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Monday, November 30, 2009

Guyana expedition finds biodiversity trove in area slated for oil and gas development

An expedition deep into Guyana's rainforest interior to find the endangered giant river otter—and collect their scat for genetic analysis—uncovered much more than even this endangered charismatic species.

"Visiting the Rewa Head felt like we were walking in the footsteps of Wallace and Bates, seeing South America with its natural density of wild animals as it would have appeared 150 years ago," expedition member Robert Pickles said to Mongabay.com.

A PhD student with the University of Kent and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Pickles is currently studying the genetics of the giant river otter in hopes to save this species from habitat loss. While the expedition, which also included tapir expert Niall McCann and local naturalist and tour operator Ashley Holland, found the necessary scat-samples that Pickles sought, they also took data on the biodiversity of one of the Guyana's Shield's most untouched regions hoping to draw attention to a little-known area threatened by big logging and oil companies.

Robert Pickles holding a red fire snake (Chironius scurrulus). Photo courtesy of Robert Pickles.
In just six weeks the expedition recorded an astounding variety of life: 158 species of birds, 22 species of medium to large mammals, and half of Guyana's known endangered species. "Including," Pickles says, "all the felids with several captures of puma in the camera traps, the presence of the mighty Harpy and crested eagles, the extremely elusive bush dog, abundant tapir and then just below the Falls is an important breeding ground for the giant South American river turtle."

Due to the difficulty of reaching Rewa Head, the ecosystem was been little touched by past or present hunters, leaving the animals largely unafraid of Pickles and other expedition members.

"It was quite remarkable the number of game species such as paca and currassow that could be seen and approached with ease. We also encountered four tapir during the expedition […] they were entirely nonchalant about our presence and would quite placidly paddle just next to the boat as we drifted downstream," he says.

Most surprising, according to Pickles, was the number—and size—of the world's largest snake found by the expedition in Rewa Head.

Location of the Rewa Head and extent surveyed by this expedition in red. Map courtesy of Robert Pickles.
"I really have to say something about the anacondas up there though. We encountered 6 during our expedition, four of which were estimated as being over 16 feet. To verify our size estimates we caught a large snake basking on the river bank and measured her length with a rope. She turned out to be 18 feet 2 inches in length with a maximum girth of 27 inches. It was quite incredible to see so many very large snakes. Why do they get so large here whereas in the Venezuelan Llanos they rarely record them over 16 feet?" Pickles said, perhaps describing a future research project for an intrepid herpetologist.

This pristine wilderness—still free from the impacts of the modern world—may not remain so for long. Both a massive logging concession and an even larger oil drilling concession overlap the wilderness.

US-owned company, Simon and Shock International, currently has a license to extract timber from 400,000 hectares.

"The company has stated its environmental principles and has listed a range of measures to mitigate degradation of the concession," Pickles says. "But the unfortunate fact is that no matter how green your intentions are, it can be very difficult to prevent the creep of hunting into a forest once you’ve put a road in there."

The oil-drilling concession, covering an astounding 78 million hectares, poses similar threats according to Pickles.

"Drilling has yet to begin though the company has been prospecting around the village of Rewa. The concern with this is that environmental safeguards are put in place and stringently adhered to. Oil extraction can be achieved with minimal environmental impact provided the company is diligent, but there is also concern as to whether the development of roads will lead to hunting encroachment above Corona Falls," he says, adding that indigenous groups in the area see these future developments as a mixed blessing, providing possible jobs on the one hand but encroachment on their lands on the other.

Camera trap photos from the expedition caught a large number of species, including the tayra Eira Barbara from the weasel family (above) and the ocelot Leopardus pardalis (below). Photos by: Rob Pickles, Niall McCann, Ashley Holland.
Pickles says that the situation facing Rewa Head provides a perfect example of why the REDD program (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation) should be employed even in countries where currently deforestation rates are relatively low and forest cover remains high.

"While it is obviously extremely important to tackle deforestation in the frontline countries where this threat is occurring, which is what REDD initially set out to do, it is equally as important that nations with large tracts of pristine forest and a less severe deforestation threat do not get marginalized, but receive due recompense for not taking the ‘economically rational’ path and fully exploiting those natural resources," explains Pickles. "Guyana is in an incredibly fortunate position in that it still retains 76 percent of its forest cover which constitutes some of the most carbon-rich forests of South America. As such, and with a president keen to offer his nation’s forests as part of the world’s carbon sink, Guyana should be embraced by the international community."

