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 on: May 24, 2016, 06:03 AM 
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UN condemns 16-year jail sentence for Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi

UN high commissioner for human rights joins chorus of international disapproval as Tehran revolutionary court finds ailing activist guilty of fresh charges

Saeed Kamali Dehghan
Tuesday 24 May 2016 07.00 BST

The international community has reacted with outrage after Narges Mohammadi, the ailing Iranian human rights activist already serving a six-year jail term, was given a further 16-year sentence by a revolutionary court in Tehran.

Mohammadi, 44, was found guilty of “establishing and running the illegal splinter group Legam”, a human rights movement that campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty. Should an upper court uphold the judgment, she will have to serve at least 10 years.

Mohammadi was arrested last May, despite concerns about her deteriorating health, to serve the remainder of a six-year sentence dating back to September 2011, when she was found guilty of acting against national security, membership of Iran’s Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC), and propaganda against the state. She had originally been sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment, but an appeals court reduced the term to six years in March 2012 and she subsequently served three months before being released on bail.

Writing from prison, Mohammadi said in a letter written to Pen International that she was in a section with 25 other female political prisoners, of whom 23 have been sentenced to a total of 177 years.

“We are all charged due to our political and religious tendency and none of us are terrorists,” she wrote. “The reason to write these lines is to tell you that the pain and suffering in the Evin prison is beyond tolerance. Opposite other prisons in Iran, there is no access to telephone in Evin prison. Except for a weekly visit, we have no contact to the outside. All visits take place behind double glass and only connected through a phone. We are allowed to have a visit from our family members only once a month.”

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned Mohammadi’s treatment.

“We are appalled by the sentencing of a prominent Iranian anti-death penalty campaigner, Narges Mohammadi, to 16 years’ imprisonment in charges that stem from her courageous human rights work,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the high commissioner. “The human rights defender is believed to have serious medical conditions and has reportedly not been granted adequate access to the specialised medical care she needs. The UN human rights office and other human rights mechanisms have long urged the Iranian authorities to release Ms Mohammadi, but to no avail.

“Her sentencing is illustrative of an increasingly low tolerance for human rights advocacy in Iran. We urge the Iranian authorities to ensure the immediate release of Ms Mohammadi and all those detained for merely exercising their human rights.”

Mohammadi, a mother of two, won the 2009 Alexander Langer award for her human rights activities, especially her efforts to end the death penalty for juvenile offenders in Iran. This year, she received the City of Paris medal for her peaceful activism.

Mohammadi has fallen foul of the authorities partly because of her links to the Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has been forced into exile. As deputy head of the DHRC, Mohammadi was a close colleague of Ebadi, who presided over the organisation.

After a previous arrest, in 2010, Mohammadi was kept in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison, where she developed an undiagnosed disease that has been likened to epilepsy and causes her temporarily to lose control over her muscles.

Since May, Mohammadi has been allowed only one phone call with her nine-year-old twins, who have been forced to live abroad. “I am left wondering how to tell Ali and Kiana, who have only heard Narges’s voice once over the past year, that their mother has got another 10 years in prison,” Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, told Amnesty. “They are only nine and have been through hard days since they were three. But I have to prepare myself to tell them what has happened.”

The Paris-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned “the ongoing judicial harassment against the arbitrarily imprisoned human rights defender”, and urged Iran to release her immediately.

Hadi Ghaemi, from the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said: “Ten years in prison for a well-respected advocate for peaceful civil activities demonstrates the Islamic Republic’s refusal to tolerate any peaceful dissent.”

Ghaemi added: “President Hassan Rouhani’s intelligence ministry is responsible for detaining and building the case for Mohammadi’s prosecution by the judiciary, and now it is President Rouhani’s responsibility to make every effort for her release and ensure Iran’s citizens that ministries under his authority will not trample on their rights and freedoms.”

Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Amnesty International, said Mohammadi’s sentence was another example of Iran’s use of “vaguely-worded national security charges” against peaceful activists.

“There’s no doubt that she’s being unjustly punished for her steadfast commitment to human rights,” he said. “The authorities have made clear their ruthless determination to silence human rights defenders and instil fear in would-be critics of their policies. Narges Mohammadi is a prisoner of conscience and the Iranian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release her and quash her conviction.”

