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 on: Aug 31, 2015, 06:32 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

A year in a bubble: NASA begins most ambitious Mars-analog mission yet

A team of six NASA scientists begin a 365-day isolation experiment simulating life on Mars. How soon will a crewed mission be a reality?

By Annika Fredrikson, Staff August 29, 2015   

On Friday, a team of six sealed themselves inside a dome for a year, all in the name of science. Or at least, in the name of Mars.

The three men and three women, all scientists, are attempting to simulate what life would be like during a Mars mission. During the NASA-funded experiment, they will spend 365 days inside a 36-foot-wide, 20-foot tall-dome on the northern slope of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano.

"The HI-SEAS site presents a remarkably high-fidelity environment for this type of long-duration space study," said UH Mānoa’s Kim Binsted, the principal investigator for HI-SEAS III, in a NASA press release. "Looking out the single porthole window, all you can see are lava fields and Mauna Kea in the distance. Once the door is closed, and the faux airlock sealed, the silence and physical separation contribute to the ‘long way from home’ experience of our crew members."

The year-long isolation project is NASA's fourth mission in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) research project and the longest US isolation experiment to date. HI-SEAS IV is the second-longest Mars analog in the world, surpassed only by the third mission of the Mars500 project, jointly conducted by Russia, China and the European Space Agency, during which six men lived for 520 days in a contained 12-by-66 foot capsule.

NASA is using the HI-SEAS missions to study crewmember cohesion and the emotional and psychological effects of living in cramped quarters with limited exposure to sunlight.

Sound like a recipe for disaster? Just imagine an actual crewed mission to Mars, which NASA estimates could take three years to complete. That’s 1,095 days in isolation with the same handful of people.
Who is going?

Fortunately, the HI-SEAS IV team is an extraordinary group: crew commander and soil scientist Carmel Johnston, architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, doctor and journalist Sheyna Gifford, German physicist and engineer Christiane Heinicke, pilot and former flight controller at Lockheed Martin Andrzej Stewart, and French astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux.

Each will have their own particular tasks during the mission.

Mr. Bassingthwaighte is completing his doctorate in architecture, and he will be investigating how to create more livable environments in the extreme climates of Mars and Earth.

Ms. Johnston will research food production under artificial light.

Mr. Verseux will work on "making human outposts on Mars as independent as possible of Earth, by using living organisms to process Mars’ resources into products needed for human consumption," according to an article posted by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

As they perform their work, each member will have a sleeping cot and desk and be unable to go outside without donning a spacesuit, reported the BBC.

At least they will be able to leave the enclosure, unlike the team who spent two years inside the glass Biosphere 2, also in the name of science.

To simulate needed protection from solar radiation, the HI-SEAS dome has only one small porthole, reported ABC News. While factors such as weightlessness can’t be simulated, the dome does regulate electricity use, rely mainly on solar power, and have a strictly limited water supply.

"Showers in the isolated environment were limited to six minutes per week," wrote HI-SEAS Mission III member, Jocelyn Dunn on her blog.

The crew will have Internet access, with a built-in delay of 15 to 20 minutes to simulate the time it would take a radio signal to travel from Earth to Mars at the speed of light.

Is it worth it?

"I believe in a humankind that is space-faring, that expands its frontiers," said Diego Urbina, one of the men from the Mars500 team, in a video. "I believe we cannot risk losing everything we have done by putting all our eggs in one basket – Earth.”

In her blog, HI-SEAS IV doctor and journalist Ms. Gifford writes, “My existence on this planet means that we’re headed for Mars someday, maybe even someday soon.... I’m going to Hawaii now. Then a handful will make it all the way there.”

While experimental data from the mission is confidential, you can follow crew members Gifford, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Verseux on their personal blogs.

NASA anticipates at least fifteen years before a crewed mission will actually launch for Mars

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 06:29 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Rare (and adorable!) snow leopard cubs born at Chicago zoo

Chicago's Brookfield Zoo has released the first images of two rare snow leopard cubs, born in June.

