Monthly Archives: November 2007

Tasmanian devil now officially endangered

ABC News

The status of the tasmanian devil has been upgraded from vulnerable to endangered.

The devil is one of the 51 species with a change of status because of increasing vulnerability.

Sightings of the devils have declined by more than 50 per cent and the devil facial tumour disease is found across half of Tasmania.

The changes are part of the Threatened Species Scientific Advisory Committee’s five year review.

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With eye on economy, India may be blind to endangered tigers

Environmentalists fear that the new Act could reverse decades of progress in preserving the tigers, forests.

LiveMint.com

Kailashpuri, India: A tale about the forest dweller and the tiger sounds like some ancient Indian fable, a parable of man versus beast handed down through the ages and adapted by Rudyard Kipling for Western consumption.

But this is a real-life story unfolding today, as India’s government seeks to protect the country’s dwindling population of Bengal tigers while balancing the privileges of man. India has nearly half the world’s estimated 3,500 tigers. But in a country where the human population has ballooned to more than 1.1 billion—most of whom live on less than $2 (Rs79) a day—the government is also focused on expanding the economy and reducing poverty.

Parliament recently passed a law that enshrines the right of forest dwellers to remain in the forests and could allow the return of hundreds of thousands of people who abandoned their claim to the forest decades ago.

Environmentalists fear that the new law—known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, and due to come into force in the coming weeks—throws open the gates of India’s national parks and reverses decades of progress in preserving the country’s shrinking forests and the tigers that live in them.

“The economy is the priority now and everything else can go to hell,” said Valmik Thapar, a conservationist and author who for more than a decade has publicized the plight of India’s critically endangered tigers.

As more and more of India’s forests are logged or turned into farms to feed its ever-expanding human population, the number of tigers has plummeted from an estimated 40,000 in 1925 to fewer than 1,500 today, a figure that some experts say is the tipping point for extinction. Protecting the animal has long been a national goal.

In Rajasthan, the Ranthambore National Park attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year eager to glimpse the elusive orange-and-black striped cats, the core of a growing tourism trade here that brings in more than $22 million a year, including at least $300,000 in park entry fees. But the potential strains created by the Forest Dwellers Act are plain to see here, too.

About 200,000 villagers live just outside the national park, many of them former forest dwellers. They were coaxed out of the forest over the past 30 years with promises of schools, health clinics and electricity—all part of a government-backed programme to protect the tiger habitat.

“By now, most of us have forgotten how to live in the forest. We are farmers now, not hunters,” said Chittat Gurjar, 67, a slim man in a white turban. Another villager, Kastoori Gurjar, 78, said she has no intention of returning to live in the forest. But she does want to visit.

“We just want to be allowed back in to worship our gods, who stayed in the forest,” she said, with tearful eyes as she recalled her childhood in the thick woods of the park.

The rights of India’s forest dwellers need to be protected, the Act’s supporters say. Media reports that thousands of forest dwellers have been evicted and many forest communities violently harassed in recent weeks, which some analysts say is an effort to limit the number of people eligible to initiate land claims underthe Act.

Environmentalists and wildlife experts are lobbying Parliament and the courts to strike down the law, widely seen as a populist vote-getter in the lead-up to next year’s general elections.

“This is legislation that no one in Parliament can say no to. It’s part of India’s romanticized notion of forest dwellers as people who live in harmony with the land,” said Goverdhan Singh Rathore, whose non-governmental organization, the Prakratik Society, provides schooling and medical care for many of the villagers who were once forest dwellers.

“That might have been true in the past, but the reality now is that if the growing numbers of forest dwellers are allowed to remain in the national parks and others with historic claims to the land are allowed back in, India’s forests will be gone very soon, and with them, the tigers,” Rathore said.

Luxury hotels and “eco-lodges” have sprouted on the edges of the Ranthambore National Park. Tourists pile into open-roofed jeeps and 20-seater buses that rumble along dirt roads through nearly 800 sq. km of forest, passing langurs, elk-sized deer called sambhars and monitor lizards that dart back into the brush as the cars pass.

But here, as throughout India, the chances of seeing a tiger are getting slimmer.

