‘The World’s Most Wanted Animal’ eye-opening, heart-rending — and urgent.

Cute — but doomed. That, at least, was the gist of a cranky review in The Independent of the BBC Two TV special Pangolins: The World’s Most Animal last week. “I’m not sure how many more wildlife documentaries along the lines of World’s Most Wanted I can cope with,” The Independent’s Sean O’Grady wrote, no doubt keeping in tune with his publication’s stated penchant for, erm, independent thinking.

“This sub-genre conforms to a template roughly as follows,” O’Grady continued: “Sir David Attenborough narrates; attention is focused on an endearing critically endangered creature; but also on some plucky humans trying to save them from extinction; heart-rending scenes of the human conservationist encountering the bagged-up corpses of their smuggled favourite creature at some airport terminal, usually in East Asia; plus, at the end, some scant hope represented by the work of the hopelessly underfunded endangered species reserve.”

But wait, there’s more.

 ©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

“I was sort of ready for the pangolin to get the usual moving treatment, and sympathetically so, but, as I say, it’s just so overwhelmingly depressing and the battle to save these creatures so plainly unwinnable I feel like just letting the poachers get on with it and save us all more upset.”

Alrighty, then! Plainly, this is not the kind of program where a grinning, exquisitely coifed Jim Carrey is going to pop up as Ace Ventura, animal detective, pulling Courteney Cox, Sean Young and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in tow behind him. (For the record, it’s worth noting that the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective received “generally unfavourable reviews” from the critics when it was released in theatres in midwinter in 1994; made for $15 million, it went on to gross $107 million worldwide, proving that, while critics talk a good game, their opinion is often worthless.)

This is instructive because Pangolins: The Most Wanted Animal gets its North American debut this week, Wednesday on PBS, as the season finale of Nature — now in its, and I’m not making this up, 36th season. Nature’s 500-plus episodes puts it in the same league as The Simpsons, where longevity is concerned. Nature bowed in 1982; The Simpsons bowed in 1989. Pangolins may be doomed, but if they are, they’re not about to pass by unnoticed.

 ©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

And when a writer for The Independent ends by saying, “Sorry, pangolins, elephants, rhinos, orang-utans, gorillas, pandas, sea cows, sh=now leopards, butterflies and bees, but I reckon you’ve all had it,” it’s hard to know whether he’s being deliberately facetious or whether he’s plugging for a leading role in the new Lars Von Trier movie. 

“We’ll miss you, though,” O’Grady admits, “if only for all the nice footage.”

Alrighty, then! Why not give up altogether — just stand idly by while pangolins and everything else marches off planet Earth into oblivion, shortly to be followed by the 91-year-old Attenborough and all hopes of a future, greener, better world.

 ©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

Despite the crabby review in the UK Independent, The World’s Most Wanted Animal struck a chord with viewers across Britain. As the reaction to Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II showed, natural, history programs do better with a UK TV audience than they do in the US and Canada, but that’s not to say they don’t have an effect. 

Anyone who reads this space already knows about Maria Diekmann’s Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST, website www.restnamibia.org) and the crisis facing pangolins, scaly anteaters, the world’s only scaly mammal, who are now being trafficked at a faster rate than elephants, rhinos and tigers combined, for quasi-medicinal use in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and because their scales 

Pangolins are often labelled, “the most endangered animal you’ve never heard of,” but — crabby reviews in The Independent aside — that’s exactly why programs like The World’s Most Wanted Animal serve a purpose, quite apart from filling empty hours on BBC Two and PBS’s prime-time schedules.

Years ago, while at a Television Critics Association get-together in Pasadena, Calif., I asked long-time Nature executive-producer Fred Kaufman what he looks for in a Nature documentary, considering his program has been a staple for public broadcasting in the US for nearly four decades now.

Kaufman replied that he’s always looking for new stories, stories that haven’t been told before — or, if they have been told, told in a new way. The World’s Most Wanted Animal fills the bill in both respects.

 ©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

The crisis facing the world’s endangered animals — climate scientists and wildlife biologists are now talking about our present time as being the latest and potentially most serious in a series of mass extinctions — is an old, all-too-familiar story, but Most Wanted throws a new spin on it, despite The Independent’s gripe about it following a time-tested template of endearing, critically endangered animals and plucky humans, voiced-over by the sonorous tones of the great Sir David Attenborough.

A quick look at REST’s Facebook page, in the hours and days after The World’s Most Wanted Animal aired in the UK, 

shows that, in actual fact, many people don’t know what a pangolin is — or at least they didn’t, until they watched the program.

Now you know.


Pangolins: The World's Most Wanted Animal premieres in the the U.S. and Canada on Wednesday, May 23, on PBS Nature at 8E/7C.


Global warming? Food insecurity? Overcrowding? I saw it at the movies — 45 years ago.

No fewer than five stories recently made news headlines, one after another. 

The remote Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is melting at a faster rate than even the most pessimistic scientific projections suggested it would.

 ©NASA

©NASA

Another pipeline leak, this one in a remote northwestern corner of the Canadian province Alberta, proves Big Oil still hasn’t mastered the technology of constructing a pipeline that won’t leak — despite the oil lobby’s defensive, relentless and increasingly shrill claims to the contrary.

The self-explanatory “Garbage Patch” floating and bobbing in the north-central Pacific is now the size of France. The country, that is, not the town in Kansas.

The United Nations reports that, in Asia, there will be “no exploitable fish stocks” — no wild fish, in other words — by 2048. With the world's already overstretched population growing every day and food insecurity a growing concern, many marine biologists warn we could run out of wild fish in our lifetimes.

But wait, you say, surely “sustainable seafood farms” will make up the difference.

Well, they would — if only, as the salmon farming fishery off Canada’s west coast keeps showing, they weren’t constantly leaking biotoxins into already threatened coastal waters.

 ©Alexandra Morton/Typepad

©Alexandra Morton/Typepad

Piscine reovirus, aka PRV, causes heart and skeletal muscular inflammation, aka HSMI; recent research suggests that PRV cause the disease HSMI, as evidenced by mortality rates of up to 20% in salmon farms in Norway. PRV in turn affects migrating wild salmon, owing to the effluent from processing plants and farm hatcheries. This is not rocket science, as Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) senior veterinarian Dr. Ian Keith told a colleague in an email, as reported earlier this year by the Canadian news site The Tyee.ca: “This is 19th century thinking.” https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/01/11/DFO-Gut-Rules-Protecting-Wild-Salmon/

Melting glaciers, leaking pipelines, a growing garbage problem, drained fish stocks and a worrying over-reliance on artificially processed food naturally made me think of Soylent Green.

 ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Soylent Green was a 1973 post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his final film role) set in an overcrowded, smog-choked cityscape in the not-too-distant future, where people are reduced to eating tasteless, protein crackers — ostensibly made from “high-energy plankton” — are doled out in tightly controlled rations by an all-powerful conglomerate called the Soylent Corporation. Soylent Green was loosely adapted from futurist Harry Harrison’s 1968 novel Make Room! Make Room! that posited a world in which overcrowding, pollution, global warming and rampant industrialization have created a society in which homeless people fill the streets and those with jobs are barely scraping by.

 ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Soylent Green was no Star Wars. It won a smattering of boutique, sci-fi film awards, but it wasn’t exactly a hit with audiences, not in a year when The Sting, American Graffiti and The Way We Were topped the box-office charts. Critics’ reviews were mixed. Time’s Jay Cocks called it “intermittently interesting,” adding that the film, will be most remembered for the last appearance of Edward G. Robinson.” The New York Times’s A.H. Weller found that Soylent Green “projects essentially simple, muscular melodrama a good deal more effectively than it does the potential of man’s seemingly witless destruction of the Earth’s resources.”

Some 45 years later, Soylent Green is not remembered as a great movie — truthfully, it was never that — or as Edward G. Robinson’s farewell performance, but rather as an eerily prescient vision of a hellish future that now seems more like cautionary news documentary than science-fiction.

 ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

It’s hard not to respect a film that, in 1973, had Robinson’s angry, aging character Sol Roth rage against the dying of the light, saying things like, “You know, when I was a kid, food was food. Before our scientific magicians poisoned the water, polluted the soil. Decimated plant and animal life.

“Why, in my day, you could buy meat anywhere. Eggs, they had, Real butter. Fresh lettuce.”

And fresh salmon. Not the farmed kind.

“There was a world once, you punk,” Sol Roth told Charlton Heston’s detective character, Frank Thorn.

“Yes,” Thorn replied, “so you keep telling me.”

“I was there,” Roth said. “I can prove it.”

“I know, I know. When you were young, people were better.”

“No. People were always rotten. But the world was beautiful.”

It was. It still is. Time to wake up.

 ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


Another photo contest, another scandal: Welcome to the world of temptation-by-social-media and instant gratification.

Here we go again. Another photo contest, another scandal. Consider it a scourge of the digital age. Digital technology, the very thing that made wildlife photography easier — less time trying to match ISO with available light; less time worrying about whether you’re running out of film at that exact moment your subject is about to do something, anything, let alone the very thing you’ve been waiting all this time for; less time fretting about whether the subject is even in focus to begin with — has also made it easier to fake that seeming once-in-a-lifetime capture.

Digital manipulation leaves a trace, but that still means a wildlife image can be staged, using a captive animal or — as in this most recent accusation — a possibly stuffed animal. Digital technology can make tiny, telling details that would otherwise send up a warning flag almost seamless. 

Prize-winning nature photographer Marcio Cabral has been accused of using a stuffed anteater in his Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest image — now removed by contest sponsors from the London Natural History Museum exhibit of last year’s winning and nominated images — of an anteater eying a termite mound glowing with bioluminescence, beneath a starlit sky in Brazil’s grasslands. The image was named best-in-show in the prestigious contest’s “Animals in Their Environment” category.

 ©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

Questions were raised after an “anonymous third party” flagged the eerie similarities between the anteater in the Cabral photograph and a taxidermy anteater displayed at one of the entrances to Brazil’s Emas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the same park Cabral said he had scoured for three years at night, trying to get the distinctive image. 

 ©Natural History Museum (UK)

©Natural History Museum (UK)

In what seems a shame for the other shortlisted candidates in the category, contest organizers say they are vacating Cabral’s win and will not replace his image with another winner. The names of the other finalists were announced last October, the Natural History Museum explained, which means the judges “can no longer render an objective decision.”

I’m not sure I follow that logic — surely the judges can get together in a conference call and decide which of the runners-up they like best in retrospect, but then I’m not privy to the details of the case behind the scenes. The only thing that does seem clear is that the entire situation is a mess. (Photographers who submit images to the WPOTY competition must sign a waiver saying their image has not been staged or manipulated in any way, standard practice in virtually all nature-photo competitions nowadays. It’s largely based on an honour system, though; detection, where it exists at all, is usually after-the-fact and difficult to enforce.)

Cabral denies the accusation, and that’s important to note. The thing with photography, especially wildlife photography, is that much of it has to be taken on faith. Nature photographers, by definition, spend long hours under stressful conditions in the middle of nowhere, often unseen by other human eyes. It’s the nature of the beast, if you will. Nature photography is based on the honour system; there often aren’t witnesses to corroborate or refute the conditions under which an image was captured. The reputable nature photographers who’ve made a name for themselves, often but not always with well-established media organizations like National Geographic and Getty Images, form a close, tight-knit community, in part because it’s a tough job, tougher than it looks, and in part because it’s a hard way to make a living, let alone establish a reputation as one of the world’s best. 

The advent of social media has created a field of intense competition, where clicks and “likes” count for everything. That wasn’t the case just 10 years ago, at least not to the extent it is today. Established conservation photographers like Steve Winter, Michael “Nick” Nichols, Beverly Joubert, Paul Nicklen, Brent Stirton (below), Ami Vitale, Cristina Mittermeier — even a young up-and-comer like New Jersey teen Ashleigh Scully — don’t need to prove themselves.

