EarthTalk® March 2016


Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to save elephants around the world? I understand that these magnificent creatures are teetering on the brink of extinction. — Millie Vicente, San Jose, CA

In just one decade between 1979 and 1989, half of all Africa’s elephants were lost to the ivory trade. Public outrage over the loss led to a ban on all international trade in elephant tusks by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — an international agreement regulating trade in wild animals and plants –and African elephant populations were able to bounce back.

However, a disturbing new wave of illegal elephant poaching has been underway in Africa in recent years, due to rising demand for ivory goods by China’s budding middle class. As much as 70 percent of illegal ivory goes to China. In Beijing, one pound of ivory can bring in $1,000. From 2010 to 2012 alone, 100,000 elephants were killed for ivory tusks. Last year, approximately 30,000 elephants were illegally poached — this equates to one elephant being killed every 15 minutes.

Massacres that leave behind graveyards of nearly 100 elephant remains have become prevalent across Africa. In 2013, poachers on horseback in southwest Chad shot and cut the tusks off of at least 86 elephants, including 33 pregnant females, in less than a week. American missionary Gary Roberts tried to rescue a surviving baby he found tied to a tree, but despite his best efforts the elephant died. “The poachers killed pregnant females and all the calves,” said Celine Sissler-Bienvenu from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Even if the conditions were right, which they are not, it would take more than 20 years for this population to recover.”

In Zimbabwe, poachers are using cyanide to kill entire herds at a time. In October 2015, rangers in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park found 78 elephants killed by the poison. “We’re now trying to check how many elephants had fully developed tusks, because babies are among those killed,” said Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management spokeswoman Caroline Washaya-Moyo. “The rate at which we are losing animals to cyanide is alarming,” she added. Some 300 elephants fell victim to the same fate in the park a year before. Many non-target species are also dying from the cyanide intended for elephants. The park agency was hoping drones and trained dogs would intensify poacher monitoring.

According to a June 2014 CITES report, 20 percent of Africa’s elephants may be killed in the next 10 years if poaching continues at current levels. Meanwhile, many worry that extinction isn’t far off. “This species could be extinct in our lifetime, within one or two decades, if the current trend continues,” said Dune Ives, senior researcher at Vulcan Inc., which is working with the non-profit Elephants Without Borders on the Great Elephant Census to document elephant population numbers around the world. “In five years, we may have lost the opportunity to save this magnificent and iconic animal.”

Meanwhile, other groups are working diligently to spread awareness about the ongoing crisis. In summer 2015, Save the Elephants staged public demonstrations in Beijing and New York City where they destroyed nearly two tons of ivory. “If we want our grandchildren to grow up in a world where they see elephants in the wild,” U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the crowd amassed at the New York event in Times Square, “we owe it to them to shut down the market that fuels poachers.”

Contacts: CITES,; IFAW,; Great Elephant Census,; Elephants Without Borders,; Save the Elephants, Photo above: A disturbing new wave of illegal elephant poaching has been underway in Africa in recent years due to rising demand for ivory goods by China’s budding middle class. Credit: Philip Milne, FlickrCC.

The Arctic
The Arctic is an “indicator region” for the rest of the planet: small differences in temperature there can have profound ecosystem impacts — and can give us a better idea of the types of problems we can all expect down the road. Credit: Smudge 9000, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Why is the Arctic such a crucial area to focus on in efforts to stem global warming? — Joseph Constabile, Dedham, MA

The image of a polar bear standing on a shrinking iceberg has become one of the most iconic symbols of global warming, yet few of us realize just how important the Arctic’s ice is, wherever we may live on the earth. Researchers consider the Arctic to be an “indicator region” for the rest of the planet, given that even small differences in temperature there can have profound ecosystem impacts and can give us a better idea of the types of problems we can all expect down the road.

