The river of plenty: uncovering the secrets of the amazing Mekong

by | 10th June 2013

Fisherman navigating the river in Lao PDR. Photo courtesy of FISHBIO.

Home to giant catfish and stingrays, feeding over 60 million people, and with the largest abundance of freshwater fish in the world, the Mekong River, and its numerous tributaries, brings food, culture, and life to much of Southeast Asia. Despite this, little is known about the biodiversity and ecosystems of the Mekong.

“Researchers estimate there could be over 1,200 species. As a comparison, the whole state of California has about 67 freshwater fishes,” Harmony Patricio, a conservation biologist and the conservation director at FISHBIO, told in a recent interview.

A new program by FISHBIO, headed by Patricio, is working to document the freshwater fish in the Mekong, called the Mekong Fish Network.

“The main goal of the Mekong Fish Network is to help people…collaborate and share information,” she says. “These fish migrate between six different countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. These countries all speak different languages and have different cultures and governments.” But, she points out, fish don’t care about borders.

“It’s quite frustrating that there is a lot of money being poured into development in the Mekong, but it’s hard to get that same level of commitment for environmental conservation.” Patricio asks, adding that it’s time the international community comes to see the Mekong as one of our most important ecosystems.

“The world needs to realize that the Mekong [is] a global resource of incredible diversity and productivity.”

Tiny pufferfish (left) in hand. Photo courtesy of FISHBIO.

Want to learn more? Check out the full story here:

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Yangtze porpoise down to 1,000 animals in world’s most polluted river

by | 1st May 2013

Neophocaena phocaenoides, Finless Porpoise, captive. Research Centre for Aquatic Biodiversity and Resource Conservation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Photo courtesy of WWF.

During a 44-day survey, experts estimated 1,000 Yangtze finless river porpoises (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) inhabited the river and adjoining lakes, down from around 2,000 in 2006. The ecology of China’s Yangtze River has been polluted by the Three Gorges Dam, ship traffic, electrofishing, and overfishing, making it arguably the world’s dirtiest major river.

The experts believe that finless porpoises have become increasingly scattered by shipping traffic, dams, and habitat loss.

Against all these problems, conservationists are struggling to keep any of these species around. Meanwhile, Li Lifeng, the head of WWF’s freshwater programs, told Australia Network News that conservation efforts in China are “half-hearted.”

In the meantime, China appears to be moving ahead with another massive hydroelectric project, the Xiaonanhai Dam, which environmentalists say will kill many of the Yangtze’s distinct species. If built the dam will decimate the river’s only fish reserve, home to 180 species, including the finless porpoise, the Chinese sturgeon, and possibly the world’s last Chinese paddlefish. If nothing changes, in a few decades the Yangtze will likely lose the bulk of its big species.

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Africa takes action against elephant poachers

by | 1st April 2013

Eight Central African countries have announced they will send a thousand soldiers after poachers responsible for killing 89 elephants in Chad earlier this month. The mobilization of soldiers and law enforcement officers is a sign that Central African countries are beginning to take elephant poaching more seriously.

Growing demand for ivory from elephant’s tusks in East Asia has caused poaching to rise. Elephant populations in Central Africa have been the hardest hit; a recent study in PLoS ONE estimated that 60 percent of the world’s forest elephants (found in the Congo rainforest) have been killed by poachers in the last ten years alone. In all, experts estimate that some 25,000 elephants were killed in 2011 for their tusks.

“Now, it is up to demand countries—[like] China and Thailand—to show that they have as much courage and determination as these Central African countries,” Bas Huijbregts, head of WWF’s Central African campaign against the illegal wildlife trade, said.

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Harnessing Sikh religion to protect the planet

by | 1st April 2013

Many religious groups have taken on the role of environmental custodians, citing scriptures that urge living in harmony with plants and animals. The Sikh religion’s contribution to that effort is called “EcoSikh.” With 30 million followers, Sikhism (a religion based in the Punjab region of India) is the world’s fifth largest religion, making them a perfect candidate for environmental action.

Sikhs installed solar panels on the roof of their temple in Leicester, England.

Already, EcoSikh has made a big impact. The organization started Sikh Environmental Day on every March 14th. “Local Sikhs make the decision based on the awareness and needs of where they live,” explained Bandana Kaur, EcoSikh’s North American program manager. “Sikhs, Muslims and Sufis were working together on restoration projects. This past year, there was a school in Hariyana [in Punjab] that started a tree nursery within their school.”

