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.
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.
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.
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
October 18th, 2013
By Jemma Smith
This stunning photograph is of the sun setting over the River Nile, which is said to be the longest river in the world with a staggering 6,670 km (4,160 miles) in length and discharges an average of 3.1 million litres of water per second into the Mediterranean Sea. It is long been disputed where the exact source of the river is, however, many believed it to be Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The River Nile travels through eleven African countries on its journey to the Mediterranean. There has long been conflict between countries on ownership and management of the Nile and its vital water that is used by millions of African farmers and is also home to a large diversity of wildlife.
September 5th, 2013
Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.com
A shocking 449 species of reptiles call Sundaland home, of which 249 are endemic to the region. Indonesia has an extremely high level of biodiversity, which is most likely due to the great size and tropical archipelago make-up of the land. The Indonesian fauna is so vivid, that the colors of these snakes actually camouflage them into the background. Each of these snake’s coloring has evolved to blend in with where it tends to reside, meaning the brown snake most likely lives within the dead leaf litter and the green ones within the trees.
Population numbers of these animals has started to suffer as a result of the rapid industrialization of the nation and high population growth. Many species of Indonesian snakes have been subject to habitat exploitation, illegal logging, fires, or habitat loss in one way or another.
August 13th, 2013
By Claire Salisbury
The bus journey to Mindo winds up and out of the high, dry valley in which Quito sits between volcanic peaks, and then down into the wet, lush cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. This is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, within the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena hotspot, and recognized as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. Mindo is a quiet little place, surrounded by forested hills which often disappear into the clouds. We arrived in the rain at dusk, and made our way along virtually deserted streets to our accommodation at Cabañas Armonia (http://www.birdingmindo.com/armonia.php). This is an orchid garden masquerading as jungle, and we were led to our little cabin, one of a handful tucked away amongst the plants. After the dry, thin air of Quito, the humidity, the smell of the wet vegetation, and the chorus of frogs, were wonderful.
Photos by Claire Salisbury.
The family that owns Cabañas Armonia maintains feeders for hummingbirds, and these tiny birds drink litres of sugar water between them every day. Watching and listening to them whirr, chirp and squeak is hypnotic, and catching them with your camera becomes an endless challenge.
Highlights of our stay at Cabañas Armonia included lazy birdwatching from our private hammock, with toucans and hummingbirds among the many species that regularly passed by. The garden is home to some 200 species of orchid, some so small that a magnifying glass is needed to appreciate their beauty, others unmissable in their extravagance. Wandering amongst them was a fascinating introduction to their variety and diversity. We also went for walks along the quiet lanes that lead out of town, which took us through verdant green valleys, coffee plantations, and lush vegetation, and rewarded us with sightings of gaudy tanagers, toucans and aracaris, and a stunning quetzal.
On our way back to Quito we visited Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve (http://www.bellavistacloudforest.com/), 1000m higher up the mountains than Mindo. We got off the bus at a small village called Nanegalito, and were quickly approached by the driver of a pick-up truck taxi who drove us up the steep and winding single track lane to Bellavista lodge. The lodge sits within a private reserve that protects 700 hectares of cloud forest. There is an extensive trail system, comfortable accommodation, excellent food, and it is renowned for its birding. Such luxury and biodiversity meant that the lodge itself was way beyond our tight backpacker budget, but Bellavista is a rarity, offering affordable accommodation, alongside its more luxurious options, for travelers on a budget who are happy with a more rustic experience. It is possible to stay and explore the reserve on a shoestring: a small research station doubles as basic hostel accommodation, and incredibly, very few people make use of this. This is a big shame because the forest around Bellavista is like nothing we had seen before – huge tree ferns, and trees dripping with multiple layers of vegetation, shrouded in ethereal mist and cloud which sometimes broke to reveal the precipitous view down to the valleys below. The trails were easy to follow, and took us up and down steep ravines to hidden streams.
