Higher carbon dioxide levels increase growth rate in trees?

Tomorrow I begin my Ecology 1b project, with the aim of answering the question: ‘Is there a link between higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the growth rate in ash trees?’

I admit that on the outset this does not seem like the most enthralling of projects, but here I will attempt to justify why it is in fact ‘quite interesting’.

Firstly, all recorded data suggests that CO2 levels have soared since the industrial revolution.

Worldwide, trees are incredibly important for carbon sequestration – eg taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and storing in tree trunks. Plant more trees; store more carbon – It would seem.

We can also model how much CO2 we could remove from the atmosphere through the planting (or the prevention of destruction) of certain trees.

However, we believe that in order to improve these models, we need to find out how the growth rate of trees (and hence carbon storage) changes with increased/decreased CO2.

We will test this hypothesis on Ash, as these fast growing trees are readily available to core in our location. If we find a significant correlation in Ash then it would be important to test other species, especially ones which are currently used in climate models as sources of carbon storage.

As a side to our main study we will also look for general correlations in our tree core data. In 1987 there was a big storm that felled many ancient (and dominant) trees in Surrey. We will check the core data to see if this event is recorded in the subsequent growth rate of surviving trees. Perhaps with more space, and less competition, the growth rate of Ash increased in this location in the Surrey hills.

Lets see how it goes…

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Lessons learnt from Lonesome George

A few days ago, we received the sad news from the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands that Lonesome George has passed away.

It appears the last act of the sole survivor of Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, (a subspecies of giant land tortoise) was to trend on twitter; a feat certainly unique in the tortoise world, and most likely never to be repeated again.

It was a testament to George, who died at about 100 years old that not only the conservation world, but the wider public acknowledged his passing. To many he was the symbol of conservation. To others a relic of evolutionary history. For it was Giant tortoises like George that inspired the young Darwin on his travels to the Galapagos. Each sub-species adapted to different niches within each island – the fingerprint of an adaptive radiation in response to natural selection.

Scientists back in the 1970’s thought that the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni lineage was already long gone. They were surprised when they found George wandering on the small island of Pinta alone (hence the name). In the decades since, they’ve tried, in vain, to find a female of the same subspecies for him. Their efforts, it probably goes without saying, were unsuccessful. Still, they tried to continue George’s ancestral line, even if they couldn’t guarantee his subspecies. They penned him with two females from a closely related sub species, genetically similar enough they hoped, and waited to see what might happen. They celebrated when eggs were produced, but alas, none of them hatched. George, it seemed, was destined to remain the rarest creature on the planet, despite the Research Station’s best efforts.

Most probably George’s ancestors were wiped out by European colonisers for their meat. Unfortunately the trend continues, and many of the world’s tortoises are in trouble:

– Ploughshare tortoises have their shells defaced to make them worthless on the black market. There are only a few hundred left in the wild and they are critically endangered.

– Poachers known as “the tortoise mafia” and locals who eat tortoise meat threaten Madagascar’s rare tortoises, which include the Ploughshare, Spider, Radiated and Flat-tailed species.

– Burmese starred tortoises are also listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. They get their name from the striking yellow and dark brown star pattern on their shells.

Lonesome George became part of the Galapagos National Park breeding programme, and despite the failure to produce fertile offspring, his genes will be preserved. Artificial fertilisation may yet provide a route to maintain his unique gene pool.

A fellow student of mine, Olivia Green, recently visited George and all the Galapagos islands. She discovered that although there is a heavy tourist influence, the place is not trashed. In fact some 20,000 giant tortoises of other subspecies still live on the Galapagos. Perhaps the haven which inspired Darwin can now also inspire us as a model of conservation in the modern world – treading the fine line between publicity, tourism, and the maintenance of a pristine environment along with its inhabitants.

A comment on the BBC News article reads “Species going extinct is part of the evolutionary process including those affected by other species including man…we are just part of the planets eco system” If anyone reading this does not feel saddened by this view, then I feel sadden for you.

We are not passive entities in the processes driving extinctions on our planet. We as a species cause the destruction, but we can also prevent it. But the lesson I think we can learn from Lonesome George is that extinction is also fickle. Despite the best efforts of the world’s leading conservation experts and the universal appreciation of his plight, the figurehead of conservation could not be saved. This does not mean that conservation is doomed, but it is an eye opener and reminds us that public awareness about endangered species does not equal saving them.

Conservation must shift its position from a charity case to an economic necessity. Post cards from the Galapagos in return for a donation may make us feel good inside, but in reality, as proved by George, the charitable approach to conservation is not sustainable.

