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6 | NewScientist | 8 June 2013

BY THE brutal standards of the
criminals who smuggle drugs
through Central America to the
US, it was nothing special. But the
murder of conservationist Jairo
Mora Sandoval highlights the
risks biologists face when their
passion for nature puts them on
the front line of the narco-wars.
He was bound, shot through the
head and dumped on the Costa
Rican beach he regularly patrolled
in his bid to protect leatherback
turtle nests from poachers.
Drug trafficking is a serious
impediment to conservation
work in Latin America, with
drug addiction and corruption
hampering efforts to protect
endangered turtles. For the most

part, Costa Rica is a fairly safe
country but the area around the
Caribbean port of Limón has long
struggled with high crime levels.
Friends and colleagues of Mora

Turtle worker killed Sandoval believe his outspoken
comments about the links
between drug trafficking and
poaching on nearby Moín beach
may have made him a marked
man. In articles published in April
in Costa Rica’s leading newspaper,
La Nación, Mora Sandoval and
others highlighted the trend for
paying crack-addicted, turtle egg
poachers with drugs.
Local people believe that turtle
eggs are an aphrodisiac, and they
sell for about $1 each, says Didiher
Chacón of WIDECAST, the turtle
conservation network for which
Mora Sandoval worked. Given that
a single nest can contain 80 or
more eggs, trading in turtle eggs
can be a lucrative sideline for
criminals employed by drugs
gangs to move their products
along the coast. WIDECAST is
one of 10 conservation groups
offering a $10,000 reward for
any information on the killing.
For now, turtle conservationists
in Moín have been promised
police protection. But Chacón
warns that in the past, requests
for help have fallen on deaf
ears once the media’s spotlight
has moved on.

Hello, moonsteroid

IN CASE you missed it, an asteroid
and its surprise companion just
missed you. Last week, asteroid
1998 QE2 sailed past Earth, getting
as close as 5.8 million kilometres.
The fly-by offered astronomers
a chance to take detailed images
of the space rock, and the first
radar glimpse revealed that
1998 QE2 has its own small moon.
Initial images taken with the
70-metre Deep Space Network
antenna in Goldstone, California,
showed a bright blip moving

around the larger craggy body.
Radar data also showed that the
asteroid is larger than thought –
between 3 and 3.5-kilometres
rather than 2.7-kilometres wide,
says Marina Brozovic of NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, California.
Measuring the moon’s orbit
can tell us the larger asteroid’s
mass. Combine that with its
size, and we’ll know 1998 QE2’s
density, giving an idea of what it
is made from. Such details may
be important for astronauts
planning to visit similar asteroids.

  • Passau: a 500-year high-

Wet, wet, wet future

THE floods causing havoc across
much of central Europe are a portent
of things to come as the continent’s
climate gets stormier.
In the German town of Passau
on Monday the waters rose to their
highest level since 1501. As New
Scientist went to press, the floods in
Czech capital Prague were beginning
to recede but Dresden, Germany, was
bracing itself for the river Elbe to rise
5 metres higher than normal.
Several factors are responsible,
says Stéphane Isoard of the
European Environment Agency in
Copenhagen, Denmark. “It’s spring so
snow is melting from the mountains.”
When two months of rain fell in two
days, the water had nowhere to go
because the ground was saturated.
Climate change also causes

heavier rainfall, and might be partly
to blame. But Isoard says bad land
management is just as important.
“Urban sprawl [means] there is less
opportunity for water to infiltrate
the soil.” With more floods inevitable,
Isoard says Europe needs to adapt.
Some work is already under way.
Wetlands are being restored around
stretches of the Danube away from
the current devastation. Green spaces
like this can absorb extra water,
making floods less severe.
“Over the last 20 years, events like
this have become more common,”
says Iain White of the University of
Manchester in the UK. Central Europe
has improved its flood responses since
severe floods struck in 2002, he adds,
“but there comes a point where you
can’t defend”.

TALK about absent without leave.
Unauthorised genetically modified
wheat has been discovered growing
on a farm in Oregon nine years after a
research programme was abandoned.
How it got there is a mystery.
GM wheat has not been cleared
for commercial use anywhere in the
world and the discovery last week
triggered an international reaction.
South Korea and Japan temporarily
suspended imports of US wheat and
South Korea began testing existing

Modified wheat mystery deepens

Lennart Preiss/Getty



wheat imports from the US for
signs of modified material, with no
positive results so far.
The wheat was developed by
agricultural biotech giant Monsanto,
which says that the farm in question
was not part of its original testing
programme and that all GM material
was destroyed in 2004. The company
adds that wheat seed seldom
survives more than two years in soil,
and that 99 per cent of wheat pollen
gets deposited within 10 metres.


“Trading turtle eggs can
be a lucrative sideline for
criminals moving drugs
along the coast”

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