Wolf hunt expands in USA

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The hunting of Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) has been legally permitted for the first time this year in the midwest states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  This represents an extension of the legal hunt from Alaska and the western states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  Wolves polarize opinion like few other wild animals. They are demonised by many livestock farmers, for example (despite the fact that losses to wolves are extremely small relative to overall profits, and the existence of compensation programmes); whereas they are iconic animals for those inspired by conservation and the wild. The expanded hunt couldn’t fail to be controversial.

After being persecuted close to extinction by the early 20th century, the Gray Wolf has been slowly expanding in range and numbers across parts of the USA, helped by various reintroduction projects in certain areas.  This success is strictly relative – there are now estimated to be around 7,000 individuals in the lower 48 states, and perhaps 10,000 in Alaska, compared to some 400,000 estimated to have roamed the continent before the European colonisation.

Nonetheless, the species is gradually increasing, and it’s instructive that the response, from some, to this limited success has been a desire to shoot, trap and bait the animals. The wolf is a potent symbol of “the wild”, and our attitude to their presence in a landscape reveals something of our relationships with wild nature in general.

It’s also becoming ever clearer that the health of an ecosystem depends on the survival of its top carnivores, and an American wilderness deprived of wolves can scarcely be called a wilderness at all.  As millions across the USA celebrate Thanksgiving, and mark the start of the colonisation process which almost did for the wolf, it’s important to ponder what the wolf hunt reflects in our relationship with nature.

I’m writing this from the UK, where the last wild wolf was exterminated centuries ago, and reintroduction here, although frequently discussed, still seems incredibly ambitious.  A land where wolves run is a wild, unmanaged, unpredictable place, and that seems to be uncomfortable for us to accept.

“We have doomed the Wolf not for what it is, but for what we have deliberately and mistakenly perceived it to be…..the mythologized epitome of a savage, ruthless killer….which is, in reality no more than a reflexed image of ourself.”   Farley Mowat

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Is the Pepperpot past?

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As we come to the end of the mushroom season in the UK, it’s good to reflect on the strange beauty (and often, downright wierdness) that the fungal kingdom often displays.  Members of the Geastraceae family (Earthstars) are distinctive fungi; in outward appearance their fruiting bodies are not unlike those of the more familar Puffballs, but are a rarer, and more spectacular, find in the UK.

The rarest and most striking Earthstar of all is the Pepperpot, Myriostoma coliforme, which is the only member of the family to have multiple holes in its spore-sac, giving rise to its common name.  The force of raindrops falling on the spongy spore-sac causes clouds of spores to be ejected from the holes and dispersed.

Although this species has a global distribution, it is rare in most of Europe, and was thought to be extinct in mainland Britain – until it was found in Suffolk in 2006.  It is still classified as Critically Endangered in the UK, and its future has to be considered uncertain; but it’s good to think that the species is probably still around, patiently extending its mycelia somewhere beneath the grass, waiting.

Direct action against Ta Ann in Tasmania

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In the previous post, Malaysian timber conglomerate Ta Ann was highlighted as one of the firms bankrolled by HSBC to devastate Sarawak’s rainforest.  Numerous complaints of malpractice have been made against this rapacious company, which is linked to the Sarawak First Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud – himself the focus of numerous allegations of extreme corruption and rampant cronyism.

Ta Ann has spread its malevolent tentacles overseas, and has been operating in Australia since 2006, where it has established itself as the main agent of deforestation of Tasmania’s ancient forests.  For instance, between 2006-11 Ta Ann logged out 88 areas defined as High Conservation Value.  There has been much resistance to this onslaught on the forests, with two direct action blockades in Tasmania in the last week.

Activists from environmental group Groundswell locked themselves to a Ta Ann veneer plant last Sunday, closing the production line.

A few days later, another Ta Ann mill was locked down by a group of local people.

Tasmania’s amazing forests have long been a frontline in the grassroots struggle against deforestation, and it’s heartening that this tradition is being continued in response to Ta Ann’s onslaught on Australian biodiversity.

Bankers take their cut – from rainforests

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Banking giant HSBC have been getting bad press recently, with allegations of provision of bank services to criminals in the tax haven of Jersey under scrutiny.  The scandal of the bank’s involvement in permitting extensive money laundering in the USA also continues.  Another example of HSBC’s impressive grubbiness has received much less media attention, but shows a similar relaxed ethical attitude – the bank has been investing in rainforest destruction in the Malaysian territory of Sarawak, on the world’s third largest island of Borneo.


A report by campaign group Global Witness claims HSBC has provided financial services to companies linked to large-scale deforestation and “widely suspected of systematic bribery and corruption”, earning some $130 million in the process.  Four companies in particular – Shin Yang, Sarawak Oil Palms, WTK and Ta Ann – are using HSBC investment to finance clearance of biodiverse forest in Sarawak.  Several of the companies implicated have links to the family of the corrupt First Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.

