Indonesia protects mantas

Adrian Burton

On February 20th, Indonesia announced legislation to protect all manta ray populations within its nearly 6 million km2 Exclusive Economic Zone. The move not only establishes the largest manta ray sanctuary in the world, it helps safeguard a diving-tourism industry that annually generates millions in revenue.

Indonesia is home to both manta ray species, Manta birostris and Manta alfredi. Their gentle nature and spectacular size makes them favorites with recreational divers, but their slow reproductive cycle leaves them vulnerable to overfishing. Gestation may last over a year before females deliver perhaps just one live pup, sometimes 3–5 years apart. Indeed, a female may produce fewer than 20 offspring over her lifetime.

“Sadly, over the past 10 years, mantas have been severely overfished to supply the trade in their gill rakers as a traditional medicinal product in the Guangzhou region of southern China”, says Mark Erdmann, senior advisor to Conservation International's Indonesian Marine Program (Jakarta, Indonesia). “Yet, they are not even recognized as such by most practitioners.” The mantas' dwindling numbers led to their being placed on the Appendix II list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Figure 1.

A million dollar ray of hope.

Their new protection is in part due to recognition of the enormous economic value of these fish alive compared to their worth as a fisheries product. Last year, a study (PLoS ONE 2013; doi:10.1371/journal.pone. 0065051) showed that Indonesia's manta-diving-tourism industry was worth some US$15 million per year. “Over a manta's lifetime it could be worth $1 million to that industry”, explains Erdmann. “Compare that to the $500 a manta in a net is worth, then you can quickly see that this isn't only great conservation news, it's an economic no-brainer!”

Several species of cartilaginous fish, including whale sharks and sawfish, are also protected across Indonesia.

“An economic indicator that confirms a species' worth can help lawmakers make decisions that benefit their people in the long term”, comments Mary O'Malley (WildAid, San Francisco, CA). “Fishing such slow-reproducing animals will deplete populations quickly [leaving fishermen without manta fishing income]. Manta tourism income, however, is sustainable and brings income to other local businesses.”

Microsoft buys first carbon credits in Africa

Lindsay Deel

In a deal brokered in early February by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Government of Madagascar, and Microsoft, the Makira Natural Park (MNP) in Madagascar became the first beneficiary of a government-backed carbon credit sale in Africa. “Through carbon credit sales from avoided deforestation, the Makira REDD+ [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation “plus” conservation] Project will finance the long-term conservation of one of Madagascar's most pristine remaining rainforest ecosystems, harboring rare and threatened plants and animals that represent 1% of the world's biodiversity while improving community land stewardship and supporting the livelihoods of the local people”, says WCS Director of Communications Stephen Sautner (New York, NY). “Through a unique funding distribution mechanism designed by the Government of Madagascar and WCS, the funds from carbon sales will be used by the Government for conservation, capacity building, and enforcement activities, and by WCS to manage MNP. The largest share of the sale – one-half of the proceeds – will go toward supporting local communities in the areas surrounding Makira for education, human health, and other development projects.”

At nearly 400 000 ha, MNP is a bastion of biodiversity as well as a source of clean water for over 250 000 people in the surrounding areas. “Makira is a highly valued part of our global natural heritage and the revenues from this sale will protect this unique ecosystem, both through supporting park management and rewarding the communities who have helped make the reductions in deforestation possible”, continues Sautner. Each organization will actively contribute to the conservation of Makira, with Microsoft providing the funds through the carbon credit sale, the WCS managing the park, and the Government of Madagascar supporting general long-term conservation and enforcement strategies. As Sautner explains, “The benefit-sharing mechanism also reflects the interdependent governance structures needed to effectively reduce deforestation, including long-term park management, overarching national policy frameworks, and community-based management of different land-use zones surrounding the protected area.”

The sale is an important first step and bodes well for the future of carbon credit sales in Madagascar and on mainland Africa. “With this recent sale, the project will be able to invest in validating and verifying the credits achieved through reducing deforestation in 2010 through 2013, thereby broadening the field of potential buyers [and building] toward a national registry of carbon credits in Madagascar as well as jurisdictional baselines that can hopefully be scaled up to benefit the country's entire protected area network”, concludes Sautner.

