Can forensics save forests?

Can forensics save forests?

Is this cut of wood cedar?

How about mahogany?

Or walnut?

If this wood quiz has you stumped, you're not alone.

Scroll to learn more

Even those with a keen eye struggle to tell the difference among tree species by looking at just the wood—especially if it's stained or painted.

That means when you're buying wood products like flooring, tables, and guitars, you rarely know for certain that the tree listed on the label is the tree you're bringing home—or, more importantly, from which country the wood was harvested.

And that's a problem because some of that wood is illegal.

WWF and the World Resources Institute (WRI) decided to find out just how much of the wood we're buying is illegal.

Out of 73 wood products tested, 62% were mislabeled—a possible sign that they’re illegal.

We're unable to simply eye a piece of wood to determine the type of tree it came from, so we confirm whether we're buying good wood by turning to an unexpected science: forensics.

Yes, that forensics—the same investigative tool featured in your favorite crime drama.

More on that in a moment.

First—what makes wood illegal and why do we care?

Wood is considered illegal if it was harvested, transported, processed, bought, or sold in violation of national or international laws. A lot of illegal logging happens unsustainably and results primarily in a drop in forest quality—a phenomenon known as degradation.

Slashed trees and scattered branches signify a degraded forest. Long gullies mar the surface of the earth and eroded soil clouds river waters.

© WWF-Switzerland/A. della Bella; © Alain Compost/WWF-Canon

Some companies may unknowingly use illegally harvested or traded wood to make the things that they sell. Others may do so knowingly. Either way it's a problem for businesses, for forests, for wildlife, and for the climate.

Governments miss out on tax revenue. Businesses operating legally are forced to compete with wood market prices depressed by up to 16% by illegal logging. People forgo essential forest benefits such as clean air and water. And wildlife suffers from the destruction of precious habitat, such as:




Why do companies import illegal wood?

It's relatively easy to label an illegal type of wood as legal since it's so hard to tell the difference with the naked eye.

Some companies may not understand the risks involved with sourcing a particular species or from a particular region, and they may not know to ask for or receive sufficient verification from their suppliers to confirm whether the wood is legal or if the species they've order is, in fact, what they've received in their shipment.

Other companies engage in more corrupt, egregious practices because illegal wood is cheaper and gives their company a market advantage. Smuggling illegal wood into the US is made easier simply because a lot of wood species look alike.

Is this good wood? Forensics helps us find out.

WWF and the WRI used forensics to identify whether wood for products sold in the US is accurately labeled. 

We gathered samples of wood from products sold by a variety of online retailers and provided them to a forensics lab run by the US Forest Service.

Scientists used a powerful magnifying lens and other tools to compare the anatomical structure of each wood sample with species in reference libraries.

We found that out of 73 wood products tested, 62% were mislabeled—a possible sign that they’re illegal.

What can you do?

Our hope is that the results of this analysis will help companies better understand the amount of mislabeled and potentially illegal wood entering the country. We, too, hope the results will inspire them to make a bigger effort to ensure that they verify the wood species they’re importing, as well as that the wood is legal and comes from a responsibly-managed forest.

Shoppers can make a difference, too. Look for the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) label on any products that come from forests. FSC is a certification system that ensures that the product you buy comes from a forest that is responsibly managed. Trees in FSC forests are grown and harvested according to a robust set of guidelines that, ultimately, benefit the environment, economy, and society. Some of these guidelines include limiting the number of trees cut down, restricting highly hazardous pesticides and protecting the rights of indigenous people, as well as wildlife habitats.

Do your part. Pledge to buy forest-friendly FSC products when available and commit to preserving nature's beauty for future generations.


Published July 25, 2019 at 05:00AM

Four threats to manatees and mangroves in Florida – and how we can save them

Four threats to manatees and mangroves in Florida – and how we can save them

Manatees love mangroves; they use them for food and a quiet place to rest and raise their young. But these two key features of the Florida coasts are in trouble. There are, a rebound from previous years, but they continue to face threats. Almost 800 died in 2018 alone. And in the past 100 years, mangrove forests have been cleared at an alarming rate. Tampa Bay has lost nearly 50 percent of its mangroves, while farther south, the mangroves of Charlotte Harbor estuary have declined by nearly 60 percent.

But it’s not a lost cause. By addressing four key threats to both manatees and mangroves, they can thrive for generations to come.

