Breaking the Chain

International Wildlife Trade summit logo Via: Helping Rhinos

London Summit on International Wildlife Trade
Via: Helping Rhinos

When it comes to putting a stop to the illegal trade in endangered animals and animal parts, I don’t know if the London Summit on Illegal Wildlife Trade is the first major conference to explicitly include the main consumer nations of animal parts as well as the countries in which the most animals are poached.

But I can say this: It’s a good start.

Like any deadly addiction, this must be tackled at all points along the market chain.

Crushed ivory is seen before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed an additional 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado November 14, 2013 Photo: Reuters

Crushed ivory
Photo: Reuters

Follow #endwildlifecrime or #IWTconf on Twitter.

Fish Owl Equation

The Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) is an intimidating creature of tufted ears and daunting size – the largest known owl in existence, it stands at up to 75 cm (2.5 feet) and has a wingspan of over 180 cm (6 feet). It is also a flying barometer of forest health.

Blakiston Fish Owl hunting Source: Internet Bird Collection

Blakiston’s Fish Owl hunting
Source: Internet Bird Collection

Its dining habits – it feeds on salmon and other fish from running rivers – require pristine forest and river health.

A study has shown that the large trees in which the fish owl nests are the very ones that create the best river environments for salmon life cycles, and thus add another facet to why these trees are important to the fish owl. When the trees age and fall into rivers, their girth and length creates the deep backwaters and rapid-flow passages the salmon require.

If the Blakiston’s fish owl is disappearing from its ranges in the Russian and Chinese far east, and in northern Japan, it is mostly due to habitat disruption. Other factors are the big bird’s inability to avoid getting caught in power lines and fish nets.

Blakiston fish owl Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

Blakiston’s fish owl
Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

The fish owl is an impressive if shy indicator of the well-being of the forest, an element in an equation that includes salmon, other owl species and large mammals.

At  the heart of the equation are the old-growth trees. And what is the solution to this equation?

Reduced logging, recovery programs for river systems, restricted human access to remote protected areas.

Elements we often have difficulty adding up to action, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.



Complex Bridging

Mobius Bridge design Source: NEXT

Möbius Bridge design
Source: NEXT

A new bridge project was announced in China this month, the Möbius Bridge. Designed by Dutch architecture firm NEXT, the complicated structure will span the Dragon King Harbor River in China’s Hunan Province.

NEXT describes the bridge as a “construction with the intersecting connections based on the principle of the Möbius ring,” which will “connect a diversity of routings on different heights.”

A different kind of bridge, the African Elephant Summit, was forged over the past few days in Gaborone, Botswana.

Convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the government of Botswana, the summit ended with the successful signing of a list of 14 Urgent Measures to stem illegal poaching of elephants and the illegal international trade in elephant parts.

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

The list includes Urgent Measure 6, which aims to “strengthen cooperation among law enforcement agencies in range, transit, and consumer states,” and indicates that this agreement bridges the states in which elephants are poached (among them Gabon, Kenya Niger and Zambia), the states known for ivory transit (Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia), and the states driving ivory demand (China, United States and Thailand).

IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefevre was quoted as saying, “We are very pleased with the result of the summit, especially as it involves some of the most important countries along the illegal ivory value chain.”

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

She continued, “We hope that these outcomes will go beyond the summit’s focus on African elephants and boost broader efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade in other species which have been threatened by it, such as rhinos and pangolins.”

It will have to be combined with efforts to reduce poverty, corruption and demand, the triad of drivers in the illegal elephant trade, but the international agreement forms what will hopefully be a strong, multi-level approach of getting from here to there.

Tusk Economics

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

The United States government announced this week that it would be underscoring a deeper commitment to banning the traffic in illegal animal parts by publicly destroying six million tons of ivory (yes, six million tons). Much like the public destruction of seized ivory and tusks that took place earlier this year in the Philippines, this kind of display is meant to achieve several goals:

Raising awareness: Public ivory crushing – the sanctioned destruction of a product generally recognized as highly valuable – should get the attention of those who have somehow managed to ignore the ongoing destruction of some of the planet’s most iconic species. Poaching activity has ballooned over the past few years, with an estimated 96 elephants currently being killed – on a daily basis.

