International Union for Conservation of Nature

Rare black leopard caught on camera in Kenya. So, who deserves the credit?

Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest? History records that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, on May 29, 1953, but purists have always wondered if his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Hillary addressed this issue directly in an interview with National Geographic Adventurer contributing editor David Roberts in April, 2003, in a story titled “50 Years on Everest.”

“When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalled. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.”

You may be wondering what the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt. Everest has to do with a series of stunning photos published in the past 10 days of a rare black leopard on Kenya’s central Laikipia Plateau, but there is a connection.

It has to do with shared credit, and what the protocol is when a hard-earned wildlife photograph goes viral on social media and becomes front-page news for major news organizations around the world.

Who deserves credit? The person who took the photograph of a rare animal, or the person who found that rare animal in the first place.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

It’s how that news was reported — on the BBC World News’ main website, for one— that the controversy started. 

Veteran UK nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who leads photo expeditions of his own in Africa for avid shutterbugs and animal lovers, captured the startling image of a black panther — actually a regular leopard with a rare melanistic gene that causes the fur to appear black, though not a pure black exactly but grey, which is why the leopard’s spots, or rosettes, are clearly visible against the background fur when — using a remote-controlled trap camera. It was a local Samburu tracker and research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Global outreach NGO, Ambrose Letoluai, however, who knew where to find the leopard and told Burrard-Lucas where best to set the camera. LetoluaLetoluaii has lived his entire life in Koija, a small  village which borders Loisaba Conservancy, and was hired as a leopard researcher after recalling tales elders in his community had told him about black leopards being common on the Laikipia Plateau.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

San Diego Zoo Global researchers, working with biologist Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D deployed remote cameras as part of a larger-scale study aimed at understanding the population dynamics of leopards on conservation land that, like much of northern Kenya, is shared by both wildlife and pastoral cattle herders. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where goats and calves encounter an apex predator like a leopard, and researchers believe more needs to be known about wild animals’ habits if they are to have a chance to survive. Leopards are not critically endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as “vulnerable” on its official Red List of threatened species.

Black panthers have always held a special place in the human imagination, in part because they’re seen so rarely and in part because they’re such a familiar symbol in popular culture.

Burrard-Lucas got wind of the Laikipia program and its trap cameras, and decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream to capture a black panther, if not on film exactly, on-camera. Letoluai was his assigned minder — his Sherpa, if you will — and the subsequent images, part luck, part good timing and part insider knowledge, exceeded their expectations.

So far, so good.

The mainstream media like nothing better than a good story, though, and while “Night-time Photos of a Rare Black Leopard” might sound like a good story to some people, “First Black Leopard Spotted in 100 Years” sounds much better.

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

In a media climate desperate for some good news about the environment for a change, rare photos of an animal that hasn’t been seen for a century is a headline grabber.

There’s just one problem. It wasn’t true. Local media in Kenya, among them photojournalist and staff photographer Phoebe Okall of the Nairobi Daily Nation newspaper, had captured images of a black leopard in the wild just a few years ago.

Many Kenyans, politically sensitive toward any perceived slight by westerners in the post-colonial era of independence, saw this as a double insult: Ambrose Letoluai was being given enough credit for finding the black leopard on BBC World’s main news site, and local, Kenyan photojournalists were not being given any credit for having captured images of black leopards on not one but several occasions prior to “the first capture in 100 years.”

Burrard-Lucas, for his part, found himself caught in the middle. What should have been the crowning achievement of his photographic career — and still might — is suddenly at the centre of an increasingly noisy and fractious controversy.

He posted an immediate clarification on his website: He never said it was the first photo of a black leopard in 100 years. That was something the media added, for effect. He was also more than willing to credit Letoluai  for his work in setting up the camera trap — it’s quite common, and perfectly acceptable, for nature photographers to credit the guides who take them to the rare animals in the first place.

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

Earlier this week, a reasoned, thoughtful, well-researched — and properly sourced — article in the Washington Post, by general assignment reporters Alex Horton and Reis Thebault, sought to put an end to the controversy by outlining exactly what happened, who did what, where, how, why and, importantly, when.

The damage is done, though, and the outrage on social media sites like Twitter, mostly from Kenyans proud of their heritage and the wild animals they know as their own, continues unabated, even today.

Perhaps, if and when Burrard-Lucas’ images are recognized at some of the big wildlife photo awards, such as the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in October — which I suspect they just may — Burrard-Lucas and Letoluai can accept together, in person, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before them.

Enough about that, for now. Here, then, are some key links to the controversy, as it unfolded.

