Bioacoustics & Conservation

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The AudioMoth recording device in New Forest National Park, in the U.K., where it is searching for sounds of the New Forest cicada. COURTESY OF ALEX ROGERS

Yale e360 shares more on the value of new recording technology as it relates to conservation:

Listening to Nature: The Emerging Field of Bioacoustics

Researchers are increasingly placing microphones in forests and other ecosystems to monitor birds, insects, frogs, and other animals. As the technology advances and becomes less costly, proponents argue, bioacoustics is poised to become an important remote-sensing tool for conservation.

Mitch Aide, a tropical ecologist based in Puerto Rico, thinks we should listen to the earth a lot more than we do now — and not just listen to it, but record and store its sounds on a massive scale. His aims are not spiritual, but scientific: He, his colleagues, and other experts are developing and deploying audio recorders, data transmission systems, and new artificial intelligence software that together are rapidly expanding scientists’ ability to understand ecosystems by listening to them.

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A 20-second spectrogram, showing various audio frequencies, from Puerto Rico includes the calls of these six species. COURTESY OF SIEVE ANALYTICS

Today, Aide can nail a cheap digital audio recorder to a tree in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Forest and transmit its recordings to a computer running prototype software, which indicates almost in real time whether any of 25 species of frogs and birds are vocalizing in the forest. The system’s apparent simplicity belies its power – Aide thinks that it and similar systems will allow scientists to monitor ecosystems in ways we can’t yet imagine.

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A golden-browed chlorophonia (Chlorophonia callophrys) in Costa Rica. SHUTTERSTOCK

He dreams that one day soon, audio recordings of natural soundscapes will be like rainfall and temperature data, collected from a worldwide network of permanent stations, widely available for analysis, and permanently archived. Each clip will be “like a museum specimen,” he said, “but containing many species.” Aide says scientists will be able to efficiently determine how species are moving or changing in response to global warming, habitat destruction, or human disturbance, and chart population shifts over large areas. Continue reading

Private Conservation Probably Leads To Good Outcomes, But We Need To Know More

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The boundary of land under conservation easement in Marion County, Oregon. TRACY ROBILLARD/NRCS

Richard Conniff does not always have the answers, but he always asks the right questions:

Why Isn’t Publicly Funded Conservation on Private Land More Accountable?

Taxpayer-funded conservation initiatives on private land cost the U.S. public hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Yet information on where these lands are and how they are being protected often is not monitored or publicly available, raising questions about the programs’ effectiveness.

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Earle Peterson walks through his 1,200-acre property in Burlington, New York, which is protected through a conservation easement. WILL PARSON/CHESAPEAKE BAY PROGRAM

A few years ago, an environmental lawyer named Jessica Owley set out to learn how well it works when the federal government allows development in the habitat of an endangered species. Under the terms of these deals, introduced in the 1980s to mollify opponents of the Endangered Species Act, the developers provide mitigation, typically with a conservation easement on some other parcel of private land.

Owley focused on four California examples, out of the almost 700 so-called Habitat Conservation Plans (or HCPs) that now exist nationwide. She had a long list of questions, from “Where are the protected parcels?” to “How do endangered species fare in the face of these deals?”

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Coyote Ridge, part of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan in Northern California, is a vital habitat for threatened species. BJORN ERICKSON/USFWS

“I ended up being stopped at the first question,” says Owley, now a professor at the University of Buffalo Law School. “It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find the HCP sites, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t know and couldn’t find them.” In one case, an HCP to protect the Mission blue butterfly outside San Francisco, nobody had even bothered to record the easement in municipal land records. Owley came away thinking that a lack of transparency is standard for conservation practices on private land — even when these practices are paid for by taxpayers and meant to serve a significant public interest. Continue reading

Avoiding Elephants In Zoos

 

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Robin Schwartz for The New York Times

We have rarely written about zoos because they are simultaneously depressing and yet have had an important influence on most contributors to our pages. Thanks to the New York Times and Charles Siebert for this article raising questions about elephants in particular at the zoo:

Zoos Called It a ‘Rescue.’ But Are the Elephants Really Better Off?

Despite mounting evidence that elephants find captivity torturous, some American zoos still acquire them from Africa — aided by a tall tale about why they needed to leave home.

