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Conservation

The Lost World

Bringing an organism back from the dead is a quirky topic that unites both science fiction lovers and conservation biologists. It’s a safe assumption that you, my faithful readers, have watched, or at least know the premise of Jurassic Park. The concept of bringing back animals that once roamed the earth millions of years ago captured the imagination of everyone who watched it. Ever since that movie came out, society has patiently waited for our own T. rex petting zoo — but scientists have continually disappointed us (I don’t know what the delay is, it seemed pretty easy in the movie). However, with the discovery of an extremely well preserved woolly mammoth carcass in the Siberian tundra, the concept of bringing animals back from the dead has been given new life. And with the possibility of reemergence, conservation biologists are looking to the past as a means of saving the forests of North America from a surprising pest.

It turns out that a particular species of ruminant has ballooned in population numbers, and the overabundance of this even-toed ungulate has detrimental consequences to crops and the sustainability of North American ecosystems on whole. If you couldn’t sieve through the science jargon, I’m talking about Bambi. That’s right, the cute white-tailed animal of Disney is throwing our ecosystems out of whack, and may even lead to a mass extinction event in the future.

White-tailed deer are native to North America, and as such, enjoy eating native flora. However, since their populations are so large, herds of deer completely decimate grasslands and forests of their native plants, allowing non-native invasive species to enter and set up camp(1)(2). This is where the problem lies, and humans share part of the blame for this potential catastrophe.

At multiple times over the Pleistocene epoch (as far back as 640,000 years ago, and as recent as 13,000) mass extinctions took place wiping out 71% of large mammalian species in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Environmentalist Tim Flannery stated in his book, The Eternal Frontier :

ever since the extinction of the megafauna 13,000 years ago, the continent has had a seriously unbalanced fauna(3).

The exact reason for this extinction event is not certain, however an emerging idea is the second-order predation hypothesis. In summary, it states that humans over-hunted predators (not herbivores), and this led to the overabundance of herbivore species that were now free to reproduce unchecked. As prey populations increased, their habitats were unable to support their increasing numbers as the herbivores incessantly browsed and grazed, this lead to mass death of the large mammals at every trophic level. This hypothesis has support from mathematical models that corroborate its validity(4)(5).

We notice some troubling similarities to the past in comparison to our current position. Human hunting of top-level predators that are perceived as threats cause their species numbers to drop, and the wolves and cougars that are untouched by humans live in fragmented forest habitats preventing them from suppressing herbivore populations(6), this then leads to the rampant overpopulation of deer and the destruction of native flora by this overabundance. This is an eerily similar situation to the one we got ourselves into tens of thousands of years ago.

So what are our solutions? Well, you may think that we can simply increase hunting efforts in order to cull the ruminant population. However, hunting isn’t the answer(7), and based on our track record for completely decimating populations when hunting/fishing is unregulated (collapse of cod fisheries ring any bells?), we would likely create an equally horrible situation where we end up with too few deer with little hope of recovering their numbers(8).

Scientists propose a different — and so much cooler — method of keeping deer populations regulated, our forests full of native plant life, and increasing biodiversity in the process. The plan is called Pleistocene rewilding, and it involves bringing the modern analogues of species that roamed the earth thousands of years ago back into their former habitat. And aside from filling the various ecological niches that were left vacant after the most recent extinction event(9), we would be able to have top predators introduced to help suppress our current deer problem.

So now we have our pick of the litter. There exist numerous ecological equivalents to the top predators of the past, and you may be surprised to learn what species used to roam the, not so ancient, lands of North America. We had a massive cat known as the America Lion, weighing up to 740lb and over 4ft tall at the shoulder(10) — its African cousin would make a perfect fit. An American Cheetah roamed the New World; related closer to pumas than cheetahs, it developed cheetah-like characteristics through convergent evolution(11). Scientists believe the existence of this cheetah helps explain why pronghorns are capable of running at nearly 90km/h — since this speed easily surpasses that of both wolves and cougars(12). Once again, the extant African species would be used to fill this ecological niche.

However, you may notice a problem with the animals I proposed to fill their ancient ecological roles above: they live in hot, arid savannahs — and Canada can get pretty chilly. This little problem puts a damper on which apex predators we can bring over to help control pest population. Though, there is one animal that thrives in winter environments, and it just happens to be the largest predatory cat available — the Siberian tiger. This massive beast already feeds on the various species of deer present in the northeastern forests of Asia, and its introduction into North America would aid in our current efforts to raise its poor population numbers. The Siberian tiger would fill the ecological role that was occupied by the American lion and Smilodon: the sabre-toothed cat.

