Sumatra & Creative Conservation

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Traditional houses in West Sumatra. Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

Finding this story by Mike Ives, with Topher White getting up into the trees for a good purpose, brightens the day just a little bit:

Using Old Cellphones to Listen for Illegal Loggers

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Topher White installing a solar-powered listening unit in a rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in July. Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

PAKAN RABAA, Indonesia — This village in West Sumatra, a lush province of volcanoes and hilly rain forests, had a problem with illegal loggers.

They were stealing valuable hardwood with impunity. At first, a group of local people put a fence across the main road leading into the forest, but it was flimsy and proved no match for the interlopers. Continue reading

When A Company Says One Thing And Does Another

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Eric Schmidt being interviewing on Bloomberg in 2014. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

We usually introduce a story for context. No introduction needed (or possible) in this case, just thanks to the Guardian for sharing it:

The obscure law that explains why Google backs climate deniers

Company wants to curry favour with conservatives to protect its ‘section 230’ legal immunity

Revealed: Google made large contributions to climate change deniers

When Eric Schmidt was asked on a radio show in 2014 why Google was supporting an ultra-conservative climate-denying pressure group in Washington, the then chairman of the internet giant offered an unequivocal response: it was wrong and Google was not going to do it again.

Continue reading

Kids Saying It The Way Kids Say Things

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Thanks to Alex Kalman for the story and to Mmuseumm for the photos:

Children Lead the Way: A Gallery of Youth-Made Climate-Strike Signs

signs-4-BIO.jpgWhen is skipping school more important than attending? When is a child’s design more effective than a professional’s? When are children more responsible than adults? On September 20th, millions of children, led by the activist Greta Thunberg, took to the streets to protest the world’s inaction on climate change. Here are some of the signs made by children who participated in the New York City march. Inspiring and confrontational, these signs provide a visual counterpoint to the individual voices of our children as they plead with the powers that be to act, and act responsibly.

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See the entire collection here.

A Thoughtful Discussion On The Green New Deal

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Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Thanks to Sarah Jones for The Future Is Ours for the Taking, an updated primer on the big policy bundle proposed to make the USA economy greener, healthier and more prosperous than ever:

In New York City and around the world, millions of people took to the streets on Friday morning. A single demand unified them: Leaders must act, and act now, to stop climate change from getting any worse. “I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you,” Greta Thunberg, the teen climate-change activist from Sweden, told Congress on Wednesday.

And a growing number of climate-change activists have coalesced around an answer to this imperative, a Green New Deal. The proposal, which would transition the U.S. economy to clean energy and create millions of new jobs, has become a rallying cry for organizations like the Sunrise Movement and left-wing Democrats like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although Ocasio-Cortez helped popularize the Green New Deal, and so has her fellow congressional democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the basic concept is at least 12 years old. Not long after New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for a “Green New Deal” in 2007, a group of British academics and activists began drafting a substantive proposal that was published in July 2008.

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Photo: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

Why do you think it has taken this long for the Green New Deal to catch fire in the public imagination?

For several reasons. Really, it takes an American, doesn’t it? I mean, when the Americans decide something is important, then it suddenly becomes important, and that’s fantastic. But I think what happened back in 2008 was that we were going through this grim financial crisis and London was at the heart of it already thanks to the City of London. We were writing [the British Green New Deal] after the date that I called Detonation Day — on the ninth of August 2007, when interbank lending froze and the system blew up. Continue reading

Are Strikes Going To Get Us To A Solution?

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Illustration by João Fazenda

During last week my attention has been commanded more than at any other time by the increased attention to the perils of climate change and the clamor for action. I do not tire of reading on this subject, in the hope that one day I will read something that will give some hope of progress. Thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert for weighing in on the debate over whether we should admit defeat, or instead insist on finding another way out of the pending doom, in the manner prescribed by a former Vice President of the USA (a country now officially leading a race to the bottom on this issue):

Summits, Strikes, and Climate Change

There are positive signs that the politics of climate change are changing in America. And giving up isn’t really an option.

Late last month, Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist from Sweden, arrived in New York. Thunberg, who is sometimes compared to Joan of Arc and sometimes to Pippi Longstocking, doesn’t fly—the emissions from aviation are too high—so she’d spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic in a racing boat. When she reached New York Harbor, she told Trevor Noah, on “The Daily Show,” the first thing she noticed was “Suddenly, it smells.”

