Reporter’s Journal: Times are getting dark

July 29th, 2014

By Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Ruxandra Guidi. Photo by Roberto Guerra.

Photo copyright (c) 2014 SRI Fellow Roberto Guerra.

This is the season of hurricanes and heavy storms. But the archipelago of Kuna Yala, located south of the hurricane belt, is typically spared the damage and strong winds that hit islands further north in the Caribbean, year after year. In recent years, however, rains have forced the people living in these islands — an estimated 30,000 — to start making drastic changes to their way of life.

The first time we visited the island of Usdupu in October of 2009, the water came down daily, flooding the narrow dirt paths that connect all the thatched roof homes. Kids played in the brown water half-naked, without a worry in the world. But some of their parents spoke to us about being unable to cook with charcoal on the floor, as is their tradition, due to the persistent flooding. Others showed us how they were using cement debris and even trash to create landfill on the edges of the island, which is on sea level.

But then, we also noticed other, more profound ways, in which the flooding seemed to be affecting the Kuna.

One of the traditional songs performed by their wise elders, or sahilas, described their collection of islands as “coconuts resting firmly on the sand” that would never disappear, regardless of the weather. Yet starting in the Fall of 2008, after a series of giant waves flooded most of the islands, the sahilas had began singing a new song. “Why are our mothers crying?” the lyrics went. “It is because of the hurricanes and earthquakes. Times are getting dark. Who is causing this?”

Changing weather patterns, sea level rise, and man-made climate change are three new modern-day concerns that the Kuna have had to grapple with. Sahilas, men, women, and young people alike have attended information workshops focused on these issues, and the  Congreso General Kuna, the indigenous territory’s highest authority, tackles things like adaptation and mitigation on a regular basis.

This July, we’ll be returning to some of these islands to find out more about the challenges faced by the Kuna. As it turns out, the well-preserved mainland forest — that’s less than a mile away from these islands — may be an important part of the solution.

 

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. 

Reporter’s Journal: In Search of Sardines

July 24th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

Community members crowd aboard a slerek purse-seiner in Muncar, East Java, the morning after a successful sardine fishing expedition. University of British Columbia researchers calculated that nearly half the landings in Muncar are distributed to the crew, their relatives, and their neighbors, to eat at home or sell. Though an insurance for protein-rich diets among the local community, the practice means that commercial sardine sales are a poor proxy for estimating the actual catch. As in much of Indonesia, the lack of reliable fisheries data is an impediment for government officials attempting to develop management programs.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Bumble Bees of North America – book review

July 23rd, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Bumble bees are remarkable. Domesticated bee colonies used for agriculture pollination is a global industry worth at least tens of billions annually. Roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of all food consumed in North America relies upon bumble bee pollination. About 80 percent of European crop species require insect pollination. In parts of China, because of the disappearance of bumble bees, pollination of apple and pear crops sometimes is done by hand using a paintbrush. In fact, the value of wild bee pollination in agricultural crops far exceeds their domesticated counterparts.

Bumble bees pollinate cotton, fruit and vegetables, and vegetable oils. Bumble bees do much of the heavy lifting to supply us with the agriculture crops we use each day to meet our clothing, food, and oil needs.

Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson, and Sheila R. Colla, is the first comprehensive guidebook to the bumble bees of North America written in over a hundred years. The book will help you identify all 46 bumble bee species found north of Mexico and to understand their ecology and changing geographic distributions.

Bumble Bees of North America includes a species-by-species forage guide, many pictures for easy identification of queen and worker bees, species specific maps, and descriptions of seasonal activity   along with colony life cycle.

Bumble bees are essentially hairy wasps, but diverged genetically over 100 million years ago. The main difference is that bees rely upon plant pollen for sustenance while wasps rely on animal tissue. Bumble bees are most diverse in temperate and montane regions globally.

Bumble Bees of North America is based on the latest molecular research. The book describes the rapid possible extinction of the Franklin’s bumble bee (Bombus franklini), whose decline was described in 1998, and who may have gone extinct by 2006. Currently it is IUCN Red-Listed. The book also describes how the once very common rusty-batched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) became the first federally listed endangered bee species in North America throughout its large U.S. and Canadian range. The rusty-batched bumble bee went from very common in the 1980s to now being locally extinct.

In addition, Bumble Bees of North America describes the threats to bumble bees and what you can do about these threats. Current threats include habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and the introduction of exotic or invasive species. The book recommends maintain bee-friendly gardens, using less pesticides, and mitigating global warming.

Given the size of bumble bees, their quick movements, and their short life spans Bumble Bees of North America will help you develop a greater understanding of bumble bee natural history, engage in bumble bee identification, and learn how to conserve their habitat all while not being stung.

How to order:
Bumble Bees of North America
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691152226
Authors:                Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson, and Sheila R. Colla

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

Reporter’s Journal: Infant Shrimp

July 2nd, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

A technician checks on week-old shrimp larvae or nauplius, at the world’s largest shrimp and mollusk broodstock center in Bugbug, Indonesia. The center hopes to become a major supplier inexpensive and healthy “parent” shrimp to Indonesia’s domestic shrimp farming industry, to reduce reliance on pricier and occasionally disease-ridden imports from abroad. Indonesia is one of a handful of shrimp-producing countries unaffected by the outbreak of Early Mortality Syndrome, which has decimated farmed shrimp in top-producing countries like Thailand, China and Vietnam over the last two years.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: Fishermans’ Wives

June 27th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye

Fishermens’ wives negotiate a price for freshly caught sardines in Negara, a town on the shores of the Bali Strait. The strait is about to become Indonesia’s first region to be managed under an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: from the fish warehouse

June 20th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

A worker packs Leopard Coral Grouper in a warehouse in Makassar, Indonesia. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of live reef fish, mostly to East Asian markets. Though selling live reef fish is legal in Indonesia, many of the fish are caught illegally using cyanide.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

BBC World Service: Climate Change and Community Forest Management in Kuna Yala, Panama

June 5th, 2014

Mongabay SRI Fellow Ruxandra Guidi published a seven-minute segment on BBC World Service’s Science in Action program.  The piece focuses on the indigenous Kuna of Panama, whose livelihoods and homes are already being affected by sea level rise and climate change, and the ways in which they are adapting to it while trying to preserve their customs and sovereign control of their forests.

Listen to the full segment here.

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