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Cutting off the income of traffickers and extremist groups: Wildlife trafficking funds large, organized criminal networks. Trafficking has an estimated annual value of $10 billion, and ivory traffickers are known to deal in narcotics and weapons, as well as fund extremist groups.

Sending a message: Many countries may not be willing to make the case to major trading partners such as China that the ivory trade will no longer be tolerated – but the destruction of ivory on this scale is a clear signal of this intent. Over 40% of illegal ivory finds its way to China. While some argue for flooding the market with ivory in order to cheapen its desirability, in the current climate, this would likely only expand the market.

Undermining corruption: Once destroyed, the ivory stocks cannot be filtered out for illicit sale and the laundering of newer, illegal ivory. The 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlawed ivory trade and poaching, with the exception of ivory that was collected prior to the convention. Less of a concern in the US than in other countries, old ivory has been filtered out in exchange for new ivory.

Photo: Mark Pain

Photo: Mark Pain

Via executive order, President Obama formed the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking this summer to support increased efforts to ban wildlife trafficking.

These developments are all positive.

Still, I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that the US State Department has framed the trafficking crackdown as a ‘national security crisis’ as well as a conservation issue.

As this Motherboard article points out, “the new council lacks any former investigators. The US is a major market for the wildlife trade in general, and budget cuts have left Fish and Wildlife with just 216 special agents. (The DEA alone has more than 4,000.) If the US is to make a dent in its own contributions to the trade, it’ll need to step up enforcement at home.”

Male elephants sparring.  Photo by Karpagam Chelliah

Male elephants sparring.
Photo: Karpagam Chelliah

Destroying ivory stocks sends a powerful message – the US and the Philippines are the only countries outside of Africa to have taken this step, and China continues to claim that illegal poaching is Africa’s problem. But I’ll be withholding heartfelt applause until I see what further steps will be taken to undercut this lucrative blood trade.


The Guardian articleUS to destroy ivory stocks in effort to stop illegal elephant poaching by Suzanne Goldenberg

Motherboard articleThe White House Is Getting More Serious About Wildlife Crime by Derek Mead

Bryan Christy blog – National Geographic journalist, well-known for his work on the illegal ivory trade, comments on the strategy of the destruction of ivory stocks.

Flower Village

A new sustainable urban project was announced recently for an area of China that is one of the most heavily populated and polluted, the Guangzhou region. Specifically, a region that has been known for over 1700 years as a center of horticulture and flower production for Buddhist and royal ceremonies. It’s been described as a model of New Urbanization.

Rainer Schmidt Landscape Architects and City Planners (and their local partners GZPI) were named as the winners of the Guangzhou Fangcun Huadi Sustainable Master Plan competition. Another entry by West 8 was a joint winner.

Image: Rainer Schmidt Landscape Architects via World Landscape Architecture

Image: Rainer Schmidt Landscape Architects
via World Landscape Architecture

From a press release:

“The architects have created a site concept which has been derived from the form and character of the dominant elements of flowers and water. A romantic, dreamy and fragrant city emerges as a new centre for the region. The structure comprises one central area and seven urban groups radiating out like the petals of a flower.

The site’s green space network links the Foshan ecological corridor, Pearl River ecological corridor and the Pearl River Delta into one connected system.”

Sounds idyllic.

The creation of model settlements can certainly show what can be done when sustainable practices are integrated into urban developments from the beginning, and it’s a positive sign that China is taking this seriously. I was unable to find a timeline or budget for the construction of the city, which is being planned for 50,000 inhabitants. It is unclear to me whether this is a brand-new town or whether it will be built on an existing settlement.

The nearby city of Guangzhou is China’s third largest city, with 12 million inhabitants. The Flower Village, then, is equivalent to a small suburb of the larger city.

The winning designs for this project were created by groups that have a track record when it comes to large-scale urban projects, including the impressive Madrid Rio rejuvenation of the city’s Manzanares River. One of the goals of the Flower Village is to work towards cleaning polluted waters of the rivers included in the new plans.

