Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

August 20, 2014

100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds

National Geographic

100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds

Central Africa has lost 64 percent of its elephants in a decade.

By Brad Scriber | National Geographic | Published August 18, 2014

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Ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years, according to a new study that provides the first reliable continent-wide estimates of illegal kills. During 2011 alone, roughly one of every twelve African elephants was killed by a poacher.

In central Africa, the hardest-hit part of the continent, the regional elephant population has declined by 64 percent in a decade, a finding of the new study that supports another recent estimate developed from field surveys.

The demand for ivory, most notably in China and elsewhere in Asia, and the confusion caused by a one-time sale of confiscated ivory have helped keep black market prices high in Africa.

The new study, published in the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, included local and regional population estimates and concluded that three-quarters of local elephant populations are declining.

The study authors conducted the first large-scale analysis of poaching losses using data on illegally killed elephants maintained by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Wittemyer and his team hope the new information will move the discussion beyond anecdotes and wild guesses. “I think it’s the only quantitatively based estimate out there,” he said.

Researchers and conservationists hope the analysis will prompt policy makers to take further action to stem the years-long onslaught of poaching, which now threatens the survival of elephants in Africa.

Previous estimates of population declines produced by study co-authors Julian Blanc and Kenneth Burnham, both of CITES, used similar data to examine poaching trends, but those estimates limited the analysis to just 66 sites that were being monitored.

“Nobody’s put out any scientifically-based numbers for the continent,” Wittemyer said. “People have said numbers, but they’re based off guesses. This is the first hard estimate we have at that level.”

Photo of a boxes of ivory.

Confiscated elephant tusks and boxes of figurines carved from ivory sit in the main hall of the National Wildlife Property Repository, in Colorado.
Photograph by Kate Brooks, Redux

Targeting the Policymakers

Although conservationists have agreed for years that there’s an ongoing poaching crisis with huge implications for the future of African elephants, the authors point out that it’s been “notoriously difficult to quantify” the raw number of animals killed by poachers.

In recent years poachers have perpetrated mass killings, such as the 2012 slaughter of hundreds of elephants with automatic weapons in Bouba Ndjidah National Park in Cameroon.

Poachers have also used poisoned arrows to kill iconic individual elephants. In February, a poison-tipped arrow killed Torn Ear, a well-known Kenyan elephant. (See “Mourning the Loss of a Great Elephant: Torn Ear.”) Three months later, Satao, another of Kenya’s most beloved elephants, was also killed by a poisoned arrow by poachers, who cut off his face to remove his massive tusks. (See “Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory—’Monumental’ Loss.”)

These criminal acts have prompted some official actions, including a U.S. ban on the commercial trade in ivory, but the killings continue at an unsustainable level, with new births unable to keep pace with the killings.

“At the higher policy levels there have been a lot of questions and debate about what the numbers actually are, what they indicate, and how we should be interpreting them,” Wittemyer noted.

“There hasn’t been a robust scientific piece to rely on definitively as the source. In my mind what we’ve locked down here and provided the community—and in my mind we’re really targeting the policymakers—are definitive numbers on which they can act and on which they can discuss and debate approaches they can take.”

Hard-Won Numbers

In 2002 CITES created a program called MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) to attempt to quantify the number of elephants killed by poachers. Rangers at MIKE sites note all dead elephants they find and determine what proportion of the dead animals was illegally killed.

But the growing number of locations where monitoring is done—the program now monitors between 30 and 40 percent of the population—is still only a portion of the range of the species, and there are big differences in how closely these sites are monitored.

Another problem is that no one knows how many African elephants there are. Elephants are present over many thousands of square miles, which makes it expensive and time-consuming to estimate their overall numbers.

A map of elephant range and poaching statistics.


The most recent comprehensive population estimate for the continent—a range of between 472,000 and 690,000 elephants—was published in 2007 by the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group. That figure was based on the best available data at the time, which for some locations were already nearly a decade old.

The African Elephant Specialist Group continually collects updated population survey data for portions of the continent and shares them with researchers via its public database. But it has yet to produce a new comprehensive population estimate for the continent. Meanwhile, a continent-wide aerial survey, the Great Elephant Census, is under way, with results expected in mid-2015.

