Overflowing With Perspective, Lacking Optimism, But Looking Forward

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Giraffes in the Maasai Mara game reserve. Shrinking habitats and industrial pesticides have caused populations to plummet in recent years. Photograph by Guillaume Bonn

Jon Lee Anderson, who I am sourcing here for the third time, gives us perspective on Richard Leakey, who surprisingly was only mentioned once previously in nine years on this platform. Both men know their respective worlds. There is plenty of perspective among both, not much optimism, but a determined look forward:

CAN THE WILDLIFE OF EAST AFRICA BE SAVED? A VISIT WITH RICHARD LEAKEY

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The paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is pessimistic about the future of Kenya’s wildlife. Photograph by Mickey Adair / Getty

The week before Christmas, Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist, celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. He is lucky to have reached the milestone. A tall man with the burned and scarred skin that results from a life lived outdoors, Leakey has survived two kidney transplants, one liver transplant, and a devastating airplane crash that cost him both of his legs below the knee. For the past quarter century, he has moved around on prosthetic limbs concealed beneath his trousers. In his home town of Nairobi, Leakey keeps an office in an unlikely sort of place—the annex building of a suburban shopping mall. His desk and chair fill most of his cubicle, which has a window that looks onto a parking lot. The space has no adornments other than two framed photographs, each sharply symbolic of the parallel interests that have absorbed most of his adult life: the world of extinct prehistoric hominids and the contemporary natural environment that is being pushed toward extinction by humankind.

In one of the photographs, Leakey is three decades younger, a trim man wearing a dark suit and standing amid a group of senior Kenyan officials, including then President Daniel arap Moi, who are gathered next to a pile of elephant tusks. It is a snapshot from 1989, when, as the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Leakey oversaw the public burning of several tons of poached elephant ivory. At the end of the nineteen-seventies, there were an estimated quarter of a million elephants in Kenya, but, when the photograph was taken, only sixteen thousand were left. Leakey wanted to stigmatize the ivory trade by treating poached tusks in the same way that police treated cocaine seized from drug traffickers. His publicity-seeking gambit worked, making global headlines and leading the way for an international ivory ban that went into effect that same year. The killing of elephants went down for a while as well, allowing Kenya’s herds to recover. Today, Kenya has a relatively stable population of about thirty-five thousand elephants.

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Horses, Buggies & Community

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Dakar’s horse-drawn buggies, long a staple means of getting around, are under an emerging threat from motorized rickshaws. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Senegal shows up a dozen times in our pages over the years, but not one those times is about my own experience there. Strange, because that experience marked my return to teaching, and indirectly led to the work we are doing now with Authentica and Organikos. That is worthy of a post, which I will write another day, for now enjoying a simple story about life on the streets with horses, buggies, their drivers, and the community members who are transported by them:

It’s Horses vs. Motors in Senegal. The Steeds Still Win on Many Roads.

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Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

DAKAR, Senegal — After a visit to the market to buy a box of mangoes, some fish and a length of cloth, Binta Ba, a Senegalese woman, needed a way to get home.

So she looked around for her preferred means of transportation: a horse and buggy.

A ride was easy to find, with dozens of horse-drawn buggies lined up near the market, which was in Rufisque, a picturesque suburb of Dakar known for its colonial architecture.

She climbed aboard a buggy, whose driver then waited patiently for a third passenger to occupy his final seat. When his buggy was full, he took off at a trot, sometimes speeding up to a canter. The riders paid about 50 cents for a 10-minute ride, a fraction of what it would cost to take a taxi.

“Taking taxis is for rich people,” Ms. Ba said. “We prefer to support these people because they are from the community.” Continue reading

Things with Wings in Akagera National Park

The Lilac-breasted Roller is the star of Akagera, in my opinion (at least for the bird life), as a reliable and beautiful species that you can’t miss while visiting.

Over the last month and a half I’ve been immersed in my Gishwati bird research, so I have not been able to take as much time to write about experiences from the Rwanda Study Tour as much, but now that I’m back in the US, I have some better bandwidth to share media from places like Akagera National Park.

Akagera has the highest bird species richness in all of Rwanda, with literature about the park normally citing either high 400s or low 500s as the total tally. On eBird, there’s a number of different hotspots for the park, but the top three hotspots in the country are all in Akagera, with another two hotspots within the top ten.

