Humans dispose of trillions of tons of garbage every year. The average person in a developed country produces about 2.6 pounds of garbage every single day.
Landfills take in most of this garbage, while a substantial amount of litter finds its way into the natural environment. Tens of thousands of cans and bottles are thrown out of moving vehicles everyday. An enormous amounts of waste is left behind on beaches, parks and river banks. One clean-up drive alone along a US coastline collected over 3.5 million tons of garbage. A two-mile highway stretch of West Virginia yielded over 30,000 items of litter.
Imagine if that litter was being tossed into your home. For wildlife, this is the disturbing and dangerous reality of litter.
What is litter to us, unwittingly becomes food for hungry animals. This litter may seem useful to animals, but it is often harmful or deadly. Discarded foods are prone to quick contamination and the microorganisms that cause food poisoning can be fatal to animals.
Broken glass can cut the feet of wild animals, and unbroken bottles can be a death trap. Hungry animals in search of food remains at the bottom of a jar or can often get their heads stuck, causing fatal suffocation. Even the tiniest of creatures can be lured by something like a beer or soda can. The sharp edges of a discarded can can be a threat to such delicate creatures seeking shelter or a taste of what remains inside.
Highways have become deathbeds for many unwary animals foraging for food. Litter tossed out of car windows onto freeways attracts inquisitive deer, coyotes, raccoons and skunks. Foxes forage for garbage on our streets at night, followed by pigeons during the day feasting on the night's leftovers. In addition to the hazards posed by litter, these animals often suffer serious injuries or death from vehicle collisions.
Aquatic animals are among the worst affected by human litter. Trash tossed carelessly outside washes into storm drains and creeks, which empty into rivers that eventually flow to the oceans. Trash adversely affects the habitat of marine and other aquatic environments causing death and injury to seabirds, fish, marine mammals, turtles and countless other species through swallowing and entanglement. Fishing hooks are often injested by pelicans, turtles, seabirds and other aquatic creatures. Often, larger items like nets, fishing line, and abandoned crab pots snare or trap animals. Entanglement can lead to injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and death. Seabirds suffer lead poisoning from ingesting small lead fishing weights. Seabirds have also moved inland to garbage dumps where they injest a variety of rubbish.
Plastic bags on the seafloor take 10 to 20 years to decompose. Plastic bottles take much longer. As a result, one piece can kill more than one animal. An animal killed by ingesting plastic will decompose long before the plastic, allowing the plastic to kill again.
Litter along our coastlines, much of it plastic, is often digested by seabirds, turtles and whales. Seagulls act as scavengers and consume litter from food leftovers on beaches. Serious consequences for these creatures include stomach and bowel damage, strangulation and death. Many more animals are ensnared by plastic six-pack holders.
Cigarette butt waste is not only unsightly, but when ingested may be hazardous to the health of animals. Cigarette butts are commonly discarded onto beaches, sidewalks, streets, parks and many other public places where domestic animals and wildlife may be exposed to risk of ingestion. When carelessly discarded, they are carried from storm sewers and beaches to streams, lakes and oceans. Sea creatures, birds and companion animals are indiscriminate eaters. Ingested cigarette butts can choke an animal or poison it with toxins. Animals may not be able to regurgitate such items, with some acquiring gastrointestinal bezoars that can lead to a false sense of satiation and subsequent under-nutrition.
Balloons are great at birthdays, weddings, graduations and more, but once they get loose, balloons can pose a threat to many animals. Birds, turtles and other wildlife commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or kill them. In addition, many animals become entangled in balloon strings, which can injury or even strangle them.
Attitudes towards litter management seem to be shifting towards the positive, albeit slowly. Landfills, the biggest receivers of garbage, have made some progress concerning the protection of wildlife. Improving package design and construction can reduce needless waste and render them less harmful to animals. But real change has to come from individuals. Recycling techniques adopted domestically can reduce outflow of litter from homes dramatically. Education on basic rudiments of garbage management and disposal at the domestic level can indeed go a long way in mitigating the threat to animals foraging for litter.
At the root of this growing hunger for trash lies the shrinking natural habitat of animals affected by unwarranted development. In the human quest for faster progress, the environment is the biggest casualty and animals are the victims. It is our responsibility to save animals from the hazards we have created. With the mountain of garbage being added daily to the earth's surface and seas by our teeming billions, a huge challenge faces us into the future.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Fighting the litter problem begins at home.
- Cut back on the amount of trash you produce.
- Opt for reusable items instead of single-use products.
- Recycle as much of your trash as you can.
- Join local efforts to pick up trash.
- Keep streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and storm drains free of trash.
- Don’t litter. Common litter includes plastic bags, paper, candy wrappers, fast-food packaging, bottle caps, glass bottles, plastic six-pack rings and plastic straws.
- Spend one hour picking up litter. Organize a team of family, friends, or co-workers to pick up litter in your local neighborhood, wildlife refuge or park. Enjoy making a difference, getting exercise, getting to know people better and having cleaner surroundings.
- Don't host balloon releases. Encourage others to substitute balloons for other, more ecologically responsible, party favors.
Earth isn’t perfectly round. Earth is thicker around the equator, the belt around the middle. How much thicker? Well, it’s about 0.3% thicker. It’s not much, so when you see a photo of Earth, it appears round. But it’s just barely not.
Days are getting longer. When Earth first formed 4.6 billion years ago, a day was about six hours long. Since then, the Earth has slowed down. It takes longer to spin around. Every 100 years, the day gets 0.0017 seconds longer. Why? The moon is slowing down Earth’s rotation with the tides it creates. As the tides rise and fall all over Earth, it creates a force that slows down Earth’s rotation.
Continents are always on the move. About 250 million years ago, all the continents we see today were one big supercontinent called Pangaea. They’ve slowly moved ever since to spread out and form the continents we see today: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica. But Pangaea wasn’t the first supercontinent. About 800 million years ago, all the continents were pushed together too. We call this previous supercontinent Rodinia.
There wasn’t just one Ice Age. You may have heard of the Ice Age on Earth. It was a time when woolly mammoths roamed. But this didn’t just happen one time 30,000 years ago. There may have been as many as four different Ice Ages in the past. During these times, Earth would have been covered completely in ice.
The driest place on Earth is near the ocean. The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest place on Earth. It is said that a city there went without rain for 400 years! And yet, this desert is right next to the biggest body of water on Earth, the Pacific Ocean. Do you know what they say about the ocean? Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Earth’s gravity isn’t the same everywhere on Earth. If the Earth were smooth and perfect, gravity would be the same everywhere. But Earth has mountains, oceans, valleys, and other features. The differences in gravity across Earth are called gravity anomalies. A mission called GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) has a satellite that orbits Earth and maps the gravity across the surface.
Sea levels have changed in the past. During the last Ice Age, so much water was trapped in icy glaciers that the sea level dropped by as much as 390 feet (120 meters). That’s about as tall as building 40 stories high. Long before that, the sea level was actually much higher than it is now. It was as much as 230 feet higher. There are parts of land today that used to be far beneath the ocean waters.
The sun won’t shine forever. Don’t worry, the sun isn’t going anywhere for a very long time. But nothing in the whole universe lasts forever and ever. Our sun will run out of energy in about five billion years. If anyone is around when it happens, they’ll have to leave Earth and find a new planet. Luckily, we have these next five billion years to plan for that.
Earth has other “moons.” Besides our moon, there are two other objects in space that orbit near Earth. They're not truly "moons," but they are there. One of them is an asteroid that follows Earth as we orbit around the sun. It’s called Cruithne. A different asteroid orbits the sun near us but its orbit is horseshoe-shaped, so it only gets near Earth every 95 years.
Before a big storm hits, sometimes there is a moment of calm. When a storm grows, it pulls in warm, wet air around it. The air goes into the storm cloud, and when it gets to the top, it rolls out over the big head of the cloud. Then it falls back down. As it falls, it becomes warmer and drier, which makes for stable, calm weather. This is the calm that can happen right before the storm hits.
The leopard (Panthera pardus), one of the world’s most iconic big cats, has lost as much as 75 percent of its historic range. Animal agriculture, as well as illegal trade in leopard skins and parts and legal trophy hunting, are having a devastating effect on leopards.
Recent research challenges the conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened. The leopard is a famously elusive animal, which is likely why it has taken so long to recognize its global decline.
Leopards historically occupied a vast range of approximately 35 million square kilometers (13.5 million square miles) throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Today, however, they are restricted to approximately 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles).
Scientists from the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, the Zoological Society of London, Panthera and the International Union for Conservation of Nature spent three years reviewing more than 1,300 sources on the leopard’s historic and current range. The results confirmed conservationists’ suspicions that, while the entire species is not yet as threatened as some other big cats, leopards are facing a multitude of growing threats in the wild, and three subspecies have already been almost completely eradicated.
