With Gene-Altering Schemes, Be Careful What You Wish For

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The short-tailed weasel, or stoat, decimated native bird populations after it was introduced to New Zealand. Altering the genes of invasive animals might save threatened species, scientists said, but could also have devastating consequences. Credit DeAgostini, via Getty Images

Two days ago we were intrigued by the notion; today, not so much. Is it a cat fight between two of the science writers most often linked to in these pages? Or perhaps it is an example of how scientific consensus is built:

‘Gene Drives’ Are Too Risky for Field Trials, Scientists Say

In 2013, scientists discovered a new way to precisely edit genes — technology called Crispr that raised all sorts of enticing possibilities. Scientists wondered if it might be used to fix hereditary diseases, for example, or to develop new crops.

One of the more intriguing ideas came from Kevin M. Esvelt and his colleagues at Harvard University: Crispr, they suggested, could be used to save endangered wildlife from extinction by implanting a fertility-reducing gene in invasive animals — a so-called gene drive. Continue reading

New Zealand, Invasive Species & Gene Editing

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Thanks to Ed Yong and his editors at The Atlantic for this story on one country’s approach to rats:

New Zealand’s War on Rats Could Change the World

The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.

The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.

I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments. Continue reading

Nature’s Silence Is Golden

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Yesterday’s post, linking to an article from the same source, combines with this one to confirm that some venerable members of the “mainstream media” see an audience (us, for example) for green-leaning reporting. Then we found this, about a remarkable Norwegian silence-hunter who has gone to the ends of the earth; and now finds himself in the East Village of New York City. Instead of featuring that story, this one below is must-read on the topic of quietude:

Lessons in Stillness From One of the Quietest Places on Earth

In the wilderness of Washington State’s Hoh Rain Forest, a poet searches for the rare peace that true silence can offer.

THE OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK stretches down coastal Washington and east toward Seattle on a thumb of land known as the Olympic Peninsula, some 60 miles long by 90 miles wide. Around a three-hour ride by car from Seattle, it feels much farther, as if you have passed into an otherworldly realm. Within it are volcanic beaches scattered with the remains of massive Sitka spruces, evergreen-crowded mountains, broad, flat valleys and the Hoh Rain Forest, through which 12 miles of hiking trails and the glacier-formed Hoh River run. The Park, in total nearly a million acres, is home to what may be the most complex ecosystem in the United States, teeming with big-leaf maples, lichens, alders, liverworts, Monkey flowers, licorice ferns, club mosses, herbs, grasses and shrubs of remarkable abundance. Today, thanks to federal protections, it is home to some of the largest remaining stands of old-growth forest in the continental U.S. Continue reading

Feeding 7 Billion People

Farmer Doug Thomas holds rice at a storage facility near Olivehurst, California.

Farmer Doug Thomas holds rice © Drew Kelly for The Nature Conservancy

 Thanks to Cara Byington and her colleagues at Cool Green Science:

When They Said They Wanted to Rethink Agriculture, They Meant It

Continue reading

Ant-Hunting Dogs

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Kyren Zimmerman and Tobias — a Labrador retriever who specializes in sniffing out the invasive Argentine ant — on Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands National Park. Credit Gary Andrew/The Nature Conservancy

Ants are the masters of the planet we live on. There is no escaping that. But if these dogs can protect us from some of the more sinister ants, we have these trainers to thank:

A Very Good Dog Hunts Very Bad Ants

Tobias is a Labrador retriever with one job: sniffing out invasive Argentine ants wherever they hide. He’s really good at it, and with his help, a fragile island ecosystem may be spared a repeat inundation with the pests.

Santa Cruz Island is 25 miles off the coast of Southern California, part of Channel Islands National Park. The island’s rich, rugged environment — which includes more than 1,000 kinds of plants and animals, including the bald eagle and the island fox — is threatened by Argentine ants, one of the world’s most successful and wily invasive species. Continue reading

Speaking for the Trees

‘Hope, courage and anger’: The Indigenous Guardians of the Forest caravan to Bonn, in front of the French National Assembly in Paris last week. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

Thanks once again to the Guardian for sharing these stories from the front line.

