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

July 30th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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.

The allure of the Amazon: real or imagined?

May 19th, 2014

Commentary by Nick Werber

Photo by Nick Werber.

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

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

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

Photo by Nick Werber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India plans new railway through protected areas, threatens already-imperiled wildlife

April 11th, 2014
Chital deer roadkill on Bandipur highway. Photo by Raghuram.

Chital deer roadkill on Bandipur highway. Photo by R. Raghuram.


—Special report by Sanjay Gubbi and Shreya Dasgupta—

On a winter day in November 2013, a passenger train in the eastern state of West Bengal in India collided with a herd of 40 to 50 elephants, killing five adults and two calves. This was not an isolated event. Such grisly incidences have killed tigers, leopards and several other wildlife species in the past. In fact, train-kills like these have become a routine affair in India.

The country’s fiscal growth has necessitated the development and improvement of its surface transport infrastructure. New roads and railway lines have been implemented or planned in many wildlife-rich areas. In addition, several state governments have amplified their demands for new railway lines that would pass through key tiger and elephant habitats.

Bandipur, together with the adjoining Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, has one of the highest densities of large mammals in the world. These reserves connect with other protected areas including BRT, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves, as well as Cauvery and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuaries, forming one of the country’s largest contiguous wild tiger and elephant habitats (approximately 9,000 square kilometers, or 3,475 square miles). This may appear to be stamp-sized when compared to the colossal wildlife habitats in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the area is highly productive, holding wildlife densities comparable to the African savannahs.

Approximate route of the proposed railway line passing through Bandipur and Wayanad preserves. Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation

Approximate route of the proposed railway line passing through Bandipur and Wayanad preserves. Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation/Panthera

To a large extent, the Karnataka Forest Department has curtailed threats such as poaching. But linear intrusions such as highways and power lines continue to disturb these globally important wildlife habitats. Additionally, new threats are emerging as economic changes bring about new needs for India’s human populations. Growing human population and increased affluence among a section of the society has increased the demand for human use of wild areas. This demand is mostly for accommodation of industries such as electricity generation, surface transport, agriculture, tourism and other needs that either fragment or lead to a total loss of wildlife habitats.

The new railway line demanded by the state of Kerala, if implemented, will bisect 32 kilometers (20 miles) through two protected areas (Bandipur and Wayanad). This could eventually spell doom for wildlife, especially wide-ranging species such as tigers and elephants.

Construction of this railway line would only add to Bandipur’s battles against rampant development. Two national highways passing through this tiger reserve have demonstrated the negative impacts that linear intrusions can have on wildlife. Studies have shown highway development through wildlife habitat can lead to high rates of wildlife mortality due to vehicular collisions, genetic isolation, impediment of animal movement and increased agitation due to vehicular noise.

Traffic-related wildlife mortality is especially high at night. Several nocturnal species such as the civet, mouse deer, black-naped hare and various reptiles are regular victims of speeding vehicles. In addition, key prey species for tigers such as axis deer are also regularly hit. Young individuals are particularly susceptible to vehicular collisions at night due to their slow responses to speeding vehicles and their tendency to become transfixed by headlights.

In addition, vehicular traffic during the night could facilitate increased use of the area for illegal activities such as timber smuggling and wildlife poaching. Previously caught poachers in Bandipur and BRT Tiger Reserves confessed to having hunted at night on the highways passing through these reserves. Highway edges are a nighttime draw for many prey species due to increased visibility of predators; unfortunately, by lingering near roadways, these species become more visible to human hunters.

Through persistent efforts, forest officials, the state board of wildlife and conservationists convinced key policy and decision makers of the conservation merits of night traffic closure. They did this by providing a solution that would ensure commuters at night would remain unaffected: an alternative road that bypassed Bandipur, and which was only 35 kilometers (20 miles) longer than the highways inside the protected area.

Soon after, in a landmark move, the state government of Karnataka spent $7.8 million (INR 4.7 billion) to improve this alternative road. It passes along the edge of Nagarahole and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuaries, and is a much less damaging option when compared to traffic passing through the core of Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves at night.

Tiger killed on Bandipur highway. Photo by Yathish Kumar.

Bengal tiger killed on Bandipur highway. Photo by D. Yathish.

However, the battle is not yet over. We continue to fight against business interests who have challenged the night closure in the Supreme Court of India. But for now, the ban has ensured at least a little peace for tigers, their prey and other denizens of Bandipur, Mudumalai and Wayanad.

Yet, the progress made by reducing the impact of highways has so far not been echoed by railways. The neighboring state of Kerala has remained the loudest and most persistent supporter of the proposed line. They remain obstinate despite the Indian Railway’s report that the project is not economically feasible, demanding a huge investment on the order of $700 million (INR 42.67 billion). Additionally, they say that environmental impacts can be very large. Based on this report, the Kerala High Court rejected the rail expansion project when business interests expressed opposition.

Protagonists of the railway line argue that an elevated track would be environmentally feasible. However, the funds needed to build such a track and the disturbances it would create during the construction phase (which often happens at snail’s pace in India) may be substantial and prohibitive.

For countries like India where protected areas are small and human population is great, finding solutions in the best interests of wildlife is of huge importance – and very complicated. It’s not just about keeping rail tracks out of the animals’ way. As our protected areas are small, the problems facing them are several folds higher than those in North America, where engineering solutions could prove to be win-win solutions. Any additional development within India’s protected areas comes at a huge cost to wildlife.

The proposed railway line would also be completely counterproductive to attempts at conserving wildlife habitats in the area. For example, the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in India has designated theadjoining areas of Bandipur as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). Developmental activities such as mining and construction of polluting industries and hydropower projects are prohibited or regulated in ESZs that exist in the immediate vicinity of a protected area. Developing a railway line either within the tiger reserve or in the limits of the ESZ is also prohibited. However, many business groups have been relentlessly using political pressure in effort to circumvent these regulations and implement the railway project through Bandipur.

Bandipur National Park. Photo by Praveen Ramaswamy.

Bandipur National Park. Photo by Praveen Ramaswamy.

Since December 2011, the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera have supported the efforts of the government to ensure that ESZs are designated around the protected areas of Karnataka. They convinced elected representatives and local communities, as well as provided technical input for the delineation and declaration of ESZs. This has been seen as a unique effort as in most areas it is difficult to convince political leaders of the benefits of conservation. However, a senior legislator from the area helped us garner support among other legislators and people within the district.

Additionally, the National Wildlife Action Plan drafted under the chairmanship of the country’s Prime Minister, mandates the Ministry of Surface Transport and Ministry of Railways to by-pass all protected areas and corridors while constructing roads and railways. Yet, governments continue to demand that these linear infrastructures pass through fragile landscapes.

There are several alternatives available for transporting freight and passengers while avoiding areas like Bandipur and Waynad. While these alternatives may be slightly more expensive, their ecological benefits are many. The budget of the Indian railways for the year 2014-15 is a colossal $10.74 billion (INR 643 billion), and building alternative routes that bypass wildlife-rich areas will make but a small dent in the allocated resources.

India has earmarked about four percent of the country’s landscape for wildlife preservation and protection. If the swarms of vehicles and speeding trains are kept out of these regions, it would neither affect the country’s aspiring economic growth, nor would it hinder any of our transportation problems.

Losing iconic or keystone species such as tigers and elephants to train-kills would truly undermine the conservation efforts of the government and the many private organizations working hard to preserve India’s unique and irreplaceable biological legacy. When it comes to saving the endangered species of this country, developing safer alternative routes for transport should be a mantra. The tiger cannot change its ecological behavior or move to another habitat; hence, it is up to us to redraw our plans.


Sanjay Gubbi is a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera, and Shreya Dasgupta is a science communicator at the Nature Conservation Foundation. Both are based in Bangalore, India.


Tiger in Bandipur National Park. Photo by A.S. Hari.

Bengal tiger in Bandipur National Park. Photo by A.S. Hari.