In addition, while African leopards face considerable threats, particularly in North and West Africa, leopards have also almost completely disappeared from several regions across Asia, including much of the Arabian Peninsula and vast areas of former range in China and Southeast Asia. The amount of habitat in each of these regions is plummeting, having declined by nearly 98 percent.
Leopards’ secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within mega-cities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild — when actually they are increasingly threatened. A severe blind spot has existed in the conservation of the leopard.
The status of the leopard in Southeast Asia is as perilous as the highly endangered tiger. The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives ––protecting the species. Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard’s fate.
Leopards are capable of surviving in human-dominated landscapes provided they have sufficient cover, access to wild prey and tolerance from local people. In many areas, however, habitat is converted to farmland and native herbivores are replaced with livestock for growing human populations. This habitat loss, prey decline, conflict with livestock owners, illegal trade in leopard skins and parts and legal trophy hunting are all factors contributing to leopard decline.
More research is needed on the less studied subspecies. Of these subspecies, one — the Javan leopard (P. p. melas) — is currently classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, while another — the Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) — is classified as endangered, highlighting the urgent need to understand what can be done to arrest these worrying declines.
Despite this troubling picture, some areas of the world inspire hope. Even with historic declines in the Caucasus Mountains and the Russian Far East/Northeast China, leopard populations in these areas appear to have stabilized and may even be rebounding with significant conservation investment through the establishment of protected areas and increased anti-poaching measures.
Leopards have a broad diet and are remarkably adaptable. Sometimes the elimination of active persecution by government or local communities is enough to jumpstart leopard recovery. However, with many populations ranging across international boundaries, political cooperation is critical.
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.
Hundreds of mountain peaks in Appalachia have been destroyed through the practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. Trees are clearcut, and explosives and massive machines are used to remove earth and access coal seams from the top down. Mining waste, or “spoil,” is dumped into valleys. The landscape is altered forever in one of the nation’s main hotspots of biological diversity. Natural habitats in some our country's most important forests are laid to waste. There is no justification for blowing up the oldest mountains on the continent.
MTR mining is controversial for its devastating environmental impacts. Research studies have linked these environmental impacts to adverse outcomes in community health, raising questions about whether the benefits of MTR mining come at too high a health cost.
Coal companies use explosives to blast as much as 800 to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains in order to reach thin coal seams buried deep below. To annihilate an entire mountainside, trees are ripped from the ground and brush is wiped away with huge tractors. The trees and brush are then set ablaze while deep holes are dug for explosives. Explosives are poured into the holes to literally blow mountaintops apart. Draglines, giant machines that can be the size of an entire city block, scoop dirt and rocks into nearby valleys and streams. Waterways are forever buried beneath the rubble.
“Spoil”—the earth and rock dislodged by mining—buries thousands of miles of headwater streams that ultimately feed the Mississippi River. Slurry, the residue from cleaning the coal, is impounded in ponds or injected into abandoned underground mine shafts where it can leach potentially toxic constituents such as arsenic, lead, manganese, iron, sodium, strontium, and sulfate that ultimately may end up in groundwater.
A form of surface mining, MTR mining first emerged in the late 1960s but remained a small source of coal until the mid-1990s. Now it is a major form of coal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky—the second and third largest coal-producing states after Wyoming—and it also occurs in Virginia and Tennessee. MTR mining uses less labor than underground mining, with massive draglines able to move 100 cubic yards of earth in a single scoop. And with underground coal supplies significantly depleted, MTR mining allows the harvest of seams of coal too thin to work from traditional coal mines.
So Called Reclamation
While mountaintop removal sites must be “reclaimed” by law after mining is complete, reclamation usually focuses on stabilizing rock formations and controlling erosion. The reforestation of the affected area is seldom achieved. Most flattened mountaintops receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed. The non-native flora provide vegetation but compete with tree seedlings that have difficulty establishing roots in the compacted backfill.
Coal companies often receive waivers following claims that economic development will occur on the destroyed mountaintop. But despite the promotion of reclaimed flat land for economic development, only a very small percentage of sites are developed.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it may take hundreds of years for a forest to re-establish itself on a removed mountain site.
Pollutants may take any of several pathways into an area’s water supply. Some may leach into streams from the overburden that is dumped into valleys. Others hitch a ride in the slurry that is frequently injected directly into old mine shafts or impounded in ponds, from which it can seep through coal seams into ground-water. Where pollutants go once they hit groundwater is not easily predicted. Appalachian hydrology is complex and poorly charted. But severely contaminated water supplies have been the basis for multiple lawsuits against coal companies, alleging adverse health effects arising from contaminated drinking water. Residents may suddenly find that their water suddenly goes bad after mining begins nearby. One of the biggest health complaints is unremitting diarrhoea. Other conditions reported include learning disabilities, kidney stones, tooth loss, and some cancers.
Water contamination is not the only concern for communities. Residents quickly become accustomed to the rotten-egg scent of hydrogen sulfide. The sulfide is produced when bacteria reduce sulphate that presumably comes from mining runoff. Sulphide has always been recognized as an occupational hazard. Sulphide interferes with oxidative metabolism, and cardiac and nervous tissues are particularly sensitive, according to the World Health Organization. Chronic inhalational exposure in occupational settings has been shown to cause headache, irritability, and poor memory.
Another potential hazard is coal dust from both mining and processing the coal. The coal is crushed or pulverized, and that releases particulate matter into the air. Potential impacts from coal dust exposure include cardiovascular and lung disease, and possibly cancer.
The Clean Water Act specifies that streams must be suitable for “designated uses,” which include recreation, consumption of fish by humans, and protection of the health of aquatic life. However, health studies that have been conducted in Appalachia have revealed direct and indirect links to MTR mining. An investigation found that ecological impairment of streams correlated with human cancer mortality rates in surrounding areas. Three studies showed strong associations between MTR mining and increased cardiovascular disease, increased frequency of birth defects, and reduced quality of life.
Residents in mountaintop mining counties have 18 more unhealthy days per year than those in other non-mining counties, according to research. Over a life span of 78 years, that adds up to nearly 4 additional years’ worth of impaired mental and/or physical health.
The evidence that MTR mining may directly and adversely affect public health continues to become significantly stronger. Scientists say more research may still be needed, but the time has come to shift the burden of proof to the mining companies.
Mountaintop removal coal mining, which as its name suggests, involves removing all or some portion of the top of a mountain or ridge to expose and mine one or more coal seams. The excess overburden is disposed of in constructed fills in small valleys or hollows adjacent to the mining site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that mountaintop mines and valley fills lead directly to five principal alterations of stream ecosystems:
- springs and ephemeral, intermittent and perennial streams are permanently lost with the removal of the mountain and from burial under fill
- concentrations of major chemical ions are persistently elevated downstream
- degraded water quality reaches levels that are acutely lethal to organisms in standard aquatic toxicity tests
- selenium concentrations are elevated, reaching concentrations that have caused toxic effects in fish and birds
- macroinvertebrate and fish communities are consistently degraded.
In addition, six potential consequences of environmental impacts of mountaintop mines and valley fills operations include:
- loss of headwater resources
- impacts on water quality
- impacts from aquatic toxicity
- impacts on aquatic ecosystems
- cumulative impacts of multiple mining operations
- effectiveness of on-site reclamation and mitigation activities.
Mining operations are regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), including discharges of pollutants to streams from valley fills (CWA Section 402) and the valley fill itself where the rock and soil is placed in streams and wetlands (CWA Section 404). Coal mining operations are also regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).
EPA, in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining and Fish & Wildlife Service, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, prepared an environmental impact statement looking at the impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. This was done as part of a settlement agreement in the court case known as Bragg v. Robertson, Civ. No. 2:98-0636 (S.D. W.V.). The purpose was to evaluate options for improving agency programs that will contribute to reducing the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills in Appalachia. The geographic focus was approximately 12 million acres encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee.
Based on studies of over 1200 stream segments impacted by mountaintop mining and valley fills the following environmental issues were noted:
- an increase of minerals in the water - zinc, sodium, selenium, and sulfate levels may increase and negatively impact fish and macroinvertebrates leading to less diverse and more pollutant-tolerant species
- streams in watersheds below valley fills tend to have greater base flow
- streams are sometimes covered up
- wetlands are at times inadvertently, and other times intentionally, created; these wetlands provide some aquatic functions, but are generally not of high quality
- forests may become fragmented (broken into sections)
- the regrowth of trees and woody plants on regraded land may be slowed due to compacted soils
- grassland birds are more common on reclaimed mine lands as are snakes; amphibians such as salamanders, are less likely.
Cumulative environmental costs have not yet been identified.
In addition to health and environmental concerns, social, economic and heritage issues are created by mountaintop removal.