The research station accommodation was basic, but we had a warm bed and a hot shower, and pots and pans to cook with over a gas stove. Fellow residents included scientists from the United States, their Ecuadorian research assistants, a couple of temporarily captive birds that were the focus of their studies, a sink-full of beetles collected for a small project, and a noisy mouse who helped itself to a chunk of banana in the kitchen. The captive birds were, of course, early risers and woke us from their room next to ours with an ear-splitting duet at dawn. Electricity is from a generator that is only run for a few hours a day, and as it is virtually on the equator it got dark about 6pm. Evenings were spent quietly by the light of candles and headtorches, listening to the myriad noises coming from the forest.
August 13th, 2013
By Natalie Millar
The triplets. Photo courtesy of the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
At eight weeks old, the three lynx kittens Ruby, Amber and Opal finally made themselves known to the public, playing in the enclosure under the watchful eye of mother, Maja. Lynx litters usually remain inside a den constructed by the female until they’re big enough to venture outside, at around seven weeks old. With their characteristic ear tufts, the playful lynx kittens are frequently spotted napping on logs or more likely play-fighting with their sisters. These triplets are the third litter for Maja and male Timo, adding to the success of the lynx breeding programme at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
The European or Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is native to Scandinavia and Russia, and is the largest of the four lynx species – with males weighing up to 30kg. It is also the only lynx species that relies on ungulates such as musk or red deer as a primary source of food, however when these are scarce, the lynx feed on mountain hares and various bird species. Populations of European lynx are currently classified as stable, being listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List.
Mom pays some attention to one of the litter. Photo courtesy of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
One of the adorable triplets. Photo courtesy of the ZSL Zoo.
July 25th, 2013
Photo courtesy of Josh Le / Minnesota Zoo.
Last Saturday, a female Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) was born at the Minnesota Zoo, the first baby tapir for the zoo in over 20 years.
“Malayan Tapirs are an endangered species and every birth is important to the population,” said Tom Ness supervisor of the zoo’s Tropics Trail at the Minnesota Zoo, located in Apple Valley.
The only tapir species found outside of Central and South America, Malayan tapirs are currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. The shy, elusive mammals–weighing as much as 450 pounds–are imperiled by massive deforestation, hydroelectric projects, and the illegal wildlife trade. Unfortunately, the unmistakable animals inhabit some of the most endangered forests in the world in Sumatra (Indonesia), Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand.
However, a recent study found that the Malayan tapir may actually be doing better than expected, at least on the Malaysian mainland.
Although the baby can not yet be seen by visitors at the zoo, there is a webcam.
Photo courtesy of Josh Le / Minnesota Zoo.
July 25th, 2013
By Alexander Holmgren
An endangered southern pudu, (Pudu puda), the world’s smallest deer. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
The first week of July marked one of the as the World’s cute as the worlds smallest deer was born in the Wildlife Conservation’s Society Queen’s Zoo. The doe, a member of the endangered Pudu species (Pudu puda) weighs approximately one pound at birth and will only grow up to be twenty pounds as an adult.
The Pudu are one of nature’s most extraordinary creatures. The Pudu is the smallest deer species in existence measuring at thirteen to seventeen inches high and up to thirty three inches long, roughly the same size as a miniature poodle, but it manages to thrive in the rainforest’s of south America. Pudu’s are herbivores eating sprouts, leaves, and almost any other form of shrubbery that they can find. Because of their small size however this wonderful animal has developed some very unique behaviors in order to obtain it’s food, being known to sprint, jump, or even climb up trees, all the more impressive given that these animals have hooves. This whimsical little animal has even been known to bend saplings or bamboo shoots into a makeshift bridge in order to reach higher branches, as well as running in zig-zag formation in order to evade predators.
Pudu’s are currently listed as endangered primarily due to extensive deforestation in Chile and Argentina. Due to a growing human population the Pudu’s native habitat is slowly being whittled away by a combination ranching, agricultural development, and logging rendering many of these animals homeless. Another threat to the Pudu is from hunting and poaching. Often used as sport for dogs, the Pudu is hunted down in order to feed these domesticated animals, and because of their extremely cute nature they have been widely targeted victims of poaching to be illegally exported as pets.
Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS