This is National Invasive Species Awareness Week
, a time when all Americans can reflect on how much we wish alien invaders like Asian carp, Burmese pythons and kudzu (pictured) weren't killing our ecosystems. But the event — which centers around a weeklong convention in Washington, D.C. — isn't meant to be a downer. According to its website, it aims to "highlight what is being done across the nation and around the world to stop and slow the spread of invasive species." Sponsored by vested interests like the U.S. Interior Department, the Dow Chemical Company and the Weed Science Society of America, it's as much about prevention and eradication as awareness.
Tuesday's keynote speech in D.C. was delivered by U.S. Asian carp czar John Goss, whose unusual job title underscores how politics can complicate efforts to fight invasive species. Several Great Lakes states are locked in a protracted battle with Chicago and the Obama administration over how to handle the invasive carp, namely over whether to close shipping canals that seem to be helping them infiltrate the Great Lakes. But as both NPR and the New York Times report, the best way to beat invasive species isn't to wage war on them — it works much better to create a market that can overexploit them, much like we've already done with some native species. That's the logic behind efforts to rebrand Asian carp as a delicious fish — renamed something like "silverfin" or "Kentucky tuna." It's also what motivates D.C.-area artist Patterson Clark, who uses invasive weeds to make paper, ink, paintbrushes and even paintings, which he showcases on his website, Alien Weeds
Invasive species are certainly wreaking havoc around the world, but there's a fine line between native and invasive, points out a new study led by researchers at Iowa State University. Ecologist Stan Harpole explains that we tend to focus on harmful invaders like kudzu, even though only about 10 percent of all foreign plants that arrive in a new area can survive there, and just 10 percent of those end up causing problems. Plus, when glaciers receded from the U.S. Midwest 10,000 years ago, they left a barren landscape devoid of any native plants. "All the plants that are now seen as native were invasive in the past, in the sense that they had to spread across the landscape," Harpole says. "What's different today is that we move plants so much faster than they would move by themselves. Now a species can become global in a matter of years, where it may have taken tens of thousands of years in the past."
African lions are a symbol of their continent like no other animal, but according to a coalition of conservation groups, these iconic cats are now being driven to extinction at an alarming pace. Traditional threats like poaching, conflict killing and habitat loss are the main culprits, but there's also another growing danger that's often overlooked, the wildlife groups warn: Americans.
Wealthy American hunters have been increasingly traveling to Africa for trophy hunts, the groups warn, with two-thirds of all lions killed for sport being brought back to the U.S. over the last 10 years. This alone isn't driving the species extinct, but combined with pre-existing local pressures — not to mention the international trade of animal parts that's also killing off tigers — it could be the straw that broke the lion's back, conservationists say. "The African lion is a species in crisis," says Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "The king of the jungle is heading toward extinction, and yet Americans continue to kill lions for sport." The IFAW, along with the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, Born Free and Defenders of Wildlife, is calling on the Obama administration to list African lions as an endangered species, thereby banning the import of lion trophies and body parts.
There were as many as 200,000 lions roaming across Africa a century ago, but today there are between 23,000 and 40,000 of them remaining. They have vanished from 80 percent of their former range, and are already extinct in 26 countries. Most killing of African lions is by local farmers or poachers, but Americans are responsible for a large amount, too: 64 percent of the 5,663 wild lions killed for sport between 1999 and 2008 were shipped to America, with the total number doubling during that span. But some experts don't want to end hunting completely, just manage it better. As they argue, responsible hunting helps prevent lions' habitat from being developed. "If you remove hunting, the very real risk is that you force African governments to generate revenue from that land and the obvious thing is cattle and crops which just wipe out habitats," an official with the conservation group Panthera says.
Apparently the deranged Alabama football fan who poisoned
Auburn University's 130-year-old oak trees isn't alone — there has been another case of mascot murder this week, and while it may not have been premeditated like the tree poisonings, it's being met with no less condemnation from fans. A Panamanian soccer player became a pariah in Colombia over the weekend after he kicked the other team's owl mascot off the field, spurring chants of "murderer" from angry fans.
Luis Moreno is a defender for Panama's Deportivo Pereira, which was playing against Colombia's Atletico Junior when an errant kick hit Atletico Junior's owl mascot near the Pereira penalty area. Stunned, the owl fell to the field, where it lay motionless. Moreno approached and, without showing even a moment of hesitation, kicked the bird out of the way. This sent the Atletico Junior players and fans into a rage, while the owl was rushed to a veterinary hospital. Local vet Camilo Tapia tried to save the mascot's life, but it had already gone into shock and apparently couldn't be saved. It was pronounced dead at 2:57 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
"My family is very worried about what happened because an entire country is against me," Moreno tells the Daily Telegraph after becoming a hated figure throughout Colombia. "I believe what happened is regrettable and I apologized to the entire country." That may not be enough, however, at least according to Dimayor president Ramon Jesurum, who says "the player should be severely punished for this painful, horrible act of intolerance." The case is going before the soccer league's disciplinary committee, and a Colombian environmental agency is also investigating levying sanctions against Moreno.
Much like lions in Africa, Indian elephants are increasingly butting heads with local farmers and other landowners who see them as a menace. This souring relationship has begun to pose an existential threat to elephants as India's human population explodes, but as the London Independent reports, conservationists have come up with a potential solution: chili peppers.
Elephants are famed for their memory, but their long noses also possess a much stronger sense of smell than ours, making pachyderms especially susceptible to the power of peppers. Conservationists at the Chester Zoo are now helping Indian villagers make DIY "super-hot chili bombs" and "chili fences" to keep elephants at bay, offering a way to repel the animals without using lethal force. In addition to barraging elephants with "bombs" made of spicy peppers, the so-called "chili fence" involves crushed peppers mixed with used motor oil and soaked into a cloth, which can be tied to fences surrounding crop fields. The noxious fumes drive away the elephants before they can ruin a farmer's crops.
The project has grown to cover six villages and 800 households in the past six years, the Independent reports, and has been so successful that it's now being extended to another eight villages that have recently suffered a spate of human-elephant conflicts. "We are hopeful that the extension of the program will result in more villagers buying into the concept of elephants living alongside human populations in harmony," says project leader Alexandra Zimmerman. "The elephants' continued survival depends on it."
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Photo (kudzu covering trees in Georgia): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo (pride of African lions): Photo 24/Jupiter Images
Photo (freeze frame of player kicking owl): screen shot from telegraph.co.uk
Photo (wild Asiatic elephants in Assam, India): ZUMA Press