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Plastic, Back At Work, Building Schools

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 Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

For the two decades our company has been managing conservation-focused enterprises. Elimination of plastic has been a passion, and finding ways to reduce its use has been an obsession. While based in India, and working on a project in Ghana, we got a close look at entrepreneurial plastic re-use for the first time. We have been on the lookout for more ever since and this story gives hope for a whole new level of solution:

Less Trash, More Schools — One Plastic Brick at a Time

Plastic garbage collected by a women’s group is being recycled into bricks and used to build schools in West Africa.

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Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — She left home before dawn. Her four children were still asleep in her cement block house in Abobo, a maze of shops and houses occupied by dockworkers, taxi drivers, factory laborers and street sellers.

She and a friend crossed into the upscale neighborhood of Angré, home to doctors and businessmen. They tossed the plastic castoffs of the consumer class into bags slung over their shoulders as the cocks crowed and the sun peeked over villa walls draped with bougainvillea.

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Students and residents gathered by plastic bricks outside their school in the Sakassou village. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Mariam Coulibaly is part of a legion of women in Abidjan who make their living picking up plastic waste on the city streets and selling it for recycling. Now they are lead players in a project that turns trash into plastic bricks to build schools across the country.

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Pre-school principal Tirangue Doumbia ushering students into a new classroom built of recycled plastic bricks at the Gonzagueville school. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

 

They are working with a Colombian company to convert plastic waste — a scourge of modern life — into an asset that will help women earn a decent living while cleaning up the environment and improving education.

She sees it as a chance to better her life, maybe even to rise into the middle class.

“We don’t get good prices” from the current buyers, Ms. Coulibaly said. “This will help us.”

In the past year, the venture has built nine demonstration classrooms out of recycled plastic bricks in Gonzagueville, a scrappy neighborhood on the outskirts of Abidjan, and in two small farming villages, Sakassou and Divo. The first schools were built with bricks imported from Colombia. But in the fall, a factory now rising in an Abidjan industrial park will begin making the bricks locally. Continue reading

Mammals of Akagera National Park

Impala, zebras, topi, and waterbuck share this savanna scene in Akagera National Park

The next park we visited on the Rwanda Study Tour after Nyungwe was Akagera National Park. Although the park was created in 1934, it’s only been run by a partnership between the Rwandan government and an NGO called African Parks—which helps manage about fifteen parks on the continent—since 2010. At this point, a change in operation style and protection started to help wildlife bounce back as well as increase visitation to the park. Back in 2010, the park hosted around fifteen thousand visitors per year and only made about $200,000 (while losing money), but last year the park received thirty-six thousand visitors and made $2,000,000 (getting out of the red for the first time).

A zebra gives itself a dustbath while a impala, two topi, and a warthog watch on

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My Summer Research Project: Bird Diversity in Gishwati Forest, Rwanda

Gishwati Forest of Gishwati-Mukura National Park

Two weeks ago I promised an update from the field, and after completing the necessary government permits and preparing for work in the forest, I’m finally ready to write about the summer project that the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies requires of its Master of Environmental Management candidates. We can choose between completing an internship or independent research, and I opted for the latter, since I wanted the experience of designing my own field season and collecting data for scientific analysis for peer-reviewed publication, pursuing a subject that I’m both personally and academically interested in: tropical bird conservation. Now, with the generous support I’m grateful to receive as a fellow of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), and the University of Rwanda’s Center for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), I’ve started my project exploring a subset of montane avifauna distribution in the Albertine Rift.

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Village Weavers at Lake Ihema, Akagera National Park

On the shore of almost any body of water in Akagera National Park in the east of Rwanda, trees festooned with balls of dried grass are a common sight, although what will often draw your attention to these trees first is not the strange vegetation, but the cacophony of a dozen or more weaver birds chattering away as they bring strands of grass to build these nests, display to potential mates, or warn of possible predators. The species featured here, the Village Weaver Ploceus cucullatus, is a fairly common bird in this region, and entertained us with their craft on the day that we visited Lake Ihema, the second largest lake in Rwanda after Lake Kivu to the west.

