A wetland is an area of land that is saturated with water. There are many different kinds of wetlands and many ways to categorize them.
Wetlands generally fall into five general types: marine (ocean), estuarine (estuary), riverine (river), lacustrine (lake), and palustrine (marsh).
Common names for wetlands include marshes, estuaries, mangroves, mudflats, mires, ponds, fens, swamps, deltas, coral reefs, billabongs, lagoons, shallow seas, bogs, lakes, and floodplains, to name just a few!
Often found alongside waterways and in floodplains, wetlands vary widely due to differences in soil, topography, climate, water chemistry, and vegetation. Large wetland areas may also be comprised of several smaller wetland types.
Wetland habitats serve essential functions in an ecosystem, including acting as water filters, providing flood and erosion control, and furnishing food and homes for fish and wildlife.
They do more than sustain plants and animals in the watershed, however. Many wetlands are not wet year-round because water levels change with the seasons. During periods of excessive rain, wetlands absorb and slow floodwaters, which helps to alleviate property damage and may even save lives.
Wetlands also absorb excess nutrients, sediments, and other pollutants before they reach rivers, lakes, and other waterbodies. They are also great spots for canoeing, hiking, and bird-watching, and are enjoyable outdoor "classrooms" for people of all ages.
Mangrove forests are made up of trees that live along tropical and subtropical intertidal shorelines. The trees are easily recognizable by their dense mats of thick, stick-like roots that rise out of the mud and water. These roots (called “prop roots”) slow the movement of water as the tides flow in and out, allowing sediments to settle onto the muddy bottom.
There are approximately 80 species of mangrove trees, all with varying degrees of tolerance to tidal flooding, soil salinity, and nutrient availability. This creates zones of mangroves with the most salt-and water-loving species, such as the red mangrove, growing on the shoreline and in the water. The least salt-tolerant, such as the white mangrove, lives on higher ground where they are rarely inundated by tidal waters.
Because they cannot tolerate freezing temperatures, mangroves are only found in tropical and subtropical climates.
Mangrove Forests Provide Numerous Benefits
Equivalent to salt marsh wetlands in temperate zones, mangroves perform several of the same functions and provide many of the same benefits, making them extremely important habitats for both human and ecological communities.
- Nursery for juvenile fish
- Habitat for oysters, crabs and shrimp, and birds
- Carbon sequestration and storage, decreasing the effect of global warming
- Stabilize shorelines and prevent erosion
- Buffer against hurricanes and tropical storms
- Provide nutrients to neighboring ecosystems such as coral reefs and sea grass beds
Mangrove Forests Are Suffering and So Are We
Unfortunately, mangroves are highly threatened ecosystems. It is estimated that at least half of the world’s mangroves have been lost and continue to be destroyed at a rate of about one percent per year.
Among the stressors are:
- Coastal development driven by growing populations and tourism
- Development of aquaculture, particularly shrimp farming
- Agricultural run-off carrying pesticides and herbicides
- Man-made changes in tidal or river flow that starve the system of sediment input
- Sea level rise
The loss of mangrove forests means the loss of the benefits that these systems confer. Mangrove deforestation reduces the amount of carbon sequestration possible, and releases carbon stored in the soils, exacerbating the greenhouse gas effect. Coastal communities are left unprotected from the ravages of hurricanes and tropical storms, often causing millions and sometimes billions in damage to their buildings and infrastructure, not to mention the loss of life.
Deforested shorelines are subject to greater rates of erosion and are unable to keep pace with sea level rise. Nearby coral reefs, already heavily impacted by warming sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, disease and overfishing, suffer further pressure from sedimentation when mangroves are removed and can no longer filter the water.
Loss of mangrove habitat also impacts marine life and biodiversity.
Numerous natural impacts, as well as human activities, affect kelp forest environments. The factors influencing kelp forest stability are diverse: kelp harvesting; grazing by fishes, sea urchins, and crustaceans; plant competition; storms; El Niño events; sedimentation; and pollution. By most accounts, because of its spectacular growth rates, kelp recovers quickly from physical disturbances such as storms that might uproot the fragile plants. However, as in all natural environments, the health is proportional to the number of adverse conditions to which it is exposed.
Commercial kelp harvesting is potentially the greatest threat to long-term kelp stability. It has supported a multitude of industries over the past century. From the extractions of kelp during World War I for potash, to the modern use of kelp for food additives and pharmaceutical products, kelp has proven to be a dynamic and highly demanded product.
Kelp harvesting during World War I peaked in 1919 when 400,000 wet tons were used to make potash for gunpowder and fertilizer. In the 1930s the food, pharmaceutical, and scientific communities began extracting algin, a thickening, stabilizing, suspending, and gelling agent. Algin is an additive used in a wide variety of dairy products, frozen foods, cakes, puddings, salad dressings, shampoos, and toothpastes. It smooths and thickens ice cream, emulsifies salad dressing, and keeps pigments uniformly mixed in paints and cosmetics. Additionally, some mariculture farms hand-harvest kelp to feed abalone. In the 1980's alone, kelp harvesting supported an industry worth more than $40 million a year, and in 1993, more than 4,700 wet tons of kelp were extracted from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Large numbers of opaleye or halfmoon fishes can damage kelp forests, particularly when the kelp is exposed to unfavorable growing conditions. As in all ecosystems, a balance exists in this complex environment, and the predators such as sea otters generally contain sea urchins or grazing fishes enough to limit the damage by grazing. This balance of power is usurped when the predatory populations go into decline, as exemplified by the huge explosion of sea urchins when otter populations suffer from oil spills or disease.
High energy storms or swells can uproot entire plants and break away fronds. Characterized by severe storms and warm water, El Niño Southern Oscillation Events, often devastate kelp forests. The strong swell activity, winter storms, and warm weather associated with the 1997-1998 El Niño were the primary sources of kelp mortality on the California coast in 1998. Kelp forests south of Point Coneception sustained up to 100 percent mortality in some regions, although comparable habitats north of that region "were relatively unaffected." Researchers attribute the discrepancy between southern and central California to ocean temperature gradients; the El Niño brought unusually high ocean temperatures to southern California where the heat degraded the health of the giant kelp forests. The combined warm water temperature and strong wave energy caused high mortality in the south. Central California bull kelp forests remained in cooler waters and thus in better condition when the winter swells hit, and a much greater percent survived.
Non-point and point source pollution including sewage, industrial disposal, and coastal runoff might contribute to kelp forest degradation. For instance, high sedimentation from coastal run-off may bury new plant shoots.
Similarly, kelp may experience reduced growth rates and reproductive success in more toxic waters and sediments. Studies on microscopic stages of kelp suggest that kelp is sensitive to sewage, industrial waste discharges, and other causes of poor water and sediment quality.
Kelp monitoring projects actively continue. With ongoing surveys of kelp extent, physical oceanic conditions, and associated biota, the researchers will gain a more complete understanding of natural and antropogenic impacts on kelp forests.
Of all the industries on Earth, the oil and gas industries are among the biggest and most destructive. The round-the-clock operations of the businesses, and the massive amounts of land they eat up and destroy, has a profound effect on the ecosystems and wildlife they displace.
Wherever oil and gas can be easily found, land has already been exploited. The search is now focused on remote places, which means a direct invasion into virgin ecosystems and their inhabitants. New and unproven technologies are being used recklessly to extract hydrocarbons from deep within the Earth. The environmental consequences can be devastating.
Oil and gas exploration and production activities cause both direct and indirect effects on wildlife. Leaks and spills of oil, brine, and other contaminants are a key concern. Soils, vegetation, water quality, fish and wildlife, and air quality can all be harmed by the release of contaminants. Fish and wildlife habitat can be altered, fragmented, or eliminated. Oil and gas activities can disturb and displace wildlife, cause physiological stress, and can result in wildlife deaths.
Introduction of invasive species, especially along road and pipeline routes, can alter habitats. Disturbances caused by oil and gas activities can result in fundamental changes in ecological functions and processes, and lead to increased predation of declining species, reduced reproduction, and increased susceptibility to disease. Fish and wildlife may be injured by human presence, vehicles, exposure to contaminants, loss or degradation of habitat, or unauthorized takings.
The activities associated with oil and gas exploration cause a degree of disruption to the environment that's hard to replace, restore or repair. Development activities in the coastal areas of the Arctic Refuge (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) have affected habitats of caribou, muskox and porcupine to an extent that even their watering sources have been polluted. Instances of bears feeding on wastes emanating from oil fields that have displaced its natural habitat are all too common. Maternity dens of polar bears have been disturbed, affecting their reproductive cycles.
Ecosystems, that fine balance between plants, organisms and wildlife evolved over millions of years, can be destroyed overnight by human activity. In addition to forest clearing and excavation, irritants like noise arising out of vehicular traffic can disrupt sleeping, resting and even hunting cycles of animals.
