1 Tahrcountry Musings: April 2009

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Arabian Tahr gets Increased Protection

The United Arab Emirates has established the Wadi Wurayah Fujairah, the habitat of endangered Arabian Tahr as the country’s first protected mountain reserve. The 129 km-square protected area occupies the northern reaches of Fujairah between the towns of Masafi, Khor Fakkan and Bidiyah. His Highness Shaikh Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Fujairah, issued a decree this week that officially established the mountain reserve. The Arabian Tahr (Arabitragus jayakari) is highly endangered, with fewer than 2,500 adults in the wild.

Under the proposed protection plan reviewed by the royal court protection will be intensified and steps will be taken to educate the visitors. Visitors will be fined for leaving litter behind, polluting the water and painting graffiti.

The move comes at a time when there is international concern about the welfare of Arabian Tahr. Tahrcountry salutes the architects of the new initiatives.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Grey Whale conservation -Sakhalin Energy consortium heeds to the call of the environmentalists

Heeding to the call of environmentalists Russia’s Sakhalin Energy consortium has agreed to suspend oil operations during the breeding season of Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus). The main feeding area of the whales is in the Piltun Bay at the northeastern part of Sakhalin shelf. Conservationists the world over are delighted. Once declared extinct, the Western Pacific Gray whale was rediscovered in the late 1970s.

The Western Grey Whale is one of the world’s most endangered whales, with only 25 breeding females remaining. The whale feeds only in the summer. The whale is listed as "critically endangered" by Russia and is on the redlist of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Recent research had shown how oil exploration could alter the behaviour of grey whales. Noise from oil and gas exploration has driven the whales into deeper waters making it hard for their calves to feed and thrive.

Things are not very rosy however. BP, Exxon and Rosneft operating in the area have ignored the appeal from conservationists so far. Conservationists the world over are making repeated appeals to the erring firms to heed to their call. Let us hope that wiser counsel would prevail.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Good News from Afghanistan on the Environment Front

What we hear regularly from Afghanistan is depressing news about bombings, ambushes, excesses of Taliban and suffering of the common man. Here is something that will give you cheer. On the occasion of the Earth Day, Afghanistan has declared its first National Park. This is an event for the entire world to rejoice.

The newly declared Band-e-Amir National Park near Bamyan Valley is a spectacular region of deep blue lakes separated by natural dams of travertine, a mineral deposit. If Bamayan Valley rings a familiar tone for you, you are smack on target. Yes, it was here that Taliban destroyed 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues.

Next on the agenda of the Afghan administration is efforts directed towards acquiring the World Heritage Status for the park. This will give a tremendous boost to the park. It will also bring in foreign tourists. Even though foreign tourists have given the place a wide birth after the eruption of violence in 1979 thousands of afghans visit the place every year

Much of the Park’s wildlife has been lost in the continuing violence. But Ibex and Urial still survive there precariously. The region also boasts of Afghan Snow Finch which is a bird found only in Afghanistan. The conservation community the world over is watching with great interest the happenings in Afghanistan

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Imminent Danger- Forests as Sources of Greenhouse Gases

Forests are considered to be a great source of carbon sinks. But this rosy picture is likely to change with the global warming. The warning has come from International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO).

The latest report of International Union of Forest Research Organizations titled "Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change – A Global Assessment" and authored by 35 forestry scientists, made a detailed analysis of the likely impacts of climate change across the world's major forest types and their capacity adapt to climate shifts. The report will be formally presented at the next session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) taking place from 20th April to1 of May 2009 at the UN Headquarters.

Dr Risto Seppälä, a professor at the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla) and Past President of IUFRO, who chaired the expert panel that produced the report says, “We normally think of forests as putting the brakes on global warming, but in fact over the next few decades, damage induced by climate change could cause forests to release huge quantities of carbon and create a situation in which they do more to accelerate warming than to slow it down”. A 2.5-degree-C rise in temperatures would eliminate the net carbon sequestering function of global forests. Presently forests worldwide capture about a quarter of carbon emissions.

