Reporter’s Journal: From Panama

April 16th, 2014

By SRI Fellow Ruxandra Guidi

Kuna historian Don Jesus Smith (left), listens to presentations next to his son, Jesus Smith Jr. Copyright (c) 2014 Ruxandra Guidi

Don Jesus was tasked with the logistics for the conference, and Don Feliciano would be taking care of all the meals for more than 25 people. This was no small feat for these two septuagenarian men, who had to do a lot of phone calling and running around in order to try to secure things like ice and a motorboat and a generator. In the end, ice was the only thing they couldn’t get — and that’s because refrigeration is hard to come by on the island. If you were to bring it by motorboat, the ice would have likely melted under the hot Caribbean sun along the way.

This was the first conference of its kind to be held in Ustupu, one of the 49 populated islands that make up the Kuna Yala comarca, an indigenous territory in Panama unlike any other worldwide. In the last decade, severe weather changes have caused regular flooding on many of the islands, and the local sea level has been increasing around three-quarters of an inch each year due to the effects of climate change. Because of Kuna Yala’s current quandary and also its unique history of land rights and forest conservation, the community was chosen as the site for a discussion about climate change focused solely on the perspective of indigenous peoples.

Facing the crowd at barely five feet tall, and wearing his trademark baseball hat and flip-flops, Don Jesus welcomed the group with an introduction to Kuna history.

Conference attendees go for a hike in Kuna Yala’s mainland forest. Photo copyright (c) Ruxandra Guidi 2014.

“Over two hundred years ago, our great-grandparents who were living further east, in Colombia, got displaced,” he began. “So they started looking for their promised land. They were looking for not just a place to live and to grow food, but also a place where they could conserve the plants they depended on, their traditions, and language.”

According to Don Jesus, his ancestors knew “how to face change.” So rather than move to the mainland, where they’d have to contend with mosquitos, mangroves, difficult terrain, and wild animals, the Kuna decided to settle on dozens of small islands peppering what today is the eastern Caribbean coast of Panama. They would continue to live off the sea, catching lobster and octopus, but also practicing subsistence farming on the edges of the mainland forest. This is still the Kuna way of life today.

The conference attendees, young men and women from Kenya, Ecuador, Chile, Manipur, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and from the Emberá community of Panama, listened to one Kuna elder after another, their words being spoken in their native language, then translated into Spanish and English, via interpretation headsets.

For Jemimah Mattei, a Masaii activist, and Lalit Chakma, from Bangladesh, the Kuna experience was as foreign as it was refreshing. After all, both indigenous leaders had traveled a very long way to hear these older men speak about how they managed to not only hold on to land, forests, and their traditions, but also the ways in which they’re planning their future today, in the age of climate change.

Around the world, indigenous peoples are feeling the effects of climate change — sea level rise, increased rates of wild fires and drought — disproportionately. And coming up with localized, independent, sustainable adaptations to climate change is key for their survival. But as it turns out, some of those homegrown solutions to our current climate crisis could also hold important lessons for us all.

After four days of PowerPoint presentations (powered by a loud generator), group discussions about the meaning of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and visits to the Kuna’s mainland forest, the conference ended, and everyone started their long treks home.

This summer, I’ll return to Ustupu with photographer Bear Guerra, my husband and collaborator. We’ll reconnect with some Kuna elders, young Kuna leaders, biologists, and experts on medicinal plants and forests, to look more deeply into those lessons the Kuna may be able to share with the world.

Andres de Leon talks to two young Kuna students about his small banana farm on the mainland forest. Photo copyright (c) Ruxandra Guidi 2014.

 


Panama’s carbon in high fidelity

India plans new railway through protected areas, threatens already-imperiled wildlife

April 11th, 2014
Chital deer roadkill on Bandipur highway. Photo by Raghuram.

Chital deer roadkill on Bandipur highway. Photo by R. Raghuram.

 

—Special report by Sanjay Gubbi and Shreya Dasgupta—

On a winter day in November 2013, a passenger train in the eastern state of West Bengal in India collided with a herd of 40 to 50 elephants, killing five adults and two calves. This was not an isolated event. Such grisly incidences have killed tigers, leopards and several other wildlife species in the past. In fact, train-kills like these have become a routine affair in India.