Access along seismic lines may require disturbing levels of vegetation removal. Vehicle travel along seismic lines damages soils and vegetation. Water quality may be degraded from sedimentation. Small spills and improperly handled wastes can degrade soils and waters, harm vegetation, fish and wildlife, air quality, and aesthetics. Air quality can be degraded from dust and engine emissions. Natural sound is interrupted by vehicles and drilling noises.
Pad construction removes or compacts soil and vegetation and may accelerate erosion and sedimentation. Leaks, spills, and discharges of oil, drilling muds, wastes, or other contaminants can degrade and harm soils, surface and ground waters, vegetation, fish and wildlife, and air quality.
Poorly cased and cemented wells (or improperly plugged wells) may lead to groundwater contamination. Wetlands may be damaged by road and pad construction or threatened by leaks and spills. Dark night skies can be impacted by night-time lighting on drilling rigs and gas flaring.
Natural sounds can be overwhelmed by construction and drilling noises. Air quality may be degraded by gas flaring, contaminant spills, dust, and engine emissions.
Offshore oil spills affect marine mammals through direct contact, ingestion of toxic oil, and inhalation of numerous chemicals. Immune system suppression, cancer, reproductive failure, liver and kidney damage, brain damage, and other health effects are the results of such spills.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has thoughtlessly issued permits to scores of oil drilling projects near protected zones, despite the harmful effects on wildlife from toxic wastes of such exploration activities.
Millions of gallons of chemically treated water, pumped out of a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, spill out on a daily basis into neighboring forests and farmlands – polluting water used by animals and livestock.
Oil companies are responsible for the destruction of wildlife in some of the most protected and sensitive zones. A project off the coast of Sakhalin Island in Russia's Siberian region has affected the habitat of the critically endangered Western Grey Whale to a point where only 100 of these creatures are left today, of which breeding females comprise an appallingly low number of just 20. Exploration endeavors off the County Mayo coast in Ireland is threatening to wipe away wildlife habitats in the form of sand dunes, peat bogs and even grasslands bordering the shore. Habitats of the Brent geese and other popular regional birds that find safe havens in Broadhaven Bay in the Count Mayo stand threatened thanks to exploration activities in the region.
In Africa, roads, pipelines and the subsequent decimation of forest lands have eaten into territories of protected and endangered species like the Nigerian-Cameroon gorillas, the Western gorillas in Angola, the dwarf mongoose and the rare Angolan python.
Imagine gas being flared 24 hours a day for almost 50 years without a break by oil companies in just one region. That is the case in Nigeria, the world's largest oil flarer. Coupled with massive greenhouse emissions from such flares, oil spills and fires have completely obliterated not just wildlife, but all farmlands in the once naturally rich Niger Delta – making it one of the most polluted regions of the world. Places like the Virunga National Park in the Congo Basin in Africa and the Arctics, which still have enormous oil and gas deposits, are lucrative targets waiting to be exploited.
The lasting damage to the environment resulting from wanton oil and gas exploration is hard to fathom. The disruption of the ozone layer from excessive flared gas emissions, with direct effects on climate change and the decimation of entire ecosystems and wildlife, play havoc to the environment. A disturbing amount of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to oil and gas extraction. The main component in natural gas, methane, is as much as 84 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane traps heat more effectively and intensifies global warming.
Humans are also effected by gas and oil exploration. Entire communities depend on the health of the ecosystems being destroyed. Public use of refuge areas are being restricted or prohibited. Although the areal extent of oil and gas exploration and production may be limited, the cumulative effects often extend to a much larger area. Cultural resources are threatened by increased human accessibility and fire. Scenic quality can be degraded by drilling rigs, roads, pads, and other equipment. Large crews disrupt visitors’ experiences.
Oil and gas exploration is a dirty and dangerous business that disrupts wildlife, human health, water sources, public lands and recreation. Energy resources that are environmentally-safe and easily accessible can reduce the harmful effects associated with oil and gas production. Renewable energy technologies and energy conservation, along with more responsible exploration practices, are essential to reducing the destructive effects of oil and gas production.
Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year, one every 15 minutes. Driven by demand for ivory as a symbol of wealth or prestige, the illicit profits of ivory trade finance wars, terrorism, illegal drugs and human trafficing.
Trade in ivory has been around for centuries. It reached its peak when Africa was colonized. This coincided with the industrial revolution in United Kingdom, Western Europe and America creating a vast demand for ivory. It found use in diverse objects like piano keys, billiard balls, ornaments, jewelry, bow clips, hair pins, needles, buttons, etc. The worst and obvious victims of the trade were the elephants.
Entire populations of this beast was wiped out in North Africa about a thousand years ago, before the Europeans came. The colonization period saw the virtual decimation of the elephant in South Africa during the 19th century and West Africa in the 20th century. The two World Wars in the 20th century saw a sharp fall in ivory trade and provided some respite to the elephants. But the rising affluence from Japan's industrial revival, and the burgeoning wealth of the Middle-eastern oil-rich states in the 1970's, brought back a renewed interest in ivory. The affluent middle class in China since the 1990's created another great market for the product.
The Asian elephant's population has witnessed a decline of nearly 50 percent, from over a 100,000 a century ago to just over 50,000 presently. The male elephant carries tusks while the female does not. The tusk can reach a length of 5 feet and weigh up to 47 kilograms. The tusk of the Asian elephant is in demand for products that require intricate carving. Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states are some areas where this ivory is in high demand.
The African elephant consists of two subspecies. The forest elephants are shorter and darker than their Savannah cousins. They are found in the central and western equatorial forests of Africa, primarily in Congo. The 1890's and early 1900's witnessed the mass decimation of this animal by the Belgian colonialists when slave labor was extensively used to transport ivory to North African ports for its ultimate destination in Western Europe.
The bush elephant that inhabited the bush areas of Kalahari in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe is another sub-species that was driven to extinction from rampant hunting by the Dutch and British colonialists.
But the main targets of the ivory trade have always been the Savannah elephants, the largest of all species, known for their huge and magnificent tusks. The male tusks can measure up to 7-8 feet and weigh up to 100 lbs. Unlike their Asian counterparts, even the females have tusks. These mighty creatures are often seen in the vast expanses of the Savannah grassland plains straddling Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The most shocking decline of this elephant species has been witnessed recently in Tanzania in a span of just six years. The count reduced dramatically from 109,000 to 43,000, which is a devastating drop of 60 percent. The Selous Game Reserve is a gold mine for ivory looters who have accounted for as many as 32,000 Savannah elephant deaths.
There are only about 470,000 elephants roaming the continent of Africa presently. Compare this to 3 to 5 million that roamed the vast expanses at the beginning of the 20th century. It's a frightening drop of 90 percent.
Governments and wildlife agencies have woken up to this terrible loss of wildlife. Virtually every country in the continent, from South Africa to Zimbabwe to Uganda and Tanzania, have placed a ban on ivory trading. Although these bans were put into effect decades ago, only 20 percent of the African elephant habitat is under formal protection.
From over 100 seizures made in the continent in the last 15 years, almost 465,000 pounds of ivory were recovered. That translates into the deaths of over 30,000 elephants. But this hasn't dampened the illegal trade in ivory. Tens of thousands of elephants are lost every year; one killed every 15 minutes.
Organized crime is involved in the transportation of ivory to its preferred destinations, mostly the US and China. The US has put a complete ban on the sale of ivory and ivory items. The immense demand for ornaments and jewellery carved from ivory make China the biggest consumer for the product. Steps have been taken in China to end domestic sales of ivory. In places like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, ivory is in demand for its alleged medicinal properties.
Despite recent efforts, elephant poaching is at its highest level in decades. Valued at US$19 billion annually, illegal wildlife trade ranks fifth globally in terms of value. Domestic ivory markets provides cover for criminals to launder illegal ivory from poached animals. The Internet is utilized for secret, fast and convenient communications and transactions. The criminals that smuggle ivory also smuggle guns, people, and drugs.
Unless the slaughter of elephants is halted, we will likely see these magnificent animals disappear within a few decades. Stopping the crisis will require efforts from a diverse coalition of governments, institutions, organizations, media, scientists, and individuals.
Grasslands (also known as prairies and savannah) differ around the globe, from the prairies of North America to the African Savannah, but they all support a wide variety of wildlife. Birds, reptiles, insects, grazing mammals and predators all call grasslands home.
Nearly two thirds of land on our planet was once covered by grasslands, but much of these magnificent ecosystems have been lost to farming. The result is a catastrophic reduction of critical wildlife habitat. Remaining grasslands cover about half of African lands, while less than 4 percent of prairies survive in the United States.
