Watching the World

Extinction for European Brown Bears?

Brown bears in Western Europe are endangered, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Their numbers have been reduced to just six small populations. “The most vulnerable of these brown bear populations are in France, Spain and Italy, where conservationists warn that they are likely to vanish unless augmented by bears from elsewhere,” states The Daily Telegraph of London. “In Italy, there are just four bears in the southern Alps,” adds the newspaper. In Greece, poaching by farmers and beekeepers, angry over destroyed cattle or hives, is a serious problem. By contrast, parts of Eastern Europe report thriving bear populations. Romania’s strict protection measures and restocking programs have enabled bear populations to build up and increase. And in Russia, where the bear is protected, some 36,000 bears exist. “Urgent action is vital to save Western Europe’s last bears,” says Callum Rankine, of the WWF’s Campaign for Europe’s Carnivores. “Without prompt intervention, these bears will become extinct.”

Costly Charity

Millions of people have benefited from donated drugs in times of crisis. However, a recent survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that donated drugs are often inadequately identified or have a limited shelf life. While sent with the best of intentions, many drugs “fail to meet the most urgent real health needs and, once in the country, they clog up already overloaded distribution systems and become difficult to dispose of,” says WHO official Dr. Jonathan Quick. Over half the drugs donated to Bosnia were inappropriate. Special incinerators had to be sent to Armenia and to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to dispose of unsuitable drugs. The estimated cost of shipping 1,000 tons of inappropriate medicines from Croatia for proper disposal elsewhere is between two and four million dollars.

Sound Bait

While most plants lure pollinators by color or smell, the tropical Mucuna holtoni accomplishes the same feat by sound reflection, reports the German magazine Das Tier. This climber plant is visited by bats, which form an image of their surroundings by sending out ultrasound signals. Scientists at the Erlangen University discovered that the plant’s nectar functions as an “acoustic cat’s eye,” by reflecting the ultrasound signals directly back to the bats. “In this way the plant makes it easier for the bats to locate the flowers,” says the magazine.

Fungus Dangers

“In Eastern Europe and northern Italy, where picking mushrooms is a tradition, significant numbers of deaths and poisonings happen each year,” reports The Times of London. Because cooking with wild fungi has become popular, experts warn of the dangers of eating any of the some 250 poisonous varieties growing in Britain’s countryside. Death cap and the destroying angel are both likely to be fatal if ingested. To safeguard themselves, mushroom pickers are urged to join groups that are led by professional spotters. “There are no simple rules to tell whether a [fungus] is harmless or harmful, so it is folly to go picking on your own without an expert,” warns a senior member of the British Mycological Society.

The Economic Consequences of AIDS

Not merely a public health tragedy, AIDS is fast becoming an economic catastrophe in Africa, reports Le Monde. With some 23 million people HIV positive and 2 million dying each year from the virus, “the AIDS epidemic will soon have wiped out the benefits of development in Africa.” African companies are struggling with increasing employee absenteeism or death as a result of the disease. One national rail company has lost over 10 percent of its personnel. In another large firm, 3,400 of its 11,500 workers are HIV positive. Agriculture is waning as farmers succumb to AIDS. In addition, education is decreasing, and illiteracy is on the rise, since families have  neither the money nor the time to send children to school and hundreds of teachers have died of AIDS.

Astronomers Plead for Quiet

Radio astronomers, listening for signals that tell of the birth of the first galaxies and stars, are increasingly frustrated because of “the gadgetry of modern civilization,” reports the International Herald Tribune. Television stations, radio transmitters, communications satellites, and mobile phones are drowning out the background noise from space that these scientists are trying to hear. To pursue their research, astronomers are seeking a quiet spot “where all forms of radio transmission would be banned.” There they propose to build an array of radio dishes spread over hundreds of miles that would be “100 times more powerful than instruments in use today.” Scientists hope that the information gleaned will help answer questions regarding the origins of time, space, and matter.

Bird Population Explodes in Mexico City

The bird population is growing out of control in Mexico City. As reported in the newspaper Reforma, about 1,335,000 doves now live in the metropolitan area. Monuments and statues are the favorite resting places of the birds. Bird-control experts have reported that “the birds that have adapted themselves to the capital divide their daily travels into three phases,” says the paper. “They choose one place to spend the night, another to look for their food, and another for leisure time, but in [each place] they leave their mark with their droppings.” They also cause a variety of sicknesses that range from allergies to bacterial, mycotic, and viral infections. The International Association for the Ecological Protection and Peaceful Relocation of Urban Doves “has proposed creating a law to prohibit feeding the birds in public areas.” However, it also proposes “punishing anyone who kills birds as a control measure.”

“Hugged to Death”

“One of the world’s oldest and largest trees is being hugged to death,” reports The Australian. The kauri tree, located north of Auckland, New Zealand, is visited each year by thousands of tourists who ritualistically link arms around its huge girth, trampling its base. “The tree is more than 50 metres [160 feet] high but not one of the world’s tallest,” says the newspaper. “However, on volume of timber, it is among the largest.” Known as “the old man of the forest,” it is officially 2,000 years old but is believed to be twice that old. Having survived all those years of natural disasters, pests, and threats of lopping, it may now be hugged to death. Says a conservation officer: “It’s probably dying but whether it is irreversible or not we don’t know.”

Breast-Feeding Controls Weight?

Researchers say that they have discovered another benefit of breast-feeding: It may help to prevent the baby’s becoming overweight later in life. As reported in the German newsmagazine Focus, a Munich University research team determined the weight of 9,357 children five to six years of age and investigated the diet each had been fed as an infant. The results showed that the children who had been breast-fed for three to five months were 35 percent less likely to be overweight when they entered school than those who had never been nursed. In fact, the longer a baby was breast-fed, the lower the probability of overweight. One researcher attributes this beneficial effect to the ingredients of mother’s milk, which aid the metabolism.

How Much Water Do Children Need?

Children between one and four years of age often drink too little. This was revealed in a study by the Research Institute for Child Nutrition, in Dortmund, Germany, and reported in the consumer magazine Test. One- to four-year-old children are especially sensitive to dehydration and should drink almost one quart of fluid a day besides what they get with meals. On the average, they drink a third less than this—and not always by choice. The researchers found that in 1 case out of 5, a child’s request for something to drink was refused by the parent. The best beverage? Where it is safe, plain water is ideal, states Test.