Friday, September 30, 2011

At What Price Gold?

A gold miner uses a high-pressure hose to wash away the earth and get gold particles, inside a huge crater near Delta Uno, department of Madre de Dios, southeast Lima, Peru. (Dan Collyns/AFP/Getty Images. Photo courtesy:

Madre de Dios, the name of a region in southeastern Peru bordering Brazil and Bolivia, is a very common designation for the Virgin Mary, meaning Mother of God in Spanish. In real life, however, Mother of God, used as an oath and not a name, expresses what intense and unregulated gold exploration and extraction are doing to this up-to-now privileged area in Peru.

Madre de Dios is a region rich in cotton, coffee, sugarcane, cacao, Brazil nuts, and palm oil. However, plentiful gold has attracted tens of thousands of illegal miners whose activities are having a deleterious effect not only on precious species in the environment but also on the health and quality of life of both native and new populations in the region.

Alluvial gold mining in Peru’s Amazon rainforest has rapidly spread in recent years, driven by the high price of gold. Although many jungle-mining concessions have been granted by the energy and mines ministry, the informal sector has grown out of control.

It is estimated that almost a quarter of the gold produced in Peru, the world’s sixth largest producer, is illegal. The majority of this illegal gold comes from the Madre de Dios region. Local nongovernmental organizations believe that there are up to 30,000 miners in the area.

Gold deposits are mined by both large-scale operators and small-scale miners who use hydraulic mining techniques and heavy machinery to expose potential gold-yielding gravel deposits. Gold is extracted by a sluice box, a piece of gold prospecting equipment that has been in continuous use for over a hundred years. The sluice box is used to separate heavier sediment and mercury is also used for amalgamating the precious metal.

Several studies have shown that small-scale miners are less efficient in their use of mercury than industrial miners. As a result, 2.91 pounds of mercury are released into waterways for every 2.2 pounds of gold produced. It is estimated that more than 40 tons of mercury have been absorbed into the rivers of Madre de Dios, poisoning the food chain.

Mercury not only contaminates waterways and becomes a serious threat to human health but is also a dangerous toxin to fish. Fish in the area contain three times more mercury than the safe levels permitted by the World Health Organization.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “After fossil fuel burning, small-scale gold mining is the world’s second largest source of mercury pollution, contributing around one-third of the world’s mercury pollution.”

Mercury contamination is not the only drawback of small-scale mining, however. Another significant problem is the significant amount of deforestation it produces while clearing forests for the construction of roads to open remote areas to transient settlers and land speculators.

In addition, deforestation is the result of cutting trees to obtain building material and fuel wood.

The enormity of the damage has been documented in a study by American, French, and Peruvian researchers published in the peer-reviewed magazine PLoS ONE. According to the study, Using satellite imagery from NASA, researchers were able to assess the loss of 7,000 hectares (15,200 acres) of forest due to artisanal gold mining in Peru between 2003 and 2009. This is an area larger than Bermuda.

Jennifer Swenson, the lead author of the study, says that such enormous deforestation is “plainly visible from space,” and suggests that Peru should limit the importation of mercury.

In addition to these problems, illegal gold mining has significantly increased the number of 12-to-17-year-old girls and young women drafted by prostitution rings. These young women are brought from all over the country to brothels that have sprung up in mining camps. Many of the women that fall into these prostitution rings eventually disappear, and are never seen again. Miners also bring diseases to local indigenous populations.

While Peruvian authorities have sent almost 1,000 security forces to destroy river dredgers used by illegal gold miners in the Madre de Dios region even more drastic measures are needed, such as stricter vigilance and regulation. At stake is the survival of what has been recognized as one of the most biologically rich areas in the world.

Via theepochtimes

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ravens Use Beaks Like Hands in Communicating

The researchers found that ravens often use their beaks like hands to make gestures, such as this male raven is doing as the bird shows two of its kin an object in its beak. Photo courtesy: Thomas Bugnyar via

Ravens, crows, johnny rooks and others in the same family are known for their incredible intelligence and ability to problem solve. It is not surprising to learn that they have developed gestures in order to communicate information to others of their flock. What does surprise me is that it took scientists so long to discover what many bird watchers already knew.

Ravens use their beaks and wings much like humans rely on our hands to make gestures, such as for pointing to an object, scientists now find.

This is the first time researchers have seen gestures used in this way in the wild by animals other than primates.

From the age of 9 to 12 months, human infants often use gestures to direct the attention of adults to objects, or to hold up items so that others can take them. These gestures, produced before children speak their first words, are seen as milestones in the development of human speech.

Dogs and other animals are known to point out items using gestures, but humans trained these animals. Scientists had suggested the natural development of these gestures was normally confined only to primates, said researcher Simone Pika, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Even then, comparable gestures are rarely seen in the wild in our closest living relatives, the great apes — for instance, chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park in Uganda employ so-called directed scratches to indicate distinct spots on their bodies they want groomed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rare Giant Albino Snail Discovered

Photo courtesy: New Zealand Department of Conservation

Given their propensity for a less-than-speedy gait, it's no wonder snails evolved to blend in with their surroundings -- but for one snail in particular, genetics had other things in mind. Recently, while exploring the undergrowth in New Zealand's Kahurangi National Park, a group of hikers made an extraordinary discovery: a giant, albino Powelliphanta snail seeming to cope quite well with its bright-white appearance. Usually, albinoism in the animal kingdom leads to death due to their inability to hide from predators. The find is so rare, in fact, that even snail experts say this is only the second time they've ever seen anything like it.

The unusual snail was spotted by members of the Waimea Tramping Club on a trek through a forest on New Zealand's South Island. Bill Brough, one of the first to see it, knew immediately they'd stumbled on something very special. "Our group had seen three or four snails already that morning as it had rained and they'd come out in the wet conditions. Then I saw the white snail and went wow! We were excited to see it, knowing how extraordinary it was."

Despite the snail's sub-par attempt at camouflage, standing in stark contrast to the Powelliphanta normally black body coloring, the albino crawler seems to have avoided predators remarkably well. According to snail expert Kath Walker from the Department of Conservation, she's seen this species as albino just once before in 1988, but even that one wasn't quite as white.

"I was curious and interested to see the albino snail as it is exceptional to come across one. From the photos it looks to be an adult snail at least 10 years old and I am amazed it has survived this long. Its white body would make it clearly stand out to be picked off by weka or other predators," says Walker.

Powelliphanta, native to New Zealand, are among the largest snail species on the planet -- though even with normal coloring they aren't immune to detection. With the introduction of invasive predators, like rats and possums, in their habitat, the snails have been driven to near extinction, prompting them to be classified as an endangered species.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Do Insects "Read" the Coloured Leaves of Autumn?

Photo courtesy: beautiful garden

Scientists are still debating this question - so, for now at least, the answer is maybe. Here's what is known: in the fall, chlorophyll, the key chemical in photosynthesis, breaks down in leaves. This reduces the amount of green pigment in a leaf, allowing other pigments to become visible. These pigments are anthocyanins (which are responsible for pink, red and purple colours) and carotnoids (which bring out yellows and oranges). Together, they provide the beautiful fall colours we have come to anticipate each year.

