Newsletter 2019-12-12



Analysis: The Tanah Merah project is a bellwether for Jokowi’s permit review by The Gecko Project and Mongabay [12/11/2019]

– This week, Mongabay and The Gecko Project revealed an allegation of forgery at the heart of the world’s largest oil palm plantation project.
– Permits underpinning the project, now being used to clear rainforest in the Indonesian part of New Guinea, were falsified, government officials have alleged.
– The case provides a window into how Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s administration is wrestling with the consequences of two decades of poorly regulated plantation expansion.

Conservation biologist and wildtech journalist Sue Palminteri, 1965-2019 by Rhett A. Butler [12/11/2019]

– Sue Palminteri — Mongabay’s wildtech editor, conservation biologist, professional tennis player, and long-time exercise enthusiast — lost her battle with cancer on November 30th. She was 54.
– Whether it was radio-collaring elephants across the savannas of South Africa, competing internationally alongside the Israeli national team in tennis, tracking saki monkeys through the rainforest in the sweltering mid-day heat of the Peruvian Amazon, or evaluating the practicalities of implementing technological solutions to conservation challenges, Sue fully embraced all she pursued with rare tenaciousness, passion, and grace.
– Her persistence and intelligence enabled her to excel as an athlete, a conservation biologist, and a journalist, while her authenticity, upbeat nature, and companionship made her a good colleague, friend, and partner.

Revealed: Government officials say permits for mega-plantation in Papua were falsified by The Gecko Project and Mongabay [12/10/2019]

– The allegation has been raised internally within the Indonesian government on multiple occasions, an investigation by Mongabay and The Gecko Project has found.
– An area nearly the size of Paris has already been cleared on the basis of the allegedly fraudulent permits, cutting a hole in a vast stretch of rainforest on the island of New Guinea.
– The companies clearing the forest have denied the allegation, insisting their permits are legitimate.
– The case has emerged as world leaders gather in Madrid this week for the 25th UN climate summit, with stemming Indonesia’s forest loss deemed critical if the nation is to meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Coca farms close in on protected areas, isolated tribes in Peruvian Amazon by Chris Fagan [12/09/2019]

– A remote region of the Peruvian Amazon is being invaded by farmers who are rapidly clearing mature forests for farms to grow coca.
– The invasions are occurring in the buffer zone of Alto Purús National Park and two reserves for isolated tribes, seriously threatening the Mashco-Piro, Peru’s largest isolated tribe.
– The farmers are from VRAEM, Peru’s largest cocaine-producing region, and are part of a growing movement of coca farmers from the Andean foothills to biologically and culturally sensitive lowlands near protected areas.
– The invasions are occurring in timber concessions and exemplify the problem with Peru’s reliance on timber companies to properly manage remote forests lacking state presence.

‘A crisis situation’: Extinctions loom as forests are erased in Mozambique by David Njagi [12/05/2019]

– Small mountains called “inselbergs” are scattered widely across the central and northern Mozambique landscape. They are crowned by rainforests, which are homes to species that have evolved in isolation for millennia.
– Inselberg forests are Mozambique’s last inland primary forests. But they’re getting smaller and smaller as humans burn them for agriculture and to flush out game animals, and chop them down for lumber and charcoal.
– One such inselberg is Mount Nallume, which researchers recently surveyed during a November expedition. While there, they found chameleons that they suspect may be a new species
– However, Nallume’s forest is disappearing quickly, with the researchers estimating it may be gone in five to 15 years if deforestation continues at its current rate. They urge the government of Mozambique to do more to protect these “islands in the sky” before they, and the unique animals that live in them, disappear forever.



Vanishing sea ice in the Arctic could shake up seabird migrations by John C. Cannon [12/11/2019]
– Researchers have developed a framework to aid in understanding the changes to seabird migration that could result from the loss of Arctic sea ice due to climate change.
– The team found that one species, the little auk, would expend about half as much energy by shifting its migration from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific, rather than their traditional migration or if they just stayed put in the high Arctic.
– The team also mined the scientific literature and found 29 bird species with the potential for a similar shift in their migratory routes.

Our fires weren’t as bad as in the Amazon, Indonesian officials claim by Hans Nicholas Jong [12/11/2019]
– Indonesian officials say their handling of forest fires this year has been much better than in other places, including the Amazon.
– But while the claim of a smaller burned area than in the Amazon holds true, the Indonesian fires have churned out nearly double the greenhouse gas emissions as the burning in Brazil.
– Environmental activists also say the much-touted regulations and preventive measures credited with keeping the fires from getting much bigger were largely ineffective, given the scale of the burning.
– Officials say they plan to adopt technological solutions for the upcoming fire season, including cloud seeding and the use of drones for early detection of hotspots.