    This article was amended on 24 May 2016 to correct the length of the new jail term Narges Mohammadi has been sentenced to.

 on: May 24, 2016, 06:01 AM 
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How we survived: child refugees given a stage to tell their stories - in pictures   

Award-winning French photographer Patrick Willocq has recreated the experiences of children who have fled Burundi and Syria using personalised theatre sets. From perilous journeys to the battle to adapt to new environments, these are their stories

Patrick Willocq
Tuesday 24 May 2016 10.33 BST

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 on: May 24, 2016, 05:58 AM 
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Aid watchdog urges DfID to consolidate gains on water, sanitation and hygiene

Success of Department for International Development schemes in reaching 63 million people acknowledged, but greater focus on sustainability encouraged

Sam Jones
Tuesday 24 May 2016 00.01 BST   

The UK has brought water, sanitation and hygiene improvements to almost 63 million people in poorer countries over the past few years, but its aid programmes still need to be more sustainable, targeted and detailed, according to the independent aid watchdog.

In a new report, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai) says the Department for International Development (DfID) has made a “significant contribution” to extending global access to water, sanitation and hygiene, noting that DfID managed to exceed its target of reaching 60 million people through its programmes between 2011 and 2015.

The commission says DfID’s claims to have reached 62.9 million people are based on sound evidence, and awards the department its second best rating of green/amber for a “relatively good achievement on impact and results management, but weaker performance on sustainability”.

The review – Assessing DfID’s results in water, sanitation and hygiene – finds that not enough is being done to make sure the gains become a “permanent part of people’s lives” because the department’s programmes typically last no longer than three to five years.

The assessment calls on DfID to address the long-term problems that thwart access for millions of people, such as water insecurity, poor infrastructure maintenance, weak local institutions and bad hygiene practices.

The commission also expresses concerns over DfID’s efforts to monitor the impact of its aid and, more broadly, whether the department represents value for money. Although the department spent £698m from 2010 to 2014 on clean water, toilets, handwashing facilities and programmes to encourage better hygiene behaviour, it does not routinely collect impact data.

While such investments are thought to have helped reduce infant diarrhoea, parasitic worms and other infectious diseases – as well as yielding school attendance improvements and reducing gender inequality by cutting the time women spending fetching water – Icai said it was hard to build up a bigger picture.

“While such results may be occurring across the portfolio, we cannot reach conclusions as to where and to what extent,” says the report. “This in turn makes it difficult to conclude that DfID is doing all it can to maximise impact.”

The commission urges the department to collect data to improve its results and help it better target those who most need its help.

Richard Gledhill, lead Icai commissioner for the review, said that while DfID should be justifiably proud to have reached so many millions, it was worrying that the department wasn’t doing more to bring about lasting change.

“DfID also needs to improve how it monitors value for money and the impact of its programmes,” he said.

“And although it is already working in the poorest and hardest-to-reach communities, the new commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ in the global goals means it will also need to target women and girls, the elderly, and people with disabilities within these communities.”

DfID said it was collecting data on the number of women and girls who have access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and the extent to which UK aid helps vulnerable groups access it. The department also said all its programmes in the area were intended to build sustainable local and national systems, and that it was committed to ensuring value for money in all its work.

A DfID spokeswoman said: “As this report confirms, 60 million of the world’s poorest people now have access to clean water and sanitation thanks to British aid. We should be proud of this achievement, which is firmly in the UK’s interest.

“We will now build on this success by helping a further 60 million people by 2020.”

Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid, said the report highlighted the need for clean water, proper toilets and good hygiene.

“Some 315,000 children under five die each year from diarrhoea linked to dirty water and poor sanitation,” she added. “Safe water and sanitation are human rights and, along with hygiene, they improve health and productivity, help keep girls in school, and can save the lives of new mothers and their newborns who might otherwise die of infections from being born in an unhygienic environment.”

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:56 AM 
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Public-private deal rejuvenates healthcare in Rajasthan – at a cost

The reluctance of doctors to work in remote rural areas has set back healthcare in India’s villages, but a public-private partnership in Rajasthan aims to fix that

Amrit Dhillon in Bhatodi, Rajasthan
Monday 23 May 2016 13.01 BST

In the women’s ward, two newborns are sleeping beside their mothers, one of whom is happy because hers is a boy. The other is unhappy because her child is a girl, and her sixth daughter.