But while we know "how" leaves change colours, controversy still surrounds the "why". There are two leading theories. One, known as co-evolution, argues that leaves turn red to indicate their plant could have higher levels of toxins that would be harmful to insects looking for winter homes, food or places to lay eggs. Thus, trees with brightly-coloured leaves reduce their parasite load, while insects find better hosts for the winter season.

The second theory is that anthocyanins act as sunscreens to prevent damage to leaves from excess light in the fall. During this season, leaves are pumping nutrients into the trees. But since their chlorophyll is breaking down, they don't have the same capacity to harness energy from the sunlight, which can build up in the leaves and cause damage. Anthocyanins block some of this light, protecting the leaves at this stage of their lifecycle.

Monday, September 26, 2011

One Man's Fight to Save Nearly Extinct Texas Wildflower

Photo courtesy: © W.D. Bransford

Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog about Andy Wood and his single-handed fight to save the Ramshorn snail. I am delighted to share a similar story from Texas. The Bracted twistflower is endangered in Texas. The majority of the remaining plants live in Walter Stewart's guest bathroom. He is hoping to restore the Bracted twistflower population one day from the plants he is tending in his own home. Read on for inspiration. One (wo)man can make a change.

The delicate violet blooms of the Bracted twistflower were once a common sight along the roadside in Texas Hill Country, but nowadays the most surefire place to find them just might be in Walter Stewart's guest bathroom. For the the past year or so, the retired physicist has made it his mission to help save the dwindling species with a sense of hospitality that's rarely extended towards plants -- literally opening up his home for use as makeshift nursery. Stewart's efforts have been so effective, in fact, that the washroom he built for visitors has helped sprout what may be the largest population of Bracted twistflowers left on Earth.

Perhaps what makes the rare flower so worth saving for someone like Stewart is the fact that it's unique to Central Texas; All told, Bracted twistflowers are only known to grow in just five counties in the region. In recent decades, however, the little purple flowers has become all too rare a sight as housing developments have swallowed up their habitat and changed in rainfall patterns have made it hard to grow. The species is so threatened by such factors as to have been named a candidate for the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just last month.

For Flo Oxley, who serves as director of plant conservation at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the future seems uncertain for Bracted twistflowers: "In some years, we'll see lots and lots in some places, and in some years, we won't see any. And given the drought we've seen the past couple of years, we have not seen these plants in a while," Oxley tells the American-Statesman.

What the flowers needed was a hero -- not with one with a fortress of solitude or bat-cave -- one with a guest bathroom in the town of Bee Cave, Texas. So in steps Walter Stewart:
For more than a year, a 66-year-old Bee Cave man has been growing one of the largest known stocks of the plant in his guest bathroom.

Years ago, Oxley froze many of the tiny twistflower seeds — about the size of tomato seeds — from Travis County plants as a precaution against the plant's disappearance. Last year, Stewart and his wife, Mary Smith, revived some of Oxley's cryogenically stored seeds.

"We went from 42 seeds to 21 plants to 72,251 new seeds", Stewart said. "Ask how I know — we counted them."
There in his guest bathroom, presumably somewhere between the decorative soaps and embroidered towels, Stewart has helped revive the species, presently in their second spring of growth. When they are strong enough, each of the plants are moved from their special nursery to a table on the Stewart's patio, where they have collectively become what might be the largest population of twistflowers around.

As lovely as they may be to look at, Stewart is hoping to one day have a hardy enough group to give them a fighting chance again in the wild: "We want to get this plant off of my tables and into the ground."

With any luck, and some added protection for their inevitable listing as an endangered species, Bracted twistflowers will once bespeckle the Texas Hill Country landscape, inviting nature-lovers to enjoy their home as if to return the favor shown to them by one of the most hospitable among us.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bio-Light Design Uses Bacteria for Light

Both photos courtesy: ©Philips

Oh boy, how far we have come since we got light when the sun came up and lost it when the sun set. Edison reshaped the world with his electric light bulb. However, Edison is not the only one to tinker with light.

The folks at Philips have come up with some unusual and futuristic designs for their Microbial Home concept. From steampunk-ish kitchens to cocoon-like urban beehives, the designs are truly unique -- and that goes for the lighting too.

Here, Philips has shown off a concept for a light that runs on not grid electricity, not solar power, not even wind power. Nope, it runs on bacteria.

According to Philips, "The concept explores the use of bioluminescent bacteria, which are fed with methane and composted material (drawn from the methane digester in the Microbial Home system). Alternatively the cellular light array can be filled with fluorescent proteins that emit different frequencies of light."

It doesn't provide enough light to fill a room or read by, but it does provide the subtle glow just right for mood lighting. It also is a piece of furniture or art itself, with individual cells of hand-blown glass in a steel frame. But that means you need a home where something as bulky as this has room to be hung on a wall. Though, Philips notes this could be used beyond indoors, for things like night-time road markings, warning strips on stairs or curbs, exit signs, lights for sensors, and so on.

So, is it practical for the average home? Not really. But it is definitely interesting and we may just find a practical place for the technology yet. My bet is that shortly, Philips will find a way to make it smaller and brighter - suitable for every home.

"This represents a new genre of ‘living’ biological products. We have involved the microbial community in the home to provide the soft mood lighting typical of luminescence by using energy stored in our waste streams. Potentially biological products could be self-energizing, adaptive, responsive, self-repairing, act as biological sensors to environmental conditions, and change the way we communicate information."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Edgware Road Tube Station Gets a Make-over

Photo courtesy: Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

As my readers may have guessed by now, I am a huge fan of living walls. There are just so many reasons to love them - aesthetically pleasing; environmentally-friendly; soften the harsh non-caring feel of concrete; remind us we have roots other than our family; slow an overworked mind; delight the senses...

I am pleased to see that these walls are catching on all over the world; and, the projects are becoming larger and more varied.

Located at a busy, noisy and ugly intersection in downtown London, the new vertical garden, which is 180 sq.m. (1938 sq.ft.) in size, will cover one side of the Edgware Road Tube station. This living wall will ensure that it is not so ugly anymore. An ugly duckling will become a beautiful swan.

Photo courtesy: Bonnie Alter/CC BY-NC 2.0

Last week the finishing touches were added, in time for its unveiling this week.

Workmen from Biotecture, the company installing it, were just putting in the last plants. It is planted with a mixture of evergreen and perennial plants selected to survive in a roadside environment. Plants will also be selected for their ability to trap dirt particles.

Fewer dirt and dust particles along with the air-cleaning power of this wall will help alleviate some of the pollution at this corner. And, let's not forget that a marvelous living wall brimming with life and colour now stands where a nondescript, cold concrete wall once did.

Photo courtesy: Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Biotecture will experiment with a variety of plants having smaller leaves and different textures and growth habits to understand their ability to trap small particles. Plants in the wall include Munsted lavender, geraniums, lamb's ears, heuchera and veronica.