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Wildlife Conservation Society and Nyungwe

A view from inside Nyungwe National Park

When I came into the master of environmental management program at Yale FES, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) wasn’t really on my radar as a big international conservation NGO — other names like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, or Flora and Fauna International came to mind first. As I started to learn about the biodiversity hotspot of East Africa’s Albertine Rift, however, WCS programs and technical reports started to come up more and more, and the professional experience shared by my professors Amy and Bill in their class (Building a Conservation Toolkit: From Project Design to Evaluation) led to many discussions about their work with WCS.

As part of the Rwanda Study Tour, we met with WCS employees in Kigali and two towns neighboring Nyungwe National Park called Gisakura and Kitabi. These Rwandans, some of whom had been with the NGO for over fifteen years, told us about the conservation efforts carried out by WCS in the region, much of which revolves around capacity building, scientific monitoring, and community education and engagement. For example, since the nineties WCS has been recording phenological data from native trees and vegetation in Nyungwe, which can be a valuable reference for seasonal variations in plants affected by climate change. WCS has also trained park rangers on different data collection methods that have improved monitoring systems in the park to document cases of poaching efforts such as wire snares, which are still a major threat to the small forest antelopes that live in Nyungwe.

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Primates of Nyungwe National Park

from the Uwinka Visitor Center of Nyungwe National Park

The first national park that the Yale FES Rwanda Study Tour visited was Nyungwe, in the south of the country bordering Burundi’s Kibera National Park. A montane tropical forest spanning over a thousand square kilometers, Nyungwe is quite biodiverse, and while it used to host elephants, water buffalo, and leopards, many other mammals are still present in the forest, including thirteen species of primate. Of these, we were able to see eight: vervet monkeys, l’Hoest’s mountain monkeys, blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys, mona monkeys, a single olive baboon, and eastern chimpanzees. This was fairly lucky, as the only primates we missed were the owl-faced monkeys, which are shy and restricted to the bamboo groves in a remote part of the park, red-tailed monkeys, which I know nothing about, and three species of galago, which are very small nocturnal primates sometimes called bushbabies, of controversial cuteness. I’ve included some of my photos below:

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A Summer in Rwanda

I’ve already been here a month, and Crist has shared some of my photos from brief missives that I’ve sent home, so I am overdue for an explanation of what I’m doing in Rwanda this summer.

A view from the Nyamirambo neighborhood of Kigali

At first I was in the country with four classmates from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES) and our professor, Dr. Amy Vedder, who started working in Rwanda back in the late seventies, studying mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park and, with her husband Dr. Bill Weber, helped set up the tourism program that has now become the cornerstone of the country’s economy. The six of us were participating in the Rwanda Study Tour, an opportunity for five Yale FES students to learn about conservation as practiced in this tiny nation of twelve million people.

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Rwanda, Third Message

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The image above was taken after the last giraffe photo, but I do not know where. Today Seth sent more photos after he and his colleagues hiked up, through a national park, to the upper reaches of a volcano.

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Hiked to the summit of Visoke volcano in the national park, the toughest hike I’ve done just for elevation (got up to 3711 meters asl) through the wettest slush mud

Seth is plenty verbal. But under these circumstance I appreciated the parsimony of words in his message accompanying the photos. I have been at that altitude and it does not encourage chit chat.

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We have lived and worked in beautiful places; again, all I can say is I look forward to Ghana.

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And again, my favorite image is not the one I would have expected.

Rwandan Charismatic Megafauna (& Honey)

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Seth sent a few more messages, in the form of images, from Rwanda. One day soon I will describe what he is doing there, but for now the images say more than enough.

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While elephants are a childhood favorite animal for Seth, he had seen Asian elephants in the wild, so that probably made seeing giraffe the charismatic topper so far.

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Once zebra is added to the list of species seen, it might start feeling like all is well in the wild (even if we know it is not).

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Waterbuck with African Fish-Eagle

One of the few photos that had any words to explain was this one, which is to be expected of a birder in the realm of charismatic megafauna.

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But of all the photos, the one that caught my eye was the one above, which I do not yet have an explanation for but it is in surrounded by the following photos which put it in some context.

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That gives a hint.

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This answers the question.

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And this makes it crystal clear. Seth had already sent an image from an earlier field visit that he knew would catch my attention.

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The origins of Organikos can be traced to a project I led in 2005 in Paraguay, where I had the idea that wild-hunted honey from the Pantanal region could share the taste of place with the world while at the same time providing much-needed cash infusion to the honey hunters and the protection of their wilderness areas. Seth knows that story and knows to send me photos of honey from wild places as a polite indication that the idea was a good one, if not original.

