January 25, 2012 |
Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Christina Russo
Biologist Roger Payne played a key role in helping end the wholesale slaughter of whales. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Payne discusses the mysteries of these legendary marine mammals and the threats they continue to face.
Roger Payne first came to prominence more than 40 years ago, when he and a colleague made the discovery that whales sing eerily beautiful songs as a way of communicating. Their 1970 recording of whale sounds, Songs of the Humpback Whale, helped to galvanize the global anti-whaling movement, which led most countries to scrap their whaling fleets.
Payne, the founder of the conservation group, Ocean Alliance, has continued his groundbreaking work on whales, including recent landmark studies showing how whales worldwide have high levels of pollutants — including DDT — in their bodies. He also is continuing a 40-year study of more than 2,000 right whales in Argentina, identifying individual whales by the markings on their heads.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina Russo, Payne talked about current threats to the world’s whale populations, including the ongoing killing of whales by Japan and other nations — a practice he describes as inhumane. Payne also discussed the mystery of the songs sung by whales, whose haunting strains have the power, he says, to move people to tears.
Yale Environment 360: You’ve been studying whales for nearly half a century?
Roger Payne: Yes. I’ve been studying whales about 45 years.
e360: Do you ever come across educated, aware people who don’t realize that whaling is still taking place?
Payne: I would say most of them don’t realize it. And if they do realize that whaling is taking place, they are very pleased that there is a moratorium and that whaling is under control. And of course the truth of the matter is that whaling is completely under the control of the whalers — not the rest of the world. The rest of the world gets no chance to vote on it, even discuss it, set up any quotas or anything else. The whalers have won absolutely everything.
e360: When you first started studying whales in the 1960s, the chief threat to them was commercial whaling. About 33,000 great whales at that time were killed annually. The 1986 moratorium made a huge impact. But Norway, Iceland and Japan — among others — still whale. How many whales are killed now annually?
Payne: The numbers have been climbing steadily since the moratorium went into effect. At that time the total number killed was 185 whales. Two years ago it was 1,004.
e360: Japan is the chief whaling nation...
Payne: Yes, it controls it all. The other nations will tell you they are interested primarily in getting whale meat, but it’s perfectly clear that what they are looking for is foreign exchange, so they can buy all of the wonderful things that are made in Japan. Norway has some people who eat whales, and so does Iceland, but not enough to eat through the stocks that they get. What they are really trying to do is export to Japan.
The regulations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have two loopholes that you could fly a 747 through. One of them is: If you don’t like some restriction which has been passed — not just by a majority of the other nations in the commission, but by every other nation in the commission — all you have to do is to say, within 90 days, “I don’t like it, I’m not going to obey it.” And it is totally legal not to obey it. Japan didn’t do that when the IWC passed the “zero quota” moratorium. Instead, Japan waited a couple of years and said it was going to continue it’s “scientific research.”
And that is the second loophole in the commission. Basically, this means if a scientist says he needs whales to do studies on, then the country of which that scientist is a citizen can give the scientist permits to kill whales. It doesn’t have to wait for the International Whaling Commission to make up its mind and say whether or not that can happen.
e360: What kind of liberties does this scientific umbrella afford Japan?
Payne: They are killing the same whales. Taking almost exactly the same data they took when they were doing commercial whaling. They are selling these whales’ bodies to the same markets. And they are taking them from the same areas... And now it’s “science!” It is a total scam! It doesn’t fool anybody. They have produced only maybe one or two papers in the years since the whale moratorium took effect.
e360: Doesn’t the scientific clause allow the Japanese to whale — for example — certain species they might not be able to otherwise? Or calves?
Payne: Yes, and it is a very important distinction. If you say you are doing scientific whaling , you get to do anything you like. You can kill any whale. Of any species. Of any area. At any age. By any means. And you are doing it in the name of “science.”
e360: What are the methods to kill whales?
Payne: The main trouble is that in the wild it is impossible to kill a whale in a humane fashion. The normal technique is to fire a harpoon that weighs about 200 pounds into the back of a whale, and five seconds after it hits the whale, the tip on it explodes – and that is supposed to kill the whale instantly. However, in one of the worst cases, it took four hours and nine harpoons to kill the whale. During this time, the whale is pulling against the barbs on the harpoon in its flesh to a degree where it can actually pull a catcher boat, which is a very powerful speedboat.
The [method] that is now mostly used is a technique in the Antarctic that uses sonar. Not, however, to look at the whale underneath the water. They use it as a means of scaring the whales, because sonar is very loud. They did experiments and chose a frequency which kept whales so panicked, that they were at the surface for breaths more frequently than at other frequencies. So, they drive the whale along at the surface and then they fire into it.
Normally, they used to hit somewhere about the back of the head of a whale, so that the explosion of the harpoon might in fact do something. But, with small whale species — and the small one that is the basis of the industry now is the minke whale — the whale gets a lot of its meat damaged by an exploding harpoon. So, what they now do is they shoot farther back along the body, back near the tail. And there is a winch on board the catcher boat, which is able to winch the rear of the whale up into the air, leaving the whale’s head in the water. And the whale slowly — very slowly — drowns. And during the time that the whalers lift it up, they also put some electrodes into it and try to electrocute it. Heaven knows what the whale is suffering as a result of that sort of behavior.
e360: From 2000 to 2005, Ocean Alliance conducted a massive study in which your goal was to get a baseline survey of pollutants in whales. Can you explain those findings?
Payne: We came back with 955 samples from sperm whales. There were [a few] reasons we used sperm whales. One is, like humans, they live at the top of the food chain, so what is happening to them is happening to us — even if we don’t know it. And the other major reason is that they have a lot of fat, so they absorb some of the substances that we are most interested in — things called persistent organic pollutants. Along the way, we also started analyzing for metals, and some of the biggest shocks came from metals.
We found, for example, that the concentrations of aluminum and chromium are surprisingly very, very high. Our data showed that chromium levels present in sperm whales were previously only seen in workers who have had long, occupational exposure — 20 years of being in some factory in which chromium is being used. One of the ideas that came from this and has gained some traction is the possibility that these animals are getting chromium from the air, from breathing it in.
Another shock was that the highest concentrations of DDT were in whales right off of the Galapagos Islands, where there is no use, as far as we know, of DDT by big agriculture.
e360: What did that mean?
Payne: The most obvious thought would be that these were whales that had come in from elsewhere, where they had been exposed. But there are big surprises in things like DDT. For example there is more DDT in the air over Canada now than when Canada used DDT — and it hasn’t used it since the late ‘60s. This stuff moves around, and it gets into the ocean. What it’s really showing is that whatever the food was that the whales in these areas were feeding on... it came from food chains that were badly contaminated with it.