By Beatrice Gitau, Staff August 29, 2015   

Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois announced Friday the birth of two female snow leopard cubs.

The two cubs, each weighing about 10 pounds, were born on June 16 and have been growing steadily and bonding with their mom, zoo officials said in a news release. The cubs will make their public debut in mid-October. 

This is exciting news for conservationists, as snow leopards are listed as endangered species by the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN), and like most big cats, their population is shrinking fast.

Fewer than 6,400 snow leopards survive in the wild, and they are spread across 12 countries, reports the World Wildlife Fund. Probably no more than 2,500 are of breeding age, say experts with the IUCN.

Snow leopards' numbers are declining because of “poaching for medicinal markets and hides, depletion of their prey base, retribution killing following livestock losses, residential and commercial development, and civil unrest,” according to the Chicago Zoological Society.

Snow leopards are found in the frigid, mountainous regions of central Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, China, Mongolia, and Russia.

The big cats have many adaptations to their mountain homes. For instance, snow leopards change their fur with the season. When it is winter, their furs are thick and white, which both serves as camouflage and helps keep them warm. By summer, they have shed their winter coats and grown a fine, yellow-grey fur to keep up with the heat, the WWF says. 

In addition, snow leopards have longer tails than their cousins, the other big cats, reaching more than three feet long. Not only do they help the leopards balance on steep, rocky slopes, they also help with protection against the cold, since the leopards can wrap their long tails around their bodies while resting.

Recommended: In Pictures Zoo babies:

According to the Chicago Zoological Society, there are just 145 snow leopards living at 63 institutions in North America. Each snow leopard has a unique pattern of spots.

The cubs were born to 4-year-old Sarani and her 5-year-old mate, Sabu. The pair arrived at Brookfield Zoo in October 2011 from Tautphaus Park Zoo in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Cape May County Park & Zoo in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, respectively.

News of their birth comes as animal lovers are still celebrating an announcement that the surviving giant panda cub born at the US National Zoo last Saturday is healthy and putting on weight.

Click to watch:

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 06:14 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Wanted! An army of citizen scientists to tackle air pollution

A Europe-wide project asks iPhone users to help monitor levels of pollution in major cities

Nicola Davis
Sunday 30 August 2015 07.00 BST

Turn off Tinder and exit Instagram – scientists want you to turn your iPhones to research. Launching on Tuesday, the iSpex-EU project aims to recruit people from major cities across Europe, including Manchester and London, to take part in an initiative to monitor levels of air pollution.

Run during the International Year of Light, a worldwide celebration of light and light-based technologies this year, the project aims to raise awareness of air pollution and contribute to scientific research by encouraging people to use their mobile phones to record levels of airborne particles and droplets known as atmospheric aerosols.

“The point of the project is to measure the concentration of very fine particles in the atmosphere and these can be from natural sources, things like forest fires or volcanic eruptions, through to manmade factors like burning diesel,” explains Toby Shannon, the UK national co-ordinator of the International Year of Light, who is based at London’s Institute of Physics, one of the organisations supporting the UK side of the iSpex-EU project.

Armed with a free accessory dubbed an “iSpex add-on”, participants will use their iPhones to scan the sky to capture the spectrum of light reaching the device, the angle of the measurement and a property of light known as its polarisation.

“When there are particles in the air, they change the polarisation state of sunlight and that is what we record with iSpex,” says Elise Hendriks, co-ordinator of the iSpex-EU project based at Leiden University in the Netherlands. A free accompanying iPhone app will automatically collect the data and display it on a map, visible both in the app and on a desktop site, together with colour-coded feedback of the aerosol level measured. The data will then be processed and further analysed by the iSpex team.

The initiative follows an initial iSpex project, led by Leiden University, which used a similar set-up to monitor such air-pollution across the Netherlands in 2013. Now the project is going further, looking at atmospheric aerosols in a number of cities across Europe. “Cities are involved generally because there is a higher chance of getting pollution, but also because you need a certain density of people to get good measurements,” explains Dr Hugo Ricketts from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science who is involved in the Manchester arm of the project.

