the coral reefs that are dear to them and vital to us all.
Deep in the mountainous rainforests of Madagascar, a furry brown and white creature leaps from tree to tree. As it moves high above your head, you notice that two smaller creatures cling to it. You are witnessing the travels of a lemur and her babies. This lemur is called the Milne-Edwards Sifaka. You are lucky because this kind of lemur may be harder to find in the future. That’s because climate change is making it difficult for some lemur mothers to care for their offspring.
Lemurs are a kind of primate. Primates are animals like monkeys, apes, and even humans. This specific kind of primate lives in only one place—the island of Madagascar. Many lemurs, including the Milne-Edwards Sifaka, live in the lush rainforests that are scattered throughout this island. These rainforests are obviously pretty wet. That doesn’t mean they are protected from the effects of climate change, though.
Lemurs are accustomed to regular patterns of rain. Plants take in water from the rain. Sifakas eat these plants to get the water they need to survive. But as Earth’s climate warms, rain patterns are changing. Sometimes the lemurs do not get as much water as they’d like. Lemur moms need that water even more. They make milk from the water and nutrients in the plants they eat. Without this milk, it is difficult to raise a baby lemur.
Scientists have noticed that when there is less rain, fewer babies survive. In dry years, the sifakas have to eat more plants to get the same amount of water that they would in normal years. That means a whole lot of chewing. Scientists think that older sifaka moms have trouble chewing enough plants to make milk for their babies because their teeth are worn out.
In dry seasons, the older sifaka moms may simply be unable to eat enough plants to produce the milk their babies need. Scientists think this lack of milk could be the reason that fewer babies survive dry times. This is a real problem because as the climate changes, there are going to be more and more dry periods in the rain forests.
These sifakas and their difficulties may alert other scientists studying primates in other rainforests to watch for similar problems. Studying rainforests and the animals that live in them is an important job. Without these dedicated scientists, sifakas and other rainforest animals might die out. Thanks to these scientists, they may have a fighting chance.
The jaguar is the third-largest animal in the cat family, after the tiger and the lion. Dating back to almost half a million years, the jaguar strode the entire length of the American continent from just below the Arctics in the north down to Patagonia in southern-most Argentina. But sadly, it has found its present day habitat restricted to the tropical jungles of Central America and Amazon in South America. This translates into a habitat loss of almost 40%. Not a single jaguar has been spotted in the US in the last half a century. There were populations of the cat in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Florida, but hunting forced it into extinction by the 1950's.
The jaguar is probably the most nimble and acrobatic among the cat family. Apart from being an expert swimmer, it's a superb climber of trees and can kill prey much larger than itself. The largest among its prey is the tapir, the biggest animal in the Amazon basin. There are as many as 87 species that form the diet of the jaguar. The adult jaguar can reach a length of 6 feet and weigh up to 210 lbs.
The males reach sexual maturity in three to four years, while the female does in two. The jaguar can mate all year round and degrees of birthrate correspond to the availability of prey. But a fast reducing forest cover has meant shortage of prey for the big cats, and as a consequence, lower birth-rates.
The jaguar, being a mobile creature, requires huge expanses of forests in which it can hunt to sustain itself and its family. This is where it has been obstructed severely in the past few decades. Farmlands, ranches, growing urban sprawls and border-related infrastructure have badly eaten into the jaguar habitat along the Mexican-American border. While the entire population of the animal was wiped out in the U.S. decades ago, scarcely 100 to 120 of these creatures survive in the wilds of the Sonora state of Mexico, about 125 km south of the U.S. border. In fact, wanton development has cut off their migration routes to nearby tropical forest zones, a phenomena common to many pockets of jaguar habitat in Central America. Unaccustomed to being restricted in such tight and diminishing forest spaces, the jaguar has no choice but to target livestock in nearby farms and ranches, coming into friction with man. The jaguar is a shy, nocturnal and deep forest hunter – preferring the least human contact as possible. But urban expansion has snatched away a large part of this very private trait.
The Amazon Basin in South America is one of the last bastions of the jaguar. It has vast tracts of forest acreage as its habitat where it still finds larger animals like deer, capybara, tapirs, and peccaries, as well as turtles, fish and otters to eat. But indiscriminate tree-felling for the purpose of farming, and deforestation to make way for large paper and timber projects, pose a distinct threat to the jaguar's habitat despite the vastness of the Amazon basin. There are only around 10,000 of these large cats presently in the South American continent, stretching from the Central Amazon basin in Brazil northwards to the Orinoco River valley forests in Venezuela and Colombia.
The thick jungles of some tiny Central American countries still provide refuge to these cats. Belize has about 1,000 as per the last count. The 15,000 sq km Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is home to about 550. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico bordering Guatemala, holds about 350 of these animals. Although hunting of the jaguar has been totally banned in these countries, poaching for the animal's beautiful spotted coat still continues and is a constant menace to the animal's survival.
The CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) lists the jaguar as an endangered species and this has been recognized by countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, United States, Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica and Venezuela – where hunting restrictions on the animal is already in place.
Over the decades there has been a trend on the part of conservationists and zoo authorities to move and increase the number of jaguars in captivity. But no amount of care and protection in captivity can substitute the freedom the beautiful cat enjoys in the wild, which is where it belongs. Jaguars kept captive in zoos are known for pacing due to the stress and frustration of their inability to carry out their natural routines and behaviors. Their stressful pacing increases as the number of visitors and noise level increases. Zoo jaguars are deprived of their natural environments and social structures for profit and human amusement.
Zoos are not the answer to preserving species. Precious habitats must be preserved. That is the only way we can save future generations of the jaguar.
The trafficking of wildlife and their products is one of the most profitable and attractive of all the illicit trades, possibly surpassed only by the trafficking of arms and drugs.
Studies note that several of the most notorious armed insurgent groups and terrorist organizations now derive substantial profits from the illegal wildlife trade to fund their incursions, civil wars, and other acts of violence.
Criminal organizations are systematically exploiting wildlife as a source of financing. The corruption is spreading like a disease – into armies, border guards, police, judiciary, customs officers, embassy personnel, and even state diplomats in several countries, all of whom benefit from and actively facilitate the illegal wildlife trade.
The trade’s attractiveness is largely due to its relative lack of social stigma, small risk of arrest, and the woefully light penalties given to those few brought before the courts. High-value wildlife are particularly attractive to criminal entities because their large scale killing and theft can be done quickly and inexpensively compared to the extraction of other high-value resources such as oil, gas, and most precious metals.
Wildlife products are classic 'lootable resources,' a subset of high-value natural resources that are relatively easy to steal, but particularly challenging to monitor from a crime-management perspective. Other natural resources that fall into this category include alluvial diamonds and gemstones, such as rubies.
Researchers note that not only is the wildlife trade attracting huge profits, an estimated US$20-billion a year, criminologists have found that wildlife now serves a specialized role as “a form of currency” for terrorist and criminal organizations. Because wildlife commodities become the basis for the trade of drugs, ammunition, and humans, and a substitute for cash, the illegal wildlife trade has thus grown into a highly efficient form of money-laundering. Such exchanges appear particularly common among larger, more sophisticated criminal networks and terrorist organizations working across international borders.