Temperate grasslands are home to bison, wolves, coyotes, pronghorn, hawks, prairie dogs, gophers, owls, foxes, badgers, sparrows, black-footed ferrets, grouses, meadowlarks, and quail. Tropical grassland animals include giraffes, zebras, elephants, buffaloes, kangaroos, wildebeest, mice, moles, rhinos, gophers, jackals, wild dogs, squirrels, lions, leopards, snakes, worms, termites, beetles, hyenas, and warthogs.
Tropical grasslands are located near the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. These grasslands can be found in areas of Australia, South America, and India. Temperate grasslands are located north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn, including the the pampas of South America, the steppes of Eurasia, the veldts of Africa, and the plains of North America.
As grasslands around the globe continue to be converted to ecologically irresponsible farming systems, wildlife suffers the consequences. The natural vertebrates in grasslands, plant-eating grazers called ungulates like deer and zebras, are quickly being replaced by domestic ungulates such as cattle and sheep. The native grasses are being replaced with corn, wheat, and soy.
Grassland soil is so rich almost anything can be grown in it. But poor agricultural practices have destroyed many grasslands, turning them into barren, lifeless areas. When crops are not properly rotated, precious soil nutrients are stripped out. Grasslands are also destroyed by grazing livestock.
About 47 percent of temperate grasslands have already been converted to agriculture or urban development. Around 16 percent of tropical grasslands have been converted.
Threats to Grasslands
Land that once provided habitat for prairie wildlife is quickly being converted to row crops. GMO wheat, soybeans, and corn are expanding into native grasslands. Grasslands are also increasingly being development into urban areas. Global warming could convert marginal grasslands into deserts. Monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop in a given area, results in the spreading of pests and diseases increasing the use of toxic pesticides. Poaching is also a significant threat in grasslands.
Educational efforts must stress the importance of protecting the soil and preventing soil erosion. Crops must be rotated to eliminate the reduction of nutrients. Wetlands, an element of grassland ecology, must be restored and protected. Trees must be planted as windbreaks. Dry season burning can promote fresh growth and restore calcium to the soil.
Agriculture must shift from animal production to providing vegetable based food sources. Animal agriculture is the primary driver of topsoil erosion, species extinction, and habitat loss. Raising animals for food requires massive amounts of land, food, energy, and water. It takes 12 times as much land, 13 times more fuel and 15 times more water to make a pound of animal protein than to make a pound of plant protein. Livestock consumes up to 50% of all grains produced each year. 45% of the earth's entire ice free land is used for animal agriculture.
Hidden beneath the ocean waters, coral reefs teem with life. Coral reefs support more species than any other marine environment and rival rainforests in their biodiversity. Countless numbers of creatures rely on coral reefs for their survival.
Corals are animals, even though they may exhibit some of the characteristics of plants and are often mistaken for rocks. In scientific classification, corals fall under the phylum Cnidaria and the class Anthozoa. They are relatives of jellyfish and anemones. There are over 800 known species of reefbuilding coral worldwide and hundreds of species of soft corals and deep-sea corals.
Although individual coral polyps are tiny, they create the largest living structures on earth—some reefs are visible from space!
Coral reefs are also living museums, and reflect thousands of years of history. Many coral reefs were alive and thriving centuries before the European colonization of the nearby shores. Some reefs are even older than our old-growth redwood forests. They are an integral part of many cultures and our heritage.
These important habitats are threatened by a range of human activities. Many of the world’s reefs have already been destroyed or severely damaged by an increasing array of threats, including pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and global climate change. As a result, 22 species of coral are now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. However, we can still protect and preserve our remaining reefs if we act now.
Why Are Coral Reefs Important?
Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth, providing vital ecosystem services across the globe.
Coral reefs are an important habitat. Fish, corals, lobsters, clams, seahorses, sponges and sea turtles are only a few of the thousands of creatures that rely on reefs for their survival.
In addition to supporting an abundance of marine life, coral reef ecosystems provide people with many goods and services, including shoreline protection. Coral ecosystems protect coastlines from storms and erosion; provide habitat, spawning, and nursery grounds for fish; provide jobs and income to local economies from recreation and tourism; are a source of new medicines; have cultural significance; and are hotspots of marine biodiversity.
The benefits of healthy reefs are seen not just in the ocean, but also on land. Coral reefs contribute billions of dollars to world economies each year. The continued decline and loss of coral reef ecosystems will have significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities in the U.S. and around the world.
What Threatens Coral Reefs?
The top threats to coral reefs, global climate change, unsustainable fishing, and landbased pollution, are all due to human activities. These threats—combined with others such as tropical storms, disease outbreaks, vessel damage, marine debris and invasive species—compound each other.
Climate change impacts coral reef ecosystems through increased sea surface temperatures that lead to coral bleaching events and disease, sea level rise and storm activity. Additionally, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide alters ocean chemistry and negatively impacts reef-building corals.
An estimated 20 percent of the world's coral reefs are damaged beyond recovery and about half of the remaining coral reefs are under risk of collapse.
Unsustainable fishing practices in coral reef areas can lead to the loss of ecologically important fish species. Such losses often have a ripple effect on the coral reef ecosystems.
Impacts from land-based sources of pollution (e.g., coastal development and agricultural runoff) can impede coral growth and reproduction, disturb ecological function, and cause disease.
While some of the biggest threats facing coral reefs are global in nature and require action on a similar scale, addressing local stressors—like reducing runoff—is key.
Although research is critical to increasing what we know about the causes of reef decline, effective coral reef conservation can’t happen without you. Even if you live far from a coral reef, you can contribute to their conservation. Simple actions, like using less water, recycling, disposing of trash responsibly, and going vegan, can have big and far-reaching impacts.
In nature, all living things are in some way connected. Within each community each species depends on one or more of the others for survival. And at the core of individual ecosystems is a creature, or in some cases a plant, known as a keystone species.
This species operates much like a true key stone, which is the stone at the top of an arch that supports the other stones and keeps the whole arch from falling down. When a keystone species is taken out of its environment, the whole system could collapse.
In California's Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary the sea otter is a keystone species in the kelp forest ecosystem. Kelp forests provide food and shelter for large numbers of fish and shellfish. Kelp also protect coastlines from damaging wave action. One of the sea otter's favorite delicacies is the sea urchin who in turn loves kelp.
When present in healthy numbers, sea otters keep sea urchin populations in check. But when sea otters decline, urchin numbers explode and grab onto kelp like flies on honey. The urchins chew off the anchors that keep the kelp in place, causing them to die and float away, setting off a chain reaction that depletes the food supply for other marine animals causing their numbers to decline.
By the early 20th century when sea otters were nearly hunted out of existence for their fur, kelp beds disappeared and so did the marine life that depended on kelp. Years later, conservationists moved some remaining otters from Big Sur to Central California. Gradually, their numbers grew, sea urchin numbers declined, and the kelp began to grow again. As the underwater forests grew, other species reappeared.
Protecting keystone species, like sea otters, is a priority for conservationists. Often, the extent of the keystone functions of a species aren't known until the species has been removed from its environment and the ecosystem changes. Rather than wait until it may be too late for the system's health and survival, scientists make every effort to keep an ecosystem working as nature had intended.
Most people have ever heard of pangolins. Yet around the globe they are facing an unprecedented crisis. The pangolin is one of the most sought-after and poached wild animals in the world. Nearly one million have been illegally traded over the past decade.
Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are nocturnal, ant and termite eating mammals found in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa whose bodies are covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, the same protein that forms human hair and finger nails, and rhino horn.
There are eight pangolin species worldwide. Four of the species can be found in 17 range states across Asia, and four in 31 range states across Africa. Pangolins occupy a diverse array of habitats; some are arboreal or semiarboreal and climb with the aid of prehensile tails, while others are ground-dwelling. Some pangolin species, such as the Chinese pangolin and Temminck’s ground pangolin, sleep in underground burrows during the day. Others, including white-bellied pangolins and Sunda pangolins, are known to sleep in trees. Pangolins dig burrows with their strong front legs and claws, using their tails and rear legs for support and balance.
Pangolins are insectivores. They use their claws to break into nests of ants and termites, and they use their long, sticky tongues to lap up the insects. A baby pangolin will remain with its mother for three to four months and cling to its mother’s tail as she forages for insects. Pangolins have few defenses beyond their scaly exterior. While their habit of rolling up in a ball is an effective response to predators, the behavior actually makes it easier for poachers to collect and transport these toothless mammals.
Pangolins perform important ecological roles such as regulating insect populations. It has been estimated that an adult can consume more than 70 million insects annually. Pangolins also excavate deep burrows for sleeping and nesting. Burrowing animals are sometimes referred to as “ecosystem engineers” as their burrows may be used by other species; for example new research shows that giant armadillos, South American mammals that fulfill a similar ecological niche to ground pangolins, dig burrows that are used for shelter by at least 25 other species.