At least four of India’s 27 tiger reserves no longer have tigers. Some observers believe that at least nine other reserves in India also are in danger of losing their remaining tigers to poachers or to villagers who set out poisoned carcasses to kill animals that venture beyond the boundaries of the reserves to attack their livestock.

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Congo establishes nature reserve for endangered apes

International Animal Rescue

Congo is setting aside more than 11,000 square miles of rainforest to create a nature reserve designed to protect the endangered bonobo ape.

The Sankuru Reserve, established by the African country’s Ministry of the Environment in collaboration with environmental groups, will help to preserve numbers of the rare animal that is also one of the human race’s closest relatives.

Announcing the reserve, the Congolese Minister of the Environment, Didace Pembe Bokiaga, emphasised that its creation was another step towards the government’s aim of safeguarding 15 per cent if its forest as protected land.

“This increases the total area of protected land in the DRC to 10.47 per cent, bringing us closer to our goal of 15 per cent,” he explained.

“We are proud that the Sankuru Reserve is being created in the framework of community participative conservation…and will be zoned to guarantee the rights of the local population,” the Minister added.

Start-up funding of $50,000 (£25,000) for the project is being provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Associated Press reported, with an additional $100,000 (£50,000) coming from private donors.

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USA. Scientists call for Lower Snake Dam removal to help endangered Orcas

BYM Marine Environment News

Leading Northwest scientists and orca advocates are urging NOAA Fisheries to consider removal of the four lower Snake River dams in order to protect endangered Puget Sound orca populations that need Columbia-Snake River salmon as a critical food source.

“Restoring Columbia River Chinook salmon is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future survival of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales,” said Dr. Rich Osborne, research associate with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA. “We cannot hope to restore the killer whale population without also restoring the salmon upon which these whales have depended for thousands of years. Their futures are intricately linked.”

The comments from the six prominent orca scientists, delivered in a letter to Northwest members of Congress and NOAA regional administrator Robert Lohn, came in response to the Oct. 31 release of a new draft Biological Opinion from NOAA Fisheries for Columbia-Snake River salmon management. Salmon advocates say the new plan, the result of a court-ordered rewrite of an earlier, illegal 2004 federal salmon plan, fails to do enough to recover imperiled salmon in the seven-state Columbia-Snake river basin, and ignores altogether the four dams on the lower Snake River that do the most harm to these fish.

“History will not be very forgiving of the resource managers who failed in their responsibilities to these icons of the Pacific Northwest, Chinook and orca,” said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research.

“The draft plan relies heavily on actions that science and time have proven will not restore these fish to the levels necessary for self-sustaining populations of salmon, or abundant enough to provide a healthy food resource for these killers whales,” said Dr. David Bain, a killer whale biologist at Friday Harbor Labs. “Not only are salmon from the Columbia River an important historic food source, recovered abundant salmon in this river are an indispensable requirement for the future recovery of Southern Residents.”

“The new Federal salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers is no better than previous plans in providing access to the basin’s best remaining salmon habitat in the upper reaches of the Snake River,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network. “The resulting declining salmon runs have a very real impact on the 88 endangered southern resident orcas that depend on these fish, as they have for centuries. As the salmon disappear, the orcas go hungry.”

“The best science tells us,” Garrett added, “that to revitalize Snake River salmon, we’ll need to bypass the dams that block fish passage, and that dam removal, combined with a variety of economic investments, will bring benefits to upriver communities in eastern Washington as well as to Puget Sound.”

The Columbia and Snake River Basin was once the world’s most productive salmon watershed, with tens of millions of fish returning annually. Today, returns hover near 1% of those historic levels. More than 200 large dams on the basin’s rivers are the major cause of this crisis, with 13 populations now listed under the Endangered Species Act, and four directly impacted by the lower Snake River dams. Yet, the Columbia-Snake Basin still holds more acres of pristine salmon habitat than any watershed in the lower 48 states.

It is this opportunity, notes Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People For Puget Sound, that we must take advantage of, if we hope to protect and restore these two iconic Northwest species whose fates are inexorably intertwined.

