Newsletter 2019-04-18


Illegal charcoal trade threatens Myanmar’s remaining mangroves by Wudan Yan [04/18/2019]

– The depletion of mangroves in southern Myanmar is impacting local fisheries near the island villages.
– The illegal charcoal trade persists due to a lack of law enforcement and oversight in Myanmar and Thailand.
– Many Burmese labor workers, charcoal kiln owners and traders are indebted to the charcoal warehouses that they ultimately supply in Thailand, which guarantees a steady supply of charcoal into Thailand.

Conservation may offer common ground in Afghan conflict by Rhett A. Butler [04/15/2019]

– War, drugs, corruption, and terrorism are terms Westerners are more likely to associate with Afghanistan than biodiversity conservation. But Alex Dehgan says conservation has the potential to offer a bridge toward a more peaceful Afghanistan.
– Dehgan lays out his case in a new book titled The Snow Leopard Project And Other Adventures In Warzone Conservation. The book follows Dehgan’s unorthodox career from a biologist and legal expert in Russia to his time with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) setting up Afghanistan’s first national park.
– Dehgan argues that there is “an implicit understanding” among Afghans “of the links between conservation of the natural environment and their survival”.
– Dehgan spoke about his adventures in conservation in Afghanistan in an April 2019 interview with Mongabay.

‘It’s getting worse’: National parks in Honduras hit hard by palm oil by Max Radwin [04/11/2019]

– Production of oil palm has risen by nearly 560 percent in Honduras over the past two decades, making the country the eighth-largest producer worldwide and number three in the Americas.
– By 2010, Jeanette Kawas National Park, which sits along the coast in northern Honduras, had lost approximately 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) to oil palm plantations. Nearby Punta Izopo National Park and Cuero y Salado National Park lost more than 8 percent and 4 percent of their tree cover, respectively, between 2001 and 2017.
– Small-scale farmers, some living legally within park borders, are clearing deeper and deeper sections of forest. A growing number of residents are cultivating small-scale oil palm plantations and have become off-the-books suppliers for companies operating in the area, which has become a source of serious concern for conservation organizations.
– Local officials say that due to bureaucratic red tape, cutting down even illegally planted oil palm trees can put them at risk of legal repercussions, making it difficult to restore forest after it’s been converted to oil palm plantations.


Sri Lanka calls for increased protection for endemic lizards by Dilrukshi Handunnetti [04/18/2019]
– Sri Lanka is seeking greater international protection for several lizard species found nowhere else on Earth.
– The country hosts the next meeting of CITES next month, where it will propose several endemic lizard species for inclusion in the convention’s Appendix I, including the Knuckles pygmy lizard (Cophotis dumbara), considered critically endangered.
– Domestic laws already exist to protect this and other species, but experts say they need to be better enforced to tackle the smuggling that threatens the reptiles’ survival.

U.S. companies implicated in illegal timber trade from West Africa by James Fair [04/18/2019]
– Illegally obtained timber from West Africa wound up in sidings and other wood products sold in hardware stores across the U.S., a report alleges.
– Federal officials have launched an investigation into the U.S. importers of the wood, Evergreen Hardwoods and Cornerstone Forest Products.
– The trade focused on timber from the okoumé tree, classified as vulnerable by the IUCN and which only grows in four countries in Africa.

Rise in crocodile sightings linked to habitat degradation in Indonesia by Nurdin Tubaka [04/18/2019]
– The capture of a saltwater crocodile by Indonesian villagers last February was the latest in a series of increasingly frequent — and occasionally deadly — sightings of the reptiles near human settlements.
– The animal was eventually released by the local conservation agency into an unsettled area.
– Conservation officials say the destruction of the crocodiles’ habitat by blast fishing and conversion of coastal areas into farms may be driving the animals out of the wild and closer to villages.
– Officials have called on villagers not to harm the animals if they catch them, given that they’re a protected species under Indonesian law.

Swelling amount of plastic in the ocean confirmed by new study by John C. Cannon [04/17/2019]
– A new study used log books from 60 years of plankton research to document the increase in the amount of plastic in the ocean.
– The study’s authors tabulated the entanglements of the continuous plankton recorder, a sampling device that’s towed behind ships, revealing a significant increase in plastic in the ocean since the 1990s.
– Scientists have long suspected such a trend but have been unable to demonstrate it with data until now.