Pangolin populations are severely dwindling due to massive unsustainable and illegal international and domestic trade. Traffickers seek out pangolins for their scales and blood — which are boiled off or drained to use in traditional medicine — and their meat, which is considered a delicacy. Thousands of pangolins are trafficked each year, making them among the most critically endangered species in the world and liable to go extinct if we don’t take action.
All eight pangolin species are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But despite protections under CITES and domestic laws, poaching and illegal trade in pangolins continues at a high rate. Recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessments indicate that all eight species are declining and at risk of extinction.
Pangolins do not thrive in captivity, and their slow reproductive rate and low natural population density in the wild suggest that current trade levels are unsustainable. As Asian pangolin populations have become increasingly hard to find and are now subject to zero export quotas by CITES, traders have turned to the African pangolin species to meet market demand. Meanwhile, African species are under additional pressure from local and regional demand for bushmeat and other traditional uses, as well as from habitat loss. While live and whole dead specimens usually can be identified to the species level based on size, number of scales, and other morphological characteristics, commonly traded non-living specimens, such as scales and meat, are difficult for non-experts to identify to the species level, which complicates enforcement.
Most illegally sourced pangolins are destined for markets in China and Vietnam, but demand for pangolins in the United States remains significant. Parts and products of poached pangolins are sold online and in stores. Nearly 30,000 imports of pangolin products were seized in the United States between 2005 and 2014.
Currently, only one of the eight pangolin species — the Temminck’s ground pangolin from Africa — is protected as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Because all species of pangolins so closely resemble each other, law enforcement officials have difficulty distinguishing them. Expanding federal protection would prohibit the import and sale of pangolins and their parts in the U.S. and raise global awareness about the pangolin’s plight. An Endangered Species Act listing is an important and necessary step to end the U.S.’s role in declining pangolin populations and would set an example for the rest of the world.
Pangolins have been silently killed and trafficked for far too long. It’s time to recognize the grave situation threatening the survival of the species and offer them the protections they rightfully deserve. If we don’t act now to protect them, these extraordinary animals will disappear from the planet forever.
Trophy hunting is the killing of an animal for recreation. Parts of the animal, in most cases the head or skin, are kept by the hunter as a display item or “trophy”. The hunters glamorize the killing of animals, believing it demonstrates their virility, prowess and dominance.
Trophy hunting is an elitist hobby for millionaires and billionaires who pay huge fees to kill large, exotic and rare animals. Many of these hunters are members of powerful and wealthy organizations that promote the slaughter of rare and sensitive species with elaborate award programs.
Trophy hunting has accounted for the lives of countless wild and exotic animals belonging to innumerable species. Cash-strapped governments, many in developing countries, are paid big bucks by wealthy patrons for the right to hunt in many of their game reserves. But these countries and rural communities derive little benefit from trophy hunting revenue. Wildlife-based eco-tourism offers much more economic impact to communities.
A majority of trophy hunters who visit Africa are from the U.S. Trophy hunting also occurs in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain and Argentina, as well as over 100 other countries.
In most cases, the hunters are near amateurs and are incapable of a quick kill. This leaves their prey injured and open to the agonies of a long and painful death. Many of the younger animals are orphaned, their family structures thrown asunder by the wanton killing.
Trophy hunting organizations promote their “sport” as “conservation”, stating they contribute conservation funds through the purchase of hunting permits. But research shows that funds reaching the local communities are miniscule. Studies have determined that only 3 percent of funds from trophy hunting reaches the rural communities where the hunting occurs. Middlemen, and large companies and organizations, take the majority share of sport hunting proceeds.
In reality, the last thing on the minds of trophy hunters is conservation. In fact, the more endangered or rare a species, the higher the price of the permit and bigger the thrill to hunt it down. Bragging rights is the name of the game. It's about who made the biggest and best kill, and the number of animal parts like heads, horns, tusks and other body parts they carted away from such hunts.
Many animals killed by trophy hunters are threatened or endangered species. Among them are the African lion, African elephant, African rhino, and African leopard. Hunting quotas are set without scientific understanding of the animal populations and their ability to recover.
Trophy hunting is a major threat to the survival of the African lion. What the killing of a lion can do by way of disruption in the day-to-day existence of a pride is beyond the comprehension of trophy hunters. Trophy hunting is having a devastating effect on leopards. That the African elephant could soon become extinct is least of their concerns. Rhinos are in serious danger of extinction. If rhino hunting is not stopped, the world could lose African rhinos forever.
Many non-native species, that are harmful to the native environment, are also kept in the wild in numerous countries for the benefit of trophy hunters. Some animals are even kept in fenced areas with no chance of escaping. “Canned hunting” poses serious threats of disease transmission to wild populations.
Organizations such as the Safari Club International (SCI) hold events like the "Grand Slam", where the killing of select species can earn one the coveted "Grand Slam" title. The Africa Big Five, that accounts for the lives of animals like the elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo, offers a prestigious title for trophy hunters. North American Twenty Nine is another contest that involves hunting down all species of bison, bear, caribou, moose and deer. To win the highest award, “World Hunter of the Year,” a hunter kills over 300 animals across the globe.
The entire worldwide list of animals to be slaughtered by SCI members contains a frighteningly long list of at least 1,100 species of wildlife. The organization promotes a warped logic that such killings benefit conservation. Guided by this false perception, many museums around the world tacitly facilitate the killing and import of endangered species.
Killing animals is not conservation – pure and simple. To say otherwise is to distort the gruesome reality of the situation. Extravagant trophy hunting of endangered species is the opposite of conservation. Trophy hunting is decimating wildlife populations around the planet. It glamorizes the death and violence of wildlife. Fortunes are made on the backs of millions of animals who are already struggling to survive in a human dominated world.
Genuine conservation organizations and animal advocates around the world are calling on authorities to end trophy hunting enterprises and to stop the slaughter of remarkable and rare animals.
Stretching out from the equator on all Earth’s land surfaces is a wide belt of forests of amazing diversity and productivity. Tropical forests include dense rainforests, where rainfall is abundant year-round; seasonally moist forests, where rainfall is abundant, but seasonal; and drier, more open woodlands. Tropical forests of all varieties are disappearing rapidly as humans clear the natural landscape to make room for farms and pastures, to harvest timber for construction and fuel, and to build roads and urban areas.
Although deforestation meets some human needs, it also has profound, sometimes devastating, consequences, including social conflict, extinction of plants and animals, and climate change—challenges that aren’t just local, but global.
Impacts of Deforestation: Biodiversity Impacts
Although tropical forests cover only about 7 percent of the Earth’s dry land, they probably harbor about half of all species on Earth. Many species are so specialized to microhabitats within the forest that they can only be found in small areas. Their specialization makes them vulnerable to extinction. In addition to the species lost when an area is totally deforested, the plants and animals in the fragments of forest that remain also become increasingly vulnerable, sometimes even committed to extinction. The edges of the fragments dry out and are buffeted by hot winds; mature rainforest trees often die standing at the margins. Cascading changes in the types of trees, plants, and insects that can survive in the fragments rapidly reduces biodiversity in the forest that remains. The extinction of other species through human action is an ethical issue, and there is little doubt about the practical problems that extinction poses.
First, global markets consume rainforest products that depend on sustainable harvesting: latex, cork, fruit, nuts, timber, fibers, spices, natural oils and resins, and medicines. In addition, the genetic diversity of tropical forests is basically the deepest end of the planetary gene pool. Hidden in the genes of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria that have not even been discovered yet may be cures for cancer and other diseases or the key to improving the yield and nutritional quality of foods—which the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says will be crucial for feeding the nearly ten billion people the Earth will likely need to support in coming decades. Finally, genetic diversity in the planetary gene pool is crucial for the resilience of all life on Earth to rare but catastrophic environmental events, such as meteor impacts or massive, sustained volcanism.
With all the lushness and productivity that exist in tropical forests, it can be surprising to learn that tropical soils are actually very thin and poor in nutrients. The underlying “parent” rock weathers rapidly in the tropics’ high temperatures and heavy rains, and over time, most of the minerals have washed from the soil. Nearly all the nutrient content of a tropical forest is in the living plants and the decomposing litter on the forest floor.
When an area is completely deforested for farming, the farmer typically burns the trees and vegetation to create a fertilizing layer of ash. After this slash-and-burn deforestation, the nutrient reservoir is lost, flooding and erosion rates are high, and soils often become unable to support crops in just a few years. If the area is then turned into cattle pasture, the ground may become compacted as well, slowing down or preventing forest recovery.
