The Rhinos of the Namib (commentary)

August 18th, 2015 by Mongabay

Commentary by Cyril Christo

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

It was dusk when we followed two massive male white rhinos passing in front of our car near Etosha in northern Namibia. Lysander, just nine, was ecstatic, watching a primeval explosion of power ambling in front of our car reminiscent of the times when rhinos ruled the earth. At dusk, in the sun infused dimming amber light, the blackness of an all-presiding night was pressing upon us. Our guide’s red lights shone on the spectacle of this gold and black collision magnifying the magic of this ineffable rite. We watched spellbound as these two males jousted in a meadow turning around each other like wrestlers from a bygone age. In the theatrical splendor of the moment, their power reverberated as they had for thousands of millennia before the onslaught of human time. Later that night twelve more white rhinos moved in single file in front of our car like a procession of gladiators, armored in grey like the bedrock and soil surrounding them into the deepest recesses of that continent where mankind was born.

It lies on the far southwestern coast of Africa, a basaltic theatre of red rock carved from the skin of Gondwaland when Africa and south America were joined at the hip 180 million years ago. The last volcanic eruption erupted over this desert version of Jurassic Park when T. Rex was lord of the universe. Here slow moving solitary black rhinos browse among undulating hills and giant emerald green euphorbia bushes like grey Pleistocene tanks amidst the oldest desert on earth, the Namib. This saurian landscape could have been the place of origin for the super rhinos, Paraceratherium that once dominated the earth as the largest mammals ever to walk the Earth, so large they would have towered even over modern elephants. Now it is a race against time to save the last free roaming rhinos where they used to dominate the landscape like slow meandering soldiers across the African continent.

Recently a spate of rhino poaching has started to undermine the community based conservation efforts of one of Africa’s great success stories. Cheetahs have been the bastion of Namibia’s wildlife efforts in the last generation. And the success rate has been impressive, reaching out to local farmers to work with wildlife groups to relocate and save a species that could have been lost two generations ago. But of late the Chinese influx and their near insatiable hunger for ivory and rhino horn has started to take its toll on this country of 2 million. Syndicates whose bloodlust knows no bounds have targeted the outback of this near model African nation. In Etosha, Namibia’s flagship park, about 50-60 rhinos have been poached this year. We had come to investigate Namibia’s elephants, but here in the final frontier of Africa, a deadly plague of poaching undermines the future of the third largest mammal on earth.

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

After walking several hundred yards with Augustus, and Martin crack bush trackers, in the premier black rhino habitat in the world, we found a mother rhino with her calf near a euphorbia bush. She had not been de horned of the hyper-trophy so coveted by global poaching syndicates, as many of her neighbors had, in a last ditch effort to save her species. The vainglory and superstitious insanity that drives the global commerce in rhino horn could hardly be mentioned in the outback. The prize we had come for was just to be in the presence of the fabled behemoth, a being which lurked in the imagination of our ancestors like few other. Was the rhino the fabled origin of the unicorn? This was one of the beings that haunted the cave dwellers of Chauvet and Lascaux This was a being whose blood nourished Paleolithic hunters from 30,000 years ago.

We had left our camp at 6 in the morning and targeted the springs two hours from camp, where rhinos regularly drink. En route we also found some elephant tracks which made the day all the more remarkable because no elephants had been spotted in over five months!. In the ensuing moments, the ghost of Paraceratherium, and its thundering steps, reigned over the imagination. Somewhere in the blistering outback of this primeval and heat-blistering garden of Eden, the progeny of the greatest mammals ever to walk the earth still reigned. Martin and Augustus gingerly followed the rhino tracks over a hill, like diminutive human ants, walking over the terrestrial skin of a geologic giant and waved to us that we should follow. In the distance an oryx watched our every move and eyed us with the vision of an antelope constantly on watch for desert dwelling lions. Would this lonesome antelope give us away? Would the rhino warn the rhino and precipitate her escape? The rhino must have suspected our presence but did not run away from us, we who had come so far to behold her. After a twenty-minute stint, we finally came within 300 feet of her and her one year old calf. She knew we were there and even moved a few steps on several occasions. Once, she even lay down next to the euphorbia bush that was her safety blanket, luxuriating in the shade of a magnificent bush that is one of the mainstays of her diet, and which is poisonous to most other species. We watched her partly mystified by the near perfect stillness of this gargantuan mammalian leftover from a bygone age still holding on, on the edge of the bearable world. Here was a living boulder whose very existence symbolized the precariousness of the life force and what humanity was doing to its earthly brethren. Here before us was a modern day Excalibur whose horn, its one great defining luxury, harbored the seed of its potential demise forever. In the antediluvian air that enveloped us, before the mythic magic of this ponderous but graceful monster, the heart was stilled to the pace of the eons that had preceded us. Here was a being half unicorn, half dinosaur inspired. We were mere interlopers before a gargantuan whose motive for being on this earth was as pure and stolid and free as the bedrock on which it roamed.

