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A World of Languages

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As forests are cleared and species vanish, there’s one other loss: a world of languages

A new report shows a direct link between disappearing habitats and the loss of languages. One in four of the world’s 7,000 spoken tongues is now at risk of falling silent for ever as the threat to cultural biodiversity grows

A Nenets reindeer herdswoman in Russia’s Arctic region. Photograph: Staffan Widstrand/WWF (go to The Guardian and click on picture for graphic depicting global language loss)

Benny Wenda from the highlands of West Papua speaks only nine languages these days. In his village of Pyramid in the Baliem valley, he converses in Lani, the language of his tribe, as well as Dani, Yali, Mee and Walak. Elsewhere, he speaks Indonesian, Papua New Guinean Pidgin, coastal Bayak and English.

Wenda has known and forgotten other languages. Some are indigenous, spoken by his grandparents or just a few hundred people from neighbouring valleys; others are the languages of Indonesian colonists and global businesses. His words for “greeting” are, variously, Kawonak, Nayak, Nareh, Koyao, Aelak, Selamt, Brata, Tabeaya and Hello.

New Guinea has around 1,000 languages, but as the politics change and deforestation accelerates, the natural barriers that once allowed so many languages to develop there in isolation are broken down.

This is part of a process that has seen languages decline as biodiversity decreases. Researchers have established a correlation between changes in local environments – including the extinction of species – and the disappearance of languages spoken by communities who had inhabited them.

Video: Go to The Guardian to see

“The forests are being cut down. Many languages are being lost. Migrants come and people leave to find work in the lowlands and cities. The Indonesian government stops us speaking our languages in schools,” says Wenda.

According to a report by researchers Jonathan Loh at the Zoological Society of London and David Harmon at the George Wright Society, the steep declines in both languages and nature mirror each other. One in four of the world’s 7,000 languages are now threatened with extinction, and linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970, they say.

While around 21% of all mammals, 13% of birds, 15% of reptiles and 30% of amphibians are threatened, around 400 languages are thought to have become extinct in the same time.

New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world, is not just the world’s most linguistically diverse place, it is also one of the most biologically abundant, with tree-climbing kangaroos, birds of paradise, carnivorous mice, giant pigeons, rats bigger than domestic cats and more orchid species than any other place on the planet.

Today, both its wildlife and its languages are endangered. According to linguist and author Asya Pereltsvaig, the language of Bo is spoken by 85 people, Ak by 75 and Karawa by only 63. Likum and Hoia Hoia have around 80 speakers, and Abom just 15. Guramalum in New Ireland Province had at the last count only three speakers and Lua is almost certainly extinct, with a single speaker recorded in 2000.

Ironically, Lua is now the name of a successful computer programming language.

More than half of New Guinea’s and one in four of the world’s remaining languages are threatened, says Jonathan Loh. This compares with estimates that suggest a quarter of all mammals, a third of all sharks and rays and one in seven bird species are endangered.

Video: Go to The Guardian to see

“There are extraordinary parallels between linguistic diversity and biodiversity,” says Loh. “Both are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways, and both are facing an extinction crisis.”

But exactly why there should be such a close link between languages and biological diversity is unclear, even though it was noticed by Darwin. “Places of high diversity, especially tropical forests, have always been known to have high linguistic diversity, whereas tundra and deserts have low diversity,” says Loh. “It is possible in some way that higher biodiversity is capable of supporting greater cultural diversity. The explanation seems to be that both biological and cultural diversity depend on the same environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall.”

Conservationists fear that the loss of species due to man’s activities is accelerating. And linguists say that the wealth of the world’s human languages is now safeguarded by very few indigenous peoples, most of whom live precarious lives in developing countries.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, half now have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and these 3,500 languages are spoken by only 0.1% of the world’s population – equivalent to a city about the size of London. These eight million people are now responsible for keeping the wealth of human cultural history alive.

