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In late October, nearly 200 Loa water frog tadpoles hatched at the National Zoo of Chile, a little more than a year after a team of conservationists in Chile evacuated the last-known 14 frogs from dry habitats and brought them to the zoo. This offers a glimmer of hope for the critically endangered frog.

In June 2019, herpetologist Andrés Charrier discovered that the only known stream home to the Loa water frog (Telmatobius dankoi) had dried up as a result of extraction of water for mining, agriculture and real estate development. In a small muddy pool, scientists discovered 14 malnourished and dehydrated individuals. With the help of the Chilean government, the 14 frogs were airlifted to the National Zoo of Chile in the capital, Santiago. The hope was to begin a conservation breeding programme, but first the scientists needed to stabilise the remaining individuals. “When we brought these animals to the zoo, I didn’t even know if they were going to survive the transfer from Calama on the plane to Santiago,” said Charrier. Zoo staff were able to save 12 of the 14 individuals. 

The rehabilitation of the rescued individuals was the first objective of the conservation effort. The second objective was the successful reproduction and the hatching of the tadpoles, which has now also been accomplished. Yet the final objective, reintroducing the species back into their natural habitat, may prove to be the most challenging.

The city of Calama is located in the middle of the Atacama desert. In the driest non-polar desert on Earth, water is a scarce and precious resource. Calama is considered the mining capital of Chile. Various industrial processes led to the contamination and shrinking of the only stream the Loa water frog is known to inhabit. It is against these threats that conservationists have to contend if they hope to accomplish their third objective. Sadly, these threats are not unique to the Loa water frog, and it is believed that many species of water frog are threatened by human activities. 

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There are 63 species of water frog found in South America, with about 10 species in Chile. Many species of water frogs (including the Loa water frog) are micro-endemic, meaning they are only found in a small region. Water frogs are either semi-aquatic or entirely aquatic, making them incredibly sensitive to changes in their environment and particularly vulnerable to climate change. Habitat destruction, invasive trout species, disease and pollution are also threatening South America’s water frogs.

The achievements of the team involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and reproduction of the frogs is no small feat, as no one is known to have attempted to care for the species before. It is almost certain that without intervention, the species would have become extinct. It is important to celebrate the success of this conservation effort, but it is also a stark reminder of the impact humanity is having on all areas of the natural world. 

The Loa water frog is considered critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and was once found only in a single stream in Chile. Experts say there may be between five and eight individuals still living in the wild. Returning the species to the wild someday will require identifying a safe home for the frogs and protecting that habitat from the threat of illegal water extraction and habitat destruction. 

Featured image by: Smithsonian Mag 

Shark finning poses a significant threat to the ocean’s ecosystem and levels of carbon dioxide production in marine environments. Endangered shark species are still under threat despite being protected by shark finning bans and conservation plans. A recent massive shark fin seizure in Hong Kong demonstrates the severity of the city’s role in the global shark finning trade, despite a stern ban in place. What does the future of the trade look like, and what can be done to stop it? 

Shark Finning Statistics

Humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide each year, including tens of millions of sharks killed for their fins. As apex predators (top predators), sharks help mediate healthy ocean ecosystems and assist in maintaining a balanced biodiversity through intimidating potential prey, preventing overpopulation of prey species, and preventing prey species from dominating a limited resource. Sharks’ roles in managing the marine’s environment is therefore essential; without them the infrastructure and balance of the ocean’s ecosystem would be threatened. 

Largest Shark Fin Seizure in Recorded Hong Kong History 

Hong Kong customs officials recently seized 26 tons of dried shark fins extracted from an estimated 38 500 endangered sharks inside two containers shipped from Ecuador. The Customs and Excise Department’s marine enforcement group in Hong Kong estimated the fins at US$1.1 million, which were removed largely from thresher and silk sharks- both protected and endangered species.

According to Ken Chan Hon-ki, endangered species protection officer of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the fins were removed from an estimated 31 000 thresher sharks and 7 500 silky sharks. It was further noted that the fins were to be delivered to restaurants and shops for local consumption, however the ongoing investigation has yet to confirm this definitively. 

While selling and consuming shark fins is not illegal in Hong Kong, it is regulated and requires a license. Importing an endangered species without a license is punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) fine.

In 2018, police officers seized a total of 641 kilograms of shark fins worth over US$65 780, making this year’s seizure significantly larger in comparison. The rise in seizures demonstrates the severity of the role that Hong Kong has in the global shark finning trade, and highlights the ongoing participation in the harvesting and trading of shark fins despite the threat it poses to the species’ and the ocean’s ecosystem. 