 ©Brent Stirton.com

©Brent Stirton.com

For relative unknowns looking to break in, though, the temptation to game the system must be great indeed, especially in a present-day social milieu that seems to be driven more and more by instant gratification. We live in a wired, connected world after all, where even some bozo on YouTube can become a millionaire overnight, based on little more than clickbait and trending views.

Reaction to the Cabral controversy has ranged from mild surprise to shock — “I find it disheartening that a photographer would go to such lengths to deceive the competition and its worldwide following,” WPOTY 2017 judge Roz Kidman Cox said Friday in a statement — but perhaps the real surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often. By its nature, nature photographer can be about getting that one image of a lifetime, though it’s also true that the most respected, admired photographers are those who have a proven track record over time. 

Cox is no dilettante; she was editor of Wildlife Magazine (now BBC Wildlife) for more than two decades, and has been a judge of Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 1981.

Brent Stirton, a South Africa-born, New York-based war correspondent for Getty Images who won the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for his haunting, hard-to-look-at image of a rhino slaughtered for its horn, was quoted at length in The Guardian as saying he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to fake an image and then try to pass it off in such a high-profile competition, knowing it would be scrutinized not just by other photographers but also by behavioural scientists — actual field biologists who study animals for a living and can spot questionable behaviour and situations in a heartbeat. Stirton knows a thing or two about the danger genuine nature photographers find themselves in; after surreptitiously taking an award-winning photo of a poached mountain gorilla in Congo’s Virunga National Park in July, 2007, he was told in no uncertain terms to get out of there fast because, “People were looking for him.” People with guns. And a proven track record of using them.

 ©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

The London Natural History Museum is not some monkey exhibit at the local library; submitting a faked photo to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is a little like trying to pass off a plagiarized novel in front of the Pulitzer Prize award committee.

Behavioural science is one thing, where animals are concerned. Who, though, can figure out what gets into human beings’ minds at times?

Whether the Cabral photo was faked or not, only Cabral can know for certain. The contest judges — and the independent scientists they canvassed — seemed to think so. In retrospect, if not at the time.seemed

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/27/606369773/the-wrong-stuff-prize-winning-wildlife-photographer-accused-of-using-taxidermy

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/27/winning-anteater-photo-disqualified-judges-agree-stuffed-marcio-cabral

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2017/oct/17/wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-2017-the-winners


 

 

High risk, low pay and the ultimate price: The real heroes of Earth Day.

Leopold Gukiya Ngbekusa. Patrick Kisembo N’singa. Sudi Koko. Antopo Selemani. Lokana Tingiti. Joël Meriko Ari. Gertomoe Bolimola Afokao. Jonas Paluku Malyani.

 ©The Guardian

©The Guardian

 ©The Guardian

©The Guardian

Not household names.

In their own way, though, they made the ultimate sacrifice for what remains of the natural world in the heart of Africa. And their memory is especially poignant today, on Earth Day.

A game ranger’s pay is not significant by any means, especially in a country like Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where — and this is true — one million people died in civil conflict between 1998 and 2003 alone, according to the respected NGO the Norwegian Refugee Council. That’s a low figure. Higher estimates put that figure closer to five million, according to the Norwegian agency —  who, unlike major news organizations like CNN and BBC, actually have boots on the ground. The actual figure, as so often turns out to be the case, is probably somewhere in the middle.

Either way, it’s too many.

And while it’s easy to say the lives of a handful of park rangers don’t add up to a lot when contrasted against the sheer carnage of a civil war that — and, once again, this is true — threatens to ignite all over again, right now, as you’re reading this, the hard truth on this Earth Day is that, in so many instances, these park rangers are all that stand between the mountain gorilla and species extinction.

https://www.nrc.no/expert-deployment/2016/2018/we-are-failing-dr-congo---again/

Once again, it’s down to the Scandinavian countries, it seems, to report on the health of the planet, even though Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland don’t exactly have a history of colonialism to answer to — at least, not in this part of the world.

virunga2 ©Netflix.png

There are two surviving groups of wild mountain gorillas remaining on the planet. One is in Virunga National Park, in DRC; the other is in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in neighbouring Uganda. Neither country is particularly stable politically, though, even for a region that inspired Joseph Conrad’s dystopian classic  Heart of Darkness, DRC is a law unto itself — an impossible-to-govern territory that sprawls over 2,300,00 square kilometres (900,00 square miles). Or, to put it in simpler, easier-to-understand terms, larger than the size of Spain, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden combined.

That’s why, when anyone with a heart and soul learns there are just 900 mountain gorillas left in the world — if that — it’s hard for the brain to comprehend, let alone make sense of it all. (Interestingly, that figure counts as a success story to some experts, who point out that when pioneering primatologist Dian Fossey first arrived in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in 1967, there were just 240 gorillas remaining in the wild — this, according to a census taken the following year.

https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/29/us/iyw-dian-fossey-gorilla-fund/index.html

 ©Mark Jordahl/Pixabay

©Mark Jordahl/Pixabay

The reality is harsh, but important to remember on this Earth Day.

Just two weeks ago, five park rangers and a driver were killed in an ambush in Virunga. The loss of life was the worst in a single incident in the history of the park, where some 170 rangers have died in the past 20 years while protecting animals — all for a salary that’s a pittance by western standards, though enough to keep their families clothed and fed. Barely.

Official statements are often bland boilerplate, standard-issue press releases that pay lip service to the dead while assuaging the concerns of outside observers and reassuring stakeholders — read: corporate investors and tourism officials — that the situation is under control and not as bad as it sounds.

There was an edge to this one, though, from Virunga chief warden Emmanuel de Merode.

“Virunga has lost some extraordinarily brave rangers who were deeply committed to working in the service of their communities,” Merode said in his statement. “It is unacceptable that Virunga’s rangers continue to pay the highest price in defence of our common heritage.”

 ©One Green Planet

©One Green Planet

Park officials, speaking off the record and unnamed, told the UK Guardian newspaper, that they believe the perpetrators of the ambush were the “Mai Mai,” a local self-defence militia, but the reality is that the gorillas in Virunga — and the rangers who protect them — are victimized by any number of armed groups, from poachers, illegal hunters and wildlife traffickers to bandits, thieves and rogue militias from neighbouring states still fighting the Hutu-Tsutsi wars that sparked the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and threaten today to spill over the border all over again, this time from neighbouring Burundi.

Virunga isn’t just some obscurely named park off-the-beaten track of wildlife tourism in Africa, either.  It’s the continent’s oldest national park — in historical terms, Africa’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park.

Park rangers are recruited from neighbouring villages. Nearly all are married, and many have young children. The rangers killed two weeks ago ranged in age from 22 to 30.

How much is a life worth? According to the Guardian’s longtime Africa correspondent Jason Burke, the rangers are paid the equivalent of USD $250 a month.

 ©Jerome Delay/Associated Press

©Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Even at that, much of the funding comes from NGOs and private donors; a partnership was formed just 10 years ago between the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (middle son of the billionaire investor Warren Buffet), the European Union (EU) and the Congolese government.

Earth Day initiatives include making micro loans available to local families and involving local communities in their park’s future.

That isn’t just lip service, either: One of the recent trends in the war against poachers has been the recruitment of women in a frontline role — as in, literally, fighting on the front lines of armed conflict.

“I was born into a ranger family,” park ranger Jolie Kavugho Songya explained to the US-UK and French news site Women’s Advancement, in August. “My father taught me you have to go out  and try for what you want.”

Songya was just nine-years-old when she decided to follow in her ranger-father’s footsteps. She had never seen a gorilla, but she knew it was his job — and moral duty — to protect Congo’s population of endangered gorillas from militias and poachers.

 ©Jan Powell/Women's Advancement News Deeply

©Jan Powell/Women's Advancement News Deeply

Today, Songya — age 27 — is one of 30 women who’ve passed the stringent requirements to become full-time park rangers.

She’s neither intimidated nor dissuaded by the constant threat of violence.

“It’s risky,” she told News Deeply’s Jan Powell, “but you just have to accept it. Commit, or get out.”

Earth Day, 2018, These are your heroes.

https://www.newsdeeply.com/womensadvancement/articles/2017/08/31/drc-women-rangers-fight-to-save-virungas-last-mountain-gorillas


Emotion carries the day at the 61st World Press Photo Awards.

Hardly anyone seeing the awarded images in this past weekend’s World Press Photo 2018 Awards could walk away without feeling shaken and, deep down, at least a little stirred.

No written summation of the winning images would be complete without the images themselves. That’s the whole point of photojournalism, in which the image truly is worth a thousand words. Good photography transcends different languages and cultures, which is why Mexico City-based photographer Ronaldo Schemidt’s image of a protestor set ablaze during street demonstrations last May in Caracas, Venezuela is so wrenching. It’s the kind of image no one wants to see, and yet it’s an image that’s impossible to tear one’s eyes away. The World Press Photo association awarded Schemidt the group’s Photo of the Year award for 2018, as well as 1st prize for spot news.

Schemidt’s image, taken for Agence France-Presse (AFP), is undeniably powerful, but it was just one among many. 

 ©Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse (AFP)

©Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Charlottesville, Va. local-news photographer Ryan M. Kelly, a staff photographer for The Daily Progress local newspaper — the only daily newspaper in Charlottesville — won 2nd prize for spot news for his harrowing image of a 20-year-oldwhite supremacist and neo-Nazi, now charged with first-degree murder, ramming his car through a crowd of demonstrators at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in the Virginia city last August.

 @Ryan Kelly/The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.)

@Ryan Kelly/The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.)

It’s a sign of these troubled times for the planet, though, that the organizers of the 61st World Press Photo Awards saw fit to make room for separate environment and nature categories, where they joined such traditional news categories as contemporary issues, general news, long-term projects, people, sports and spot news.

North Carolina-born, Montana-based Ami Vitale, profiled in this space just a few weeks ago, won 1st prize in the nature/stories category for her photo essay “Warriors Who Once Feared Elephants Now Protect Them,” about the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Samburu, northern Kenya, for National Geographic.

http://www.amivitale.com/2017/07/warriors-who-once-feared-elephants-now-protect-them/

It was a good week — a good year, in fact — for South African-based image-makers.

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

German-born Thomas P. Peschak, a trained marine biologist who moved to South Africa and switched careers to “document the beauty and fragility of our oceans,” won no fewer than four World Press Photo awards, all of them for National Geographic.

Peschak won both 2nd and 3rd prize in the nature/singles category, for his image of rockhopper penguins doing just that (2nd place), and an image juxtaposing a historic photo of an African penguin colony, taken in the late 1890s, against an image taken in 2017, showing the stark contrast  in declining numbers between the two. (“Singles” are standalone images; “stories” are photo essays, in which a series of images tells a single story.)

 ©World Press Photo 2018 Awards

©World Press Photo 2018 Awards

 ©Thomas Peschuk

©Thomas Peschuk

Peschak won 2nd prize in the environment/singles category for his sobering image of a South African Antarctic Territory juvenile grey-headed albatross recovering from an attack by an invasive mouse species. He won 3rd prize in the nature/stories category — the same category in which his fellow National Geographic photographer Vitale won — for his haunting photo essay of the Galapagos archipelago.

Peschak switched to photojournalism, he says now, when he realized his images could do more for conservation than simply curating scientific statistics for academics (https://www.thomaspeschak.com).

Alaska commercial fisherman and occasional photographer Corey Arnold won 1st prize in the nature/singles category, for his equally sad image of a bald eagle picking over meat scraps in a garbage dumpster in Dutch Harbour, Alaska.