Regulation Is Not The Answer
Mountaintop removal is not necessary. It provides only a fraction of national coal production — an estimated 5-7 percent. It does not increase employment in Appalachia. Coal mining jobs have actually disappeared or been displaced as a result of heavily mechanized strip mining.
When the forests are gone and the streams destroyed, all the unique and diverse plant and animal species are destroyed with them. Irreplaceable ecosystems are being wiped out.
Decades of irreversible damage clearly show that regulatory compromises are no longer sufficient. Mountaintop removal mining is a crime against nature, wildlife and human health. It must be abolished, not regulated.
Our planet has a natural environment, known as ‘ecosystem’, which includes all humans, animals, plants, land and water. Human activities have caused much depletion and destruction of this ecosystem.
Environmentalism advocates the preservation, restoration and/or improvement of this natural environment by controlling pollution and protecting plant and animal diversity. Environmentalists attempt to balance relations between humans and the various natural systems on which they depend to achieve sustainability.
Earth advocates work to protect natural resources and ecosystems through education, activism and the political process. They seek to give the natural world a stronger voice in human affairs.
The environmental issues of today know no borders. We can't just put up fences around natural places to keep humans out. We must protect the entire planet for the survival of all species — plants, animals and people. Governments, businesses, communities and individuals must make better decisions to live in balance with nature. Through science, responsible planning, legislation and daily choices, we can ensure the survival of the ecosystem.
There are many ways you can help to save wild places and wild animals. Volunteer. Recycle. Install solar panels on your roof. Organize an event where you live. Change a habit. Help launch a community garden. Communicate your priorities to your elected representatives. The possibilities are endless! Do something nice for the earth, have fun, meet new people, and make a difference.
The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. As our population increases, there is even more pressure on forests, grasslands, deserts and other natural areas to provide food, housing and energy for humans. These demands increase the stress of already fragmented natural areas suffering from pollution, deforestation, disrupted migratory routes and changing environmental conditions.
Already, large numbers of people have been declared food-insecure; resulting in a land rush with nations hurrying to secure properties for agriculture and fuel crops. Forests are being cleared at alarming rates, an estimated 18 million acres each year. At the same time, poor agriculture practices lead to millions of acres of land lost annually through soil erosion and land degradation.
Trillions of tons of garbage is produced every year, while more and more goods are produced...resulting in the creation of more waste. Most garbage is buried underground in landfill sites, causing environmental and health concerns.
If we don’t make changes now, future generations will not experience the same plentiful, diverse planet that we know today.
Air pollution is a mixture of solid particles and gases in the air. Car emissions, chemicals from factories, dust, pollen and mold spores may be suspended as particles. Ozone, a gas, is a major part of air pollution in cities. When ozone forms air pollution, it's also called smog.
Air pollution is caused by polluters who refuse to clean up toxic air emissions, despite proven pollution control technologies. Most air toxics originate from human-made sources, including automobiles, factories, refineries and power plants. Indoor sources include building materials and cleaning solvents.
As the environment suffers, humans suffer from asthma, lung disease, heart ailments, cancer and shortened lives. Acid rain, often caused by pollutants in the atmosphere from automobile or industrial processes, falls from the sky in the form of rain, snow, fog or dry material. Devastating effects to forests, aquatic systems, buildings and human health can result. Air toxics then contaminate our food products, drinking water and soil.
Pollution, habitat fragmentation and destruction, and overfishing are having devastating effects on our oceans, rivers and lakes. Acidification, caused by increased carbon emissions, degrade coral reefs and corrode the shells of sea creatures. Freshwater ecosystems provide us with drinking water, food, energy and recreation. These ecosystems are also critical to plants and animals. Increased demands for food, energy and material goods have placed unprecedented pressure on these fragile environments. Within the next 20 years, half of the world’s population may face water shortages.
Oceans are a critical part of the earths support system. Acid rain pollutes our seas. Oceans are degraded by spills and chemical runoffs. The largest living structures on earth, coral reefs, are among the greatest storehouses of biodiversity on the planet. Up to 70 percent of coral reefs are expected to be lost by 2050 due to human activities.
Water is under threat from fertilizers and chemical runoff, dumped chemical and industrial wastes, untreated sewage and medicinal residues.
Genetic modification of plants and animals is a controversial subject, with many experts believing the ill impacts far outweigh the benefits to mankind. Manipulating plant DNA to produce super crops is a dangerous global experiment. When released into the environment, they cannot be recalled.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms. They can contaminate natural environments in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way. This is referred to as 'genetic pollution', a major threat to the environment.
Due to commercial interests, the public has been denied the facts about GMO ingredients in the food chain. The absence of labeling laws in many countries denies individuals the power to avoid them.
Biological diversity must be protected and respected. It is fundamental to our planet's survival.
More than half the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic or other human rubbish. Recent research indicates that approximately 52 percent of turtles world-wide have eaten debris.
Threats to marine turtle species come from an estimated four million to 12 million tons of plastic which enter the oceans annually. Plastic ingestion can kill turtles by blocking the gut or piercing the gut wall, and can cause other problems through the release of toxic chemicals into the animals’ tissues.
Plastics and other litter that enter marine environments are mistaken for food or eaten accidentally by turtles and other wildlife. Olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) are at the highest risk, due to their feeding behavior and distribution. Olive ridley turtles commonly eat jellyfish and other floating animals, and often feed in the open ocean, where debris accumulates.
The east coasts of Australia and North America, Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and Hawaii are particularly dangerous for turtles due to a combination of debris loads and high species diversity.
Other reptiles, aquatic mammals and fish are common victims of ocean litter. Seabirds are especially high risk for for marine debris. A study discovered that more than 60 percent of seabird species had ingested debris, and that number is expected to reach 99 percent by 2050.
Always turn off lights when you leave the room, unless... You should always turn off the light when you leave a room. This can save a lot of energy. But if you have special light bulbs called CFLs, you don't always have to turn them off. Turning them on and off too many times shortens their lifespans. You should turn them off if you'll be gone for 15 minutes of more. If you'll be right back, you can leave them on.
Coal is king, but not everywhere. In the United States, coal makes 39% of our electricity. It's burned in a power plant, and the heat is used to boil water. The steam moves a turbine and generates electricity. In West Virginia, over 90% of the electricity is generated from coal. But in California, only 1% of electricity is generated from this fossil fuel.
Daylight saving time is good for the planet. When we turn our clocks forward each spring, we move an hour of daylight toward the end of the day. In 2008, we had four extra weeks of Daylight Saving Time. Scientists studied how much energy we saved. Turns out, we saved 0.5% of electricity. Even though that sounds small, it's actually 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours. That's how much electricity 100,000 houses use in a whole year.
Every state uses hydropower for electricity. A flowing river is powerful. We can use the flow to make electricity. Ancient Greeks built water wheels to grind grain thousands of years ago. Today, every state uses hydropower, which is electricity from the flow water. In Washington State, 70% of the electricity comes from hydropower. Hydropower plants are inside dams, like the Hoover dam. Some places don't build dams. They use just part of a river to make electricity.
The United States is a world leader in wind. Wind has been a source of renewable energy since the invention of the windmill thousands of years ago. Today's wind power is made from big wind turbines. They're over 300 feet tall. Some have 8,000 parts. Along with China, Germany, Spain, and others, the United States is using wind to make lots of electricity.
The first solar powered satellite is still in orbit. The sun gives us lots of energy everyday. It hits us with 10,000 times the world's total energy use. The space industry has used solar power since the 1960s. It's great for spacecraft. Vanguard 1 was the first spacecraft to use solar cells. It's the oldest artificial satellite still in orbit around Earth.
We can get energy from trash. All that waste we flush down the toilet and put in our trashcans doesn't have to go to, well, waste! When waste breaks down, it can release methane, a natural gas. We can trap that gas and use it to make electricity. This is also helpful because methane is a greenhouse gas. If we use it, we keep it out of the atmosphere. This is great for the environment.
Electric vehicles are great, but not everywhere. Cars that run on electricity instead of gas don't release pollution. But when you charge the car at home, where does that electricity come from? If the electricity comes from renewable sources, electric cars are great for the environment. But if you charge a car with electricity made from coal, it's not as good. The car doesn't pollute, but the power plant that charges that car does.
We need better batteries. You might be surprised, but batteries need a lot of work. They don't store enough energy. For us to use solar power and wind power, we need to be able to store a lot of energy. That way, we can still have electricity on cloudy days with no wind. Lots of researchers are working to make better batteries that last longer and hold more energy.
We measure energy in BTUs. When we talk about energy, we all need to use the same unit to compare numbers. Just like we might use feet or meters to talk about length, we need a unit for energy. The standard unit of energy is called the BTU. That stands for British Thermal Unit. It's the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of a pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. When you burn a four-inch kitchen match, it releases about 1 BTU of energy.