Borneo is one of the most important areas for tropical forest in the world, but its ancient forests have taken a brutal battering over the last few decades.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Sarawak region of the island.  The Malaysian state has only 0.5% of the world’s forest area, but exports nearly half the world’s tropical plywood, and, incredibly, more tropical timber logs than all Latin American and African countries combined.  This onslaught has predictably dire consequences for both biodiversity and the quality of life of indigenous people.

Trashed forests and logging roads in Sarawak, intact forest over the border in Brunei…..

HSBC’s involvement is significant beyond the actual money they supply to the logging mafia; their backing gives dodgy firms an undeserved legitimacy that comes in very handy in attracting other business and investment. Global Witness estimate that the Sarawak firms have expanded to pursue similar operations in a dozen other countries.

HSBC spend a lot of time in cultivating a responsible image, for example co-opting conservation giant WWF into helping present a green face to the world.  Of course, the bank hopes we’ll take this at face value and won’t ask too many awkward questions about what they do with their (our?) money – presumably WWF also share this hope, despite, ironically, having explicitly criticised Ta Ann’s corrupt practices last year.  However, the recent wave of scandals assailing HSBC mean this image is wearing extremely thin, and their involvement in the devastation of Sarawak speaks more truth about the bank than their green rhetoric will ever reveal.  There’s also a lesson here about the sort of company to which WWF are happy to lend their prestigious panda; if HSBC get to use it, what value as a conservation icon does it really have?

First Welsh Pine Marten in 40 years found

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The first Pine Marten (Martes martes) carcass in Wales since 1971 was found recently near Newtown, Powys, as roadkill.  Although rare species killed on the road are always to be mourned, it represents an exciting find, as the best evidence in recent decades that the rare mustelid survives in Wales.

Around 6,000 years ago, the Pine Marten was one of the most abundant British carnivores, with an estimated population of almost 150,000.  However, extensive habitat loss through deforestation, persecution (especially by gamekeepers), and trapping meant that by the end of the 19th century the species was confined to the more remote areas of the British Isles, especially north-west Scotland, with a total population of perhaps around a thousand.

Encouragingly, in the latter half of the 20th century the Pine Marten’s distribution has slowly increased across Scotland and Ireland. In the rest of the British Isles the story is different; there has been evidence of its occurrence in parts of Wales and Northern England, in the forms of sightings and possible scats (faeces), but these have been sporadic and not always reliable, and it is now certainly the rarest carnivore in England and Wales.

It is good news that unequivocal evidence of the animal’s presence in Wales has recently been found.  Nonetheless, it seems that populations in England and Wales are so low as to be functionally extinct – in other words, the species will not form viable long-term populations in these areas without human intervention, or some other large change in external circumstances.  The Vincent Wildlife Trust is currently doing much work developing a comprehensive conservation strategy for the Pine Marten, and this will hopefully lead to positive moves to work for its increase in Wales and England.

There is another benefit to this prospect; the Pine Marten is a specialist of mature native woodland, and heightened interest in protecting this attractive, iconic animal will place a higher premium on the conservation and increase of biodiverse woodlands in general. In the poorly forested UK, that has to be a good thing.  Hopefully the interest in the corpse of this one creature may help to build momentum for conserving its live fellows and their habitats.

World’s rarest whale found for the first time

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The Spade-toothed Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon traversii) is the world’s rarest whale, and has, until recently, been known only from findings of three skull fragments over the last 140 years.  However, research published in the scientific journal Current Biology reveals that two whales found beached in New Zealand in 2010 were members of this most elusive of cetaceans.

When the beached mother and calf were found two years ago, they were misidentified as the much more common Gray’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon grayi), but DNA analysis on the skeletons has now revealed that the unfortunate pair were the first individuals of M.traversii to have ever been seen, albeit after death.  The skeletons, along with photos taken of the beached whales in 2010, have enabled researchers to provide the first satisfactory description of this species.

Although beached dead cetaceans are always a sad find, it’s exciting to have real recent confirmation of the existence of this species, which some had suspected of being extinct. The immense South Pacific Ocean covers 14 per cent of the earth’s surface, and it is not so surprising that this whale, thought to live and feed in deep water, has not been encountered before.  We must hope that its mysterious populations remain robust in the face of all the pressures on marine biodiversity, and can only wonder at what other species remain unencountered beneath the waves.

Antarctic ocean protection plan fails

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An intergovernmental meeting held recently in Tasmania has failed to reach agreement on the establishment of new protected areas in the Antarctic Ocean.  The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is a body established by international convention to conserve Antarctic marine life.  Its 25 members were meeting to consider various proposals to establish marine protected areas around the icy continent, in which fishing and other activities would be limited.  There has previously only been one such area designated in the southern seas.