Omura’s whale much more widespread across the globe than previously thought by [04/17/2019]
– The global range of the world’s most recently discovered large whale species is starting to come into focus — as are the man-made threats to the species.
– Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts led a team that published a paper in Frontiers in Marine Science in March that includes a map of all known sightings of the elusive Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai), demonstrating that the whale has a much larger range than previously thought.
– Given the new information they had about the global range of Omura’s whale, the researchers determined the whales face threats from, “at minimum, ship strikes, fisheries bycatch and entanglement, local directed hunting, petroleum exploration (seismic surveys), and coastal industrial development.”

Shade or sun? Forest structure affects tree responses to Amazon drought by Claire Asher [04/17/2019]
– Large-scale satellite data has shown that while large trees expand their crown during the dry season, small trees drop leaves – possibly due to limited light availability in the shaded understory. A new study finds that tree response to dry weather is far more complex, influenced by exposure to the sun and root depth.
– Detailed measurements of leaf growth and leaf loss during the annual dry season and extreme drought events shows that small trees respond differently to water deprivation depending on their surrounding environment – shaded trees gain leaves but exposed trees tend to lose them, a possible sign of dehydration stress.
– Two novel study approaches revealed a complex pattern of leaf growth and loss in response to dry weather: ground-based lidar imaging that produced high-resolution 2D image slices of forest structure, and statistical division of data based on an understory tree’s distance from the canopy top, rather than from the ground up.
– Losing leaves could spell death for individual trees, but these small-scale changes can also impact transpiration and have consequences for regional weather patterns and regional climate change. Also, importantly, degraded forests, with many open clearings, could be less resilient to worsening Amazon drought.

China seizes over 2,700 elephant tusks in massive bust by [04/17/2019]
– In one of the biggest busts in recent years, Chinese officials have seized 2,748 elephant tusks weighing more than 7 tonnes, the General Administration of Customs announced earlier this week.
– The ivory was confiscated during a joint operation by customs authorities and police across six provinces on March 30.
– Customs authorities added that since the beginning of 2019, they had filed 182 cases of smuggling of endangered wild species, seized more than 500 tons of endangered wildlife and their products, and arrested 171 suspects, disrupting 27 criminal gangs.
– China instated a ban on the domestic trade in elephant ivory in 2018.

IUCN calls for moratorium on projects impacting rarest great ape species by Hans Nicholas Jong [04/17/2019]
– The IUCN has cited “ongoing and new threats” to the Tapanuli orangutan, found in a single forest ecosystem in northern Sumatra, to call for a suspension and reassessment of projects being undertaken within the ape’s habitat.
– With a population of no more than 800 individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan is the world’s rarest and most threatened great ape species.
– Roads through the Batang Toru ecosystem where it lives have fragmented the orangutan’s population.
– The most high-profile threat is a planned hydropower plant and dam in the ape’s habitat, which scientists and conservationists have increasingly called to be halted.

A park in Bolivia bears the brunt of a plan to export electricity by Miriam Telma Jemio [04/17/2019]
– A 290-megawatt hydroelectric dam is under construction in Bolivia’s highly biodiverse Carrasco National Park.
– The project is one of several intended to create energy for export, likely to Brazil and Argentina.
– Experts have questioned whether approval should have been given to build a dam in a protected area, especially given the fact that 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land are due to be cleared.
– The area is home to as many as 700 bird and 3,000 plant species.

Audio: Tool-using, ground-nesting chimp culture discovered in DR Congo by Mike Gaworecki [04/16/2019]
– On today’s episode, we talk to primatologist Cleve Hicks, who recently led a research team that discovered a new tool-using chimp culture in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
– Hicks and team spent 12 years documenting the behaviors of a group of chimps in the Bili-Uéré region of northern DRC, and their findings include an entirely new chimpanzee tool kit featuring four different kinds of tools. The chimps also build ground nests, which is highly unusual for any group of chimps — but especially for chimps living around dangerous predators like lions and leopards.
– And the Eastern chimps’ novel use of tools and ground nesting aren’t even the most interesting behavioral quirks they displayed, Hicks says.