The country’s fiscal growth has necessitated the development and improvement of its surface transport infrastructure. New roads and railway lines have been implemented or planned in many wildlife-rich areas. In addition, several state governments have amplified their demands for new railway lines that would pass through key tiger and elephant habitats.

Bandipur, together with the adjoining Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, has one of the highest densities of large mammals in the world. These reserves connect with other protected areas including BRT, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves, as well as Cauvery and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuaries, forming one of the country’s largest contiguous wild tiger and elephant habitats (approximately 9,000 square kilometers, or 3,475 square miles). This may appear to be stamp-sized when compared to the colossal wildlife habitats in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the area is highly productive, holding wildlife densities comparable to the African savannahs.

Approximate route of the proposed railway line passing through Bandipur and Wayanad preserves. Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation

Approximate route of the proposed railway line passing through Bandipur and Wayanad preserves. Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation/Panthera

To a large extent, the Karnataka Forest Department has curtailed threats such as poaching. But linear intrusions such as highways and power lines continue to disturb these globally important wildlife habitats. Additionally, new threats are emerging as economic changes bring about new needs for India’s human populations. Growing human population and increased affluence among a section of the society has increased the demand for human use of wild areas. This demand is mostly for accommodation of industries such as electricity generation, surface transport, agriculture, tourism and other needs that either fragment or lead to a total loss of wildlife habitats.

The new railway line demanded by the state of Kerala, if implemented, will bisect 32 kilometers (20 miles) through two protected areas (Bandipur and Wayanad). This could eventually spell doom for wildlife, especially wide-ranging species such as tigers and elephants.

Construction of this railway line would only add to Bandipur’s battles against rampant development. Two national highways passing through this tiger reserve have demonstrated the negative impacts that linear intrusions can have on wildlife. Studies have shown highway development through wildlife habitat can lead to high rates of wildlife mortality due to vehicular collisions, genetic isolation, impediment of animal movement and increased agitation due to vehicular noise.

Traffic-related wildlife mortality is especially high at night. Several nocturnal species such as the civet, mouse deer, black-naped hare and various reptiles are regular victims of speeding vehicles. In addition, key prey species for tigers such as axis deer are also regularly hit. Young individuals are particularly susceptible to vehicular collisions at night due to their slow responses to speeding vehicles and their tendency to become transfixed by headlights.

In addition, vehicular traffic during the night could facilitate increased use of the area for illegal activities such as timber smuggling and wildlife poaching. Previously caught poachers in Bandipur and BRT Tiger Reserves confessed to having hunted at night on the highways passing through these reserves. Highway edges are a nighttime draw for many prey species due to increased visibility of predators; unfortunately, by lingering near roadways, these species become more visible to human hunters.

Through persistent efforts, forest officials, the state board of wildlife and conservationists convinced key policy and decision makers of the conservation merits of night traffic closure. They did this by providing a solution that would ensure commuters at night would remain unaffected: an alternative road that bypassed Bandipur, and which was only 35 kilometers (20 miles) longer than the highways inside the protected area.

Soon after, in a landmark move, the state government of Karnataka spent $7.8 million (INR 4.7 billion) to improve this alternative road. It passes along the edge of Nagarahole and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuaries, and is a much less damaging option when compared to traffic passing through the core of Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves at night.

Tiger killed on Bandipur highway. Photo by Yathish Kumar.

Bengal tiger killed on Bandipur highway. Photo by D. Yathish.

However, the battle is not yet over. We continue to fight against business interests who have challenged the night closure in the Supreme Court of India. But for now, the ban has ensured at least a little peace for tigers, their prey and other denizens of Bandipur, Mudumalai and Wayanad.

Yet, the progress made by reducing the impact of highways has so far not been echoed by railways. The neighboring state of Kerala has remained the loudest and most persistent supporter of the proposed line. They remain obstinate despite the Indian Railway’s report that the project is not economically feasible, demanding a huge investment on the order of $700 million (INR 42.67 billion). Additionally, they say that environmental impacts can be very large. Based on this report, the Kerala High Court rejected the rail expansion project when business interests expressed opposition.

Protagonists of the railway line argue that an elevated track would be environmentally feasible. However, the funds needed to build such a track and the disturbances it would create during the construction phase (which often happens at snail’s pace in India) may be substantial and prohibitive.

