Monthly Archives: October 2007

Number of tigers in India plummets from 5,000 to 1,300 in seven years

 Independent.ie

Tigers driven to edge of extinction by poachers and loss of habitat

The disastrous impact of poaching and the destruction of the natural habitat of one of the planet’s most threatened animals will be made clear tomorrow when the Indian government is told that its remaining tiger population could be as low as 1,300.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will be told that drastic action has to be taken against the two forces threatening the big cat’s chance of survival.

“That size of a population is scientifically not viable,” said Valmik Thapar, a tiger expert and member of the National Board of Wildlife, which is due to convene in Delhi for a meeting chaired by Mr Singh. “But in the real world you have to try as hard as you can.”

Along with the polar bear, the tiger symbolises perhaps more than any other large creature the majesty and power of the natural world. At the same time the tawdry story of the tiger’s decline – not just in India but in other countries where it clings on desperately – is a stark indictment of mankind’s apparent inability to preserve the natural habitats on which it depends.

No one knows precisely how many tigers are left in India, home to perhaps 80 per cent of the world’s remaining animals and which, at the turn of the 20th century, was estimated to have up to 100,000 animals. It is believed there were about 5,000 at the start of the decade.

The most recent census, conducted in 2001 and 2002, put the figure at 3,642. But many experts questioned the way in which that count was handled and a new census was carried out by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India using a more scientifically robust method. While the findings will not be formally announced until the end of the year, preliminary results of the new count have put the population at between 1,300 and 1,500.

“The new figures and facts came as no surprise to conservationists, although the government is still recovering from the shock,” said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which has several tiger programmes. “In Madhya Pradesh – which is known as the Tiger State – the study has shown a loss of 61 per cent on the figures of the previous tiger census. The state of Maharashtra has shown a loss of 57 per cent.”

She added: “In the past census … many tigers were found outside the tiger reserves. The new study shows virtually no tigers outside the tiger reserves.”

Experts say the reasons for the decline of the tiger are simple. Not enough is being done to halt the continued poaching of the animals, which are highly prized in China and other parts of east Asia for their pelts and body parts. A tiger skin can fetch up to £5,300 while tiger penises – traditionally believed to have near-magical properties – can fetch £14,000 per kilo.

The tiger has suffered from a loss of its habitat as a result of large-scale mining and hydro-power dam projects. The loss of habitat and prey encourages tigers, pure carnivores, to seize domestic livestock which in turn aggravates local farmers. The tiger is the national symbol but, in the past five years, poachers have been killing them at the rate of one a day, campaigners believe.

Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigations Agency, a London-based campaign group, said development projects often resulted in the displacement of communities who are left with a choice of moving to the slums of large cities or into the forests. “Living in the forests brings them into conflict with wildlife and the under-resourced, under-trained, ill-equipped forest department staff,” she said.

Mr Thapar, 55, who has written 15 books about tigers during three decades working with the animals, has said it would now “take a miracle” to save them. He warned of the impact of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, a piece of legislation passed last year and expected to become law in the coming months, which grants some of India’s most impoverished communities the right to own and live in the forests.

The problem, he said, was that all evidence showed humans and tigers could not co-exist. “If you are not going to set aside habitats where there are no humans then you cannot have tigers,” he said.

The decline of the tiger is not isolated to India. In the past century, tiger populations across the world have slumped by 95 per cent and, across a broad chunk of Asia, tigers are now confronting extinction. Indeed, of the nine known sub-species of tiger, three (the Caspian, Javanese and Balinese) are already extinct while another, the South China tiger, is nearing extinction in the wild with perhaps fewer than 30 surviving.

An estimated 4,000 of the South China sub-species – the only one native to central and southern China -roamed the country 50 years ago but its habitat has been dramatically reduced by the country’s rapid economic growth and the sub-species was declared officially extinct in 2003. Just this week, the Chinese authorities banned hunting in a mountainous area of Shaanxi province of north-west China where a young South China tiger was apparently sighted by a farmer. The sighting has generated much excitement among conservationists and a team of experts has been set up to conduct a search.

Ms Wright said that, in India, there may now only be two genetically viable populations of Bengal tiger, as the country’s sub-species is known. Those live in the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttaranchal and the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which is said to haveinspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Book.

There have been the occasional pieces of good news. Last month about 20 tigers were discovered in a mountainous forest range in the western state of Maharashtra from where they were thought to have long disappeared. But among such rare flashes of hope, experts say the evidence of the tiger’s ongoing decline have been all too clear. In February 2005, it was revealed all the tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan had been killed by poachers. Meanwhile, the size of the continuing trade in illegal tiger parts has been revealed by activists working undercover in places such as Tibet where there is flourishing business.

