Sunday, 25 September 2011

Seven wonders of the natural world

The beauty of the natural world is simply indescribable. And this makes it all the more difficult to participate in the global campaign (voting via the website of New 7 Wonders of Nature until 11.11.11) on selecting the seven wonders of the natural world from 28 shortlisted contenders.

I was rather spoilt for choices (did expect to find Son Doong Cave of Vietnam and the Aurora Borealis, though) and eventually nominated the Amazon, Iguazu Falls, Angel Falls, Mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan, Dead Sea, Great Barrier Reef, and the underground river in Philippines. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this follows the trend of Eurovision contests, with the voting population choosing. But perhaps pros outweigh the cons: there will be increased awareness of the natural world and, hopefully, increased efforts in preserving these.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Lemurs in London

Green spaces in urban areas are sinks for pollutants from vehicles and source of oxygen. They are also havens where city dwellers can forget their cares and relax amidst the towering trees. Most cities are overpopulated and congested and like pressure cookers; green spaces help the city dwellers to vent steam or just stand and stare and are essential for physical and mental health.

London has its fair share of greens paces. There are the big parks such as the Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Green Park in Central London not to mention Kew gardens which is removed from the heart of the city. But several squares in the city also have enclosed gardens some of which are for public use and others which are for the use for the residents. Unofficial estimates claim that there are more than 3,000 parks and open spaces in the city. Many of the famous parks in London owe their existence to the Victorians who invented and shaped the concept of public parks.

I have never more appreciated the concept of these artificial green spaces than recently. After moving from tranquil and pristine Scotland, I ended up in the heart of the big city. Whilst this was exciting, my journey to work on the tube and the pollution around the area where I lived aggravated respiratory conditions which forced me to search for a greener area. I was fortunate to move to a nice green area in North West London near the Hampstead Heath. The part of the Heath closer to my house is called the Golders Hill Park. It is green , tranquil has manicured lawns , mature trees, and even has a small zoo. During the sweaty summer, it was an oasis. Several times after work I went straight to the park for a stroll to breathe the clean air and unwind. The admittance to the zoo in the Golders Hill Park is free which means everyone can enjoy what the park has to offer. Golders Hill Park zoo owes its existence to the Victorians . It has a herd of deer, collection of butterflies, rare and exotic birds such as laughing kookaburras, ring-tailed lemurs, cavy’s and ring-tailed coatis. The public are also given the chance to adopt the animals.

Whilst I have enjoyed the beauty of the park, and the company of lemurs, I have also noticed that since my move to my new home I have been free of respiratory complaints.

I hope that Londoners carry on with the Victorian traditions of green spaces in the city by creating new ones. I am glad that the entry to the Golders Hill Park is free. Can you put a price to these green spaces I wonder as it is indeed priceless?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Marine mammals and their future

Marine mammals have borne the brunt of mankind’s unsustainable overexploitation, resulting in population decline and species extinction. Hunting for fur, blubber, and meat in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in the extinction of three species – the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis), Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), and the Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). The most recent extinction, due to its use in traditional medicine, was that of the Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) in 2008, a dolphin endemic to the Yangtze River.

In this backdrop, the August 16th edition of PNAS featured an excellent research (it truly is wonderful to come across such), entitled ‘Global distribution and conservation of marine mammals’, by Sandra Pompa and Gerardo Ceballos (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and Paul Ehrlich (Stanford). The mammalian species considered in the study were 129 in total (123 marine and 6 freshwater species), grouped into the orders of Cetacea, Sirenia, and Carnivora (common examples being whales, dolphins, porpoises, otters, seals, and polar bears) .

The researchers created geographic range maps for the 129 species and the map of the water bodies were split into grids of roughly 10,000 km2. They determined the number of species in each grid cell and calculated the total number of cells occupied by each species. Breeding, calving, and feeding grounds, and migratory routes were also factored in. The result was a composite global distribution map of water bodies, revealing locations of ‘global species richness, irreplaceable sites, endemism, and threatened species.'

1. All species can be represented in 20 global key conservation sites that cover at least 10% of the species' geographic range. These sites were determined on the basis: number of species present (species richness), severity of the risk of extinction for each species, and whether the species was endemic to the area.

2. Preserving 9 of such sites (mostly in temperate latitudes located off the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, the Atlantic coast of North America, Peru, Argentina, north-western Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand) would protect the habitat of 83.72% (108/129) of marine mammal species (including 5 endemic species) since these have high species richness.

3. The remaining 11 sites (6 freshwater, 5 marine: areas around Hawaiian and Galapagos Islands, Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, San Felix and Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile, Mediterranean Sea, Lake Baikal in Siberia, Caspian Sea, and major rivers such as the Amazon, Ganges, Indus, and Yang-tze) were tagged ‘irreplaceable key conservation sites’ of great conservation value due to the presence of endemic species, which, consequently, face a greater risk of extinction.
Eg. Galapagos fur seal (A. galapagoensis) and the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus).

4. Strong correlation of marine mammal species richness with human impacts (Spearman rank correlation (rs = 0.693, n = 46,164, P < 0.01 for climate disruption; rs = 0.666, n = 46,164, P < 0.01 for pollution; and rs =0.678, n = 46,164, P < 0.01 for shipping). The existing deterioration of the marine ecosystems due to anthropogenic activities (and the potential for more deterioration not just at these sites but also elsewhere) was evidenced by around 70% percent of most impacted areas being within or near key conservation areas. Factoring in other impacts such as commercial fishing would result in stronger correlation (and perhaps also global climate change, habitat degradation, ocean acidification, exploitation of natural resources such as oil and gas, hunting, tourism, and plastics?)

5. 10% of all marine mammals were considered to be vulnerable, 11% endangered, and 3% critically endangered. The following vulnerable species were identified:

i. Vaquita (a porpoise species), endemic to the Gulf of Baja California, has the most restricted range. Its population has been declining rapidly and there are only 150-300 individuals in the wild (1/5 of the population are killed in gillnets each year).

ii. Sea lions such as the endemic Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) and the Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki), and the restricted range New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri).

iii. Seals such as the freshwater and endemic Baikal seal (Pusa sibirica), and the endemic Galapagos fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) and Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi).

iv. Whales at the brink of extinction, such as North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), due to overharvesting, pollution, bycatch, and exhaustion of prey-species populations.

v. Dolphins such as the endemic New Zealand dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and the restricted range Australian Snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni).

This research could be a useful tool for environmental organisations and governments in identifying conservation areas and anthropogenic threats so as to protect endangered marine mammals and keep the oceans’ ecosystem functional. Mammals hold a lofty position in the food chain- consequently, their population dynamics would affect all other components of an ecosystem (and in human communities, by extension).

Pompa S, Ehrlich PR, & Ceballos G (2011). Global distribution and conservation of marine mammals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (33), 13600-5 PMID: 21808012

And the must read:

Image source: Apollo 17


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