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Arusi, one of the six Swaziland elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan.CreditCreditRobin Schwartz for The New York Times

The “Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley” enclosure at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., is a dreamscape idyll of an elephant’s natural home: five and a half sprawling acres of tree-dotted mock savanna and a 550,000-gallon pond where boated people and wading pachyderms can nearly meet on opposite sides of a discreetly submerged barrier. All eight of the zoo’s elephants were visible when I visited on Memorial Day 2018, two years after the habitat’s grand opening, including six recent arrivals from the tiny southern African kingdom eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), the lot of them moving about with the same slow, tensile synchrony of larger wild elephant herds. Only the background flicker of cars on Interstate 235 disrupted the tableau, as well as my own occasional thoughts of far less accommodated zoo and circus elephant captives over the years, right back to the very first elephant brought to the United States.

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Robin Schwartz for The New York Times

According to historical records, it was in the early spring of 1796 that the America, a sailing vessel captained by Jacob Crowninshield, arrived in New York Harbor from Calcutta. As emphatically noted in the ship’s log kept by one of its officers, Nathaniel Hathorne (whose author son would soon add the “w” to the family name), there was an “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.” A 2-year-old female originally purchased by Crowninshield in Bengal for the bargain price of $450, she was immediately sold in New York for $10,000. Continue reading

Two Sides of a Conservation Story – With Wolves in the Middle

Karin Vardaman, pictured left, walks the pastures with Breanna Owens, the owner of Cobblestone Ranch, in Los Molinos, California.Photographs by Lucas Foglia for The New Yorker

The return of apex predators to both national parks and rugged, yet unprotected areas of the United States impacts conservation and regeneration of biodiversity for both wildlife and native landscape.  Not surprisingly, it also creates challenges within the well established ranching community.

We’re grateful to all those who participate in the process of navigating a successful middle ground.

The Persuasive Power of the Wolf Lady

To bridge the divide between wolf-lovers and ranchers, the conservationist Karin Vardaman had to change many minds—including her own.

Early one morning in April, 2016, Karin Vardaman and four travelling companions woke in a motel in Siskiyou County, a rugged and remote region where rural California meets the Oregon border. They were in a town called Montague—a dot on the map that had begun, in the eighteen-eighties, as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad. After visiting a small market to pick up breakfast and snacks, they continued on to the old community hall, a narrow, low-slung building by the railroad tracks. Large, glass-paned windows ran the length of one side; below them, murals depicted horse-drawn wagons from the area’s pioneer days. Outside, a few dozen people were gathering. Watching them, Vardaman had an uneasy feeling. Oh, boy, she thought. Here we go.

Inside, chairs were arranged in a semicircle. Vardaman stood at the center, near a screen on which a PowerPoint slide displayed the title of her workshop, “On Wolves and Livestock.” Tall and sturdy, in her fifties, she has a flowing mane of lustrous red hair, framing slate-blue eyes and a narrow face. She introduced herself to the crowd as an advocate with the California Wolf Center. The Center, she said, was sponsoring a new, collaborative project called the Working Circle, through which it hoped to find a way for cattle and sheep to coëxist with endangered gray wolves.

Before Vardaman could continue, a man in the audience stood up, interrupting her. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He calmly thanked her and her team: they had helped the local economy, he said, by shopping at the market. What he didn’t appreciate, he went on, was their coming into town and dictating to the community what it should and shouldn’t do about wolves. As he spoke, his voice rose in anger, and he stepped suddenly toward Vardaman; at the same moment, more than twenty other people rose to their feet. Some waved anti-wolf flyers above their heads. Others held rifle cartridges, their brass glinting in the light. They chanted, “Shoot, shovel, and shut up!”—an anti-wolf slogan. Vardaman watched as several people opened their jackets, revealing handguns.

For most of the last century, there have been no wolves in California; government-sponsored livestock-protection campaigns exterminated the state’s wolf population by 1924. But in December, 2011, a lone male gray wolf from Oregon, known as OR-7, was tracked via radio collar as he crossed into the Golden State. Slowly, over time, a few others followed. In 2014, the gray wolf gained protection under California’s Endangered Species Act; not long afterward, in Siskiyou County, two wolves were spotted by a trail camera. Today it’s thought that there are at least twelve to fifteen wild wolves in the state. This nascent comeback has opened a rancorous breach between California’s agricultural community, which fears losing livestock to wolf attacks, and its environmentalists, who have been galvanized by the idea of an iconic predator resurrected.

A version of this polarizing conflict has played out wherever wolves have reappeared, from Michigan to the Northern Rockies and Washington State. To an extent, livestock producers and wolf conservationists are divided for pragmatic reasons. If a wolf kills a heifer calf, a rancher can suffer a substantive economic hit—one or two thousand dollars, plus the loss of income from all the calves that the mature cow would’ve had over her lifetime. (Since the wolves returned to Northern California, an estimated eleven calves and cows have died in wolf attacks.) Conversely, if a rancher kills a wolf in an area where the wolf population is still recovering, it could be a significant blow to the animals’ survival.

