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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
November 21st, 2013
Bouba, WCS Queen’s Zoo’s newest Andean bear. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
The Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is the only endemic bear on the continent of South America. The IUCN lists the species as Vulnerable to risk of extinction, with habitat loss and hunting as drivers behind its dwindling numbers. This elegant species is sometimes referred to as the spectacled bear due to occasional markings around the eyes that resemble glasses.
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo has welcomed an ambassador of the Andean bear, a 2 year-old male named Bouba. Hailing from a zoo in France, Bouba will share his new home with a female friend of the same species, Spangles.
WCS conducts research on Andean bears across multiple countries in South America and aims to develop local habitat conservation of the Andean bear and mitigate threats such as human-wildlife conflict. WCS works in tandem with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Cleveland Zoological Society, the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance, and other supporters to protect the future of the Andean bear. You can learn more about their efforts or donate to the projects by going to wcs.org.
November 7th, 2013
A 285 lbs baby Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), that is.
Max and his mom. Photo courtesy of Stefan Groeneveld / ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
Max was on his feet in just a few minutes and entertaining his keepers and elephant family with his independent and playful nature.
Max is now three weeks old and zookeeper Stefan Groeneveld said: “[He] has come on so much in just three weeks and is already showing an independent streak. He’ll happily leave his mum’s side to go and play in the paddock with the rest of the herd.”
Asian elephants are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and scientists estimate there are just 30,000 to 35,000 of these giants left in the wild, with major threats including habitat loss, forest degradation and fragmentation, and human-elephant conflict. ZSL and the Elephant Conservation Network (ECN) have been working in collaboration with the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand for years to address conflict, protecting swaths of forest and helping locals develop sustainable practices that allow the forest to remain intact.
Max enjoying his new home. Photo courtesy of Stefan Groeneveld / ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
October 31st, 2013
By Simon Bradley and Tammy Mildenstein
It’s Halloween time again, and around much of the world people are decorating with images of ghosts, vampires, witches, black cats, and, of course, bats.
For the superstitious, there may be nothing scarier than the flying foxes of the Philippines, whose 2-meter wingspans make them the largest bats in the world!
In keeping with a popular fear and mistrust of nocturnal animals, Philippine flying foxes (which are actually fruit bats) are associated with a rogue’s gallery of eerie spirits that haunt Philippine nights and minds. While entertaining and spine-tingling, the lingering power of these associations can present challenges for bat conservation, but can also open up opportunities for engaging with the public. Tammy Mildenstein of SOS – Save Our Species project Filipinos for Flying Foxes, describes some of the legends she has encountered in her time working to protect these creatures.
The evening departure of thousands of flying foxes overhead could send the superstitious running for cover. Credit Tammy Mildenstein, Filipinos For Flying Foxes
Perhaps, most closely resembling this magnificent bat is Manananggal whose legend mirrors the same distribution pattern throughout Southeast Asia as flying foxes. This “aswang” – a Filipino term for a variety of vampire-like creatures – is a woman by day, but transforms into a fearsome predator after dark. As families prepare to slumber, Manananggal’s torso detaches in the middle, while the upper half grows bat wings allowing her to fly through the night in search of her prey: unborn babies. According to the myth, Manananggal lands on the roof of a home and drops her long, needle-thin tongue into the belly of a pregnant woman in her sleep to feast. Grisly and chilling? Yes. True? Unlikely, but a great ice-breaker for talking about flying foxes and setting the record straight on the true cultural and economic value of flying foxes, according to Tammy Mildenstein. Flying foxes are fruit bats, she explains, they don’t feed on human blood much less unborn babies.
Indeed there are others in the menagerie of mythological and winged menaces – all seemingly drawing inspiration from the Philippines’ rich diversity of bat species. For example there is Tik-tik and Wak-wak – both similar to Manananggal, named respectively, for their “tik-tik” nocturnal calls and the “wak-wak” sound of their airy flapping wings, both of which are reminiscent of the sounds made by flying foxes in flight at night. Yet another is Tiyanak – a creature in the form of a human baby, but with fangs and sharp claws that flies away as a black bird. Capre and Tikbalang take on other animal forms, and are said to be found in fig trees at night with red reflective eyes just like fruit bats.
Meanwhile, aside from inspiration for scares at bedtime, scientific research has shown these amazing creatures are vital to human survival. As pollinators and seed dispersers, flying foxes for example, are essential for maintaining natural forests, often the only source of fresh water, air, and timber and non-timber forest products. Flying foxes are also known to pollinate hundreds of agriculturally important crops for the region, explains Mildenstein.
Ironically, being nocturnal it is flying foxes which can become easily stressed by diurnal human presence near their nest sites. That is why a central component of the Filipinos for Flying Foxes project is to establish six roost sanctuaries to boost species populations allowing the bats and local communities to live in harmony.
So the legends may live on, and keep a couple of kids awake at night, but maybe if Filipinos for Flying Foxes is successful, staying up past bedtime will be to marvel at the sight of the world’s largest bat taking to the sky as darkness falls….all around you! Mwuhahaha! Happy Halloween!