Tiger walking in the snow

Great, it seems like we have a solution to a problem that would likely spell the demise of our North American ecosystems. Now we just need some public acceptance and we can fly these tigers over within the week… This is likely the largest hurdle to overcome. The knowledge that we would have numerous 600lb tigers roaming our forests would cause utter chaos among the general populous. Large-scale opposition was seen regarding the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park (and would most certainly be present with tiger introduction). Ranchers completely opposed the idea, citing that wolves destroy livestock and are considered a plague on their way of life(13). However, the benefits of wolf reintroduction are staggering and have rectified the problem of elk overpopulation within Yellowstone, facilitating an increase in native floral biodiversity(14). While wolf reintroduction would take far longer in areas outside of national parks(6), and waiting for wolf population numbers to increase naturally could take decades — tiger introduction would be immediate and would confer numerous benefits (in ecosystem stability and by increasing tiger populations). But of course, this is wishful thinking and, as I’ve stated before, answers to difficult problems are never simple.

Earlier I spoke about Jurassic Park and alluded to the possibility of bringing back once extinct animals. This fantastical idea has reemerged in public discourse with a recent Vice news report detailing the finding of a woolly mammoth carcass in Siberia that has enough viable tissue to potentially clone the species(15)(16). This would enable us to enact Pleistocene rewilding using the actual animals from that time period. However, there are ethical dilemmas that arise with this sort of topic — I believe Dr. Ian Malcolm said it best:

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should. — Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park

That is, who is truly benefiting from reviving extinct animals? Is it the species that potentially gets another shot at evolutionary success? Or would humanity use this scientific triumph as a conduit for financial gain? Being engrossed in science all my life, I am unconditionally in favour for the progression of knowledge — and I feel like trying to bring back an extinct species to determine if the feat is possible is acceptable and noble. However, it’s what we do with the knowledge that “un-extinction” is possible that I am worried about. Like any science/animal lover, I would be ecstatic at the potential to have an island theme-park full of sabre-toothed cats, woolly mammoths, and dinosaurs. But if we don’t plan on creating a self-sustaining population of mammoth, the only animals that would be benefitting would be the humans.

In an earlier article, I detailed how the ignorant will, with good intentions, put forth easy solutions to problems completely out of their scope. Although I would like to say that the answer to deer overpopulation is as simple as airdropping some big cats into the Great White North, I understand that I’m oversimplifying things: public displeasure/fear would prevent swift approval, not to mention the potential that using tigers as a means of biological pest control could backfire and throw the food-web into disarray, as has happened numerous times in the recent past(17)(18). However, lowering the ruminant population is vitally necessary for the stability and sustainability of North American ecosystems, and predation seems to be the most viable option for realizing this solution. That is, until we can bring back Deinonychus and Smilodon (in self-sustaining populations), tigers will be our best bet. And I’m personally thrilled at the idea of being able to travel 5 hours north to see one of my favourite animals roaming free and in good numbers. Just don’t forget to bring your bear tiger spray.