Following giant footsteps: conference on megafauna and ecosystem function

March 5th, 2014

By Emily Read, University of Oxford, UK

There has been growing awareness in the world of ecosystem science that large animals (megafauna) play a significant role in how ecosystems function. With their huge range and capacity to eat and process a vast amount of vegetation, creatures such as elephants spread nutrients further than smaller creatures as they wander the land, playing a crucial long-term role in biogeochemical cycling. The conference titled Megafauna and Ecosystem Function: from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene will take place this month at Oxford University. Sergey Zimov, Frans Vera, James Estes and Yadvinder Malhi are amongst those in a mammoth line-up of scientists discussing the relevance of giant creatures to ecosystems. Megafaunal rewilding is also germane – will we see large creatures again in the areas they once inhabited?

The conference will be held at the University of Oxford, St John’s College on 18 – 20 March 2014.


Photo essay – Is tourism killing Bali?

December 18th, 2013

Photo essay by Jenny Denton

Its natural beauty and colorful Hindu culture have drawn visitors to Bali since the 1930s. But more than three decades of rampant development since mass tourism took hold have left the island and its people in a critical state. Bali is struggling with a severe water shortage, huge volumes of waste, a loss of agricultural land and forest, and an influx of foreign investors and workers that threaten to overwhelm the Balinese people. As local environmentalists and other commentators explain, though, visitors to Bali have a role to play in addressing the problems.

“I was born in Kuta in the ‘70s and I’ve seen things change so much – especially in Kuta, and other places in Bali – a lot of changes,” says I Gede Ari Astina (Jerinx), environmentalist and drummer for punk rock band Superman Is Dead.

“The [tourism] industry, the machine, is destroying this island. So someone has to do something.”

Professor Thomas Reuter, from Melbourne University’s Asia Institute explains that “the myth of Bali as a worldly paradise or paradise on earth began back in the ’30s and it became more broad-based in the 1960s, particularly as some of the beat generation and the ‘60s–‘70s generation discovered it was possible to travel the world on a shoestring.”

“Small hotels shot up in places like Kuta, usually family‑operated by Balinese people.”

“It was not until the ‘80s that you really got the mass tourism of people who are not just traveling around the world backpacking but are going for a two week holiday wanting to party and that sort of thing.”

“During the Suharto era tourism development became a sort of megaproject—huge hotels with enormous water usage were built, often near to very important temples, which in an Australian context you might call sacred sites.”

“Even during that time of political repression there were some protests about the displacement of rice farmers. But the developers would simply hire some thugs to break the dykes and cut off the farmers’ water supply so they would be more willing to leave.”

“Irrigation is everything in Bali. Balinese agriculture is reliant on irrigated rice traditionally.”

I Gede Ari Astina (Jerinx): “There are so many, so many issues – for example, the water crisis. We don’t have enough clean water for everyone because they just keep building hotels and malls and resorts.”

“We have enough of them already and they just keep building them.”

Thomas Reuter: “Tourists use enormous amounts of water compared to Balinese people. Most people in Bali still have a traditional bathroom, where two people can have a shower with a large bucket of water. The water usage per day of tourists is very much greater. And there are all the swimming pools and the gardens that have to be watered. Bali has now reached a point where the water supply is absolutely exhausted. There isn’t any more water to be distributed and in fact agriculture has suffered.”

From the ROLE (Rivers, Oceans, Lands & Ecology) Foundation: “Despite the high levels of regional and international investment in Bali’s tourism sec­tor many people are not beneficiaries of rapid development, whilst at the same time they are impacted by loss of arable land, environmental degradation and development‑driven inflation on the prices of everyday basic commodities. In addition, development-linked overfishing has reduced traditional job opportunities in this sector for coastal commu­nities.”

“Labor-related immigration into Bali has increased competition in the employment market and this par­ticularly impacts the poor and unskilled from traditional agricultural and coastal economies.  Illiterate and un­skilled people have limited work opportunities and are increasingly unemployed, under­employed and underpaid.”

