Organized crime poses a growing threat to endangered wildlife, a new study warns, including "some of the world's most beloved and charismatic species," such as elephants, rhinos and tigers. Criminal networks use a variety of sophisticated methods to hunt and smuggle their prey, the study reports, from nighttime helicopter raids in rhino parks to secret compartments in shipping containers that hide tiger bones or elephant tusks.

"We are rapidly losing big, spectacular animals to an entirely new type of trade driven by criminalized syndicates," says study author Elizabeth Bennett, a conservationist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. "It is deeply alarming, and the world is not yet taking it seriously." The trade is largely driven by illegal animal markets in East Asia, Bennett reports, but it's affecting wildlife — and people — around the world. "When these criminal networks wipe out wildlife," she explains, "local people lose the wildlife on which their livelihoods often depend." Poachers killed almost 230 rhinos in South Africa between January and October of 2010, for example, and they've decimated Asia's tiger population even more severely over the past 10 years, leaving fewer than 3,500 of the big cats in the wild. Even previously secure species and populations are now at risk, Bennett adds, as poachers and smugglers — empowered by broad-based criminal syndicates — devise new ways to skirt the law.

Law enforcement is fighting back in many places, LiveScience points out, using sniffer dogs, DNA tests, remote tracking systems and better-equipped field staff to combat illegal animal traders. Bennett also cites help from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Asia, which now lists wildlife crime as one of its primary targets, as well as the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. Still, she says, it will take a broad and prolonged effort to match the will of organized crime. "Unless we start taking wildlife crime seriously and allocating the commitment of resources appropriate to tackling sophisticated, well-funded, globally linked criminal operations," Bennett warns, "populations of some of the most beloved but economically prized, charismatic species will continue to wink out across their range, and, appallingly, altogether."

(Sources: LiveScience, Mongabay, e! Science News, Wildlife Conservation Society)


Obscured by the hubbub of Washington's debt debate, House Republicans are quietly waging a campaign to gut dozens of environmental regulations, the New York Times reports. The lawmakers have so far squeezed at least 39 such measures into an appropriations bill, including one that would loosen rules for mountaintop-removal coal mining, one that would block the U.S. from designating new wilderness areas, and one that would allow new uranium prospecting near Grand Canyon National Park (pictured).

The effort has grown so ambitious, in fact, that 37 Republicans broke ranks Wednesday to vote against one of the measures, which would have prevented the Fish and Wildlife Service from adding any new plants or animals to the endangered species list. Cramming policy changes into a spending bill is a common strategy, especially among a Congress as divided as this one, the Times points out, yet it adds that "no one can remember such an aggressive use of the tactic against natural resources." Many environmental groups and Democrats in Congress worry that at least a few of the measures will make it through negotiations and into a final budget bill this fall, if only for their sheer quantity. "You have a fatal political momentum," says David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They are going to load up this bill in an unprecedented fashion."

As Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, explains, the GOP is piling up its attacks on environmental laws because the party sees them as harmful to the economy. "Many of us think that the overregulation from EPA is at the heart of our stalled economy," Simpson tells the Times. But according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Republicans are merely "intent on restoring the robber-baron era where there were no controls on pollution from power plants, oil refineries and factories." Former White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner sees an even more recent precedent. "I once ran the EPA and I've seen this movie before," Browner tells Politico. "You know what the American people said? They said, 'Hold on a second. We want a cop on the beat. We want clean air. We want clean water.'"

(Sources: New York Times, Associated Press, Politico)


Tequila and driving aren't normally a good mix, but according to a new study in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, they may be a perfect match — as long as the car is the one downing shots, not the driver. That's because agave, the desert plant from which tequila is made, could reportedly be an important new biofuel crop, allowing farmers to grow fuel in places where few other crops can survive.

"Agave has a huge advantage, as it can grow in marginal or desert land, not on arable land," study author and University of Oxford researcher Oliver Inderwildi tells the Guardian. Most current ethanol is produced from corn or sugarcane, meaning fuel crops often compete with food crops for water, nutrients and farm space. Production of corn ethanol in the U.S. has been linked to rising food prices, helping drive lawmakers in Congress to consider nixing once-sacred subsidies for the ethanol industry. But that's where agave comes in — because it thrives in hot, dry environments that are fatal to many other plants, it could offer high yields of ethanol without displacing food crops. It also doesn't require as much water as corn or sugarcane, further reducing its environmental impact.

The new study, according to Inderwildi, is the first comprehensive life-cycle analysis of agave ethanol's emissions and energy output. The fuel leads to the net emission of 35 grams of carbon dioxide for every megajoule of energy, compared with 85g/MJ for corn ethanol and 100g/MJ for oil. Sugarcane ethanol does score better, with just 20g/MJ, but Inderwildi says that's hard to replicate outside Brazil, due to the country's unique mixture of water, soil fertility, crop space and low-CO2 hydroelectricity. Plus, as co-author Andrew Smith says, "The characteristics of the agave suit it well to bioenergy production, but also reveal its potential as a crop that is adaptable to future climate change. In a world where arable land and water resources are increasingly scarce, these are key attributes in the food versus fuel argument, which is likely to intensify given the expected large-scale growth in biofuel production."

(Source: Guardian)


The hunt for extraterrestrial life is beginning to focus on an unlikely place, the New York Times reports. With NASA and other space agencies planning a variety of unmanned trips to Mars, asteroids and elsewhere in coming years — many of which are looking for signs of life — scientists are realizing it would help if we had a better idea of what to look for. Thus, the search for aliens is increasingly taking place here on Earth.

"It drives me crazy when astronomers say, 'Surely the universe is pregnant with life.' If we have an Earthlike planet, what are the chances of life arising? Is it one in a million? Is it one in two? I don't see how you can say," grouses Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. But, he adds, "If you had a second example of life, even if it were synthetic, you might know better. I'm betting we're just going to make it." Joyce and a former graduate student created a molecule four years ago that, under the right conditions, can replicate itself and evolve over generations, the Times reports. It was dubbed "the immortal molecule" at the time, and while it loosely fits NASA's working definition for life, Joyce and others are quick to point out it's not alive. "We really would hope for more from our molecules than just replicating," Joyce says.

A truly alive molecule should start to develop novel survival strategies, Joyce adds, the sorts of things that eventually led the first organisms on Earth to diversify over millions of years into everything from plankton to the platypus. He continues to toy with DNA and RNA in hopes of achieving that breakthrough, something Princeton mathematician and phycisist Freeman Dyson says will be a milestone in human history. "The ability to synthesize life will be an event of profound importance, like the invention of agriculture or the invention of metallurgy," Dyson tells the Times. "Nobody can tell in advance what will come of it."

(Source: New York Times)


The Trans-Alaska Pipeline opens, "Waterworld" is released, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (man looking at wild rhinos): David De Lossy/Getty Images

Photo (Grand Canyon): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (agave farm in Oaxaca, Mexico): Lonely Planet Images

Photo (synthetic cell at J. Craig Venter Institute): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Thurs. 7/28/2011
The mob vs. wildlife, GOP vs. EPA, tequila vs. corn ethanol, and more.