Monday, 22 October 2007

A quote from The Independent

I hope Alan MacColl and the Editor of the Independent won't mind, but I could not resist this very eleoquent letter published today. The Indie has been at the forefront of environmental reporting (even if it does still promote its motoring supplements).

America is ploughing up the last remnants of the Great Plains grasslands to produce fuel for SUVs ("Victims of the ethanol rush", 19 October); old-growth forest in Canada is cut down for tissues and toilet paper; the ancient forest of Tasmania is being turned into woodchips for Japanese paper manufacturers. If supposedly advanced western democracies continue to promote such greedy and reckless behaviour, what hope is there of persuading weak or corrupt states like Brazil and Indonesia to adopt more rational and responsible policies towards their forests?
Alan MacColl

Hermitage, Berkshire

The Independent 22 October

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Yacyretá: One reserve, lots of different habitats!

Guest blog by WLT's web manager, Helena Akerlund, who has just returned from Paraguay, where she was volunteering with Guyra Paraguay.

Now that I am back in the UK, the whole Paraguay experience is already starting to feel vaguely unreal, but there are still lots to tell, so here goes:

The darker side of Paraguay

Silvia Centron and Arne Lesterhuis of Guyra Paraguay putting up a mistnet in Yacyretá Reserve.
Prior to my second field trip with Guyra Pararguay I managed to nearly electrocute myself, met a money-hungry policeman and had to pretend to be American. I would love to tell all, but this is probably not the right place. Instead, let's just say that I have experienced a slightly darker side of Paraguay, with bureaucracy, corruption and somewhat dodgy wiring...

Yacyretá: Almost all the habitats of Paraguay in one location!

All troubles sorted, I went off to help with bird ringing in Yacyretá, a private nature reserve in south of Paraguay located on the border with Argentina. The Yacyretá reserve is owned by the company of the same name and situated around the dam built and managed by the company.

The area is a bit surreal: The whole town, or suburb rather, was built by the company to house its workers, so has a slightly artificial feel to it. While the construction of the dam invariably had an impact on the environment and local community, the company is now investigating in conservation and Guyra Paraguay is helping with among other things the monitoring of bird species in the reserve. And there are a lot of birds! The reserve features everything from dunes and wetlands, through scrub, grassland and palm savannahs to Atlantic forest, each habitat type with its own specific bird species.

Look for the red eyes...

Sickle-winged Nightjar (Eleothieptus anomalus)
Sickle-winged Nightjar (Eleothieptus anomalus) resting on the road side after having been measured and weighted.
We arrived at sunset after a five hour drive from Asunción and had no time to rest: Although our primary aim was to do some mist net trapping of two target species (more on this later), we were also going to undertake another bird monitoring project: Mark-release-recapture studies of the rare Sickle-winged Nightjar (Eleothieptus anomalus), which occurs as a small population at Yacyretá, and is active at dusk.

If mistnet trapping is the bird monitoring version of a beach holiday, with plenty of sitting around in the sun and the occasional stroll to coax birds towards the net, searching for the Sickle-winged Nightjar was more like an action-adventure trip for offroad junkies: In the light of the full moon, one person drove the 4x4 truck across the incredibly bumpy, sandy tracks of the savannah grasslands, with the other two standing on the back, holding on for dear life with one hand (well, I was anyway) and scanning the pitch-black fields with a torch in the other, hoping to catch the reflection of the birds' red eyes in the light. Not the easiest thing in the world, and I'm sure the health and safety obsessed UK volunteering organisations would disapprove, but it was great fun and very good exercise for both arms and legs. And since I was holding the binoculars at face height every day and the torch every night for five days consecutively, I'm convinced I ended up with toned biceps!

I'm not a real birdwatcher after all

Bearded Tachuri (Polystrictus pectoralis)
Bearded Tachuri (Polystrictus pectoralis) being photographed before its release.
Apart from the Nightjar, we were on the lookout for two other rare birds: The Bearded Tachuri (Polystrictus pectoralis) and the Ochre-breasted Pipit (Anthus nattereri). Although we managed to coax a couple of the former into the mistnet, the latter was completely absent, and when we went for a walk across a field trying to find one, I proved that I'm not a proper birdwatcher after all: When we spotted some Howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) in a nearby tree, I defected and ran off to take photographs of the monkeys instead...

I was completely overwhelmed with the number of birds we saw and the species list I was making was beginning to be so incomplete as to be completely worthless, but I carried on regardless - I wanted to get an idea of how many species you can expect to see without going into enormous trouble. Apart from birds and Howler monkeys we also saw otters, capivara, caimans, iguanas, deer, rabbit and what I would like to think was a Maned Wolf, but was probably a smaller fox or racoon.

Too close for comfort?