According to a superintendent officer reporting to South China Morning Post, the rise in seizures demonstrates an ‘efficient system of inspecting and detecting illegal shark fin activity’, potentially due to intelligence collaborations with mainland China and other countries. Moreover, the increase in seizures may not be a result of a rise in demand. Instead, Gloria Lai Pui-yin, senior conservation officer at The World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong (WWF-HK) pointed out that it could be an attempt of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic as government officials are preoccupied combating the virus.

Lai mentioned that with people dining out less due to social distancing customs, a local increase in shark fin demand is highly improbable. WWF-HK strongly encourages companies and restaurants in Hong Kong and beyond to pledge against shark finning and to stop selling shark fin dishes with the aim of decreasing the demand. However, she acknowledges that the demand may rise again after social distancing rules are relaxed. 

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The Trade’s Link to the Climate Crisis

A 2016 study investigating the impact of shark finning on the climate crisis demonstrated that the removal of sharks from ecosystems may increase carbon dioxide production in the ocean. Removing the apex predator from its natural habitat can increase the biomass of prey species, like smaller fish and zooplankton, resulting in higher net carbon production by the system. The researchers noted that their results support previous findings established by similar studies. Additionally, predators affect the feeding habits of prey species such that their removal can result in a decrease in ocean carbon storage. Recent research has explained this may occur as predators are able to control populations or behaviours of other organisms, which might prevent potential carbon deposit build up.  

Essentially, the researchers postulated that shark finning, in addition to fishing in general, contributes to the escalation of the climate crisis. Their study, along with others, further demonstrates the need to ban harmful activities such as shark finning, and highlights an area of research worth expanding and building on.    

Shark Finning Bans – How to stop shark finning?

The UN developed the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks in an attempt to conserve and manage shark populations, as well as to encourage their sustainable use. Though shark legislation varies greatly between countries, many governments have implemented a partial or full ban on shark finning – providing a glimpse of hope for the global ban of shark finning. 

Canada, the first country to ban the export and import of shark fins, sets an example for other countries to follow suit. In 1994, Canada enforced a ban on shark finning with the exception of importing fins, which was legal up until the summer of 2019. In 2018 alone, Canada imported more than 148 000 kilograms of shark fins for local consumption, making it the largest importer of shark fins outside of East Asia. Since the recent full ban, concern around the detrimental effects of shark finning has been raised among the Canadian public, prompting a decrease in shark fin-related activities. 

In contrast, some countries’ legislation regarding shark finning contain loopholes that subsequently enable illegal activity. Indonesia, among others, passed a ban on fishing of endangered shark species in 2012. According to Indonesian law, the fishing of authorised shark species is allowed given that the entire body is brought back to shore for full utilisation. The act of shark finning – harvesting the shark fin and dumping the body back into the ocean – is illegal. Despite such regulations in place, the demand for local shark fin consumption remains high as the market is still being entertained, enabling deceptive behaviour and illegal trading to satisfy monetary motivations

What Next for the Shark Finning Trade?

It is evident that the extermination of shark species has a cascading effect throughout the ocean’s ecosystems that leads to catastrophic ecological and environmental consequences. While recognising the importance of sharks paves the way to greater awareness of the matter, more decisive action must be taken by governments to curb the shark finning trade altogether and punishments must be effective in deterring would-be syndicates. There should also be global cooperation to better monitor and control illegal activities. 

With the continued attempts of raising awareness, implementing legislation, and educating the public on its detrimental effects, the trajectory of shark finning will hopefully decrease in the near future. However, this action must come from the top. 

All around the world, high mountain ranges have glacial water supplies known as water towers, which account for half the global population’s freshwater supply. However, these ecosystems are highly vulnerable to subtle environmental changes and a recent report by Nature suggests that water towers may disappear in the next 30 years, threatening the water supply of nearly two billion people.

Rising global temperatures and reduced rainfall are the two main factors in the shrinking availability of water in water towers. While these areas usually act as natural reservoirs, providing populations with clean water even through droughts, less glacier ice and rapidly increasing water consumption are threatening this resource.

What are water towers?

The term ‘water tower’ describes the importance of mountains meeting freshwater needs for adjacent areas downstream. 

Mountainous regions generate higher runoff seasonally due to orographic precipitation- snow and rainfall caused by moist air rising over mountains. Due to low temperatures at high altitudes, water is stored in snow and glaciers in mountains, therefore delaying the release of water and enabling mountains to have a buffering capacity. 

What are water towers for?

This means that downstream and upstream communities have a consistent supply of water for irrigation, energy and local ecosystems from water towers. Mountain systems are also home to around 50% of the global biodiversity hotspots, containing one third of terrestrial species diversity and rich plant diversity. 

Apart from regulating the hydrosphere and biosphere, the world’s mountains provide a host of other ecosystem services such as food supply and genetic resources for agriculture and medicine, with major crops such as wheat, rice, oats and grapes having originated or diversified into multiple varieties in mountain regions. Further, various indigenous communities who live in these regions have a wealth of traditional knowledge on climate adaptation, water and land management that needs to be preserved. However, rising temperatures are reducing glacier mass and increasing the rate of ice melt in warmer months and there isn’t enough cold weather to make up for this during other parts of the year.

