Friday, 18 October 2013

Can farming rhinos for their horn really be called conservation?

The lasting image from last night's Earthwatch debate at the Royal Geographical Society on conservation was of "farmed" rhinos with their horns chopped off. There's a similar picture of farmed rhino here

They looked more than a bit pathetic. But the proposal of the debate was that rhinos should be farmed for their horn creating a legal trade because the war on illegal poaching has been lost.

Over its' lifetime a rhino could have its horn cut off seven or eight times we were told.

Basically it means breeding wild animals - rhinos, tigers and elephants - for their horns, tusks, skins and other parts to feed a market.

Supporters of the motion, Dr Duan Biggs, lead author of a Science journal paper on the legalisation of rhino horn trade, Kirsten Conrad, formerly of PETA and a conservation policy analyst and Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist, argued that the price of animal parts would come down, trade established and the poachers put out of business.

If we do not act now numbers will dwindle to the point where we will lose some of the most iconic and majestic species on our planet. And it will happen on our watch.

It's a counter-intuitive idea but one that is gaining traction and the vote at the end of the intelligent and civilised debate, chaired by Martha Kearney, was closer than might have been expected with a substantial minority supporting the idea.

I left the debate with more of a feeling that the supporters of legal trade had not set out the details of their market clearly enough.

Those opposing the motion were Dr Glyn Davies ,WWF-UK head of global programmes, Dr Katarzyna Nowak, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University,  and Mary Rice, Executive Director of the Environment Investigation Agency.

They challenged how a market would operate. How would it be policed? Would not pushing rhino horn onto the market stimulate demand rather than reduce it?

Gangs with stockpiles already have a vested interest in driving species to extinction and poachers would still have an incentive to obtain body parts illegally but cost-free and sell them on as legal.

Of course at the moment creating a legal trade is only an idea - something to be tried - but time is running out. Do we have the time to go through the international negotiations and set up the regulatory bodies to make it work?  If we can't make international action against black market trading work why should legal trade agreements be any better?

Then there are the unknowns. As was pointed out by Mary Rice of the EIA tiger farming in China has not stopped the illegal trade. "Wild tiger" skins offer an increased rarity value.

Unscrupulous market fixers could just claim farmed rhino horn was not as effective in medicine - whilst all rhino horn has been proved to have no health curing properties at all.

I realise that "farming" is being used here in its widest sense but even so once you bring commercial farming to bear pretty soon farmers will want to increase their profits. That could mean breeding programmes, developing rhinos with faster growing or larger horns. Is an animal on a farm, like an animal in a zoo, really wild any more or just a convenience for us to carve an ornament from or pretend it has cured our hangover?

I had a nightmare vision during the debate of rhinos in sheds being force-fed hormone boosted feed to grow their horns twice as fast.

And this is the crux for me.  What are we conserving here? Wild animals with all their brute force and unpredictable power in a hierarchy of dominance and daily fight for survival as recorded in so many Nature films.

Or our own misguided rituals? Our own practice of abusing animals for trinkets and potions which bring false hope?

Pro-traders will say idealism has failed and a legal market is the only way to preserve what we have left.

But, for me, that seems like an ending in itself, an ignoble and unsatisfactory conclusion. Surrender terms in a defeat.

Are the only choices left for wildlife farming and disfigurement or extinction?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Does aircraft noise raise the risk of heart disease?

Scientists have found a possible link between the noise from living directly under an airport flight path and increased risk of strokes and heart disease.

A study published in the British Medical Journal has found a 10 to 20% higher risk among those most exposed to the highest levels of noise around Heathrow airport

The study by researchers at Imperial College and King's College, London, found the biggest increased risk in those exposed to noise levels above 50 decibels  both at day and night - about the volume of a normal conversation in a quiet room.

The researchers at the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit looked at 12 London boroughs covering 3.6 million people living in 12,000 neighbourhoods and compared noise exposure with deaths and hospital admissions.

The highest risk was among the 2% or 7,000 people exposed to daytime aircraft noise up to 63 decibels.

The researchers stress that they haven't found enough evidence to say that aircraft noise actually causes stroke, heart disease or cardio-vascular disease.

And while 20% may sound high it is dwarfed by the two to three times increased risk from such things as smoking, obesity, bad diet, diabetes and lack of exercise.

The stats on noise come from 2001 and better plane design and routing has cut noise since then - although many living in west London might not notice much difference.