Howler monkey
Howler monkey feeding on the flowers and shoots of a tree.
On our last day in the Reserve, we stumbled upon a whole family of Howler monkeys in the forest, right next to the trail, where we had previously just seen the odd individual and heard the howling of the rest of the group in the distance (which sounds just like the howling of the wind between the trees!). Amazed, we stopped to watch and photograph them as they moved effortlessly from tree to tree, grunting quietly and munching on petals and shoots. As we finally decided we'd seen enough and continued walking along the trail, the monkeys apparently decided that they too had had enough, and proceeded to throw faeces at us from the tree tops! Luckily we were out of range, but it was an interesting way to finish off our visit, and a reminder of who is in charge in the Atlantic Forest.

Next: In my final field trip, we spent an evening being entertained by enthusiastic explorers, found out who's in charge in the Pantanal and experienced a moment of pure, primal fear...

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Want to scare yourself?

Click here.

And now try and convince me that there is any other real problems other than the human population crisis.........

Friday, 12 October 2007

How to make an appeal with one's foot in one's mouth

America's National Wildlife Federation - a widely respected body -- sent out "An Urgent Message today about Global Warming" urging its one million members to make a donation to the organisation. AND, "For $30 you'll get a handsome fleece vest." AND " for $50'll get the vest and an adorable penguin plush" I don't know what a 'penguin plush' is, but it looks a bit like a kids toy in the photo.

Now clearly Jeremy Symons, The Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation's Global Warming Campaign (who signed the appeal) has not made the connection between the overt consumerism of the USA and the causes of global warming. It does not take an enormous amount of brain-power to work out that the manufacture and distribution of one million 'fleeces' and a 'plushes' would actually be contributing to global warming.

There are far too many businesses jumping on the green bandwagon, but it is depressing to find a conservation group not thinking things through.

I know they will justify it by saying they are reaching out to new audiences etc etc etc. But frankly, I don't believe it; they are appealing to their existing one million supporters. And I doubt very much that any of them actually NEED a fleece or a plush penguin. To me it is simply a sympton of the consumerisim which is so deeply embedded in the cultures of the developed world, that it is almost impossible to erradicate -- and therein lies one of the fundamental causes of global warming. It would be nice if an organisation like the NWF promised to give away free family planning literature instead..... but therin lies another tale.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

water water every where, and far too much to drink

I would like to return to one of my old hobby horses. I go to London most weeks, and this week was no exception. I am a Trustee of the BBC Wildlife Fund, and we were assessing the applications for funds to be distributed from the £1.4 million raised in the summer.

But travelling across London on the underground I was aware of the number of travellers clutching plastic bottles of water. I have been travelling on the London underground for over 50 years, and this a relatively new phenomenon. Why?

It appears that there is a widespread belief that everyone needs to drink two litres of water a day. Presumably this is a rumour spread by the manufacturers of bottled water, because there is no scientific evidence for this. You need to drink water, when you feel thirsty -- the body self regulates.

But with all this talk about saving energy, banning the sale of bottled water ( or at least taxing it to the limit) would be an instant way of saving vast amounts of energy. Non-renewable resources and fossil fuels are involved at every stage of the manufacture and production. The bottles themselves, the collection of the water, the distribution, and the disposal of the waste bottles. And yet perfectly good, potable water comes out of taps (despite the arguments about it tasting of chlorine, etc, it is perfectly healthy and safe). In fact some of the bottled water has more nitrates, and more chemicals than tap water. In fact I saw on one website the claim that some bottled waters couldn't be supplied through the tap, since they wouldn't meet H & S regulations.

And surely bottled water wastes more energy than leaving a TV on standby? But do politicians ever mention it? No, they drink it at all their meetings.

Does any one have a figure for the embedded energy in a bottle of water (including distribution and disposal)?

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

carbon con's

An article in The Times

drew attention to a clampdown on fake and exaggerated green claims by the UK's ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY.

And high time too. The World Land Trust, through it's carbonbalanced programme is trying to do reforestation and ecological restoration to the highest possible standards. And we try to be accountable and transparent. But there are lots of businesses out there, some of which are not far short of a scam. So CAVEAT EMPTOR.

This conference
has a large number of companies some of which seeem to be simply cashing in on carbon -- I don't know much about most of them so any info would be useful -- are any of them doing any serious ofsetting?

I would like to hear from anyone with problems.

And if you want to know more about our programme and why we think ours is the best --do contact us.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Environmental education and ecological restoration in the San Rafael reserve

Guest blog by WLT's web manager, Helena Akerlund, who is currently visiting Paraguay, volunteering with Guyra Paraguay.