Tropical forests are home to millions of native (indigenous) people who make their livings through subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering, or through low-impact harvesting of forest products like rubber or nuts. Deforestation in indigenous territories by loggers, colonizers, and refugees has sometimes triggered violent conflict. Forest preservation can be socially divisive, as well. National and international governments and aid agencies struggle with questions about what level of human presence, if any, is compatible with conservation goals in tropical forests, how to balance the needs of indigenous peoples with expanding rural populations and national economic development, and whether establishing large, pristine, uninhabited protected areas—even if that means removing current residents—should be the highest priority of conservation efforts in tropical forests.
Climate Impacts: Rainfall and Temperature
Up to thirty percent of the rain that falls in tropical forests is water that the rainforest has recycled into the atmosphere. Water evaporates from the soil and vegetation, condenses into clouds, and falls again as rain in a perpetual self-watering cycle. In addition to maintaining tropical rainfall, the evaporation cools the Earth’s surface. In many computer models of future climate, replacing tropical forests with a landscape of pasture and crops creates a drier, hotter climate in the tropics. Some models also predict that tropical deforestation will disrupt rainfall pattern far outside the tropics, including China, northern Mexico, and the south-central United States.
Most of these climate predictions of decreased rainfall are based on a uniform and virtually complete replacement of tropical forests with pasture and cropland. However, deforestation often proceeds in a patchwork fashion—clearings that branch off roads in a fishbone pattern, for example, or deforested islands within a sea of forest. On these local scales, deforestation may actually increase rainfall by creating “heat islands” that enhance the rising and overturning of air (convection) that leads to clouds and rain. Clouds and rainfall becomes concentrated over clearings. Whether the localized enhancement of rainfall will persist as larger and larger areas of forest are cleared is not currently known. Answers may come from more sophisticated climate models that accurately represent the patchwork progression of partially deforested landscapes.
The Carbon Cycle and Global Warming
In the Amazon alone, scientists estimate that the trees contain more carbon than 10 years worth of human-produced greenhouse gases. When people clear the forests, usually with fire, carbon stored in the wood returns to the atmosphere, enhancing the greenhouse effect and global warming. Once the forest is cleared for crop or grazing land, the soils can become a large source of carbon emissions, depending on how farmers and ranchers manage the land. In places such as Indonesia, the soils of swampy lowland forests are rich in partially decayed organic matter, known as peat. During extended droughts, such as during El Niño events, the forests and the peat become flammable, especially if they have been degraded by logging or accidental fire. When they burn, they release huge volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
It is not certain whether intact tropical forests are a net source or sink of carbon. Certainly, the trunks of trees are a large, stable pool of carbon that grows as forests mature or regenerate on previously cleared land. But trees, plants, and microorganisms in the soil also respire, releasing carbon dioxide as they break down carbohydrates for energy. In the Amazon, huge volumes of carbon dioxide escape from decaying leaves and other organic matter in rivers and streams that flood large areas of forest during the rainy season. Undisturbed tropical forests may be nearly neutral with respect to carbon, but deforestation and degradation are currently a source of carbon to the atmosphere and have the potential to turn the tropics into an even greater source in coming decades.
The sky is still blue. Trees are still green. Wind still blows. Clouds are still white and fluffy. Rain still pours from the sky. Snow falls and it still gets really cold sometimes in some places. Earth is still beautiful.
So what is the problem? What is the fuss about climate change and global warming?
Well, after observing and making lots of measurements, using lots of satellites and special instruments, scientists see some alarming changes. These changes are happening fast—much faster than these kinds of changes have happened in Earth's long past. All these satellites, plus a lot more, are studying Earth and all the changes happening with the air, ocean, land, and ice.
Global air temperatures near Earth's surface rose almost one and one-half degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. Eleven of the last 12 years have been the warmest on record. Earth has warmed twice as fast in the last 50 years as in the 50 years before that.
One and one-half degrees may not seem like much. But when we are talking about the average over the whole Earth, lots of things start to change.
Why is Earth getting warmer?
Here's one clue: As the temperature goes up, the amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the air goes up. And as the carbon dioxide goes up, the temperature goes up even more.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means it traps heat from Earth's surface and holds the heat in the atmosphere. Scientists have learned that, throughout Earth's history, temperature and CO2 levels in the air are closely tied.
For 450,000 years, CO2 went up and down. But CO2 levels never rose over 280 parts per million until 1950. But then something different happens and CO2 increases very fast. At the end of 2012, it is 394 parts per million. Why? Because of us.
Besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together. A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
How do we know what Earth was like long ago?
A big part of the answer is ice cores.
In Antarctica, scientists have drilled down two miles below the surface and brought up samples of the ice. These samples are called ice cores. It's like what you get if you plunge a drinking straw into a slushy drink and pull it out with your finger over the end of the straw. What you will have inside the straw is an ice core—although a very slushy one.
The layers in an Arctic ice core are frozen solid. They give clues about every year of Earth's history back to the time the deepest layer was formed. The ice contains bubbles of the air from each year. Scientists analyze the bubbles in each layer to see how much CO2 they contain. Scientists can also learn about the temperatures for each year by measuring relative amounts of different types of oxygen atoms in the water. (Remember, water is H2O: two hydrogen atoms, and one oxygen.)
Other scientists study cores of sediment from the bottom of the ocean or lakes. Or they study tree rings and layers of rocks to give them clues about climate change throughout history. They compare all their findings to see if they agree. If they do, then their findings are accepted as most likely true. If they don't agree, they go back and figure out what is wrong with their methods. In the case of Earth's climate history, the facts agree from a lot of different kinds of studies.
How can so little warming cause so much melting?
Water can soak up a lot of heat. When the oceans get warmer, sea ice begins to melt in the Arctic and around Greenland. NASA's Earth satellites show us that every summer some Arctic ice melts and shrinks, getting smallest by September. Then, when winter comes, the ice grows again. But, since 1979, the September ice has been getting smaller and smaller and thinner and thinner.
Glaciers are another form of melting, shrinking ice. Glaciers are frozen rivers. They flow like rivers, only much slower. Lately, they have been speeding up. Many of them flow toward the ocean, then break off in chunks - sometimes huge chunks. In places such as Glacier National Park, the glaciers are melting and disappearing. The air is getting warmer, and less snow is falling during winter to renew the melted parts of the glaciers.
As more sea ice and glaciers melt, the global sea level rises. But melting ice is not the only cause of rising sea level. As the ocean gets warmer, the water actually expands. Sea level has risen 6.7 inches in the last 100 years. In the last 10 years, it has risen twice as fast as in the previous 90 years. If Greenland's ice sheet were to melt completely, sea level all over the world would rise by 16-23 feet (5 to 7 meters).
Life is a web, with every strand connected to every other strand. One species of plant or animal changes, and a whole chain of events can follow involving many other species. For example, herds of caribou live in cold, Arctic locations. Caribou hate mosquitoes. In the past few years, warmer temperatures in summer have allowed mosquito populations to explode. So the caribou spend a lot more energy swatting away the mosquitoes. All this swatting leaves the caribou less energy to find food and prepare for the next long winter. Female caribou are especially troubled because it takes so much energy to give birth and raise their young.
Animals that hibernate in the winter also suffer from warming temperatures. Marmots, chipmunks, and bears are waking up as much as a month early. Some are not hibernating at all. These animals can starve if they stay awake all winter, because they can't find enough food. If they wake up too early because it feels warm enough to be spring, the days may not yet be long enough to signal the plants to start their spring growth. So, again, the wakeful animals go hungry.
Many trees in the Western U.S. are already suffering from climate change. Droughts leave trees thirsty and stressed. Pine trees need cold winters, too. With warmer, drier conditions, the trees are more likely to become infected with insects. These bugs bore into the trees and lay their eggs. Eventually, they kill the tree. Some forests in the West have lost over half their trees already to pine beetles. When the forest is gone, birds and small mammals that lived there have to find new homes - if they can.
There are many more plant and animal species and communities struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing climate.
The dolphin is found in almost all seas and oceans of the world, and even some rivers. Their amazing intelligence, creativity, playfulness and complex culture captures the hearts and minds of humans around the globe. But these fascinating creatures are continuously under threat from human activities, including marine pollution, habitat degradation, hunting, low frequency sonar and fishing gear.
Many dolphin species face an uncertain future. The Amazon river dolphin and the Ganges river dolphin are critically or seriously endangered. The critically imperiled vaquita — the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise — is being driven extinct, with only around 50 remaining.
Pesticides, heavy metals, plastics, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants that do not disintegrate rapidly in the environment concentrate in predators such as dolphins. Injuries or deaths due to collisions with boats, especially their propellers, are also common. Various fishing methods, most notably purse seine fishing for tuna and the use of drift and gill nets, kill many dolphins. In some parts of the world dolphins are killed in harpoon or drive hunts.
