The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting conservation efforts in Madagascar


The Coquerel Sifaka in its natural environment in a Malagasy national park.
Eugen Haag/Shutterstock

Estelle Razanatsoa, University of Cape TownThe effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the restriction policies used to mitigate the spread of the virus, are being felt all over the world. It affects all parts of life including conservation especially in developing countries like Madagascar.

Madagascar’s natural environment faces multiple challenges. These include deforestation, erosion, a changing climate, agriculture fires,
hunting and the over-collection of animals and plants from the wild. One of the biggest hurdles, which exacerbates these issues, is that poverty is widespread in Madagascar. It’s estimated that 75% of people in Madagascar live on less than $1.90 per day, and so many depend on natural resources.

There are about 500 conservation projects which are trying to address these challenges and provide employment to local communities.

I collaborated with a group of conservation managers and researchers, mostly from Madagascar, to assess exactly how the pandemic has affected conservation activities. Our paper is based on our personal experiences and involvement in establishing management strategies during the pandemic.

We found that the pandemic challenged existing conservation structures and management. The issue is that most of Madagascar’s conservation and research projects are conceptualised and funded from abroad – the Global North. Non-governmental organisations on the ground implement their activities with the help of communities living close to protected areas.

Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, several activities were forced to stop. This included vital training and biodiversity monitoring.

This situation provides us with the opportunity to re-examine strategies and research approaches to build resilience for future crises. The foundation of which lies with the true empowerment of local communities, conservationists and researchers.

Challenges and coping strategies

Our research involved members of organisations that manage multiple sites and protected areas across Madagascar. These included WWF Madagascar, the Aspinall Foundation, the Missouri Botanical Garden in Madagascar and the Madagascar National Parks. The type of activities they carry out include both research and conservation.

Prior to the pandemic, activities were directed and funded by local and international agencies. Although there are initiatives that emerged locally, typically foreigners would lead and manage the projects. Malagasies (often those that live around the conservation areas) were usually employed to take on basic roles. For instance as project assistants, field guiding and patrolling. These activities provided them with an additional income to subsistence agriculture.

We found that restrictions, taken to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, had a dramatic effect on conservation and research activities. Travel from abroad and within the country reduced the ability of projects to conduct activities. Foreigners, who were running projects, couldn’t come in. And there were also challenges managing activities from the capital, Antananarivo.

Border closures also meant international tourists and researchers couldn’t come into Madagascar. This resulted in less financial resources for conservation activities. For instance, park entrance and research permit fees are often used to fund conservation activities such as surveillance activities. They also provide park guides with an income.

In addition to a loss of income, in some cases project costs grew. This was because staff had to work from home, which increased communication expenses, and because local communities needed to report to head offices using phones. There were also additional costs related to health safety measures, such as masks and sanitisers.

Because there’s less surveillance activity, and also because many communities living close to protected areas had lost their supplementary income, there’s been an increase in illegal activities inside some national parks. This includes more hunting, logging and charcoal production.

In addition, environmental education and awareness activities for local communities living around protected areas ceased.

Not all local communities lost their work. In some places local communities were relied on to continue conservation and research activities, like reforestation and forest surveillance. But, because they weren’t adequately trained, this compromised the project.

Forest rangers, usually accompanied by permanent staff, had to perform habitat and species monitoring alone. But they faced challenges. This relates mostly to the transfer or proper storage of monitoring data because of the lack of technological knowledge and reduced connectivity in some remote sites.

Improving the model

All of these insights make a strong case for a change in Madagascar’s conservation model. In recent years, scientists and researchers have argued that locally-based conservation activities are more resilient as they engage and provide benefits to local communities.

Our paper supports this. Projects should be more independent so that they can continue to run without such a heavy reliance on human resources from abroad. More needs to be done to ensure that the workforce is predominantly local, and driven by locals.

Projects should also provide leadership opportunities to local managers and researchers.

Communities living near protected areas have benefited from the efforts of NGOs and conservation organisations. However, such an approach should include possibilities for diversifying livelihoods that take into account local needs and values.

We hope that the lessons we have learned in Madagascar during COVID-19 will help to drive conservation and research in developing countries towards a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable model. This would help to improve the success of conservation activities.The Conversation

Estelle Razanatsoa, Postdoctoral Fellow, Plant Conservation Unit (PCU), University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’re all ingesting microplastics at home, and these might be toxic for our health. Here are some tips to reduce your risk


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Mark Patrick Taylor, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, Macquarie UniversityAustralians are eating and inhaling significant numbers of tiny plastics at home, our new research shows.

These “microplastics”, which are derived from petrochemicals extracted from oil and gas products, are settling in dust around the house.

Some of these particles are toxic to humans — they can carry carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals, meaning they potentially cause cancer and/or damage our DNA.

We still don’t know the true impact of these microplastics on human health. But the good news is, having hard floors, using more natural fibres in clothing, furnishings and homewares, along with vacuuming at least weekly can reduce your exposure.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimetres across. They come from a range of household and everyday items such as the clothes we wear, home furnishings, and food and beverage packaging.

We know microplastics are pervasive outdoors, reaching remote and inaccessible locations such as the Arctic, the Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest ocean trench), and the Italian Alps.