 ©Corey Arnold

©Corey Arnold

 

Top prize in the environment/singles category was awarded to South African conservation photographer Neil Aldridge for his unspeakably sad image of a southern white rhino, drugged and blindfolded during relocation to the Okavango Delta, Botswana from its home in South Africa, to protect it from poachers. 

 ©Neil Aldridge

©Neil Aldridge

Photography is both a calling and a profession for Aldridge; he’s a lecturer in marine and natural history photography at Falmouth University, in Cornwall, in the UK, and runs workshops, expeditions and seminars, and in 2016 established the self-explanatory NGO Rhino Conservation Botswana.

“Photography is more than just a beautiful picture, a moment frozen in time; it has the power to transform our relationship with the world around us for the better,” Aldridge explains on his website at,

www.conservationphotojournalism.com.

A compelling image is about forging an emotional connection with the viewer, he says; the aim is to create stories that inspire positive change through the conservation  of nature and the environment.

“I think photojournalism is documentary photography with a purpose,” W. Eugene Smith famously said.

“The ability to keep things in perspective is very important for a journalist. In a tense situation you need the ability to be there, yet somehow step aside; to keep a cool head and keep working without getting frustrated.” — Philip Jones Griffiths.

“It’s a lot more than clicking the shutter. It’s the ideas, it’s the visual voice, it’s the telling the story, it’s kind of going beyond that initial things that just means you happened to be there at the right time.” — Ron Haviv.

“I think of myself as a journalist who chooses the art of photography to bring awareness to the world. Art is a powerful means of expression, but combined with journalism it has the ability to bring awareness to issues that can elevate understanding and compassion. It’s the basic reality of why I do what I do.” — Renée C. Byer.

“As photojournalists, we supply information to a world that is overwhelmed with preoccupations and full of people who need the company of images. We pass judgment on what we see, and this involves an enormous responsibility.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Here, then, without further ado, are the winners I’ve mentioned, with the primary emphasis — given the tone of this site — on matters involving nature and the environment.

https://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2018


NEIL ALDRIDGE


neil aldridge1.png
 ©Neil Aldridge

©Neil Aldridge

 ©Neil Aldridge

©Neil Aldridge

 ©Neil Aldridge

©Neil Aldridge

neil aldridge5.jpg

THOMAS P. PESCHAK


thomas peschak1.png
 ©Thomas Peschak

©Thomas Peschak

 ©Thomas Peschak

©Thomas Peschak

 ©Thomas Peschak

©Thomas Peschak

 ©Thomas Peschak

©Thomas Peschak


AMI VITALE


ami vitale1.png
 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale


“Life is for the living, not the dead.” — Dame Daphne Sheldrick 1934-2018

Damn. They say life goes on. And in my case, when I first heard Dame Daphne Marjorie Sheldrick, DBE (born 4 June, 1934) had passed away at age 83 from a longtime battle with breast cancer, it took me a while to realize that Ishanga, the orphaned elephant I sponsored in November, 2010 — rescued literally from the jaws of death after being surrounded by marauding lions in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park — is alive and well and repatriated back into the wild at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Ithumba Unit in Tsavo East.

Daphne Sheldrick may have lost her battle with cancer, but there are so many orphaned elephants — almost too many to count — that the Sheldrick Trust has nurtured back to health over the years and decades, thanks in large part to the many sponsors around the world who help with feeding and medical costs, that her spirit will survive for as long as there are wild elephants in Tsavo.

 ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I’m not going to bang on much more about it here. I’ll leave that to others who knew her best, and those at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park, home of the Kenya Wildlife Service — Kenyan-born armed rangers who every day put their lives on the line and wage war against ivory poachers in Kenya’s semi-arid thorn scrub bush and acacia grasslands with romantic names like Tsavo, Samburu, Meru, Amboseli and Nakuru. The Sheldrick Trust takes its name not from Daphne but from her late husband David, who was the founding park warden of  Tsavo, one of the last truly wild protected wilderness areas on the entire continent of Africa, and without a doubt Kenya’s most rugged, wild and untrammelled park, a vast  wilderness area so large, so dangerous and so genuinely wild that tourists only venture into those tiny pockets of pacified bush that skirt the Nairobi-to-Mombasa highway. These are true badlands, Kenya’s equivalent of Zakouma National Park in Chad or Gorongosa in Mozambique, where AK-47s are as common as bushbuck.

And yet those, like David and Daphne Sheldrick who lived there, soon fell under Tsavo’s spell.

Tsavo is where Denys Finch Hatton — played by Robert Redford in the Oscar-winning 1985 film Out of Africa — died after crashing his Gypsy Moth biplane in May, 1931, shortly after taking off from Voi, not far the Nairobi-Mombasa rail line that would famously become the site of the infamous “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” The man-eaters, a pair of uncommonly large, maneless male lions, killed 135 construction workers — the exact number is a matter of some debate — between March and December, 1898 and stopped construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in its tracks. literally. Tsavo has always been untamed.

 ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

David Sheldrick came to Kenya as an infant — he was born in Alexandria, Egypt; his father, who had served with the British Remounts in the First World War, settled in Kenya to establish a coffee farm — and died of a heart attack in 1977 at the relatively young age of 57. His widow Daphne created the Sheldrick Elephant Trust in his name.

David Sheldrick had served in the Second World War with the King’s African Rifles in Abyssinia, Ethiopia and then Burma. He was drawn to Tsavo’s rugged beauty and its reputation for unpredictability and sense of danger. It wasn’t long before Sheldrick saw the need for conservation and protection of the wilderness. Tsavo was home at the time to some of East Africa’s largest herds of wild elephants — it still is — but they were disappearing at a fast, and growing, rate. Illegal hunting and ivory poaching were rife, even in the early part of the 20th century.

Daphne Sheldrick recounts those early years in her 2012 memoir, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story, and a portrait emerges, much as it does in Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Caputo’s hypnotic, addictive 2002 book Ghosts of Tsavo, not of an idealistic bunny-hugger but of a tough, uncompromising woman unafraid of using pithy language when she wanted it to stick, and who showed little fear whether facing a marauding lion, agitated elephant, bandits wielding automatic weapons — or an ill-informed writer visiting from North America with misplaced notions about cute animals and the supposed romanticism of post-colonial Africa.

 ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I first learned of Daphne Sheldrick and the Sheldrick Trust from a 2006 segment of CBS’s 60 Minutes, as reported by the late, veteran war correspondent Bob Simon.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-elephant-orphanage/

The publicity generated by Simon’s 60 Minutes piece wasn’t the reason the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi became a mandatory pit stop on the Nairobi tourist circuit, of course, but it played an incalculable role in introducing the very idea of an elephant orphanage to jaded TV viewers from all over the U.S. and Canada.

The Trust isn’t some misty-eyed vestige of post-colonial romanticism, either. One of Sheldrick’s greatest and most overlooked achievements was winning the trust, confidence and support of successive presidents of independent Kenya over the years, many of them veterans of Kenya’s protracted and often bloody struggle for independence from Britain. Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the son of Kenya’s founding father and co-leader of Kenya’s struggle for independence, Jomo Kenyatta.

 ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Enough background. I leave it here with some of Daphne Sheldrick’s reflections and musings from over the years, in her own words. The grace, dignity and respect for nature’s wonder shines through in ways both subtle and profound, and always heartfelt.

“To be a baby elephant must be wonderful. Surrounded by a loving family 24 hours a day.... I think it must be how it ought to be, in a perfect world.”

“Animals are indeed more ancient, more complex, and in many ways more sophisticated than us. They are more perfect because they remain within Nature’s fearful symmetry, just as Nature intended. They should be respected and revered, but perhaps none more so than the elephant, the world's most emotionally human land mammal.” 

“They, who have suffered so much at the hands of humans, never lose the ability to forgive, even though, being elephants, they will never be able to forget.”

“Life is for the living, not the dead, who belong to the past and are at peace and beyond all further pain and suffering 'somewhere in the great somewhere.”


                       —  Daphne Sheldrick, 1934-2018.                       

                            Pumzika kwa amani.

 Daphne Sheldrick with 'Wendie,' May, 2011.  ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Daphne Sheldrick with 'Wendie,' May, 2011.  ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust


Simplicity sells: Staying on message in the fight to save the planet.

‘Sex sells,’ used to be the old saying, but today that saying could just as easily be, ‘Simplicity sells.’

The message of conservation can too easily be obscured in a blizzard of statistics, climate models and scientific jargon.

Today, Thursday, April 12th, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative hosts a panel discussion and international symposium — to be streamed live and archived for posterity on YouTube — titled, “Setting a New Post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda: The Communications Challenge.”

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a collaboration between 10 different institutions. The initiative’s bricks-and-mortar headquarters is in the new Sir David Attenborough building at the University of Cambridge, recently granted $10m USD in funding from the charitable fund Arcadia — funding that will assure the group’s future, at least for the time being, unlike the increasingly vulnerable environment the Conservation Initiative seeks to protect.

The world hardly needs a history lesson now, but it’s worth remembering that as recently as 2015, 196 countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement — the result, most people with working brains understand, of a message that resonated across different cultural and political boundaries, underscored by a willingness to work together, in harmony, in pursuit of a cause higher than themselves.

“There now needs to be a similar movement and momentum focused on biodiversity,” according to the symposium’s official notes. “As with the Paris Agreement, the landscape around the development of a new biodiversity strategy is extremely congested and not always coherent: there are many players, many audiences and many complex and in some case, contested messages.”

Or, put more simply: “It’s complicated. But we’re not going to get anywhere without talking to each other in terms we can all understand.”

 ©Deep Ghotane/Pixabay

©Deep Ghotane/Pixabay

No matter the cause, scientific jargon often does more harm than good, especially among the unconverted.

A line like, “Lessons from the Paris Agreement illustrate how critical it will be to distil this complexity into messages that resonate with decision-makers,” is a turn-off if ever there was one — especially if the idea is to reach Trump voters (or Viktor Orbán voters, if you happen to live near Hungary) and not just Cambridge academics, keyboard warriors and enviro-crusaders who already know the difference between climate and weather.

Instead, how about, “The Paris Agreement teaches us that, if we want to get something done, we need to talk to each other in ways that are both respectful and considered ahead of time, with specific examples backed up by facts and not just opinion — you know, kind of like the way science works.”

While I might prefer, “A Post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda: Wake the Fuck Up, People,” communications consultants might blanch at the choice of words. It’s hard to imagine the rector of St. John’s College at Cambridge, for example, signing off on such a symposium

“Communication” is the key word here, though, and the great, edifying gift Sir David Attenborough has given the world is not his almost childlike enthusiasm, even at age 91, and undying curiosity of the natural world and everything that makes it tick, but his gift of communication — his ability to take the most complex subjects, even those that are ethically and biologically controversial, and touch people’s minds and hearts the world over, regardless of creed, region or religion.

 ©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

Not once, in his seven decades of communicating his sense of wonder and admiration for the natural world, has Attenborough talked down to his audience, or even across to his audience. His unique, almost eerie ability to talk with his audience might well be the one thing the scientific world misses most when he finally calls it a day, or fate finally catches up with him.

(This past weekend, the English tabloids had a bit of fun with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II — also aged 91 — escorting Sir David around her gardens for a new film documentary, The Queen’s Green Planet, which will premiere in the UK next Monday on ITV1. 

Asked by reporters how two nonagenarians are still going strong, still fighting for the planet, Attenborough replied, “We must be very lucky in our constitutions — there are very many virtuous people I can think of who can’t walk at all at my age, so it’s a matter of luck, isn’t it?”)

Attenborough has been raging against the dying of the light more often of late, and not just because his Blue Planet II documentary drew near record audiences to their TVs earlier this year.