Plants will be grown in a peat-free substrate and the structure that supports the plants includes a waterproof backing called Ecosheet -- which is manufactured in the UK from recycled materials.

Photo courtesy: Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The wall will be monitored every week for dirt particle absorption from the traffic emissions. It is drip-fed twice a day. Using a SIM card, the Biotecture offices can monitor the irrigation from an off-site location.

It has been proved again and again that drip is the most effective and efficient watering system available. When a drip system is properly installed, it can save up to 30% of the water used.

The wall is part of a series of green measures the city is introducing in order to reduce pollution from traffic emissions.

The government has given Transport for London a grant from a new Clean Air Fund specifically designed to help London comply with legally binding European targets for reducing pollution.

In addition, there are plans for approximately 500 new street trees and shrubs to be planted at busy intersections.

Good on you, London! May you lead the way in green, living walls.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Staggered Overdoses of Acetaminophen Can Kill

Do we, as a society, take pills without seriously considering the possible consequences? Photo courtesy:

As a society, we have become blinded by science. We are only too willing to ingest, swallow, eat or drink any medication that has an official seal of approval on it. The government wouldn't allow anyone to sell medicines to a trusting populace that could actually harm...would they?

I have one word...thalidomide. There have been a host of others. Now, another concern regarding the safety (or lack thereof) of these approved drugs has been revealed; and, it concerns our cherished OTC pain relievers.

Taking even slightly too much Tylenol over a period of several days can lead to an overdose with deadly consequences, a new study says.

The study looked at what are called "staggered overdoses," in which a person repeatedly exceeds the daily recommendation through small overdoses. This is in contrast to the more familiar single overdose, when a person takes too many pills at once.

In the study, staggered overdoses of acetaminophen (which is found in Tylenol and other pain relievers) were more deadly than single overdoses, even though people who experienced staggered overdoses typically took smaller total amounts of acetaminophen than those who experienced a single overdose.

Doctors may not identify staggered overdoses right away, researchers added. People with a staggered overdose may have levels of the drug in their blood below what a standard blood test would indicate as an overdose, even when their liver is badly damaged.

People taking acetaminophen should stay within the recommended limits of the drug and take even less of it when they are on other painkillers, said study researcher Kenneth Simpson of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Packets of regular Tylenol pills (325 mg) say: "Do not take more than 5 tablets in 24 hours."

And, Simpson said, doctors should realize the criteria used to identify overdose patients do not work as well for staggered overdoses.

The study was published online in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Simpson and colleagues examined information from 663 patients with liver problems caused by acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol) who were admitted to an Edinburgh hospital between 1992 and 2008.

The researchers found that nearly a quarter of them (161 patients) had taken staggered overdoses.

On average, staggered overdose patients took 24 grams of acetaminophen over several days, while single-overdose patients consumed 27 grams.

The researchers found that 37.3% of patients with staggered overdoses died, while 27.8% of single overdose patients died. Staggered overdose patients also were more likely to have liver and brain problems, require kidney dialysis and need help with breathing.

Close to 60% said they had taken the drug to relieve pain, including abdominal or muscular pains, headache or toothache.

During a staggered overdose, the drug likely builds up in the liver and kills the cells, Simpson said.

Staggered overdose patients may have fared less well because they did not receive the appropriate treatment soon enough, or because they had been drinking alcohol along with acetaminophen, he said.

The new study "sheds light on the fact that the maximum recommended daily dose should be strictly adhered to," said Dr. Joshua Lenchus, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Acetaminophen also appears in combination with other drugs in certain prescription products. In January the Food and Drug Administration asked all manufacturers of acetaminophen to lower the dose in a single tablet to 325 mg. Even at this dose, patients who took two tablets every four hours for 24 hours would be at risk for a staggered overdose, Lenchus said.

"It's pretty easy for people to take just a couple of tablets every four hours," Lenchus said.

Doctors need to consider the possibility of overdoses when patients come to the hospital after taking acetaminophen, even if the patients have not obviously taken many pills at once, Lenchus said.

Pass it on: To prevent a staggered overdose, don't take more than the recommended daily dose of acetaminophen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Humans Fished Deep Sea Longer Than Previously Thought

Many caves and rock shelters, such as Jerimalai shelter where the oldest fish hooks were found, are located in the uplifted Pleistocene reef terraces at the east end of the island of Timor. Photo courtesy: Susan O'Connor via

The world's earliest known fish hooks reveal that humans fished the open sea for much longer than previously thought.

Past studies have revealed that early humans were capable of crossing the open ocean as far back as 50,000 years ago, such as they did to colonize Australia. Until now, however, evidence that such mariners could fish while in the open sea dated back only to 12,000 years ago.

"In most areas of the world, evidence for our early ancestors' coastal exploitation is now submerged — it was drowned by rising sea levels," researcher Sue O'Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University in Canberra, told LiveScience.

Now O'Connor and her colleagues have found evidence of prehistoric fishing gear and the remains of large fish such as tuna at a cave shelter known as Jerimalai, located in the Southeast Asian island nation of East Timor.

Jerimalai shelter during excavation. Photo courtesy: Susan O'Connor via

"East Timor became a new independent nation in 1999 when they voted for independence from Indonesian rule," O'Connor noted. "Most of the country's infrastructure was destroyed when the Indonesians withdrew and tens of thousands of people were killed during the fight for independence."

"However, the country is rebuilding, and it never ceases to amaze me that people who have experienced so much hardship and who are so poor can be so generous," she added. "I think working with the local East Timorese people who always assist my field team has been one of the most uplifting experiences of my life."

Their discovery uncovered fishing hooks made from bone that date back to about 42,000 years ago, making them the earliest definitive evidence of such tools in the world.

"It is possible that people caught the tuna in the deep channel that lies off the coast of the Jerimalai shelter," O'Connor said.

The site, first uncovered in 2005, also included bone points, shell beads, the remains of fish, turtles, pythons, rodents, bats and birds, and nearly 10,000 stone artifacts. The island of Timor has very few terrestrial animals overall and only small birds call the island home, perhaps explaining why the ancient people here pursued fishing, O'Connor suggested.

A complete shell fish hook from the Pleistocene levels of a cave site at the east end of Timor. Photo courtesy: Susan O'Connor via

About half the fish remains at the site came from pelagic fish such as tuna, ones that dwell near the ocean's surface or deeper in the water. Capturing such fast-moving fish requires a lot of planning and complex maritime technology, suggesting that early humans developed these skills earlier than previously thought.

"There is a lot of debate about whether or not early modern humans had the ability to hunt animals and fish that were difficult to capture," O'Connor said. "I think the Timor evidence demonstrates that people definitely had this ability very early."

