Sunday, June 23, 2013

China - Conservation Hero?

China is eating the Earth…this is a commonly held sentiment among environmentally-minded folk. To be fair, many other nations, including the USA, are heavily involved in sating their gluttonous appetite for the planet’s raw resources around the world and the profits to be made, but China is particularly busy in many of the world’s most vulnerable forests and seas and its’ demand is sky-rocketing. Yet, the People’s Republic of China can quickly become a global conservation hero through 5 key actions that, if enacted, would do little to dent their growing economy, vastly improve their contribution to biosphere stewardship, and garner a reputation as a global savior worthy of the accolades:

1.       Shut Down the Trade in Wildlife – China can rapidly enforce a ban on the import or export of all wildlife, dead or alive, whole or parts – turtles, bear and tiger parts, ivory, sharks, rays, frogs, octopus, birds, snakes, rhino horn, sea turtles, seahorses – basically any creature taken out of the wild, with the only exception being fish from certified sustainable fisheries.  It should shut down any purveyors of wildlife or parts both at home and abroad.

2.       Stop Logging Tropical Forests – China should enforce a ban on importation of all tropical hardwoods, raw logs or finished wood, and prohibit overseas direct sales of tropical hardwoods to international markets (for example, logs from the Congo are sold directly to Europe).

3.       Protect Rivers – China should protect forests in the headwaters and wetlands in the lowlands of all major rivers and tributaries, whether in China or in other nations were they are involved in development. Building dams at home and abroad should cease as they are now counterproductive to sustainable societies and environments.

4.       Implement China’s Biodiversity Strategy – China’s National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Plan will effectively conserve much of China’s distinctive biodiversity if fully implemented over the next few decades.

5.       Exert China’s Global Influence – China can pressure other nations and trading blocks, such as the European Union, to similarly stop their involvement in the international trade in wildlife and tropical timber.

China may be uniquely positioned among nations to act quickly and effectively, catalyzing other nations to follow suit, and their initiative can coalesce efforts to create a functional biosphere stewardship program that enjoys the support of all nations. Life on this planet is rapidly changing and we, humanity, likely have only two to three decades to take decisive action to avert great hardship. China can be a true Earth hero.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

                    Chinese Fairy Pitta & Good Fortune - 中国童话皮塔好运

                   中国凤蝶与自由 - Chinese Swallowtail Butterfly & Freedom

Tokyo Fish Market
                   Shark Fin Soup Brings Bad Luck - 鱼翅汤带来坏运气

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Top 10: Nature Destinations for Alien Eco-Tours

Over the last three decades or so I have queried, usually over a beer, some of the world’s top conservationists and field biologists for their Top 10 List of Wild Places to experience life of this planet. This is a synthesis of that list, a site itinerary suitable for a touring extraterrestrial-naturalist (alienaturalist) desiring to observe a sample of some of the most outstanding and representative expressions of life on Earth.

Not included are cities, villages, cultural centers, or human-dominated sites, which are now a prominent part of the planet’s life and extraordinary in their own way, nor are abyssal hydrothermal vents, pelagic bait-ball feeding frenzies, or the ubiquitous nightly migrations of mid-ocean sea creatures, both of which are a bit challenging for humans to experience (maybe spaceships can turn into submarines!). Long-gone sites and phenomena―Great Plains bison migrations and saiga antelope migrations across the Central Asian steppe, for example―are excluded, as well. And, sadly, many of the sites on the list are there because they are the last relatively intact habitats of formerly widespread ecosystems. The majority of these sites are under great threat from habitat loss, hunting, agricultural expansion, and a host of other insults―so go see them while you can and continue to fight for their conservation.


                                                                                                               Talamanca fungi

And we all know the tapestry of life on this planet is incredibly complex, ten or so sites simply cannot cover all this planet’s great diversity of realms, biomes, ecosystems, species, and natural phenomena. Interesting, complex, and beautiful life can be found everywhere―from one’s backyard to the local wildlife reserve down the street. However, what is recommended here are some of those rare places where even the most jaded naturalist, field-tested biologist, or jet-set conservationist gives pause and murmurs “How cool is that….”