“Our leaders must look for solutions not only in Puget Sound, but also in the rivers that bring the salmon to the sea throughout the Northwest,” Fletcher said. “The great salmon rivers like the Columbia and Snake can once again produce the healthy runs of Chinook, on which our majestic orcas feed, but only if we recover salmon habitat. We must act quickly to restore clean water, abundant, sustainable salmon populations, and a safe home for orcas. The scientists tell us there is no time to waste.”

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Tay salmon stocks ‘facing extinction’

The Scotsman

SCOTLAND’S world-famous “queen” of salmon rivers is being fished to extinction, according to its ghillies, who are pleading with its fisheries board to implement new laws to save its depleted fish stocks.

Anglers from across the world have flocked to Perthshire for decades to fish for Atlantic salmon in Scotland’s longest and most renowned river, the Tay.

But the Tay Ghillies Association has revealed it has been “a dreadfully poor salmon fishing season”, with catches down by 50 per cent and expected to fall even further next season. The association accuses the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board of ignoring a number of warning signs.

A spokesman for the Tay Ghillies Association said: “The annual catch numbers on the River Tay this year with rod and line will not amount to any more than 6,000 fish. The Dee, which is a fraction of the size of the Tay, with a fraction of the anglers, are set to do 5,000.”

However, David Summers, of the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, said: “The idea that the Tay has completely collapsed is grossly overblown.”

He said the policy of catch-and-release needed strengthening, adding: “For next season we are advocating that, in the spring, you must put back the first fish every day and you may keep the next one.

“We currently ask that anglers not fish with worms before the end of May and certainly not in September and October. However, we are reviewing this policy.”

In Scotland, 85,901 salmon were reported caught in 2006, with 47,471 – 55 per cent of the total catch – being released.

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Bush administration strips 55 species of endangered status

Wildlifewatch

High-level Bush administration officials have stripped protections for 55 endangered species and 8.7 million acres of land.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed simultaneous lawsuits to protect six endangered species ranging over hundreds of thousands of acres from Montana to Alabama. The suits are the first phase of a national campaign to challenge political interference by the Bush administration.

A legally required “notice of intent to sue” over the 55 species was filed in August.

The lawsuits challenge the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to list the Montana fluvial arctic grayling and Mexican garter snake as endangered species, its elimination of 109,382 acres of protected critical habitat from the Santa Ana sucker, loach minnow, and spikedace, and its refusal to provide any critical habitat at all for the Mississippi gopher frog.

“These are some of the most endangered species in the United States,” said Michael Senatore, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s outrageous that federal scientists were blocked from protecting them by political appointees in Washington, DC.”

“This wave of lawsuits is different – and what makes them so different is that the agency itself and its inspector general have provided a lot of compelling evidence of political interference with the proper functioning of the act,” said JB Ruhl, a law professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee and an expert on the Endangered Species Act (ESA, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists had issued decisions to list the Montana fluvial arctic grayling and garter snake as endangered species, but those decisions were reversed by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald and other high ranking officials.

MacDonald also slashed 75,408 acres from a proposal by Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to protect 143,680 acres of critical habitat for the loach minnow; 18,560 acres from a proposal to protect 60,144 acres for the spikedace, and 15,414 acres from a proposal to protect 23,719 acres for the Santa Ana sucker.

Following a scathing report by the Department of the Interior inspector general documenting systematic abuse and overruling of federal scientists, MacDonald resigned her post in early 2007.

To quell the scandal, the Department of the Interior and the US Fish and Wildlife Service pledged to review eight decisions illegally reversed by MacDonald. This cynical effort at damage control flamed the controversy, however, because MacDonald is implicated in more than 100 cases of overruling science.

In response to a congressional request, the Government Accountability Office is currently investigating additional instances of science manipulation by MacDonald.

“The depth of corruption within the Department of the Interior goes way beyond Julie MacDonald and eight decisions,” said Senatore. “It impacts hundreds of endangered species and millions of acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat.”