Unfortunately no agreement was reached in Tasmania, with China, Russia and the Ukraine the most stubborn nations, according to the Antarctic Ocean Alliance.  This disappointing empasse echoes a recent meeting to agree global conservation budgets which also showed the limitations of the diplomatic process in enabling meaningful action on biodiversity protection.

CCAMLR has announced a special meeting in Germany in July 2013 in order to make a final effort to break the deadlock.  That meeting will be a stiff test of the ability of international treaty agreements to hold out against the intense commercial pressures of a resource-hungry industrial system.

Campaigners fight roads threat to UK’s “protected” sites

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Plans by the UK government to push through a new programme of road-building is attracting opposition from environmentalists.  The planned schemes threaten a number of supposedly protected wildlife sites, including 4 National Parks, 7 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 39 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 3 National Nature Reserves, 54 Ancient Woods and 234 Local Wildlife Sites.  The cumulative cost of the schemes is £30bn, which is four times the internationally-negotiated total global budget for biodiversity protection.

It seems that the lessons of the recent past have not been learnt by UK policymakers; a hugely controversial roadbuilding programme was opposed in the 1990s by a wave of determined action by protestors, which led to large cuts in the programme, and thus many schemes being scrapped and green places spared.  The fact that campaigners are mobilizing on a national scale again to oppose the new roads is a welcome response to the return of the bulldozer mentality.

Ash dieback disease gains foothold in Britain

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The UK Government has imposed a ban on import of Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior), in response to the spread of the fungus Chalara fraxinea in UK trees.  100,000 young trees have been destroyed in an attempt to curb the spread of the fungus, which causes ash dieback.  The disease was first described in Poland in 1992, and has spread through Europe, with 90% of Ash trees in Denmark now having succumbed.

The fungus is an anamorph of a newly-discovered species Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, which has been categorized as an invasive species within Europe, and so is considered a less welcome addition to our knowledge of biodiversity.  There are estimated to be as many as 1.5million species of fungus on the planet, and only a small minority – around 70,000 – have been described by scientists.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a previously unknown species has come to prominence in the last two decades.  Current events do beg the question, however, of what has led to the fungus spreading so devastatingly through european trees; its virulence could be a symptom of increased environmental stresses in forest ecosystems, for example.  As official agencies scramble to contain the spread of the fungus (amid claims of prior incompetence), it remains to be seen if significant damage to the UK’s forest ecology can be limited.

How much Biodiversity will $12bn buy us?

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Last week the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was held in Hyderabad, India.  The CBD is the prime international diplomatic instrument by which strategies to protect global biodiversity are negotiated.  It is, therefore, an important indicator of humanity’s collective response to tackling the biodiversity crisis.

At the Hyderabad conference, important policy outcomes included greater emphasis on marine biodiversity, but the prime achievement was an agreement for developed countries to double the global budget for biodiversity conservation, to an estimated $12bn by 2015.

This doubled budget sounds impressive, and $12bn sounds like a great deal of money.  But what does $12bn buy these days? It’s approximately equal to :

  • 126 fighter jets, bought by the Indian military from Dassault of France in Jan 2012
  • Total pay and bonuses paid by US investment bank Goldman Sachs in 2011
  • The net worth of Russian businessman Roman Abramovich, as of March 2012
  • The 2011 GDP of the British Channel Islands
  • The profit of technology company Apple for the second quarter of 2012
  • The estimated 2012 global total consumer spend on online multiplayer computer games
  • A little less than the total cost of the 2012 London Olympics

In other words, the impressive-sounding doubling of funds for biodiversity conservation turns out to be pocket money on the global financial scale.

So, what might be a more satisfactory figure? A recent report in the journal Science estimated that the total annual cost of improving the conservation status of threatened species and effectively managing key habitats worldwide is an estimated $76bn per year, significantly greater than the $12bn promised by the Hyderabad conference.  This $76bn is still a minor sum in the scheme of things – as the report’s lead author points out, it is less than 20% of annual global consumer spending on soft drinks.  To make another comparison, $76bn is less than half-a-percent of the GDP of the world’s richest nation, the USA (whose attitude to this matter is reflected by its status as one of very few countries to fail to ratify the CBD).

It’s worth noting that even the $76bn figure proposed only addresses the most endangered species as listed by the IUCN, and the conservation of key habitats – in other words, it’s fire-fighting, not addressing the roots of the crisis.  When the global diplomatic process can only agree such relatively small sums to attempt to stem the tide of the sixth mass extinction, it seems our species has got its budget priorities very badly wrong.