Coral reefs, rainforest of the sea, are one of nature's most remarkable creations - teaming with thousands of unique and valuable plants and animals. More than one-quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs for their survival. Humans depend on the survival of coral reefs too. Coral reefs provide a natural wave barrier which protects beaches and coastlines from storms and floods.
Coral reefs have existed on our planet for over 50 million years, but recently we have lost over 20% of the world's reefs in just the last 20 years. Up to 70% of the reefs may be destroyed by humans in the next few decades if we don't take immediate action.
The biologists have seen the future, and their message could not be clearer: Living coral reefs are the foundation of marine life, yet all over the world they are dead or dying because people are destroying them, killing them at a catastrophic rate. Already 10 percent are lost, and scientists say 70% of all corals on the planet will be destroyed in 20 to 40 years unless people stop doing what they're doing: pollution, sewage, erosion, cyanide fishing, clumsy tourism, and get serious about saving the coral reefs now. There's hope yet. Reefs are resilient and they bounce back quickly when protected.
Protection is the real solution and it's ordinary people who are making it happen. Government efforts in much of the world have been frankly pathetic: late, weak, underfunded, unenforced. Persian Gulf oil states pass useless pollution laws then ignore them. Indian Ocean poachers outwit and outnumber British Royal Navy patrols. Ecuador stalls for decades while tourism explodes in the delicate Galapagos, only to enact a plan that makes it worse. The status quo scarcely wavers: relentless destruction of coral reefs.
In those bright spots where people are changing the way they treat the reefs, you'll find students, divers, biologists, concerned citizens of all stripes transformed into activists and volunteers...taking matters into their own hands to protect the coral reefs that are dear to them and vital to us all.
Deep in the mountainous rainforests of Madagascar, a furry brown and white creature leaps from tree to tree. As it moves high above your head, you notice that two smaller creatures cling to it. You are witnessing the travels of a lemur and her babies. This lemur is called the Milne-Edwards Sifaka. You are lucky because this kind of lemur may be harder to find in the future. That’s because climate change is making it difficult for some lemur mothers to care for their offspring.
Lemurs are a kind of primate. Primates are animals like monkeys, apes, and even humans. This specific kind of primate lives in only one place—the island of Madagascar. Many lemurs, including the Milne-Edwards Sifaka, live in the lush rainforests that are scattered throughout this island. These rainforests are obviously pretty wet. That doesn’t mean they are protected from the effects of climate change, though.
Lemurs are accustomed to regular patterns of rain. Plants take in water from the rain. Sifakas eat these plants to get the water they need to survive. But as Earth’s climate warms, rain patterns are changing. Sometimes the lemurs do not get as much water as they’d like. Lemur moms need that water even more. They make milk from the water and nutrients in the plants they eat. Without this milk, it is difficult to raise a baby lemur.
Scientists have noticed that when there is less rain, fewer babies survive. In dry years, the sifakas have to eat more plants to get the same amount of water that they would in normal years. That means a whole lot of chewing. Scientists think that older sifaka moms have trouble chewing enough plants to make milk for their babies because their teeth are worn out.
In dry seasons, the older sifaka moms may simply be unable to eat enough plants to produce the milk their babies need. Scientists think this lack of milk could be the reason that fewer babies survive dry times. This is a real problem because as the climate changes, there are going to be more and more dry periods in the rain forests.
These sifakas and their difficulties may alert other scientists studying primates in other rainforests to watch for similar problems. Studying rainforests and the animals that live in them is an important job. Without these dedicated scientists, sifakas and other rainforest animals might die out. Thanks to these scientists, they may have a fighting chance.
The dolphin is found in almost all seas and oceans of the world, and even some rivers. Their amazing intelligence, creativity, playfulness and complex culture captures the hearts and minds of humans around the globe. But these fascinating creatures are continuously under threat from human activities, including marine pollution, habitat degradation, hunting, low frequency sonar and fishing gear.
Many dolphin species face an uncertain future. The Amazon river dolphin and the Ganges river dolphin are critically or seriously endangered. The critically imperiled vaquita — the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise — is being driven extinct, with only around 50 remaining.
Pesticides, heavy metals, plastics, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants that do not disintegrate rapidly in the environment concentrate in predators such as dolphins. Injuries or deaths due to collisions with boats, especially their propellers, are also common. Various fishing methods, most notably purse seine fishing for tuna and the use of drift and gill nets, kill many dolphins. In some parts of the world dolphins are killed in harpoon or drive hunts.
Complex, Social, Intelligent, Playful
Dolphin brains are larger and, in some ways, more complex than human brains. They have such significant brain power it stops them from sleeping. Their sophisticated language allows them to trace other dolphins up to six miles away. They even have names for one another. They communicate with a variety of low sounds that humans cannot hear. They also use echolocation – sending sounds through water to bounce off objects to determine their shape, size and distance.
Dolphins form complex social groups. They crave physical attention and stroke each other. They use tools and pass their knowledge through a family line. They reason, problem-solve and comprehend ideas. They plan ahead. They have advanced math skills. They blow bubbles that vary in exact amplitudes to detect fish, then subtract values found with their echolocation to confirm the target.
Dolphins love to play. They follow ships and ride bow-waves like human surfers. They play catch, tag and other games with each other, and also enjoy playing with other animals. Dolphins swim onto the nose of humpback whales, who then raise themselves out of the water so the dolphins slide down their heads - both animals enjoy the game.
Threats From The Fishing Industry
The modernization of the fishing industry has resulted in far more fish caught annually than half a century ago. Sophisticated fishing techniques are responsible for the depletion of fish in the oceans by one-third. For the dolphin, whose main intake is fish, especially tuna, this scale of commercial over-fishing has come as a death knell.
Fishing gear continues to pose the most significant threat to dolphin conservation worldwide. Scientists estimate that each year more than 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are caught and killed in fishing gear. These animals are unintentional “bycatch” of commercial fisheries and either drown or are tossed overboard to die from their injuries. Fishing nets are now made of much tougher material, and dolphins getting routinely trapped in them is a common occurrence. One such menace is the gill-net, which when vertically hung trap the fish by their gills. In addition, trawl nets, driftnets, and longline gear are responsible for the lives of almost 60,000 dolphins each year. Many fishermen kill dolphins because the dolphins cause damage to their nets.
Dolphins are also hunted as a form of delicacy in parts of Asia, South America and Africa. Dolphins fall prey to "drive hunting", a hunting method where boats converge and crowd around the mammals driving them towards a beach or bay. This form of hunting has accounted for the lives of thousands of dolphins each year, a phenomena vividly depicted in the documentary "The Cove".
Massive dolphin hunts are being carried out to obtain dolphin teeth for use in wedding ceremonies. Thousands of dolphins have been killed by villagers in Fanalei where a single dolphin tooth is worth 70 cents.
Noise pollution in the form of ocean shipping, seismic testing for the purpose of oil and gas exploration, and underwater blasts carried out for military tests have had a serious effect on the dolphins acute sense of hearing. Chronic noise from human activities has a big impact on these animals, since it interferes with their acoustic signaling – increased background noise can mean animals are unable to hear important signals, and they tend to swim away from sources of noise, disrupting their normal behavior. Noise pollution could also be the reason for mass strandings of dolphins on various beaches each year.
Litter & Toxic Pollution
Colossal amounts of waste entering the sea every day have also added to the dolphin's woes. Plastic bags, toxic chemicals and heavy metals are some of the pollutants that have accidentally become food for the mammals. Pesticides cause failure of immune systems in dolphins and affect their reproductive abilities. As a consequence, many dolphins have been found carrying cancerous tumors.
Climate change is another serious threat to the dolphins. The gradual warming of the seas and oceans are driving dolphins into cooler and deeper waters where food sources for the creatures are hard to come by. Habitats of certain species of dolphins found at the confluence of river and ocean waters (brackish waters) are being severely affected by rising ocean levels. Scientists question if dolphins can adapt to such changing conditions.
The story of freshwater dolphins or river dolphins is not very dissimilar to their cousins of the seas. While the Amazon river dolphin numbers in ten of thousands in their natural habitats of the Amazon and Orinoco river systems, they face dangers from tribesmen and fishermen with whom they have to compete for a depleting fish population. In countries like Colombia and Brazil, the dolphin is used as bait by those active in the mota catfish trade.