Source: The Guardian Read more

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European bison (Bison bonasus)

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Return of the European Bison

A European bison (Bison bonasus) checks his new surroundings after being relocated to Armenis, Tarcu mountains, southwestern Romania. Photograph: Costas Dumitrescu

The crowd surges forward against the barrier, cameraphones are held aloft, children are hoisted on to shoulders. The celebrities, the first European bison about to set their hooves in this remote Romanian valley in the southern Carpathian mountains for two centuries, wait in the shadows of a huge trailer.

The forest, already home to bears and packs of wolves, is the final destination for 17 of Europe’s largest land mammal, some of whom have been travelling hitched to lorries for five days from as far as Sweden. It will be their first time out of captivity.

Video (see the link below)

A herd of bison are gathered from across Europe for release into the wild in Romania. The animals were shot with a tranquiliser gun to immobilise them, then loaded onto a truck to drive to Romania. In all 17 bison were collected from wildlife parks and breeding centres across Europe. Video: Kristjan Jung

The release of the animals into the wild is one of the biggest in Europe since reintroductions began in the 1950s, establishing wild populations in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Kryygzstan. More will be reintroduced each year, with an aim of having 500 in the mountains eventually.

Bison bonasus was driven to extinction in the wild across Europe in 1927 after decades of decline from hunting and habitat loss. But it has become that rare endangered species: a conservation success story.

There are now thousands in the wild, all descended from the 54 individuals in captivity when the last wild one was killed in Poland’s Bialowieza forest.

Despite the increase in numbers, the European bison is still rarer than other high profile species, such as the black rhino, even with the reintroductions. There are over 5,000 European bison, with about 3,200 in the wild.

Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based charity behind the release last weekend, Rewilding Europe, said: “It has a big symbolic value, bringing back animals. I’ve done that a lot in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, but in Europe it is very rare. Releasing animals, giving them space, is a sign of hope, it shows that if we choose, we can help wildlife come back.”

The hulking, hairy beasts, some standing nearly two metres tall and and weighing as much as 1,000kg, have not been seen in this part of Romania for generations. “But it has never quite disappeared from our minds and souls,” says Adrian Hagatis, project manager at WWF Romania.

A tussle ensues as the animals are let out in their new range at Armenis, Tarcu mountains, Romania. Photograph: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

One of the founding legends of Moldovia, in Romania’s east, centres around a Romanian nobleman, Dragoș, killing a bison, an act which some say was once a prerequisite for joining the country’s army. The herbivore is a symbol of national pride, and several nearby places still carry bison-related names.

But for Romania, the second poorest country in the EU after Bulgaria, bringing back bison is not just of cultural importance, it is also an economic imperative.

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Ethiopian Wolf

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Dogs are going extinct: 8 most endangered canid species

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

Today, May 17th, is Endangered Species Day. We are celebrating it by bringing attention to the diverse and beautiful canid species around the world that are in danger of becoming extinct. We hope that by learning about these amazing relatives of our well-loved domestic dogs, readers will be encouraged to act to protect these species.

First up is the Ethiopian Wolf.

Source: TreeHugger Read more

Lions are Disappearing

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West African lions on verge of extinction, report says

Conservation group LionAid says as few as 645 lions remain in the wild in western and central Africa

Lions in Botswana. LionAid estimates there are 15,000 wild lions left in the whole of Africa, compared to 200,000 30 years ago. Photograph: Frans Lanting/Corbis

It is known for its vibrant culture, oil wealth and huge human population, but few people associate Nigeria with lions. Now a report says the almost forgotten species of west African lions found in countries such as Nigeria are on the verge of extinction following a decline in recent years.

The UK-based conservation group LionAid says as few as 645 lions remain in the wild in western and central Africa. It says lions are extinct in 25 African nations and virtually extinct in 10, and it estimates that 15,000 wild lions remain on the continent as a whole, compared with about 200,000 30 years ago.

“There has been a catastrophic decline in the populations of lions in Africa, and particularly west Africa,” said Dr Pieter Kat, trustee of LionAid. “These lions have been neglected for a very long time and do not have adequate protection programs. They are in real danger of extinction.”