Not only has the lucrative nature of the wildlife trade encouraged high-level corruption, and violence surrounding the mass-killing of large charismatic wildlife (such as lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas and rhinos), there is also simultaneously a more ominous dimension. Rebel groups, insurgencies, and terror organizations are now also actively seeking out, capturing, and appropriating the profits of ecotourism enterprises. For example, seizing on the profitability of high-value gorilla tourism, Congolese rebels murdered wildlife officers and captured licensed ecotourism operations only to begin their own to fulfill their economic ends. Similarly in Nepal, Maoist rebels have captured protected areas to begin unlicensed ecotourism and trophy-hunting businesses to attract high-paying tourists.
Ecotourism is central to the tourism products and national economies for nations such as Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania.
We are witnessing unprecedented attacks on wildlife and genuine ecotourism operations by emboldened criminals. Tackling wildlife crime can and must become a priority - not just for the sake of the animals and conservation, but for national security and long-term economic sustainability.
Trafficked wildlife is frequently smuggled under harrowing conditions in which many individuals die in transit. Because global demand for some species exceeds biological capacity, local or total extinctions of some species or sub-species have resulted. For example, several Rhino species or sub-species now face extinction. At risk of extinction due to poaching are also Sun Bears, Clouded Leopards, forest elephants, gorillas, tigers, orangutans, and pangolins, among several other species. To stem this threat conservationists must actively link their knowledge about threatened wildlife to the international development, security, and political concerns with which the wildlife trade has become inextricably conjoined.
Try this: Taste plain water. Then taste sparkling water (carbonated water), with no flavoring. Besides the slight tickle or sting of the bubbles in the sparkling water, do you notice anything else? The sparkling water tastes just a little bit sour.
The more bubbles, the more sour the water. The reason is that adding carbon dioxide to water is like adding a few drops of lemon juice. It makes the water a little acidic.
In the past 200 years, the ocean has become much more acidic. In that time, it has absorbed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine that amount of a gas. But much of this carbon dioxide is the result of humans burning fossil fuels, like coal, gasoline, and jet fuel.
Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas. That means it acts as a glass roof on the atmosphere, letting sunlight in, but trapping heat so it can’t escape.
Besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together.
A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
The ocean has soaked up more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gas that has built up in the atmosphere. If not for that great feature of the ocean, temperatures would have risen more than they already have. And even more of Earth’s sea ice and glaciers would have melted. So, thank you, ocean!
But wait. Just as some people like lemon juice in their water and some do not, creatures that live in the sea have their likes and dislikes about acidic water too. Mostly dislikes. Take baby oysters, for example. Along the Oregon coast, many are dying at only a few days old. That is because the ocean water is too acidic for them to form their shells. Other creatures already suffering from too much acid are some corals, and some other shellfish.
Sea creatures with shells—like oysters, clams, and mussels—need the ocean to be a little less acidic than fresh water; that way they can use the minerals in the water to make their shells.
An acidic ocean is no better for ocean life than an atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide greenhouse gas is for land life.
Once found all over South-East Asia and even the far reaches of Southern China, orangutans have found themselves squeezed to just the two islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The great red-haired apes have been around for almost 400,000 years, but have seen their numbers dwindle alarmingly from over 200,000 a century ago to only 45,000 presently. The habitats of this iconic animal have been pushed to the rain forests in the northern fringes of the Sumatra island of Indonesia and just the south-eastern part of Borneo, the only two places on earth where they inhabit naturally.
The most important intake of the orangutan is fruit, which makes up almost 60% of the ape's diet. It consumes over 300 food items that include leaves, insects, honey, bird eggs and even tree bark. The orangutans give birth during the peak fruit season when their intake reaches a high of 11,000 calories per day and 2,000 per day in the low fruit season. So imagine what the overnight decimation of million-year old forests that sustain the very life of these wonderful beasts could do. The shocking fall of the orangutan population in the last decade from around 65,000 to just 45,000 is testimony to this phenomena. Behind this is the growing world thirst for palm oil.
What makes palm oil desirable is that it is cheaper and more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils and also has a longer shelf life. It is a vital ingredient in almost 40 percent of the world's fast-moving consuming products ranging from toothpastes to candy bars and bio-diesel.
Indonesia and Malaysia alone account for over 85 percent of the world's palm oil output and with the demand for the product having grown five-fold since 1990, manufacturing has gone on overdrive. The result has been the swift decimation of forests by bulldozing and burning, clearing the way for palm oil plantations.
Shockingly, in the past three decades, an incredible 8.7 million hectares of tropical forests have been wiped out in these two countries, an area that almost equals the size of Netherlands. The orangutans have witnessed an almost 80 percent decimation of their habitat since the early 1990's. The Indonesian fires of 1997, caused by massive slash and burn tactics by farmers, accounted for a catastrophic one-third of the orangutan habitat in that country.
The palm oil industry is also wreaking havoc on the environment and human health. Clearing one hectare (about two square acres) of peat forest can release 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Tropical peat lands store up to 10 times more carbon than mineral soil. Draining and planting on these land is estimated to be up to 10 times more detrimental to the environment. Experts have highlighted that palm oil, second only to soybean oil as an ingredient of cooking, is so high in saturated fat that one tablespoon contains 55 percent of the daily recommendation.
What hits the orangutan the hardest is the loss of habitat - their basic ecosystem is destroyed. The smoke from fires is another killer. The animals are forced to move to other areas to be met with hostility from villagers. Thousands have been clubbed to death, hacked by machetes or simply shot. Orangutan babies have also been known to be sold into the lucrative and illicit wildlife trade. There have been instances where palm oil companies have resorted to annihilation of the apes on a massive scale. In one year alone, around 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm workers.
Humans also suffer. The U.S. Department of Labor ranks the palm oil industry as one of the top four worst industries for forced and child labor. In Indonesia, the industry is responsible for about 5,000 land and human rights conflicts.
Animal rights activists fear that in another 25 years the orangutan could become extinct. It is estimated that 1,000 orangutans are killed a year and 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour for palm plantations. Other animals are also at risk. Palm oil development creates easy access to habitats for poachers. The Sumatran tiger population is expected to be extinct in just a few years if actions are not taken to protect their habitats.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of animal activists and conservationists, the palm oil industry is beginning to sit up and take notice. Organizations are working with those sensible in the palm oil industry, and local villagers, to educate them on the need to conserve areas for orangutans.
Some areas of no deforestation have been demarcated, ensuring safe and peaceful existence of orangutans. Tanjung Puting National Park, Sebangau National Park, Kutai and Gunung Palung (all in Borneo), the Gunung Leuser National Park on the border of Aceh, and North Sumatra now offer safe havens for orangutans. Conservation areas in Malaysia include the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Matang Wildlife Centre and Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary.
In 2013, two of the biggest palm oil giants, Golden Agri-Resources and Wilmar International, joined hands to commit to a zero deforestation policy on all the palm oil they produced, sourced and traded. Unilever, the world's largest buyer of palm oil (it buys 1.5 million tons annually) was brought into the plan. Other consumer majors like Nestle, Kellogs, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G followed suit.