References

  1. Eschtruth, A. K., and J. J. Battles. 2009. Acceleration of Exotic Plant Invasion in a Forested Ecosystem by a Generalist Herbivore. Conservation Biology 23:388–399
  2. Deer proliferation disrupts a forest’s natural growth. http://mediarelations.cornell.edu/2014/03/07/deer-proliferation-disrupts-a-forests-natural-growth/
  3. Flannery, T. 2002. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. Grove Press
  4. Barton, C. M. 2004. The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Human Biogeography. University of Arizona Press
  5. Whitney-Smith, E. 2004. Clovis and Extinctions–Overkill, Second Order Predation, Environmental Degradation in a Non-equilibrium Ecosystem
  6. Mushegian, A. 2008. REWILDING NORTH AMERICA. Harvard Science Review
  7. Lin, D. 2013. Hunting Isn’t the Answer to Animal “Pests.” Time
  8. Frank, K. T., B. Petrie, J. S. Choi, and W. C. Leggett. 2005. Trophic cascades in a formerly cod-dominated ecosystem. Science (New York, N.Y.) 308:1621–1623
  9. Janzen, D. H., and P. S. Martin. 1982. Neotropical anachronisms: the fruits the gomphotheres ate. Science (New York, N.Y.) 215:19–27
  10. Christiansen, P., and J. M. Harris. 2009. Craniomandibular morphology and phylogenetic affinities of Panthera atrox: implications for the evolution and paleobiology of the lion lineage. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29:934–945
  11. Barnett, R., I. Barnes, M. J. Phillips, L. D. Martin, C. R. Harington, J. A. Leonard, and A. Cooper. 2005. Evolution of the extinct Sabretooths and the American cheetah-like cat. Current biology: CB 15:R589–590
  12. Byers, J. A. 1997. American Pronghorn: Social Adaptations and the Ghosts of Predators Past. University of Chicago Press
  13. Our National Parks » Reintroduction of wolves brings controversy. http://www.ournationalparks.us/park_issues/reintroduction_of_wolves_brings_controversy/
  14. Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines. http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=15-P13-00012&segmentID=5
  15. The Mission to Clone the Woolly Mammoth. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-mission-to-resurrect-the-woolly-mammoth
  16. Cloning a Mammoth is Only the Start. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/cloning-a-mammoth-is-only-the-start
  17. Biocontrol backfires again. http://www3.scienceblog.com/community/older/2002/C/20025043.html
  18. Wright, M. G., M. P. Hoffmann, T. P. Kuhar, J. Gardner, and S. A. Pitcher. 2005. Evaluating risks of biological control introductions: A probabilistic risk-assessment approach. Biological Control 35:338–347

Image sources

  1. Puffin, F. 2011. In the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada). The display is from 1979, and the fur is musk ox hair
  2. Overgrazing by deer is changing the face of U.S. forests | EarthSky.org. http://earthsky.org/earth/overgrazing-by-deer-is-changing-the-face-of-u-s-forests
  3. Jaguar, T. T. 2012. Tiger walking in the snow
  4. Antón, M. 2004. Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain (2004) National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals, Washington, D.C.:  National Geographic ISBN 9780792271345, ISBN 9780792269977

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Free Willy

What is the purpose of a zoo? What do we gain by keeping these establishments open? For the majority of us, if we have the urge to visit a killer whale or see a cheetah, we go visit them in a marine park or zoo. We don’t have the luxury of experiencing them in their natural habitat, and instead are left to watch them in a simulated environment. The benefit of this scenario is that we can revisit the park every day of the week and continually see our favourite animals. However, our ability to experience wild animals in this form is a part of the underlying ethical dilemma that we face in regards to animal captivity. A topic filled with naïvety, good intentions, and death; and is a topic that is without an easy solution to its many problems.

everything I thought I knew was completely incorrect.

In January of 2013, Blackfish premiered and brought animal rights issues to the forefront of popular discourse. The documentary’s aggressive and energetic message was the catalyst for exposing horrifying details about the conditions we keep performance animals in, and brought to light whether keeping animals in captivity is ethical at all.

Personally, I feel like the living conditions at zoos are something that most people just don’t like to think about too deeply, it’s rather convenient to stay steeped in ignorance. We’re content with going to see the lions and look at their pretty manes, but we don’t really want to dwell on the fact that we’re keeping a species that has an effective range of 260sq km in enclosures as small as 2000sq ft (the minimum size allowed for an indoor enclosure). We exhibit this cognitive dissonance often with uneasy topics, much like how we don’t really bring up that Canada and the U.S. aren’t a part of the Kyoto Protocol or that Beck is a Scientologist.

And the reason why we’re so quick to “forget” this unsettling information (aside from blatant ignorance) is for the look on our child’s face when they see their first elephant up-close; for the scared, yet fascinated, expression of our friends when they realize that only a thin sheet of glass separates them from a hungry polar bear; and for the family members that hinge on our every word when we tell them the amazing physiological adaptations behind many of our favourite animals while they see them in person. I have experienced this first-hand — I’ve had the luxury of spending hours in large aquariums giving in-depth tours to my family and friends, watching as their eyes light up when I explain to them the process that allows sea-stars to move their arms. This is why the answer to animal captivity is a difficult one. The ability to inspire and invoke awe in young children (and even adults) is an invaluable tool in developing future conservation biologists and researchers.