Also, these substances concentrate as they move up food chains because any given animal in the ocean feeds at the sixth level of the food chain. All that means is that at the bottom of its food chain is all the plants, and those plants are single-celled diatoms. And they get eaten by little zooplankton, little single-celled animals. And they get eaten by other zooplankton, which might get eaten by krill, which might get eaten by a small fish. And the small fish may get eaten by a bigger fish. And then eventually the whale might be eating on that somewhat larger fish.
If you have that sort of situation, you get about 10 times the magnification of substances that the animal cannot metabolize. So they have to store them. There’s nothing they can do with them. If you have a six-step food chain you have a 10 to the 6th amplification — that is a million. So, if you were about to eat a pound of swordfish, and the swordfish had fed at the sixth level of the food chain, how many pounds of algae or diatoms did it take to make that one pound of swordfish? The answer is 10 to the 6th — a million pounds. A million pounds is 500 tons. 500 tons is 50 ten-ton truckloads. Load those trucks all up with diatoms, all dripping down onto the pavement, and then park them nose to tail — that will take about 18 blocks. Now tie your liver to one end of this row of trucks and detoxify the whole thing with your liver. And that’s what you do when you eat a pound of any fish that lives at the 6th level of any ocean food chain.
You do that enough and over enough years and you end up with a very serious load of these contaminants in your own body, and it causes all kinds of terrible health effects.
e360: Do you believe pollutants could actually bring about the extinction of the whale species or is that too dramatic?
Payne: Not only is it not dramatic, I think it is inevitable for many whale species. The reason is that many of these contaminant loads last longer in the whale than we believe the lifetime of the whale to be... [And] because whales are mammals, there is not only a build-up during the lifetime of the individuals, but there is also an increase as you go from generation to generation. When a mother nurses her offspring, she is actually dumping her lifetime’s accumulations of fat-soluble substances into her newborn babe. So the babe does not start life as a pristine creature. It starts life basically with a concentration [of contaminants] that is about the same of what its mother has. And then it goes through its own life and adds to it with the meals that it eats. Then it dumps that double load into its first infant. And it should slowly move along from generation to generation... until you don’t have reproduction working well at all.
But I’m concerned not just with whales, but also with the concentrations of these substances in people. For example, about a billion people in this world eat — as the principal source of animal protein — food from the sea. That means about a billion are in a position of getting these substances into their bodies and not being able to get rid of them. And I worry about the rest of the other species of marine mammals as well who have high diets of fish — seals, sea lions, and porpoises.
e360: I want to ask you about your study in Argentina, which [Ocean Alliance] describes as “the longest continuous study of any great whale based on known individuals.”
Payne: We have been studying right whales in Argentina starting in 1970. You can tell individual right whales apart by the patterns of the white markings on their head, there are no two alike. We now follow the fates of well over 2,000 right whales. We know who is the mother of whom; who is the half-brother, or sister, and who consorts with whom, and who avoids whom. We also can tell the ages of whales, and what differences occur as they get older, because we watch them as calves and then follow them through life.
e360: Do you have affection for any particular species of whale? Or an individual?
Payne: Oh, yes there is an individual I am very fond of. We call her Y-spot. She has a pattern on her back of a Y and a spot... She is a right whale in Argentina, and I missed her for about five years at one point. And then one day when I was watching whales from a cliff I saw a whale in the distance, and I couldn’t figure out who the Dickens it was. After maybe two and half hours of watching, I suddenly saw that this was... Oh my gosh, it was Y-spot. I can’t tell you how it felt. It would be like finding a long lost brother or something.
e360: Is there a singular moment for real triumph for you as a conservationist?
Payne: What has pleased me most is the reaction that people still have when they hear the sounds of whales. Nobody is prepared for it. Whales seem to be communicating in what I think of as emotional communication. If I was trying to make you joyous or sad or concerned or frightened or something like that, there might be ways of doing that — but I wouldn’t think of doing it in any way except by words. But in the case of whales, I think they are achieving those same sorts of things probably just as directly.
The songs of whales have a profound impact on many people. A lot of people weep when they hear them. And they can’t even tell you why they have wept, except they say it just seems so sad. And many times it does.Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
Mary Evelyn Tucker has been one of the innovators in the study of the connections between ecology and religion. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about her work and about a new film she co-produced that points to the spiritual dimension of responding to the world’s environmental challenges.
As a pioneer in the field of religion and ecology, Mary Evelyn Tucker has long believed that science and policy alone are not enough to deal with the Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges. What’s also needed, she says, is a spiritual or religious framework for valuing the natural world, a sense that “there is something here that’s larger than us, something that’s given birth to all life forms and sustains us.” That is the essence of a new hour-long film she co-produced, Journey of the Universe, which is premiering on PBS television stations this month, and a companion book she co-authored with evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme.
Tucker, a religious historian who teaches at Yale University, has focused her work on exploring the ways that various faiths define the relationship of humans to nature. With her husband, John Grim, she founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology, which grew out of a series of conferences they sponsored on the outlook of the world's religions — including Confucianism, Hinduism, and Islam — and which now involves 10,000 people worldwide.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Tucker describes the evolution of her work and how it is brought together in Journey of the Universe. The film and book project, she explained, seek “to give a sense of how late we humans arrived, and yet how, in a relatively short period of time, our impact has been enormous.” While the film does not include any overt religious references, it does seek to evoke a sense of what she calls “wonder and awe.” Says Tucker, “There is a broad spiritual sensibility, which many environmentalists share, but often don’t talk about or want to name.”
Yale Environment 360: I was struck by the fact that your film, Journey of the Universe, ultimately is a celebration, unlike a lot of environmental-related literature and film that’s filled with a heavy dose of doom and gloom. This film is optimistic and even celebratory in many ways. Why did you choose that approach?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: We decided that so many people are aware of the huge and complex environmental problems we’re facing — ranging from climate change to toxicities to species extinction and so on — that people are so overwhelmed that they go into paralysis and despair. We didn’t want to take people there. We wanted to engage their sense of awe and wonder, because humans are moved fundamentally by either wonder or by disaster. We wanted to draw out the wonder.
So in this film, we put the consequences of humanity’s planetary presence — our burgeoning population, our overwhelming resource use, all the consequences of having exploded in one century from 2 billion people to 7 billion people — and we put that in the last 10 minutes of the film, where we do speak about humanity’s impact and our current environmental crisis. We felt it was more effective there, because first you need to get a sense of the unfolding of a universe that is 14 billion years old, the evolution of our planet, and life emerging out of this tremendous journey. We wanted to give a sense of how late we humans arrived, and yet, how in a relatively short period of time, our impact has been enormous.
e360: You mentioned some of the environmental challenges the world is facing. How do you see the response to those challenges as fitting into the whole idea of religion and its connection to ecology, which has been the focus of your work?