The ward is in the primary healthcare centre (PHC) at Bhatodi, in the middle of the countryside, on Highway No 12 in Rajasthan.

For Rakeshi, 30, from Bana village, another girl is not the best news. Asked what name she will give her, she shrugs: “I’m tired of naming girls. You give her a name.”

Her latest experience at the centre has been very different to previous ones. Three of her daughters were born here. “There were no curtains and the lights and fans didn’t work. Two dirty beds were stacked up against a wall. One bed was available and it had no sheets. I got a sheet from home,” Rakeshi says.

Worse was the doctor. “He demanded 500 rupees [£5]. I refused and he went away. When my labour pains became unbearable, he came back and asked for the bribe again. He knew I’d give it when the pain was too much.”

This time, she hasn’t had to bribe anyone. She looks comfortable and is thrilled at the clothes she has been given as a gift for her baby. She grins. “I’m in no hurry to go home. This is nicer than home.”

“Nicer than home” is not a comment often associated with government clinics that are meant to provide free treatment. “Dirty” is more common. Doctors are often absent, along with syringes, medicines, even cotton wool. Villagers are often forced to travel by bus to private clinics or the district hospital.

The lack of amenities at village level is partially responsible for the 1.26 million Indian children aged under five who die every year and the 44,000 mothers who die annually, according to government statistics.

India faces massive challenge to get mental healthcare right..Read more:

Experts agree that the government has mostly failed to provide basic healthcare in rural areas. The Bhatodi clinic is part of a pilot project the Rajasthan government announced in June to improve the quality of care in remote areas, including the biggest problem of doctor absenteeism.

State authorities launched a public-private partnership (PPP) with the Wish Foundation under which the government provides infrastructure, medicines and equipment, and finances the operating costs. The foundation provides the staff and runs the clinics. Seven months ago, the foundation took over 30 of the state’s worst performing PHCs.

The Bhatodi clinic runs an outpatient department between the hours of 9am and 7pm. For villagers who may spend hours getting there – Rajasthan is a gigantic state, almost as big as Germany – the department is vital. The number of patients has doubled to an average of 80 a day under the foundation. The clinic is clean. Waste is segregated. It is fully staffed by 11 personnel.

“When we took over, there were no emergency medicines. There were no drugs for chronic heart and diabetes patients, not even anti-rabies injections,” says pharmacist Rajesh Gautam. “Now, I feel we can handle most cases.”

The foundation has bought equipment: a TouchHB device to detect haemoglobin levels without taking blood; SuCheck for blood sugar levels; a urine analyser, and a mobile lab capable of 37 different tests.

Dr Paramveer Singh, 27, has spent the morning handling mostly vomiting, diarrhoea and cholera cases, and a dog bite.It is difficult to persuade doctors to live in remote areas. The foundation finds retired doctors who want to supplement their pension, or newly qualified doctors like Singh.

“We also give a retention bonus after six months and then another bonus after the first year to keep them on. You need incentives,” says Himani Sethi, head of programmes at Wish. So far, she says, they have a 73% retention rate for doctors and less than 2% absenteeism among staff at all 30 PHCs.

In the general ward, Hari Mohan, 30, has brought his wife, who has a high temperature. “Before, the doctor either wasn’t here or refused to see me. This time it’s so much better. I’m going to tell my village that it’s now worth coming here,” Mohan says.

The government has invited bids from more private partners to scale up the project. “The results are promising. We have decided that 90 out of a total of 2,082 PHCs will come under the PPP,” says Dr BR Meena, director of public health at the Department of Medical Health and Family Welfare.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the managing director of biopharmaceutical company Biocon, wrote recently in the Times of India that a 2013 law mandating that corporations must spend 2% of their profits on corporate social responsibility could be a catalyst for more healthcare PPPs.

Critics of PPPs say they are a dereliction of duty by the government. All it takes, though, to see what the government offers is a 4km drive from Bhatodi to Malarana Chor, where a PHC still operated by the government is located.

The building looks abandoned. Birds have built nests in the corridor. Medicines are strewn over a counter in the dispensary. The rooms and beds are filthy. The taps are dry. While many government clinics are shabby and understaffed, this one is in particularly poor condition.

Apart from the ambulance driver, Prakash Ram, and a man asleep on a bench, the building is deserted. Where’s the doctor? “On leave,” says Ram. What about the other staff? “They’re also on leave.”