Some other scientists might say that most of the fish bones seen are from juvenile fish, and thus might have been caught more easily off the coast as opposed to in open waters. "While this may be the case, it is still not easy matter to catch tuna — it would require nets set in deep water," O'Connor said.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Finally, One For The Orangutans

Two Indonesian plantation workers have been arrested for allegedly killing at least 20 endangered orangutans. Photo courtesy: Reuters

Finally, steps are being taken to protect the endangered orangutans of Indonesia. Orangutan habitat is being destroyed at an amazing rate to make room for plantations; plus, many plantation owners pay locals to kill orangutans to prevent them from raiding the plantations and decreasing the owners' profits. I wonder if it occurs to them that the orangs may not feel the need to raid the plantations if there was enough natural habitat left to support their needs. In the end, it's a battle between environmentalists and plantations owners with the poor orangs caught in the crossfire.

But, now...a spark of hope.

Two Indonesian plantation workers have been arrested for allegedly killing at least 20 endangered orangutans and proboscis monkeys as a means of "pest control", police have said.

Colonel Antonius Wisnu Sutirta, a police spokesman, said the suspects had admitted chasing the primates with dogs before shooting, stabbing or hacking them to death.

The men allegedly told the authorities that the owners of several palm oil plantations on Borneo island, keen to protect their lucrative crops from being raided, offered a reward for every orangutan and long-nosed proboscis monkey killed.

If found guilty of violating the Indonesian law on national resources conservation, the plantation workers face up to five years in prison, Sutirta said.

Indonesia, home to 90% of the orangutans left in the wild, has lost half of its rain forests in the last half century in its rush to supply the world with timber, pulp, paper and palm oil.

The remaining 50,000 to 60,000 apes live in scattered, degraded forests, putting them in frequent and often deadly conflict with humans.

A study published this month in the PLoSOne journal said villagers in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, admitted to slaughtering at least 750 orangutans over a year-long period – a much higher figure than previously thought.

Some were killed to protect crops, and others because villagers thought they were dangerous. A much smaller number were hunted for their meat, the study revealed.

"The simple conclusion is that orangutans will be hunted to extinction unless someone stops the killings," Erik Meijaard, the study's main author, said.

"It's a blatant infringement of Indonesia's conservation laws. I really hope that both the perpetrators and the plantation managers who ordered the killings will be punished accordingly."

The two men were arrested at their homes in Muara Kaman, a village in east Kalimantan, on Sunday after the bones of several orangutans and proboscis monkeys were recovered.

Yaya Rayadin, a researcher from Mulawarman University, in the Kalimantan town of Samarinda, said the bones were scattered in 15 different places and that tests indicated the deaths had been violent. Most had hack marks on their skulls, jaws and ribs, he said.

Rayadin said he believed many more people were involved in the killings, adding that he had first told authorities that palm oil plantations were offering rewards to locals who slaughtered orangutans or monkeys in 2008, but no action had been taken until now.

"The fact police have arrested two people is a sign of remarkable progress," he added. "But the main thing now is to find a way to protect the orangutans that are still alive."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Self-Contained Farming in Bali

ALL photos courtesy: Sara Novak

The need for the self-contained family farming community is all the more evident after seeing places where it still persists. Besides, the obvious food and financial benefits of growing your own food, I believe it helps to build a camaraderie between villagers that just doesn't exist in our urban lifestyle.

Farming villages and small towns used to be the norm in the USA, Canada and many other countries until the populations started moving away from the farm and toward the city. Those farms that do remain are often enormous and blanketed with genetically-modified corn and soy.

But such a self-contained farming community does still exist in the tiny community of Tetebatu on the Indonesian island of Lombok, just an hour away from Bali. Bali is a "must" on my list of places to visit before I die.

The village has several varieties of rice that each serve a different purpose. The harder varieties were grown for everyday use and the more expensive black rice variety was used on special occasions to make rice wine and rice pudding.

The village makes its own coffee directly from the trees on the farm and then roasts it with coconut to make some of the most delicious coffee ever. Meals also include coconut, mango, avocado, papaya, and durian from trees that dot the land. While I have never tried durian, I understand that if you can get the past the smell - it smells like rotting meat - the flesh is absolutely delicious with a pudding-like texture. They also cultivate peppers, long beans, tobacco, and various other crops to support the community.

Only a few varieties of rice as well as the tobacco ever leave the farm. Cows were eaten on very special occasions and chickens cluck around the farm freely until their unlucky day finally came.

While undoubtedly the village is poor, the people aren't unhappy bearing out one of my theories. I have always felt that in many ways third-world countries are far ahead of our so-called "developed" society. While their material possessions may be few, they seem to possess an inner serenity that few of us in the developed countries ever obtain.

This simple existence revolves around a strong sense of community and a dependence on their neighbor for survival. There’s little need to buy anything and little access even if you wanted to. No one is overweight as their food is naturally additive-free and no day will ever be spent behind a desk. Their natural, additive-free diet is what allows for even senior members of the community to still work and enjoy the camaraderie of their friends in the fields.

This sort of lifestyle for the most part no longer exists in the USA, Canada or other countries because “modern conveniences” have removed the need for the village.

But has it really? It seems unlikely that we’ll ever return to the self-contained village; but, I believe that is our loss. It is that kind of mentality that sees these villages through all the hard times that may befall them. It is that mentality that I would dearly love see return.

I have the privilege of sponsoring 4 World Vision children. My heart aches when I see children today fighting over possession of a toy or anything else. We seem to have become such a nation of "what's in it for me-ers" that we fail to see past ourselves. Yet, I know when I send candies in the mail for my sponsored children not one of them will eat those candies alone. They will share with every single member of their family; so, everyone gets a share of the treat.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Food Normally Wasted Feeds 5,000 a Curry Lunch

Waste food feeds 5,000 hungry participants a tasty curry lunch in Trafalgar Square in London. Photo courtesy: Adrian Brooks/ImageWise via

Elona Grondona, a school nurse, came to Trafalgar Square in London for one reason – to eat curry. But this was no ordinary meal, Friday's lunch was served as part of the Feeding the 5,000 initiative, to encourage households and business to reduce food waste.

The Feeding the 5000 team – a coalition of Fareshare, FoodCycle, Love Food Hate Waste and Friends of the Earth, led by food waste expert Tristram Stuart– treated Grondona and 4,999 others to a free meal using food that would otherwise have been wasted, such as cosmetically imperfect fresh fruit and vegetables – in short, wonky carrots.

The misshapen ingredients were not salvaged from nearby skips but supplied directly by farmers who sell their goods to supermarkets. "The supermarkets have strict cosmetic standards, so if a carrot is too long or slightly bent, it either goes in the bin or is left out in the field and simply ploughed back into the ground," Stuart says. "Today, that's not happened and all that food is here to be eaten."

While UK consumers cannot access farmers' surplus produce, Stuart hopes the event will inspire people to stop wasting food and to demand businesses end the practice of dismissing unsightly goods. Some supermarkets tried selling ugly vegetables in 2008 after an EU ruling meant odd-shaped and oversized produce could be sold in the UK.

As well as the 5,000 portions of curry on offer, a live cooking tent was showing the public how to cook and eat discarded bits of animals such as hearts, lungs and offal (offal consumption has apparently halved in the UK during the past 30 years). There were also 1,600 pints of apple juice ready to be drunk and celebrity chefs turning waste into well-seasoned goodies.