Tucker:What we’re trying to say in the religion and ecology work is that scientific facts are critical and necessary, and policy papers and legislation are indispensable. But they may not be sufficient when it comes to dealing with an environmental crisis. That may require other disciplines and other ways of looking at the world, including religion. For instance, on the issue of climate change, many of the world’s religions have come out with statements about the urgency of climate change because of its effects on the poor and on those most vulnerable — for instance, in Bangladesh and in small island nations like Tuvalu, where people are already being evacuated [because of rising sea levels]. So this is not just an issue that involves science — it is an issue that involves ethics and religion.
e360: One could make the case that the influence of religion, particularly Western religions and the Judeo-Christian sense of humans having dominion over the Earth, has helped to create many of the environmental crises we now face.
Tucker: A lot of people would say that modern capitalism is what created this overconsumption, this excessive use of resources, this growth without limits. Of course, religions have both their problems and their promise. Religions have been somewhat late in coming to environmental issues, but they can be crucial partners with science and policy and economics.
e360: You are really one of the pioneers in this area of exploring the relationship between religion and ecology and ecological thinking. How did you develop an interest in this topic?
Tucker: Well, [my husband] John [Grim] and I had been studying the religions of Asia and the West in graduate school [in the 1970s] and became interested in the environment through our teacher, Thomas Berry [a cultural historian and Roman Catholic priest]. And we said to ourselves, “We’re not scientists or policy people or lawyers or economists. What contribution can we make to environmental studies?”
e360: Do you see any signs that people are becoming more aware of the spiritual or religious dimensions to environmental issues?
Tucker: I think like many social changes, shifting people’s perceptions about the environment is going to take a long time. Sometimes these changes move along at an incremental pace until people realize that there is a moral issue here. That’s what happened with civil rights. There was something deeply wrong about living in an apartheid society in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s. And there’s starting to be a sense now that there’s a moral issue about degradation of the environment, that there is something here that’s larger than us, something that’s given birth to all life forms and sustains us. And if we degrade that, it’s to the degradation of future generations. So there’s an inter-generational ethic here. And there’s a new emerging ethic of responsibility to people in other parts of the world who are suffering from our actions with things like climate change, which is affecting people along coastal waters.
So where is the moral force going to come from for inter-generational ethics or ethical responsibility for people in other parts of the world? It’s going to come from longer-range thinking, and that’s what the religions can contribute. Every major religion around the world now has a comprehensive statement on the environment and the need for care for creation or for the common good, as well as some very powerful statements on specific issues like climate change.
e360: And the focus has been on the ethical dimension of environmental issues?
Tucker: Right. Over the last 15 to 20 years, religion and ecology has grown as an academic field, but also as a force in the larger society. So many colleges across the country now have courses in religion and ecology, certainly in environmental ethics and so on. And the religious communities — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — are moving forward as well. Each religion is developing its own language around this ethical responsibility — stewardship for the Earth is more in the Jewish and Christian traditions, trusteeship for the Earth in the Islamic tradition. Care for creation is what the evangelicals like to use.
e360: The evangelicals are one of the more interesting developments because generally the religious leaders and groups that have gotten involved and interested in environmental issues have been the more liberal elements of various religions. But there is now this green element among evangelicals. What do you make of that?
Tucker: “Creation care” they call it. And it’s a different language than might be used by another Christian tradition. But what’s very interesting in terms of the climate issue is that when a group of [U.S.] evangelicals were taken to Oxford [University] they went to hear two of the world’s leading climate scientists, Gillian Prance and John Houghton, both of whom have been part of the [UN] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but are also evangelical Christians. And that was a real conversion moment for those American evangelicals, most of whom had been very skeptical [about climate change] up to that point. But hearing about it from scientists who also happened to be evangelicals had a profound effect on them.
e360: And what about other religious groups and leaders?
Tucker: Well, one of the international leaders in this whole movement has been the Dalai Lama as a Buddhist, and Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, has been a leader. Even this pope, the present Pope Benedict, has made some very good statements on this issue.
But the Greek Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomewhas been without doubt the spokesperson for environment as a sacred entity. For the last 15 years, he’s had water conferences throughout Europe, in Greenland, at the Amazon, and on the Mississippi, and he has convened [environmental summits with] very high-level people from the UN, from the EU, ministers of environment, and high-level scientists from around the world. And [in 2002], he issued a joint statement with Pope John Paul II about the shared Christian responsibility to safeguard the environment and spoke about what was happening as crimes against creation...
So there are some hopeful signs.
e360: The book you’ve written and the film, Journey of the Universe, are not about religion and ecology — at least not directly. What are the key themes in the book and the film, and how do they tie into your life-long work on religion and ecology?
Tucker: Well, many people will approach an environmental concern through the religion door, if you will. But many people will not come through that door — they’ll be drawn in by a larger sense of the beauty and complexity of the natural world, the integrity of ecosystems, and this vast evolutionary journey that the world is a part of. So Journey of the Universe is an invitation to all of us, really, to reflect on the significance of deep time. And it’s saying that if we have come out of the star burst of a super nova, if we see ourselves as emerging from these self-organizing dynamics of universe and Earth, and if life emerged over these billions of years, what is our responsibility for its continuity?
The language in Journey of the Universe is something that is deeply dependent on scientific discoveries. It’s not using any kind of overt religious language. But it is suggesting, what are the grounds for environmental concern and ethics and action? We are not naming it from any particular perspective — it’s an evocation more than a preachment.
e360: Spiritual rather than religious.
Tucker: Right, exactly. There is a broad spiritual sensibility, which many environmentalists share, but often don’t talk about or want to name. And that’s the point here, to a very large degree, in various religions and culture, humans share a spiritual connection to nature and that’s tied in with a moral and ethical dimension as well.
e360: Certainly, when it comes to the issue of climate change, there’s an ethical dimension, isn’t there? We’re talking about future generations that might be impacted, and we’re talking about people in other parts of the world, including some of the world’s poorest, who would be most affected.
Tucker: Yes. It’s another dimension of human rights, really. But where is the moral voice here? Where is the ethical voice? I think the religious communities can and will draw this [issue] forward and help awaken the consciences of people. That is a huge hope because we have the science [on climate change] — the IPCC has done a remarkable job, the largest scientific work in human history of a collaborative nature. We’ve got policy papers, and we’ve got all kinds of green technologies emerging, which have to be part of the solution too. But this spark, this moral force, is absolutely essential, and I think it’s emerging.
;Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Jeremy Hance
Scientists and conservationists are increasingly relying on heat- and motion-activated camera traps to study rare or reclusive species in remote habitats. And the striking images they provide are proving to be a boon for raising conservation awareness worldwide.
The humble camera trap — an automated digital device that takes a flash photo whenever an animal triggers an infrared sensor — has been coming into its own, playing an increasingly important role in wildlife conservation.
In recent years, the use of camera traps has led to major discoveries, including documenting an Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) in China for the first time in 62 years; proving that the world’s rarest rhino, the Javan (Rhinoceros sondaicus), is breeding, by photographing a female with her calf; rediscovering the hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana) in the Malaysian state of Sabah; recording the first wolverine (Gulo gulo) in California since 1922; taking the first video of the rare Bornean bay cat (Pardofelis badia); documenting the elusive short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis) preying on an amphibian in the Amazon; proving the extremely rare Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) still inhabits Cambodia; and snapping the first-ever photographs of a number of species in the wild, including the Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) and the giant muntjac deer (Muntiacus vuquangensis) in Southeast Asia.