In an article he penned for this month’s issue of New Scientist, Attenborough urged people to recognize the effect of “The Plastic Age” and the impact of unchecked population growth on the natural world. Recent scientific surveys — including one this past week from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) — have cited the world’s human population as a key factor in biodiversity loss.

More than three times as many people are living on the planet today than in 1950, Attenborough wrote in New Scientist.

“They all need places to live and roads for their cars and hospitals and schools and places to grow food. . . . In the most part, it is going to come from the natural world, so the natural world is steadily being impoverished.”

Simplicity sells. And Attenborough’s message is simple enough that almost anyone can understand it.

“The situation is becoming more and more dreadful, and still our population continues to increase,” he wrote. “It’s about time that the human population of the world came to its senses and saw what we are doing — and did something about it.”

Easier said than done, yes. A simple message is a start, though.


The “Moth Man” prophecies: Why wild population declines matter more than mass extinctions.

Extinctions are not good for the planet, I think we can all agree, but there’s a growing belief that wildlife population declines — the slow but steady degradation of the environment, the deterioration and erosion of ecosystems,  coupled with habitat loss — are the more pressing concern.

A recent thoughtful, reasoned, finely researched article by Slate staff writer Henry Grabar noted that, between the loss in 1914 of Martha, the last passenger pigeon known to science, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the death last month of Sudan, the last known surviving male northern white rhino, at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, extinction crises have always been quick to grab the headlines.

 ©EVZ.ro

©EVZ.ro

The steady but inexorable decline of environmental ecosystems is a harder sell with the news media, however, where the news is always defined by what is happening right now — there are no male northern white rhinos left, anywhere — and not what might happen months, years and generations down the road: i.e. if grasslands vanish across East Africa, there will not be much of anything left, let alone northern white rhinos.

Wildlife populations are crashing, Grabar noted, and we barely notice.

https://slate.com/technology/2018/03/rhinos-are-charismatic-but-fish-bugs-and-birds-are-dying-too.html

This may be as good a time as any, then, to revisit Michael McCarthy’s 2015 book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, “an urgent, rhapsodic book full of joy, grief and rage,” according to Cambridge University naturalist and research scholar Helen Macdonald. McCarthy, veteran nature writer and environmental columnist for some 20 years for The Independent newspaper in the UK, focused on the joy that nature gives us in our everyday lives, and how the “Great Thinning” is cheating future generations — and the planet — of a hopeful future.

 ©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay

©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay

“One problem we have with abundance,” Grabar writes — whether it’s so many passenger pigeons that it’s inconceivable that they might one day all disappear or a wide, open landscape of untrammelled wilderness that’s impossible to comprehend in a single glance — “is that we’re not very good with numbers. And the larger the numbers get, the more trouble we have telling the difference between them.”

That may explain at least in part why the Great Thinning is going largely unnoticed.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Living Planet Index, which monitors some 14,000 populations of roughly 3,500 species of vertebrates worldwide, recorded average population declines of 60 percent, species by species, over a 40-year period between 1970 and 2010, the last year for which official numbers were measured, tabulated and published.

It seems obvious, but some things bear repeating. Nature, McCarthy writes in The Moth Snowstorm, has many gifts for us, but perhaps the greatest of these is joy; the delight we take in the natural world, in the wonder it can offer us, the peace it can provide.

The natural world is ever more threatened, and it’s happening right now, on our watch.

4.evz.ro.png
5.translation.png

The Moth Snowstorm was published three years ago, but it has never seemed more timely than it is right now.

“Hyperbole?” McCarthy wrote then. “You could say so, I suppose. But what can I do, other than speak of my experience? Once, on a May morning a few years ago, I cam out on to the banks of the Upper Itchen, at Ovington in Hampshire, and the river with its flowers and willows and the serenity of its flow and its dimpling tout in its matchless, limpid water, all gilded by the sunshine, seemed to possess a loveliness which was not part of this world at all.,

“Yet it was part of it; and there, once again, was the joy.”

 ©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay

©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay


Of plastic and microplastics: The not-so-great Great Pacific Garbage Patch

News flash — though hardly a surprise. The vast patch of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean is much more extensive than previously thought — bigger, wider and choked with fishing nets, plastic containers and the detritus of human consumption on an unimaginable scale, a scale not even the most pessimistic of scientific projections  predicted.

The discovery, if it can be called that, has touched off an End-of-Days debate: Garbage waste and the degradation of the environment may be an even more pressing concern to humanity than climate change.

Given the recent alarm over climate change — among those who read and follow the news, anyway — that’s saying a lot.

The extent of the garbage patch was first projected in 2014, when a modified C-130 Hercules aircraft — funded by The Ocean Cleanup, an NGO sponsored in part by the Dutch government — did a fly-past over the central core of the patch, the garbage-patch equivalent of the eye of a hurricane, where the most intense winds are concentrated.

 ©NOAA/US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

©NOAA/US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Here are the numbers. The core of the garbage patch covers some 1.6 million square kilometres (618,0000 sq miles), more than twice the size of France.

As with the man-made Great Wall of China, the not-so-great man-made Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be seen from space, though at least one recent report — on National Geographic’s website — disputes that.

And while that same report says most of the patch is discarded fishing gear, not discarded bottles and straws, there’s little doubting that plastics — convenient, relatively inexpensive to produce and durable to a fault — are at the centre of the increasingly urgent debate over environmental sustainability.

According to the most conservative estimates from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans. By 2014, four years ago, more than 311 million tons of plastic were produced around the globe, a 20-fold increase over 1964.

With plastic being an indelible part of our day-to-day lives, it follows that much more plastic is being produced today. According to research published recently in Scientific Reports, at least 79,000 tons of that plastic is floating in the sprawling patch of detritus. Around 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, where it washes up on beaches or drifts out to sea.

This matters because “the large stuff” — loosely defined as any discarded plastic-based item larger than half-a-metre in size — will, over time, decompose into microplastics, which as we now know, are impossible to get rid of and can turn up anywhere, from the fish we eat to the bottled water we drink. 

It’s a matter of debate, too, what effect microplastics are having on the food chain. Not enough time has gone by for scientists to pin down exactly what’s happening and why, let alone how to fix it. Large pieces of plastic break down very slowly, over hundreds of years.

Separate papers by UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predict there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

Recent trends in scientific studies show that, if anything, predictions tend to be underestimated rather than overestimated. The world’s polar ice caps are melting at a faster rate than scientists initially projected; rising seas, once considered a problem that future generations would have to face, are instead becoming a problem now, in low-lying land masses like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and are believed to be the cause of much of the world’s wild, unpredictable shifts in weather.

 ©Marta Albé

©Marta Albé

(The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for those not in the know, is a UK registered charity, founded in 2009, dedicated to inspiring a generation to rethink, redesign and build a better future through the framework of a sustainable, “circular economy,” a future without waste, in which business, the environment and resources work together, where every product is designed for multiple cycles of use, where manufacturing cycles are deliberately aligned, and where what we perceive to be “waste” — junk, refuse, damaged goods and unwanted products —  is instead used, “repurposed” if you like, as raw material for a new production cycle, thus feeding into the so-called “circular economy.”)

What can be done?

The Ocean Cleanup has vowed to take a “moonshot” effort to clean up half the Great Pacific garbage patch within five years, starting this summer, by mopping up the rubbish using a system of large floating barriers with underwater screens that capture and concentrate plastic into a confined area, which can then be scooped out of the ocean. In theory.

 ©Calstone Inc.

©Calstone Inc.

A prototype will be launched this summer in San Francisco. The prototype is designed to collect five tons of waste a month. If successful, it will be fellowed by dozens of other specially designed booms, measuring up to 2 km (1.2 miles) in length.

The moonshot comes with caveats, of course. The system is not designed to catch microplastics — defined as any item measuring less than 10 millimetres (0.39 inches) — which, recent studies are now suggesting, could prove to be the more long-term problem, and the harder of the two to get a handle on.

There’s an urgent need to get in there quickly and clean it up, though the easier solution is to ensure it doesn’t get into the ocean in the first place.

Many countries are already onboard, kin principle if not in practice. Nearly 200 countries signed onto a UN resolution in 2017 intended to slow the deluge of plastic being dumped into the world’s oceans. The resolution has no stated timetable, however, and is not legally binding.

Anyone and everyone can make a start, though, by turning away from single-use plastic, whether it6’s cutlery, straws or plastic bottles that, for whatever reason, can’t be recycled.

“One of the easiest steps is changing the way we use and discard plastic products,” California-based marine ecologist Dr. Clare Steele told The Guardian’s Oliver MIlman, only last week. Common sense, in other words.


‘But we should not give up:’ elegy for a white rhino named Sudan.

Much of the world may not care, but make no mistake: The planet shed a tear when the last known male northern white rhino died this week.

“The world’s last surviving northern white rhino has died after months of poor health, his carers say,” BBC News reported under the heading Northern white rhino: Last male Sudan dies in Kenya.

Sudan, who was 45, lived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was put down Monday after age-related complications worsened to the point where his carers decided he was in significant pain and unlikely to recover.

Sudan had lived at Safari Park Dvür Králové in the Czech Republic until 2009, when he was repatriated to his ancestral home in the arid thorn-bush scrublands of northern Kenya.

Dvür Králové is the only zoo in the world where northern white rhinos have successfully given birth, but here’s the catch: The last calf was born in 2000.

 ©Ami Vitale/National Geographic Creative

©Ami Vitale/National Geographic Creative

Sudan’s death leaves just two females, his daughter and granddaughter, of the subspecies.

There are five species of rhinos, of which the white rhino is the largest. There are two subspecies: The southern white rhino, which is native to South Africa and neighbouring countries, is at risk but not yet critically endangered. (Wild populations outside South Africa are hard to ascertain, but it’s believed southern white rhinos may already have vanished from several southern African countries, owing to a recent spike in poaching driven by the insatiable demand for rhino horn in Asian countries.)

“His death is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him,” Jan Stejskal, an official with Dvür Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic’s Labe (Elbe) river valley region of Bohemia, told the AFP news agency, as reported on BBC News’ main website Tuesday.

“But we should not give up.”

 ©CITES/Ol Pejeta

©CITES/Ol Pejeta

An elegy — a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead — might not seem appropriate for an animal, but as anyone who has spent time around animals knows, they’re sentient beings, capable of emotion and, in many cases, the ability to feel pain and know sadness.

What’s telling about the outpouring of sentiment on social media, from those who saw him on a day-to-day basis at Ol Pejeta and by those who barely knew him, except from wildlife films and photo essays in nature periodicals, is how raw and open the emotional wounds are — at least, among those care about about species extinction and somehow finding the right balance between Nature and a fast-growing human population.

It may not be easy to remember now, but northern white rhinos were actually quite widespread, as recently as the 1970s and ‘80s. They ranged from Uganda and Kenya in East Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and  Central African Republic (CAR) in central Africa,  to Chad in northern Africa, and to Sudan itself, after which Sudan was named (obviously). A poaching epidemic in the mid- to late 1980s for both rhino horn and elephant tusks proved catastrophic for one species and near-catastrophic for the other, all to service the demand for use in traditional Chinese medicines and the quaint notion that ground rhino horn is both an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer. (Spoiler alert: It’s neither.)

 ©Yaron Schmid/Magnus News

©Yaron Schmid/Magnus News

Rhino horn was also used for dagger handles in Yemen; it’s hard to assess, given the present turmoil in Yemen, exactly how much demand remains for dagger handles.

The World Wildlife Fund declared the northern white rhino extinct in the wild in 2008.

Even the mere idea that an iconic species like a rhino that could still be found in the Congo as recently as the early 2000s should be virtually extinct by 2018 should be cause for alarm, but it clearly isn’t — not when a recently U.S. administration can look at a melting polar ice cap and put it down to a Chinese hoax. The only Chinese hoax is the insistence that rhino horn is a cure for cancer.