A senior official in India’s Environment Ministry said tomorrow’s meeting would evaluate progress at implementing recommendations made at the last meeting 18 months ago.

“Everyone is waiting for the [official] tiger report – even the Prime Minister,” the official told the Asian Age newspaper.

“It is only after the report is tabled that we will get the real picture, which we know is not going to be rosy. We know that we have lost large numbers of our big cats.”

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The importance of mangrove conservation in tsunami prone regions

Environment News Network  

Agricultural expansion rather than shrimp farming is the major factor responsible for the destruction of tropical mangrove forests in the tsunami-impacted regions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka, according to a new study published in the Journal of Biogeography.

Giri and other researchers used more than 750 Landsat satellite images to identify the remaining mangrove forests of the region, to quantify the rates and causes of change from 1975 to 2005, and to identify deforestation ‘hot spots,’. Landsat is the world’s longest continuously acquired collection of space-based land remote sensing data. The study found that the major factors responsible for mangrove deforestation in the study area include agriculture encroachment (81%), aquaculture (12%), and urban development (2%). However, shrimp farming is on the rise in Indonesia and Thailand.

Time-series analysis of historical data from the Landsat archive also suggests that the tsunami-impacted region lost 12% of the mangrove forests from 1975 to 2005, much lower than estimated mangrove loss in Asia, which ranges from 25 to 50%. According to Giri and the other researchers, mangrove loss varies according to country and time period. Their study found that the annual rate of deforestation was highest in Burma (~1%) and lowest in Sri Lanka (0.1%) from 1975 to 2005. In contrast, mangrove forests in India and Bangladesh remained unchanged or gained a small percentage during the period. Similarly, net deforestation peaked at 137,000 ha during 1990-2000, increasing from 97,000 ha during 1975-1990 and declining to 14,000 ha during 2000-2005.

Data and information generated from this study can be used to identify potential rehabilitation sites, set conservation priorities, and quantify the role of mangrove forests in saving lives and property from natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami.

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Native species extinction more likely than tsunamis: scientists

 Austrlian Broadcasting Corporation – Jane Cowan

Scientists gathering in Melbourne to discuss the risk of extreme natural events have found that tsunamis are far more likely to affect neighbouring countries than Australia.

On the downside though, scientists warn that climate change is threatening the extinction of Australian plants and animals.

The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 brought havoc and took thousands of lives on Australia’s doorstep.

But scientists, like geophysicist Trevor Dhu from Geoscience Australia, say that kind of devastation is unlikely to happen on Australian shores.

“What appears to be more likely phenomena is actually quite large and potentially quite dangerous currents and rips, those sorts of things that are very unpredictable and potentially quite dangerous to swim as you might be unaware of them,” he said.

Australia is protected because it is further from the epicentres of the earthquakes that cause tsunamis, allowing more time to prepare and giving the energy more time to dissipate before it reaches Australia.

But the Australian coastline is far from immune and there are still a lot of unknowns.

“Before 2004 we probably hadn’t done a lot of modelling as to what tsunamis do in Australia,” Mr Dhu said.

“There’s a lot more communities in Australia that actually need to be looked at and considered just to understand what the risks actually are.

“The region that looks like it’s got a slightly greater risk is probably north-west Western Australia.”

He says while rises in sea levels could potentially change where a wave comes on to the shore, climate change is not something that is likely to affect the key causes of tsunamis.

Colossal problem

The news is not as good when it comes to plants and animals.

Professor Nigel Stork from the University of Melbourne’s School of Resource Management calls climate change a dire problem for the survival of some species.

“At this point we really don’t know just how colossal extinction rates will be and in particular we are unsure about which groups are going to be threatened more than others,” he said.

“The evidence so far is that it is the large things. It’s the mammals and the birds which are particularly threatened, and so everything that people say about massive extinction rates of these things appears to be on the cards.”

Professor Stork says we are almost certainly already seeing the effects of climate change on flora and fauna even if it has not yet been measured.

Most vulnerable are those species adapted to live in a very specific habitat.

“The cassowary is one of those in north Queensland – very high profile bird that lives only in the tropical rainforests in northern Australia. The numbers of those are declining,” he said.

“Maybe it’s a matter of moving some of these things to places which may be cooler, and that’s something which I don’t think we’ve done very much of before.”

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Malaria moves in behind the loggers

Guardian – Andrés Schipani in Mazán and John Vidal
Tuesday October 30, 2007

Deforestation and climate change are returning the mosquito-borne disease to parts of Peru after 40 years

Map: Where malaria occurs in South America (pdf)

The afternoon is hot and sticky on the banks of the Napo river, an arm of the Amazon, but Claudio, a logger, is shivering in his creaky wooden bed.