The technology has even been behind the discovery of a few new species: Both the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi) of Southeast Asia and the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) of Tanzania, an elephant shrew, were first identified via camera trap photos. One measure of the camera trap’s rising importance was the release last February by the Smithsonian Institution of more than 200,000 camera trap photos online.
The camera trap has revolutionized wildlife research and conservation, enabling scientists to collect photographic evidence of rarely seen and often globally endangered species, with little expense, relative ease, and minimal disturbance to wildlife. Researchers are now using camera traps to document wildlife presence, abundance, and population changes, particularly in the face of deforestation and habitat destruction. And for the first time, camera traps are enabling researchers to collect baseline population data on tropical mammals and birds where only estimates — and often just guesses — were possible before.
Equally important, camera traps are increasingly being used to raise conservation awareness worldwide, with NGOs embracing the tool as a powerful way of reaching out to the public through You Tube, the Internet, and social networking sites. Groups such as WWF have found camera trap videos and photos to be an important part of campaigns to save threatened or endangered species.
In Sumatra, which has lost half of its forest cover since 1985, a conservation project called Eyes on Leuser is using camera trap videos and photos to publicize the threats to the Leuser forest’s diverse wildlife. To date the group has used camera traps to shoot video footage of 27 species, including the rare Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), the colorful Argus pheasant (Argusianus argus), and the bright-eyed banded civet (Hemigalus derbyanus). “Until now, almost no videos existed of most of Leuser’s cryptic wildlife,” says Marten Slothouwer, a Dutch conservationist who runs Eyes on Leuser. “Our videos can make people realize that it’s worth it to save this forest.”
The first cameras to capture wildlife free from human presence were used in the late 1890s by photographic pioneer George Shiras, who employed trip wires and a flash bulb to catch animals on film; the photos were eventually published in National Geographic magazine. The first purely scientific use of camera traps was in the 1920s, when Frank M. Chapman surveyed the big species on Barro Colorado Island in Panama using a trip-wire camera trap.
But for decades, technological difficulties — including battery power, size of equipment, and unreliable trip mechanisms — left camera trapping for intrepid enthusiasts, rather than mainstream researchers. Not until the 1990s did a camera with an infrared trigger mechanism become available. Today, with the advent of digital cameras, the practice of studying wildlife through camera trapping has exploded.
Although the majority of camera trap photos are blurred or show only parts of an animal, some are on a par with the best in wildlife photography, capturing one thing that is truly difficult for photographers: a palpable sense of intimacy. More discoveries are expected as researchers undertake new and larger projects, including a study of tropical mammals in seven nations by The Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, which is documenting long-term wildlife population trends in order to identify conservation priorities.
There is no tool better for finding out “what’s out there” than the camera trap. Scientists usually place camera traps on trails or at watering holes or mud wallows (spots where animals or birds often appear), but also at locations where researchers can access the camera repeatedly to download photos and change batteries. Within a few months of setting up traps, scientists begin to gain a good sense of which large and medium-sized fauna reside in the area.
“Camera trapping provides a window into a world that was previously only accessible to researchers or individuals with intimate knowledge of that species or habitat,” says Brent Loken, president of Ethical Expeditions, which uses camera traps to collect data on the mammals of the Wehea Forest in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan. The traps have proven the existence of elusive mammals, such as the banded civet (Hemigalus derbyanus) and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), one of the least known big cat species in the world.
In the Pantanal, Brazil’s great wetlands, Arnaud Desbiez of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has used camera traps to document the presence of the world’s largest armadillo (Priodontes maximus) — a rare, nocturnal species that spends much of its time underground. Using camera traps, he and his team have discovered that giant armadillo burrows play a bigger role in the ecosystem than anticipated, providing shelter to creatures such as collared peccaries.
In Africa, Ben Colleen of the Zoological Society of London and his colleagues have used camera traps to study rare pygmy hippos in West Africa’s dwindling rainforests. The species is so mysterious that researchers only took the first photo of a wild pygmy hippo in Liberia in 2008.
Also in Africa, camera traps recently set up in Gabon took the first publicly released video of the African golden cat, the least-known feline on the continent. Unlike the other cats of Africa, the golden cat only inhabits rainforest, making it extremely difficult to spot, let alone study. University of KwaZulu-Natal graduate student Laila Bahaa-el-din captured footage of an African golden cat sitting directly in front of the camera and chasing a butterfly. On watching the videos for the first time, Bahaa-el-din says, “I felt, at last, like I was getting to know this elusive cat... The African golden cat has dominated my thoughts and energy for over a year-and-a-half now.”
Bahaa-el-din’s research is focused on understanding how the wild cat fares in pristine areas versus sustainably managed logging concessions and poorly managed logging tracts. Camera trap video footage taken in a logging concession in central Gabon that employs sound logging practices and aggressively pursues illegal hunters, indicates, says Bahaa-al-din, that “logging alone should not mean the depletion of wildlife.” The evidence from these camera traps will eventually be used to develop a conservation plan for the African golden cat, now getting its first global publicity thanks to the remote cameras.
Camera traps have some drawbacks. As Arnaud Desbiez puts it, “Camera traps are limited in space. They can only gather information in the tiny area where their sensors are positioned. Therefore animals can easily go undetected, and you need a lot of cameras to properly survey an area.”
The cost of camera traps also can be an issue, especially in developing countries. A single camera trap ranges from $150 to $600, not including extra batteries, battery chargers, and data cards. Camera traps also break; tigers, elephants, and other big mammals have been known to attack the traps. In addition, in areas where poachers are a problem, scientists occasionally lose camera traps to people who understandably don’t like their photo being taken.
Still, camera trapping is now on the cusp of a new round of expansion. Camera traps could be used in rainforest canopies to study birds, reptiles, and monkeys, and underwater cameras could document marine wildlife and the fauna of lakes and rivers. With further technological advances, it may even be possible to use tiny cameras to document the world’s micro-species, from stag beetles to brush-footed butterflies.
Indeed, proponents contend, the future of camera trapping may only be limited by our imagination.Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by william laurance
More than half of the timber now shipped globally is destined for China. But unscrupulous Chinese companies are importing huge amounts of illegally harvested wood, prompting conservation groups to step up boycotts against rapacious timber interests.
In Chinese folklore, a dragon symbolizes strength. It is an apt icon for a nation whose rise as an economic superpower has been nothing short of meteoric.
While China’s stunning economic advances have come at significant environmental cost, the boom has been a plus in a few realms. The country is investing avidly in green technologies, such as solar energy and high-tech car batteries. It has also undertaken an ambitious national reforestation program, while cracking down on illegal forest clearing and logging inside its borders. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, forest cover in China, including large areas of timber plantations, increased from 157 million hectares in 1990 to 197 million hectares in 2005.