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:49 AM 
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World could warm by massive 10C if all fossil fuels are burned

Arctic would warm by as much as 20C by 2300 with disastrous impacts if action is not taken on climate change, warns new study

Damian Carrington
Monday 23 May 2016 16.00 BST

The planet would warm by searing 10C if all fossil fuels are burned, according to a new study, leaving some regions uninhabitable and wreaking profound damage on human health, food supplies and the global economy.

The Arctic, already warming fast today, would heat up even more – 20C by 2300 – the new research into the extreme scenario found.

“I think it is really important to know what would happen if we don’t take any action to mitigate climate change,” said Katarzyna Tokarska, at the University of Victoria in Canada and who led the new research. “Even though we have the Paris climate change agreement, so far there hasn’t been any action. [This research] is a warning message.”

The carbon already emitted by burning fossil fuels has driven significant global warming, with 2016 near certain to succeed 2015 as the hottest year ever recorded, which itself beat a record year in 2014. Other recent studies have shown that extreme heatwaves could push the climate beyond human endurance in parts of the world such as the Gulf, making them uninhabitable.

In Paris in December, the world’s nations agreed a climate change deal intended to limit the temperature rise from global warming to under 2C, equivalent to the emission of a trillion tonnes of carbon. If recent trends in global emissions continue, about 2tn tonnes will be emitted by the end of the century.

The new work, published in Nature Climate Change, considers the impact of emitting 5tn tonnes of carbon emissions. This is the lower-end estimate of burning all fossil fuels currently known about, though not including future finds or those made available by new extraction technologies.

The researchers used a series of sophisticated climate models and found this rise in CO2 would lead to surface temperatures rising by an average of 8C across the world by 2300. When the effect of other greenhouse gases is added, the rise climbs to 10C.

The heating predicted by the models was not uniform across the globe. In the Arctic, the higher CO2 levels led to 17C of warming, with another 3C from other greenhouse gases, across the year. These rises are higher than indicated by previous, less comprehensive models, which are less accurate at modelling how the oceans takes up heat. In February, parts of the Arctic had already recorded temperatures 16C above normal.

The warming caused by burning all fossil fuels would also have enormous impact on rainfall. The new research shows rainfall falling by two-thirds over parts of central America and north Africa and by half over parts of Australia, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and the Amazon.

Thomas Frölicher, at ETH Zürich in Switzerland and not involved in the new work, said: “Given that current trends in fossil fuel emissions would result in temperatures above [the 2C Paris] target, policymakers need to have a clear view of what is at stake both on decadal and centennial timescales if no meaningful climate policies are put in place. The unregulated exploitation of fossil fuel resources could result in significant, more profound climate change.”

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:47 AM 
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North Yorkshire council fracking decision a 'declaration of war'

Campaigners vow to fight council’s landmark ruling approving fracking in Kirby Misperton, near North York Moors

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent
Tuesday 24 May 2016 12.02 BST

Anti-fracking campaigners have accused North Yorkshire council of declaring war on people’s rights to clean air and water after it approved the first operation to frack for shale gas in five years.

Campaigners opposed to the development outside Kirby Misperton – a village in Ryedale near the North York Moors national park –

launched a “people’s declaration” in an attempt to stop the process going ahead. There have also been calls for a judicial review from Friends of the Earth and Frack Free Ryedale, which led the campaign against the application by Third Energy.

They said in a statement: “We urge and will support the government to develop a balanced long-term energy policy that will achieve our globally agreed climate change targets. Today we resolve to continue to fight to remain free from fracking, to protect our communities, our beautiful countryside, our air and water, and to protect the future of the planet. We ask people across the country to join us by supporting this declaration.”

The council’s decision on Monday was met with chants of “We say no” and “You will be held accountable”.

“It is a war, now, they’ve declared on us,” said Sarah Hockey, an anti-fracking campaigner from east Yorkshire. “It’s a war on our human rights to clean air and water so we’ve got to take it like that and keep pushing and pushing and pushing.

“We need to mobilise people more. We need to inform people more. It may well be, tragically, that when the work starts and something goes wrong like it did before in Lancashire that people will be horrified and say, ‘We can’t have this’.”