Sunset at Kanguery
The last day of my stay at San Rafael had a spectacular sunset - this alone made the visit worthwhile!
In a previous post about San Rafael Reserve I mentioned that Guyra Paraguay works very closely with local communities in the management of the land. Generally speaking, there is not much awareness of, or interest in environmental issues and conservation in the country, but hopefully this is changing with the help of Gurya and others: Various campaigns highlighting the plight of endangered species or the threats to the natural environment in general are advertised on big billboards in cities and along the roads, and TV adverts (albeit on special-interest channels) for Greenpeace encourage individuals to help protect jaguars and other threatened species in South America.

Guyra Paraguay, together with other non-governmental organisations, form the San Rafael Conservation Alliance, the goals of which is to by land to create a centre of conservation in the National Park. The surrounding, privately owned areas, will be offered incentives (including certification for the growth of organic crops) so that the land can be managed sustainably under various conservation schemes. For instance, Guyra is working with local farmers growing organic Yerba máte, the economically important tree that is used to make máte tea and "national drink" tereré (cold máte with ice). Yerba máte is a forest species and can therefore be sustainably harvested wild, or planted together with other native trees as part of a restoration scheme. (The organic yerba grown by the farmers in San Rafael is exported to the US and is said to have a milder, less sharp taste than the conventionally grown yerba.)

Education is vitally important in changing attitudes and Guyra are working with both young and old to spark an interest in conservation and wildlife. In San Rafael, this includes school trips to the reserve (which has a brilliant education room with books, games and posters) as well as visits to local schools by Guyra staff.

Trees planted for carbon offsets
WLT's Mark Gruin and Guyra's Reinaldo Sánchez looking over the field where nature is being given a helping hand. (The larger trees/saplings are self-seeded, the smaller ones were planted last year as part of WLT's restoration ecology/carbon balancing programme.)
The local communities are directly involved in the practical conservation work, with training courses in how to manage the land, use GIS for monitoring and opportunities to assist with for example tree planting. In San Rafael we visited an open area where the forest was in the process of regenerating. Some trees have already established, including fruit trees grown from the seeds discarded by previous settlers. To help speed up the process of forest re-generation, Guyra is organising the planting of native species - and this is where WLT's Carbon Balanced programme is involved: Carbon offset funds are invested in this restoration ecology project, and it was great to se first hand how the area looks, and visualise the forest that will eventually be established.

Next: Bird monitoring & random animal encounters in Yacyreta - a nature reserve with a great variety of wildlife habitats, including forest, grassland, wetland and sand dunes.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Parochial issues

After a gap of many years, a couple of years ago I resubscribed to BB (British Birds Magazine, to the non-British readers of this), and have found the content a delight to read. However, my reading is blighted by the ludicrous use of nomenclature. In this tercentenary year of the Birth of Linneaus, it is worth recalling that Scientific names were developed in order to provide stability, and to ensure that scientists knew precisely which species was being discussed. However, BB along with many county bird reports, now not only use latin names as if they were confetti, but also try and use 'international' standardised vernacular names. This, to me totally misses the point, and wastes a lot of space. Provided a standard nomenclature is used, there is absolutely no necessity to have both scientific and vernaculars, and, certainly no need, in a paper on British Birds to refer to Eurasian this and European that. If it is deemed essential to have latin names, then each issue could have an appendix at the back giving them. This would make papers a lot easier to read and save endless repition of latin names.

The reason this came to my attention was that not having kept up with recent taxonomic changes I came across this new species of bird, the Great and Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) (see Vol 100:528). Of course it dawned on me pretty quick, this was the Great Tit (Parus Major) and Blue Tit (P. caeruleus). But the thought of the Great and Blue Tit as a lifer has a certain appeal.

Changing Lightbulbs

The suggestion that it is a huge environmental advance to make everyone change from incandescant lightbulbs to fluorescent bulbs leaves me utterly incredulous. This truly is an example of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. BUt this is what the politicians want us to believe is an important step forward.

Think about it. All over Britain there are tens of thousands of lightbulbs left switched on all night for no apparent purpose. Street lights. Lights in shops that are closed. Lights illuminating the outside of buildings.

There is only one way of making significant energy savings, and that is to increase the price dramatically, otherwise, energy saving will invariably increase the disposable income in someone's pockets, which they will spend on something that will almost certainly use energy and other resources. It's an old hobby horse of mine, but we really need to think a bit more strategically at the issues.

I spent a couple of days in London this week, and ended up utterly and completely depressed. For all the talk about environmental awareness, it is perfectly plain to me that 99% of the population do not really care -- they are obsessed with fashion, with far too many cheap electrical goods, too much 'stuff' everywhere. Cheap transport, cheap everything. And too many people, all aspiring to own more and more of it. Switching the TV off and changing to fluorescent lightbulbs (which I saw somewhere, have mercury in them) is not going to save the world. We need some big gestures, and big gestures only come from governments. But with virtually all governments totally committed to economic growth, making commodities as cheap as possible, what hope is there? Never was it truer, to state: "It's the economy, stupid." I hope someone can find a light at the end of the tunnel.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Part II: San Rafael - Birds, butterflies and coatis in the Atlantic Forest

Guest blog by WLT's web manager, Helena Akerlund, who is currently visiting Paraguay, volunteering with Guyra Paraguay.