"It's a fantastic idea," Grondona says. "Children aren't getting enough quality food and obesity is a major issue. If the government cannot afford to provide free school meals for everyone, then why not find a way to get all this healthy food that's being wasted delivered to schools and help cut down the nation's obesity rate? If all the food that's here today was destined for landfill, something is seriously wrong with our society."

The cries of "free lunch, free lunch" from the organisers, who had spent all morning distributing 17,000 flyers, clearly had an effect – Trafalgar Square was swamped with people. When the London mayor, Boris Johnson, arrived to dish out the first portion of free curry the area suddenly turned into a giant rugby scrum.

Johnson, who tucked into a hearty portion of curry while posing for photos, has been working with the London Food Board to raise awareness of waste. He is urging businesses and the public to sign a "Food Waste Pyramid" pledge to reduce the mountains of food needlessly thrown away. He said enough food to fill 11,720 double decker buses, or the Albert Hall 15 times over, is binned every year in London.

"Throwing away mountains of perfectly edible food is crazy at a time when all Londoners are feeling the pinch," Johnson said. "I want to do all I can to help people to cut waste, save cash by doing so and improve our great city. This is why I am determined to cut the amount of food needlessly sent to landfill. I urge businesses and Londoners to get on board to reduce waste and help to save millions for the capital's economy."

Johnson's food waste pyramid asks businesses to avoid buying surplus food, redistribute any unwanted food to charities, and pass food unfit for human consumption to livestock. Waitrose, New Covent Garden Market, Cafe Spice, Wahaca, Innocent drinks and Abel & Cole have already signed up.

So how was the food? The curry, bursting with potatoes and cauliflower, was nutritious and tasty – if a little underseasoned – with not a crumpled carrot in sight. It could have been a bit hotter, but you can't expect 5,000 people to like their food fiery. Out of sight of Stuart, I gave the offal a miss.

Stuart, who published Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal in 2009, hopes that if enough members of the public sign up, more businesses will follow and western countries will stop wasting up to half of their food, reducing pressure on the environment and global food supplies.

"Around 80% of people want to see businesses cut food waste," Stuart says. "We can do it together. People can say 'I'm going to cut food waste' and business will do the same and it can become a shared responsibility. There is nothing wrong with the fruit and vegetables we're throwing away. We want to see whole animals are eaten from nose to tail, so that wonky parsnips are eaten rather than thrown away, so that people can pick an apple from a tree and press it for juice themselves rather than walk past it and buy juice from Tesco."

Grondona travelled from Surrey to lend her support to the event but others came from further afield. Maria, a 23-year-old dancer from Valencia, is on holiday in the UK and was handed a leaflet while queueing to enter a nearby exhibition. "This is good food," she says, spooning rice and potato into her mouth. "It's amazing that these people have given up their free time to feed us. I haven't seen this happen in Spain."

Lesley Peyer, from Salisbury, was celebrating her 60th birthday with her daughter. "We've become a very wasteful society," she said. "It's surprising how many people are obese in this country, and I think it's more important than ever that people understand what food they eat."

Perhaps the last word should go to one of the many children attending the event, some of them invited by the charity School Food Matters. Daniel Friend, 12, from Golders Green, said: "I totally agree that we shouldn't waste food. We should eat it ourselves or give it to animals. It makes the bins stink too."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mongolia Thinks Outside the (Ice)Box

Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Scientists hope the 'ice shield' will reduce demands on energy and regulate water during summer. Photo courtesy: Doug Kanter/Getty Images via

Mongolia is to launch one of the world's biggest ice-making experiments later this month in an attempt to combat the adverse affects of global warming and the urban heat island effect.

The geoengineering trial, that is being funded by the Ulan Bator government, aims to "store" freezing winter temperatures in a giant block of ice that will help to cool and water the city as it slowly melts during the summer.

The scientists behind the 1bn tugrik (£460,000) ($729,000 USD) project hope the process will reduce energy demand from air conditioners and regulate drinking water and irrigation supplies. If successful, the model could be applied to other cities in the far north.

The project aims to artificially create "naleds" - ultra-thick slabs of ice that occur naturally in far northern climes when rivers or springs push through cracks in the surface to seep outwards during the day and then add an extra layer of ice during the night. Unlike regular ice formation on lakes - which only gets to a metre in thickness before it insulates the water below - naleds continue expanding for as long as there is enough water pressure to penetrate the surface. Many are more than seven metres thick, which means they melt much later than regular ice.

A Mongolian engineering firm ECOS & EMI will try to recreate this process by drilling bore holes into the ice that has started to form on the Tuul river. The water will be discharged across the surface, where it will freeze. This process - effectively adding layers of ice rinks - will be repeated at regular intervals throughout the winter.

The qualities of naleds (also known as Aufeis, German for "ice on top") have been known for hundreds of years. The North Korean military used them to build river crossings for tanks during the winter and Russia has used them as drilling platforms. But engineers usually see them in negative terms as a threat to railways and bridges.

The Anglo-Mongolian company believe their proposed use in Ulan Bator could set a positive example that allows northern cities around the world to save on summer air conditioning costs, regulate drinking supplies, and create cool microclimates.

"Everyone is panicking about melting glaciers and icecaps, but nobody has yet found a cheap, environmentally friendly alternative," said Robin Grayson, a Mongolian-based geologist. "If you know how to manipulate them, naled ice shields can repair permafrost and building cool parks in cities." He said the process will work in cities where the summer is intolerably hot and winters have at least a couple of months with temperatures of -5C to -20C.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Agricultural Industry Requires Major Overhaul

Agricultural farmland in Ukraine being prepared for planting wheat. Photo courtesy: Vincent Mundy/Bloomberg /Getty Images via

Billions more investment is needed in agriculture and food distribution systems around the world in the next few years, if widespread hunger is to be avoided, according to a group of leading scientists.

If that investment is directed towards sustainable forms of agriculture, then farming can also be made into a weapon in the fight against dangerous global warming, they said, as more environmentally-friendly farming methods can result in soils absorbing carbon dioxide rather than releasing it.

Agriculture has been neglected in international climate change negotiations, but if governments persist in ignoring the problem then millions are likely to go hungry, according to a new report published on Wednesday morning, before the next round of negotiations in South Africa later this month.

"If you intensify agriculture to produce more food while producing less [greenhouse gas emissions] then you deliver benefits in terms of climate change as well – reducing emissions and increasing food security in vulnerable regions," said Sir John Beddington, the UK's chief scientist and one of the authors of the report, Achieving food security in the face of climate change, published by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, convened by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Sir John added: "We need a socially equitable and global approach to produce the funding and policy initiatives that will deliver nutrition, income and climate benefits for all."

Investment should be targeted at the regions most vulnerable to climate change, as they are also the areas at greatest risk of food insecurity, the scientists said.

Another vital factor in improving food security is to reduce waste and improve food distribution systems. As much as half of the food produced is wasted before it reaches market in some developing countries, because of a lack of infrastructure such as refrigeration systems and reliable transport networks.