World Giraffe Day 2018 — the long and the short of it.

On this summer solstice, please spare a thought for one of the world’s most recognizable animals. Today’s as good a day as any to recognize and celebrate the longest-necked animal on the planet — the longest day (or night, depending in which hemisphere you happen to be right now) of the year.

Celebrate but, hopefully, not commemorate.

Because one of the more underreported, overlooked environmental stories of the year is that the giraffe, that iconic animal and the stuff of countless fables and children’s storybooks, is now on the endangered species list.

According to the world-respected wildlife biologist and giraffe expert Dr. Julian Fennessy, giraffe populations have crashed by nearly half in just the past three decades, numbers even a Trumptard can understand.

Giraffes are now extinct in seven countries in which they used to thrive. Since a giraffe only has one offspring at a time, and the gestation period is 13 to 15 months, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out the entire species might be facing the immutable law of diminishing returns.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The Australian-born Fennessy is co-founder and executive director of the Namibia-based — yes, Namibia again — Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) ( and co-chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

Fennessy initiated genetic research that found there are four species of giraffe in Africa, of which two — the Northern giraffe and the Reticulated giraffe — are among the world’s most critically endangered mammals. Even the familiar, and relatively common,  Maasai giraffe isn’t out of the woods entirely.

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

Taken as a whole, the giraffe — as defined as a single species — is now listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.

Oddly, despite the giraffe’s profile in popular culture, little was known about them, let alone giraffe conservation, when Fennessy first founded the GCF as a modest, UK-based NGO in 2009, with just a handful of staff members.

“There had never been a full-time giraffe person before,” Fennessy told the South China Morning Post’s Tessa Chan earlier this month, before a Royal Geographical Society lecture in Hong Kong on the plight facing this gentle, graceful mammal.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The GCF has been conducting extensive population surveys in Uganda in cooperation with that country’s Uganda Wildlife Authority, using individual photographic markers and computer files. Population surveys used to be done from the air, using planes and helicopters, a process which is notoriously unreliable, Fennessy says, even with an animal as large and easy to spot as a giraffe.

“They have a (coat) pattern like a fingerprint,” Fennessy explained, “so we can ID them and over years build up a database.”

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

Fennessy believes conservation efforts have gained ground in Uganda, thanks largely to his group’s efforts, and in GCF’s home country of Namibia, but giraffes still face a poaching crisis in other African countries where they’re clinging to life — Ethiopia, South Sudan, Cameroon and the constantly war-torn  Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Giraffes are sometimes killed just for their tail, for use as a fly swat.

“So they kill a whole giraffe and leave it, just for the tail,” he told the Morning Post.

People can become actively involved beyond being simply an armchair conservationist through donation, by sponsoring a giraffe or by helping with funding efforts.

giraffe pixabay inset.jpg

Just as importantly — perhaps even more so — Fennessy asks that anyone considering a safari in Africa can support responsible ecotourism by asking the travel company what they do for conservation on the ground and — and this is the critical part — how they support local communities that live with and around wild animals.

The Johannesburg-based NGO African Parks actively vets safari companies and is willing to share information with anyone who asks.

If there’s one benefit to living in these times, Fennessy says, it’s that the world has become a small place: It’s easy to share information and learn new things at the click of a mouse.

As African Parks’ Andrea Heydlauff told a National Geographic-sponsored audience at the Half-Earth Day 2017 conference in Washington, DC, “what’s fantastic is that wildlife can rebound. Nature knows what to do. They just need to be given the space and security in order to thrive. And where wildlife thrives, people thrive.”

Reason for hope.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Rhinos — born to be wild, not farmed.

The curious conservation conundrum surrounding rhino rancher John Hume and his 1,500 rhinos has been in the news for some time now in his native South Africa. Hume hopes to harvest their horns — made of keratin, the same substance as human fingernails, the horns can be cut off and harvested without causing pain or harm to the animal — and in theory help save the species, by flooding the black market with legally sourced rhino horn and — in theory — put black market profiteers, and rhino poachers, out of business.

That’s the theory, anyway. Alarmed conservationists say flooding the market with supposedly legitimate rhino horn would only boost demand. It would be difficult if not impossible, they say, to distinguish legal horn from illegal horn. It would send a message, too, that rhino horn is a perfectly legitimate product, provided it’s sourced properly.

©CBS News

©CBS News

Any number of conservation laws and protections would have to be lifted for Hume to turn his idea into a long-term, thriving business, and so far lawmakers have been doubtful — not just in South Africa, but throughout the world.