The Sri Lankan legume: Extinct, rediscovered, and now at risk again (commentary) by Jagath Gunawardana [12/11/2019]
– The recent rediscovery of an endemic plant known as the Sri Lanka legume (Crudia zeylanica), considered extinct until a week ago, has been welcomed in Sri Lanka, a biodiverse island with high endemism.
– The plant was found on private land that sits along the path of a planned highway, placing it at imminent danger of extinction once again.
– The rediscovery has opened a fresh debate on the validity of the environmental impact assessment process for major projects in Sri Lanka, as the plant was not included when an impact study was completed for the highway project.
– This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Amazon deforestation paces ahead of recent historical norm by Rhett A. Butler [12/10/2019]
– Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is continuing to pace ahead of recent historical norms, reveals data released by Brazil’s national space research agency INPE.
– INPE’s satellite-based short-term deforestation detection system has recorded 8,683 square kilometers of forest clearing since January 1, 79% higher than a year ago.
– According to INPE, forest clearing since August 1 has amounted to 4,217 sq km, 111% of last year’s tally.
– The new figures come less than a month after the Brazilian government published a preliminary estimate for deforestation for the year ended July 31, 2019.

It’s time for Climate Bonds Initiative to scrap its hydro certification scheme (commentary) by Josh Klemm [12/10/2019]
– As world leaders, industry groups, and campaigners converge on Madrid for the climate change COP, the proponents of hydropower are out in full force, keen to profit from and perpetuate the myth of hydropower’s climate benefits.
– The Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI), a UK-based entity established to channel private finance toward addressing climate change, has aligned itself with the influential International Hydropower Association in its eagerness to capitalize on the growing market for climate-certified projects. Yet it has bitten off more than it can chew by attempting to certify hydropower projects, which prompted 276 civil society groups to call for the scheme to be abandoned.
– Climate bonds have the potential to play a critical role in ensuring positive outcomes for rivers and for effectively mitigating climate change. Clinging to its ill-advised pursuit of a hydropower standard, however, would damage the CBI’s own reputation and undermine the credibility of green bonds on the whole.
– This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Orca grandmothers help improve survival odds of their grandkids, study finds by [12/10/2019]
– Grandmother orcas that are no longer breeding help improve their grandcalves’ chances of survival, a new study has found.
– By analyzing the lives of 378 orca grandchildren in two resident groups in the Northeast Pacific, the researchers found that calves whose maternal grandmother died within the last two years had a mortality rate 4.5 times higher than a calf with a living grandmother.
– The effect was particularly amplified when salmon populations, which resident pods rely on, were low, the authors found, and less so when salmon was abundant.
– Since elderly females lead younger members of their group to salmon hotspots in the ocean, and salmon populations are declining in general, the study highlights grandmothers’ crucial role in the survival of the mammals.

COP25: Laura Vargas inspires with power of faith in defense of forests by Justin Catanoso [12/10/2019]
– While the Madrid United Nations climate summit (COP25) isn’t expected to yield major strides forward in the effort to curb the climate crisis, that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of environmental activists from being there in the remote hope of influencing negotiators to act decisively.
– One such person is Laura Vargas, born in the Peruvian Andes, who saw her native home polluted and desecrated by the giant La Oroya copper smelting plant. At age 71, the former nun and socioenvironmental activist is in Madrid as part of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI).
– The IRI hopes to leverage the voices and votes of millions of people of faith in five tropical nations — Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Colombia and Peru — in order to slow rapidly spreading deforestation, the destruction of biodiversity, and oppression of indigenous peoples.
– Vargas’ passion and energy is devoted to “caring for God’s creation” which encompasses all of nature, including humanity, and especially children. Her presence in Madrid, and the presence of half a million others like her protesting in the streets, could be the most hopeful news and potent force coming out of the COP25 summit.

Indonesia to capture 3 wild Sumatran rhinos to add to breeding population by Rahmadi Rahmad [12/10/2019]
– Indonesia hopes to capture three Sumatran rhinos from the wild next year to stock up a captive-breeding sanctuary, in a bid to boost the population of the critically endangered species.
– The sanctuary, opened in 1996 to provide a heavily protected semi-wild habitat for captive rhinos to breed, is already home to seven rhinos, two of which were conceived and born there.
– Experts are also calling on the government to protect the last remaining wild habitats of the rhinos so that there’s somewhere to release them back into once the situation allows.
– Fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos are believed to live in small populations scattered in the dwindling forests of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

Killings of environmental defenders on the rise in the Philippines by [12/10/2019]
– Forty-six land and environmental defenders have been recorded killed in the Philippines so far this year, according to a tally by Kalikasan PNE, a local green NGO.
– The toll surpasses the 28 deaths that the group recorded in 2018, and the 30 recorded by eco-watchdog Global Witness, which named the Philippines the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders last year.
– Agriworkers and farmers account for the majority of the deaths this year with 29, or 63%, followed by government officials and forest rangers with16 deaths, or 35%.
– Most of the deaths are concentrated in the islands of Negros and Mindanao, where activists have been swept up in security operations unleashed in response to communist and Islamist insurgencies, respectively.

