Colombia’s free-flowing Bita River gains international protection

Colombia’s free-flowing Bita River gains international protection

In a major triumph for freshwater conservation, Colombia’s Bita River basin was recently announced by President Juan Manuel Santos as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention—an intergovernmental treaty that that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. This decree spans 824,500 hectares, establishing the river basin as the largest of the country’s 11 Ramsar sites and one of very few protected sites in the world to encompass an entire free-flowing river watershed.

Running unimpeded for more than 372 miles before flowing into the Orinoco River, the Bita River is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It harbors at least 1,474 species of plants, 254 fish species, 201 bird species, and 63 species of mammals—from tapirs to deer and jaguars—and its extensive freshwater habitats and gallery forest ecosystems are home to iconic species such as river dolphins, the blue arowana, and the charapa turtle.

It also supports local communities who rely on the river for everything from fishing to tourism to survive. 

The historic protection of the river is the result of joint efforts by WWF-Colombia and the Alliance for the Bita, comprised of the Omacha Foundation, the von Humboldt Institute, Vichada Provincial Government, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and other partners. The Alliance has been working with citizens and the government in recent years to define a sustainable future for the Bita River. After years of studies and consultations, stakeholders agreed to give the river a protected status that would allow for sustainable use, ensuring that the river’s incredible biodiversity—and the important ecological processes on which its survival hinges—are safeguarded in the long term. 

“The designation means that a vast wealth of species along the Bita River will be protected with support from local inhabitants and institutions,” said WWF-Colombia freshwater specialist Saulo Usma. “Critical wetland complexes, such as floodable savannah, drainage channels, and miriti palm ecosystems—which are home to a wide variety of fish—will be conserved. These are a vital source of income for local inhabitants.”

Wild and free

Securing the Bita River is not only critical for protecting its biodiversity. As a free-flowing river—a river that’s largely unaffected by human-made changes to its flow and connectivity—it’s a rare example of a watershed that’s been minimally affected by deforestation and human development.

Around the globe, rivers are under assault from pollution, floods, droughts, dams, and more. Today, an estimated 60,000 large dams (dams that can generate one megawatt of power or more) have been erected on more than half of the planet's major rivers. Because of these threats, our rivers are losing life rapidly; since 1970, freshwater species populations have declined by 81%—twice as fast as the decline of marine or terrestrial species.

Remarkably, more than 95% of the Bita River’s watershed is still intact. And thanks to the commitments of the Colombian government and its partners to safeguard the country’s rivers and freshwater resources, it’s likely to remain that way.

“The Bita River’s ecological health has set the standard that other Colombian rivers should aim for,” said Director of WWF-Colombia Mary Lou Higgins. “This is a big step for the protection of the Bita River and for the concepts of conservation and sustainable development in the Orinoco region.”

Learn more about free-flowing rivers and how WWF is working to protect them.

Published July 18, 2018 at 05:00AM

New camera trap photos in Thailand reveal a wildlife haven

New camera trap photos in Thailand reveal a wildlife haven

The leopard doesn’t seem to notice. Neither does the family of elephants, nor the grazing tapir. But in the dense forests of Kui Buri National Park, located in Thailand’s Tenasserim Hills, a hidden camera trap is busy snapping photos of each animal that passes by.

Camera traps are just like regular cameras, except they’re triggered by infrared sensors to take photos or videos whenever they sense movement. In recent years, researchers at WWF-Thailand have been using these specially adapted devices throughout Kui Buri to capture images of various species on film, which helps them to determine which animals—and how many—are present in the region. They also allow scientists to track and monitor wildlife movement.

Kui Buri National Park is one of 21 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that make up the important Dawna Tenasserim Landscape that straddles the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Covering more than 5.6 million acres, the Landscape is one of the largest protected area complexes in southeast Asia and provides vital habitat for an astounding array of wildlife, including sun bears, tigers, and Asian elephants.

Since 2005, the Kui Buri Wildlife Conservation Program has been working to protect wild elephants and other wildlife in the park. A collaboration between WWF-Thailand and the Department of National Parks, the project supports critical habitat restoration, anti-poaching patrols, and robust wildlife monitoring efforts to protect local elephant populations, in addition to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict.

Human-elephant conflict was once a regular occurrence around the park, which is surrounded by farmlands to the south and east. Elephants would often venture into local pineapple fields in search of a snack, which led to significant losses for farmers and danger for elephants that faced retaliation. Today, WWF and park staff engage local farmers and communities to encourage sustainable land use planning, stop human encroachment into elephant habitats, and work together to reduce human-elephant conflict.

Thanks to their efforts, elephant deaths have declined dramatically since 2010. Elephant habitat and prey for tigers have also improved drastically in key regions, bolstering wildlife populations.