Montana fluvial arctic grayling. The Montana fluvial arctic grayling was once widely distributed throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, Montana. It has been reduced to a single population in the upper Big Hole River in southwestern Montana. Having already been extirpated from 95 per cent of its range, it continues to be threatened by water withdrawals, livestock grazing, nonnative species, and global warming.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the grayling warranted Endangered Species Act listing in 1994. In 2004, the agency elevated the species’ priority number from a 9 to a 3 because it was judged to be at imminent risk of extinction.

In 2006, agency scientists prepared a draft decision to list the grayling as endangered calling the species’ status “unequivocal.” Internal agency memos indicate that MacDonald then intervened and the decision was reversed by “the highest levels of management.” The final decision to withhold protection was issued on April 24, 2007.

Mexican garter snake. Dependent on the dwindling rivers and streams of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, the Mexican garter snake has been extirpated from 85-90 per cent of its US range. The decline of the Mexican garter snake is closely linked to the deteriorating quality of streamside habitats, the disappearance of native frogs and native fishes, and the rampant introduction and spread of nonnative species such as bullfrogs, crayfish, sunfish, and bass.

US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists concluded that the snake is endangered. Internal agency documents state that MacDonald “was involved in changes to drafts of the finding and that the determination was changed to being not warranted.” The final decision to deny protection was issued on September 26, 2006.

Spikedace and loach minnow. These southwestern fish were once common throughout the Verde, Salt, San Pedro, Gila, and other rivers of Arizona and New Mexico. Their numbers and range have been drastically reduced by habitat destruction and the introduction of nonnative species. Both were listed as “threatened” species in 1986, but continued to decline.

In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists declared that they should be upgraded to “endangered” status in 1994, and in 2000 designated 143,680 acres of critical habitat for the loach minnow and 129,120 acres for the spikedace. On March 21, 2007, the agency slashed the spikedace critical habitat back to 41,584 acres and the loach minnow habitat back to 68,272 acres.

Internal agency documents state that MacDonald “made a policy decision to define occupied habitat for the two fish as occupied within the previous ten years, which reduced the area or critical habitat that was proposed and eventually designated.”

Santa Ana sucker. This southern California fish has been extirpated from 75 per cent of its historic range. It was listed as a threatened species in 2000 and in 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service scientists proposed the designation of 23,719 acres of critical habitat to protect it. They were overruled by Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Randal Bowman.

The final decision published on January 1, 2005 slashed 15,414 acres from a proposal leaving just 8,305 acres of protected habitat. In internal agency documents, agency staff complained that the decision made no sense and warned of “how difficult this one will be when it comes to straight-facing it with the public and the press.”

Mississippi gopher frog. The Mississippi gopher frog formerly occurred in hundreds of ponds along in the Coastal Plain west of Mobile Bay from Alabama to Mississippi and Louisiana.

It has been reduced to just three populations in Mississippi: Glen’s Pond, McCoy’s Pond (50 miles to the east) and Mike’s Pond (20 miles to the west). Under court order, the Bush administration listed it as endangered in 2001, but has failed to develop a recovery plan or to designate critical habitat areas for it. The largest remaining population (Glen’s Pond) is threatened by plans for a massive housing development several hundred feet from the shoreline.

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Mediterranean sharks and rays in danger of extinction, says coalition

 Fish Update

THE Shark Alliance is repeating its call for a strong Plan of Action to improve the status of European sharks and rays in response to new IUCN findings that 42% of shark and ray populations in the Mediterranean Sea are threatened with extinction.

A report released today by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) and the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation reveals that the region has the highest percentage of such species assessed as “Threatened” in the world, due primarily to overfishing through targeted and incidental fisheries.

European Union (EU) resource managers, led by the European Commission, are developing what the alliance describes as “an overdue” Plan of Action for the conservation and management of sharks. The European Commission is also expected to propose the first EU limits for porbeagle shark, identified by IUCN as “Critically Endangered” off Europe, by the end of November for consideration by EU Fisheries Ministers in December.

“From devil rays to angel sharks, Mediterranean populations of these vulnerable species are in serious trouble,” said Claudine Gibson, Programme Officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and co-author of the report. “Our analyses reveal the Mediterranean Sea as one of the world’s most dangerous places for sharks and rays,” she continued.