I Gede Ari Astina (Jerinx), again: “After the bombing the government was trying to sell everything cheap to attract people to come. And it just got to a point where everything was too cheap and too easy…”

“In the name of the economy, in the name of surviving, we’re having big sales now in Bali. We’re selling our land, we’re selling our pride, we’re selling our environment. We’re selling everything.”

Made Sana, a tour guide in Ubud: “In 10 years maybe no more rice fields.”

I Gede Ari Astina (Jerinx):  “This is our island, this is our home, but very, very few Balinese own something in this island. We only work for someone or get hired by someone. Basically we are slaves in our own home.  A lot of people predict the future of Bali will be that everything will be owned by non-Balinese and we’ll just work for them and this island won’t be ours anymore.”

“There’s pollution, traffic, the crime rate, the waste—plastic waste everywhere.”

Tri Wahyudi Purnomo from the Bali Fokus Foundation http://balifokus.asia/balifokus/: “In Bali, approximately 10,000 tonnes of waste is produced a day (or maybe more), around 70 per cent organic waste and 30 per cent non-organic waste.”

The ROLE Foundation again: “More than 5,000 tonnes of illegal trash is dumped every day in the rivers, the sea, the drains and the gullies. When rubbish is not dumped, it is burnt, and not only is the environment threatened but people’s health as well.”

“Liquid, air and solid waste are washing down and polluting the beaches, the reefs and the oceans.”

Tri Wahyudi Purnomo from Balifokus again: “Hotels and villas are growing year after year. With the three big projects to prepare Bali for modernisation, globalisation and liberalisation—the airport expansion, the toll road and the underpass—you can imagine how much more crowded it will get and how much more the waste problem is going to grow if it’s not properly handled. The reality is that almost all rubbish dumps are overloaded.”

From Ubud monkey forest website: “Despite the fact that many species of macaques thrive in areas that are heavily utilized by humans, there is evidence that the viability of Balinese long-tailed macaques (the ability of macaques to continue to thrive) may be dependent upon the conservation of Bali’s forested areas.”

Wayan Gendo Suardana from WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) Bali: “Bali is badly in need of at least 8 percent more forest, as the ideal quantity of forest cover is a minimum 30 percent of the total area.”

Jerinx, again: “Because the education in Bali is not as good as some other countries, it would be cool if people who come to Bali can share knowledge and share goodwill with the locals here … by volunteering or just by good example”.

The ROLE Foundation has built an ‘island sustainability centre’ on 1.5 hectares of land at Sawangan, Nusa Dua, on the Bukit Peninsula.  “ROLE Foundation is a non-profit humanitarian organisation whose aim is to improve the education, wellbeing and self-reliance of people living in underprivileged circumstances, whilst ensuring environmental resilience and sustainability.

Thomas Reuter from Melbourne University: “The way people organize their holidays and most importantly where they stay and what they do does make a difference, and it’s important to be aware of that and try to spend your money where you think it might actually make a difference to the local people, because that is certainly one way to empower them.”

Jerinx: “For the long term it’s very important that tourists set a good example. If you can’t do something in your country, don’t do it in Bali. It’s very important so that everyone can see the good Bali, the beautiful Bali.”

“That should be the reason to come here, not because it’s cheap and you can do whatever you want. If that’s your reason, maybe better not come.”

Click here to see a list of Environmental and other NGOs working in Bal:



Photo essay: saving loggerhead turtles in Greece

December 6th, 2013

Reader contribution by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain

A loggerhead hatchling. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

A loggerhead mother laying on the beach at sunset. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

Among the shadows of the night, I finally spot them: fresh tracks, coming from the sea and making
their way to the obscurity of the sand dunes. Somewhere up there, a sea turtle is looking for an ideal
nesting site. Silently, I lie down on the wet ground and start crawling, all my senses on the watch, along
the crescent-like marks. I hear her before seeing her: a muffled noise of sand thrown in the air. Then,
the moonlight unveils a perfectly round carapace engaged in a pendulum-like motion. My weeks long
training to become a tagger tells me that she started digging her egg chamber. My work will start in
about ten minutes. I seize the opportunity to enjoy the greek summer’s nocturnal sky illuminated by the
shooting stars. When everything becomes silent, I carefully move forward until I’m behind the shell.