Hume has argued that if something isn’t done soon to make rhino horn legal, he’ll go out of business, since keeping and breeding 1,500 rhinos isn’t exactly cheap.

Irony aside, a major part of his expenses is hiring security for his ranch, to ensure that rhino poachers — heavily armed and well organized — don’t whack his own farm animals to turn a quick buck on the black market.

The story, with all its twists and turns, would have stayed in South Africa and a handful of European countries but for the top-rated US TV news program 60 Minutes, now in its 50th season. Last weekend, 60 Minutes aired a 15-minute segment on Hume’s rhino ranch and the attending controversy.

The segment, ironically enough, was reported by 60 Minutes veteran Lara Logan, herself a native of South Africa, having been born and raised in Durban.

©CBS News1.png

Hume, perhaps mindful of the present occupant of the U.S. presidency — the U.S. president’s a two sons are both avid big-game hunters and, what’s more, proud of shooting animals in Africa, whether those animals are on the endangered species list or not — talked a good game. He equated the legal ban on rhino horn to Prohibition, pointing out that when Prohibition was finally lifted, organIzed crime was squeezed out of the booze business.

No one thought to mention, least of all Logan, that the economics of scale don’t quite fit: Booze can be distilled relatively inexpensively — at least, compared to farming rhinos — and distributed relatively easily, across a wide area, to an expansive and and growing market that includes, well, just about everyone.

Raising rhinos, on the other hand, is expensive, slow and time-consuming. A rhino’s gestation period is 18 months, and rhinos, both the northern black and southern white rhinos, have just one baby at a time. They don’t breed like rats, in other words, or even cows or horses.

Besides, not everyone is in the market for rhino horn — even if it is worth more per gram than gold. The appetite is so great for rhino horn is now so great that it fetches up to USD 100,000/kg.

©David Chancellor/Kiosk-National Geographic6

©David Chancellor/Kiosk-National Geographic6

There may be many, many people in Vietnam, China, Laos and Thailand, but even there, not everyone believes rhino horn will cure cancer (it doesn’t) or make one’s erection bigger and last longer (it won’t).

Curiously, the market in rhino horn for making dagger handles in the Arabian peninsular and Gulf oil states has fallen on hard times of late, perhaps because oil sheikhs and idle Saudi princes have found more malleable, sought-after materials to show off as status symbols, or perhaps it’s that rhino horn’s reputation as an aphrodisiac and cure-all for every disease known to humankind — not to mention it works wonders for hangovers! — now outweighs mere vanity in the futures markets.

Hume insists he’s been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years now and that his financial situation is growingly untenable. The truth is that no one can predict with any degree of certainty whether suddenly flooding the market with legitimate rhino horn would have any effect on poaching, up or down. A similar, even more hotly contested debate over ivory and elephant poaching keeps flaring up at international wildlife meetings, including the meetings last year of the international regulatory boards CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature). The evidence would seem to lean toward the conservationists’ argument that lifting sanctions on the sale of rhino horn, whether legitimately sourced or not, would only lead to the killing of more rhinos.



Since rhino populations have taken an absolute pasting over the past several years, that is not good environmental science, no matter which way you slice it.

And by the time consumers in China and Vietnam realize that, sadly, rhino horn will not cure cancer or make one’s erection bigger or last longer, there may be no rhinos left to disprove the theory.

There’s also the inconvenient truth that rhinos are warm-blooded, sentient beings; as much as Hume would like us to believe that farming these holdovers from the late Miocene era (that’s 6 million years ago, if you’re keeping count) is no different than farming pigs and cows, the plain fact is that rhinos were born to be wild.

There was a moment during last weekend’s 60 Minutes segment when Hume called dozens of rhinos onto a dusty, desert-like plain to feed on handouts of alfalfa feed in stone troughs; it was as close to a vision of animal hell as I ever hope to see. Logan, a veteran war correspondent who was embedded with US forces during both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, looked horrified. It was about as far from seeing a rhino — a largely solitary, often unsociable animal — in its natural surroundings as it’s possible to imagine, and still be looking at a living rhino.

If this is the future of the species, one can be forgiven for thinking it’s not worth it.

©CBS News3.png



World Pangolin Day: a rallying cry for the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Today, Saturday, is World Pangolin Day. Little is known about the animal dubbed “the world’s most trafficked mammal” except that it physically resembles an anteater, does not do well in captivity and is over-hunted throughout its range in Africa and Asia.

It’s hunted both for its meat — pangolin is one of the most sought-after types of bush meat — and for its scales, which local healers believe to be a potent and powerful source of traditional medicine.

