June 12, 2013 9:54 am
Last February, Guatemala declared a state of national emergency. Coffee rust, a devastating fungal disease that parasitizes coffee plant leaves, had struck the Latin American nation. Soon, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica—all major coffee-producing countries—reported similar outbreaks at their plantations. At this point, Wired reports, the disease has reached epidemic proportions in the region.
Regional production fell by 15 percent last year, putting nearly 400,000 people out of work, and that’s just a taste of what’s to come. The next harvest season begins in October, and according to the International Coffee Organization, crop losses could hit 50 percent.
These crops tend to be a variety of coffee called Arabica, which is prized by coffee connoisseurs. It’s not the coffee snobs but the farmers and workers who will really suffer, however. After coffee rust takes hold, the disease is difficult to get under control. Many famers can’t afford expensive fungicides, and plants may take years to recover on their own, Wired reports.
Nobody knows precisely why the outbreak reached such extraordinary levels this year, though several factors are implicated. The most prominent is climate: In the past, environmental conditions at high Central American altitudes were not especially conducive to the fungus, which requires warm, humid air to thrive, said coffee rust specialist Cathy Aime of Purdue University.
Scientists first recorded the disease in Kenya in 1861, and it turned up in Sri Lanka a few years later. By the 1920s, it had spread throughout Africa and Asia by the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it made its way to Central America. According to Wired, this trend will probably worsen: Thanks to climate change, coffee rust’s ideal habitat—warm, humid conditions—seems to be spreading as higher elevations and more northern areas warm up.
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June 5, 2013 12:19 pm
Conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval’s passion for protecting sea turtles likely cost him his life. Sandoval was always outspoken against wildlife poachers and their link to drug trafficking, the New Scientist explains:
In articles published in April in La Nación, Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, Mora Sandoval and other conservationists highlighted the links between drug trafficking and wildlife poaching – including a disturbing trend for crack-addicted poachers to be paid for turtle eggs with drugs.
Turtle eggs are believed by local people to be an aphrodisiac, and retail for about US$1 each….Given that a single nest can contain 80 or more eggs, trading in turtle eggs can be a lucrative sideline for criminals employed by drugs gangs to move their products along the coast.
Sandoval was found dead on Friday, his body discarded on a beach he used to patrol for baby leatherback turtles with the non-profit conservation group Widecast, the New Scientist reports. Sandoval had been bound, beaten and shot point-blank through the head. The Huffington Post elaborates:
Mora Sandoval, 26, had been patrolling the beach along with four other female volunteers Thursday night when masked men kidnapped them. The women escaped their attackers and went to police, [Widecast director Didiher] Chacon said.
Authorities and colleagues suspect his murder was carried out by drug traffickers working around the Costa Rican beach where Sandoval carried out his turtle research. This isn’t just a problem in Costa Rica: 2011 and 2012 saw a significant increase in the number of environmental scientists and activists murdered over the wildlife or habitats they sought to protect, Yale’s Environment 360 reports.
Most likely, drug dealers got tired of dealing with Sandoval’s efforts to protect the turtles and call attention to their illegal activities. In March 2012, traffickers raided a turtle incubation station on the beach and held the workers at gunpoint while they smashed all of the eggs. According to the New Scientist, locals later confirmed that the raid was a warning, though Sandoval did not comply.
Just weeks before his death, More Sandoval was personally threatened at gunpoint, and given a similar warning. “We said, ‘You should get the hell out of there, that’s just too much,’” says Christine Figgener, a friend who works for another turtle conservation project at Ostional, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
Conservationists suspect that the police will lose interest in protecting the beach after the buzz surrounding Sandoval’s death dies down, the New Scientist reports, and they worry that the foreign volunteers who carry out much of the work will stop coming due to safety concerns.
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May 30, 2013 9:38 am
In Asia, demand for exotic meat and medicinal ingredients drives the illegal market in wildlife. But half a world away, in Colombia, it’s the pet trade that motivates poachers. And these days, nothing is more sought after than a pet sloth, according to an undercover Nightline report.
According to an ABC story that followed up on the investigation, animal trafficking now ranks just after gun and drug sales as the most profitable illegal industry in Colombia. Colorful birds, monkeys and sloths turn up in markets in the country and also make their way into the U.S.
An estimated 60,000 animals were trafficked last year alone, including a growing number of sloths.
In what is now considered the biggest exotic pet seizure in American history, 27,000 animals, including several sloths, were rescued from a pet distributor in Arlington, Texas, in 2009. Undercover video shot by PETA members showed that the sloths were kept in filthy cages that lacked the necessary equipment for the animals to survive in captivity, including heat lamps and humidifiers. The bodies of several sloths were later found in the facility’s freezer.