It’s a pressing problem. The Earth’s climate, air traffic and human health are all affected by air pollution. A report from King’s College, London published this summer estimates that in London alone around 9,500 premature deaths a year are linked to high levels of air pollution, of which particulates in the air are a component. Indeed, after smoking “it is the second biggest public health challenge,” says Professor Frank Kelly, an expert in environmental health at the university.

While air pollution is currently monitored using satellite systems as well as ground-based monitoring stations, Kelly believes mobile devices could offer a host of advantages, and is involved in the development of such technologies himself.

“In an ideal world you want to know what the pollution is where you are at that particular point in time and for that you need small, mobile, accessible, cheap instrumentation,” he says. While iSpex is a step in the right direction, Kelly believes that there is room for development.

“It’s good for improving awareness and allowing people to make decisions about how they go from A to B,” he says. “But beyond that it’s not that useful as it doesn’t tell you exactly what you are being exposed to.”

But others believe the data collected by citizen scientists will complement current techniques and could lead to new insights and aid mapping. “What we are hoping to get out of this project is enough distribution [of measurements] over Manchester that you should be able to start seeing whether there is a particular area that is more affected by pollution or less affected by pollution,” says Ricketts.

The iSpex units can be requested by email from co-ordinators within participating cities. Contact details are available at “We’re hoping to get 750 citizen scientists in London and then a similar number in Manchester,” says Shannon. And with the campaign running until 15 October, he’s hoping for an Indian summer. “You need a nice clear blue sky to take the measurements,” he says as he looks over rainswept London. “I’m hoping it is not going to be like this for six weeks.”

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 06:12 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Nature's last refuge: climate change threatens our most fragile ecosystem

An Arctic voyage through the awe-inspiring Northwest Passage shows that, with oil drilling in the far north on the way, rapid action is needed to protect the region

Robin McKie Science editor
Sunday 30 August 2015 00.30 BST

The Northwest Passage is not an obvious choice for a holiday cruise. It is, after all, one of the most notorious ocean routes. Many hundreds of sailors died in opening up the seaway, which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Canadian Arctic, before it was conquered just over a century ago.

But the Arctic today is changing. Global warming is altering it at a rate that is unmatched anywhere else on Earth, and a journey once considered grotesquely dangerous has become a voyage now feasible for the inquiring traveller. Today you can sail through the Northwest Passage, as I did last week, on a ship that offers hot-tubs, bars and restaurants, albeit with armed protection against polar bears and kit for keeping out the cold.

Journey through the Northwest Passage – in pictures...View gallery:

By contrast, in 1845 John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage was utterly defeated by the Arctic, even though his ships, the Erebus and Terror, were equipped with steam-powered engines, tinned food and other wonders of 19th-century technology. Trapped in the ice for several years, all 129 men on board died, many resorting to cannibalism as the end neared.

But 170 years on, ships have strengthened hulls, global positioning receivers, radar and powerful engines. Hence the ease with which our liner – the Akademik Sergey Vavilov research vessel, operated by One Ocean Expeditions – made its 12-day, 1,945-nautical-mile journey from Kangerlussuaq in Western Greenland, across Baffin Bay, on to desolate Beechey Island (where some of Franklin’s men are buried), down through the Bellot Strait and past King William Island – near where the wreck of the Erebus was discovered last year – and into the little port of Cambridge Bay.

Most of the voyage was made on seas generally free of ice and which were as calm as mill ponds, revealing some of the world’s most bleakly beautiful landscapes: mist-shrouded cliffs, ice floes that stretch to the horizon, and aboriginal settlements, some of them thousands of years old.

However, there is another factor that made this journey possible, one that reveals the darker side of humanity’s scientific might and which provides the most intriguing aspect of any Arctic visit. Every year our factories and cars pump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and emissions continue to rise remorselessly. As a result, our planet is heating at a worrying rate, with the Arctic bearing the brunt of temperature rises.

