Indians protest for control of their forests, Ethiopia poisons its lions, and the Supreme Court hears a global warming case.

Guardians of the Wild

Thousands of poor people gathered in New Delhi and across India Nov. 30, waving banners and beating drums in support of a proposed law that would give them rights to the forests and woodlands they inhabit. The Recognition of Forest Rights Bill 2005, which would give an estimated 40 million people ownership rights to the land they’ve been using, is expected to pass by the end of the year. The demonstrations came two days after a large environmental nonprofit, the Centre of Science and Environment, announced that India’s declining tiger population cannot be saved without help from the indigenous people who live near tiger reserves. Many of these people are now laying traps, poisoning water sources, and electrocuting tigers so they can sell the skins—for about $5 a piece, environmentalist say—to criminal gangs. The skins are then sold in places like Tibet, where they have religious and medicinal significance, for up to $20,000.

The global commission in charge of tuna fishing announced it was reducing the Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing quota to 25,500 tons, despite scientists’ recommendation that the quota be set at 15,000 tons. Environmental activist group WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) is outraged, claiming the lax standards will mean extinction in the Mediterranean for the fish. WWF said a lower quota on the sushi staple was blocked by the European Union. The E.U. fisheries commissioner said the new quota would sufficiently protect tuna in the region.


Hover-craft

Researchers uncovered the portion of the brain that may allow hummingbirds to hover while their wings flap rapidly. The University of Alberta team found that a particular nucleus in the brain, responsible for detecting movement of the visual world, is two to five times bigger, relative to brain size, in hummingbirds than in other species. The birds, which have brains about the size of a grain of rice, possess the unique ability to remain stable while their wings beat roughly 75 times per second.

With no money to take care of their rare, black-maned Abyssinian lion cubs, zookeepers in Ethiopia have resorted to selling the animals to taxidermists. The zoo costs $6,000 a month to run, but only collects $5,000 in entrance fees, an administrator said. Dead cubs bring in about $170 a piece, and the zoo has killed six cubs, allegedly without pain to the animals, so far this year. Several animal conservation groups have spoken out against the killings, saying that the zoo should prevent the lions from breeding if it can’t care for them. About 1,000 Abyssinian lions are left in the wild.


E-Waste Not, Want Not

The computers, cell phones, and televisions that Western nations donate to developing countries could be an environmental threat. A five-day U.N. conference in Kenya included a discussion of this electronic waste, or “e-waste,” produced each year. Many of the donated items are so out-of-date they are unusable and are therefore burned at open-air sites, releasing toxic fumes and chemicals. One proposal suggests that forcing manufacturers to pay the recycling costs would lead to the creation of less toxic, longer-lasting products.

China began construction of an enormous, $3.7 billion dam on the upper Yangtze River. When combined with another dam being built further downstream, the dam will produce as much power as the 18.2 million kilowatt Three Gorges Dam, the country’s largest hydropower station. The project will require $186 million for environmental protection and will displace between 88,000 and 150,000 residents. China has plans for 12 additional hydropower stations, which it hopes will meet the needs of Chinese industry.


Climate in the Court

The Supreme Court began hearing arguments in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the first global warming case to come before the nation’s highest court. In the case, the plaintiffs, including the states of Massachusetts and California, argue that the EPA should have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, which occur naturally and are also released by motor vehicles and factories.  Many scientists and climatologists have shown that greenhouse gases are not only pollutants, but also contribute to global warming and an increase in extreme weather. Defendants, who argue that the government doesn’t have the authority to cap emissions, include the EPA, industry groups, carmakers, and 10 states.
Six members of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group published an opinion calling on Congress to establish a national climate service. This agency, which would be led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would be in charge of analyzing climate dynamics and forecasting both short- and long-term fluctuations.  Congress has thus far chosen not to organize and fund a national climate monitoring group, one that would bring together the individual data gathered by groups such as the NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Bad Behavior

Like (smoking) mother, like daughter or son. Children of women who smoke when they’re pregnant are almost three times more likely to start smoking themselves before the age of 14, and about twice as likely to start after that age than children of women who did not smoke during pregnancy, Australian researchers reported. Their study began in 1981 and has since tracked the smoking behaviors of over 3,000 pregnant women, about a third of whom said they smoked while pregnant, and their children. The authors say the findings present yet another reason not to smoke while pregnant.

Last week, two years after South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk fraudulently reported in Science to have cloned human embryonic stem cells, a six-person committee of researchers and journal editors called for more stringent publishing standards in scientific journals. Current procedures assume that researchers have basic integrity. But these must be revised, the committee concluded, to acknowledge that because there is now more pressure and financial incentive to do so, researchers might present results that are misleading or downright false. About 12,000 papers were submitted to Science last year. Rather than dissect every single one, the committee suggested that journal editors subject only “high-risk papers”—those that present counter-intuitive findings, for instance, or that might generate lots of political interest—to an additional level of scrutiny.

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Originally published December 4, 2006

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