Complex, Social, Intelligent, Playful
Dolphin brains are larger and, in some ways, more complex than human brains. They have such significant brain power it stops them from sleeping. Their sophisticated language allows them to trace other dolphins up to six miles away. They even have names for one another. They communicate with a variety of low sounds that humans cannot hear. They also use echolocation – sending sounds through water to bounce off objects to determine their shape, size and distance.
Dolphins form complex social groups. They crave physical attention and stroke each other. They use tools and pass their knowledge through a family line. They reason, problem-solve and comprehend ideas. They plan ahead. They have advanced math skills. They blow bubbles that vary in exact amplitudes to detect fish, then subtract values found with their echolocation to confirm the target.
Dolphins love to play. They follow ships and ride bow-waves like human surfers. They play catch, tag and other games with each other, and also enjoy playing with other animals. Dolphins swim onto the nose of humpback whales, who then raise themselves out of the water so the dolphins slide down their heads - both animals enjoy the game.
Threats From The Fishing Industry
The modernization of the fishing industry has resulted in far more fish caught annually than half a century ago. Sophisticated fishing techniques are responsible for the depletion of fish in the oceans by one-third. For the dolphin, whose main intake is fish, especially tuna, this scale of commercial over-fishing has come as a death knell.
Fishing gear continues to pose the most significant threat to dolphin conservation worldwide. Scientists estimate that each year more than 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are caught and killed in fishing gear. These animals are unintentional “bycatch” of commercial fisheries and either drown or are tossed overboard to die from their injuries. Fishing nets are now made of much tougher material, and dolphins getting routinely trapped in them is a common occurrence. One such menace is the gill-net, which when vertically hung trap the fish by their gills. In addition, trawl nets, driftnets, and longline gear are responsible for the lives of almost 60,000 dolphins each year. Many fishermen kill dolphins because the dolphins cause damage to their nets.
Dolphins are also hunted as a form of delicacy in parts of Asia, South America and Africa. Dolphins fall prey to "drive hunting", a hunting method where boats converge and crowd around the mammals driving them towards a beach or bay. This form of hunting has accounted for the lives of thousands of dolphins each year, a phenomena vividly depicted in the documentary "The Cove".
Massive dolphin hunts are being carried out to obtain dolphin teeth for use in wedding ceremonies. Thousands of dolphins have been killed by villagers in Fanalei where a single dolphin tooth is worth 70 cents.
Noise pollution in the form of ocean shipping, seismic testing for the purpose of oil and gas exploration, and underwater blasts carried out for military tests have had a serious effect on the dolphins acute sense of hearing. Chronic noise from human activities has a big impact on these animals, since it interferes with their acoustic signaling – increased background noise can mean animals are unable to hear important signals, and they tend to swim away from sources of noise, disrupting their normal behavior. Noise pollution could also be the reason for mass strandings of dolphins on various beaches each year.
Litter & Toxic Pollution
Colossal amounts of waste entering the sea every day have also added to the dolphin's woes. Plastic bags, toxic chemicals and heavy metals are some of the pollutants that have accidentally become food for the mammals. Pesticides cause failure of immune systems in dolphins and affect their reproductive abilities. As a consequence, many dolphins have been found carrying cancerous tumors.
Climate change is another serious threat to the dolphins. The gradual warming of the seas and oceans are driving dolphins into cooler and deeper waters where food sources for the creatures are hard to come by. Habitats of certain species of dolphins found at the confluence of river and ocean waters (brackish waters) are being severely affected by rising ocean levels. Scientists question if dolphins can adapt to such changing conditions.
The story of freshwater dolphins or river dolphins is not very dissimilar to their cousins of the seas. While the Amazon river dolphin numbers in ten of thousands in their natural habitats of the Amazon and Orinoco river systems, they face dangers from tribesmen and fishermen with whom they have to compete for a depleting fish population. In countries like Colombia and Brazil, the dolphin is used as bait by those active in the mota catfish trade.
The Ganges river dolphin, once numbering nearly 100,000, have been reduced to under 2,000 now, making it a seriously endangered species. Its habitat, the Ganges River, flows through some of the mostly densely populated regions of the world, the Northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The existence of such human population results in direct killing, illegal construction of dams and barrages, rampant fishing, pollution occurring from open defecation by millions on a daily basis, and toxic material draining in from thousands of industrial units lining the river.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins, inhabitants of the Mekong and Irrawaddy river deltas of South-East Asia, is one species which is witnessing a turnaround of sorts. Hunted down ruthlessly over the years by the illegal wildlife trade, just about 90 of these unfortunate mammals exist now in a 120-mile stretch of the Mekong river in Cambodia. But the stunning discovery of nearly 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins in the freshwater regions of the faraway Bangladeshi mangrove forests skirting the coast of Bay of Bengal has given this species hope.
Hundreds of dolphins are held in captivity. They are sentenced to a life of confinement deprived of normal social and environmental interaction. Confined to tanks as small as 24 feet by 24 feet wide and 6 feet deep, the reverberations from their own sonar bouncing off walls can drive them insane. Tanks are kept clean with chlorine, copper sulfate, and other harsh chemicals that irritate animals' eyes, causing many to swim with their eyes closed. They are often forced to learn tricks through food deprivation. Marine parks may withhold up to 60 percent of food before shows so that the animals will be "sharp" for performances. The stress of captivity is so great that some commit suicide.
Millions chimpanzees once thrived in the forests of 25 different African nations. Today, their populations have been reduced to only 5 nations and their numbers have plummeted to between 150,000 and 300,000. Without immediate action, humans' closest living relative could be lost in only 15 years.
Humans are largely responsible for chimpanzee population declines. In addition to poaching, which plagues areas of Africa, deforesting and farming are quickly eliminating the habitats of chimps.
Legal and illegal logging is rapidly depleting habitat for chimpanzees. Agriculture is stripping away forests at alarming rates. Changes in climate may be the biggest threat of all to chimpanzees. Climate change is expected to wipe out many forest areas in the coming decades.
The Nigerian chimpanzee dwells in jungles along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Weighing 70 kilos and reaching heights of nearly 6 feet while fully standing, this species is the most endangered of all the chimpanzee species. There are only 1,500 of them left in the Gashaka-Gumti National Park in Nigeria, a forest reserve.
The Eastern chimpanzee is a native of Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and the southern fringes of South Sudan. They also feature in the 2007 IUCN Red List of most endangered species.
Once a sub-Saharan species found in areas far beyond the Niger River, the Western chimpanzee now lives only in the forests of coastal countries of West Africa like Guinea, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Liberia and Ivory Coast. There are about 20,000 to 55,000 individuals, as per the most recent count.
The Central chimpanzee is a native of Central Africa and can be found in the dense equatorial forests of the Congo River Basin in countries of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo. They are the most populous of all species, with a count of over 100,000 individuals.
The Bonobo, or the pygmy chimpanzee, is found only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Its habitat is ensconced in the southern bank of the powerful Congo River and has lent this species a different set of characteristics from other chimpanzees. It reaches a standing height of just under 4 feet, weighing in the range of 35 to 60 kilos. Bonobos appear distinctly slender when compared to other chimpanzees. There are about 30,000 to 50,000 of these creatures in their exclusive habitat in the equatorial forests of the southern Congo River basin.
Threats to Chimpanzees
Chimpanzees can adapt to both terrestrial and arboreal environments, but prefer dense forests. It is among trees where they are most at home. Chimpanzees are synonymous with trees, which is one reason why it is so essential to protect the forests they live in.
Logging results in the massive loss of forest cover every year. The growing numbers of poor humans are forced to clear forests to sustain themselves, leading to loss of habitat for the chimpanzees. The hardest hit is the Nigerian-Cameroon species that is on the brink of extinction. Many farmers use agriculture techniques that strip the soil of nutrients and quickly render it unusable, requiring more forests to be cleared.
In Tanzania's Gombe National Park, it’s the influx of refugees from strife-torn regions like Rwanda and Burundi that have taken a toll on the forest cover. The 35-sq-km park is not sufficient to cater to the needs of chimpanzees. Since they are large in size, they need more calories from sufficient food intake than such a restricted habitat can provide. This leads them to venture beyond the precincts of the park in search of food. Raiding nearby farms for maize, vegetables, and sometimes fruit, puts them in direct confrontation with man – a situation that has led to the deaths of many apes. Examples like the Gombe National Park have become widespread throughout the continent and heighten the risk for the chimps' survival.
Population pressure and consequential poverty drive many Africans to hunt for chimpanzee meat. Hunger is one reason. The other is the trade in bushmeat (the meat of wild animals as food). A family that has no sustainable income can live off the bushmeat trade, where they can earn anything from $1,000 - $3,000 in a year. This is more so the case in populous West African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal.
