Reporter’s Journal: A story sans words

October 10th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives photographer Dominic Bracco II tries to capture the aquaculture scene at Liangzi Lake.  A local fishfarmer attempts to capture his own view.  Dominic’s photos will appear with Erik Vance’s reporting on the demand for sustainable fisheries products in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

Reporter’s Journal: It isn’t a beluga

September 30th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives Fellow Erik Vance gets up close and personal with a finless porpoise housed at Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan, China.  Vance and his colleague, photographer Dominic Bracco II, are reporting on the market for sustainable fisheries in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

An armadillo the size of a golf ball

September 26th, 2014

Rica just after birth. She was born the mere size of a golf ball. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Meet Rica, the baby three-banded armadillo.  Rica is a tiny new arrival at the Edinburgh Zoo born on August 24th and weighing in at just 81g or roughly the size of a golf ball.  She was born to proud parents Rio and Rodar who only arrived at the zoo in March of 2014.

“This is the first birth of any armadillo species at Edinburgh Zoo and it is amazing how quickly little Rica is growing up! She is just amazing to watch; always full of energy and scurrying about her surroundings like a perfectly formed miniature of a fully grown three banded armadillo,”  Gareth Bennett, Senior Presentations Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said in a statement. “For her first few weeks she could not quite roll up into a perfect ball because of her huge claws and softer, smaller shell, but she has now grown into her shell and can quickly pack herself into the tightly sealed ball which adult three banded armadillos are known for.”

Little Rica, along with her parents, is certainly an ambassador for some very noble conservation work supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in the Brazilian Pantanal. The Giant Armadillo Project, lead by conservation biologist Dr Arnaud Desbiez, aims to establish the first long-term ecological study of giant armadillos in the Brazilian Pantanal wetland.  Mongabay has covered the work of Dr. Desbiez and The Giant Armadillo Project in the past, including a touching piece on the caring maternal nature of the species and the first photos of a baby giant armadillo.

Both the three-banded and giant armadillo are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with ongoing exploitation and habitat loss and degradation as reasons for their decline.

Showing her true size. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Getting closer on her roll. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Rica and her mom. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

 

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania – book review

August 5th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art courtesy of Princeton University Press.

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania provides the most up-to-date guidebook for trekking in Tanzania. It includes detailed species accounts and delightful photos of 135 of the larger mammals of Tanzania. It is the first book to include both marine mammals and recently discovered species of Tanzania. While Tanzania has over 340 recorded mammal species, over 200 of these are rodents, bats, and shrews. For the most part, these smaller mammals are not included in this guidebook.

In 1961, when Tanzania became independent, it had one national park. Now over 20 percent of Tanzania has some form of conservation management. Yet, recently, the larger mammals of Tanzania are declining due to poaching, habitat destruction, illegal logging, charcoal production, mangrove degradation, and other activities.

For example, Tanzanian elephant populations have decreased 50 percent from 2009 to 2013, while Tanzanian black rhinoceros require 24-hour armed guard.

Yet Tanzania is challenging these trends by growing hectares under conservation, increasing national parks, expanding maritime reserves, and working with hand-in-hand with local communities and stakeholders to improve the state of their nation’s natural heritage.

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania organizes species descriptions with detailed analysis and many color photos. The book provides a detailed guide on how to observe these species with the least impact on their environment and in the most successful manner. Species checklists are provided for Tanzania’s national parks. Species are also organized by Tanzania’s 18 major vegetation zones.

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania is a great book that is part of the recent series of mammal and bird guides to Kenya and Tanzania by WildGuides.

All author royalties from the sale of A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania will be donated to the Wildlife Conservation Society to support conservation projects in Tanzania.

How to order:
A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                    9781400852802
Authors:                Charles Foley, Lara Foley, Alex Lobora, Daniela De Luca, Maurus Msuha, Tim R. B. Davenport, and Sarah Durant

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

The Amazing World of Flyingfish – book review

August 1st, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Do you remember when you were a kid and you heard about flyingfish for the first time? I do. I was amazed. Fish that could fly! I wondered how far they flew and if they flew for real.

The first time I saw flyingfish in person, I had the good fortune to be sailing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, south to north. We were giddy with delight to see these amazing small fish of the sea.

