Points Worth Noting…

From Anthony Barnosky, who is featured in the new Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink (which aired last night):

“We have killed about 50 percent of the world’s vertebrate wildlife in just the past 40 years,” he says. “We’ve killed half the numbers of individuals. We’ve fished 90 percent of the fish out of the seas. So these are big things we’re doing to the world.”

Yes, very big. Sounds like Barnosky’s book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money and the Future of Life on Earthis worth a read. (via)

The Bird Holocaust (Cont.): -400 Million

“Don’t be scared. By 2014 there will hardly be any left.”

It’s not just Albanian hunters who are wiping out lots of Europe’s birds. The rest of us are, too:

The researchers calculate that there are now 421 million fewer birds across 25 European countries than there were at the start of the 1980s — a change the study attributes to human-caused environmental degradation.

The scale of decline, in the words of the study just out in the journal Ecology Letters, is “alarming.” The research finds that out of the 144 most common species, there were about 2.06 billion birds in Europe in 1980, and just 1.64 billion in 2009 (the last year considered in the study). Thus, the loss of 421 million represents more than a 20 percent decrease.

“90 percent of that decline can be attributed to the 36 most common species,” says lead study author Richard Inger, from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute. According to Inger, the top five species experiencing stark declines are the house sparrow, the common starling, the Eurasian skylark, the willow warbler, and the Eurasian tree sparrow.

I guess if someone was to remake Hitchcock’s horror classic, The Birds, the scary part about it would be vast and empty skies. The study is here.

Silver Bullet Solutions: Half-Earth

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Desperate times call for bold solutions. E.O. Wilson is up to the task, proposing that half of earth be reserved for human use and the other half preserved for the planet’s 8 million other species. Here’s how he describes “Half Earth”:

We’re just one species, but we’re covering the entire planet with ourselves and our artifacts and activities. As a result we’re systematically eliminating a large part of the remaining species.

Half of them by the end of the century could be extinct or on the brink of extinction. Based on estimates made with fossil species and what we know about ongoing declines, that’s about a thousand times faster than before humans arrived on the scene. So this is a serious problem for the estimated eight million species that constitute the living world—which we’re tearing up.

And we really should be considering the moral implications of what we’re doing. What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: We arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

Now we come to the solution, which I’m developing fully in a book that will come out toward the end of the year. I’m not trying to sell the book. I just wanted to say that, yes, this has matured to the point where it can be presented systematically. Simply put, half to us, half to the other eight million species. Of course you’ll say, Oh, but that’s impossible! We’re still increasing in numbers. We’re breeding and multiplying—that’s human nature, and we’re not going to stop it.

According to United Nations estimates, the population will peak at about ten billion by the end of the century and then begin to come down. There are also reasons to argue that the digital age, and the spearpoints of industry and the economy, indicate that the amount of space needed by each human is going to shrink a great deal. This will free up territory for the other species.

The way it could be done is to take the remaining wildernesses of the world, on both land and sea, and set those aside as inviolate, while we go on with our chaotic and unpredictable, destructive future. Safeguard the rest of life until we settle down.

The big task is to settle down before we wreck the planet. There are large enough sections of wilderness or near wilderness, and there are procedures for protecting them that can work. This is especially true of the sea. Deep, blue-water reserves, along with the coastal shore waters, can easily be divided into inviolate areas. Marine ecologists believe that endangered species would then multiply back rather quickly. This is practicable. And I think we should at least start seriously considering it as an alternative.

It’s a breathtaking idea, yet compelling in its simplicity. Of course, the political hurdles would be enormous. But they exist only because we don’t value the other species on earth, and we are not willing to make sacrifices on their behalf. If that doesn’t change, we will wreck the planet no matter what is proposed. But if that COULD change, an entirely different way of life, and political-economic system, would be possible.

Wilson, in fact, is counting on growing awareness of just how much damage we are doing to wake us up and open us up to new thinking. I think that is right, but of course the real question is WHEN we will collectively wake up as a species, and what will be left to protect when we do.