Or, at least, this was my opinion before doing my own research. Up until the point when I decided to write this article, I (like many others) simply assumed that zoos and marine parks promoted a positive learning experience to children and taught them valuable lessons about conservation and nature. However, a study published in 2014 in the journal Conservation Biology shows that zoos have the potential to promote a negative understanding of animal-habitat interactions, stating:

The headline finding in this study is that 34% of pupils in the study on education officer-led visits showed positive change, while 16% of unguided pupils showed negative change.

The article has written that statement in a positive voice, but what it really should be stating is that 66% of all children (ages 7-15) that visited the park gained absolutely nothing worthwhile from their stay. The article then went on to state that an average of 13.5% of participants (both guided and unguided) left the zoo exhibiting a negative change in their understanding of animal-habitat interactions and conservation possibilities. This study reveals that the target demographic for the educational programs at zoos are receiving mediocre education at best, and misinformation at worst. Reading this leaves me asking: “Why even go?” In a study published in the UK by the independent research group ADAS, concerns were brought up regarding the effectiveness of the educational programs put forth by zoos, stating:

Concerns remain, however, with regard to the lack of available evidence about the effectiveness of these projects.

In an article published by National Geographic, an interview with former zoo director, David Hancocks, showed that he will often point to studies showing that:

visitors leave zoos feeling uninspired and uneducated. Rather than walking out determined to help save wildlife, they go away disenchanted. He wonders if this indifference is due in part to outdated animal enclosures, inadequate space, and the poor quality of 'natural' habitat exhibits, such as a reliance on artificial-looking synthetic rocks.

I was quite surprised upon reading these studies — I had always believed that zoos and marine parks were necessary to instil a positive understanding of nature in children; these studies seem to throw counter-evidence in the face of that claim. However, after some reflection, this data seemed to make sense (I swear it’s not confirmation bias). I have personally never visited a zoo, and have went to large aquariums only after I was certain that biology was my calling. So what brought me to animals? Documentaries. Emotionally charged, beautifully produced, masterfully narrated (by Attenborough and no one else) films that evoke grandeur and wonder are what brought me to the natural sciences; and there is evidence to show that films are what drive nature-based education. A study conducted to determine the effectiveness of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity found that:

the use of documentaries significantly influenced students’ attitudes and beliefs about insects as compared to students in the control group(5)

People who watch documentaries on nature leave the film with more compassion, more questions, and a greater understanding of how we fit into the world — and the benefits of documentaries when used as a learning tool has been detailed countless times. Documentaries work because we see animals in their environment interacting with other animals of the same and different species — it acts as a proper representative of their lives.

So now we’re left with wondering what to do with our zoos and marine parks. I had originally planned to write this article to uncover the merits of these enclosures — but in the above paragraphs I detailed (and personally realized) how everything I thought I knew was completely incorrect. So really, is there any reason to keep them around?

If zoos and aquariums simply improve the quality of education offered at their establishments, such that children actually benefit from visiting, that would be a step in the proper direction and gives us a reason to keep these facilities around. However, studies direct us against this decision, and in my ideal scenario the only animals that would be held in zoos would be endangered species. Before you jump down my throat, hear me out. I don’t suggest that all the individuals of a given endangered species are held captive (a harsh, but true, word) — rather, just enough to begin a captive breeding program as a means of increasing population numbers before releasing the animals back into the wild. Captive breeding programs don’t always work, but they are the best hope for many species that may be unable to recover their numbers in the wild — and numerous success stories dictate that captive breeding is a viable option. Captive breeding is generally considered a “last-resort” in the efforts to save a species from extinction;   nonetheless, zoos can be repurposed to solely aid in these efforts (of course, this is all wishful thinking). Not only would the conservation efforts be welcomed, but tourists would benefit from being able to visit rare charismatic megafauna that would otherwise be near impossible to catch a glimpse of.

With the release of Blackfish, the zoo and marine park industry took a massive blow to their funding and attendance. After over a year of declining tourist numbers, stock values dropping huge percentages, and revenue falling well below projected values, SeaWorld finally:

acknowledged for the first time the negative publicity may have had a hit and may have been why the attendance has been flat for now and the past quarters.