Friends of the Earth said it would consider whether the decision could be challenged. Campaigner Simon Bowens said: “This is an absolute travesty of a decision but the battle is very far from over.”

One of the councillors who voted in favour of the application, Cliff Trotter, said he had received intimidating emails.

He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Yes, a few. But that’s par for the course, I suppose. But we tried to look to the future, the best for the people of England.”

The Conservative councillor added: “I’m totally against nuclear power stations and if we’ve got the resources under the ground – we’ve got coal there, we’ve got gas there, we’re bringing it round the world to try and run this country with all these things that we’re importing. And we’ve got it on our doorstep. But it’s just how we do it.

“I’m not an expert, I’m not a professor. The number of professors that were talking – we get one saying yes, and one saying no.”

After a two-day meeting at county hall in Northallerton, councillors voted by a majority of seven to four to approve the fracking operation near Pickering.

The decision was made despite thousands of objections from residents and campaigners and will allow fracking in the UK for the first time in five years.

Fracking was halted on the Fylde coast in 2011 when tests found it was the probable cause of minor earthquakes in the area. Since then, two high-profile applications to frack in Lancashire have been rejected by councillors and are the subject of appeals.

Planners had recommended the most recent application be approved, despite acknowledging that the majority of representations received in consultation were objections.

Vicky Perkin, a council planning officer, told the committee that of 4,420 individual representations, 4,375 were objections and 36 were in support of the application to frack for shale gas at the firm’s existing well in Kirby Misperton, known as KM8.

The government has said it is going “all out for shale” to boost energy security and the economy. But opponents fear fracking – in which liquid is pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture rock and release gas – can cause problems, including water contamination, earthquakes, and noise and traffic pollution.

Environmentalists also say that pursuing new sources of gas – a fossil fuel – is not compatible with efforts to tackle climate change.

Rasik Valand, the chief executive of Third Energy, said work would not start at the site for “months and months” and would initially be an “exploration phase”.

When asked if this was a precedent for further fracking applications to be approved, he said: “We don’t look upon it like that. We are a local company, we see ourselves as a local company. For us, this is about testing what’s in our local area.”

Ken Cronin, the chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said it was “a very important first step”.

The chief executive of North Yorkshire council, Richard Flinton, said the decision did not mean similar approvals would follow. The chairman of the committee, Peter Sowray, said he knew people would be angry but he was “comfortable” with the decision.

A viability test lasting six to eight weeks would initially be carried out at Third Energy’s existing KM8 site. If it was found to be suitable, full-scale shale gas extraction would take place for up to nine years.

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:45 AM 
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South African court gives green light to domestic trade in rhino horn

Court dismisses government bid to uphold seven-year ban on domestic trade in rhino horn - but global ban remains in place

Tuesday 24 May 2016 11.50 BST

South Africa’s supreme court has dismissed a government bid to uphold a seven-year ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn, an industry group said this week.

The decision has no bearing on a ban on international trade in rhino horn. Potential domestic buyers could include those who see rhino horn as a store of wealth that could appreciate in value and those who want it as a decoration.

Thousands of South African rhinos have been slain in recent years to meet demand for the horn in Asian countries, where buyers consider it an aphrodisiac, a cure for cancer or treatment for hangovers.

“Legal finality has now been achieved,” Pelham Jones, chairman of South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), told Reuters, saying trade could resume this year.

Around 5,000 rhinos, or about a quarter of South Africa’s population, are in private hands. Rhino horn can be harvested as it grows back and it can be removed from a tranquilised animal.

The government has not revealed the size of its rhino horn stockpile but the PROA estimates its members have around six tonnes and reckons the state has close to 25 tonnes. The combined 31 tonnes could fetch $2bn by some estimates.

A spokeswoman for South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs said it would comment later in the day on the ruling, which was made on Friday.

It was not immediately clear if the department would now appeal to the constitutional court, the top court in the land.

Supporters of rhino horn trade say the money earned could be used for conservation and to pay for security. Opponents counter that a legal trade could tempt poachers who kill rhinos to launder their “blood” horns with clean supplies.

The decision is a setback to government efforts to keep a lid on the domestic trade in rhino horn, which was imposed in 2009. It comes just months ahead of a major UN conference on wildlife trade that South Africa will host.

The domestic trade ban was challenged by rhino owners in court last year and the moratorium was overturned.