Approximately one-third of the Earth's land surface is desert, arid land with meager rainfall that supports only sparse vegetation and a limited population of people and animals. Deserts stark, sometimes mysterious worlds have been portrayed as fascinating environments of adventure and exploration from narratives such as that of Lawrence of Arabia to movies such as "Dune." These arid regions are called deserts because they are dry. They may be hot, they may be cold. They may be regions of sand or vast areas of rocks and gravel peppered with occasional plants. But deserts are always dry.
Deserts are natural laboratories in which to study the interactions of wind and sometimes water on the arid surfaces of planets. They contain valuable mineral deposits that were formed in the arid environment or that were exposed by erosion. Because deserts are dry, they are ideal places for human artifacts and fossils to be preserved.
Deserts are also fragile environments. The misuse of these lands is a serious and growing problem in parts of our world.
There are almost as many definitions of deserts and classification systems as there are deserts in the world. Most classifications rely on some combination of the number of days of rainfall, the total amount of annual rainfall, temperature, humidity, or other factors. In 1953, Peveril Meigs divided desert regions on Earth into three categories according to the amount of precipitation they received. In this now widely accepted system, extremely arid lands have at least 12 consecutive months without rainfall, arid lands have less than 250 millimeters of annual rainfall, and semiarid lands have a mean annual precipitation of between 250 and 500 millimeters. Arid and extremely arid land are deserts, and semiarid grasslands generally are referred to as steppes.
How The Atmosphere Influences Aridity
We live at the bottom of a gaseous envelope since the atmosphere is bound gravitationally to the planet. The circulation of our atmosphere is a complex process because of the Earth's rotation and the tilt of its axis. The Earth's axis is inclined 231/2° from the ecliptic, the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. Due to this inclination, vertical rays of the sun strike 231/2° N. latitude, the Tropic of Cancer, at summer solstice in late June. At winter solstice, the vertical rays strike 23 1/2° S. latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice day has the most daylight hours, and the winter solstice has the fewest daylight hours each year. The tilt of the axis allows differential heating of the Earth's surface, which causes seasonal changes in the global circulation. On a planetary scale, the circulation of air between the hot Equator and the cold North and South Poles creates pressure belts that influence the weather. Most of the nonpolar deserts lie within the two trade winds belts. Air warmed by the sun rises at the Equator, cools as it moves toward the poles, descends as cold air over the poles, and warms again as it moves over the surface of the Earth toward the Equator.
This simple pattern of atmospheric convection, however, is complicated by the rotation of the Earth, which introduces the Coriolis Effect. To appreciate the origin of this effect, consider the following. A stick placed vertically in the ground at the North Pole would simply turn around as the Earth rotates. A stick at the Equator would move in a large circle of almost 40,000 kilometers with the Earth as it rotates.
The Coriolis Effect illustrates Newton's first law of motion: a body in motion will maintain its speed and direction of motion unless acted on by some outside force. Thus, a wind traveling north from the equator will maintain the velocity acquired at the equator while the Earth under it is moving slower. This effect accounts for the generally east-west direction of winds, or streams of air, on the Earth's surface. Winds blow between areas of different atmospheric pressures. The Coriolis Effect influences the circulation pattern of the Earth's atmosphere. In the zone between about 30° N. and 30° S., the surface air flows toward the Equator and the flow aloft is poleward. A low-pressure area of calm, light variable winds near the equator is known to mariners as the doldrums.
Around 30° N. and S., the poleward flowing air begins to descend toward the surface in subtropical high-pressure belts. The sinking air is relatively dry because its moisture has already been released near the Equator above the tropical rain forests. Near the center of this high-pressure zone of descending air, called the "Horse Latitudes," the winds at the surface are weak and variable. The name for this area is believed to have been given by colonial, sailors, who, becalmed sometimes at these latitudes while crossing the oceans with horses as cargo, were forced to throw a few horses overboard to conserve water.
The surface air that flows from these subtropical high-pressure belts toward the Equator is deflected toward the west in both hemispheres by the Coriolis Effect. Because winds are named for the direction from which the wind is blowing, these winds are called the northeast trade winds in the Northern Hemisphere and the southeast trade winds in the Southern Hemisphere. The trade winds meet at the doldrums. Surface winds known as "westerlies" flow from the Horse Latitudes toward the poles. The "westerlies" meet "easterlies" from the polar highs at about 50-60° N. and S. Near the ground, wind direction is affected by friction and by changes in topography. Winds may be seasonal, sporadic, or daily. They range from gentle breezes to violent gusts at speeds greater than 300 kilometers/hour.
Where Deserts Form
Dry areas created by global circulation patterns contain most of the deserts on the Earth. The deserts of our world are not restricted by latitude, longitude, or elevation. They occur from areas close to the poles down to areas near the Equator. The People's Republic of China has both the highest desert, the Qaidam Depression that is 2,600 meters above sea level, and one of the lowest deserts, the Turpan Depression that is 150 meters below sea level.
Deserts are not confined to Earth. The atmospheric circulation patterns of other terrestrial planets with gaseous envelopes also depend on the rotation of those planets, the tilts of their axes, their distances from the sun, and the composition and density of their atmospheres. Except for the poles, the entire surface of Mars is a desert. Venus also may support deserts.
Corals are popular as souvenirs, for home decor and in costume jewelry, yet corals are living animals that eat, grow, and reproduce. It takes corals decades or longer to create reef structures, so leave corals and other marine life on the reef.
Corals have long been popular as souvenirs, for home decor, and in jewelry, but many consumers are unaware that these beautiful structures are made by living creatures. Fewer still realize that corals are dying off at alarming rates around the world.
Coral reefs are some of the most biologically rich and valuable ecosystems on Earth, but they are threatened by an increasing array of impacts—primarily from global climate change, unsustainable fishing, and pollution. Strong consumer demand for coral, heightened over the holiday season, is another factor that is contributing to the decline of coral reefs. Each year, the U.S. imports tons of dead coral for home decorations and curios. Most of these corals are shallow-water species.
The U.S. is also the world's largest documented consumer of Corallium, red and pink corals often used to create jewelry. Finished pieces of jewelry and art crafted from this type of coral can fetch anywhere between $20 and $20,000 in the marketplace. Continued consumer demand is contributing to the decline of these delicate corals around the world.
Commercial harvesting to satisfy the demand for coral jewelry has reduced colony size, density, and age structure of Corallium over time. Harvesting is also lowering the reproduction capability of this species and is decreasing its genetic diversity. Research indicates that removal of red and pink corals for the global jewelry and art trade is also leading to smaller and smaller Corallium in the wild.
Corals grow very slowly, are extremely long-lived, and take years to reach maturity. It takes corals decades or longer to create reef structures. Once coral is harvested—especially when it's extracted at a young age—surrounding coral beds often do not recover. That's why it's best to leave corals and other marine life on the reef.
Remember: corals are already a gift. Don't give them as presents.
Since life began on Earth, countless creatures have come and gone, rendered extinct by naturally changing physical and biological conditions. Since extinction is part of the natural order, and if many other species remain, some people ask: “Why save endangered species? Why should we spend money and effort to conserve them? How do we benefit?”
Congress answered these questions in the preamble to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, recognizing that endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” In this statement, Congress summarized convincing arguments made by scientists, conservationists, and others who are concerned by the disappearance of unique creatures. Congress further stated its intent that the Act should conserve the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend.
Although extinctions occur naturally, scientific evidence strongly indicates that the current rate of extinction is much higher than the natural or background rate of the past. The main force driving this higher rate of loss is habitat loss. Over-exploitation of wildlife for commercial purposes, the introduction of harmful exotic (nonnative) organisms, environmental pollution, and the spread of diseases also pose serious threats to our world’s biological heritage.
Conservation actions carried out in the United States under the Endangered Species Act have been successful in preventing extinction for 99 percent of the species that are listed as endangered or threatened. However, species loss on a global scale continues to increase due to the environmental effects of human activities.
Biologists estimate that since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, more than 500 species, subspecies, and varieties of our nation’s plants and animals have become extinct. The situation in earth’s most biologically rich ecosystems is even worse. Tropical rainforests around the world, which may contain up to one half of all living species, are losing millions of acres every year. Uncounted species are lost as these habitats are destroyed. In short, there is nothing natural about today’s rate of extinction.
BENEFITS OF DIVERSITY
How many species of plants and animals are there? Although scientists have classified approximately 1.7 million organisms, they recognize that the overwhelming majority have not yet been cataloged. Between 10 and 50 million species may inhabit our planet. None of these creatures exists in a vacuum. All living things are part of a complex, often delicately balanced network called the biosphere. The earth’s biosphere, in turn, is composed of countless ecosystems, which include plants and animals and their physical environments. No one knows how the extinction of organisms will affect the other members of its ecosystem, but the removal of a single species can set off a chain reaction affecting many others. This is especially true for “keystone” species, whose loss can transform or undermine the ecological processes or fundamentally change the species composition of the wildlife community.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO MEDICINE
One of the many tangible benefits of biological diversity has been its contributions to the field of medicine. Each living thing contains a unique reservoir of genetic material that has evolved over eons. This material cannot be retrieved or duplicated if lost. So far, scientists have investigated only a small fraction of the world’s species and have just begun to unravel their chemical secrets to find possible human health benefits to mankind.
