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Indonesia Palm Oil Company Promises to Preserve Forests

Indonesia’s biggest palm oil manufacturer on Wednesday promised to meet new standards aimed at preserving ecologically important peatswamp forests.

The announcement was cautiously applauded by environmental groups like Greenpeace.

Palm oil producer Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) and its subsidiary SMART, part of the Sinar Mas Group, pledged to partner with The Forest Trust (TFT)  to develop new environmentally responsible practices.

SMART president director Daud Dharsono told the press that the companies would not develop plantations on High Carbon Stock and High Conservation Value forests and peatlands, which are prized by scientists for their biodiversity and their role in keeping the climate stable.

Scientists believe the deforestation of the carbon-rich forests plays a major part in global warming. Indonesia is the third biggest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases due mainly to its ongoing destruction of the peatlands to make way for palm oil plantations.

Malaysia and Indonesia contribute about 85 percent of global production of palm oil, a cheap alternative to vegetable oil used in cooking oil, cosmetic products, soap, bread, margarine, and chocolate.

“Without better stewardship, the phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry could spell disaster for local communities, biodiversity and climate change as palm plantations encroach further and further into forested areas,” said  TFT executive director Scott Poynton, as reported by AFP.

“We all know that this agreement counts for nothing if it’s not now implemented,” he added.

“We have worked with other companies to clean up their supply chains successfully, and it is our intention to do so again,” he said.

Greenpeace warily welcomed the move, saying it would put its campaign against GAR on hold to see if the company follows through with its promises, AFP reports.

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Malaysia Rapidly Destroying Ecologically Important Peatlands

Malaysia is destroying forests more than three times faster than all of Asia combined to make way for palm oil plantations, according to a study released Tuesday.

Analyzing data acquired from satellite images of the region, researchers  said the country obliterated an astonishing 872,263 acres, about one-third of its biodiversity-rich peatswamp forests, in the past five years.

The report, which was commissioned by the Netherlands-based Wetlands International, found that the swamps of stored carbon from decomposed plants could disappear from the state of Sarawak by the end of the decade if the clearing continues.

The country is deforesting an average two percent a year of the swamps on Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state on its half of the island of Borneo, which it shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

That’s nearly 10 percent in the last five years. Asia in its entirety deforested at a rate of just 2.8 percent in that period.

“We never knew exactly what was happening in Malaysia and Borneo,” said Wetlands spokesman Alex Kaat, according to AP. “Now we see there is a huge expansion (of deforestation) with annual rates that are beyond imagination.”

The Sarawak peatswamps, home to such animals as the Borneo pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino, were initially harvested for timber. Now companies are totally clearing the forests to make way for palm oil plantations.

“As the timber resource has been depleted the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak’s peat swamp forests,” Marcel Silvius from Wetlands said in a statement.

“Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests may be left at the end of this decade.”

Malaysia and Indonesia contribute about 85 percent of global production of palm oil, a cheap alternative to vegetable oil used in cooking oil, cosmetic products, soap, bread, margarine, and chocolate.

Kaat said the report proves that deforestation is occurring at a faster rate than the Malaysian government has admitted.

“The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peatlands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 percent,” researchers said.

In addition to the risk it poses to the forests’ many rare species, the draining of peatswamps causes massive carbon emissions.

“The production of palm oil is welcome only if expansion can be done in a sustainable way,” the environmental group said.

The study was conducted by satellite monitoring and mapping company SarVision.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecosystems, Trees & Forestry0 Comments

Rhinos Face Higher Poaching Threat in South Africa, Kenya

South Africa and Kenya have seen a dramatic rise in rhino poaching in the last year, national parks officials said.

Reuters reports that 333 rhinos were killed for their tusks in South Africa in 2010. 10 of those were black rhinos, which are critically endangered.

That figure is the highest on record, nearly three times the number of rhinos killed the previous year.

Six more rhinos have already been illegally killed in 2011, Reuters said.

International wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC said rhino horns are highly valuable for their perceived role in traditional Asian medicine. They are thought to possess cancer-curing properties, although their is no scientific evidence to support that notion.

According to AFP, poachers can sell rhino horns to the first intermediary for about $8,000 per kilo; an adult rhino’s two horns weigh about 10 kilos.

“The current wave of poaching is being committed by sophisticated criminal networks using helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilizers and silencers to kill rhinos at night while attempting to avoid law enforcement patrols,” TRAFFIC said in a statement.

South Africa is home to 21,000 rhinos, more than any other country in the world.

Kenya officials said at least 20 rhinos were killed in the country since early last year.

Posted in Conservation, Mammals0 Comments

City Dwellers Are More Green-Minded, Study Finds

People who live in big cities are more likely to participate in “green” behaviors than their rural-dwelling counterparts, a new study suggests.

Researchers with the Michigan State University in East Lansing surveyed over 5,000 people living in large and small Chinese cities. They found that big city residents are more likely to recycle, volunteer for environmental organizations, and care about environmental issues.

Although the study was restricted to China, its implications are far-reaching, said head researcher Jiangua “Jack” Liu, a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University.

“China is the largest country in the world, it has had the fastest growing economy in the last three decades, and urbanization is growing really fast,” Liu said, adding that China produces more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country. “Anything that happens in China now is affecting the rest of the world.”

Participants were asked six questions about their behaviors in the last year: whether they had sorted their garbage, talked about environmental issues with relatives or friends, recycled plastic packing bags, volunteered for environmental education programs, or participated in environmental litigation.

Liu and his colleagues found that people living in the country’s largest cities — such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin — were more likely to engage in environmentally conscious behaviors than those living in smaller cities.

Despite the commonly held notion that environmentalism is more prevalent among the wealthy, researchers did not find a correlation between income and “green” behaviors. Instead, they said simply being employed was a bigger factor. Liu speculated that this was because many Chinese employers host company-sponsored events to encourage environmental action.

In addition, big city dwellers are more likely to come into direct contact with pollution and other environmental issues in their daily lives, which may make them want to do something about those problems.

“What we found was that in big cities, people are more likely to take environmental action,” Liu said. “The big question is whether those actions will be enough.”

The study was published in Tuesday’s edition of the British journal Environmental Conservation.

Posted in Conservation, Recycling & Waste, Urban Development0 Comments

Penguins Hampered by Tagging, Scientists Say

Tagging wild penguins with flipper bands threatens their chances of survival and has skewed data on the effects of climate change, biologists said Wednesday.

Researchers at the University of Strasbourg in France followed 50 banded adult King penguins and 50 non-banded penguins with under-the-skin transponders for 10 years.

Conducting their research on a French island in the southern Indian Ocean between Africa and Antarctica, they found the flipper-banded penguins had 39 percent fewer chicks and were 16 percent likelier to die than their untagged counterparts.

Study author Yvon Le Maho theorizes that the metal bands, which are tied around the top of the flipper, increase drag on the penguins when they swim.

“The picture is unambiguous,” Le Maho told news agency AFP. “Among banded penguins, the least-fit individuals died out in the first five years of the study, which left super-athletic birds.

“In the remaining five years, the mortality rate between the two groups was the same, but the reproductive success of banded penguins was 39 percent lower on average.”

Le Maho said this is the first study showing the long-term detriments of penguin tagging practices, and disproves the long-held assumption that the birds adjust to the bands.

He said banded birds respond differently to the climate, arriving later (16 days later on average) on the island to breed. This tardiness endangers the survival of their offspring, because late chicks face harsher weather conditions and more predators.

Consequently, studies that use banded penguins to measure the impact of global warming on marine life need to be reviewed, researchers said. Although climate change is still harming penguin populations, the data may be skewed.