Unsustainable Coastal Development and Infrastructure

The unique natural resources of the Florida coast have spawned a booming economy enjoyed by both residents and tourists. But after years of ill-considered coastal development, we’re jeopardizing the very resources that enabled this growth. We’ve cleared mangrove forests and wetlands to make way for resorts, harbors, roads, city expansion, and industry -- losing all the benefits they provide to both humans and wildlife. Infrastructure also brings people and pollution, adding to the risks of red tides and other impacts.

Poor Farm and Water Management Upstream

When farms upstream overuse or improperly manage pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other toxic chemicals, those chemicals can enter the water supply. The polluted water flows to the coast and harms wild plants and animals.

The problem of poor water management is compounded by dams and irrigation systems that reduce the amount of freshwater flowing to the wetlands. Mangroves are tolerant of saltwater, but they need the right balance of freshwater too or else they can become too salty or dry out and die.

Irresponsible Fishing and Aquaculture

Overfishing can remove links in the marine food chain while fish farming can add excessive nutrient waste. Both shift the delicate balance of marine ecosystems and make deadly red tides – algae blooms that affect manatees and mangroves – more likely.

Fishers also accidentally snare manatees in nets and strike them with boats. And irresponsible aquaculture around the world has cleared mangrove forests to make way for fish and shrimp ponds.

Climate Change

Climate change is impacting all life on Earth, and manatees and mangroves are no exception. Abnormal weather means more cold snaps, to which manatees are very sensitive; around 70 individuals died from cold stress in 2018. For mangroves, sea level rise is the biggest climate-related threat, with some tree species unable to tolerate the influx of saltwater or escape the surging tides. Coastal wetlands, including mangrove forests, absorb a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. When these forests are cleared, we compound the climate change problem by releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere.

WWF is already fighting to save manatees and mangroves by addressing each of these threats: developing and implementing practices for responsible seafood; rethinking how and where we grow food to minimize impacts; advocating to keep rivers free-flowing; consulting with governments and financers for sustainable infrastructure; and working at all levels to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

The beautiful thing is that taking these actions will not only secure a future for manatees and mangroves; it will bolster the entire coastal ecosystem. This includes other marine and terrestrial animals, seabirds, coral reefs, and even people. By taking action now in key areas, we can protect the beautiful Florida coasts and all life that depends.

Many species of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, insects, and amphibians depend on coastal ecosystems like mangroves. Here are just a few.

Published July 25, 2019 at 05:00AM

The case for the right kind of logging in Peru

The case for the right kind of logging in Peru

The sounds of Peru’s jungles are akin to those of a symphony. The high-pitched calls of toucans, the slow roar of howler monkeys, and the buzzing of insects together create unforgettable melodies.

But these natural harmonies do more than simply please the ear—they provide us with valuable information about the health of the forest.

In a recent study supported by WWF, researchers used recordings from dozens of cellphones and camera traps in three tropical forests in the Peruvian Amazon to figure out the number and variety of animals that live in each. They were interested in finding out whether logging in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards impacts wildlife.

The key finding from the research is that the make-up of wildlife in the FSC sites that were part of the study area was similar to that found in the forests studied that aren’t logged at all. This is an encouraging sign that logging that is done with conservation in mind helps to protect the diversity of plant and animal life in that area.

Prior to this study, there was little rigorous scientific evidence of FSC-certified forests safeguarding biodiversity. Gathering this type of evidence needs to become the status quo for forest managers.

The FSC standards spell out how to manage a forest responsibly so that logging, among other things, minimizes the negative impact on the environment, economy or society. For example, the use of chemicals is limited.

The results from this study are based on hundreds of sounds of birds, insects, amphibians, and monkeys captured by 72 cell phones—along with 72 camera traps—hidden in several forests of the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon.

Although the study was limited to the Peruvian Amazon, the results from it have implications for tropical forests worldwide. Logging is permitted in one-third of the world’s tropical forests. If the logging is not done responsibly, it can lead to roads cutting through forests to create access, large “holes” in the forest canopy, as well as many other activities that degrade the forests and, ultimately, fragment the habitat many animals need to survive. Fifty percent of the species that live on land live in tropical forests.

One of the best ways to ensure animals and plants within forests can thrive is to create and properly manage protected areas. However, given that most forests are not in protected areas, other solutions are needed—such as managing forests in accordance with the FSC standards.

This new research complements an earlier study in five FSC-certified logged forests of the Madre de Dios region, conducted with images from 89 camera traps. The study concluded that densities of large- and medium-sized animals in the forests—including jaguars and pumas—was similar to or higher than those of protected areas.

In some ways, the newest study using sounds is more revealing because it involved small animals, which tend to be more sensitive to changes in habitats caused by low-intensity logging.

Given that the demand for forest products is projected to triple by 2050, monitoring the diversity of plants and animals with sounds and images is more important than ever—in the Peruvian Amazon and beyond. The advancement in technology to capture and analyze sounds and images has made it possible to implement such monitoring at large scale. Results from this type of monitoring can help drive home the need for managing the world’s forests responsibly.


Published July 23, 2019 at 05:00AM

What do sea turtles eat? Unfortunately, plastic bags.

What do sea turtles eat? Unfortunately, plastic bags.

Would you rather pick a fight with a jellyfish or a plastic bag?

For sea turtles, this question should be simple. Their scales protect them from the worst of a jellyfish's venom, and the resulting meal is both tasty and nutritious. But a single piece of plastic can be deadly.

The problem is that sea turtles don’t know what plastic is, and they don’t get to choose.

There are seven species of sea turtles found in the world’s oceans today, and they each have different dietary preferences.

  1. Loggerhead: Hatchlings are omnivores (meaning they eat both animals and plants) but adults are carnivores, favoring crabs, whelks, and conchs.
  2. Green: Fully grown sea turtles are herbivores and like to hang around coral reefs to scrape off seagrass and algae. Hatchlings, however, are omnivorous.
  3. Hawksbill: The bird-like beak that gives them their name allows hawksbills to access cracks on coral reefs to reach sea sponges, which are pretty much all these fussy eaters want.
  4. Leatherback: Leatherback turtles are often known as gelatinivores, meaning they only eat invertebrates such as jellyfish and sea squirts.
  5. Flatback: This species will eat everything from seaweed to shrimp and crabs.
  6. Kemp’s ridley: Meat is the only thing on the menu for the Kemp’s ridley—with a strong preference for crab.
  7. Olive ridley: Another omnivorous species that eats jellies, sea cucumbers, fish, and a wide variety of other plants and animals.

The earliest ancestors of these seven species appeared on Earth around 220 million years ago, and today’s sea turtles have evolved to hunt successfully beneath the waves.

That was until plastic came along.

Plastic has only been mass-produced since the 1940s, but it’s having a devastating impact on sea turtles.

Research suggests that 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic waste. The reasons are simple: a floating plastic bag can look like a lot of jellyfish, algae, or other species that make up a large component of the sea turtles’ diets.

All sea turtle species are at risk from plastic.

The carnivorous loggerhead and mainly plant-eating green turtle both were shown to be consuming plastic in alarming quantities, according to a study from the University of Tokyo.

In fact, loggerheads ate plastic 17% of the time they encountered it, likely mistaking it for jellyfish. This figure rocketed to 62% for green turtles probably on the hunt for algae.

However, it’s not just ingesting plastic that causes problems for turtles. Entanglement in abandoned fishing nets can easily kill them through drowning or preventing individuals from escaping predators or hunting.

Tragically, the accumulation of plastics at key nesting beaches means that baby turtles are among the most at risk from plastic entanglement, preventing them from reaching the sea.

The outlook for turtles that eat plastic is bleak: for 22% ingesting just one plastic item can be a death sentence. Sharp plastics can rupture internal organs and bags can cause intestinal blockages leaving turtles unable to feed, resulting in starvation.

Even if they survive, consuming plastic can make turtles unnaturally buoyant, which can stunt their growth and lead to slow reproduction rates.

With the odds stacked so heavily against sea turtles, it can be difficult to know how you can help. Many of us are doing our part to reduce plastic pollution by recycling and reducing single-use items, but it’s just not enough on its own. Governments must step up to take accountability and end this pollution epidemic.

You can help. Ask our government leaders to establish a global, legally binding agreement to stop plastics from leaking into our oceans.

Published July 17, 2019 at 05:00AM

What’s the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation?

What’s the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation?

The climate crisis is increasingly distressing. Fortunately, there are many things we can do to ensure our future is as prosperous as possible. These actions fall into one of two broad categories: climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation. These terms go hand-in-hand while navigating through the climate crisis, but they mean very different things. 

Climate change mitigation means avoiding and reducing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to prevent the planet from warming to more extreme temperatures. Climate change adaptation means altering our behavior, systems, and—in some cases—ways of life to protect our families, our economies, and the environment in which we live. The more we mitigate climate change right now, the easier it will be to adapt to the changes we can no longer avoid.