In The Amazing World of Flyingfish, we are introduced to the beautiful flyingfish species from around the globe. Known as hummingbirds or butterflies of the sea, flyingfish are small bony fish from the family Exocetidae.

Steve Howell’s charming book The Amazing World of Flyingfish provides a short introduction to the world of flyingfish. Regardless of their prevalence globally in the ocean’s food chain, little is known about them. There are at least 60 species of flyingfish, although nobody knows for sure. Flyingfish are considered a delicacy in Japan and Barbados. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados have recently had an international conflict over fishing for flyingfish.

In The Amazing World of Flyingfish, flyingfish are described in beautiful photographs. The text is concise and describes what little is known about the natural history of flyingfish.

In the book, flyingfish are compared to other “flying” life of the sea. The only other life of the sea that travels similarly are in fact flying squid. Flyingfish can travel as long as 600 feet above the surface of the water, skimming the waves, while flying squid are only able to do a short one-time spurt above the waves.

The Amazing World of Flyingfish is great book for any fan of natural history and anyone who still remembers they day they discovered some fish can fly!

How to order:
The Amazing World of Flyingfish
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691160115
Author:                   Steve N. G. Howell

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring– book review

July 30th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Great Britain is known as a nation of birdwatchers – or twitchers – who will travel to great lengths to conserve bird habitat and to observe birds in the wild. Yet in certain circumstances, Great Britain’s birds of prey are persecuted. This cultural dichotomy is explored in wonderful detail in A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring.

Great Britain has 15 species of birds of prey, five of which were previously extinct and now have been successfully reintroduced with self-sustaining populations. Nonetheless, while Great Britain has a deep cultural reverence for their birds of prey, some species are still persecuted as they are seen as agricultural pests.

In A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring, author David Cobham and illustrator Bruce Pearson describe in great detail this dichotomy of Great Britain. Scientists, communities, writers, poets, and artists have worked diligently to improve public perception of birds of prey while at the same time some of these same birds of prey are threatened by British perception as pests.

Rich in cultural detail, descriptive illustrations, and personal recollections, A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring paints a canvas demonstrating how cultural perceptions can be changed to improve conservation outcomes.

How to order:
A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691157641
Authors:                David Cobham with Bruce Pearson with a foreword by Chris Packham

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley – book review

July 28th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

 

Cover art courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley is another Adam Scott Kennedy tour de force! Following up on the Kennedys’ series of bird and mammal books for Kenyan and Tanzanian travelers, previously described here on Mongabay.com. The Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley is ideal for the traveler on safari visiting the Rift Valley’s national parks, such as Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Mount Longonot, and Hell’s Gate.

The value of a book like the Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley is that it lends itself to easy interpretation and use by those who are interested in birdwatching, those who are interested in conservation, and those who care about biodiversity in general.

Similar to the previous guidebooks by the Kennedys, Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley includes over 300 image collages of the most common regional bird species in their various plumages for each identification. Birds are organized into sections broadly defined by the ecological zone they reside in. A useful scientific checklist of names is included as an appendix.

I highly recommend the Kennedys’ series of bird and mammal books for the casual traveler looking for a good, easy-to-use set of guidebooks for the Kenya and Tanzania region.

How to order:
Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9781400851379
Author:                   Adam Scott Kennedy

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

The Extreme Life of the Sea – book review

July 25th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

 

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

The Extreme Life of the Sea, written by father and son team Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi, is simply a tour de force, a splendid must read for any natural history enthusiast.

In The Extreme Life of the Sea, we are taken through the challenges of the Earth’s oceans. From its great depths and abysses to extreme pressures and anaerobic environments, and in each location, we learn about the remarkable creatures that live there. The Earth’s oceans teem with creatures that have antifreeze in their blood, that switch sex as they reach maturity, that are little changed for millions and millions of years.

Stephen and Anthony Palumbi bring this undersurface world to us in their personal, engaging, journalistic style that is filled with charm and excitement. As you read each page, another discovery leaps out at you, capturing your imagination and encouraging you to read more.