The future of these establishments isn’t certain, but it definitely doesn’t look promising. As much as it pains me to say (because I really do love the ability to see my favourite animals at a moment’s notice), I don’t feel as though there is enough merit to warrant the proliferation of zoos and marine parks. The cramped (understatement) conditions and lack of tangible educational benefits lend credence to the statement that these are organizations that do very little to contribute to those who they hold captive. Unless we can find a way to increase educational standards or repurpose them, zoos and aquariums are better left as abandoned shells of their former glory.

Taken from the Smithsonian Museum Website

Captive breeding of cheetahs has shown promising results.


References

  1. African Lions, African Lion Pictures, African Lion Facts, African Cats – National Geographic. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/african-lion/
  2. Colahan, H., D. Zoo, C. Asa, C. Azzarello-Dole, B. Zoo, S. Boutelle, M. Briggs, A. APCRO, K. Cox, L. Kellerman, and others. Lion (Panthera leo) Care Manual
  3. Jensen, E. 2014. Evaluating Children’s Conservation Biology Learning at the Zoo. Conservation Biology 28:1004–1011
  4. ADAS UK Ltd. 2010. Review of Zoos’ Conservation and Education Contribution
  5. Critics Question Zoos’ Commitment to Conservation. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/11/1113_031113_zoorole_2.html
  6. Barbas, T. A., S. Paraskevopoulos, and A. G. Stamou. 2009. The effect of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity: a case study. Learning, Media and Technology 34:61–69
  7. Brain Games Versus Nature Documentaries. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/03/130410-brain-games-neuroscience-culture-science/
  8. Borness, C., J. Proudfoot, J. Crawford, and M. Valenzuela. 2013. Putting Brain Training to the Test in the Workplace: A Randomized, Blinded, Multisite, Active-Controlled Trial
  9. Bertschinger, H., D. Meltzer, and A. Van Dyk. 2008. Captive Breeding of Cheetahs in South Africa – 30 Years of Data from the de Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre. Reproduction in Domestic Animals 43:66–73
  10. Keeley, T., J. K. O’Brien, B. G. Fanson, K. Masters, and P. D. McGreevy. 2012. The reproductive cycle of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) and factors associated with reproductive success in captivity. General and Comparative Endocrinology 176:182–191
  11. Condor Program Monthly Status Report 2014-10-31.pdf
  12. The Loneliest Animals ~ Captive Breeding Success Stories | Nature | PBS
  13. EQUITY ALERT: The Rosen Law Firm Files Securities Class Action Against SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. — SEAS – MarketWatch

Image sources

  1. Pittman, R. 2006. From source: Two mammal-eating “transient” killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska
  2. Panoramio – Photo of Lion Cage at Wichita Zoo – Lions and children. http://www.panoramio.com/photo/47958869
  3. Wolf, Z. 2006. Rhincodon typus ♂. Georgia Aquarium
  4. Breeding Cheetahs. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/breeding-cheetahs-20876365/

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The Coniferous Truth

We live in a society where we have access to unprecedented levels of information available at speeds that we cannot fathom. We are able to connect with people from around the world and unite against causes that both parties mutually deem unwanted. However, a problem arises when the common cause for disdain is a complicated topic. Oversimplification of the topic will occur in an attempt to recruit more followers to the mission. And these non-experts will, through good intentions, put forth a solution to an extremely intricate problem without taking into consideration all of the moving parts.

Climate change is such a topic. One that is a real threat to our planet, one that has widespread media and viral attention, one that is extremely complex, and one that has solutions brought forth by many activist groups that can potentially do more harm than good.

the absorptive effects of dark spruce needles overshadows any cooling effect that snow contributes.

Just by stating the phrase “global warming”, one begins to conjure up ideas and words that they associate with the topic. Ask any person what they know about global warming, and a likely response will include the words “greenhouse gases”. To most people, “greenhouse gas” (although the term encompasses many gases) is synonymous with carbon dioxide: CO2. And thanks to high school biology, we know that plants are these cool organisms that take in the CO2 that humans and machines spew out, and exhale pure oxygen for our benefit — cooling the atmosphere in the process and saving Earth (I may be skipping a few premises). It is no surprise that so many environmentalists and global warming activists are for the proliferation of tree planting and forestation in the effort to promote the picturesque, fairytale, ending to global warming with one easy fix(1)(2)(3).