In Europe, in the 16th century Albrecht Durer, the great artists and lithographer, made a sketch of an Indian rhino that was shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. Some say no animal woodcut has been as influential as this piece that rocked the European imagination like few others in art history. In this solitary outpost of Namibia, a fable still haunts the living sands of a seemingly inexhaustible stretch of time, far from the madding crowd. But outside pressures are gaining on this imponderably perfect beast. In the quiet hot rage of an all presiding intelligence, known as the desert, a phantasm with a miraculous defense on its nose reminded us that this land was no place for man. More importantly, it reminded us to stay away and that if we were to lose such a fantastic being, the rocks surrounding us would no longer be a place of wilderness and would no longer constitute a place of revelation, but a tombstone for our species. There are plans to airlift many dozens of rhinos from South Africa to Texas, ironically the very place where major trophy hunting clubs reside. After the slaughter of Cecil, the lion in Zimbabwe, Africa, the US and the world should indeed rethink the policy of trophy hunting, even old rhinos, for it is a lame man’s game. The US has the money but does it have the will and the heart to stop the taking of innocent lives, whether they be wolves or elephants or lions or polar bears or rhinos? Conservation and execution are poles apart and there is much evidence to show that trophy hunters are impairing the overall populations of mammals all over the African continent and indeed the world.

The US should also do everything in its power to strengthen the endangered species act, here at home, lest visionless bureaucrats and politicians let the wilderness bleed out of the human experience. In the larger war to save the giants of the earth, the loss of the rhinos and elephants in this time is rending us into moral dwarfs. The fight is on for holding on to what is left. Their extinction, by failing the life force, would signal a prelude to our walking off the cliff of time. We are a young species, not even adolescent in evolutionary time but we are also acting as if we were senile towards everything even remotely sentient

It is appropriate that a major elephant researcher in South Africa told us that we would save ourselves by poetry and not just science. She meant that we had to find the inner consciousness and heart to transform our dialogue with the earth, with life itself. Our emotional engagement with existence has to be retrieved and immediately or why do people have children at all? It is the battle of our time. In the ravishment of sheer beholding, a single black rhino and her calf, transformed us into worshippers of the still marauding life force, moving rock and muscle become one, a giant upon the earth still bearing her sword of Excalibur upon her face, like a beacon of the incalculably wondrous.

Cyril Christo is a photographer and film-maker. He has been interviewed previously on Mongabay, including Butchering nature’s titans: without the elephant ‘we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder’, Ten years after Lost Africa: a retrospective on indigenous issues, and Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves.

The Antarctic Dive Guide: Third Edition

June 9th, 2015 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

There are some things I can imagine doing, and then are some things I can never imagine doing. Scuba diving in the Antarctic is in the latter category. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever consider scuba diving in Antarctic. I do not like cold water. I do not like mildly cold water. I can barely swim in tepid water.

In The Antarctic Dive Guide: Fully Revised and Updated Third edition, Lisa Eareckson Kelley introduces us scuba diving in the oceans surrounding Antarctica. And yes, there is a detailed section in the book discussing how you might get hypothermia scuba diving in Antarctica, yet, if you bravely move on to further enjoy the book, you will learn about the fascinating and abundant wildlife that are seen, photographed, and videotaped in the waters around Antarctica. You understand how there is a thriving scuba diving tourism industry in these same waters, and you learn what dive qualifications you need to have before you go to Antarctica.