Every year the melting of sea ice in the far north starts earlier and earlier and it is now vanishing at a rate of about 13% per decade. As a result, the Arctic’s sea ice cap has shrunk by nearly a third since 1979, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre. Finding enough ice in which to get trapped is becoming the Arctic’s real problem.

That erosion of ice is likely only to worsen, scientists warn. Ice reflects radiation. But if it disappears, and reveals below it the Arctic’s dark waters, which are much better than ice at absorbing heat, less and less solar radiation will be reflected back into space and the Arctic will warm up even more. Indeed, many scientists now believe the Arctic could be free of sea ice in summer within a few decades.

It is difficult to assess what will be the consequences. Most experts believe they will be profoundly damaging. As Eric Solomon, director of Arctic programmes for the Vancouver Aquarium, puts it: “Sea ice is the foundation for life here.” In removing that foundation, humanity is carrying out a highly dangerous experiment – on a colossal scale.

Consider the simple issue of algae. It grows on the underside of sea ice and is eaten by krill, which is then eaten by Arctic cod, which in turn is eaten by seals. Take away the bottom rung of this food chain and all sorts of unintended consequences could be realised.

Then there are the narwhals. These tusked whales – sometimes called the unicorns of the sea – are prized by Inuits who use their blubber and skin to make a traditional, extraordinarily chewy meal called muktuk. (It’s an acquired taste, I discovered.) Narwhals can hide, safely, in sea ice and so avoid their natural predator, the killer whale. Robbed of that protection, narwhal numbers could dwindle dangerously, marine biologists warn.

Polar bears are also likely to suffer. These creatures are magnificent hunters. They can smell their favourite prey, ringed seals, from more than a kilometre, even though the seals may be hiding under snow. It is thought there are about 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic, made up of separate populations in 20 different regions. Unfortunately there have been few long-term studies of Ursus maritimus and half of these different populations are simply rated as being in an uncertain status.

However, in well-studied populations, such as those around the town of Churchill, on the Hudson Bay, research indicates that the body sizes of polar bears – and their birthrates – are declining as the climate warms. “This does not bode well,” says Canadian naturalist Franco Mariotti.

Then there is the impact on humans. For Inuits, sea ice not only helps protect the local food chain, it acts as a highway on which they can ride their skiddoos and dog sleds to hunt and to visit friends. Disappearing ice means increasing fragmentation of local communities and limits the ability of people to hunt. This problem is only likely to get worse as the region is opened for mining and oil drilling.

This month Barack Obama gave final approval for Shell to drill into potential oil reserves beneath the sea floor of the Arctic Ocean. The move was denounced as “potentially catastrophic” by Greenpeace, while Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, a US environmental organisation, said the decision “goes against science, the will of the people and common sense”.

Concerns have been raised over Shell’s ability to clean up a spill, should one occur, in an area covered by sea ice for much of the year. If one considers the example of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it took 87 days to cap, even though it happened in a fairly accessible region. In the Arctic, which is virtually impenetrable in winter, a similar gusher would be far more difficult to tackle. More to the point, the region’s ecology is about the most fragile on the planet and would be far more vulnerable to the impact of a major spill.

Take the landscape on the south shore of Devon Island. At 74° north, it is swept by ferocious, freezing gales which, in winter, send temperatures plunging to minus 50C. The island has a polar desert climate with hardly any precipitation.

Yet life clings to this bleak wilderness. My walk there a few days ago revealed an astonishing array of plants hugging the ground to survive: willows, which grow as trees in the UK but which, up here, shrink up to the size of twigs to keep out of the gales. In addition, the Arctic campion, or lantern flower, provides unique protection for its seeds, housed in a minuscule globe that acts like a greenhouse. These adaptations are vivid illustrations of life’s extraordinary resilience, though they would be quite incapable of withstanding any major environmental disaster.

