Nelson Mandela, elephants and youth

January 7th, 2014

Commentary by Isabel  S. Abrams

Most people think of Nelson Mandela as a fighter for racial equality in South Africa. To me, he is also a powerful advocate for protecting wilderness and empowering youth.

In 2002, I was in the audience at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa where I heard Mandela address delegates from more than 100 nations.

“Many don’t want (conservation areas) set aside for privileged by privileged. Many have origins in colonial past,” Mandela said. “In South Africa, we break with this legacy.”

A baby elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Why? Because Mandela believed that, in addition to being places of beauty and adventure, National Parks are vital sources of South Africa’s economic development.

Safaris to Africa provide revenue to its developing nations, while visitors like me are awestruck by the magnificent giraffes, lions, zebra, and cheetahs of the African wilderness. I have taken many photos of elephants, those gentle giants, who care for their young as they roam the grasslands, and feed on greenery. I have also run away from elephants who suddenly appeared and flared their ears as they headed toward me, because I had visited a place where elephants had torn down trees like a hurricane. That was why Mandela’s comments on elephants surprised and amused me.

I learned about Mandela’s special relationship with elephants in 2003, at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa. At the opening ceremony, speakers described how fences had to be removed between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, in order to create Great Limpopo Park, an international wilderness that provided safe passage for migrating elephants and other wildlife.

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan acknowledged that South Africa can be justly proud of its protected areas and claimed that preserved natural wilderness areas were the “green lines of our planet that provide clean air, water, and livelihoods, places that feed our souls, provide inspiration and solace in an increasingly urban world.”

Queen Noor finished by adding that, when elephants were transferred to Mozambique,., Nelson Mandela claimed this transfer of elephants was payment for his bride.” “Some elephants try to return,” she said. “We hope they honor Mr. Mandela’s bride price.”

An adult elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

President Nelson Mandela wore a zebra patterned shirt and smiled as he walked slowly up to the podium. His voice was soft but his message was strong. “The future is in the hands of youth and in the future of protected natural areas,” he said. Then he warned the audience that far too few youth are involved in the work of sustaining wilderness. I nodded my head in agreement because I work with Caretakers of the Environment International, a network of high school students and teachers who are very determined to protect nature. How happy I was to hear Mandela say, “This is a matter of great concern,” and ask the delegates, “to support all junior rangers and other youth organizations, and to give them higher priority in protecting wilderness.”

Mandela claimed that National Parks empower people, create jobs, and relieve poverty.

“They sustain biodiversity, conservation and tourism,” he said, for he knew that we can have a sustainable future if we enlist energetic and idealistic youth in our efforts to save elephants and other wildlife.

“A sustainable future for humans depends on nature as much as anything else,” said Mandela, and he wished us great success in our endeavors.

Sunset on the Nile

October 18th, 2013

By Jemma Smith

This stunning photograph is of the sun setting over the River Nile, which is said to be the longest river in the world with a staggering 6,670 km (4,160 miles) in length and discharges an average of 3.1 million litres of water per second into the Mediterranean Sea. It is long been disputed where the exact source of the river is, however, many believed it to be Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The River Nile travels through eleven African countries on its journey to the Mediterranean. There has long been conflict between countries on ownership and management of the Nile and its vital water that is used by millions of African farmers and is also home to a large diversity of wildlife.

The Joint Declaration of Intent on REDD+ in the Congo Basin between Central African and Donor Countries: making history, déjà vu, and which way forward ?

January 5th, 2012

Op-ed by Ngembeni Wa Namasso, special to mongabay.com

The Declaration on REDD+ expected as part of ongoing climate talks in Durban, South Africa, by the Central Africa Commission on Forests (COMIFAC) and some donor countries, was released, Wednesday, December 07, 2011.

To many observers this declaration is a ritual and therefore, expected after every meeting by ‘high-level’ decision-makers on forests from that part of the World. However, closer examination would reveal evidence of donor inertia; three tendencies – the forward, the going-it-alone and the going-along; some cracks appearing in the commission, and some face-saving gestures made.