I admire those that will dive in Antarctica, and Lisa Earkeckson Kelley’s The Antarctic Dive Guide: Fully Revised and Updated Third edition is impressive in its readability and accessibility to a forlorn land most of us will never encounter.

Until The Antarctic Dive Guide: Fully Revised and Updated Third edition, Antarctica was the sole realm of military and scientific expeditions below the surface of the sea. Now, with this book, you can plan your dive trip to Antartica, focus on what type of wildlife you want to see whether mammals, birds, fish, or the myriad creatures that reside below the surface. You can learn how to travel safely and dive without leaving a footprint.

Or, if you are like me, and diving in the cold waters of Antarctica is not on your bucket list, you can enjoy reading this phenomenal guidebook by Lisa Eareckson Kelley, appreciate the romantic vistas of this southern snow kingdom from afar, and greatly admire those who have brought the pictures from the beneath sea to life in this splendid book.

How to order:

The Antarctic Dive Guide: Fully Revised and Updated Third edition
Publisher:            Wild Guides and Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691163444
Author:                   Lisa Eareckson Kelley

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World

June 9th, 2015 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

Why should we be interested in learning about sharks and concerned about the role they play in our Earth’s oceans? Sharks form a critical cornerstone supporting regulation of our Earth’s oceans. Sharks

In A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World by David A. Ebert, Sarah Fowler & Marc Dando, we learn about the 501 shark species currently identified, including the 77 shark species newly identified since 2005, that live throughout the Earth’s oceans.

Globally, there are 1200 known species of Chondrichthyes which include sharks, rays, and chimaeras. The Chondrichthyes are fish with jaws, multiple gill openings, and flexile cartilaginous skeletons. Sharks, or Elasmobranchs, are some of the most common Chondrichthyes. Sharks are highly threatened globally. Many sharks are killed as bycatch during fishery operations. While many other sharks are killed for their fins and meat by targeted fisheries. According to IUCN, roughly 50% of the Earth’s sharks species are threatened.

A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World lets us easily identify sharks from around the world. The book also is handy for landlubbers – those of us stuck on land – because it has specific chapters dedicated to recognizing living species and parts of fish sold in markets. Next time you see shark fins and teeth for sale on land, you can use A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World and easily identify which unfortunate shark these fins and teeth come from.

Elegantly illustrated in much the same fashion as well-known bird and mammal books, A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World is a great addition to the library o both the armchair traveler, like me, who rarely travels, and the intrepid traveler, who is rarely at home.

How to order:

A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691165998
Author:                   David A. Ebert, Sarah Fowler & Marc Dando

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Thank You, Madagascar: Conservation Diaries of Alison Jolly – book review

March 3rd, 2015 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

In Thank You, Madagascar: Conservation Diaries of Alison Jolly, Dr. Jolly tells the riveting, personal, and often heroic tale of Madagascar conservation. For over fifty years, from her first steps in Madagascar in the early 1960s to her most recent visit before her untimely passing February 2014, she takes the reader step-by-step through Madagascar’s conservations successes and challenges as the countries careens from one economic development experiment to another – from socialism to dictatorships to sustainable development – even while its own citizens suffer from horrific malnutrition, famine, and disease.

She also provides a detailed account of the daily travails those from Madagascar and those coming from overseas to Madagascar faced in attempting to simultaneously secure a sustainable development dividend for the same forest dependent communities who rely on the forest for their daily sustenance. Jolly – through the intimate lens of sharing her personal conservation diaries from the past fifty years – challenges us to consider – does Madagascar’s unique endemism and biological richness belong either to the entire world, to the forest-dependent communities, or to those who see it only as an economic resource to be exploited?

Jolly also describes how her decades of studying lemurs demonstrated that their complex social relationships – filled with grooming, play, and interacting – formed an evolutionary basis for the development of higher intelligence Jolly further discovered that the lemurs of Madagascar are a female dominated group.