No matter how small or obscure a species, it could one day be of direct importance to us all. It was “only” a fungus that gave us penicillin, and certain plants have yielded substances used in drugs to treat heart disease, cancer and a variety of other illnesses. More than a quarter of all prescriptions written annually in the United States contain chemicals discovered in plants. If these organisms had been destroyed before their unique chemistries were known, their secrets would have died with them.
A few hundred wild species have stocked our pharmacies with antibiotics, anti-cancer agents, pain killers and blood thinners. The biochemistry of unexamined species is an unfathomed reservoir of new and potentially more effective substances. The reason is found in the principles of evolutionary biology. Caught in an endless “arms race” with other forms of life, these species have devised myriad ways to combat microbes and cancer-causing runaway cells. Plants can make strange molecules that may never occur to a chemist. For example, the anti-cancer compound taxol, originally extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, is “too fiendishly complex” a chemical structure for researchers to have invented on their own, said a scientist with the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Taxol has become the standard treatment for advanced cases of ovarian cancer, which strikes thousands of women every year. But until the discovery of taxol’s effectiveness, the Pacific yew was considered a weed tree of no value and was routinely destroyed during logging operations.
BIODIVERSITY & AGRICULTURE
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture, especially a breadgrain.” It has been estimated that there are almost 80,000 species of edible plants, of which fewer than 20 produce 90 percent of the world’s food. If underutilized species are conserved, they could help to feed growing populations. One grain native to the Great Lakes States, Indian wild rice, is superior in protein to most domesticated rice, and its increasing commercial production earns millions of dollars annually.
Many individual species are uniquely important as indicators of environmental quality. The rapid decline in bald eagles and peregrine falcons in the mid-20th century was a dramatic warning of the dangers of DDT—a strong, once widely used pesticide that accumulates in body tissues. (It hampered fertility and egghatching success in these species.) In another example, lichens and certain plants like the eastern white pine are good indicators of excess ozone, sulfur dioxide, and other air pollutants. Species like these can alert us to the effects of some contaminants before more damage is done.
Freshwater mussels are also very effective environmental indicators. The eastern United States boasts the richest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world. These animals are filter feeders, drawing in water and straining out food particles. Their method of feeding helps to keep our waters clean. But because mussels filter material from the water, they are often the first animals to be affected by water pollution. They tend to accumulate whatever toxins, such as chemicals in agricultural and industrial runoff, are present in their habitat. Too much pollution can eliminate the mussels. Other threats to mussel populations include siltation, the introduction of competing nonnative mussels, stream channelization and dredging, and the impoundment of free-flowing streams and rivers. Today, most native freshwater mussel species are considered to be endangered, threatened or of special concern.
As the pioneering naturalist Aldo Leopold once stated, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” As we tinker with ecosystems through our effects on the environment, what unexpected changes could occur? One subject of increasing concern is the impacts these effects can have on “ecosystem services,” which is a term for the fundamental life-support services provided by our environment.
Ecosystem services include air and water purification, detoxification and decomposition of wastes, climate regulation, regeneration of soil fertility, and the production and maintenance of biological diversity. These are the key ingredients of our agricultural, pharmaceutical, and industrial enterprises. Such services are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars annually. Yet because most of these services are not traded in economic markets, they carry no price tags that could alert society to changes in their supply or declines in their functioning. We tend to pay attention only when they decline or fail.
An emerging field called phytoremediation is an example of the ecosystem services provided by plants. Phytoremediation is a process that uses plants to remove, transfer, stabilize and destroy contaminants in soil and sediment. Certain plant species known as metal hyperaccumulators have the ability to extract elements from the soil and concentrate them in the easily harvested plant stems, shoots, and leaves. The alpine pennycress, for example, doesn’t just thrive on soils contaminated with zinc and cadmium; it cleans them up by removing the excess metals. In the home, houseplants under some conditions can effectively remove benzene, formaldehyde and certain other pollutants from the air.
OTHER ECONOMIC VALUES
Some benefits of animals and plants can be quantified. For example, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department calls birding “the nation’s fastest growing outdoor recreation.” It estimates that birders pump an estimated $400 million each year into the state’s economy. A host of small rural towns host festivals to vie for the attention of these birders. Nationwide, the benefits are even more amazing. Wildlife watching—not just bird watching—generates billions of dollars in economic benefits to nations each year.
If imperiled plants and animals lack a known benefit to mankind, should we care if they disappear? If a species evolves over millennia or is created by divine intent, do we have a right to cause its extinction? Would our descendants forgive us for exterminating a unique form of life? Such questions are not exclusive to scientists or philosophers. Many people believe that every creature has an intrinsic value. The loss of plant and animal species, they say, is not only shortsighted but wrong, especially since an extinct species can never be replaced. Eliminating entire species has been compared to ripping pages out of books that have not yet been read. We are accustomed to a rich diversity in nature. This diversity has provided inspiration for countless writers and artists, and all others who treasure variety in the natural world.
Forest biomes are dominated by trees and extend over one-third of the earth's land surface. There are three main types of forests—temperate, tropical and boreal. Each type has a different assortment of animals, climate characteristics and species compositions.
● Temperate forests are in temperate regions of the earth including North America, Europe and Asia. They have four well-defined seasons and a growing season between 140 and 200 days. Rainfall takes place throughout the year and soils are nutrient-rich.
● Tropical forests are located in equatorial regions between 23.5°N and 23.5°S latitude. They experience two seasons, a dry season and a rainy season. The length of each day varies little throughout the year. Soils in tropical forests are nutrient-poor and acidic.
● Boreal forests make up the largest terrestrial habitat. They are a band of coniferous forests located in the high northern latitudes between about 50°N and 70°N. Boreal forests create a circumpolar band of habitat from Canada, to northern Europe, to eastern Russia. They are bordered by tundra habitat to the north and temperate forest habitat to the south.
Some of the wildlife that inhabit the forest biome include deer, bears, wolves, moose, caribou, gorillas, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, reptiles and insects.
Temperate forests are found in a wide range of climates and are some of the richest habitats earth. Temperate forests are home to a variety of plants and animals. Some live within them year-round, while migratory animals visit them seasonally.
The two main types of temperate forests are deciduous forests and evergreen forests.
Deciduous forests contain trees that loose their leaves in the fall. They are usually located in the Northern Hemisphere in parts of North America, Europe and Japan.
Evergreen forests are made up of trees that don't lose their leaves in the fall. They usually are found in warmer climates in South America, southern Europe, South Africa and parts of southern Australia. A more varied range of wildlife is often found in evergreen forests than deciduous forests.
A wide variety of animals call temperate forests home. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and insects live in temperate forests. The most common mammals are deer, squirrels, birds and wild boars.
Since food is plentiful in evergreen forests year round, even more varieties of wildlife inhabit them. Reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and insects are plentiful in evergreen forests.
Temperate forests once covered huge areas of the Northern Hemisphere. As a result of logging and deforestation for agriculture, most forests are already gone.
Coniferous forests are located in the far north, many within the Arctic Circle. They are predominantly home to conifers, the toughest and longest living trees. Conifers grow close together resulting in dense forests that are sheltered.
Coniferous forests include boreal forests and temperate forests.
Boreal forests stretch across the far north. Temperate coniferous forests are located in western North America, New Zealand and Chile. Some trees in the temperate coniferous forests in North America are over 500 years old.
Boreal coniferous forests stretch across the far north from Siberia, through Northern Europe, to Alaska, covering a distance of 6 million square miles. They are 1,000 miles wide in places. A large proportion of boreal coniferous forest is in the Arctic Circle, where plants and animals are well adapted to cold temperatures.
While fewer plant and animal species are found in coniferous forests compared to temperate forests and rainforests, many plants and animals still live within them. Conifer trees withstand the cold. Their pine needles are acidic, which passes into the soil when needles drop, allowing only acid loving plants to survive in coniferous forests. Only herbivores that survive on acidic plants can inhabit coniferous forests.
Insects make up the majority of animals found in coniferous forests. The dense trees provide ideal habitat for them to build their nests. Deer, elk, wolves and bears are also common in coniferous forests.
Coniferous forests are the least affected forests by humans. The trees are softwood and usually only used for making paper. Larger areas of coniferous forests are being logged however, as paper demand increases.
Rainforests are home to more than 50% of all living species on the planet. They receive an abundance of rain and contain extremely diverse wildlife. The two main types of rainforest are tropical rainforests and seasonal rainforests.
