Tag Archives: jungle

Australia returns control of the world’s oldest tropical forest to indigenous First Nations

The Daintree Rainforest is part of the oldest continuous-growth rainforests in the world and is recognized as such, being part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Now, Australia’s government has returned control over this ancient forest to the First Nations peoples as the first step towards reconciliation.

The Daintree National Park, part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, protects a 135-million-year-old tropical rainforest. Before European settlers ever set foot on Australian soil, the indigenous First Nations peoples lived in this area, as they did in others across the continent.

As a first step towards addressing an “uncomfortable and ugly” past, the Australian government will be returning this land to its original owners.

Returning the heritage

“The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people’s culture is one of the world’s oldest living cultures and this agreement recognises their right to own and manage their country, to protect their culture and to share it with visitors as they become leaders in the tourism industry,” said Queensland state environment minister Meaghan Scanlon.

The Daintree jungle is a rich ecosystem, harboring ancient and rare species. Some of the plants and animals here have remained relatively unchanged for millions of years. Some of the fern species here have been around since dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Its wealth of biodiversity and sheer age have won Daintree and the wider Queensland Wet Tropics a World Heritage status. Much like the rest of the continent, this land is under the administration and care of the Australian government. The Ngalba-bulal, Kalkajaka, and the Hope Islands National Parks will also be returned alongside Daintree. In total, this amounts to 160,000 hectares (around 395,000 acres) of land on the Cape York peninsula.

Initially, this land will be jointly managed by the First Nations and the Queensland state government, to ensure a smooth transition. In the end, however, First Nation peoples will retain sole administrative power over the area.

To date, the Australian government has returned roughly 3.8 million hectares on Cape York to Indigenous traditional owners.

“Our goal is to establish a Foundation to provide confident and competent people with pathways and opportunities for mentoring, training, apprenticeships, work experience and employment for our Eastern Kuku Yalanji Bama to fill positions from a wide range of skilled trades, land and sea management, hospitality, tourism, and research so that we are in control of our own destinies,” said Chrissy Grant, Eastern Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners Negotiating Committee Member, in an official statement.

“On 29 September 2021, this significant historic event becomes legal and a reality for the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Bama to realise our vision for a more promising future for all our people.”

This handback will create the first place in Australia where Traditional Owners will both receive ownership of and have an important part in jointly managing an UNESCO World Heritage Area, according to the same statement. Officials are confident that giving administrative power over this unique ecosystem to those whose cultures and customs were shaped in their midst is the best way to ensure that they remain protected and preserved for future generations.

Sunrise jungle Indonesia.

Hard-pressed by humans, rainforests lost their ability to act as carbon sinks

Rainforests are too degraded to act as carbon sinks any longer, a new paper reports. Averaged across the globe, rainforests now have a positive output of greenhouse gases, prompting the authors to call for urgent conservation efforts that will allow rainforests to re-don the mantle of carbon sinks.

Sunrise jungle Indonesia.

Image via Pixabay.

The team, composed of scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University, took a different approach in assessing the health of rainforests. Unlike previous research, which generally focused on deforestation (complete removal of the forests), they worked to account for more subtle changes in the form of disturbance and degradation, both natural and anthropic. These changes include small-scale tree mortality or removal, or forest gains through natural or human-assisted growth.

Sadly, they report that when taking such changes in forest density into account, tropical forests lose their ability to act as net carbon sinks, meaning they emit more carbon that they can capture.

Net producers

The study quantified changes in aboveground forest carbon across tropical America, Africa, and Asia. These areas were selected as the sheer scale of their rainforests provide the greatest ability to act as carbon stores. They’re also the most biodiverse places on the planet, providing a wealth of ecosystem services such as food, fuel, and materials to millions of people — meaning they see a lot of human activity.

The team used 12 years’ worth of satellite imagery (taken between 2003-2014), laser remote sensing technology, and measurements taken in the field to calculate losses in forest carbon from flat-out deforestation as well as the more subtle and fine-grain degradation and disturbance processes, which have previously remained unaccounted-for over large swaths of rainforest. Their findings point to a worrying, death-by-a-thousand-cuts scenario playing out in Earth’s richest ecosystems.

Overall, tropical regions have become a net source of atmospheric carbon, they report. Forests saw an increase in capture power of roughly 437 teragrams of carbon annually (expressed as ‘carbon gains’), but losses amounted to a whopping 862 teragrams — meaning rainforests contribute a roughly 425 teragrams of atmospheric CO2 yearly. Each teragram is equivalent to one trillion grams, one million metric tons, or 1.102.331 short tons. To put that number into context, China and the US emitted some 10,600, respectively 5,100 teragrams of CO2 in 2015 (29.5% and 14.3% of world emissions).

“Gains result from forest growth; losses result from deforestation and from reductions in carbon density within standing forests (degradation/disturbance), with the latter accounting for 68.9% of overall losses,” the team writes.

“In many cases throughout the tropics you have selective logging, or smallholder farmers removing individual trees for fuel wood. These losses can be relatively small in any one place, but added up across large areas they become considerable,” said WHRC scientist Wayne Walker, one of the paper’s coauthors.

Losses and gains aren’t evenly distributed, however. On a by-continent basis, the majority of losses occurred in Latin America (some 60% of loss), in the Amazon forest. Some 24% of loss was seen in Africa, and Asia experienced the least share of total losses, with a little over 16%. Degradation and disturbance were responsible for the lion’s share of continental losses in both the Americas (70% of losses) and Africa (81%), but under half (46%) in Asia. Gains were also predominantly centered in the Americas with nearly 43% of total gains, followed by Africa with 30%, and lastly Asia with 26%.

