New study paints grim picture for Africa’s forest elephants

African forest elephant, Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo

African forest elephant photographed by a camera trap in Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo. (Courtesy of TEAM Network and Wildlife Conservation Society)

Poaching has killed off 60 percent of Africa’s forest-dwelling elephants since 2002 alone, a new study has found.

The animals reproduce too slowly for their populations to keep up with the rise of poaching in their range in the Congo basin, according to the study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Applied Ecology. As The Guardian reported:

The research found that not only does it take more than 20 years for female forest elephants to begin reproducing, but they also give birth only once every five to six years. This reproduction rate means that population growth is around three times slower than [Africa’s] savannah elephants.

“I am really worried about the future of this species,” George Wittemyer, a co-author of the paper, told The Guardian. “They face a very real chance of extinction if ivory poaching continues unabated. Our work indicates that recovery from the extensive poaching they have experienced requires decades, and we really don’t see evidence to make us optimistic that we are going to get that sort of reprieve.”

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Why you should care about the World Conservation Congress

A malachite sunbird rests on a flower in South Africa

A malachite sunbird rests on a flower in South Africa. (© Scotch Macaskill)

Editor’s note: Call it the “World Cup of conservation.”

On September 1, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress will kick off in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Held every four years, the congress brings together thousands of leaders and decision-makers from government, civil society, indigenous groups, business and academia from around the globe to discuss the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Kristen Walker Painemilla, senior vice president of Conservation International’s (CI) Policy Center for Environment and Peace, sat down with Human Nature to explain why this event matters.

Question: What is the World Conservation Congress?

Answer: CI is a member of IUCN, a membership union uniquely composed of government and civil society organizations whose members work collectively to leverage knowledge and tools that set a broad agenda for the environment.

Every four years, the IUCN World Conservation Congress allows all of the members to come together and take the pulse of what has been done and figure out what we still need to do to conserve the environment and harness the solutions nature offers to global challenges.

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On the trail of ‘Sharky McSharkface’

CI Indonesia is one of the first organizations to use “fin-mounted” satellite tags to learn more about the migration patterns of the local whale shark population. Shot in southern Cenderawasih Bay Marine National Park, Bird's Head Seascape, West Papua, Indonesia, just off the village of Kwatisore.

Conservation International is one of the first organizations to use “fin-mounted” satellite tags to learn more about the migration patterns of the local whale shark population. Shot in southern Cenderawasih Bay Marine National Park, West Papua, Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

Editor’s note: Tuesday, August 30, is International Whale Shark Day.

Sharky McSharkface and Blue Bandit may not know it, but thanks to the combined power of satellite technology and the Internet, people around the world can see where they’ve been.

Last month, these two whale sharks were given names chosen by the Conservation International (CI) community. Their movements — along with those of 10 other whale sharks currently sporting satellite tags in and around Indonesia’s Cendrawasih Bay — can be viewed in near real-time on CI’s whale shark tracker page.

“Sharky McSharkface and Blue Bandit are perhaps the two tracked sharks with the most interesting stories to tell right now,” said Mark Erdmann, vice president of CI’s Asia-Pacific marine programs. “After nearly 15 months of tracking them — a record time period for whale shark satellite tagging — they’ve led massively different lives despite both being 4.5 meter [15-foot] males of roughly the same age.”

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The forest behind your perfume

Waterfall in the state of Bolivar, Venezuela

Waterfall in the state of Bolivar, Venezuela. (© Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

For some perfumes, their signature scent starts with a lowly bean found in a far-flung rainforest.

“Velvety” and “amber” may not be terms the average perfume wearer associates with scent, but to those in the perfume business, they are properties of the aroma produced by the little-known tonka bean of Venezuela and Brazil.

To a professional perfumer — known as a “nose” — the scent of the tonka bean is one of the most valued materials in luxury fragrances, having a mild, sweet, balsamic peppery smell. Although perfumers discovered how to create the aroma synthetically more than a century ago, many companies — including Givaudan, the world’s largest in the fragrance and flavor industry — continue to seek out the real thing.

To find the source of this enticing scent, perfumers must travel deep into the forests of Venezuela, where three villages have used this thriving trade as a crucial source of livelihood amid the country’s roiling economic crisis — and to protect the forest that sustains them.

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Marine park’s expansion a win for Hawai’i, for oceans

Manini school swimming off Oahu

A school of fish in Hawai’i. The expansion of a national monument in northwestern Hawai’i will protect habitat that is home to more than 1,000 endemic marine species. (© Frazer McGilvray)

Editor’s note: On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) in northwestern Hawaii. At 1.5 million square kilometers (582,000 square miles), it will be the largest marine protected area on Earth.

The waters of the PMNM are home to more than 1,000 species of endemic marine life — meaning that they are found nowhere else — and are considered sacred to Native Hawaiian culture. In a testament to its natural and cultural significance, PMNM was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.

With the world’s oceans losing their ability to provide the benefits that humans have come to rely on — food, livelihoods, climate regulation — the monument’s expansion comes at a critical time, said Aulani Wilhelm, head of the Oceans program at Conservation International, in a recent interview.

Question: From a scientific perspective, what is significant about the expansion of the monument?
Answer: Given the ecological shifts in the oceans due to climate change, Papahānaumokuākea provides a critical location for comparison and study, because this ecosystem is still healthy. It looks and works like what most of the oceans looked like before there was overfishing and climate change and pollution. It’s a sort of living laboratory against which we can measure changes elsewhere in the ocean. So it’s really important from a scientific perspective, and expanding it ensures that this kind of learning continues.