And yet ranchers and conservationists are divided in other ways, too. Continue reading

Native Prairie & Savanna In The USA

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Cherokee Prairie Natural Area near Fort Smith, Arkansas. WILLIAM DARK PHOTOGRAPHY

Janet Marinelli, according to her author’s bio, is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years; according to our read of her work over the last two years she is also a perfect fit with our mission to find at least one story every day that explains the natural world, illuminates the possibilities of entrepreneurial conservation or challenges us to be more careful with natural resources. She brightens our day:

Forgotten Landscapes: Bringing Back the Rich Grasslands of the Southeast

Native prairie and savanna once covered vast areas of the U.S. Southeast from Maryland to Texas, but agriculture and sprawl have left only small patches remaining. Now, a new initiative, driven by scientists and local communities, is pushing to restore these imperiled grassland habitats.

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Southeastern grasslands have some of the highest plant richness in the world, home to rare species such as American chaffseed. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

Dwayne Estes pulls over to the side of a rural road in Franklin County, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. He hops out of his truck and points out a small plant with dainty, trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple-streaked throats. “This is Penstemon kralii,” says Estes, a 40-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch-tall professor sporting a baseball cap and beard, the twin badges of honor for many field botanists. The plant is found almost exclusively at the base of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment, where it survives precariously in narrow, grassy roadside fringes with other rare and threatened species, including a sunflower and a blue-eyed grass yet to be named and described by scientists.

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Kral’s penstemon. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

We continue to the top of the steep, densely forested escarpment. Below, a checkerboard of croplands and pastures stretches as far as the eye can see. “Before 1840, those agricultural fields were prairies covering half a million, maybe 750,000 acres,” Estes says. “They were maintained by frequent fires and bison.” The wildfires probably swept up the base of the adjacent escarpment, he adds, keeping it open and sunny oak savanna where the penstemon and its companions could thrive. Like so many southern grassland denizens, they are vestiges of a lost botanical world that once covered as many as 120 million acres from Maryland to East Texas, caught in a vise between habitat loss to agriculture and urban sprawl on the one hand, and encroaching fire-suppressed forest on the other. Continue reading

Racing to Save Earth’s Rarest Eagle

Our long history with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology keeps their initiatives on our radar, and their films hold a very special place.

Sales from this award-winning documentary will benefit bird conservation.

World-renowned wildlife cinematographer, Neil Rettig, embarks on the most challenging assignment of his career: to find and film the rarest eagle on the planet.  An expertly woven tale with stunning cinematography, Bird of Prey journeys deep into the vanishing world of the Great Philippine Eagle and reveals an inspiring group of people that are determined to save the world’s most critically endangered eagle species from extinction.

Click here for more information on streaming options.

Elephants By The Sea

100 life-size lantana replicas of wild elephants will travel across three continents spreading the message of peaceful coexistence with nature.

The beautiful herd of Asian Elephants calmly drinking from this watering hole poses no threat to any onlooker. They’re actually sculptures made from the invasive lantana, introduced to the Indian subcontinent as an ornamental shrub by the British. The harmless looking plant is a scourge to native flora, animals and people of the regions where it’s taken over, as it literally poisons its surroundings so nothing else can survive there, destroying the natural biodiversity of the area.

30 of these extraordinary, life-sized works of art have been on display in Kerala, at Kochi’s South Beach, coinciding with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The outdoor exhibit, entitled Co-Exist: Matriarchs for a Whole Earth, is on display for only until the end of February, after which it will travel to Bangalore and New Delhi. In 2020, the elephant models will be taken to England where they will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Parks, both in London. In 2021, they will travel by truck across the USA, where they will finally be auctioned, the proceeds of which will go to preservation of wild animals.

The project is a collaboration between multiple organizations, designers and indigenous community artisans. Members of the Ashoka Trust Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE) devised a way to safely craft with lantana as a raw material and support for the making and display of lantana elephants is through the NGOs Elephant Family, The Real Elephant Collective (TREC), and The Shola Trust.

Fort Kochi To Have 100 ‘Lantana’ Elephants. And Here’s Why You Need To See Them

Highlighting the cause of nature and wildlife conservation at a global scale, the Lantana elephants are part of a greater initiative to raise funds for conservation and help people and elephants live together more harmoniously.