Hopes dim as COP25 delegates dicker over Article 6 and world burns: critics by Justin Catanoso [12/09/2019]
– Even as half a million protesters demonstrate outside, UN climate summit negotiators inside Madrid’s COP25 seem blind to the urgency of the climate crisis. In fact, instead of making effective progress, the rules they’re shaping to carry out the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 could worsen carbon emissions, not staunch them.
– For example, Article 6 doesn’t include rules to protect native forests. Instead it could promote turning forests into monoculture tree plantations — providing minimal carbon sequestration and no ecosystem services, while devastating biodiversity. Some critics think the policy may have been shaped by logging interests.
– The so-called biomass carbon accounting loophole is also not up for discussion. Its continuance will allow the burning of biomass wood pellets at power plants, energy production classified by the UN as carbon neutral. However, establised science has found that industrial biomass burning will add significantly to carbon emissions.
– According to activists at COP25, delegates are working to hide emissions and allow UN carbon accounting loopholes. One key aspect of Article 6 found in the original Paris Agreement which guaranteed “the protection of human rights” was deleted from a revised draft Saturday night, as was verbiage assuring civil society and indigenous consultations.

A celebratory kind of revolution: Peruvian villagers hold a bird festival (commentary) by Brian Landever and Fufkin Vollmayer [12/09/2019]
– A recent bird festival in Loreto, Peru was the culmination of three years of teaching and outreach focused on Amazonian bird studies, which resulted in such concern for birds and their habitat that a kind of revolution is building among the thousands of students involved.
– It’s a celebratory kind of revolution, raising spirits and enhancing cultural arts. Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit.
– At a time when both the president of Peru and the president of Brazil view the Amazon as a huge, untapped extractive industry basin — whether it’s logging, gold mining, or gas and oil drilling — for rural people to come together to talk about birds and conservation is nothing short of miraculous.
– This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Evidence ‘unfounded’ against NGO volunteers accused of setting Amazon fires by Shanna Hanbury [12/09/2019]
– The Amazonian town of Alter do Chão in Santarém municipality, Pará state, Brazil attracts 190,000 tourists annually. A battle between environmentalists (wanting to preserve the area’s forests), and land grabbers (wanting to construct high-rises and other profitable infrastructure), has been raging there for many years.
– As part of the wave of fires sweeping the Amazon this year, widespread blazes were set in the Alter do Chão Reserve. In the wake of the fires, police surprisingly arrested four members of Brigada de Alter, an NGO. The four are volunteer firefighters who helped put out September’s blazes.
– Mongabay has acquired police arresting documents revealing what lawyers say is “unfounded” and flimsy evidence. Police claimed the four set the fires with the intent of taking photos and selling them to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
– While the investigation is ongoing, analysts say land grabbers had the best motive for setting the fires. However, critics add, the police focus on the NGO is in line with President Jair Bolsonaro’s ongoing campaign of rhetoric discrediting Brazilian and international socioenvironmental NGOs and undermining their work in the Amazon.

Newly spotted calves boost Javan rhino population to 72 by Basten Gokkon [12/09/2019]
– Four new Javan rhinoceros calves have been observed through a camera-trap survey in recent months in the species’ last habitat, putting the estimated global population at 72 individuals.
– Researchers have celebrated the news, calling it a positive outcome of long-running efforts by the Indonesian government and conservation groups to protect the rhino’s habitat to allow it to breed naturally.
– Poaching and habitat loss have driven the species to near extinction; it now survives in a precarious habitat within Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park on the island of Java.

Time is running out for Southeast Asia by Jeremy Hance [12/09/2019]
– Several species and subspecies have gone extinct in the last 100 years. Others remain missing.
– Most of Southeast Asia’s large-bodied animals are now threatened with extinction.
– Deforestation and the wildlife trade have even left smaller-bodied species decimated as well.
– Southeast Asia has to decide if preserving its irreplaceable and unique wildlife is a priority – or the losses will continue to mount.