At the very least, the benefit of such bold and creative thinking is that it forces us to confront all the issues of morality and planetary impact that we so easily ignore or dismiss.

Moose Mystery

A species in trouble, and no one is sure why (beyond the probability that something we are doing is a proximate cause). And it seems to be an increasingly frequent phenomenon that mostly gets noticed when a large, charismatic species, like moose, is involved:

CHOTEAU, Mont. — Across North America — in places as far-flung as Montana and British Columbia, New Hampshire and Minnesota — moose populations are in steep decline. And no one is sure why.

Twenty years ago, Minnesota had two geographically separate moose populations. One of them has virtually disappeared since the 1990s, declining to fewer than 100 from 4,000.

The other population, in northeastern Minnesota, is dropping 25 percent a year and is now fewer than 3,000, down from 8,000. (The moose mortality rate used to be 8 percent to 12 percent a year.) As a result, wildlife officials have suspended all moose hunting.

Warm, wet weather, and ticks, appear to be involved. It’s a good example of how complex the web of life is and how the smallest things can set of a chain reaction that somehow ends up threatening a large, keystone species, like moose.

The Cost Of Human Diversions

Lead from bullets used by hunters is killing off condors:

Today 234 birds are living in the wild (194 of them captive bred), but the prognosis for the species is scarcely brighter than in 1982; they’re being poisoned. When lead bullets strike bone they tend to splinter, impregnating meat and entrails with toxic fragments, any one of which can kill a condor. All manner of carrion-eating birds and mammals feast on the poisoned gut piles left when hunters field dress game…

…When vertebrates ingest lead, their bodies mistake it for calcium and beneficial metals, incorporating it into vital tissues. Symptoms include anemia, convulsions, paralysis, and deterioration of brain, eyes, kidneys, and liver. Humans generally survive lead poisoning, albeit with diminished motor and cognitive capacity. (Research indicates that after lead was removed from U.S. gasoline in the 1970s, children’s IQs rose an average of six points.) But to make it in the unforgiving world of nature, wildlife has to be fine-tuned. So lead-poisoning in wild mammals and birds is rarely survivable.

Today wild condors are on life support because of lead in their blood. They must be routinely captured and detoxed with calcium-based drugs. But the drugs strip away nutrients as well as lead, weakening the birds so they can’t be released for a month or more. A study by the University of California, Santa Cruz found that 48 percent of condors tested and treated between 1997 to 2010 had potentially lethal blood-lead levels.

Just one more reason that hunting is a culture and tradition that needs to evolve.

A California condor is treated for lead poisoning by National Park Service biologists. (Photo by U.S. National Parks Service)

What Meat Or Animal Substance Won’t The Chinese Plunder For Medicinal Properties?

“Dammit, the Chinese think I can help cure indigestion from shark fin soup.”

Apparently, the answer is not scaly anteater:

A Chinese vessel that ran aground on a protected Philippine coral reef was found to contain more than 20,000 pounds of meat from the scaly anteater, a protected species prized for its supposed medicinal qualities.

The ship hit an atoll on April 8 on Palawan Island, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. An additional search of the boat Sunday revealed 400 boxes, each containing between 25 to 30 kilograms of frozen anteaters. An international ban on trading scaly anteaters took effect in 2002, but illegal trade continues as the meat and scales of the animals are valued at over a hundred dollars per kilogram in China.

Billions of Chinese, plus a culture that seeks medicinal relief from all manner of animal parts, is not a good combination.

Forget The Drug War–Time To Throw Those Forces Into The Poaching War

$300,000 on the run.

This excellent, in-depth look at the forces driving rhino poaching, and the difficulties of stopping it in time, won’t make you optimistic. But it’s one of the best articles I’ve read yet:

The figures are shocking: At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia; in 1970 there were 70,000; today, there are fewer than 29,000 rhinos surviving in the wild.