The Ganges river dolphin, once numbering nearly 100,000, have been reduced to under 2,000 now, making it a seriously endangered species. Its habitat, the Ganges River, flows through some of the mostly densely populated regions of the world, the Northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The existence of such human population results in direct killing, illegal construction of dams and barrages, rampant fishing, pollution occurring from open defecation by millions on a daily basis, and toxic material draining in from thousands of industrial units lining the river.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins, inhabitants of the Mekong and Irrawaddy river deltas of South-East Asia, is one species which is witnessing a turnaround of sorts. Hunted down ruthlessly over the years by the illegal wildlife trade, just about 90 of these unfortunate mammals exist now in a 120-mile stretch of the Mekong river in Cambodia. But the stunning discovery of nearly 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins in the freshwater regions of the faraway Bangladeshi mangrove forests skirting the coast of Bay of Bengal has given this species hope.
Hundreds of dolphins are held in captivity. They are sentenced to a life of confinement deprived of normal social and environmental interaction. Confined to tanks as small as 24 feet by 24 feet wide and 6 feet deep, the reverberations from their own sonar bouncing off walls can drive them insane. Tanks are kept clean with chlorine, copper sulfate, and other harsh chemicals that irritate animals' eyes, causing many to swim with their eyes closed. They are often forced to learn tricks through food deprivation. Marine parks may withhold up to 60 percent of food before shows so that the animals will be "sharp" for performances. The stress of captivity is so great that some commit suicide.
Try this: Taste plain water. Then taste sparkling water (carbonated water), with no flavoring. Besides the slight tickle or sting of the bubbles in the sparkling water, do you notice anything else? The sparkling water tastes just a little bit sour.
The more bubbles, the more sour the water. The reason is that adding carbon dioxide to water is like adding a few drops of lemon juice. It makes the water a little acidic.
In the past 200 years, the ocean has become much more acidic. In that time, it has absorbed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine that amount of a gas. But much of this carbon dioxide is the result of humans burning fossil fuels, like coal, gasoline, and jet fuel.
Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas. That means it acts as a glass roof on the atmosphere, letting sunlight in, but trapping heat so it can’t escape.
Besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together.
A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
The ocean has soaked up more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gas that has built up in the atmosphere. If not for that great feature of the ocean, temperatures would have risen more than they already have. And even more of Earth’s sea ice and glaciers would have melted. So, thank you, ocean!
But wait. Just as some people like lemon juice in their water and some do not, creatures that live in the sea have their likes and dislikes about acidic water too. Mostly dislikes. Take baby oysters, for example. Along the Oregon coast, many are dying at only a few days old. That is because the ocean water is too acidic for them to form their shells. Other creatures already suffering from too much acid are some corals, and some other shellfish.
Sea creatures with shells—like oysters, clams, and mussels—need the ocean to be a little less acidic than fresh water; that way they can use the minerals in the water to make their shells.
An acidic ocean is no better for ocean life than an atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide greenhouse gas is for land life.
The jaguar is the third-largest animal in the cat family, after the tiger and the lion. Dating back to almost half a million years, the jaguar strode the entire length of the American continent from just below the Arctics in the north down to Patagonia in southern-most Argentina. But sadly, it has found its present day habitat restricted to the tropical jungles of Central America and Amazon in South America. This translates into a habitat loss of almost 40%. Not a single jaguar has been spotted in the US in the last half a century. There were populations of the cat in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Florida, but hunting forced it into extinction by the 1950's.
The jaguar is probably the most nimble and acrobatic among the cat family. Apart from being an expert swimmer, it's a superb climber of trees and can kill prey much larger than itself. The largest among its prey is the tapir, the biggest animal in the Amazon basin. There are as many as 87 species that form the diet of the jaguar. The adult jaguar can reach a length of 6 feet and weigh up to 210 lbs.
The males reach sexual maturity in three to four years, while the female does in two. The jaguar can mate all year round and degrees of birthrate correspond to the availability of prey. But a fast reducing forest cover has meant shortage of prey for the big cats, and as a consequence, lower birth-rates.
The jaguar, being a mobile creature, requires huge expanses of forests in which it can hunt to sustain itself and its family. This is where it has been obstructed severely in the past few decades. Farmlands, ranches, growing urban sprawls and border-related infrastructure have badly eaten into the jaguar habitat along the Mexican-American border. While the entire population of the animal was wiped out in the U.S. decades ago, scarcely 100 to 120 of these creatures survive in the wilds of the Sonora state of Mexico, about 125 km south of the U.S. border. In fact, wanton development has cut off their migration routes to nearby tropical forest zones, a phenomena common to many pockets of jaguar habitat in Central America. Unaccustomed to being restricted in such tight and diminishing forest spaces, the jaguar has no choice but to target livestock in nearby farms and ranches, coming into friction with man. The jaguar is a shy, nocturnal and deep forest hunter – preferring the least human contact as possible. But urban expansion has snatched away a large part of this very private trait.
The Amazon Basin in South America is one of the last bastions of the jaguar. It has vast tracts of forest acreage as its habitat where it still finds larger animals like deer, capybara, tapirs, and peccaries, as well as turtles, fish and otters to eat. But indiscriminate tree-felling for the purpose of farming, and deforestation to make way for large paper and timber projects, pose a distinct threat to the jaguar's habitat despite the vastness of the Amazon basin. There are only around 10,000 of these large cats presently in the South American continent, stretching from the Central Amazon basin in Brazil northwards to the Orinoco River valley forests in Venezuela and Colombia.
The thick jungles of some tiny Central American countries still provide refuge to these cats. Belize has about 1,000 as per the last count. The 15,000 sq km Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is home to about 550. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico bordering Guatemala, holds about 350 of these animals. Although hunting of the jaguar has been totally banned in these countries, poaching for the animal's beautiful spotted coat still continues and is a constant menace to the animal's survival.
The CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) lists the jaguar as an endangered species and this has been recognized by countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, United States, Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica and Venezuela – where hunting restrictions on the animal is already in place.
Over the decades there has been a trend on the part of conservationists and zoo authorities to move and increase the number of jaguars in captivity. But no amount of care and protection in captivity can substitute the freedom the beautiful cat enjoys in the wild, which is where it belongs. Jaguars kept captive in zoos are known for pacing due to the stress and frustration of their inability to carry out their natural routines and behaviors. Their stressful pacing increases as the number of visitors and noise level increases. Zoo jaguars are deprived of their natural environments and social structures for profit and human amusement.
Zoos are not the answer to preserving species. Precious habitats must be preserved. That is the only way we can save future generations of the jaguar.
Around 4,000 years ago, someone in northern China came across an odd black rock. It was one of many. Then this person discovered something. Somehow this person discovered that the rock could burn.
Life was harder back then. Keeping warm and getting food were big worries. With no electricity or gas for heating or cooking, everyone burned wood. The strange rock that burned like a log must have been very exciting back then.
This rock was coal. Archeologists think this was the first time a human used a fossil fuel.
For many years, only a few places with easy access to coal used it. Outside China, one such place was Britain. It was hard to miss there. People could go to the beach and pick up lumps of coal. They called it “sea coal.”
During the years of Roman rule in the British isles, they used coal to heat water for the public baths. The Romans liked coal so much that they brought it back to Rome with them. Traces of British coal can be found all around the Roman ruins in Italy.
Before the late 1600s, coal was used mainly for things like smelting and blacksmithing. (Smelting is a process of heating the ore dug out of the earth to get out the metals.) There were no real factories. Things were made by hand without the help of machines. That all changed with the invention of the steam engine.
The first common steam engine was called the Newcomen engine. It was first built 1712. It changed the world forever. It was first used to drain mines, but over time it was used for many other things too. The steam engine made big factories possible. Then it was put into trains and ships, so it could help transport things. It even powered some early cars. The demand for coal skyrocketed.
This big change was called the Industrial Revolution. It began in Britain. It gradually spread over much of the rest of the world. It’s not by chance that Britain led the Industrial Revolution; it had so much coal. It was this very coal that drove Britain, and eventually the world, into the modern society we know today.
Oil: A Nice Ride through the Countryside
Early one August morning in 1888, Bertha Benz left home with her two sons on a 66-mile trip to visit her mother. She took a brand new car. She didn't tell anyone. That car just happened to be her husband’s Benz Patent-Motorwagen—the first true automobile.