Image: Rainer Schmidt Landscape Architects  via World Landscape Architecture

Image: Rainer Schmidt Landscape Architects
via World Landscape Architecture

There’s something about model green cities that both intrigues and unsettles me. They can be terrific conceptual milestones for gaining new perspectives on how a city can thrive in a sustainable manner; they can be shining showcase projects that distract from doing necessary work on areas that are the very definition of unsustainable practices.

It will be interesting to see how this particular project develops over the years, both during its construction, and (if and when it is built) its inhabited urban life.


Rainer Schmidt Landscape Architects website

West 8 website

Getting There From Here (1)

The on and off of Beijing air pollution.
For an interactive look at what major cities would look like with the level of pollution that Beijing experienced during the 2012-13 winter, go to the source of this image:

China’s cabinet recently released the outline of a strategy to deal with its ‘airpocalypse’, the devastating air pollution levels in many of its major cities. The main goal is to reduce industrial emissions by 30% by the end of 2017.

In a ten-point plan, the State Council proposes making sure that construction projects pass environmental evaluations before permission to build is granted; emergency response plans for high-pollution periods (including traffic reduction and industry emission limits); stricter controls on the expansion of heavily polluting industries. The industries set to face special emission limits include iron and steel, cement, and petrochemicals.

While it’s a tremendous step forward to have the government of China – currently the world’s foremost source of greenhouse gas emissions – acknowledge the urgent need for a strategy in emissions reduction, it’s also a little hard to see how that will dovetail with massive economic expansion based in large part upon the very industries which are set to face strict emissions limits or any kind of business-as-usual approach.

One way might be the outsourcing of emissions within China, i.e. locating some industries to less populous provinces to reduce pollution in the larger cities. Carbon outsourcing accounts for 50-80% of emissions in Shanghai and Beijing.

A graphic showing how coastal provinces of China are outsourcing their greenhouse gas emissions by importing goods from less developed provinces, 2013.  Source: University of Maryland via The Guardian

A graphic showing how coastal provinces of China are outsourcing their greenhouse gas emissions by importing goods from less developed provinces, 2013.
Source: University of Maryland via The Guardian

For me, this isn’t really a solution so much as a delay and repositioning of the same problem – just because pollution isn’t on your front doorstep doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.

According to Steven Davis, the University of California professor at Irvine who led a study on emissions outsourcing in China, the country is taking a short-term solution that comes at the cost of genuine improvements through the modernization of the highly polluting coal-based industrial production still common in the provinces.

“The tragedy of this is that the easiest and cheapest cuts in emissions are in these provinces in the interior where the technologies are antiquated and with even slight improvements could be much, much cleaner,” Davis said. The net effect of the outsourcing is to make it far less likely China would reach its climate targets.

In this case, out of sight doesn’t equal out of mind.


Guardian articleChina launches new measures to tackle air pollution by Jennifer Duggan

Guardian articleChina’s rich provinces outsource emissions to less developed areas by Suzanne Goldenberg studyOutsourcing CO2 within China by Kuishuang Feng, Steven J. Davis, Laixiang Sun, Xin Li, Dabo Guan, Weidong Liu, Zhu Liu,Klaus Hubacek

Half the Rivers

The Chinese Yu Ji Tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu the Great), a map carved into stone in the year 1137 during the Song Dynasty, located in the Stele Forest of modern-day Xian, China. Yu the Great refers to the Chinese deity described in the Chinese geographical work of the Yu Gong, a chapter of the Classic of History. Source: Wikipedia

The Chinese Yu Ji Tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu the Great), a map carved into stone in the year 1137 during the Song Dynasty, located in the Stele Forest of modern-day Xian, China. Yu the Great refers to the Chinese deity described in the Chinese geographical work of the Yu Gong, a chapter of the Classic of History.
Source: Wikipedia

I live in an area of plentiful water, at least for the time being. There’s a spring source twenty minutes from my house by foot – I walk through two forest parks to reach the remains of an 18th century watermill, now a tumbledown ruin. Evian, of the bottled water fame, is a 45-minute drive; the famed Evian water is free to anyone who shows up at one of the local fountains with empty water bottles. It’s hard to imagine the Lake Geneva region, with its many rivers and groundwater sources, ever running dry.

China, on the other hand, is considered a country with water problems on a variety of levels. From toxic waste to damming to population growth, over-exploitation of groundwater, desertification and poor management, China’s freshwater supply has been under duress for some time.