‘For us, the land is sacred’: on the road with the defenders of the world’s forests

Of the many thousands of participants at the Bonn climate conference which begins on 6 November, there will arguably be none who come with as much hope, courage and anger as the busload of indigenous leaders who have been criss-crossing Europe over the past two weeks, on their way to the former German capital.

The 20 activists on the tour represent forest communities that have been marginalised over centuries but are now increasingly recognised as important actors against climate change through their protection of carbon sinks.

In the run-up to the United Nations talks, they have been visiting the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, talking to city leaders, environment NGOs and youth groups. Their aim is to build support for their role as forest defenders – a role that frequently puts them odds with agribusiness, mining companies and public security. The Observer caught up with them on the road to Paris.

“We have been looking after the forest for thousands of years. We know how to protect them,” said Candida Dereck Jackson, vice president of the National Indigenous Alliance in Honduras, as she outlined the principal demands of the group: respect for land rights, recognition of crimes against the environment, direct negotiations over forest protection, decriminalisation of indigenous activists, and free, prior and informed consent before any development by outsiders. Continue reading

Amaranth’s Allies: Art, Academia & Activism

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New School students and faculty repotting seedlings on campus in preparation for the exhibition.

Search on the three words “seeds of change” on this platform and you will find dozens of stories dealing with topics like botanical hazard initiatives or innovative approaches to flora conservation and/or climate change and some of the radical plans made to prepare for it that we have linked to over the years. Type the same three words into your favorite search engine and the topics are much more diverse. The three words are also the name of an evolving exhibition, and the subject of an article that mixes art, academia and activism:

A Seed Artist Germinates History

An exhibition using plants brought to New York in ships’ ballast illuminates the city’s hidden past using stinging nettle, milk thistle and amaranth. Continue reading

All In, Eliminating Plastic Bags, Rwanda Is A Leader

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By The New York Times

Thanks to the New York Times for this success story from a small country in Africa that has been working its way steadfastly to global leadership, quietly but surely for the last decade-plus. Eliminating plastic bags from a country seems impossible, until you read how it was done:

GISENYI, Rwanda — They are sometimes tucked into bras, hidden in underwear or coiled tightly around a smuggler’s arms.

They’re not narcotics or even the illegally mined gold and diamonds that frequently make it across the border into Rwanda. But they are, at least in the eyes of Egide Mberabagabo, a watchful border guard, every bit as nefarious.

The offending contraband? Plastic bags.

“They’re as bad as drugs,” said Mr. Mberabagabo, one of a dozen border officials whose job it is to catch smugglers and dispose of the illicit plastic he finds. Continue reading

Hooved Fire Prevention

Image: Renee Lewis

Goats have appeared on these pages in various guises, including being part of urban park maintenance. Thanks to environmental reporter Renee Lewis and the Earther.com for sharing this good news fire prevention story.

Firefighting Goats Devour Fuel Across the West Before it can Burn

Roslyn, WA—After one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory in the Pacific Northwest this summer—with the unforgettable smoke-pocalypse that socked in the region with thick smoke for weeks—a new tool is being added fight against wildfires: goats.

“More and more, people are looking at goats as a tool for fire suppression,” said Craig Madsen of Healing Hooves, a company based in Edwall, Washington, that maintains a herd of about 250 goats that are used for natural vegetation management.

The goats bleated loudly and walked towards Madsen as we approached the plot of land where the herd was busy grazing.

“The goats are complaining because of the rain,” Madsen said, as a cool, fall shower began.

Madsen stood under the overhang of the trailer he uses to to transport the herd, across the road from the land where the goats were grazing. The guard dog, Gigi, sat under a tree keeping watch as the goats—bucks, does, and kids—worked together to devour everything within reach.

Every car that drove by stopped to look at the unusual sight, and many asked Madsen about what he was doing out there with all those goats.

Continue reading

Jane Goodall Then And Now

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A preview of the film. By NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on Publish DateOctober 18, 2017.Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive. Watch in Times Video »

Several of us contributing to this platform have had the opportunity to meet her, and can attest to what Melena Ryzyk says below. There really are not sufficiently powerful words to describe her, but we link out to those stories that try.  It may be that photography or film offer the best medium for understanding and more fully appreciating her work. Click above for the trailer, or click the title below to read the review of this film, high on our list for viewing:

Jane Goodall’s Unparalleled Life, in Never-Before-Seen Footage

If you ever meet Jane Goodall and well up with overwhelmed joy, you won’t be alone. “I make everybody cry,” said Dr. Goodall, the primatologist and conservationist. “The Jane effect.” Continue reading

Regenerating Biodiversity Is Hard Work In The Best Of Circumstances

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Jon Asgeir Jonsson, who works for a private forestry association, with larch saplings in western Iceland.