Human impact in the National Park

Kanguery River
Kanguery, the centre of administration at San Rafael, is named after this river, which flows through the reserve.
In my previous post about my visit to Paraguay, I mentioned the long drive to get to the San Rafael Reserve. The length of time it takes to get there is misleading in several ways: Firstly because the road conditions make it impossible to drive at normal speeds, making the distance from the capital seem greater than it actually is and secondly because the reserve location, although in the centre of the National Park, is surrounded by privately owned properties, where land owners continue to use the land for cattle, timber extraction or agriculture. Also nearby is a wedge of land which is not part of the National Park, but cuts right into the centre, making the protected area vulnerable to illegal logging and poaching. I knew this already, but for some reason I had imagined Kanguery, the reserve's centre of administration and visitor accommodation, to be in the middle of nowhere, a sanctury for wildlife away from human influence. This couldn't be further from the truth; the reserve is worryingly accessible. The road to it may be nothing more than a dirt track, but it goes right through the reserve and is still sometimes used as a route to the communities on the other side of the reserve, despite the existence of a newer road around the Park. I could see and hear human activities everywhere, from the fires burning on the neighbouring land and the white dots of the cows grazing in the distance, to the sound of motorbikes on the track and the litter left behind by those travelling through (drink and food cans, used nappies, discarded clothing etc.).

On our first day at the reserve, Mark Gruin, Head of Operations for WLT and Rodrigo Zárate, Reserves Manager for Guyra Paraguay, and I set off early in search of birds. There were regular interruptions from motorbikes and horses on the track but despite this there were plenty of birds to be seen - or heard at least, including some rarities: Whilst I was off taking photos of the forest Mark and Rodrigo spotted a woodpecker species not previously seen in San Rafael. Typical! Butterflies fluttered around in their hundreds and crickets (or whatever they were) turned the volume up and down as if on cue, but the continuous sounds of human activity kept reminding me that we weren't far from civilisation.

Field Flickers (Colaptes campestris)
Kanguery is prefect for the lazy birdwatcher: It's possible to see lots of birds without even leaving the guest house, both around the centre itself and in the grasslands surrounding it. These are Field Flickers (Colaptes campestris).

Wildlife in the Atlantic Forest

Although the reserve isn't as remote as I imagined, it does a good job of protecting what is left of the forest, which is still big enough that it would be easy to lose oneself if venturing away from the tracks. The vegetation around Kanguery (like much of the rest of the park) is secondary forest: it was abandoned by the previous land owner after all the good wood had been removed and the land grazed by cattle for a while, but in 20 or so years the forest has recovered quite well. There are few really tall trees, but there is enough cover for it to "feel" like a forest and there is no shortage of wildlife: Apart from all the birds, mammals such as tapir, maned wolf, deer and monkeys are all found here - even jaguars, although you'd have to work hard to spot one.

Butterflies in masses, flocking to drink from the soil on the track.
On our first day of bird watching, we went for a late afternoon walk through a different part of the forest, away from the road. Nearly dusk, there wasn't much light under the canopy, and birds were hard to see. But the subtle waving of reserve guard Reinaldo Sánchez alterted us to something else moving amongst the trees: A group of coatis (Nasua nasua) making a hasty retreat. I would love to say that I'd seen them, but to be honest all I saw was some blurry shadows moving down the tree trunks at great speed before disappearing into the dark of the forest. But still - I hadn't expected to see any mammals at all, so was very pleased indeed.

With Guyra Paraguay in the process of securing more properties within the park, the future looks promising for the wildlife still surviving in the Atlantic Forest, and with their restoration ecology initiatives, the re-generation of the forest is being given a helping hand. More about this in my next post...

Monday, 1 October 2007

Thought for the Day

It is not just biodiversity losses we should be worrying about, it is the biomass. Think about it: biomass is related to carrying capacity. If England's farmlands are producing "x" tonnes of oilseed rape per acre, when years ago it was only "y" tonnes of weed-laden oats per acre, then it's the wildlife biomass that getting squeezed, however much artificial fertilizer is being added, and however much pesticide is being sprayed..

And if the populations of goats in Africa have gone up by 20 times in the past half century, then the wild antelope, and other wildlife will have decreased by a similar amount. It's what known as ecological balance. And no amount of research or education will change it.

Depressing but true.