The study observes that as climate change progresses over the next decades:

1) Droughts are projected to become more intense and frequent in subtropical and southern temperate forests, especially in the western United States, northern
China, southern Europe and the Mediterranean, subtropical Africa, Central
America and Australia. These droughts will also increase the prevalence of fire and predispose large areas of forest to pests and pathogens. .

2) In some arid and semi-arid environments, such as the interior of the American
West, forestry experts’ worry that climate change could be so dramatic that timber productivity could “decline to the extent that forests are no longer viable.”

3)  Decreased rainfall and more severe droughts are expected to be particularly stressful for forest-dependent people in Africa who look to forests for food, clean water and other basic needs. For them, the scientists predict climate change could mean “deepening poverty, deteriorating public health, and social conflict.”

4) In certain areas, climate change could lead to substantial gains in the supply of timber. The combination of warming temperatures and the fertilizing effect of increased carbon in the atmosphere could fuel a northward expansion of what is known as the boreal forest, the coniferous timber lands that run across the earth’s northern latitudes and include forests in Canada, Finland, Russia and Sweden. Research from the report indicates that climate change could cause more than a 40 percent increase in timber growth in Finland. However, over the long-term, if climate change continues at the current pace the boreal expansion eventually will be offset by an increase in insect invasions, fires, and storms.

Ameliorative strategies

The report says that sustainable forest management practices could help ameliorate some of the impacts of climate change, but such efforts may only be a temporary reprieve in the face of rising carbon emissions.

Professor Andreas Fischlin of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who is one of the lead authors of the study says "Even if adaptation measures are fully implemented, unmitigated climate change would, during the course of the current century, exceed the adaptive capacity of many forests," "The fact remains that the only way to ensure that forests do not suffer unprecedented harm is to achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions."

The report concludes by saying more research is needed to better understand precisely how climate change will impact forests and how effective different adaptation responses will be. The challenge to policy makers is that they must act even in the face of imperfect data because “climate change is progressing too quickly to postpone action.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sidamo Lark on the Way to Oblivion?

The Ethiopiaian Sidamo Lark (Heteromirafra sidamoensis), one of the most ancient types of larks, is in parlous state. Unless efforts are made on a war footing to conserve the species it will have the dubious distinction of being the first recorded bird extinction on the continent. The forebodings are the outcome of a survey of the bird's habitat done by zoologist Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge. The associates for the study were the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, Birdlife International and the University of East Anglia. The study found that Sidamo lark is now restricted to a single patch of grassland of 35 square kilometres. The survey also revealed that a maximum of 358 Sidamo Larks remain. The lower estimate is just 90.

Scientists discovered Sidamo Lark only in 1968. The bird was only seen once during the course of last 25 years.

The main reason attributed for the sorry state of affairs is the depredation of highland savannah. The savannah used to be maintained by fire and by the grazing of large herbivores. Borana pastoralists also played a part in the past. They used to walk their cattle across the plain in the course of their migration between different wet and dry season grasslands. The situation is completely changed now. The numbers of Wild animals have dipped and the present numbers is too low to stop shrubs from invading the grasslands. The pastoralists have abandoned their old time tested ways. The new fad is intensively reared livestock and agriculture, which impacts the birds quite badly.

Factors outside Ethiopia also contribute to the woes of the bird. The conflict in neighbouring Somalia is driving armed nomads to cross the border and move into the region to graze their cattle. Increasing droughts and climate change also are threats that loom over the survival of the bird.

The researchers have advocated control of grazing by domestic cattle. They have also advocated that the shrubs that have sprouted in the grassland should be removed. A careful watch over expansion of agriculture in to the habitat of the critically endangered bird has also been advocated.

Based on the researchers recommendations Lark is being uplisted to Critically Endangered – the highest level of threat – in the 2009 Red List of birds. The new list will be released on May 14th.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Newly Discovered Lichen Named after President Obama

A California researcher, Kerry Knudsen from the University of California-Riverside (UCR), has named a new species of Lichen discovered by him after President Barak Obama. The name given is Caloplaca obamae. The researcher says this is intended to show his appreciation for the president's support of science and science education.

