Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Business, Environmentalist, Green

EPA Boots Scientists Off Scientific Review Board

At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA's Board of Science Counselors.
At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA’s Board of Science Counselors. Photo: bakdc / Shutterstock.com

At least five academic scientists have been dismissed from a major review board, according to the New York Times.

J.P. Freire, a spokesman for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, said Pruitt would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries that are supposed to be regulated by the EPA. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” Freire said.

This isn’t a surprising move, given that Pruitt is a former oil company executive who has questioned human-caused climate change—something that has been agreed on by at least 97 percent of the scientific community—and has been tasked by President Trump to roll back Obama-era regulations on clean water protection and climate change.

The scientists were dismissed from the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which reviews and evaluates the research conducted by the EPA’s scientists.

“We want to expand the pool of applicants” for the scientific board, Freire said, “to as broad a range as possible, to include universities that aren’t typically represented and issues that aren’t typically represented.”

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “This is completely part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda.”

“I see the dismissal of the scientists from the Board of Scientific Counselors as a test balloon,” said Joseph Arvai of the University of Michigan, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), a 47-member commission that advises the EPA on areas on where it should conduct research and evaluates the scientific integrity of EPA regulations. “This is clearly very political, and we should be very concerned if it goes further.”

On the other hand, Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said the SAB had become nothing but a rubber-stamp organization that approves all of the EPA’s regulations. He wrote a bill designed to restock that board with more members from the business world.

“The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government,” Smith said. “The conflict of interest here is clear.”

“Today I was Trumped,” Robert Richardson, an environmental economist wrote on Twitter. “I have had the pleasure of serving on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors, and my appointment was terminated today.”

“I believe this is political,” said Dr. Courtney Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University, said of the dismissals from the Board of Science Counselors. “It’s unexpected. It’s a red flag.”

Nature

Newly Discovered Snail Named After Dungeons & Dragons Character

A new species of land snail has been named after a Dungeons & Dragons character.
An underground river in the Chapada Diamantina cave in Brazil. Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists who study invertebrates for long enough tend to discover new species, because there tends to be a pretty diverse collection of such creatures in any given environment. This is especially true of cave systems in places like Brazil, which tend to be poorly studied. And when teams discover a new species, they get to name it.

Often, species will be named after the person who discovered them, or in homage to Greek and Roman gods, since those mythologies are pretty popular. But a team that discovered a small (only 2mm long!) species of land snail in Brazil has decided to name it after a different kind of deity—one from the geek staple Dungeons & Dragons.

The species is Gastrocopta sharae, named after Shar, a goddess of darkness, caverns, and secrets. “It’s a fitting name for a tiny snail that lives hidden in the dark recesses of a cavern,” the study’s authors said.

This is actually the second time this team has named a snail after a goddess from Dungeons & Dragons. In 2014, they found a tiny snail that lives in deep ocean waters, and named it Halystina umberlee, after Umberlee, a goddess of the ocean connected with the perils of the sea.

Tropical snails in general are still not well understood, but they are one of the most threatened animal groups. Not only that, but cave-dwelling invertebrates don’t receive a lot of attention from researchers, and cave-dwelling snails are even less known.

Unfortunately, the new species is threatened by human activity. “Caverns are known to have very fragile ecosystems and several lack proper protection, so works like ours are an important step for conservation efforts,” the researchers said.

People may think of caves as empty and dank, but they can contain a vast array of different flora and fauna, all of which deserve protection as much as any better known species.

Conservation

Endangered Bumblebees Will Be Okay With Effort On Our Part

The endangered rusty patched bumblebee will be okay, as long as we help out with conservation efforts.
Rusty patched bumblebee. Photo: Shutterstock

For the first time, an American species of bumblebee has been listed as endangered, but according to one entomologist, that’s actually a good thing. While bee populations around the world have been suffering in recent years, listing the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species will help protect it and, perhaps, bees more broadly.

Bees are essential to a variety of ecosystems, primarily in their role as pollinators but also as part of the larger food web, providing food for birds, fish, and other insects. Recent declines have been attributed to parasites, pesticides, urbanization, diseases, and the introducing on non-native plants into their ecosystems. Even natural disasters like floods and droughts are considered factors in bee population decline.

While the situation seems dire, and there probably are more problems facing bees now that in the past, bee populations have always fluctuated. Fewer crops means more natural habitat for bees, while more crops means less, and higher temperatures mean more bees while colder temperatures see them decrease.

But according to Jeff Whitworth at the Kansas State University, there are a number of ways to help bumblebees. Simple things like cutting the grass or trimming trees less often can make a difference. Beekeeping as a hobby has been growing in recent years, in both rural and urban locations, which can help restart bee populations in various ecosystems.

But placing the rusty patched bumblebee on the endangered species list is probably the single biggest step. The point of listing species in this way is to promote conservation efforts to protect them. In the past it’s made a huge difference for some species, giving governments the motivation to protect them through legislation, pushing scientists to do more research on a species, and getting people to donate more time and money toward helping keep those species around.

Ultimately, Whitworth doesn’t fear for bees’ existence. “Weather and prices vary from year to year, which is simply part of the way systems work,” he said. “I foresee bee populations staying fairly steady for the foreseeable future.”

Conservation

Cheetahs In Greater Danger of Extinction than Previously Thought

A Cheetah pictured during one of the Institute of Zoology's Field Conservation projects in Tanzania, 2005. Photo courtesy of Zoological Society of London
A Cheetah pictured during one of the Institute of Zoology’s Field Conservation projects in Tanzania, 2005. Photo courtesy of Zoological Society of London

Scientists are urging that the cheetah be reclassified from “vulnerable” to “endangered” as there are only 7,100 members of the species remaining on the planet.

Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal and occupy a huge range of Africa and the Middle East. However, about 77 percent of their range falls outside of protected areas, and they have been driven out of about 91 percent of their historic range. They have fallen prey to a number of threats including changing land use by humans, loss of prey species due to human competition, and trafficking in cheetah parts and live cats as exotic pets.

Basically, it’s entirely our fault that cheetahs are dying out.

However, because of cheetahs’ wide ranges and the large territories that they need in order to hunt, they’re also hard to conserve. We can’t just mark off small protected areas to keep them safe. Even in the areas where they are protected, they face challenges that most people don’t think about.

Moving them to the endangered classification could be a huge help, though, because that often comes with increased attention and funding to help conserve a species, which is exactly what the cheetah needs.

In order to save the cheetahs, we have to think beyond traditional conservation methods, and find ways to help them in both protected and unprotected regions. The changing landscape of Africa needs to change in ways that benefit humans and cheetahs, and we need to take stronger steps to end the trafficking of live cats or their parts, keeping the animals alive and in the wild where they belong.

We’ve managed to help turn other species around through concentrated effort in the past, so there is hope for the cheetah. Knowing that they’re at far greater risk than we had expected is a big step on its own, as it allows us to starting thinking of ways to help preserve the species which we wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

Conservation, Environmentalist, Sustainability, Uncategorized

New Brazilian Laws Could Threaten Environment, Indigenous Rights

New Brazilians laws could threaten the environment and indigenous rights.
Indigenous Brazilians in their village. Photo: Shutterstock

New regulations currently being discussed by the Brazilian legislature could have catastrophic results for the country’s environment and indigenous groups. Two initiatives would roll back environmental licensing laws, while the third would allow the building of several new industrial waterways without requiring assessment of potential environmental or social impacts.

The alarm around these potential laws is largely due to the recently announced 29% increase in Amazon deforestation, which comes on the heels of a rocky start for Brazilian president Michel Temer after the impeachment of his predecessor.

According to Mauricio Guetta, a lawyer for the Socio-Environmental Institute, a Brazilian NGO, these new laws would represent “the most worrying regressions of [Brazil’s] recent history.

“If approved, they will certainly make it impossible for Brazil to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement,” Guetta added.

Brazil has agreed to cut 37 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and end illegal deforestation by 2030.

However, if these new laws go into effect, Brazil’s standard environmental licensing procedures would change dramatically. Not only would the overall process speed up, but some companies would be allowed to supply their own licenses—or forgo them entirely. This could be particularly problematic when it comes to greenhouse gas, since 52 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and the way land and forests are used.

About 250 organizations, including NGOs and environmental prosecutors have signed a bill denouncing the potential laws, noting previous environmental disasters like the dam burst in Mariana, which flooded the countryside with millions of liters of mining waste.

The trouble is, in many ways, political. President Temer’s cabinet has shown a tendency to cater to a powerful bloc of pro-agribusiness lawmakers called the ruralista, who advocate legislature that serves local business, often without regard for potential environmental fallout.

The ruralista are also increasingly pushing for changes in how indigenous lands are used and protected—or made unprotected. Another drafted law would transfer control over demarcation of indigenous lands from the executive to the legislative branch. This law would only allow land occupied by indigenous groups from 1988 on to be held as reserves. That means land where indigenous peoples were expelled would now be available for economic development.

“This is a clear violation of Brazilian and international law, which could result in the destruction of whole peoples,” said indigenous activist group Survival International. The organization also warned against increased deforestation in these areas.

Then there are the bills known as Decretos Legislativos, or PDCs. Their passage through the legislature has been stalled, but by no means stopped entirely. These bills would authorize the construction of three industrial waterways in major river basins on the Tapajós River, the Amazon, the Tocantins and Araguaia Rivers, and the Paraguai River. While the waterways would help expedite shipments of soy and other products, they would be built without any environmental oversight beyond whatever is supplied by the companies themselves.

The fight between Brazilian environmental activists and a government hoping to improve the economy at the expense of oversight is set to continue in February 2017 after the parliamentary recess.

Nature, Science

Most Mammals Live Longer In Zoos Than in the Wild

Research shows that animals survive longer in zoos than they do in the wild.
A woman feeds giraffes at a zoo. Photo: Shutterstock

According to recent research comparing the life expectancy of mammals in zoos with those in the wild, it looks like for most species, they live longer in captivity.

This may not seem surprising, since zoo animals don’t have to be concerned about predators, competition, or food scarcity. This means animals in zoos and sanctuaries can likely live as long, or longer, than they would in the wild. But it does illustrate some interesting things about captivity and successful animal husbandry.

There are arguments that keeping animals in zoos is unethical. While this study does not address that specifically, it does make it apparent that the wild is not a paradise for animals living in it. While zoos are attractions that need to bring in audiences to keep their gates open and their animals cared for, they do provide many opportunities to study those animals and, in some cases, to help rehabilitate them.

The other interesting thing about the study is that all of the animals whose lifespan was studied were, by necessity, already dead. This means that the animals in question were living in zoos that hadn’t yet adopted newer zoo management practices.

The last decade or so has seen changes in how longer-lived animals are cared for, and zoo management has generally become more ethical and humane over time. The movement toward not keeping elephants, for example, because they need far more room than a zoo can provide, means that elephants who may have appeared in this study didn’t benefit from those changes. It also means that animals living in zoos today are largely living better lives than those who appeared in the study.

Hopefully, this study will help us to better understand life expectancy of mammals in the wild as well, so that we might be able to find new directions for research into managing those populations. The last 40 years have been devastating for wild vertebrates, so finding ways to help them survive should be high on our list of priorities.