The Rhinos of the Namib (commentary)

August 18th, 2015

Commentary by Cyril Christo

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

It was dusk when we followed two massive male white rhinos passing in front of our car near Etosha in northern Namibia. Lysander, just nine, was ecstatic, watching a primeval explosion of power ambling in front of our car reminiscent of the times when rhinos ruled the earth. At dusk, in the sun infused dimming amber light, the blackness of an all-presiding night was pressing upon us. Our guide’s red lights shone on the spectacle of this gold and black collision magnifying the magic of this ineffable rite. We watched spellbound as these two males jousted in a meadow turning around each other like wrestlers from a bygone age. In the theatrical splendor of the moment, their power reverberated as they had for thousands of millennia before the onslaught of human time. Later that night twelve more white rhinos moved in single file in front of our car like a procession of gladiators, armored in grey like the bedrock and soil surrounding them into the deepest recesses of that continent where mankind was born.

It lies on the far southwestern coast of Africa, a basaltic theatre of red rock carved from the skin of Gondwaland when Africa and south America were joined at the hip 180 million years ago. The last volcanic eruption erupted over this desert version of Jurassic Park when T. Rex was lord of the universe. Here slow moving solitary black rhinos browse among undulating hills and giant emerald green euphorbia bushes like grey Pleistocene tanks amidst the oldest desert on earth, the Namib. This saurian landscape could have been the place of origin for the super rhinos, Paraceratherium that once dominated the earth as the largest mammals ever to walk the Earth, so large they would have towered even over modern elephants. Now it is a race against time to save the last free roaming rhinos where they used to dominate the landscape like slow meandering soldiers across the African continent.

Recently a spate of rhino poaching has started to undermine the community based conservation efforts of one of Africa’s great success stories. Cheetahs have been the bastion of Namibia’s wildlife efforts in the last generation. And the success rate has been impressive, reaching out to local farmers to work with wildlife groups to relocate and save a species that could have been lost two generations ago. But of late the Chinese influx and their near insatiable hunger for ivory and rhino horn has started to take its toll on this country of 2 million. Syndicates whose bloodlust knows no bounds have targeted the outback of this near model African nation. In Etosha, Namibia’s flagship park, about 50-60 rhinos have been poached this year. We had come to investigate Namibia’s elephants, but here in the final frontier of Africa, a deadly plague of poaching undermines the future of the third largest mammal on earth.

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

After walking several hundred yards with Augustus, and Martin crack bush trackers, in the premier black rhino habitat in the world, we found a mother rhino with her calf near a euphorbia bush. She had not been de horned of the hyper-trophy so coveted by global poaching syndicates, as many of her neighbors had, in a last ditch effort to save her species. The vainglory and superstitious insanity that drives the global commerce in rhino horn could hardly be mentioned in the outback. The prize we had come for was just to be in the presence of the fabled behemoth, a being which lurked in the imagination of our ancestors like few other. Was the rhino the fabled origin of the unicorn? This was one of the beings that haunted the cave dwellers of Chauvet and Lascaux This was a being whose blood nourished Paleolithic hunters from 30,000 years ago.

We had left our camp at 6 in the morning and targeted the springs two hours from camp, where rhinos regularly drink. En route we also found some elephant tracks which made the day all the more remarkable because no elephants had been spotted in over five months!. In the ensuing moments, the ghost of Paraceratherium, and its thundering steps, reigned over the imagination. Somewhere in the blistering outback of this primeval and heat-blistering garden of Eden, the progeny of the greatest mammals ever to walk the earth still reigned. Martin and Augustus gingerly followed the rhino tracks over a hill, like diminutive human ants, walking over the terrestrial skin of a geologic giant and waved to us that we should follow. In the distance an oryx watched our every move and eyed us with the vision of an antelope constantly on watch for desert dwelling lions. Would this lonesome antelope give us away? Would the rhino warn the rhino and precipitate her escape? The rhino must have suspected our presence but did not run away from us, we who had come so far to behold her. After a twenty-minute stint, we finally came within 300 feet of her and her one year old calf. She knew we were there and even moved a few steps on several occasions. Once, she even lay down next to the euphorbia bush that was her safety blanket, luxuriating in the shade of a magnificent bush that is one of the mainstays of her diet, and which is poisonous to most other species. We watched her partly mystified by the near perfect stillness of this gargantuan mammalian leftover from a bygone age still holding on, on the edge of the bearable world. Here was a living boulder whose very existence symbolized the precariousness of the life force and what humanity was doing to its earthly brethren. Here before us was a modern day Excalibur whose horn, its one great defining luxury, harbored the seed of its potential demise forever. In the antediluvian air that enveloped us, before the mythic magic of this ponderous but graceful monster, the heart was stilled to the pace of the eons that had preceded us. Here was a being half unicorn, half dinosaur inspired. We were mere interlopers before a gargantuan whose motive for being on this earth was as pure and stolid and free as the bedrock on which it roamed.