Do birds try to shout down airplanes? The evidence suggests they do by Malavika Vyawahare [12/09/2019]
– A sweeping analysis of nearly a million recordings from 48 national parks in the U.S. shows that birds vocalize more in the presence of airplane noise.
– The data collected by scientists at the U.S. National Park Service will help answer questions about how birds respond to airplane noise.
– With air travel increasing, bird communities across the world are likely to be exposed to the drone of airplanes, and not just near airports.
– Bioacoustics, the study of how sound is produced, distributed and perceived in the natural world, is already helping shape human understanding of animal communication.

Illegal hunting a greater threat to wildlife than forest degradation by Nanditha Chandraprakash [12/09/2019]
– In a recent study, researchers used camera-trapping records to show that illegal hunting may be a bigger threat mammals and ground-dwelling birds than forest degradation in Southeast Asia.
– They chose Borneo and the Annamite Mountains on the Southeast Asian mainland, two rainforest study sites that have similar habitats.
– While widespread logging has degraded many forests in Borneo, the island has faced less hunting.
– By contrast, the Annamites have experienced exceedingly high illegal hunting, but its forests are structurally more intact.

Vervet monkeys thrive despite habitat loss in South Africa by [12/09/2019]
– Vervet monkeys, native to Africa, have rapidly developed to urban areas seeking food in peoples’ gardens and trash.
– Researchers in South Africa found that despite an abundance of food for vervets in urban spaces, populations aren’t booming.
– By understanding vervet populations and behavior, researchers hope to mininimize human-animal conflict in cities.

Paper and fast fashion fan the flames burning Indonesia’s peat: Report by Hans Nicholas Jong [12/09/2019]
– Pulp and paper giants APP and APRIL continue to source their raw material from plantations located on carbon-rich peatlands in Indonesia.
– The burning of these peat forests prior to planting accounts for much of the fires that have made Indonesia one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, and of the toxic haze that spreads out to neighboring countries.
– A report by a coalition of NGOs warns that these problems could get worse under the companies’ current peat-intensive business model and a relaxing of peat-protection regulations by the government.
– The companies have disputed the scale of the fires attributed to their suppliers’ plantations, and say they already carry out peat conservation initiatives.

Breaking down barriers: Cattle and wildlife compete in Southern Africa by Jim Tan [12/09/2019]
– Thousands of kilometers of fencing designed to keep cattle away from disease-carrying wildlife such as buffalo now cover many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
– These disease-control fences have a devastating impact on wildlife by blocking migration routes and isolating populations.
– Global food safety rules that require that beef be produced in areas free of disease such as foot-and-mouth disease have historically made it difficult for regions with wildlife populations to trade in beef.
– Southern African nations are exploring a new approach to trade that may reduce the reliance on fences, in the process also allowing key migration routes to be restored.

In Indonesia, a tourism village holds off a nickel mine — for now by Ian Morse [12/08/2019]
– Residents of the island of Kabaena in Indonesia registered their home as a “tourism village” seven years ago in a bid to ward off a planned nickel mine.
– They say they fear that mining activity will disrupt their water sources and despoil the forests that they hold sacred.
– Mining activities have proliferated in other districts in the province, driven by a boom for the nickel used in rechargeable batteries and stainless steel.
– While the notion of being a tourism village has meant mining can’t proceed here, the villagers say they’re not getting the full support they expected to boost their economy this way.

Sumatra’s dwindling forests face extra pressure from a major highway project by Basten Gokkon [12/06/2019]
– A major highway project in Indonesia’s Sumatra island is poised to further fragment and degrade the remaining prime forests there, researchers say.
– Between 1990 and 2010, Sumatra lost 40 percent of its old-growth forest.
– The researchers also note the increase of land disputes arising from the project, given that much of land needed for the highway has yet to be acquired due to conflicts with local communities.
– The researchers have called on the government to issue more stringent regulations to protect the remnant forests, and to significantly reroute the roads to avoid the conservation areas.

In a flip-flop, Uganda says it’ll allow a study for a dam at Murchison Falls by [12/06/2019]
– The Ugandan government has announced that a feasibility study for a dam near the iconic Murchison Falls will go ahead, after previously rejecting the notion.
– The company that has applied for a permit for the feasibility study appears to have no track record with similar development.
– Environmentalists and tourism operators fear construction of a dam will threaten the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park.
– Civil society groups have written to the Ugandan president urging him to permanently block the development of hydropower in Murchison Falls National Park and strengthen protection for the reserve.