Learn more learn about how WWF is using camera traps for conservation:

Published July 11, 2018 at 05:00AM

Colombia’s Serranía de Chiribiquete is now the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park

Colombia’s Serranía de Chiribiquete is now the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park

In a momentous win for conservation, Colombia’s Serranía de Chiribiquete was officially expanded to 4.3 million hectares today, making it the world’s largest protected tropical rainforest national park. It was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site in recognition of its “outstanding universal value” for nature and people.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos first announced the expansion of the park by 1.5 million hectares in February, marking the culmination of decades of joint conservation efforts by environmental organizations, including WWF, and the Colombian government.

“This is a defining moment for the protection of key ecosystems in Colombia,” said Mary Lou Higgins, Director of WWF-Colombia. “This is also a very important milestone for the Amazon and for forest conservation globally. The expansion and recognition of this unique place as a World Heritage site is a significant step toward safeguarding it for future generations.”

Located in the heart of the Colombian Amazon, Serranía de Chiribiquete park is a vibrant, biodiverse hotspot that has one of the highest rates of plant diversity in the northern Amazon and is home to thousands of species—many of which are threatened—including lowland tapirs, giant otters, giant anteaters, woolly monkeys, jaguars, and the Chiribiquete emerald hummingbird, the only endemic species in the Colombian Amazon.

In addition to its unique biodiversity, the protected area is culturally significant for indigenous communities and contains one of the oldest, largest, and densest archaeological pictographic complexes in the Americas. Fifty murals made up of more than 70,000 ancient paintings depicting animals, hunting, battle, and dancing—some more than 20,000 years old—can be found across the region’s many tepuis, table-top rock formations that rise out of the dense forest.

The park has been a protected area since 1989 and is the ninth World Heritage listing in Colombia, the second-most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil. Chiribiquete’s new designation will help strengthen protections around the park, providing critical buffers against deforestation throughout the Amazon’s essential wildlife corridors.

Protecting Chiribiquete’s future 

In recent years, climate change and deforestation from expanding agricultural production, land speculation, and illegal timber extraction—driven especially by political unrest—have been ever-present threats to Colombia’s forests. Sixty-six percent of the country’s deforestation now occurs in the Amazon—one of 11 regions in the world facing the highest risk of deforestation.

WWF experts estimate that if current deforestation trends continue, more than a quarter of the Amazon forest will be lost by 2030.

To prevent further destruction and to secure the natural resources within Colombia’s vital network of protected areas in the coming years, the Government of Colombia is working to manage Chiribiquete under an initiative called Heritage Colombia. Supported by WWF, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Protected Areas and Biodiversity Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Conservation International, and with initial funding from the German government, Heritage Colombia is a Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) initiative that uses an innovative funding mechanism to increase the amount of land in Colombia’s protected areas while ensuring the land is properly governed.

“I like to think of Heritage Colombia as ‘parks for peace and peace for parks,” said Higgins. “Not only will better management and governance of the parks help bring peace to the country, but peace in the country will also help ensure that our parks are healthy for generations to come.”

Published July 02, 2018 at 05:00AM

Climate change puts the Pacific Walrus population on thin ice

Climate change puts the Pacific Walrus population on thin ice

Every autumn for about the last decade, the residents of Enurmino—a tiny, Russian village located along the Chukchi Sea—have witnessed a strange sight. Tens of thousands of Pacific walruses have exited the chilly ocean waters and assembled en masse along the shoreline.

This phenomenon, known as a “haulout,” occurs when large hordes of mostly females and calves pull themselves onto the beach to rest. The walruses climb on to shore because of declining sea ice cover.

“Typically, walruses spend most of their time at sea hauled out on ice floes as they forage for food on the ocean floor” explains WWF’s Nikhil Advani, “but as sea ice declines, they’re increasingly hauling out on land instead.”

Throughout the Arctic, sea ice is forming later in the season and disappearing earlier, limiting the amount of space available for walruses to congregate. Floating summer sea ice is also receding further north to where the water is too deep for the animals to dive and feed. This forces them to desert the ice and seek refuge ashore. Once on land, the walruses must travel much longer distances—up to 250 miles round trip—to reach their food supply.

Researchers first observed large haulouts off Alaska’s Point Lay in 2007, when summer Arctic sea ice reached its second-lowest minimum extent in recorded history. As the extent of summer sea ice has continued to decline in Arctic waters, the number of walruses coming ashore has grown considerably.

In 2014, around 35,000 walruses hauled out along a small stretch of beach in Point Lay. 

These massive haulouts can be incredibly dangerous for walruses. The crowded animals are easily spooked; any sound or scent—an airplane flying by, a human, or a whiff of a predator—can cause a deadly stampede. In their rush to the ocean, the heavy walruses—which can weigh up to 1.5 tons—can trample other walruses, especially young calves, which are susceptible to injuries and death. Last year, disturbances to a haulout near Cape Schmidt, Russia caused more than 500 deaths.

In addition to posing risks for individual animals, these mass aggregations are a troubling sign that Pacific walruses and other species are under serious threat from climate change-driven habitat loss. “Some projections suggest that the Arctic could be ice-free in the summers as early as 2040,” says Advani. “That means sea ice-dependent species like walruses and polar bears will be spending more time on land, which could decrease access to their prey base and increase human-wildlife conflict.”

Pacific walrus numbers reached record-low numbers in the early 1960s, but rebounded by the 1980s following significant conservation efforts. Unfortunately, the Pacific walrus population is once again in decline—with just 129,000 animals left.

In coastal Russia, WWF is actively working with local communities to protect migrating walruses—which are economically and culturally significant for native populations—to help the species adapt to its rapidly changing habitat. In particular, WWF engages residents to establish strict no-fly zones and limit access to haulout areas, reducing the risk of harmful disturbances.

With support from WWF’s Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund, researchers are also collaborating with the residents of Enurmino to create artificial feeding spots along polar bear routes. Since 2017, we’ve worked with local villagers to relocate walruses that have died of natural causes from the beach to known polar bear feeding areas along the Chukotka coast, which helps to keep polar bears and other predators away from the walrus nesting grounds.

Research suggests that because of these interventions, there’s been a significant decline in polar bear disturbances to haulouts and human-polar bear conflict near Enurmino. That success has inspired residents in Ryrkaypiy and Vankarem—two other villages located near haulout areas—to undertake similar projects next year.

Still, the future remains tenuous for the Pacific walrus and countless other Arctic species. If urgent action isn’t taken to limit the worst impacts of climate change, the loss of sea ice will put increasing strain on vulnerable populations.

Published June 28, 2018 at 05:00AM

Belize’s incredible barrier reef is removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger

Belize’s incredible barrier reef is removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger

Thanks to a series of conservation measures enacted by Belize’s government, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—one the world’s most incredible, diverse ecosystems—has been removed from the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger sites.

The historic decision came this week during a World Heritage Committee meeting in Bahrain, just five months after the Belizean government imposed a moratorium on oil exploration and drilling in all of Belize’s offshore waters—a landmark piece of legislation that protected critical ecosystems and established the country as a new world leader in ocean conservation.

“At time when we are seeing numerous threats to World Heritage sites, Belize’s government has taken real action to protect one of the world’s most special places,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just eighteen months ago.”

Comprised of seven protected areas, Belize’s Barrier Reef System is the second-largest reef system in the world and is home to nearly 1,400 species, from endangered hawksbill turtles to West Indian manatees, sting rays, coral, and six threatened species of sharks.

Nearly 200,000 people—more than half Belize’s population—rely on the reef to live. Reef-based tourism and recreational activities provide vital sources of income and account for an estimated $200 million of Belize’s GDP, while commercial fishing contributes about $15 million. The reef also provides important natural protection against damages from extreme storms along the coast.

The Belize Barrier Reef System was first inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 in recognition of the site’s incredible biodiversity and cultural significance. But in the last decade, exploration for oil, development along the coast, and a lack of strong regulations have posed increasing threats to the fragile ecosystem. The reef site was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 due to the threat of irreversible damage from harmful coastal construction and oil exploration.

Last year, more than 450,000 people from around the world joined WWF and other organizations—including Oceana, the Belize Tourism Association, Belize Audubon Society and Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy—to campaign against proposed oil exploration near the World Heritage site. They signed petitions, wrote letters, and used social media to urge the country’s government to secure the long-term protection of the barrier reef.

Their hard work payed off. 

In December 2017, Belize agreed to put an end to oil exploration in its waters and began to secure the region against immediate threats—a critical step towards protecting the reef, its species, and the people who rely on it. Belize is now just one of three countries in the world with such legislation.

“Belizeans stood up to protect their reef, with hundreds of thousands more globally joining the campaign to save our shared heritage. In taking swift collaborative action, Belize has shown that it is possible to reverse nature loss and create a sustainable future,” added Lambertini.

Belize also recently adopted critical regulations to protect the country’s mangroves and announced that it would begin to phase out single-use plastics like plastic bags, utensils, and take-out containers that threaten species and delicate ecosystems.

But there’s still more work to be done to ensure that Belize’s barrier reef and the rest of the World Heritage sites—and the 11 million people they support worldwide—continue to be protected for future generations.

Published June 26, 2018 at 05:00AM

Saving a beloved home along the Luangwa River in Zambia

Saving a beloved home along the Luangwa River in Zambia

What is home?

For women like Helen, it’s a place by the river that she was forced to abandon. That’s where her husband fished, she gathered water, and family was buried for eternal rest. But like most rural Zambians, she didn’t own the land. So when a foreign developer moved in and built a fence along the river, blocking her access to the water, she was forced to leave.