In Europe, in the 16th century Albrecht Durer, the great artists and lithographer, made a sketch of an Indian rhino that was shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. Some say no animal woodcut has been as influential as this piece that rocked the European imagination like few others in art history. In this solitary outpost of Namibia, a fable still haunts the living sands of a seemingly inexhaustible stretch of time, far from the madding crowd. But outside pressures are gaining on this imponderably perfect beast. In the quiet hot rage of an all presiding intelligence, known as the desert, a phantasm with a miraculous defense on its nose reminded us that this land was no place for man. More importantly, it reminded us to stay away and that if we were to lose such a fantastic being, the rocks surrounding us would no longer be a place of wilderness and would no longer constitute a place of revelation, but a tombstone for our species. There are plans to airlift many dozens of rhinos from South Africa to Texas, ironically the very place where major trophy hunting clubs reside. After the slaughter of Cecil, the lion in Zimbabwe, Africa, the US and the world should indeed rethink the policy of trophy hunting, even old rhinos, for it is a lame man’s game. The US has the money but does it have the will and the heart to stop the taking of innocent lives, whether they be wolves or elephants or lions or polar bears or rhinos? Conservation and execution are poles apart and there is much evidence to show that trophy hunters are impairing the overall populations of mammals all over the African continent and indeed the world.

The US should also do everything in its power to strengthen the endangered species act, here at home, lest visionless bureaucrats and politicians let the wilderness bleed out of the human experience. In the larger war to save the giants of the earth, the loss of the rhinos and elephants in this time is rending us into moral dwarfs. The fight is on for holding on to what is left. Their extinction, by failing the life force, would signal a prelude to our walking off the cliff of time. We are a young species, not even adolescent in evolutionary time but we are also acting as if we were senile towards everything even remotely sentient

It is appropriate that a major elephant researcher in South Africa told us that we would save ourselves by poetry and not just science. She meant that we had to find the inner consciousness and heart to transform our dialogue with the earth, with life itself. Our emotional engagement with existence has to be retrieved and immediately or why do people have children at all? It is the battle of our time. In the ravishment of sheer beholding, a single black rhino and her calf, transformed us into worshippers of the still marauding life force, moving rock and muscle become one, a giant upon the earth still bearing her sword of Excalibur upon her face, like a beacon of the incalculably wondrous.

Cyril Christo is a photographer and film-maker. He has been interviewed previously on Mongabay, including Butchering nature’s titans: without the elephant ‘we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder’, Ten years after Lost Africa: a retrospective on indigenous issues, and Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves.

Capturing the Wild: Jaguars in Belize

October 31st, 2014

Commentary and photos by: Fabienne Lefeuvre

The native inhabitants of Suriname referred to him as a God. He is the third largest cat in the world after the tiger and the lion. The Native American called him ‘yaguar’ which means ‘he who kills with one leap': the jaguar. The jaguar (Panthera onca) can be found in 18 Latin American countries. Today they are mainly concentrated between Southern Arizona and New Mexico to Northern Argentina, but are extinct in EL Salvador and Uruguay.

‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

Males measure around 1.8 m (6 feet) long and can weigh up to 113 kg (250 lb). Females are usually smaller and lighter (100kg). They can reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, males at around four. Female jaguars can have a litter of 1-4 cubs at the time which, they would defend fiercely (even against their own father). Most jaguars have an orange colour coat with distinctive black spots which are unique to each individual and can be used by humans to identify individuals.

‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

But others born black are called ‘black panthers’. This melanism is conferred by a dominant allele that gives that excessive black pigment on the jaguar’s coat, a biological mechanism called ‘ ghost tripping’. The spots are actually still present but hidden by the dark skin pigmentation.

‘Lucky Boy’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

These powerful mammals are opportunistic hunters. Highly muscular with very powerful jaws, they are efficient ‘stalk and ambush’ predators. They can kill huge prey such as cows, but their preferences usually center around deer, coati, peccaries, armadillo, capybaras, birds, small mammals and even snakes. Occasionally their diet includes fish or large river turtles. Jaguars can break open turtle shells using their strong canines and unlike other big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards that attack their prey at the neck or throat, jaguars often kill preys by biting through their skulls, between the ears.

Junior at the Belize Zoo.

Jaguars are solitary animals; their territory is about of 20 square kilometres which they mark with their waste or by clawing trees. Unlike most cats, jaguars like water and are actually good swimmers. Like most jungle cats, jaguars mainly hunts at night or twilight hours so scientists have the difficult task to guess their numbers in the wild. The recent use of camera traps has, however, contributed in better data collection and in having an overall better understanding of their location and behaviour.

Today their survival as a species is still at risk. It is estimated that there are only 15,000 individuals left in the wild. Jaguars suffer from habitat destruction and fragmentation due to human population growth, farming activities, illegal hunting and a decline in wild prey numbers (due to overhunting). This fuels the vicious cycle of human-wildlife conflicts, often forcing jaguars to prey on livestock.

A Threatened Species

Jaguars were widespread in the New World until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when hunting for sport and fur started to decimate their numbers. ‘Between the 1960’s and 1970’s, as many as 18,000 jaguars were killed each year for their beautiful coat’ according to the big cat conservation organisation Panthera. In 1973, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), brought the fur trade to an official stand-still. This species was then listed on Appendix I of CITES as ‘near threatened’ by IUCN.

Panthera onca is a near-threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature organisation (IUCN) red list. Like many apex predators, their reproduction cycle is slow so the killings of adult jaguars has a direct impact on the overall population.

‘Edgar Hill-in Pine Hill –Southern Belize.

Human-jaguar conflicts are on the rise in Belize, as human population and farming activities are expanding. The Mennonite farmers claimed that a jaguar had threatened the life of a man on his horse-wagon and that several jaguars were roaming in the garden in day light.

Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.

Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.

Jaguars and Humans: A Fragile Co-Existence in Belize

Jaguars are facing an imminent threat in Belize; they often pay for trespassing on human settlements (especially farms) with their lives. In some rare cases their lives are spared; Mennonite farmers capture them using traps.

Field research undertaken by Dr. Omar Figueroa — a Belizean researcher from the district of Cayo — reports that there are most likely no more than 800 jaguars remaining in Belize.

Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’

‘Edgar Hil’ was named after one of his rescuer ‘Edgar Correa’ from the Belizean Forest Department and ‘Hill’ as the Mennonite farm he was found in was in ‘Pine Hill’ in Southern Belize.

Rescuing Jaguars

The Belize Zoo has been hosting more and more jaguars over the years such as ‘Junior’ (who was born at the Zoo), so many that its capacity is now limited.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

Jaguars and other big cats, such as pumas, suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation all over The Americas. The welfare of the remaining free-roaming ones is under threat. The Belize Zoo strongly works to enforce the concept of the Central Wildlife Corridor which, in theory, would provide habitat for jaguars to roam north-south.

Jaguars in Captivity

Reports show that jaguars that had been previously translocated had travelled back to their initial territory, so once a jaguar is captured it can never be released to the wild again.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

A Zoo with a Natural Environment

The Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by an American biologist who was hired to look after native wild animals used in a wildlife documentary. She decided to rescue the animals, as they could no longer be released into the wild. The zoo is spread over 29 acres, and is home to more than 150 animals of about 45 species, all native to Belize. The natural environment of Belize is left entirely intact within the zoo, the dense, natural vegetation separated only by gravel trails through the forest. The zoo plays an immense educational role in Belize, allowing locals to meet the most charismatic and endangered animals in the world, hopefully raising awareness of the environmental damage that we cause and hopefully will bring people together to become better green ambassadors.

Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’

The presence of big cats in zoos can be seen as educational; and jaguars tend to live around ten years longer in captivity than in the wild. However, the space in the enclosures could however never match the jaguars’ normal territory of 20 square kilometres.

Many jaguars seen on farming lands in Belize are killed on site.

Conservation organisations such as Panthera work around the clock in Latin America to protect dense forests and set appropriate corridors between national parks for jaguars (such as the Jaguar Corridor Initiative -JCI ) . The purpose of the JCI is to connect jaguar populations throughout Las Americas to protect the genetic balance of the Panthera onca species. To date, research shows that there are no recorded sub-species of Panthera onca throughout the stretch of Latin American countries. This genetic continuity is unique to this big cat species.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

Southern Belize is one of the last strongholds for jaguars in Central America. It is the most well forested region and represents an important natural corridor for other big cats as well.

Santa Lucia: a Gem amongst Ecuador’s Cloud Forest Reserves (Photos)

October 29th, 2014

Photo Essay and Commentary By: Etienne Littlefair

The time is 6:30 am, a faint glimmer of light is just breaking the horizon revealing gnarled epiphyte laden trees still dripping from the rains that had passed through earlier in the morning. In the distance the piercing call of a Wattled Guan cuts through the morning air. I think to myself how lucky I am, as the remnant cloud cover seems to evaporate away leaving a crisp, still morning. Perfect conditions for viewing the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek that I had torn myself away from the comfort of my cabana and hiked through the forest in the hope of witnessing. The first sign of Cock-of-the-Rock manifests as a rustling of wings, the shake of a branch and then a startlingly loud call from just above the foliage blind concealing me from the lek site. Tense with excitement, I patiently wait whilst the sun continues its ascent, all the while more birds flock to the scene and enter the fray, a song and dance where male Cock-of-the-Rock compete for the right to mate.

A male Cock-of-the-Rock astride his mossy perch.

This early experience during my stay at Santa Lucia was to set the scene for three weeks of immense joy and wonder inspired by the natural world. In my time at Santa Lucia I conducted herpetofauna surveys as part of a team of ecologists from various universities working with Operation Wallacea, a UK based conservation charity. This opportunity gave me many insights into Ecuadorean life, and hammered home the need to protect remaining primary forest habitats.

Santa Lucia is a cloud forest reserve situated in the Ecuadorean province of Pichincha, close to the small town, Nanegal. The reserve is owned and run by 20 families within the local community whose economy was historically based on agricultural produce, particularly sugar cane. Following a government act granting legal protection to the forest in 1988, the local people had to adapt their land use in order to maintain their livelihood and income. In the late 90’s the construction of an eco-lodge situated on a high panoramic ridge began. The mission statement of Santa Lucia is ‘to create jobs and other benefits by means of a well run ecotourism business which allows us to conserve the forest and which respects the values of cooperative members and those of the community.’

My first view of the lodge upon arrival, the lodge itself was constructed using materials from the forest, and much of the excellent food served at mealtimes is grown at the lodge.

The excellent vegetable patch, panoramic veranda and forested backdrop.

The lodge today is set up to cater for all manner of eco-tourists, those who wish to spend day and night prowling the forests in search of elusive species, and those who wish to relax and soak in the scenery. As well as catering for tourists, the lodge has a purpose built field laboratory and facilities for lecturing making it a fantastic base to conduct field courses and research forest ecology.

The stunning views from the lodge showcase the beauty and fragility of the Andean cloud forests within an increasingly human dominated landscape.

The reserve spans a wide altitudinal band from around 1500m to 2450m above sea level. The location and altitude of the reserve makes Santa Lucia a key area for Spectacled bears, a species classed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Santa Lucia is part of an initiative to form a ‘bear corridor’ facilitating seasonal movement of Spectacled bears from lower cloud forest areas into the higher páramo zone. A long term and on going study conducted by Dr Mika Peck of Sussex University aims to recognise individual bears within the reserve using facial markings discerned from camera trap images. This work allows population estimates to be made.