Waste is a problem not confined to the developing world, however – cheap food in the developed world has led to a culture of waste that means billions of tonnes of perfectly edible products are thrown away each year. The UK's Waste Resources Action Programme said this week there had been a sharp fall in household food waste, by 13% in the past year. But waste remains a serious problem – in the UK alone, at least £12bn worth of food is thrown away each year. Campaigners are preparing for an event in London on Friday to "feed the 5,000", using misshapen vegetables rejected by retailers to illustrate the enormous waste of edible food that takes place in the UK each day.

The scientists also called for a change in consumption patterns "to ensure that basic nutritional needs are met and to foster healthy and sustainable eating habits worldwide". An increasing amount of food production is geared towards feeding livestock, as people like to eat more meat as they grow more affluent.

The scientists also called for governments to create "comprehensive, shared, integrated information systems" on agriculture. But they said that the demands of an increasing global population for more food could be met without environmental harm, if farming methods were reformed and farmers educated in sustainable techniques.

Agriculture is likely to play only a minor role at Durban, where the next round of international climate change negotiations start at the end of November. Countries are hoping to sort out some of the details of a new agreement on climate change, such as how to ensure a flow of public and private sector finance from rich to poor countries, to help them cut greenhouse gas emissions and tackle the effects of climate change.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bird Condominium Designed by Architect

ALL photos courtesy: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture

Let's hope this active attempt to co-exist with nature spreads worldwide.

As more people begin moving from rural areas and into swelling urban centers around the world, it usually means that local wildlife gets the boot. But now, thanks to a revolutionary new building called Tower of Nests proposed for construction in Shanghai, city squirrels, birds, and insects that might otherwise be displaced will have a high-rise to call their very own, living in peace with human residents. The designers behind the tower hope that it will usher in a new era of urban architecture -- one that promotes sustainability and harmony with nature.

The Tower of Nests, brainchild of Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture, was recently awarded first prize at the 2011 World Architecture Festival in Barcelona in the Future Projects Category. At 50-stories, the tower will feature a facade of natural materials such as mud, straw, stone, and wicker as a way of inviting urban species to make their habitat in an otherwise stark city-scape. Inside, both commercial and residential space will offer Shanghai a chance to live and work alongside animals in their somewhat natural-seeming habitats.

While the building itself is pretty incredible looking, and the concept behind the Tower of Nests is no fleeting thing:
Mankind faces a challenge comparable in size with the industrial revolution to build a sustainable society. In order to succeed, we need to learn how to coexist with nature. We propose a building that aims to become a symbol; not of power nor wealth, but of a new era of harmony and interplay between nature and mankind.

The tower would poetically create closer and richer contact between humans and animals while accommodating them using the same environment. If their activities are done in the same architectural space, the natural environment becomes important to both. This will increase the responsibility in maintaining the environment, which both animals and humans use.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Toxic Chemicals Found in Leather Gloves

Photo courtesy: josie lynn richards/CC BY 2.0

If you were one of the millions who chose leather because it was a natural material and free from chemical contamination, read on. The truth will probably have you disposing of your leather gloves in favour of something less toxic.

Although the subject of wearing fur or leather divides many in the green community, as long as people eat meat, the skin of animals remains a source of a potentially durable, natural material for making clothing and accessories. But in a recent review by German eco-friendly consumer protection magazine OekoTest, only two of seventeen gloves tested passed. Thirteen were rated unsatisfactory, and two as inadequate.

The good news first: one of the gloves found acceptable was from H&M, a global consumer fashion concern. The other pair of passing gloves came from a high-end German glove manufacturer Bernd Vojtisek. Although natural tanning processes are available, a common argument against using them -- according to Rico Wappler, a glove manufacturer who uses the natural process, in OekoTest -- is that the chemical process produces a more consistent appearance; in the fashion industry, irregularities are seen as flaws.

As a result of using chemical processes for tanning, gloves tested contained chemicals like:

- Chromium, which can cause allergic reactions, gets into gloves both from tanning agents and dyes
- Short-chain Chloroparaffins, which are considered carcinogenic and are banned in Europe -- but still legal once in the gloves, in this case imported from China
- Lead, up to 2.8 grams/kg in one model
- Aniline, a carcinogen which can be released when dyes used are not high quality

Several manufacturers reacted properly to the news, pulling product that they claim also fails to meet their internal standards (where are their testers?). The New York style house Capelli , for example, has issued apologies and offered a refund on gloves contaminated with chemicals.

Only one manufacturer has failed to train management on media reaction policy, demanding that OekoTest not publish the test results on their product. OekoTest, naturally, declined to meet that demand, and has made all leather glove test results available online (German).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You Could Be Ingesting 515 Chemicals a Day Through Your Skin

Click on image and use magnifier. Image courtesy: ecomom

It should come as no surprise that a glance around the shelves and showers of a typical bathroom will reveal a crazy array of products, each with their own ingredient list that will probably startle the pants off someone who bothered to read the list -- that is, if they could read the list and comprehend what it is they're looking at.

We know that going organic and all-natural is a smart move when it comes to beauty and skin-care products. It's simply a no-brainer to avoid anything you can't pronounce because we don't know what it will do to our bodies other than make us smell like imitation flowers.

But even for those of us who consider ourselves pretty aware, we might be shocked to know some of the ingredients in our favorite products, and the extent to which various chemicals leak into our lives. This infographic from EcoMom might inspire you to take another look at what goes in your shopping cart next time you're picking out make-up, soaps and other products.

Via ecomom

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Most Expensive Tea in the World?

Photo courtesy: Kevin Dooley/CC BY 2.0

As many people know Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world; and, for very good reason. It is made from coffee beans eaten, partly digested and then excreted by the Common palm civet, a weasel-like animal. Apparently the internal digestion adds a unique flavor to the beans, removing the bitter flavor; and, the beans are then picked up by locals and sold. The most expensive coffee beans can cost up to $600 a pound, and up to $50 per cup.

A new tea is hitting the market that is reminiscent of the Kopi Luwak bean.

Pandas are cute and cuddly and make a warm, fuzzy connection with people. Now a Chinese wildlife expert is betting that people will love panda poop as well, or at least tea fertilized with the endangered animals' feces.

In fact, An Yanshi of Sichuan University believes that tea lovers with be so enthusiastic about the new product that they'll be willing to pay up to $36,000 per pound (6x the cost of Kopi Luwak) of the stuff. Oh yeah, did I mention, it's also supposed to prevent cancer.

This isn't the first surprising use for panda poop; research has shown that their feces could be the key to a major breakthrough in biofuel production. The key for each application is the panda's digestive system, which only absorbs about 30% of the bamboo the animals eat. An Yanshi says that because bamboo contains an element that prevents cancer using bamboo-filled poop as fertilizer will confer that property on the tea. This claim has not been proven by any reliable source that I am aware of.

It helps that he's making green tea, which has antioxidants that seem to prevent cancer cells from dividing. So by his logic, the super tea will double down your protection against the deadly disease. Making it a green tea is a stroke of genius. Any good that happens will be credited immediately to the panda poo without investigation.

