Also see our Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2013.
The discovery of a new tapir species is number seven in our first ever Top 10 List of Happy Environmental Stories. Pictured here is a pair of Kobomani tapirs caught on camera trap. The individual on the left is a female and on the right a male. Females of the new species are characterized by a light patch on lower head and neck. Photo courtesy of Fabrício R. Santos.
1. China begins to tackle pollution, carbon emissions:
As China’s environmental crisis worsens, the government has begun to unveil a series of new initiatives to curb record pollution and cut greenhouse emissions. The world’s largest consumer of coal, China’s growth in emissions is finally slowing and some experts believe the nation’s emissions could peak within the decade. If China’s emissions begin to fall, so too could the world’s.
Two major commodity producers in Asia announced zero deforestation pacts, while several buyers also established safeguards for commodity sourcing. Both Asia Pulp & Paper, a paper products giant widely condemned by environmentalists for its destructive forest practices, and Wilmar, a Singapore-based agribusiness giant that accounts for 45 percent of global palm oil production, committed to progressive forest policies that exclude conversion of forests with more than 35 tons of above ground biomass, peatlands, and habitats with high conservation value. The moves are part of a broader shift among major commodity producers toward adopting social and environmental safeguards. The transition has been hastened by targeted activist campaigns.
3. REDD+ approved
Osa rainforest tree. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Negotiators at climate talks in Warsaw reached agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), a program that aims to compensate tropical countries for protecting their forests. Importantly, the REDD+ framework includes provisions on safeguards; addressing drivers of deforestation like conversion for plantations; measuring, reporting and verification (MRV) of forest-related emissions; reference levels for measuring reductions in emissions from deforestation; and finance. Formal recognition of REDD+ could help clean up the forest carbon sector, which has suffered from an influx of “carbon cowboys” who have at times put profit before people, resulting in projects of questionable value to the climate or the environment.
4. CO2 emissions rise more slowly:
Is the rise in global carbon emissions finally slowing down? That’s the tentative conclusion from a report released this year that found CO2 emissions rose only 1.1 percent in 2012 (as compared to the decadal average of 2.9 percent) even as the global economy grew 3.5 percent, pointing to a possible decoupling between CO2 emissions and the global economy. Scientists say emissions must peak within a few years and then rapidly decline if we are to have a fair shot at avoiding catastrophic climate change.
5. Sharks and rays win protection at CITES:
The Oceanic whitetip shark was one of several species to gain protection under CITEs. The species has been decimated by shark-finning. Photo by: Thomas Ehrensperger/GNU Free Documentation License.
After years of mass-slaughter for shark-fin soup that has put many shark species at the risk of extinction, CITES has finally taken action. The animal trade group protected five shark species and two manta rays from international trade this year. In other good news, China has banned shark-fin soup from official state banquets. At its height, conservationists estimated that 90 million sharks were being killed annually for shark-fin soup, though there are signs that demand is slowing.
6. Indonesia’s indigenous people win forest rights:
In May, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court invalidated a portion of the country’s 1999 forestry law that classified customary forests as state forests. The ruling is significant because Indonesia’s central government has control over the country’s vast forest estate, effectively enabling agencies like the Ministry of Forestry to grant large concessions to companies for logging and plantations even if the area has been managed for generations by local people. In practice that meant ago-forestry plots, community gardens, and small-holder selective logging concessions could be bulldozed for industrial logging, pulp and paper production, and oil palm plantations. In many cases, industrial conversion sparked violent opposition from local communities, which often saw few, if any, benefits from the land seizures.
7. Scientists make one of the biggest animal discoveries of the century:
In what will likely be seen as one of the most astounding taxonomic discoveries of this century, scientists in Brazil have uncovered a new species of tapir. Although weighing a hefty 250 pounds, this is the world’s smallest tapir and some have already dubbed it a dwarf tapir. The new megafauna was discovered by following the lead of local knowledge: indigenous people in the area have been hunting this animal for millennia, and considered it different from the other tapir in the region, the Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris). Almost nothing is known about the behavior of the new tapir—the world’s fifth—but conservationists believe it is endangered due to habitat destruction in the region.
