Why saving lemurs will save this country’s rainforests

TakePart | November 6, 2014

Lemur in MadagascarMore than 90 percent of Madagascar’s lemur population faces extinction. Now scientist say that could threaten the future of the African island’s rainforests.

What do lemurs do for rainforests? Poop in them. Because lemur droppings contain tree seeds, they’re one of Madagascar’s best tree farmers, according to a new study published in the journal Ecology.

The study tracked the seed dispersal behavior of the island nation’s largest lemurs and followed the growth of a rainforest tree called Cryptocarya crassifolia. The findings revealed that seeds dispersed via lemurs were 300 percent more likely to grow into saplings than seeds that just dropped onto the ground.

“Lemurs may play an important role as gardeners of Madagascar’s rainforest, but they are at risk of extinction across the island,” said Amy Dunham, an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University.

Onja Razafindratsima, a graduate student of Dunham’s, was the lead researcher in the study. “Only by understanding what role they play in the ecosystem can we hope to understand what the consequences of their loss may be,” she said.

A Malagasy native, Razafindratsima conducted the study in Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar’s southeast region. She spent a year following 24 groups of lemurs to figure out where they were dispersing seeds in the rainforest and noted the amount of sunlight that fell through the rainforest canopy. She then studied how those habitats affected the probability of seeds sprouting and thriving.

“One particular lemur species—the red-fronted brown lemur—tended to drop seeds away from parent trees in places where there’s opening in the rainforest canopy,” Razafindratsima said. The red-fronted brown lemur also tended to eat more seeds than its lemur brethren, making the species the most effective at seed dispersal, she said.

The other two lemur species studied, the southern black-and-white ruffed lemur and the red-bellied lemur, also promoted rainforest growth by moving seeds away from the parent tree—where competition for sapling resources is fierce, and chances of seedling development are lower.

“These two lemur species greatly enhance the recruitment of this tree species and its ability to regenerate,” Dunham said.

But knowledge of how important the species is to Madagascar’s rainforests doesn’t change the grim prognosis for the declining lemur population, which faces habitat loss from slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting.

“Some of the actions that need to be done would be to protect more forest habitat, to increase regulations on mining and wood extraction, and to provide alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture,” said Razafindratsima.

In February, a group of lemur conservationists published an article in the journal Science recommending local actions to address the population decline. Those included increasing protected areas managed by local communities, promoting greater ecotourism in Madagascar, and increasing the presence of field researchers.

While conservation is key, Razafindratsima and Dunham believe there needs to be a balance between lemurs and the needs of local villagers, who they say use slash-and-burn techniques on the rainforest to grow food to feed their children.

“It’s a difficult problem, because we have to consider not just the animals but the people who live around the rainforest,” Dunham said. “We need to be sensitive with both people and animals while we figure out ways to conserve there as well.”

Photo of lemur in Ramonafana National Park by Yves Picq via Wikimedia Commons

Space lasers could help count the carbon for the trees

TakePart | September 10, 2014

redwood_forestLasers, 3-D imagery and outer-space surveillance sounds like cutting room floor fodder of a scrapped Austin Powers film, but it’s all part of NASA’s latest effort to map the Earth’s forests and gain a better understanding on climate change.

Dubbed Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar—the nod to Star Wars may be entirely coincidental—the laser instrument will be designed to hitch a ride aboard the International Space Station. Once aboard, it will pump out large-scale 3-D imagery of forests. Lidar—the type of laser mapping tool that Google uses to guide its self-driving cars—will be deployed to measure the height and configuration of a forest’s canopy and undergrowth.

NASA and the University of Maryland hope the technology will give scientists a better picture of just how much carbon is stored in the Earth’s forests and the impact of logging on climate change.

“There’s an open question of what is the net balance between the amount of deforestation taking place and subsequent regrowth,” said Ralph Dubayah, a University of Maryland professor who is leading the GEDI project. “If we don’t know what that is, we don’t know what future atmospheric levels of CO2 are and it becomes hard to run climate models.”

With a 3-D picture—or fingerprint—of a forest, experts would be able to calculate the weight of its trees and figure out how much carbon they contain. About half of a tree’s biomass is carbon, according to Dubayah.

Armed with the new data, policy makers should be able to quantify the potential amount of carbon that could be released into the atmosphere by deforestation or forest fires. They then could determine what it would take to offset that release, such as by planting more trees.

Deploying lidar from space will be an improvement over the way forests are currently monitored.

Airplanes currently are used to shoot lidar lasers down into forests, thereby mapping the height and configuration of a forest’s canopy and undergrowth.

But the plane’s limited range restricts the amount of data that can be collected.

“From space, you can get access to essentially all the world’s forests,” Dubayah said. “Aircraft is expensive and if you’re in the middle of a rainforest, there are a lot of logistics involved in doing that. If you use lasers in space, you acquire much more data much more rapidly at cheaper cost.”

The GEDI system is still in development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is slated for deployment in mid-2018. Dubayah hopes that the first batch of data will be available by 2019, with the program running continuously from the International Space Station.

“If we’re going to make any kind of policy changes in the U.S., one way to do that is by planting trees and running climate and land use models to look at potential scenarios,” Dubayah said. “It’s hard to run models forward in time that evaluate alternative policy scenarios if we don’t know what we’re starting with.”

Photo of Northern California redwood forest by Kirt Edblom via flickr/Creative Commons

The link between dying wildlife, slavery and terrorism

TakePart | July 24, 2014

Rhino Action Day 2010The decimation of the planet’s wildlife is extracting a high cost on humans as it drives child slavery, human trafficking, and terrorism, according to a special report published Thursday in the journal Science.

Take poaching. Beyond the horrific impact on vanishing species, the slaughter of rhinoceroses and elephants for their valuable horns and tusks has bankrolled terrorist attacks in Africa by the extremist group Boko Haram.

The severe depletion of fish stocks around the world, meanwhile, has prompted an increased demand for cheap labor in the form of child slavery. That’s because it takes more time, workers, and money to catch fish that are less abundant, according to Justin Brashares, an ecology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead author of the Science paper.

“Millions of dollars are being spent by the European Union and the United Nations in anti-wildlife trafficking efforts—China started doing this as well—but almost all of [the efforts] are enforcement based,” he said. “They overlook that more than a billion people rely on natural resources for their livelihoods and don’t have any alternatives.”

Brashares wrote in the report that diminished fish stocks can push foreign fishing boats to travel farther for their catch, which puts more pressure on local fish populations. Such competition for scarce resources can lead to violent incidents, such as when Somali pirates attack foreign fishing boats that enter their waters.

Local, national, and international laws that recognize communities’ fishing and hunting rights—also known as tenure rights—are needed to address the underlying poverty driving such illegal actions, Brashares said.

“Fiji is a popular example where local fishing communities were given tenure rights,” Brashares said. “It seems to have worked very well in regulating harvesting and sustainability and allowed communities to be more connected to economic markets. In Namibia, local communities have secured tenure rights to wildlife and have had really positive outcomes in sustainability.”

So what can you do?

Brashares believes the most effective action individuals can take is to use resources such as GoodGuide—which rates the environmental health and safety of consumer products—or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations to identify responsible purchases. Economic decisions have more impact than emails to members of Congress, he said.

“If you say, ‘I can’t find out if my fish comes from slave labor,’ then I say that’s a great role for our nonprofits,” Brashares said. “We can push the Monterey Bay Aquarium to tell us what fish is socially sustainable.”

Photo of Rhino Action Day 2010 protest in South Africa by Stefan Möhl via fickr/Creative Commons