The Weekly Anthropocene: September 28, 2022
Dispatches from the Wild, Weird World of Humanity and its Biosphere
Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are rebounding in Great Britain. Driven to extinction on the island in 1916 after decades of human persecution, a pair flew back in 1954 and successfully bred in 1959. Now there are an estimated 1,500 ospreys in the UK, and they’re spreading rapidly. Yorkshire, Leicestershire, and Dorset recently saw their first osprey chicks in over 200 years. (Pictured, “Nora and Monty”, an osprey pair on their nest in Wales).
Scientists have long been puzzled by the seemingly irregular movements of narwhals (Monodon monoceros), those Arctic sea-unicorns famed for their sensitive, spiraling front tooth-derived tusks. Narwhals spend lots of time near the surface, but also take long, deep dives (up to 1,800 meters below sea level, some of the deepest recorded of any marine mammal species) in a way that doesn’t follow any obvious patterns like the day/night cycle. (Pictured: a pod of adult male narwhals off Greenland). A new paper analyzed the movements of a satellite-tagged male narwhal for 83 days, and used mathematical models based on chaos theory to discern what was going on. They found that several factors influence how narwhals spend their dive time. To quote “There is more near-surface rest but deeper dives at solar noon, and more intense diving during twilight and at night but to shallower depths (likely following squid); sea-ice appearance reduces rest.” As the Arctic rapidly changes due to climate change, understanding one of its most fascinating species better will be key to determining when, how, and if humans can help protect narwhals in the future.
A new analysis of decades’ worth of poaching reports from around the globe found that illegal sea turtle (superfamily Chelonioidea) catch (mostly sold to China and Japan) has dropped sharply since 2000. (Pictured from Nature: the endangered hawksbill sea turtle). An estimated 600,000+ were caught from 2000-2009, but less than 450,000 from 2010-2019. Furthermore, most current sea turtle poaching appears to be occurring in areas where sea turtle populations are relatively large and healthy, so it’s not having an immediately crushing impact. “The silver lining is that, despite the seemingly large illegal take, exploitation is not having a negative impact on sea-turtle populations on a global scale. This is really good news,” said the new paper’s co-author Dr. Jesse Senko.
On September 17, 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was present at the release of eight cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) from Namibia into a quarantine area in Kuno National Park, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. (Pictured, above). Cheetahs have been native to India for millennia (the word cheetah is from the Sanskrit chitraka), but went locally extinct in the subcontinent sometime around 19501. If all goes well, these 8 will be released into the full park soon, and joined next month by another 12 cheetahs from South Africa. The long-term plan is to reintroduce 50 cheetahs into several Indian national parks over the next five years.
It’s worth noting that conservationists are divided on the impact of this reintroduction: some leading Indian big cat biologists see it as a PR stunt that distracts from the protection of other Indian species like tigers and Asiatic lions2, and worry that without consistent human support the cheetahs will be quickly killed by humans and feral dogs near the park. On the other hand, the PR-heavy quality of this reintroduction may be a plus: the Indian government is clearly supporting and promoting this heavily as a prestige project, and that official attention in itself could have substantial and widespread biodiversity benefits, as prioritizing action to ensure suitable cheetah habitat will protect lots of other species and ecosystems. Furthermore, cheetahs are severely threatened in Africa, with only about 6,500 remaining in the wild worldwide. Developing an overseas backup population could turn out to be highly valuable in the long run, especially as cheetahs are notoriously hard to keep healthy in captivity, tending to mysteriously develop highly contagious diseases. Overall, this writer is excited to see where this goes, and hopes to see a healthy population of cheetahs spreading across India!
The Kigali Amendment
On September 21, 2022, the United States of America became the 138th country to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, by a bipartisan Senate vote of 69-27. Notably, 21 Republican senators voted to ratify the Kigali Amendment along with 48 Democrats3, thanks in large part to the US Chamber of Commerce urging Republicans to support it.
This is a really epic, historic victory, years in the making, the latest chapter in a decades-long effort that amounts to one of the most successful international environmental protection projects in history.
The Kigali Amendment is a legally binding 2016 addition to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, a landmark global environmental treaty that successfully phased out the use of ozone layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The Montreal Protocol was wildly successful: CFCs were duly phased out4 and NASA confirms that the ozone hole is now healing. Unfortunately, CFCs were mostly replaced with hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, which didn’t damage the ozone layer but did turn out to be a very potent greenhouse gas, thousands of times stronger than carbon dioxide. Even though tiny amounts of HFCs are emitted compared to the mammoth output of carbon from the fossil fuel industry, their high heat-trapping effect means that without any controls, HFCs could contribute 0.28 to 0.44 degrees Celsius of global surface warming by 2100 all by themselves, on top of the fossil fuels-driven warming we’re all so concerned about, which would be a considerable push towards catastrophic climate change. The Kigali Amendment of 2016 is designed to prevent that outcome, and phase out HFCs globally like we phased out CFCs. And, fortunately, HFCs remain in the atmosphere for just 15 years, compared to carbon dioxide’s 300-1000 years, so getting rid of HFCs means we’ll see the progress (avoided warming) very soon. And now, the United States is on board!
“Ratifying the Kigali Amendment, along with passing the Inflation Reduction Act, is the strongest one-two punch against climate change any Congress has ever taken”-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Furthermore, it should be easy for the US to meet the Kigali Amendment’s requirements, as we’ve already laid the groundwork for implementation. COVID-19 relief legislation passed in December 2020 included a provision mandating American chemical manufacturers to phase out the production and use of HFCs, and Biden’s EPA set up stringent new regulations in 2021 to make this a reality. Spectacular news!
Technically, the cheetah subspecies native to India that went locally extinct was the Asiatic cheetah, which isn’t quite the same cat as the cheetahs now arriving from Namibia. However, there are only 12 individuals of that subspecies left, all living in Iran, so cheetahs from Africa are the closest that India can reasonably get.
The Asiatic lions part in particular is interesting in a messed-up way. The entire world Asiatic lion population (about 674 as of 2020) currently lives in the Indian state of Gujarat, all in the relatively small Gir Forest region. The obvious thing to do is reintroduce some to other parts of India, but the state government of Gujarat doesn’t want to give up its monopoly as “the only place in the world to see Asiatic lions,” and is currently actively defying an Indian Supreme Court decision to move forward with Asiatic lion reintroduction to other states. For the Indian federal government, reintroducing cheetahs from Namibia to Madhya Pradesh was simpler than coaxing Asiatic lions out of a state next door.