Recent research reveals that the biggest threat to chimpanzees could come from climate change. Huge forest areas are likely to be wiped out in the next 50 to 60 years. While those dwelling in the deepest rainforests of Central Africa and DPR may somehow survive, habitats of forest areas of lesser expanse, like the Cameroon-Nigerian mountain jungles, are likely to perish.
Like humans, chimpanzees are susceptible to numerous diseases. Ebola and AIDs are no exception. This is one reason why so many of these animals are inhumanely kept in labs as models for biomedical research. Chimpanzees caged in such lab environments suffer from extreme mental stress emanating from boredom, confinement, and fear of experiments carried out on them.
Chimps may possess numerous traits in common with man, but that does not justify them being made a “pet” or kept in confinement in labs or zoos for man's benefit or entertainment. They must be recognized as creatures of the wild.
We need to conserve our precious forests for the protection of its denizens. Foremost in our minds should be the safeguard of chimpanzees, the most significant link to man's past.
Coral reefs, rainforest of the sea, are one of nature's most remarkable creations - teaming with thousands of unique and valuable plants and animals. More than one-quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs for their survival. Humans depend on the survival of coral reefs too. Coral reefs provide a natural wave barrier which protects beaches and coastlines from storms and floods.
Coral reefs have existed on our planet for over 50 million years, but recently we have lost over 20% of the world's reefs in just the last 20 years. Up to 70% of the reefs may be destroyed by humans in the next few decades if we don't take immediate action.
The biologists have seen the future, and their message could not be clearer: Living coral reefs are the foundation of marine life, yet all over the world they are dead or dying because people are destroying them, killing them at a catastrophic rate. Already 10 percent are lost, and scientists say 70% of all corals on the planet will be destroyed in 20 to 40 years unless people stop doing what they're doing: pollution, sewage, erosion, cyanide fishing, clumsy tourism, and get serious about saving the coral reefs now. There's hope yet. Reefs are resilient and they bounce back quickly when protected.
Protection is the real solution and it's ordinary people who are making it happen. Government efforts in much of the world have been frankly pathetic: late, weak, underfunded, unenforced. Persian Gulf oil states pass useless pollution laws then ignore them. Indian Ocean poachers outwit and outnumber British Royal Navy patrols. Ecuador stalls for decades while tourism explodes in the delicate Galapagos, only to enact a plan that makes it worse. The status quo scarcely wavers: relentless destruction of coral reefs.
In those bright spots where people are changing the way they treat the reefs, you'll find students, divers, biologists, concerned citizens of all stripes transformed into activists and volunteers...taking matters into their own hands to protect the coral reefs that are dear to them and vital to us all.
Deep in the mountainous rainforests of Madagascar, a furry brown and white creature leaps from tree to tree. As it moves high above your head, you notice that two smaller creatures cling to it. You are witnessing the travels of a lemur and her babies. This lemur is called the Milne-Edwards Sifaka. You are lucky because this kind of lemur may be harder to find in the future. That’s because climate change is making it difficult for some lemur mothers to care for their offspring.
Lemurs are a kind of primate. Primates are animals like monkeys, apes, and even humans. This specific kind of primate lives in only one place—the island of Madagascar. Many lemurs, including the Milne-Edwards Sifaka, live in the lush rainforests that are scattered throughout this island. These rainforests are obviously pretty wet. That doesn’t mean they are protected from the effects of climate change, though.
Lemurs are accustomed to regular patterns of rain. Plants take in water from the rain. Sifakas eat these plants to get the water they need to survive. But as Earth’s climate warms, rain patterns are changing. Sometimes the lemurs do not get as much water as they’d like. Lemur moms need that water even more. They make milk from the water and nutrients in the plants they eat. Without this milk, it is difficult to raise a baby lemur.
Scientists have noticed that when there is less rain, fewer babies survive. In dry years, the sifakas have to eat more plants to get the same amount of water that they would in normal years. That means a whole lot of chewing. Scientists think that older sifaka moms have trouble chewing enough plants to make milk for their babies because their teeth are worn out.
In dry seasons, the older sifaka moms may simply be unable to eat enough plants to produce the milk their babies need. Scientists think this lack of milk could be the reason that fewer babies survive dry times. This is a real problem because as the climate changes, there are going to be more and more dry periods in the rain forests.
These sifakas and their difficulties may alert other scientists studying primates in other rainforests to watch for similar problems. Studying rainforests and the animals that live in them is an important job. Without these dedicated scientists, sifakas and other rainforest animals might die out. Thanks to these scientists, they may have a fighting chance.
The jaguar is the third-largest animal in the cat family, after the tiger and the lion. Dating back to almost half a million years, the jaguar strode the entire length of the American continent from just below the Arctics in the north down to Patagonia in southern-most Argentina. But sadly, it has found its present day habitat restricted to the tropical jungles of Central America and Amazon in South America. This translates into a habitat loss of almost 40%. Not a single jaguar has been spotted in the US in the last half a century. There were populations of the cat in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Florida, but hunting forced it into extinction by the 1950's.
The jaguar is probably the most nimble and acrobatic among the cat family. Apart from being an expert swimmer, it's a superb climber of trees and can kill prey much larger than itself. The largest among its prey is the tapir, the biggest animal in the Amazon basin. There are as many as 87 species that form the diet of the jaguar. The adult jaguar can reach a length of 6 feet and weigh up to 210 lbs.
The males reach sexual maturity in three to four years, while the female does in two. The jaguar can mate all year round and degrees of birthrate correspond to the availability of prey. But a fast reducing forest cover has meant shortage of prey for the big cats, and as a consequence, lower birth-rates.
The jaguar, being a mobile creature, requires huge expanses of forests in which it can hunt to sustain itself and its family. This is where it has been obstructed severely in the past few decades. Farmlands, ranches, growing urban sprawls and border-related infrastructure have badly eaten into the jaguar habitat along the Mexican-American border. While the entire population of the animal was wiped out in the U.S. decades ago, scarcely 100 to 120 of these creatures survive in the wilds of the Sonora state of Mexico, about 125 km south of the U.S. border. In fact, wanton development has cut off their migration routes to nearby tropical forest zones, a phenomena common to many pockets of jaguar habitat in Central America. Unaccustomed to being restricted in such tight and diminishing forest spaces, the jaguar has no choice but to target livestock in nearby farms and ranches, coming into friction with man. The jaguar is a shy, nocturnal and deep forest hunter – preferring the least human contact as possible. But urban expansion has snatched away a large part of this very private trait.
The Amazon Basin in South America is one of the last bastions of the jaguar. It has vast tracts of forest acreage as its habitat where it still finds larger animals like deer, capybara, tapirs, and peccaries, as well as turtles, fish and otters to eat. But indiscriminate tree-felling for the purpose of farming, and deforestation to make way for large paper and timber projects, pose a distinct threat to the jaguar's habitat despite the vastness of the Amazon basin. There are only around 10,000 of these large cats presently in the South American continent, stretching from the Central Amazon basin in Brazil northwards to the Orinoco River valley forests in Venezuela and Colombia.
The thick jungles of some tiny Central American countries still provide refuge to these cats. Belize has about 1,000 as per the last count. The 15,000 sq km Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is home to about 550. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico bordering Guatemala, holds about 350 of these animals. Although hunting of the jaguar has been totally banned in these countries, poaching for the animal's beautiful spotted coat still continues and is a constant menace to the animal's survival.
The CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) lists the jaguar as an endangered species and this has been recognized by countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, United States, Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica and Venezuela – where hunting restrictions on the animal is already in place.
Over the decades there has been a trend on the part of conservationists and zoo authorities to move and increase the number of jaguars in captivity. But no amount of care and protection in captivity can substitute the freedom the beautiful cat enjoys in the wild, which is where it belongs. Jaguars kept captive in zoos are known for pacing due to the stress and frustration of their inability to carry out their natural routines and behaviors. Their stressful pacing increases as the number of visitors and noise level increases. Zoo jaguars are deprived of their natural environments and social structures for profit and human amusement.
Zoos are not the answer to preserving species. Precious habitats must be preserved. That is the only way we can save future generations of the jaguar.
The trafficking of wildlife and their products is one of the most profitable and attractive of all the illicit trades, possibly surpassed only by the trafficking of arms and drugs.
Studies note that several of the most notorious armed insurgent groups and terrorist organizations now derive substantial profits from the illegal wildlife trade to fund their incursions, civil wars, and other acts of violence.
Criminal organizations are systematically exploiting wildlife as a source of financing. The corruption is spreading like a disease – into armies, border guards, police, judiciary, customs officers, embassy personnel, and even state diplomats in several countries, all of whom benefit from and actively facilitate the illegal wildlife trade.