One such story in The Extreme Life of the Sea is the following. In 1993, an Alaskan Inupiaq Eskimo hunted a Bowhead Whale (balaena mysticetus), as allowed under international treaty. While cleaning the carcass, the individual discovered deep inside an old scar in the whale, a broken off tip from an Eskimo stone harpoon. The stone harpoon tip was estimated to be at least a 100 years old. As a result, scientists began to understand that Bowhead Whales live two to three times longer than previously estimated, well into their hundreds.

The Extreme Life of the Sea is filled with many more remarkable stories like this one. It deserves to be read and reread again obtaining a special place on the bookshelf of any avid naturalist.

How to order:
The Extreme Life of the Sea
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                    9780691149561
Authors:                Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

The allure of the Amazon: real or imagined?

May 19th, 2014

Commentary by Nick Werber

Photo by Nick Werber.

What is it about the Amazon that fires the imagination? For as long as I can recall it has been a symbol for the Earth as it wants to be; a flourishing paradise perhaps, a place of explosive variegation, the jungle in full bloom.

Like the untamed areas outside of the cities in Brave New World, The Heart of Darkness and The Lost World, the jungle has formed an archetype for all that is natural and untouched by man. It offers us adventure and escape, as far removed from tarmacked roads and rigidly planned towns as one can imagine.

Alan Watts, the philosopher, talked of the chaos of nature, the absence of straight lines, the negation of geometrical form, the forest is “squiggly” as he might have termed it. To some this knotted mass is anathema, it offends the neat dissection of their reason, to others it is a liberation from a tyrannical mind, hell-bent on order and destruction. Through the wilderness they seek the dissolution of the ego, transcendentalists for a new age. Despite a century or more of western exploration the jungle remains tenebrous, unknowable. A thousand Victorian explorers are replaced each generation with people seeking out something, a new tale to tell, the discovery of a new tribe perhaps.

Photo by Nick Werber.

Where once we looked at native forest dwellers as quaint but primitive, there is now a new movement, looking to them for insights and hints on ways to live. Have we got it right? We ask. Our culture is not so sure of itself as it once was. In the jungle too lies hope: new medicines and new species. Scientists revere the forest for its fecundity, for every new discovery we find there is much, much more to learn. Its vastness promotes humility and yet for all its scale it is delicate nonetheless. Logging, mining and agriculture are tumorous.

“We know this” we tell ourselves: it is the stuff of a hundred lachrymose news programs, images of burned out forests branded in our minds; we have become inured and so we get on with our lives, it being just one more thing to worry about…

I dreamt of the Amazon as a child. I heard about its beauty and its imminent destruction and wanted to do something about it…but what can an 11 year old do? So, I dreamed some more…. When I actually arrived it was vastly different to the images I had seen on the news. In Manu I can see no grand scale farming, no sweeping clearances, just flecks of damage, like sun spots on an otherwise unblemished face. And yet I know that much worse is happening. In Huaypetue there is a gold mine so sprawling it can be seen from space; Hunt Oil’s unctuous presence has undermined native communities land rights; and the completion of the Pan American highway, stretching from east coast Brazil through the Madre de Dios region, threatens to enable Peru to enact a scale of destruction comparable with its neighbor.

But for all that I can do nothing but film and write. As a journalist I do not make policy or conduct scientific research. And yet I appreciate the beauty of the forest and can only communicate my reverence in the hope that others may offer change.

Red bromeliads (Racinaea) in Manu cloud forest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.com

After just a few weeks in the jungle, I had forgotten what it was like to wake up without the sound of Oropendulas dropping their calls from palm tops or a night spent without chirruping cicadas, balmy heat and fireflies flickering in the darkness. Here, for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way streaking across the night sky, and each morning watched trees held in relief against a fuchsia dawn.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not all pleasant, far from it. Trails turn to mush at the slightest sign of rain and the insects are relentless. Walking at midday seems like wading through boiling sap, my shirt turns into a sodden rag, my backpack a sponge for sweat. Still, I count myself lucky. A dream fulfilled does not always live up to the dream, but it can get pretty close, and in life I suppose that is as much as we can hope for.

Phoebis philea and Anteos menippe butterflies in large group feeding on minerals in mud in Manu. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

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.

——————————————————–

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.