This trip wasn’t really about visiting Bertha’s mother. Bertha was frustrated with her husband, Karl Benz. Karl had an incredible invention, but he hadn’t been doing a great job of letting people know about it. Before Bertha set out on this trip, Karl had only given short demonstration rides, and there was always a team of mechanics standing by.
Bertha’s trip was the first long-distance car ride ever attempted. It was a great success. Bertha acted as her own mechanic. She came up with makeshift brake pads. She cleaned all the fuel pipes. And, like anyone else on a long road trip, she had to fill up with gas. She did so by purchasing a fluid called benzene from a local pharmacy. This pharmacy became the world’s first gas station.
Petroleum is a liquid that comes from oil. We put it into our cars to make them run. Petroleum means “rock oil.” It comes from the remains of once-living organisms, just like coal.
People have used petroleum for different purposes throughout history. But petroleum wasn’t used very much until another invention came along—the internal combustion engine. In 1863, a man named Nikolaus Otto created the first successful engine of this kind. Unlike a steam engine, in Otto’s engine, the heat comes from igniting fumes from a petroleum liquid. The pressure from the heat moves pistons. This is pretty much how all gas-powered cars still work to this day.
Petroleum, Oil, Gas: What’s in a Name?
A lot of different names are tossed around for liquid fossil fuels. Do they all mean something different? Here’s a brief explanation:
Petroleum is a collection of liquids formed from once-living things. It is a mixture of chemicals that contains carbon and hydrogen. People can also refer to petroleum as crude oil and sometimes just oil.
But you can’t pour that black sludge of oil into a car. You need to get specific chemicals out of the oil. Gasoline is what we usually put into our cars. It is one set of chemicals (with a couple of other added ingredients).
Kerosene is another set of chemicals used to heat homes and to cook. It is also the main ingredient in jet fuel.
The process of removing these chemicals from the oil, called “cracking,” occurs at an oil refinery.
Gas: A Fuel of Many Uses
You can find natural gas near oil, coal, and other rocks. It comes from the same natural processes that make coal and oil. It, too, comes from once-living things.
Humans have known about natural gas for a long time. Around 500 BCE, people in China used bamboo shoots to transport natural gas. They used it to boil water. A famous historian wrote about natural gas between 100 and 124 CE. That’s 1,900 years ago. This person wrote about flames burning from the ground of present-day Iraq. But even though people knew about it, it didn’t catch on as a major fuel source for some time.
Today, natural gas is often used for cooking and heating homes. It is one of the most important sources of energy in the world.
People once considered natural gas a problem. It was explosive and dangerous. Most oil and coal operations just burned it. Now it is valuable. Natural gas is cleaner burning than either coal or oil. That means it causes less pollution. Many places have switched from burning coal to burning natural gas. That means many places want more of it.
Since more people want natural gas, people will get it however they can. One way to get natural gas is with something called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking is expensive, but people want natural gas so much, they’ll use this method. Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals into rocks to break them apart. This releases natural gas. Fracking helps people increase the amount of natural gas we can get, but there are environmental concerns over fracking. People worry that these chemicals can get into drinking water.
The King Who Banned Coal
King Edward I of England tried to ban coal in 1306. The air was dark and polluted. The smoke from coal was too much; it was poisoning the city. The king banned coal. It may have been the first environmental law ever.
Coal was more popular than wood at the time. There wasn’t enough wood to go around. Many metal smiths, brewers, and other craftsmen used coal, even though it was against the law.
Things got worse after the steam engine was invented. The Industrial Revolution was happening. There was now lots of pollution. It caused acid rain, sickness, and even death. Air quality was one of the first environmental issues addressed in the USA and Britain. They passed laws to limit pollution, but not until 1955.
Besides the dark smoke, there’s another problem with burning fossil fuels. It’s the carbon dioxide, CO2, that gets released. We have known that gases in the air can trap heat since 1824. John Tyndall showed that CO2 warmed the Earth in 1860. Many people have tested it since then. Many of them worried about all the CO2 from burning fuel since humans were burning so many fossils fuels. It could be a problem.
But many people didn’t believe there was a problem. People didn’t think the climate could ever change and that people couldn't do anything to change the world’s climate. But they changed their minds when, in 1957, scientists began to take measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere. They saw that CO2 was rising. Scientists could prove that most of that rise was from humans because fossil fuels make CO2 with slight chemical differences compared to other CO2.
Global temperatures are rising, too. Almost all climate scientists agree that a big cause of that is the burning of fossil fuels. The warming could lead to rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, and more severe weather. It is a challenge that we will have to deal with in the coming years.
Fossil fuels form all the time, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t run out someday. It takes millions of years for coal, oil, and natural gas to form, and we are removing them much faster than that.
Think about it this way: The fossil fuels we have used over the past 200 years formed over the past 500 million years. It’s like we’re emptying a bathtub with a huge drain while refilling it with a tiny, slow drip. Even with the drip, the tub will still empty completely.
Some scientists think we are getting close to being halfway through all that fuel. It’s hard to know exactly how much remains because the technology we use to get these fuels from the ground is always changing. Still, no new inventions will get around the fact that, at some point, there will be no more fossil fuels left.
The Price of Success
Fossil fuels have changed the course of human history. Cars, airplanes, and other fossil-fueled inventions changed everyone’s life. Without fossil fuels, life would be very different.
All these good things come at a cost. The cost is pollution, the destruction of landscapes and natural habitats, oil spills in the ocean, and dangerous fracking chemicals in the ground. Global warming will be the biggest problem of all. Global warming will affect everyone on Earth.
There is still time for another chapter in this story. This chapter will be a turn away from fossil fuels. We will move toward sustainable, green energy. We need a new way to power the many improvements that fossil fuels have given us.
The trafficking of wildlife and their products is one of the most profitable and attractive of all the illicit trades, possibly surpassed only by the trafficking of arms and drugs.
Studies note that several of the most notorious armed insurgent groups and terrorist organizations now derive substantial profits from the illegal wildlife trade to fund their incursions, civil wars, and other acts of violence.
Criminal organizations are systematically exploiting wildlife as a source of financing. The corruption is spreading like a disease – into armies, border guards, police, judiciary, customs officers, embassy personnel, and even state diplomats in several countries, all of whom benefit from and actively facilitate the illegal wildlife trade.
The trade’s attractiveness is largely due to its relative lack of social stigma, small risk of arrest, and the woefully light penalties given to those few brought before the courts. High-value wildlife are particularly attractive to criminal entities because their large scale killing and theft can be done quickly and inexpensively compared to the extraction of other high-value resources such as oil, gas, and most precious metals.
Wildlife products are classic 'lootable resources,' a subset of high-value natural resources that are relatively easy to steal, but particularly challenging to monitor from a crime-management perspective. Other natural resources that fall into this category include alluvial diamonds and gemstones, such as rubies.
Researchers note that not only is the wildlife trade attracting huge profits, an estimated US$20-billion a year, criminologists have found that wildlife now serves a specialized role as “a form of currency” for terrorist and criminal organizations. Because wildlife commodities become the basis for the trade of drugs, ammunition, and humans, and a substitute for cash, the illegal wildlife trade has thus grown into a highly efficient form of money-laundering. Such exchanges appear particularly common among larger, more sophisticated criminal networks and terrorist organizations working across international borders.
Not only has the lucrative nature of the wildlife trade encouraged high-level corruption, and violence surrounding the mass-killing of large charismatic wildlife (such as lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas and rhinos), there is also simultaneously a more ominous dimension. Rebel groups, insurgencies, and terror organizations are now also actively seeking out, capturing, and appropriating the profits of ecotourism enterprises. For example, seizing on the profitability of high-value gorilla tourism, Congolese rebels murdered wildlife officers and captured licensed ecotourism operations only to begin their own to fulfill their economic ends. Similarly in Nepal, Maoist rebels have captured protected areas to begin unlicensed ecotourism and trophy-hunting businesses to attract high-paying tourists.
Ecotourism is central to the tourism products and national economies for nations such as Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania.
We are witnessing unprecedented attacks on wildlife and genuine ecotourism operations by emboldened criminals. Tackling wildlife crime can and must become a priority - not just for the sake of the animals and conservation, but for national security and long-term economic sustainability.