“…[W]hen there was a rise in sea temperature and food was less abundant, the penguins had to swim farther, and banded penguins stayed longer at sea to forage compared with non-banded birds,” said Claire Saraux, like Le Maho a member of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), according to AFP.

The findings were published in Wednesday’s edition of the Nature science journal.

Posted in Aquatic Life, Birds, Conservation, Ecosystems, Effects0 Comments

89,000 More Acres in Adirondacks Protected from Development

New York State has paid $30 million to preserve 89,000 acres in the Adirondack Park from development, news sources reported Thursday.

APNewsBreak and the New York Times said the conservation easement from the Nature Conservancy establishes perpetual public rights for the timberland, with several snowmobile trails and some new hiking and fishing access. Lumbering will continue.

“It’s a very exciting day for us, and I think a really strategic investment by the state of New York in the Adirondack economy, and really, the tourism economy of the state,” said Michael T. Carr, executive director of the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy, according to the New York Times.

The Nature Conservancy has worked over the past several years to protect swaths of Adirondacks land once owned by Finch, Pruyn & Co., a paper manufacturer. The environmental group paid $110 million in 2007 to buy 161,000 acres from the company.

Last year, the nonprofit sold 92,000 of those acres to a Danish pension fund in an agreement allowing selective logging to continue in some areas under strict environmental standards.

Stuart F. Gruskin, executive deputy of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, praised the new agreement as a solution to revitalize the North Country economy with tourism opportunities while protecting the lands under sustainable forestry development measures.

The Nature Conservancy plans to sell its remaining 65,000 acres to the state in increments over the coming years, AP said.

Posted in Conservation, Trees & Forestry0 Comments

Bighorn Sheep Relocated to Historic Range in Texas

A decades-long effort to restore bighorn sheep to their historic habitat gained ground in the days before Christmas when dozens of sheep were transported to a Texas state park.

Conservation supporters cheered as the 46 animals bounded up the slopes of their new home in Bofecillos Mountains along the Rio Grande.

Federal wildlife officials captured 12 rams and 34 ewes in a remote area in West Texas and released them in their original range in Big Bend Ranch State Park, AP reports.

The population of mountain bighorns in Texas was all but obliterated by hunting practices, fencing, and disease from other animals by the 1960s. But conservation efforts brought the number of Texas sheep up to 1,115 this fall, up from 822 in 2006 and 352 in 2002, Texas Parks and Wildlife Service said.

The population of sheep was growing crowded in Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, a small town about 25 miles south of Alpine. Officials captured the animals with net-guns fired by helicopter.

After biologists took blood-samples and administered tracking devices, the blindfolded ewes and rams were placed in livestock trailers and crates and driven 80 miles to their new terrain.

The capture-and-release lasted two days and cost about $40,000, AP reports.

Bonnie McKinney, director of the Bighorn Sheep Society, says the bighorn are a crucial part of the region’s ecosystem.

“When you bring them back, you’re putting it back in balance,” she said. “It was man that messed it up but we can fix it.”

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecosystems, Mammals0 Comments

Navy Testing May Hurt Whales along Pacific Coastline

New U.S. Navy testing off the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts will pose a danger for orca whales, environmentalists say.

The Obama administration recently approved a plan to expand sailor training, weapons testing, and underwater training minefield for submarines in the 122,400 nautical square miles off the West Coast.

The Navy has been training in that range since  World War II, but environmentalists worry that new missile and sonar testing along with the dumping of depleted uranium could harm the population of 150 orcas known to live along the Pacific coast.

Howard Garrett, the president of the Washington-based nonprofit Orca Network, claims the hazardous materials could pose a serious risk for vulnerable orcas.

“They’re all very susceptible,” Garrett told AP. “The Navy is single-minded and they’re focused, and the whales are very much a secondary concern to them.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council also expressed concern over the new program, saying it “would pose a significant risk to whales, fish and other wildlife,” by releasing “thousands of rounds of spent ammunition and unexploded ordnance containing chromium, chromium compounds, depleted uranium,” and other hazardous materials, AP reported Saturday.

