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Latam Eco Review: Whale attacks, palm oil woes, and hope for vaquitas

Humpback whale and calf. Photo via NOAA

Peruvian palm oil, orca attacks on humpback whales, and mining in an Amazon national park are among the recent top stories from Mongabay Latam, our Spanish-language service.

Orcas attack young humpbacks migrating north 

For 30 years, Juan Capella and five other researchers analyzed thousands of photos of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Antarctica. They looked for things like rake marks on the whales’ tails — signs that they had been attacked by orcas (Orcinus orca). Since young humpback whales are less skilled at swimming in the deep, they are easy orca prey; but human activity is still the main cause of humpback whale deaths.

The scarred tail of a humpback whale. Image by Juan Capella.

Peruvian palm oil company said to have illegally cleared forest

Farmers and a local NGO in Peru’s Amazon say a palm oil company illegally cut 27 percent of a rainforest tract before the project was approved. Palmas del Huallaga recently acquired almost 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres) in San Martín province. Without integrated conservation planning in the Amazon, plantations are creating islands of ecosystems no longer capable of providing environmental services.

Deforestation on Palmas del Huallaga’s land. Image by Karen de la Torre.

Palm plantations in Colombia killing native plants and pollinators

The boom in oil palm cultivation in western Colombia has introduced diseases and infestations to the area that are harming native plants. Researchers found that chemicals deemed necessary for the cultivation of oil palms are also affecting pollinators of banana palms and other species in this region of high biodiversity. In some areas, local farmers are turning back to traditional cultivation out of necessity.

Oil palm fruit ready for harvest. Image by Palmasur

‘Hope dies last’: The last 20 vaquitas can rebound

“I’m not saying it will be easy, or that we can do it, but as they say, hope dies last,” says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a researcher of vaquita porpoises. With high genetic diversity and reproduction rates, vaquita (Phocoena sinus) populations can recover from the current 20 that remain, Rojas-Bracho says. He warns that the illegal fishing of totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) could sound their death knell. Demand for totoaba bladder, highly valued in Asia, has is believed to be responsible for the death of vaquitas as bycatch.

Nets for catching totoaba fish are the biggest threat to vaquitas. Image by Omar Vidal.

Costa Rica’s palm oil farmers face five-year crisis

Disease and declining palm oil prices have precipitated a five-year crisis for Costa Rica’s palm farmers, who’ve sought government assistance to offset the losses. While fatal yellowing disease is first observed in the leaves, it originates in the roots in response to soil conditions. Local biofuel projects are trying to boost the domestic market without increasing cultivation acreage.

Oil palms grow two leaves a month and need 40 leaves to produce fruit. Fatal yellowing disease, which affects the leaves, stops fruit production. Image by Alejandro Gamboa.

Illegal mining pictured in Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve

Mongabay Latam flew over the Madre de Dios region of Peru with the Peruvian Air Force. The resulting high-resolution photos and videos revealed illegal activities inside the Tambopata National Reserve in the Amazon, including illegal mining, logging and coca cultivation.

The Peruvian Air Force’s ADS80 cameras captured high-resolution images of the devastation in the Amazon in Madre de Dios. Image by National Amazon Vigilance Center/Peruvian Air Force.

Read the original stories in their entirety in Spanish here at Mongabay Latam.

Banner image of a humpback whale and calf by NOAA.

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