Trafficked wildlife is frequently smuggled under harrowing conditions in which many individuals die in transit. Because global demand for some species exceeds biological capacity, local or total extinctions of some species or sub-species have resulted. For example, several Rhino species or sub-species now face extinction. At risk of extinction due to poaching are also Sun Bears, Clouded Leopards, forest elephants, gorillas, tigers, orangutans, and pangolins, among several other species. To stem this threat conservationists must actively link their knowledge about threatened wildlife to the international development, security, and political concerns with which the wildlife trade has become inextricably conjoined.
We are all becoming increasingly familiar with the impacts of invasive species. Knotweed from Japan can destroy building foundations, zebra mussels from eastern Europe can clog-up drinking water pipes, and an Asian fungus is causing ash tree die-back in our forests. Our rapidly changing world will bring new types of invaders, often from very unexpected places.
Invasive non-native species are among the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss on the planet. An international team of scientists identified that environmental change, new biotechnology and even political instability are all likely to result in new invasions that we should all be worried about.
Globalization of the Arctic, emergence of invasive microbial pathogens, advances in genomic modification technology, and changing agricultural practices were judged to be among the 14 most significant issues potentially affecting how invasive species are studied and managed over the next two decades.
Globalization Of The Arctic
Until now, the Arctic has been among the least accessible regions on the planet, escaping extensive alien species invasions like those that have affected temperate and tropical areas of the world. However, the rapid loss of sea ice is opening the region to shipping, oil and mineral extraction, fishing, tourism, and shoreline development -- all of which facilitate introductions of alien species.
The loss of sea ice is also creating a major new corridor for international shipping between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, which will affect invasion risks throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The gold rush has begun for major expansion of human activities in the Arctic, with the potential for large-scale alien species transfers.
Emergence & Spread Of Invasive Microbial Pathogens
Disease-causing bacteria, water molds, fungi and viruses are being given increasing opportunities to spread into regions where they never previously existed and where they may attack new hosts. They can also undergo rapid genetic changes that cause previously innocuous forms to become virulent.
Invasive microbes have devastated populations of animal and plants that have had no evolutionary exposure and thus no immunity to them. Recent examples include: the chytrid fungus "Bsal" that is killing salamanders in Europe; the white-nose fungus that is destroying bat colonies in North America; and sea star wasting disease along the Pacific coast of North America, considered to be among the worst wildlife die-offs ever recorded. The proliferation of microbial pathogens is a burgeoning threat to biodiversity, agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
Biotechnological Advances & Applications
Advances in genomic modification tools hold both promise and challenges for managing invasive species. Very recently, genetically modified versions of an invasive mosquito were released in the Florida Keys in a controversial attempt to interfere with the mosquito's reproductive life cycle, thereby preventing it from vectoring the spread of invasive Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya viruses to humans. The push to use genetically modified agents to control invasive species will continue to grow, and with it will come public opposition and the view that we are opening Pandora's Box.
Changing Agricultural Practices
Changing agricultural practices are also a potential source of invasion threats. Virtually unregulated new agricultural crops and practices open the door to potentially disastrous unintended consequences. An Asian cricket species reared for "cricket flour" -- all the rage in the USA -- has already established in the wild. Worse, as a disease ravages this species, farmers have imported other kinds of crickets that might well invade in nature.
But possibly the biggest threat of all is the growing use by agribusiness of soil bacteria and fungi to increase crop production. The cultivation and distribution of 'growth enhancing' microbes could cause some crop plants or plant species residing near agricultural fields to become invasive pests.
The world's deserts are generally remote, inaccessible, and inhospitable. Hidden among them, however, are hydrocarbon reservoirs, evaporites, and other mineral deposits, as well as human artifacts preserved for centuries by the arid climate.
In these harsh environments, the information and perspective required to increase our understanding of arid-land geology and resources often depends on remote sensing methods. Remote sensing is the collection of information about an object without being in direct physical contact with it.
Remote sensing instruments in Earth-orbit satellites measure radar, visible light, and infrared radiation. Radar imaging systems provide their own source of electromagnetic energy, so they can operate at any time of day or night. Additionally, clouds and all but the most severe storms are transparent to radar.
The first Shuttle Imaging Radar System (SIR-A), flown on the U.S. space shuttle Columbia in 1981, recorded images that show buried fluvial topography, faults, and intrusive bodies otherwise concealed beneath sand sheets and dunes of the Western Desert in Egypt and the Sudan. Most of these features are not visible from the ground. The radar signal penetrated loose dry sands and returned images of buried river channels not visible at the surface. These images helped find new archeologic sites and sources of potable water in the desert. These "radar rivers" are the remnants of a now vanished major river system that flowed across Africa some 20 million years before the development of the Nile River system.
Radar imagery also is a powerful tool for exploring for placer mineral deposits in arid lands. In 1972, the United States launched the first of a group of unmanned satellites collectively known as Landsat. Landsat satellites carry sensors that record "light," or portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, as it reflects off the Earth. Landsat acquires digital data that are converted into an image.
The scarcity of vegetation makes spectral remote sensing especially effective in arid lands. Rocks containing limonite, a hydrous iron oxide, may be identified readily from Landsat Multispectral Scanner data. The Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) has increased our ability to detect and map the distribution of minerals in volcanic rocks and related mineral deposits in arid and semiarid lands. More than a million images of Earth have been acquired by the Landsat satellites. A Landsat image may be viewed as a single band in blackand-white, or as a combination represented by three colors, called a color composite. The most widely used Landsat color image is called a false-color composite because it reproduces the infrared band (invisible to the naked eye) as red, the red band as green, and the green band as blue. Healthy vegetation in a false-color composite is red.
Several international groups produce routine estimates of tropical deforestation, most notably the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which has been producing a global forest resources assessment every five to ten years since the late 1940s. The FAO report is based on statistics provided by countries themselves, and because the ability of countries to accurately assess their forest resources varies depending on their financial, technological, and institutional resources, the estimates for some countries are likely more accurate then others.
Many countries use satellite imagery as the basis for their assessments, and a few research teams have used satellite data as the basis for worldwide estimates of tropical deforestation in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some scientists and conservationists argue that the FAO provides too conservative an estimate of rates of deforestation because they consider any area larger than one hectare (0.01 square miles) with a minimum tree cover of 10 percent to be forested.
This generous definition of “forest” means that a significant amount of degradation can occur before the FAO categorizes an area as deforested. On the other hand, some satellite-based studies indicate deforestation rates are lower than even the FAO reports suggest. Despite revisions and discrepancies, the FAO assessment is the most comprehensive, longest-term, and widely used metric of global forest resources.
In addition to local factors, international trends drive deforestation. The expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia is a response to high petroleum prices and, ironically, to an increasing global demand for bio-fuels perceived to be “green.”
The FAO report does not compile statistics for tropical forest regions as a whole, but the country-by-country and regional-scale statistics provide a grim picture. The scope and impact of deforestation can be viewed in different ways. One is in absolute numbers: total area of forest cleared over a certain period. By that metric, all three major tropical forest areas, including South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, are represented near the top of the list. Rounding out the top five tropical countries with the greatest total area of deforestation were Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Another way to look at deforestation is in terms of the percent of a country’s forest that was cleared over time. By this metric, the island nation of Comoros (north of Madagascar) fared the worst. Landlocked Burundi in central Africa was second. The other top five countries that cleared large percentages of their forests were Togo in West Africa, Honduras, and Mauritania.
Once found all over South-East Asia and even the far reaches of Southern China, orangutans have found themselves squeezed to just the two islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The great red-haired apes have been around for almost 400,000 years, but have seen their numbers dwindle alarmingly from over 200,000 a century ago to only 45,000 presently. The habitats of this iconic animal have been pushed to the rain forests in the northern fringes of the Sumatra island of Indonesia and just the south-eastern part of Borneo, the only two places on earth where they inhabit naturally.
The most important intake of the orangutan is fruit, which makes up almost 60% of the ape's diet. It consumes over 300 food items that include leaves, insects, honey, bird eggs and even tree bark. The orangutans give birth during the peak fruit season when their intake reaches a high of 11,000 calories per day and 2,000 per day in the low fruit season. So imagine what the overnight decimation of million-year old forests that sustain the very life of these wonderful beasts could do. The shocking fall of the orangutan population in the last decade from around 65,000 to just 45,000 is testimony to this phenomena. Behind this is the growing world thirst for palm oil.