If the Guyana forests are not valued by the wider-world they will likely be lost, and Rewa Head, an ecosystem that time forgot, will vanish along with all of its richness.

Employing the concept of 'shifting baselines'—where humans lose their knowledge of a healthy ecosystem through generations of degradation and destruction—Pickles says that Rewa Head, with its abundant wildlife and incredible biodiversity, has the capacity to teach us what all of the Amazon was once like, if only we make the effort to save it.

"We forget what 'natural' and 'pristine' really mean and now think of places like the Rewa Head as being exceptional," Pickles explains. "Whereas in reality this would have been the state of much of tropical South America, but the degradation has been going on for so long now that we are in danger of forgetting what it is supposed to be like."

In a November 2009 interview Mongabay spoke with Robert Pickles about his six-week expedition to Rewa Head in Guyana, including the status of the giant river otter in the area, the abundance and diversity of other species, the threat of development to Rewa Head, and the possibility of saving this pristine place.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Deforestation emissions should be shared between producer and consumer, argues study

Under the Kyoto Protocol the nation that produces carbon emission takes responsibility for them, but what about when the country is producing carbon-intensive goods for consumer demand beyond its borders? For example while China is now the world's highest carbon emitter, 50 percent of its growth over the last year was due to producing goods for wealthy countries like the EU and the United States which have, in a sense, outsourced their manufacturing emissions to China. A new study in Environmental Research Letters presents a possible model for making certain that both producer and consumer share responsibility for emissions in an area so far neglected by studies of this kind: deforestation and land-use change.

It's not just China that is seeing emissions rise due to demand from other nations: deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil accounts for 75 percent of that nation's emissions, but most of the products produced on deforested land, such as soy and beef, are exported to other countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Pastureland and transition forest in Mato Grosso, Brazil (April 2009). Since 2003 Brazil has set aside 523,592 square kilometers of protected areas, accounting for 74 percent of the total land area protected worldwide during that period. Photo by Rhett Butler.
"Brazil has some of the highest emissions from deforestation in the world and its exports of both soybeans and beef have grown dramatically in the last two decades," David Zaks, lead author and graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and Global Environment (SAGE) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison told Mongabay.com.

Brazil's high annual deforestation rates are currently supporting a massive agricultural industry that exports most of its product abroad: Brazil is the world's largest exporter of both beef and soybeans. Between 1990 and 2006, exports of beef increased by 500 percent. The soy boom, which began in the 1990s, did not cause as much direct deforestation, but pushed cattle farmers and small-land holders deeper into the forest.

From 1990-2006, EU countries and Asian countries were the primary importers of Brazil's soy, while importers of Brazil's beef came from around the world, including Eastern Europe, the EU, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and other South American nations. Yet so far none of these nations have had to pay a cent for the environmental damage, including high carbon emissions, caused by the deforestation of the Amazon.

Zaks and his team have proposed a model to change this. According to their study when a product is exported half of the emissions should be the responsibility of the producing country and half of the importing country and its consumers.

"There is no 'right way' to proportion emissions between consumer and producer, but we did not think that assigning the burden of emissions to either Brazil OR the importing country would be logical," explains Zaks. "If emissions are assigned only to the importing country, there is a reduced incentive to decrease deforestation in the exporting country."

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Monday, November 16, 2009

How rainforest shamans treat disease

Ethnobotanists, people who study the relationship between plants and people, have long documented the extensive use of medicinal plants by indigenous shamans in places around the world, including the Amazon. But few have reported on the actual process by which traditional healers diagnose and treat disease. A new paper, published in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, moves beyond the cataloging of plant use to examine the diseases and conditions treated in two indigenous villages deep in the rainforests of Suriname.

The research, which based on data on more than 20,000 patient visits to traditional clinics over a four-year period, finds that shamans in the Trio tribe have a complex understanding of disease concepts, one that is comparable to Western medical science. Trio medicine men recognize at least 75 distinct disease conditions—ranging from common ailments like fever [këike] to specific and rare medical conditions like Bell's palsy [ehpijanejan] and distinguish between old (endemic) and new (introduced since contact with the outside world) illnesses. In an interview with mongabay.com, Lead author Christopher Herndon, currently a reproductive medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco, says the findings are a testament to the under-appreciated healing prowess of indigenous shaman.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Costa Rica proposes to downgrade Las Baulas National Park, threatening leatherback sea turtles

"This new law introduced by President Arias will be the death of the Costa Rican National Park System and the protection it provides to your environmental national treasures. The world has looked-up to Costa Rica as an example of how to shape an ecotouristic economy; yet this action by the Arias administration will open Pandora’s box to the elimination and attacks on all the other national parks," marine biologist Frank Paladino of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne stated in a letter.