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Problem Solving the Entrepreneurial Way

 

The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind when related to overcoming the obstacles of handling emergencies in remote or dangerous locations. But after listening  to Zipline founder Keller Rinaudo’s TED talk, “entrepreneurship is the new philanthropy” seems more apropos. Our direct experience is more within the entrepreneurial conservation model in developing economies, but the energy with which many countries have leap frogged established technologies with 21st century models and solutions belies their assumed status of development. Continue reading

Visual Notes From Rwanda

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Seth is in Rwanda, and until now only one of his photos was posted here. His last written post on this platform was about a year ago, when he was preparing for graduate school, but since then dozens of his photographs have been shared here as bird of the day. I do not expect him to have time to share written description here of his work in Rwanda, so I will share some of the photos he is sending us.

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I do not know where these places are, yet. But I hope to hear soon.

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La Paz Group was part of a consortium a decade ago competing for a project, funded by USAID, to assist Rwanda’s government with planning for the future of nature-based tourism. Our proposal was not the winning proposal, so I did not have the chance to see the country in person. Yet. But based on these photos, I will.

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My last long term assignment in Africa was in Ghana. My last prospecting for a long term assignment was in Ethiopia. Both of those countries are worthy of revisiting, and I intend to do so. But Rwanda has jumped to the top of the must visit list in Africa.

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What is not visible in any of these photos is Seth’s encounters with wildlife. I have heard about gorillas, chimpanzees, colobus monkeys and plenty of bird species. He has sent pictures of wildflowers, mushrooms, ants. Not just any ants. Driver Ants! But for now, the bucolic natural and manicured landscapes are enough to convince me.

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Stories Without End – The Grandmother Project

The Ogelthorpe University Museum of Art is one of the gems of the Atlanta area, for good reason. Not only does the museum have its own well curated collections, it receives visiting collections that are timely and powerful.

Tara Rice‘s Grandmother Project photographic series highlights the historically matriarchal influence within African cultures, coinciding with the project based in Senegal “promoting health, well-being and rights of women and children in developing countries through grandmother-inclusive and intergenerational programs that build on communities’ cultural values and resources.”

The photo series dovetails perfectly with the female centric collection of sculptures and masks in the sister exhibit, Stories Without an End.

Stories Without an End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Women in African Art of the Mehta Collection

January 18 – April 21, 2018

The exhibition Stories Without an End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Women in African Art of the Mehta Collection includes a selection of 50 classically carved wooden sculptures and masks drawn from the collection of Dileep and Martha Mehta.

The exhibition represents art from more than 25 ethnic groups spanning 12 countries. These objects are gathered into thematic groups including women in governance, maternity, idealized beauty, and female ancestors.

OUMA members Dileep and Martha Mehta are collectors of African and Asian arts. Their African art collection, including objects in this exhibit, has greatly benefited from diligent sourcing by and wise counsel of African Art dealers Tamba Kaba and Sanoussi Kalle.

This exhibition was developed by Elizabeth H. Peterson, OUMA director, and organized by Amanda Hellman, PhD, curator of African art, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

Stories Without an End was inspired in part by the work of the Grandmother Project (GMP) an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a Senegalese NGO with representatives throughout the USA and abroad. GMP, with headquarters in Senegal, works with elders in West African villages to fight the maltreatment of young girls. This includes bettering maternal and child nutrition, reproductive health, and marriage standards. The exhibition title is inspired by the GMP initiative “stories without an ending,” which is a tool used to facilitate communication via the elders. For more about the Grandmother Project please visit www.grandmotherproject.org.

The Grandmother Project: Photographs by Tara Rice

January 18 – April 21, 2019

The Grandmother Project (GMP) develops community approaches that promote positive and sustained improvements in the lives of girls, children, women, and families by building on existing cultural and community values, roles and assets in southern Senegal. Continue reading

Adaptation & South-South Cooperation

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Ethiopian farmers examine the results of a trial of wheat varieties. BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL

The bread we eat in the not so distant future may depend on the type of cooperation described below. Thanks to Yale e360 and Virginia Gewin for this story:

How Crowdsourcing Seeds Can Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

In Ethiopia and other developing nations, scientists are working with small-scale farmers on trials to see which seed varieties perform best in changing conditions. These initiatives are enabling farmers to make smarter crop choices in the face of rising temperatures, drought, and more extreme weather.