Everyone’s list differs and is very uncomfortable with just 10, but some special places repeatedly come up:

 1.       Western Congo ― Rainforests of the western Congo Basin, especially sites where lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, red forest hogs, giant pangolins, drill, mandrill, and forest elephants still occur. Campo Maan, Loanga, Lokobe, Loango, Cross River, Dzanga-Ndoki, and Odzala are exceptionally exciting forests to visit. Salonga, where the bonobo chimps live in the central Congo, and Eastern Basin forests such as the Gola/Lofa/Mano complexhome of the okapi―similarly get hardened field biologists bubbling.

 2.       Borneo Rainforests ― The skyscraper-tall forests of the Borneo rainforests, home to more gliding and brachiating creatures than anywhere else on Earth, spur rapture in naturalists. A few sites (note we are down to sites in Borneo, rather than whole forests these days) like Maliau, Tabin, and Danum, still have remnant populations of orangutan, elephant, Bornean rhino, and clouded leopard. Northern Borneo contends with the Amazon as growing the most diverse plant communities in the world. A few forest refuges in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia still protect similar rainforest communities.

 3.       Western Arc of the Amazon ― The lowland and foothill rainforests of the eastern Arc of the Amazon Basin, especially regions that are still sufficiently remote to support harpy eagles, two species of bush dogs, the nomadic white-lipped peccary that roams in herds of hundreds, giant river otters, and healthy populations of jaguar, top most lists. Relatively intact forests still occur in the Madre de Dios and Yasuni regions and a few others still distant from the tidal wave of development. Northwestern Amazonian forests are THE richest forests on the planet vibrating with an exuberance of life. Vast landscapes of the Guianas, southern Venezuela, and Brazil still retain healthy wildlife assemblages, but the Western Arc remains the greatest diversification of terrestrial life on this planet.

4.       Valdéz Peninsula (Argentina) ― An extraordinary assembly of wildlife thrives in this isolated peninsula, including guanacos (wild South American camellids), maras (giant steppe rodents), rheas (South American ostrich-like birds), the furry, yet-armored pichi armadillo, southern right whales, elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, fur seals, sea lions, and orcas that surf waves to snatch dozing seals from the beach.

5.       East African Savannas & Miombo Woodlands ― The quintessential wildlife treasures of the Serengeti and Masai-Mara are on nearly everyone’s Top 10, the last of the Pleistocene menageries giving us a glimpse of those among which we evolved. The lesser-known, but equally amazing, communities of the miombo woodlands to the south in the Selous-Ruaha region are equal favorites, as are the drier wildlands of Samburu, Tsavo, and Amboseli.

6.       Redwoods and Giant Sequoia forests of the American West ― Awesome best describes these forests dominated by truly gigantic and ancient trees, nowhere else on Earth can one stroll through such enchanted forests. The giant ash forests of southern Australia come very close, as do some of the South Pacific’s giant kauri forests and Chilean alerce groves.

7.       Cape Floristic Province (South Africa) ― All of the five Mediterranean-climate regions (the Mediterranean, California, central Chile, southwest Australia, and the Cape Region of South Africa) are stunningly rich in extraordinary plants, and as they grade into drier regions each has the capacity for brilliant, landscape-covering floral displays in certain years. The Cape region, however, is the most diverse and blessed with exceptional flowering plants, making it a common choice if one had to choose just one to experience.

8.       Antarctica ― Beautiful frozen icescapes and waters teeming with wildlife―leopard seals, various penguins, skuas, whales―make Antarctica one of the last great wildlife destinations on the planet. With the Arctic icecap disappearing like an ice cube on a hot car hood, polar ecosystems may be the ones to see first on the itinerary before they melt away.