What makes palm oil desirable is that it is cheaper and more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils and also has a longer shelf life. It is a vital ingredient in almost 40 percent of the world's fast-moving consuming products ranging from toothpastes to candy bars and bio-diesel.
Indonesia and Malaysia alone account for over 85 percent of the world's palm oil output and with the demand for the product having grown five-fold since 1990, manufacturing has gone on overdrive. The result has been the swift decimation of forests by bulldozing and burning, clearing the way for palm oil plantations.
Shockingly, in the past three decades, an incredible 8.7 million hectares of tropical forests have been wiped out in these two countries, an area that almost equals the size of Netherlands. The orangutans have witnessed an almost 80 percent decimation of their habitat since the early 1990's. The Indonesian fires of 1997, caused by massive slash and burn tactics by farmers, accounted for a catastrophic one-third of the orangutan habitat in that country.
The palm oil industry is also wreaking havoc on the environment and human health. Clearing one hectare (about two square acres) of peat forest can release 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Tropical peat lands store up to 10 times more carbon than mineral soil. Draining and planting on these land is estimated to be up to 10 times more detrimental to the environment. Experts have highlighted that palm oil, second only to soybean oil as an ingredient of cooking, is so high in saturated fat that one tablespoon contains 55 percent of the daily recommendation.
What hits the orangutan the hardest is the loss of habitat - their basic ecosystem is destroyed. The smoke from fires is another killer. The animals are forced to move to other areas to be met with hostility from villagers. Thousands have been clubbed to death, hacked by machetes or simply shot. Orangutan babies have also been known to be sold into the lucrative and illicit wildlife trade. There have been instances where palm oil companies have resorted to annihilation of the apes on a massive scale. In one year alone, around 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm workers.
Humans also suffer. The U.S. Department of Labor ranks the palm oil industry as one of the top four worst industries for forced and child labor. In Indonesia, the industry is responsible for about 5,000 land and human rights conflicts.
Animal rights activists fear that in another 25 years the orangutan could become extinct. It is estimated that 1,000 orangutans are killed a year and 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour for palm plantations. Other animals are also at risk. Palm oil development creates easy access to habitats for poachers. The Sumatran tiger population is expected to be extinct in just a few years if actions are not taken to protect their habitats.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of animal activists and conservationists, the palm oil industry is beginning to sit up and take notice. Organizations are working with those sensible in the palm oil industry, and local villagers, to educate them on the need to conserve areas for orangutans.
Some areas of no deforestation have been demarcated, ensuring safe and peaceful existence of orangutans. Tanjung Puting National Park, Sebangau National Park, Kutai and Gunung Palung (all in Borneo), the Gunung Leuser National Park on the border of Aceh, and North Sumatra now offer safe havens for orangutans. Conservation areas in Malaysia include the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Matang Wildlife Centre and Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary.
In 2013, two of the biggest palm oil giants, Golden Agri-Resources and Wilmar International, joined hands to commit to a zero deforestation policy on all the palm oil they produced, sourced and traded. Unilever, the world's largest buyer of palm oil (it buys 1.5 million tons annually) was brought into the plan. Other consumer majors like Nestle, Kellogs, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G followed suit.
Despite this progress, only 35 percent of palm growers that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are actually certified by the RSPO. The other 65 percent are paying members, but have taken no action to adhere to the growing practices guidelines.
For the sake of survival of the magnificent creature, the orangutan, more action must be taken. In just one decade the orangutan population has decreased by 50 percent. Only 6,300 Sumatran orangutans remain.
Animal activists can take action by weaning themselves off palm oil, purchasing palm oil alternatives, encouraging companies to commit to sustainable palm oil, and supporting organizations working to help orangutans.
When massive volumes of toxic chemicals are pumped deep underground at extreme pressure to fracture ancient rock formations, what could go wrong?
The technique used to extract shale gas from its underground deposits is called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking". Huge amounts of water, sand and thickening agents are injected underground to crack open the rocks beneath which the shale gas is trapped.
Shale is fast replacing oil as a cheaper energy source. Shale is oil and gas found in rock formations. Shale gas output, which was 9.7 trillion cubic feet annually a few years ago, could potentially grow to almost 40 trillion cubic feet by 2040, with the US far surpassing Saudi Arabia as the largest fossil fuels producer of the world. In fact, shale will account for as much as 60 percent of America's total oil and gas output.
While vertical fracking has been around since 1949, the advent of horizontal fracking during the past decade gave shale gas output a major boost. Fracking sites have grown from around 18,000 to almost 25,000 within just a decade. That's almost a 40 percent growth.
Despite the potential economic benefits to be reaped from shale gas, the effects to the environment, wildlife and humans may be devastating. Little is known about its long-term environmental impacts, but its short term impacts are already disturbing.
The fracking process, which uses over 100 chemicals, produces massive amounts of toxic and radioactive waste. It has been known to contaminate drinking water and produce earthquakes. Hazardous pollutants are also released into the air. Fracking wells release methane gas known to trap 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Thousands of leaks, spills and accidents related to fracking have negatively impacted water quality in rivers, streams and shallow aquifers. Since 1990, the EPA has acknowledged the link between fracking and increased earthquakes.
Fracking has been reported to cause declines in property value, damage to public roads, increased crime and a rise in demand on emergency services. The dangerous chemicals used in fracking are known to cause life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.
In 2015, an EPA draft report revealed more than 150 instances of groundwater contamination due to shale drilling and fracking. Some residents in affected areas even reported being able to light their water on fire due to gas contamination.
There have been instances of fracking water trickling into pastures and streams. In Kentucky’s Acorn Fork Creek, waste water from neighboring sites virtually wiped out almost all aquatic life in parts of the fork. The dead fish were found with lesions on their gills and their livers and spleens badly damaged. The creek was formerly one of the cleanest in the country and billed an Outstanding State Resource Water asset. It is home to an endangered species of bird, the diminutive colorful minnow called blackside dace, which is protected under the the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A particular method of fracking, called Marcellus Shale Drilling, creates brine in the millions of gallons of water that the process needs. Brine is a solution of salt or sodium chloride in water. The brine causes the creation of TDS (totally dissolved acids) which is perfect for the breeding of golden algae. It was such algae that accounted for the deaths of thousands of fish in Dunkard Creek, Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, more than 350,000 acres of natural land have been damaged all over America by fracking activity. Whole ecosystems have perished in these places. Each fracking operation needs anywhere between 900 to 1,200 truckloads of materials. 30 acres of forest may also be cleared to make way for a drilling station. The Ohio Environmental Council has already reported disruption to the habits of birds and nocturnal animals caused by such activity.
In California, frenetic fracking activity can pose serious threats to the habitats of creatures like the endangered California condor, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the San Joaquin kit fox. Domestic animals like cats and dogs and even horses could come under threat.
On the heels of the Kentucky disaster, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set the tone for offenders by imposing a penalty of $50,000 for violation of the ESA. There have been cries for even larger fines from conservationists.
While there have been increasing pressures by the fracking companies for new licenses, conservation organizations are urging the government to act soon and ban fracking in and around all wildlife zones. It is hoped that better sense will prevail and the government will act to protect humans, wildlife and ecosystems before it is too late.
Continued high demand for illegal wildlife products has greatly endangered many species like elephants, rhinos, and tigers, leaving some facing imminent extinction. The world is experiencing the worst poaching crisis in history, rivaling that in the 1980s, when more than 800 tons of ivory left Africa every year and the continent’s elephant populations plunged from 1.3 million to 600,000. Scientists estimate that only 430,000 African elephants remain today with one elephant killed every 15 minutes for its ivory.
Poaching is at its highest level in decades. Unless the illegal and inhumane slaughter of elephants, rhinos and other species is halted, we will likely see these magnificent animals disappear from the wild in the next several decades.
As one of the world’s most lucrative criminal activities, valued at US$19 billion annually, illegal wildlife trade ranks fifth globally in terms of value, behind the trafficking in drugs, people, oil and counterfeiting. Research shows that domestic ivory markets provides cover for criminals to launder illegal ivory from poached animals, puts the burden of proof on enforcement officers, and confuse consumers, many of whom take market availability of ivory for legality of the trade.