Firstly, there is good news! The Congo Basin remains strongly committed to forest management; yet, it is a zone experiencing low investment in the forestry sector, insufficient flexibility in REDD+ readiness and weak integration of the forestry sector with growing pressures for land from international investors. The bad news is however that, moving towards a genuine and tangible consensus for REDD+ in the Congo Basin will require much more than intentions and declarations.

Firstly, the prominence of ‘intent’ in the title of the declaration is telling. From the region’s recent history on REDD+ since Bali in 2007, through COP16 2010 Cancun, Mexico, to the grand standing of the “Summit of 3 Tropical Forest Basins of the World” held in Brazzaville, May/June 2011, rounding-off 2011 with a declaration of intent seems a bit lame. Few can see COMIFAC, led by the vigorous doyen of Central African forestry, architect of the Brazzaville summit; H.E. Henri Djombo of the Republic of Congo, settling for a declaration of ‘intent! A declaration with ‘intent’ as the highest water mark is covered by the fingerprints of donor inertia.

For observers of the REDD+ process in the Congo Basin, COMIFAC countries exhibit three types of attitude vis-à-vis REDD+ readiness. Type 1 – are the forward countries with high forest/people ratio, weak road infrastructure and prospects for immediate foreign investments. Type 1 countries generally expect substantial windfalls from rapid REDD+. The republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo fall into this first category. Type 2 – are countries going-it-one, somewhat trending away from the REDD+ option as currently structured. They have a strong natural resources base, higher prospects for foreign investments. They also have a high forest/people ratio and a strongly independent, even nationalist character. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea fall in this Category. Type 3 – are countries going-along, fearing negative reciprocity if they don’t. These countries have enjoyed historic forestry leadership and have made investments in COMIFAC. Some have perhaps dwindling forests; they enjoy better road infrastructure and therefore relatively lower cost of foreign investments. Cameroon falls under this category. With shaky commitment to REDD+ Types 2 & 3 are actively espousing greater creativity and flexibility in REDD+ options. Type 1 countries on the other hand seem impatient for a faster REDD+ mechanism.

These apparent cracks in the COMIFAC facade are also demonstrated by the number of State flags not appended to the declaration. Of the ten (10) members of COMIFAC, the Flags of Sao Tome & Principe, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are not included. This casts a shadow on the traditional togetherness of ‘COMIFAC’. Of the seven whose flags are appended, Chad, though proud of its parklands is not a typical forest country. The Central Africa Republic boasts modest amounts of tropical forests. Still the bulk of Chad is non forest. Rwanda and Burundi are both countries with relatively high population densities, Montaigne woodlands and small surface areas.

If the pre-Cancun/COP16, Brazzaville summit of May/June 2011 is anything to go by, it seems this declaration has been pushed by H.E. Henry Djombo, Minister of Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment of the Republic of Congo, and doyen of Central Africa Forestry Ministries. Some pundits would make light of this longevity, expecting rivalry, between the two Congos. After all, the DRC has more than 60% of the region’s forests. However, it may be precisely because of DRC’s forests and H.E. Henri Djombo’s longevity that, leadership advances by DRC’s H.E. Edouado Endundu, would clearly be overkill. With a below par Brazzaville summit on ‘3 forest Basins’, it seems quite plausible that this Durban Declaration is a success for H.E. Henry Djombo and a grace – saving act for COMIFAC.

In keeping with the spirit of the declaration however, a number of concrete steps must be taken.

In the coming years the COMIFAC region must explore a number of concrete sustainable forest management solutions. For decades forest governance has been talked about as if it belonged in another era, and little done to build capacity so citizen actors can be incentivized to take greater part in managing forests. With possible incentive mechanisms on the horizon the technical requirements for managing forest carbon seem clear and so are sustainable benefits from forests. It is now also clear that forests must be made more valuable standing, than converted. Investments in forests should lead directly to stronger local and national capacity to manage and market diverse products and services from natural forests without destroying them. Proxy – or less than direct strategies for managing natural forests have not succeeded.

