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WOOD PILE
Extinction stalks Myanmar's forests
by Staff Writers
Bago, Myanmar (AFP) May 07, 2014


Small Australian marsupials in sudden decline
Sydney (AFP) May 07, 2014 - Small, furry marsupials such as the bandicoot, quoll and tree possums are in dramatic decline in Australia's north and feral cats could be the cause, according to analysis reported Wednesday.

Chris Johnson, a wildlife conservation professor from the University of Tasmania, said small mammal species were at risk of extinction across the continent, but the changes in the north were marked.

"There's a pretty clear picture and it shows that lots of species have declined dramatically," Johnson told AFP.

"Where we can infer the timing of decline, it's been fairly recent and there are now large areas where small mammals are either very rare or don't exist but the habitat looks like it should support small mammals."

Johnson said while scientists discussed the changes as a "new wave of decline" it was not clear how sudden it was except that it became very noticeable in the early 1990s, particularly in places such as Kakadu National Park, a conservation area in the Northern Territory.

About 20 small native mammals have disappeared from Kakadu in recent decades including rat-like bandicoots, northern quolls, tree possums, and the weasel-like phascogale, he said, adding that similar declines had occurred elsewhere.

New analysis from a database of current mammal populations reported to a meeting of experts in Canberra Wednesday has allowed researchers to compare the current wave of extinction across different species, with those in the past, Johnson said, adding it revealed some common factors.

"First, the extinctions are occurring mainly in ground-dwelling animals of small body-size which live in open, dry habitat. This points the finger of suspicion strongly at an introduced predator -- the cat," he said.

"We have seen similar extinction patterns driven by predators like foxes in southern Australia -- so the big question was: 'Is history repeating itself, or is it something new?'"

He said the declines were in species eaten by cats, an animal believed to have been introduced with European settlement in the late 1700s.

"Where there are no cats there have been no declines," he said.

He said because cats had been around for so long and the declines were more recent, the question was what had changed to make them such a damaging predator.

Johnson said the use of fire by graziers seemed to have played a role as well, given there had been no significant land clearing or evidence of disease in northern Australia.

"It is probably no one thing, but the data points to a combination of several effects -- all of which tend to favour the hunting style adopted by cats which places small ground-dwelling animals at greater risk," he said.

Ashen earth strewn with the limbs of once-mighty trees is all that is left of the fearsome forest in central Myanmar that Wa Tote remembers from her youth.

"We would only dare enter in a big group. The forest was deep and had many wild animals. Now we cannot even find a tree's shadow to shelter under when we are tired," the 72-year-old told AFP.

At one point tigers were so common in the area that their bones were traded cheaply. Now they have vanished into memory.

Large swathes of the undulating landscape of the Bago mountains have been stripped bare by logging firms over recent years and the last remnants of wood are being burnt.

Locals say there are plans to replant the area with valuable teak trees -- though even if they do, these will take up to 80 years to reach maturity.

Logging in Myanmar exploded under the former junta, as the generals tossed aside sustainable forestry practices in their thirst to cash in on vast natural resources.

Experts say an insatiable world appetite for precious hardwoods is threatening rare species and helping to drive deforestation in one of the last major areas of tropical forest in Asia.

The country lost almost 20 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Widespread degradation of the most densely wooded areas means that so-called "closed forest" more than halved in size, from 30.9 million to 13.4 million hectares.

Experts say corruption and poor protection have enabled rampant illegal logging that lines the pockets of crony businessmen, soldiers and rebels groups alike.

A quasi-civilian government that replaced outright military rule in 2011 has sought to stem the flood of timber from the country with a ban on the export of raw logs which took effect on April 1.

"Our ban will be very effective. There will be cutting, distribution and finishing of timber products locally, so that we can also increase employment opportunities," said the director general of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, Tin Tun.

Wildlife group WWF said the biggest driver of forest loss has been large-scale conversion for agriculture, often after woodland is degraded by logging or the collection of wood for fuel.

It welcomed the export ban and said the government has also slashed quotas for teak and other hardwoods by 60 percent and 50 percent respectively for the coming fiscal year compared to 2012/13.

"But given the high volume of illegal logging and exports in Myanmar, it will take a long time before we see how effective the ban will be," said WWF's Myanmar conservation programme manager Michelle Owen.

- Appetite for destruction -

In mountainous northern Myanmar close to the Chinese border, logging roads score the landscape as firms drive ever deeper into pristine forests.

"Stopping logging has to happen now," said Frank Momberg of conservation group Flora and Fauna International, which is struggling to protect the newly discovered and critically endangered Myanmar snub nosed monkey.

There are thought to be barely 300 of the flat-faced primates left in the dense forests of Kachin state at the eastern tip of the Himalayas.

Large scale mechanical felling is stripping even steep hillsides, with the loss of tree cover causing landslides and further environmental destruction, conservationists warn.

Chinese workers have flooded into the area, fuelling demand for the monkeys to be hunted for food and traditional medicine, Momberg said.

Other species also inhabit the threatened forests, including the red panda, Blyth's Tragopan pheasant and the Takin, known as a goat antelope.

"A complete ecosystem is being destroyed by this radical logging," Momberg said.

He said the loggers are supplying rare woods for a furniture industry in Tengchong, in China's Yunnan province, using maple trees to make delicate carved tables and protected Taiwania conifers for "luxurious coffins".

Flora and Fauna is setting up the approximately 250,000 hectare Imawbum national park with Myanmar's forestry department and have created hunting-free zones with the support of local villages.

- 'Extinction frontier' -

China recorded importing 10 million cubic meters of round logs from its impoverished neighbour between 2000 and 2013 -- almost twice Myanmar's officially registered global export trade of 6.4 million cubic meters for the period, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) campaign group.

Some 84 percent of logs imported into China went by land, despite longstanding rules barring exports from any other route than through Myanmar's Yangon and Dawei ports, making them "legally questionable at best and downright illegal at worst," the EIA said.

In a recent report based on Myanmar forestry documents and global trade data, the EIA said the country was believed to have exported up to 3.5 times more logs than the volumes officially recorded between 2000 and 2014.

"Such a gap is indicative of widespread criminality and corruption in Myanmar's timber sector," the report said, estimating this vast shadow industry was worth up to $5.7 billion.

And despite the export ban, trucks loaded with logs were seen around the Yangon port after April 1, while more than 60 tonnes of illegal timber were recently found in trucks disguised as anti-logging festival floats.

Tony Neil, forest governance advisor at Myanmar environmental group EcoDev, said the current dry season has seen an "unprecedented" amount of timber crossing the China-Myanmar border, with several hundred trucks a day making the journey.

Demand is driven from all over the world, with timber "laundered" through ports in Malaysia and Singapore and the price of prized logs such as rosewood shooting up.

"It's like an extinction frontier," he said.

.


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