Counter-intuitively, the expansion of Chinese forests has occurred at the same time the country has been developing an immense export industry for wood and paper products. China is now the “wood workshop for the world,” according to Forest Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, consuming more than 400 million cubic meters of timber annually to feed both its burgeoning exports and growing domestic demands. Production of paper products has also grown dramatically in China, doubling from 2002 to 2007.
But the rise of the Chinese dragon has a darker side. As much as half of the timber and much of the paper pulp consumed by China is imported, primarily from tropical nations or nearby Siberia. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this — China has every right to grow economically and seek the kind of prosperity that industrial nations have long enjoyed. However, in its fervor to secure timber, minerals, and other natural resources, China is increasingly seen as a predator on the world’s forests.
China is now overwhelmingly the biggest global consumer of tropical timber, importing around 40 to 45 million cubic meters of timber annually. Today, more than half of all timber being shipped anywhere in the world is destined for China. Many nations in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa export the lion’s share of their timber to China.
China faces three criticisms by those worried about the health and biodiversity of the world’s forests. First, the country and its hundreds of wood-products corporations and middlemen have been remarkably aggressive in pursuing timber supplies globally, while generally being little concerned with social equity or environmental sustainability. For instance, China has helped fund and promote an array of ambitious new road or rail projects that are opening up remote forested regions in the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Asia-Pacific to exploitation. Such frontier roads can unleash a Pandora’s Box of activities — including illegal colonization, hunting, mining, and land speculation — that are often highly destructive to forests.
China is also a major consumer of wood pulp, which is helping to drive large-scale deforestation in places like Sumatra and Borneo. During a recent visit to Sumatra, I witnessed the felling of large expanses of native rainforests, which are being chopped up and fed into the world’s largest wood-pulp plant, located nearby, and replaced by monocultures of exotic acacia trees.
Second, China, in its relentless pursuit of timber, almost exclusively seeks raw logs. Raw logs are the least economically beneficial way for developing nations to exploit their timber resources, as they provide only limited royalties and little employment, workforce training, and industrial development. As a result, most of the profits from logging are realized by foreign timber-cutters, shippers, and wood-products manufacturers. A cubic meter of the valuable timber merbau (Intsia bijuga), for instance, yields only around $11 to local communities in Indonesian Papua but around $240 when delivered as raw logs to wood-products manufacturers in China, who profit further by converting it into prized wood flooring.
Finally, China has done little to combat the scourge of illegal logging, which is an enormous problem in many developing nations. A 2011 report on illegal logging by Interpol and the World Bank concluded that, among 15 of the major timber-producing countries in the tropics, two-thirds had half or more of their timber harvested illegally. Globally, economic losses and tax and royalty evasion from illegal logging are thought to cost around $15 billion annually — a large economic burden for developing nations. Forest ecosystems suffer serious impacts as well, because illegal loggers frequently ignore environmental controls on cutting operations.
According to a 2010 analysis by Chatham House, a respected UK think tank, illegal logging is slowly declining globally but this is despite, rather than because of, China’s influence. The report concluded that, from 2000 to 2008, China imported 16 to 24 million cubic meters of illegal timber each year. This is an incredible figure — twice the total amount imported annually by leading industrial nations.
Around a third of Chinese timber imports are ultimately exported, as furniture, plywood, flooring, disposable chopsticks, and other wood products. European countries, the U.S, and Japan are the biggest importers, with consumers there often unaware of the illicit origin of many wood products from China.
When it comes to illegal or predatory logging, it has not been easy to get China’s attention. Stories about illegal logging rarely penetrate the Chinese news media. For example, in 2006 the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), an international scientific organization, held its annual conference in Kunming, China. At the time I was president of the ATBC, and I spoke at length to Chinese journalists about the problem of illegal logging and the risks it posed for Chinese exporters. To my knowledge, not a single story about my concerns was reported in China, even though I emailed the journalists a summary of my comments translated into Mandarin Chinese.
Outside China, the story is different. Awareness of the rapacious nature of Chinese timber interests is growing, especially since a 2005 report by a green group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, that detailed massive illegal logging and timber theft in the Indonesian state of Papua. Smuggled timber from Papua arrived in mainland China via international criminal syndicates involving corrupt Indonesian insiders, Malaysian loggers, and Singaporean shippers. Other groups, such as the World Resources Institute, Forest Trends, WWF, and Greenpeace, have laid similar claims against China. With mainstream organizations such as the World Bank, Interpol, and Chatham House joining in, what began as murmurs of concern is becoming a loud clamor for change.
This is a dangerous situation for Chinese businesses and exporters. Influential environmental organizations in Europe and North America have their eye on China. For example, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has waged a campaign urging corporate customers to avoid paper and pulp products originating from two of Indonesia’s largest corporations, Asian Pulp & Paper (APP) and APRIL, which are felling large expanses of native rainforest for wood pulp. The pulp and paper have been used by Chinese manufacturers to make branded products for scores of well-known companies around the world. Some of those companies — including Gucci, Scholastic, Hachette, and Tiffany & Co. — have switched to recycled and sustainably certified paper products. As of this year, other companies — including Prada, American Greetings, Marc Jacobs, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins publishing — are continuing to use APP or APRIL paper products supplied by Chinese manufacturers, according to RAN.
Such actions could have a big impact on Chinese exports. Boycotts initiated by green groups can have a major influence on consumer preferences and have forced some of the largest retail chains in North America and Europe, such as Walmart and Ikea, to limit products sourced from old-growth forests. Meanwhile, eco-certified timber products accounted for $7.4 billion in sales in the U.S. alone in 2005, and were expected to grow to $38 billion there by 2010. At some point, Chinese companies will buck the trend toward sustainable logging at their peril.
Adding teeth to such consumer actions are tougher laws and initiatives in industrial nations. In particular, new provisions to the Lacey Act in the U.S., and the European Union Timber Action Plan in Europe are increasingly holding corporations that import illicit timber products responsible for their actions.
One senses that efforts to combat illicit timber imports are finally beginning to gain some traction in China. The relevant government agencies are now engaged, and the country has commissioned an analysis of its role as an importer of illegal timber and released draft guidelines to improve sustainability of its timber-importing corporations. It also recently hosted the Asia Forest Partnership Dialogue 2011, in Beijing, designed to assess progress in efforts to combat illegal logging in Asia over the last decade.
However, China still has no national action plan or legislation to prevent the import of illegally sourced timber, and no formal trade arrangements with major timber-producing countries designed to improve enforcement. Despite dominating the global timber market, Chinese wood-products corporations feel little pressure from buyers to improve the legality of their timber products and consider it largely unimportant to their future competitiveness, according to the Chatham House report.