Approaches to REDD+ must become more creative and longer term. Sub national options for marketing carbon under specific national circumstances should be looked at on case by case, country-by-country bases more carefully. More of the same medicine, for all countries is clearly not working and some countries are choosing other options and going-it-alone or just going-along for reasons other than sustainable forest management. The use of donor funds to support REDD+ should be directed towards investments in keeping forests, natural by moving to a higher level of valorization of products and services from natural forests.

The use of the term ‘Country’ in international forest policy communications needs to be clearly unpacked to mean not national governments or their representatives exclusively, but all the citizens in the COMIFAC countries – each according to their skills, interest and resources, and including state agents. Such distinction is now necessary as more citizens have or are acquiring needed knowledge and skills and want to become involved; to work as partners with foreign collaborators and their governments. Citizens no longer want to be ‘convened’ by Government or foreign experts as has been the status quo. Arguably, State forestry agents in COMIFAC countries are currently over-saturated with responsibilities, while sectors like national research, institutions of higher learning, nongovernmental organizations and ordinary entrepreneurs can often be without business, without funds and resources with which to support the forestry sector. Diversification of support to all these sectors is the way to go for forest and climate work in the Congo Basin.

Finally, COMIFAC countries must clearly demonstrate awareness of how global demands for agricultural lands are being taken on-board in current forest and climate change mitigation work. The only way skills can be developed, focus maintained on competing land and forest uses; make citizens into actors, take-on their livelihoods concerns, their fears and interests, is to enlarge the forest and climate process and to support a truly national consensus; one that is measurable, verifiable and reportable.

Update: interview on toxic pesticide used to kill wildlife (and endangering people) in Kenya

June 30th, 2011

An interview in four parts with Paula Kahumbu, Executive Director of WildlifeDirect, provides detail and context on the use of the neurotoxic pesticide Furadan to kill lions and birds en masse in Kenya. Lions are down to around 2,000 individuals in Kenya. Kahumbu, recently awarded an Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic, and WildlifeDirect are working to pressure the government to estimate the environmental and human cost of Furadan.

Also known as Carbofuran, Furadan is manufactured by the Farm Machinery and Chemicals Corporation (FMC) in the United States. As of May 2009, the US banned Furadan from being used on any crop for human consumption due to its lethal toxicity. Still, FMC says it will continue to manufacture the pesticide for use abroad.

For more information: Stop Wildlife Poisoning

For more on the fight to stop Furadan in Kenya:

Lion poisonings decimating vultures in Kenya

(01/19/2011) It’s a common image of the African savanna: vultures flocking to a carcass on the great plains. However, a new study has found that vulture populations are plummeting in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, a part of the Serengeti plains, due to habitat loss as well as the illegal killing of lions. Increasingly farmers and livestock owners have targeted lions and other big predators by poisoning livestock carcasses with toxic pesticides, such as Furadan. Not only illegal, such poisonings take their toll on other Serengeti wildlife, including vultures that perish after feeding on the laced carcasses.

Updated: East Africa’s lions falling to poison

(05/11/2010) Eight lions have been poisoned to death in a month in Kenya, according to conservation organization WildlifeDirect. Locals, frustrated by lions killing their livestock, have taken to poisoning the great cats using a common pesticide in Kenya called carbofuran, known commercially as Furadan.

Prime Minister of Kenya urged to ban lion-killing pesticide after child dies from ingestion

(11/10/2009) On Monday October 26th a three-year-old girl mistakenly ate the pesticide Furadan (also known as carbofuran) in western Kenya. Her father, a teacher at a primary school, said that he had no knowledge of how dangerous the pesticide was, which he had purchased to kill pests in his vegetable garden.

Wangari Maathai muses on trees, activism, and God (radio)

June 9th, 2011

Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt movement, Wangari Maathai, started a tree-planting campaign to create a better world for the impoverished and marginalized people of her native country, Kenya. For such views, she faced threats of assassination, violence, and censorship from the government.

Now 71, Maathai speaks to Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show On Being, about the importance of trees, how ecology and human well-being interact, and where she finds her faith.

