Brussels, Oct 25 (AP/UNB) — The European Union awarded its top human rights prize to economist Ilham Tohti for his work defending China's Uighur minority and urged Beijing to release him from jail.
A moderate though outspoken Uighur critic of Beijing's policies in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014.
Despite being known as a moderate who argued against Uighur separatism, he was convicted of fanning ethnic hatred, advocating violence and instigating terror through his classroom teaching and a website on Uyghur issues.
In awarding the Sakharov Prize to him Thursday, the European Parliament described Tohti as a "voice of moderation and reconciliation" who campaigned for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China.
The legislature's president, David Sassoli, praised Tohti for dedicating his life to advocating the rights of China's Uighur minority.
More than one million Uighurs — also spelled Uyghurs — have been detained in camps since 2017 and criticism has grown over China's internment of them and other Muslims.
The Chinese foreign ministry said in a faxed statement that Tohti is a criminal sentenced under Chinese law and that it hopes all sides will respect China's legal sovereignty and not help a terrorist appear influential.
China's government insists the detention sites are "vocational" centers aimed at training and skills development. In a report earlier this year to counter criticism of internment camps and other oppressive security in the traditionally Islamic region, China said it had arrested nearly 13,000 people it described as "terrorists" and had broken up hundreds of "terrorist gangs" in Xinjiang since 2014.
"By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China," Sassoli said.
Dacian Ciolos, the president of Renew Europe, a pro-business group of parties in the European Parliament which supported Tohti's bid for the award, said he "fully embodies the spirit of the Sakharov prize, as he is a fearless voice fighting for human rights and fundamental freedoms."
The EU award, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, was created in 1988 to honor individuals or groups who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms. Last year's winner was Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who was recently released from a Russian prison camp after being accused of plotting acts of terrorism.
Others on the shortlist for the award this year were Marielle Franco, a Brazilian city councilwoman who campaigned for Afro-Brazilian and LGBT rights before she was gunned down last year, native Brazilian leader Chief Raoni, environmentalist Claudelice Silva dos Santos and five Kenyan students known as The Restorers who developed an app to support girls subjected to genital mutilation.
The prize will be presented in a ceremony in Strasbourg on Dec. 18.
Uluru, Oct 25 (AP/UNB) — The sandstone monolith called Uluru that dominates Australia's arid center has long been celebrated as a prized peak to be conquered and a sacred site to be revered.
But the pendulum is scheduled to take a major swing away from the throngs of international selfie-seekers toward the rock's cultural significance to its traditional owners when climbing is banned from late Friday afternoon (6:30 GMT).
The end of visitors enjoying the panoramic views of the incongruously flat Outback surrounds from the rock's 348-meter (1,140-foot) summit also marks indigenous Australians finding a new voice in national decision-making.
The ban was a unanimous decision made two years ago by 12 members of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management. But it's an outcome that has divided both indigenous Australians as well as the wider world.
The polarity of opinions has been highlighted in recent months as thousands of visitors have converged on one of Australia's most famous landmarks in unprecedented numbers to beat the ban and make a final trek to the top. Tourists have been illegally camping on roadsides for miles because the local camping ground and accommodation were booked.
Like many Australians who know the landmark simply as "the Rock," Jeff Lis regards the climb as a birthright. The 52-year-old and his lifelong friend Stefan Gangur, 51, drove from Melbourne on the southeast coast to Australia's so-called Red Center.
"I've got some pretty strong views on it personally. I was born in Australia, it is part of my culture and ancestry as much as anyone else's," Lis, who is not an indigenous Australian, said at Uluru.
Sammy Wilson, who chaired the board that banned the climb, described the pending prohibition as a cause for celebration. Wilson is member of the Anangu tribe who are Uluru's traditional owners.
"If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don't enter or climb it, I respect it," Wilson said. "It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity."
There has long been tension within the indigenous population around the money that climbers bring and the rock's significance as a sacred site.
"I am happy and sad, two ways," said Kevin Cooley, a resident of the Mutitjulu indigenous community in the rock's shadow who collects the Uluru tourists' garbage. He fears that tourist numbers and the local economy will decline.
The biggest drop in foreign visitors could be the Japanese who have proven to be the most committed climbers. Signs around the rock have long discouraged climbing, describing Uluru as a "place of great knowledge" and noting that Anangu traditional law prohibits climbing.
The proportion of visitors who climb has been steadily declining, with more than four in five visitors respecting the Anangu's wishes in recent years.
