80beats: Search for Long-Lost Amphibians Finds Its First Three
80beats: The “Lost Frog” Quest: Researchers Seek the World’s Rarest Amphibians
80beats: Saving the Rainforest Could Make Economic Sense
80beats: Papua New Guinea’s Forests Falling Fast
DISCOVER: 10 Science Hotspots–Where Mother Nature Reveals Her Secrets
Imagine enough forest to cover the state of Florida. According to a recent report (pdf), a downturn in illegal logging has protected that amount of forest land–some 42 million acres–over the past decade.
The decrease is a good start, London think tank Chatam House authors say, but there is still more work to do.
“We’re a quarter of the way there,” said Sam Lawson, one of the report’s authors. He expressed the hope that newer regulations–such as a European law passed last week that will ban the import of illegal timber by 2012–would cut the amount of illegal logging even further. [AP]
During the last decade, the report says, Cameroon, the Brazilian Amazon, and Indonesia have decreased logging between 50 and 75 percent. Meanwhile, the seven studied consumer and processing countries have decreased illegally harvested wood imports by 30 percent.
Among those importing countries is the United States, which in 2008 became the first country to ban all imports of illegally logged plants and plant products, including furniture and paper. Europe’s ban, passed earlier this month, will go into effect in 2012.
A flying frog that changes colors, a stick insect that’s a foot and a half long, and a “ninja slug” that shoots “love darts.” These are among the 120 new species discovered or described over the past three years on the lush island of Borneo–the Southeast Asia island divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
On Earth Day, the conservation group WWF released a report on some of the recent discoveries in a 54-million-acre nature preserve known as the Heart of Borneo. WWF ecologist Adam Tomasek says that on an average, three new species were found every month.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Slugs?
This colorful green and yellow slug species, named Ibycus rachelae, was discovered atop high mountains in the Malaysian section of Borneo. The slug has a tail three times the length of its head, and it wraps the tail around itself when it is resting. From the Ariophantidae family, this unusual species makes use of so-called ‘love darts’ in courtship. Made of calcium carbonate, the love dart is harpoon-like which pierces and injects a hormone into a mate, and may play a role in increasing the chances of reproduction [Guardian].
Image: Peter Koomen / WWF
Brazil’s controversial plan to build the third-largest dam in the world right in Amazon rainforest got the go-ahead from the environmental ministry this week. The ministers approved the permits for the dam project, and now companies can begin to bid on the building rights. But whoever wins will have to pay out at least some money to protect the local environment.
The 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte dam is part of Brazil’s largest concerted development plan for the Amazon since the country’s military government cut highways through the rainforest to settle the vast region during its two-decade reign starting in 1964 [Reuters]. Nearly all huge dam projects raise environmental concerns because they flood vast areas and can change ecosystems so drastically. But the Belo Monte, to be built on the Xingu River, has the additional trouble of being in one of the most important habitats in world and near to populations of indigenous peoples. The Xingu is a tributary of the Amazon River.
It may seem as though orangutans’ 180-pound bodies would be unwieldy when it comes to swinging from delicate tree branches in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. But the animals have figured out a variety of ways to navigate treetops, allowing them to avoid a potentially deadly fall, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
When scientists observed wild orangutans in the Sumatran rainforest, they found that the animals traversed the delicate branches by moving their bodies with a rhythm that counters the vibrations of the trees. At the highest treetops in the forest, tree branches are thin and begin to wobble as animals climb on them, much as a suspension footbridge vibrates as people walk over it. Too much vibration and an orangutan can be thrown off altogether. From high in the trees, such a fall would be deadly [Time]. But because orangutans move with an irregular beat, they avoid compounding the already-shaking branches with the motion of their own bodies. Also increasing their stability, the animals also have the habit of grasping more than one branch at once–in fact, nearly one-third of the time, orangutans held on to more than four branches simultaneously.
Nike, the world’s largest maker of athletic shoes, said yesterday it is adopting a policy that prohibits the use of leather from cattle raised in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The announcement came after a Greenpeace statement released about a month ago citing cattle farming as the main driver as deforestation in the region, and a significant contributor to global warming, as ranchers clear vast stretches of land for grazing.
The company established a formal Amazon leather policy and will give its leather suppliers until the first day of next July to “create an ongoing, traceable and transparent system to provide credible assurances that leather used for Nike products is from cattle raised outside of the Amazon Biome” [AP].
Leaving the rainforest of the Amazon standing has obvious benefits to the environment, as the living forests absorb and store carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming. But cutting down the forests has been assumed to be the only route to economic development for the local people, as it provides work in the timber industry and then clears the way for farming and cattle raising. Now, a new study has found that deforestation brings only short-term and temporary economic benefits, in what researchers call a boom-and-bust cycle.
The researchers say the boom is probably due to a number of factors, including better roads and therefore better access to healthcare and schools. For a short while, the community benefits from the natural resources of the forest, and makes money off the timber and the farms that are set up in the cleared lands. But the soil is rapidly degraded making farming and cattle ranching unsustainable. “A lot of that land ends up being abandoned” [New Scientist], says study coauthor Robert Ewers.
A landowner in Indonesia may soon find it more profitable to sell carbon credits from untouched forest than to clear the land for agriculture, according to new research. As a case study, the researchers looked at 8.2 million acres that are slated to become plantations in Kalimantan, the Indonesian region of the island of Borneo. The researchers found that paying to conserve the forest was more valuable than plantations as long as poorer nations could earn between $10 and $33 for each tonne of CO2 saved. Currently a credit representing a tonne of CO2 sells for about $20 in the European Union, which has the world’s largest greenhouse gas trading system [The New York Times].
Since forests act like sponges for carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas driving global warming, they can play a role in carbon credit markets that are used in international climate treaties. Industries that can’t cut their emissions enough pay landowners to leave their forests standing, so the trees can suck up carbon and offset the industrial emissions. What’s more, researchers say that such systems could also be a roundabout way to protect endangered species. The 800 proposed plantations that were studied contain 40 of the region’s 46 threatened mammals including orangutans and pygmy elephants [AP].
In the remote limestone mountains on the eastern edge of the island of Borneo, a large population of orangutans has been living quite happily, far from human settlements and untouched by the trouble that we humans can bring. Based on a rumor of the primate outpost researchers traveled for days through the mountains, and eventually discovered 219 orangutan nests in the forest, which they say could indicate that as many as 2,000 orangutans live there.
With only about 50,000 orangutans remaining in the wild, conservationists say it’s a rare piece of good news for the endangered species. “We rarely have something positive to report in the conservation world. Most of the stories are about declining population or animals dying. It’s all pretty negative,” said Erik Meijaard, a senior ecologist with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy. “So to find a substantial population of potentially several hundred to several thousand animals is very exciting” [CNN].
A growing conflict between Indonesian loggers and the critically endangered Sumatran tiger has incurred a death toll on both sides, with little solution in sight. Environmentalists say that Asian Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the largest paper companies in the world, has destroyed much of the island of Sumatra’s rainforest. The activists argue that the tigers, whose wild population is thought to hover at around 400 but could be as low as 250, have been left without a natural habitat and have increasingly regarded humans for food. Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of 25 environmental organizations, has released a report to back up the allegation.
By overlaying the locations of [human-tiger] conflicts with government maps of pulpwood plantation concessions, Eyes on the Forest found a direct correlation between tiger conflict and the unsustainable forest practices of APP, its holding company Sinar Mas Group, and other associated companies that supply pulpwood to APP’s mills [Wildlife Extra], with 60 percent of the total 245 human-tiger encounters having taken place on land associated with those companies.