The Value of Vultures

Posted in Conservation, Health, Pollution at 1:30 pm by justakim

The Asian vultures, the oriental white-backed, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures, are declining rapidly in numbers, by at least 97% each since 1992.

The painkiller diclofenac is used on humans and animals and are poisonous to vultures, When ingested, it shuts down their livers. While India has banned their production, diclofenac is still used in that country through imports and applying the human formulation. It does not take much; just 1% of contaminated carcasses can drive these species to extinction. About 10% of carcasses were found to be contaminated.

These species may be on the verge of extinction within the decade One may think that the loss of a few scavengers will make little difference, but these birds provide a vital environmental service.

The birds are critical to the ecosystem and for human health in India because they are the primary means of getting rid of animal carcasses in the nation of some 1.12 billion people, added Andrew Cunningham, who worked on the study.

Their demise is has led to a sharp increase in dead animals around villages and towns, which has boosted the numbers of disease-carrying rats and rabid stray dogs, he said.

This role is so important that there has been convergent evolution, producing unrelated Old World and New World vultures.

Is it worth saving these guys?

“Ironically, even though it is farmers using diclofenac that are killing the birds, when we say we are working on vultures, farmers thank us and ask us to bring them back,” says Cunningham.

Sounds like a yes to me.

Among other efforts, the Peregrine Fund is monitoring their locations.
Bombay Natural History Society


Polluter Pays At Its Best

Posted in Conservation, Pollution at 7:14 pm by justakim

An Egyptian cargo company is paying a record fine for falsifying their records about dumping oil sludge straight into the ocean instead of incinerating it. Basically, they took a hose to bypass the system and siphon the leftover sludge overboard instead of burning it. There was evidence that at least in the initial ship, this was being done. What they’re really being caught on is for lying about it. Repetitively identical records is not a good sign!

The company has agreed to pay a $7.25 million fine, the largest penalty in the Northwest for dumping at sea, prosecutors said. The deal will go before a federal judge in Portland today for approval. The company also agreed to an elaborate environmental compliance plan that requires outside audits of its ships and a court-appointed monitor to track its operations.

About $2 million would go into an Oregon environmental fund that supports wildlife habitat projects.

The shipping company had the choice between making a settlement or not being able to do business in the US. Ever.

Using the money for other environmental projects is a nice touch. The Coast Guard is very effective in polluter-pays policy. If one is caught letting oil or other pollutants into the Coast Guard’s domain, the fines for not coming forward immediately far outweigh taking responsibility. And we’re talking per diem here. And you’re not done fixing your mess until the boys in blue say so.

Here’s a surprisingly nice piece on Coast Guard operations, centered around Katrina


Santa May Need a New Home–and no it’s not the credit crunch

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Resources at 11:05 pm by justakim

…he handed out too many lumps of coal.

The Arctic is plagued with a variety of woes. Not only is it melting faster than anticipated, it just might be ice-free this summer. It shrank back drastically last year, and while there has been a promising growth in ice over the winter, it is ‘new’ ice that is less resistant to melting. Picture a thin film of ice over your drink vs. a cube in it.

It is also “wetter” than previously, with more rain and more snow. When a thick frost forms on top of the snow, reindeer and other animals accustomed to digging down are unable to break the surface.

When the ice melted back last year, it exposed the fabled North-West Passage that connected the Atlantic to the Pacific. Among other things, one of the concerns brought up by the opening of the Arctic are fisheries. As ocean temperatures rise, fish species are appearing in new places, typically moving northward. In an attempt to forestall future crashes in fish stocks, there is an attempt to establish a marine sanctuary within the exclusive economic zone around Alaska. There’s no teeth in it yet.

o/~Just one time I would take the northwest passage… o/~


Notes on Biodiversity

Posted in Book, Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Pollution at 12:29 pm by justakim

There is a new book explaining how the loss of biodiversity will impact the discovery and development of new drugs. What makes this notable is that this is not just E.O. Wilson’s Discovery of Life. This book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity is composed not by environmentalists or entomologists, but by medical doctors at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The book demonstrates the value of biodiversity in previous discoveries, and covers several areas that show promise for new drugs, including cases where the species went extinct before the drug potential could be realized, and more cases where this may yet happen. Time to put a few frogs aside. It looks like it has a solid overview of what biodiversity is, why it matters, and what affects it. The book will be out in June.

One species that was not on the list for drug potential is the finless porpoise. While it has a pretty wide range along the coast, there is only one freshwater population that lives in the Yangtze River and two connected Poyang and Dongting Lakes. In addition to habitat degradation, a recent study finds that they are suffering from high levels of pollution.

While the focus of this study was on pollution, the situation is quite precarious. Dongting Lake relies on overflow from the Yangtze River and it swells and shrinks with the seasons. The Three Gorges Dam, which was built upstream of the lake, also has the function of flood control. Regulated flow and trapping of sediment must have drastically changed the functioning of the lake.

What makes this news so unpleasant to me is that I didn’t even know they existed. The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was pretty much expected when the Three Gorges Dam project began. It is probably more significant to lose a species than a population, but I was not aware there was much else of note. To lose something only as you learn it is there…


Water Woes: What California and China have in common

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Politics, Pollution, Resources at 8:21 pm by justakim

California could lose a vast amount of its snowpack due to global warming by the end of the century. The percentage ranges are so wide, that I will leave those to the article.