The new species is Endemic to Santa Rosa Island, the second largest island off California’s coast. The new discovery is a shot in the arm for public support for preserving public lands as ecological sanctuaries. Cattle ranching had nearly wiped out the species. Fortunately a lawsuit by the National Parks Conservation Association in 1996 put an end to rampant uncontrolled grazing. But for this action the species would not have been discovered. Knudsen says this is a stark reminder that many species are disappearing without ever being known to science.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Tale of the elephant from the Tail

I was fascinated to read about this new technique developed by Professor Thure Cerling and associates to decode eating habits of the elephants from its tail. It is amazing. Professor Thure Cerling used Global Positioning System and analyzed carbon and other isotopes in the tail hair of elephants to monitor their movements and varied diet in the Buffalo Springs national reserves in northern Kenya.

Clear cut evidences of elephants gorging on grasses during rainy season and switching over to trees and shrubs emerged from the isotope based study of elephants ‘ tail.
There are enough reasons for the elephants to gorge on grass. This is a ploy intended to bulk up for pregnancy. 22 months after conceiving, the elephants gave birth to healthy babies.

Use of water also came under the scanner. According to Professor Cerling in the dry season, rivers tend to be quite evaporated and have different isotope ratios than in rainy season, when they are flowing. The elephants drink the water, and it actually changes the isotope composition of their blood, which is reflected in the isotope composition of the hair.

The research brought to the fore the impact of overgrazing by cattle on the typical wet season diet of elephants. Competition with cattle results in poor access to high-quality grass forage as the cattle keep the grass very short by its distinctive feeding habits, thus our competing elephants in the rush for prime forage.The study warns that as Kenya's population continues to explode, and as global warming brings in more droughts, the competition for grass with domestic cattle might threaten the elephants' ability to bulk up for pregnancy.

The advantage of the new method according to Professor Cerling is that we get a continuous record of elephants’ diet even though we don't have anyone on the ground watching them. This will be of great help to the mangers of wildlife in devising their strategies.

Details of the study appears in the on line edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Friday, April 10, 2009

Kenyan Inventor Develops Cheap Efficient Solar Cooker and Wins an Award

I was delighted to hear about this news about a new solar cooker with enormous potential. A Kenyan inventor has won the $75,000 prize for his solar cooker made from cardboard. The cooker is made from two cardboard boxes, which use reflective foil and black paint to maximise absorption of solar energy. The temperatures inside the pot can reach at least 80C. The device can be used for cooking and for sterilising water.

The competition was organized by the organization Forum for the Future in association with Financial Times newspaper and technology company HP. The aim of the competition was to support concepts that have "moved off the drawing board and demonstrated their feasibility" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but have not gained corporate backing.

The inventor says the device will help to reduce dependence on firewood thereby putting a brake on deforestation. According to him it will also give a boost to health as it has the potential to reduce the ill effects of smoke. Nearly two billion people in the world use firewood as their primary fuel. So the potential is enormous.

I did not give you the name of the inventor. Here it is. He is Jon Bohmer, who founded the company Kyoto Energy in Kenya. Hats off to him for developing a simple device that has the potential to reduce deforestation in developing and under developed countries.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Virus Powered Batteries are On Its Way

Virus powered batteries? Sounds a wee bit far fetched but it is true; they are in its way. A team of scientists from MIT in the US led by Professor Angela Belcher has come up with this seemingly impossible feat. Professor Belcher used viruses to build both the positively and negatively charged ends of a battery and it is working. A lithium-ion battery has been constructed, where generically engineered viruses were used to create the negatively charged anode and positively charged cathode. The beauty is that virus is harmless to humans.

The batteries have the capacity and performance of rechargeable batteries that is used to power plug-in hybrid cars. The prototype battery is the size of a coin but Professor Belcher believes that the technology developed can be used to create flexible batteries that can take the shape of their container. This meets the requirements of mobile and other small devices to a dot. Right now the virus battery can only be charged and discharged about 100 times, but Professor Belcher says improved versions with linger life are on its way.

Conservationists would be delighted to learn that the process to build the batteries uses no harmful or toxic materials. What we need is things like this, development of technologies that does not harm the environment. Tahrcountry salutes Professor Angela Belcher. Full details of the research appear in the journal Science