The bottom line: China’s efforts to limit the environmental impacts of its burgeoning timber imports are still mostly lip-service, with little practical impact.
Check the labels when you shop for any wood or paper products. If it says, “Made in China,” be wary of the dragon, and think twice before buying.Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Heather Carr
Menhaden is a tiny fish with a big impact on the ecosystem. Because of recent overfishing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommended a change in the amount of catch allowed this year from 92 percent of the spawning population to 70 percent.
What is a Menhaden and Why Do We Care?
Menhaden is a small fish that filter feeds on phytoplankton. This makes it an important cleaning fish for areas that have algal blooms from industrial and agricultural runoff, like the Chesapeake Bay.
While they are considered inedible for humans, menhaden serve as a prey fish for many of the fish that people do like to eat. The overfishing of the menhaden has caused many of the edible fish species to decline, making it harder for small fisherman to earn a living, thereby impacting coastal communities.
Omega Protein, a company based in Texas whose largest plant is in Virginia, is responsible for 80 percent of the annual menhaden catch. The company cooks the fish at their Reedville plant and grinds them up for use in animal feeds, pet food, agricultural fertilizers, and fish oil supplements.
Omega Protein and the Menhaden Catch
Omega Protein has resisted fishing caps through the years and gotten their way. If it seems odd that a single company could sway scientific opinion, it is because the menhaden fishery is unique.
Most fisheries are regulated by local and state commissions, but the menhaden fishery is regulated by the Virginia legislature. In order for the fishing cap to be enforced, the Virginia legislature must agree to it.
Even though the recognition of the need for limiting the menhaden catch is a good thing, it may not matter if the Virginia legislature doesn’t act on it.Reprinted with permission from Blue Living Ideas
by Beth Buczynski
Earlier this week, the City of Toronto became the latest major metropolitan area to ban the sale and possession of shark fins. The ban was passed by the city council by a vote of 38-4.
Fins from up to 73 million sharks are used every year to make shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asian culture. Shark finning is a cruel and wasteful practice – captured at sea and hauled on deck, the sharks are often still alive while their fins are sliced off. Because shark meat is not considered as valuable as the fins, the maimed animals are tossed overboard to drown or bleed to death.
The state of California, which has a large Asian population, also recently passed a similar ban on shark fins. The California bill was proposed and championed by Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), who is himself of Asian descent.
“It is time to stop serving a soup that is driving sharks to extinction,” said Assemblymember Fong in September. ”The cultural issue is very minor compared to the major environmental devastation of eliminating sharks for our world’s oceans. Chinese Americans are environmentally conscious, we believe in harmony with nature, it is in our culture to support the protection of our environment.
The Toronto bill was introduced by Councillors Glenn De Baeremaker, John Parker, and Kristyn Wong-Tam, with additional support from Licensing Committee Chair Cesar Palacio and other members of Council. As the fifth largest city in North America, the City of Toronto was the largest market for shark fins in all of Canada.
“Toronto’s action is a huge victory in the global fight against an illegal shark fin trade valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Rob Sinclair, Executive Director of WildAid Canada, who has been at the forefront of this campaign for the past five months.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 1/3 of the world’s shark species are threatened with extinction, with certain species experiencing declines up to 90 percent.
While the practice of shark finning is illegal in North America, current laws banning shark finning do not address the issue of the shark fin trade. Therefore, fins are being imported into North America from countries with few or even no shark protections in place.Reprinted with permission from Sustainablog
In a study published in the journal Nature, a coalition of scientific organizations reported that 100 percent of healthy brown bats exposed to the fungus while hibernating developed the mysterious ailment, which has killed more than 1 million cave-dwelling bats in the U.S. since it was first identified in 2006. In the northeastern U.S., scientists say white-nose syndrome has caused an 80-percent decline in bats. The latest research confirmed that G. destructans can be spread from infected bats to healthy bats through direct contact, said David Blehert, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the authors of the report.
But like most pathogens, he said, spore-producing fungi can be spread in numerous other ways. Consequently, he said, agencies will take careful precautions to limit human access to sensitive areas occupied by bats and restrict the movement of equipment among research sites.
Photo by USFWS Headquarters/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Elizabeth Grossman
New studies have underscored the potentially harmful health effects of the most widely used flame retardants, found in everything from baby blankets to carpets. Health experts are now calling for more aggressive action to limit these chemicals, including cutting back on highly flammable, petroleum-based materials used in many consumer products.
Over the past 40 years, a class of chemicals with the tongue-twisting name of halogenated flame retardants has permeated the lives of people throughout the industrialized world. These synthetic chemicals — used in electronics, upholstery, carpets, textiles, insulation, vehicle and airplane parts, children’s clothes and strollers, and many other products — have proven very effective at making petroleum-based materials resist fire.
Yet many of these compounds have also turned out to be environmentally mobile and persistent — turning up in food and household dust — and are now so ubiquitous that levels of the chemicals in the blood of North Americans appear to have been doubling every two to five years for the past several decades.
Acting on growing evidence that these flame retardants can accumulate in people and cause adverse health effects — interfering with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children — the federal government and various states have limited or banned the use of some of these chemicals, as have other countries. Several are restricted by the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants. Many individual companies have voluntarily discontinued production and use of these compounds. Yet despite these restrictions, evidence has emerged in recent months that efforts to curtail the use of such flame retardants — a $4 billion-a-year industry globally — and to limit their impacts on human health may not be succeeding.
This spring and summer, a test of consumer products, as well as a study in Environmental Science & Technology, showed that use of these chemicals continues to be widespread and that compounds thought to be off the market due to health concerns continue to be used in the U.S., including in children’s products such as crib mattresses, changing table pads, nursing pillows, and car seats. Also this summer, new research provided the first strong evidence that maternal exposure to a widely used type of flame retardant, known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), can alter thyroid function in pregnant women and children, result in low birth weights, and impair neurological development.
“Of most concern are developmental and reproductive effects and early life exposures — in utero, infantile and for children,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, said in an interview.
Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University and lead author of the recent Environmental Science & Technology study, said more action from industry and government regulators is urgently needed. “My concern is the elevated exposure infants and toddlers are receiving,” Stapleton said in an email. “A high proportion of infants are in physical contact with products treated with these chemicals almost 24 hours a day. Some of these chemicals are either known or suspected carcinogens. During the first year of life, infants are still developing, particularly their brain. And some of these flame retardant chemicals have chemical structures similar to known developmental neurotoxicants (e.g. organophosphate pesticides).”
In one study, published this summer in the American Journal of Epidemiology, University of California, Berkeley researchers found that each ten-fold increase in levels of various brominated flame retardants in a mother’s blood was associated with an approximately 115 gram decrease in her baby’s birth weight, a drop the researchers describe as “relatively large.”
“What makes this significant, is that this is the first long study that suggests maternal exposure to PBDEs may impact fetal development and health,” explained lead author Kim Harley, associate director for health effects at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health.