It’s never easy being green, but especially millennia after deforestation. Thanks to Henry Fountain and the New York Times:

Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?

GUNNARSHOLT, Iceland — With his flats of saplings and a red planting tool, Jon Asgeir Jonsson is a foot soldier in the fight to reforest Iceland, working to bring new life to largely barren landscapes.

The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change. Continue reading

Keep National Parks Safe, Know Your Chocolate

Choc.jpgThe rise in artisanal cacao farming, as we have noted on occasion, can have important implications for conservation. Whether you are a chocoholic or just a casual dabbler in the sweet bi-product of cacao, this report deserves your attention (click on the image to go to the source):

Chocolate is everywhere. It is the afternoon pick-me-up, the sensual indulgence, the accoutrement to seduction. Lovers gift truffles, skiers sip on rich hot chocolate, and connoisseurs savor the tiniest, richest bite of single origin dark chocolate. The ancient Aztecs believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac, and the emperor Montezuma was reported to gorge himself on chocolate in advance of his trysts. Continue reading

Empathic Survival Strategy

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Photograph courtesy the author

Finally, the author we link out to with frequency (respectfully and affectionately noting her role in highlighting doom on the horizon), has offered a photo of herself in the setting of one of her stories. It is a cave with a story to tell, and while the story is not one we want to hear it is one we must ponder. That is why we keep linking out to her writing.

This is among her best short offerings, written originally to be a speech, with the creature below featured in compelling manner:

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A Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. Photograph by Brian Gratwicke / Flickr

The Fate of Earth

Humanity’s survival on this planet seems more uncertain than ever. But what happens when we look at ourselves through other creatures’ eyes?

By 

Yesterday evening, at Manhattan’s New School, the New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert delivered the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, an event established by the Nation Institute in honor of the late Jonathan Schell, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, and named for “The Fate of the Earth,” a series of articles that Schell wrote for the magazine in 1982 and later published as a book. Kolbert’s remarks have been edited for length. Continue reading

Unlikely Underdog Progress

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The Burmese star tortoise was declared functionally extinct in the early 2000s, but conservation efforts have helped the species make a comeback. Credit Eleanor Briggs

Thanks to Steph Yin for news out of Burma, of all places:

Slow and Steady, a Tortoise Is Winning Its Race With Extinction

The Burmese star tortoise was almost history.

By the early 2000s, the natives of central Myanmar’s deserts had dwindled to such low counts in the wild that ecologists declared them functionally extinct. Continue reading

Creative Solutions to Save a Universal Favorite

At the International Cacao Collection in Turrialba, Costa Rica, José Antonio Alfaro examined pods — which hold the seeds that make chocolate — treated to resist a devastating fungus. Only a few cacao varieties are widely cultivated, making them susceptible to outbreaks. Credit Mónica Quesada Cordero for The New York Times

This isn’t the first time we’ve written about monoculture agriculture endangering a well loved crop: bananas and coffee have cycled through similar situations. This is definitely an example where experiments with hybridization may save a species.

A Battle to Save the World’s Favorite Treat: Chocolate

TURRIALBA, Costa Rica — The trees of the International Cacao Collection grow here in an astonishing diversity of forms, bearing skinny cacao pods with scorpion-stinger protrusions, spherical green pods that could be mistaken for tomatillos, oblong pods with bumpy skin resembling that of the horned lizard — all in colors ranging from deep purple to bright yellow.

Within each of these pods are seeds that yield something beloved by billions: chocolate.

But despite this diversity, few cacao varieties are widely cultivated, and that’s a problem: Like many other crops, cacao is under constant threat from diseases and environmental challenges exacerbated by our tendency to grow only a few varieties with similar or identical genetic traits and defects.

“Most varieties produced worldwide belong to a narrow set of clones selected in the forties,” said Wilbert Phillips-Mora, who oversees this collection of 1,235 types of cacao trees and heads the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program at C.A.T.I.E. (an acronym in Spanish for the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center).