(To be fair, China has become politically active in the past year on the issue of climate change and in species extinction, in no small part because many Chinese cities are on the verge of being unliveable, due to air pollution and wild swings in the weather. The current U.S. administration, on the other hand, remains bereft of ideas and unwilling to accept that there’s even a problem.)

Sudan was 45 — or 90 in human terms — when he was put down by veterinarians. He was being treated for degenerative deterioration to his muscles and bones, and was unable to stand. He also suffered from extended bruising and skin wounds. Putting him down was the humane thing to do.

 ©Joe Mwihia/AP-Kenya

©Joe Mwihia/AP-Kenya

Sudan’s genetic material has been collected and stored, in the hope that science might one day find a way to clone extinct animals from DNA. Rhino IVF (in vitro fertilization) is relatively untested and is considered both an invasive and radical procedure. And expensive. Geneticists, conservationists, veterinarians and wildlife biologists put the price as high as USD $10 million.

Then again, some might argue — and they have a case — that no price is too high where species extinction is concerned, especially a species as familiar and symbolic as a rhino.

 

https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Sudan-northern-white-rhino-death-Ol-Pejeta-Laikipia-lessons/1056-4350838-4mq77dz/index.html


Botswana bites back: Trophy hunting boosts poaching, not other way round.

One of the perils of growing old, the respected novelist and essayist Paul Theroux wrote in his Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is hearing the same old arguments over and over again from younger people who believe they were the first to think fo that argument.

To anyone on the ground with a working knowledge of the campaign to save endangered wildlife, a wearily familiar — and thoroughly discredited — old saw goes like this: 

Trophy hunting is good for conservation, because it generates much-needed revenue to finance anti-poaching efforts.

It’s quite all right for a fat American dentist to shoot Cecil the Lion for the trophy wall, because the fee and costs he paid will go toward saving other lions.

Leaving aside the fact that in all probability not one Zimbabwe dollar — or American dollar for that matter — was ploughed back into lion conservation, it’s a bogus argument from top to bottom. The licence fee for a trophy bull elephant in Zimbabwe is USD $20,000; that same fee for an elephant in South Africa with tusks weighing over 50 lbs. is USD $50,000, not counting mandatory daily safari costs and the official daily rate per hunter and attendant trackers and camp staff.

 ©Pixabay/Sponchia

©Pixabay/Sponchia

Here’s where common sense trumps the financial-incentive argument, though — common sense over common cents, if you will.

An elephant shot for its ivory, or to be mounted on the wall of the family den back in the good state of Minnesota, or wherever, is a one-off in terms of revenue, even if that revenue was being put back into conservation, which it isn’t.

Tourism, though — much maligned by trophy hunters as a pastime for weaklings, losers and snowflakes — generates income, and jobs, day after day, for as long as the animal(s) in question stays alive in the wild.

That fat American dentist got his money’s worth out of Cecil the lion — arguably — but who knows how much money would still be generated today, right now, if Cecil were still alive, still there to show off his pride to tourists willing to pay USD $500 a night in some cases for the privilege of staying in a lodge within driving distance of lion territory. Botswana is the most expensive travel destination in Africa by far, in part because, unlike Kenya, Tanzania and even South Africa, Botswana’s national government made a conscious decision to cater to an elite few who can afford the exorbitant cost of a safari in the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve. in the theory that small numbers of well-paying visitors leave less of an imprint on a fragile environment than a mob of backpackers flocking to the Amboseli, Maasai Mara and Serengeti on the cheap, in East Africa.

 ©Pixabay/Three-shots

©Pixabay/Three-shots

Even in the Mara, though, where many of the local area conservancies are owned, managed and maintained by local Maasai stakeholders, even high-volume tourism is preferable to letting fat American dentists shoot every lion they see, no matter how high a licence fee they may be willing to pay. 

That’s why Botswana President Ian Khama’s announcement late last week that Donald Trump’s decision to reverse his proposed ban on the import of big-game trophies, such as lions and elephants, will encourage more poaching, not less.

BBC inset price list.jpg

The reason legal hunting encourages illegal hunting doesn’t have so much to do with hunting itself as it does the market. Legal trophy hunting boosts the demand for legitimate ivory and lion trophies, which in turn feeds the market for illegal hunting. Since hardly anyone — not even a forensic pathologist or wildlife biologist — can tell the difference between legal ivory and that which has been harvested illegally, it doesn’t much matter where it came from, since no one can prove it anyway.

Only by closing down the market can the demand be controlled and eventually eliminated entirely.

And there’s no better way to shut down a market than to ban the importation of whatever it is people are trying to import, where it’s a lion head, elephant tusks or Bolivian marching powder.

If a fat American dentist shoots a trophy lion, but is unable to take that trophy home to show off to his friends and brag about what a He-Man he is, he’s unlikely to want to shoot that lion in the first place, especially at those prices ($25,000+, not including travel costs and mandatory daily fees and camp costs, not to mention tips for the staff).

Khama, speaking this past weekend at an anti-poaching summit in Kasane, Botswana, pointed out that Botswana banned hunting entirely some time ago, but that it is still legal in countries like Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. (Hunting has also been banned in Kenya, which has on occasion fed cross-border tensions between Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania,)

 ©Pixabay/AD_Images

©Pixabay/AD_Images

Khama said Trump’s overturning the US ban on the import of hunting trophies would only fuel poaching in his home country of Botswana. There has been a dramatic spike in poaching across Africa over the past 18 months, driven almost wholly by insatiable demand in Southeast Asia, China and, yes, the U.S. for elephant ivory and rhino horn.

Khama didn’t stop at trophy hunting, where Trump was concerned. He told the BBC that he was concerned about Trump’s “attitude toward the whole planet,” not just the import of hunting trophies.

The situation facing elephants is grave, despite the worldwide campaign by environmentalists, ecologists, conservationists, wildlife biologists and ordinary, everyday working people who want their children and grandchildren to possibly be able to see an elephant in the wild one day. Mike Chase, director of the conservation agency Elephants Without Borders, said at that same conference that he believes the worst of the poaching crisis is not yet over.

Botswana aside, Chase told delegates, “The political will to address these issues is not there, unfortunately.

 ©Pixabay/stevepb

©Pixabay/stevepb

“It has been in Botswana. And if our neighbours can learn from Botswana’s example, it will go a long way toward addressing this crisis.”

Despite the old, discredited argument that trophy hunting aids conservation efforts financially, the bottom line remains the bottom line: A lion or elephant is worth more alive, in terms of jobs, income and education opportunities to local communities in rural Africa, than it is dead.

Even a fat American dentist should be able to figure that out.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/campaigns/GiantsClub/donald-trump-encouraging-poachers-a8260776.html


Ami Vitale: In a world of 7 billion people, our fate is inextricably linked with that of nature.

One of the world’s leading international news agencies features a weekly thread on its website titled, “World sport: 10 photos we liked this week.”
It sounds generic — and it is — but it reminded me of how so often of how I find my favourite nature photographers. Often they are cameramen and women I’ve never heard of before. I end up stumbling over one of their images — I’m a restless reader, and constantly curious — and am moved and inspired for reasons I can’t quite pin down.

Photography — not just the taking of photographs, but being appreciative of other people’s work as a consumer — is subjective. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve come across the winner of a high-profile photography contest, and then seen the runners-up, and thought to myself: What were they thinking?

Nine times out of ten, I see a runner-up that, to my eye, is so much more revealing and emotionally stirring than the one the judges picked that I’m at a loss for words. Who’s to say one image is “better” than another, anyway? It comes down to personal taste, an instant reaction followed by a gut feeling and a dawning realization that one has just witnessed greatness, a seminal moment captured in time forevermore.

So often, when I think of “10 photos we liked this week,” I think of a single image, and then an entire portfolio of images by that photographer, once I check that person’s website, their past work and present work.

I’d be terrible at editing a “10 photos we liked this week” list because, inevitably, my list would feature 10 photos by the same photographer.

 ©Ami VItale

©Ami VItale

And this past week, that photographer was Ami Vitale.

I came across a web article by BBC News picture editor Phil Coomes, ‘Ami Vitale: A life devoted to photography’

http://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-43329546

and was immediately reminded of an image I had glimpsed briefly once before, while editing a blog item on this year’s World Press Photo Awards. Her picture of a ranger bonding with an orphaned baby elephant at the small, community-based Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya had just  been nominated in the environment category for this year’s awards. (The winners will be announced on April 12th in Amsterdam, followed by an exhibition at the World Press Photo Festival on April 13th and 14th.)

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

I read the piece by Phil Coomes, and Vitale struck a recurring chord in me. My own background is hard news — I came to nature photography in early retirement from daily journalism — and I was struck how Vitale started out as an intern at a small newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina in the early 1990s, around the time I started to cover municipal news in my local big-city newspaper-of-record. Vitale quit her job in North Carolina to pursue her dream of being a foreign correspondent; I, too, briefly entertained ambitions of one day being a foreign correspondent, early in my career. The difference is Vitale took a leap of faith and took the jump. She did a brief spell at a newspaper in the Czech Republic, then found herself covering the conflict in Kosovo. 

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

One of my first media interviews at the time was with CNN’s London-based correspondent and anchor Christiane Amanpour, who had made her own reputation covering the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1998.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/contributors/v/photographer-ami-vitale/

This is actually quite common for high-profile conservation and wildlife photographers. South Africa’s Brent Stirton, current holder of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award — sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum and the largest and most influential wildlife photo competition of its kind in the world — began his career as a  photojournalist covering famine, genocide and political upheavals in conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa. Stirton won numerous prizes, including several citations from the United Nations for a long-term project he did based on the social, economic and political instability caused by the HIV-AIDS epidemic sweeping across Africa and the developing world at the time. Several years ago, in 2007, while covering an outbreak of violence in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he took a stirring image of a dead mountain gorilla being hauled out of its rainforest home by park rangers, and vowed to become a conservation photographer for the remainder of his career with a camera.

http://infocus.gettyimages.com/post/brent-stirton-the-photo-i-took-that-meant-the-most-to-me#.WqgwEoIh14Y

 ©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

It’s no coincidence that Stirton, Steve Winter, Cristina Mittermeier — and Vitale herself — have done some of their finest, most stirring work for National Geographic. As Vitale  told BBC’s Coomes, she learned over time that she wanted to work on stories that bring people together and reflect life beyond the latest headline.

“The thing that struck me,” Vitale told Coomes, “after witnessing so much conflict and violence in my career is that every single issue I covered, whether it was war or poverty or health, always ended up being dependent on nature for its outcomes.”

Coomes’ interview with Vitale brought me in a roundabout way to her website (amivitale.com), and her striking portfolios of ‘Pandas Gone Wild’ (soon to be a book, Panda Love: The Secret Lives of Pandas); ‘Montana Ranching Redefined’ (the state Vitale now calls home); ‘Kenya’s Last Rhinos,’ ‘Kashmir: Paths to Peace,’ ‘Coffee and Ethiopia,’ ‘Budapest Baths,’ ‘The Cost of Coal,’ ‘Gujarat,’ ’Cappadocia’ and ‘Israeli Palestinian Conflict.’

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale

If asked right now to pick “10 photos I liked this week,” I’m afraid all 10 would be Vitale’s, as I only now devoted the better part of an hour poring through her images on her website. They’re, in a word, stunning.

The word is getting out. She will appear as a featured speaker this weekend (March 17) at The Photography Show in Birmingham in the UK, and is scheduled to talk as one of the featured NatGeo photographers in the National Geographic Live series, in Kitchener, Ontario on April 26th; Buffalo, NY on May 8th; and San Jose, Calif. the following night, on May 9th.