While An Yanshi says that the tea will have "a mature, nutty taste and a very distinctive aroma." Now, THAT claim I can believe. I am a farmer from away back; and, that scent is not unknown or distasteful to me. Now, having said that, I'm don't want my food to taste or smell like it. Even farmers want a change.

Readers: what do you think?

Monday, September 12, 2011

House Built From Recycled Plastic Bottles

Photo courtesy: Andreas Froese/ECOTEC

Thousands of pieces of trash that would otherwise be clogging waterways and landfills in Nigeria have been turned into sturdy, and surprisingly attractive, construction materials in the village of Yelwa, where the country's first plastic-bottle house is drawing curious visitors and plenty of press. It's no surprise to me that these homes are attractive. I have always been a fan of the non-straight line. Nature very seldom does anything in a straight line; so, the attractiveness of a round home seems only natural to me. After all, my favourite car ever is a Volkswagen Beetle.

"Hundreds of people -- including government officials and traditional leaders -- have been coming to see how the [house's] walls are built in the round architectural shape popular in northern Nigeria," the BBC reported this week. I am not surprised that the round designs are sturdy. Domed doorways are known to be stronger than our modern rectangular ones.

The bottles are actually filled with dry soil or construction waste, not sand (an "unnecessary expense"), John Haley of ECOTEC, the firm that is training local masons in the technique, told in an email. They are then laid in rows like bricks and bound together with mud, producing a sturdy, well-insulated, and inexpensive three-room structure that is resistant to both bullets and earthquakes. Amazing, isn't it? With all our so-called cutting-edge technology, it takes discarded plastic bottles and mud to show us that sometimes the simplest ways are the best.

Photo courtesy: Andreas Froese/ECOTEC

"In Nigeria millions of plastic bottles are dumped into waterways and landfill each year causing pollution, erosion, irrigation blockages, and health problems. Bottle houses take this dangerous waste out of the environment and make it useful," the environmental blog Eco Nigeria wrote earlier this year as the construction was in progress.

Used plastic bottles were collected from hotels, restaurants, homes, and embassies starting in December 2010 to accumulate the estimated 7,800 needed to build the inaugural home in Yelwa following applications of the technique in India and Central and South America.

According to Eco Nigeria, the bottle house will be "solar powered, with a fuel-efficient clean cook stove, urine filtration fertilization systems, and water purification tanks, thereby making it energy autonomous." Next up: A 220,000-bottle school.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Kenya's Masai Mara Threatened by Invasive Species of Plant

Flowers of the Eurasian Asteraceae species of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). Kenya's pasture is threatened by the North American Asteraceae genus (Parthenium hysterophorus). Photo courtesy: Corbis via

One of the most sacred and revered places on the planet - the Masai Mara - is under attack from an unlikely source. Feverfew, a non-native species, is threatening to colonize the Mara; thereby, causing local herbivores to starve.

No one knows how feverfew reached south-west Kenya. But the threat it poses led to a recent alert from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) issued to the international scientific community: "The SerengetiMasai Mara ecosystem in Africa, which hosts the largest wildlife migration known to man, is under attack from a noxious weed."

Masai Mara, which runs along the border with Tanzania, is home to Africa's largest herbivore population. At the start of the annual rainy season, millions of wildebeest, gazelles, zebras and giraffes leave the Tanzanian savanna for the plains of Kenya in search of fresh pastures. A few months later, towards December, they circle back completing a round trip of several hundred kilometres. But what would happen if the weed, originally from Central America, colonised this wildlife sanctuary?

Parthenium hysterophorus, commonly known as Santa Maria feverfew or whitetop weed, is one of the world's 10 most dangerous weeds. It can grow two metres tall. Until now it has only been seen on tracks crossing the wildlife reserve and on the shores of the river Mara, which flows through the Serengeti.

"It is very hard to say how long it will take for the invasion to spread to the whole park, because that depends on many factors, in particular climatic conditions," says Arne Witt, Invasive Species Co-ordinator at the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (Cabi). "But the example of neighbouring Uganda shows that it may be very quick. The plant was first spotted three years ago and it is now seen all over the country. Bearing in mind that it can grow from seed to maturity in four to six weeks and can produce 10,000 to 25,000 seeds, contamination can happen very quickly," Witt adds.

Unlike Central America, there are no predatory insects in Africa to thwart its spread. Scientists are all too familiar with the destruction wrought by feverfew, which has been on the red list of invasive species in Australia and India for decades. Feverfew pollen is also a skin irritant and causes respiratory difficulties.

Its first landfall in Africa was in Ethiopia in the early 1980s. The most widespread, though unconfirmed, explanation is that the weed was imported with food aid to combat the famine then affecting the Horn of Africa. It then spread to Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Somalia and South Africa.

"Unless action is taken immediately to eradicate known infestations in the Masai Mara National Reserve it is not unrealistic to expect a drastic reduction in wildlife populations in the long term," says Geoffrey Howard, at IUCN Kenya. "The animals won't eat feverfew, at least at first, but they won't have any alternative if they are starving."

Witt's organisation, Cabi, has drawn up a plan to eradicate the species in conjunction with the Kenyan wildlife service, the public body that manages all the national parks. This involves several options. "Ideally we should mount a biological response – for example by introducing an insect predator – but that is extremely expensive. Another solution is to use weedkiller, but that wouldn't be too popular with the donors who fund our programmes," Witt admits. "So we will almost certainly be doing the work by hand, helped by local communities."

The operation could be carried out in a few weeks, but that would only be the first step. "Feverfew seeds can lie dormant in the soil for several years before germinating, so it is essential to keep watch over the next five years," Witt explains. He reckons a monitoring programme would cost at least $65,000.

It may seem a ridiculously small figure in view of the natural heritage at stake. But "for us it is a large amount of money and we will need outside support", says Dr Judith Nyunja of the wildlife service. The decision to implement the plan is now in the hands of the Kenyan authorities.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shipwreck Threatens Endangered Penquins

Northern rockhopper penguins on Nightingale Island, Tristan da Cunha, which holds half the global population of the species. Photo courtesy: Trevor Galss/PA via

A wrecked ship is threatening to cause an environmental disaster on an island which is home to endangered penguins, conservationists warn.

The vessel has grounded on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic, causing an oil slick around the island which is home to nearly half the world's population of northern rockhopper penguins.

Some 1,500 tonnes of heavy crude oil from the MS Olivia, which was shipping soya beans between Rio de Janeiro and Singapore, is leaking into the sea.

According to the RSPB, oil now surrounds Nightingale Island and extends into a slick eight miles offshore, threatening the endangered penguins and the economically important rock lobster fishery.

Hundreds of penguins have already been seen coming ashore covered in oil, the wildlife charity said.

The vessel that has grounded on Nightingale Island, Tristan da Cunha, causing an oil slick The vessel that grounded by Nightingale Island, causing the oil slick. Photo courtesy: Sean Burns/PA via

The shipwreck could also lead to any rats onboard colonising the island and posing a huge risk to the native seabird populations - whose chicks and eggs could be eaten by the invasive rodents.