That said, it is one of the first studies to show a possible link between the noise of planes landing and taking off, and increased risk of heart problems and strokes.

Dr Anna Hansell, lead author of the study,, said: "These findings suggest a possible link between high levels of aircraft noise and risk of heart disease and stroke.

“We have increasing level of increasing risk with increasing levels of aircraft noise.”

It is known that heart rates and blood pressure can increase when people are exposed to sudden loud noise. Noise can raise anxiety and night-time flights disturb sleep.

Factors such as the ethnic background of those living closest to the runways, air pollution and road traffic noise were taken into account but at the moment any link between plane noise and heart health is only a suggestion.

One problem is that they only looked at areas, not individuals. And they could not measure the individual exposure to noise in each area.

Nevertheless the findings are interesting - not least to the debate on where to expand London airports - if they need to be expanded at all.

"Our study raises the possibility that aircraft noise could be a contributing factor to stroke, heart disease and cardio vascular disease. But the precise role that noise, including aircraft noise, might play in that isn’t fully understood, Dr Hansell added.

A study in America looked at 89 airports and also found a link between noise and health.

Other scientists praised the studies but warned on their limitations.

Professor Ken McConway, professor of Applied Statistics, at the Open University, said: "Because of the kind of data the researchers used, the studies can't do more than suggest very strongly that we find out much more about aircraft noise and circulatory disease, using different kinds of study that could come much closer to sorting out what causes what. The researchers make these limitations clear in their reports."

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Computer players can fight ash die back in Facebook game as deadly fungus "carpets" woodlands.

The deadly ash die back disease is now "carpeting" woods where it was first discovered and is poised to infect trees across the country in the coming weeks.

Lethal white fruits have emerged in woods in Norfolk one of the first sites where the disease was  found in October 2012

Just one fruit was seen in June but two months later the woodland is covered with the killer fungus.

Dr Anne Edwards, of the John Innes centre, who discovered the disease in Ashwellthorpe Wood, revealed: "In June of this year we found the first of the fruiting bodies in the wood and these are structures which will go on to infect other trees.

"In June it was quite hard to find these but I went yesterday to the woods and there were carpets of them everywhere ready to spread to the rest of the country. Quite depressing really.

"That is the stage we are at now. They are ready to infect the rest of the country. We can only hope there will be a westerly wind to blow it back to Europe."

The bad news came as scientists launched an online computer game on Facebook to help fight ash die back.

The simple game called Fraxinus is based on the real-life DNA letter sequences of ash trees and the deadly fungus chalara fraxinea. It  uses the skills of online game players to find patterns in the strings of genetic information.

By finding matches and differences in the strings scientists hope to exploit areas of resistance in the genetic make-up of ash trees and the most dangerous parts of the fungus.

The game exploits the fact that the human mind is, surprisingly, far better than computers at finding complex matching patterns and variations. Computers make too many mistakes.

The raw DNA data has been translated into different coloured leaves for the game. Players score points for matching the leaves to a top line.

Russell Stearman, game designer at Sheffield based Team Cooper, said: "You won't need a degree in gene sequencing to understand or play the game. It should be as easy to play as Candy Crush.

He said players would not always be able to match up the lines perfectly and where they did not fit would give scientists clues to vulnerabilities in the fungus or ways to develop disease resistant trees.

"All the games have been selected to find trouble spots which will be really useful for scientists to look at. We hope this game will break down barriers between scientists and the outside world."

Dr Dan Maclean, head of Bioinformatics at the Sainsbury Laboratory, said: "Genetic variation is the key to all this. Genetic variation is basically the differences in between every living thing.

"Playing the game is doing real science and the results the human players give us will go straight back into the databases. It is clear people can make a genuine contribution which ultimately could make a real difference."

It is one of the first such real science online games but others, involving cancer, are being developed.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Global warming still happening despite flat surface temperature rises in the last 10 to 15 years

The world is still warming but in a slightly different way,  leading climate scientists said today.

A "pause"  in rising surface air temperatures since at least the turn of the century has thrown doubt on the predictions of dangerous warming by climate scientists and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to cool the planet.

Climate sceptics have claimed the flat temperatures show the world's climate is no where near as sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions as alarmist scientists have claimed and throw doubt on doomsday predictions of a burning world.

But the climate scientists stuck to their guns at a Science Media Centre briefing today and said any slow down in rising temperatures would only be temporary. Carbon emissions are growing at 3.1% a year and are 30% higher than at any time over the last 800,000 years.