Both buyers and sellers of rhino horn in South Africa still need to apply for a permit, so that the government can keep tabs on the commodity.

John Hume, the world’s biggest rhino rancher who owns around 1,300 of the animals, said he was hoping to sell some of his stock of five tonnes.

“We will certainly try and sell some rhino horn very shortly,” he said.

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:42 AM 
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Wildlife shows not reflecting reality of natural world – Springwatch presenters

BBC’s Chris Packham says nature reserves are becoming ‘a bit like art galleries’ while Martin Hughes-Games raises concerns about conservation

John Plunkett
Tuesday 24 May 2016 00.01 BST

The presenters of BBC2’s Springwatch have warned that wildlife programmes are failing to reflect the reality of the natural world.

Chris Packham said there was a danger that nature reserves such as the RSPB’s Minsmere in Suffolk, where the new series of Springwatch is based, “become a bit like art galleries or museums where we go to get our fix” when much of the countryside is “largely sterile, too intensively farmed and with very poor biodiversity”.

“We shouldn’t generate the expectation that wildlife can only be found on nature reserves and I do think we as naturalists are guilty of this,” he said.

“As a consequence, we don’t see the countryside as a place to access wildlife and that’s a big problem because nature reserves occupy less than 2% of the UK’s land surface.

“It’s a mindset thing. Nature reserves are great but, whilst you are driving there, you should have the expectation of seeing wildlife too, not just dead pheasants on the side of the road.”

The long-running BBC2 show, which returns on Monday 30 May, will encourage viewers to “do something great for nature”.

But Packham’s co-presenter, Martin Hughes-Games, said half a century of natural history programmes did not appear to have had the effect of getting more people interested in conservation or saving species from going extinct.

“I become increasingly concerned that – not Springwatch so much – but the more spectacular blue chip series that suggest there is this wonderful utopian world of wildlife out there that has no human interference at all. I fear those beautiful seductive programmes are not balanced by a clearer idea of what is going on and the loss of habitat,” said Hughes-Games.

“It’s almost like a drug. We love it and we come back and we lose ourselves in the beauty of these places, not realising that the habitats they are being filmed in are getting tinier and tinier. We don’t reflect that.”

Packham said he would not be intimidated by the Countryside Alliance, which called on the BBC to sack him after he criticised leading conservation groups for sitting on the fence over foxhunting, badger culling and the plight of hen harriers.

The presenter said he drew a line between the content of the BBC2 programme and what he said on other platforms. He also writes a column for BBC Wildlife magazine.

“My campaigning is separate from the BBC, for obvious reasons,” said Packham. “One of the things I most forthrightly champion is the BBC’s independence and impartiality and I wouldn’t want to compromise that in any way.

“I base my personal campaigning on a basis of good solid science so I am not driven emotionally. I am driven by what the evidence says at the time and with that foundation comes confidence that those of us who take that stance are right, so obviously we are not easily intimidated.”

The new series, which will run for three weeks, hopes to take cameras inside a weasel’s nest for the first time.

The programme will feature golden eagles in Scotland and follow in close-up the travails of a little owl and its three eggs. It will also look at how the unseasonably warm spring has affected wildlife across the UK.

In an echo of the “Delia effect”, when sales of ingredients soar after being featured by Delia Smith, the RSPB said sales of nest boxes with in-built cameras grew 50% as a result of their use on Springwatch.

It will be the third time Springwatch has been based in Minsmere. Last year, a stickleback fish called Spineless Si became the unlikely star of the show. Some critics suggested the show went too far in giving some of the animals names, but the show’s third co-presenter, Michaela Strachan, begged to differ.

“If we gave every animal a name it would go too far; we only pick certain ones,” she said. “People don’t remember the blue tits we didn’t give a name to, but they remember Runty; they remember Sophia La Wren.

“Last year it was Spineless Si. Nobody knew that putting a camera in a muddy bit of river would generate such a fantastic story. That’s what I really look forward to. He was the underdog and he didn’t look terribly interesting, and then he was the winner.”

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:39 AM 
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Black bears flock to claim food in evacuated Fort McMurray homes

After wildfires prompted a frenzied evacuation in the Canadian city, the scent of garbage and rotting food is drawing in many of Alberta’s 40,000 bears

Ashifa Kassam in Toronto
Monday 23 May 2016 17.32 BST

First came the wildfire; raging through the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray and prompting the frenzied evacuation of more than 88,000 people.