Tropical rainforests are close to the Equator where the climate is warm, providing ideal conditions for plants. 170,000 of the world’s 250,000 known plant species are found in tropical rainforests. They have various layers of canopy providing a wide variety of habitats for animals. A large collection of tall tree species is made possible by a constant water flow. Tropical forests are home to smaller primates and bird species than seasonal rainforests.
Seasonal rainforests are usually further away from the Equator. Their climate is less stable then tropical rainforests. Rather than rain being dispersed evenly throughout the year, it comes all at once in what is called the monsoon. Trees in seasonal rainforests are generally much smaller than those in tropical rainforests. Larger animals inhabit the changing seasonal rainforests, such as tigers, primates and large snakes.
The broad array of animals found in rainforests include mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates. Mammals include primates, wildcats and tapirs. Reptiles include a variety of snakes, turtles and lizards. Numerous species of birds and insects live in rainforests. Fungi is common, which feed on the decomposing remains of plants and animals. Many animal species have adopted a tree-dwelling (arboreal) lifestyle in the rainforest. Food is abundant in the forests due to the amount of water and plant life.
Numerous plant and animal species are rapidly disappearing from rainforests due to deforestation, habitat loss and other human activities. Around 50 million people live in rainforests. Their habitat and culture is also threatened as an alarming amount of rainforest land disappears each year.
Ocean acidification refers to a reduction in the pH of the ocean over an extended period time, caused primarily by uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
For more than 200 years, or since the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased due to the burning of fossil fuels and land use change. The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the CO2 that is released in the atmosphere, and as levels of atmospheric CO2 increase, so do the levels in the ocean.
When CO2 is absorbed by seawater, a series of chemical reactions occur resulting in the increased concentration of hydrogen ions. This increase causes the seawater to become more acidic and causes carbonate ions to be relatively less abundant.
Carbonate ions are an important building block of structures such as sea shells and coral skeletons. Decreases in carbonate ions can make building and maintaining shells and other calcium carbonate structures difficult for calcifying organisms such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton.
Pteropods are small calcifying (or shelled) organisms that live as zooplankton in the water column and are an important prey species for many fish. Changes in ocean chemistry can break down their calcium carbonate shell, ultimately leaving the marine food web at risk.
These changes in ocean chemistry can affect the behavior of non-calcifying organisms as well. Certain fish's ability to detect predators is decreased in more acidic waters. When these organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.
Ocean acidification is affecting the entire world’s oceans, including coastal estuaries and waterways.
Of all the industries on Earth, the oil and gas industries are among the biggest and most destructive. The round-the-clock operations of the businesses, and the massive amounts of land they eat up and destroy, has a profound effect on the ecosystems and wildlife they displace.
Wherever oil and gas can be easily found, land has already been exploited. The search is now focused on remote places, which means a direct invasion into virgin ecosystems and their inhabitants. New and unproven technologies are being used recklessly to extract hydrocarbons from deep within the Earth. The environmental consequences can be devastating.
Oil and gas exploration and production activities cause both direct and indirect effects on wildlife. Leaks and spills of oil, brine, and other contaminants are a key concern. Soils, vegetation, water quality, fish and wildlife, and air quality can all be harmed by the release of contaminants. Fish and wildlife habitat can be altered, fragmented, or eliminated. Oil and gas activities can disturb and displace wildlife, cause physiological stress, and can result in wildlife deaths.
Introduction of invasive species, especially along road and pipeline routes, can alter habitats. Disturbances caused by oil and gas activities can result in fundamental changes in ecological functions and processes, and lead to increased predation of declining species, reduced reproduction, and increased susceptibility to disease. Fish and wildlife may be injured by human presence, vehicles, exposure to contaminants, loss or degradation of habitat, or unauthorized takings.
The activities associated with oil and gas exploration cause a degree of disruption to the environment that's hard to replace, restore or repair. Development activities in the coastal areas of the Arctic Refuge (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) have affected habitats of caribou, muskox and porcupine to an extent that even their watering sources have been polluted. Instances of bears feeding on wastes emanating from oil fields that have displaced its natural habitat are all too common. Maternity dens of polar bears have been disturbed, affecting their reproductive cycles.
Ecosystems, that fine balance between plants, organisms and wildlife evolved over millions of years, can be destroyed overnight by human activity. In addition to forest clearing and excavation, irritants like noise arising out of vehicular traffic can disrupt sleeping, resting and even hunting cycles of animals.
Access along seismic lines may require disturbing levels of vegetation removal. Vehicle travel along seismic lines damages soils and vegetation. Water quality may be degraded from sedimentation. Small spills and improperly handled wastes can degrade soils and waters, harm vegetation, fish and wildlife, air quality, and aesthetics. Air quality can be degraded from dust and engine emissions. Natural sound is interrupted by vehicles and drilling noises.
Pad construction removes or compacts soil and vegetation and may accelerate erosion and sedimentation. Leaks, spills, and discharges of oil, drilling muds, wastes, or other contaminants can degrade and harm soils, surface and ground waters, vegetation, fish and wildlife, and air quality.
Poorly cased and cemented wells (or improperly plugged wells) may lead to groundwater contamination. Wetlands may be damaged by road and pad construction or threatened by leaks and spills. Dark night skies can be impacted by night-time lighting on drilling rigs and gas flaring.
Natural sounds can be overwhelmed by construction and drilling noises. Air quality may be degraded by gas flaring, contaminant spills, dust, and engine emissions.
Offshore oil spills affect marine mammals through direct contact, ingestion of toxic oil, and inhalation of numerous chemicals. Immune system suppression, cancer, reproductive failure, liver and kidney damage, brain damage, and other health effects are the results of such spills.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has thoughtlessly issued permits to scores of oil drilling projects near protected zones, despite the harmful effects on wildlife from toxic wastes of such exploration activities.
Millions of gallons of chemically treated water, pumped out of a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, spill out on a daily basis into neighboring forests and farmlands – polluting water used by animals and livestock.
Oil companies are responsible for the destruction of wildlife in some of the most protected and sensitive zones. A project off the coast of Sakhalin Island in Russia's Siberian region has affected the habitat of the critically endangered Western Grey Whale to a point where only 100 of these creatures are left today, of which breeding females comprise an appallingly low number of just 20. Exploration endeavors off the County Mayo coast in Ireland is threatening to wipe away wildlife habitats in the form of sand dunes, peat bogs and even grasslands bordering the shore. Habitats of the Brent geese and other popular regional birds that find safe havens in Broadhaven Bay in the Count Mayo stand threatened thanks to exploration activities in the region.
In Africa, roads, pipelines and the subsequent decimation of forest lands have eaten into territories of protected and endangered species like the Nigerian-Cameroon gorillas, the Western gorillas in Angola, the dwarf mongoose and the rare Angolan python.
Imagine gas being flared 24 hours a day for almost 50 years without a break by oil companies in just one region. That is the case in Nigeria, the world's largest oil flarer. Coupled with massive greenhouse emissions from such flares, oil spills and fires have completely obliterated not just wildlife, but all farmlands in the once naturally rich Niger Delta – making it one of the most polluted regions of the world. Places like the Virunga National Park in the Congo Basin in Africa and the Arctics, which still have enormous oil and gas deposits, are lucrative targets waiting to be exploited.
The lasting damage to the environment resulting from wanton oil and gas exploration is hard to fathom. The disruption of the ozone layer from excessive flared gas emissions, with direct effects on climate change and the decimation of entire ecosystems and wildlife, play havoc to the environment. A disturbing amount of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to oil and gas extraction. The main component in natural gas, methane, is as much as 84 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane traps heat more effectively and intensifies global warming.
Humans are also effected by gas and oil exploration. Entire communities depend on the health of the ecosystems being destroyed. Public use of refuge areas are being restricted or prohibited. Although the areal extent of oil and gas exploration and production may be limited, the cumulative effects often extend to a much larger area. Cultural resources are threatened by increased human accessibility and fire. Scenic quality can be degraded by drilling rigs, roads, pads, and other equipment. Large crews disrupt visitors’ experiences.
Oil and gas exploration is a dirty and dangerous business that disrupts wildlife, human health, water sources, public lands and recreation. Energy resources that are environmentally-safe and easily accessible can reduce the harmful effects associated with oil and gas production. Renewable energy technologies and energy conservation, along with more responsible exploration practices, are essential to reducing the destructive effects of oil and gas production.
Wilderness or wildlands are natural places on our planet that have not been significantly modified by humans. These last, truly wild places that have not been developed with industry, roads, buildings and houses are critical for the survival of many plant and animal species. They also provide humans with educational and recreational opportunities, and are deeply valued for aesthetic, cultural, moral and spiritual reasons.
