The state of our forests is troubled, but maybe on the mend.
The United Nations, as part of its effort to brand 2011 the International Year of Forests, released an assessment this week about forest extent, and quality, all around the world. First, the good news: Forest destruction is slowing down, according to assistant director general Eduardo Rojas-Briales of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The 4.032 billion hectares (9.9 billion acres) of forests in the world in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which which trees are being cut down is slowing from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade. “There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years,” said Rojas-Briales, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago. [AFP]
Asian countries have achieved particularly impressive results, with many adding to their total of forested territory.
“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said … Rojas-Briales. “But we can also highlight the case of Vietnam, a small and densely populated country that’s implemented very smart and comprehensive forest reform – or India, which has not controlled its population as China has and where standards of living are even lower. Nevertheless India has achieved a modest growth of its forest area.” [BBC News]
But the world is not out of the woods, so to speak, in bringing back the forest health of old.
Sunday marked the opening of the worldwide tiger summit, which brought together high-level representatives from the 13 tiger-habitat countries, including Russia and China, to discuss the best plan to save the tigers. The meeting goes through Wednesday.
Only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, and without help experts say populations will start to go extinct in less than 20 years.
“Here’s a species that’s literally on the brink of extinction,” said Jim Leape, director general of conservation group WWF. “This is the first time that world leaders have come together to focus on saving a single species, and this is a unique opportunity to mobilise the political will that’s required in saving the tiger.” [BBC News]
The working plan includes provisions to decrease poaching and smuggling of the tigers and calls for more protected habitats. Researchers say that if tigers are left alone and provided with enough habitat and prey, the population could double in 12 years.
California sea otters, furry frolickers of the saltwater seas, are in trouble. And the root cause is… a freshwater toxin? That’s the surprising truth, according to a study in the journal PLoS One led by Melissa Miller, a state wildlife veterinarian.
For the last several years, the otters on California’s coast have been dying in droves, and their population diminishing. No one could quite put a finger on why. Disease and starvation floated as explanations, and sharks seem to be devouring more sea otters lately. But none of these were the root cause, Miller finally found.
The Florida panthers may be saved. They simply needed a little Lone Star assist.
Fifteen years ago the big cats in Florida were in dire straits, doomed to probable extinction because of genetic inbreeding and dwindling numbers. Now, though, their population is on the upswing, thanks to a program that brought in eight females from a panther population in Texas to bolster the Florida cats. Scientists who studied the experiment report in the journal Science that it has worked: Both the numbers and the genetic diversity of Florida panthers improved drastically.
Hybrids of the Florida cats and cousins of the same species from a wild-caught Texas population have twice the genetic variety and far fewer of the genetic defects that were known in Floridian panthers before the introduction, says geneticist [and study coauthor] Warren Johnson. [Science News]
In August, Conservation International launched its globe-spanning search for amphibians that haven’t been seen in decades, but still could exist. This month, they’ve tracked down their first three slippery specimens. Scientists turned up two long-lost African frogs and a salamander from Mexico.
“It’s pretty extraordinary to think about just how long it has been since these animals were last seen,” observed project co-ordinator Robin Moore of Conservation International (CI). “The last time that the Mexican salamander was seen, Glenn Miller was one of the world’s biggest stars. The Omaniundu reed frog disappeared the year that Sony sold its first ever Walkman.” [BBC News]
The three rediscovered animals are:
The Mount Nimba reed frog (right). Last seen in 1967, it lives in the Ivory Coast. A local scientist spotted it.
The find was made “in a swampy field in Danipleu, an Ivorian village near the Liberia border.” [MSNBC]
Omaniundu Reed Frog (top). The most recently seen of the three, Omaniundu was last noted in 1979. It lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to Conservation International’s account of the rediscovery:
Of all the tigers left in the world—and there aren’t many—70 percent of them are clustered into lands that make up just 6 percent of the total tiger habitat in the world. Save these spots, scientists say today, and you save the tigers.
In the journal PLoS Biology, a large group of researchers outline why their 6 percent solution could succeed where other conservation attempts have failed. Basically, they say, efforts to save the cat have been ambitious, but too broad. Job one has to be the protection of these 42 small “source sites” in Asia (seen on the map in the slideshow above), that are home to the core population of tigers.
“The long-term goal is to conserve an Asia-wide network of large landscapes where tigers can flourish,” said Nigel Leader-Williams from Cambridge University, one of the scientists on this study. “The immediate priority, however, must be to ensure that the few breeding populations still in existence can be protected and monitored. Without this, all other efforts are bound to fail.” [BBC News]
The Mojave Desert has become a battlefield for how President Obama’s clean energy goals should be moved forward, and conservationists and renewable energy advocates, usually natural allies, are now pitted against each other. California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed legislation last week that would designate more than 800,000 acres of desert land a national monument, putting it off-limits to energy projects.
The area of concern to Feinstein is between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park…. The area includes desert tortoise habitat, wildlife corridors, cactus gardens and the Amboy Crater [Los Angeles Times]. While many believe that the desert is an ideal location to establish solar and wind farms, conservationists say that such projects would destroy the ecosystem. David Myers, head of the Wildlands Conservancy, says, “How can you say you’re going to blade off hundreds of thousands of acres of earth to preserve the Earth?” [The New York Times].
Myers stands firmly on one side, while other environmentalists are working with the state on its renewable energy plans for the desert. “We have to accept our responsibility that something that we have been advocating for decades is about to happen. My job is to make sure that it happens in an environmentally responsible way” [The New York Times], says Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council.