1. pangolin day.png

The pangolin faces the same parade of threats that confront so much of Africa and Asia’s wildlife: Deforestation, climate change and illegal hunting, much of it for the restaurant trade in China and Vietnam, where pangolin is considered a delicacy. More than a million pangolins are believed to have perished in the past decade alone, according to some estimates.

‘Estimate’ is the key word here because so little is known about their habits, Pangolins are nocturnal and largely solitary — they meet only to mate — and give birth to just one offspring at a time.

They have weak eyesight and rely on a keen sense of hearing and sense of smell to survive. They’re picky eaters and subsist on ants and termites, but only certain types. They will eat just one or two species of insects, even when many species are available to them, this, according to a 2015 study by the University of Wisconsin.

©World Wildlife Fund

©World Wildlife Fund

When threatened, they curl into a tight ball, using their scales for protection; the name ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word pengguling, which means “one who rolls up.”

There is poaching, and then there is annihilation.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially lists the eight known species of pangolin on its Red List of Threatened Species as “Critically Endangered” but that only tells half the story.

There’s a war going on, and pangolins are fast falling victim to the numbers game.

More than 10,000 kg (11 soft tons) of illegally traded pangolin meet were seized from a Chinese ship that ran aground in the Philippines in 2013.

An Indonesian man was arrested in 2016 after police raided his home and found nearly 700 pangolins in freezers on his property, according to news reports from the Associated Press and BBC News.

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More recently, in October last year, more than 100 pangolins were rescued alive after an anti-smuggling raid on a fishing boat off the east coast of Sumatra, as reported at the time by National Geographic.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) notes smugglers have changed their habits in recent years.

Whereas before they used large, freeze-controlled shipping containers on container ships that could only be accommodated by major seaports, they’re now turning to smaller shipments of live pangolins on small fishing boats that tack from one small port to another, making them that much harder to trace and apprehend.

And all this, because so many people in China and southern Asia believe the pangolin — about the size of a domestic cat — can treat stomach cramps, aid lactation and is a potential cure for cancer.

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Some believe pangolin soup — “pangolin fetus soup,” to be precise — enhances virility and helps reverse impotency, even though it goes without saying there’s no scientific evidence to back it up — any of it.

Even so, the scales from a single pangolin can command as much as USD $3,000 across China and Vietnam.

Quite apart from the ethical and moral considerations of  species extinction through sheer ignorance and greed, scientists are particularly aggrieved over the pangolin’s plight because it’s genetically distinct from any other animal. It might look like an anteater, but it isn’t one. Despite its nickname, “scaly anteater,” the pangolin is its own separate, distinct species.

A plan to boost captive breeding in zoos, through a specially designed breeding program, may be doomed to failure, some critics say, because pangolins don’t fare well in captivity. They’re susceptible to common diseases like pneumonia, and often contract severe stomach ulcers — not helped by their picky their dietary habits.

All that said, there is some reason for hope. Small, grassroots conservation groups, working on the ground in wilderness areas of Africa where pangolins are known to live, have had some success. Maria Diekmann, director of the locally based conservancy Rare & Endangered Species Trust ( / ) in Outjo, Namibia has successfully raised a number of orphaned pangolins from a young age, the first time that is believed to have been done. REST researchers have recently outfitted adolescent pangolins with tracking devices and released them into the bush, to monitor and record their habits in the wild.

©Alex Strachan / REST Africa

©Alex Strachan / REST Africa

The more we learn about pangolins, Diekmann believes, the more chance there is of saving them.

World Pangolin Day is more than an empty cry for help. It’s a bid to raise awareness and galvanize people to action.

South Africa has some of the toughest legislation against wildlife trafficking in the world, for example. The fine for being caught in possession of a pangolin can be as high as USD $700,000 and 10 years’ imprisonment.

Enforcement is another matter, though. There have been few actual convictions to date.

World Pangolin Day can only help get the message out. It may not be a solution in itself, but it’s a start — one small step on the long road to redemption.