Our study demonstrates it’s an inescapable reality that we’re living in a sea of microplastics — they’re in our food and drinks, our oceans, and our homes.




Read more:
We estimate up to 14 million tonnes of microplastics lie on the seafloor. It’s worse than we thought


What we did and what we found

While research has focused mainly on microplastics in the natural environment, a handful of studies have looked at how much we’re exposed to indoors.

People spend up to 90% of their time indoors and therefore the greatest risk of exposure to microplastics is in the home.

Our study is the first to examine how much microplastic we’re exposed to in Australian homes. We analysed dust deposited from indoor air in 32 homes across Sydney over a one-month period in 2019.

We asked members of the public to collect dust in specially prepared glass dishes, which we then analysed.

A graphic showing how microplastics suspended in a home
Here’s how microplastics can be generated, suspended, ingested and inhaled inside a house.
Monique Chilton, Author provided

We found 39% of the deposited dust particles were microplastics; 42% were natural fibres such as cotton, hair and wool; and 18% were transformed natural-based fibres such as viscose and cellophane. The remaining 1% were film and fragments consisting of various materials.

Between 22 and 6,169 microfibres were deposited as dust per square metre, each day.

Homes with carpet as the main floor covering had nearly double the number of petrochemical-based fibres (including polyethylene, polyamide and polyacrylic) than homes without carpeted floors.

Conversely, polyvinyl fibres (synthetic fibres made of vinyl chloride) were two times more prevalent in homes without carpet. This is because the coating applied to hard flooring degrades over time, producing polyvinyl fibres in house dust.

Microplastics can be toxic

Microplastics can carry a range of contaminants such as trace metals and some potentially harmful organic chemicals.

These chemicals can leach from the plastic surface once in the body, increasing the potential for toxic effects. Microplastics can have carcinogenic properties, meaning they potentially cause cancer. They can also be mutagenic, meaning they can damage DNA.




Read more:
Why ocean pollution is a clear danger to human health


However, even though some of the microplastics measured in our study are composed of potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds, the actual risk to human health is unclear.

Given the pervasiveness of microplastics not only in homes but in food and beverages, the crucial next step in this research area is to establish what, if any, are safe levels of exposure.




Read more:
You’re eating microplastics in ways you don’t even realise


How much are we exposed to? And can this be minimised?

Roughly a quarter of all of the fibres we recorded were less than 250 micrometres in size, meaning they can be inhaled. This means we can be internally exposed to these microplastics and any contaminants attached to them.

Using human exposure models, we calculated that inhalation and ingestion rates were greatest in children under six years old. This is due to their lower relative body weight, smaller size, and higher breathing rate than adults. What’s more, young children typically have more contact with the floor, and tend to put their hands in their mouths more often than adults.

Small bits of plastic floating in the sea
Microplastics are found not only in the sea, but in our food, beverages, and our homes.
Shutterstock

Children under six inhale around three times more microplastics than the average — 18,000 fibres, or 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per year. They would also ingest on average 6.1 milligrams of microplastics in dust per kg of body weight per year.

For a five-year-old, this would be equivalent to eating a garden pea’s worth of microplastics over the course of a year. But for many of these plastics there is no established safe level of exposure.

Our study indicated there are effective ways to minimise exposure.

First is the choice of flooring, with hard surfaces, including polished wood floors, likely to have fewer microplastics than carpeted floors.

Also, how often you clean makes a difference. Vacuuming floors at least weekly was associated with less microplastics in dust than those that were less frequently cleaned. So get cleaning!The Conversation

Mark Patrick Taylor, Professor of Environmental Science and Human Health, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Academic Casual, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, , Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Like the ocean’s ‘gut flora’: we sailed from Antarctica to the equator to learn how bacteria affect ocean health


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Eric Jorden Raes, Dalhousie UniversityAboard an Australian research vessel, the RV Investigator, we sailed for 63 days from Antarctica’s ice edge to the warm equator in the South Pacific and collected 387 water samples.

Our goal? To determine how the genetic code of thousands of different micro-organisms can provide insights into the ocean’s functional diversity — the range of tasks performed by bacteria in the ocean.

Our research was published yesterday in Nature Communications. It showed how bacteria can help us measure shifts in energy production at the base of the food web. These results are important, as they highlight an emerging opportunity to use genetic data for large-scale ecosystem assessments in different marine environments.

In light of our rapidly changing climate, this kind of information is critical, as it will allow us to unpack the complexity of nature step by step. Ultimately, it will help us mitigate human pressures to protect and restore our precious marine ecosystems.

Why should we care about marine bacteria?

The oceans cover 71% of our planet and sustain life on Earth. In the upper 100 meters, the sunlit part of the oceans, microscopic life is abundant. In fact, it’s responsible for producing up to 50% of all the oxygen in the world.

A whale breaches the ocean
Marine bacteria provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to whales.
Shutterstock

Much like the link recently established between human health and the human microbiome (“gut flora”), ocean health is largely controlled by its bacterial inhabitants.

But the role of bacteria go beyond oxygen production. Bacteria sustain, inject and control the fluxes of energy, nutrients and organic matter in our oceans. They provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to fish larvae, whales and the fish we eat.

