Making the Links: February 2015

In January I launched “Making the Links,” a monthly blog series in which I attempt to connect the dots between nature and people in some recent news stories. (To learn more about the goal of the series, read the first post.)

gray wolf

Gray wolf numbers are bouncing back in the American West, spurring rancher concerns about protecting their herds. However, wolves play an important role in their native habitats, and getting rid of them may not actually reduce livestock loss. (© John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS)

Here’s my link roundup from February. Continue reading

Environmental Peacebuilding: Conservation Agreements Reduce People-park Conflict in Liberia

This is the first blog in Human Nature’s “Environmental Peacebuilding” series, which will chronicle CI’s growing role in this emerging field of research. Today’s post focuses on our case study in Liberia.

villagers in Liberia

Village residents in rural Liberia. As the country continues to recover from a civil war (and, more recently, the deadly Ebola outbreak), CI is working with the government and communities to ensure that local people are empowered to protect and benefit from the natural ecosystems on which they depend. (© Conservation International/photo by Mike Matarasso)

When I began working in Liberia right after the Accra settlement ended Liberia’s civil war in 2003, I could not help worrying about whether the peace would last. Burnt-out cars lined the streets of Monrovia, bullet holes scarred many of its buildings and the wary U.N. peacekeepers manning checkpoints behind sandbags and barbed wire reinforced the sense that violence could flare up again at any time.

Now, 12 years later, the roads are lit by streetlights rather than smoky fires in oil drums, the checkpoints have been dismantled, and I would like to believe that the country has put civil war firmly in the past.

That said, Liberia’s development needs are enormous. For the majority of Liberia’s 4.3 million people, daily life was a struggle even before last year’s deadly Ebola outbreak that so far has taken the lives of 3,900 Liberians. More than half the population lives below the poverty line. Continue reading

To Fight Another Dust Bowl, Improved Freshwater Management Crucial

In a study released last week, NASA warned of a pending “megadrought” in the American Southwest and Central Plains, invoking comparisons to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The study, conducted by researchers from NASA and Cornell and Columbia universities, predicted that such a drought could start within the next 35 years, cause severe water shortages and destroy vegetation across the region.

baked earth, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Baked earth in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Climate change is predicted to reduce rainfall in many areas across the globe, including the American Southwest and Central Plains. (© Sam D Cruz)

The Dust Bowl lasted about a decade; this drought could extend three decades or longer, putting recent water shortages in California and Texas into tighter perspective. According to one of the study’s co-authors, Cornell’s Toby Ault, “We really need to start thinking in longer-term horizons about how we’re going to manage it.” Continue reading

World Catching on to Importance of Blue Economy

In this week’s episode of “EARTH A New Wild,” my colleague M. Sanjayan visits Papua New Guinea, the Bahamas, the Sea of Cortez and New York City to spotlight just a few of the ways people are interacting with our oceans.

man on boat overlooking Abrolhos reef, Brazil

Man on a boat overlooking the Abrolhos coral reef off the coast of Brazil. (© Cristina Mittermeier/ iLCP)

Humans have always depended on the “blue” covering most of our planet. Yet only recently have we become more aware of the magnitude of our impacts — and realized what we must do to conserve and be able to continue to benefit from these waters.

Case in point: In January, the deadlock at the United Nations about how to manage the high seas was finally broken. The U.N. agreed to begin a two-year process to discuss the elements of a legally binding agreement on the high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction, which are the waters beyond 200 nautical miles [370 kilometers] from the coastline. They will report back to the U.N. General Assembly by the end of 2017.

Setting up a process for discussion may not sound like much progress, but for an organization of 193 member states that often moves at a glacial pace, it is a sign that oceans have moved up the agenda of international affairs. Continue reading

Nature Spoke — and These Presidents Listened

While CI launched its Nature Is Speaking campaign just four months ago, nature of course has been speaking for eons. Every now and then, the message reached the Oval Office — and U.S. presidents listened.

beaver pond, Hulahula River Valley, Alaska

A small beaver pond reflects clouds in the Hulahula River Valley, Alaska. (© Art Wolfe/

Sometimes they took small steps, like placing solar panels on the White House roof (Jimmy Carter). Other times they felt particularly ambitious and protected over 230 million acres [93 million hectares] of forests and land (Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the most notable champion for conservation).

In honor of Presidents Day (celebrated in the U.S. this year on Monday, February 16), here are some other examples of how commanders-in-chief heeded nature’s call:

Redwood Spoke, and Abraham Lincoln Listened

In 1854, businessman George Gale ordered workers to remove the bark of a 2,250-year-old giant sequoia in California’s Yosemite Valley, effectively killing the tree. Called “Mother of the Forest,” the tree stood over 300 feet [91 meters] high — a feature that drove Gale to view the redwood as a commercial opportunity. After it was felled, “Mother of the Forest” became an “oddity” and was sent to Broadway in New York. The bark was later displayed at London’s Crystal Palace before a fire destroyed it in 1866.

A decade later, Abraham Lincoln took action to help other redwoods from meeting the same fate. An overlooked achievement of his presidency is the signing of one of the nation’s first conservation laws — The Yosemite Valley Grant Act, which transferred federal lands in the Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California, “upon the express condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.”

Lincoln never made it to California to see the big trees up close, but because he listened to nature, millions of people have witnessed the redwood’s towering beauty and will be able to “for all time.” Continue reading

Finding the Lonely Whale: Q&A with Actor and Producer Adrian Grenier

Adrian Grenier

“Lonely Whale” Executive Producer Adrian Grenier. (photo c/o Adrian Grenier)

CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign recently used provocative films from A-list Hollywood actors to remind people that nature speaks to us every day … and that we need to do a better job of listening.