(Source: Africa Geographic)
1. The hard, overlapping scales of the pangolin are made of keratin, the same substance found in our nails and hair. The scales continue to grow throughout its life. 
2. The pangolin does not have teeth. Instead it uses a thick, strong and sticky tongue to catch its food. When extended, the pangolin’s tongue is longer than its head and body. It is attached at its pelvis and last pair of ribs, and the rest of it is stored in its chest cavity. 
3. Their stomach has keratinous spines projecting into its interior. Small ingested stones accumulated in the stomach help to mash and grind food,  in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard. 
4. Pangolins are capable swimmers. According to Save Pangolins (, “while some pangolin species such as the African ground pangolin are completely terrestrial, others, such as the African tree pangolin are adept climbers, using their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.” 
5. When threatened, pangolins curl up into a tight ball. They may also emit a noxious acid from glands near their rear end.  
6. The life cycle of a pangolin in the wild is largely unknown, as they are hard to study. Some pangolins are recorded have lived as long as 20 years in captivity. 
7. Adult pangolins live solitary lives, rather than in pairs or families.
8. Pangolins are nocturnal — they come out at night, for the most part. 
9. Pangolins eat insects, such as ants and termites, but are fussy in their eating habits, and focus on just one or  two species, even when others are readily available. They can eat up to 70 million insects a year, according to some estimates. They have uniquely designed muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut, protecting them from insects. They also have special muscles in their mouths which prevent ants and termites from escaping after capture.
10. Mother pangolins keep their young in burrows until they are old enough to ride on their mother’s back. The mother curls up snugly around the baby pangolin at night, or if she senses danger.

Meet ‘Pongo tapanuliensis,’ the first new great ape to be identified in nearly 100 years.

The news that a new species of orangutan has been discovered — if “discovered” is quite the right word — is both wondrous and troubling.

Wondrous, because it reminds us that, even in 2017, seeming miracles can and do happen. It’s a reminder of both the resilience of nature and the fallibility of science and humankind, in that such a large mammal — and a primate species at that — can elude detection for so long.

Troubling, though, because yet another creature has been added to the IUCN list of Critically Endangered species, the official designation for animals that are not just in trouble but in serious trouble. Just 800 remain of the Tapanuli orangutan, as it’s being called. Tapanuli is the central rainforest region in Sumatra where those remaining apes cling to life, even as Indonesian developers — legal and illegal — are hidebound determined to burn their forest to the ground, all in the name of palm oil plantations.

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

But wait, it gets worse. Acting on the notion that what the world really needs is more hydroelectric power dams, Indonesia is in the process of constructing a monster dam that will finish the job the land developers have started, if they have their way.

Naturally, conservation groups, advocates for nature and assorted NGO’s are scrambling to save the rainforest by any means possible, but as the Amazon Basin has shown, petitions and public protests are no match for armed militias willing to burn, loot and murder to do their paymasters’ bidding. Corrupt politicians and land developers get their way every time, and so the Tapanuli orangutan faces uphill odds, even though it’s only now been identified as a separate species.

What constitutes a specific species, as opposed to a subspecies or distant cousin, is a technical branch of zoology, ably explained by National Geographic’s Jason Goldman in a story posted earlier this week. (

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

The accompanying photos, by the way — a couple of which appear here — were taken by veteran primate photographer Tim Laman for National Geographic Creative, a digital branch of the National Geographic Society’s tree-of-life. Laman is not new to this: He won last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award for his image of an orangutan climbing a tree towards his remote-controlled camera placed high in the sky, the rainforest spreading out below.

Scientists are cautious by nature. They’re not inclined to jump to conclusions until a new find has been subjected to peer review. The “discovery” is not technically new; the orangutans in question where first reported to exist following an expedition into the remote mountain forests of Sumatra in 1997. A research project devoted the intervening years to unlocking the apes’ genetic code, to determine whether or not the species was genetically different from the two species already known to exist, the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan.

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

This is unglamorous work, involving long hours of poring over electron microscopes and DNA-testing computers — not like tramping through virgin jungle in person, like a latter-day Professor Challenger in a post-modern update on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lord World. The discovery is only coming to light now because the study, authored by researchers from University of Zurich and Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, in conjunction with the wildlife NGO Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (, published their work in the latest issue of the scientific journal Current Biology.

If the find is still determined to be true years and decades from now, the Tapanuli orangutan will go down in history as the first new great ape to be identified as such in nearly a century.

In the shorter term, though, the Tapanuli orangutan’s greatest contribution to conservation and the fight to preserve what remains of nature, will be that it has forced the plight of Indonesia’s rainforest — and rainforests in general — into the mainstream media, however briefly, from BBC World News to USA Today, from Radio New Zealand to the Hindustan Times, from The Independent to India Today.

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

In this case, all publicity is good publicity, where survival of a species is concerned.

As the study’s co-author, Serge Wich, a professor of primate biology at Liverpool’s John Moores University since 2012, told the BBC: “It’s . . . worrying, to discover something new and then immediately also realize that we have to focus all our efforts before we lose it.”