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Amazon fires, elephant die-offs, arboreal social distancing: 3 stories you may have missed

© Levi S. Norton

Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Amazon fires at 13-year high for June 

The thousands of fires that blazed through Brazil in June could foreshadow a severe fire season in the Amazon, which runs from July to October.  

The Story: According to new satellite data, there were more than 2,248 fires in the Brazilian Amazon in June, a 20-percent increase compared with June 2019, reported The BBC. Experts say that this data could indicate even more intense and frequent fires during Brazil’s upcoming fire season than those that ravaged the Amazon in 2019. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate the risk of fires, as fewer park officials are available to monitor land-clearing fires set by farmers and loggers in the Amazon. 

The Big Picture: “We know that there has been an increase in deforestation in the last couple of years in the Amazon,” said Karyn Tabor, senior director of ecological monitoring in Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science, in an interview with Conservation News. “And when there is more deforestation, there are going to be more fires.” According to recent reports from Conservation International field offices, tropical deforestation has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began — and many governments around the world have rolled back environmental regulations to protect these tropical forests in recent months. To decrease the risk of fires in the Amazon, experts agree that countries must limit deforestation and strengthen protected areas, rather than exploiting forests in these regions for mining and logging.

Read more here.

In Botswana, the world’s largest land mammal is dying in droves — and scientists are not sure why. 

The Story: Recent reports revealed that more than 350 elephants in northern Botswana have died from unknown causes in recent months, reported Phoebe Weston for The Guardian. The Botswana government has not yet tested the remains of the elephant carcasses, though scientists predict that the mass deaths are likely due to poisoning or a deadly pathogen. According to the reports, around 70 percent of the deaths are concentrated around waterholes in the Okavango Delta, a crucial habitat for many elephants in the region. 

The Big Picture: “There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known,” said Niall McCann, the director of conservation at the National Park Rescue charity in the United Kingdom. The Okavango Delta contains around 15,000 elephants, which is more than 10 percent of Botswana’s total elephant population. Along with being a conservation disaster, the ongoing mass elephant die-offs could cripple Botswana’s ecotourism industry, which contributes between 10-12 percent of the country’s total GDP. Conservationists agree that it is critical for the Botswana government to perform swift and adequate testing to determine the cause of these deaths — and to plan a course of action to stop them. 

Read more here.

Similar to humans, several tree species avoid contact with each other to prevent the spread of disease.

The Story: A growing body of research finds that trees in forests maintain gaps from other trees to avoid damaging each other, curb the spread of disease and parasites, and improve access to resources such as sunlight, reported Katherine J. Wu for National Geographic. Known as “crown shyness,” this phenomenon — which some scientists compare to human “social distancing” — is observed in a variety of tree species such as mangroves and pine trees in forests around the world. Recently, research found that many trees can actually detect other vegetation in their vicinity through the chemicals they release — and slow their growth in response to widen the boundary between them. 

The Big Picture: “The minute you start keeping plants from physically touching each other, you can increase productivity,” said Meg Lowman, a forest canopy biologist. “That’s the beauty of isolation … [t]he tree is really safeguarding its own health.” Research shows trees may have even adapted to grow fewer branches and foliage to limit the risk of colliding with other trees when the wind blows. To conserve trees that exhibit crown shyness, it is crucial for countries to create protected areas with enough space for them to grow without disturbance. Experts agree doing so could also help support reforestation in degraded areas while negating the need to plant additional trees.

Read more here

News Spotlight

‘Zombie fires’ in the Arctic pump out carbon at record pace

Record-breaking heatwaves in the Arctic are intensifying fires that have burned steadily since May, releasing more than 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. A significant percentage of these emissions, specifically in Siberian forests and peatlands, are being released from pockets of “irrecoverable carbon” — vast stores of carbon that are potentially vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050.”

READ MORE: New research identifies carbon-rich lands that are essential to avoiding climate catastrophe

A recent study found that warming seawater may create unsuitable living conditions for more than half of the world’s fish species if global temperatures rise by more 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7.2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

READ MORE: Pacific islands face hardships as tuna follow warming waters


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International  here.

Cover image: An African elephant in Botswana (© Levi S. Norton)

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