ENN summarizes the most important and compelling environmental news stories of the week. In the news December 26th - 30th: Japanese whalers prevailed, a dodo discovery, the costly quest for caviar and more.
The Week's Top Ten
In the news December 26th - 30th: Japanese whalers prevailed, a dodo discovery, the costly quest for caviar, and more.
1. Scientists Say Coral Reefs Spared in Tsunami
As destructive as last December's tsunami was, it isn't the primary reason for the current state of South Asia's reef systems. Gregory Stone and his team of divers from the New England Aquarium in Boston made about 500 dives around Phuket to assess reef damage. Stone's conclusion: "What we found was that the effects of human activity -- overfishing, global warming -- actually had a stronger impact than the tsunami."
2. British Biologist Uses Carbon Trading To Grow Forests
Having witnessed mass deforestation in Borneo seven years ago, biologist Ian Swingland came up with the idea of trading carbon credits as a means of funding afforestation. Asserting that "Conventional conservation is a disaster story," Swingland has hit on a scheme to make conservation a business. The company he founded has purchased 25,000 acres of Kangaroo Island off of Australia as a means of demonstrating that conservation can be a sound investment.
3. Idaho Ranchers Can Kill Wolves Harassing Livestock
Soon, the fate of more than 500 gray wolves in Idaho may be in the hands of the state. Up until now, wolf control has been a federal matter, but it is anticipated that Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne and Interior Secretary Gale Norton will sign a measure placing the animals under state control. In that event, ranchers would have the legal right to kill wolves that harass livestock, and would permit wildlife managers to eliminate wolf packs perceived as impacting wildlife populations. Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition head Ron Gillett sums up the general sentiment among ranchers: "[We want to] "immediately remove them by whatever means are necessary."
4. Defiant British Foxhunters Take to the Field
Canines of a different color made the news in Britain. Rather than chasing the trail of real, live foxes on Boxing Day this year, British hunters tracked the scent of the animal, following the government-imposed ban on the custom of allowing packs of dogs to kill foxes. Acknowledging that the pared-down event isn't quite the same as the real thing, hunters nevertheless seemed to make the best of it. "It is different. But it's good to get out and it's good to be in the countryside. I saw lots and lots of non-hunting people who seemed to be happy to be there," said one.
5. Japan Resumes Whaling after Escape Bid
Having played a game of cat-and-mouse for more than 40 hours, a whaling fleet from Japan succeeded in escaping Greenpeace protesters bent on halting its hunting efforts off of Antarctic. Justifying its actions, Greenpeace said, "Every hour that the fleet is on the run, more whales will live." Weather conditions prevented the organization from extending its mission, and five whales were reported killed soon after the whalers' escape.
6. More than a Million Face Extreme Food Shortages in Ethiopia
Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are confronting extreme shortages of food caused by drought. The dry season in the affected countries is usually preceded by rains sufficient to sustain livestock and crops for months thereafter. Expert note the existence of pre-famine conditions in the eastern Somali region of Somali, and nearby countries face the same fate. "The situation is equally bad in northeastern Kenya and parts of Ethiopia bordering southern Somalia, thereby limiting opportunities for cross border migration as a coping strategy," according to the region's Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Administration.
7. China Losing Ground to Severe Erosion
Soil erosion impacts approximately one-third of the area of China, a state media agency reported. Last year, the country lost in excess of 1.6 billion tons of soil. According to the Xinhua news agency, "Most of the lost soil resulted from over-development and unreasonable construction projects." Although China is home to 21 percent of the world's population, it only has 10 percent of the tillable land on earth, making the country's erosion problem especially dire.
8. Scientists Find Cache of Dodo Bird Bones
Famously extinct, the dodo bird hasn't been reported alive since 1663. For the first time, a complete skeleton of the bird has been found on the island of Maritius off of Madagascar. According to Dutch geologist Kenneth Rijsdijk of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, We have found 700 bones including bones from 20 Dodo birds and chicks but we believe there are many more at the site."
9. Gulf Hurricanes Triple Requests for Rigs-to-Reefs
Post-Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has reported a dramatic increase in requests for the conversion of rigs into artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. A total of 166 rigs were damaged in the monster storm. Normally, the Department receives 10 to 12 requests annually for the conversion of abandoned rigs to create fish habitat; this year's requests total 40.
10. Caviar Smugglers Seen Foiling 2006 Export Rules
As you raise a glass to celebrate the dawn of a new year, you might want to think twice about your hors d'oeuvres choices. Illegal sales of caviar on the Internet during 2005, combined with insufficient enforcement, can add up to trouble for caviar-producing sturgeon. New export rules, scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2006, are considered by some as a major step forward in the effort to thwart smugglers.