The report details the findings of an expert workshop at which all 71 Mediterranean species of sharks, rays, and chimaeras (cartilaginous fishes) were categorised using IUCN Red List Criteria. Participants deemed 42% (30 species) of these species Threatened, of which 18% are Critically Endangered, 11% Endangered and 13% Vulnerable. Another 18% (13 species) were assessed as Near Threatened while a lack of information led to 26% (18 species) being classified as Data Deficient. Only 14% (10 species) are considered to be of Least Concern.

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The Maltese skate, angular roughshark and three species of angel sharks, taken principally as “bycatch” in bottom trawl fisheries, are classified as Critically Endangered. The shortfin mako and porbeagle, taken primarily in longline fisheries and prized for their meat and fins, are also considered Critically Endangered. The giant devil ray and sandbar shark have been categorised as Endangered. The blue shark, which often falls victim to “finning” (the practice of cutting off a shark’s valuable fins and discarding the body at sea), qualifies as Vulnerable to extinction in the Mediterranean.

There are no catch limits for fished species of Mediterranean sharks and rays. Shark finning is prohibited, but enforcement methods are lenient. Eight species of sharks and rays have been listed on the four international conventions relevant to Mediterranean wildlife conservation, but only three species have received any protection as a result: white and basking sharks are protected in Croatian and European Community waters while Malta and Croatia protect the giant devil ray.

“Never before have the EU’s Mediterranean countries had more reason or opportunity to safeguard the region’s beleaguered sharks and rays,” said Sonja Fordham, Deputy Chair of the SSG and Policy Director for the Shark Alliance. “Fisheries and Environment Ministers should heed the dire warnings of this report and act to conserve sharks and rays through immediate protections for porbeagle and a comprehensive Community Plan of Action for all sharks and rays. Such action is necessary to change the current course toward extinction of these remarkable ocean animals,” she continued.

This week, in Turkey, fisheries managers at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which guides Mediterranean rules for species taken in tuna fisheries, are considering establishing international measures for sharks. ICCAT scientists have identified the porbeagle shark as a species of concern and recommended reducing fishing for shortfin mako sharks.

The Shark Alliance is a not-for-profit coalition of non-governmental organisations dedicated to restoring and conserving shark populations.

http://www.fishupdate.com is published by Special Publications. Special Publications also publish FISHupdate magazine, Fish Farmer, the Fish Industry Yearbook, the Scottish Seafood Processors Federation Diary, the Fish Farmer Handbook and a range of wallplanners.

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Single-largest Biodiversity Survey Says Primary Rainforest Is Irreplaceable

 Sciencedaily

ScienceDaily (Nov. 14, 2007) — As world leaders prepare to discuss conservation-friendly carbon credits in Bali and a regional initiative threatens a new wave of deforestation in the South American tropics, new research from the University of East Anglia and Brazil’s Goeldi Museum highlights once again the irreplaceable importance of primary rain forest.

Working in the north-eastern Brazilian Amazon the international team of scientists undertook the single-largest assessment of the biodiversity conservation value of primary, secondary and plantation forests ever conducted in the humid tropics.

Over an area larger than Wales, the UEA and museum researchers surveyed five primary rain forest sites, five areas of natural secondary forest and five areas planted with fast-growing exotic trees (Eucalyptus), to evaluate patterns of biodiversity.

Following an intensive effort of more than 20,000 scientist hours in the field and laboratory, they collected data on the distribution of 15 different groups of animals (vertebrates and invertebrates) and woody plants, including well-studied groups such as monkeys, butterflies and amphibians and also more obscure species such as fruit flies, orchid bees and grasshoppers.

“We know that different species often exhibit different responses to deforestation and so we sought to understand the consequences of land-use change for as many species as possible,” said Dr Jos Barlow, a former post-doctoral researcher at UEA.

At least a quarter of all species were never found outside native primary forest habitat – and the team acknowledges that this is an underestimate. “Our study should be seen as a best-case scenario, as all our forests were relatively close to large areas of primary forests, providing ample sources for recolonisation,” said Dr Barlow.

“Many plantations and regenerating forests along the deforestation frontiers in South America and south-east Asia are much further from primary forests, and wildlife may be unable to recolonise in these areas.

