World Wildlife Day 2015

Today is World Wildlife Day 2015, which this year highlights the challenges of the illegal trade in wildlife.

World Wildlife Day, on the 3rd of March, marks the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The global trade in wild animals and their body parts is estimated by UNEP at US$50-150 billion per year. The global illegal fisheries catch is valued at US$10-23.5 billion a year and illegal logging, including processing, at US$30-100 billion.actionposter_thumb_elephant

These numbers don’t include the costs of fighting poaching, the impact that fight has on local communities, or the indirect costs of border security – after all, 90% of all illegal animals and animal parts are shipped across international borders.

These numbers don’t include issues like the introduction of non-native species in the form of exotic pets and the havoc they can wreak on local eco-systems (not to mention the introduction of foreign pathogens).

They don’t include the cost of fighting the organized crime that is funded via illegal wildlife trade.

What can each individual do besides sign a petition, make a donation or offer support today at #SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime?

As I said in an earlier post on ivory, we can cut of the trade on the consumer end. That saltwater fishtank might be a nice conversation piece, but the fish in it were likely harvested at the cost of an entire coral reef habitat.

Find sustainable alternatives to traditional medicine that calls for endangered species like pangolin or rhino (after all, people have been substituting buffalo horn for rhino for years).

That supposedly antique ivory trinket was probably made from poached elephant tusk. If that hardwood lumber for your floors is being sold at a price too good to be true, chances are its been illegally logged. And so on.

What you buy as a consumer ripples out through the entire environment of the illegal wildlife trade.

I thought I’d repost Farewell, Forest Symphony, something I wrote a couple of years ago on the interconnectivity of one single endangered species, the elephant, on its entire ecosystem.

It’s not a short post – but what is true for this particular animal is true in other ways for all the other endangered animals and plants:

They, and we, are all part of something larger.

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via

The fundamental chords that hold a symphony together aren’t always apparent to the untrained ear. The symphony of an ecosystem is often more complex than we comprehend.

A recent study draws a vital connection between elephant poaching, tree reproduction and forest ecosystems. Certain trees – in this case, large bush mango trees – have evolved alongside large animals, in this case, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis).

The trees have developed seeds which are best dispersed via elephants eating the seeds, walking long distances, and then depositing digested seeds far from the parent tree. The seeds of these trees are too large to be properly digested and dispersed by smaller mammals.

Unfortunately for both the wild trees and the elephants, up to 75% of the elephant population has been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where this study was carried out, and an estimated 60% of all forest elephants in the world have been killed in the service of the illegal ivory trade – all in the last ten years.

From an interview in an article on

“[The] Congo forest without elephants would certainly lose part of its soul, but elephant extinction with their seed dispersal services would also affect the entire plant community,” lead author David Beaune with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Forest elephants are “important gardeners of the forest,” says Beaune, so important in fact that when elephants go extinct in a part of the forest, important trees are unable to reproduce. “If we can’t replace elephants, then the reproduction of these plant species is hugely compromised.”

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core. Source: Herbwisdon

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core.
Source: Herbwisdom

The bush mango tree used in the study, Irvingia gabonensis, happens to be one that is also important to the economy of many African regions, and has been successfully cultivated. Its reproductive patterns are well-known.

It plays a key role in preventing soil erosion as well as being useful as a cash crop.
What of the many other fruits and seeds eaten by forest elephants which are less-studied, with lesser known roles in the ecosystem? Without the massive ‘gardeners of the forest’, what aspects of the ecosystem will crumble?
It puts me in mind of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, in which all the instruments disappear. There is a final song of the remaining violins, but it is thin and lonely without the other melodies.

Industrial Reforestation

I haven’t yet made peace with the notion of drone swarms in civilian life, whether they are for deliveries or photography or oil pipe monitoring or any number of ostensibly benign and useful activities. I suppose at some point I’ll just get used to them as they multiply, much like I did with the now-ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

However, this week I learned of a drone project that might soften my stance.

BioCarbon Engineering is a UK-based project that implements UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, to plant trees in deforested areas using what they call ‘industrial reforestation’ to counter the estimated 26 billion trees lost every year to logging, mineral extraction, agriculture, and urban expansion.

Now, the combination of the words ‘industrial’ and ‘reforestation’, used together with drones, doesn’t sound very much like it would add up to a tree-hugging approach. At least not at first. But…

The drones map terrain, the plant a diversity of tree seeds in a nature-based matrix. Source: BioCarbon Engineering

The drones map terrain, the plant a diversity of tree seeds in a nature-based matrix.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

The 1 Billion Trees A Year project proposes a three-step approach using drones: a deforested area is first mapped, then seeded, and then monitored for progress.

The challenges of seeding deforested regions are many – but one of the most daunting is the simple act of seeding out new trees. Either the seeding has to be carried out by hand, or rather, many hands, or it is done by dropping batches of seeds from the air.

The advantage of hand-seeding is that the seeds can be inserted into the soil deeply enough that they can germinate and take root. But of course, large deforested areas require the re-planting of thousands, millions of trees.

Seeding by air allows for a large number of seed drops, but many of the seeds won’t ever get far enough into the soil to establish themselves, or they’ll be scattered before they can germinate.

The Biocarbon Engineering drone, with a pressurized cannister for injecting seed pods. Source: Biocarbon Engineering

The Biocarbon Engineering drone, with a pressurized cannister for injecting seed pods.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

Operating at a height of 1-2 meters (3-6 feet), drones would be equipped with pressurized air canisters that can shoot seed pods far enough down into the soil to prevent scattering. The seed pods would be small units that contain a germinated seed, a bit of moisture, and a bit of nutrition to get the seed started.

Speaking in an interview with the BBC, CEO Lauren Fletcher said that the drones can be used to cover large amounts of terrain, and can use a variety of seed types to try and re-establish a forest with a similar pattern of biodiversity as the one originally deforested.

The drone-injected seed pods hit the soil and open to release a germinated seed. Source: Biocarbon Engineering

The drone-injected seed pods hit the soil and open to release a germinated seed.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

I wrote recently about the reverence deserved by forests. This project seems to be a very 21st century method for encouraging that reverence.

The project was a runner-up in the United Arab Emirates Drones for Good – which included a number of other promising humanitarian drone projects that might just make me change my opinion about drone use – at least some of the time.

Deforestation in Borneo. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Deforestation in Borneo.
Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay