Cambodia makes bold move to protect its vanishing forests

forest at Prey Lang, Stung Treng, Cambodia

Prey Lang is one of five forest areas in Cambodia that will see expanded protection based on the government’s recent announcement. Prey Lang contains the most carbon-rich forest in Cambodia, making it a critical landscape for mitigating climate change. (© Jeremy Holden)

One of the most threatened tropical forest areas in the world just got some good news.

The Cambodian government on Friday announced the creation of five new protected forests totaling almost 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres). The Southeast Asian country’s protected lands now stand at 5.5 million hectares (13.6 million acres) — more than one-fourth of its total land area — a signal that Cambodia is getting serious about clamping down on one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

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Halt in construction of Brazilian dam sign of progress on indigenous rights

river, Xingu National Park, Brazil

Aerial view of Xingu National Park in the Brazilian Amazon. Hydropower is a major source of electricity for Brazilian cities; dam construction is also a frequent source of conflict with local communities. (© Luana Luna)

Last week the Brazilian government suspended the licensing process for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, halting construction on the country’s second-largest hydroelectric facility over concerns that the dam may violate the rights of several Munduruku indigenous communities.

The Munduruku have spent years fighting to have the boundaries of their traditional lands in the Amazon Basin recognized by the government. As that process wore on, they took to demarcating the borders of their territories themselves and protesting the presence of dam technicians around the Tapajós River.

The new dam would flood almost 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) and require the relocation of several Munduruku communities without their consent — a violation of existing Brazilian legislation. A new report from Brazil’s agency on indigenous affairs defines around 1,700 square kilometers (656 square miles) as indigenous land belonging to the Munduruku, a move that could permanently suspend the dam’s construction.

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Wildlife loss in tropical forests is bad news — and not just for animals

Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) from TEAM's site in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo.

A camera-trap image of a western gorilla in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo. (Photo courtesy of the TEAM Network and Wildlife Conservation Society)

I had drinks with an old college friend last week. As we reminisced and I caught him up on my job leading the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring (TEAM) Network, he stopped me mid-sentence.

“Don’t get me wrong — I love animals, and camera trapping is cool,” he said. “But why spend so much time and energy keeping track of species halfway around the world? Why does it matter if tapirs in Ecuador or chimps in Uganda are declining? Why should I care?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked these kinds of questions while working with TEAM, which uses camera-trap data to calculate trends in mammal and bird populations in tropical forests on three continents.

In the past, I would respond somewhat vaguely, saying “Wildlife provides key ecosystem services,” or “Animals are a good way to measure the health of a forest.” Though true, these answers were unsatisfying, even to me. It is like answering “Why do you need your liver?” with “Because it keeps your body going.” True, but not compelling or especially useful.

This time I had a better answer, backed by science.

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DNA test confirms presence of cave giants in Europe

olm in cave, Balkans

Aquatic salamanders called olms are the largest exclusively cave-dwelling animal in the world. Because they are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, their presence in the caves of the Balkan Peninsula indicates that the groundwater running through these caves — the only reliable source of drinking water for local people — remains unpolluted. (© Gregor Aljančič)

In the flooded caves of the Balkan Peninsula, aquatic giants can survive in near-darkness for up to a century — if they’re not taken out by one of their own kind.

Though they sound like mythical creatures out of a folktale, these salamanders — called olms — are real. Reaching up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) long, they dwarf their closest competitors in this unique ecosystem. However, the inaccessibility of their habitat to scientists has made studying them difficult. Until now.

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3 things no one is talking about this Earth Day

Mussels are just one of the stories no one is discussing this Earth Day.

So few people are talking about the Texas fatmucket (a species of mussel) that we couldn’t find a photo of one. This photo shows mussels in Cornwall, U.K. (© Ant & Carrie Coleman)

Every year on Earth Day, inboxes and social media feeds abound with photos of cute and furry animals, stirring national park scenes and pleas to take Earth-friendly actions like carrying reusable bags.

But you’ve probably heard enough about all those things already. For a change of pace, here are three things almost no one is talking about this Earth Day.

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For critical climate change action, Paris Agreement just the beginning

mangroves, Bahamas

Red mangroves in the Bahamas. Protecting and restoring ecosystems is an important part of the solution to climate change; not only do mangroves, tropical forests and other ecosystems absorb carbon from the atmosphere, they also can help communities adapt to climate change impacts. (© Jeff Yonover)

Editor’s note: In December, the world’s nations made the biggest commitment to climate change action to date with the Paris Agreement. The global agreement is set to go into effect in 2020 — but with escalating climate impacts like massive coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and mounting sea-level rise, there’s no time to waste.

As the U.N. prepares to host a signing ceremony for the agreement on April 22, Conservation International Climate Policy Director Shyla Raghav outlines the next steps countries need to take.

Question: Countries already adopted the Paris Agreement in December. How is this week’s event different?

Answer: In December, the countries adopted the agreement within the framework of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); with Friday’s signing, they will signal their intention to ratify it. We’re expecting 155 countries to sign, which will likely be record-shattering in terms of the number of countries signed onto an international accord so soon after adoption.

I think this will be an important point for countries to renew their commitment to the agreement, as well as to propel momentum for climate change action forward. We don’t want to send the signal that the climate problem is solved, or that we’ve already put in place everything that’s required to achieve the agreement. This is an opportunity for us to leverage existing awareness to ensure that countries are working to fulfill the commitments they have made.

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5 things you might not know about the sky

A herd of wildebeest at sunset in Botswana.

Sky is the air we breathe, the atmosphere that makes Earth livable and the weather that makes it possible to grow food — and it’s under threat from humanity. (© Rod Mast)

If you could drive your car straight up at highway speed, you’d leave the Earth’s atmosphere and enter space in just over an hour.

This thin, delicate band surrounding our planet makes life on Earth possible, yet the health of the atmosphere is being upended by fossil-fuel emissions — with increasingly perilous results. Earth’s atmosphere has more carbon in it now than it has had for 300 million years — with major implications for global climate.

Conservation International (CI) is giving voice to our beleaguered atmosphere with “Sky,” the latest film in the “Nature Is Speaking” series. Voiced by actress Joan Chen, the video calls attention to the state of our skies.

Here are a few things you might not know about the sky.

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What coffee and airplanes could mean for forests

Wife and husband harvest Arabica coffee fruit from their coffee trees on recently deforested land in North Sumatra.

Wife and husband farmers Hasbulah Lubis, 44, and Rofiqoh Nasution, 35, harvest Arabica coffee fruit on recently deforested land in Pagar Gunung village near Batang Gadis National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

When a forest is lost anywhere, people feel it everywhere — even though they might not realize it until it’s too late.

It’s probably good news, then, that in recent weeks, forests have been linked to coffee, groundwater supplies and the airline industry — topics that tend to elicit more concern from policymakers and the public. If these issues can help bring more attention to forests, it might not be too late to save them.

The stories:

1. Could coffee cravings, climate change be forests’ downfall?

Coffee is produced in more than 70 countries on five continents — but the coffee industry will need to produce between 4 million and 14 million additional tons of coffee per year by 2050 to meet growing demand. Meanwhile, climate change is affecting growing conditions and limiting growing regions, influencing how much coffee production can expand to meet demand. A new paper examines how climate change will affect where coffee is grown — and how it could trigger a new round of deforestation if coffee producers are unable to increase productivity on existing coffee farms.

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What we’re reading: Mekong megadrought, melting chocolate

A view of the Mekong river basin from Laos.

A view of the Mekong River basin from Laos, one of the six countries supported by it. (© jmbaud74/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world.

1. Mekong megadrought erodes food security

The story: The worst drought ever recorded in Vietnam is parching lands and threatening the possibility of a food crisis in parts of Southeast Asia, Science magazine reported. A U.N. report released in March notes that the Mekong River is at its lowest levels since records began nearly a century ago.

Experts point to the El Niño weather phenomenon as a major cause of the drought, abetted by a proliferation of dams upstream that have further constricted the flow of the river.

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Verdicts in turtle conservationist’s murder a rare rebuke of crimes against environmentalists

baby leatherback sea turtle on beach

Jairo Mora Sandoval, a sea turtle activist who had spoken out against poaching of sea turtle eggs on the Costa Rican beaches where he worked, was murdered in 2013. With the conviction of four men in the recent trial, Costa Rican authorities are sending a message that they won’t let such actions go unpunished. (© Jolene Bertoldi/Flickr Creative Commons)

A recent rash of murders of environmental activists in Latin America has underscored the dangers of speaking up for the ecosystems and species that cannot — and the courage of those who do so anyway.

These crimes often go unsolved — making the recent conviction of four men suspected in the murder of Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval a rare and hopeful sign.

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