A loggerhead mother returning to sea. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

A loggerhead nest with four eggs. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

There is the loggerhead turtle, or Caretta-Caretta, distinctively brown and endowed with a large head
and a powerful beak. I observe her contractions, characterized by a steady vertical stretching of the
hind flippers, before flashing my infra-red light towards the egg chamber: a small quantity of pingpong-
like eggs is already there, while others keep falling from the reptile’s cloaca. From now on, doped
by a hormonal spurt, the turtle is unaware of the world around her. It’s time to set up the tagging
equipment: the PIT, a chip inserted in the front left flipper’s muscle via a large-gauge needle; the plastic
and the metallic tags, respectively attached between the scales of the hind left and front right flippers
with different applicators. Measurements of the carapace and a superficial statement of the animal’s
health will complete the process. If the turtle is rather old, calm and experienced, the tagging should
prove to be easy and last about twenty minutes, between the moments she covers the eggs, camouflages
the nest and goes back to sea. If she lays for the first time, it is likely that she will struggle, flap the air
with her powerful flippers, and even try to bite. But this one turtle comes as a surprise to me. While
inspecting her, my eyes are suddenly caught by a small, yellowish shape on the hind flipper: a
rectangular piece of plastic with a code. She has already been tagged. That is something I had been
expecting for a little while now, and a meaninful event as a part of ARCHELON‘s program; tags
allowing us to follow the turtles’ migrations and study their nesting patterns. A quick glance at my
logbook: I discover that she was tagged exactly two weeks ago by one of my colleagues, on this same
sector of Kyparissia beach. Turtles can lay more than four times within the nesting season, that
stretches from mid-May to mid-August and tend to come back to the same place. But they also achieve
long migrations through the seas: turtles tagged on the neighboring island of Zakynthos have thus
emerged from the Bay of Kyparissia to nest.

Volunteers checking on marked nest sites. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

One of the marked nest sites. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

A loggerhead mother returning to sea after laying. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

That is all the beauty of these reptiles, which survived the dinosaurs and never ceased to come out
under the moon to lay their eggs on the world’s sands from then on. It is such a primeval behaviour that
the holiday-makers Dimitris and Anna Margaritoulis witnessed during a mass nesting on Zakynthos in
the summer of 1977. Their life was forever transformed, and ARCHELON, the Sea Turtle Protection
Society of Greece, was officially created in 1983. Their efforts to communicate about the loggerheads,
via articles and conferences, were the basics of turtle monitoring and protection programs in Europe,
and participated in rooting them in the greek consciousness. With financial support from WWF
International and the scientific community, they identified other nesting sites of importance through
Greece, including the bay of the Kyparissia; and initiated actions of public awareness as well as tagging
programs. The task wasn’t always easy, and Zakynthos, historically the heart of the organization and the
island with the biggest nests density, faced the storm before achieving its goal: the establishment of a
marine national park in 1999. Volunteers, the main workforce of ARCHELON, were subjected to
violence from the locals and tensions culminated with a bomb exploding in the premises of the
organization, often considered by many land owners as a threat to their activities. Today, Zakynthos is
back to more friendly feelings, but the Peloponnesus has come to face similar issues. And I just need to
walk back to ARCHELON’s van at the end of my tagging’s night to be reminded of it. Our four tyres
have been properly slashed, the engine is unroadworthy. Panick, anger. We know perfectly well who is
behind it, because they are the same people that, day after day since the beginning of this 2013 season,
have been trying to prevent us from doing our work in the name of real estate and money. Welcome to
ARCHELON, the volunteering program that can offer within a single night the most exciting of
wildlife encounters, as well as the premises of an ecological war.

A loggerhead female swims out to sea. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

A loggerhead hatchling. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

A loggerhead hatchling. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Pouchain.