“Furthermore, the percentage of species restricted to primary forest habitat was much higher (40-60%) for groups such as birds and trees, where we were able to sample the canopy species as well as those that live in the forest under-storey.”

These results clearly demonstrate the unique value of undisturbed tropical forests for wildlife conservation. However, they also show that secondary forests and plantations offer some wildlife benefits and can host many species that would be unable to survive in intensive agricultural landscapes such as cattle ranching or soybean plantations.

“Although the protection of large areas of primary forest is vital for native biodiversity conservation, reforestation projects can play an important supplementary role in efforts to boost population sizes of forest species and manage vast working landscapes that have already been heavily modified by human-use” explained Dr Carlos Peres, who leads the UEA team.

But, when carbon-credits from Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDDS) are tabled for the first time at the Bali meeting next month, decision makers should beware of seeing fast-growing exotics such as eucalyptus as a carbon sink solution to the world’s emissions problems. If agreed upon by world leaders REDDs offer an extraordinary opportunity to generate funds to support the long-term protection of large areas of intact forest habitat

Pristine forests are home to over half of all terrestrial species in the world and their loss would impoverish the planet. Far better to save primary forest from deforestation in the first place,” added Dr Peres. “That way we maximize both the biodiversity and carbon value of whole landscapes.”

The study was partly funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative and their findings are reported in a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Adapted from materials provided by University of East Anglia.

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86% of sea turtle species threatened with extinction

Mongabay

Marine turtles have thrived for more than 100 million years. But only the last few hundred years have given the huge, spectacular, prehistoric reptiles serious trouble.

And that’s where people like Earl Possardt, an international sea turtle specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, come in. Possardt is part of a bigger effort to rescue what remains of seven species of an animal that has managed, sometimes against formidable odds, to make it all the way into the 21st century.

In 2007 alone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directed international conservation grants totaling nearly $600,000 to 22 countries and conservation entities involved in sea turtle survival. Most of the money has gone to efforts to restore or safeguard turtle nesting areas. The funds also support conservation of the world’s largest nesting loggerhead population in Oman, and help preserve one of the two remaining large leatherback nesting areas that occur along the West African coast.

Possardt said that overall, he has seen some positive response, but acknowledges that progress is “a mixed bag. We know how to conserve turtles, but we also know it takes a long time.”

Myriad threats continue to plague sea turtles around the globe, but it was the growth of the shrimping industry following World War II that took a significant toll on turtle populations. Turtles are able to swim long distances under water, but must eventually surface for air. Trapped in shrimp trawls, thousands drowned. The eventual use of “excluder” devices by shrimp trawlers, which enable trapped turtles to escape while shrimp remain caught, has dramatically alleviated the problem.

But the turtles still face legal or illegal over-exploitation of their eggs or meat, depredation of eggs by predators, disorienting light pollution that can confuse nesting females and disorient hatchlings, and degradation of important habitat, including grass beds and coral reefs.

Poaching remains a potent threat. Last September, Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agents and authorities in Mexico arrested 12 people involved in the black market sea turtle trade. The 3-year undercover investigation snared suppliers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and smugglers who were dealing in products made from hundreds of sea turtle skins or pieces of turtle shells.

If that isn’t enough, Mother Nature has placed its own natural restrictions on the turtles – hawksbill turtles may not reach sexual maturity until they are 30 years old; it can take loggerheads 12 to 30 years, and green sea turtles, somewhere between 20 and 50 years before they can reproduce, delaying the ability of populations to recover.

Because of some or all of those problems, species like the Pacific leatherback remain in dire shape; the East Pacific population, formerly the world’s largest leatherback nesting aggregation as recently as the 1980s, is now reduced to fewer than 500 females nesting annually on beaches in Mexico and Costa Rica. They face continued threats from poachers, and the Service and NOAA Fisheries continue to work with the fishing industry to minimize dangers to the turtles from long lines and gillnets.