Thunberg doesn’t adhere to social niceties. (She’s spoken openly about having Asperger’s syndrome.) She began her crusade last year, sitting outside the Swedish parliament building, in Stockholm, handing out flyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” It’s a trait particularly well suited to the cause she’s taken up: on no other issue is the gap between what’s politically acceptable and what’s scientifically necessary wider than it is on climate change. In an address to the French parliament, in July, Thunberg put it this way: “Maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is, because even that burden you leave to us children. We become the bad guys who have to tell people these uncomfortable things, because no one else wants to, or dares to.” Continue reading

A Few Sane Words From Al Gore

There are some excellent graphics in this op-ed, but the words are better, and a fitting third entry of the last week on this topic:

Al Gore: The Climate Crisis Is the Battle of Our Time, and We Can Win

We have the tools. Now we are building the political power.

Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could.

The destructive impacts of the climate crisis are now following the trajectory of that economics maxim as horrors long predicted by scientists are becoming realities.

More destructive Category 5 hurricanes are developing, monster fires ignite and burn on every continent but Antarctica, ice is melting in large amounts there and in Greenland, and accelerating sea-level rise now threatens low-lying cities and island nations.

Tropical diseases are spreading to higher latitudes. Cities face drinking-water shortages. The ocean is becoming warmer and more acidic, destroying coral reefs and endangering fish populations that provide vital protein consumed by about a billion people…

In The Spirit Of These Times

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Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

The last time Jonathan Franzen appeared in our pages he was watching birds, which he has a habit of doing. But he has the power of the pen, more than most, to wield on topics related to the environment. At the core of his argument in this essay below he makes a point that has been the point of this platform since it started: since major environmental issues are difficult if not impossible for individuals to effect change on, we must each carry out our small, singular deeds. Highlighting good acts is an important element of that.

What If We Stopped Pretending?

The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.

“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us. Continue reading

When Andeans Dream Of Electric Buses

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An electric bus in service on the streets of Medellín, Colombia. METRO DE MEDELLÍN

Happy to see our neighbors to the south taking the lead in greening public transportation:

An Increasingly Urbanized Latin America Turns to Electric Buses

From Colombia to Argentina, major cities in Latin America are starting to adopt electric bus fleets. In a region with the highest use of buses per person globally, officials believe the transition will help meet climate targets, cut fuel costs, and improve air quality.

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Medellín will have 65 electric buses in service by the end of the year, making it the second-largest electric bus fleet in Latin America. MARIA GALLUCCI/YALE E360

In Medellín, Colombia, passengers cram aboard a battery-powered bus during the morning commute. Inside, the vehicle is a respite from the crush of cars, taxis, and motorcycles winding through traffic outside. The driver, Robinson López Rivera, steers the bus up a steep ramp, revealing views of hillsides covered with rooftops of tile and tin. The bus dashboard indicates that the batteries are mostly charged, with enough power to last through the evening rush hour.

“It’s a little smoother and more comfortable to drive. And there’s hardly any noise,” López Rivera says from behind the wheel. He gently brakes as a street vendor pushes a fruit cart across the dedicated bus lane. At night, the bus will return to a parking lot by the airport, recharging its 360-kilowatt battery pack while the city sleeps.

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An electric bus charging terminal in Santiago, Chile, which draws power primarily from solar panels. ENEL X

The other 77 buses in the city’s bus rapid transit system, called Metroplús, run on natural gas and move about 251,000 passengers daily. Thousands more privately owned coaches and minibuses burn diesel as they traverse the sprawling metropolitan area of 3.7 million people, with older models leaving a trail of sour-smelling smoke. Faced with chronic air pollution and concerns about climate change, Medellín is now trying to move quickly to electrify its entire mass transit network. Continue reading

Tirana’s Time Warp Causes Creativity

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Rows of acacia trees and ceruja vines at Uka Farm, with a view of Dajti Mountain National Park in the distance. Federico Ciamei

Ten years ago I was in Tirana and if I squinted I might have seen this article coming. I was working on a project for the United Nations Development Programme, focused on the Prespa Lakes Basin, and the visits in Tirana were like a time warp. In a good way, as it is now more easy to see:

The City Poised to Become Europe’s Next Affordable Creative Haven

In the Albanian capital of Tirana, the country’s strange history and bright future collide.