It took me little time to learn that the organization had alone dared to stand up against illegal
development. I had just arrived at its base camp, on the Western coast of Peloponnesus, for a two
months volunteering during the nesting and hatching seasons. Before being trained to be a tagger, I had
followed other volunteers from different countries in their main task: morning surveys, carried out by
groups of three to five people over 10 km of sandy beach to look for and protect turtle nests. We had to
spot all the tracks from the previous night, to determine whether they led to an actual nest, and to
protect it from predators and human disturbances with metallic grids and bamboos. My first impression
had been that of a preserved environment, barely known of the tourists. The beautiful scenery and the
excitement of a treasure hunt-like volunteering were only matched by the physically demanding work
and the unbearable heat. Then, I had noticed that we were being followed by a rather unpleasantlooking
man with a dog. I had been told he was an observer, nicknamed “Napoleon”. A local real-estate
company had hired him, as well as others, to collect informations about our
work and try to prove that ARCHELON wasn’t carrying any serious study out, and was even falsifying
field datas, for instance by dividing the nests in order to increase their total number. The firm was then
hoping to crush the main obstacle to its goal: the illegal building of 50 luxurious villas on one of the
main nesting site of loggerhead turtles, protected by the Natura 2000 networking european program.
Development had already caused major damages to the bay’s ecosystem when its caterpillars had
wiped out parts of the pine forest and sand dunes habitat bordering the beach, in order to build five
illegal roads. The survival of the loggerheads, classified “endangered” on the IUCN Red List, had been
more compromised and some of the coast’s inhabitants had then dared to demonstrate. Nowadays, if the
proposed plan has been stopped by ministerial decision, the firm’s methods have switched to the
guerilla warfare; vandalizing our van or sending intrusive, and sometimes aggressive, observers being
only a few of its multiple aspects. That is how, from appalling discoveries to reactive measures, the
2013 volunteering season within ARCHELON is torn between joy and bitterness. One day, the public’s
awareness raised through conferences and slide-shows fills us with satisfaction; the day after, we
experience frustration upon discovering that turtle tracks have been scrubbed and nests’ protections,
stolent during the night. The morning surveys’ excitement alternates with the fear to be threatened, or
even bullied, while tagging in the dark. The locals, once standing for their rights, refuse to take part
nowadays. The code of silence prevails, and those who push turtles away with their lights seem to have
been granted impunity; forcing ARCHELON to set up night patrols on the beach. For the first time
since 1989, we were obliged to shut our seasonal information kiosque down. This is how the
organization has become a textbook case of today’s world’s conservation issues, when development and
money clash with nature and preservation.

Like every turtle species in the world, anthropogenic threats to the loggerheads are the main cause of
their decreasing number: bycatches from fisheries; trawling, that drowns the air-needing reptiles in
giant nets; plastic bags, which are confused by turtles with jellyfish; or the illegal wildlife trade, mostly
for the asian market. In the bay of Kyparissia, and especially next to the small town of Kalo Nero,
turtles are subjected to land disturbances, such as tourists inconsiderately encouraged by a hotel owner
to look for them at night; or beach bars with flashing lights and invading chairs. Panagiota Theodorou,
project coordinator in the Peloponnesus, denounces this illegal development by a contradiction: “these
sites are the property of all of us, that will benefit us on the long-term much more than a short-lived
building activity. It’s like slaughtering the goose that lays the golden eggs…” Not to mention the turtles’
ecological importance, a key-species to the environmental balance. Not only do they regulate other
marine species such as jellyfish (and, a fortiori, plankton and fish), but the nutrients coming from the
eggs laid in the sand contribute to the stabilisation of the dune system and minimize the beach erosion.
Hence the essential mission of public awareness to which ARCHELON is commited since the
beginning, that prides itself to inform over 35 000 people annually, in Zakynthos only. Unfortunately, the
project is getting no help from a Greek state in dereliction, tainted by corruption and deprived of
satisfying, enforced environmental laws. Some stubborn Greek people are inclined to every extremism,
illegal development being one of the worst. “The environment is always the first thing being inflicted,
regrets Theodorou. But the economic crisis and unemployment that exist in our country should not be
an excuse for actions that will lead to reckless destruction of habitats and areas of high ecological
value. The State will have to make up for the damages to Kyparissia’s bay.” However, as of today, an
efficient turtle conservation system has yet to be implemented: they still suffer great disturbances
throughout Greece. Because of this violation of articles 6 and 12 of the Habitats Directive 92/43/CEE;
the country, as part the of the Europe-wide Natura 2000 network of nature protection areas, received a
reasoned opinion from the European Comission in October 2012. Since then, nothing.