Despite this progress, only 35 percent of palm growers that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are actually certified by the RSPO. The other 65 percent are paying members, but have taken no action to adhere to the growing practices guidelines.
For the sake of survival of the magnificent creature, the orangutan, more action must be taken. In just one decade the orangutan population has decreased by 50 percent. Only 6,300 Sumatran orangutans remain.
Animal activists can take action by weaning themselves off palm oil, purchasing palm oil alternatives, encouraging companies to commit to sustainable palm oil, and supporting organizations working to help orangutans.
Several international groups produce routine estimates of tropical deforestation, most notably the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which has been producing a global forest resources assessment every five to ten years since the late 1940s. The FAO report is based on statistics provided by countries themselves, and because the ability of countries to accurately assess their forest resources varies depending on their financial, technological, and institutional resources, the estimates for some countries are likely more accurate then others.
Many countries use satellite imagery as the basis for their assessments, and a few research teams have used satellite data as the basis for worldwide estimates of tropical deforestation in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some scientists and conservationists argue that the FAO provides too conservative an estimate of rates of deforestation because they consider any area larger than one hectare (0.01 square miles) with a minimum tree cover of 10 percent to be forested.
This generous definition of “forest” means that a significant amount of degradation can occur before the FAO categorizes an area as deforested. On the other hand, some satellite-based studies indicate deforestation rates are lower than even the FAO reports suggest. Despite revisions and discrepancies, the FAO assessment is the most comprehensive, longest-term, and widely used metric of global forest resources.
In addition to local factors, international trends drive deforestation. The expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia is a response to high petroleum prices and, ironically, to an increasing global demand for bio-fuels perceived to be “green.”
The FAO report does not compile statistics for tropical forest regions as a whole, but the country-by-country and regional-scale statistics provide a grim picture. The scope and impact of deforestation can be viewed in different ways. One is in absolute numbers: total area of forest cleared over a certain period. By that metric, all three major tropical forest areas, including South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, are represented near the top of the list. Rounding out the top five tropical countries with the greatest total area of deforestation were Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Another way to look at deforestation is in terms of the percent of a country’s forest that was cleared over time. By this metric, the island nation of Comoros (north of Madagascar) fared the worst. Landlocked Burundi in central Africa was second. The other top five countries that cleared large percentages of their forests were Togo in West Africa, Honduras, and Mauritania.
The answer is devastating news for Earth’s largest animals. Many of the world’s largest herbivores — including several species of elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and gorillas — are in danger of becoming extinct. And if current trends continue, the loss of these animals would have drastic implications not only for the species themselves, but also for other animals and the environments and ecosystems in which they live.
One of the critical factors behind the disturbing trend is the tremendous financial incentive for poachers to sell animal parts for consumer goods and food. For example, rhinoceros horn is more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine. A recent report puts the price of rhino horn in Asia at $60,000 per pound.
Rhinos are in serious danger of extinction from poaching. Rhino poaching has risen to levels not seen in almost two decades. Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn remains highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder as treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds and fevers. This demand has created highly profitable international criminal syndicates who have only intensified their search of rhino for their horns in recent years.
Decades of conservation efforts are being reversed by the entrance of organized crime into the ivory and rhino horn markets. In just 9 years, the number of forest elephants declined by 62 percent. More than 100,000 elephants — one-fifth of the world’s wild savannah elephant population — were poached in 2 years alone. The number of rhinoceroses poached skyrocketed from 13 per year to 1,004 per year in only 6 years. Latest estimates suggest that two rhinos are killed by poachers every day in Africa. If rhino poaching is not stopped, the world could lose African rhinos forever.
For some of the largest animals, such as elephants and rhinos, it is likely a matter of a few decades before they are extinct — and no more than 80 to 100 years for the rest of the large herbivores. Even though an individual elephant or rhino might persist in the wild somewhere in Africa, they will be functionally extinct in terms of their impact on the ecosystem.
Without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs. During the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended about 11,700 years ago, there were more than 40 species of herbivores in which adults weighed 2,200 pounds or more, but today there are only eight such species. The extinction of these “mega-herbivore” species has dramatically affected Earth’s ecosystems. For example, large herbivores are the primary source of food for predators and scavengers, and their trampling and consumption of plants influence the ways that vegetation grows.
The two largest threats to these animals are hunting by humans and habitat change. Other key factors include growing human populations and increased competition with livestock. Animal agriculture has been a particular threat in developing nations, where livestock production is dramatically increasing. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling.
Large herbivores, and their associated ecological functions and services, have already mostly been lost from much of the developed world, according to scientists. Now is the time to act boldly, because without radical changes in these trends, the extinctions that eliminated most of the world’s largest herbivores 10,000 to 50,000 years ago will only have been postponed for these last few remaining giants.
People have been deforesting the Earth for thousands of years, primarily to clear land for crops or livestock. Although tropical forests are largely confined to developing countries, they aren’t just meeting local or national needs; economic globalization means that the needs and wants of the global population are bearing down on them as well. Direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization. Rarely is there a single direct cause for deforestation. Most often, multiple processes work simultaneously or sequentially to cause deforestation.
The single biggest direct cause of deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock. The conversion to agricultural land usually results from multiple direct factors. For example, countries build roads into remote areas to improve overland transportation of goods. The road development itself causes a limited amount of deforestation. But roads also provide entry to previously inaccessible—and often unclaimed—land. Logging, both legal and illegal, often follows road expansion (and in some cases is the reason for the road expansion). When loggers have harvested an area’s valuable timber, they move on. The roads and the logged areas become a magnet for settlers—farmers and ranchers who slash and burn the remaining forest for cropland or cattle pasture, completing the deforestation chain that began with road building. In other cases, forests that have been degraded by logging become fire-prone and are eventually deforested by repeated accidental fires from adjacent farms or pastures.
Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role. In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.
Although poverty is often cited as the underlying cause of tropical deforestation, analyses of multiple scientific studies indicate that that explanation is an oversimplification. Poverty does drive people to migrate to forest frontiers, where they engage in slash and burn forest clearing for subsistence. But rarely does one factor alone bear the sole responsibility for tropical deforestation.
State policies to encourage economic development, such as road and railway expansion projects, have caused significant, unintentional deforestation in the Amazon and Central America. Agricultural subsidies and tax breaks, as well as timber concessions, have encouraged forest clearing as well. Global economic factors such as a country’s foreign debt, expanding global markets for rainforest timber and pulpwood, or low domestic costs of land, labor, and fuel can encourage deforestation over more sustainable land use.
Access to technology may either enhance or diminish deforestation. The availability of technologies that allow “industrial-scale” agriculture can spur rapid forest clearing, while inefficient technology in the logging industry increases collateral damage in surrounding forests, making subsequent deforestation more likely. Underlying factors are rarely isolated; instead, multiple global and local factors exert synergistic influences on tropical deforestation in different geographic locations.
Grasslands habitats are dominated by grasses with few large shrubs or trees. The three main types of grasslands include temperate grasslands, tropical grasslands or savannas and steppe grasslands. Grasslands have dry seasons and rainy seasons. They are susceptible to fires during dry seasons.