On February 7, if you are wandering around the popular South Beach in Fort Kochi, you are sure to come across a magnificent herd of 100 Asian elephants.

If you are wondering about the possibility of such a huge congregation of these beings at one place, let us break the news.

These are beautifully sculpted life-size elephants that have been made by tribal artisans from Thorapalli in Gudalur using Lantana camara or Lantana, a toxic invasive weed.

Lantana elephants are part of a greater initiative to raise funds for conservation and help people and elephants live together more harmoniously.

“Our vision is to bring Asia’s elephants and the issues they face out of India and the shadow cast by the African ivory crisis. With Asian elephants numbering only a tenth of their African counterparts, the importance of this unique migration cannot be underplayed. The survival of a species is at stake,” says Ruth Ganesh, principal trustee and the creative force of Elephant Family.

She had conceptualised the Lantana herd along with Shubhra Nayar of TREC. Modelled on real elephants from the Gudalur-Pandalur region, in its bid to raise awareness and funds for the conservation of Asian elephants, this unique project is also clearing the harmful Lantana from the Nilgiri forests while providing livelihoods to about 70 artisans from the Paniya, Bettakurumba and Soliga communities.

With their inherent knowledge of wild elephants and their exceptional crafting skills with Lantana, these artisans are bringing life to the elephant forms, while earning a dignified income. The elephants are designed by Shubhra Nayar and Tariq T of TREC, with Subhash Gautam overseeing the process. Continue reading

Nature Lovers Versus Nature Lovers Versus Reality

In just under half an hour, hear a very complex question answered (or not) from two very compelling, and very different perspectives:

Into the Woods with Scott Carrier

In Montana’s Yaak Valley, a hiking trail that cuts through a grizzly-bear habitat pits nature lover against nature lover in an unwinnable fight over the environment.

Some Regrets Are Better Than Others

OaklandInstitute.pngThere is a saying, often attributed to Mark Twain (though it appears nowhere in his published writings), that history never repeats itself but it often rhymes. That quote comes to mind reading this report below by the Oakland Institute, in light of yesterday’s news from Greece. There is a rhyme with no reason that echoes between the two stories. It also brings to mind, for me, an ever-present question about the work I have done for the last two decades. Tourism, even if it is sustainable tourism development, has its downsides. So, I am always on the lookout for ways to avoid regret in projects I take on, and how they are executed. More often than not, if I sense regret it is about not having had enough impact. I prefer that to the regret of too much of this type of impact:

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Losing the Serengeti: The Maasai Land that was to Run Forever is based on field research, never publicly-seen-before documents, and an in-depth investigation into Tanzania’s land laws. This report is the first to reveal the complicity between Tanzanian government officials and foreign companies as they use conservation laws to dispossess the Maasai, driving them into smaller and smaller areas and creating a stifling map of confinement. Continue reading

Us & Them Instead Of Us Versus Them

Thanks to Emily Buder at the Atlantic for this five minute recommended viewing. In the video above, by Nani Walker and Alan Toth, the question is:

Can Humans and Lions Get Along?

“Lions are really causing us havoc,” laments an African pastoralist in Nani Walker and Alan Toth’s short documentary, Living with Lions.  Continue reading

Paying for the Birds You See?

Can we put a price tag on birds we see?

Image by the author

I recently came across an Oxford professor’s blog that revolves mostly around conservation and birding, and one of his posts was particularly interesting to me. In it, Professor Paul Jepson discusses the increasing presence of photography in the British birding sphere, and what bird photography means for the hobby of birding/birdwatching. I encourage you to read his article (I’ll put a link below), but will first share one idea that Jepson brings up toward the end of the piece, and which was very thought-provoking:

Bird photography is part of the socio-technological assembly that is shaping futures. If birdwatching is to be a cultural force in the twenty-first century, our bird reserves will need to embrace developments and directions in digital technologies. … My thought experiment imagines a system of pay-for nature hides with an observation tower, like the one in Muritz National Park outside Berlin, as its centre piece. Birding has a strong ‘nature as a public good’ mentality. While many bird photographers agree with this principle, they are also willing to pay for entry to the facilities and special places that enable them to get the shot they desire. Nature hides are popping up across Britain and 2017 hide day rates are £75 for the opportunity to photograph Common Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, £99 for Kingfishers and £150 for Black Grouse.