Recent measurements have put them at over 400 parts per million.

The scientists  said there was still an imbalance between the heat that was being trapped by greenhouse gases and that being released.

Simple physics says that heat has to be going somewhere and the most likely explanation is that it is being absorbed by the oceans down to around 700 metres and probably  deeper.

The biggest effect of the lower than forecast surface temperatures this century might be that predictions of dangerously higher temperatures by 2050 and beyond will  have to be scaled back by "a few" years.

You can often come away from  climate briefings with the feeling that you have learned more about what the scientists  don't know than what they do.

And the scientists were honest enough to admit they "had a problem to solve" to explain the lack of heating but they put forward the following theories in three reports from the Met Office Hadley Centre.:

1 It's not unusual to have a pause.. There was a one between the 1940's and 1970's and models predict that at least two decades out of ten will have flat temperatures. The temperatures this century are still within the predicted range and the first decade was the warmest on record.

2. Major volcanic eruptions in recent years  have ejected volcanic ash  into the stratosphere and may have helped cool the planet.

3. A record low solar minimum around 2008/9 could have helped keep temperatures down.

4 Changes in ocean mixing of warmer and cooler waters in the Pacific and North Atlantic. The Pacific, particularly, has a big effect on our climate and surface air temperatures. La Nina conditions in the Pacific have had a cooling effect for the last decade. Measurements of ocean temperatures down to 700 metres have improved considerably since 2005 with the use of Argo floats round the world and show a significant warming.

5. The heating of the oceans is consistent with sea level rises which are running at 3.2 mm per year globally. Warming seas expand.

6. Other factors are running consistently with human induced climate change. Arctic sea ice loss has been accelerating and has halved since the 1980's. Glaciers have shrunk over the last 30 years with the equivalent of slicing 15 metres off the top of every glacier. Northern hemisphere snow levels have shrunk by 8 million square kilometres the equivalent of a third of the area of Canada. Most of the 14 warmest years on record have happened since 2000.

7. Factors such as aerosols, humidity, cloud cover may have contributed to the slowdown in rising temperatures.

Professor Rowan Sutton, Director of Climate Research, University of Reading, said: "The important thing to realise is that global surface temperature, while important, is only one variable of the changing climate. Scientists absolutely expect variations in the rate that surface temperatures rise. The reasons for these variations are several.

"That is not to say we understand all the details over the last ten to 15 years. We don't fully understand the relative importance of these different factors."

Professor Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change, University of Leeds, added: "This is exciting. We have a problem to solve. This is why I am a scientist and why we do what we do."

Monday, 15 July 2013

Green con? No, The public wants a renewable energy future and is worried about climate change

The public is keener on being green than they are given credit for, a ground-breaking attitude survey has found.

But their mistrust of energy companies and the government and their motives threatens the long-term green ambition.

People want to see a change to an efficient, clean, fair and safe energy system, the two year survey sponsored by the UK Energy Research Council (UKERC) discovered.

They favour renewables like solar and wind – in the right places – and are generally negative towards fossil fuels.

While 21% would object to a wind turbine near their home 54% would object to a nuclear power station

And a whopping 82% are worried about the UK becoming too dependent on energy from other countries – in other words importing gas or coal.

When I asked at a Science Media Centre briefing whether the results showed people were more favourable toward green energy and changing to renewables than recognised in some sections of the press and the government the answer I got was simple: “Yes.”

Professor Nick Pidgeon, who led the research team, said: “The British public backs a green energy future looking into the long term but there is an element of distrust with energy companies and government which may be a problem in realising that ambition..

“It is often said people don’t want change but what we found was that when the policies were explained they were actually very enthusiastic about change.

“They wanted a transition to something that was efficient, clean, fair and safe.

“The public vision is one with a strong commitment  to renewable energy production  and a shift away from fossil fuels over the long term - and I must stress that - and an overall improvement in energy efficiency and a reduction in demand.”

It is the first in-depth study of public values around energy change.

More than 8 out of 10 (81%) would like to reduce their energy use.

The survey, surprisingly, did not examine attitudes to fracking. The researchers claimed it was too early to get meaningful results.

But support for solar (85%) and wind energy (75%) remained strong and 74% were very or fairly concerned by climate change – a figure that has remained constant since 2010.

The researchers found 79% want to see a reduction in fossil fuels over the next few decades with 48% worried they were running out and 36% concerned fossil fuels were causing climate change.