● Temperate grasslands have a lack trees and large shrubs and are dominated by grass. The soil has an upper layer that is nutrient-rich. Seasonal droughts result in fires that keep trees and shrubs from taking over the area.
● Tropical grasslands are located near the equator with warmer, wetter climates than temperate grasslands and more pronounced seasonal droughts. They are dominated by grasses, but also have scattered trees. The soil of tropical grasslands are porous and drain quickly. Tropical grasslands can be found in South America, Australia, Africa, India and Nepal.
● Steppe grasslands are dry grasslands that border on semi-arid deserts. Their grasses are much shorter than temperate and tropical grasslands and they lack trees except along rivers and streams.
Animals that inhabit grasslands include American bison, African elephants, lions and spotted hyenas.
Grasslands are areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses and other herbaceous (non-woody) plants. They are also known as prairies and savannas. Grasslands occur naturally on all continents except Antarctica.
Grassland habitats are located in most climates, with the grasses varying in height from very short to very tall. Woody plants, shrubs or trees are found in some grasslands – forming scrubby grassland, semi-wooded grassland or savanna such as the African savanna plains. Some grasslands are called wood-pasture or woodland.
Grasslands may occur naturally or as the result of human activity. Grassland vegetation remains dominant in a particular area usually due to grazing, cutting or natural or manmade fires, all discouraging trees and shrubs from growing. Some of the world's largest expanses of grassland, located in Africa, are maintained mostly by wild herbivores.
Grasslands are often dependent on their region and differ around the world. In temperate areas, such as north-west Europe, they are dominated by perennial (year-round) grasses. In warmer climates, annual grasses make up most of the plant life.
Grassland habitats support a wealth of wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Smaller animals are common as the open and uncovered areas make predators easier to see. Some large herbivorous mammals do also inhabit grasslands.
Grasslands once covered two thirds of the planet. As a result of human agriculture, only small pockets of original grassland ecosystems remain. Half of Africa remains grasslands.
Continued high demand for illegal wildlife products has greatly endangered many species like elephants, rhinos, and tigers, leaving some facing imminent extinction. The world is experiencing the worst poaching crisis in history, rivaling that in the 1980s, when more than 800 tons of ivory left Africa every year and the continent’s elephant populations plunged from 1.3 million to 600,000. Scientists estimate that only 430,000 African elephants remain today with one elephant killed every 15 minutes for its ivory.
Poaching is at its highest level in decades. Unless the illegal and inhumane slaughter of elephants, rhinos and other species is halted, we will likely see these magnificent animals disappear from the wild in the next several decades.
As one of the world’s most lucrative criminal activities, valued at US$19 billion annually, illegal wildlife trade ranks fifth globally in terms of value, behind the trafficking in drugs, people, oil and counterfeiting. Research shows that domestic ivory markets provides cover for criminals to launder illegal ivory from poached animals, puts the burden of proof on enforcement officers, and confuse consumers, many of whom take market availability of ivory for legality of the trade.
The rapid development of online media has put a lot of wildlife species at risk and has created huge losses for the global ecosystem and human beings, as criminals have used the Internet for secret, fast and convenient communications and transactions. The report Wanted: Dead or Alive, Exposing the Online Wildlife Trade reveals that over 33,000 endangered wildlife and wildlife parts were available for sale online in a short six-week period.
Ivory trade is quickly pushing endangered animals towards extinction. Every year, 25,000-30,000 African Elephants are poached to supply the ivory trade. According to the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), in recent years the volume from large-scale ivory seizures has been setting new records. In 2013, enforcement agencies around the world seized 41.6 tons of ivory, representing a 71 percent increase from 2009.
Research shows that for slow-growing, long-living species like the elephant, when mortality rate reaches 6% the population risks crashing. However in many regions of Africa, elephant populations are declining at a rate of 11%-12% because of ivory trade.
The past 15 years has seen soaring market prices for ivory products, largely due to a growing middle class in China and other Asian countries where ivory products have significant cultural value. Most people don't know that the U.S. is also one of the top consumers of ivory.
Enforcement operations are a deterrent to wildlife criminals in and outside of China. To combat global illegal ivory trade, countries are publicly destroying seized ivory. Kenya, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Congo and the United States have torched ivory. Public destruction of confiscated ivory, together with vigorous enforcement, raises the cost for engaging in wildlife crime and warns the public about the criminal nature of ivory trade. Such measures help stigmatize ivory consumption and reduce demand.
The U.S. federal government is working to close the loopholes that have allowed the illegal ivory market to flourish. A number of states have also passed ivory bans, including New York, New Jersey and California.
Campaigns to reduce demand for ivory domestically and overseas, and to strengthen international laws and enforcement, have further elevated the issue of wildlife trafficking globally. Collaboration between conservation organizations, government agencies, private organizations and local communities supports on-the-ground initiatives to conserve and manage wildlife through improved anti-poaching patrols, monitoring, habitat management, community-based initiatives and other effective conservation programs.
From African range states, to smuggling transit routes, to consuming countries, actions must be taken on every link of the transnational ivory trade to stop the crisis. Combating illegal ivory trade requires the effort of the whole world.
When massive volumes of toxic chemicals are pumped deep underground at extreme pressure to fracture ancient rock formations, what could go wrong?
The technique used to extract shale gas from its underground deposits is called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking". Huge amounts of water, sand and thickening agents are injected underground to crack open the rocks beneath which the shale gas is trapped.
Shale is fast replacing oil as a cheaper energy source. Shale is oil and gas found in rock formations. Shale gas output, which was 9.7 trillion cubic feet annually a few years ago, could potentially grow to almost 40 trillion cubic feet by 2040, with the US far surpassing Saudi Arabia as the largest fossil fuels producer of the world. In fact, shale will account for as much as 60 percent of America's total oil and gas output.
While vertical fracking has been around since 1949, the advent of horizontal fracking during the past decade gave shale gas output a major boost. Fracking sites have grown from around 18,000 to almost 25,000 within just a decade. That's almost a 40 percent growth.
Despite the potential economic benefits to be reaped from shale gas, the effects to the environment, wildlife and humans may be devastating. Little is known about its long-term environmental impacts, but its short term impacts are already disturbing.
The fracking process, which uses over 100 chemicals, produces massive amounts of toxic and radioactive waste. It has been known to contaminate drinking water and produce earthquakes. Hazardous pollutants are also released into the air. Fracking wells release methane gas known to trap 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Thousands of leaks, spills and accidents related to fracking have negatively impacted water quality in rivers, streams and shallow aquifers. Since 1990, the EPA has acknowledged the link between fracking and increased earthquakes.
Fracking has been reported to cause declines in property value, damage to public roads, increased crime and a rise in demand on emergency services. The dangerous chemicals used in fracking are known to cause life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.
In 2015, an EPA draft report revealed more than 150 instances of groundwater contamination due to shale drilling and fracking. Some residents in affected areas even reported being able to light their water on fire due to gas contamination.