In one highly charming and entertaining anecdote, Jolly explains in-person to Jeffrey Katzenberg – producer of the Madagascar movies – while they are both in the forests of Madagascar, that lemurs would not have a king. Instead, she suggests that he rewrite the Madagascar movie screenplay including the lead lemur as a female queen, as opposed to a male. Advice, Katzenberg didn’t take.

On the more serious side, Jolly’s impact on conservation in Madagascar is unmeasurably. Simply put, because of her scientific work and her collaborative approach to leadership and team building, she has left a rich legacy of active Madagascar native-born ecologists furthering her groundbreaking scientific analysis.

Jolly, unfortunately, you will be unable to read our Mongabay review as you passed a year ago. We will continue to work as diligently and thoroughly as we can to conserve Madagascar’s endemic ecosystems, its myriad of unique flora and fauna, and of course, it beautiful and beguiling lemurs – the primates whom whose conservation you dedicated your life. Personally, thank you for writing your book as it left me in tears.

I hope others have the chance to read Jolly’s book, delve into the Homerian richness and tragedy of Madagascar’s endemic flora and fauna, while seeking solace in the impact a single person can have – such as you – on the knowledge, conservation, and sustainable development of a country such as Madagascar.

How to order:

Thank You, Madagascar: Conservation Diaries of Alison Jolly
Publisher:            University of Chicago Press and Zed Books
ISBN:                        9781783603183
Author:                   Alison Jolly, PhD.

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition – Book Review

January 12th, 2015 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition is a wonderful updated and expanded second edition to the original Birds of New Guinea published 28 years ago. New Guinea is the world’s largest and possibly most diverse tropical island. Ranging from glaciers to steep volcanic valleys to scrubland to remote islands, New Guinea also has some of the most diverse avifauna on Earth, including the bulk of the world’s rightly famous birds-of-paradise.

Close to half of New Guinea’s birds are endemic – found nowhere else on Earth. From cassowaries to parrots to birds-of-paradise to kingfishers, New Guinea has some of the most interesting and diverse birding opportunities found anywhere on Earth. Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition describes in rich, illustrated plates 780 bird species including 366 endemic birds found only on New Guinea.

In Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition, the authors have greatly expanded the description of each species beyond the typical birding guide. Each bird’s description includes a highly detailed analysis of their behavior, diet, nesting, and other features including how to identify sex and local variation in plumage and size. This is done by changing the typical bird book style where information is only opposite the illustration of each bird by adding a second much larger expanded section on each bird that is separate from the illustration of each bird.

Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition is an absolute must-have for both birders and individuals who work in the public or private sector focused on conservation of New Guinea’s ecosystems.

How to order:

Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691095639
Authors:                Thane K. Pratt and Bruce M. Beehler, authors; John C. Anderton and Szabolcs Kókay, illustrators

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Birds of Western Africa – book review

January 6th, 2015 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

The Birds of Western Africa: Second Edition is a fully updated and comprehensive expansion of the first edition, which was the winner of the 2004 Best Bird Book – Africa, Worldtwitch. This revised second edition, which is both compact and lightweight, is a must for any naturalist or scientist working in the region.

The Birds of Western Africa: Second Edition is authoritative and easy to use. It is the most up-to-date field guide available for bird species from Senegal and southern Mauritania to Chad in the northeast and Congo in the south. It has detailed descriptions of 1,285 birds alongside over 3,000 illustrations. Each bird species includes juvenile and adult illustrations and, in some cases, flight and variant illustrations.

Information on habitat, abundance, and endangered species status according to IUCN Red List is also provided. Given that the book covers such a large collection of birds, it is remarkable in its economy and usefulness of information.

The Birds of Western Africa: Second Edition is a must-have for any naturalist or scientist who is focused on West Africa.