Amazon could be biggest casualty of US-China Trade war, researchers warn by Sarah Sax [04/16/2019]
– The US is the world’s largest soy producer and historically has exported the majority of its soybeans to China.
– But after President Donald Trump’s high China tariffs resulted in a Chinese retaliation of a 25 percent import tariff on US agricultural goods last year, United States soy exports to China dropped 50 percent, and Chinese imports of Brazilian soybeans increased significantly.
– Soy production has been linked to large-scale deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna — Brazil’s two largest and ecologically most important biomes.
– If the US/China trade war continues, new research suggests that the amount of land dedicated to soy production in Brazil could increase by up to 39 percent in order to fill Chinese demand, causing new deforestation by up to 13 million hectares (50,139 square miles) of forest, an area the size of Greece, researchers estimate.

Last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle dies in China by [04/16/2019]
– On April 13, the world’s only known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle died in China’s Suzhou Shangfangshan Forest Zoo following an attempt to artificially inseminate her, leaving behind just three confirmed individuals of the species.
– The female turtle had been moved more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Changsha Zoo to Suzhou Zoo in 2008 in the hope that she would mate and produce offspring with the 100-year old male turtle that also lived in captivity at Suzhou.
– The old turtle couple, however, failed to produce any offspring naturally, and several attempts at artificial insemination did not yield viable eggs.
– After the fifth attempt at artificial insemination, the female died during recovery from anesthesia. The male recovered from the procedure.

A fishy translocation highlights dangers of ‘taxonomic inflation’ by Dilrukshi Handunnetti [04/16/2019]
– New research has uncovered how undocumented translocations of endemic fish species in Sri Lanka resulted in scientists mistakenly describing what they believed to be a new species of “fire rasboras,” a fish popular in the aquarium trade.
– A population of the Rasboroides fishes, translocated in 2003 to a habitat where it had previously never been recorded as occurring, formed the basis for an erroneous finding in 2013.
– The new study that corrects this mistake calls for strict adherence to IUCN guidelines on translocation of species and the prohibition of intentional release or introduction of species without legal sanction.
– It also highlights the potential for misdirection of scientific research and conservation initiatives that can arise from declaring new species that aren’t, a practice known as taxonomic inflation.

In ‘Sexy Killers,’ journos probe Indonesian candidates’ ties to Big Coal by Della Syahni [04/16/2019]
– A documentary film was recently published online showing the links between Indonesian coal and energy companies and the country’s political elites.
– The release came ahead of Indonesia’s presidential election on April 17 where more than 190 million people are set to vote.
– The documentary has been received more than 6.5 million views on YouTube within two days after its public release.

Colorful display of newly described stick insects confounds scientists by Malavika Vyawahare [04/16/2019]
– Most stick insect species blend into their surroundings to avoid predators.
– But the males of two newly described species from madagascar, Achrioptera manga and Achrioptera maroloko, are brightly colored.
– Some scientists believe this allows them to attract females, even at the risk of being spotted by predators.
– Their distinctive hues make them potential flagship species for the biodiversity-rich regions where they were discovered: the forests of Montagne des Français and Orangea.

Waters off Galápagos have way more alien species than previously known by Shreya Dasgupta [04/16/2019]
– The waters off the Galápagos Islands have nearly 10 times more alien marine invertebrates than previously recorded, a new study has found.
– The study recorded a total of 53 non-native marine invertebrates (animals that lack a backbone, such as marine worms, sea squirts or moss animals) in the waters off two islands in the archipelago, up from five that were previously known.
– Researchers suspect there are many more non-native species present in the Galápagos waters that remain to be discovered.

Deforested habitats leave migratory birds ill-prepared for journey north by Ashley Stumvoll [04/15/2019]
– Migratory birds are experiencing precipitous population declines due to land-use change in Central and South America.
– These birds rely on forested areas in their southern overwintering grounds for sustenance, but these have been widely replaced by less hospitable agricultural landscapes.
– Some vulnerable migratory birds use tropical hardwood plantations at the same rate as forests, making these for-profit agricultural lands an attractive prospect for conservation, especially in contrast with poorer habitats like cattle pasture.
– Agroforestry solutions, such as the retention of tall trees, can also provide habitat for at-risk species like the golden-winged warbler while providing ecosystem services to farmers.

