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Snowy Owl faces frosty future: classed as Vulnerable for the first time

04 January 2018
Climate change may be affecting the availability of the Snowy Owl's prey © Francais Cadien

One of the more eye-catching updates in the 2017 IUCN Red List paints a worrying picture for one of the world’s most familiar species. The Snowy Owl, an Arctic-nesting species with a range that spans the northern hemisphere, has been classed as Vulnerable for the first time.

Striking, widespread and widely recognised, thanks in part to the Harry Potter books, the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) was previously listed as Least Concern (LC), the lowest threat category of the IUCN Red List. However, this assessment was based on earlier figures that estimated the global population to number around 200,000 individuals, and the absence of evidence of significant declines.

More recent work by Eugene Potapov, Richard Sale and other researchers suggests that this difficult-to-survey species has a more patchy distribution than previously thought, concentrating in seven loose agglomerations. As a result, the earlier figures have been revised down to c. 14,000 pairs. However, the situation is complicated as the species’ population and range naturally fluctuates in response to the availability of its prey, which during the summer breeding season consists almost exclusively of various larger species of lemmings of the genera Dicrostonyx and Lemmus. In poor years it is now estimated that the global population could drop as low as 7,000 (or perhaps even 5,000) pairs.

The effects of climate change are also likely to be a significant threat

In addition, Snowy Owls may also be undergoing high rates of population decline due to illegal hunting, and collisions with vehicles and power lines. The effects of climate change are also likely to be a significant threat, as changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. On the basis of these apparently rapid rates of decline, the species’ global threat status has now been uplisted to Vulnerable.

“These ongoing – and, in the case of climate change, potentially worsening – threats, are driving declines that have resulted in the Snowy Owl having its global threat status upgraded, which means that this species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. The dramatically revised population estimates are a further source for concern, and the species must now be a high priority for further research and conservation action,” says Andy Symes, Global Species Officer, BirdLife International.

This story was written by Ed Parnell and featured originally on the Birdlife website, to see it in its original setting please click here.



Endangered primate discovered in threatened Atewa Forest, Ghana

21 December 2017
Photo: A Rocha

Scientists have discovered the globally threatened White-naped Mangabey (Cercocebus lunulatus) in Ghana’s Atewa Forest. The mangabey, a rare terrestrial monkey, is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, but a recent assessment of its population points toward it being a step closer to extinction. The primate was known to live in only a few sites in western Ghana, eastern Cote d’Ivoire and southern Burkina Faso, but was recently discovered by A Rocha scientists in the Atewa Forest using camera traps.

This newly discovered population of this endangered monkey is of enormous importance for the future of the species, but the Government of Ghana with the Government of China want to push ahead with plans to extract bauxite – the ore of aluminium – from the Atewa Hills at Kyebi.

In a letter to the President of Ghana dated 15 December, Dr Russ Mittermeier, Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Primate Specialist Group, writes: “It is a matter of some urgency that the forest is properly protected both from hunting and from habitat change… I urge that Ghana’s commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity and to the Sustainable Development Goals take precedence in this case and that Atewa Forest is removed from mining plans once and for all and made into a National Park.”

Photo: Jeremy LindsellBauxite cannot be extracted using a low impact method. The hilltops of Atewa will be completely removed during the mining process, thereby destroying all the vegetation and associated fauna. Re-establishment of the original flora and fauna on areas that have once been mined is virtually impossible especially with highly complex and biologically rich forests like Atewa.

“Extracting bauxite from Atewa Forest is incompatible with biodiversity conservation and the ecosystem services that the forest provides. It will spell the end of the unique and irreplaceable species that the forest contains,” says Jan Kamstra of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Netherlands.

Atewa Forest harbours a high diversity of threatened and endemic species including birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies and amphibians. In recent months, the high economic value of the ecosystem services that Atewa Forest provides to many Ghanaians was highlighted in a 2016 report to the Government of Ghana titled The Economics of the Atewa Forest Range, Ghana. Chief amongst these services is the clean water supply flowing from the Atewa hills on which over five million Ghanaians depend.



The invisible oil spill

19 December 2017
Photo: MichaelisScientists/CC4

Plastic is everywhere, polluting our waters, choking marine wildlife, and even in our food and water. I’ve seen plastics in every ocean I’ve dived in. It is a problem of global proportions but an ambitious EU Plastics Strategy can create vital momentum.

This article was written by Pierre-Yves Cousteau.

Marine plastic is a subject that is close to my heart. My father explored the world for 50 years and documented the health of marine life. Diving into his work, I have seen how the world has changed since his days. Climate change, overfishing, pollution and last, but far from least, land reclamations and coastal constructions, are devastating marine life worldwide.