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Farming the Moon Bear: It’s got to stop

Many people may be unaware of this issue; I for one certainly was before reading an article[1] that appeared in Nature today.

Around 10,000 endangered Asian black bears or ‘moon bears’ as they are known are kept captive in China in rather crude ‘bear farms’.

They are kept so that their bile can be extracted for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This is a painful process that can occur daily.

The issue has come to the press following weeks of public outcry in China since Guizhentang, a prominent pharmaceutical company, recently made its second attempt to go public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The company wants to use its initial public offering to expand the number of bear farms it runs.

Now, I understand the demand for TCM is still very high in China, perhaps even growing (along with middle class growth) and I do not know the exact conditions these bears are kept in, but given the video below and the evidence circulating moon bear charities, the situation looks grim.


Fortunately two alternatives to bear bile already exist. One is simply finding herbal substitutes. The other involves synthetically producing the active ingredient in bile, ursodeoxycholic acid – and this can already be done.

However bear bile has been used in TCM for the past 3,000 years,  no legislation currently exists for the wide-scale protection of animals in China.

The pharmaceutical company Guizhentang claims to have developed a surgical technique for extracting bile from the gallbladders of bears without causing the animals any pain. The bile is then used as an anti-inflammatory agent in widely available products, from toothpastes to wine.

But 30 per cent of these bears still die of liver cancer, and activists point out that the living conditions are cruel and the pain is punishing.

“Bile bears are kept in small cages where their teeth are clipped short, their eyes develop cataracts and they face untimely death, claims the charity Animals Asia – http://www.animalsasia.org/index.php?UID=2J0NIOGTVCWA

To facilitate the bile milking process, the bears are commonly kept in extraction cages not much larger than the bears. This allows for easier access to the abdomen, but it also prevents the bears from being able to stand upright or in some cases move at all. It is thought that living for 10–12 years under such circumstances results in severe mental stress and muscle atrophy.

Furthermore The Asiatic black bear is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals. Estimates put the Asia-wide population as low as 25,000. Cleary the captive bears make up a huge proportion of the remaining population. An outright ban could see the black market trading of already captive bears, and the poaching of the scarce wild populations.

To me, it seems the most logical solution, for both the long-term survival of the species, and the short time health of the captive bears, that international pressure is required to force the Chinese government to impose tight regulations on bear farms. Aiming to reduce the pain, and improve the conditions the bears are kept in. If humane methods could indeed be used to extract bile, then perhaps a compromised could be reached – change bear farms into conservation parks, and sell the ‘organic free range’ bile at a much higher price.

But realistically would that work? In an ideal world maybe.  But the cages serve a purpose, as the bear is no doubt a dangerous animal. A ban therefore is the only solution. But somehow I don’t believe that will go down too well with Guizhentang and the like.

A final point regards biodiversity in China in general. If there are currently no regulations protecting captive animals, how can we possibly begin to save those we cannot see?

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Survival doubtful for Vietnam elephants

Survival doubtful for Vietnam elephants.

Wild elephants could disappear from Viet Nam’s Central Highlands permanently as deforestation has destroyed their habitat and source of food needed for survival.

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The Glaciers are Growing?

Read the headlines – “Asia’s Glaciers Putting on Mass [i]” and you may be mistaken for thinking all this climate change talk is nonsense. If the world is getting warmer, how can a large ice sheet continue to grow?

The glaciers in question are those on Asia’s Karakoram Mountains, and despite producing drinking water for an estimated 1.3 billion people, they are relatively unknown. Unfortunately no polar bears wander across this wilderness and its impassable access routes makes it hard for researchers let alone film crews to delve into its heart – so maybe Sir David is forgiven for not giving it a mention in Frozen Planet.

The claims have come from a French team, who used satellite data to show that glaciers in part of the Karakoram Range, to the west of the Himalayan region, are putting on mass – they are growing. The team found that between 1999 and 2008 the mass of the glaciers in this 5,615 sq km (2,168 sq miles) region of the Karakoram increased marginally, although there were wide variations between individual glaciers. This is in clear contrast to the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) containing the bold claim that ice from most of the region could disappear by 2035.

The reasons behind the anomaly are poorly understood but several studies hint that the climate in the Karakoram may be cooling, contrary to the trend in most of the world. Between 1961 and 2000, weather stations in the region recorded an increase in winter precipitation and a decrease in average temperatures during the summer. And during the same 40-year period, average flow volume for one of the region’s rivers, which is fed by glacial melt water, was 20% below normal.