Then came the bears.

Authorities say black bears have been roaming the evacuated city in greater numbers, disoriented by the destruction of their natural habitat and lured by the scent of garbage and rotting food in the city.

“What we’ve got is tons of spoiling food inside houses in the heart of prime black bear range,” Lee Foote, a conservation biologist at the University of Alberta, told Canadian broadcaster CTV News. “You couldn’t create a better potential to attract black bears from a large area … and there are a lot of black bears in the area.”

The province of Alberta is home to an estimated 40,000 bears, many of which live in the boreal forests that surround Fort McMurray.

The fire – which now covers more than 522,000 hectares – came just as black bears were emerging from their dens after six months of hibernation and finding ashes or dusty conditions where they would normally encounter food. A smorgasbord of tantalising scents – from rotting fish and meat to leftover casseroles – brought many of them into nearby Fort McMurray, where food-filled refrigerators and freezers now sit sweltering in homes often left without power.

“They are smart and adaptive. They can smell food from kilometers away,” Brendan Cox, a spokesman for the province’s fish and wildlife enforcement branch told Reuters. “Just as you and I go to the nearby grocery store, or our favourite restaurant, the bears continue to return to a particular food source.”

Officials have said residents may be able to return to the city as early as next week, one month after they hurriedly fled amid a thick blanket of heavy smoke and flames that licked the highways.

Many of the bears are expected to leave the city when residents return, as black black bears are typically not aggressive and rarely attack humans.

In the three weeks since the city’s evacuation, though, some bears have become habituated to food sources in Fort McMurray, say conservationists. “This is going to be a different type of emboldened, entitled bear, if you will,” said Foote. “They have had free rein of the place for a while, it’s prime fattening-up season just out of hibernation, and it could be a problem.”

Wildlife officers are currently patrolling the city, setting traps at the first signs of bear habituation. At least four bears have been captured so far, two of which were released back into the wild.

Two had to be euthanised over concerns that they could pose a threat to humans, wildlife officials told Reuters. “Officers feel the same distaste as members of the public feel for putting a bear down,” said Cox.

 on: May 24, 2016, 05:37 AM 
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Volunteers with crossbows embark on Madrid wild boar cull

Fifty-five hunters aim to rid suburbs of thriving nuisance but animal rights groups say their method is inhumane

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
Monday 23 May 2016 17.27 BST

A group of 55 volunteer hunters armed with crossbows are working with the Madrid authorities to cull wild boar encroaching on the city’s suburbs.

Declining numbers of hunters and few predators mean the population of wild boar, is increasing rapidly. The animals destroy vegetation and frequently cause traffic accidents.

“There are between 36,000 and 40,000 wild boar in the Madrid area,” said Javier Sintes, a member of the volunteer group.

“The population is increasing in giant steps. They suffer from few diseases, there are no predators in the region and they’re omnivorous so it’s easy for them to find food. A female can produce 10 young in a year.”

Sintes insists that a crossbow is a humane way of killing. “The arrow, because it makes such a large wound, doesn’t give the animal time to feel pain and in less than a minute it loses consciousness and a minute later dies from lack of oxygen,” he said.

The animal rights group Peta disputed this claim. “As the tragic killing of Cecil the lion taught us, animals shot with high-powered crossbows can suffer for hours and even days before they bleed to death,” said its associate director Elisa Allen.

“Several studies indicate that bowhunting yields a 50% wounding rate, which means that for every animal dragged from the woods by a bow hunter, one is left wounded to suffer and die slowly and painfully.”

Wild boar are not just a problem for Madrid. Over 1,000 of the creatures live in the Collserola park on the edge of Barcelona, and in the mornings they can often be found snuffling around the private clinics in the exclusive Zona Alta area of the city. At least 200 are now resident in the upmarket satellite town of Sant Cugat.

Last year, one was spotted in Barcelona city centre and another was seen by the main Sants railway station. There are an estimated 100,000-120,000 wild boar in Catalonia alone, five times the number there were 25 years ago.

The animals have also recolonised parts of Scandinavia and the UK where they have been extinct for centuries.

The Madrid government is also seeking volunteers to help cull 2,500 mountain goats over the next five years.

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