Subsidies, in particular subsidies for oil, of which plastic is a product, are fueling many of these global threats. Our taxes are meant, among other things, to help mitigate the externalities of our consumerist societies, not to accelerate a cycle of blind destruction of nature, of which we are all witnesses today.

The Mediterranean is a closed sea, and as such represents an accelerated model of what may happen in the rest of the ocean. Here in Europe, we have an opportunity to demonstrate sustainable practices to the rest of the world.

Two sandbar sharks near Haleiwa, Hawaii in September 2016 during the World Conservation Congress. One of the sharks has a fishing hook in its jaw. "Plastic pollution is but one of the many pollutions we inflict upon nature. We should strive to address the root causes of our externalities, deeply engrained in civilisation, rather than focus on applying bandages to symptomatic problems." Photo credit: Pierre-Yves CousteauThe ocean provides many services to us. The organisms that live beyond our sight maintain the delicate physical, chemical and biological balances that keep us alive, regulating carbon, feeding hundreds of millions of people, and even producing more than half of the oxygen we breathe.

Plastic has empowered our civilization for a century and continues to provide immense benefits to mankind. But the convenience brought by disposable plastic is poisoning nature and us. And it has to stop. Should the convenience stop? Should the disposable plastic stop? Should the poisoning stop? Education and awareness raising, improvements in product lifecycle and design, and infrastructure adaptations can all help to solve the problem.

Today plastic is present everywhere in the world, from the polar ice sheets to deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I have dived all around the world for the past 10 years, and I have yet to complete a single dive without encountering plastic pollution in some form.

Ocean clean-up operations are necessary and helpful but they will not solve the problem. Only 15% of marine plastics float, meaning the amount that they are able to catch will be limited. They allow us to “mine” discarded materials, thus reducing production of ‘virgin’ plastic, but products made from these recycled plastics can fray or break down, continuing a cycle whereby we pollute the oceans. Innovation can address part of this multi-faceted issue, with products designed to better resist wear and tear and with fewer toxic residues.

As plastic waste breaks apart and erodes, it entangles, poisons and suffocates wildlife. When it reaches microscopic particle size, it enters the food chain, bioaccumulating within animals and biomagnifying throughout the food chain. Plastic is a lipid, just like cellular membranes, so it permeates right through the cell wall, disrupting normal cellular processes.

Archeological site of Santorini, Greece, 2017. Photo: Pierre-Yves Cousteau Swimming with sharks in Hawaii, I was in awe of these wonderful species. Some people are afraid of sharks. I’ll tell you what scares me much more: 30% of all commercially sold fish contain plastics in their gut. 30% of all oysters and mussels now contain little plastic pearls. And more staggeringly: microplastics were recently found in 80% of all the world’s tapwater.

In a recent report, the IUCN studied the various origins of primary microplastics. One major takeaway is that in addition to the natural erosion of plastic waste in the ocean, we also release microplastics directly into the environment, which enter the food chain immediately! The main sources of this invisible contamination are surprising: tyres and textiles (sometimes made from “recycled” plastic), which fray due to mechanical and chemical erosion.

This is a global issue of health and environmental safety. Recycling has a long way to go. Burning plastics creates a slew of new problems and adds to the other oil-related global issue of climate change. The slogan Reduce – Reuse – Recycle is currently broken, as re-used and recycled materials continue to release invisible plastic particles that we breathe in and eat. You and I, in our daily lives, can already have an impact by refusing single-use plastic.

This global problem is also a deeper reflection about packaging. During my last visit to Greece, I was impressed by the site of the 3500-year-old ash-preserved amphoras, which the ancient Greeks used to transport food. Throughout the ages, our storage systems have evolved to become what they are today: lighter and less perishable. With the unintended consequence of poisoning us and nature. Once more we must change.

Pierre-Yves Cousteau is a marine consultant and diver from France. You can get in touch with him on Twitter at @pycousteau. This article is an adapted version of the speech that he gave at the conference 'Marine Plastics Need European Action', organised by the IUCN European Regional Office and MEP Ricardo Serrão Santos in the European Parliament on 8 November.

Currently, the plastic problem is high on the political agenda, being discussed by heads of state of some of the most powerful countries in the world. In addition, both the G7 and the G20 have published action plans. A recent IUCN report shows that EU countries are starting to take action and that there is a desire for ambitious action to tackle plastic discards.  If the EU wants to be an environmental champion, it now has an opportunity, with the upcoming Plastics Strategy, to show just how ambitious it is.



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