Importance of Water Towers

Until now, the world’s mountain systems have never been quantified according to their importance or vulnerability. Researchers set out to fill this gap and studied 78 water towers globally. They ranked mountain systems in order of their supply of water, and demand for this water from adjacent lowland communities. The water tower’s vulnerability to future shocks include factors like hydro-political tension, government effectiveness, climate change, population change, baseline water stress and projected change in GDP. The quality and quantity of these freshwater supplies are essential to large populations, especially considering that less than 1% of the earth’s water is fit for human consumption.

Water towers most threatened with future scarcity primarily exist in Asia. The most relied-upon water tower is the Indus Basin, supplying water to India, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

In fact, nearly all important water towers in Asia, such as Amu Darya and Ganges-Brahmaputra, were found to be more vulnerable than mountains in other countries. This is because these regions tend to be transboundary, densely populated and have competing land use needs. Unfortunately, these factors are met with weak governance and geopolitical tension, amplified by the worsening effects of the climate crisis, leaving Asia’s water towers in a highly vulnerable state.

South America’s water towers are just as vulnerable, more so than Europe and North America. However, even mountain towers in the developed world like the Colorado River Basin, the Rhone and the Po are vulnerable to pressures such as population growth and temperature rise.

Anthropogenic changes, such as the climate crisis, have been long identified by scientists as a leading driver of unprecedented and irreversible changes in mountain systems. Mountains are warming faster than the global average- temperatures high in the Himalayas have increased by nearly 2 degrees Celsius since the start of the century, 1 degree higher than the planetary average. 

Population growth and increased consumption also deplete water resources in mountain regions. For example, the population in communities dependent on the Indus River is expected to increase by 50% in the next few decades. The human factor plays just as significant a role as reduced rainfall and higher temperatures, if not more, since human activity is proliferating these conditions.

The climate crisis will affect the shape and size of glaciers and the level, frequency and intensity of precipitation. Countries that are socioeconomically vulnerable facing issues such as conflict over water rights, such as India and Pakistan, will be hard hit by the climate crisis, even with minute changes in the hydrological cycle in mountains. 

What Are the Solutions?

Mitigating the effects of the climate crisis will be the most pressing issue of the future. If global warming increases by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists predict that 80% of water in tower storage units will evaporate by the end of this century. 

Communities affected by the inevitable consequences of changing water towers such as reduced water shortage in mountains, are already adapting. In Ladakh, located in the Indian region of the Himalayas, an engineer Sonam Wangchuk has come up with a solution to bring glaciers to people. He builds glacier stupas, small piles of ice that provide irrigation for farmers to counter shrinking glaciers and unpredictable rainfall. 

The research concludes with a call to protect Earth’s water towers with a global, mountain-specific approach, focusing on local water conservation policy and transboundary cooperation in affected countries, along with global climate mitigation actions to prevent the degradation of the cryosphere.

Increased water usage by growing populations and heightened power generation are lowering water storage units faster than the environment can replenish itself. Better managing water resources will be significant in minimising the impact of upcoming scarcity and preserving precious water for future generations. 

This piece was written jointly by Emily Folk and Lavanya Prakash.

A conservation working group in South America is attempting to stimulate the recovery of the giant South American river turtle and save it from extinction.

Large-scale commercialisation of freshwater turtles and their eggs threaten wild populations. These turtles, of the genus Podocnemis, are especially at risk with all species in the taxonomic group facing the threat of extinction. The giant South American river turtle Podocnemis expansa in particular has been subject to an extensive history of exploitation in the Amazon since the 18th century, when European settlers would harvest fat from adult turtles for cooking oil and fuel for street lamps. During 1848-59 alone, 48 million P. expansa eggs were harvested annually from the Amazon and Madeira, the majority of which were exported to Europe.   

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The giant South American river turtle.

Why are giant South American river turtle under threat?

Today, the species faces threats from illegal poaching, whereby hatchlings and eggs are stolen from nesting sites and trafficked via networks in larger Amazonian cities to the rest of the world where they are sold as pets. Wild populations of P. expansa in Venezuela have plunged by as much as 98% from 1945-2010. 

Freshwater turtles play an important role in marine ecosystems. They provide high secondary productivity, energy flow within and between ecosystems and a food source for human riverine communities. Secondary production refers to the measuring of biomass generation by an organism; biomass is an important measure in ecology, because it reflects the amount of available and stored energy in the animals or plants occupying an ecosystem. According to Lovich, Ennen, Agha & Gibbons (2018), turtles also regulate the energy flow of a given environment. They themselves and their eggs are a food source for predators, and beach vegetation derives benefits from the eggs that remain on beaches and break down, which regulates erosion. 