Across Lancaster Sound, the lowering cliffs of Prince Leopold Island provide another demonstration of the vulnerability of the region’s wildlife. The steep cliffs of this Unesco world heritage site provide refuge for thousands of black-legged kittiwakes, fulmars, black guillemots and thick-billed murre, creating a vast, mist-shrouded citadel of screaming, winged wildlife. The island is one of the world’s most important refuges for migratory birds and again is highly vulnerable, as so many other areas of the Arctic, to ecological mishap.

It is not just the risk that oil drilling poses to the Arctic that causes consternation, however. It is the extraordinary notion that it is a good idea to take advantage of a problem that has been caused by our over-dependence on fossil fuels – by drilling for even more fossil fuel. Hence Friends of the Earth’s furious denunciation of the decision to let the Arctic’s pristine Chukchi Sea “become an energy sacrifice zone [that will only] worsen climate disruption”.

The real problem that faces the Arctic is its uncertain political status, a point that is clearly demonstrated by comparing the region with its southerly counterpart, the Antarctic. The latter is controlled by the Antarctic Treaty, which bans all mining, oil drilling or the presence of the military. It also strictly controls all environmental hazards. By contrast, the Arctic is owned by a ragbag of nations – Russia, Canada, the US, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark (through its dependency, Greenland) – which have very different ideas about how to run the place and which have shown no inclination to outlaw mining or oil drilling or impose cast-iron environmental controls.

Apart from the environmental risks that they pose, increasing mining and drilling operations will have many other consequences. Ships will end up crisscrossing the region for increasing numbers of days. The Inuits’ icy highways will be broken up even more while the region’s bowhead, blue and beluga whales face the prospect of their underwater communications being disrupted or blocked in these once quiet waters.

Rubbish is also a problem. In Antarctica, every piece of waste is removed from the continent. In the Arctic, no such rule is invoked, as is demonstrated by the container vessels of washing machines and other household goods that arrive in summer as the ice melts and ports like Kangerlussuaq and Sisimuit in Greenland and Port Inlet in Canada open up. These once-a-year imports, booked online months in advance, provide local householders with the means to modernise their homes. Crucially, the containers that brought them return empty. No attempt is made to ship away the old household goods that have been replaced. They are simply left to rust in the air.

In short, what arrives in the north, stays in the north: a small but significant demonstration of the casual indifference that is adopted when dealing with environmental issues in the region.

The Arctic remains a place of extraordinary beauty that is inhabited by some of the planet’s most remarkable animals. But time is running out. The region needs protection on the scale that has been meted out to the Antarctic, an idea recently backed by a House of Lords report on the Arctic.

As peers remarked, current approaches to protecting the Arctic are far too hesitant and cautious. In this, they are almost certainly correct. Whether we have time to bring meaningful improvements is a different matter.

Change is sweeping the far north. Time is not on its side.

Pressure points

Global warming is bringing major changes.

Mining The Arctic contains large quantities of iron ore, copper and nickel and new mines are being planned and constructed to exploit these, raising worries about pollution. Proposals to drill for oil have also triggered concerns about threats to the region’s delicate ecology.

Tourism Cruise expeditions into the Arctic are expected to expand significantly, bringing in more and more tourists while placing strain on the environment and the region’s few, small towns.

Politics Control of the region and its transport routes is hotly disputed by the eight Arctic nations. Canada, for example, claims the North west Passage as national sovereign waters. The US says it is an international waterway.

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 06:07 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
The week in wildlife – in pictures

Aug 31 2015

Black-capped kingfishers, yellow-vented bulbuls and toucans of Panama feature in this week’s pick of images from the natural world

Click to view all:

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 06:02 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Smuggled orangutans prepared for repatriation to Indonesia – in pictures

Aug 31 2015

Thai vets conduct health checks on 14 orangutans before their repatriation to Indonesia. Most of the animals have been confiscated from the entertainment business in Phuket; others were recovered from smugglers. The orangutans are being examined to ensure they are free of diseases and are expected to return to Indonesia in September

Click to view these incredible pictures:

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 05:59 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Ohio school's live tiger cub tradition scrutinized by state and animal groups

Live tiger mascot ‘Obie’ appeared at football season-opener despite questionable compliance with state regulations on exotic animals and concerns over welfare

Mahita Gajanan and agencies
31 August 2015 18.42 BST

An Ohio high school on Thursday presented a live tiger cub at a football game, despite reportedly being unable to prove it had met state regulations on the keeping of exotic animals, amid protests from animal rights campaigners.