A massive 83% are worried electricity and gas will become unaffordable for them over the next ten to 20 years.

More than half (53%) would be willing to use electric cars rising to 75% if they performed the same way as petrol-driven cars.

But there was strong resistance to any idea of cutting down on flying, especially for leisure and holidays.

Support for carbon capture and storage was low. 42% said they had never heard of it and a further 26% knew next to nothing about it

“When people were told about it they saw it as a non transition they said: “Why would you want to do that?”

Professor Pidgeon said the survey showed people were less likely to object to having their televisions switched off from standby remotely or by “smart meters” when they weren’t watching than having their showers limited or their fridges or freezers switched off for short periods to save energy.

Most people did not mind sharing their energy use data but one in five did object and people were less happy handing over the info to government than energy companies.

The overall message is that people recognise the need to change the way we get energy and are up for it – as long as their core values are protected.

 “People wanted to avoid waste and move to a more efficient system. Any system which threatens the environment will have a question mark against it, “ Professor Pidgeon added.

“People had a very pragmatic view. They realised you could not deliver this overnight there would be all sorts of compromises  that would have to be made but for them energy efficiency and change has to fit in to a long-term trajectory. “

The study: Transforming the UK energy system – public values, attitudes and acceptability is launched today (July 16).


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Scientists discover double the number of gene changes which raise the risk of inheriting breast, prostate or ovarian cancer

Genetic scientists have made a major leap forward in being able to identify people who are at most risk of developing three of the leading cancers.

They say it will lead to improved screening for breast, prostate and ovarian cancers.

The research should also lead to a simple and cheap DNA “spit test” in a GP surgery which will reveal more accurately a patient’s lifetime risk of developing one of the cancers.

In a few years’ patients will be able to use the “spit test”  results to plan their individual treatment and screening regime with their GPs.

A huge four year international study – the largest ever of its kind - has found another 80  genetic areas that can increase a person’s inherited risk of breast, prostate and ovarian cancers – doubling to 160 identified common gene faults in cancer patients.

More than 4,000 scientists studied the DNA of over 200,000 people – half with cancer and half without – to find the genetic variations. called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

The researchers led by the University of Cambridge and Institute of Cancer Research, London, say that for the one in 100 people who have lots of the new cancer genetic changes  could see their risk of developing prostate cancer rise by nearly 50 per cent and breast cancer by 30 per cent

In Ovarian cancer 11 new gene variations were found – not enough to raise the risk significantly.

Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of charity Cancer Research UK, which backed the project, said: “We have  known for some considerable time that some proportion of cancers are people who have an increased risk from birth – and we know that because cancers are congregated in some families.

“Over the years we have found many of the faults in genes which can raise someone’s risk of getting cancer.

“By searching for variations in cancer patients’ DNA we are able to piece together pictures of gene variations which are able to increase the risk of someone getting cancer.

“The idea here is to be able to predict on an individual person’s level  what is their risk because that can help us underpin more personal prevention and screening in the future

“It can also help us identify what is driving different types of cancer to enable us to develop different therapeutic advances for those different types.”

Around 60% of the genetic risks of developing the three cancers is still unexplained. Lifestyle factors like obesity and smoking also play their part.

The researchers found that five per cent of women with the BRCA1 fault who carry most of the genetic variants linked to BRCA1 have over an 80 per cent chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 80. Women with few of these variants and a BRCA1 fault have a 50 per cent risk of developing the disease.

The scientists also found gene changes only linked to the most aggressive form of breast cancer called oestrogen receptor negative – suggesting it develops in a unique way, which could open the door to new treatments.

Professor Ros Eeles. Professor of Oncogenetics at Cambridge University, said: “From basic science you can get clues how to treat patients.

“A lot of these variants are in part of the genome which control how genes are switched on and off. That gives an important clue how we might develop new drugs.”

In prostate cancer having the newly discovered genetic markers would increase your risk of developing the cancer from the average one in ten to one in two.

“It’s a bit like a card game each person individually will have their own risk depending on these markers “ she said.

The researchers say knowing more about the DNA of inherited cancer will also enable them to screen out those at low risk.

And a patient’s cancer DNA should be available through a simple £5 test in the GP surgery.

Professor Eeles added: “You can do it by spitting into a tube.  It is much cheaper than a mammogram. These kind of test results can be read by a computer.
“Eventually, it will be at point of care. The person making the decision will be your GP.
“We are not there yet but I really think we are going to get there fast.”