The Anangu refer to tourists as munga, their word for ants. The analogy was clearest in recent weeks with queues forming long before the climb opens at 7 a.m. each day at a chain handhold at the base of the rock's steep western face. From there, an eclectic mix of climbers begin their ascents in narrow columns.
Prominent indigenous academic Marcia Langton reacted to the stream of climbers converging on Uluru with a tweet: "A curse will fall on all of them."
"They will remember how they defiled this sacred place until they die & history will record their contempt for Aboriginal culture," Langton added.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said he was disappointed by the final rush to climb the rock which is renowned for its changing colors with the seasons and the time of day.
"It would be equivalent to having a rush of people climbing over the Australian War Memorial, if I can be so brazen in that regard, because sacred objects, community by community, are absolutely important in the story of that nation of people," Wyatt, who is indigenous, told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Reaching the rock doesn't guarantee the summit is attainable. Climbing is often cancelled at short notice because of high winds or heat. The start of the climb was delayed for three hours Friday morning because of wind. Some of the climbers had been waiting at the base since 4 a.m.
At least 37 climbers have died, mostly from medical events, since 1948 when the first road was built in the hope of attracting tourists. Every death causes the Anangu anguish.
Denying climbers access to the World Heritage-listed landform is part of an evolution of the Australian narrative since British colonization that has traditionally edited out the original inhabitants.
While the rock had been known as Uluru for thousands of years, explorer William Gosse was credited with discovering it in 1873 and named it Ayers Rock after the then-premier of the British colony of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
In 1993, it became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory when it was renamed "Ayers Rock / Uluru." The order of the names was reversed a decade later at the request of regional tourism operators.
But the tourist accommodation nearest Uluru retains the name Ayers Rock Resort, in deference to the monetary value of the international brand recognition that has built up around it.
The date of the closure is also significant in the history of restored indigenous influence in the region. Saturday — the day from when climbing becomes punishable by a 6,300 Australian dollar ($4,300) fine — marks 34 years since the federal government gave the Anangu the land title to the national park in which Uluru stands.
The traditional owners immediately returned the park to the government under a 99-year lease on condition that the park is jointly run by a board with a majority of Anangu members.
Grant Hunt, chief executive of Ayres Rock Resort operator Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, dismissed predictions of a significant decline in tourism. He said bookings in November after the climb's closure were at a record high, with around 95% occupancy booked for the first three weeks.
"The traveling public have become much more culturally mature than they were 20 years ago," Hunt said. "Most people expect this and in fact want it to happen."
"There's a minority who still don't, of course, and you always get that with any decision, but certainly our research and feedback says about 80% of people are supportive of the climb closing," he added.
New York, Oct 25 (AP/UNB) — A remarkable trove of fossils from Colorado has revealed details of how mammals grew larger and plants evolved after the cataclysm that killed the dinosaurs.
The thousands of specimens let scientists trace that history over a span of 1 million years, a mere eyeblink in Earth's lifespan.
Sixty-six million years ago, a large meteorite smashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of southeastern Mexico. It unleashed broiling waves of heat and filled the sky with aerosols that blotted out the sun for months, killing off plants and the animals that depended on them.
More than three-quarters of species on Earth died out.
But life came back, and land mammals began to expand from being small creatures into the wide array of forms we see today — including us.
So the new find taps into "the origin of the modern world," said Tyler Lyson, an author of a paper reporting the fossil finds Thursday in the journal Science.
The fossils were recovered from an area of steep bluffs covering about 10 square miles (17 square kilometers) near Colorado Springs, starting three years ago.
Lyson, of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, found little in that area when he followed the standard practice of scanning for bits of bone. But that changed when he began looking instead for rocks that can form around bone. When the rocks were broken open, skulls and other fossils within were revealed.
Lyson said it's not clear how wide a geographic region the fossils' story of recovery applies to, but that he thinks they show what happened over North America.
"We just know so little about this everywhere on the globe," he said. "At least now we have at one spot a fantastic record."
Experts not connected to the study were enthusiastic.
It's "an unparalleled documentary of how life on land recovered" after the asteroid impact, said P. David Polly of Indiana University in Bloomington. "The sheer number of fossil specimens and the quality of their preservation are exceptional" for this time period, he said.
The fossils' story certainly represents what happened in central North America and perhaps more broadly, he wrote in an email.
Stephanie Smith of the Field Museum in Chicago said the study's detailed focus on a single area can help scientists understand the complexity of recovery when combined with results from elsewhere.
Scientists have previously found little evidence about what happened in the aftermath of the meteorite crash, especially on land, said Jin Meng of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The new work, he said in an email, appears to provide "the best record on Earth to date."
The study reports on hundreds of mammal fossils representing 16 species and more than 6,000 plant fossils. Researchers also analyzed thousands of pollen grains to see what plants were alive at various times. Analysis of leaves indicated several warming periods during the period.
Here's the recovery story the fossils tell:
The area had been a forest before the meteorite hit, home to dinosaurs like T. rex and mammals no bigger than about 17 pounds (8 kilograms).
Soon after the disaster, the environment was blanketed with ferns and the biggest mammal around was about as heavy as a rat. The world was in a warming period, as documented in previous studies.
By about 100,000 years after the meteorite impact, the forest was dominated by palm trees and mammals had grown to the weight of raccoons, almost as big as before the meteorite crash. "That's a pretty rapid recovery, or at least one aspect of recovery," Lyson said.
By 300,000 years, the walnut tree family had diversified, and the biggest mammals were plant eaters about as heavy as a large beaver. Based on other studies of their diet, they may have evolved along with those trees, Lyson said.
By 700,000 years, the fossil record shows the first known appearance of legume plants, the family that includes peas and beans. And it reveals the two largest mammals found in the study, with the larger one weighing about 100 pounds (50 kilograms), roughly like a wolf. That is about 100 times heavier than the mammals that survived the extinction, "which I think is pretty fast" for growth, Lyson said.
What drove mammals to get bigger? The main factor was the disappearance of the dinosaurs, leaving an ecological niche to be filled, he said. But the quality and types of food on the landscape probably also played a role, he said. The simultaneous appearance of legume plants and bigger mammals suggests the plants may have provided a "protein bar moment," Lyson said.
He said the mammals were creatures that evolved from animals that had survived extinction or those that immigrated from elsewhere.
Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago, who did not participate in the work, said the report is remarkable for tying together records for plants, mammals and temperature, giving a "holistic picture."
Scientists expected mammals to recover after the dinosaur extinctions, he said, and the new work "is a huge step forward in getting a firm understanding about just how it happened."
Newport, Oct 24 (AP/UNB) — Tens of millions of voracious purple sea urchins that have already chomped their way through towering underwater kelp forests in California are spreading north to Oregon, sending the delicate marine ecosystem off the shore into such disarray that other critical species are starving to death.
A recent count found 350 million purple sea urchins on one Oregon reef alone — a more than 10,000% increase since 2014. And in Northern California, 90% of the giant bull kelp forests have been devoured by the urchins, perhaps never to return.
Vast "urchin barrens" — stretches of denuded seafloor dotted with nothing but hundreds of the spiny orbs — have spread to coastal Oregon, where kelp forests were once so thick it was impossible to navigate some areas by boat.
The underwater annihilation is killing off important fisheries for red abalone and red sea urchins and creating such havoc that scientists in California are partnering with a private business to collect the over-abundant purple urchins and "ranch" them in a controlled environment for ultimate sale to a global seafood market.
"We're in uncharted territory," said Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "You can't just go out and smash them. There's too many. I don't know what we can do."
The explosion of purple sea urchins is the latest symptom of a Pacific Northwest marine ecosystem that's out of whack.
Kelp has been struggling because of warmer-than-usual waters in the Pacific Ocean. And, in 2013, a mysterious disease began wiping out tens of millions of starfish, including a species called the sunflower sea star that is the only real predator of the ultra-hardy purple urchin. Around the same time, the purple urchins had two excellent breeding years — and with no predators, those gametes grew up and are now eating everything in sight.
"You can imagine all of these small urchins growing up, each one of them looking for food, desperate for food. They're literally starving out there," said Steven Rumrill, lead shellfish expert at Oregon's wildlife agency. "I've seen some big-scale fluctuations in the populations of sea stars and urchins, but never on this magnitude."
Scientists are not yet sure if climate change is responsible for the sea urchin explosion, but they suspect it plays a role in the cascade of events that allowed the purple urchins to boom. And kelp, already under siege from warming waters, is not as resilient as it once was, said Norah Eddy, an associate director at the Nature Conservancy California's oceans program.
"We're going to see climate change as a big driver of changes in kelp forest as we move forward, and we are already seeing that," said Eddy, who is leading an effort to use drones to map and monitor Northern California's last remaining kelp forests.
The devastation is also economic: Until now, red abalone and red sea urchins, a larger and meatier species of urchin, supported a thriving commercial fishery in both states. But 96% of red abalone have disappeared from California's northern coast as the number of purple sea urchins increased sixfold, according to a study released this week by the University of California, Davis.