For more information:

Restoring forests: an opportunity for Africa

(05/26/2011) Tropical forest news last week was dominated by Indonesia and Brazil. Forest clearing has surged over the past year in parts of the Amazon, the Brazilian Government reported. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s President signed a moratorium on cutting some intact forest areas, as part of a landmark billion-dollar deal with international donors. But new research shows that Africa offers some of the greatest opportunities globally for restoring forests.

Reforestation program in China preventing future disasters

(05/13/2011) China’s response to large-scale erosion with reforestation is paying off according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). The 10-year program, known as Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP), is working to turn some 37 million acres back into forest or grasslands after farming on steep slopes in the Yangtze and Yellow River basins had made them perilously susceptible to erosion and flooding.

Women are key to global conservation

(03/03/2011) In 1991, my nine-year-old daughter Rachel traveled with me to Guatemala where we were struck by the heartbreaking rural poverty and mudslides worsened by widespread deforestation. We vividly remember holding a three-year-old child who was so listless and malnourished he could scarcely lift his arms. The worry and fatigue on his mother’s face and the child’s condition affected us both profoundly, despite Rachel’s relative youth.

Great Green Wall gets go ahead

(02/28/2011) Spanning the entire continent of Africa, including 11 nations, the Great Green Wall (GGW) is an ambitious plan to halt desertification at the Sahara’s southern fringe by employing the low-tech solution of tree planting. While the Great Green Wall was first proposed in the 1980s, the grand eco-scheme is closer to becoming a reality after being approved at an international summit last week in Germany as reported by the Guardian.

India commits $10 billion to expand forests

(02/25/2011) The Indian government has approved a bold plan to expand and improve the quality of its forests as a part of the nation’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. The reforestation plan, dubbed the National Mission for a Green India (NMGI), will expand forests by five million hectares (over 12 million acres), while improving forests quality on another five million hectares for $10.14 billion (460 billion rupees).

Antelope release! (photos)

June 7th, 2011

Red hartebeest release. Photo courtesy of Colchester Zoo: Action for the Wild.
Red hartebeest release. Photo courtesy of Colchester Zoo: Action for the Wild.

Three antelope species were recently released at the Umphafa Private Nature Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa in an ongoing effort to restore an over-cultivated area. In all 7 impala, 21 red hartebeest, and 22 blue wildebeest were released.

“These recent releases are exciting developments for UmPhafa. The releases of the wildebeest represent the first for this species on UmPhafa and the new populations of red hartebeest and impala will serve to top up our existing herds. It is hoped that these species will go on to breed in the future and help us on our way to reaching carrying capacity for these species,” said Rebecca Perry, Conservation Director, in a press release.

The reserve was opened in 2006 by Action for the Wild, the conservation organization of Colchester Zoo. To date, 13 species have been released in the 5,000 hectare protected area, including giraffe, zebra, blesbok, servals, African rock pythons, common reedbuck, nyala, waterbuck, leopard tortoises and white rhinos.

Impala release. Photo courtesy of Colchester Zoo: Action for the Wild.
Impala release. Photo courtesy of Colchester Zoo: Action for the Wild.

Blue wildebeest release. Photo courtesy of Colchester Zoo: Action for the Wild.
Blue wildebeest release. Photo courtesy of Colchester Zoo: Action for the Wild.

Will food dominate 21 century geopolitics? (radio)

May 22nd, 2011

One billion people in the world are going hungry–more than any other time in history. Yet food security remains a pretty low concern in most industrialized countries. That may not last long according to renowned environmentalist, Lestor Brown, who says that climate change, population growth, rising consumption of meat and dairy, and water issues could soon make food a flashpoint worldwide. Already, high food prices this year played a role in the Arab Spring revolutions and has pushed a number of countries, such as China and South Korea, to begin buying up land in Africa under century-long leases that could create further crises.

Lester Brown is the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.

For more information:

Rising food prices threaten to push over 60 million Asians back into poverty

(04/27/2011) The Asian Development Bank has warned that high food prices on the continent could push 64 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty, reports the AFP.