The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar testing could damage the orca navigation and communication skills and could even cause brain damage and affect reproductive rates, the NRDC said.

But Navy officials maintain that the expanded practices will have no effect on marine life.

“We are not even permitted to kill even one marine mammal. … What people don’t seem to understand is we share the environment with everybody,” Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray said, according to AP. “It’s our environment, too. Of course we want to take care of it. The Navy goes to great lengths to protect the marine environment.”

Garrett remains skeptical. “I’m not convinced by the assurances that the Navy gives that there will be no effect,” Garrett said. “I can’t imagine there won’t be mortalities.”

Posted in Aquatic Life, Conservation, Ecosystems, Fish, Mammals, Noise Pollution, Oceans & Coastlines, Toxic Substances, Water Pollution0 Comments

“No More Wilderness” Policy is No More

The Obama administration plans to repeal a Bush-era policy that prevented undeveloped acres of land from being recommended for federal wilderness protection.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday that his agency will undo the “No More Wilderness” policy, which was enacted under former Interior Secretary Gale Norton in 2003.

Congress remains the only governmental body capable of designating new “Wilderness Areas,” but the order will allow U.S. Bureau of Land Management field members to protect areas with “wilderness characteristics,” MSNBC reported.

“Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike, and get away from it all, and they expect these lands to be protected wisely on their behalf,” Salazar said in a statement.

The 2003 policy was adopted in an out-of-court deal between Norton and then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt to remove federal protections for 2.6 million acres in the Rocky Mountain region. The move allowed oil and gas drilling, mining, and other commercial development on land under consideration as wilderness areas.

“I am proud to sign a secretarial order that restores protections for the wild lands that the Bureau of Land Management oversees on behalf of the American people,” Salazar said Thursday in Denver, according to MSNBC.

The policy shift creates a new management category called “Wild Lands,” which will be determined through a public process.

“Because the ‘Wild Lands’ designation can be made and later modified through a public administrative process, it differs from ‘Wilderness Areas,’ which are designated by Congress and cannot be modified except by legislation, and ‘Wilderness Study Areas,’ which BLM typically must manage to protect wilderness characteristics until Congress determines whether to permanently protect them as Wilderness Areas or modify their management,” Salazar explained.

Congress will still make the final call on whether areas of land receive permanent wilderness protection. The BLM has six months to submit new criteria for wilderness evaluations.

Posted in Conservation, Courts & Litigation, Parks by Region, Policies, Politics & Politicians0 Comments

Bird Census: Volunteers Participate in Christmas Bird Count

An annual bird census kicked off in the Americas this week, calling on volunteers throughout the Western Hemisphere to help assess the health of bird populations and guide conservation action.

The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a tradition currently in its 111th year, began Tuesday and runs through Jan. 5. Participants head out into the wilderness with binoculars, spotting scopes, cellphones, bird guides, and notebooks to jot down every bird they see over a 24-hour period.

The collected data provides researchers and conservation biologists insight into the health of bird populations.

“Each year, volunteers brave snow, wind, cold, ice or rain, often venturing afield during pre-dawn hours, to take part in the Christmas Bird Count, and they have made an enormous contribution to help guide conservation actions,” New York Department of Environmental Conservation Bureau of Wildlife chief Gordon Batcheller said in the release.

The CBC takes place in designated “count circles” fifteen miles in diameter, in both urban and rural areas. Each circle is supervised by a “count compiler,” who is an experienced birder, giving beginning bird-watchers a chance to get an effective introduction to bird identification.

Based on the collected findings, the National Audubon Society has noticed a trend in recent years: global warming has driven birds steadily north at a rate of one mile a year, the New York Times reports.

Audubon said in a release that this year’s census will be especially significant in evaluating the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on bird populations.

Posted in Birds, Conservation0 Comments

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