The booster club for the Washington high school Tigers in Massillon typically leases a tiger cub each year to be “Obie”, the mascot for the football team.

The city, in the north-east of the state, has a rich football tradition – Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals coach Paul Brown grew up there and coached the Tigers. Each boy born in the local hospital receives a football in his bassinet.

Since 1970, a live tiger mascot has appeared on the sidelines of every home and away football game.

Recently a Texas-based nonprofit, One World Conservation, called members of the school board, which does not contribute any monetary support to the mascot program, to urge them to end the tradition.

A noisy football game, One World chief executive Karrie Kern told the Associated Press, is no place for a big cat with sensitive hearing and potentially dangerous instincts.

“I’m from Texas. You know, we’re all about football, too, and I get that, but what that cub is experiencing is unbelievable,” Kern said.

Obie’s presence at games first came into question after an incident in 2011, when a Muskingum County farm owner, Terry Thompson, let loose nearly 50 animals before dying of a self-inflicted wound.

The animals released included tigers, lions, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and grizzly bears. Police said the animals’ cages were opened and the farm’s fences left unsecured.

Officers with assault rifles shot and killed the animals, after tracking them through the woods of rural Ohio.

Ohio subsequently implemented rules requiring owners to register exotic animals. Massillon’s live tiger tradition was allowed to continue through an exemption for educational institutions.

This week, it was initially unclear whether Obie would attend the season-opener. The exemption requires that the Massillon Tiger Football Booster Club proves the school’s tigers will live at an accredited facility when they have outgrown their roles. The school must ensure the tigers will be cared for throughout their lives.

In May, the AP reported that the state agriculture department had contacted the booster club over compliance concerns. As of Tuesday, the department had not received necessary assurances, a spokeswoman told the AP.

Speaking to the Massillon’s daily newspaper, the Independent, booster club president Matt Keller said it would be premature to count on future Obie appearances at games.

“We were only able to make arrangements for [Thursday],” Keller said. “It’s one tradition we were able to continue, even if just for one game.”

Keller declined to say where the tiger used on Thursday had come from or how much the booster club had paid for its appearance.

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 05:56 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Spaniard becomes 12th person to die after being gored by bull

Number of fatalities raises questions about safety measures surrounding traditional summer fiestas in which bulls are let loose in Spanish streets

Sunday 30 August 2015 16.15 BST

A 66-year-old Spaniard has died after being gored in the chest by a bull in a village festival in the province of Segovia, bringing the number of deaths by gorings in summer street festivities in Spain this year to a dozen.

The man’s death on Sunday, adding to the toll, has raised questions about health and safety measures surrounding the traditional summer fiestas in thousands of Spanish villages in which bulls are let loose in the streets.

The most famous of these events is the San Fermín running of the bulls, held in Pamplona in July, which has garnered a huge international following, with tourists coming from around the world to participate.

But there are more than 15,000 similar events around Spain every year, where participants run in front of groups of bulls or try to get the animal to charge at them before leaping into specially constructed cages.

The bull breeders’ association UCTL said earlier this week the number of deaths this year represented less than 0.1% of participants, which number in the millions. There are no official figures for deaths by goring, although according to the association, the death on Sunday was the 12th.

Attitudes are changing towards the treatment of bulls in Spain and some of the events, such as the “bous a la mar” in the village of Denia where the bull is chased into the sea, have been interrupted by protests by animal rights activists.

Many of the new leftwing administrations that came to power in Spanish towns and regions after local elections in May have pulled subsidies from events involving bulls and are considering holding referendums on whether to continue with them.