Guest Commentary: Environmental Security in a Post-Tsunami World
By Chris Hails, WWF
It’s been a tough year of natural disasters. Since last year’s Sumatran earthquake and subsequent tsunami wreaked havoc on Asia and parts of east Africa, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions from their homes, we have seen the likes of Hurricane Katrina in the southern states of the U.S., as well as heavy floods in Europe, extensive forest fires in Spain and Portugal, and mega-earthquakes in Indonesia and Pakistan.
The human dimensions of these tragedies cannot be underplayed and the economic costs are still being calculated. But is there anything we could have done to soften these blows?
At first sight it would seem nothing, that the destructive power of nature can be so overwhelming it renders us helpless. However, investigations following the Tsunami disaster showed that, for those places away from the epicenter, an intact, stable and resilient environment provided a vital cushion to mitigate the impact of the waves. In fact, forceful impact and flooding was prevented by intact mangroves in Thailand, vegetated sand dunes in Sri Lanka, and fringing reefs around many of the Indian Ocean’s low-lying islands. On the other hand, places where coastal defenses had been degraded by human activities, such as shrimp farming or coral mining, damage and loss of life and property were much greater.
Such findings drive home to us the importance of maintaining, and more importantly now, restoring the integrity of the planet for our survival.
Climate change is perhaps one of the greatest threats to our survival. In 2005, we finally saw the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the first real international instrument to tackle climate change through the collective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Many governments, unfortunately, are reluctant to come to grips with the global climatic changes we are facing. Too often we hear from countries that we can't afford the costs incurred by potential threats. But, we should be turning the argument on its head and asking “can we not afford” to take such threats seriously?
The United Nations took the threat seriously enough to establish a high-level panel on challenges to global threats and security, concluding that environmental degradation has enhanced the destructive potential of natural disasters and in some cases hastened their occurrence, and that biological security must be at the forefront of protection. But, the panel’s report ducked real recommendations about what to do.
The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment — compiled by more than 1,300 of the best scientists and analysts from 95 countries — also concluded that human activity is putting such strain on the earth’s natural functions that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. But this assessment barely raised eyebrows in the international community. More disconcerting, the UN-hosted World Summit this past September barely touched on environmental security with the agenda only giving climate change a passing mention over the more central themes of poverty and security.
Yet the traditional models to deal with poverty and security — mainly unbridled economic growth for one and strengthened military power for the other, are the approaches which have failed us for decades, and can never succeed unless based upon a safe and secure environment.
Where was security when the floodwaters wrecked New Orleans? We thought we had the engineering prowess to build a city on a silt-based river delta, interrupting the natural deposition cycle and lulling hundreds of thousands of people into the false sense of security that it was okay to live next to and below sea-level. Couple that with extracting oil and gas from below the delta and add to it years of draining the natural wetlands and coastal marshes, it was a recipe for disaster.
Ironically, we knew all that, but a 1998 programme to restore Louisiana’s coastal marsh system was never adopted. Why? The US$14 billion price-tag put people off. However that cost now seems like a good deal compared to the US$125 billion of damages resulting from Katrina, the US$50 billion to repair New Orleans, and the 1,000-plus lives lost in which no price tag can be attached.
But Katrina was a hurricane, one of many in a season where we ran out of names for them. Scientists are reluctant to come out and state definitively that the extreme 2005 hurricane season is a result of global warming. This is a pity because we know that climate change is giving us more extreme weather events. By the time enough scientific data has accumulated for scientists to state with confidence that climate change is to blame, we may have experienced many more Katrinas.
To best mitigate future extreme events, we as an international community will have to start making more strategic and cautious decisions, and stop taking foolish risks with the life support system that we all depend upon. A stable, sound environment will not guarantee safety in the wake of colossal natural disasters — like the Asian tsunami or American hurricane — but the evidence is there before us that it reduces the risks. The evidence is also there that our aspirations for the future cannot be met unless we start to tread more gently upon the thin crust of the sphere upon which our lives depend, and take better care of the atmosphere that sustains us.
Dr. Chris Hails is Conservation Programme Director at WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.
Photo: Workers inspect a rice terrace in Ubud Bali, Indonesia. Traditional Balinese irrigation is called "Subak," meaning mutual assistance in water distribution for rice fields. Credit: © 2005 Harimawan Latif, Courtesy of Photoshare.