9.       Great Barrier Reef ― The sheer size and complexity of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef make for a must-see Earthlife destination. Eastern Caribbean atolls and Fiji’s Great Barrier Reef are similarly visible from space. The reefs most packed with species occur in the Coral Triangle of the western Pacific, with relatively intact reefs of western New Guinea and the remote Tubbataha Reef of the Philippine Sea being surviving highlights. The healthiest reefs on the planet now occur only on the far-flung island specks of the Pacific’s Line Islands and the Indian Ocean’s Aldabra reefs.

10.   Lake Malawi & Lake Tanganyika ― Fresh water fish evolved explosively in these African Rift Valley lakes, with some becoming so specialized that they feed on other fish’s scales and eyeballs. Underwater, the rainbow swarms of cichlid fish present a feast for the eyes. Amazonian, Congo, and Southeast Asian rivers support superlative freshwater communities, but the turbid waters generally make them difficult to observe. Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest lake, has evolved a rich array of crustaceans, sponges, and odd anti-freezed fishes. Rivers of southern China and the US Southeast support the richest temperate-climate faunas on the planet.

A few destinations repeatedly emerged: the lowland Terai savannas and foothill forests of the Himalayas, the distinct forests of India’s Western Ghats, the mountain forests of the Northern Andes, anywhere still in a natural state in Madagascar, and the floral displays of the mountains of Central Asia. For my very own Top 10 to where I have guided several alien-ecotours visit

Friday, June 7, 2013


After tromping through the bush around a good part of the world, ostensibly trying to save the planet as a professional treehugger, several locales have crystalized over time as savored memories of Earthlife at its fullest expression, redolent with scents, calls, colors, and movement from myriads of life forms and creating an eco-gestalt that brings sublime peace to any naturalist worth their salt. Well, I certainly have not been everywhere, or even to that many places by the standards of jet-set conservationists or Animal Planet explorers. And lots of the wildland and wildsea destinations I hear adventurous and rapturous tales told about from leechified field naturalists and global twitchers (crazed birdwatchers) over a few beers do indeed sound magical, but I stand by this is as a good, earthy list.

This Top 10 varies a bit from the worthy and widely-recognized wild destinations held dear by TV documentary-makers and naturalists alike, likely due to my long-standing interest in bugs, cryptic critters, and thorn scrubs, but I do not think any alien-eco-tourist would be disappointed, or at least one worth their salt (if their life form contains salt…). And choosing ten of anything does not do justice to the overwhelming wealth of life and wild places on this planet, so this is more like 10 of the some of the most really, really cool wild places on Earth where a human can be (daily migrations of billions of mid-ocean sea creatures sounds spectacular but hard to really ‘see’, and, alas, the vast buffalo herds are long gone).

1.       The Congolese rainforests of southwest Cameroon ― Campo Maan National Park still harbors lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, enormous troops of nomadic mandrill, forest elephants, and Africa’s largest number of termite species within its hyper-wet rainforests. The calls of furtive forest bulbuls are drowned out by raucous flights of African grey parrots and pungent fragrances of canopy orchids wafts through still morning air.

                                              Campo-Maan National Park, Cameroon

2.       Bornean rainforests ― The towering Dipterocarp forests of northern Borneo resound with the calls of Argus pheasants, 6 o’clock cicadas, and glowering clouded leopards. Rustling leaves presage agile orangutans and Bornean elephants winding their way through dense understories as hooting gibbons swing through giant tree canopies hundreds of feet above. Gliding frogs, gliding snakes, gliding squirrels, and flying lemurs compete for airspace with giant birdwing butterflies.

3.       San Lucan tropical dry forest and thorn scrub that surrounds the Sierra de la Laguna in southern Baja shimmers like a sea of yellow and white butterflies at certain times of the year. Waxy-bronzed bursera trees and cactus columns intertwine with white-barked trees crowned with sprays of white, yellow, and pink flowers. One can walk from lofty pines of the peak through the forest and scrub to the sea in any direction.