The rapid development of online media has put a lot of wildlife species at risk and has created huge losses for the global ecosystem and human beings, as criminals have used the Internet for secret, fast and convenient communications and transactions. The report Wanted: Dead or Alive, Exposing the Online Wildlife Trade reveals that over 33,000 endangered wildlife and wildlife parts were available for sale online in a short six-week period.
Ivory trade is quickly pushing endangered animals towards extinction. Every year, 25,000-30,000 African Elephants are poached to supply the ivory trade. According to the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), in recent years the volume from large-scale ivory seizures has been setting new records. In 2013, enforcement agencies around the world seized 41.6 tons of ivory, representing a 71 percent increase from 2009.
Research shows that for slow-growing, long-living species like the elephant, when mortality rate reaches 6% the population risks crashing. However in many regions of Africa, elephant populations are declining at a rate of 11%-12% because of ivory trade.
The past 15 years has seen soaring market prices for ivory products, largely due to a growing middle class in China and other Asian countries where ivory products have significant cultural value. Most people don't know that the U.S. is also one of the top consumers of ivory.
Enforcement operations are a deterrent to wildlife criminals in and outside of China. To combat global illegal ivory trade, countries are publicly destroying seized ivory. Kenya, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Congo and the United States have torched ivory. Public destruction of confiscated ivory, together with vigorous enforcement, raises the cost for engaging in wildlife crime and warns the public about the criminal nature of ivory trade. Such measures help stigmatize ivory consumption and reduce demand.
The U.S. federal government is working to close the loopholes that have allowed the illegal ivory market to flourish. A number of states have also passed ivory bans, including New York, New Jersey and California.
Campaigns to reduce demand for ivory domestically and overseas, and to strengthen international laws and enforcement, have further elevated the issue of wildlife trafficking globally. Collaboration between conservation organizations, government agencies, private organizations and local communities supports on-the-ground initiatives to conserve and manage wildlife through improved anti-poaching patrols, monitoring, habitat management, community-based initiatives and other effective conservation programs.
From African range states, to smuggling transit routes, to consuming countries, actions must be taken on every link of the transnational ivory trade to stop the crisis. Combating illegal ivory trade requires the effort of the whole world.
People have been deforesting the Earth for thousands of years, primarily to clear land for crops or livestock. Although tropical forests are largely confined to developing countries, they aren’t just meeting local or national needs; economic globalization means that the needs and wants of the global population are bearing down on them as well. Direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization. Rarely is there a single direct cause for deforestation. Most often, multiple processes work simultaneously or sequentially to cause deforestation.
The single biggest direct cause of deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock. The conversion to agricultural land usually results from multiple direct factors. For example, countries build roads into remote areas to improve overland transportation of goods. The road development itself causes a limited amount of deforestation. But roads also provide entry to previously inaccessible—and often unclaimed—land. Logging, both legal and illegal, often follows road expansion (and in some cases is the reason for the road expansion). When loggers have harvested an area’s valuable timber, they move on. The roads and the logged areas become a magnet for settlers—farmers and ranchers who slash and burn the remaining forest for cropland or cattle pasture, completing the deforestation chain that began with road building. In other cases, forests that have been degraded by logging become fire-prone and are eventually deforested by repeated accidental fires from adjacent farms or pastures.
Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role. In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.
Although poverty is often cited as the underlying cause of tropical deforestation, analyses of multiple scientific studies indicate that that explanation is an oversimplification. Poverty does drive people to migrate to forest frontiers, where they engage in slash and burn forest clearing for subsistence. But rarely does one factor alone bear the sole responsibility for tropical deforestation.
State policies to encourage economic development, such as road and railway expansion projects, have caused significant, unintentional deforestation in the Amazon and Central America. Agricultural subsidies and tax breaks, as well as timber concessions, have encouraged forest clearing as well. Global economic factors such as a country’s foreign debt, expanding global markets for rainforest timber and pulpwood, or low domestic costs of land, labor, and fuel can encourage deforestation over more sustainable land use.
Access to technology may either enhance or diminish deforestation. The availability of technologies that allow “industrial-scale” agriculture can spur rapid forest clearing, while inefficient technology in the logging industry increases collateral damage in surrounding forests, making subsequent deforestation more likely. Underlying factors are rarely isolated; instead, multiple global and local factors exert synergistic influences on tropical deforestation in different geographic locations.
Tropical forests are home to more of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity than any other habitat and are increasingly threatened by the impact of human activities. Illegal logging, in particular, poses a severe and increasing threat to tropical forests worldwide.
The devastating impact of illegal logging on bird communities is especially damaging. The level of legal and illegal logging has increased dramatically, greater than maximum sustainable rates. As a result, the abundance of forest understory bird species is declining. Species richness, or the number of different understory bird species represented, also show declining trends. The bird communities show no evidence of post-logging recovery.
A major driver contributing to tropical forest destruction worldwide, illegal logging accounts for 50-90 percent of timber harvested in many tropical countries. The effects of illegal logging is so rampant it cannot be ignored. In contrast to legal logging operations, which are undertaken by companies who apply for a government permit to log under certain parameters including restrictions on the number, size and species of trees that can be logged, illegal logging is much more devastating because it is completely unregulated.
Little attention is given to illegal logging because it is an underworld issue, so it’s not on the books, making it much harder to quantify. But it’s so prevalent that if we don’t look at it, these forests will be destroyed. The first step in doing something about it is knowing about it.
Logging and associated disturbances appear to have affected entire bird communities — including both common and rare or specialized species — causing abundance declines across species. Species that were already rare are most vulnerable to local extinction following logging, and many ‘common’ species have become much less common.
Illegal logging is having serious impacts – not just on the forests themselves – but on the animals. It is reasonable to assume that if the birds are being this powerfully impacted, it’s impacting other groups, such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods. Birds – like the ‘canary in a coal mine’ – are a great indicator of what’s happening to other animals, and eventually, what will happen to us.
The situation, though dire, is not hopeless. There is enormous potential for regenerating logged forests for bird conservation. For this conservation potential to be realized, urgent measures must be taken to protect these surviving forest fragments and prevent further forest bird declines. Such actions would ideally include increasing forest ranger patrols, increasing forest law enforcement and increasing implementation of measures to prevent illegal logging, such as making roadblocks in logging roads following legal logging operations to prevent incursion by illegal logging operations.
There is hope and there are alternatives. But the situation urgently needs to be addressed and there is no time like the present. This can be stopped, it should be stopped – before it’s too late.
It's a dreadful reality. We are going through our sixth period of plant and animal mass extinction, the sixth to happen in the last 500 million years. The current wave is considered to be the worst series of species elimination since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Granted, extinction is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, however it normally happens at a rate of 1 to 5 species every year. But, as scientists estimate, we are currently losing species 1,000-10,000 times faster than that, which means that literally tens of species are vanishing from the face of the Earth every day. We could be looking at a frightening future. By this rate, almost one third to one-half of all species could become extinct by 2050.
The difference with past extinctions, which were caused by catastrophic natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, and violent climate changes, is that the current crisis is caused almost entirely by humans. As a matter of fact, as many as 99% of the species at the threshold of extinction are there due to human activities, particularly the ones that drive the introduction of exotic species, loss of habitat, and global warming. With the increasing rate of change in our biosphere, coupled with the fact that every species’ extinction may trigger a cascade of subsequent extinctions due to inter-species dependence in the complicated web of the ecosystem, it’s not unlikely that extinction numbers in the future will increase exponentially.
The variety of species safeguards the resilience of the ecosystem, providing ecological communities the breadth needed to endure stress. Although the efforts of conservationists are often focused on ecosystems with high numbers of species, like coral reefs and rainforests, preserving biodiversity must not leave other habitats with fewer species out, like tundra, grasslands, and polar seas. Devastating consequences stem from any species loss. What’s more, most of the focus regarding extinction is on what’s happening globally, but the vast majority of biodiversity’s advantages are seen locally. Keeping local populations safe is the sole way of ensuring a species’ survival in the long term, via the maintenance of genetic diversity.
Over the last 500 years, as many as one thousand species vanished, without even accounting for many thousands more that went extinct before science discovered and described them. Almost 38% of all known species on a global scale are on the verge of extinction. This puts many thousands of unique species in the dire position of being gone forever.