For countries like India where protected areas are small and human population is great, finding solutions in the best interests of wildlife is of huge importance – and very complicated. It’s not just about keeping rail tracks out of the animals’ way. As our protected areas are small, the problems facing them are several folds higher than those in North America, where engineering solutions could prove to be win-win solutions. Any additional development within India’s protected areas comes at a huge cost to wildlife.

The proposed railway line would also be completely counterproductive to attempts at conserving wildlife habitats in the area. For example, the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in India has designated theadjoining areas of Bandipur as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). Developmental activities such as mining and construction of polluting industries and hydropower projects are prohibited or regulated in ESZs that exist in the immediate vicinity of a protected area. Developing a railway line either within the tiger reserve or in the limits of the ESZ is also prohibited. However, many business groups have been relentlessly using political pressure in effort to circumvent these regulations and implement the railway project through Bandipur.

Bandipur National Park. Photo by Praveen Ramaswamy.

Bandipur National Park. Photo by Praveen Ramaswamy.

Since December 2011, the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera have supported the efforts of the government to ensure that ESZs are designated around the protected areas of Karnataka. They convinced elected representatives and local communities, as well as provided technical input for the delineation and declaration of ESZs. This has been seen as a unique effort as in most areas it is difficult to convince political leaders of the benefits of conservation. However, a senior legislator from the area helped us garner support among other legislators and people within the district.

Additionally, the National Wildlife Action Plan drafted under the chairmanship of the country’s Prime Minister, mandates the Ministry of Surface Transport and Ministry of Railways to by-pass all protected areas and corridors while constructing roads and railways. Yet, governments continue to demand that these linear infrastructures pass through fragile landscapes.

There are several alternatives available for transporting freight and passengers while avoiding areas like Bandipur and Waynad. While these alternatives may be slightly more expensive, their ecological benefits are many. The budget of the Indian railways for the year 2014-15 is a colossal $10.74 billion (INR 643 billion), and building alternative routes that bypass wildlife-rich areas will make but a small dent in the allocated resources.

India has earmarked about four percent of the country’s landscape for wildlife preservation and protection. If the swarms of vehicles and speeding trains are kept out of these regions, it would neither affect the country’s aspiring economic growth, nor would it hinder any of our transportation problems.

Losing iconic or keystone species such as tigers and elephants to train-kills would truly undermine the conservation efforts of the government and the many private organizations working hard to preserve India’s unique and irreplaceable biological legacy. When it comes to saving the endangered species of this country, developing safer alternative routes for transport should be a mantra. The tiger cannot change its ecological behavior or move to another habitat; hence, it is up to us to redraw our plans.

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Sanjay Gubbi is a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera, and Shreya Dasgupta is a science communicator at the Nature Conservation Foundation. Both are based in Bangalore, India.

 

Tiger in Bandipur National Park. Photo by A.S. Hari.

Bengal tiger in Bandipur National Park. Photo by A.S. Hari.


 

Reporter’s Journal: Fighting poachers and Mother Nature

April 7th, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Amy E. West

Fijians communities are largely in charge of managing their waterfront. Volunteer fish wardens in the village, appointed by the chief or the Minister, are the only official members of a village who can legally stop poachers. Though they rarely have any equipment to enforce protection of their tabus (swaths of temporarily protected marine areas inside their fishing grounds), they are harder pressed to fight the effects of climate change. Off the Fijian island of Taveuni sits Waitabu Marine Park, which has been closed to fishing for more than 15 years, snorkelers pay to jump in the water. Although bigger fish are abundant in this unusual long-term refuge, their coral reef habitat is suffering. Temperatures hit more than 30 degrees C (86 F) for an extended period of time earlier in the year, and roughly half of the corals experienced bleaching here, ejecting their color-giving symbionts, which can be seen in this image. Shallow areas of this protected reef are also prone to decimation from increasingly severe cyclones. To add insult to injury, the reef-eating starfish, crown-of-thorns, thrives here and munches corals faster than the locals can remove them.

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Amy West who is reporting on the state of Fiji’s coral reef fisheries.

Reporter’s Journal: The Lesser Fish

April 1st, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Amy West.