These micro-organisms also execute key roles in numerous biogeochemical cycles (the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and iron cycles, to name a few).

So, it’s important to quantify their various tasks and understand how the different bacterial species and their functions respond to environmental changes.

Fundamental questions

Global ocean research initiatives — such as GO-SHIP and GEOTRACES — have been measuring the state of oceans in expeditions like ours for decades. They survey temperature, salinity, nutrients, trace metals (iron, cobalt and more) and other essential ocean variables.

Only recently, however, have these programs begun measuring biological variables, such as bacterial gene data, in their global sampling expeditions.

The author smiles in front of a blue and white ship, with 'Investigator' written on the side.
On board the RV Investigator, we departed Hobart in 2016, beginning our 63-day journey to sample microbes in the South Pacific.
Eric Raes, Author provided

Including bacterial gene data to measure the state of the ocean means we can try to fill critical knowledge gaps about how the diversity of bacteria impacts their various tasks. One hypothesis is whether a greater diversity of bacteria leads to a better resilience in an ecosystem, allowing it to withstand the effects of climate change.

In our paper, we addressed a fundamental question in this global field of marine microbial ecology: what is the relationship between bacterial identity and function? In other words, who is doing what?

What we found

We showed it’s possible to link the genetic code of marine bacteria to the various functions and tasks they execute, and to quantify how these functions changed from Antarctica to the equator.

The functions that changed include taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, bacterial growth, strategies to cope with limited nutrients, and breaking down organic matter.




Read more:
Marine life is fleeing the equator to cooler waters. History tells us this could trigger a mass extinction event


Another key finding is that “oceanographic fronts” can act as boundaries within a seemingly uniform ocean, resulting in unique assemblages of bacteria with specific tasks. Oceanographic fronts are distinct water masses defined by, for instance, sharp changes in temperature and salinity. Where the waters meet and mix, there’s high turbulence.

The change we recorded in energy production across the subtropical front, which separates the colder waters from the Southern Ocean from the warmer waters in the tropics, was a clear example of how oceanographic fronts influenced bacterial functions in the ocean.

Dark blue water meets light blue water under a cloudy sky.
An oceanographic front, where it looks like two oceans meet.
Shutterstock

Tracking changes in our ecosystems

As a result of our research, scientists may start using the functional diversity of bacteria as an indicator to track changes in our ecosystems, like canaries in a coal mine.




Read more:
Half of global methane emissions come from aquatic ecosystems – much of this is human-made


So the functional diversity of bacteria can be used to measure how human growth and urbanisation impact coastal areas and estuaries.

For example, we can more accurately and holistically measure the environmental footprint of aquaculture pens, which are known to affect water quality by increasing concentrations of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus – all favourite elements utilised by bacteria.

Likewise, we can track changes in the environmental services rendered by estuaries, such as their important role in removing excessive nitrogen that enters the waterways due to agriculture run-off and urban waste.

With 44% of the world’s population living along coastlines, the input of nitrogen to marine ecosystems, including estuaries, is predicted to increase, putting a strain on the marine life there.

Ultimately, interrogating the bacterial diversity using gene data, along with the opportunity to predict what this microscopic life is or will be doing in future, will help us better understand nature’s complex interactions that sustain life in our oceans.




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Humans are polluting the environment with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and I’m finding them everywhere


The Conversation


Eric Jorden Raes, Postdoctoral researcher Ocean Frontier Institute, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spending time in nature has always been important, but now it’s an essential part of coping with the pandemic



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Catherine Knight, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

A living wall filled with plants
Time spent in green spaces has been shown to mental and physical well-being.
Shutterstock/vsop, CC BY-SA

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of green spaces and urban parks, especially during periods of lockdown.

Even a short walk, an ocean view or a picnic by a river can leave us feeling invigorated and restored. There is now a growing body of evidence establishing the link between such nature encounters and our mental and physical well-being.

In my new book, I explore these nature benefits and put out a challenge to urban planners and decision makers to include more green spaces in our towns and cities.

Nature’s fix

One of the earliest studies to draw a conclusive link between time spent in nature and well-being was published in 1991. It found a 40-minute walk in nature, compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine, led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and better recovery from mental fatigue.

In more recent studies, exposure to nature or urban green space has been associated with lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression.

Research also suggests the benefits of growing up with access to lots of green space has a lasting effect into adulthood. A Danish study in 2019 found children who grow up surrounded by green spaces are less likely to develop mental disorders as adults.




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Nature exposure has also been shown to boost immunity. Studies found that forest excursions boost the activity of natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in the body’s defence system, attacking infections and tumours) and elevate hormones that may be protective against heart disease, obesity and diabetes, at least over the short term.

No exercise required

Researchers have been careful to factor out the beneficial effects of energetic physical activity when designing their studies of nature exposure. They asked participants to sit quietly or take a gentle walk.

This is good news for those of us who prefer a stroll to strenuous exercise. What’s more, researchers have found that just 20-30 minutes in nature delivers optimal benefits. After that, they continue to accrue, but at a slower rate.