But there are bright spots. Possardt notes that the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle represents a success story. On the verge of extinction in the 1980s, the Kemp’s ridley was down to as few as 700 known nests in 1985, from the tens of thousands of nests counted annually in the 1940s, due to the aggressive harvest of eggs and females as well as a high mortality from shrimp trawlers. But a serious conservation effort on the part of the Mexican government, initiated in the 1960s and joined by the Service in the 1970s, managed to turn the tide for the Kemp’s ridley, and today the turtle is in much better shape.

Of the seven sea turtle species that remain on the planet, six are considered imperiled; only the flatback turtle, found in the waters off Australia, is not on anyone’s endangered list.

Turtle grants are made possible by the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2004, enacted by the Congress and administered by the Service and are designed to ensure the long-term survival of sea turtles by providing a dedicated fund supporting international conservation efforts.

“It’s a long-term job,” said Possardt. “In one human lifetime, you have to look for small victories. In the larger picture, all of those will begin to add up, and through the combined multinational efforts of governments, conservation organizations and the fishing industry, we can save the sea turtles. In the process, we will also create more sustainable marine ecosystems for humanity.”

For more information about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visit http://www.fws.gov

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How we’re destroying our habitat

 The Australian

LIKE a recklessly profligate spendthrift, humanity has largely ignored ever shriller environmental warnings and continued on a destructive path that has already done extraordinary damage.

Climate change, air pollution, land degradation, overpopulation, increasing natural disasters: all these are the symptoms of a sick planet.

An extensive new audit of the Earth, written by 400 scientists and reviewed by 1000 experts under the aegis of the UN Environment Programme, contains an urgent call to action.

The fourth Global Environment Outlook report runs to more than 500 pages of detail on the world’s woes.

The audit has found that each human being now requires one-third more land to supply their needs than the planet can provide. Humanity’s footprint is 29.1ha a person, while the world’s biological capacity is on average only 15.7ha a person. The result is net environmental degradation and loss.

Failing to address persistent atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity problems, UNEP says, “may threaten humanity’s survival”. The report’s authors say there is no significant area dealt with in the report where the foreseeable trends are favourable.

More than 30 per cent of the world’s amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12per cent of birds are now threatened with extinction. More than 75 per cent of fish stocks are fully or overly exploited. Six in 10 of the world’s leading rivers have been either dammed or diverted. One in 10 of these rivers no longer reaches the sea for part of the year. More than two million people die prematurely every year from indoor and outdoor pollution. Less than 1 per cent of the world’s marine ecosystems are protected.

The report’s foreword is written by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warns that “issues of energy and climate change can have implications for peace and security”. Competition for dwindling natural resources such as water, he notes, may become a trigger for conflict.

James Cook University’s pro vice-chancellor Chris Cocklin went to a concept meeting at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi two years ago, where he was invited to help frame the GEO-4 report.

There had been some dissatisfaction with previous GEO reports, he says, and there was concern the reports had lacked the level of peer review required by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That shortcoming has been remedied in part and Cocklin, an environmental scientist, considers the latest report credible. “I think the UN does have a degree of distance; they are reading the evidence and presenting the report around the evidence, rather than making ambit claims.”

Cocklin, though, takes issue with the notion that humanity’s survival is at risk. “We’re a bit like cockroaches, really: we can survive quite a lot,” he says. “But the quality of life is absolutely at stake; that’s under serious threat, if you like looking at green trees and seeing animals and birds.”

He says biodiversity is at an important point where action is needed to maintain the balance, and there isn’t much room for delay.

The GEO-4 report notes that the accelerating loss of biodiversity is linked to humanity’s increasing use of energy, and warns changes in biodiversity and ecosystems can lead to changes in disease patterns and human exposure to disease outbreaks.

Maintaining present biodiversity levels, the report says, is critical. Functioning ecosystems provide buffers to extreme climate events, filters for waterborne and airborne pollutants, and carbon sinks.

Cocklin says that at the rate we’re going, the survival of certain parts of the globe will soon come into question. “Some of the world’s leading experts in biodiversity are warning of a mass extinction of plant and animal species,” he says.

The report elaborates on the theory that the available evidence points to a sixth “major extinction event” now under way. Unlike the previous five extinction events, which were the result of natural disasters and planetary change, the present loss of biodiversity can mostly be sheeted home to human activity.