In Fiji’s capital city of Suva, middlemen buy directly from the fishers. The majority of the fish arrive early Saturday morning, indicating many of the reef fish are caught at night while many fish are asleep, making them easy targets for spearfishers.  In the past, larger quantities of fresh fish was available daily. Now the sellers make fewer catches stretch across the week. The overwhelming concern about the region’s overfishing and depleted nearshore fisheries is not always echoed by the fishmongers. When asked why fish, such as these grouper and parrotfish, were smaller and not as plentiful, they simply replied, “The weather has changed.”

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Amy West who is reporting on the state of Fiji’s coral reef fisheries.

Reporter’s Journal: Dock Boys

March 27th, 2014

By Melati Kaye

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

“Dock boys” take a swim break from sorting and carrying fish at Makassar’s Paotere harbor, where fish caught with hook and line, homemade bombs, and cyanide are brought to port and sold.

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the State of Indonesian Fisheries.

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This post is published under an Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.  If you would like to reprint this piece, unchanged, be sure to list the credit as: By Melati Kaye under Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiative Program.

Reporter’s Journal: The forests of Uganda

March 26th, 2014

In late January through early February I traveled to Uganda as part of the first Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative (SRI) to report on “the next big thing in tropical forest biodiversity conservation.” I’m a world traveler, and I have a special passion for tropical rainforests — having seen them in Australia, the Peruvian Amazon, Asia, and Central America. Africa was my last continent to visit (OK, does Antarctica count? I have not yet been there). I have dreamt of tracking mountain gorillas in the wild since I was 14 years old. I grew up watching National Geographic documentaries of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall (who celebrates her 80th birthday on April 3rd!). And so I thought that seeing mountain gorillas and chimpanzees would be the absolute highlight of my reporting adventure, but it was the people who grabbed my heart.

The Habinyanja family group of mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Park, Uganda.  Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole

My heart was torn by the poverty, particularly the Batwa people, the indigenous forest “pygmies” who were evicted from their former home in Bwindi Impenetrable Park just in 1992 — and also by the generosity, kindness and sacrifice of many Ugandans who are working to improve conditions for others. The Batwa now live in extreme poverty, in conditions that left me in tears. As a journalist and as someone who has seen a lot of poverty around the world — ranging from simple homes and dirty kids to desperate street urchins begging for cash — I have never seen despondency in a child’s eyes in the way that I saw in the Batwa children. The Batwa became “conservation refugees” when Uganda established Bwindi as a national park; they were given no land of their own. They lost their culture, their way of life, and they are still finding their way in a new world.

Although the intent of designating Bwindi as a national park was to save mountain gorillas and the forest ecosystem, research by the late Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, showed that “nationalizing” forest ownership often counterintuitively fails to preserve them; instead, she found that it can lead to a “free for all” on accessing forest products — such as wildlife, firewood, plants for medicine, or wild honey. Before a park gets established, villagers can usually access the forest legally and they often have rules that work for everyone, but afterwards, governments typically restrict all locals from access. This causes traditional, local rules to disintegrate, and the absence of locally agreed on rules leads to overexploitation. Intriguing.

Even more interesting, this exact scenario has been shown true for the Batwa living in forests in Uganda. Makerere University Professor Abwoli Banana studied five community-managed forests, and found that the Echuya forest, which had Batwa (sometimes called Abayanda) living within its borders at the time of his study, had the least illegal poaching and firewood harvest by other locals, who were only allowed forest access one day per week. The Batwa acted as forest monitors, keeping an eye on the forest; Ostrom herself found that having forest monitors helps people’s livelihoods and it helps forests. Professor Banana conducted the study before the Batwa were evicted, and some data suggests that poaching and other illegal activities have not diminished in Bwindi Park since the park’s establishment. The Ugandan government has started to move away from strict protectionist policies, and they now allow some people to access to the forest — though the poorest people with the most need generally have benefitted the least.

The SRI topic that I chose was how Ostrom’s groundbreaking research can be used to help save tropical forests. She outlined eight “design principles” that support the sustainable management of natural resources. Together, these principles suggest ways to resolve the apparent social-ecological dilemma between saving forests and reducing poverty. It’s a topic that has not received extensive coverage outside of select publications, but is absolutely fascinating and important. And from my reading and from speaking to her colleagues, Ostrom was a true hero, the kind of woman who comes around only rarely — a deeply kind and compassionate woman, an incredibly productive researcher, a genius, and a firebrand. She was not afraid to call out entrenched economic theories as “dangerous” — like making policy on the assumption that people can’t and won’t work together to create productive solutions that not only can conserve forests but also improve livelihoods. The best way according to Ostrom? Empower the local people. Give them a say in how forests are managed. I only wish I had met her before she passed away in 2012.