“I feel bad, very bad, pain all over my body, fever, high fever, shudders,” he says. “I have malaria; this is the 17th time so far. I don’t know what to do any more.”

The mosquito-borne illness has returned to the many villages only accessible by boat in the Peruvian Amazon, inflicting on the inhabitants days of fever, permanent anaemia and – in the worst cases – death.

His organisation distributes mosquito nets to some villagers, spreading the message through the area that the illness is dangerous and – where they can identify the cases – helping in post-infection treatment.

“Now we are not talking about eradicating malaria any more, as that is impossible and unsustainable; we are doing our best to try and control it,” he added.

Climate change and deforestation are behind the return of malaria in the Peruvian Amazon.

Off-season rain is altering the pattern of mosquito development, leaving puddles containing the lethal larvae in areas where malaria had been nonexistent.

“The actual malaria problem of the Peruvian Amazon is caused by constant climate changes,” said biologist Carlos Pacheco, head of the mosquito control unit in Iquitos, the regional capital south of Mazán.

And deforestation is having a similar effect, forcing the mosquito to move to new areas and spreading the disease to places where people are not aware of the disease, where villagers lack the means to get hold of mosquito nets and preventive medicines, and where health authorities have no presence.

“Every time we fight the mosquito, we feel we are fighting against a much more evolved and adaptable one, one that can easily migrate to areas that were clean of malaria before and that are very hard to access,” said Mr Pacheco.

Two scientific reports last year linked malaria with deforestation. Peruvian researchers found that frontier areas cleared of trees for logging, settlements, roads, farming or mining were far more likely to harbour malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

In one Peruvian study, researchers said the biting rate of mosquitoes in deforested areas was nearly 300 times greater than in virgin forests. Increases in human population density had no impact on biting rates.

The insects lay their eggs and thrive in open, sunlit pools of water. Roadbuilders dig channels and culverts which become blocked, silt washes off farmland blocking streams, and opencast mines and new settlements create ideal breeding grounds.

Anyone who catches malaria in the Amazon region has few opportunities for treatment. Even in the most densely populated areas, there are few health centres.

Loggers are the mosquitoes’ main victim.

“The districts with the higher logging activity are the critical ones, making the disease there to be almost impossible to control,” said Dr Rodríguez.

“It is very hard to access the areas where the clearing of the rainforest occurs and these people are not conscious of the risks and once infected – and sometimes because of the illegality of this activity – loggers are very reluctant to get treated by health authorities.”

Alongside the Amazon river and its many tributaries, poverty-stricken loggers like Claudio move deep into the rainforest, in areas where malaria is prevalent, without taking any precautions and for meagre wages.

Pointing at his neighbour’s one-year-old son who is recovering from the disease, Arquímedes of the village of Manacamiri near Iquitos said: “Here most people suffer from this disease, from malaria.

“There are no other diseases like this, no other problems like this here … We have now become the malaria zone.”

Behind him, the bank of the low Nanay river seems nothing more than a mud puddle with mosquitoes buzzing around.

“Children, elderly, how many deaths we already had,” said Arquímedes.

“At the beginning we had no idea what it was, and it was malaria … there is not a single day without a malaria patient.”

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 Mother Jones – Julia Whitty

So what happens to species already on the brink when fires, fueled by our changing climate, visit like never before? Nature reports that the San Diego Zoo suffered damage to one of its California condor breeding facilities—though the birds, thankfully, were safely evacuated ahead of the flames. The zoo also lost a planned habitat for endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs—a habitat designated after the frogs’ original home was burned in the huge wildfires of 2003. The frogs may now have to be moved to another zoo altogether.

At Camp Pendleton, one of only two known habitats of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse was burned. No one knows yet whether the mice survived.

Sadly, these are just the kind of stressors that healthy populations can survive but which wipe out those species already reeling from the blows of over(human)population, habitat loss, pollution, illegal wildlife trade, and border fences.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Pair of endangered wolves to be removed from wild

Associated Press.

SILVER CITY, N.M. (AP) – Two endangered Mexican gray wolves are targeted for removal from the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the trapping of the wolves because the Aspen pack has killed a horse and five cows since January.

Officials are hoping that by removing the pack’s alpha male and his yearling, the pack’s behavior will change.

Unlike past orders, this removal order calls for the animals to be taken alive.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity criticized the removal order.

He says the Aspen pair is genetically vital to the reintroduction program.

Federal biologists began releasing wolves on the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1998 to re-establish the species in part of its historic range.

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Mobile phones and vanishing bees

 ISIS

The recent boom in third generation mobile phones may be the main culprit for colony collapse disorder in honeybees. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here

An electronic version of this report, or any other ISIS report, with full references, can be sent to you via e-mail for a donation of £3.50. Please e-mail the title of the report to: report@i-sis.org.uk

 Colony collapse a new phenomenon

Bees worldwide have been involved in a disappearing act called “colony collapse disorder” over the past two years [1] (Mystery of Disappearing Honeybees, this series), with little sign of the disease or infestations that have resulted in massive loss of colonies in the past. The bees simply leave the hives and fail to return. Beekeepers and scientists alike are stymied as to the cause of this strange phenomenon.

One likely culprit is a new class of systemic pesticides, which are not only sprayed on crops, but also used universally to dress seeds in conventional agriculture, and can confuse and disorientate bees at very low concentrations [2] (Requiem for the Honeybee, this series). Another candidate is radiation from mobile phone base stations that has become nearly ubiquitous in Europe and North America where the bees are vanishing; this possibility is considerably strengthened by preliminary findings that bees fail to return to the hives if cordless phone base stations are placed in them.

Simple experiment with dramatic results

Researchers at Landau University in Germany designed a simple experiment for students on the Environmental Science course [3]. Eight mini-hives, each with approximately 8 000 bees were set up for the experiment. Four of them were equipped with a DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication)-station at the bottom of the hive, and the other four without the DECT-station served as controls.

At the entrance of each hive, a transparent plastic tube enabled the experimenters to watch the marked bees entering and leaving the hive, so they can be counted and their time of return after release recorded for a period of 45 minutes.

The experimenters also studied building behaviour by measuring the area of the honeycomb and its weight.

In the course of the experiment, three colonies exposed to mobile phone radiation and one non-exposed control colony broke down. The total weights of the honeycombs in all colonies, including those at the time of breakdown were compared. The controls weighed 1 326g, while those exposed to the DECT-stations weighed only 1 045g, a difference of 21 percent. The total area of the honeycomb in the controls was 2 500, compared to just 2050 in the exposed hives.

But it was the number of returning bees and their returning times that were vastly different. For two control hives, 16 out of 25 bees returned in 45 minutes. For the two microwave-exposed hives, however, no bees at all returned to one hive, and only six returned to the other.

Cordless phone base station widely used in homes and offices

These dramatic results are of a preliminary nature, but one should bear in mind that the DECT-station is a simple cordless phone base, widely used in homes and offices.

It emits microwave radiation of about 1 900 MHz continuously, which is frequency modulated at 100 Hz. The average power is 10 mW, with a peak of 250 mW. It represents the exposure levels of perhaps tens of millions worldwide living near mobile phone base stations, or have cordless phones in their homes or offices.

The same scientists had carried out an earlier experiment with the cordless phone base on a standby mode, in which the average power is 2.5 mW, and that appeared to have had no effect on the bees [4, 5].

Clearly the present findings need to be taken much further, but their significance should not be downplayed for a number of reasons. The findings are compatible with evidence accumulating from investigations on many other species including humans, showing that mobile phone radiation is associated with a range of health hazards including cancers [6] (Drowning in a Sea of Microwaves, SiS 34). Furthermore, bees are known to be extremely sensitive to magnetic and electromagnetic fields, and there have been many suggestions that they could be used as an indicator species for electromagnetic pollution.

Bees as indicator species for electromagnetic pollution

Experiments dating well back to the last century have documented the phenomenal sensitivity of honeybees to electromagnetic fields. Bees use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Free-flying honeybees are able to detect static intensity fluctuations as weak as 26 nT against the background earth-strength magnetic field (average 500 mT) [7]. This has been demonstrated in experiments where individual honeybees have been trained to discriminate between the presence and the absence of a small static magnetic anomaly in the lab. Honeybees can also learn to distinguish between two 360o panoramic patterns that are identical except for the compass orientation. In this case, the difference was a 90o rotation about the vertical axis [8]. The most powerful cue to direction for the honeybee comes from the sky, but discrimination between patterns is possible in the absence of celestial information, as when the sky is overcast. Under those conditions, bees can use a magnetic direction to discriminate between patterns.

The bees’ waggle dance on the honeycomb, which tells hive mates where to find food, can also be misdirected by anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field or very weak pulsed magnetic fields at about 250 MHz applied in the correct direction [9]. Bees can even learn to detect very low levels of extremely low frequency alternating electromagnetic fields [10].

But mobile phones have been around for close to 20 years, so why now? There has been a recent change in cell phone technology that coincides with the current crisis. At the beginning of the present century, 3G (third generation) mobile phone systems became publicly available, leading to a surge in popularity of mobile phones, and many more phone towers [11]. Bees are disappearing in North America, Europe and also Australia, wherever mobile phones are greatly in use. Stay tuned.

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