Modeling the Numbers

For their study, Wittemyer and his co-authors used the most recent population numbers available from the African Elephant Specialist Group database for well-monitored locations. The researchers calculated that in the absence of poaching, about 3 percent of an elephant population would be expected to die each year.

Applying the percentage of deaths from poaching in 2010 through 2012, derived from MIKE data at the most closely monitored sites, they were able to calculate the percentage, and the numbers, of elephants poached regionally and continent-wide.

Kenneth Burnham, the statistician with the MIKE program who devised this method, used a similar approach to project the number National Geographic magazine used in its October 2012 cover story, “Ivory Worship.” The magazine reported that “it is ‘highly likely’ that poachers killed at least 25,000 African elephants in 2011. The true figure may even be double that.”

The new study puts the 2011 number at 40,000 elephants slaughtered at the hands of poachers.

Trevor Jones, of the Southern Tanzania Elephant Project, who didn’t participate in the study, said, “I think this paper represents an honest attempt to interpret the MIKE data, and no doubt its results and conclusions are broadly correct in describing an overall trend of large declines in elephant populations across Africa.”

He points to continued misgivings about the MIKE numbers because they are based on a smaller number of carcasses than aerial surveys. “Aerial censuses of the Selous Game Reserve,” Jones said, “estimate a decline from 2009 to 2013 of 39,000 to 13,000—yet the MIKE data estimate 4,931 elephants poached from 2010 to 2012.”

Jones, like many others, is eager for the results of the forthcoming Great Elephant Census. “The best way to update data on population sizes in most areas is by aerial sampling, and I strongly suspect that the census is going to confirm the unprecedented scale of the current crisis for elephants across the continent. Those results cannot come a day too soon.”

But aerial surveying has drawbacks too. Forest elephants can’t be seen from the air, and assessing their numbers takes labor-intensive foot surveys of dung piles. A recent forest elephant survey took “80 foot-surveys; covering 13,000 km; 91,600 person-days of fieldwork,” according to the study abstract.

What We Lose When We Lose Elephants

The huge scale of the losses of African elephants could reduce genetic diversity to the point where healthy and robust populations become dangerously weakened.

But, as Wittemyer said, the problem is greater than genetic diversity. “You’re talking about the distribution of species and its ecological role.”

Elephants are vital to the web of life in Africa. As a keystone species, they help balance all the other species in their ecosystem, opening up forest land to create firebreaks and grasslands, digging to create water access for other animals, and leaving nutrients in their wake. Sometimes called the “megagardeners of the forest,” elephants are essential to the dispersal of seeds that maintain tree diversity.

Since three out of four local populations are declining, those losses have serious ecological implications. “That’s a problem we probably didn’t speak to strongly enough in this paper,” Wittemyer said.

Follow Brad Scriber on Twitter.


August 20, 2014

Former enemy Vietnam seeks U.S. help to counter China

USA Today

Former enemy Vietnam seeks U.S. help to counter China

Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY

7:40 a.m. EDT August 18, 2014

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(Photo: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY)

HO CHI MINH CITY — Army Gen. Martin Dempsey has served 40 years in the Army, fought in Iraq, traveled the world many times over.

None of that fully prepared him for his first visit to Vietnam — the first by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since Adm. Thomas Moorer visited in 1971. At that time, there were 300,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

“Flying in, it’s almost visually overwhelming,” Dempsey told USA TODAY, which joined him on the trip. “The architecture. The mopeds. The images of modernity clashing with the past. Women in the fields tending to the rice patties, walking down the street with the pole and two buckets.

“So you’ve got this juxtaposition with who they’ve been and who they are now.”

The war’s imprint, though faint, still can be traced. Part of Dempsey’s mission here was to acknowledge but not be shackled by the past as the once-bitter enemies seek new and deeper ties. Dempsey’s four-day visit to three cities offered glimpses of the past, present and future of this country of 93 million people crowded into a space about the size of New Mexico.