Look for my work to come in publications such as Animal Planet Online and Environmental Health Perspectives, and others. And, of course, on Mongabay.

A young Batwa boy in his home at the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park — where his parents and ancestors had lived until being evicted from the forest in 1992. Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole.

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This post is published under an Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.  If you would like to reprint this piece, unchanged, be sure to list the credit as: By Wendee Nicole under Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiative Program.

Camera-trap Ecotourism: the next big thing in conservation?

March 6th, 2014

By Gregory McCann, Habitat ID

Ecotourism is a popular growing trend, and this is especially true in tropical countries that have a wealth of biodiversity to offer the interested trekker. Cambodia is no exception. I have been visiting Virachey National Park in northeastern Cambodia for the past five years, but my most recent trip involved a special purpose: setting up 14 motion-triggered camera-traps throughout the park. Without giving away the GPS coordinates, let me say that they are strategically placed in areas where we have a great chance of capturing wildlife images. Sounds like a wonderful plan, right? But there is a problem –how do we check up on the cameras, change memory cards, batteries, clear away foliage that threatens to block the sensors and lenses? Send in the rangers, right? Not so simple.

Pre-trek camera and equipment check. Photo by Greg McCann.

In Cambodia—and in other countries throughout Southeast Asia—national park rangers are in many cases given no budget to go on a multi-day patrol in the forest to fight poachers, let alone to check cameras. These patrols and camera-checks usually have to be paid for by someone else, like a wildlife conservation NGO.

Ranger setting up a camera. Photo by Greg McCann.

The new NGO that I helped start, Habitat ID, sets up camera-traps in neglected “paper parks” in an attempt to prove—using photographs of wildlife—that these parks deserve being treated like “real” parks that receive adequate protection. However, even NGOs have limited budgets, as we do as a new organization. And so we must find a creative way to have the cameras maintained on a sustainable basis. Our answer: ecotourism.

We would like to have ecotourists who trek to Virachey’s beautiful and popular Veal Thom Grasslands essentially pay for the camera-checks. These hearty trekkers (it’s a 6-7 night trek, depending on one’s fitness level and the amount of time they have) would trek to the tourist camp as usual, but with the added bonus of being taken to our camera-trap sites to service the cameras. Not only will these camera-trap ecotourists be able to have a look at what kind of animals are roaming the park when no one is around, but they would also be allowed to download some of the camera-trap photos to keep for themselves and share with friends and family. Best of all, they will know that their participation in this activity furthered the conservation cause in the park, because if it wasn’t for them, those cameras wouldn’t be getting checked for some time.

Having serviced camera-traps in Thailand and Cambodia, I can tell you that checking on these devices in the middle of the jungle is thrilling. Keys come out, camera comes down, memory card is slipped into a device with a monitor, and everyone—rangers, porters, and NGO workers— huddles around brimming with excitement. Except it’s not a group of school kids crowding around the guy with a new comic book but people who have been to the forest many times yet still feel excited to see what kind of animals are prowling around.

We want ecotourists to experience this feeling, and they can do it in the Veal Thom Grasslands and also at the D’darr Poom Chop waterfall camp in the forests north of the grasslands, a location that offers spectacular swimming and the chance to service yet another camera on the upper Gan Yu River. To my knowledge only three Western people have ever seen this place (D’darr), myself included.

Wild pig skull. Photo by Greg McCann.

Ecotourists who trek to the Veal Thom Grasslands will therefore be helping the conservation cause in Virachey. There are other cameras that have been placed in a highly remote area near the Laos border and those take extra days to reach, but we imagine that ecotourists, as hearty as some are, probably don’t want to spend 2 weeks in the jungle. To get those distant cameras checked Habitat ID will raise the money to pay for the ranger’s Daily Supply Allowance (DSA) for the long trek to the international border, a very wild area of spirit mountains, carnivores, and, so they say, the Annamite Mountain Yeti, known locally as the “tek-tek.”