Spectacled bear. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Threats to Spectacled bears include habitat degradation and direct persecution by landowners. Bears will occasionally venture into agricultural areas and feed on crops, which leads to conflict. Sadly in some areas bears are shot purely for sport. It is hoped that establishment of the bear movement corridor may help to alleviate human bear conflict. 18 additional species of medium to large mammal have been caught on camera within the reserve including such oddities as the Andean Wolf.

Puma. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Jaguarundi. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

The staff of Santa Lucia are passionate naturalists, a fact made evident by the level of knowledge and skill displayed in the field. The reserve manager, Noe () is a particularly knowledgeable ornithologist. A highlight for any birder is the presence of Andean cock-of-the-rock, of all birds, amongst the most charismatic and sought after species inhabiting Andean cloud forests. There are also around 12 species of hummingbird present including the dramatic Booted racquet-tail and Violet-tailed Sylph. In total 405 bird species have been recorded in and around the reserve.

Whilst the birds and the large mammals are perhaps more evident and certainly better known within the reserve, the reptiles and amphibians are certainly their equal in beauty and mystery.  They also fulfill many important roles in the ecology of the cloud forest. At Santa Lucia I identified 13 species of amphibian including the Emerald Glassfrog (Espadarana prosoblepon), the bizarre Pinocchio rainfrog (Pristimantis appendiculatus) the endangered Goblin Rainfrog (Pristimantis sobetes) and perhaps most significantly Eugenia’s rainfrog (Pristimantis eugenia). Eugenia’s Rainfrog being a species closely associated with bromeliads and known from only a handful of cloud forest sites within an altitudinal range of around 300m.

Pinocchio rainfrog – (Pristimantis appendiculatus)

Goblin rainfrog – (Pristimantis sobetes)

Eugenia’s rainfrog – (Pristimantis eugenia)

Emerald glassfrog – (Espadarana prosoblepon)

I identified 13 species of reptile within the reserve. Some highlights included the Elegant Snail Sucker (Dipsas elegans) a species endemic to the Western Ecuadorean Andes, the Giant groundsnake (Atractus gigas) a very rare, and likely Ecuadorean endemic snake first described in 2006. Also present and fairly abundant are at least two species of Anole, the Gem anole (Anolis gemmosus) and the larger Equatorial anole (Anolis aequitorialis).

Elegant snail-sucker – (Dipsas elegans)

Giant groundsnake – (Atractus gigas)

Gem anole – (Anolis gemmosus) dewlap close up

Gem anole in situ – (Anolis gemmosus)

Equatorial anole displaying its impressive dewlap – (Anolis aequitorialis)

For me, this final image of a fast flowing stream, a prominent feature in the Santa Lucia landscape, reveals something of the character and mystery of the reserve.

With continued investment from both tourists and research groups such as Operation Wallacea and Sussex University, gladly, the local community, the forest and the wildlife of Santa Lucia are likely to prosper long into the future. The reserve is one of the most successful and promising examples of sustainable community based conservation that I have had the pleasure of visiting and contributing to. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Santa Lucia for anyone with a love of nature and the outdoors.

Visit the Santa Lucia website to find out more.



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

Wildlife of the Caribbean– book review

August 8th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Wildlife of the Caribbean is the only book of its kind. It is a comprehensive guide to the fauna and flora of the Caribbean Islands, containing color images on a broad range of animals and plants including birds, mammals, plants, seashells, fish, turtles, cetaceans, and others.

The primary goal of the Wildlife of the Caribbean is to promote an interest and knowledge by locals and tourists in the natural environment of the Caribbean. The book is written for novices with little experience in fauna and flora identification. Written by two renowned and successful Caribbean conservationists, and building on their previously well-received guidebook, Birds of the West Indies, Herbert A. Raffaele and James W. Wiley’s Wildlife of the Caribbean is resounding success.

Wildlife of the Caribbean has over 600 color images describing 451 species. It is clear with simple descriptions and its pocketbook size makes it ideal for hiking Caribbean mountains and beaches, easily fitting into a handbag or backpack.

As a frequent traveler to the Caribbean for work, I only wish Raffaele’s and Wiley’s book had been published a few years ago as I would have used this book on my trips. It is a great find, and a much-needed quality addition to any naturalist’s library.

How to order:
Wildlife of the Caribbean
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9781400851690
Authors:                Herbert A. Raffaele and James W. Wiley

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to 


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 

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 

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 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