But those celebrities aren’t the only ones paying attention to what our natural world is saying. Filmmakers Adrian Grenier, Josh Zeman and Lucy Cooper have just launched a Kickstarter for an upcoming documentary about the “52-hertz whale,” an animal thought to vocalize at a frequency no other whales can understand. Adrian — star of the hit HBO series “Entourage” and forthcoming “Entourage” film — took time to explain the idea behind the film to Human Nature.     

Q: First off, who is the “lonely whale”? How did you first hear about it?

A: Lonely Whale is a whale that has been calling out his whole life but has never received a response from others of his species. He emits a different frequency than other whales. Whales are highly social, sentient beings; we, as humans, can only imagine from our own experience how that must feel.

My friend Lucy Cooper, who is an executive producer at Alldayeveryday, approached me because she knows of my work in documentary filmmaking and my environmental work. Ultimately, Lonely Whale has a lot to say about the plight of whales and ocean health. Specifically our focus is ocean noise pollution, which is drowning out the very delicate mode of communication amongst marine wildlife. Continue reading

Indonesian Government Sinks Vietnamese Shark Poaching Boat, Creates New Dive Site

sinking of illegal fishing vessel in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

This morning in Raja Ampat, police detonated a single charge placed in the hull of the ship to sink it perfectly onto a sandy bottom, where it will now become a new dive site attraction. (© Conservation International/photo by Julius Thonak)

Two years ago, we proudly blogged that the Raja Ampat government in the Indonesian province of West Papua had taken the bold step of passing a law protecting all species of sharks and rays in its waters (the first such law in Southeast Asia!) in recognition of the tremendous ecological and economic benefits to both fisheries and tourism of healthy elasmobranch populations.

This law rapidly gained national traction, and a year later I was delighted to congratulate the Indonesian government on its move to create the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary.

Raja Ampat's manta populations are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

Raja Ampat’s manta populations are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

At the time, the global response to these announcements was largely positive, though there were a number of skeptics who openly wondered if the Indonesian government would actually take enforcement of these laws seriously. So, as these two laws celebrate their first and second year anniversaries, it seems like a good time to ask: How effective have they been at deterring poachers and protecting these valuable species? Continue reading

Sometimes All You Need to Protect Turtles Are Some Duck Eggs

For more than seven years, I have been leading CI’s turtle project in Cambodia’s Kratie province, which works with local communities and Buddhist monks to increase the wild population of Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), a species that until recently was believed to have disappeared from Cambodia.

turtle and duck egg exchange, Cambodia

Ne and Yoeung display eggs from a wild Cantor’s giant softshell turtle next to domestic duck eggs. In exchange for protecting the turtle eggs (and thus allowing the turtle’s small population to grow), CI gave Ne an equal number of duck eggs to feed her family. (© Brann Sinal )

During this time, I have been proud of the progress we’ve made and inspired by many of the people I work with. However, I am also constantly reminded of an important lesson: behavior change does not happen overnight.

Here’s an example. Chann Ne is a 52-year-old mother of six living in Yeav village in Kratie province. Her family members sustain themselves mainly through fishing and farming. Since she was 16 years old, Ne has taken eggs out of turtle nests almost every year for food. During nesting season (from November to June every year), her mother showed her how to find nests by following the turtle tracks along the Mekong River near her house. Ne continued to do this for decades.

In late December 2014, Ne found a turtle clutch with 32 eggs near her boat. This time, instead of collecting the eggs for her family, she informed CI. Continue reading

Why I Made “EARTH A New Wild”

The five-episode series “EARTH A New Wild” — hosted by CI’s Dr. M. Sanjayan — shows how nature is speaking to people. The show airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on PBS.

M. Sanjayan paraglides with vulture

Sanjayan paraglides with vultures over the Himalayas while filming “EARTH A New Wild.” (© M. Sanjayan)

Over a decade ago I found myself in northern India watching a film crew from the BBC shoot a scene for the epic natural history series “Planet Earth.” I was lightly associated with the effort, and I was eager to see how it was done.

Predictably, a wildlife spectacle was unfolding in front of our eyes. But what really caught my attention was the action behind the camera’s field of view.

Perhaps a thousand villagers had gathered to watch the Western crew at work. They milled about, curious and incredulous that all this effort was being made to film what to them was their backyard. Every so often some guy pushing a cart, or perhaps a stray dog, would wander into the shot, and a fixer would be dispatched to shoo away the offender and keep the image pristine.

“Planet Earth” was a groundbreaking series, and I loved it because it opened all our eyes to the beauty and spectacle of our natural world. But it only told half the story. I knew then that I wanted to make a film that turned the camera around and showed the planet not as we wish it to be, but as it really is.

Easier said than done. Continue reading

What I’ve Learned about Protecting Indonesian Forests from Rural China

I work on a sustainable agriculture project in North Sumatra that aims to balance agriculture development and conservation of critical ecosystems. I recently learned some valuable lessons that could impact my work from an unexpected source: a Chinese village with remarkable similarities to my own.

tea plantation on edge of forest in China

Tea plantation on the edge of the forest in rural China. CI’s Conservation Stewards Program provides incentives for local communities to keep forests standing rather than cut them down for shirt-term economic gain. (© Conservation International/photo by Fitri Hasibuan)

Last November, I traveled to China to see how CI and partners are implementing the conservation agreement model developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP). The journey began with a 7-hour drive through mountains and forests to a small village called Lizhiba. Continue reading