If we obtain photos of tigers or rhinoceros these will be deemed sensitive images and publicity will not be possible. Instead, other NGOs and the Ministry of Environment will be notified. However, we feel that sharing pictures of more common—but equally exciting—animals such as elephants, leopards, clouded leopards, sun bears, and other species is permissible. The fact is that local people know (and have long known) what kind of animals live in the park, approximately where they are, and about how many are still there. NGOs may like to think that they have insider knowledge with their camera-trap images, but the fact is that local people who are in the forest all year round have an excellent idea of what is still out there in terms of wildlife, and we aren’t really telling them something they don’t already know (as much as we might like to think so).

Camera-trap Ecotourism is not something we are trying to patent (indeed, maybe people elsewhere are already doing it). On the contrary, we hope that this can be something that under-funded national parks all around the world can replicate. Creative ways are desperately needed to fund conservation in today’s world, and we hope that ecotourism can be used to pay for various initiatives.

On a final note, not only are the cameras being checked with this ecotourism scheme, but ecotourists are simultaneously paying for rangers to patrol deep into the jungle, which, due to budget constraints, rarely happens. We hope to be reporting back with good news in the future –satisfied ecotourists, serviced cameras, patrolling rangers, and wild animals smiling for the camera.

Our cameras are ready and waiting. Photo by Greg McCann.

Ecotourists can really contribute to conservation. Photo by Greg McCann.

GPS check shows we were just 400 meters from Laos. Photo by Greg McCann.

Rangers setting up a camera. Photo by Greg McCann.

Tourist camp in Veal Thom Grasslands. Photo by Greg McCann.

A camera trap. Photo by Greg McCann.

A view of the river at D’darr Poom Chop camp. Photo by Greg McCann.

D’darr Poom Chop camp. Photo by Greg McCann.

Nelson Mandela, elephants and youth

January 7th, 2014

Commentary by Isabel  S. Abrams

Most people think of Nelson Mandela as a fighter for racial equality in South Africa. To me, he is also a powerful advocate for protecting wilderness and empowering youth.

In 2002, I was in the audience at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa where I heard Mandela address delegates from more than 100 nations.

“Many don’t want (conservation areas) set aside for privileged by privileged. Many have origins in colonial past,” Mandela said. “In South Africa, we break with this legacy.”

A baby elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Why? Because Mandela believed that, in addition to being places of beauty and adventure, National Parks are vital sources of South Africa’s economic development.

Safaris to Africa provide revenue to its developing nations, while visitors like me are awestruck by the magnificent giraffes, lions, zebra, and cheetahs of the African wilderness. I have taken many photos of elephants, those gentle giants, who care for their young as they roam the grasslands, and feed on greenery. I have also run away from elephants who suddenly appeared and flared their ears as they headed toward me, because I had visited a place where elephants had torn down trees like a hurricane. That was why Mandela’s comments on elephants surprised and amused me.

I learned about Mandela’s special relationship with elephants in 2003, at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa. At the opening ceremony, speakers described how fences had to be removed between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, in order to create Great Limpopo Park, an international wilderness that provided safe passage for migrating elephants and other wildlife.

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan acknowledged that South Africa can be justly proud of its protected areas and claimed that preserved natural wilderness areas were the “green lines of our planet that provide clean air, water, and livelihoods, places that feed our souls, provide inspiration and solace in an increasingly urban world.”

Queen Noor finished by adding that, when elephants were transferred to Mozambique,., Nelson Mandela claimed this transfer of elephants was payment for his bride.” “Some elephants try to return,” she said. “We hope they honor Mr. Mandela’s bride price.”

An adult elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

President Nelson Mandela wore a zebra patterned shirt and smiled as he walked slowly up to the podium. His voice was soft but his message was strong. “The future is in the hands of youth and in the future of protected natural areas,” he said. Then he warned the audience that far too few youth are involved in the work of sustaining wilderness. I nodded my head in agreement because I work with Caretakers of the Environment International, a network of high school students and teachers who are very determined to protect nature. How happy I was to hear Mandela say, “This is a matter of great concern,” and ask the delegates, “to support all junior rangers and other youth organizations, and to give them higher priority in protecting wilderness.”