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The paneled facade of the Plaza Tirana. Federico Ciamei

Over the past five years, Albania has been discovered by travelers as that rare thing: a largely unexplored corner of Europe (one with some 265 miles of coastline). The small Balkan country sits just across the Adriatic and Ionian seas from Italy’s heel and a mere 45-minute ferry ride away from the Greek island of Corfu. It’s recently gotten its first high-end waterside resorts, and as the beach town of Sarande and the seaside city of Vlore have become more comfortable, so too has Tirana — the country’s capital, about 22 miles inland with a population of over half a million — grown more cosmopolitan, with new restaurants, shops and galleries joining the almost surrealist pastiche of testaments to the city’s past. For a good example of the way eras collide in Tirana, just visit Skanderbeg Square, recently renovated with new fountains and rosy granite paving, and home to an 18th-century mosque and minaret, a domed Albanian Orthodox church opened in 2012, a set of government buildings that echo the fascist architecture of Mussolini’s Italy and a Brutalist monolith that houses the National Historical Museum.

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A sun-dappled staircase at the Plaza Tirana leads to the hotel’s breakfast room. Federico Ciamei

Initially settled by Illyrian and Greek tribes during ancient times, Albania spent over four centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire. After 1912, it became a fascist-leaning monarchy, and then, in the wake of World War II, a Communist state ruled by the infamous dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1991, a full year behind many of its Eastern Bloc neighbors, the country saw its first democratic elections, as well as murmurings of a cultural awakening. Tirana may not have a robust avant-garde scene, but it does have a gritty, iconoclastic edge — the Pyramid, a large monument to Hoxha in the center of town, is now popular with skateboarders — and a joie de vivre that’s enticed many former expats. “There’s so much potential,” says Flori Uka, a local winemaker who trained in northeastern Italy and now specializes in vintages made from organic Kallmet grapes grown just outside the city. “We were isolated for so long, but today it’s possible for creative people to do what they love. The place has become very receptive to the new.” Continue reading

If Those Fires Are Disturbing You, Read This

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ictor Moriyama/Getty Images

Roberto Mangabeira Unger was responsible for Amazonian policy from 2007 to 2009. We assume he knows what he is talking about, and so it is worth reading his recommendation:

The Amazon Is Still Burning. Here’s How You Can Save It.

We need to figure out how to sustainably use the rain forest for the benefit of its inhabitants and the world. Give Brazil a hand without disrespecting its sovereignty.

The Amazon, the greatest reservoir of fresh water and biodiversity on the planet, is burning. Its degradation, which threatens to reach a catastrophic tipping point, means less oxygen and rain as well as warmer temperatures. Human actions have been the driving cause. In Brazil, which holds 60 percent of the Amazonian rain forest, wildcat land grabbers and ranchers, who set fires to clear land in implicit partnership with a lenient government, are the main culprits.

We have been here before. In 2004 deforestation rates were much worse than they are today. In the last years of that decade Brazil stepped back from the brink and imposed constraints on what had been a free-for-all in the region. We now need to be more ambitious than we were then. Continue reading

Mayors Mitigating Climate Change Impacts

(Credit: CarbonCure )

Interesting technology innovation for addressing climate change. We’re glad to hear that local level leaders have this on their radar.

How ‘green’ concrete can help cities fight climate change

The built environment produces over 40% of global CO2 emissions. U.S. mayors are taking the lead to cut emissions with CO2 mineralized concrete.

As cities look to cut carbon emissions in their construction sector, the use of low-carbon concrete over other alternatives could help them do just that.

“Green” or carbon dioxide (CO2) mineralized concrete has received support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and private companies for its use in public projects as part of the national response to climate change. A resolution passed at this year’s USCM annual meeting in Honolulu urged its members to use the concrete over less environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Low-carbon concrete involves injecting recycled CO2 from industrial emitters like fertilizer and power plants into concrete. The CO2 then chemically converts into a mineral and gets embedded in the concrete, making it stronger and helping concrete producers use less cement for roads and buildings.