Palm oil, logging firms the usual suspects as Indonesia fires flare anew by Hans Nicholas Jong [04/15/2019]
– Fires have flared up once again on concessions held by palm oil and logging companies in Riau province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
– For many of the companies involved, this isn’t the first time fires have sprung up on their land, prompting activists to question the government’s ability to enforce its own regulations against slash-and-burn forest clearing.
– Much of the affected area is peat forest, some of it being developed in violation of a ban on exploiting deep peatland, whose burning releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
– A failure by the government to collect on fines levied against the few companies prosecuted for setting fires on their concessions means there’s little deterrent effect for other companies that see slash-and-burn as the cheapest way to raze forests for plantations.

To rescue Sumatran rhinos, Indonesia starts by counting them first by Eni Muslihah [04/15/2019]
– In February, authorities in Indonesia held an exercise for Sumatran rhino researchers to track and tally the remaining wild population of the species.
– The government aims to finalize an official count of the critically endangered rhino within three years, according to the environment ministry.
– Natural breeding for the rhinos has been particularly difficult as the remaining individuals live in fragmented lowland forests away from each other. On top of that, rhinos are slow breeders and the females have a short fertility period.
– Estimates of the current size of the wild Sumatran rhino population range from 30 to 100 individuals. Another nine live in captivity in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Deforestation diminishes access to clean water, study finds by John C. Cannon [04/15/2019]
– A recent study compared deforestation data and information on household access to clean water in Malawi.
– The scientists found that the country lost 14 percent of its forest between 2000 and 2010, which had the same effect on access to safe drinking water as a 9 percent decrease in rainfall.
– With higher rainfall variability expected in today’s changing climate, the authors suggest that a larger area of forest in countries like Malawi could be a buffer against the impacts of climate change.

In Bali, a village hews to unwritten rules to manage its forest by Luh De Suriyani [04/14/2019]
– Pengotan is a village of around 3,800 on the southern side of Bali’s Mount Batur.
– Walk into a house here in Pengotan and chances are someone will be weaving bamboo to be used in offerings.
– Much of the law of the land is informed by customary tradition, the perarem, handed down from previous generations.

New Amazonian species of short-tailed whip scorpion sheds light on ‘the mating march’ by [04/12/2019]
– A new species of short-tailed whip scorpion has been discovered by two arachnologists, Gustavo Ruiz and Roberta Valente of the Universidade Federal do Pará in Brazil, who described the new species in an article published in the journal PLOS ONE last month.
– The new species belongs to the genus Surazomus in the Hubbardiidae family of the order Schizomida. Schizomids are small arachnids who can typically be found in leaf litter and caves or in the cavities beneath tree bark, logs, and stones in humid tropical and sub-tropical forests; they are commonly known as short-tailed whip scorpions because of the short flagella possessed by both males and females.
– More than 200 Schizomids have been discovered around the world, but the order has not yet been widely studied.

How a sheriff in Brazil is using satellites to stop deforestation by Jenny Gonzales [04/12/2019]
– When Leonardo Brito became chief of police at the Police Specialized in Crimes Against the Environment (DEMA) in Brazil’s Amapá stated, he noticed that the department hardly ever investigated environmental crimes. The reason: locating isolated illegal deforestation events in Amapá’s Nepal-size rainforest was like finding a needle in a haystack.
– So Brito started researching methods to make this easier. In the process, he discovered the online forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch and its mobile app, Forest Watcher. These tools visualize areas of tree cover loss detected by satellites.
– Using Forest Watcher, DEMA has been able to detect 5,000 areas of deforestation in Amapá and conduct more than 50 operations combatting illegal deforestation over the past eight months.
– Brito and his team are sharing their knowledge and techniques with environmental police and conservation officials in other states.