“The world is a beautiful place and we need to celebrate the goodness,” Vitale said in a TED Talk in Shanghai, two years ago. “It’s everywhere.”

 ©Ami Vitale

©Ami Vitale


‘The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away.’ Now for the hard part — keeping it that way.

Hearing of that super-colony of Antarctic penguins spotted from space, I immediately thought about The Lost World.

Not the part about how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s band of Victorian explorers discovered a lost world of dinosaurs and early humans hidden on a towering mountain plateau in the jungles of Venezuela, but rather the part about how, having stumbled over a find of extraordinary and rare beauty, they weighed whether or not to tell the outside world.

Late last week, the journal Scientific Reports announced the discovery of a previously unknown “super-colony” of Adélie penguins in the east Antarctic peninsular.

The find was dramatic, the “how” somewhat less so.

The colony numbers more than 1.5 million birds, a sizeable number by any reckoning, but especially in the facts-challenged world of 2018.

The penguins were spotted living among and around a rocky archipelago in east Antarctica known as the Danger Islands — aptly named, as it turns out — after gargantuan  patches of their guano appeared in images taken by the US Landsat satellite.

This was one satellite picture of the polar regions that wasn’t all about the melting ice cap. For that reason alone, it immediately caused a stir.

 ©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

Researchers used a computer algorithm to scan images for signs of possible penguin activity. The scientists were genuinely surprised by the scale of their find, as University of Oxford researcher and science team-member Dr. Tom Hart told BBC News.

“It’s a classic case of finding something where no one really looked,” Hart told BBC. “The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn’t really try that hard.”

As Heather Lynch, a researcher with Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, told BBC.

“The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away,” she said. “We thought, ‘Wow, if what we’re seeing is true, these are going to be some of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it’s going to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly.’”

 ©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

Knowing how many penguins there are is one thing.

Ensuring their survival for future generations — future generations of people, as well as penguins — is another entirely.

The discovery will only truly mean something if a long-proposed marine protected area is signed into international law, a super-protected area, if you will, for the super-colony of penguins, and other Antarctic species.

It’s a big deal because, continent-wide, Adélie penguin populations have fallen by more than 65% in just the past 25 years, according to some estimates.

Just in the last seven years, thousands of chicks died in an unexplained mass die-off of chicks and stillbirths in the west Antarctic peninsular.

Some conservationists are concerned that the discovery will lead people to think that the Antarctic isn’t in so much trouble, after all.

To most people’s minds, endangered animals are either endangered or they aren’t. Mid- and long-term factors like habitat loss caused by climate change, which manifests itself in the form of warmer, more acidic waters, loss of sea ice and mass die-offs of krill, plankton and other micro-organisms that underpin the entire ecosystem, are harder to weigh in the mind than waking up one morning to learn that all the penguins have suddenly disappeared.

The Danger Islands lie in an area of the Weddell Sea that has yet to feel the effects of climate change the way other parts of Antarctica have.

 ©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

That doesn’t mean the Adélie penguins, all 1.5 million of them, are out of danger, though.

As conservation writer Lucy Siegle noted this past weekend in the UK Sunday Observer,  “Enthusiasm for this (discovery) needs to translate into a legally enforceable marine protected area, so that the penguins, left undisturbed for 60 years, remain that way.”

It was Einstein, after all, who said that whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.

 

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/adelie-penguins-colonies-discovered-antarctica-environment/

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/12/penguin-catastrophe-leads-to-demands-for-protection-in-east-antarctica


Big Cats Initiative + World Wildlife Day = Causing an uproar.

Think about this: We have lost 95% of the world’s wild tigers in the past century. During that time, lion populations have crashed 40% — in just three generations. That’s just one reason why, this year, World Wildlife Day (Saturday) is focusing on the plight facing the world’s #BigCats.

It’s the reason South Africa-born husband-and-wife naturalist team Beverly Joubert and Dereck Joubert have made big-cat conservation their life’s calling, and why they were instrumental in founding National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative in 2009. (https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/big-cats-initiative/about/)

 ©Beverly Joubert

©Beverly Joubert

This may sound obvious to anyone who’s thought about the implications — long-term and short-term — of overpopulation, climate change and rampant consumption, but to hear Dereck and Beverly Joubert tell it, it’s not obvious at all to ordinary, everyday people who are too busy feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads to worry about whether lions will go the way of the Tasmanian tiger and sabre-toothed cat. Historically, the Tasmanian tiger — once found throughout the continent of Australia — became extinct on the mainland some 3,000 years ago. The last known Tasmanian tiger died at Australia’s Hobart Zoo in 1936; the species was declared extinct in 1982. 

 ©University of Melbourne - Museums Victoria

©University of Melbourne - Museums Victoria

Unless something is done, and done quickly, the Jouberts told a rapt audience several years ago at a meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif., iconic apex predators like the lion, tiger, jaguar, puma, cheetah and leopard could vanish by mid-century.

“We’ve been studying and looking at big cats now for about 30 years,” Dereck Joubert told reporters at a meeting sponsored by National Geographic’s NatGeoWild digital channel, “and one of the alarming things for us, which was the genesis of (this project) actually, was the realization that, in our lifetimes, lions have dropped from 450,000 down to 20,000, and leopard numbers are from 700,000 down to about 50,000. If you take an extension of that curve, you will imagine these big cats to be extinct within the next 10 or 15 years.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time. But now is the time to bring it to wider attention.”

3. dereck WWD official banner.jpg

 

As World Wildlife Day dawns, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is anxious to put a familiar face on wildlife conservation efforts around the world. It isn’t just to do with lions, of course, but lions are an emblematic symbol that almost anyone can recognize, from the youngest child to the most jaded, cynical adult.

“What’s important ultimately, and what's going to help us  with the Big Cats Initiative, is getting the message out,” Beverly Joubert said. “A lot of people don't believe there is even a problem, so they say, ‘Why should we worry?’ Through the Big Cats Initiative, we've managed to raise money for cheetahs, for example, so we will have a lot of cheetah programs out there. We're not only looking at lions and leopards.

“Big cats are the iconic species. They’re the apex predator. If the apex predator is taken out of the system, the whole system collapses. We need the apex predators we can maintain corridors for elephants, for antelope, for the tiny little dung beetles. Everything is connected. It’s vitally important.”

 ©Beverly Joubert

©Beverly Joubert

 

Apologists for the hunting industry often argue that hunting is vital economically for species survival.

Balderdash, Dereck Joubert scoffs — though he’s inclined to use a stronger modifier.

“We are very, very adamant about hunting. This is all about ego. They call it recreational hunting, as if we could also be talking about playing tennis. Some people go out and take some great delight in the killing of these animals. Five hundred lion skins — lions in dead form — come into the United States every year as hunting trophies and safari trophies. With 20,000 lions left, you know that's not sustainable.”

 ©Beverly Joubert

©Beverly Joubert

 

Learning endangered species’ day-to-day life habits is key to ensuring its long-term survival, Beverly Joubert added. That’s part of what the Big Cats Initiative is all about and, in the bigger picture, World Wildlife Day itself. 

“We want to be able to look at that unique behaviour right  now and see how we can utilize what has happened in the past and where we are in the present and use that to give us a better idea of what’s going to happen in the future,” she said. “It’s looking at the plight of these cats, learning from it and applying those lessons to the future, whether it’s to do with hunting and poaching or just protecting these wildlife corridors.”

 ©Beverly Joubert

©Beverly Joubert

World Wildlife Day could just as easily be about the dung beetle or leopard tortoise, Dereck Joubert believes.

But.

“There are a number of great iconic species, and I think it’s our job to pick them and highlight them. The conservation that goes on around these other species is just as valid, but you gotta pick the cheerleaders.

“Also, we have a lot more fun filming lions that dung beetles,” he said.

“But we still film those dung beetles,” Beverly Joubert chimed in.

They’re all connected.


Except where noted otherwise, the images in this post were taken by Beverly Joubert in association with National Geographic/Big Cats Initiative. World Wildlife Day is Sat., March 3. #PredatorsUnderThreat #WWD2018 #BigCats


7. dereck NatGeo BCI graph.png

Poisonous toads, bleached coral, debt forgiveness and 2 new marine parks.

Poisonous toads, bleached coral, sloppy tourists, debt forgiveness and two new marine parks — this has been the past week in enviro-news.
An invasion of toxic toads from Asia is threatening what’s left of Madagascar’s already fragile ecosystem, according to a report in Sunday’s Observer by The Guardian global environment editor Jonathan Watts. The numbers are frightening, and the speed with which it’s happened has taken even most pessimistic conservation estimates by surprise.

In slightly more positive news, the Seychelles has established a pair of vast marine preserves in a world first. The proposal, as reported by Guardian environment editor David Carrington, would enshrine marine protection in exchange for debt forgiveness. It’s an innovative scheme backed by the likes of ardent conservationist and enviro-crusader Leonardo DiCaprio, and if the calculations are right it could conceivably show the way to saving large expanses of the world’s oceans.

 ©Pixabay

©Pixabay

And in another Sunday Observer report, Guardian culture editor Hannah Ellis-Petersen asks whether a temporary ban on tourists can help save the Thailand beach made famous in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie — yes, DiCaprio again — The Beach.

Much like the ecosystem itself, the three stories are different and yet connected in important ways. Tourism — too many people, treading on fragile coral and smashing their way through previously pristine wilderness areas — climate change and invasive species all play their part. 

The crisis facing Madagascar seems especially poignant, because it mirrors what has already happened in one island paradise — Hawaii — and could conceivably be a harbinger of things to come in the Galapagos Islands.

 ©Pixabay

©Pixabay

Much as rats arrived in Hawaii, the Asian common toad, Duttaphrynus melanostictus, is believed to have been a stowaway aboard a ship from far away, in this case a container ship from Vietnam unloaded at a Madagascar port and then accidentally opened a nickel processing plant. (Nickel, used in smartphones and other handheld devices, is a huge driver of Madagascar’s otherwise rocky economy.) The toads are large, nondescript looking and poisonous. They lack the bright markings and vibrant colours that would otherwise warn predators like snakes and birds to stay away. They’re bigger and tougher than the local toads, and they breed, well, like rats, only more so. Frogs local to Madagascar lay roughly 10 eggs at a time; the Asian toad spawns an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 at a time. The Asian toad was first spotted, so to speak, in Madagascar in 2008. Today, it’s believed there may be as many as 7 million of them — by conservative estimates. More liberal estimates put the number closer to 21 million.

It matters because, in the short term, biologists worry the toad will spread to the Betampona Nature Reserve, home to Madagascar’s famous ring-tailed lemurs. The toads do not pose a direct threat to the lemurs, which are critically endangered as it is, but could prove deadly to the forest the lemurs depend on to survive. It’s the story of the world’s ecosystems in microcosm: The smallest player in the circle of life plays a major role in the big picture, regardless of size. Once again, humankind has interfered in the natural order of things. Even a casual reading of the situation suggests it may already be too late.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/24/madagascar-toxic-toads-lemurs-ecology-threat

 ©Pixabay

©Pixabay

All power, then, to the Seychelles scheme, which — if it pans out, and even if it doesn’t — is at least trying to address the problem, rather than add to the already growing litany of environmental woes.

Dubbed tongue-in-cheek as “Debt for Dolphins,” the Indian Ocean nation of Seychelles will establish two large marine parks in exchange for much of its national debit to be written off.

If enacted, the legislation will throw a lifeline to tuna, dolphins, sharks and turtles caught in fishing nets, as create a barrier against overfishing. Seychelles relies on tourism for a large portion of its foreign exchange, but tourists are unlikely to come to dive if there is nothing to see underwater. That’s especially true of the coral reefs, which sustain marine life and are under threat from “bleaching” — the whitening that results when ocean temperatures rise precipitously and the living coral dies — throughout the world’s tropical seas.