How to order:

The Birds of Western Africa: Second Edition
Publisher:     Princeton University Press
ISBN:         9780691159201
Author:     Nik Borrow & Ron Demey


Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Capturing the Wild: Jaguars in Belize

October 31st, 2014 by mongabay

Commentary and photos by: Fabienne Lefeuvre

The native inhabitants of Suriname referred to him as a God. He is the third largest cat in the world after the tiger and the lion. The Native American called him ‘yaguar’ which means ‘he who kills with one leap': the jaguar. The jaguar (Panthera onca) can be found in 18 Latin American countries. Today they are mainly concentrated between Southern Arizona and New Mexico to Northern Argentina, but are extinct in EL Salvador and Uruguay.

‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

Males measure around 1.8 m (6 feet) long and can weigh up to 113 kg (250 lb). Females are usually smaller and lighter (100kg). They can reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, males at around four. Female jaguars can have a litter of 1-4 cubs at the time which, they would defend fiercely (even against their own father). Most jaguars have an orange colour coat with distinctive black spots which are unique to each individual and can be used by humans to identify individuals.

‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

But others born black are called ‘black panthers’. This melanism is conferred by a dominant allele that gives that excessive black pigment on the jaguar’s coat, a biological mechanism called ‘ ghost tripping’. The spots are actually still present but hidden by the dark skin pigmentation.

‘Lucky Boy’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

These powerful mammals are opportunistic hunters. Highly muscular with very powerful jaws, they are efficient ‘stalk and ambush’ predators. They can kill huge prey such as cows, but their preferences usually center around deer, coati, peccaries, armadillo, capybaras, birds, small mammals and even snakes. Occasionally their diet includes fish or large river turtles. Jaguars can break open turtle shells using their strong canines and unlike other big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards that attack their prey at the neck or throat, jaguars often kill preys by biting through their skulls, between the ears.

Junior at the Belize Zoo.

Jaguars are solitary animals; their territory is about of 20 square kilometres which they mark with their waste or by clawing trees. Unlike most cats, jaguars like water and are actually good swimmers. Like most jungle cats, jaguars mainly hunts at night or twilight hours so scientists have the difficult task to guess their numbers in the wild. The recent use of camera traps has, however, contributed in better data collection and in having an overall better understanding of their location and behaviour.

Today their survival as a species is still at risk. It is estimated that there are only 15,000 individuals left in the wild. Jaguars suffer from habitat destruction and fragmentation due to human population growth, farming activities, illegal hunting and a decline in wild prey numbers (due to overhunting). This fuels the vicious cycle of human-wildlife conflicts, often forcing jaguars to prey on livestock.

A Threatened Species

Jaguars were widespread in the New World until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when hunting for sport and fur started to decimate their numbers. ‘Between the 1960’s and 1970’s, as many as 18,000 jaguars were killed each year for their beautiful coat’ according to the big cat conservation organisation Panthera. In 1973, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), brought the fur trade to an official stand-still. This species was then listed on Appendix I of CITES as ‘near threatened’ by IUCN.

Panthera onca is a near-threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature organisation (IUCN) red list. Like many apex predators, their reproduction cycle is slow so the killings of adult jaguars has a direct impact on the overall population.

‘Edgar Hill-in Pine Hill –Southern Belize.

Human-jaguar conflicts are on the rise in Belize, as human population and farming activities are expanding. The Mennonite farmers claimed that a jaguar had threatened the life of a man on his horse-wagon and that several jaguars were roaming in the garden in day light.

Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.

Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.

Jaguars and Humans: A Fragile Co-Existence in Belize

Jaguars are facing an imminent threat in Belize; they often pay for trespassing on human settlements (especially farms) with their lives. In some rare cases their lives are spared; Mennonite farmers capture them using traps.

Field research undertaken by Dr. Omar Figueroa — a Belizean researcher from the district of Cayo — reports that there are most likely no more than 800 jaguars remaining in Belize.

Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’

‘Edgar Hil’ was named after one of his rescuer ‘Edgar Correa’ from the Belizean Forest Department and ‘Hill’ as the Mennonite farm he was found in was in ‘Pine Hill’ in Southern Belize.

Rescuing Jaguars

The Belize Zoo has been hosting more and more jaguars over the years such as ‘Junior’ (who was born at the Zoo), so many that its capacity is now limited.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

Jaguars and other big cats, such as pumas, suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation all over The Americas. The welfare of the remaining free-roaming ones is under threat. The Belize Zoo strongly works to enforce the concept of the Central Wildlife Corridor which, in theory, would provide habitat for jaguars to roam north-south.