Some wildlands are protected, preserving natural areas for humans, animals, flora and fauna. Others are dissapearing at alarming rates, and simply drawing lines around specific areas is not enough. All of our planet is intricately connected. What happens outside a specific wilderness area affects what happens inside it.
Many wildlife habitats have become fragmented due to human development. Without the protection of vast expanses of wildlands to meet the minimum requirements of the largest, most widely roaming members of the ecosystem, they may dwindle or vanish forever. The loss of any species effects the entire ecosystem.
Biomes, or ecosystems, are large regions of the planet with shared characteristics such as climate, soils, plants and animals. Climate is an important factor that shapes the nature of an ecosystem, as well as precipitation, humidity, elevation, topography and latitude.
The five major biomes include aquatic, desert, forest, grassland and tundra biomes. Each biome also includes numerous types of sub-habitats.
By protecting and preserving ecosystems, we protect and preserve plant and animal species...including our own species.
There were almost 100,000 tigers roaming the wilds of the planet in the early 1900's. The drastic fall in the population of this magnificent beast to just a few thousands within the span of a century tells a lot about human callousness and cruelty towards wildlife.
Until a couple of decades ago, the tiger was killed purely for sport, especially in India. The times of the maharajahs abound with folklore of how these unfortunate animals were hunted down and showcased in village squares, courtyards and drawing rooms of the wealthy. But with the advent of wildlife reserves and stricter curbs on hunting, the downslide in tiger numbers was somewhat arrested. But the problems for the animal did not end there.
India has nearly two-thirds of the current world tiger population of around 3,890. Competing with that is the human population. At 1.25 billion, and with a growth-rate that shows no signs of abating, India's population is just 10 percent less than China's. But India's populace live in an area that is only one-third of its larger neighbor. A growing population translates into demand for more food and more agricultural space. Thus, encroachment of tiger reserves is an obvious fallout.
Towards the eastern part of the country, changes in climate are causing sea levels of the Bay of Bengal to rise, submerging the Sundarban jungles and its precious mangrove forests. These forests are home to one of the most magnificent beasts in the world, the Royal Bengal tiger. Apart from the threat of a rising sea, the Sundarbans are also witnessing increasing numbers of people, desperately searching for farming land. The tiger is cornered and has nowhere to go. The Sundarban forests of Bengal has been its natural habitat for thousands of years, long before man came.
The tiger population of Indonesia stood at only 371 in 2016. Most are concentrated in the island state of Sumatra. The Sumatran tiger is an endangered species and is the smallest of all tiger species. Ignition of wild forest fires, deforestation by an avaricious palm oil and timber industry, are constant threats to this animal. As a result, they have been squeezed into small pockets of dense hill forests of the island.
Among the most critically endangered species of all animals is the South China tiger. Most alarming, there have been no sightings of the animal in the past two decades – leading experts to believe that it may have become extinct.
The underlying story of the tiger in countries with huge population density is the same, be it India, Bangladesh, Nepal , Malaysia or Indonesia. Hunting land for the animals is shrinking in the face of increasing demand for industry and agriculture, and they are getting much less to eat than before. Domestic animals like cattle, dogs, and, in rare instances, even humans, have become the new food for the big cats. Villagers in search of wood (used as fuel for cooking) often fall prey to tigers. Ironically, the tigers now become the encroachers and end up being killed or hunted down by villagers in the name of self-defense.
Nowhere on earth can the population-land mismatch be more glaring than in Indonesia. The archipelago has a population as large as the United States but a land area just one-tenth the size, broken up into a few thousand islands. Virtually all of Indonesia's low-lying forests have been cleared for cultivation of its staple food, rice. Just imagine where all of this leaves the Indonesian tiger.
While the report card for tiger species safety indicates the lowest levels of threat for the Siberian tiger, the biggest of all wild cats numbering around 400 and having the largest habitat of all, the same cannot be said of the South East Asian species (Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand). Urgent action needs to be taken before the crushing human density in these regions squeeze the tiger into extinction.
Add to the threat for tigers is widespread poaching. Tiger skins and other vital organs are in great demand in the underground black-market trade for wildlife exotica, especially in Thailand and China. Forest and wildlife departments are too understaffed or corrupt to keep poachers at bay. There's a lack of training, motivation and compensation for risk among forest personnel. Firearms, communications equipment, and vehicles for use by forest protection enforcement are either inadequate or antiquated.
There is hope. Thanks to the combined efforts of organizations and governments that have woken up to the importance of preserving this wonderful animal, the population of tigers has quite astonishingly shown a turn-around for the first time in over a century. There's been an impressive 22 percent rise in numbers in the last 6 years.
The figures compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) show increases in tiger populations in India, Russia (home of the great Siberian tiger), Nepal and Bhutan. Improved protection measures, stricter laws concerning the safety of the animals, and enhanced conservation and breeding techniques adopted and put into practice by authorities, have given tiger enthusiasts reasons to cheer after a very long struggle.
There is strong evidence that global sea level is now rising at an increased rate and will continue to rise during this century. A warming climate can cause seawater to expand and ice over land to melt, both of which can cause a rise in sea level.
While studies show that sea levels changed little from AD 0 until 1900, sea levels began to climb in the 20th century.
The two major causes of global sea-level rise are thermal expansion caused by the warming of the oceans (since water expands as it warms) and the loss of land-based ice (such as glaciers) due to increased melting.
First, as the oceans warm due to an increasing global temperature, seawater expands—taking up more space in the ocean basin and causing a rise in water level.
The second mechanism is the melting of ice over land, which then adds water to the ocean.
Records and research show that sea level has been steadily rising at a rate of 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year since 1900. Since 1992, new methods of satellite altimetry (the measurement of elevation or altitude) indicate a rate of rise of 0.12 inches per year. This is a significantly larger rate than the sea-level rise averaged over the last several thousand years.
Greenwashing is hiding harmful activities behind the guise of environmentalism and conservation. It's a tactic many corporations and organizations use to manipulate and deceive the public.
A clean, safe and healthy environment is important, and everyone wants to see it protected. With this goal, many people donate millions of dollars each year to organizations that say they are working to protect the environment and wildlife. Many people also buy products that they believe to be animal and environmentally friendly. But how much do we really know about these organizations, companies and products? For example, do their campaigns demand a ban on toxic chemicals or take the bureaucratic route and call for more testing? Are they concerned about protecting animals as well as people, or do they at least ensure that their activities do not harm animals?
Many generous contributors are shocked to learn that some "environmental" and "conservation" groups use people's donations to support activities that are extremely harmful to the earth and animals and accomplish little or nothing to protect the environment. Some organizations support and even promote the poisoning of animals to test pesticides and other chemicals already known to be toxic. In fact, several well-known environmental groups are directly responsible for the creation of what have become the most massive animal-testing programs in history.
For example, despite killing hundreds of thousands of animals in cruel chemical toxicity tests, the EPA has not banned a single toxic industrial chemical in more than 10 years using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The chemical industry has long approved of the EPA's near-exclusive reliance on animal tests because their results are easily manipulated. In addition, required testing means that a company's products are safe from regulation for years while the products are tested and retested on animals. And, after decades of practice, industry representatives have perfected the art of arguing both sides of the animal-testing issue.
Here's how they do it: If a chemical is shown to cause cancer or other harmful effects in animals, industry representatives claim that the results aren't applicable to humans. At the same time, company officials happily display the results of EPA-required studies that suggest that their chemicals are not harmful. In these cases, companies laud the predictability of animal-testing and claim that their products are safe for humans. This is exactly what happened with cigarettes for more than 20 years, as industry scientists claimed that tobacco was safe for humans because animal tests, many of which involved cutting holes in the throats of dogs and forcing them to inhale cigarette smoke, did not cause cancer in animals.
The EPA's addiction to animal testing is so pervasive that even when evidence from human population studies implicates a chemical, the results are ignored by the EPA for the sake of conducting more and more animal studies. For years, population studies have shown that arsenic in drinking water causes cancer in humans. Yet the EPA dragged its feet for more than 20 years while thousands of animals were killed in tests that attempted to reproduce the effects already seen in humans.
The matter is made worse by the fact that the EPA refuses to subject animal-based test methods to the same level of scientific validation to determine their reliability and relevance to humans that all non-animal test methods must meet before they are accepted and used. The results of nonvalidated animal tests are scientifically useless as a basis upon which to regulate dangerous chemicals. So, the EPA's animal-testing programs do not protect either people or the environment, despite causing enormous animal suffering. Yet some environmental groups continue to call for ever-more animal-testing and defend every animal test, no matter how cruel or irrelevant.
Many companies and organizations spend more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. Research products and companies before making purchases. If you are a member of, or donate money to environmental or conservation groups, be sure to inquire that your donations are not being used to support greenwashing activities that harm animals and the environment.