Sloths may be cute and gentle, but they are notoriously finicky animals. Their leaf-based diet includes around 40 rainforest plants. Their specialized digestive systems host symbiotic bacteria that break down the tough leaves, and they can take up to a month to digest a single meal. On their own, none of the six sloth species can survive outside of a tropical rainforest.
It is illegal to sell wildlife in Colombia, but ABC reports that one region, Cordoba, has become a hot spot of illegal activity. Police turn a blind eye and, according to ABC’s local guide, paramilitary groups still largely control the area. On the streets, sloths sell for about $30 each. From the investigation, ABC reports:
When a car suddenly pulled up next to us, the traffickers scattered, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Supposedly, it was the mayor of a nearby town who wanted to take a photo with the sloth.
Then, we got word of another suspected trafficker who had sloths for sale outside of a house. When we arrived, a family of pale-throated sloths, a mother with two babies, was being sold together, all three kept in one crate.
The team wound up purchasing the sloth family for $125 and turned them over to a local conservationists for release back into the wild. While purchasing animals from illegal traders is not a long-term solution and in some ways only perpetuates the trade, that sloth family, at least, got a second chance.
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May 14, 2013 9:43 am
In Belize, they needed to build a road. Roads require rocks, there happened to be a really convenient, large pile of rocks for the construction team to use nearby. It also happened to be one of the largest Mayan pyramids in the country. Now that pyramid is gone, destroyed by bulldozers and backhoes.
The construction company building the road appears to have extracted crushed rocks from the pyramid to use as road fill. The pyramid, called the Nohmul complex, is at least 2,300 years old and sits on the border of Belize and Mexico. It’s over 100 feet tall, the largest pyramid in Belize left over from the Mayans.
Jaime Awe, the head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology said that the news was “like being punched in the stomach.” The pyramid was, he said, very clearly an ancient structure, so there’s no chance the team didn’t realize what they were doing. “These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness,” Awe told CBS News. He also said:
“Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines. To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can’t these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It’s mind-boggling.”
And it turns out that this is an ongoing problem in Belize. The country is littered with ruins (although none as large as Nohmul), and construction companies are constantly bulldozing them for road fill. An archaeologist at Boston University said that several other sites have already been destroyed by construction to use the rocks for building infrastructure. There isn’t much in the way of protection or management of these sites in Belize, so many people who live in the country either aren’t aware of their significance, or aren’t taught to care.
The Huffington Post has photographs from the scene, showing backhoes and bulldozers chipping away at the stone structure. HuffPo ends this story on a lighter note, pointing out that due to the destruction, archaeologists can now see the inner workings of the pyramid and the ways they were built.
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April 22, 2013 11:10 am
If there are things in this world we can all agree are bad, hangnails, world hunger and oil spills might be a few of them. But invasive species are up there, too. Now consider the lionfish—the beautiful, poisonous and ravenous fish that is making its invasive way across the Atlantic ocean like a slow-crawling, devastating oil spill.
The comparison is apt in a few ways, says NPR:
They reproduce every few days and eat anything that fits into their mouths. And nothing eats them because they’re covered with venomous spines.
Since it was first sighted in 1985, the lionfish has expanded its turf from Florida, all the way up to New York City and down to Venezuela, some 10,000 miles away from its native habitat in the South Pacific Ocean.
There are tons of myths about how the lionfish “spill” started. Some say that Hurricane Andrew destroyed a collector’s tanks, releasing the spiny demons into the ocean. Others claim that they were released maliciously. More likely, they came in ballast water on ships, or escaped from an aquarium shipment. But in reality, nobody knows.
Researchers who study lionfish genetics say that the current invaders are all very similar, genetically, which indicate that the current population came from just a few rogue individuals. One study puts the number at about eight original females. Others say it only requires three. Smithsonian reported on the invasion in 2009:
But soon those lionfish began to breed a dynasty. They laid hundreds of gelatinous eggs that released microscopic lionfish larvae. The larvae drifted on the current. They grew into adults, capable of reproducing every 55 days and during all seasons of the year. The fish, unknown in the Americas 30 years ago, settled on reefs, wrecks and ledges. And that’s when scientists, divers and fishermen began to notice.
Everywhere the lionfish arrives, it begins to slowly nibble away at the local flora and fauna. And since nothing eats it, it creeps along, much like an oil spill, until some sort of external force comes in to clean up. For oil spills, we have all sorts of ways to scoop and sponge and remove the offending sticky substance. But for lionfish, there’s really just one option: kill them. Kill them in large numbers, preferably. To encourage people to do so, several places have come up with recipes for cooking and eating the colorful, poisonous critters.
“The flesh is actually very light and delicate,” REEF’s Lad Adkins told NPR. “It’s not strong flavored. So you can season it many different ways. It’s a great eating fish.”
So, like oil spills, lionfish are creep into an area, kill everything and stick around until we humans decide to do something about it. The only difference is you can’t make tasty tacos out of oil spills.
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