It’s stories like Helen’s that remind Raymond Kaima, Nyimba District Coordinator of Zambia Land Alliance (ZLA), why his job is so critical. “She’s one of the many,” he says, shaking his head. For him, the solution is obvious: “Someone should be secure on their land. They need to feel secure in order to develop the land, build a house, [and] invest in their future. They need to be sure that future generations will have access to that place in order to see the value of maintaining and improving it.”

Through ZLA, which seeks to empower people through land and natural resource management, Kaima and colleagues are piloting “Traditional Land Holding Certificates” that help people become legal landowners—instead of transient custodians—and increase female land ownership.

Since moving to this region in 2015, Kaima has seen positive trends. Traditionally, if a woman’s husband died, she’d be sent back to her parents’ home with no land and no property rights. Now, after awareness-raising campaigns and community meetings, many women co-own land with their husband or have assumed ownership after their husband has died.

In addition, people are building permanent structures instead of palm-leaf huts—a sign that they truly believe the space is theirs and that they care what happens to it. For WWF, a partner of ZLA, this also means that people care about the natural resources and landscape that make their land valuable.

This sense of pride may help save a river. The Luangwa River, one of the longest remaining free-flowing rivers in Southern Africa, flows through the Luembe chiefdom, which boasts some of the most pristine habitats left in Zambia for elephants, lions, leopards and a myriad of other wildlife. A dam has been proposed on the Luangwa that would flood almost the entire Luembe chiefdom, destroying habitats and displacing thousands of people. 

“We’re talking about communities that have spent generations on this river, have built their lives around this stretch, and only know this place,” Kaima explains, adding that the impact and costs associated with moving people would likely be underestimated. “Someone will go in with an economic index and call these livelihoods worthless. We call it development, but behind development, livelihoods will be lost. And that loss is greater than the gain.”

That’s why ZLA and WWF have joined forces to educate and empower these communities, promote sustainable land use, and advocate for hydropower development that minimizes impacts on people and nature. A critical component in the Luangwa campaign will be to ensure people’s rights to natural resources are respected, and that they can mobilize to defend their rights.

“Most of the time our people are left out of decision-making,” Raymond says with a heavy sigh. “I know my rights. The people in the communities may not, but I’m here to help them.”

With this kind of help, Helen may have a brighter future. She now lives in the center of Luembe chiefdom, far from both the water and the main town. Her husband can’t fish. She finds odd jobs to support the family. But if she can fight for her land, she’ll be able to build a new life in a place she’ll someday call home.

Published June 21, 2018 at 05:00AM

Drones provide an up close look at the health of forests

Drones provide an up close look at the health of forests

WWF is on a mission to save the world’s forest land. Success means a lot of land—in the right places—is protected or restored. But we also need to make sure that land is healthy, giving people and wildlife what they need to survive, like clean air and water, food and jobs.

Saving forests means using every tool at our disposal and working with partners around the globe. And that’s where drones come in to play.

The radio-controlled aircraft are capturing images that paint a picture of the forest. Soaring hundreds or thousands of feet above tree tops, they tell us if there are large patches where tree leaves have fallen (during a time of year when they should be covering the branches) or if a tree might have a disease. Big holes in the forest canopy might indicate illegal loggers have stripped trees from part of the forest.

And, most importantly, drones can be used to see if land is being properly managed in accordance with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. Adopting FSC standards is one of the best ways for landowners to conserve the world’s forests. These standards protect wildlife habitat, limit pollution, safeguard the rights of people living in or near the forest, and much more.

Within 500,000 acres of forest in Arkansas, Domtar is using drones to monitor land that is certified by FSC. Trees from the land—sitting near a mill that produces pulp for the company—are harvested to provide Domtar with much of the pulp it uses to produce things like copy paper, diapers and toilet paper. Although drones are commonly used today, Domtar is the only known US company to use them to monitor FSC-certified land.

Through its participation in WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network, Domtar worked with forest landowners near the mill and spread the word about the significance of FSC standards and why landowners should get their land certified by the FSC.

In the two years since it started using drones in the US, Domtar has been able to spot signs of the invasive engraver beetle much sooner and quicker than it would have if it were monitoring the land by foot or car. By catching this beetle early, the foresters can stop further tree damage through environmentally-friendly techniques.

Domtar also uses drones to calculate the size of wood chip piles that will produce pulp and to check if trees recently planted on FSC-certified land are growing well. With the success of the program in Arkansas, Domtar is now using drones over forests near its mill in Quebec, Canada to combat a new pest—the Emerald Ash Borer—in the area.

A forest-healthy future doesn’t require everyone to go high-tech. There are simple steps all of us can take to make a difference. Look for the FSC label when shopping for products that come from a forest.

Published June 19, 2018 at 05:00AM


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