Tree overhanging an urban stream
Even a gentle stroll delivers health benefits.
Shutterstock/Ian Woolcock, CC BY-SA

There’s even better news. To provide these benefits, nature does not need to be remote or pristine. A leafy park, a stream-side walkway, or even a quiet, tree-lined avenue can provide this nature fix.

New Zealand’s lockdowns have made more people appreciate the importance of green spaces for walking, cycling or just getting some fresh, tree-filtered air. During the strictest lockdown in April 2020, citizen science apps such as iNaturalist reported an upsurge in usage, indicating people were getting out into nature in their neighbourhoods.

The nature destruction paradox

Our appreciation of nature at this time of crisis is not without irony, given the destruction of pristine forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth are all at the root of the pandemic, bringing wildlife and people into close contact and making animal-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


A recent World Wildlife Fund report describes COVID-19 as a clear warning signal of an environment out of balance.

The report presents strong evidence of the link between humanity’s impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity and the spread of certain diseases:

Along with maintaining our natural systems, action is needed to restore those that have been destroyed or degraded, in a way that benefits people and restores the fundamental functions that biomes such as forests provide.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich in nature, but here too we have managed to destroy large swathes of indigenous forests and ecosystems since the first Polynesian navigators and then European settlers arrived.

Road running through green spaces.
Most people live in cities, which often lack green spaces.
Shutterstock/krug, CC BY-SA

Most of our surviving forests and pristine waterways are concentrated in our mountains and hill country, preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.




Read more:
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Yet, 86% of us live in cities and towns, which are in coastal and lowland areas. So if we are going to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from spending time in nature, we need more nature spaces in our cities.

This does not necessarily mean more parks. With the right care and investment, neglected stream corridors, weed-infested gullies, flood-prone areas unfit for development and even road verges can provide valuable green spaces for people. As an added benefit, they create a network of habitat for insects, birds and reptiles that keep our natural ecosystems functioning.

In my book, I put out a challenge to all New Zealanders, especially urban planners and our decision makers, to strive for a more nature-rich future – an Aotearoa where every New Zealander can benefit from being in nature, every day of their life.The Conversation

Catherine Knight, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID-19 wasn’t just a disaster for humanity – new research shows nature suffered greatly too



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Marc Hockings, The University of Queensland

It’s one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. While the human and economic toll have been enormous, new findings show the fallout from the virus also seriously damaged nature.

Conservation is often funded by tourism dollars – particularly in developing nations. In many cases, the dramatic tourism downturn brought on by the pandemic meant funds for conservation were cut. Anti-poaching operations and endangered species programs were among those affected.

This dwindling of conservation efforts during COVID is sadly ironic. The destruction of nature is directly linked to zoonotic diseases, and avoiding habitat loss is a cost-effective way to prevent pandemics.

The research papers reveal the inextricable links between the health of humans and the health of the planet. Together, they make one thing abundantly clear: we must learn the hard lessons of COVID-19 to ensure the calamity is not repeated.

A gorilla and man wearing mask
Protected areas are a boon for nature, and can help prevent pandemics.
Jerome Starkey

A disaster for conservation

The findings are contained in a special issue of PARKS, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, co-edited with Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips.

Researchers found between January and May 2020, 45% of global tourism destinations totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. This caused the loss of 174 million direct tourism jobs around the world, and cost the sector US$4.7 trillion.

Over-dependence on tourism to fund conservation is fraught with peril. For example in Namibia, initial estimates suggested communal wildlife conservancies could lose US$10 million in direct tourism revenues. This threatened funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees.

It also threatened the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members. This forced families to rely more heavily on natural resource extraction to survive.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Closed entrance to Grand Canyon national park
Around the world, the pandemic forced the closure of national parks – including the Grand Canyon, pictured here.
Lani Strange/AP

Emergency funds were raised to cover critical shortfalls. However in April 2020, rhinos were poached in a communal conservancy in Namibia – the first such event in two years. Researchers believe this may have been linked to the pandemic fallout.

More than 70% of African countries reported reduced monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade as a result of the pandemic. More than half reported impacts on the protection of endangered species, conservation education and outreach, regular field patrols and anti-poaching operations.

Rangers have also been hard hit. A global survey of nearly 1,000 rangers found more than one in four had their salaries reduced or delayed due to COVID-related budget cuts. A third of all rangers in Central and South America, Africa and Caribbean countries reported being laid off. Some 90% said vital work with local communities had reduced or ceased.

In more bad news, governments of at least 22 countries used the pandemic as a reason to weaken environmental protections for protected and conserved areas, or cut their budgets.

Many of the changes allowed large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, airports, pipelines, hydropower plants and housing) and extractive activities (such as coal, oil and gas development and industrial fishing). Brazil, India and, until recently, the United States have emerged as hotspots of COVID-era rollbacks.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Man holds up leopard skin
When poverty strikes, vulnerable people can turn to poaching and other illegal means to survive.
James Morgan/AP/WWF-Canon

Humans and animals pushed closer

SARS-COV-2 is very similar to other viruses in bats, and may have been passed to humans via another animal species. The pandemic shows the potentially devastating outcomes when animals and humans are forced into closer contact in shrinking habitats – for example, as a result of forest destruction.