The built environment is responsible for over 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions and global building stock is expected to double by 2060. Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world due to its affordable and durable nature. And its key ingredient, cement, contributes to up to 7% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Companies like CarbonCure are helping lead that charge with CO2 mineralized concrete.

“The cliche really stands that cities are the laboratory of innovation,” CarbonCure CEO Robert Niven told Smart Cities Dive. “And cities are really committed to taking a leap on solving this climate change issue.”

Continue reading

Fishermen Helping to Protect Fish

Belize’s system gets fishermen on side in helping to maintain the health of the ocean. photo credit: Tony Rath

Thanks to the Guardian for this story about Belize’s marine conservation efforts and how they can serve as a model for other countries.

Why tiny Belize is a world leader in protecting the ocean

Fish stocks are stable and reef health improving, in part thanks to Belize’s substantial ‘no-take’ zones. Now greater legislation is needed to secure progress

Across the turquoise water by the mangrove, forest ranger Allan Halliday spots a fishing skiff. “We’re going over to say hello,” he says, before abruptly changing the boat’s direction. But his real task is to check the couple on board have the license to fish in this part of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, one of nine designated zones in Belize.

“We aren’t complaining but others do,” says Alonzo Reymundo, of the rules that now restrict Belize’s 3,000 commercial fishers to two geographic areas each. He and his wife Anselma have been fishing off southern Toledo for 30 years and their boat is laden with 50 or so pounds of shrimp – more than enough, he says, flashing his license. Today’s catch will be sold as bait and fetch around 330BZ$ (£135), he says.

But not all encounters are as friendly for the rangers from the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (Tide), whose job includes enforcing the managed access (MA) programme that since 2016 has given traditional fishers the rights to secured grounds if they obtain licenses and report their catch. Illegal fishing has declined, says Halliday, but at night there are illicit incursions from Guatemala and high-speed chases around the reserve’s 500-square miles of pristine sea – a vast space to monitor for just four rangers alternating shifts at their station on Abalone Caye.

Covering all of Belize’s waters, the MA scheme is unique, says fisheries administrator Beverly Wade. “Belize is the only country in the world that has successfully divided all its territorial waters, including functional fishing waters. We direct all fishermen into two of nine areas to build an architecture from the ground up, where a constituent takes ownership of resources because their livelihood depends on it.”

The programme is just part of a groundbreaking approach to ocean protection that has won the tiny country in Central America a reputation as a world leader. Continue reading

Our Favorite Form Of Prospecting

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Expedition members sprint to flush Slender-billed Flufftails, among the world’s most elusive birds, in a marsh in Bemanevika reserve. Photo: Tristan Spinski

Bioprospecting, a topic we have not posted enough about, came to our attention in the mid-1990s through Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity. Kimon de Greef, writing for Audubon Magazine, offers an inside view of a prospecting expedition in one of the most wondrous, and at-risk natural habitats on the planet:

Scientists Race to Uncover the Secrets of Madagascar’s Treasure-Filled Forests

The rediscovery of a long-lost duck spurred the creation of two protected areas in the country. Now researchers are scouring these spots for other endemic species before it’s too late.

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With only a few kilometers to go during day-long to Bemanevika, challenging road conditions forced the group to disembark from the two Toyota Land Cruisers and push them through the deep mud. Much of the terrain required the forest technicians to utilize the wench, which they fastened to tree stumps to wind the vehicles up the muddy mountain roads. Photo: Tristan Spinski

We had come this far and now we were stuck, dug in on a dirt track high above the plains. It was monsoon season in Madagascar, and thunderstorms had laid waste to the deeply rutted road. Already we had traversed seemingly unnavigable passes on our way to the remote northern mountains, mud churned to slurry by each passing set of wheels. Almost 24 hours later, this slope flanked by agave plants had defeated us. Our drivers took up shovels: There were ruts to flatten, boulders to excavate and heave into the bushes. As the workers toiled, cicadas hissed from the treetops.

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Map: Mike Reagan

For the field biologists I was accompanying, this breakdown of rural infrastructure held great promise. They were on their way to survey some of the island’s last remaining virgin rainforests—shrinking havens of exceptional biodiversity, including some of Earth’s rarest birdlife. “There’s definitely a correlation with how hard it is to get in,” said John Mittermeier, an expedition leader, ornithologist, and geography Ph.D. student at Oxford University, “and how likely you are to find new stuff.”

