Reporter’s Journal: From Panama

April 16th, 2014

By SRI Fellow Ruxandra Guidi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Panama’s carbon in high fidelity

Reporter’s Journal: Fighting poachers and Mother Nature

April 7th, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Amy E. West

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

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

Reporter’s Journal: The Lesser Fish

April 1st, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Amy West.

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

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

Reporter’s Journal: The forests of Uganda

March 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 6th, 2014

By Gregory McCann, Habitat ID

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

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

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

Ranger setting up a camera. Photo by Greg McCann.

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

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

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

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

Wild pig skull. Photo by Greg McCann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rangers setting up a camera. Photo by Greg McCann.

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

A camera trap. Photo by Greg McCann.

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

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

Is ‘human rights’ the right approach for protecting the interests of forest-dependent people?

February 23rd, 2014

Commentary by Dr. Prakash Kashwan, University of Connecticut

Nature conservation is often promoted in the name of the greater good of humanity. However, in a large number of cases, nature conservation is associated with increased militarization of resource control (see the select bibliography below). International conservation organizations have responded to such concerns by developing proposals for what they refer to as ‘rights-based approaches to conservation’. Some of the biggest conservation organizations have also come together to form the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR), which is a consortium of international conservation NGOs that seek to improve the practice of conservation by promoting integration of human rights in conservation policy and practice. This editorial is intended to shed light on the effectiveness of the proposals and initiatives intended to protect the rights of indigenous and other forest-dependent people affected adversely by national and international programs for nature conservation.

Rainforest in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The immediate trigger for this essay is a blog post by Professor Rosaleen Duffy of SOAS University of London. In the said blog, Dr. Duffy shares her reflections about the London Conference on Wildlife Trafficking. Concerned about the increasing militarization of wildlife conservation policy and advocacy, Dr. Dufy suggests,

    “We are witnessing a greater call to arms to ‘combat’ and ‘fight’ poaching. More boots on the ground and more weaponry runs the risk of escalating a poaching war as each side gets locked into an arms race and an increasingly deadly conflict (for rangers and for hunters/poachers). It runs a second danger that local communities will get caught up in the war regardless, because of their proximity to heavily fortified protected areas.”

Moreover, Dr. Duffy adds that “the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights was not mentioned at the conference at all”, even though many of the organisations in ‘United for Wildlife’, the organization which hosted the conference, are signatories. While Dr. Duffy’s focus is on the militarization side of the equation, her reflections should also make us pause and ponder over whether the rights-based approaches to conservation have served the lofty goals that international conservation organizations often espouse in the rights declarations issued from time to time. For the past decade or so, almost all major international conservation organizations have agreed on certain principles of “rights-based approaches” to conservation. The principles are discussed in about half a dozen reports published by international conservation groups and cited in the Kashwan paper cite below. These proposals draw upon international human rights discourse to advocate for the rights of ‘indigenous communities’ that project proponents must strive to protect during the implementation of conservation projects.

In the ‘Land Use Policy’ paper cited below, I have shown that while human rights discourse may be useful in drawing attention to the plight of local communities, and may even be helpful in justifying such rights for forest-dependent people, but they do not help us in dealing with the challenges on the ground. I have argued that the key challenge on the ground is to bring in some semblance of accountability of government agencies who continue to exert strong territorial control over territories set aside as state forests by the fiat of colonial and post-colonial governments. Governments own and control more than 86% of the world’s forests, a percentage which is much higher in the developing countries. Government forestry agencies have continued to pursue programs and policies that are heavy on the discourses of participation, but devolve weak rights to local communities.

While the key argument that I make in the paper is to emphasize the importance of holding the state to account, a careful reading of the evidence presented in some of the works cited below would also show that international conservation-groups have not invested in the efforts to hold the state to account for two specific reasons. First, international conservation groups prefer centralized control of forests and wildlife areas because they believe that such control is instrumental to the promotion of effective nature conservation. Indeed, as Dr. Duffy commented in response to the comments on the Just Conservation blog, “Where states are engaged in repression, forced displacement, human rights abuses, etc. wildlife NGOs often stay silent.” Second, and, perhaps more importantly, any efforts to hold the state to account are likely to draw attention to the accountability of international nature conservation groups. Dr. Duffy’s reflections about the London meeting, and many other reports about the militarization of conservation published on this website and portals such as ‘Just Conservation’, should serve as a wakeup call.

In conclusion, it is important to assert that any questioning of the effectiveness of rights-based approaches in conservation should not be construed as an argument against the importance of either nature conservation or the rights of people who are affected most directly by international nature conservation. Indeed, the questions that I have raised above are borne out of a shared interest in achieving each of these important objectives. The argument is that we must ask some hard questions about the criteria that should be used in prioritizing the goals of nature conservation over the rights, in particular the land and livelihood rights, of forest-dependent people. Most importantly, in the interest of nature conservation and the fundamental rights of forest-dependent people, international conservation agencies will have to stand up to governments and government agencies that continue to work with the intention of maintaining territorial control at any cost. We should stop thinking instrumentally about rights. Instead, we should deliberate seriously about the social, cultural, political, and economic rights, which must be recognized as non-negotiable.

Recommended Readings

  • Agrawal, Arun, and Kent Redford. “Conservation and Displacement: An Overview.” Conservation and Society 7.1 (2009): 1-10.
  • Brockington, Dan, Rosaleen Duffy, and Jim Igoe. Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism and the Future of Protected Areas. London; Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2008.
  • Kashwan, Prakash. “The Politics of Rights-Based Approaches in Conservation.” Land Use Policy 31.0 (2013): 613-26.
  • Larson, Anne, and Jesse Ribot. “The Poverty of Forestry Policy: Double Standards on an Uneven Playing Field.” Sustainability Science 2.2 (2007): 189-204.
  • Peluso, Nancy L. “Coercing Conservation: The Politics of State Resource Control.” Global Environmental Change 3.2 (1993): 199-218.
  • Ribot, Jesse C. “Choose Democracy: Environmentalists’ Socio-Political Responsibility.” Global Environmental Change 16.2 (2006): 115-19.
  • Rodríguez, J. P., et al. “Globalization of Conservation: A View from the South.” Science 317.5839 (2007): 755-56.
  • Sikor, Thomas, et al. “Redd-Plus, Forest People’s Rights and Nested Climate Governance.” Global Environmental Change 20.3 (2010): 423-25.

Meet Max: the 285 lbs baby

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.

World’s largest (harmless) bat inspires Halloween-worthy tales in the Philippines

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!

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

October 30th, 2013

By Eleanor Warren-Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red road. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

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

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

Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

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

Ocelot prints. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazil nut flowers. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Indonesians working together to save Sumatran tigers

October 29th, 2013

Reader contribution by Matthew S. Luskin

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

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

HarimauKita in progress.

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

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

Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com