Descendants of monkeys found in Africa and Arabia, gorillas are herbivorous apes found only in the African continent. There are two broad species of this African animal. One is the Eastern gorilla and the other the Western gorilla. The Eastern gorilla has two subspecies. The Western gorilla also has two subspecies. All gorilla species are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Gorilla populations have been greatly reduced by habitat loss, disease and poaching. Protecting gorilla populations has proved difficult due to the vast dense areas in which they live. Conservation efforts by governmental and non governmental organizations are desperately trying to save gorillas from extinction.
The Eastern Lowland gorilla, or Grauer's gorilla, is mostly found on the plains and lower slopes of the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa. This habitat area of the ape entirely falls in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This huge, hairy ape, with a shiny black coat, can measure up to 5 feet-6 inches while standing to its full height. They weigh as much as 550 lbs or 250 kilograms. The population of this subspecies has been reduced from around 5,000 in 2004 to only 3,800 .
The mountain gorillas are an endangered species exclusively dwelling in the Rwandan half of the Virunga volcanic mountains at altitudes of 7,000 to 14,000 feet. Like their Eastern lowland cousins, they have jet black hair but with a slight bluish tinge. While standing totally erect, the mountain gorilla is an impressive sight. Reaching a height of 6 feet-2 inches, it has an enormous arm span of 8 feet-6 inches and can weigh almost 500 lbs. There are only 880 of this sub-species left. Mountain gorillas were popularized by the film "Gorillas of the Mist" that portrayed the life of Diane Fossey, who spent two intrepid decades in the Rwandan mountains studying and fighting for the preservation of the apes.
For the mountain gorillas, major threats come from forest clearance and degradation as poor Rwandans desperately try to eke out a living. Clearing out land for agriculture and deforestation for firewood also puts a lot of pressure on the natural resources of the region and eventually on the habitat of these rare apes.
The Western lowland gorilla's habitat spans plains, forests and swamps of countries like Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. They are smaller in size to the Eastern gorillas and have longer black hair covering almost their entire body. They number almost 125,000 and are inhumanely kept captive in zoos all over the world for human entertainment and profit.
The Cross River gorilla is a species found essentially in the Cross-Niger transition forests on the western half of the Cross River flowing into South-western Nigeria. Most of these hilly forests fall in Cameroon. They are a distinctive sub-species with short body hair and shorter skulls, smaller palates and smaller cranial vaults compared to the Western lowland gorillas.
The Western gorillas, that inhabit as many as 11 countries of Western Africa, are under threat from logging, hunting, disease and even trigger-happy militia. They often come into direct confrontation with man. Many of them are killed for their meat by impoverished and hungry tribesmen. Apes can be seen as a nuisance, too. Forced to move away from a shrinking habitat, the animals raid crops. A single group of gorillas can easily destroy an entire harvest. Villagers feel they have no recourse but to kill the animals. Only 250 to 300 of these creatures are left, making them one of the most endangered animals on the planet.
Threats To Gorillas
The greatest threat to gorillas is human poverty. They inhabit countries which are among the poorest in the world but with a high density of human population.
Being closely related to the humans anatomically, apes are susceptible to disease as much as man. Not just from poachers and militia groups, but exposure to well-meaning humans like tourists, conservationists, scientists, rangers and local communities poses a threat. Gorillas have been known to succumb to skin diseases and respiratory disorders. Outbreaks of Ebola can take many more gorilla lives than humans.
Poaching of infant mountain gorillas to cater to the illicit animal trade became a common threat in the early 2000s. Civil unrest also took a toll on the apes. The Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, and the Angolan wars of the 1980s, had an unsettling effect on the movement and habitat of gorillas. Large movements of refugees fleeing unrest, debris left behind by them, and warring militias posed major threats.
Weak local governments, virtual absence of forest regulations or conservation policies, and impoverished and disenchanted local communities all pose serious challenges to the survival of the apes.
The only ray of hope for saving gorillas from extinction is conservation. A gradual rise in the population of mountain gorillas has taken place thanks to conservation programs. From the lowest point in 1980 when its numbers were just 254, it has now grown to 880.
Similar efforts in the Campo Ma’an National Park in Cameroon and Cross River National Park of Nigeria has held some hope for the tiny population of Cross-river gorillas dwelling there. Recent surveys show that the counts for these apes have not gone below the 300 mark.
But applying conservation measures to the lowland gorillas will be far more challenging given their wider habitat coverage. Efforts must be made to save the apes before it's too late.
Woodchucks are harmless, comical vegetarians who are commonly sighted in suburban backyards and along roadways. Conflicts usually arise over who gets to eat the garden vegetables. Suburban landscapes provide perfect habitat for woodchucks. Our raised decks provide cover and a perfect place to raise young, and our lush lawns provide a virtual buffet. Most woodchuck conflicts occur in spring and summer, just when birthing season has begun. That's why problems need to be solved in a way that doesn't leave orphaned young behind.
KEEPING WOODCHUCKS OUT OF GARDENS
The best way to exclude woodchucks is by putting up a simple chicken wire or mesh fence. All you need is a roll of 4-foot high chicken wire and some wooden stakes. Once the job is done, it won't matter how many woodchucks are in the neighborhood because they won't be getting into your garden.
There are 2 secrets for making a successful fence:
Tip #1: The top portion of the fence only needs to be 2 ½ to 3 feet high but it should be staked so that it's wobbly -- i.e. the mesh should not be pulled tight between the stakes but rather, there should be some "give" so that when the woodchuck tries to climb the fence, it will wobble which will discourage him. Then he'll try to dig under the fence, so:
Tip #2: Extend your mesh fence 4 inches straight down into the ground and then bend it and extend the final 8-12 inches outward, away from the garden, in a "L"-shape which creates a false bottom (you can also put this mesh "flap" on top of the ground but be sure to secure it firmly with landscaping staples or the woodchuck will go under it). When the woodchuck digs down and hits this mesh flap, he'll think he can't dig any farther and give up. It won't occur to him to stand back a foot and THEN start digging!
IF YOU AREN'T WILLING TO PUT UP A FENCE, you can also try the following scare techniques, which do work in some cases:
1) Line your garden with helium-filled, silver mylar balloons or make a low fence of twisted, reflective mylar tape bought at your local party store. Be sure to purchase heavier weights to attach to the bottom of the balloons. The balloons bobbing in the wind will scare the woodchucks.
2) Sprinkle cayenne pepper around the plants and spray your plants with a taste repellent such as Ropel (available at garden stores) every 2 weeks.
GETTING WOODCHUCKS OUT FROM UNDER SHEDS
Woodchucks don't undermine foundations and really aren't likely to damage your shed. In spring and summer, the woodchuck under your shed is probably a mother nursing her young, which is why you should consider leaving them alone. Be sure you really need to evict the woodchuck before taking action. If you must, put some dirty kitty litter down the woodchuck burrow -- the urinated part acts as a predator odor, which often causes the entire family to leave. Ammonia-sprinkled rags or sweaty, smelling socks placed in the burrow may also cause self-eviction.
WOODCHUCKS & CHILDREN
Woodchucks are harmless vegetarians who flee when scared. Remember that even a small child looks like a giant predator to the woodchuck. There is no cause for alarm. Woodchucks live under houses and day care centers all over the country. Healthy woodchucks simply don't attack children or pets. If chased, woodchucks will quickly flee to their burrows.
WOODCHUCKS & RABIES
Woodchucks have a higher susceptibility to rabies than other rodents, yet the incidence of rabies in woodchucks is still very low. Woodchucks are much more susceptible to the roundworm brain parasite, which causes symptoms that look exactly like rabies. Roundworm is NOT airborne -- it can only be transmitted through the oral-fecal route, i.e. the ingestion of an infected animal's feces.
SETTING A TRAP FOR WOODCHUCKS & CATCHING A SKUNK
This is a common occurrence when traps are left open at night. You can let the skunk out without getting sprayed just by knowing that skunks have terrible eyesight and only spray when something comes at them fast, like a dog. If you move slowly and talk soothingly, you shouldn't get sprayed. Skunks stamp their front feet as a warning when they're nervous, so if the skunk stamps, just remain motionless for a minute until he stops stamping, then proceed. You can drape a towel -- slowly-- over the trap prior to opening it. Once the trap door is opened, the skunk will beeline for home. If you must trap and relocate a woodchuck, remember to close the trap at night so another skunk doesn't get caught.
Trapping won't solve the problem. As long as woodchuck habitat is available, there will be woodchucks. Even in studies where all the woodchucks are trapped out of an area, others from the surrounding area quickly move into the vacated niche. In addition, trapping and relocating woodchucks may lead to starving young being left behind. Homeowners are then horrified to smell a foul odor. It's much more effective to simply exclude woodchucks from areas where they're not wanted. Don't trap unless an animal is stuck somewhere and can't get out, or poses an immediate threat to humans or domestic animals.