As evidence linking the use of halogenated flame retardants to health risks continues to mount, there is increasing pressure on government and industry to take action. About a dozen U.S. states have enacted laws that bar certain uses of various flame retardants. Among these regulations are those that bar the use of two or more polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), particularly in children’s products. New York recently passed a law limiting use of the flame retardant known as Tris, while the European Union limits the use of certain halogenated flame retardants in electronics — a regulation that most companies comply with worldwide. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission barred Tris from children’s clothing in 1977 after it was identified as a carcinogen and a mutagen. And using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and PBDE manufacturers have worked out a voluntary phase-out of these compounds that began in 2004 and is to conclude in 2013.
Yet new halogenated flame retardants with chemical compositions and structures similar to those that are now regulated, including PBDEs, continue to enter the market. (This class of compounds typically uses bromine and chlorine, elements known as halogens, to inhibit combustion.) Meanwhile, those that are restricted are being found in products from which they’ve been barred, most likely due to various flaws in supply-chain oversight. At the same time, older products containing discontinued flame retardants remain in use; many of these products — furniture, carpeting, car seats, and strollers, for example — are designed to last for years, prolonging exposure to chemicals with documented adverse health effects. But tracking the use of individual flame retardants is challenging, as product labels are not required to declare these substances, nor are chemical manufacturers required to reveal full details of what goes into their products.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other chemical industry groups maintain the safety of currently manufactured flame retardants, and the ACC says that in the U.S. each year flame retardants prevent 360 deaths and 740 injuries that would have resulted from furniture fires alone.
So how can use of these compounds be reduced or eliminated?
The EPA is in the process of assessing potential alternatives to PBDEs and other flame retardants. But a list of potential alternatives released last month includes numerous other halogenated compounds, and many chemicals on the list will likely fail to meet the program’s health-safety goals.
Some experts say what is sorely needed is for industry to begin relying less on the highly flammable, petroleum-based materials used in so many consumer products. “It’s essential that we rethink the base materials we use to make products,” said Kathy Curtis, policy director of Clean New York, a non-profit organization advocating for chemical safety. “Styrene insulation is so flammable that flame retardants are required, and they still burn quite easily. Polyurethane foam in furniture and baby care products is also highly flammable, despite the added flame retardants certain flammability standards require. We have to stop using such fuel-rich, petroleum-based materials in buildings when safer, inherently flame-retardant substitutes are available for these same uses.”
John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, said that industry has become so reliant on flame retardants that as much as a third of the weight of plastics used in airplanes comes from one type of PBDE flame retardant, known as “deca.” Finding an alternative will be challenging, said Warner, especially since from a fire-safety point of view deca is “tried and true,” and it is used in so many different types of plastics and foams. There are viable non-toxic alternatives to using halogenated flame retardants, Warner explained, but thus far, not one that will work as a drop-in substitute for all uses of deca.
Two companies that manufacture children’s products are working to eliminate the need for flame-retardant chemicals by using fabrics whose density and composition enable them to meet flammability standards without chemical additives. Joseph Hei, president and founder of OrbitBaby, said his company has commissioned the milling of its own patented, organic cotton-wool blend fabrics that are fire-resistant. The safety of the products is certified to the Oeko-Tex 100 standard, administered by the Zurich-based Oeko-Tex Institute, which conducts tests to ensure the safety of textiles. “We verify and do our own follow-up screening of these fabrics,” Hei said in an interview.
Andreas Zandren, vice-president for sales, marketing, and product development for BabyBjorn, said his company has found a similar solution by using a densely woven cotton in some products and thinner foams that don’t require use of flame retardants. BabyBjorn does in-house testing of all fabrics to make sure they are free of hazardous flame retardants, Zandren said.
Hei explained that there are relatively few mills that offer Oeko-Tex certified fabrics, adding, “It’s a sourcing challenge.” Both companies also acknowledged that meeting California’s tough flammability standards and U.S. car flammability regulations is challenging. But, said Zandren, “Strict standards challenge us to be very creative in sourcing and testing new materials, as well as creating smart designs.”
This kind of sourcing and testing is costly, as reflected in these companies’ product prices when compared with other more mass-market brands. Asked about the relatively high price of OrbitBaby products and what that means for lower-income consumers, Hei said that he hoped awareness would lead to more demand for the kinds of materials his company is using and thus lead to lower prices. Several larger companies, among them Graco and Walmart, make car seats also rated as low in flame retardants by the Michigan-based non-profit, HealthyStuff.org. Walmart restricts use of PBDEs in children’s and other products, but declined to discuss details of what alternatives their products use to meet safety standards. Graco also declined comment on that issue.
Eventually, product redesign that avoids flammable materials will be key, experts said.
“I think we should be asking, ‘Where do we really need them?’” said Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “I don’t question the need for flame retardants in an airplane, but do we need them in nursing pillows and babies’ strollers? Are we putting chemicals in places we don’t need them?”
Photo by ankakay/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Jim Robbins
Conservationists have long called for creating corridors that would enable large mammals and other wildlife to roam more freely across an increasingly developed planet. But now scientists are taking a closer look at just how well these corridors are working and what role they might play in a warming world.
The rugged Cabinet Mountains of northwestern Montana are an island of wild country with a population of fewer than 30 grizzly bears, their existence tenuous because they are cut off from others of their kind by distance, roads, and other development. Biologists are concerned about the small number of females, since they reproduce only every three to four years. So in recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has occasionally caught a sow near Glacier National Park, trucked it to the Cabinets, and sent it running off into the woods to increase the number of females.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service is pinning its hopes for the long-term survival of this population on a different strategy: the protection of an ecological corridor that would connect the marooned Cabinet grizzly bear population with a larger, more intact ecosystem, 50 miles to the south. That ecosystem is the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, some 600 square miles of rugged bear habitat now devoid of bears because they were wiped out to protect sheep.
The Cabinet bears could make it to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness under their own steam, but standing in their way is the formidable obstacle of Interstate 90 — six lanes of concrete, with more than 8,000 vehicles a day zooming past at 75 miles per hour. Some tunnels exist under the highway to allow wildlife to bypass the road, but in the last few years only one grizzly bear has apparently made it to the other side, and he was shot by a black bear hunter. Biologists aren’t sure grizzlies will even make the trip but they are currently studying options for preserving land for a corridor; in August, a non-profit group bought a key, 71-acre parcel of land to expand the grizzly bear corridor near the Cabinet Mountains. “We can’t make them move,” said Chris Servheen, recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We can only provide the opportunity.”
Connecting the Cabinet Mountain grizzlies to the Selway-Bitteroot wilderness — part of the larger “Yellowstone to Yukon” corridor project — demonstrates the challenges involved in efforts to link up isolated populations of wildlife by establishing ecological corridors. With the planet increasingly carved up by human development, biologists and conservationists have for decades realized the importance of establishing ecological corridors that will enable remaining populations of animals — particularly large mammals — to have the room they need to thrive. Now, numerous studies are underway and the effectiveness of corridors remains an open question, especially as the climate, and natural systems, shift in unpredictable ways.