There have been instances of fracking water trickling into pastures and streams. In Kentucky’s Acorn Fork Creek, waste water from neighboring sites virtually wiped out almost all aquatic life in parts of the fork. The dead fish were found with lesions on their gills and their livers and spleens badly damaged. The creek was formerly one of the cleanest in the country and billed an Outstanding State Resource Water asset. It is home to an endangered species of bird, the diminutive colorful minnow called blackside dace, which is protected under the the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A particular method of fracking, called Marcellus Shale Drilling, creates brine in the millions of gallons of water that the process needs. Brine is a solution of salt or sodium chloride in water. The brine causes the creation of TDS (totally dissolved acids) which is perfect for the breeding of golden algae. It was such algae that accounted for the deaths of thousands of fish in Dunkard Creek, Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, more than 350,000 acres of natural land have been damaged all over America by fracking activity. Whole ecosystems have perished in these places. Each fracking operation needs anywhere between 900 to 1,200 truckloads of materials. 30 acres of forest may also be cleared to make way for a drilling station. The Ohio Environmental Council has already reported disruption to the habits of birds and nocturnal animals caused by such activity.
In California, frenetic fracking activity can pose serious threats to the habitats of creatures like the endangered California condor, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the San Joaquin kit fox. Domestic animals like cats and dogs and even horses could come under threat.
On the heels of the Kentucky disaster, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set the tone for offenders by imposing a penalty of $50,000 for violation of the ESA. There have been cries for even larger fines from conservationists.
While there have been increasing pressures by the fracking companies for new licenses, conservation organizations are urging the government to act soon and ban fracking in and around all wildlife zones. It is hoped that better sense will prevail and the government will act to protect humans, wildlife and ecosystems before it is too late.
With its cuddly stout body and large paws, the koala resembles a small teddy bear. The koala bear is an Australian icon and its habitat is exclusively confined to the coastal eucalyptus forests in the North-western and South-eastern parts of the country, spread over the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. While eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to many animals inhabiting this region, to the koala it forms an essential part of its diet.
Eucalyptus is a flowering tree native to Australia and there are 700 species of them found in these forest regions. The koalas sleep for nearly 22 hours in a day, for that is the amount of rest it needs to help in digestion of the gum leaves, which are low in nutrition and high on fibrous content. The koalas are basically tree creatures and live in the top and middle layers of the eucalyptus forests.
But even the koala's adorable and iconic status in Australia haven't spared it from the ravages of mankind. Once numbering in the millions, koalas suffered major declines in population during the 1920s when they were hunted for their fur. The koala was hunted almost to extinction. Today, habitat destruction, traffic deaths, and attacks by dogs kill an estimated 4,000 koalas yearly.
Since the arrival of the Europeans in the early 17th century, almost 80% of the eucalyptus forests have vanished. The 20% that remain are unprotected and mostly privately owned, making it an automatic target for deforestation and development. As over four-fifth of Australia is hot and barren in the middle, settlers prefer the fertile and rainy zones of the East coast and this is where they come into direct conflict with the koala's habitat.
Clearing, logging, urban expansion and pollution have followed these pockets of human habitation, posing a threat to the koala's survival. Loss of habitat, owing to deforestation, means the koalas are out of their safety zones of tree-tops and potential victims of vehicular accidents.
Venturing into private estates for food makes their inherent slowness perfect targets for dogs and cats. Starvation is then a natural fall-out.
Disturbance from noise emanating from nearby human habitations is one more threat to the koala's health, since it is so dependent on sleep.
Pesticides flowing into steams and waterways passing through the koala habitat is another cause for worry.
Indiscriminately planting eucalyptus trees in koala habitats in the name of reforestation is showing little signs of helping koalas. The koalas of different regions diet on specific species of eucalyptus suited only to them.
Scientists figure that such multiple sources of disruption to the koala habitat could lead to a high incidence of disease among the animals. Chlamydia is one such disease that assails the koalas under stress. Sore eyes, blindness and chest infections are common to Chlamydia. Even worse, sore throats can occur, making it impossible for the koala to eat. Cancer and leukemia have also been known to afflict the koala.
In contrast to the situation on much of the mainland, the koalas of many island and isolated populations have flourished. In the absence of predators and competition, combined with an inability to migrate to new areas, koala populations can become unsustainable. Although culling has been suggested as a means to reduce koala numbers, this has met with fierce opposition both domestically and internationally, and the species remains protected. The popularity of the koala has made the possibility of a cull politically improbable, with any negative perception likely to impact on tourism and a government's electability. In place of a cull, sterilization and translocation programs have had only limited success in reducing numbers thus far, and remain expensive. There is evidence that koalas relocated to the mainland have difficulty establishing themselves in the different circumstances. A mooted alternative to the complex sterilization method, wherein the animal must first be captured, are hormonal implants that can be injected via darts.
On the mainland, koala populations in Queensland is only 40% of what it was once was. In New South Wales, it is 33%. A recent count revealed that there may be around 43,000 of these creatures presently in Australia, down from over 100,000 a century ago. The Australian environment ministry has demarcated select koala habitats of Queensland and New South Wales as protected zones from deforestation and development and officially recognized the animals' status as one of the most endangered species.
Immediate action must be taken now to stop the koala bear from going the way of the Tasmanian Tiger.
It's a dreadful reality. We are going through our sixth period of plant and animal mass extinction, the sixth to happen in the last 500 million years. The current wave is considered to be the worst series of species elimination since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Granted, extinction is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, however it normally happens at a rate of 1 to 5 species every year. But, as scientists estimate, we are currently losing species 1,000-10,000 times faster than that, which means that literally tens of species are vanishing from the face of the Earth every day. We could be looking at a frightening future. By this rate, almost one third to one-half of all species could become extinct by 2050.
The difference with past extinctions, which were caused by catastrophic natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, and violent climate changes, is that the current crisis is caused almost entirely by humans. As a matter of fact, as many as 99% of the species at the threshold of extinction are there due to human activities, particularly the ones that drive the introduction of exotic species, loss of habitat, and global warming. With the increasing rate of change in our biosphere, coupled with the fact that every species’ extinction may trigger a cascade of subsequent extinctions due to inter-species dependence in the complicated web of the ecosystem, it’s not unlikely that extinction numbers in the future will increase exponentially.
The variety of species safeguards the resilience of the ecosystem, providing ecological communities the breadth needed to endure stress. Although the efforts of conservationists are often focused on ecosystems with high numbers of species, like coral reefs and rainforests, preserving biodiversity must not leave other habitats with fewer species out, like tundra, grasslands, and polar seas. Devastating consequences stem from any species loss. What’s more, most of the focus regarding extinction is on what’s happening globally, but the vast majority of biodiversity’s advantages are seen locally. Keeping local populations safe is the sole way of ensuring a species’ survival in the long term, via the maintenance of genetic diversity.
Over the last 500 years, as many as one thousand species vanished, without even accounting for many thousands more that went extinct before science discovered and described them. Almost 38% of all known species on a global scale are on the verge of extinction. This puts many thousands of unique species in the dire position of being gone forever.
Amphibian Extinction Crisis
Amphibians have the sad privilege of being endangered more than any other animal group. At least 30 percent of all amphibian species are now threatened to disappear. Toads, frogs, and salamanders are vanishing due to animal agriculture, habitat loss, air and water pollution, global warming, UV light exposure, disease, and the introduction of exotic species. Because this group of animals is overly sensitive to environmental change, they should be regarded as the canary in the global coal mine. Amphibians alert us to minor but definite changes in the ecosystem that could lead to the extinction of many more species, not excluding humans.