Jaguars in Captivity

Reports show that jaguars that had been previously translocated had travelled back to their initial territory, so once a jaguar is captured it can never be released to the wild again.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

A Zoo with a Natural Environment

The Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by an American biologist who was hired to look after native wild animals used in a wildlife documentary. She decided to rescue the animals, as they could no longer be released into the wild. The zoo is spread over 29 acres, and is home to more than 150 animals of about 45 species, all native to Belize. The natural environment of Belize is left entirely intact within the zoo, the dense, natural vegetation separated only by gravel trails through the forest. The zoo plays an immense educational role in Belize, allowing locals to meet the most charismatic and endangered animals in the world, hopefully raising awareness of the environmental damage that we cause and hopefully will bring people together to become better green ambassadors.

Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’

The presence of big cats in zoos can be seen as educational; and jaguars tend to live around ten years longer in captivity than in the wild. However, the space in the enclosures could however never match the jaguars’ normal territory of 20 square kilometres.

Many jaguars seen on farming lands in Belize are killed on site.

Conservation organisations such as Panthera work around the clock in Latin America to protect dense forests and set appropriate corridors between national parks for jaguars (such as the Jaguar Corridor Initiative -JCI ) . The purpose of the JCI is to connect jaguar populations throughout Las Americas to protect the genetic balance of the Panthera onca species. To date, research shows that there are no recorded sub-species of Panthera onca throughout the stretch of Latin American countries. This genetic continuity is unique to this big cat species.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

Southern Belize is one of the last strongholds for jaguars in Central America. It is the most well forested region and represents an important natural corridor for other big cats as well.

The Passenger Pigeon – book review

October 30th, 2014 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

In 1800, passenger pigeons may have counted for 2 out of every 5 living birds in North America. Their flocks were in the billions. By 1914, they became extinct when Martha – the last passenger pigeon – died in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo.

On the 100th year anniversary of her death, a new book, simply called The Passenger Pigeon, is a stunningly illustrated and rich cultural memorial to Martha – the last passenger pigeon – and to passenger pigeon’s unique ecological and cultural niche in the North America. The Passenger Pigeon is filled with haunting images and references by some of the greatest North American authors – Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and others. These stories and ghostly images of a species that once numbered in the billions open up a door to time for us experience the passenger pigeon through our imaginations.

The Passenger Pigeon includes actual birdcalls written done in treble clef on a music staff and is  adorned with advertisements from 150 years ago promoting pigeons hunts and inexpensive pigeon as food.

Yet, now, as we struggle to stop a global catastrophic biodiversity collapse, are their lessons we can learn from how the passenger pigeon – a species that numbered in the billions – went extinct in a single human lifespan? When we review historical records, we can interpret how deforestation in North America, needless killing of passenger pigeons as “pests,” and the consumption of their meat led to their extinction. Likewise, in reading The Passenger Pigeon we understand the heroic efforts early pioneers of conservation went through to educate the public and conserve passenger pigeons.

Our societal hubris sent passenger pigeons by train boxcar to manufacturing plants where their feathers were plucked for mattresses and their corpses sold for 30 cents a dozen for meat .But today, scientists are debating if and should we try to bring back the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) using modern scientific techniques. While at one point in our recent history, passenger pigeons were so numerous that the sound from an unimaginably massive flock was similar to rolling thunder and pounding horse hoofs, now we need consider what are the ramifications of potentially bringing back a species that has previously gone extinct?

While I have no opinion on this, what I might suggest is that we honor Martha and the passenger pigeon this year in the 100th anniversary of their extinction by remembering their impact on us, their place in nature, and never doing this again to any other species on Earth.