Canaries in the coal mine? North Atlantic right whale use of key habitat changing rapidly by [12/06/2019]
– A team of researchers with the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Syracuse University recently published the results of a six-year study that focused on the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in Massachusetts Bay, which, together with Cape Cod Bay, comprises one of seven areas in the Gulf of Maine that the whales use during seasonal congregations.
– The team used an automated detection algorithm to determine the presence of right whale “up‐calls” in 47,000 hours of recordings made with 19 bioacoustic recording devices deployed across 4,000 square kilometers (about 1,544 square miles) of Massachusetts Bay.
– The number of whales present during the peak season increased every year of the study except for 2009-2010, “when acoustic presence was unusually low,” according to the study. But the researchers also detected an increased presence of right whales during parts of what should be their off‐season, from late summer to early fall. That could have serious implications for efforts to conserve the species.

Amazon’s giant South American river turtle holding its own, but risks abound by Jenny Gonzales [12/06/2019]
– The arrau, or giant South American River turtle (Podocnemis expansa), inhabits the Amazon and Orinoco rivers and their tributaries. A recent six nation survey assessed the health of populations across the region in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru.
– The species numbered in the tens of millions in the 19th century. Much reduced today, P. expansa is doing fairly well in river systems with conservation programs (the Tapajós, Guaporés, Foz do Amazonas, and Purus) and not so well in others (the Javaés and Baixo Rio Branco, and the Trombetas, even though it has monitoring).
– The study registered more than 147,000 females protected or monitored by 89 conservation initiatives and programs between 2012 and 2014. Out of that total, two thirds were in Brazil (109,400), followed by Bolivia (30,000), Peru (4,100), Colombia (2,400), Venezuela (1,000) and Ecuador (6).
– The greatest historical threat to the arrau stems from eggs and meat being popular delicacies, which has led to trafficking. Hydroelectric dams and large-scale mining operations also put the animals at risk — this includes mining noise impairing turtle communication. Climate change could be the biggest threat in the 21st century.

Svalbard reindeer rebounding better than hoped after nearly going extinct by [12/06/2019]
– The wild Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) seems to be on the path to recovery following near extinction in the early 20th century.
– Now, some 22,000 Svalbard reindeer are estimated to occur across the islands, a population size that’s about twice as high as a previous estimate based on opportunistic counts from 1968 to 2008, a new study has found.
– The latest estimates also show that the Svalbard reindeer now occupies its entire historical range across Svalbard; areas from where the reindeer was once wiped out by hunting have the potential to support more animals, the researchers estimate.
– While Svalbard reindeers are doing better than many of their cousins, the subspecies’ recovery could be under threat from human-induced climate change.

In other news: Environmental stories from around the web, December 6, 2019 by [12/06/2019]
– 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.

Protecting living corals could help defend the Great Barrier Reef from ocean acidification for decades by Ariana Remmel [12/06/2019]
– For the first time, researchers have studied the impact of ocean acidification on coral reefs with a device that allows them to increase levels of carbon dioxide on living coral for months at a time.
– Corals exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide sustained more damage than those in aquarium experiments because fish, sponges, and other native organisms grazed on the fragile reefs.
– However, living corals were more resilient than scientists expected, providing a promising buffer against the impacts of climate change.

Philippine climate activists fight to make the issue relatable by [12/05/2019]
– As one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, the Philippines is known for its active participation in the global climate movement.
– Yet, mobilization at the grassroots level suffers from weak numbers.
– The key is to explain the issue of climate change in a way locals can relate to, groups say.

Latest UN Emissions Gap Report finds world must ramp up climate ambitions at least threefold to meet Paris goals by [12/05/2019]
– The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its latest Emissions Gap Report on the eve of the climate negotiations that kicked off Monday in Madrid, Spain. According to the report, the nearly 200 countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 must boost their emissions-reduction ambitions by at least threefold to meet the targets adopted in the agreement.
– The Emissions Gap Report 2019 finds that total greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 1.5 percent per year over the past decade, and that even if all current commitments made under the Paris Agreement were implemented, global temperatures would rise by 3.2°C.
– Global greenhouse gas emissions would have to be reduced by some 32 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030, or 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030, in order to reach the 1.5°C target, the Emissions Gap Report states. That would require a five-fold increase in countries’ emissions reduction commitments. Even limiting global warming to 2°C would require a 15-gigatonnes reduction in emissions, or 2.7 percent per year, by 2030. Countries would have to ratchet up their emissions reductions commitments threefold to meet the 2°C target.



World is fast losing its cool: Polar regions in deep trouble, say scientists by Gloria Dickie [12/04/2019]
Water flowing up the mountain: Development devours forest reserve in Zambia by Carien Du Plessis [12/04/2019]
Extinct in the wild, a Brazilian bird makes a tentative return to the jungle by Pedro Biondi [12/02/2019]