Of course, the effects of global warming have been under scrutiny in the Arctic for decades already. Since 1979, the extent of the Arctic’s permanent ice cap has shrunk by upwards of 20 percent. Even worse, the remaining ice has thinned by as much as two-thirds in some parts of the Arctic. Recent models suggest this ice loss will only accelerate in the next several years due to a global warming feedback loop called the “albedo effect,” whereby less ice means less reflection of the sun’s radiation back into space and thus more warming at the Earth’s surface. And not only is the ice shrinking — parts of the ice cap are also rupturing: The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, the largest block of ice in the Arctic and intact for some 3,000 years, finally cracked in 2000, and within two years split all the way through.

These changes up north are already starting to have ripple effects elsewhere. For starters, the entire Arctic ecosystem is being forced to shift with the changing climate. Animals like polar bears, whales and seals are changing migration patterns, in turn impacting native people who depend on them for sustenance. Meanwhile, other organisms are overpopulating, given all the new habitat opening up. Rising temperatures have allowed the spruce bark beetle to add an extra reproduction cycle each year. As a result the pesky little beetles decimated 3.4 million acres of Alaska’s forests over just 10 years.

And then there’s the issue of sea level rise. Thanks in large part to melting Arctic glaciers, sea level is expected to rise some three feet on average around the world in the next century, flooding over 22,000 square miles in the United States alone. This pressing issue threatens island nations especially. Countries like the Maldives, precariously perched just six feet above sea level, are as concerned as anyone about melting glaciers in the Arctic. And warming in the Arctic also affects weather patterns vital for food production all over the world. Cold water from the melting ice could also potentially halt the Gulf Stream, which brings warm weather to Europe. This would result in a steep drop in temperature for much of northwestern Europe and would affect weather patterns far beyond.

While it may seem futile for us to try to stop Arctic ice melting, we do, in fact, have the power. We can all work to reduce our carbon footprints by flying and driving less, turning down (or off) the heat or air conditioning, speaking up to our elected officials, and even divesting from companies that support the continued development of fossil fuels.

Contacts: NOAA Arctic Change website,; EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator,

Buying organic
Buying organic produce can reduce your exposure to hormone-disrupting synthetic chemicals. Credit: Suzie’s Farm, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What are endocrine disrupters, how do they make their way into my body and what can I do to avoid them? — Jo McGovern, Albany, NY

The endocrine system controls the various functions of cells, tissues and organs in our bodies through the secretion of hormones. The major glands that regulate the flow of these hormones include the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands, as well as the pancreas and reproductive glands (ovaries in women, testicles in men). A properly functioning system ensures optimum mood, growth, development, metabolism, sexual function and reproduction.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic or block the action of natural hormones. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there is no end to the tricks that endocrine disruptors can play on our bodies. These chemicals can increase the production of certain hormones, decrease the production of others, turn one hormone into another, compete with essential nutrients and more.

Some 80 million pounds of atrazine, an herbicide named on EWG’s Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors, are applied in the U.S. each year. A 2010 University of California (UC) Berkeley study found that atrazine-exposed male amphibians were feminized as a result. Ten percent of those exposed developed into females that copulated with unexposed males and produced viable eggs. “Given the overwhelming evidence of unacceptable risk, I’m quite frankly surprised that atrazine is even still in use,” said Dr. Tyrone Hayes, professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley and the study’s lead author.

Monsanto’s Roundup, a trade name for glyphosate and the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. with 250 million pounds sprayed each year, was also recently found to have hormone disrupting capabilities. Studies released in 2015 determined that Roundup decreased levels of progesterone and corticosterone, a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands. An earlier study determined that even at lower, “non-toxic” exposure levels, Roundup reduced testosterone levels. Recently it was announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will analyze the impacts of atrazine and glyphosate on 1,500 endangered plants and animals under the terms of a settlement reached with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “This settlement is the first step to reining in the widespread use of dangerous pesticides that are harming both wildlife and people,” said Brett Hartl, CBD’s endangered species policy director.