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Clockwise from top left: Spearpoint leaf-tail gecko; Andreone’s tree frog; Compsophis fatsibe snake; Boophis goudot frog; Calumma nasutum chameleon; Spinomantis nussbaumi frog. Photos: Tristan Spinski

Now a cry went up among the team. A snake was moving its way through the undergrowth, and with abandon they leapt after it. Luke Kemp, the herpetologist on the expedition, crouched beside the bushes, poking around but coming up empty. “It’s like an addiction,” he told me. “I can’t stop.”

The biologists had congregated from four countries, united by a relentless, even maniacal fascination with wildlife. They wore faded shirts from scientific conferences and were never without their binoculars. Instead of making small talk, they discussed bird calls and sampling methods, animated by purpose and shared expertise. In unison, like meerkats, Mittermeier and the other two birders swung their binoculars from side to side, trying to glimpse what sounded to them like an endemic robin. The two entomologists swept the air with butterfly nets; they would not hesitate, when their hands were full, to pop wriggling insect specimens between their lips. Continue reading

The Logic of the Weave

The bamboo dome “had even more useful structural properties than I had envisaged,” Ms. Martin said. “Deployability, nice structural stability and highly portable.”Credit Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

Limits often lead to creative solutions. That’s exactly what is happening in Brazil. Alison Martin is pushing the limits of what can be built from weaving bamboo and is helping to create more natural cityscapes. She is surprising even the computer engineers with the strength and shapes of her material, all without the use of nuts and bolts. This is a new way of combining nature and architecture. Her work is also helping to solve some of the problems created by elevated highways. These highways block out the sun and create “a fracture in the urban environment”.

With designer and artist Alison Grace Martin, architects and engineers are embracing “the logic of the weave.”

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On a Tuesday afternoon in early July, Alison Grace Martin, the British artist and weaver, joined a steady stream of Paulistanos along the elevated freeway that curves through downtown São Paulo. The two-mile “Minhocão” (named after a mythic “gigantic earthworm”) was closed to cars that day. The only traffic was on foot and bikes, skateboards and scooters. Picnickers lounged on the median sipping wine. Children ran after soccer balls. A retriever chased a coconut; a pit bull peed on a pile of bamboo.

The bamboo — freshly cut and split into strips about 20 feet long — had arrived with Ms. Martin and engineer James Solly, who were leading an urban design workshop, “High Line Paulista,” inspired loosely by Manhattan’s elevated greenway. Their students for the week had carried the strips, which would be put to use in an experimental dome construction, like a barn-raising, but with bamboo.

Plans have long been in the works to turn the Minhocão into a park. Since its opening in 1971, the freeway has been the subject of controversy: a concrete scar that bifurcated neighborhoods, smothering residents with noise and pollution.

“It ripped apart the urban fabric,” said Franklin Lee, from São Paulo, and director of the workshop with his partner Anne Save de Beaurecueil. (The workshop is part of the Architectural Association international visiting school program.) In January, after years of discourse and debate, the mayor, Bruno Covas, announced that the freeway would eventually be deactivated, finally making way for “Parque Minhocão.”

Continue reading

Tiger Census as Bright Star

 

photo credit: Dr. Eash Hoskote

Tigers and other megafauna felines have frequently held pride of place on this site, beginning long before our company was based in India.

Thank you to NPR for reporting on the good news of this census, although in full disclosure their choice of cover photos is quite disappointing and we are happy to highlight a stunning photo by Dr. Eash Hoskote, one of our regular nature photography contributors instead.

Census Finds Nearly 3,000 Tigers In India

In 2010, India sought to double its tiger population by 2022. But on International Tiger Day, the country announced it met its goal four years earlier than expected.

Nearly 3,000 tigers now reside in India, that’s more than 70% of the world’s tiger population.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the 2018 All India Tiger Estimation count on Monday, attributing the figures to India’s hardworking wildlife officials and advocates.

“Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results,” Modi announced at a news conference. “Today we reaffirm our commitment towards protecting tigers.”