The program has also been successful in making Amritsar, a holy city in the Sikh religion, more eco-friendly. EcoSikh has begun to help the city become more green. “Considering the amount of food that Sikhs are growing, cooking, and serving to people, we also see the potential for [community kitchens] to serve organic food, which would have a positive impact on our health, our land and the region’s farmers… Amritsar made a decision last year to install 30 concentrated solar dishes to capture energy from the sun to fuel heat for cooking, replacing about half of the liquid petroleum gas used…with a renewable resource.

Bandana Kaur concludes hopefully, “My great-grandmother used to say one thing a lot: “Kudrat bari beant hai.” That translates directly as “The Creative Force is so limitless,” and it basically means, ‘Nature is so generous.’ That sensitivity is inspiring for our generation. It’s been incredibly powerful for me.”

Want to learn more? Read the full interview: Harnessing religious teachings about stewardship to protect the planet – an interview with Sikh activist Bandana Kaur

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Scientists discover 8 new frogs in one sanctuary

by | 1st April 2013

A new species discovered in the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary: Pseudophilautus sirilwijesundarai. Photo by: L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe.

Two studies in the forests of Sri Lank’s Peak Wilderness Sanctuary have uncovered eight new frog species. While every year over a hundred new amphibians are discovered, eight new discoveries in a single park is very rare.

The eight new species aren’t the only discovery from the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, which has been dubbed a World Heritage Site. A paper by L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe, with the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka and his team recently announced the re-discovery of the starry shrub frog (Pseudophilautus stellatus), which had not been seen for 160 years and was believed to be extinct.

However most of the species, including the starry shrub frog, should be listed as Critically Endangered, according to the scientists. Habitat loss, small hydropower plants, and pollution from visiting tourists are some of the major threats to these long-hidden frogs.

Experts say that are one third of the world’s amphibians are currently threatened due mostly to habitat loss, pollution, and diseases which has likely been spread by humans and exotic frogs. Scientists think that around 130 amphibians have gone extinct since 1980, about 20 of which were found in Sri Lanka.

“There are many more [new species] to be published this is just a fraction of what remains to be uncovered,” Wickramasinghe told Stay tuned.

New species: Pseudophilautus bambaradeniyai. Photo by: L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe.

Pseudophilautus jagathgunawardanai. Photo by: L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe.

Pseudophilautus puranappu. Photo by: L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe.

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Illegally logged trees to start calling for help

by | 28th January 2013

Illegal loggers beware: trees will soon be calling—literally—for backup. The Brazilian government has begun fixing trees with a wireless device known as Invisible Tracck, which will let trees “contact” authorities after being cut down and moved.

River and forest abuts vast soy field in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Here’s how it works: Brazilian authorities fix the Invisible Tracck onto a tree. An illegal logger cuts down the tree unaware that they are carrying a tracking device. Once Invisible Tracck comes within 20 miles of a cellular network it will ‘wake up’ and send a signal to the Brazilian Institute of the Environment (IBAMA), who will track the tree in order to arrest the criminals.

Invisible Tracck was developed by Brazilian technology company Cargo Tracck. The device has a battery life of a year and is smaller than a deck of cards.

Authorities hopes Invisible Tracck will begun another powerful tool to deter illegal logging. From August 2011-July 2012, deforestation in the Amazon reached a record low in its near quarter century of monitoring. Still, even at a lower rate, the Amazon still lost an area larger than Rhode Island of forest in 12 months.

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Back from the Brink: Elephant seals have a remarkable comeback

by | 28th January 2013

The Northern Pacific Elephant Seal was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered on an island of Baja California in 1892. Since then, the species has staged a remarkable comeback thanks to protective measures adopted by the U.S. and Mexican governments.

Male elephant seals. Photo courtesy of Christopher J. Gervais.

“Beachmaster,” a new film by Christopher J. Gervais and Stan Minasian, tells the conservation success story of their recovery. His first documentary film, Gervais teamed up with Stan Minasian, an award-winning filmmaker with over thrity years of experience. While “Beachmaster” is slated for completion in 2014, the trailer for the documentary will be shown for the first time on Friday, February 1st at the 3rd Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival.

Although Gervais never formally studied filmmaking, after he founded and became president of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festivals, he told MongaBay that he began to see film as a way to, “make an impact to help preserve biodiversity.” He considers the most exciting part of his job is, “Being in the field to see, smell and hear these animals … I feel alive when I am in front of [them].”