A U.S. Marine helicopter evacuates people from the roof of a U.S. Embassy building in Saigon in April 1975.(Photo: NEIL ULEVICH, AP)

A litany of past and present problems confronted Dempsey on the trip — from the toxic effects of the defoliant Agent Orange to the rise of China, whose muscular military response in the South China Sea has unnerved Vietnam and other countries in the region. The specter of the Vietnam War, and the 58,000 U.S. troops killed here, looms over all the issues, a reminder of the war the United States lost and the humiliating helicopter evacuation of diplomats and dependents from the roof of a U.S. Embassy building in May 1975. There are opportunities for increased trade for Vietnam, a country that has bounced back from war’s devastation.

Dempsey’s visit signals that the United States and Vietnam want to forge closer military ties, says Ernie Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Full diplomatic relations with the communist country were established in 1995, though a U.S. ban on selling weapons to Vietnam remains.

“The Vietnam War — or the U.S. War, as the Vietnamese call it — is fading fast in the rearview mirror,” Bower says. The United States and Vietnam find common interests in developing a stable, peaceful and prosperous region, he says.

Dempsey saw a land evolving in ways small and big. Small: Luxury retailer Hermes bustles while relics such as ’60s-era tanks and warplanes from the war rust and molder in the tropical heat and humidity. Big: Vietnam courts the United States, the superpower it booted out, as counterweight to China.

From north to south, signs of new nudging old abound. Just beneath a billboard touting bathroom fixtures from the U.S. plumbing giant Kohler is a woman in a field, wearing a conical hat and tending to emerald-green rice stalks.


The airport in this pretty port city in central Vietnam on the South China Sea has a very dirty but open secret. In the shadow of the modern terminal lies what would be known as a Superfund site in the USA. The U.S. Agency for International Development is cleaning up poisonous residue from 20 million gallons of herbicide sprayed to destroy crops that fed Viet Cong troops and the jungle foliage that concealed them. U.S. troops who set foot in Vietnam are eligible for treatment of ills linked to the toxin, Agent Orange.

This chemical scourge got its name from the stripe on its 55-gallon shipping drums and was a cocktail of herbicides containing dioxin. From 1962 to 1971, U.S. Air Force crews loaded the chemicals on planes at Danang Air Base. Cargo planes, much like crop dusters, sprayed Agent Orange on broad tracts of farmland and jungle.

In Danang, the defoliation mission, dubbed “Operation Ranch Hand,” contaminated 95,000 cubic yards of soil. Dempsey toured the cleanup site, a sawed-off concrete pyramid that holds and heats the dirt until dioxin breaks down. The cleanup is scheduled to be complete in 2016.

An outside observer, Wallace “Chip” Gregson would like to see the United States step up its efforts to exorcise another deadly reminder — unexploded munitions. U.S. bombs and shells leveled chunks of Vietnam. Many didn’t explode yet remain deadly.

Gregson, who fought in Vietnam as a young Marine, retired in 2005 as a three-star general. In 2009, he was named assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, a post he held until April 2011. He visits Vietnam regularly and is an expert on the region for the Center for the National Interest.

The United States and Japan have technology to destroy the unexploded ordnance at the site, avoiding the hazard of removing it and blowing it up elsewhere, Gregson says. “We can and should provide some major help to them,” he says. “Aiding Vietnam’s rapid development seems an appropriate riposte to China, as well as fulfilling a moral obligation from the war.”


It’s a concern Dempsey hears time and again during his visit: What matters most to Vietnam?

“China, China, China,” an academic tells him during a roundtable discussion with local think-tanks.

The most recent clash stems from China’s claim to offshore mineral rights and islands in the South China Sea. China has moved a deep-sea oil drilling rig into disputed waters and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near it in May.

Vietnamese reporters at a briefing quiz Dempsey about China and what help the U.S. military can provide. It’s not a fray the United States is eager to join, he says. A prosperous China that treats its neighbors well is the U.S. goal. “We’re not trying to make anybody choose between China and the United States,” Dempsey says.