Mandela claimed that National Parks empower people, create jobs, and relieve poverty.

“They sustain biodiversity, conservation and tourism,” he said, for he knew that we can have a sustainable future if we enlist energetic and idealistic youth in our efforts to save elephants and other wildlife.

“A sustainable future for humans depends on nature as much as anything else,” said Mandela, and he wished us great success in our endeavors.

A jungle day-trip: studying brazil nuts in the Peruvian Amazon

October 30th, 2013

By Eleanor Warren-Thomas

Ladybird, Amazon-style. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

The day begins at around 5 a.m., when the sounds of motorbikes revving, dogs barking, wood being chopped and shouting men start to permeate the room. I haven’t needed to set my alarm for weeks.

I am here to help run a project on Brazil nut harvesting from lowland rainforests in Madre de Dios, in the Peruvian Amazon. Brazil nut collection from these forests forms a huge part of many people’s livelihood in this area, and the project aims to improve knowledge about the variation in Brazil nut production, which changes among trees and between years for as-yet unknown reasons.

Brazil nut trees, known locally as castaña, take decades to mature and start producing nuts in the wild, so the majority of the productive trees in these concessions are enormous – at least a meter across at the base – and are some of the tallest trees in the forest. Brazil nut trees are protected by law, and in some areas they stand alone in areas cleared for pasture. In many other areas, they form part of standing intact forest within concessions owned by local people, who walk well-managed trails through the forest each year to collect the nuts by hand.

Today we are starting out from the only hospedaje in the little town of Alegria, and will travel about 20 km along a dirt road to visit a castañero who lives in his Brazil nut concession. My colleague and I load the rear pannier of the motorbike with two rucksacks full of tents, food and multiple pairs of socks. Calling in at our favorite breakfast spot, we find that there is ‘no quinoa in town’ so make do with sweet bread and strawberry yogurt from one of the grocery shops. Sitting outside the shop, we attract the attention of two kittens who attempt to scale our trousers, and a puppy who finds he doesn’t have the ability to climb, but is happy to make do with finishing off the yogurt pot.

Motorbike loaded and ready to go. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Squeezed onto the motorbike, we head along the tarmac road out of town, and turn off onto a red dirt road. After rain, these roads take on the texture of butter and are perilous for motorbikes, but today it is dry and fine. The morning is cool and the clouds are low, rubbing out the tops of trees and swirling across the road. We fly along the road and the plastic bag full of eggs and bread that I am clutching flaps madly in the wind. The road is full ofhazards – soft rivulets of mud, hidden bumps, the occasional wooden bridge – requiring expert driving.

The red road. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Forty minutes later we arrive, windblown, under an enormous mango tree dripping with fruit that guards the front of our host’s house. Set in a field of tough tropical grass are several wooden buildings that house grandparents, a daughter, a son and their spouses. Ducks and chickens roam about amongst the fallen fruit, and two dogs bark in cautious greeting. It is mango season here, and the soft thumps of fruits hitting the ground are frequent. We are invited into the kitchen, an airy building with a handmade thatched roof, where a neat three-ringed charcoal burner made of compacted mud is roaring. Two cups of hot “chapo” are handed to us as a welcome second breakfast – sweet plantain mashed with sugar and spices using a specially selected stem of a young “quillabordon” tree that naturally forms a whisk-like shape.

Under the mango tree. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

As the day starts to heat up, our 77-year-old host dons his canvas shoes, picks up his machete and leads us into the forest. We quickly leave the strong sun behind on the open road and enter a perfect green corridor as we follow a narrow logging road into the forest. The huge tire tracks have formed long-lasting puddles in the soft clay soil, that are filled with tadpoles. This part of the forest feels special – we walk for about half an hour without encountering any logged trees, and the forest seems particularly dark green. Hidden birds shout from all around us, and the soft mud reveals the presence of deer, peccary and agouti. The soft ground after rain tells all sort of secrets – in other forests we have seen fresh tapir tracks only hours old, and even ocelot prints.

Ocelot prints. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

We veer off the road onto a carefully cleared path, the ground cloaked in big brown leaves from the towering castaña trees. As we crunch along, I have the odd impression of being on a walk through an English woodland on a summer’s day, until my eye is caught by a 6-inch electric blue butterfly floating along the path. Blue morpho butterflies seem to be found everywhere here, often in what seem to be leks of male butterflies flashing their wings at each other in clearings and on paths.