Such results are worrying, especially at a time when governments around the world are scrambling to meet their commitments to the Paris Agreement and curb climate change. The authors note that ending deforestation, degradation, and disturbance in the tropics and allowing the ecosystem to regrow would cut at least 862 teragrams of carbon per year, some 8% of global emissions. The UN already has a project set in place to help preserve natural carbon sinks — the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which offers incentives for countries to maintain forests intact. However, it depends on regular access to accurate measurements of incremental gains and losses in forest carbon density, and research such as this one will give us a better understanding of how forests function.

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” said WHRC scientist Alessandro Baccini, the paper’s lead author. “If we’re to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels, we need to drastically reduce emissions and greatly increase forests’ ability to absorb and store carbon.”

“Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects — from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.”

The paper “Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss” has been published in the journal Science.

Laser technology reveals huge medieval cities hidden in Cambodian jungle

Who needs Indiana Jones when you’ve got technology? A new study using laser imaging has revealed several impressive cities hidden in the Cambodian jungle.

Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative

Doing archaeology in vegetation-rich areas can be a big hassle, and even impossible. Cambodia’s jungle is big, rugged and arduous even to access, let alone do archaeological studies in it. But then again, who needs to get their hands dirty in the jungle, when you can simply fly above it?

Several organizations have launched the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative, which aims to use remote airborne laser scanners (a technology called LIDAR) to visualize undiscovered archaeological sites. The same technology has been proven many times in the past, including for finding some forgotten Roman Roads.


Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative

LIDAR didn’t disappoint this time either, and scientists found several settlements close to the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat in the north-west of the country, dated from approximately 900-1400 years ago. Some of the cities are so big, they’re comparable in size to Cambodia’s current capital, Phnom Penh.

“We have entire cities discovered beneath the forest that no one knew were there,” archaeologist Damian Evans, who carried out the research, told The Guardian.

“These airborne laser discoveries mark the greatest advance in the past 50 or even 100 years of our knowledge of Angkorian civilisation,” archaeologist Michael Coe from Yale University, who wasn’t involved in the research, told The Guardian.

Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative

The technique uses a helicopter to fly above the ground. The helicopter is fitted with an airborne laser scanner which sends 16 laser pulses which measure each square metre of ground, revealing the height of the ground. The helicopter flies at a constant speed, highlighting where rising structures stand.

The good thing about this technique is that it clearly shows structures which would otherwise be very difficult to spot. You may be walking right in the middle of a former city and not even realize it.

“It turned out we’d been walking and flying right over the top of this stuff for 10 years and not even noticing it because of the vegetation,” said Evans. “What we had was basically a scatter of disconnected points on the map denoting temple sites. Now it’s like having a detailed street map of the entire city.”

The LIDAR scans revealed roads, canals, furnaces, and even beer gardens. This is a bigger finding than even the more optimistic archaeologists were expected. Remote sensing is changing archaeology, and for starters – it may revolutionize what we know about Cambodian civilizations.

Light pollution impeding rainforest regeneration: Seed dispersing bats avoid feeding in light polluted areas

When you think about pollution, usually dirty chemical substances pop to mind; maybe some petroleum, or waste water – light pollution doesn’t usually take the first places. But a new study conducted by scientists from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research Berlin (IZW) showed that light pollution can also have a significant effect.

What is light pollution, anyway?

batsWell, as the name pretty much explains it, light pollution is excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial light. It is introduced by humans directly or indirectly, and it generally occurs in or near big cities – but this is not always the case. Light pollution is basically a side-effect, a by-product if you will of human development; where humans thrive, like for example in Europe, or the US or the developed parts of Asia, we start using more and more light, until it has a negative effect.

Working with Sowell’s short-tailed bats (Carollia sowelli), Daniel Lewanzik from the IZW first built simple flight cages, and then gave the bats a simple choice. He divided the cages into two compartments: one was naturally dark and the other was illuminated by a sodium street lamp, the most common form of street lighting in the world. Inside both parts of the cage, bats were offered some of their favorite snacks: pepper plants, nightshade and figs. The results were pretty clear: bats flew into the darker compartments twice more often than in the illuminated ones.

In a second experiment, Lewanzik illuminated pepper plants growing in the wild with a street light and measured the percentage of ripe fruit which bats harvested from plants in a dark location and from lit plants. Naturally, 100 percent of the naturally dark plants were harvested – it’s not like bats to give up on a tasty meal. However, only three quarters of the illuminated plants were harvested, which shows that even when offered the possibility of a feast, they sometimes still turn it down, if there’s light involved. Although insect-eating bats have been shown to avoid foraging in light-polluted areas, this is the first study to show that fruit-eating bats also avoid areas with light – and this is significantly more important, because bats play a key role in pollinating plants and spreading their seeds, especially the seeds of species that are first to recolonise cleared land.

“In tropical habitats bat-mediated seed dispersal is necessary for the rapid succession of deforested land because few other animals than bats disperse seeds into open habitats”, says Daniel Lewanzik, doctoral candidate at the IZW and first author of the study.

Basically, bats eat fruits and then defecate while flying, spreading the seeds all around. This is a very natural process, and it helps plants regenerate. If they avoid some areas, then those areas will regenerate considerably slower.

If we want to prevent this, there are some things we can do:

“The impact of light pollution could be reduced by changes in lighting design and by setting up dark refuges connected by dark corridors for light-sensitive species like bats,” Lewanzik says.

Full bibliographic informationLewanzik D, Voigt CC (2014): Artificial light puts ecosystem services of frugivorous bats at risk. Journal of Applied Ecology.