The Tristan da Cunha islands, in particular Nightingale and its neighbour Middle Island, are home to millions of nesting seabirds.

There are more than 200,000 northern rockhopper penguins on the island.

RSPB research biologist Richard Cuthbert said: "The consequences of this wreck could be potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands.

"The Tristan da Cunha islands, especially Nightingale and adjacent Middle Island, hold millions of nesting seabirds as well as four out of every 10 of the world population of the globally endangered northern rockhopper penguin."

And he said: "If the vessel happens to be harbouring rats and they get ashore, then a twin environmental catastrophe could arise.

"Nightingale is one of two large islands in the Tristan da Cunha group that are rodent-free. If rats gain a foothold their impact would be devastating."

Trevor Glass, Tristan conservation officer, said: "The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island.

"The Tristan conservation team are doing all they can to clean up the penguins that are currently coming ashore. It is a disaster."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chemotherapy Drug Found in Bark of Endangered Tree

Taxol, a chemotherapy drug used in the treatment of cancer, was first found in the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolin). Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute/Corbis via

A species of Himalayan yew tree that is used to produce Taxol, a chemotherapy drug to treat cancer, is being pushed to the brink of extinction by over-harvesting for medicinal use and collection for fuel, scientists warned on Thursday.

The medicinal tree, Taxus contorta, found in Afghanistan, India and Nepal, has seen its conservation status change from "vulnerable" to "endangered" on the IUCN's annual "red list" of threatened species.

Taxol was discovered by a US National Cancer Institute programme in the late 1960s, isolated in the bark of the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. All 11 species of yew have since been found to contain Taxol. "The harvesting of the bark kills the trees, but it is possible to extract Taxol from clippings, so harvesting, if properly controlled, can be less detrimental to the plants," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, IUCN red list unit manager.

"Harvest and trade should be carefully controlled to ensure it is sustainable, but plants should also be grown in cultivation to reduce the impact of harvesting on wild populations," he added.

The red list is currently the most detailed and authoritative survey of the planet's species, drawn from the work of thousands of scientists around the globe. For the first time, more than 61,900 species have been reviewed. The latest list categorises 801 species as extinct, 64 as extinct in the wild, and 9,568 as critically endangered or endangered. A further 10,002 species are vulnerable, with the main threats being overuse, pollution, habitat loss and degradation.

Tim Entwisle from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said: "There are 380,000 species of plants named and described, with about 2,000 being added to the list every year. At Kew we estimate one in five of these are likely to be under threat of extinction right now, before we even factor in the impacts of climate change."

The Chinese water fir, for example, which was formerly widespread throughout China and Vietnam, is critically endangered. The main cause of decline is the loss of habitat to expanding intensive agriculture. The largest of the recently discovered stands in Laos was killed through flooding for a newly constructed hydropower scheme.

In the granitic Seychelles Islands, 77% of the assessed endemic flowering plants are at risk of extinction, including the Coco de Mer, which is illegally harvested for its supposed aphrodisiac properties.
Some 25% of all mammals were deemed to be at serious risk, according to the list. The black rhino in western Africa has officially been declared extinct. The white rhino in central Africa is on the brink of extinction and has been listed as possibly extinct in the wild. In Vietnam, poaching has driven the Javan rhinoceros to extinction, leaving the critically endangered species' only remaining population numbering less than 50 on the Indonesian island that gave it its name.

But it is not all bad news for conservationists. Przewalski's horse, also known as the Mongolian wild horse, was listed as extinct in the wild in 1996. Thanks to captive breeding and a successful reintroduction programme, the population in central Asia is now estimated at more than 300 and the wild horse has improved its status from critically endangered to endangered.

"This update offers both good and bad news on the status of many species around the world," said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Global Species Programme. "We have the knowledge that conservation works if executed in a timely manner, yet, without strong political will in combination with targeted efforts and resources, the wonders of nature and the services it provides can be lost forever."

The overall message is that biodiversity continues to decline and governments need to take action to achieve the goal of a 10-year plan that was agreed on the international biodiversity summit in Japan last year. It reads: "By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Talk About Contented Cows

The herd on the way back to the barn. Photo courtesy:

Cows are very intelligent sentient beings; and, I am glad to see a dairy farmer who respects them for the amazing animals that they are. He and his family subscribe to the theory that contented, well-treated cows produce superior milk; that, in turn produces the dairy's superior cheese.

Their website makes this statement: "We believe that to make the best possible cheese it’s all about what is best for the cow, not what is best for us. So we lavish care on our cows, making sure that they have access to lush grazing during the spring and summer and that they are provided with spacious yet cosy housing when the weather isn’t so good."

The cows entering the rotary milking machine complete with classical music. Photo courtesy:

The cows are milked in a rotary parlour while listening to soothing classical music to ensure that each cow is comfortable and relaxed.

The website continues: "In these barns they enjoy the luxury of waterbeds for maximum comfort when lying down, as well as regular foot trimming ‘pedicures’ and a carefully tailored diet designed to meet their needs. There is also loads of space so that they can wander around freely and socialise."

I am especially delighted that this family recognizes the cows' need for same-species interaction. They are very social animals; and, can become very distress if deprived of interaction with another individual (same species or other).

After reading how they treat their cows, I am going to search out one of their cheeses and try it. I'm not too old or set in my ways to change brands.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It's Fall (at least in my part of the world)

Image courtesy:

Autumn is here - no ifs, ands or buts about it. This means that many of our birds and winged pollinators will either be overwintering or migrating to warmer climes. To help those that stay have a more comfortable winter or those that are migrating find plenty of food to fuel their flights, here are a few tips:

Lay on a Spread: Migrating birds and butterflies need food when preparing for fall journeys and when they arrive in the spring. To help them out, populate your garden with regionally native plants that flower or bear fruit in different seasons. Fall-blooming plants include asters, goldenrods and perennial sunflowers. Berry-producing shrubs include dogwoods and viburnums. Plants that flower early in spring, such as amelanchier, cherries, hawthorns and willows, provide nectar and pollen when migrating species return.

Leave Seed Heads Alone: Leaving perennial seed heads on plants such as echinacea and brown-eyed Susans can provide food for overwintering birds, such as finches and juncos. Seed heads can also feed returning birds in the spring. Shrubs such as winterberry, holly, sumac and highbush cranberry produce berries that can linger into late winter providing food for early arrivers that might face one last cold snap.

Make Mud Puddles: To encourage butterflies in your garden, maintain a damp area with mud, sand or manure. Butterflies drink in minerals from these areas in a process known as "mudpuddling".

Shop Wisely: Use your shopping power to shape the face of our agricultural practices by buying organic and local when you can. Birds need abundant food to complete their migrations and many rely on a diversity of insects, especially ones uncontaminated by pesticides. Small-scale organic agriculture can result in a greater variety of insects than large-scale farming practices. This farming method also helps migrating monarchs which are especially sensitive to pesticide use.

Via Canadian Wildlife