Foreign big agriculture threatens world’s second largest wildlife migration

(03/07/2011) As the world’s largest migration in the Serengeti plains—including two million wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelles—has come under unprecedented threat due to plans for a road that would sever the migration route, a far lesser famous, but nearly as large migration, is being silently eroded just 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) north in Ethiopia’s Gambela National Park. The migration of over one million white-eared kob, tiang, and Mongalla gazelle starts in the southern Sudan but crosses the border into Ethiopia and Gambela where Fred Pearce at Yale360 reports it is running into the rapid expansion of big agribusiness. While providing habitat for the millions of migrants, Gambela National Park’s land is also incredibly fertile enticing foreign investment.

Food prices hit new record high—again

(03/03/2011) Food prices in February hit a new record, breaking the previous one set in January and continuing an eight-month streak of rising prices, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Experts fear that rising food prices could lead to another food crisis similar to that of 2007-2008.

Photo: baby Grevy’s zebra makes appearance

May 12th, 2011

Born at the beginning of the year, a Grey's zebra foal has made its first appearance at the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Bronx Zoo. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher.
Born at the beginning of the year, a Grey’s zebra foal has made its first appearance at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher.

Listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) population has fallen by 50% over the past two decades. As of 2008 there was estimated around 750 adult animals survive in the wild. The species survives in Kenya and Ethiopia. It may be present in Sudan as well.

Grevy’s zebra has suffered from increased competition for water and food with local livestock. Juveniles, particularly, have a difficult time surviving. Loss of water to irrigation and in places hunting are also of concern.

Pictures of baby animals with their mothers for Mother’s Day

May 8th, 2011

Mother tarsier and baby on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother tarsier and baby on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother and baby orangutan in tree in Sumatra. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother and baby orangutan in tree in Sumatra. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother Panamanian golden frog with green baby. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother Panamanian golden frog with green baby. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

 Southern Tree Hyrax with baby in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Southern Tree Hyrax with baby in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

 Baby crowned lemur clinging to its mother in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Baby crowned lemur clinging to its mother in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) with babies in Belize. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) with babies in Belize. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother lion sleeping with cubs in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother lion sleeping with cubs in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother and baby Matschie's Tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus matschiei). Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother and baby Matschie’s Tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus matschiei). Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother ringtail lemur with baby on stomach. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother ringtail lemur with baby on stomach. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mother capybara with baby in Brazil. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mother capybara with baby in Brazil. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) mom and juvenile drinking in the Chobe River . Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
African elephant (Loxodonta africana) mom and juvenile drinking in the Chobe River . Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Smiling mothers with babies on their backs in the Sacred Valley near Ollantaytambo outside of Cuzco, Peru. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
And people too! Smiling mothers with babies on their backs in the Sacred Valley near Ollantaytambo outside of Cuzco, Peru. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Photo: abused cheetahs returned to the wild

April 27th, 2011

An adult cheetah, which had been smuggled and abused for the illegal pet trade, returns to the wild in Tanzania.  Photo by: Annette Simonson
An adult cheetah, which had been smuggled and abused for the illegal pet trade, returns to the wild in Tanzania. Photo by: Annette Simonson.

Few people realize that cheetah’s, one of Africa’s great cats, are a target of the global wildlife trade. Yet these speedy predators are sought as exotic ‘pets’, especially in the Middle East.

As apart of this illegal pet trade, three adult cheetahs were recently seized at a residence in Tanzania’s capital, Arusha. According to a press release from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the cheetah’s were being held in cages so low they could barely stand. ZSL worked with the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and the Tanzania Wildlife Division to secure the release of the cheetahs and then re-released them back into the wild at Tarangire National Park.

Satellite collars were fitted to two of the three cheetahs (including the one photographed) so they could be tracked by researchers.

“This is the first known case of cheetah trafficking in Tanzania and it worryingly suggests that the illegal trade of this protected species is increasing,” said Dr Sarah Durant of ZSL and WCS in a press release. “We hope the plight of these three cheetahs will raise awareness of the demand for big cats as pets in places such as the Middle East, and encourage increased law-enforcement at key trading hubs.”

The cheetah has been fitted with a satellite collar as seen in this close-up.  Photo by: Annette Simonson.
The cheetah has been fitted with a satellite collar as seen in this close-up. Photo by: Annette Simonson.