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Among 2016 Conservation Issues: Way Too Much Testosterone

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 29, 2015

What’s ahead for wildlife in the coming year? Anybody reading the headlines would probably answer: Calamity and extinction. Elephants? Rhinos? Lions in the African bush? Pollinators here at home? None of it sounds like good news.

For the past few years, a group of scientists and others with a strong interest in the natural world have tried to look past the headlines and identify emerging conservation issues most people in the field aren’t talking about yet, but will soon. They call it “horizon scanning,” and they try to include opportunities as well as threats. The new list for 2016 is just out in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, and it makes for interesting reading.

The list the group came up with inevitably includes China, but for a reason that hasn’t gotten much attention so far: The national government has now incorporated the idea of becoming an “ecological civilization” among its leading policies. If you have been hearing about the recent pollution red alert in Beijing, or about poaching and deforestation issues pretty much anywhere in the world, the words “ecological civilization” probably have you muttering, “Fat chance.” China has always been better at inventing ambitious slogans than at living up to them.

But according to one recent analysis, the new policy could mark “a real transformation of the growth model … a final break with the ‘pollute first, clean up later’ policies of the recent past.”  The list of planned actions includes preservation of wetlands and “scientific development of marine resources,” as well as major water management and reforestation initiatives. The authors of the Trends article argue that change in China, if genuine, could encourage environmental reform in other nations, “particularly if these principles are promoted through China’s investments overseas.”

China is still of course bankrolling 92 coal-fired power plants in 27 nations, even as it committed itself at the recent conference in Paris to climate change reforms. The Trends authors also list among their emerging issues the increasing construction of artificial oceanic islands. That’s a reference to China’s move to assert national territorial claims in the South China Sea by “pumping sand onto live coral reefs and paving the sand with concrete,” with devastating effects on wildlife and regional fisheries. So it is probably wise to consider the likelihood of real change in China a gigantic “if.”

Fisheries turn up in several of the other upcoming issues cited by the Trends authors. On the freshwater side, pollution with estrogen is already a familiar problem: We basically piss away the ingredients in birth control pills, and the result is reproductive and other hormonal havoc for the creatures living in our waterways. But we are apparently now pissing away testosterone, too, with similar results. There’s rarely a good medical reason to take testosterone supplements–but sales in the United States have soared from $18 million in 1988 to $2.1 billion (according to IMS Health) in 2014.

On the marine fisheries side, receding sea ice threatens to open up large areas of the central Arctic Ocean to unregulated fishing. The five border nations signed a moratorium in 2015, but they need to begin negotiating legally binding rules to avoid “uncontrolled and unsustainable levels of harvest.” One other developing issue is the fishing industry’s increasing reliance on “electric pulse trawling,” which uses a jolt of electricity to flush flatfish and shrimp out of their seabed hiding places. It’s an indicator of the hazards for nontarget species that China—China!—banned the practice in 2001. But the European Union allows it, and the Trends authors worry that electric pulse trawling is growing “ahead of a full understanding of its ecological effects.”

So what’s the good news for wildlife? New technologies are making it much easier to detect illegal activities and stop them. For instance, most larger fishing vessels are now required to carry satellite-tracked automatic identification systems. That allows enforcement agencies to spot boats fishing in the wrong place or with the wrong methods. Even if they can’t get to the scene on time, they can prevent those boats from selling their illegal catch when they return to port. Passive acoustic monitoring over large areas is also becoming more practical. At sea, it’s a way detect the idiots who use explosives to stun or kill fish (and everything else) along coral reefs. On land, it’s already helping alert rangers to illegal logging in Sumatra. The Trend authors argue that improvements in how batteries store energy will allow remote devices to function far longer in the field, and artificial superintelligence will interpret the resulting data far more effectively than mere mortals. (HAL, from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” apparently has an unanticipated future as a forest ranger.)

To this list of opportunities for 2016, I would add two legal advances. The recent Paris agreement on climate change has placed huge new emphasis on the protection of forests as a tool for offsetting human actions. And in this country, the re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with a budget of $450 million for the New Year, means that many important habitats stand a chance of being preserved well into the future.

One final thought, for the authors of the Trends article: If you had to identify leading issues of the past year—in any field—the list would surely include the idea that developing nations and disenfranchised people should participate as equals in global decision-making. And yet, inexplicably, the group of experts preparing this list remains overwhelmingly British, even English. It includes only four scientists from outside Europe, and none from China, India, or Africa, which together represent half the people on Earth. So here’s an issue I’d put on the list for 2017: If you are going to talk about “global” anything, why not bring together a representative global group to do the talking?

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