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 05:55 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
India: No country for wild tigers?

Authorities seek to widen a road that would cut wildlife corridors and put the future sustainability of three tiger reserves at risk

Janaki Lenin
Monday 31 August 2015 04.39 BST

If the tigers of Panna are under threat of being displaced by a dam, the tigers of nearby Kanha, Pench, and Navegaon Nagzira tiger reserves in the two central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are in danger from a highway.

The National Highways Authority of India proposes to widen a 50-km (31-mile) stretch of road to a four-lane divided highway connecting Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, with Nagpur, Maharashtra. While allowing humans to hurtle between these two cities, the road slices two tiger corridors: Pench-Nagzira corridor in Maharashtra and the Pench-Kanha corridor in Madhya Pradesh. Although National Highway 7 (NH7) exists already, widening it will aggravate the problem it poses to wildlife. Central Indian forests hold about 33% of India’s tigers, 688 of them.

According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority, a tiger population needs at least 80 to 100 adults to be self-sustaining. None of the tiger reserves in central India host a viable tiger population independently. Corridors are essential for these reserves to sustain tigers and other wild animals. For example, the lack of corridors caused a native population of gaur to go extinct in Bandhavgarh National Park in 1997.

Camera trapping, genetic analysis, and radio telemetry studies show these corridors are active animal routes. Tigers are not the only ones using them; gaur, leopards, sloth bears, and wild dogs are some of the other large mammals that disperse along these paths.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority said widening the road would cause irreparable damage to tiger habitat and turned down the proposal.

The Wildlife Institute of India declared the two corridors are essential for the genetic diversity of the large cats. WWF-India called NH7 a “major barrier for animals near the Pench Tiger Reserve” in a report ‘Lifeline for tigers.’

The National Board of Wildlife did not view the proposal favourably and neither did the Forest Advisory Committee. The Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court called for the road to be shut down.

This opposition ought to have shut the lid on the proposal.

A Times of India report of 20 September 2013 describing the potholed NH7 as ‘Highway to hell’ marked a turning point. The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court jumped in, by initiating legal proceedings based on the news report. At first, it ordered the road to be re-paved, but later demanded the highway be upgraded, without realising forest and wildlife clearances are necessary. But even after two years and numerous press reports, the court insists it has the authority to unilaterally order the road to be widened.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests gave initial environmental clearance in December 2013. In February 2015, the high court and state government issued permissions to the highways authority to knock down trees over a 10-km (6-mile) stretch of NH7.

However, none of the permissions, whether issued by the high court, the ministry, or the state, were legally valid since they ran afoul of the Forest Conservation Act and the Wildlife Protection Act.

Instead of evaluating the merits of the case and its impact on wildlife, the wildlife board hurriedly cleared the project on 18 August. It didn’t follow its own guidelines on how to deal with roads passing through protected forests. The ministry will likely push through the clearance required under the Forest Conservation Act as well. After all, it has gained a reputation among environmentalists and conservationists for cursorily approving any project that requires forests to be destroyed.

The Wildlife Institute of India, which had initially objected to the road widening, changed its stand. Presumably capitulating under pressure from the ministry, high court, and/or the highways authority, it agreed that the road could be widened as long as underpasses were built to allow passage of wildlife at the cost of rupees 750 crores (£73.6m).

The National Highways Authority grudgingly committed to nine elevated sections along the road for the safe passage of wild animals at a cost of rupees 100 crores (£9.82m).

On 5 May 2015, conservation organisations filed an appeal in the National Green Tribunal challenging the permissions granted by the ministry and state. The tribunal stayed all further work on the highway.

In a bizarre situation, two judicial bodies are at conflict with each other. Justice Gavai of the Bombay High Court disparaged the tribunal “You [the petitioner] chose to approach some tribunal which has been created under some Act.” Justice Swatanter Kumar, the Chairperson of the National Green Tribunal, questioned how the high court could have allowed felling of trees in the absence of legal compliance. While one demanded that trees be chopped as soon as possible, the other sought assurances that not a single tree be hacked.