However, in line with global trends, studies using the same techniques as the French guys have shown that most parts of the Himalayas are actually losing mass. Measurements by the GRACE satellite mission, which detects minuscule variations in the Earth’s gravitational pull, have also shown a net loss of mass across the whole region. Furthermore, late last year, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod) released data showing that across 10 regularly studied glaciers, the rate of ice loss had doubled since the 1980s.

(Although a mere 10 intensively studied glaciers among a total of more than 54,000 is hardly comprehensive).

Therefore it appears that a fraction of the Himalayan ice sheet may have grown, but in general the ice is melting. So what impact will this have on global climate, and to the lives of the billion that live in the river basin it feeds?

The 2007 IPCC report suggested that the melting glaciers would cause the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra and other rivers that criss-cross the northern Indian plain to become seasonal rivers in the near future as a consequence of climate change. A change to seasonal rivers would have huge impacts on agriculture in the region, not to mention causing fresh water crisis. Other effects could be to slightly reduce the albedo effect on the earth (reflection of the sun’s rays) and to alter weather patterns and distribution – locally and on a wider scale.

However, this prediction that the rivers could dry up may be unfounded, as models appear to show that it is the regional snow melt, and not the glacial itself that feeds the rivers. Only 10 to 20 per cent of the dry-season flow comes from glaciers themselves.

Initial studies of how the rivers will respond to ice loss show modest changes in stream flow — far from the IPCC report’s dire scenario of rivers running dry. Even if the glaciers were lost completely, some researchers argue that flows down the Indus would only drop about 15 per cent overall, with little or no change in the dry-season flow. Nevertheless climate models are poor at simulating rain and snowfall, and given the nature of the Asian monsoon, reliable models would be near impossible to ascertain.

But to me a 15% drop in flow, seems fairly dramatic. The world’s population is predicted to soar to 9bn by 2050, with the majority of growth in areas such as those supplied by these rivers. Even if these rivers do not dry up, the impact of a 15% decline in fresh water must be substantial for the productivity and subsequent health of the region.

Undoubtedly more efficient agricultural methods need to be transferred to developing regions such as these, and research is required to produce greater yielding crops for example, but surely we can’t neglect the impact that loosing 1/6th of their annual freshwater could have.

More field studies are in desperate need in the Karakoram Mountains. We need to know why some of these glaciers are growing, but we also need to thoroughly investigate the possible impacts that climate change will have in this relatively unknown region.

Headlines such as these probably don’t help the situation either as there is no doubt that climate change is happening and the majority of the world’s ice stores are melting.

The impacts will inevitably be monumental, but unfortunately for the people of the northern India and the like, it is they who will face the hardest challenges.


[i] On the BBC homepage as of 15/04/2012

[ii] Glaciology: No ice lost in the Karakoram, Graham Cogley, Nature Geoscience doi:10.1038/ngeo1456

[iii] Settling the science on Himalayan glaciers, Nature Reports Climate Change Published online: 2 March 2010 doi:10.1038/climate.2010.19

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Ivory Wars

In response to BBC’s Panorama on the Ivory Trade:

Despite more than a 20 year ban (1989), the ivory trade is still at large. If demand continues to boom, and action is not taken, the African Elephant will meet a bloody end.

International pressure has led to a step up in the number and size of seizures over the last 2 years. However, the rate of killing in hotspots in Kenya and the Congo are higher than ever. Even in the thriving Samburu park (the base for Save the Elephants), huge numbers are being slaughtered. These poachers are no longer armed with spears and bows, they now have snares, AK47s and rocket launchers.

Not only does the emotional impact of the hunting haunt surviving family members –especially calves – but the removal of experienced role models disrupts family groups. Elephants live in a matriarchal, complex family. A given female may know at least another 100 females by voice alone. A death in a group is a major event, and elephants are known to mourn. Heartbreakingly the calf of a killed mother under the age of 2 or 3 is very unlikely to survive, unless rescued. But it is the breakdown of hierarchy’s, and the loss of influential adults, that lead to rogue social groups, and severely impacts the survival rates of the future herd.

The understaffed, under-equipped park rangers try their best to stay one step ahead, but unfortunately, it seems a constant catch up game.

Furthermore, China’s dynamic economy is changing Africa’s landscape forever. Large numbers of Chinese businessmen and workers are now living in and building the new Africa. A minority, but an influential minority are stockpiling ivory, and then shipping it back home. Kenya’s International Airport is a hub for smuggling, and unsurprisingly 90% of those caught are Chinese.