Amphibian Extinction Crisis
Amphibians have the sad privilege of being endangered more than any other animal group. At least 30 percent of all amphibian species are now threatened to disappear. Toads, frogs, and salamanders are vanishing due to animal agriculture, habitat loss, air and water pollution, global warming, UV light exposure, disease, and the introduction of exotic species. Because this group of animals is overly sensitive to environmental change, they should be regarded as the canary in the global coal mine. Amphibians alert us to minor but definite changes in the ecosystem that could lead to the extinction of many more species, not excluding humans.
Bird Extinction Crisis
Birds are present in almost all habitats on earth and are usually the most familiar and visible wildlife to people all over the world. Because of this, they may act as a significant indicator for monitoring how the biosphere changes. Diminishing bird populations in the majority of habitats are the sad confirmation that major changes are taking place on Earth because of our activities. More than 12% of currently known species of birds are at the threshold of extinction. The biggest impact on bird population has been caused by degradation and loss of habitat, with collectors’ activities and invasive species following closely.
Fish Extinction Crisis
Fishing, rising water demand, river dams, water pollution and invasive species place aquatic ecosystems among the most endangered on Earth. Therefore, the fact that many species of fish – both marine, and freshwater – are currently endangered, does not come as a surprise. More than one fifth of all known fish species are now considered to be at imminent risk.
Invertebrate Extinction Crisis
Invertebrates, from mollusks to butterflies to earthworms to corals, exhibit vast levels of diversion. Almost 97% of all animal species on earth are estimated to belong to this group. One-third of the known invertebrate species are now threatened with extinction. Water pollution, water projects, and groundwater withdrawal threaten freshwater invertebrates, while deforestation and animal agriculture is also a great factor of invertebrate endangerment or extinction. In addition, reef-building corals in the ocean are diminishing at an increasing rate.
Mammal Extinction Crisis
Probably the most characteristic element of the current extinction crisis is that most of our primate relatives are in serious danger. Almost 90% of the primate population lives in the tropical forest, which are disappearing fast due to animal agriculture, deforestation and development. About half of all the primate species on Earth are at the brink of extinction. 50 percent of all known mammals see rapidly decreasing populations, and almost 20 percent are close to extinction. Marine mammals – including dolphins, whales, and porpoises – are particularly close to becoming extinct.
Reptile Extinction Crisis
More than one fifth of all known reptile species are considered endangered or close to becoming extinct. This has been particularly pronounced for island reptile species, counting at least 28 island reptiles having disappeared so far. This pattern of extinction, commonly seen in the islands, is finding its way toward the mainland as well. This crisis is mainly due to human intervention causing fragmentation in the continental habitats, which results in island-like territories, isolating species among each other. Reptiles are especially threatened by non-native species that compete for resources or feed on them, and habitat loss.
Plant Extinction Crisis
Plants are the food we consume and the producers of the oxygen we breathe through the process of photosynthesis. Most of the life on Earth is dependent on plants. Moreover, the majority of medicines are plant-based or plant-derived. Almost 70 percent of known plant species are on the verge of extinction. Unlike animals, plants cannot migrate to a different habitat when threatened, which makes them all too vulnerable. Plant extinction is expected to dramatically increase due to animal agriculture and global warming. The distribution and range of plants worldwide is changing immensely due to the rising temperatures. Since plants form the basis of all ecosystems and the foundation of the food chain, this will affect every species that depends on them for shelter, food, and survival.
Grasslands habitats are dominated by grasses with few large shrubs or trees. The three main types of grasslands include temperate grasslands, tropical grasslands or savannas and steppe grasslands. Grasslands have dry seasons and rainy seasons. They are susceptible to fires during dry seasons.
● Temperate grasslands have a lack trees and large shrubs and are dominated by grass. The soil has an upper layer that is nutrient-rich. Seasonal droughts result in fires that keep trees and shrubs from taking over the area.
● Tropical grasslands are located near the equator with warmer, wetter climates than temperate grasslands and more pronounced seasonal droughts. They are dominated by grasses, but also have scattered trees. The soil of tropical grasslands are porous and drain quickly. Tropical grasslands can be found in South America, Australia, Africa, India and Nepal.
● Steppe grasslands are dry grasslands that border on semi-arid deserts. Their grasses are much shorter than temperate and tropical grasslands and they lack trees except along rivers and streams.
Animals that inhabit grasslands include American bison, African elephants, lions and spotted hyenas.
Grasslands are areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses and other herbaceous (non-woody) plants. They are also known as prairies and savannas. Grasslands occur naturally on all continents except Antarctica.
Grassland habitats are located in most climates, with the grasses varying in height from very short to very tall. Woody plants, shrubs or trees are found in some grasslands – forming scrubby grassland, semi-wooded grassland or savanna such as the African savanna plains. Some grasslands are called wood-pasture or woodland.
Grasslands may occur naturally or as the result of human activity. Grassland vegetation remains dominant in a particular area usually due to grazing, cutting or natural or manmade fires, all discouraging trees and shrubs from growing. Some of the world's largest expanses of grassland, located in Africa, are maintained mostly by wild herbivores.
Grasslands are often dependent on their region and differ around the world. In temperate areas, such as north-west Europe, they are dominated by perennial (year-round) grasses. In warmer climates, annual grasses make up most of the plant life.
Grassland habitats support a wealth of wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Smaller animals are common as the open and uncovered areas make predators easier to see. Some large herbivorous mammals do also inhabit grasslands.
Grasslands once covered two thirds of the planet. As a result of human agriculture, only small pockets of original grassland ecosystems remain. Half of Africa remains grasslands.
The answer is devastating news for Earth’s largest animals. Many of the world’s largest herbivores — including several species of elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and gorillas — are in danger of becoming extinct. And if current trends continue, the loss of these animals would have drastic implications not only for the species themselves, but also for other animals and the environments and ecosystems in which they live.
One of the critical factors behind the disturbing trend is the tremendous financial incentive for poachers to sell animal parts for consumer goods and food. For example, rhinoceros horn is more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine. A recent report puts the price of rhino horn in Asia at $60,000 per pound.
Rhinos are in serious danger of extinction from poaching. Rhino poaching has risen to levels not seen in almost two decades. Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn remains highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder as treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds and fevers. This demand has created highly profitable international criminal syndicates who have only intensified their search of rhino for their horns in recent years.
Decades of conservation efforts are being reversed by the entrance of organized crime into the ivory and rhino horn markets. In just 9 years, the number of forest elephants declined by 62 percent. More than 100,000 elephants — one-fifth of the world’s wild savannah elephant population — were poached in 2 years alone. The number of rhinoceroses poached skyrocketed from 13 per year to 1,004 per year in only 6 years. Latest estimates suggest that two rhinos are killed by poachers every day in Africa. If rhino poaching is not stopped, the world could lose African rhinos forever.
For some of the largest animals, such as elephants and rhinos, it is likely a matter of a few decades before they are extinct — and no more than 80 to 100 years for the rest of the large herbivores. Even though an individual elephant or rhino might persist in the wild somewhere in Africa, they will be functionally extinct in terms of their impact on the ecosystem.
Without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs. During the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended about 11,700 years ago, there were more than 40 species of herbivores in which adults weighed 2,200 pounds or more, but today there are only eight such species. The extinction of these “mega-herbivore” species has dramatically affected Earth’s ecosystems. For example, large herbivores are the primary source of food for predators and scavengers, and their trampling and consumption of plants influence the ways that vegetation grows.
The two largest threats to these animals are hunting by humans and habitat change. Other key factors include growing human populations and increased competition with livestock. Animal agriculture has been a particular threat in developing nations, where livestock production is dramatically increasing. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling.
Large herbivores, and their associated ecological functions and services, have already mostly been lost from much of the developed world, according to scientists. Now is the time to act boldly, because without radical changes in these trends, the extinctions that eliminated most of the world’s largest herbivores 10,000 to 50,000 years ago will only have been postponed for these last few remaining giants.
With its cuddly stout body and large paws, the koala resembles a small teddy bear. The koala bear is an Australian icon and its habitat is exclusively confined to the coastal eucalyptus forests in the North-western and South-eastern parts of the country, spread over the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. While eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to many animals inhabiting this region, to the koala it forms an essential part of its diet.