How to order:    The Passenger Pigeon
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691162959
Author:                   Errol Fuller

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Santa Lucia: a Gem amongst Ecuador’s Cloud Forest Reserves (Photos)

October 29th, 2014 by mongabay

Photo Essay and Commentary By: Etienne Littlefair

The time is 6:30 am, a faint glimmer of light is just breaking the horizon revealing gnarled epiphyte laden trees still dripping from the rains that had passed through earlier in the morning. In the distance the piercing call of a Wattled Guan cuts through the morning air. I think to myself how lucky I am, as the remnant cloud cover seems to evaporate away leaving a crisp, still morning. Perfect conditions for viewing the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek that I had torn myself away from the comfort of my cabana and hiked through the forest in the hope of witnessing. The first sign of Cock-of-the-Rock manifests as a rustling of wings, the shake of a branch and then a startlingly loud call from just above the foliage blind concealing me from the lek site. Tense with excitement, I patiently wait whilst the sun continues its ascent, all the while more birds flock to the scene and enter the fray, a song and dance where male Cock-of-the-Rock compete for the right to mate.

A male Cock-of-the-Rock astride his mossy perch.

This early experience during my stay at Santa Lucia was to set the scene for three weeks of immense joy and wonder inspired by the natural world. In my time at Santa Lucia I conducted herpetofauna surveys as part of a team of ecologists from various universities working with Operation Wallacea, a UK based conservation charity. This opportunity gave me many insights into Ecuadorean life, and hammered home the need to protect remaining primary forest habitats.

Santa Lucia is a cloud forest reserve situated in the Ecuadorean province of Pichincha, close to the small town, Nanegal. The reserve is owned and run by 20 families within the local community whose economy was historically based on agricultural produce, particularly sugar cane. Following a government act granting legal protection to the forest in 1988, the local people had to adapt their land use in order to maintain their livelihood and income. In the late 90’s the construction of an eco-lodge situated on a high panoramic ridge began. The mission statement of Santa Lucia is ‘to create jobs and other benefits by means of a well run ecotourism business which allows us to conserve the forest and which respects the values of cooperative members and those of the community.’

My first view of the lodge upon arrival, the lodge itself was constructed using materials from the forest, and much of the excellent food served at mealtimes is grown at the lodge.

The excellent vegetable patch, panoramic veranda and forested backdrop.

The lodge today is set up to cater for all manner of eco-tourists, those who wish to spend day and night prowling the forests in search of elusive species, and those who wish to relax and soak in the scenery. As well as catering for tourists, the lodge has a purpose built field laboratory and facilities for lecturing making it a fantastic base to conduct field courses and research forest ecology.

The stunning views from the lodge showcase the beauty and fragility of the Andean cloud forests within an increasingly human dominated landscape.

The reserve spans a wide altitudinal band from around 1500m to 2450m above sea level. The location and altitude of the reserve makes Santa Lucia a key area for Spectacled bears, a species classed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Santa Lucia is part of an initiative to form a ‘bear corridor’ facilitating seasonal movement of Spectacled bears from lower cloud forest areas into the higher páramo zone. A long term and on going study conducted by Dr Mika Peck of Sussex University aims to recognise individual bears within the reserve using facial markings discerned from camera trap images. This work allows population estimates to be made.

Spectacled bear. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Threats to Spectacled bears include habitat degradation and direct persecution by landowners. Bears will occasionally venture into agricultural areas and feed on crops, which leads to conflict. Sadly in some areas bears are shot purely for sport. It is hoped that establishment of the bear movement corridor may help to alleviate human bear conflict. 18 additional species of medium to large mammal have been caught on camera within the reserve including such oddities as the Andean Wolf.

Puma. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Jaguarundi. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

The staff of Santa Lucia are passionate naturalists, a fact made evident by the level of knowledge and skill displayed in the field. The reserve manager, Noe () is a particularly knowledgeable ornithologist. A highlight for any birder is the presence of Andean cock-of-the-rock, of all birds, amongst the most charismatic and sought after species inhabiting Andean cloud forests. There are also around 12 species of hummingbird present including the dramatic Booted racquet-tail and Violet-tailed Sylph. In total 405 bird species have been recorded in and around the reserve.