Again, why care about the Seychelles?

Simply, the Aldabra archipelago, Seychelles’ jewel in the crown of biodiversity, rivals the Galapagos in ecological importance, marine scientists say. It’s not just manta rays, humpback whales, tiger sharks and clownfish, or ‘nemos’ as some call them, either. Aldabra is home to the dugong, or sea cow, said to be the single most endangered species in the entire Indian Ocean. Some 100,000 rare giant tortoises roam the tropical beaches and swim the local waters. The protected marine reserve at Aldabra will encompass some 74,000 square kilometres (28,500 square miles), roughly the size of Scotland.

 ©Pixabay

©Pixabay

A second, even larger marine reserve, 134,000 square km in all (52,000 square miles) is centred on the main Seychelles island of Mahe.

The parks are the indirect result of the first-ever debt swap for marine protection, and involve some $22 million owed to the UK, France and Belgium. (The swap was facilitated through the NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which raised some $5 million from donors to pay off part of the debt and help cut the interest rate charged by lenders.)

Enforcement may no longer be the bugaboo it once was, either: New satellite programs are being designed to monitor fishing boats from space and detect erratic or illegal fishing patterns.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/22/debt-for-dolphins-seychelles-create-huge-new-marine-parks-in-world-first-finance-scheme

Another potential solution — albeit temporary — to the crisis facing the world’s surviving coral reefs is about to tried in Thailand, on the sands of Maya Bay, the cove on the small  island of Koh Phi Phi Leh made famous in Danny Boyle’s 2000 cult film The Beach, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio as a disaffected backpacker who tries to find paradise — and encounters greed, lust and murder instead —  on an idyllic, untrammelled beach in Thailand.

 @Allstar/Cinetext/21st Century Fox

@Allstar/Cinetext/21st Century Fox

Maya Bay is no longer untrammelled. The tiny, white-sand cove is now so choked with so many tourists that 80% of the coral has been destroyed. The despoiling of Maya Bay mirrors the destruction of once-pristine coves and beaches throughout Southeast Asia.

Money trumps the environment every time, even though it’s the environment that attracts tourist dollars in the first place.

Now, recent announcements from Thailand’s government suggest Maya Bay could be closed to visitors for as long as six months, to give the fragile marine environment time to recover. The Philippines is reportedly considering a similar action for its equally famous — and equally troubled — island of Boracay. More than 2 million tourists descend on the eight km-long (5 miles) every year. It’s not hard to imagine raw sewage and detritus from construction sites will destroy what’s left of the coral — and this after a massive die-off in 2015 sounded an alarm in conservation circles, though not among the developers themselves, it would appear.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/25/can-tourist-ban-save-dicaprios-coral-paradise-thailand-maya-bay-philippines-boracay

 ©Pixabay

©Pixabay

It may already be too late, of course. 

Jojo Rodriguez, an NGO marine conservationist who has been monitoring Boracay’s coral reefs since 2012, told the Sunday Observer that it will take more than six months to solve the problem.

“Maybe 60 years, if we are lucky,” Rodriguez told the paper.

As campaigners point out, though, Southeast Asia’s coral reefs continue to die. A six-month ban on tourism may not seem like much — and it isn’t — but it’s a start.


Watching the world change: The images that shaped and reflected our world in 2017.

Each year, the World Press Photo Awards present a unique and unsettling account of the previous year in human history.

There are so many annual photography competitions these days it’s a wonder that anyone with a camera hasn’t won something, somewhere.

There’s something particularly affecting and powerful about photojournalists recognizing their own, however. These are often images from the frontlines of war and human conflict, but there are always one or two that reflect humanity at its most aspirational and forgiving.

The nominated photographers here — I’ve selected 20 choices from the dozens of images that made the shortlist — share one thing in common, apart from a keen eye and an ability to keep their camera in focus under often trying circumstance. They are men and women who, in facing a crisis, captured a photographic record of that crisis. In so doing, they laid bare the emotion of that moment for the world’s eyes.

Many of these images are hard to take in. Some are controversial. Many are profound. They all have something to say. None of them are boring. Advances in digital photography and the Internet ensure they will never be forgotten. We live in a visual age, where exploitation and redemption are often intertwined. 

These images show how photography, in the words of former Life magazine creative director and Vanity Fair editor-of-creative-development David Friend, help us to witness, to grieve, and finally to understand the unimaginable.

The World Press Photo’s prestigious “Photo of the Year” award has been whittled down to six finalists.

I’ve placed those six finalists at the top of the 20 I’ve included below, if only to show that they all share compelling qualities. The top prize traditionally awarded to the photographer whose creative expression captured an issue of journalistic importance in a way that made us think.

As Lars Boering, managing director of the World Press Photo Foundation, said in announcing the six finalists:

“The best visual journalism is not of something; it is about something. It should matter to the people to whom it speaks.”

This year’s jury was chaired by Magdalena Herrera, director-of-photography for Geo magazine.

“We were looking for challenging approaches,” Herrera told the New York Times. “But the respect of the subjects as human beings and how suffering was portrayed was most important.”

Three of the six shortlisted images were taken by freelance photographers on assignment for the Times. The remaining images were taken by photographers working for UNICEF, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Finalists in all categories were chosen from photographers representing 125 countries. Herrera and her fellow jurors whittled the field down to 42 nominees in eight categories, including Photo of the Year.

There has been controversy in the past over photo manipulation, with some entries being disqualified after the fact.

The World Press Photo Foundation now examines the RAW picture files of all images that make it to the final rounds of judging. As many as 20 percent of images reaching the final rounds have been disqualified over the last three years, most often for “excessive post processing” — a polite way of saying too much digital manipulation in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Boering told the New York Times that there were fewer disqualifications this year, but “fewer” was “still too many.”

“Why manipulate?” Herrera added. “If you’re an illustrator, you’re not a photographer. We’re talking about people taking out and moving things, not toning. We are (living) more than ever in a period of fake news, (so) it’s good that World Press applies these rules.”

The winners will be announced on April 12th at the 2018 World Press Photo Awards Show in Amsterdam.

The winning pictures are traditionally assembled into an  exhibition that travels to 45 countries and is seen by an estimated 4 million people each year.

Here, then, are 20 selections from this year’s 40-plus nominees. Captions were collated by The Atlantic from material provided by the World Press Photo Foundation.

The first six have been shortlisted for World Press Photo of the Year. The remaining 14 are my own choices — I curated them, if you will, from the remaining 3—plus finalists, and reflect my own tastes and biases — the environment, species survival, African wildlife, spot news and international reportage. I've saved, well, not the best exactly for last, but I have saved a kick for the end.

As always, the photographer’s name and copyright information is embedded in the photo itself, using Squarespace’s “caption overlay on hover” function.

Please be warned. Many of these images are graphic, and some are disturbing. As they’re meant to be. Others — the elephant, for example — are quite beautiful.

Disturbing and beautiful. Such is the world.


SHORTLISTED FOR PHOTO OF THE YEAR

 


 ©Ivor Prickett/New York Times

©Ivor Prickett/New York Times

 ©Adam Ferguson/New York Times

©Adam Ferguson/New York Times

 ©Patrick Brown/Panos Pictures for UNICEF

©Patrick Brown/Panos Pictures for UNICEF

 ©Toby Melville/Reuters

©Toby Melville/Reuters

 ©Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse

©Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse

 Ivor Prcikett/New York Times

Ivor Prcikett/New York Times


PERSONAL CHOICES FROM REMAINING NOMINEES


 ©Carla Hogelman

©Carla Hogelman

 ©Amy Vitale/National Geographic

©Amy Vitale/National Geographic

 ©Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress

©Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress

 @Alain Schroeder/Reporters

@Alain Schroeder/Reporters

 ©Anna Boyiazis/Reporters

©Anna Boyiazis/Reporters

 ©Richard Tsong/Taatarii

©Richard Tsong/Taatarii

 ©Fausto Podavini

©Fausto Podavini

 ©George Steinmetz/National Geographic

©George Steinmetz/National Geographic

 ©Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse

©Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse

 ©Neil Aldridge

©Neil Aldridge

 ©Nikolai Linares Larsen

©Nikolai Linares Larsen

 ©Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

©Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

 ©Anna Boyiazis

©Anna Boyiazis

 ©Jasper Doest

©Jasper Doest

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 (http://www.restnamibia.org / http://restnamibia.org/sponsors.html ) 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.


10 FACTS ABOUT THE PANGOLIN

(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 (http://savepangolins.org), “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.

A passion for nature: The brave new world of conservation photography.

“Can a photograph change the world?” has become, “Can a photograph save the planet?”

More and more, nature and wildlife photographers prefer to label themselves as conservation photographers, in part to reflect the perilous state of the environment today, and in part because the word “conservation” suggests a bigger scale and broader reach.

“Conservation” sounds more important, somehow, though old-school nature photographers will argue that nature itself is the reason conservation matters. Nature, after all, provides the foundation on which conservation is built.

Voting has now closed for the People’s Choice Award in the 54th Annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, or WPOTY 54 in the photography community argot. Last year’s winners in all categories are on display at the Natural History Museum in London until May 28th; if past history holds, this year’s winners will be announced in October.

In a somewhat controversial decision — controversial to the outside world, that is, as the jury vote was unanimous, a first in the 50-year history of the WPOTY awards — the grand prize went to Getty Images photojournalist Brent Stirton for his gripping, tragic image of a slaughtered rhino. 

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Stirton’s background is hard news, not wildlife per se. After decades of covering conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa — he cut his teeth photographing the anti-apartheid struggle in his native South Africa, before moving on to cover that country’s devastating HIV/AIDS crisis —  he says he had an epiphany 10 years ago, in 2017, after photographing DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) park rangers dragging a dead mountain gorilla out of the Virunga National Park rainforest, using makeshift ropes and heavy wooden beams. 

Stirton had just enough time to take three frames before he had to leave, because, as he told The Guardian in Oct., 2015, “The army were looking for me.”

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Stirton vowed then and there to become a lifelong crusader for the environment, using what he knows best to document the plight of endangered species, ecosystems and vanishing cultures throughout the developing world.

The People’s Choice award, by definition, is a vote by the people, and all that that implies.

It’s unlikely a picture of a dead rhino with its horn unceremoniously sawed off with a chainsaw would make the final cut for the People’s Choice Award, even if the finalists were chosen by a judging panel first and then submitted to the general public for a vote.

Even so, it’s hard not to look at the finalists’ images — a handful of which appear below — and not view them through the prism of what’s happening right now in the world’s few remaining wild places. It’s tough to see an image of a mother polar bear huddling over her newborn cubs and not realize that, within 20 years, polar bears may vanish entirely, owing to the catastrophic — and accelerating — ice melt in the northern polar regions.

Big cats often make for dramatic photographs, but again it’s hard to see a picture of a tiger today and not be reminded  that it was the apex predators — the sabre-toothed cat, a remnant of the Pleistocene epoch for some 42 million years before dying out just 11,000 years ago, or the “super croc,” Sarcosuchus, an early ancestor of the crocodile, some 12 metres (39 feet) in length — that perished in the end, leaving their legacy to their smaller, more adaptable successors.

The difference now, of course, is that much of what’s happening is caused by human hands, and humans alone have the power to make a difference. Conservation photography is part of that.

This is not new. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was famously so moved by Carleton Watkins’ stereographic illuminations of Yosemite, on the other side of the American continent, that he signed into law a bill declaring Yosemite Valley to be inviolable. Theodore Roosevelt enacted further protections in 1908, at the urging of his naturalist friend John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Yosemite played a key role in Woodrow Wilson establishing the U.S. National Park Service in 1916.

 Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Today, photographers who document the beauty and wonder of the natural world have an added responsibility — wanted or not — to shine a new, white-hot light on the crisis facing the planet today, whether it’s something as simple and life-affirming as a sloth hanging out in the rainforests of Brazil, or as complex and hard-to-take as the bloodied hand of a poacher handling an elephant tusk in Central Africa.

Both have a story to tell. They are different, and yet tragically connected. It’s good that people know that.


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THIS JUST IN — Jo-Anne McArthur's "Pikin and Appolinaire" has been declared the People's Choice. Word broke late last night from the UK.

A strong image from a strong field, and well-deserving of the recognition. The conservation message is profound, no?

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A lion’s tale: Reporting from the front lines of lion conservation.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know.

There are fewer wild lions remaining in the world than rhinos.

Yes, it’s true. For all the recent campaigns highlighting the plight of the rhino — and rightly so — one of the most iconic species known to humankind is on the brink.

That seems hard to believe, as the lion is the one animal somebody thinks of — and expects to see — when going to the zoo.

Numbers don’t lie however. Hardly anyone familiar with the impact of overpopulation and stresses on the environment in the post-industrial age will be surprised to learn that Africa’s lion population has crashed 90% in just the past 75 years.

It’s hard to quantify that figure in real terms, though.

A more telling number is that there are roughly 30,000 rhinos left in the wild, according to recent surveys. (These numbers are especially reliable today because recent media attention  over the illegal killing of rhinos for their horns has prompted a wide range of population surveys. Rhinos are relatively easy to count, too, as they can be spotted from the air, are diurnal and favour open spaces over dense bush.)

Lions, on the other hand, number some 20,000. Little more than a century ago, there were more than 200,000. Lions are extinct today in 26 African countries.

 ©National Geographic/Natural History Film Unit

©National Geographic/Natural History Film Unit

These figures come from wildlife biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Thandiwe (Thandi) Mweetwa, but have been confirmed by any number of peer-reviewed scientific surveys. We tend to think there are more lions than there really are because they’re social animals. They live in large family groups, so when you see one lion in the wild, chances are you will see several of them together, whether it’s a male coalition, a lone lioness with newborn cubs, or a full-on pride. That gives the illusion that they’re plentiful, when in fact the evidence shows they’re anything but.

Mweetwa, Zambian-born and educated at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (veterinary medicine) and University of Arizona in Tucson (resources conservation), is a senior wildlife biologist with the Zambian Carnivore Project.

When one thinks of African game parks, one naturally thinks of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara in East Africa, Kruger National Park in South Africa or even Etosha in Namibia, but Zambia is home to several of the less trammelled and most pristine wilderness areas on the entire continent.

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Mweetwa is based in the Luangwa River Valley — South Luangwa National Park rests on one of the main tributaries to the Zambezi River, which feeds into Victoria Falls. Luangwa’s ecosystem is every bit as detailed and complex as anything in Serengeti, but the fact that there so few tourist visitors, relative to its more famous cousins in Kenya and Tanzania, makes Luangwa an ideal test lab for biological field studies.

Mweetwa was one of a handful of scientists, nature photographers and program producers who appeared at the semi-annual gathering of the TV Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif.this past summer  — I’m an active member, owing to my regular columns for the New Jersey-based site TVWorthWatching.com — to promote NatGeo Wild’s eighth annual Big Cat Week, designed to raise awareness of, and promote interest in, National Geographic’s self-explanatory Big Cat Initiative. Among its other programs, the Big Cat Initiative helps raise funds for big cat conservation; Mweetwa’s work is supported in part by a grant from National Geographic. 

Mweetwa was just 12 when she moved from a small town in southern Zambia to the rural north. Her parents had died within two years of each other; her uncle agreed to take her in, in her mother’s home village of Mfuwe in Zambia’s far north. She had seen wildlife documentaries on the tiny, 12-inch family TV set as a young child growing up in the south, but now she found herself living in a modest red-brick house with no running water or electricity, let alone a TV. She was exposed on a daily basis to the wildlife she had only seen in pictures, though, and it wasn’t long before she developed an interest in the ubiqitous baboons, vervet monkeys, bushbuck, buffalo and puku antelope that frequented the mango groves surrounding the village. That led to a growing curiosity about the shadowy predators one often hears about but rarely sees — the leopard, a creature of the night; African wild dogs, tireless hunters during the day; and, at the top of the food chain, the lion.

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“It was the documentaries,” Mweetwa explained, when asked what first piqued her interest in lions. The irony that her field work is now supported by National Geographic’s network of international TV channels is not lost on her.

“We had a black-and-white TV set, and even then there was no colour,” she said. “But these animals just spoke to me at a certain level that I felt, okay, maybe I should do something to protexct them in the wild. With big cats in partitcular, I was completely sold well I saw my very first lion at the age of, possibly, 21 or 22, when I heard them roar, like, in broad daylight. It was nothing I had ever experienced before, and it completely sold me.”

Today, Mweetwa is a senior ecologist and community educator with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. Her work revolves around poplation dynamics and threwats to the survival of lions and other carnivores in eastern Zambia. She believes the key to any species’ survival is getting local communities involved and convincing area residents to support wildlife conservation and environmental awareness programs. 

Mweetwa’s work gained new attention this past week, thanks to her National Geographic video in which she shows that female lions in a pride often have cubs at the same time, to facilitate group parenting, in which a group of new mothers raise each other’s offspring alongisde their own cubs. 

The situation facing lions is serious, Mweetwa says.

 (L-R) Steve Winter, Bob Poole, Thandiwe Mweetwa, Brad Bestelink and Andy Crawford. ©NatGeo Wild

(L-R) Steve Winter, Bob Poole, Thandiwe Mweetwa, Brad Bestelink and Andy Crawford. ©NatGeo Wild

Climate change is, marked by longer and more frequent dorughts, has led to significant human-wildlife conflict in Kenya and Tanzania especially, as livestock herders push their goats and cattle inside park boundaries, in an effort to find water and food, while hungry lions leave park boundaries and cause mayhem. In Zambia, where Mweetwa works, and throughout southern Africa, lions are being hunted for the bushmeat trade, and for ritual charms and would-be cures used in traditional medicine.

Mweetwa is mindful that relatively few travellers from the West will ever visit Africa’s wilderness areas, let alone see a lion in the wild.

That’s where National Geographic’s films and magazine come in. Fantastic beasts and where to find them, and all that.

“It’s important to show people really nice footage of these animals that will make them go, ‘Ohhh, this is really cool,’” Mweetwa explained. “A lot of times people have this  perception that these animals cause more problems than they actually do. It’s difficult living with lions, as you can imagine. But (where I live), there’s too much negative perception, lions being blamed for things they maybe didn’t do. So programming like Savage Kingdom, for instance, is very important in getting people to realize that these are magnificent beasts, and they’re worth keeping in the landscape.”

 

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/big-cats-initiative/updates/


Winter is coming for the polar bear — and not in a good way.

“Polar bears require more food to survive than thought,” read Friday’s heading in Scientific American. CNN International’s take: “Polar bears face extinction faster than thought, study says.”

The New York Times’ told a similar story: “What Cameras on Polar Bears Show Us: It’s Tough out There.”

There’s more.

“Polar bear videos reveal impact of melting Arctic sea ice,” CBS News reported.

“Polar Bears Are Fighting For Survival as Melting Arctic Ice Cuts Off Their Only Food Source,” Newsweek’s heading warned.

“Polar Bears Really Are Starving Because of Global Warming, Study Shows,” was National Geographic’s take.

BBC News took a simpler route: “Polar bears ‘running out of food,’ study says."

Results of a study on a group of polar bears off Alaska’s Arctic coast were published late last week in the journal Science, and they make for grim reading, even aside from the technical jargon and sheer weight of detail, as scientific reports tend to be. ”Regional declines in polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations have been attributed to changing sea ice conditions, but with limited information on the causative mechanisms. By simultaneously measuring field metabolic rates, daily activity patterns, body condition, and foraging success of polar bears moving on the spring sea ice, we found that high metabolic rates (1.6 times greater than previously assumed) coupled with low intake of fat-rich marine mammal prey resulted in an energy deficit for more than half of the bears examined.”

(Link to the original here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6375/568.full)

In more simple terms that anyone can understand, the 2,600-word final report can be summarized in a few basic highlight notes:

 ©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

Arctic sea ice is melting faster than expected. Faster even than the most dire predictions.

Temperatures are wamwarminging more quickly in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet, for whatever reason.

Polar bears need seals for food, in order to survive.

The less sea ice there is, the harder it is for the bears to get at the seals.

The harder it is for bears to find seals, the more energy they expend looking for those seals. This is not rocket science.

The more energy they expend, the more food they need to survive.

The less food bears find, the less energy they have to hunt.

And so on.

Over time, the process speeds up rather than slows down. If bears are in trouble today — and they are — then by tomorrow they be gone entirely.

 ©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

This isn’t hyperbole or alarmist claptrap designed to gin up donations to conservation organizations — it’s basic fact.

Charles Darwin’s landmark studies in species survival are often mistranslated as  “Survival of the Fittest,” when in fact Darwin’s theory of evolution focused in the main on natural selection — a species' ability to adapt to a changing environment, rather than which individual species is best positioned to win a physical fight.

Polar bears could adapt to a life without sea ice and seals, given time. But they don’t have that time.

And eating out of garbage dumps in Churchill, Manitoba one month of the year isn’t going to cut it.

Polar bears are terrific swimmers — adaptability at work — but they’re not sea mammals. They’re not whales. In open water — i.e. the open ocean — they will drown.

They stay close to land in most cases, and need ice floes to climb onto and rest. If there are no ice floes — and in recent summers, Arctic sea ice has disappeared entirely and the Northwest Passage has opened up to regular sea traffic — they will drown as quickly as any grizzly or black bear that suddenly finds itself out at sea, with nowhere to swim to.

 ©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

The study tracked nine female polar bears fitted with high-tech tracking collars and GPS cameras, as they foraged for food in the Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Alaska. The study was sponsored by the United States Geological Survey and conducted by researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz (UC-Santa Cruz) over the course of three consecutive springs, in 2014, 2015 and 2016 (https://news.ucsc.edu/2018/02/polar-bears.html).

The study follows on the heels of dramatic — and heartbreaking — video footage that went viral in early December, of a disoriented, starving polar bear in Canada’s far north. That video, taken by one-time biologist-turned-photographer and environmental activist Paul NIcklen, together with National Geographic lecturer and photojournalist Cristina Mittermeier, founders of the non-profit group Sea Legacy, shook ordinary, everyday  people to the core, because it showed a tragedy-in-the-making in simple, stark, emotional terms that no peer-reviewed scientific study can. (Nicklen and Mittermeier’s work is easy to find; Nicklen, a former Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Mittermeier, an environmental photographer who specializes in indigenous cultures throughout the Americas and Pacific Region, have had their work exhibited in galleries around the world.)

 ©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

The original video — warning: it’s not easy to watch — can be found by following the links from National Geographic’s main website (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/polar-bears-starve-melting-sea-ice-global-warming-study-beaufort-sea-environment/) reignited the debate about what’s happening to the world’s polar bears.

Since the polar bear is one of the most easily recognized and readily identifiable living beings on the planet, it highlights a basic, simple question anyone and everyone needs to be asking themselves:

If we can’t save an iconic species like the polar bear, what can we save? Food for thought, if not exactly food for the bears.

 

A note on the video links below: The first is a generic news item from earlier in the week from CNN International, about the USGS UC-Santa Cruz survey. The second is an 18-minute TED Talk Paul Nicklen gave in 2011. Yes, that’s years ago now but, if anything, it’s even more relevant today than then. It has everything you might expect from a TED Talk: a compelling story, a charismatic storyteller, and a real emotional punch at the end. Well worth seeing, and seeing all the way through.