When the nesting season comes to an end, it is replaced by the hatchling season, after about 55 days
of incubation. Despite all the issues that ARCHELON had to face this year, we protected the highest
number of nests ever recorded: over 1500, twice as much as the previous year. For the first time,
Kyparissia has become the most important nesting site for loggerhead turtles in Europe, before
Zakynthos. The chaotic profusion of hatchlings rushing to the sea offers a touching contrast to the
feeble arguments of ARCHELON’s enemies. “We are now witnessing the consequences of the great
work carried out by the organization for 30 years, explains Celine Campana, veterinary-nurse and
returning volunteer. Our volunteering program made this increase in nests number possible, thanks to
worldly people who come to experience something new, and then come back because it’s the best thing
they have ever done. We train them, give them responsibilities, and they are rewarded by close
encounters with sea turtles.” If the 2013 season is a conservation success, the organization’s protocols
can be improved, stresses Theresa Stewart, ecologist and monitoring leader at Kyparissia camp. “I
believe that a more holistic approach to habitat management is required in this area. A habitat
management plan should incorporate the entire coastal ecosystem, which includes the beach, sand
dunes and coastal pine forest, which should be protected as a whole and not as individual habitats as
the degradation of one will ultimately impact another.” The long-term goal for Kyparissia is the same
as Zakynthos: the establishment of a protected marine national park. In hope that today’s volunteers
will be able to come back in 15 years without witnessing the same damages inflicted, for instance, to
Crete: its Rethymno beach, once roamed by turtles, is nowadays mostly filled with beach chairs.
According to Stewart, a middle-ground is possible: “ARCHELON has a motto which is “We can all
live together”. The thought behind this is that humans can use the beach in the day time and we can
then remove all of the beach furniture when the sun sets and leave the beach at night only for turtles.
Appropriately designed mitigation schemes can work to incorporate measures that minimize impact to
the habitats and species present and include habitat creation.” Therefore, in the future, men will have to
find a way to come to terms with loggerheads. “I never lose my faith in people and their potential,
concludes Theodorou. Kyparissia needs a local government with a vision, good promotion strategies
and a strong will for work in order to develop the area in a sustainable way.”

I remember the night of August 6th. I had just tagged a turtle whose nest was right next to one of
Hotel Irida’s beach chair, in Kalo Nero. The owner was notoriously bad-tempered, and I knew this nest
would be the source of issues for the morning team. The next day, while my colleagues were trying to
protect it, he and his wife had rushed towards them and started pulling violently the bamboo sticks out
of the sand, in order to dig and make sure it was an actual nest. Volunteers had defended themselves,
locals had joined the melee, and the police had intervened. Suddenly, 18 hatchlings had come out of a
neighboring nest together and, covered in sand, had run to the sea under the guard of volunteers and
marvelled tourists. Those turtles that would perhaps come back to nest at this very same place had just
put an end to the drama with a glimmer of hope.


Note: The information in this post is the opinion of a guest contributor. Any views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of mongabay.

Reader Contribution: The ‘One Tree In A Billion’ Project

December 3rd, 2013

By Natalie Millar

With recent surveys showing the rate of deforestation in the Amazon averaging 2,000 square miles each year, we are at a time where conservation of the rainforest is becoming more and more critical. Threats like logging and illegal gold mining are becoming more prominent, particularly in the Peruvian Amazon, where mercury used in gold mining devastates habitat and pollutes waterway, threatening fauna and local communities. Mercury is used to amalgamate particles of gold, and is then burned off afterwards leaving the nugget of gold intact underneath, but excess mercury forms pits, intermittently staining the rainforest landscape.