Vietnam and China have fought as many as 18 wars over 2,000 years, the most recent in 1979. That makes China a preoccupation for Vietnam, but it’s not in Vietnam’s interest to provoke a major conflict.

Instead, Vietnamese leaders want a deeper relationship with the United States that includes being a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated among 12 nations that promises to boost investment and exports.

The Vietnamese want a clearer picture of what’s happening over the horizon in the South China Sea. Their military lacks the radar and other surveillance aircraft, which limits their ability to see what China and others are doing.

If the weapons ban is lifted, Dempsey says, the Pentagon could sell Vietnam’s navy better tools for surveillance of the sea.


Ho Chi Minh City — once known as Saigon and named after the revolutionary who led North Vietnam to victory in 1975 — pulses with energy. Torrents of scooters course through the streets, joined in increasing numbers by luxury vehicles.

Dempsey said he expected to be greeted warmly in Ho Chi Minh City but was a bit surprised to find a similar reception in Hanoi.

“I didn’t know if there would be lingering war legacy issues that would cause them to be suspicious of us,” Dempsey said. Instead, he found “that their population has in fact moved on. I’m sure not all of them, by the way.”

Economic growth, which had buzzed at high rates for years, has slowed since 2008. Corruption throttles foreign investment and chokes growth, according to studies by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center.

Vietnam joined the Trans-Pacific “negotiations in part because it needs to reform its economy to compete effectively and in part because it realizes that economic engagement is the foundation for a strong security relationship,” Bower says.

If Vietnam gets its act together, the country could be another South Korea, according to government reports, including one by the United Kingdom’s trade and development agency in July. Helping Vietnam could benefit the United States.

“It occurred to me oftentimes that adversaries in our past can become our closest friends,” says Dempsey, 62, who graduated West Point in 1974, too late to go to the war.

“That’s not to say it won’t happen without some effort. But I think there’s a possibility that Vietnam could be a very strong partner. Look at our history with the British or the Germans or the Japanese. It could be like a phoenix rising from the ashes. That’s what I hope happens here in this relationship.”

Follow @tvandenbrook on Twitter.



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August 15, 2014

N Korean Defectors Held On Laos Border

N Korean Defectors Held On Laos Border

A group of North Korean defectors held by China on the Laos border is released rather than repatriated, Sky News understands.

A South Korean security guard directs traffic at the South's CIQ in Paju

Sensitive negotiations are ongoing to secure defectors’ safety

A group of North Koreans defectors have been detained on the Chinese border with Laos in the latest crackdown by Chinese authorities who repatriate North Koreans found illegally in China.

But in a rare and encouraging sign of a Chinese policy shift, Sky News understands that the group have not been returned to North Korea.

The 10 men and women, in their 20s and 30s, and one four-year-old child, were detained along the border between Laos and China’s Yunnan Province.

Sky News has spoken to the organisation responsible for facilitating their escape from North Korea.

According to a source within the organisation, the group left North Korea’s Ryanggang Province at the end of July. They crossed the country’s northern border with China and then used well-established smuggling routes to travel south for thousands of miles.

They travelled first to Qingdao in China’s Shandong Province before moving south to Kunming in Yunnan Province. The group boarded a minibus bound for the border with Laos. Chinese military detained them as they were trying to cross by foot on August 12.

Map showing route of North Korean defectors released by China
The defectors travelled thousands of miles through China

News that this group’s bid to escape had failed came only when some of them managed to send text messages to relatives who had already escaped to South Korea.

Hundreds of North Koreans escape every year searching for asylum and a better life in South Korea. The only viable way out of their country is through China. The border between North and South Korea is closed and heavily fortified.

The escape takes defectors across the northern border with China and then down to southeast Asia. Their goal is the South Korean embassy in Vietnam, Laos or Thailand where they will be offered the chance to apply for asylum.

However, China has a close relationship with North Korea. Under an agreement between the two countries, any North Koreans found to be in China illegally are automatically repatriated. Because defection from North Korea is illegal, any escapees send back face detention in a labour camp and possible execution.

In February, a United Nations report into North Korea’s human rights record made specific mention of China’s repatriation policy towards defectors.