San Lucan thorn scrub, southern Baja California, Mexico

4.       Giant sequoia forests of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains stand alone as the most awesome forests on the planet, with redwood groves lauded in the same breath. The giant oak forests of the Talamancas, such as those still immersed in intact rainforests and festooned with epiphytes on the northern slope of Volcan Baru are similarly splendid. The giant ash forests of southern Australia are spectacular in their own right, massive eucalypts with wallabies bounding among the giant tree ferns and groves of Chilean giant alerce are similarly humbling.

5.       Utupua Reefs ― The fringing reefs on the southern shore of the main bay of Utupua Island, Santa Cruz Group, Solomon Islands – the most spectacular, sun-filled, coral-mazed, rainbow-fished reef I have snorkeled over.

6.       Madagascar’s southern spiny desert ― Simply stated, nothing like it in the world, except for the Boojum desert of northern Baja, Mexico is reminiscent in its convergent plant forms. You know you are someplace really different when surrounded by spiny, cephalopidian trunks bending under the springing weight of sifaka lemurs flying unharmed through the treacherous thorns. Madagascars’ eastern rainforests and western dry forests are spectacular, I must admit, but there is nothing like the spiny forest.

                                                 Verraux's sifaka - Berenty, Madagascar

7.       Knersvlakte ― South Africa’s Karoo has a few ancient, long-eroded plains covered in white quartz fragments. Hidden among the gravels are incredibly cryptic succulent plants that resemble stones with pale green windows and which make the knersvlakte (a local word for grinding sounds made by wagon wheels crossing these plains) blaze with color in certain years and resemble terrestrial coral reefs. Even the wind scorpions are covered in long white hairs to blend in as they race about in search of prey and cool spots.

8.       Caura River, Venezuela ― A relatively intact, vast watershed of rich rainforest nestled among flat-topped tepuis plateaus and teeming with wildlife – jaguars, harpy eagles, white-lipped peccaries, giant river otters, flights of macaws, bush dogs – that is largely hunted out elsewhere. Yasuni, Manu, Suriname, Rio Negro, and many other regions also have spectacular forest, and the western foothills of the Amazon are the richest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet.

9.       Duck River, Tennessee ― A true Disneyland for freshwater naturalists, sadly because a few stretches are the very last of the relatively healthy ecosystems left in southeastern North America and what remains boggles with the number of beautiful fish, mussels, crayfish, turtles, and other herps that have found refuge here and make one lament for what has been lost.

10.   East African savannas and miombo ― Hard to not have these on any list, but these last echoes of the Pleistocene faunas should blow away any ecotourist or naturalist, from the drier Samburu thorn scrubs to the dense thickets of the Selous and Ruaha miombos vibrant with wildlife of every shape and form.

                                                                          Masai Mara

The runners-up list is very long, of course, with some highlights in the Seychelles, Western Ghats, Terai savannas, Himalayan conifer forests, Simpson Desert of Australia, New Guinea rainforests, New Caledonian rainforests, Cape fynbos, Socotran woodlands, remnant Sumatran and Malaysian rainforest, Arunchal Pradesh-northern Myanmar-southwestern China forests, Hawai’ian forests, Great Smokies old-growth, a number of Congo Basin forests, Baffin Island…

Thursday, June 6, 2013

7 Dangerous Notions of Biodiversity Conservation

“Speak too forcefully and other scientists view you as an ideologue; speak too softly and you duck a moral responsibility.”     E.O. Wilson

Dangerous? Seven widely-held and deeply-clung to notions of conservation greatly impede our efforts to conserve diverse life on this planet. If we fail, humanity risks grave hardship and apocalyptic consequences that will arise as our biosphere continues to deteriorate.