Bird Extinction Crisis
Birds are present in almost all habitats on earth and are usually the most familiar and visible wildlife to people all over the world. Because of this, they may act as a significant indicator for monitoring how the biosphere changes. Diminishing bird populations in the majority of habitats are the sad confirmation that major changes are taking place on Earth because of our activities. More than 12% of currently known species of birds are at the threshold of extinction. The biggest impact on bird population has been caused by degradation and loss of habitat, with collectors’ activities and invasive species following closely.
Fish Extinction Crisis
Fishing, rising water demand, river dams, water pollution and invasive species place aquatic ecosystems among the most endangered on Earth. Therefore, the fact that many species of fish – both marine, and freshwater – are currently endangered, does not come as a surprise. More than one fifth of all known fish species are now considered to be at imminent risk.
Invertebrate Extinction Crisis
Invertebrates, from mollusks to butterflies to earthworms to corals, exhibit vast levels of diversion. Almost 97% of all animal species on earth are estimated to belong to this group. One-third of the known invertebrate species are now threatened with extinction. Water pollution, water projects, and groundwater withdrawal threaten freshwater invertebrates, while deforestation and animal agriculture is also a great factor of invertebrate endangerment or extinction. In addition, reef-building corals in the ocean are diminishing at an increasing rate.
Mammal Extinction Crisis
Probably the most characteristic element of the current extinction crisis is that most of our primate relatives are in serious danger. Almost 90% of the primate population lives in the tropical forest, which are disappearing fast due to animal agriculture, deforestation and development. About half of all the primate species on Earth are at the brink of extinction. 50 percent of all known mammals see rapidly decreasing populations, and almost 20 percent are close to extinction. Marine mammals – including dolphins, whales, and porpoises – are particularly close to becoming extinct.
Reptile Extinction Crisis
More than one fifth of all known reptile species are considered endangered or close to becoming extinct. This has been particularly pronounced for island reptile species, counting at least 28 island reptiles having disappeared so far. This pattern of extinction, commonly seen in the islands, is finding its way toward the mainland as well. This crisis is mainly due to human intervention causing fragmentation in the continental habitats, which results in island-like territories, isolating species among each other. Reptiles are especially threatened by non-native species that compete for resources or feed on them, and habitat loss.
Plant Extinction Crisis
Plants are the food we consume and the producers of the oxygen we breathe through the process of photosynthesis. Most of the life on Earth is dependent on plants. Moreover, the majority of medicines are plant-based or plant-derived. Almost 70 percent of known plant species are on the verge of extinction. Unlike animals, plants cannot migrate to a different habitat when threatened, which makes them all too vulnerable. Plant extinction is expected to dramatically increase due to animal agriculture and global warming. The distribution and range of plants worldwide is changing immensely due to the rising temperatures. Since plants form the basis of all ecosystems and the foundation of the food chain, this will affect every species that depends on them for shelter, food, and survival.
Tropical forests are home to more of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity than any other habitat and are increasingly threatened by the impact of human activities. Illegal logging, in particular, poses a severe and increasing threat to tropical forests worldwide.
The devastating impact of illegal logging on bird communities is especially damaging. The level of legal and illegal logging has increased dramatically, greater than maximum sustainable rates. As a result, the abundance of forest understory bird species is declining. Species richness, or the number of different understory bird species represented, also show declining trends. The bird communities show no evidence of post-logging recovery.
A major driver contributing to tropical forest destruction worldwide, illegal logging accounts for 50-90 percent of timber harvested in many tropical countries. The effects of illegal logging is so rampant it cannot be ignored. In contrast to legal logging operations, which are undertaken by companies who apply for a government permit to log under certain parameters including restrictions on the number, size and species of trees that can be logged, illegal logging is much more devastating because it is completely unregulated.
Little attention is given to illegal logging because it is an underworld issue, so it’s not on the books, making it much harder to quantify. But it’s so prevalent that if we don’t look at it, these forests will be destroyed. The first step in doing something about it is knowing about it.
Logging and associated disturbances appear to have affected entire bird communities — including both common and rare or specialized species — causing abundance declines across species. Species that were already rare are most vulnerable to local extinction following logging, and many ‘common’ species have become much less common.
Illegal logging is having serious impacts – not just on the forests themselves – but on the animals. It is reasonable to assume that if the birds are being this powerfully impacted, it’s impacting other groups, such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods. Birds – like the ‘canary in a coal mine’ – are a great indicator of what’s happening to other animals, and eventually, what will happen to us.
The situation, though dire, is not hopeless. There is enormous potential for regenerating logged forests for bird conservation. For this conservation potential to be realized, urgent measures must be taken to protect these surviving forest fragments and prevent further forest bird declines. Such actions would ideally include increasing forest ranger patrols, increasing forest law enforcement and increasing implementation of measures to prevent illegal logging, such as making roadblocks in logging roads following legal logging operations to prevent incursion by illegal logging operations.
There is hope and there are alternatives. But the situation urgently needs to be addressed and there is no time like the present. This can be stopped, it should be stopped – before it’s too late.
Just as too little greenhouse gas makes Earth too cold, too much greenhouse gas makes Earth too warm. Over the last century, humans have burned coal, oil, and gasoline in our cars, trucks, planes, trains, power plants, and factories. Burning such fossil fuels produces CO2 as a waste product. Putting so much new CO2 into the air has made Earth warmer. If we continue on our current path, we will cause even more warming.
CO2 is a big part of the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle traces carbon's path from the atmosphere, into living organisms, then turning into dead organic matter, going into the oceans, and back into the atmosphere. Scientists describe the cycle in terms of sources (parts of the cycle that add carbon to the atmosphere) and sinks (parts of the cycle that remove carbon from the atmosphere).
The carbon cycle traces carbon's path from the atmosphere, into living organisms, to dead organic matter, to oceans, and back into the atmosphere. They key to keeping everything in balance is for the sources and sinks to have the same amount of CO2.
The most important sinks are the ocean (which includes the seawater itself, the organisms living there, and the sediments on the sea floor) as well as plants and soil on land. The ocean stores most of the world's carbon, but forests are really important too. Forests and oceans each remove around one-fourth of the carbon we humans have added to the atmosphere.
But besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.
Without any greenhouse gases, Earth would be an icy wasteland. Greenhouse gases keep our planet livable by holding onto some of Earth’s heat energy so that it doesn’t all escape into space. This heat trapping is known as the greenhouse effect.
Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together. A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
About 600 miles off the coast of South-Eastern Africa lies the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar. Famed for its lush green tropical forest, misty highlands, temperate climate and 3,000 miles of coastline, this jewel in the Indian Ocean is home to one of the most exotic creatures in the world – the lemurs.
Madagascar's 160 million years of isolation as a landmass has shaped an ecosystem and habitat that's perfectly suited and unique to the existence of lemurs. The lemurs themselves have been on the island for over 40 million years, giving them distinctive features quite different from any other animal in the world. In appearance, lemurs are a mixture of many animals – squirrel, cat, dog, and monkey. Some have faces that closely resemble raccoons or skunks and have many characteristics of apes. But when there are 101 species of an animal, looks and behavioral patterns vary widely.
Lemurs are basically nocturnal creatures and move about at night. "Lemures" in Latin means "Spirits of the night". Lemurs are herbivorous animals and their main diet is plants. 55 percent of the island's plant life constitute food for lemurs. Black lemurs, for example, eat leaves, flowers and fruit. So do the inri, another species of lemur. Insects also form an important part of the diet, especially for the smaller species of lemur. Greater bamboo lemurs live off the inner pith of giant bamboo found in forest pockets of the eastern highlands.
Among the existing species, the diademed sifaka and the indri lemurs are the largest and can weigh up to 15 lbs at the most. The smallest, the pygmy mouse lemur, weighs only 1 oz, making it the tiniest primate in the world.
Man first landed in Madagascar as recently as 2,000 years ago. The fate of lemurs has been threatened ever since. Archaeoindris fontoynontii, the giant lemur weighing as much as 440 lbs, was among the first species to become extinct. Once found virtually all over Madagascar, lemurs are now ensconed into just 20 percent of their original habitat, most of it in the central and east coast highlands. According to a recently released report of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, of the 101 species of lemurs, 22 are on the brink of extinction, 48 are endangered, and 20 are vulnerable.
The threats to the lemur's survival is similar to many endangered animals of the world - a burgeoning human population's hunger for more land which translates into more clearing of forests for agricultural purposes. Poverty-stricken Malagasys have resorted to burning down the nation's scarce forests to grow crops. Hunger has also led to the hunting of lemurs for meat, an unusual occurrence until a few decades ago.
Political turmoil also has taken a toll on the laws and mechanisms that safeguard and conserve forest resources. Armed gangs, working in cahoots with the timber mafia, have taken advantage of the political vacuum to pillage protected forests for ebony and rosewood. Over $100 million dollars of wood stolen in this manner have made their way to China for use in furniture. The immediate fallout is on the habitat of the lemur.
Despite laws protecting the lemurs, the creatures are not just hunted as a delicacy, but for superstitious reasons too. The aye-aye lemur, a 5.1 lbs animal, is considered a harbinger of death by some natives and is quickly exterminated if spotted in the vicinity of their villages.
The ring-tailed lemur is among the most well-known and loved lemur species. It is at the top of the list of the illicit pet trade industry. Found mostly in the southern fringes of Madagascar, this beautiful animal, with an off-white coat and a long zebra-striped tail, is sold to hoteliers and tourists for a ridiculously low sum of $2. Being a popular animal, it is also inhumanely kept in zoos all around the world for human entertainment and profit.
The black lemur is another highly endangered species. There are about 10,000 of them in the North-western parts of Madagascar and in some of the islands off the North coast. The black lemur stands about 38 inches tall and weighs about 5 lbs. The black lemur faces common threats like other lemur species. Man's proximity has brought this species into confrontational situations where they have been killed for raiding crops.
Superstitions sometimes can work in favor of the lemurs. For example, the inri is believed to be carrying souls of ancestors. Villagers refrain from killing them.
But lemurs desperately need protection. Loss of habitat can have serious consequences for the breeding or reproduction of lemurs. The lemurs have very short mating and birth windows that are synchronized to seasons when food availability is at its peak. The female vagina opens up for a very brief period of the day, leaving a small window for reproductive activities. High levels of energy exhaustion during such periods account for high mortality among adult lemur females.
Despite protests from local villages, the Ranomafana National Reserve Park was created by the forest authorities of Madagascar. The Ranomafana reserve is a 15 km strip of virgin forests not far from the east coast setup primarily to protect the lemurs inhabiting it. Similarly, nearly 20 national parks have sprung up in the last few decades – especially along the entire eastern and southern coastal belts – to protect endangered species in those sensitive places where they may come into direct contact with human habitation.
The blue-eyed black lemur, an inhabitant of the sub-tropical moist and dry forests in the north-western tip of Madagascar, is a beneficiary of serious conservation measures. Thanks to the endeavors of organizations that have put into place natural resource management and ecological research programs to monitor and mitigate the loss of valuable forest resources in that region, the rare blue-eyed species of lemur is on a comeback trail and finds itself out of the IUCN’s list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.
But serious challenges remain. In addition to rapid habitat loss, climate changes may pose the biggest threat to the survival of lemurs. A study found that 60 percent of the 57 species examined may find their habitat reduced by an alarming two-thirds in the next seventy years solely due to climate change.
Coal is our most abundant “fossil fuel”. China is now the chief coal producer, followed by the United States. Other major coal producers are Australia and India. Five countries – China, the United States, India, Japan and Russia – account for more than 75% of worldwide coal consumption.
The US has more coal than the rest of the world has oil. There is still enough coal underground in the United States alone to provide energy for the next 200 to 300 years. But coal is far from a perfect fuel. Trapped inside coal are traces of impurities like sulfur and nitrogen. When coal burns, these impurities are released into the air.
While floating in the air, these substances can combine with water vapor (for example, in clouds) and form droplets that fall to earth as weak forms of sulfuric and nitric acid – scientists call it “acid rain.” There are also tiny specks of minerals, including common dirt, mixed in coal. These tiny particles don't burn and make up the ash left behind in a coal combustor. Some of the tiny particles also get caught up in the swirling combustion gases and, along with water vapor, form the smoke that comes out of a coal plant's smokestack.
Also, coal, like all fossil fuels, is formed out of carbon. All living things, even people, are made up of carbon. But when coal burns, its carbon combines with oxygen in the air and forms carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas, but in the atmosphere, it is one of several gases that can trap the Earth's heat. Many scientists believe this is causing the Earth's temperature to rise, and this warming could be altering the Earth's climate.
Threats To Wildlife From Coal Mining
Surface mining of coal is the method resorted to by the industry when coal deposits are found just below the Earth's surface. This happens to be the most used mining methodology of coal world over and has a direct and negative effect on ecosystems, environment and wildlife of places where such activity is carried out.
Excavation of the soil and heaping of spoils damages the Earth's surface beyond repair and causes decimation and displacement of wildlife species. It's worse for sedentary species like reptiles, small mammals, beavers and burrowing rodents, all of whose primary habitat is the Earth's surface.
Pollution of aquatic habitats is another outcome of surface mining for coal. Wastes and chemicals from it trickle and seep into streams, rivers and underground water-bodies. As a result, effects are manifested in places that are far away from mining sites. Most damaging are the kinds of chemicals pumped into the ground through pipes – mercury, methyl-mercury, cyanide and arsenic.
Mercury contamination is one of the most detrimental outcomes of coal mining. In the North-east mountain ranges of the US, it's been known to contaminate fresh-water lakes and in turn affect fish and fish-eating birds while damaging their neurological and reproductive systems. Studies show that 92 species from 11 North-Eastern states from Maine to Virginia are vulnerable to mercury contamination.