8. Europe bans pesticides linked to bee collapse:
The EU has approved a partial ban on pesticides that have been increasingly blamed by scientists for the collapse in bee populations. The 28-member states agreed to ban three neonicotinoid pesticides (imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam) for two years on flowering crops. Recent research has shown that while the pesticides rarely kill bees outright they impact their brain functioning and disrupt natural behavior, a process that may eventually lead to collapsing colonies. Neonicotinoids are also believed to impact other wild pollinators, such as butterflies while the European Food Safety Authority recently warned that neonicotinoids may harm the brains of unborn children as well.
9. Divestment campaign full-steam ahead:
The divestment campaign against fossil fuels is only a little over a year old, but has already achieved some major commitments and, perhaps more importantly, has raised awareness about the role of fossil fuel corporations in pushing us toward catastrophic climate change. The movement has spread from college campuses to cities, religious institutions, NGOs, and even zoos and aquariums. To date, eight colleges, 22 cities, two counties, and 18 religious institutions have committed to divesting. The campaign stated in the U.S., but this year moved into the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
10. Leatherback sea turtle no longer Critically Endangered:
Female leatherback sea turtle after laying eggs on a beach in Suriname. Leatherbacks are recovering in portions of the Atlantic, but remain hugely imperiled in the Pacific. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Conservation efforts in the U.S., Caribbean, and Central America have pulled the leatherback sea turtle back from the brink of extinction. A new assessment of the species by the IUCN Red List has moved the world’s largest marine turtle from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable. However, while the subpopulation in the western Atlantic Ocean is growing, other populations are plunging. Pacific populations are rapidly declining, while populations along the west coast of Africa—the world’s largest—lack good data. Much more needs to be done, but the species is unlikely to vanish anytime soon thanks to relentless conservation work.
1. The hamburger bite heard round the world:
Arguably the most potentially world-transforming story of the year was a hamburger. Grown in a laboratory from cow stem cells, the hamburger was a major step forward in producing meat without the corresponding environmental toll. Animal rights activists cheered the fact that this was a burger that was truly cruelty-free, while environmentalists saw the potential to make meat without the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy consumption, and massive land-use demands. But the hamburger—which was eaten by food critics—still has a way to go before it reaches our stores: for one thing, the cost (researchers spent around $330,000 on this burger alone) must be significantly reduced.
2. Google’s forest map:
A team of researchers unveiled a long-awaited map of the world’s forests. Powered by Google, the map shows change in forest cover between 2000 and 2012, including large-scale forest loss in Russia, Brazil, United States, Canada, and Indonesia. The highest deforestation rate during the period occurred in Malaysia. While some critics immediately denounced the map for counting tree plantations as forests, others recognized the value of the map in providing a foundation for more powerful applications to come, including global high-resolution deforestation tracking.
3. Colombia establishes massive Amazon rainforest park:
La Meseta de las Piramides in Chiribiquete National Park. Photo by Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team, which pushed for the park’s expansion.
In August the Colombian government officially doubled the the size of its largest national park. Chiribiquete National Park in southern Colombia expanded from 12,990 square kilometers to 27,808 square kilometers, making it one of the biggest protected areas in the Amazon. The expansion includes areas thought to be inhabited by two “uncontacted” or voluntarily isolated tribes. These areas were potentially at risk from oil exploration and mining.
4. Saola reconfirmed in Vietnam after 15 years:
A female saola that was brought into a Laos village in 1996, nicknamed Martha. She died within a few days. Photo by: © William Robichaud.
One of the world’s rarest and most elusive mammals is still around, according to camera trap photos taken in Vietnam. Conservationists captured photos of the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) in an unnamed Vietnam protected area this year, the first evidence of the species in three years and the first confirmation of it holding on in Vietnam in 15 years. Conservationists fear that only a few dozen or, at best, a few hundred saolas are left in the world making it one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. Only discovered in 1992, the saola is among the last large-bodied mammals to be uncovered by science.
While biodiversity is on the decline worldwide, conservationists are having some notable success in bringing some species back. A ground-breaking program in Europe has brought the northern bald ibis back to the continent for the first time in 300 years. This spring, the first scarlet macaws were released in Mexico after largely vanishing from the country 70 years ago. In another innovative project, gorillas orphaned by the bushmeat trade have been successfully reintroduced into areas where they had been hunted to local extinction. Finally, conservation efforts in Russia have allowed the rising population of Amur leopards to not only seek out new territory in China, but even breed there.