Last year, California closed its red abalone fishery, which poured an estimated $44 million into the coastal economy per year, and Oregon suspended permits for its 300 abalone divers for three years. The commercial harvest of red sea urchins in California and Oregon also has taken a massive hit.
"That's a huge economic loss for our small coastal communities," said Cynthia Catton, a research associate with the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Lab. "In California, there were 30,000 to 40,000 participants in (the abalone) fishery every year for decades, and for the first time ever that fishery had to close."
And while the purple urchins have eaten themselves into starvation as well, unlike other kelp-dependent creatures, the species can go into a dormant state, stop reproducing and live for years with no food.
That means the only way to restore the kelp is to remove or destroy the purple urchins. Scientists estimate that in Oregon alone, it would take 15 to 20 years to remove all 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms) of purple urchins recently surveyed on just one large reef.
While urchins are in starvation mode, the edible part — known as roe — shrivels, making them commercially worthless.
Against this backdrop, conservationists, commercial urchin harvesters, scientists and private interests are coming together with an unusual plan: Pay underemployed red sea urchin divers to collect the shriveled, but living, purple sea urchins and transfer them to carefully tended urchin "ranches" to be fattened up for sale to seafood markets around the world.
One company, Urchinomics, is already working on urchin ranching projects in Japan, Canada and California and sees a future where the overwhelming demand for wild urchin roe is replaced by a taste for human-raised purple urchins collected from the seafloor, allowing kelp forests to rebound.
"We're turning an ecological problem into an ecological opportunity and an economic opportunity," said Brian Takeda, the Urchinomics CEO. "It's the first time we've ever had an economic incentive to get these destructive urchins out of the water."
In Oregon, red urchin divers are a tiny artisanal collective, but they are also exploring ways to try to turn the glut of destructive purple urchins to their advantage. Oregon's urchin fishery had a boom year last year, when red urchins were scarce in California but before their purple cousins had spread north. Now, they too are hurting.
Rumrill, the shellfish expert from Oregon, supports efforts to harvest excess urchins but strikes a less optimistic note when it comes to saving the kelp.
"That's a promising technique. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that we're going to solve this large-scale ecological problem, this literal perfect storm of events, by eating our way out," he said. "It's just too big a problem."
Washington, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — After 34 years on the endangered species list, a tiny Midwestern bird is ready to fly free of federal protection.
Once hurt the by the damming of major rivers like the Missouri and before that diminished by hunting for feathers for hats, the interior least tern population has increased tenfold since 1985, to more than 18,000.
The number of nests has jumped from 48 to 480, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which on Wednesday morning planned to propose taking the bird off the list.
The delisting started six years after the service first suggested that the species has recovered and after a computer modeling showed the population will be stable.
Even conservationists and advocacy groups that often battle the Trump administration over what goes on and off the endangered list hailed the long-trek migrating bird's recovery as an environmental success story.
"Delisting is reasonable," Center for Biological Diversity endangered species director Noah Greenwald said. "It shows that when we actually pay attention and care, we can help species and reverse damage we've done in the past. We can undo part of the damage we've done to these rivers."
"All around it's a pretty good news situation," American Bird Conservancy president Michael Parr said.
After nearly being hunted to extinction for feathers for women's hats in the 1800s, the Midwestern population of least terns started doing better until after World War II, Fish and Wildlife Service recovery biologist Paul Hartfield said. But then dams, especially on the Missouri River, eliminated the riverside beaches that these tiny birds need.
Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, biologists concentrated on a smaller bird population in the lower Mississippi River. Changes in water management increased the size of islands and created new ones in the river, making more places for the birds to nest and live, Hartfield said.
"The least tern in the Mississippi River exploded" from a few hundred birds in the 1980s to at least 10,000 now, he said.
Greenwald credited the Army Corps of Engineers but added that "the tern has been recovered, but the ecosystem hasn't."
There are three populations of least terns in the United States. One in California is still on the endangered list, and the eastern one is doing fine.
Least terns are the smallest of terns, but they travel far. Hartfield said one bird was tagged in South Dakota and later was found in Japan.
"That's how strong a flyer they are," he said. "It's really a tough little bird."
They nest on the ground and feed on small fish and live quite long for their size, about 15 years, Hartfield said. These birds migrate every fall to the Caribbean and South America.
Greenwald, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the least tern is a good example of how the endangered species law can work even as scientists warn of 1 million species going extinct in coming decades.
"We should be proud of ourselves for caring for it and protecting it," he said. "That shows that if we put our mind to it, we can stop the extinction crisis."