Offshore fracking concerns

Mike Faden

Increasing concern over offshore fracking by petroleum and gas companies off the coast of California has spurred new efforts to monitor and regulate such operations.

Although the state's inland fracking activities are already well known, controversy erupted in 2013 after media reports indicated that some companies had also been fracking wells from offshore platforms for many years. Offshore fracking raises additional worries because of associated risks with chemical (including wastewater) pollution and oil spills. “In the ocean, any leak or spill would immediately contaminate the surrounding area”, says Jayni Foley Hein, executive director of the University of California's Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (Berkeley, CA), an organization that studies the impacts of fracking.

One reason offshore fracking activities were not more widely known is that the California Coastal Commission (CCC) – the state agency responsible for regulating development along California's coastline – claims that it was not informed by other governmental agencies that offshore fracking plans had been approved. Since learning of the offshore operations, the CCC has investigated their extent and subsequently estimated that >200 wells have been fracked in nearshore state waters, along with 12 wells in offshore federal waters.

Concerns about the impacts of fracking have triggered a recent flurry of regulatory activity. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency began requiring companies operating in federal waters to disclose what chemicals used in the process were being discharged into the ocean. At the state level, California passed State Bill 4 (SB 4) last fall, which will require oil and gas companies to apply for a permit to conduct fracking and other “well stimulation” treatments within the state, as well as to disclose the chemicals involved and to monitor groundwater. The bill also mandates a scientific study of fracking impacts, which will now include offshore fracking, according to Alison Dettmer, a deputy director at the CCC (Arcata, CA).

It is not yet clear how SB 4 will affect offshore fracking, but the CCC says that it intends to collaborate with other state and federal agencies to ensure that it is informed about fracking operations. “We're trying to figure out what legal authority we have, in state and federal waters, to review future well stimulation treatments”, says Dettmer. “The first step is to ensure we're notified.”

The new regulations have failed to satisfy some advocacy groups, including the Environmental Defense Center and the Center for Biological Diversity, which have called for broader measures such as a moratorium on offshore fracking.

Keeping green waste green

Robin Meadows

The state of California mandates cutting waste streams in half through reduction and recycling, so people understandably take for granted that all the grass clippings and orange peels they amass are being composted. But one-third of the green waste collected statewide, equivalent to about 11 million tons per year, goes straight to the dump instead. That's because local governments get recycling credit for sprinkling green waste on landfills daily to control odors.

But solving this problem creates another. Buried green waste degrades anaerobically and so emits methane (CH4), the second most common greenhouse gas (GHG) of human origin. “This loophole has been terribly abused over the years – landfills are the largest source of man-made CH4”, explains State Assemblyman Das Williams (Santa Barbara, CA), who has been keen on waste reduction since he worked at a recycling facility at age 16.

Figure 2.

The “three-bin” waste system is implemented in neighborhoods across California.

Landfills generate 17% of total CH4 emissions, and CH4 accounts for 9% of total GHG emissions nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Controlling CH4 is more urgent than ever because its potency has been bumped up from 72 to 86 times that of carbon dioxide in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2013 report.

To close the loophole that puts dumping green waste on par with composting it, Williams recently introduced a bill (AB 1594) that scraps this bogus recycling credit. And he knows firsthand that local governments can do more to keep yard trimmings and food waste out of landfills; while on the Santa Barbara City Council, he helped divert 70% of municipal waste by, for example, collecting commercial food waste. “That's efficient”, he points out. “If local governments say they can't do it, I'll say ‘I did it and you can too'.”

Composting green waste has other environmental benefits, including boosting soil quality and water retention while cutting erosion and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, according to the California Compost Coalition, a compost advocacy group. For Williams, the public's trust is also in play: “Most people believe that when they put their green waste into the green can, they're keeping it out of the landfill”.