DNA analysis on seized ivory has shown how most seizures come from the same core locations. Meaning poachers are hitting the same areas over and over. In central Africa elephant numbers are plummeting. Poaching thrives where government insecurities are widespread. In the Congo, a failed state, blighted by bitter civil war, the elephant population is being hammered. Ivory, from the forests, is sold only in markets in the capital (ivory from up to 200 elephant is visible a day), and in plain sight of the authorities. A single large tusk can be worth up to 10,000 US dollars.

The animals targeted, are the smaller, forest elephants. The have smaller, straighter tusks, and genetically they appear to be a separate species to the savannah equivalent. They are more widespread and harder to track in the dense forest cover. Subsequently they are offered minimal protection, and are at the mercy of the poachers.

The poachers then sell on to local traders, or bigger players. It is these players which have stepped up in recent years. They are collaborating internationally, and fund the sophisticated poaching parties that move between boarders. These kingpins sell on directly to domestic Chinese buyers, or through bigger networks they smuggle the ivory towards South East Asia.

Royal Malaysian Customs in Kuala Lumpur manages an import of 9 million containers every year. They do routine stop and searches, but they cannot possibly inspect every cargo. The can only examine a maximum of 5% of containers, and without any intelligence, it is almost impossible to locate the ivory upon inspection.

The 1989 ban illegalised international trade. However, four years ago, CITES allowed four southern African countries a one-off sale of stockpiled ivory to Chinese and international buyers. Subsequently the price of Ivory has dramatically increased, yet CITES claims to have found no direct link between the two events. Moreover, some supporters argue that the countries which have effectively managed their wildlife should be allowed to benefit financially – by selling their stockpiles.

Contrastingly, the opposition believe that future sales will only fuel demand, and lead to the killing of more elephants. They ask what will happen when the Congo is finally drained of elephants. Surely the poachers will move on. If there is a market, and money to fuel it, the killing will not stop.

Why does China have this veracious demand for Ivory. What is it they like so much?

Apparently it is their traditional culture. They even trade mammoth ivory, dug up from the frozen wastelands in Siberia, and they have been carving ivory for hundreds of years.

There is more disposable income in China now, than there has ever been in history and ivory is considered a luxury commodity. Carvings sell in licensed shops for hundreds of thousands of pounds, but not all the items on sale come with all the certificates to show that they are legal.

Shockingly, a survey of Chinese public shows that 7 out of 10 people even know that the ivory they buy in the shops comes from killed elephants. In Chinese ‘elephant ivory’ translates literally to ‘elephant teeth’. Many people are under the impression that it can simply fall off or grow back.

As part of the CITES agreement to sell stockpiles to China, every ivory shop has to be registered with the authorities, and every piece is tagged with an identification mark, so that it can be tracked.

However, 75% of consumers, who have the chance to buy cheaper ivory with no ID card, will by the ivory, as opposed to the more expensive certified items. It is almost impossible to tell what is legal or illegal in high street shop – China’s domestic market is riddles with holes. Every 1 legal activity comes with 6 illegal sales, confirming that the black market is more than extensive.

With hindsight, the sale of stockpiles into china has probably heightened demand. If more countries are allowed to empty their stockpiles in the future, the death warrant of Africa’s surviving wild elephants will effectively be signed.

However, we CAN stop the trend. Firstly, education in China is of paramount importance, but unfortunately, we cannot do much about that currently. But we can support the organisations that are working desperately to save the elephants. Money is what drives the killing. If we, in the western world, valued the survival of the elephant, as much as a Chinese businesswoman likes her ivory necklace, than the elephant would be saved. Financial incentives are key. We cannot, from our moral high-horse, condemn those local poachers who are trying desperately to feed their own families. But what we can do is reward those who work to protect wildlife instead of slaughter it. We can fund the equipment needed to track and monitor the elephants.

Internationally we have security and intelligence systems in place that can track down extensive criminal networks. The technology implemented to tackle the drug trade is astonishing. GPS is commonplace and used for the most trivial of purposes here in Britain – yet the radio tracking devices still commonplace in national parks are unreliable and outdated. If the Malaysian government was given real incentive to make sure no ivory crossed its boarders, then it is certain that the illegal trade to China could be subdued.

We have the technology to tackle the ivory trade, but whilst the poachers and smugglers are utilising new strategies, those that are tackling the problem are still in the dark ages.

It’s not that they are not trying – of course they are. Instead it’s a simple mathematical equation – if the cost of an elephant life is valued to be less (by the international community) than the financial benefits gained by hacking away its tusks, then the elephants do not stand a chance.

If for instance we cared just as much about the elephant as we do cool ‘retro’ looking mobile photographs, than maybe Facebook would have invested $1bn dollars into saving the world’s most majestic mammal instead.

Just a thought                                                                                                                                                                .

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