1. The first notion is that the biosphere situation (rapidly changing conditions and loss of biodiversity) is not yet so bad that it warrants altering our comfortable, consensus-building conservation routines. The reality is that the rate and magnitude of biodiversity loss and changes to biosphere conditions are now so great and rapidly mounting that we need to escalate conservation efforts to a war-footing (Lenton 2011, Noss et al. 2012, Running 2012). Conservationists have long been cautious about crying wolf, but loss and change is now so fast and pronounced that a strident, sustained call of alarm and action is justified and morally responsible. In practical terms, a war-footing means the biosphere crisis headlines news every day, global leaders and institutions act with focused attention, extraordinary levels of international cooperation, compliance, and funding exist, and global action to avert the biosphere crisis is fervently underway. To save the Earth we may have to find courage and step out of our comfort zones and literally and figuratively stand in front of bulldozers.

Given how quickly and how much the biosphere is changing and how much biodiversity is being lost, the next thirty years likely offers our best window of opportunity to protect sufficient habitat, restore wildlife populations and ecological processes, and reduce pollution (for example, compounds that damage our critical ozone layer and greenhouse gases) to a point where the biosphere can maintain favorable conditions for humanity. We simply do not have the time to gather exhaustive data and sway entrenched skeptics if we are to make meaningful progress in stabilizing biodiversity loss and biosphere change over the next few decades. Yes, many good people and governments are trying, and trying hard, but trying without results at scale is not good enough anymore given the stakes.

Red sediment in river in deforested and burned landscape, Madagascar

2. The second notion relates to the physical and ecological scale of conservation perceived to be adequate to retain biological diversity and global life-sustaining processes. Excellent conservation thinking and efforts exist and much progress has been made, yet there is a pervasive, resigned complacency that protection goals in the neighborhood of 10% of landscapes or seascapes, or wildlife populations, is all that is practical to achieve and, with fingers crossed, much of the world’s species will be saved and the biosphere stabilized. The daunting reality is that somewhere in the range of a third to a half of the Earth’s surface must be maintained in a more ‘natural’ than ‘developed’ (or ‘heavily exploited’) state to stem biodiversity loss and sustain favorable conditions for our species and society (see Noss et al. 2011). The complex mosaic of life forms on the planet cannot be saved in any 10% protection scheme, even if well-sited. Importantly, human-transformed ecosystems and technological fixes simply cannot take of the life-sustaining role of a robust, nature-dominated biosphere, even one functioning at 10% capacity.

Given the trajectories of global biodiversity loss and biosphere change, monumental conservation actions are imperative for regaining a balance with our biosphere: a quarter to a third of coasts and open ocean protected; larger marine species and keystone terrestrial and freshwater species fully protected for at least thirty years; all international trade in wildlife banned and vulnerable species everywhere protected; new coastlines formed through rising seas protected now with preemptive reserves; worldwide removal of obsolete and poorly-considered dams and barrages and restoration of riparian, wetland, and headwater habitats at watershed scales; and an immediate ban on all ozone-depleting compounds and greenhouse gas production minimized. (While global scale action is critical, local conservation success still remains a foundation for protecting diverse life and restoring functional ecosystems.)

A third to a half of the planet ‘natural’? Humans already dominate and exploit most of the Earth’s surface and they use 90% of the Earth’s net primary (plant) production (Running 2012). Demand for natural resources will surely explode along with the projected 40% population increase by 2050. Planetary boundaries are already being reached (for example, freshwater, phosphorous) and we are pushing up against most others. Superlative global changes now occur regularly―the worst droughts, the highest temperatures, the greatest loss of seas ice, polar bears and tigers nearly gone, once great forests in tattered remnants. Considerably more than 10% of the Earth’s surface is still relatively ‘natural’, yet the biosphere and biodiversity are still going downhill fast―very fast―and irreversible shifts to novel, unfavorable conditions may be close at hand or inevitable (Lenton 2011). To think 10% protection will work is a very dangerous notion.