Making wind farms safer for birds

Nancy Bazilchuk

A consortium of energy companies and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA, Trondheim) are investigating whether painting wind turbines black and using ultraviolet (UV) light can reduce avian mortality at wind-energy facilities. Current studies are being conducted at Smøla, Norway's largest wind farm; the facility has 68 turbines and is located near a dense population of white-tailed sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla). Since Smøla opened in 2005, 55 dead sea eagles have been found onsite, according to Bjørn Iuell, senior environmental adviser for Statkraft (Oslo, Norway), which owns and operates the farm.

The sea eagle deaths led to research to address the collision problem, but according to Iuell, no effective solutions have yet been identified. However, starting in 2013, a new 4-year investigation called INTACT has been implemented, with Statkraft personnel either applying black paint to one rotor or painting a black stripe on turbine tower masts in an effort to boost their visibility to sea eagles and willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus), respectively.

Figure 3.

Workers paint a black stripe on a wind turbine.

This spring, researchers also intend to test whether birds can detect different forms of UV light and, if so, whether light treatments could be used to deter birds from approaching the turbines, says Hege Brende, special adviser for renewable energy for NINA and vice director of CEDREN (Trondheim), a Norwegian research consortium for renewable energy. “It's very exciting, because as far as we know, this hasn't been done before”, she says.

The UV treatments are first being tested offsite, so that researchers can determine different species reactions. Different UV frequencies and warning patterns will also be analyzed, Brende continues.

Iuell explains that the UV research is focused on seabirds, for possible future application at offshore wind farms. Statkraft is one of four developers of Forewind, a 7.2-gigawatt, 3000-turbine project proposed for Dogger Bank, off the UK's east coast. Benedict Gove, a senior conservation scientist for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (Bedfordshire, UK), says the Royal Society welcomes “potential mitigation measures like [UV treatments]. In an ideal world, wind farms wouldn't be built in areas with large numbers of vulnerable species, but we don't live in an ideal world.”

Australia getting hotter

Claire Miller

Australia experienced more days of extreme heat in 2013 than in the 30 years between 1910 and 1940, according to the country's State of the Climate report released in March (http://bit.ly/1fqIMjG). The report also found that national warming trends (0.9° C since 1910) are outpacing the global trend (0.85°C between 1880 and 2012). Over the past 15 years, the frequency of very warm months has increased fivefold, while the occurrence of very cool months has declined by around one-third, as compared with 1951–1980.

The report was issued as Australia's new conservative Government, elected in 2013, prepares to repeal the AU$23 per ton CO2eq carbon price, which is largely credited with accelerating the nation's shift to renewable energy and energy-saving equipment and decreasing demand for coal-fired power. A transition to an emissions trading scheme was planned for 2014.

Greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from electrical production in 2013 fell to their lowest levels since 2001–2002, but Environment Minister Greg Hunt says the overall 0.3% drop in GHG emissions is not worth the carbon price's AU$7 billion cost to industry. The Government plans instead to purchase abatement from participating entities under its voluntary Direct Action Plan. Hunt says the fund will still achieve Australia's target to reduce GHG emissions to 5% below 2000 levels by 2020, or 431 megatons (Mt) CO2eq.

But John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute (Sydney, Australia), says no independent assessment has yet shown that this policy can achieve the target, “let alone up to the 25% reduction they're still, to their credit, saying to other countries they may go to. They should reveal in detail how they'll do that before they repeal not just the price on pollution, but the limit on pollution. In this end of the age of entitlement, we need to see the end of the entitlement of big companies to pollute the air for free.”

Emissions market advisory firm Reputex predicts the Direct Action Plan will fall 188 Mt CO2eq short, as compared with the carbon price mechanism. “Direct Action has improved, but the elephant is still in the room – even with these gains, Direct Action is likely to fall more than 40% short of Australia's Kyoto second period commitment”, says Reputex executive director Hugh Grossman. “At the end of the day, that indicates a policy breakdown that the draft legislation will need to address and that the market will need to be cautious of.”