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Durum wheat varieties grow in trial plots in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Thousands of farmers participated in the project, testing how various wheat strands performed under changing climatic conditions. BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL

In Ethiopia’s undulating, high-elevation grasslands, farmers — most of them working parcels of only two to three acres — produce more wheat than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. They accomplish this feat in the face of chronically short supplies of high-quality seed. Still, Ethiopia’s record harvest of 4.6 million metric tons in 2017 didn’t satisfy the country’s needs, forcing it to import an additional 1.5 million tons of wheat. Continue reading

Anything But Sweet

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Trees felled for a cocoa plantation inside the Scio Forest Reserve in western Ivory Coast. MIGHTY EARTH

Fred Pearce provides puzzling yet somehow understandable examinations of environmental challenges, that make it impossible to look away with a clear conscience. Since reading this (note the photo above and in that story) I have been paying more attention to chocolate and its origins. I appreciate Mr. Pearce’s deep dive into the dark reality documented in this story:

The Real Price of a Chocolate Bar: West Africa’s Rainforests

Ivory Coast has lost more than 80 percent of its forests in the last 50 years, mainly to cocoa production. The government has a plan to turn over management of former forest to international chocolate manufacturers: Is it a conservation strategy or a land grab?

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Workers cut cocoa in the Ivory Coast village of Godilehiri. Most of the country’s cocoa is grown by small farmers, on plots of 7 to 10 acres. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

How can you save the last rainforests from rampant deforestation in one of Africa’s most biodiverse countries? A crackdown on those responsible — in this case, chocolate growers and traders? In the Ivory Coast, the government thinks differently. It is unveiling a plan instead to remove protection from most of its remaining forests and hand them over to the world’s chocolate traders. Is this madness, a brutal land grab, or the only way out?

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A park ranger stands over illegally harvested cocoa, found during a routine patrol of the Cavally Classified Forest in Ivory Coast. MIGHTY EARTH

In the past half-century, few countries have lost rainforests as fast as the Ivory Coast. More than 80 percent of its forests are gone, most following an illegal invasion by as many as a million landless people into national parks and other supposedly protected forests. The Marahoue National Park alone has 30,000 illegal inhabitants. The invaders are growing cocoa to supply the global chocolate business.

The Ivory Coast, a West African country the size of New Mexico, produces more than a third of the world’s cocoa. The crop contributes around a tenth of the nation’s GDP. But around 40 percent of the country’s cocoa crop — more than a tenth of the world’s chocolate bars — is grown illegally in the country’s national parks and 230 supposedly protected government-owned forests, known as forêts classée, says Etelle Higonnet of Mighty Earth, a United States-based environmental group active in cataloging the footprint of key global commodities.

Most cocoa is grown in monocultures of what is known as the full-sun system, requiring the removal of all surrounding trees. Meeting the world’s insatiable demand for the beans that make chocolate has resulted in many protected areas being “completely converted to farms,” according to Eloi Anderson Bitty of the University Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan. Continue reading

When Pictures Are Worth a Thousand Words

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With none of the usual traffic clogging the capital, Sunday football devotees took to the streets.

I remember car free days in Paris with pleasure, sunny autumn weather topped by cyclists, pedestrians and skaters enjoying wide boulevards and narrow city lanes alike. New York City has a smaller scale version, with a 2 mile stretch of lower Broadway, plus a mile up in Washington Heights.

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The event also allowed skateboarders to show off their skills.

No traffic days taking place in developing countries somehow feels all the more impactful, especially considering it’s a monthly event, rather than an annual one! Thanks to the BBC for bringing this to our attention with the story No traffic in Addis Ababa as Ethiopia marks Car Free Day:

Thousands of people have marked Car Free Day in cities across Ethiopia by walking and exercising.

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The measure was implemented by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was came to office last April after his predecessor resigned.

Major roads were shut as Health Minister Amir Aman led the walk in the capital, Addis Ababa.

This was the first Car Free Day held in Ethiopia to promote healthy living, and to reduce pollution on roads usually clogged with traffic.

Tents were also set to offer free health checks to those who were walking and exercising.