Solving the mystery of the UK’s vanishing hen harriers by Lakshmi Supriya [04/12/2019]
– The numbers of breeding hen harriers, one of England’s rarest birds and a protected species, dropped sharply in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
– To better understand why hen harriers were vanishing, researchers tracked the movements of 58 birds using satellite-based tags in conjunction with remote sensing land management data.
– Birds with tags that stopped transmitting spent their last week of life predominantly on moors where hunters shoot grouse and were 10 times more likely to disappear or die when grouse moors dominated their ranges, suggesting they were killed.
– The findings indicated that 72 percent of the tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed.

In other news: Environmental stories from around the web, April 12, 2019 by [04/12/2019]
– There are many important conservation and environmental stories Mongabay isn’t able to cover.
– Here’s a digest of some of the significant developments from the week.
– If you think we’ve missed something, feel free to add it in the comments.
– Mongabay does not vet the news sources below, nor does the inclusion of a story on this list imply an endorsement of its content.

New species of ancient human found in a Philippine cave by Shreya Dasgupta [04/12/2019]
– From a cave on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, researchers have unearthed fossils dating back more than 50,000 years ago, which they say belong to a new species of early human, now dubbed Homo luzonensis.
– H. luzonensis has a mix of ancient and modern traits: Most of its teeth are small and simple in shape, resembling those of modern humans, while its finger and toe bones have features similar to Australopithecus, ancestors of humans who are known to have last walked in Africa around 2 million years ago.
– The researchers involved in the current study are confident that H. luzonensis will hold up as a new species because its skeletal and dental elements “have no equivalents anywhere amongst the known Homo lineage.”

Human pressure on the Serengeti’s fringes threatens the wildlife within by Ignacio Amigo [04/12/2019]
– Spanning more than 40,000 square kilometers (15,400 square miles), the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa is one of the largest protected areas in the world.
– A new study shows that human activities at the edges of the ecosystem are affecting wildlife migrations and pushing the animals deeper into the core of the protected area.
– The displaced wildlife have less available land, triggering a cascade of events impacting soils and vegetation, putting the whole ecosystem at risk.
– The study authors are calling for broader conservation strategies that address not only protected areas, but also their surroundings and local communities.

Cloud seeding bears no rain in Sri Lanka by Dilrukshi Handunnetti [04/12/2019]
– An experimental attempt by Sri Lanka to induce artificial rain amid a prolonged drought fell short of expectations when the anticipated rain materialized a day late.
– Despite the setback, the government appears committed to exploring the technology further as it seeks to address power cuts caused by low water levels in its hydropower reservoirs.
– Scientists have called for comprehensive studies on cloud microphysics, meteorology and observational studies to ensure that such an expensive endeavor is backed by adequate scientific data.
– With no cost-benefit analysis, climatologists fear that artificial rainmaking may cause adverse impacts over the long term.

Scientists urge overhaul of the world’s parks to protect biodiversity by John C. Cannon [04/11/2019]
– A team of scientists argues that we should evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas based on the outcomes for biodiversity, not simple the area of land or ocean they protect.
– In a paper published April 11 in the journal Science, they outline the weaknesses of Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, which set goals of protecting 17 percent of the earth’s surface and 10 percent of its oceans by 2020.
– They propose monitoring the outcomes of protected areas that measure changes in biodiversity in comparison to agreed-upon “reference” levels and then using those figures to determine how well they are performing.

Virtual Reality 360-degree video: An “empathy-generating machine” for conservation outreach? by Sue Palminteri [04/11/2019]
– New video technology that films in 360 degrees brings viewers into the middle of the action and is set to become a powerful outreach tool to build understanding and empathy for wildlife and wild places.
– Small off-the-shelf cameras rugged enough to film in the wild are relatively inexpensive, easy enough for field researchers and other filming novices to use, and sufficiently sophisticated to collect videos of resolutions higher than 5 megapixels.
– At a recent presentation at National Geographic, four VR-360 filmmakers strongly endorsed the technology as a tool to inspire and nurture empathy in viewers for a range of conservation issues.


In Indonesia, an earthquake leaves devastation on land and under the sea by Ian Morse [04/09/2019]
3 massacres in 12 days: Rural violence escalates in Brazilian Amazon by Sue Branford and Thais Borges [04/08/2019]
Indigenous leaders decry Colombia’s deadly crackdown on land protesters by Taran Volckhausen [04/04/2019]