Environment Forum

Is Michelle Obama strumming along with Gibson Guitar?

It’s not often that a U.S. first lady’s gift makes news — years after the fact — but Michelle Obama’s 2009 present to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has sparked some comment among free trade boosters and guitar pickers. The gift in question: a Gibson Hummingbird guitar.

Gibson Guitar Corp. has been making some news of its own this week, which is why those in Washington with long memories recalled the gift to the music-loving French first lady. Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz was in town to raise awareness about a problem he has with a long-standing U.S. law aimed at curbing illegal trafficking in tropical hardwoods, among other materials. Federal agents raided two of his Tennessee factories and confiscated more than $1 million worth of rosewood, ebony and finished guitars. No charges have been filed but Gibson’s chief says he is being investigated for possible violation of the Lacey Act of 1900. Read more about that here.

At a lunch with reporters and others, Juszkiewicz said he favors using sustainably harvested wood for Gibson instruments, and because guitars need such a small amount of tropical hardwoods for their fingerboards — the wooden top of the guitar’s neck — that’s well within the realm of possibility. But he says a 2008 amendment to the act is more protectionist than environmentally friendly. And he says the seizure of the materials his company needs to make the instruments makes it harder for Gibson’s hundreds of U.S. employees. The Justice Department has refused to comment on the ongoing litigation.

The 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act passed during the Bush administration with bipartisan support, but still hackles were raised soon after the latest raids at the end of August.

About Michelle Obama’s gift to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy: the Hummingbird model features a rosewood fingerboard “with rolled edges for an extremely comfortable in-the-hand feel,” according to the company’s website. And as the site says, “It all starts with the wood.”

Mail a letter, save a tiger?

If the world gets saved one small act at a time, the U.S. Postal Service and the Wildlife Conservation Society may be onto something. They’ve just unveiled a new stamp that aims to make protection of endangered species as easy as mailing a letter.

The new Save Vanishing Species stamp costs 55 cents, 11 cents more than a regular first class stamp. It features the face of a tiger cub, and net proceeds contribute to projects supported by the Multinational Species Conservation Funds, which are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These projects work to conserve tigers, rhinos, great apes, marine turtles and African and Asian elephants.

There is no impact on U.S. taxpayers, and it is the fourth so-called semipostal issue by the Postal Service.  The stamps should be available in September at post offices and at Wildlife Conservation Society parks.

Enviro-word of the moment: Anthropocene

A word has entered the language — at least, the language of environmental concern — that may be ready for prime-time. That word is Anthropocene. It’s the epoch we’re apparently living in, roughly translated as the Age of Man. The theory behind the name is that human beings have made such an impact on Earth’s geology that we should have an era named for us that differentiates this time from the tired old Holocene period.

Holocene means “entirely new,” but it’s been some 10,000 years since it started. Scientists and others meeting in London figure it may be time to move on.

In a note about their meeting at The Geological Society, they ask: “Has humanity’s impact on the Earth been so significant that it defines a new geological epoch? In the blink of a geological eye, through our need for energy, food, water, minerals, for space in which to live and play, we have wrought changes to Earth’s environment and life that are as significant as any known in the geological record.”

Excess baggage in Bangkok: tortoises, lizards, spiders and snakes

ploughshare-seized-thailandWhat happens when the airport scanner  shows shapes that look like live spiders, snakes, lizards and tortoises inside three big suitcases? Last week in Bangkok, it meant the detention of an Indonesian man and the seizure of 259 live creatures that were slotted into compartments in the black traveling bags.

The suspected smuggler reportedly went on a wildlife shopping spree in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market, a hub for rare animal trade, according to conservation group TRAFFIC, which monitors illegal trafficking of species.

The suspect had stuffed 88 Indian Star Tortoises, 33 Elongated Tortoises, seven Radiated Tortoises, six Mata Mata Turtles, four Southeast Asian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle, three Aldabra Tortoises, one Pig-nosed Turtle and even one Ploughshare Tortoise—the world’s rarest tortoise, TRAFFIC said in a statement.

Backyard tigers

ENVIRONMENT-TIGERS/Would you keep a tiger as a pet?

A puppy-sized tiger cub can be bought in the United States for as little as $200, and there are probably about 5,000 such backyard tigers across the country, about the same number of privately owned tigers in China, according to World Wildlife Fund.

That is far greater than the approximately 3,200 wild tigers worldwide, compared to the estimated 100,000 wild tigers a century ago. The growing number of these animals in captivity poses a threat to the species in the wild, WWF reports.

“People don’t realize when they buy a $200 tiger cub that it grows into a full-grown tiger, which means a huge enclosure and costs about $5000 a year just to feed,” says Leigh Henry, an animal conservation expert at WWF. “So you end up with a lot of unwanted animals that are very poorly regulated.”

Will Zoo crunch bite U.S. science education?

President Barack Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” and educate a new generation of scientists able to transform America into an environmentally sustainable “green economy.”

But with endowments and private donations falling and public funds under pressure, the recession is making it harder for zoos and aquariums to keep inspiring kids in science.

My colleague Claudia Parsons has done a report on this issue which you can read here.

More bad news on the fish front

There’s more bad news on the fish front.

According to a new report the advocacy group California Trout, 65 percent of the state’s native salmon, steelhead and trout species may be extinct within the next century. To see the whole report click here. It was written by Dr. Peter Moyle of the University of California, Davis.

The report’s findings indicate that the state’s native salmonids are in unprecedented decline and are teetering towards the brink of extinction – an alarm bell that signals the deteriorating health of the state’s rivers and streams that provide drinking water to millions of Californians. It’s also a sign that fish are likely to be struggling nationwide in this era of global warming, water diversions, and rapid development into previously uninhabited areas,” the organization said.

Salt and freshwater fisheries almost everywhere are in decline. Overharvesting, poor management of commercial fisheries, habitat destruction, climate change, dams – you name it, the inhabitants of our aquatic ecosystems are in trouble.

Poor polar bears, but what about the people?

             polarartist.jpg                                Native Alaskan artists visited New York this week with a message not so much about art, nor a species that’s struggling as rising temperatures melt its habitat from under its paws.

“With so much attention on polar bears, where’s the concern about the people? What about fellow Americans?” said Alvin Amason, an artist and member of the coastal Alutiiq people, who lives in Anchorage.

Amason and other Alaskan artists hit New York to celebrate the opening of the Alaska House , a nonprofit cultural center that aims to teach people about the challenges and opportunities the state faces.

Indian canal changes course for rare bird

    In a country of more than one billion people, protecting critically endangered species isn’t always a top priority when it comes to making a living and growing enough food.

    In the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, though, a court has halted construction of a major water canal to save one of the world’s rarest birds.

    Only about 50 Jerdon’s coursers (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) are believed to be left in the wild and are found in scrub-jungle habitat in the Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary, which the Andhra Pradesh government created to protect the remaining birds.jerdons-courser-2.jpg

Long elephant memories may help with climate change-study

It’s true — elephants never forget. And that may mean the difference between life and death for herds coping with climate change.

elephant.jpg

That is one of the findings of a recent study by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London, which suggests that old females may have long memories of distant sources of food and water.

This wisdom or memory can give a herd or family group an edge if confronted with drought or other kind of scarcity.

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