About 49.25 hectares (121.70 acres) of forests would have to be leveled for widening NH7. That may not sound like much, but a road creates an edge along which the forest frays slowly. Safe havens for wildlife shrink as the increased disturbance from roads pushes animals farther into the interior. More traffic brings more air, noise, and light pollution in areas that need to be protected.

But wildlife activists fear that a wide, divided, slick highway through some of the best forests of central India would become a death trap for wild animals. Roadkills are a major concern. For instance, highway traffic through Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, is now limited to daylight hours to reduce the mortality of wild animals.

Most importantly, if the road is widened now, the highways authority might seek to make it even wider in the future.

None of this anxiety is necessary because there is an alternative.

The Alternative

The Wildlife Trust of India proposed another existing highway as a substitute to NH7 in 2009. It is a mere 70 km (43.4 miles) longer than the road cutting through tiger corridors. At that time, the highways authority quibbled that it was a state highway and cannot be upgraded to national highway. But since then, it has not only upgraded it to national highway status, but widened NH69 to a four-lane carriageway. Wildlife conservation organisations, including Bombay Natural History Society and Wildlife Institute of India, support this alternate route.

NH69 cuts through good forest at Sillewani Ghat for 11 km, but wildlife activists recognise the need for road connectivity and the greater importance of leaving NH7 alone.

This could be a win-win situation since NH69 has already been made. It saves the highways authority rupees 100 crore in building underpasses in Maharashtra alone. Madhya Pradesh would also have to build such structures on its side of the border at rupees 860 crores (£84.4m).

Almost all agencies that ought to protect wild habitats and species - the ministry, the state, wildlife institute, and the tiger authority - currently appear to support the highways authority’s proposal. The case now rests with the tribunal.

So what is it going to be?

A 70-km detour or the future of three tiger reserves?

 on: Aug 31, 2015, 05:51 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
China's army drafts in troop of monkeys to keep skies clear for victory parade

Five monkeys have been employed to climb tall trees, destroy bird nests and keep flocks away from aircraft which will perform fly-bys for world leaders

Tom Phillips in Beijing
Monday 31 August 2015 06.48 BST

China’s 1.5m-man military has recruited a troop of monkeys to help it clear the skies over Beijing before a massive parade designed to showcase the country’s growing might.

Senior Communist party leaders and world leaders, including the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will gather in Tiananmen Square on Thursday to watch a procession of tanks, missile launchers and about 12,000 soldiers.

Overhead about 200 aircraft will perform fly-bys and manoeuvres, including in-flight refuelling, displaying China’s “aerial prowess”.

Chinese air force chiefs have looked to nature to help protect their state-of-the-art planes from potentially dangerous bird strikes.

Five rhesus monkeys – which are native to Asian countries including China, India and Bangladesh – have been called up to help destroy nests that could be used as staging posts for avian assaults on jets.

“Our original anti-bird method of using monkeys is a low-cost, low-risk and highly efficient method,” Han Bing, the political commissar of a military airstrip where the technique has been perfected, told the Beijing News. “It’s the first in the world.”

Air force officials started using monkeys to clear bird nests from trees last April, giving all “anti-bird team” macaques three months training, the newspaper reported.

Ma Junliang, an official from the team, told the Beijing Times the animals had been “conditioned” to follow orders to destroy nests.

China’s 398,000-strong air force was using only male monkeys because they were more “active” and easier to train, Ma said.

The perils of bird strikes were underlined last month when a Dallas-bound American Airlines Dreamliner was forced to return to Beijing after being hit shortly after takeoff.

Wang Mingzhi, another anti-bird official, said monkeys could go where man could not.

“No one can climb trees as tall as 30 metres,” Wang said, the South China Morning Post reported.

“With shotguns, we can blow off only two nests with a box of bullets. If we use water cannon, it would be a waste of water and human resources.”

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