However, unbeknownst to many of these independent groups is that forests have a tendency to increase global temperatures depending on their location. This occurs through the process of albedo: how much light is reflected by an object in relation to how much light the object is struck with. Light coloured objects tend to reflect solar radiation much better than darker objects, which absorb it. All objects have some level of reflectivity, and trees are of no exception. It turns out that the dark leaves and needles of the trees in boreal forests have a high amount of absorption. Boreal forests comprise the largest of Earth’s biomes, taking up more landmass than Australia, India, and Argentina combined(4)(5), and their floral biodiversity is low — generally comprised of mainly spruce and pine (all dark coloured trees).

Much like how you always regret wearing black on a hot summer’s day, the dark trees of the northern latitudes absorb and retain upwards of 92% of the sunlight they’re struck with(6). This ultimately has a net warming effect on their environment, offsetting their overall carbon intake.

Fresh snow, with its pure white colour, reflects upwards of 90% of the sunlight it encounters(7) and is commonly found on the ground of many boreal forest environments. So you would think that the effect of the trees and snow would cancel each other out, leaving us with no net change in temperature. However, because snow is localized to the ground, beneath the trees, the absorptive effects of dark spruce needles overshadows any cooling effect that snow contributes. In a seminar headed by a global change and plant biologist at the University of Western Ontario, we were informed that:

these dark trees cause a runaway positive cycle to occur where the land would warm up and melt the snow, pines trees would grow and continue to warm the land as they absorb more solar radiation, and this process continues in an endless warming cycle.

I understand if you don’t believe me. I’m pretty much putting forth the idea that trees are capable of heating up our atmosphere. But there’s more you should know. A team of scientists became aware of the potential warming effects of albedo in forests and decided to run a model forecasting what would happen to Earth if all trees were completely removed (a prospect not even the most money hungry logging CEOs could dream of). A correct, and relatively obvious, prediction would be that CO2 levels would skyrocket as a result of removing a massive carbon sink from the planet. However, what few would guess is that the earth experiences a net cooling effect of 0.3 degrees Celsius (8). Now, the actual amount by which the earth cooled when the model was run is minuscule — but the actual quantitative amount is not what matters. Rather, it’s the idea that removing all of Earth’s trees (organisms commonly thought to be one of the solutions to global warming) had the opposite effect on climate change than we believed they would — it’s a paradigm shifting revelation in the sense that it completely turns what we once thought about a subject on its head.

However, not all forests have this net warming effect on the globe, and where the trees are located seems to be the determining factor. For instance, in the moist and humid jungles of tropical rain forests, evapotranspiration creates low-lying dense cloud-cover that has a high albedo. These clouds reflect much of the incoming solar radiation and aid in producing a net cooling effect on Earth; they are vitally important to counteracting the warming of our atmosphere (9). Though, as we move away from the tropics and into temperate regions, the albedo effect of trees equally offsets the amount of carbon sequestration. And as we move into boreal biomes, the low albedo forests completely overshadow all carbon capturing and provide a net warming effect, proliferating global warming(10).

At the beginning of this post, I alluded to how people and companies, all with good intentions, try to aid in the fight against climate change but ultimately end up doing more harm than good. Many companies are looking to cash in on the “ecofriendly” bandwagon and will proudly champion that they will be planting a tree for every product purchase(1)(11). The problem lies in where these trees are being planted. Most websites have no idea that the most beneficial location to plant a tree for the purpose of global warming reduction is to place it in a tropical region — for planting trees in temperate or boreal regions will, at best, have zero benefit to overall cooling.

In the above paragraph, I made the distinction that the most beneficial place to plant a tree for the purpose of global warming reduction is in the tropics. I put in this disclaimer because I want to air out that I am not advocating that we deforest our boreal biomes and localize afforesting efforts only in the tropics. I am stating, however, that if your intention is to prevent climate change, then planting your tree in the tropics will have the greatest positive impact — and thankfully, many corporations are getting the idea(12)(13). There are a myriad of other reasons to plant trees in the higher latitudes (land slide prevention, beautification, animal habitat extension), but global warming prevention should not be one of them.

Our ability to connect and corroborate with like-minds across the globe is invaluable in our efforts to change the world. However, when we enter into a subject with complete ignorance, we often undermine the true complexity of the problem at hand. Our downfall is a failure to research extensively. Learning how albedo affects global warming was an eye-opener, even for a biology graduate, like myself — and it is important to use this information as a means of letting people know that there are unconventional answers to problems once seen as insurmountable, and that quick-fix problems are vastly more complicated than a simple blog post will have you believe.

 SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA


References

  1. Help Reduce Global Warming: Plant a Tree | Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://csis.org/blog/help-reduce-global-warming-plant-tree
  2. A New Leaf on Life. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/07/AR2008050701046.html?hpid=smartliving
  3. The Benefits. http://www.jointreeforall.org/benefits/
  4. Canadian Boreal Forests. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/ecoregions/canadian_boreal_forests.cfm
  5. Russia’s Boreal Forests — WWF (pdf)
  6. Betts, A. K., and J. H. Ball. 1997. Albedo over the boreal forest. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 102:28901–28909
  7. Markvart, T., and L. Castañer, editors. 2003. Practical handbook of photovoltaics: fundamentals and applications. Elsevier Advanced Technology, New York
  8. Bala, G., K. Caldeira, M. Wickett, T. J. Phillips, D. B. Lobell, C. Delire, and A. Mirin. 2007. Combined climate and carbon-cycle effects of large-scale deforestation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104:6550–6555
  9. Bonan, G. B. 2008. Forests and Climate Change: Forcings, Feedbacks, and the Climate Benefits of Forests. Science 320:1444–1449
  10. Betts, R. A. 2000. Offset of the potential carbon sink from boreal forestation by decreases in surface albedo. Nature 408:187–190
  11. World Impact – Tree Map | tentree. http://www.tentree.com/ca/treecode/map/
  12. Trees for the Future » What We Do.
  13. Buy a tee we plant a tree. http://www.metowestyle.com/category-s/254.htm

Image sources

  1. What Is the Boreal Forest? Why Is Its Future Key to Us All? | Boreal Forest Facts
  2. Ford, C. 2013. “Cloud Forest”, Mexico, Oaxaca, Sierra Juárez Mountains
  3. peupleloup,  http://www flickr com/people/10601432@N08. 2008. English: Taiga in Quebec

 

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Triumph in the Congo!

Triumph? I know — triumph in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is seldom issued. After all, we’re talking about a country that has been colonized numerous times, had various natural resources exploited, held under the rule of a brutal totalitarian leader, and scourged by civil war; a country that currently ranks 2nd last of all countries on the Human Development Index, and is so renowned for corruption that locals gave it a new name making it akin to some transmissible disease: “Zaire sickness”. But yes, even with that track record holding the country back, environmental protection in the DRC has taken a large and much needed step forward; and this has conservationists rejoicing the world over.

All this international hoopla came about with the recent development that the London based oil company SOCO will be demobilizing all efforts to find and extract oil from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Virunga National Park.

And with its removal, the tourist and funding money would flow out with the oil being extracted.

In 2010, word got out that the large oil corporation was searching for oil in a region that they have no business looking in. Virunga National Park is located along the eastern border of the DRC and is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity. This park is home to some of the last remaining, critically-endangered, mountain gorillas on Earth, as well as being the home for forest elephants and the endangered and oddly painted okapi.

This is an okapi. Looks similar to a zebra, but has closer relation to giraffes.

When SOCO originally stationed themselves in the DRC, the country’s President green-lighted the operation to begin exploring for oil reserves in a region that included sections of the national park. If that wasn’t already cause for concern, alarms blew when it was revealed that over 80% of the land within Virunga was viable for oil concessions(1). SOCO soon released an impact assessment detailing the amount of direct and indirect damage that would occur as a result of drilling within Virunga’s confines. The World Wildlife Fund summarized the assessment stating:

oil exploration could cause pollution, damage habitats and bring poaching to this fragile ecosystem. It could also harm residents’ health and damage the natural resources upon which 50,000 people depend(2).

To many, unless quick protest occurred this spelled the demise of Africa’s oldest national park.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what was going through the minds of the oil execs at SOCO when they published their damage assessment and still felt that continuing their oil exploitation operation with the knowledge that it will cause irreparable damage to a vulnerable ecosystem was a fantastic idea. Oh wait, yes I do: “$$$$$$$”.

It seemed as though money was also on the mind of DRC president, Joseph Kabila. He green-lighted the exploration by SOCO, and he was the only one truly able to prevent soil from being broken. Despite the protests of the countrymen, environmentalists, and organizations, the power of veto rested in the hands of the leader. In order to swing his vote, an ultimatum needed to be brought forth.

