United Nations members met in Nagoya, Japan in 2010 and agreed to set aside 10 percent of the world’s oceans as reserves by 2020 as part of a target called the “Convention on Biological Diversity.” A year and a half later, that target is no closer to reality than it was then. Some estimates say that less than half of 1% of our oceans are fully protected as no-take zones (areas in which destructive activities are prohibited). According to fishery scientists, ocean reserves provide hope for restoring areas that have been stressed by extractive and destructive activities.
Ocean reserves operate much like national parks. However, nearly 15 times as much land area is protected than ocean areas. One particularly at-risk region is the Antarctic Ocean. Home to about 10% of the world’s oceanic life (including 10,000 species such as penguins, seals, and whales), the Antarctic stands to lose a lot if the United Nations doesn’t stay true to its commitment.
Luckily, the UN’s lack of progress is being met by a coalition of environmental groups calling itself the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, which includes prominent members such as Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and our friends at the World Wildlife Fund.
Last week, the Alliance proposed a network of reserves spanning 1.39 million square miles, comprised of 19 reserve zones around Antarctica. This would be the world’s largest collection of marine reserves to date. Currently, the largest single reserve in the world is the Chagos Islands area in the Indian Ocean, which is 210,000 square miles.
Hopefully this giant push for desperately-needed ocean reserves by the world’s leaders in environmental activism will not only catch the attention of the United Nations, but propel it into action. –Raffi Simel
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A team of scientists from the University of Delhi, the U.K. National History Museum, and Belgium’s Vrije University has spent more than 2,000 hours over the last 5 years digging in northeastern India beneath tropical undergrowth. Their tireless shoveling has led to the discovery of a suspected six new species, three of which have already been confirmed.
The elusive animals are part of a group of limbless amphibians who split off from their other relatives over 140 million years ago in Africa, of the “caecillian” species. These tiny snakelike amphibians are “very difficult to see above the soil because of their burrowing nature and cryptic appearance”, said S.D. Biju of the University of Delhi.
Little is known of the species being called Chikila Fulleri, an extension of the African local tribal name for caecillians. What is known is that females are extremely protective of their young. Mothers guard their eggs for nearly 95 days without eating anything. The team noted that this protective feature is rarely seen from other amphibians. Young caecillians have been known to feast off the flesh of their mother’s skin after hatching, which doesn’t seem very fair after three months of such high-level maternal care.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees scientists will be able to learn more about the species in the future. Their native habitats in India have been in serious jeopardy due to slash and burn agriculture. If the enormity of the agricultural malpractices in the region can affect an animal as rare and tiny as the Fulleri, desperate measures must be taken to protect habitats in the area. Biju’s hope is that this family of new species “may be a flagship animal for conservation in the region.” –Raffi Simel (photos by S.D. Biju)
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Rhinos around the world are so threatened that there are few safe havens for them anymore (see photo below for statistics), and their future survival as a species is in serious jeopardy.
The rhino’s increasingly endangered status is almost exclusively due to poaching, which reached record levels in 2011. Rhino horns are valued at up to $45,000 per pound on the black market, exceeding gold and even cocaine and heroin. The horns have been in increasing demand from the Asian medicine market for their healing and aphrodisiac properties.
These demands are not backed by scientific study but rather, misguided reports of the horns’ ability to cure cancer and other ailments. The rumors and frenzy have led to the slaughter of 443 rhinos this past year, up from 13 in 2007. Some species are even becoming extinct. In 2009, the world’s last Vietnamese rhinoceros, a subspecies of the Javan rhino, was shot and killed.
Up until recently it was believed that rhino poaching was a regional concern, largely confined to Asia and Africa. However, increasing break-ins at museums and zoos across the world are finally giving this rampant issue some overdue attention. The problem is so severe that the National Wildlife Crime Unit is warning zoos and safari parks in the UK that poachers could and likely are targeting their Rhinos.
In order to raise awareness for the threatened rhinos, musicians and poets in Kenya, New Zealand and South Africa will be volunteering their time this weekend, February 11th, for the first annual International Rhino Music Day. The musicians are performing to highlight the abuses and injustice being done towards rhinos throughout the world. All proceeds from the day will go to Save Our Rhino K9 Investigations Anti-Poaching Unit.
The event will hopefully generate a lot of publicity and funds to keeping rhinos around the world safe, but this may pale in comparison to what they are up against. This Saturday, be thinking of the Rhinos across the world that need our help. They won’t make it without you. -Raffi Simel
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“What we’re seeing now, it’s unbelievable,” said Denver Holt, head of the Owl Research Institute in Montana.
He’s referring to the mass southern migration of snowy owls from their home in the Arctic tundra to many parts of the lower 48 states, including recent spottings in Texas and Hawaii. This winter has been very unusual for the majestic birds: rarely, if ever, have they been seen so far south. Bird-watching enthusiasts from all over the country are taking advantage of the irregular migration, which is a phenomenon called an “irruption”– an invasion of birds in unusual places or in high numbers.
The irruption is thought to be caused by an abundance of the owls’ main food source of small animals last summer, called lemmings. The summer’s plentiful food allowed the owls to raise more young, which has led to increased competition over lemmings this winter. In order to seek out food, many of the rare owls are flying further south and heading to more unusual destinations.
Perhaps the most famous fictional snowy owl is Hedwig, from the Harry Potter series, which Harry keeps as a messenger. The owls have a large following amongst fans of the J.K. Rowling books. But the young wizard probably doesn’t realize that the birds are federally protected in the United States and possessing them without a special permit is illegal. We’ll let Harry slide this time.
The snowy owl has a very calm temperament and will sit for long stretches without being easily startled. Jerry Jourdan, a birding enthusiast from Michigan, said of seeing his first (and possibly only) snowy owl, “It’s an absolute thrill, and they’re much larger than you expect. Most people go a lifetime without seeing one.” If there was ever a time to see such a magnificent bird, this winter may be your best chance for a while. Keep your eyes peeled… even in Texas. –Raffi Simel
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