“It is always my hope that my films and that of other wildlife documentary filmmakers will bring about change to protect endangered species and habitat, strengthen and enforce laws and change policy,” Gervais told to MongaBay. “I hope that public interest in conservation increases so the world does not have to wait until a habitat is nearly destroyed and a species nearly vanished to have protection.”

The 3rd Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival ( runs from January 30 – February 2, 2013. Ahead of the event, is running a series of Q&As with filmmakers and presenters. For more interviews, please see our WCFF feed.

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Forests in Kenya worth much more intact

by | 28th January 2013

In a landmark report, the Kenyan Government and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) addressed the importance of forests to the well-being of the nation, putting Kenya among a ground-breaking group of countries that aim to center development plans around its natural landscape.

Loita hills forest in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“For the first time in history, the real value of just one element of Kenya’s natural capital has been captured in economic terms and in the language that the engineers of Kenya’s economic recovery can understand,” Paula Kahumbu, executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, told MongaBay. “The study … is an enormous breath of fresh air.”

The report states that forests provides for the country not only in timber and other forest-based products but in water storage from the rainy season, and links to a decrease in malarial disease (which costs Kenya’s government millions per year in health costs).

The forests produce “direct economic value for citizens,” says the report. “The negative effect of deforestation to the economy [is] more than twice the cash revenue of deforestation.”

“Not only has the real and enormous value of forests been revealed”, says Kahumbu, who was not involved in drafting the report. “By mainstreaming forests as a significant contributor to the economic recovery of Kenya, the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife has been able to capture the attention of the President and Prime Minister of Kenya to justify enormous investment in the protection of Kenyan forests”

True to point, the UN report concludes with a list of recommendations for decision makers including: incorporating economics for sustainable forest management, stronger regulation of forest use, encouraging investment in the forestry sector in order to increase efficiency in production, and allowing for adequate regeneration after timber harvests.

Kahumbu calls it, “a win-win for environmentalists and economists. … a great moment not only for forests, but for all natural resources in Kenya, and the lessons from the study are relevant across ecosystems and Africa.”

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House windows kill millions of birds

by | 28th November 2012

The thud of a bird crashing into a window is an all-too-familiar sound for many Canadians. Birds often mistake windows for openings, flying into the glass at full speed. A startling new study suggests about 22 million Canadian birds die each year from such crashes.

Students at the University of Alberta surveyed 1,750 locals. Each person gave the number of fatal bird strikes at their homes during the previous year. By applying these numbers to every house in Canada (called extrapolating), the researchers figured out the common numbers of deaths for different types of homes. Then, the team estimated the national bird death rate.

Rural houses with bird feeders and lots of vegetation generally had more bird deaths—as many as 43 in a year. Common birds, like sparrows, robins and chickadees, accounted for most casualties. Luckily, the study found no endangered birds killed by windows.

But this isn’t just a problem in Canada. In the United States an estimated 100 million to 1 billion birds die each year by crashing into windows.

For people looking to stop bird deaths, the easiest step is to move bird feeders and birdbaths away from windows. Placing stickers or plastic wrap on the outside of the window can also prevent a bird from making a crash landing.

The imprint of a pigeon on a window. Common birds made up the bulk of window fatalities in a recent Canadian study. Photo by: Gary Huston.

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Wolf hunt moves to the Midwest

by | 17th November 2012

Wolves, which were protected under the the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1973, were stripped of that status by legislation in 2009, opening the door—should a state choose- to hunting. Although the wolf hunt was just beginning in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as of November 14th, 196 animals had been killed in the region.

Although the return of gray wolves (Canis lupus) to the western Rockies made headlines worldwide. The landmark protection of the ESA then allowed wolves to make a comeback in the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin and Michigan, until around 4,000 wolves re-occupied old habitat. But now, these wolves are facing the first test to their natural re-wilding.

Two wolf hunting seasons have been established in Minnesota, where six thousand permits have been issued for wolf-hunting. In just eleven days, 123 wolves had been killed. In Wisconsin, farmers site their right to protect their livestock, which they have complained that wolves have killed.

“I think this wolf hunt is tragic,” Maureen Hackett, founder and president of Howling for Wolves, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Hackett says that wolves bring out strong emotions in the Great Lakes: “People absolutely love them or they absolutely hate them.”

Wolf tracks on a frozen lake in northern Minnesota. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Want to learn more?  Read the full story here: Controversial wolf hunt moves to the Midwest, 196 wolves killed to date

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