Climate-change studies center on Indian Himalayas

Dinesh C Sharma

India has launched a new, multidisciplinary research project – the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) – as part of the country's National Action Plan on Climate Change. The NMSHE will promote coordinated research across the Indian Himalayan region, which is spread over 12 states, home to about 4% of the country's population, and is the source of several major rivers that provide water for drinking, irrigation, and hydropower to large areas of India. Glacial retreat due to climate change and environmental degradation resulting from regional development projects are raising concerns, but research activity, such as monitoring glaciers and studying the impacts of climate change, is fragmented and inadequate.

“While many groups are engaged in studying glaciers in different regions, the big picture about the Himalayan cryosphere [the frozen surface including glaciers as well as alpine lakes and meadows] – which is most vulnerable to climate change – is missing”, points out Anil Vishnu Kulkarni (Distinguished Visiting Scientist, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India). “We need observatories and field laboratories for year-round data collection and analysis in the Himalayas. Currently, researchers go there only for short periods of time, since the region is remote and not easily accessible.”

Because the Himalayas are a relatively young mountain range, the region is prone to earthquakes and landslides. Systematic mapping of especially hazardous areas, which began after the Kedarnath floods and landslides of June 2013, is critical for disaster mitigation efforts, explains Chandra Shekhar Dubey, a professor of geology at the University of Delhi (Delhi, India). Changes in Himalayan ecology will have serious impacts even in the plains, he adds.

The NMSHE's main goal is to fill gaps in scientific understanding, particularly with regard to the relationship between climate change and Himalayan ecosystems. In addition to establishing a monitoring network, institutions already engaged in research in the region will be strengthened and their activities coordinated. A National Center for Himalayan Glaciology has also been proposed, with research capacity to be developed by training experts in glaciology, prediction and management of natural hazards, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, and socioeconomic issues.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the New Delhi-based organization South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, believes that it is necessary to study “how large projects such as construction of dams and power plants are adversely affecting natural resources like forests, flood plains, and biodiversity, which actually help people in adapting to climate change”.

New shrub a hotspot for insect diversity

Katherine Blackwood

Botanists have discovered a previously unrecognized species of pepper plant in Ecuador and Peru that supports a community of 40–50 arthropods, including caterpillars, wasps, flies, ants, earwigs, beetles, and spiders. The shrub, Piper kelleyi, is in fact home to more animal species than any of over 100 other pepper plants investigated. The description of P kelleyi and its unique ecology (PhytoKeys 2014; doi:10.3897/phytokeys.34.6376) is substantiated by more than 20 years of research conducted in the Andean cloud forests and low montane rainforests where the plant occurs.

At least 11 caterpillar species may be endemic to P kelleyi, as they are almost never found on other plant species. These herbivores, which feed exclusively on P kelleyi, in turn host at least nine known and as many as 30 undescribed parasitic wasp and fly species. In addition, earwigs and ant colonies occasionally house themselves inside the sheathed leaf stems of P kelleyi. At the top of this invertebrate food chain are predatory beetles and spiders, which are often observed on P kelleyi's leaves.

Figure 4.

Specialist herbivore Eois planetaria leaves characteristic “window” markings on Piper kelleyi leaves.

The evolution of plant secondary chemicals likely explains why P kelleyi is a hotspot of insect diversity, says Lee Dyer, a study coauthor from the University of Nevada (Reno, NV). P kelleyi, like many of the 1000–2000 other wild relatives of black pepper, produces secondary metabolites that make it unpalatable to most herbivores. Over evolutionary time, certain herbivores develop tolerance for (and thus specialize on) distasteful or harmful chemicals. Dyer suggests that P kelleyi may support more specialist herbivores than do other pepper species because “compared to other understory Piper species, it can grow several meters tall, providing large leaves that extend into zones of different light availability, and it exists across a broader elevational band”.

P kelleyi distribution is too poorly known to confirm the plant's conservation status. However, the outlook is positive, in part because the region is recognized for its high conservation value. “The Northern Andes is a hotspot that maintains one of the highest rates of species endemism and richness on the globe”, explains Santiago Villamarín-Cortez of the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural History (Quito, Ecuador). Additionally, much of P kelleyi habitat is well protected within national parks and biosphere reserves.