Río Huaypetue gold mine in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru is contaminated with approximately 30 to 40 tonnes of mercury each year, and now 78% of Madre de Dios residents have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies.

According to the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) in 2010 gold miners felled over 370,000 acres of forest to make room for illegal mines (with 50% of these being small, informal set ups) and since then it is predicted that these numbers have soared.

It’s hard when presented with numbers like 370,000 acres or 2,000 square miles to visualize the extent of the damage, as our brains can’t understand the complexity of the very large, or the very small. The “One Tree In A Billion” project based in Tambopata, Peru, unlike most other rainforest studies, is focusing on a single fig tree and documenting all of the species this single tree can support over a 60-day period, to show what we lose each time a tree is felled. Being carried out by three wildlife photographers and endorsed by WLT, the project will use camera trapping, macro-photography and infrared to compile a visual catalog of the life in the area.

Forest along bank of Tambopata river in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates will all be documented, using a wide array of techniques and equipment. Birds will be photographed from hides for the most part, but mist nets will also be set up around the subject tree to temporarily capture any birds, enabling the team to photograph them before their release. These mist nets will be kept open during the night, to capture any bats that may inhabit or travel around the fig tree. Infrared cameras and non-lethal traps will be used to document mammal species, whilst non-lethal malaise traps will capture flying insects. Insects and invertebrates that may be too small to identify with the naked eye will be photographed through a light microscope. Pitfall traps will be set up in various areas around the diameter of the tree, to temporarily capture reptiles and amphibians, while headlamps are to be used at night to detect the glowing eye-shine of the many frog species found in the rainforest.

The photographs will be used to make a field guide, to aid local research scientists and local conservation groups, as well as being part of an interactive roadshow in the UK, to educate children on the importance of the protection of this diverse landscape. The project is being covered by Photography Monthly Magazine amongst others, with the hope that radio and TV productions will pick up the story, and convey the importance of the conservation of the Amazon to a wider audience.

All of the equipment, construction of hides, and transportation is costly, so the team have started a kickstarter page offering the chance to become a backer, and be involved in the project.

Baby giant armadillo’s first photo wins top award

December 3rd, 2013

Mother giant armadillo with baby in Baia des Pedras. Photo by: The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.

The elusive and unknown giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus) is rarely caught by the lights of a camera, and never before has a baby giant armadillo been captured on film – until now.  This unprecedented image has garnered recognition from the 2013 BBC Wildlife Magazine Camera Trap photo competition.

The photo, along with another winning image, is the result of the hard work of the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project. Dr Arnaud Desbiez, the Regional Coordinator for Conservation & Research in Latin America for Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and a leader of the project, said: “Collecting two awards in the BBC Wildlife camera-trap competition, one as a runner up and one a commendation, is an amazing accolade for the project. The worldwide competition actually had an incredible 850 entries from spots as far apart as Argentina, Bangladesh, Borneo and Hawaii, so it is particularly special to have received this recognition.

“We are particularly delighted as one of the main goals of the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project is to raise awareness of this species. Many people in the Pantanal actually live their whole lives without seeing a giant armadillo and some even believe the creature is a myth. And did you know that due to its low population density, nocturnal activity and secretive nature, the giant armadillo could go locally extinct without anyone noticing? It is really vital we do everything we can to increase awareness and develop our understanding of this mysterious creature.”

A unique kind of contest, the four-year-old BBC Wildlife Magazine Camera-trap Photo of the Year competition actually awards the prize money to the winning conservation projects instead of individual photographers. Judges for the competition select winners by evaluating the contribution that each image makes to scientific knowledge.

Mongabay has covered the capture of this image and the work of the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project in recent months.

Arnaud Desbiez and Danilo Kluyber looking at camera trap pictures. Photo by: The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.