In 2014, the documentary Virunga was released. Ironically, the original motive of the production team was to illustrate the progress made by the national park, but this quickly shifted when the crew stumbled upon the corruption taking place within its confines. The film captures the shady business practices of the oil conglomerate, including numerous bribes and forced entry into the national park at gun-point. This film’s release signalled change, and was instrumental in the efforts towards the removal of SOCO from Virunga.

Virunga mountain gorillas

However, as stated earlier, a strong ultimatum was needed in order to sway the president’s vote. This came in the form of the World Heritage Status that Virunga holds dearly. Being a World Heritage site brings international fame to a region, increasing tourism, funding, and, of course, money. However, ever since 1994, Virunga has been on the list of current World Heritage Sites that have the potential to be delisted(3). If SOCO was allowed to drill within the boundaries of the park, it was near certain that Virunga would be stripped of its World Heritage status. And with its removal, the tourist and funding money would flow out with the oil being extracted.

Just three months after the release of Virunga and after many years of tough lobbying by WWF, SOCO signed a joint declaration with WWF stating:

The company commits not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status(4).

Now, as I said earlier, this is a great triumph for the DRC, WWF, and environmentalists (and of course the animals). But we’re not out just yet. Note in the above statement the phrase “not incompatible with its World Heritage status”. Once you get past the awkward double-negative, you realize this just means that once the DRC government finds a way to preserve Virunga’s heritage status they will allow SOCO to drill for oil.

Think I’m just fear mongering? This very situation has already occurred in the neighbouring country of Tanzania inside the Selous Game Reserve. Toronto based company, Uranium One, found uranium deposits within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site, and in order to safely mine the lands while retaining the park’s heritage status, the World Heritage Committee agreed to change the boundaries of the park such that the mining operation would occur outside of Selous’ borders(5). In an interview I conducted with a game warden at the Selous Game Reserve, I was told:

Selous’ world heritage status was going to be terminated, so they changed the boundaries of the park to preserve it. However, there is no fence surrounding Selous and the animals and plants are easily exposed to the toxic waste released from the uranium mining

The silver lining is that Selous Game Reserve is over 44,000km2 (larger than the Netherlands), and this mining operation will have relatively smaller impact on the overall biodiversity of the park. Comparatively, Virunga is only 7,800km2, and with 80% of the park containing oil reserves, any disturbance would lead to imminent ecosystem collapse.

This was a step in the right direction for the DRC — a great triumph for environmentalists everywhere. However, I hope this progress is permanent and the Congolese government doesn’t suggest enacting the same boundary changes seen in Selous. WWF released a study in 2013 that suggested Virunga National Park is capable of generating over $1.1 billion per year with sustainable growth and tourism, and provide upward of 45,000 jobs in the process(6). Hopefully this one success leads to a string of many more and Virunga can return to its status as one of the premier national parks in Africa.


References

  1. SAVE VIRUNGA. http://savevirunga.com/
  2. WWF Complaint Alleges Oil Company Violates Environmental and Human Rights Provisions | Press Releases | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/wwf-complaint-alleges-oil-company-violates-environmental-and-human-rights-provisions
  3. Virunga National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/63
  4. Joint Statement by SOCO International plc (“SOCO”) and WWF. http://www.socointernational.com/joint-statement
  5. Wippel, G. Press Release Re: World Heritage Comittee Decision on Selous Game Reserve Boundary Changes. http://www.uranium-network.org/index.php/africalink/tanzania/253-press-release-re-world-heritage-comittee-decision-on-selous-game-reserve-boundary-changes
  6. The Economic Value of Virunga National Park | Publications | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/the-economic-value-of-virunga-national-park

Image Sources

  1. World Heritage Committee requests cancelation of Virunga oil permits. http://wwf.panda.org/who_we_are/wwf_offices/france/?209082/World-Heritage-Committee-requests-cancelation-of-Virunga-oil-permits
  2. About the Okapi | FortWorthZoo Blog – Expedition: Education
  3. Willink, C. T. 2011. English: Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, DR Congo
  4. Marfinan. 2013. English: The Virunga mountain peaks taken from the vicinity of Kisoro, Uganda. From left to right, Muhabura, Gahinga, Karisimbi, Sabyinyo, Mikeno.

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