As one paper found, during the last century an average of two new viruses spilled from animals to humans each year. These include Ebola and SARS.

Clearly, investment is needed to preserve the world’s protected and conserved areas, ensuring they act as a buffer against new pandemics. One study puts the required spending at US$67 billion each year – and notes only about one-third of this is currently being spent.

While it’s undoubtedly a large sum, the International Monetary Fund estimated late last year the pandemic would cause US$28 trillion in lost economic output in 2020.

Like many zoonotic epidemics, it appears COVID-19 was caused by the trade in wildlife and wild meat consumption. But diseases caused by uncontrolled land-use change – often for agriculture and livestock production – are just as dangerous.

The greatest risk, according to one group of researchers, is in forested tropical regions where land use is changing and a rich variety of mammal species are present.




Read more:
Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics


Rangers managing forest with fire.
Investment is needed in protected areas to ensure important conservation and land management continues.
Shutterstock

2021: a crucial year

As the special issue’s co-editors argue, if COVID-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the “suicidal consequences” of misguided development, then how will future calamities be avoided?

The cost of effectively maintaining protected and conserved natural areas is a small fraction of the cost of dealing with the pandemic and getting economies moving again. Imagine, for a moment, if the effort put into the development of vaccines were applied in the same measure to addressing the root causes of zoonotic pandemics.

In 2021, a series of international meetings will be held to decide how to stabilise our climate, save biodiversity, secure human health and revive the global economy. Through these events should run a golden thread: learn the lessons of COVID-19 by protecting nature and restoring damaged ecosystems.The Conversation

Marc Hockings, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID has reached Antarctica. Scientists are extremely concerned for its wildlife



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Michelle Power, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Federation University Australia

In December, Antarctica lost its status as the last continent free of COVID-19 when 36 people at the Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins research station tested positive. The station’s isolation from other bases and fewer researchers in the continent means the outbreak is now likely contained.

However, we know all too well how unpredictable — and pervasive — the virus can be. And while there’s currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the COVID-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.

We’re among a global team of 15 scientists who assessed the risks of the COVID-19 virus to Antarctic wildlife, and the pathways the virus could take into the fragile ecosystem. Antarctic wildlife haven’t yet been tested for the COVID-19 virus, and if it does make its way into these charismatic animals, we don’t know how it could affect them or the continent’s ecosystem stability.

A person looking at the red research station in the distance, by the ocean
Bernardo O Higgins Station in Antarctica, where 36 people tested positive to COVID-19.
Stone Monki/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jumping from animals to humans, and back to animals

The COVID-19 virus is one of seven coronaviruses found in people — all have animal origins (dubbed “zoonoses”), and vary in their ability to infect different hosts. The COVID-19 virus is thought to have originated in an animal and spread to people through an unknown intermediate host, while the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 likely came from raccoon dogs or civets.

Given the general ubiquity of coronaviruses and the rapid saturation of the global environment with the COVID-19 virus, it’s paramount we explore the risk for it to spread from people to other animals, known as “reverse zoonoses”.

The World Organisation for Animal Health is monitoring cases of the COVID-19 virus in animals. To date, only a few species around the globe have been found to be susceptible, including mink, felines (such as lions, tigers and cats), dogs and a ferret.

Whether the animal gets sick and recovers depends on the species. For example, researchers found infected adolescent cats got sick but could fight off the virus, while dogs were much more resistant.




Read more:
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Researchers and tourists

While mink, dogs or cats are not in Antarctica, more than 100 million flying seabirds, 45% of the world’s penguin species, 50% of the world’s seal populations and 17% of the world’s whale and dolphin species inhabit the continent.

A tourist sits near a penguin and takes a photo
Tourists visit penguin roosts in large numbers.
Shutterstock

In a 2020 study, researchers ran computer simulations and found cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — have a high susceptibility of infection from the virus, based on the makeup of their genetic receptors to the virus. Seals and birds had a lower risk of infection.

We concluded that direct contact with people poses the greatest risk for spreading the virus to wildlife, with researchers more likely vectors than tourists. Researchers have closer contact with wildlife: many Antarctic species are found near research stations, and wildlife studies often require direct handling and close proximity to animals.

Tourists, however, are still a concerning vector, as they visit penguin roosts and seal haul-out sites (where seals rest or breed) in large numbers. For instance, a staggering 73,991 tourists travelled to the continent between October 2019 and April 2020, when COVID-19 was just emerging.

Each visitor to Antarctica carries millions of microbial passengers, such as bacteria, and many of these microbes are left behind when the visitors leave. Most are likely benign and probably die off. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it takes only one powerful organism to jump hosts to cause a pandemic.

How to protect Antarctic wildlife

There are guidelines for visitors to reduce the risk of introducing infectious microbes. This includes cleaning clothes and equipment before heading to Antarctica and between animal colonies, and keeping at least five metres away from animals.

These rules are no longer enough in COVID times, and more measures must be taken.

The first and most crucial step to protect Antarctic wildlife is controlling human-to-human spread, particularly at research stations. Everyone heading to Antarctica should be tested and quarantined prior to travelling, with regular ongoing tests throughout the season. The fewer people with COVID-19 in Antarctica, the less opportunity the virus has to jump to animal hosts.