Leatherback sea turtle laying eggs on a beach in Suriname. Photo by Tiffany Roufs.
The law if passed would reduce protected area along the beaches where leatherbacks nest from 120 meters to 50. It would further allow a wide-variety of development, including condominiums and tourist facilities. Conservationists say that such developments would bring a flood of people, vehicles, and domestic animals that will harm the leatherback habitat.

"[The Leatherback sea turtle] Pacific population is in great trouble due mainly to beach disturbance. They have declined by about 98 percent since the early 1980s. Former large nesting populations in Mexico are a tiny fraction of earlier numbers. In the west Pacific, the leatherback turtle’s largest population has apparently gone extinct in the last few years," explains President and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, Carl Safina. "These creatures, and the world, need Costa Rica to do what it can to protect the remaining Pacific leatherbacks and promote their recovery. And so little is required. All that is needed is darkness on the beach at night and protection of nests. The beach at Las Baulas Park that is currently without houses should remain so, and the Park should be reaffirmed by Costa Rica’s Congress."

On hatching sea turtles head toward the lightest area on the horizon, which in a natural environment is the ocean. Electric lights often lead turtle hatchlings astray, sometimes causing heavy mortality among baby sea turtles.

The government has stated that its reasoning for downgrading the park is that it is too expensive to purchase the land set aside for the park. Yet conservationists attest that the government estimates for purchasing park land are grossly inflated and that the Costa Rican government has several means at its disposal to acquire the land.

Leatherback sea turtle returning to the ocean after laying eggs on a beach in Suriname. Photo by Tiffany Roufs.
"I think the important thing here is that it would be very easy to acquire the land within Las Baulas park if the government had a one dollar a night tax on hotel rooms and one dollar a day tax on rental cars. That would raise at least 10 million a year, a conservative estimate, and a 30-year bond could be done to raise 300 million that could be used to reimburse all landowners in all parks and have an endowment for the parks into the future. What is missing is the political will in the government," offered Jim Spotila, president of Leatherback Trust.

In addition, conservationists say that the President's proposal to downgrade the park violates numerous agreements it has signed including Peace with Nature; the International Sea Turtle Convention; the Convention on Biological Diversity Biological; as well as the Convention for the Protection of Flora, Fauna and Natural Scenic Beauty of the Americas.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

World's first video of the elusive and endangered bay cat

Rare, elusive, and endangered by habitat loss, the bay cat is one of the world's least studied wild cats. Several specimens of the cat were collected in the 19th and 20th Century, but a living cat wasn't even photographed until 1998. Now, researchers in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, have managed to capture the first film of the bay cat (Catopuma temminckii). Lasting seven seconds, the video (see below) shows the distinctly reddish-brown cat in its habitat.

For three years Andrew Hearn and Jo Ross of the Global Canopy Programme have been surveying Borneo's wild cats with camera trapping; these include the Sunda clouded leopard, the marbled cat, the flat-headed cat, the leopard cat, and the bay cat, which is the only species of the five that is wholly endemic to Borneo. As well as recording the first video of the bay cat, they also took the first photos of the animal in Sabah.

Due to habitat loss and deforestation—largely from the spread of palm oil plantations and logging—the bay cat is currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and its population is in decline. If deforestation rates continue as expected, researchers have estimated that the already small population of bay cats will fall another 20 percent over the next decade.

The bay cat is not alone in its plight. Four of Borneo's five wild cats are classified by the IUCN as threatened with extinction due to continued deforestation.

"No other place has a higher percentage of threatened wild cats!" Jim Sanderson, an expert on the world's small cats, says. Pointing out that 80 percent of Borneo's cats face extinction, Sanderson adds that "not one of these wild cats poses a direct threat to humans."

So little is known about the bay cat that even its diet remains largely a mystery.
yright the Global Canopy Programme:

Researchers suspect there are less than 2,500 mature bay cats left in the wild. The species is endemic to Borneo and rampant deforestation is the main threat. Copyright: Global Canopy Programme. Photo by: Jo Ross and Andrew Hearn

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