He added that India now takes the lead in being the biggest and safest habitat in the world for tigers. The population, now at 2,967, is up from 2,226 since 2014.

“There are several plants and animals out there that need our help,” Modi said. “What is it that we can do? Either through technology or human action to give them … a life so that they can add beauty and diversity to our planet.” Continue reading

Conservation via Changing Perspectives

The manta ray tourism model in Peru is helping to protect rays and their habitat. Photograph: Martin Strmiska/Getty Images

The correlation between the success rates of ecotourism as a conservation tool and the “charisma quotient” of a particular species may be stating the obvious, but the giant manta is one such example.

It’s especially gratifying when the strategy takes engaging the next generation in the process.

How Peru fell in love with a sea giant worth far more alive than dead

The giant manta ray is at risk in the Pacific ocean, but the rise of ecotourism is changing attitudes among local fishermen

Fishermen heading out to sea off Peru’s northern coast keep a keen eye on the turquoise waters below them, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive giant manta ray gliding by.

Nowadays the boats are taking tourists rather than nets. The fish they once caught are now in decline, and the fish the visitors want to see now are worth far more alive than dead.

This wildlife-rich stretch of the eastern tropical Pacific shared with Ecuador is home to one of the largest populations of the world’s biggest ray – the giant manta – and the local community, led by marine scientist Kerstin Forsberg, is trying to conserve the creatures.

These ocean-going giants are targeted for their gill plates, used in Chinese medicine, or, more commonly in Peruvian waters, they become entangled in fishing nets. With a wingspan that can measure as much as nine metres across, the giant manta rays have declined by up to a third globally and are classified as vulnerable on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“This species was really overlooked in my country,” says Forsberg, 34. But that is no longer the case in Zorritos, a village arranged along a stretch of Peru’s west-facing Pacific coastline.

In eight years, Forsberg has changed the mentality here towards the mantas. She has helped create a fisherman’s association focused on ecotourism encouraging local and foreign visitors to observe or even swim with the rays. The Guardian spotted rays leaping out of the sea and swimming close to the boat on one of these trips.

“People here now get excited about giant manta rays. Before, they didn’t even notice that they existed,” Forsberg says. “Now if the manta ray gets entangled in their nets, fishermen start releasing them and report on it excitedly. They’re happy to mention it to their peers.” 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

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

Taking Advantage of Assets at Hand

Foundations and charities are helping individuals, communities and businesses install solar panels and battery systems in Puerto Rico, with dual goals: to move the island toward renewable energy and allow small towns to be less dependent on the energy grid in case of another disaster. Greg Allen/NPR

Entrepreneurship and innovation are synonymous in many ways, starting with the ability to “think outside the box”. It’s even more inspiring when people put their creative efforts toward helping communities and the environment. Considering solar power in a Caribbean island environment may not seem like such a novel idea, but garnering private sector support for progress so the government can regroup after a natural disaster is a good example of leadership.

Puerto Rico Harnesses The Power Of The Sun For A Renewable Energy Future

Mameyes is a small community of about 1,000 people high in Puerto Rico’s central mountains. But in its own way, it is one of the leaders of Puerto Rico’s energy future.

Francisco Valentin grew up in Mameyes, where he runs a small store. Even before Maria he had big ambitions for his town. After Maria, he knew he wanted his community to run on solar power. And with the help of foundations, charities and the University of Puerto Rico — not the government — he has done that, converting the town’s school, health clinic and several other buildings.

The move to solar was important, Valentin says, because after Maria it took months before power was restored to the area. This makes Mameyes self-sufficient and able to respond to residents’ needs in future disasters. “The whole school is fully solar energy” and can serve as a shelter, he says.

With so much sunlight on tap, solar power has begun to boom in Puerto Rico since the hurricane. Across the island, individuals, communities and businesses are installing solar panels and battery systems. At the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico, Javier Rivera is working on solar systems with 50 mostly rural, underserved communities. His goal is to wire 250 communities for solar over the next few years.

Rivera says that especially after the hurricane, people realized they couldn’t depend on Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority. “Many people [didn’t] trust in the PREPA system before the hurricane. It’s not a secret,” he says. “People start to think about trying to find a solution, a long-term solution. And the sun is one of them.”

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