A killer whale poking its head out the water near sea ice
Cetaceans, such as orcas, are more susceptible to COVID infections than sea birds and seals.
Shutterstock

Second, close contact with wildlife should be restricted to essential scientific purposes only. All handling procedures should be re-evaluated, given how much we just don’t know about the virus.

We recommend all scientific personnel wear appropriate protective equipment (including masks) at all times when handling, or in close proximity to, Antarctic wildlife. Similar recommendations are in place for those working with wildlife in Australia.

Migrating animals that may have picked up COVID-19 from other parts of the world could also spread it to other wildlife in Antarctica. Skuas, for example, migrate to Antarctica from the South American coast, where there are enormous cases of COVID-19.




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Coronavirus: wastewater can tell us where the next outbreak will be


And then there’s the issue of sewage. Around 37% of bases release untreated sewage directly into the Antarctic ecosystem. Meanwhile, an estimated 57,000 to 114,000 litres of sewage per day is dumped from ships into the Southern Ocean.

Fragments of the COVID virus can be found in wastewater, but these fragments aren’t infectious, so sewage isn’t considered a transmission risk. However, there are other potentially dangerous microbes found in sewage that could be spread to animals, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A huge cruise ship in icy Antarctic waters
Ships dump 114,000 litres of sewage into the water, each day.
Shutterstock

We can curb the general risk of microbes from sewage if the Antarctic Treaty formally recognises microbes as invasive species and a threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. This would support better biosecurity practices and environmental control of waste.

Taking precautions

In these early stages of the pandemic, scientists are scrambling to understand complexity of COVID-19 and the virus’s characteristics. Meanwhile, the virus continues to evolve.

Until the true risk of cross-species transmission is known, precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of spread to all wildlife. We don’t want to see the human footprint becoming an epidemic among Antarctic wildlife, a scenario that can be mitigated by better processes and behaviours.




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Humans threaten the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. A marine protected area is long overdue


The Conversation


Michelle Power, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Lecturer, Federation University Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bzzz, slap! How to treat insect bites (home remedies included)



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Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

It’s the holidays and we’re spending more time outdoors. This means we’re exposed to the more annoying and painful aspects of summer — insect bites and stings.

There are plenty of products at the local pharmacy to treat these. Some treat the initial bite or sting, others the itchy aftermath.

What about natural remedies? Few studies have actually examined them. But if they work for you, and don’t irritate already inflamed skin, there’s likely no harm in continuing.




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Buzz, buzz, slap! Why flies can be so annoying


Why do insects bite and sting?

When insects bite and sting, they are either defending themselves or need something from us (like blood).

Whatever the motivation, it can leave us with a painful or itchy reaction, sometimes a severe allergic reaction, or even a debilitating disease.

While insects sometimes get a bad rap, there are relatively few that actually pose a serious threat to our health.

Flies, mosquitoes

Many types of flies, especially mosquitoes, bite. In most instances, they need blood for nutrition or the development of eggs. The method of “biting” can vary between the different types of flies. While mosquitoes inject a needle-like tube to suck our blood, others chew or rasp away at our skin.

While researchers have studied what happens when mosquitoes bite, there is still much to learn about how to treat the bites.

So, avoiding mosquito bites is especially important given some can transmit pathogens that make us sick.




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We still have lots to learn about treating mosquito bites.
A/Prof Cameron Webb

Fleas, lice, mites and ticks

There are lots of other insects (such as bed bugs, fleas, lice) and other arthropods (such as mites, ticks) that bite.

But it is difficult to determine which insect has bitten us based on the bite reaction alone. This is generally because different people react in different ways to the saliva injected as they start to suck our blood.

Bees, wasps, ants

Then there are stinging insects, such as bees, wasps and ants. These are typically just defending themselves.

But as well as being painful, the venom they inject when they sting can cause potentially severe allergic reactions.

How do you best treat a sting or bite?

If you suffer potentially severe allergic reactions from bites or stings, immediately seek appropriate medical treatment. But for many other people, it is the initial painful reaction and itchy aftermath that require attention.

Despite how common insect bites can be, there is surprisingly little formal research into how best to treat them. Most of the research is focused on insect-borne diseases.

Even for recommended treatments, there is little evidence they actually work. Instead, recommendations are based on expert opinion and clinical experience.

For instance, heath authorities promote some general advice on treating insect bites and stings. This includes using pain relief medication (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen). They also advise applying a cold compress (such as a cold pack, ice, or damp cloth soaked in cold water) to the site of the sting or bite to help reduce the inflammation and to ease some of the discomfort.

Refreshing red drink in glass with ice cubes and lemon
Ice cubes aren’t just for summer cocktails. They can help reduce inflammation from insect bites and stings.
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There is also specific advice for dealing with stings and removing ticks.

However, if you do nothing, the discomfort of the bite or sting will eventually fade after a few days. The body quickly recovers, just as it would for a cut or bruise.

If you’re still in pain for more than a couple of days, or there are signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical assistance.

What about the itch?

Once the initial pain has started to fade, the itch starts. That’s because the body is reacting to the saliva injected when insects bite.