Mitigation solutions will take decades to impact rising temperatures, so we must adapting now to change that is already upon us—and will continue to affect us in the foreseeable future.

The mitigation piece of the puzzle is easy to explain, but difficult to accomplish. We must transition from powering our world with fossil fuels to using clean, renewable energy. And we need to stop deforestation and restore our natural habitats until we reach net-zero carbon emissions—meaning that the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is balanced with the capture and storage of those gases in places like tree roots. Much like investing in a retirement fund, the sooner we act to mitigate the impacts of climate change, the better off we’ll be in the future. So far, the world has been slow to act, but momentum is shifting. WWF is one of many organizations, cities, and businesses committed to delivering on the promise of the Paris Climate Agreement—signed by 195 global parties—to bring emissions down to levels required to keep warming in check.

If you grew up in Florida and suddenly relocated to North Dakota, you wouldn’t survive for long if you didn’t make a few adjustments to your lifestyle. To start, you would need warmer clothes and to learn how to drive in icy conditions. In other words, you would have to adapt to a new climate. In a warming world, however, you don’t have to move somewhere far away to experience a different climate—a new climate is coming to you. Climate change affects where we can grow food, how much water we have, and where we can build our homes. And we’ll face new challenges: firefighters will need to battle longer and more intense forest fire seasons; our public health officials may need to manage diseases that are not currently a problem; and city planners will need to encourage development away from areas we like to live, such as on coastlines and riverfronts.

Adaptation solutions vary from place to place, are difficult to predict, and involve many trade-offs. The first step to adapting to climate change is understanding local risks and developing plans to manage them. The next step is taking action—putting systems in place to respond to impacts we are experiencing today as we prepare for an uncertain tomorrow. These actions can include diversifying crops that can tolerate warmer and drier or wetter conditions;  ensuring infrastructure can withstand more extreme weather; helping communities reduce their risk from sea level rise and increased floods; and making sure we manage our food, water, and other natural resources wisely in the context of a changing climate.

WWF is also working to better understand how a changing climate impacts wildlife and finding ways to help them adapt. Protecting wildlife—stopping poaching, curbing overfishing, and conserving habitats—is more important than ever with the added pressures of climate change.

We’re in this together
Climate change adaptation and mitigation are both equally important and time-sensitive and we need to do both. You can help mitigate climate change by reducing emissions in your own life, letting your representatives know you support climate-smart policies, and supporting businesses and organizations embracing renewable energy. Help your community adapt by learning how your area is vulnerable to climate change and advocating for smart policies that reduce risk. You can also support local initiatives that help people prepare for and recover from extreme weather events or simply reduce your use of water in times of drought. Climate change is a serious problem, but our planet can continue to thrive if we all work together to both avoid the worst impacts and adapt to our changing world.

You can help. Pledge to cut your carbon footprint.

Learn more about climate change adaptation through WWF’s free, online interactive courses.

Published July 11, 2019 at 05:00AM

Jaguar: the amazing Amazon big cat

Jaguar: the amazing Amazon big cat

The jaguar (Panthera onca) holds many titles; The main predator in the Amazon, it’s also the largest big cat species in the Americas and the third largest feline in the world, after tigers and lions. This iconic species plays a vital role in its habitat by controlling other species’ populations and helping maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the jaguar’s range has decreased by half in the last 100 years due to deforestation and agricultural activities, resulting in reduced and even extinct jaguar populations in some countries. Despite numerous conservation efforts, their populations continue to decline.

Human-driven activities including hunting, destruction of forest habitat, loss of prey species, and human-wildlife conflict are also impacting jaguar populations. Jaguars were once hunted for their pelts until the 1970s, when stricter laws and new protections prohibited such activity. Now it appears that with increasing Chinese investment in Latin America, demand for jaguar parts, like fangs and claws, is rising again, driving illegal jaguar hunting and poaching, even in strongholds like the Amazon.

Since 2017, WWF has been monitoring the populations of this emblematic species in the Napo-Putumayo Corridor—740,000 acres of forest (nearly the size of Yosemite National Park) that spans through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

Between 2018 and 2019, WWF installed 129 camera traps in the region to conduct a census of jaguar prey species and better understand the area’s conservation value. As a result of our efforts, more than 30 jaguars have been identified with an estimated presence of at least 2,000 cats throughout the corridor.

“The jaguar has become a priority species for WWF,” said Jose Luis Mena, Director of Scientific Practice of WWF Peru. “We must ensure its conservation by forming alliances with other organizations and the government."

Published July 09, 2019 at 05:00AM


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