Eucalyptus is a flowering tree native to Australia and there are 700 species of them found in these forest regions. The koalas sleep for nearly 22 hours in a day, for that is the amount of rest it needs to help in digestion of the gum leaves, which are low in nutrition and high on fibrous content. The koalas are basically tree creatures and live in the top and middle layers of the eucalyptus forests.
But even the koala's adorable and iconic status in Australia haven't spared it from the ravages of mankind. Once numbering in the millions, koalas suffered major declines in population during the 1920s when they were hunted for their fur. The koala was hunted almost to extinction. Today, habitat destruction, traffic deaths, and attacks by dogs kill an estimated 4,000 koalas yearly.
Since the arrival of the Europeans in the early 17th century, almost 80% of the eucalyptus forests have vanished. The 20% that remain are unprotected and mostly privately owned, making it an automatic target for deforestation and development. As over four-fifth of Australia is hot and barren in the middle, settlers prefer the fertile and rainy zones of the East coast and this is where they come into direct conflict with the koala's habitat.
Clearing, logging, urban expansion and pollution have followed these pockets of human habitation, posing a threat to the koala's survival. Loss of habitat, owing to deforestation, means the koalas are out of their safety zones of tree-tops and potential victims of vehicular accidents.
Venturing into private estates for food makes their inherent slowness perfect targets for dogs and cats. Starvation is then a natural fall-out.
Disturbance from noise emanating from nearby human habitations is one more threat to the koala's health, since it is so dependent on sleep.
Pesticides flowing into steams and waterways passing through the koala habitat is another cause for worry.
Indiscriminately planting eucalyptus trees in koala habitats in the name of reforestation is showing little signs of helping koalas. The koalas of different regions diet on specific species of eucalyptus suited only to them.
Scientists figure that such multiple sources of disruption to the koala habitat could lead to a high incidence of disease among the animals. Chlamydia is one such disease that assails the koalas under stress. Sore eyes, blindness and chest infections are common to Chlamydia. Even worse, sore throats can occur, making it impossible for the koala to eat. Cancer and leukemia have also been known to afflict the koala.
In contrast to the situation on much of the mainland, the koalas of many island and isolated populations have flourished. In the absence of predators and competition, combined with an inability to migrate to new areas, koala populations can become unsustainable. Although culling has been suggested as a means to reduce koala numbers, this has met with fierce opposition both domestically and internationally, and the species remains protected. The popularity of the koala has made the possibility of a cull politically improbable, with any negative perception likely to impact on tourism and a government's electability. In place of a cull, sterilization and translocation programs have had only limited success in reducing numbers thus far, and remain expensive. There is evidence that koalas relocated to the mainland have difficulty establishing themselves in the different circumstances. A mooted alternative to the complex sterilization method, wherein the animal must first be captured, are hormonal implants that can be injected via darts.
On the mainland, koala populations in Queensland is only 40% of what it was once was. In New South Wales, it is 33%. A recent count revealed that there may be around 43,000 of these creatures presently in Australia, down from over 100,000 a century ago. The Australian environment ministry has demarcated select koala habitats of Queensland and New South Wales as protected zones from deforestation and development and officially recognized the animals' status as one of the most endangered species.
Immediate action must be taken now to stop the koala bear from going the way of the Tasmanian Tiger.
About 600 miles off the coast of South-Eastern Africa lies the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar. Famed for its lush green tropical forest, misty highlands, temperate climate and 3,000 miles of coastline, this jewel in the Indian Ocean is home to one of the most exotic creatures in the world – the lemurs.
Madagascar's 160 million years of isolation as a landmass has shaped an ecosystem and habitat that's perfectly suited and unique to the existence of lemurs. The lemurs themselves have been on the island for over 40 million years, giving them distinctive features quite different from any other animal in the world. In appearance, lemurs are a mixture of many animals – squirrel, cat, dog, and monkey. Some have faces that closely resemble raccoons or skunks and have many characteristics of apes. But when there are 101 species of an animal, looks and behavioral patterns vary widely.
Lemurs are basically nocturnal creatures and move about at night. "Lemures" in Latin means "Spirits of the night". Lemurs are herbivorous animals and their main diet is plants. 55 percent of the island's plant life constitute food for lemurs. Black lemurs, for example, eat leaves, flowers and fruit. So do the inri, another species of lemur. Insects also form an important part of the diet, especially for the smaller species of lemur. Greater bamboo lemurs live off the inner pith of giant bamboo found in forest pockets of the eastern highlands.
Among the existing species, the diademed sifaka and the indri lemurs are the largest and can weigh up to 15 lbs at the most. The smallest, the pygmy mouse lemur, weighs only 1 oz, making it the tiniest primate in the world.
Man first landed in Madagascar as recently as 2,000 years ago. The fate of lemurs has been threatened ever since. Archaeoindris fontoynontii, the giant lemur weighing as much as 440 lbs, was among the first species to become extinct. Once found virtually all over Madagascar, lemurs are now ensconed into just 20 percent of their original habitat, most of it in the central and east coast highlands. According to a recently released report of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, of the 101 species of lemurs, 22 are on the brink of extinction, 48 are endangered, and 20 are vulnerable.
The threats to the lemur's survival is similar to many endangered animals of the world - a burgeoning human population's hunger for more land which translates into more clearing of forests for agricultural purposes. Poverty-stricken Malagasys have resorted to burning down the nation's scarce forests to grow crops. Hunger has also led to the hunting of lemurs for meat, an unusual occurrence until a few decades ago.
Political turmoil also has taken a toll on the laws and mechanisms that safeguard and conserve forest resources. Armed gangs, working in cahoots with the timber mafia, have taken advantage of the political vacuum to pillage protected forests for ebony and rosewood. Over $100 million dollars of wood stolen in this manner have made their way to China for use in furniture. The immediate fallout is on the habitat of the lemur.
Despite laws protecting the lemurs, the creatures are not just hunted as a delicacy, but for superstitious reasons too. The aye-aye lemur, a 5.1 lbs animal, is considered a harbinger of death by some natives and is quickly exterminated if spotted in the vicinity of their villages.
The ring-tailed lemur is among the most well-known and loved lemur species. It is at the top of the list of the illicit pet trade industry. Found mostly in the southern fringes of Madagascar, this beautiful animal, with an off-white coat and a long zebra-striped tail, is sold to hoteliers and tourists for a ridiculously low sum of $2. Being a popular animal, it is also inhumanely kept in zoos all around the world for human entertainment and profit.
The black lemur is another highly endangered species. There are about 10,000 of them in the North-western parts of Madagascar and in some of the islands off the North coast. The black lemur stands about 38 inches tall and weighs about 5 lbs. The black lemur faces common threats like other lemur species. Man's proximity has brought this species into confrontational situations where they have been killed for raiding crops.
Superstitions sometimes can work in favor of the lemurs. For example, the inri is believed to be carrying souls of ancestors. Villagers refrain from killing them.
But lemurs desperately need protection. Loss of habitat can have serious consequences for the breeding or reproduction of lemurs. The lemurs have very short mating and birth windows that are synchronized to seasons when food availability is at its peak. The female vagina opens up for a very brief period of the day, leaving a small window for reproductive activities. High levels of energy exhaustion during such periods account for high mortality among adult lemur females.
Despite protests from local villages, the Ranomafana National Reserve Park was created by the forest authorities of Madagascar. The Ranomafana reserve is a 15 km strip of virgin forests not far from the east coast setup primarily to protect the lemurs inhabiting it. Similarly, nearly 20 national parks have sprung up in the last few decades – especially along the entire eastern and southern coastal belts – to protect endangered species in those sensitive places where they may come into direct contact with human habitation.
The blue-eyed black lemur, an inhabitant of the sub-tropical moist and dry forests in the north-western tip of Madagascar, is a beneficiary of serious conservation measures. Thanks to the endeavors of organizations that have put into place natural resource management and ecological research programs to monitor and mitigate the loss of valuable forest resources in that region, the rare blue-eyed species of lemur is on a comeback trail and finds itself out of the IUCN’s list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.
But serious challenges remain. In addition to rapid habitat loss, climate changes may pose the biggest threat to the survival of lemurs. A study found that 60 percent of the 57 species examined may find their habitat reduced by an alarming two-thirds in the next seventy years solely due to climate change.