The Australian Museum’s principal research scientist Daniel Faith says he reviewed part of the GEO-4 report, and although he largely agrees with its conclusions, he took exception to one measure of biodiversity – mean species abundance – which he believes can distort the real picture. For instance, mean species abundance in a specific place can be quite high, but certain species can still be depleted.

“But overall I think it’s a very good study,” says the biodiversity specialist. “It’s really difficult to work with a broad brush at a global perspective.”

As well as assessing the planet’s health, the report focuses on human wellbeing: essentially two indivisible elements making up the world picture.

Humans affect, and are affected by, the environment to an enormous degree. The GEO-4 report includes a number of disquieting statistics on humanity. The global population has grown by 1.7 billion in the 20 years since 1987, to a grand total of 6.7 billion. And these 6.7 billion humans consume like a plague of ravenous insects. One small example noted in the report: every year, 1.1million to 3.4million tonnes of undressed wild animal meat, or bushmeat, is eaten by people living in the Congo basin.

And people are flocking to the cities. By the end of this year, more people will be living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. Already, more than one billion people live in slums across the world. Water-related diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoeal infections, kill about three million people a year. Ten million children under five die every year – 98 per cent of them in developing countries – and three million of these deaths are the result of unhealthy environments.

The report considers seven distinct regions and Australia slots into the category of Asia and the Pacific. Home to 60 per cent of the world’s population, the region has seen some solid gains, the report says, including improvement in environment protection, energy efficiency and the provision of clean drinking water. Yet vastly increased consumption and its associated waste have accelerated existing environmental problems and contributed to some of the worst urban air quality in the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than one billion Asians are exposed to excessive air pollution.

The report says climate change is likely to cause more severe droughts and floods in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as soil degradation, coastal inundation and saltwater incursions caused by rising sea levels. Agricultural productivity, it warns, is likely to decline substantially because of warmer temperatures and shifting rainfall.

Murdoch University’s Frank Murray, one of the GEO-4 report’s authors, says one of the broad themes concerns the relationship between humanity’s wellbeing and economic development, and how they largely depend on the health of the environment. Murray, an environmental scientist, was on the team that wrote the chapter on atmosphere, including climate change, air pollution and ozone depletion.

Murray used the Kuznets curve – devised by the Nobel prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets – to explain how the environment degrades as development proceeds. This continues until a certain level of development is reached and the general public – now mostly richer and better educated – begins to agitate against air pollution or water pollution. Agencies are then established to control development and pollution. “Air pollution and water pollution in the US is much lower than it used to be,” he says. “China is trying to clean up Beijing, with (next year’s) Olympics in mind.”

Murray says the GEO-4 report is a flagship UNEP publication that has taken a number of years to research, write and edit. Various governments, he says, did remove certain elements they didn’t like, but that simply meant the assessment was moved to a broader regional level rather than an individual national level. “Rarely is any individual government criticised in this report,” he says. “Countries are very sensitive about being named adversely.”

One of the big issues in the report, which has been comprehensively addressed by other organisations, is climate change. “Climate change is a major global challenge,” the report says. “Impacts are already evident, and changes in water availability, food security and sea-level rises are projected to dramatically affect many millions of people. Drastic steps are necessary.”

The report ranks climate change as a global priority, yet the authors note a “remarkable lack of urgency” and a “woefully inadequate” global response.

Murray says change is on the way. Although very little happened for many years, climate change has now been recognised as a fact of life by ordinary people in developed nations, and governments are responding to community pressure. Remedies are possible, he says. Ozone depletion, for instance, has been halted by global action to ban chlorofluorocarbons.

Cocklin is less sanguine and he is doubts whether relying on governments to effect change is a good idea. “We certainly can’t look to politicians for leadership on climate change,” he says. “The leadership, if it’s anywhere, has come from the private sector.”

Ominously, UNEP warns that some of the damage resulting from the world’s most persistent problems could be irreversible. Tackling the underlying causes of environmental problems, the GEO-4 report says, often means dealing with the vested interests of powerful groups that can influence policy decisions.

“Our common future,” the report says, “depends on our actions today, not tomorrow or some time in the future.”

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