Just how much duress was brought to light with a recent report that thousands of China’s rivers have simply disappeared. Over the course of three years, a large team of surveyors counted 22,909 rivers in China, covering a total area of 100 sq km (38 sq. miles). Just twenty years ago, a 1990 survey counted 50,000 rivers, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics. The official cause has been blamed on climate change.

China will be faced with damage control, but can help us all in one respect: Even if water seems abundant right now, it’s no reason to waste it.


The Australian article

What we talk about when we talk about war (II)

Ilex squidVia: SASSI, South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

Ilex squid
Via: SASSI, South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

Some time ago, I posted some thoughts on the impact of war on the environment and creatures besides humans. Those comments focused primarily on the immediate effects of war waged on land.

Today, a news piece brought to my attention another environmental impact of war: The lack of cooperation on transboundary environmental protection issues between countries in dispute. In this case, the countries are Britain and Argentina, the region is the South Atlantic Ocean, and the issue is illegal fishing.

Argentina’s coast guard caught two Chinese trawlers illegally fishing Argentine waters for ilex squid (I’m not certain, but I believe this to be primarily Argentine  shortfin squid, Illex argentinus) before the ships could escape out into international waters. But this was a rare victory against an illegal fishing fleet, mostly out of China, which hauls an estimated 300,000 tons of ilex squid out of the South Atlantic every year.

From the Associated Press article today:

“The species, which roams across the maritime boundary between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, is key to a food chain that sustains penguins, seals, birds and whales. Managed well, it could sustain a vigorous fishing industry and steady revenues for both governments.

But the two sides aren’t even talking.

The Falklands are defended by British warships, planes and submarines, giving the fisheries agency considerable muscle to enforce licenses in its waters. But Argentina’s navy has never recovered from its 1982 war against Britain for the islands, and its coast guard has just eight ships to cover more than 1 million square miles (2,800,000 square kilometers) of ocean, said its chief of maritime traffic, Mario Farinon.

(The) problem is so big that it can be seen from space: Images of the Earth at night, taken by a NASA satellite last year, show darkness at sea the world over, except for this spot in the South Atlantic. There, 200 miles from the nearest coasts, the lights of this renegade fleet shine as brilliantly as a city.

The industrial ships transfer tons of squid to huge refrigerator ships and get refueled and resupplied at sea so that they can fish without pause.

Argentina ended 15 years of joint fisheries management in 2005 because it didn’t want any government relationship suggesting a recognition of the islanders’ claim to the British-held islands.

And so each government goes its own way, licensing boats and trying to enforce its stretch of the sea, while refusing to cooperate against the much larger fleet that’s just beyond their individual reach.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides countries with tools that Argentina could use right now to combat overfishing.

One is the “hot pursuit” article, which enables enforcers to pursue boats fishing illegally within their territory into international waters. Another is the “straddling species” clause, which allows governments to protect wandering species like the ilex squid, by applying the same rules on both sides of their maritime border. Countries that jointly manage their seas often grant each other reciprocal permission to arrest rule breakers, and any two countries can make bilateral agreements to regulate their fleets as they see fit, Greenpeace attorney Daniel Simons said.

The territorial dispute makes that impossible here.

“Argentina should enforce the same rules and impose its sovereignty beyond the 200-mile limit,” said de los Santos of the fishing chamber. “But it would have to have a fleet 10 times bigger.””


As anyone who watches detective movies knows, a territorial line of jurisdiction is only of use if the perpetrator of a crime does law enforcers the favor of remaining within their jurisdiction. In this case, the territorial lines between Britain and Argentina are crossed not only by the illegal trawlers, but by the squid themselves, as well as the entire feeding chain which depends upon them. Not to mention the companies supporting the ships from half a globe away.

Illegal fishing and overfishing in the South Atlantic is a matter of conflict even without the ongoing dispute between two countries that are in a position to actually do something about it.

Photo: Alamy

Photo: Alamy


Full AP article

Study of biological squid patterns off the coast of Brazil

Special topic paper, Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Squid Resources

Article on previous disputes between Argentina and the Falkland Islands over squid fishing