Whilst the birds and the large mammals are perhaps more evident and certainly better known within the reserve, the reptiles and amphibians are certainly their equal in beauty and mystery.  They also fulfill many important roles in the ecology of the cloud forest. At Santa Lucia I identified 13 species of amphibian including the Emerald Glassfrog (Espadarana prosoblepon), the bizarre Pinocchio rainfrog (Pristimantis appendiculatus) the endangered Goblin Rainfrog (Pristimantis sobetes) and perhaps most significantly Eugenia’s rainfrog (Pristimantis eugenia). Eugenia’s Rainfrog being a species closely associated with bromeliads and known from only a handful of cloud forest sites within an altitudinal range of around 300m.

Pinocchio rainfrog – (Pristimantis appendiculatus)

Goblin rainfrog – (Pristimantis sobetes)

Eugenia’s rainfrog – (Pristimantis eugenia)

Emerald glassfrog – (Espadarana prosoblepon)

I identified 13 species of reptile within the reserve. Some highlights included the Elegant Snail Sucker (Dipsas elegans) a species endemic to the Western Ecuadorean Andes, the Giant groundsnake (Atractus gigas) a very rare, and likely Ecuadorean endemic snake first described in 2006. Also present and fairly abundant are at least two species of Anole, the Gem anole (Anolis gemmosus) and the larger Equatorial anole (Anolis aequitorialis).

Elegant snail-sucker – (Dipsas elegans)

Giant groundsnake – (Atractus gigas)

Gem anole – (Anolis gemmosus) dewlap close up

Gem anole in situ – (Anolis gemmosus)

Equatorial anole displaying its impressive dewlap – (Anolis aequitorialis)

For me, this final image of a fast flowing stream, a prominent feature in the Santa Lucia landscape, reveals something of the character and mystery of the reserve.

With continued investment from both tourists and research groups such as Operation Wallacea and Sussex University, gladly, the local community, the forest and the wildlife of Santa Lucia are likely to prosper long into the future. The reserve is one of the most successful and promising examples of sustainable community based conservation that I have had the pleasure of visiting and contributing to. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Santa Lucia for anyone with a love of nature and the outdoors.

Visit the Santa Lucia website to find out more.



The Bee: A Natural History – book review

October 29th, 2014 by mongabay

By Gabriel Thoumi

Did you know…

  • There are 20,000 species of bees on Earth.
  • Bees pollinate 130 of the foods we depend on and are often the sole and only pollinator of the foods we eat every day.
  • Bees and other animals cross-pollinate over 90 percent of Earth’s plants.
  • Bees co-evolved, along with angiosperms – flowering plants – over 100 million years ago.
  • Ancient Egyptians were avid beekeepers possibly as far back as 5,000 BCE – or over 7,000 years ago.
  • Bees are divided into three groups depending on the length of their proboscis – or tongue.
  • Since the 1980s, bee populations in the US have collapsed – called colony collapse disorder – by some measures of at least 50 percent, resulting in farmers trying to pollinate crops by hand and tech companies designing robot bee pollinators. Some food prices in the US have risen dramatically because of colony collapse disorder.
  • Bees are responsible for roughly $200 billion dollars globally each year in economic activity.
  • Bees are herbivores. Their diet only consists of flowers.
  • Beekeepers do not eat bananas because bananas release a scent that alarms them.

The Bee: A Natural History is a great book for your bookshelf. If you are interested in understanding how bee pollination impacts global ecosystems and economics, and you want an easily readable compendium of information with great graphics, nicely illustrated photos, and accessible  information on the lives of bees then The Bee: A Natural History is the resource for you.

Written by Noah Wilson-Rich, PhD., Best Bees Company, CEO, the book lets you dive into the natural history of bees and learn about solitary bees, stingless bees, beehive health as impacted by bee grooming habits, and of course, what you can do to protect vulnerable creatures.

For more information on The Bee: A Natural History and the current condition of bees, listen to Wilson-Rich’s interview on Radio Boston (here) and his great TED Talk – Every city needs healthy honey bees.

Let’s support our bees and urban bee keeping!

How to order:

The Bee: A Natural History
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691161358
Authors:                Noah Wilson-Rich, PhD. with contributions from Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck, and Andrea Quigley, PhD.

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to