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All photos by Eduardo Soteras, AFP

Mr Amir is trying to change that and Car Free Day will be held on the last Sunday of each month, he adds. Continue reading

Hunting Wild Coffee

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Drying coffee beans in Ethiopia. More than half of all species are at risk of vanishing in the wild because of climate change and deforestation. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

As much as I thought I learned in the last year about coffee, I got a hint just now, reading the article below, how steep my learning curve remains. 124 species of coffee? So much to hunt, so little time! Thanks to Somini Sengupta for this story:

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Picking coffee berries on a farm in Ethiopia. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent 30 years trekking across forests and farms to chronicle the fate of one plant: coffee.

He has recorded how a warming planet is making it harder to grow coffee in traditional coffee-producing regions, including Ethiopia, the birthplace of the world’s most popular bean, arabica. He has mapped where farmers can grow coffee next: basically upcountry, where it’s cooler. He has gone searching for rare varieties in the wild. Continue reading

Defending Megafauna

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Perhaps as few as eighty thousand African forest elephants remain, and a new documentary explores the megafauna’s threats and defenders.Photograph Courtesy Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku

When we moved to Kerala in 2010 one of our motivations was that among the properties we would take responsibility for one was within a vast protected forest area in southern India. It was/is one of the great remaining habitats of elephants and tigers among other mammals, not to mention birds and all kinds of other life. Which is to say the ecosystem is intact enough to support apex predators and their megafauna prey, and everything around them and below them in the food chain. Which makes their viability as species possible. We networked as much as possible with scientists whose initiatives seemed relevant to our own.  Todd McGrain somehow escaped our attention until now, even though his work at the Lab of Ornithology should have caught it the way other artists’ did. Thanks to Peter Canby for pointing us here, and we have taken the liberty of inserting some of Tom’s other photos within the text below, which you can click on to go to one of his websites to learn more:

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EP_0419.jpgIn Africa, there are two kinds of elephants: savanna and forest elephants. The species diverged somewhere between two and six million years ago, with the better-known savanna elephants spreading over the plains and open woodlands of Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa while forest elephants stayed behind in the dense forests at the center of the continent. Although the two occasionally hybridize, they are widely viewed as separate species. Forest elephants are smaller, with smaller and straighter tusks. The size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from rampant poaching, because the tusks have a distinctive hue, sometimes known as “pink ivory,” that has made them particularly valuable.

EP_0634.jpgSomething about the nobility of forest elephants regularly raises concern for their extinction. The tropical forests of the Congo Basin, once considered impenetrable, are now yielding to logging roads, mines, and even palm-oil plantations. In 2013, a widely respected study by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, found that, between 2002 and 2011, the population of forest elephants had declined by sixty-two per cent. Perhaps as few as eighty thousand remain. The story of these declining numbers is also a story of habitat destruction. Where forest elephants exist in an undisturbed state, they build networks of trails through the deep forest. These trails connect mineral deposits, fruit groves, and other essentials of forest-elephant life. In Central Africa, there are dozens of fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal and for which forest elephants have evolved as the sole dispersers. These trees line the forest-elephant paths. Where elephant populations are disturbed, the paths disappear.

EP_0480.jpgMatt Davis, a researcher in ecoinformatics and biodiversity at Aarhus University, in Denmark, recently published a paper arguing that we are entering a period of extinction of large mammals akin to the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We are now living in a world without giants,” he told the Guardian, and went on to detail the many ecological consequences of the loss of megafauna. When I asked John Poulsen, an assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, if this observation could apply to the role of forest elephants, he said, “Absolutely.”

The sculptor Todd McGrain has made a name for himself, over a thirty-year career, as the creator of sculptural monuments to birds that have been the victims of “human-caused extinction.” It’s not, therefore, entirely surprising that he has directed a documentary about forest elephants, “Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku,” showing at New York’s DOC NYC film festival this Wednesday and Thursday. McGrain’s subjects have included, among others, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet. When McGrain was the artist in residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Katy Payne, founder of the Elephant Listening Project at the Bioacoustics Research Program, introduced him to something she had discovered: forest-elephant infrasound, which is how elephants communicate inside the forest, at a frequency too low for human ears to register. She pitched up the recordings of elephant calls so that McGrain could listen to them. “I couldn’t help but hear them as bird calls,” he told me. “It was the complexity of their language that grabbed me.” Continue reading