The report says west Africa faces particular challenges due to high levels of poverty, lack of political interest in conservation and an underdeveloped wildlife tourism industry.

“Even though the national parks in west Africa contain very distinct and very important fauna compared to eastern Africa, people tend to ignore that west Africa is a very special place,” Kat said. “As a result the populations in west Africa are declining so quickly, as a biologist I would say that in a country like Nigeria, which has only 34 lions left, they are already extinct. It’s almost impossible to build up a population from such a small number.”

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Walking Dead

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The Amazon’s endangered species

Study says some rainforest species are doomed to disappear even if deforestation were halted overnight

Brazilian tapir. Photograph: Morales/Getty Images

Tree ocelot

These thick-furred nocturnal cats live in trees. Road building and the expansion of farming are expected to substantially reduce their numbers.

Hoary-throated spinetail

Land clearance for cattle ranching and soy production in the Amazon basin is expected to devastate the last 5,000 of these critically endangered birds.

White-cheeked spider monkey

The territories they occupy are fragmented by major highways. Many populations are threatened by agriculture, in particular enormous soy bean plantations and the roads that service them.

Rio Branco antbird

Critically endangered by deforestation and expected to suffer from proposed changes to Brazil’s forest code reducing the amount of land that owners must maintain as forest.

Brazilian tapir

Extinct in parts of Brazil and under threat elsewhere in the region. (above)

Yellow-headed poison frog

Dendrobates leucomelas, Yellow-headed Poison Arrow Frog

Forest fires, logging and agriculture are major threats.

Source: The Guardian

NB: I added the ocelot and frog images…

Nepal’s mystery language on the verge of extinction

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Ms Sen has been described by experts as a linguistic treasure

Gyani Maiya Sen, a 75-year-old woman from western Nepal, can perhaps be forgiven for feeling that the weight of the world rests on her shoulders.

She is the only person still alive in Nepal who fluently speaks the Kusunda language. The unknown origins and mysterious sentence structures of Kusunda have long baffled linguists.

As such, she has become a star attraction for campaigners eager to preserve her dying tongue.

Madhav Prasad Pokharel, a professor of linguistics at Nepal’s Tribhuwan University, has spent a decade researching the vanishing Kusunda tribe.

Professor Pokharel describes Kusunda as a “language isolate”, not related to any common language of the world.

“There are about 20 language families in the world,” he said, “among them are the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic group of languages.

“Kusunda stands out because it is not phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and lexically related to any other languages of the world.

‘Very sad’ He warns that if the Kusunda language becomes extinct, “a unique and important part of our human heritage will be lost forever”

‘Very sad’

He warns that if the Kusunda language becomes extinct, “a unique and important part of our human heritage will be lost forever”.

Prof Pokharel with Gyani Maiya Sen The entire Kusunda tribe is on the verge of disappearing along with its last fluent speaker

Even if some of the lofty intellectual arguments for preserving the Kusunda language are lost on Ms Sen, she is acutely aware of how its demise affects her personally.

“Fortunately I can also speak Nepali, but I feel very sad for not being able to speak my own language with people from my own community,” she said.

“Although there are still other people from the Kusunda tribe still alive, they neither understand nor speak the language.

“Other Kusunda people… can only speak a few Kusunda words, but can’t communicate [fully] in the language.”

Source: BBC News Read more

Madagascar pochard

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World population - 60

Eighteen Madagascan pochards – the world’s most endangered duck – have hatched in a captive breeding centre.

This brings the world population of the ducks to just 60.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the groups leading the captive breeding programme, say this “builds hope that the bird can be saved from extinction”.

The newly hatched ducklings represent almost one third of the entire world population of Madagascan pochards

The precious pochards (Aythya innotata) are being reared at a specially built centre in Antsohihy, Madagascar.

The ducks were thought to have become extinct in the late 1990s, but were rediscovered in 2006, when conservationists on an expedition spotted just 22 birds at a single site – Lake Matsaborimena (or Red Lake), in northern Madagascar.

Source: BBC News Read more

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