Killing rhinos for their horns is a “complex problem where values of tradition and culture have been corrupted in the name of commercial exploitation”, says Jason Bell, Southern Africa director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“Be it elephants and ivory, tigers and tiger parts, rhinos and rhino horn, the endpoint is the same – profit. And that profit is being chased down in the most brutal fashion by organised crime syndicates who are fearless in their pursuit of the prize,” he says.

In the 1970s, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international commercial trade in rhino products.
However, the black-market trade in wildlife is now a multibillion-dollar industry, trafficked on much the same lines as arms and illegal drugs.

“The recognition that illicit wildlife trafficking is a new form of transnational organised crime should be a wake-up call to governments worldwide,” says Wendy Elliott, global species programme manager of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She wants governments to increase their law-enforcement responses to wildlife crime.

A number of things jumped out at me. 1) Any commodity that is worth $66,000 a kilo (making an average rhino horn worth more than $300,000)  is going to motivate poachers to go to almost any length, and take any risk, to cash in. 2) The complete disconnect between the myth of rhino horn’s medicinal qualities (cure cancer?) and the reality (the horn is just keratin, the same substance as human fingernails). And 3) the involvement of organized crime, which is not a surprise given the value of the trade.

You put all those things together, and it is hard not to feel that the human forces driving the poaching (greed, obsession with magical cures and medicines, an almost complete lack of compassion or interest in preserving the wild) have built up such powerful momentum that even extreme anti-poaching efforts will not buy enough time to change the underlying forces.

A rhino is tagged and ear notched by conservationists in Malilangwe, Zimbabwe.

That doesn’t mean that the fight to stop poaching and the rhino horn trade should be abandoned. If anything, it needs to be intensified dramatically. And here is the one thing I think needs to be happen as we look at catastrophic poaching on land and at sea around the globe: stopping it needs to become a priority goal for military cooperation and assistance programs. Pull the forces and investment that we waste on the drug war and throw them into the fight against poaching and you might see some impressive results. It’s not guaranteed to turn the tide in time, but there is a desperate need for a radically different approach because what we are doing now–whether it is elephants, rhinos, tigers, sharks or regulation-evading factory fishing ships–simply isn’t working well enough.

Getting there would require a transformative update of our notions of global “security” and “threat.” But dealing with climate change and protecting the fragile ecosystems we depend on are missions that are as (or more) important than most of the traditional missions we accept without question.

Battle For The Elephants

Via: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/ivory/stirton-photography#/

Of all the intelligent, self-aware creatures under threat by man, the plight of the elephants is the most urgent and tragic. The reason is simple: they are being killed for the most indefensible of reasons (an Asian love of ivory trinkets), and the killing is so successful that 98% of the African population has been wiped out in a century, leaving a real possibility that African elephants will be extinct in as little as a decade.

That is an epic human failure–perhaps the most epic failure–to respect, steward, and conserve one of Earth’s most fascinating and iconic creatures.

Carl Safina is on it, and recommends the PBS special “Battle For The Elephants” as must-watch TV. It came out of Brian Christy’s epic National Geographic feature, Blood Ivory.

I hadn’t heard about it before, but dug around a bit.

Here’s the description from PBS:

The film tells the ultimate wildlife story — how the Earth’s most charismatic and majestic land animal today faces market forces driving the value of its tusks to levels once reserved for precious metals. Journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley take viewers undercover as they investigate the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one of the world’s main ports for smuggled ivory, Hartley attempts to buy large quantities of tusks from poachers. In China, Christy explores the thriving industry of luxury goods made from ivory and the ancient cultural tradition of ivory carving.

And here is the full episode:

Cry The Beloved Wolf

The twisted politics and false dilemmas of trying to save the American wolf. These conflicts between human culture and economics on the one hand, and species survival on the other hand, are increasingly legion. So far, the sensibilities and priorities we bring to these issues don’t bode well for the animals.

I have to say, I have particular disdain for claims regarding the romance and pleasure of hunting as a priority or rationale for killing animals.

What about the romance and heritage of one of North America’s iconic species?

But what the heck, maybe we can undo it all later.

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