The trade’s attractiveness is largely due to its relative lack of social stigma, small risk of arrest, and the woefully light penalties given to those few brought before the courts. High-value wildlife are particularly attractive to criminal entities because their large scale killing and theft can be done quickly and inexpensively compared to the extraction of other high-value resources such as oil, gas, and most precious metals.
Wildlife products are classic 'lootable resources,' a subset of high-value natural resources that are relatively easy to steal, but particularly challenging to monitor from a crime-management perspective. Other natural resources that fall into this category include alluvial diamonds and gemstones, such as rubies.
Researchers note that not only is the wildlife trade attracting huge profits, an estimated US$20-billion a year, criminologists have found that wildlife now serves a specialized role as “a form of currency” for terrorist and criminal organizations. Because wildlife commodities become the basis for the trade of drugs, ammunition, and humans, and a substitute for cash, the illegal wildlife trade has thus grown into a highly efficient form of money-laundering. Such exchanges appear particularly common among larger, more sophisticated criminal networks and terrorist organizations working across international borders.
Not only has the lucrative nature of the wildlife trade encouraged high-level corruption, and violence surrounding the mass-killing of large charismatic wildlife (such as lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas and rhinos), there is also simultaneously a more ominous dimension. Rebel groups, insurgencies, and terror organizations are now also actively seeking out, capturing, and appropriating the profits of ecotourism enterprises. For example, seizing on the profitability of high-value gorilla tourism, Congolese rebels murdered wildlife officers and captured licensed ecotourism operations only to begin their own to fulfill their economic ends. Similarly in Nepal, Maoist rebels have captured protected areas to begin unlicensed ecotourism and trophy-hunting businesses to attract high-paying tourists.
Ecotourism is central to the tourism products and national economies for nations such as Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania.
We are witnessing unprecedented attacks on wildlife and genuine ecotourism operations by emboldened criminals. Tackling wildlife crime can and must become a priority - not just for the sake of the animals and conservation, but for national security and long-term economic sustainability.
Trafficked wildlife is frequently smuggled under harrowing conditions in which many individuals die in transit. Because global demand for some species exceeds biological capacity, local or total extinctions of some species or sub-species have resulted. For example, several Rhino species or sub-species now face extinction. At risk of extinction due to poaching are also Sun Bears, Clouded Leopards, forest elephants, gorillas, tigers, orangutans, and pangolins, among several other species. To stem this threat conservationists must actively link their knowledge about threatened wildlife to the international development, security, and political concerns with which the wildlife trade has become inextricably conjoined.
Try this: Taste plain water. Then taste sparkling water (carbonated water), with no flavoring. Besides the slight tickle or sting of the bubbles in the sparkling water, do you notice anything else? The sparkling water tastes just a little bit sour.
The more bubbles, the more sour the water. The reason is that adding carbon dioxide to water is like adding a few drops of lemon juice. It makes the water a little acidic.
In the past 200 years, the ocean has become much more acidic. In that time, it has absorbed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine that amount of a gas. But much of this carbon dioxide is the result of humans burning fossil fuels, like coal, gasoline, and jet fuel.
Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas. That means it acts as a glass roof on the atmosphere, letting sunlight in, but trapping heat so it can’t escape.
Besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together.
A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
The ocean has soaked up more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gas that has built up in the atmosphere. If not for that great feature of the ocean, temperatures would have risen more than they already have. And even more of Earth’s sea ice and glaciers would have melted. So, thank you, ocean!
But wait. Just as some people like lemon juice in their water and some do not, creatures that live in the sea have their likes and dislikes about acidic water too. Mostly dislikes. Take baby oysters, for example. Along the Oregon coast, many are dying at only a few days old. That is because the ocean water is too acidic for them to form their shells. Other creatures already suffering from too much acid are some corals, and some other shellfish.
Sea creatures with shells—like oysters, clams, and mussels—need the ocean to be a little less acidic than fresh water; that way they can use the minerals in the water to make their shells.
An acidic ocean is no better for ocean life than an atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide greenhouse gas is for land life.
Once found all over South-East Asia and even the far reaches of Southern China, orangutans have found themselves squeezed to just the two islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The great red-haired apes have been around for almost 400,000 years, but have seen their numbers dwindle alarmingly from over 200,000 a century ago to only 45,000 presently. The habitats of this iconic animal have been pushed to the rain forests in the northern fringes of the Sumatra island of Indonesia and just the south-eastern part of Borneo, the only two places on earth where they inhabit naturally.
The most important intake of the orangutan is fruit, which makes up almost 60% of the ape's diet. It consumes over 300 food items that include leaves, insects, honey, bird eggs and even tree bark. The orangutans give birth during the peak fruit season when their intake reaches a high of 11,000 calories per day and 2,000 per day in the low fruit season. So imagine what the overnight decimation of million-year old forests that sustain the very life of these wonderful beasts could do. The shocking fall of the orangutan population in the last decade from around 65,000 to just 45,000 is testimony to this phenomena. Behind this is the growing world thirst for palm oil.
What makes palm oil desirable is that it is cheaper and more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils and also has a longer shelf life. It is a vital ingredient in almost 40 percent of the world's fast-moving consuming products ranging from toothpastes to candy bars and bio-diesel.
Indonesia and Malaysia alone account for over 85 percent of the world's palm oil output and with the demand for the product having grown five-fold since 1990, manufacturing has gone on overdrive. The result has been the swift decimation of forests by bulldozing and burning, clearing the way for palm oil plantations.
Shockingly, in the past three decades, an incredible 8.7 million hectares of tropical forests have been wiped out in these two countries, an area that almost equals the size of Netherlands. The orangutans have witnessed an almost 80 percent decimation of their habitat since the early 1990's. The Indonesian fires of 1997, caused by massive slash and burn tactics by farmers, accounted for a catastrophic one-third of the orangutan habitat in that country.
The palm oil industry is also wreaking havoc on the environment and human health. Clearing one hectare (about two square acres) of peat forest can release 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Tropical peat lands store up to 10 times more carbon than mineral soil. Draining and planting on these land is estimated to be up to 10 times more detrimental to the environment. Experts have highlighted that palm oil, second only to soybean oil as an ingredient of cooking, is so high in saturated fat that one tablespoon contains 55 percent of the daily recommendation.
What hits the orangutan the hardest is the loss of habitat - their basic ecosystem is destroyed. The smoke from fires is another killer. The animals are forced to move to other areas to be met with hostility from villagers. Thousands have been clubbed to death, hacked by machetes or simply shot. Orangutan babies have also been known to be sold into the lucrative and illicit wildlife trade. There have been instances where palm oil companies have resorted to annihilation of the apes on a massive scale. In one year alone, around 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm workers.
Humans also suffer. The U.S. Department of Labor ranks the palm oil industry as one of the top four worst industries for forced and child labor. In Indonesia, the industry is responsible for about 5,000 land and human rights conflicts.
Animal rights activists fear that in another 25 years the orangutan could become extinct. It is estimated that 1,000 orangutans are killed a year and 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour for palm plantations. Other animals are also at risk. Palm oil development creates easy access to habitats for poachers. The Sumatran tiger population is expected to be extinct in just a few years if actions are not taken to protect their habitats.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of animal activists and conservationists, the palm oil industry is beginning to sit up and take notice. Organizations are working with those sensible in the palm oil industry, and local villagers, to educate them on the need to conserve areas for orangutans.
Some areas of no deforestation have been demarcated, ensuring safe and peaceful existence of orangutans. Tanjung Puting National Park, Sebangau National Park, Kutai and Gunung Palung (all in Borneo), the Gunung Leuser National Park on the border of Aceh, and North Sumatra now offer safe havens for orangutans. Conservation areas in Malaysia include the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Matang Wildlife Centre and Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary.
In 2013, two of the biggest palm oil giants, Golden Agri-Resources and Wilmar International, joined hands to commit to a zero deforestation policy on all the palm oil they produced, sourced and traded. Unilever, the world's largest buyer of palm oil (it buys 1.5 million tons annually) was brought into the plan. Other consumer majors like Nestle, Kellogs, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G followed suit.
Despite this progress, only 35 percent of palm growers that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are actually certified by the RSPO. The other 65 percent are paying members, but have taken no action to adhere to the growing practices guidelines.
For the sake of survival of the magnificent creature, the orangutan, more action must be taken. In just one decade the orangutan population has decreased by 50 percent. Only 6,300 Sumatran orangutans remain.
Animal activists can take action by weaning themselves off palm oil, purchasing palm oil alternatives, encouraging companies to commit to sustainable palm oil, and supporting organizations working to help orangutans.