For many people, this is incredibly frustrating and it is all too easy to get trapped in a cycle of itching and scratching.

In some cases, medications, such as corticosteroid creams or antihistamines could help alleviate the itchiness. You can buy these from the pharmacy.

Then there’s calamine lotion, a mainstay in many Australian homes used to treat the itchiness caused by insect bites. But there are few studies that demonstrate it works.




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Do any home remedies work?

If you’re looking for a home remedy to treat insect bites and the itchiness that comes with it, a quick internet search will keep you busy for days.

Potential home remedies include: tea bags, banana, tea tree or other essential oils, a paste of baking soda, vinegar, aloe vera, oatmeal, honey and even onion.

There is little evidence any of these work. But not many have actually been scientifically evaluated.

Tea tree oil is one of the few. While it is said to help treat skin reactions, the oil itself can cause skin reactions if not used as directed.

However, if a home remedy works for you, and it’s not causing additional irritation, there’s no harm in using it if you’re getting some relief.

With so much uncertainty about how to treat insect bites and stings, perhaps it is best if we avoid exposure in the first place. There are plenty of insect repellents available at your local pharmacy or supermarket that do this safely and effectively.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Associate Professor and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Would you do this at home? Why we are more likely to do stupid things on holidays



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Denis Tolkach, James Cook University and Stephen Pratt, The University of the South Pacific

As the COVID pandemic took hold in March, Ohio’s Brady Sluder went to Miami for spring break, despite urgent calls for people to stay home and socially distance.

Interviewed by CBS News, Sluder’s arrogant justfication for his trip went viral.

If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying […] about two months we’ve had this trip planned.

A week later — now an international “celebrity” for all the wrong reasons — he was forced to issue a grovelling apology.

If you think Sluder’s partying was stupid, we share your feelings.

With the festive season upon us, as the pandemic continues, we can only hope covidiots listen to the rules. As many of us also head off on summer breaks, now is also a good time to reflect on stupidity in tourism.

We may be tempted to think a stupid person has certain demographic or psychological characteristics. However, anyone can behave stupidly, especially in unfamiliar environments — like holidays — where it is difficult to judge the right course of action.

The laws of human stupidity

In our recently published journal article on stupidity in tourism, we see stupidity as an action without insight or sound judgement. This results in losses or harm to the perpetrator and others. In a holiday context, it can negatively affect tourists themselves, as well as other people, animals, organisations, or destinations.

Young people partying on a beach in Florida.
When bars were shut in Florida Spring Break revellers headed to the beach.
Julio Cortez/AP/AAP

In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla published a definitive essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Although we prefer to focus on stupid behaviour rather than stupid people, we agree with his five laws:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

  2. The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget dealing with or associating with stupid people always and everywhere turns out to be a costly mistake.

  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Why is stupid behaviour so dangerous? Because it is irrational and so the outcome is unpredictable.

Who could have thought so many people would die when taking a selfie that you can now take out insurance on the act? Or that aeroplane passengers would throw coins into engines for good luck?

What causes stupidity?

How can we better understand our own stupid behaviour, or recognise it in others? Stupidity is generally caused by an excess of one or more of the following factors:

  • the person believing they know everything
  • the person believing they can do anything
  • the person being extremely self-centred
  • the person believing nothing will harm them
  • the person’s emotions (for example, fear or anger)
  • the person’s state (for example, exhausted or drunk).

Why stupid behaviour is more likely on holidays

Tourists can be affected by all of these factors.

Leisure tourism, by its nature, is a very self-centred and pleasure-seeking activity. People often travel to relax and enjoy themselves.




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In pursuit of trying something new or escaping their daily routine, people may go to places with very different cultures or practices than their own, or try things they wouldn’t normally do — such as adventure activities. As a result, individuals can act differently while on holidays.

There also seem to be fewer social constraints. Tourists may not follow rules and social norms while travelling, because relatives, friends, colleagues, bosses are less likely to find out. Of course, tourists may not be aware of the commonly-accepted rules of where they travelling, as well.

All of the above increases the likelihood of stupidity. And one certainly doesn’t need to travel overseas to be stupid. A case in point is a tourist who snuck into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which was closed-off in August due to COVID concerns in the local indigenous community. The woman injured her ankle and had to be rescued.

The importance of thinking first

So, what to do about stupid tourist behaviour?

Strict regulation, physical barriers, warning signs and other punitive measures alone may not work. This is seen in the case of a man who climbed over a zoo fence in 2017 to avoid the entry fee. He ended up being mauled to death by a tiger.

Tourists walking beyond a 'do not go beyond this point' sign.
Physical barriers alone do not prevent stupid behaviour.
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Education of tourists on how to behave during travels has some effect. But more importantly, tourists need to be self-aware. They need to consider what is likely to happen as a result of their behaviour, how likely is it that things will go wrong, and whether they would do this at home.

While stupidity is impossible to eliminate, it can be less frequent and do much less damage, if we take time to reflect on our behaviour and attitudes.

So, have fun during the holiday … but don’t be stupid!




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Australians don’t have a ‘right’ to travel. Does COVID mean our days of carefree overseas trips are over?