The wetlands that support a vast array of bird-life are especially open to one of the worst forms of pollution – methyl-mercury poisoning. Air pollution arising out of coal mining can quickly acidify water bodies. It hastens the process by which bacteria convert inorganic mercury from coal into organic methyl-mercury. Bogs, coastal marshes, beaver ponds, foggy mountaintops and forest floors are all absorbers of methyl-mercury. From such wetlands, it permeates into terrestrial grounds and this can corrupt an entire food web. Biomagnification takes over, and with each step of the food chain concentrations of mercury rise. This happens when creatures in these wet habitats feed on plant debris containing mercury, allowing it to enter terrestrial food sources. Rusty blackbirds and Saltmarsh sparrows have shown the highest levels of mercury contamination. Mercury poisoning of Virginia water-bodies threaten to hamper the Saltmarsh sparrow's ability to choose safe nesting sites.
Small traces of methyl-mercury, that were previously ignored as being harmful, have now revealed the adverse effects it can have on reproduction of species. Just a minuscule amount of 1.2 parts per million of methyl-mercury found in the blood of the Carolina wren have accounted for a 20 percent drop in their reproductive capacities. The wrens are scavengers and glean the forest floors for spiders, which too are contaminated.
Most surprising is the case of the tiny Dome Island in the middle of the pristine Lake George in the uplands of New York State. This untouched 16-acre island in the Adirondack region is considered to be a conservation gem and is home to species of songbirds like the red-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees and song sparrows that flutter among ancient cedars, beech, hickory and oak. Shockingly, these birds have revealed the highest concentrations of mercury in the North-east region. They are victims of airborne mercury pollution. Almost 50 tons of neurotoxins are belched into the atmosphere annually by coal-based power plants in the US. This “atmospheric deposition” of mercury is a global hazard, but is more pronounced in the bio-diversity rich hotspots that lie downwind to coal-burning epicenters of Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Wanton mining practices elsewhere in the world have results in coal fires that can burn for decades, as in the case of numerous mines in Eastern India. It releases fly ash into the atmosphere, along with smoke full of toxic chemicals and greenhouse gasses. Coal mine methane, a greenhouse gas emitted by mining of the mineral, is 20 times more toxic than carbon dioxide.
In China, even though 95 percent of the mines are underground, the threat of a methane outburst always looms.
Other problems that have environmental consequences are coal storage piles or waste piles. These afflict countries like China, Russia, the US, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa in a considerable way.
The biggest threat to the environment comes from countries with huge reserves of coal. A fear for these countries is there could be alternative sources of energy in the future that could replace a fossil-fuel like coal. So the idea of mining and finishing whatever stocks of coal remain before such a replacement happens weighs heavily on the minds of policy makers. Hence the near-frenetic activity in coal mining in places like India and China. Also, both depend heavily on this mineral to make-up for the huge shortfall in oil to meet their ever-growing energy needs.
Coal Impact On Climate
Coal is an abundant fuel source that is relatively inexpensive to produce and convert to useful energy. However, producing and using coal impacts the environment.
Climate change is one of the greatest environmental challenges we face. Climate impacts affect the entire planet. Unchecked carbon pollution leads to long-lasting changes in our climate, such as rising global temperatures; rising sea level; changes in weather and precipitation patterns; and changes in ecosystems, habitats and species diversity. These changes threaten human and wildlife health and welfare.
Environmental risks include more heat waves and drought; worsening smog (also called ground-level ozone pollution); increasing the intensity of extreme events, like hurricanes, extreme precipitation and flooding; and increasing the range of ticks and mosquitoes, which can spread disease such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.
Overwhelmingly, the best scientists in the world are telling us that our activities are causing climate change – based on troves of data and millions of measurements collected over the course of decades on land, in air and water, at sea and from space.
Emissions From Burning Coal
Most of the coal consumed is used as a fuel to generate electricity. Burning coal produces emissions that adversely affect the environment and human health.
There are several principal emissions resulting from coal combustion:
Sulfur dioxide (SO2), which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses
Nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses
Particulates, which contribute to smog, haze, and respiratory illnesses and lung disease
Carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the primary greenhouse gas emission produced from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas)
Mercury and other heavy metals, which have been linked to both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals
Fly ash and bottom ash, which are residues created when coal is burned at power plants. Fly ash is generally stored near power plants or placed in landfills. Pollution leaching from ash storage and landfills into groundwater and the rupture of several large impoundments of ash are environmental concerns.
Coal And Water
Coal not only pollutes our skies and fuels climate change, it also deprives us of our most precious resources: water. The world’s rapidly dwindling freshwater resources could be further depleted if plans for hundreds of new coal power plants worldwide go ahead, threatening severe drought and competition.
If all the current proposed coal plants are allowed to be built, the water consumed by coal power plants around the world would almost double. Globally, coal power plant units already consume enough water to meet the basic water needs of 1 billion people. A quarter of the proposed new coal plants are planned in regions already running a freshwater deficit, where water is used faster than it is naturally replenishing.
Coal is one of the most water-intensive methods of generating electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, coal will account for 50% of the growth in global water consumption for power generation over the next 20 years. Research shows that if the proposed coal plants come online, their consumption of water will increase by 90%.
Public Lands Mismanaged
America has more coal than any other fossil fuel resource. The United States also has more coal reserves than any other single country in the world. In fact, just over 1/4 of all the known coal in the world is in the US. The United States has more coal that can be mined than the rest of the world has oil that can be pumped from the ground. Currently, coal is mined in 26 of the 50 states.
The Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) has responsibility for coal leasing on approximately 570 million acres where the coal mineral estate is owned by the Federal Government. The surface estate of these lands could be controlled by BLM, the United States Forest Service, private land owners, state land owners, or other Federal agencies. BLM receives revenues on coal leasing at three points: a bonus paid at the time BLM issues the lease; an annual rental payment of $3.00 per acre or fraction thereof; and royalties paid on the value of the coal after it has been mined. The Department of the Interior and the state where the coal was mined share the revenues.
Surface mines (sometimes called strip mines) are the source of about 65% of the coal that is mined in the US. These mining operations remove the soil and rock above coal deposits, or seams. Mountaintop removal and valley fill mining has affected large areas of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and Kentucky. In this form of coal extraction, the tops of mountains are removed using explosives. As a result of this technique, the landscape is changed, and streams may be covered with rock and dirt. The water draining from these filled valleys may contain pollutants that can harm aquatic wildlife downstream. Although mountaintop mining has existed since the 1970s, its use became more widespread and controversial beginning in the 1990s.
Underground mines have less of an impact on the environment compared to surface mines. The largest impact of underground mining may be the methane gas that must be vented out of mines to make the mines a safe place to work. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, meaning that on an equal-weight basis its global warming potential is much higher than other greenhouse gases. Surface mines contributed about 2% of total US methane emissions. The ground above mine tunnels can also collapse, and acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines.
Using public lands for coal mining poses a significant threat to natural heritage. Coal mining dramatically alters the landscape, destroys wildlife habitat, causes erosion, and leads to the deterioration of drinking water.
Time For Changes
The ecological devastation from coal activities is disturbing. Action needs to be taken. Innovative technologies for improved mining and processing must be a priority to respond better to global environmental challenges, while governments and private sectors need to shift to alternative energy sources.