In some parts of the world, hunters and their organizations are driving forces in local conservation efforts, but in many tropical countries overhunting is decimating animal populations. This year Botswana announced it would ban all trophy hunting on public lands by 2014. Proponents of the law say the decline in Africa’s mammals has become too great to allow hunting purely for sport, while opponents say trophy hunting brings in much-needed revenue. Costa Rica, however, made the biggest waves when it announced it was banning all hunting and trapping, both inside and outside protected areas. The new law will still allow subsistence hunting by indigenous people.
7. Scientists discover the uber-cute olinguito:
Baby olinguito found in SavingSpecies project site in Colombia. Photo by Juan Rendon.
For those who like the ridiculously adorable in Nature, the discovery of the olinguito—a new mammal in the cloud forests of Andes—was a boon. The olinguito is the first new carnivore uncovered in the Western Hemisphere since the 1970s (though the olinguito appears to be largely vegetarian), and the most distinct member of the olingo family—little-known tropical mammals related to raccoons. It’s hoped the discovery of the new mammal will bring renewed conservation attention to the cloud forests of the Andes, which are hugely imperiled by deforestation and climate change, but contain thousands of species found no-where else.
8. Using flies and leeches to monitor biodiversity:
A new technique to monitor secretive animals could prove as revolutionary to conservation efforts as remote camera traps. By extracting blood from leeches or flies, scientists can look at the DNA to tell what the blood-suckers have been feeding on and thereby know what animals are in the area. Trials of this technique have already been conducted successfully in Madagascar and Vietnam. With time this new technique—which is both cheap and efficient—could even monitor changes in animal populations. But it doesn’t just have to be large animals (like mammals and birds): the technique could also monitor changes in insect populations by looking directly at their DNA.
(12/16/2013) In what will likely be considered one of the biggest (literally) zoological discoveries of the Twenty-First Century, scientists today announced they have discovered a new species of tapir in Brazil and Colombia. The new mammal, hidden from science but known to local indigenous tribes, is actually one of the biggest animals on the continent, although it’s still the smallest living tapir. Described in the Journal of Mammology, the scientists have named the new tapir Tapirus kabomani after the name for “tapir” in the local Paumari language: “Arabo kabomani.”
(12/16/2013) In November this year, the world was greeted by the dismaying news that deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon jumped 28% in the past year. The year 2013 also holds the dubious distinction of being the first time since humans appeared on the planet, that carbon concentrations in the atmosphere rose to 400 parts per million. A map by Google revealed that Russia, Brazil, the United States, Canada and Indonesia all displayed over 10 million hectares of gross forest loss from 2000-2012, with the highest deforestation rate occurring in Malaysia.
(12/10/2013) China has banned shark fin and bird’s nest soup from being served at official state banquets, reports Chinese state media.
(12/05/2013) Two degrees is too much: that’s the conclusion of a landmark new paper by top economists and climatologists, including James Hansen formerly of NASA. The paper, appearing in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, argues that global society must aim for only one degree Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst impact of climate change, and not the two degrees Celsius agreed on by the world’s governments. But given that the world’s governments are not yet on track to even achieve the two degree target, how could we lock in just one? A combination of renewable energy, nuclear power, and, most importantly, a rising price on carbon emissions, according to the eighteen scientists.
(12/04/2013) Beginning next year, light planes and helicopters will undertake the first ever continent-wide aerial survey of Africa’s vanishing elephant populations. The hugely ambitious initiative, which will count elephant herds in 13 countries, is being funded by Microsoft founder, Paul Allen, through his Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
(12/02/2013) The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), also called the hermit ibis or waldrapp, is a migratory bird. Once, the bald ibis lived in the Middle East, northern Africa and southern and central Europe, but due to hunting, loss of habitat and pesticide-use, the birds disappeared from most of these areas and is currently considered Critically Endangered. It became extinct in Europe 300 years ago; the bird is almost gone in Syria, with only a single individual recorded at the country’s lone breeding site in 2013; and the only stronghold left is a small population of around 500 birds in Morocco. But now, a team of scientists from Austria is working to reestablish a self-sustaining, migratory population of bald ibis in Europe.