“We’ve studied the small ones, a couple of hundred yards [wide],” and they work, said Paul Beier, a conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and an expert on wildlife corridors. “We think the bigger ones will work too, but we don’t really know that.”
Still, the creation of corridors is moving ahead. In Germany biologists are planning to protect or create thousands of miles of corridors to connect national parks and conserve a range of species, especially the imperiled European wildcat. In India, conservationists have raised money to resettle several villages in the Tirunelli-Kudrakote corridor, a critical 2,200-acre swath that connects elephant habitat between two preserves that are home to roughly 6,300 elephants, the largest population of Asian elephants in the world. This summer, residents of a fourth village in the corridor agreed to abandon their land for new homes elsewhere.
In the Amazon, conservationists and international organizations are working to create corridors for animal and plant migrations upslope as the climate continues to change. “Extinction estimates for the Amazon Basin are terrifyingly high,” said Miles Silman, a Wake Forest biologist who is gathering baseline data on Andes ecosystems as the region warms. New fragmentation is unceasing; Peru and Brazil completed a massive construction project this year, the Interoceanic Highway, which slices through the protected tropical wilderness of both countries.
In Central America and South America, conservation groups such as Panthera are attempting to create a web of jaguar corridors in many of the 18 countries where the great cats live. The corridors will include parks and wilderness, but also agricultural areas and other human-dominated landscapes through which jaguars can pass without fear of being hunted by local residents.
In western North America, conservationists are hoping that bears and other large animals in the northern Rocky Mountain region will eventually be linked by the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor, which would connect major parks and wilderness areas and allow the flow of species across hundreds of miles of the wildest landscape in North America. “These are large blocks of public land separated by mountain valleys with private land,” said Servheen. “We want to reconnect all the blocks of public land.”
The textbook example of the perils of isolating populations of large mammals is the Florida panther, whose numbers dwindled to just two dozen individuals due to habitat fragmentation and resulting genetic impoverishment; the big cats were dying, in part, because of a heart defect related to inbreeding. But by introducing eight mountain lions from Texas — the same species, even though they have different names — and by building highway overpasses and tunnels that have reduced mortality from cars and trucks, the Florida panther has been pulled back from the brink of extinction. Roughly 100 to 160 exist today.
A critical element of conservation is the need to keep large mammals on the landscape, especially predators. And essential to protecting the large mammals is the preservation of their migration routes, whether they’re moving for food and water, for breeding, to make seasonal changes, or, more recently, to follow preferred habitat as a changing climate causes shifts in plant communities.
Some ecologists question, however, whether corridors are the panacea that conservationists make them out to be. Dan Simberloff, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, said that some corridors will work, and some won’t — it’s site specific because habitats are so different. But he thinks they are a compromise that avoids the real problem, and diverts critical funds. “A general concern I’ve had with the corridor bandwagon is that it perpetuates the notion that we can somehow have conservation on the cheap by providing a technological solution to the problem of habitat destruction and fragmentation,” he said. “It’s seductive, but unlikely to work in many cases. Unfortunately to conserve biodiversity we have to conserve habitat.”
A study published in late September in Ecology Letters suggested that global warming could occur so rapidly that some creatures, including certain amphibians, might not be able to adapt, even with the aid of ecological corridors. “Our work shows that it’s not just how fast you disperse, but also your ability to tolerate unfavorable climate for decadal periods that will limit the ability of many species to shift their ranges,” said Dov Sax, assistant professor of biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University. “Ultimately this work suggests that habitat corridors will be ineffective for many species and that we may instead need to consider using managed relocation more frequently than has been previously considered.”
Few studies exist on the conservation effect of corridors on large mammal populations, but there is some good data on small- to medium-sized species. The longest-running study of corridors has gone on for 18 years at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina, a 310-square-mile federal nuclear reprocessing facility that is also a National Environmental Research Park. Nick Haddad, a professor of biology at North Carolina State University has investigated the impact of a restored corridor 150 meters long and 25 meters wide between fragments of native mixed longleaf pine and savannah. Haddad and his colleagues have done painstaking work, capturing butterflies and small mammals, marking them, and then recapturing them to see which creatures made the trip across the corridor. They have also dusted plant seeds with fluorescent powder, and then found those seeds again in bird waste on the other side of the corridor.
The verdict? “Corridors work as a superhighway for plants and animals and they use them a lot,” Haddad said. Of the 20 species studied, 18 moved more frequently with a corridor, some even ten times as much as species with no corridor. Areas connected by corridors also had 20 percent more plant species than those without according to a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Scientists have shown that highway overpasses for wildlife on Arizona Highway 260 and in Banff National Park are well used and have reduced the number of large animals killed by traffic by more than 90 percent. They are widely considered to be a success, and similar structures are being built around the West. The question, though, is whether less road kill has an appreciable effect on a species’ long-term viability. A 2003 study along the 16-lane Santa Monica Freeway, used by 150,000 vehicles each day, found that bobcats and coyotes used the existing underpasses. But they also crowded the animals’ home ranges together and newcomers were fiercely challenged and did not stay long enough to breed.
Other studies say there is little or no effect from corridors. A 2002 study found, for example, that corridors did not offset the impacts of logging-caused fragmentation in the boreal forest in north-central Alberta, Canada, on most bird species.
Thomas Hoctor, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Florida, and a colleague, Reed Noss, drew up a connectivity plan for their state in the 1990s called Ecological Greenways, which proposed purchasing corridors from the coast to inland habitat. In the last few years, that project has become integral to the state's plans for adapting to climate change. Sea levels are projected to rise by as much as three to six feet in the next hundred years, and much critical habitat will likely be inundated, forcing species to migrate away from the coast. Over the past decade, the state bought hundreds of thousands of acres for corridors, but funding for the program was eliminated this year under the administration of conservative Republican governor, Rick Scott. Still, said Hoctor, the land that has already been purchased could help some species make the journey inland across the state’s densely developed landscape.
Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, is investigating climate change and the movement of species across large landscapes. He thinks the jury is still out on the efficacy of corridors. “The hypothesis is there, but there hasn’t been a lot of empirical work done,” he said. “We don’t know if species will use the corridors we think they will.” What is important about corridors, he said, is that “they create a dialogue and awareness that these are things we need to pay attention to.”
To some, the notion of preserving and creating corridors seems obvious, especially as a warming world will put more pressure on species to move. “Dozens are being created, and it will become hundreds quickly,” said Beier.
But other scientists are less sanguine. University of Minnesota ecologist Craig Packer, writing in Science in 2010 about the Florida Panther, said, “Once the entire planet reaches the same state of economic development and urbanization as the United States, wildlife managers all over the world can look forward to carting rare species from one park to another until the end of time.”
Photo by Ashleigh Bennett/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360