Although I enjoy taking photos of birds and sharing them online, I do not consider myself a bird photographer, partly because I don’t have the specialized gear (my camera is a point-and-shoot model, though its exceptional 65x optical zoom is useful for bird photos). That being said, Continue reading

BirdsCaribbean Hurricane Relief Fund

Over the last month or so I’ve been helping to copy-edit articles submitted to the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology, which is where our findings on the Golden Swallow in Jamaica will be published soon. The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology is run by BirdsCaribbean, an NGO dedicated to the study and conservation of birds in the Caribbean basin.

After the catastrophic winds and flooding that occurred throughout the Caribbean in the last month, island natural habitat has suffered greatly, and not all birds were able to weather the storms, or if they did, they may not have the shelter and food needed to survive. But there is something you can do to help them!

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

Paraguay’s Chaco Region

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Bricapar charcoal facility at Teniente Ochoa ©Earthsight

The picture above, and the picture below, will suffice if you do not have the half hour required to read the details. Earthsight is a non-profit organization that uses in-depth investigations to expose environmental and social crime, injustice and the links to global consumption. One such investigation provides these images, and it is worth a read, especially if you are in Europe and you use charcoal for barbecue. Thanks to the folks in the Guardian’s Environment team for bringing the report and its consequences to our attention.

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Figure 1: Jaguar photographed in the Gran Chaco forest ©Hugo Santa Cruz & Fundación Yaguareté

Choice Cuts

How European & US BBQs are fuelled by a hidden deforestation crisis in South America

Summary

On a vast, hot plateau in Paraguay, in the centre of South America, lies a little-known environmental crisis, and a dirty secret that can be traced to the supermarkets of Europe.

The dry tropical forests of the Chaco are being destroyed faster than any other forests on earth. The trees felled as a result of the advance of industrial agriculture into pristine wilderness are being turned into charcoal to feed demand in Europe.

Described by David Attenborough as “one of the last great wilderness areas in the world”,[1] the Chaco is home to a plethora of precious wildlife and one of the world’s last tribes living in voluntary isolation, the Ayoreo. Continue reading

Forest Pathways For Species Survival

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The golden lion tamarin has been observed passing through some of these corridors, an encouraging early sign for researchers. Credit Kike Calvo, via Associated Press

Thanks to Brad Plumer and the commitment of the New York Times to continue covering the complex topic of climate change in interesting, and sometimes hopeful ways:

Stitching Together Forests Can Help Save Species, Study Finds

In the 1980s, an ecologist named Thomas Lovejoy conducted an unusual experiment in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. As loggers moved in with chain saws to clear trees for cattle pasture north of Manaus, he asked them to leave untouched several small “islands” of forest to see how the animals within them fared.

The results were unsettling. Continue reading

Scotland, Land Of Butterfly Resurgence

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For a second day in a row, a butterfly story catches our attention. Small stories of unexpected good fortune are always welcome:

Rare butterfly spotted in Scotland for the first time since 1884

Elusive and endangered white-letter hairstreak discovered in a field in the Scottish borders could become the 34th species to live and breed in the country Continue reading

Elephants, Orangutans, Rhinos & Tigers–What Are They Worth To Us?

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Deforestation in the Leuser ecosystem, one of the last homes to Sumatran elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers. Photograph: Sutanta Aditya/Barcroft Images

Thanks to the Guardian:

Pepsico, Unilever and Nestlé accused of complicity in illegal rainforest destruction

Palm oil plantations on illegally deforested land in Sumatra – home to elephants, orangutans and tigers – have allegedly been used to supply scores of household brands, says new report Continue reading

Wildlife Protection And Unintended Consequences

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A wolf from a den within Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska. A study found that limiting the population of wolves outside the preserve affected those within its boundaries. Credit Drew Rush/National Park Service

Mention Alaska, and we are in. Wolves, ditto. An academic publication called Wildlife Monographs? You had us at Alaska and wolves:

Protected Wolves in Alaska Face Peril From Beyond Their Preserve

Within the 2.5 million acres of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in central Alaska, wolves and other majestic animals are protected. But animals like wolves do not respect lines drawn on a map. And a recent study suggests that efforts to limit populations of these predators outside those borders is having negative effects on wolves living within the preserve. Continue reading

Snorkeling in Cabo Pulmo

We’ve mentioned Cabo Pulmo here several times in the context of marine conservation, as well as from a personal visit. Although I still haven’t had a chance to go out on a scuba diving expedition here, a couple weeks ago Jocelyn and I were able to accompany some Villa del Faro guests on a snorkeling trip outfitted by Cabo Pulmo Sport Center, which is run by members of the Castro family mentioned in the posts linked above. The tour took two hours, but I’ve condensed the experience into almost fifteen minutes of video that I took on a rented GoPro:

Continue reading