The Conversation


Denis Tolkach, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University and Stephen Pratt, Professor, The University of the South Pacific

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Global emissions are down by an unprecedented 7% — but don’t start celebrating just yet



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Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, University of East Anglia; Philippe Ciais, Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA); Pierre Friedlingstein, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

Global emissions are expected to decline by about 7% in 2020 (or 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) compared to 2019 — an unprecedented drop due to the slowdown in economic activity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

To put this into perspective, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 saw a 1.5% drop in global emissions compared to 2007. This year’s emissions decline is more than four times larger.

These are the findings we show in the 15th global carbon budget, an annual report card of the Global Carbon Project on the sources and removals of carbon dioxide, the primary driver of human caused climate change.

It may sound like welcome news, but we can’t celebrate yet. A rapid bounce back of emissions to pre-COVID levels is likely, possibly by as soon as next year. A recent study found emissions in China snapped back to above last year’s levels during late spring when economic activity began to return to normal.

These findings come ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday, where global leaders will demonstrate their commitments to climate action five years since the Paris Agreement. This huge drop in emissions should be taken as a unique opportunity to divert the historical course of emissions growth for good.

Emissions in the pandemic year

The total global fossil carbon dioxide emissions for 2020 are estimated to be 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Estimated emissions at the beginning of December are lower than their levels in December last year, at least in the transport sectors. However, emissions have been edging back up since the peak global daily decline of 17% in early April.




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The decline in emissions in 2020 was particularly steep in the United States (12%) and European Union (11%), where emissions were already declining before the pandemic, mainly from reductions in coal use.

Emissions from India dropped by 9%, while emissions from China, which have returned to close or above 2019 values, saw an estimated drop of only about 1.7%.

Australian greenhouse gas emissions during the peak of the pandemic lockdown (the quarter of March to June 2020) were lower by 6.2% compared to the previous quarter. The largest declines were seen in transport and fugitive emissions (emissions released during the extraction, processing and transport of fossil fuels).

A chart showing the emissions decline for China, US, India, EU, and the rest of the world.
The 2020 emission decline was particularly steep in the United States and European Union. While China’s emissions also dropped steeply, they snapped back later in the year.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

Globally, the transport sector also contributed the most to the 2020 emissions drop, particularly “surface transport” (cars, vans and trucks). At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns, the usual levels of transport emissions were halved in many countries, such as in the US and Europe.

While aviation activity collapsed by 75%, its contribution to the total decline was relatively small given the sector only accounts for about 2.8% of the total emissions on an average year. The number of global flights was still down 45% as of the first week of December.

A chart showing the emissions decline for different sectors.
The industry sector, specifically metals production, chemicals and manufacturing, was the second largest contributor in emissions declines.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

Global emissions were already slowing down pre-COVID

Overall, global emissions have increased by 61% since 1990. But the pace of this growth has varied.

In the early 1990s, the growth in emissions slowed down due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but then increased very quickly during the 2000s, by 3% per year on average. This was, in part, due to the rise of China as an economic power.




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Over the last decade, however, the pace of emissions began to slow again, with an increase just below 1% per year. And emissions in 2019 didn’t grow much, if at all, when compared to 2018.

Behind the global slowing trend, there are 24 countries that had carbon dioxide fossil emissions declining for at least one decade while their economy continued to grow. They include many European countries such as the Denmark, the UK and Spain, and the USA, Mexico and Japan. For the rest of the world, emissions continued to grow until 2019.

This chart shows how global fossil carbon dioxide emissions have increased.
This chart shows how global fossil carbon dioxide emissions have increased since the 1990s. Note the drops in the early 1990s, in 2008, and the huge drop in 2020.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

An opportunity to boost ambition

The pandemic, along with other recent trends such as the shift towards clean energy, have placed us at a crossroad: the choices we make today can change the course of global emissions.

In addition to the slow down in global emissions in recent years, and this year’s drop, there are now dozens of countries that have pledged to reach net zero emissions by mid century or soon after.

How the emissions of different countries have changed over time.

Importantly, the first (China), second (USA), third (European Union), sixth (Japan) and ninth (South Korea) top emitters — together responsible for over 60% of the global fossil carbon dioxide emissions — have either legally binding pledges or serious ambitions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or soon after.




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Coal production, the largest fossil fuel source of carbon dioxide emissions, peaked in 2013. Its decline continues to this date; however, increasing natural gas and oil negate much of this decline in emissions.

How the emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement sectors changed over time.
How the emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement sectors changed over time.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

We are in the midst of extraordinary levels of economic investment in response to the pandemic. If economic investment is appropriately directed, it could enable the rapid expansion of technologies and services to put us on track towards net zero emissions.

Many countries have already committed to green recovery plans, such as South Korea and the EU, although investments continue to be dominated by the support of fossil-based infrastructure.

As global leaders prepare for tomorrow’s summit, they have an opportunity like never before. The choices we make now can have a disproportionate impact on the future trajectory of emissions, and keep temperature rise well and truly below 2℃.




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The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia; Philippe Ciais, Directeur de recherche au Laboratoire des science du climat et de l’environnement, Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace, Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA); Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Professor, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.