Blue morpho butterfly wing. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Brazil nut trees tower over us at regular intervals, some more than an arm-span in diameter and 40 meters high. The carefully maintained paths lead from tree to tree, each trunk cleaned of lianas and giving the appearance of columns holding up the green canopy. Piles of emptied “cocos” – the hard outer shells that contain sets of individual brazil nuts – lie at intervals along the paths, partially hidden under leaves and ready to twist the ankles of unwary walkers.

A castañero makes a temporary shelter from the rain. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

High-pitched squeaking from the trees betrays the presence of saddle-backed tamarins which peer inquisitively at us as we respond with our own squeaky noises. They seem reasonably confident around people despite the fact that they are often taken from the wild as pets here. In the past week howler monkeys, titi monkeys and spider monkeys have all also come within earshot, or even partially into view.

The presence of so many animals despite so much human activity in the forest is wonderful, and seems to demonstrate how fundamental the economic value of brazil nut trees is for the health of these forests. Although selective logging and hunting of local wildlife continues, the presence of producing castaña trees preserves patches of forest where its structure is undisturbed and the shade is deep and cool. Wildlife is persisting well into disturbed areas, but for me the dark green patches feel like safe havens.

After five hours of walking along forest trails our host leads us back to his house in time for lunch, where we are served rice, beans and fried plantain washed down with sweet tea. His wife and daughter spend the day in the house, preparing food for us strangers along with the family without a thought. At 77-years-old, our host understandably prefers to spend the afternoons napping on a bench in the shade of his mango tree, leaving us free to visit the stream that runs past the house and bathe in the sandy bottomed pool they have created through clever use of a log dam. Tiny fish swim about, palm trees provide shade overhead and the musical song of oropendulas drips from the trees. More tamarins swing past to peer at us, as we nibble on mangos and cool our feet in the water. I can’t help but smile as I think back on the day and hope to myself, long may the dark green persist.

Brazil nut flowers. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Indonesians working together to save Sumatran tigers

October 29th, 2013

Reader contribution by Matthew S. Luskin

Indonesians are committed to ensuring the persistence of Sumatran tigers. The gamut of island-wide conservation efforts was discussed this week in Padang, West Sumatra, during the annual meeting of HarimauKita (harimau means “tiger” in Indonesian), which brought together a consortium of stakeholders for Sumatran tiger conservation. Members worked late into each night to coordinate and evaluate existing research and conservation efforts across all 8 Sumatran provinces.

The all-Indonesian collaborative forum included scientists from Indonesian universities and big NGOs (Flora and Fauna International, World Wildlife Fund, and Wildlife Conservation Society), as well as representatives from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, the Asia Pulp and Paper (the largest logging company in Sumatra), the oil palm producer PT Tidar Kerinci Agung (TKA), PT Chevron Asia Pacific, and the for-profit conservation organization PT Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia (REKI). The diversity of stakeholders with different approaches to conservation enabled lively discussions and out-of-the-box thinking.

HarimauKita in progress.

Discussions focused on accurately tracking tiger populations (no easy task), mitigating human-tiger conflict, such as attacks on humans or livestock, and connecting tiger forest habitats, such as with habitat corridors. To track tiger populations, HarimauKita reviewed the activity of 19 ongoing research programs spread across Sumatra, most of which primarily employ camera traps. HarimauKita members working in these landscapes reported high tiger occupancy in some previously logged forests and in forests fragmented by agricultural expansion. While this offers a glimmer of hope for tigers in the face of Sumatra’s rapid forest conversion, poaching and human-tiger conflict also continue to be an issue, particularly in areas with high human activity, such as near villages or plantations. Notably, Mrs. Katrini of the TKA oil palm grower described TKAs construction of a tiger rehabilitation center to facilitate the capture, relocation, and release of problem tigers.

HarimauKita’s strategic conservation programs, such as training anti-poaching teams, and spirit of collaboration that facilitates effective communication among stakeholders, are integral to insuring that the Sumatran tiger does not follow in the footsteps of Indonesia’s two other extinct tiger subspecies. HarimauKita’s approach and role in tiger conservation may well become a model for other species conservation.

Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com