3. Third notion. Some maintain we can save much of the Earth’s biodiversity without having to protect ‘old-growth’ habitats. While protecting and restoring degraded and exploited habitats will make valuable contributions to conservation, ‘old-growth’ habitats act as the only refugia for vast numbers of life forms that do not abide much anthropogenic disturbance. Old-growth habitats also uniquely act as optimal arenas for a multitude of ecological interactions and biophysical processes. Unlogged forests, untrawled seafloors, unplowed grasslands, ungrazed deserts, unfished seamounts are examples. Ecosystems that still retain their full complement of larger vertebrate and keystone species are similarly important. The last remaining old-growth habitats and intact faunas everywhere must be priority targets for conservation action. The loss of old-growth habitats largely drives today’s juggernaut of species extinctions.

                                            Giant sequoia, California Sierra Nevada

4. Many practically-minded conservationists resignedly accept triage as a necessary evil. Too much must be done with too little time and resources. On the other hand, every species has value, every habitat contributes functionally to important processes and ecologic resilience at larger scales, and every conservation effort contributes to saving diverse life forms and functional ecosystems. However challenging it may be to pry it free, there really is sufficient money and resources to protect most of remaining nature and put in place effective conservation at local to monumental scales. A committed humanity can easily survive reallocating funding from the private sector, military budgets, obsolete subsidies, and pharaonic development projects. And there are lots and lots of people to do whatever is necessary. The fourth notion, then, is that it is one or the other, triage or save everything―polarized opinions that often engender distracting debate. Priority-setting must help guide the timing, sequence, and relative resource allocation of conservation efforts, but every species, habitat, and conservation effort has value, no matter how local. No species gets left behind.

5. Fifth notion. Conservation success has been attributed to both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ motivators. One commonly encounters the polyannic notion that ‘carrot’ approaches, such as environmental education and ecotourism, are sufficient, by themselves, for long-term success. But human nature and escalating local and global demand for natural resources ensures that spoilers are everywhere and ever present, whether they are people or companies inside or outside of conservation steward entities. Effective compliance, supported by a good enforcement strategy and program (and equable distribution of conservation-related profits), ensures successful conservation investments and sustainability. Conserve softly but carry a big stick.

6. Sixth notion. Well-intentioned and thoughtful optimists offer hope that as we drive major changes in the biosphere that our species will simply adapt. We may indeed adapt, but the amount of hardship, suffering, strife, and mortality associated with our ‘adaptation’ likely depends greatly on how much natural habitat is retained and how well natural ecosystems still maintain favorable conditions. Again, the notion that technological advances will mend degraded biosphere processes or replace them altogether is quixotic, at best. New technology may reduce habitat loss and pollution, but replacing the role of a healthy biosphere in maintaining planetary–scale life-sustaining processes within the next 80 years is a pipe dream.

7. The seventh notion―the end is near. Barring a nuclear holocaust or sizable asteroid impact, complex life will persist after multiple planetary boundaries are reached and biospheric conditions shift to novel states. Humans may have a hardscrabble time of it, but there is a good likelihood our species will make it through this crisis phase, hopefully to emerge a lot wiser, more cooperative, and in better balance with our extraordinary and singular home. One cannot expect to engender support for conservation by saying all is lost, so it is a good thing there really is considerable hope, but our gravely serious situation should not be understated or ignored. What is at stake is our future quality of life and the opportunities lost, hardships endured, disasters suffered, and cosmic loneliness we will have to live with if we fail to conserve the Earth’s profusion of complex life and profoundly alter our long-sustaining biosphere.

Mariposa lily & buckwheat, Southern California

Explore Further
Lenton, TM. 2011. Early warning of climate tipping points. Nature Climate Change 1:201-209. Doi:10.1-38/nclimate1143.

Noss, RF, AP Dobson, R Baldwin, P Beier, CR Davis, DA DellaSala, J Francis, H Locke, K Nowak, R Lopez, C Reining, SC Trombulak, G Tabor. 2012. Bolder thinking for conservation. Conservation Biology 26:1-4.

Running, SW. 2012. A measurable planetary boundary for the biosphere. Science 337:1458-1459.


Welcome Earthlings! EARTH DUSK revels in the incredible life on this planet, shares angst over deterioration of our home, and discusses solution to the biosphere and biodiversity crisis.