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Biden administration action, zebra risks, artificial intelligence answers: 3 stories you may have missed

© Jonathan Irish

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. Biden rejoins Paris climate accord, works to overturn Trump’s climate policies 

The new United States administration is taking massive steps toward climate action.

The story: During U.S. President Joseph Biden’s first days in office, his administration took steps to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and issued executive orders to begin undoing a number of the environmental policies enacted during the Trump administration, reported Juliet Eilperin, Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis for The Washington Post. Along with placing a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Biden administration’s executive orders have directed federal agencies to review — and potentially reinstate — the protections that were stripped away from national monuments in recent years, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.

The big picture: “Protected and conserved areas like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are the bedrock of conservation — they can effectively safeguard unique biodiversity and places sacred to Indigenous communities, mitigate climate change and support local economies,” said Conservation International Environmental Governance Fellow Rachel Golden Kroner. As the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. could have a significant impact on slowing climate change by not only recommitting to and implementing the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, but also protecting nature domestically. “It is encouraging that the current U.S. administration is reviewing previous rollbacks of these critical protections,” Golden Kroner added. “The key next step will be to ensure these areas are fully protected once again.”

Read more here

Unusual coloration signals a pattern of inbreeding that puts Africa’s zebras at risk.

The story: According to a new study, African zebras with spots or unusual coloring could indicate a dangerous lack of genetic diversity within their herds, reported Lindsay Patterson for National Geographic. In recent years, the construction of fences, roads and other infrastructure in Africa has divided large populations of zebras into small, isolated herds, resulting in more occurrences of inbreeding. After running genetic analyses on 140 zebras across Africa, a group of scientists determined that this inbreeding has led to lower genetic diversity and more genetic defects within the herds. 

The big picture: “Even though plains zebras aren’t highly threatened, these genetic issues often show up before really problematic things start happening,” Brenda Larison, the lead author of the study, told National Geographic. According to Larison, lower genetic diversity in zebra populations could increase the risk of widespread infertility, disease outbreaks and other genetic defects. To prevent this, experts say that governments and communities must limit construction within zebra habitats throughout Africa to ensure that the species can migrate and reproduce across different herds. 

Read more here.  

New technology could help map the world’s trees — and the carbon they absorb — more accurately. 

The story: Using artificial intelligence and satellite maps, a team of researchers recently identified 1.8 billion previously unrecorded trees across West Africa, reported Amy Fleming for The Guardian. Until now, studies of forests in West Africa have counted trees using only satellite imagery, which can detect forests, but often overlooks trees that are spread out across vast swaths of land like those in the Sahara. To spot those overlooked trees, the team of researchers “trained” artificial intelligence technology to identify isolated trees by the shape and size of their shadows in satellite maps. 

The big picture: “Most maps show these areas as basically empty, but they’re not empty,” Martin Brandy, a co-author on the study, told The Guardian. “Our assessment suggests a way to monitor trees outside of forests globally, and to explore their role in mitigating degradation, climate change and poverty.” Mapping the planet’s trees is critical to determining how much carbon they can store — and how best to protect them.   

Read more here


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: A zebra at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya (© Jonathan Irish)

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