The UN body called for China to change the policy, saying that “persons who are forcibly repatriated from China are commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution and other forms of sexual violence”.

A North Korean flag flutters on top of a tower at the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea taken from Panmunjom, north of Seoul
Hundreds of people escape from North Korea every year

Recent strains in the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang have prompted hopes that China’s North Korea policy would be relaxed. However indications suggest that a growing number are being caught and forcibly returned to North Korea.

“We were surprised with the tighter security. We are now not sure what to do,” one activist told Sky News. “Before, the Chinese turned a blind eye to the defectors.”

But Sky News has been told that South Korean and Chinese diplomats have been communicating both about the broad repatriation issue and also about this specific case.

Because of ‘extremely sensitive’ security and diplomatic reasons, South Korean officials would not comment publicly on the current status or whereabouts of the 10 adults and one child.

But Sky News understands that tentative negotiations with the Chinese have been positive.

“We would do all we can do to help [the defectors] but details cannot be shared due to security issues,” a consular official at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing told Sky News

:: Watch a special programme on the plight of North Korean defectors here.


11 Apprehended Near Laos-China Border

Koo Jun Hoe  |  2014-08-13 11:32

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11 North Koreans, detained by Chinese border control units near the border of Laos, are in grave danger of repatriation, YTN reported on August 12th.

The group consists of mostly those in their 20s and 30s, including one 4 year-old child. They escaped from Bocheon, Yangkang Province to Tsiingtao, Shandong Province on August 7th, and made their way to Kunming,Yunnan Province on August 10th. At 11 A.M. the following day, they boarded a bus headed to Laos but were caught by Chinese border guards at a checkpoint on the morning of August 12th.

One member of the group managed to send a covert text message to a North Korean acquaintance already settled in the South, explaining that they had been apprehended.

The group is being held at an undisclosed location with no verifiable details as to whether they are in the custody of Chinese public security forces or local police. However, the group’s ultimate destination being South Korea, the probability of repatriation is high.

Experts have  urged diplomatic efforts be made on the defectors’ behalf as soon as possible, citing the severe punishments the groups faces if repatriated.

This incident closely follows the recent repatriation of 20 North Koreans  caught in the Shandong and Yunnan Provinces of China,  thought to have occurred  at the beginning on August. The end of July saw another group repatriation, that time a  group of 11 people, caught in Yanji and the nearby border town of Tumen.

August 15, 2014

VN, Laos armies plan co-operation


VN, Laos armies plan co-operation

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Laos, army

Senior Lieutenant General Ngo Xuan Lich, head of the General Department of Politics under the Viet Nam People’s Army, held talks with Acting Director of the Lao People’s Army’s General Department of Politics Major General Vilay Lakhamphong in the central city of Da Nang yesterday.

He said that the two sides should work closely together to defeat any hostile schemes that aimed to undermine the friendship and solidarity between Viet Nam and Laos.

Lich also expressed hope that the Lao side would create favourable conditions for Viet Nam to search for and repatriate remains of Vietnamese volunteer soldiers who fell in Laos during wartime.

For his part, Vilay Lakhamphong expressed delight at the effective and comprehensive co-operation between the two sides, especially in Party and political work.

Vietnam offers assistance to Laos AIPA hosting

Vietnam is ready to share its experience in organising the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) to help Laos host the upcoming meeting successfully.

Vice Chairman of the National Assembly Committee for External Relations Nguyen Manh Tien made the commitment at a working session with a Lao National Assembly delegation in Vientiane on August 12.

Tien shared Vietnam’s experience in defining the theme of the meeting, proposing issues to be debated, and perfecting legislation to support the ASEAN Community in its formation process and governments in realising signed agreements.

Vice Chairman of the Laos National Assembly Saysomphon Phomvihan appreciated Vietnam’s valuable experience which he said will help Lao make AIPA 35 in September a great success.

The same day, the Laos National Assembly Chairwoman Pany Zathotou received the Vietnamese delegation.


August 9, 2014

Fighting Ebola for Us All


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