Since the 1960s, government agencies and NGOs have attempted to reduce the trade of the species to support its recovery. However, hunting pressure in the region remains high. Although the species is currently listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, conservation groups are actively pushing for its re-classification to “Critically Endangered”. 

In 2014, conservation groups from six countries across the Orinoco and Amazon basins—Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador—gathered to share information to estimate the abundance patterns of P. expansa populations in the wild. Their findings were recently published in Oryx, a peer-reviewed journal of conservation. 

Collectively, the researchers estimated that over 147,000 females inhabit the protected areas across the six Amazon countries. Brazil hosts the largest (>75%) number of nesting females, followed by Bolivia (20%). The top nesting sites—five in Brazil and one in Bolivia—account for over 100,000 (68%) of nesting females. Long-term protection of these sites alone would secure more than two-thirds of the protected population in the wild. 

Moving forward, the working group will prioritise the protection of nesting beaches and the reduction of illegal poaching. It also discourages the practice of nest relocations and head starting, a strategy whereby young turtles are protected in captivity temporarily before their release into the wild at a larger size, as both could lead to adverse health effects for turtles, including morphological abnormalities.

Moreover, the group will actively collect demographic information such as population size and structure, and age-specific survivorship, which is essential for informing the conservation status of P. expansa as well as broad-scale conservation action. 

The long-term survival of P. expansa will depend on a collective effort across the region, including engagements with local Amazonian communities. 

“We are seeing positive results as work progresses and as communities are expressing greater interest in working with turtles. We have seen a decrease in the consumption of eggs, an important achievement that we must replicate throughout the continent,” said Camila Ferrara, co-author of the journal paper in a statement

Featured image courtesy of Wiki

Climate change could increase the risk of disruptions, damages, and failures across the global transport sector. 

How does climate change impact transportation?

The global transport sector is well exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events; Climate change, which causes sea-level rise, extreme precipitation, coastal storms, landslides, extreme temperatures, and inland flooding, may exacerbate future risks.

Globally, average sea levels have swelled over 50 cm since 1880, with about seven of those centimetres gained in the last 25 years. Every year, the sea rises another .33cm. Transportation infrastructures in many coastal cities across the United States are extremely susceptible to sea-level rise. Boston, Virginia Beach, Charleston, Atlantic City, Miami, New Orleans and New York City are already facing frequent inundation with thousands of kilometers of roads submerged. A report from the U.S. Department of  Transportation states that transport infrastructure in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia would be the most vulnerable to sea-level rise in the coming decades.

Roads and railway lines around the coast of England are predicted to be swamped due to rising tides. Committee on Climate Change — the UK’s public advisory body — estimates that 1,600km of major roads, 650km of railway lines and 92 stations will be underwater by 2080.  Another study reveals that the most vulnerable rail line in the UK may be the stretch between Dawlish to Teignmouth in London, which would face frequent disruptions because of floods.  

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) states that more than 7,000km of roads in South America and the Caribbean Islands would be destroyed if sea levels rise by 50cm. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicts that the Caribbean region would lose almost 600km of roads and every fourth airport in their territory.

Climate change is expected to cause local changes in average and extreme temperatures, as well as changes in rainfall patterns, duration, and intensity. These changes can destroy roads, rail tracks, and airports across the world. 

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Sea-level rise is occurring much faster than scientists expected – exposing roads to the destructive floods. A scene from Florida, USA.

Intense rainfall already brings Mumbai, India’s largest city, to a halt. More than 20,000 cars and 200 buses were submerged while hundreds of kilometers of roads were flooded following extreme precipitation in 2005. Mumbai, which receives around 250cm rainfall annually, has its main airport and hundreds of kilometers of roads and rail lines located in low lying areas.   Even a slight increase in rainfall can bring substantial damage to the infrastructures in the city.

The combination of intense hurricanes and tropical storms brings significant devastation to the transport sector worldwide. When Hurricane Mitch ripped through Central America, roads and rail lines were ruined across many countries. Nicaragua witnessed heavy and long-lasting rainfall for weeks, which caused landslides and floods, causing serious damage to the country’s infrastructures; more than 3,000 km of roads and 100 bridges were destroyed.

Rising temperatures also have adverse effects on the transport sector as extreme heat causes the roads to soften and expand creating ruts and potholes, particularly in high-traffic areas. More frequent and severe heat waves may cause rail tracks to expand and buckle resulting in quick detrition of the infrastructure.

Governments worldwide should play an elementary role in increasing the absorptive and restorative capacities of their transport sector in the wake of climate change. Building resilient systems in the light of natural disasters and extreme weather events should be the basis of their economic decision-making process. Upgrading construction standards for roads, bridges, rail lines, and culverts can reduce the impacts of the climate crisis. 

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