Cobra II takes down wildlife criminals

Janet Pelley

In recent years, the international illegal wildlife trade has taken poaching to alarming levels, driving some species to the brink of extinction. But conservationists and law-enforcement officers announced in February that a ground-breaking global campaign, codenamed “Operation Cobra II”, has led to a record number of arrests and contraband seizures, and that a transnational network to break up wildlife trafficking syndicates has been established.

The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) estimates that illegal wildlife trafficking is worth US$10–20 billion annually, making it the third largest global illicit trade after drugs and firearms. Demand for live imperiled animals and their products (eg pelts and ivory) has boomed, primarily as a result of the rising affluence of consumers in China and Southeast Asia.

Contemporary international wildlife trafficking syndicates are sophisticated organizations that not only use high-tech weaponry and communications but are also aided by corrupt enforcement and customs officials. “In the past, addressing the illegal wildlife trade and poaching was limited to wildlife agencies”, explains Kelvin Alie, director of wildlife trade at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW, Washington, DC). But due to the complex, international structure of the crime syndicates, that approach was not working. So governments from Africa to Asia banded together to coordinate an integrated global response to the crimes, says Alie.

Figure 5.

Elephant tusks and rhino horns smuggled from Nigeria and seized by Hong Kong officials.

After testing the concept of cross-continental, multi-agency law enforcement with a modest operation in January 2013, the participating countries launched the month-long Operation Cobra II on December 30, 2013, with governmental and nongovernmental organizations such as the US State Department and IFAW providing funds for training and logistics. Customs, police, and wildlife officers from 28 countries joined together to set up operating bases in Nairobi, Kenya, and Bangkok, Thailand. The investigators teamed up with six intergovernmental organizations, including the World Customs Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Wildlife Enforcement Network, to exchange intelligence and target poachers and traffickers. When Operation Cobra II concluded on January 27, 2014, more than 400 criminals had been arrested; the confiscated haul included three metric tons of elephant ivory and 200 metric tons of endangered rosewood, along with 36 individual rhinoceros horns and 1000 skins from various other protected species.

“What makes this groundbreaking is the collaboration between the private sector, the public sector, the member countries, and intergovernmental organizations”, according to Alie. The success of Operation Cobra II paves the way for continuing and expanding an integrated approach to fighting wildlife crime, he adds.

License plates as incentives for purchasing electric vehicles

Ganlin Huang

China held its first electric vehicle (EV) license plate lottery in February, issuing 1428 plates, just short of the quota of 1666. In contrast, over 1.8 million applicants competed for 1900 gas vehicle license plates on the same day.

Financial incentives for EVs have been in place in China since 2009, with the central Government providing subsidies of ~US$10 000 for each EV purchase, while local governments offer matching subsidies up to 50–100% for some models. Major cities in China cap the number of new license plates issued and allocate them by lottery or auction because of the growing demand for car ownership. Beginning in 2014, such incentives were implemented to rejuvenate the stalled EV market in cities where the issuance of new license plates is restricted, such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai.

Despite such incentives, many obstacles to EV ownership remain. “Where to charge is still the primary barrier for EV [use]”, according to Xuan Zhang, editor of EV days Web Media (Beijing, China). In addition, because most car owners rent parking spaces and do not have an assigned spot, installing a home charging station requires permission from the management of the property where the car is parked, which is not guaranteed. Beijing plans to build 1000 publicly available charging stations in 2014, but how these facilities will accommodate the requirements of different EV models remains unclear. Lack of choice is another important issue impeding EV purchase; for example, only seven EV models are currently eligible for the license incentives offered by Beijing. Other complications include uncertainties associated with the availability and cost of insurance, maintenance, and repair.

Zhang is optimistic, however: “EV purchases in cities with license plate incentives are increasing dramatically, [although EV ownership] remains marginal since it is starting at an extremely low level. We expect [the number of] EV applicants to increase quickly.” Indeed, if every plate winner buys a car, EVs will comprise 13% of all cars sold in Beijing in 2014.