Buying organic produce and drinking filtered water can reduce your exposure to hormone-disrupting herbicides and pesticides. Another good reason to install a water filter is to remove perchlorate, a chemical that is also named on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. A 2010 study found that, in pharmacologic doses, perchlorate inhibits iodine uptake, an element needed for the production of thyroid hormones. The findings were alarming as adequate iodine intake is essential for normal neurodevelopment in infancy and childhood. While further research is needed to determine the impacts of perchlorate in the environment, the American Thyroid Association recommends that women who are planning a pregnancy or who are pregnant ingest 150 mg of iodine daily to ensure adequate iodine nutrition and to overcome the potential adverse effects of perchlorate exposure.

While it may be frightening to think about all the potential exposures to endocrine disruptors around us today, purchasing environmentally conscious, natural-based products for you, your family and your home; eating organic, fresh, unpackaged foods and drinking filtered water from a glass container are simple ways to help keep your hormones and endocrine system in balance.

Contacts: EWG,; CBD,

A Chinese protestor shows what he thinks of Apple's treatment of workers assembling iPhones. Credit: SACOM Hong Kong, FlickrCC.
A Chinese protestor shows what he thinks of Apple’s treatment of workers assembling iPhones. Credit: SACOM Hong Kong, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that Apple gets around U.S. labor standards and laws by outsourcing production to China? — Josie Walsh, New York, NY

Apple isn’t the only tech giant outsourcing much of its production to Chinese manufacturers nowadays, but the sheer popularity of the California-based company’s products makes it an especially easy target for activists concerned about worker health and safety. China Labor Watch and other groups have exposed inhumane conditions at huge Chinese factories of suppliers like Foxconn and Pegatron that support many U.S.-based tech firms. Workers at these facilities, many who are underage, are often required to work 18-hour shifts and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals — but still can barely make ends meet. The problem came to a head in 2010 when journalists got word that 14 workers had committed suicide at Foxconn’s massive iPhone-assembly manufacturing facility in China.

Another issue dogging Apple’s Chinese partners is worker exposure to toxic chemicals and a higher-than-average incidence of leukemia among employees. Apple agreed to discontinue using two of the worst offenders, benzene and n-hexane, after the non-profit groups China Labor Watch and Green America collected upwards of 40,000 signatures from consumers demanding action from the company. But China still allows its manufacturing sector to use several other carcinogenic chemicals long outlawed in the U.S. and Europe. Repeated exposure to these substances is another threat Chinese workers have to contend with when working on the assembly line making smartphones and other tech gadgets.

Despite knowledge of the dangerous conditions, Apple’s Chinese suppliers rarely struggle to find workers, many of whom are willing to take the relatively high paying jobs despite the risks — especially if they are supporting loved ones at home who depend upon the extra money to survive. China’s huge population creates an infinite supply of workers, such that even a large-scale walkout would be pointless. The assembly line system gives each person a repetitive, simple job that can be taught in an hour.

For its part, Apple continues to claim they are investigating the situation and doing everything they can to ensure satisfactory working conditions. In 2010, the company revamped its supplier responsibility standards and threatened it would terminate relations with Chinese manufacturers that refuse to toe the line, and also called for new audits on all of its “final assembly” facilities in China. Two years later, Apple became the first technology company admitted to the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit that conducts independent monitoring and verification to ensure acceptable workplace standards. While this affiliation doesn’t mean Foxconn, Pegatron and other Chinese high tech suppliers are beholden to standards as stringent as U.S. labor laws, activists consider it a step in the right direction and continue to keep an eye on the situation.

Of course, whether or not Apple steps up on the issue may depend more on if consumers are willing to forego the company’s products due to worker exploitation issues. And that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, as Americans and others continue to buy iPhones, iPads and Macs as fast as Apple and its Chinese partners can produce them.

Contacts: Apple Supplier Responsibility,; Foxconn,; Pegatron,; China Labor Watch,; Green America,; Fair Labor Association,

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