A narrow gene pool means that most commonly cultivated varieties of cacao are susceptible to the same diseases, and these blights can spread quickly.

Cacao production brought relative prosperity to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica until the late 1970s, when farmers began to notice that pods on their trees were developing a fuzzy white fungal coating and eventually mummifying.

The fungus — Moniliophthora roreri, also called monilia or frosty pod rot — soon spread around the country, and by 1983 Costa Rican exports of dry cacao beans had declined by 96 percent. The industry here has never recovered.

Continue reading

Bison Awareness In Europe

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European bison near the town of Bad Berleburg, Germany, in 2013. Credit Marius Becker/Picture Alliance, via Associated Press

Bison in Europe have not been on our agenda for a while, though rewilding in Europe remains a topic we monitor and share here with regularity. Progress seemed more the rule than the exception; so this recent story from Germany takes us by complete surprise:

Last week, a rare wild bison was spotted wandering alone near the town of Lebus in eastern Germany. A local official, alarmed that the animal could be dangerous, ordered hunters to shoot it and one of them did, using a rifle to kill an animal that had not freely roamed Germany for several hundred years, conservationists say.

The killing of the mature male European bison on Sept. 14, which was first reported by local news outlets, set off an outcry among conservationists, who have worked to protect the species and increase its population. The World Wide Fund for Nature in Germany has begun a lawsuit against the local official who gave the order, Heiko Friedemann, setting off a state investigation before it goes to court. Continue reading

Coral Larvae To The Rescue, Thanks To Marine Biologists

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A researcher used a pipette to release coral larvae into trays to encourage settlement and growth. Credit David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

This feature story suggests that even as we stress nature on a global scale, there are creative scientists working on fixes for particular challenges:

Building a Better Coral Reef

As reefs die off, researchers want to breed the world’s hardiest corals in labs and return them to the sea to multiply. The effort raises scientific and ethical questions. Continue reading

The Conservation Model Of Martha’s Vineyard

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Whether or not you have been to Martha’s Vineyard, if you have been through our pages at all you will understand how this excerpt from the above book captures our attention and why we are interesting in tracking it down for a closer look:

The Vineyard landscape is distinct in many ways — most notably in land values, pace of development toward full build-out, the assemblages of plants and animals, and past success in land protection — but it typifies many qualities of Massachusetts and the greater New England region, including their conservation challenges. They share the history of agricultural and woodlot land use, the ongoing growth of their forests, the tension among farmed, open, and wooded lands, the relentless sprawl of development, the fragmentation of the land by many small, private landownerships, and the looming threats from climate change, sea level rise, insect outbreaks, and other stresses. Nevertheless, the Vineyard has put itself into a particularly strong position to address the looming challenges due to its expansive breadth of conserved lands, its forward-looking and Island-wide planning efforts and knowledge base about the landscape, and the capacity for ongoing land protection and stewardship. Continue reading

Collaboration in Lake Tana

People come up with different strategies to remove as many weeds as they can. One of those is to stand in line and push segments of weeds together. Maheder Haileselassie Tadese/Mongabay

This isn’t the first time the subject of water hyacinth has shown up on this site – it would be impossible to spend seven years in Kerala without coming into contact with the invasive weed.

Innovative solutions abound to harvest the fast growing plant for the labor intensive creation of consumer goods, or creative farming techniques, but in cases such as Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, communities unite to attempt manual eradication.

Community pulls water-thirsty invasive weeds from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana

Last week thousands of people in northwest Ethiopia marched to Abay River and Lake Tana as part of the “Save Lake Tana” movement to remove invasive water hyacinth by hand. The free-floating, water-thirsty perennial can grow up to three feet tall and is swallowing the northeast shores of Lake Tana, impacting both aquatic habitat health and local fishermen.

Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and the largest lake in Ethiopia. The lake is frequently used for transport, tourism, hydroelectric power generation, ecological conservation and fishery operations. It is home to 28 fish species, out of which 16 are endemic.

A team of university researchers discovered in 2012 that 20,000 hectares of the lake’s body was covered by invasive water hyacinth (Eichhornia Crassipes). Since then, it’s gone to a peak infestation of 40,000 hectares. At first, the hyacinth was mainly found in an area with three tributaries to Lake Tana. Continue reading