Right on the heels of this interview, with the knowledge of snowpack being at its lowest point in 20 years, Governor Schwarzenegger requests $5.9 billion in bonds for water related projects including two dams.

Where could you possibly put the dams and have them be effective? We’ve damed all the good places where the geography lends itself to a stable structure and an opportunity for hydropower exploitation. Not too long ago, the project to dam the American River was buried. It is hard to believe that there are any better options.

Meanwhile, China is investing a little shy of $4 billion to reinforce reservoirs and improve drinking water while pondering projects to transfer water from the wet south to the parched north. Investing in current dams is a different story. Dams with high levels of siltation may have a lifespan, depending on how fast they can keep up with the dredging. That could obviously be cut short if the dam fails before dredging becomes an issue. The concern for drinking water is a good sign.

It is of little surprise that there are also complaints about dams in recent news as well. For instance, a group lawsuit vs. PacifiCorp over Klamath dams where just about everyone except the farmers have banded together, addressing toxic algae blooms, recreation, and fishing.

The U.S. Department of the Interior last year recommended removing the dams or building “ladders” for the spawning fish if PacifiCorp wants to keep them.

China has its own problems as they encounter problems while trying to protect the endangered Yangtze alligator. The article makes mention of the Yangtze river dolphin, which had been declared functionally extinct. Few of these unique creatures existed even before the Three Gorges Dam was built. That was merely the nail in the coffin.

It feels like we are stuck in some sort of time warp, returning to the days when it was not widely known that all the good dam spots had been taken and additional dams were often not worth the bother. We need to better allocate the water that we have, rather than pretend that if you build [the dam], [water] will come.


The Informal Economy Protects Trees: Madagascar’s regenerating tropical dry forests

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Politics, Resources at 8:51 pm by justakim

New Scientist had this article on Madagascar forest regeneration in which cultural customs has led to the regrowth of forests in Madagascar. Satellite imagery revealed that deforestation had more of an impact in unpopulated areas, areas that were outside of the control of local communities.

While the government owns most of the land, local clans have control over its use, and permission is granted only to members. It is in areas where a local group does not have a claim that deforestation becomes a problem. These include areas that once were controlled by clans that have abandoned their territory because of a drought. The concern is that climate change will cause more migration and the loss of informal property claims, which would allow further deforestation. It would help to have more formal property claims so that ownership will be maintained if this were to occur.

In addition, there are taboo forests where no one is supposed to take anything. The punishment for breaking this rule is a cow, which is pretty expensive. It would be relatively easy to change these unspoken rules into real laws so that the forests can be protected beyond the time the locals live there.

Coincidentally, Greg at CES Blog wrote about the further meaning of my last post on the Wollemi pine and the meshing of natural and social worlds. Well, there is further enmeshment for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to mark my territory with a few cacti.


Endangered Species and Property Rights: Wollemi Pine

Posted in Conservation at 1:12 pm by justakim

Some conservationists are trying out a new scheme of selling trees to save them. The wollemi pine was thought to have gone extinct two million years ago, until it was discovered in Australia in 1994.

In order to save these <100 individuals in the wild, conservationists are selling cuttings of the trees to increase their numbers and to discourage poaching. It is already very difficult to reach these trees. You can see them spelunking into the canyon in the video. The remote location, its enclosure in a protected national park, and open legal availability, remove incentives to poach these trees, and the widespread distribution to tree-property owners will insulate it against being wiped out if something were to happen in the only place it is known to exist in the wild. National Geographic is selling these trees for $99 plus $5 shipping, with part of the proceeds going to conservation research. I have my eye on this for the first Christmas tree in my first house.


Biofuels vs. Forests

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy at 4:16 pm by justakim

Another instance of “green vs. green” in its extreme, Ugandans protest the deal to convert rainforest to sugar cane for biofuel. This is simply counterproductive. Even if they were not clearing rainforests for this activity, one must ask if the best use of this sugar cane, or the cleared land it will be grown on, is for the production of biofuel. There has to be something wrong with incentives if this is even remotely a profitable opportunity.


Oh Deer!

Posted in Conservation, Energy at 4:26 pm by justakim

There is a place in Seneca County New York that used to be the site of a US Army depot that was decommissioned after the first Gulf War. Security kept people out and wildlife in. It was recommissioned as a conservation park.

White deer manifest a rare recessive gene that has been preserved within the depot. While this is not a subspecies, the occurrence is rare, and the herd is unique. The sight of deer wandering among the bunkers sounds like a poignant scene.

The former depot land has seen light use up to this point: “Since the Army departed, the depot has become home to a state prison, a soon-to-open county jail, a state police training center and a residential camp for children with emotional problems and a history of delinquency. But those facilities are on the periphery, away from the deer’s habitat.” [1]

Now, there are two proposals. One is for a ethanol fuel and biomass plant, that involves planting 4,500 acres of willows (out of 10,587 acres), or a conservation park that includes a Cold War history museum.

Empire Green Biofuels is a farmer-based initiative. The other project is organized by Seneca White Deer Inc.

Some may consider this a battle between green against green, but as a skeptic of ‘green’ fuels, particularly ones that require farming, I cannot see this as an even match, particularly if no environmental impact statement is offered for scrutiny. On the other hand, the deer is an artificial occurrence and there are species that are in more dire need of protection. The trade-off seems not so bad. Is this like choosing the greater of two goods as opposed to the lesser of two evils?

1. Article at ENN
2. Seneca Army Depot at Wikipedia
3. Seneca White Deer Inc.

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