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The world’s national parks are not as secure as we think

Since its establishment in xxxx, California's Yosemite National Park

In the early 1900s, the boundaries of California’s Yosemite National Park were re-drawn to accommodate logging and mining concessions. By tracking the occurrences of protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD), researchers seek to increase public understanding that protected areas are not necessarily protected in perpetuity, and more must be done to ensure their conservation. (© Adam Kool)

The world’s national parks are being quietly chipped away, restructured and modified — and no one seems to be talking about it.

Almost no one is studying it either, which is how Ph.D. candidate Rachel Golden Kroner found herself investigating the hundreds of cases of protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement — or PADDD — enacted and proposed across the United States. California’s Yosemite National Park jumped out to Golden Kroner as an interesting research subject given its 150-year conservation history; in a recent paper published in the journal Ecology and Society, she shared her findings on the effect of PADDD events on the park.

In light of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday and the celebration of these protected areas that seem so permanently embedded in the American landscape, Golden Kroner’s research into the history of Yosemite reveals the impermanence and vulnerability of our protected areas. Which raises an important question: What does it mean for other protected areas in the U.S. and around the world if even Yosemite — a World Heritage Site and historic landmark loved and visited by millions of people — isn’t securely protected?

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From South Africa to the White House, linking people to nature

The Udzungwa Waterfall in Tanzania provides a key source of water for crops. The Young African Leaders Initiative unites environmental activists like Nolu in the struggle to protect places like this for nature and people. (© Benjamin Drummond)

The Udzungwa Waterfall in Tanzania provides a key source of water for crops. The Young African Leaders Initiative unites environmental activists like Nolu Kwayimani in the effort to protect places like this for nature and people. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Editor’s note: Nolu Kwayimani is on a mission to spread the word about the links between environmental, social and political issues — in her native South Africa and worldwide. To do so, she left her current home in rural Matatiele first for the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and then for the Presidential Summit at the White House — which included a meeting with President Obama.

As a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders, Kwayimani was one of the 1,000 — out of 50,000 — applicants chosen to participate in the president’s flagship Young African Leaders Initiative program, which brings together bright minds from sub-Saharan Africa. We sat down with Kwayimani to discuss her ambitious plans for her fellowship once she returns to South Africa.

Question: For you, environmental, social and political issues in South Africa are inextricably linked. Can you explain?

Answer: From an environmental perspective, some of the issues that we have in South Africa right now are the obvious ones: drought, land degradation, symptoms of climate change. But there are also the social issues that link to the environmental issues, namely: We don’t have many women in the conservation sector. I can’t say why, exactly, but there haven’t been many women making decisions concerning the environment in the past, perhaps because many women have been occupied with other things like domestic work and traditional marital duties. It seems like science and technology have been seen as jobs for men for quite a long time in southern Africa. People have never taken science or conservation seriously as a career for women because we grew up being told that the better job for women is either nursing or teaching. It has been a new concept, and people are starting to advocate for broader options for women, understanding that in order for us to advocate for conservation we must be aware of the societal issues that seem to be more crucial to the people we meet, such as the state of their livelihoods.

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From machetes to maps: How a ‘red line’ eased conflict in Bolivia’s Amazon

Carrasco National Park in Bolivia covered in fog. ( © Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

Carrasco National Park in Bolivia covered in fog. ( © Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

Editor’s note: In a patch of Bolivian jungle, longstanding conflict over competing land claims had hit a boiling point, threatening to erupt into violence. A recent case study from Conservation International (CI), produced by CI’s Policy  Center for Environment and Peace, shows how an explosive situation was calmed through willpower, trust and a simple map. CI’s Candido Pastor gives a firsthand account.

I remember the first time I made the four-day trek into the heart of Bolivia’s Carrasco National Park (CNP) 12 years ago like it was yesterday. I knew it would be a challenge to help communities agree on the boundaries of the protected area, given the high level of tension between indigenous communities, illegal migrant farmers and park authorities over land rights, but I was unprepared for just how intense our first meeting would be.

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Expedition draws world’s attention to new crown jewel of marine life

humphead wrasse, Atauro Island, Timor-Leste

A humphead wrasse swims near Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. This is one of hundreds of reef fish species spotted on Conservation International’s recent species survey around the island. (© Gerry Allen)

An island off the coast of the tiny nation of Timor-Leste may have the most species-rich waters in the world. As we reported last month, a team of Conservation International’s (CI) researchers recently surveyed 10 sites around the island of Atauro and recorded hundreds of species of fish, with an average of 253 species of reef fish at each site. Many of them are believed to be new to science.

Now a new article in The Guardian is sharing this remarkable discovery with a wider audience, including newly published photos of some of the species that were documented.

Atauro is situated inside the Coral Triangle, an area of the western Pacific Ocean that is home to the most biodiverse marine environment in the world. This new discovery marks Atauro as its crown jewel. “My senior colleague Gerry Allen and I have done well over 10,000 dives in the Coral Triangle region, so we are used to high-diversity sites,” CI’s Mark Erdmann remarked to the Guardian. “But Atauro proved exceptionally rich.”

With so many new and as-yet undiscovered species calling Atauro home, protecting the area is an absolute necessity, both for conservation and economic reasons: “There is a push for the site to be protected with a view to developing an ecotourism industry for the country’s struggling economy,” The Guardian’s Michael Slezak reported.

Ecotourism and sustainable fishing practices can help guarantee a livelihood for Atauro’s 8,000 residents and ensure the health of its waters. To that end, CI is working with Atauro’s residents and the government of Timor-Leste to make the entire island and its surrounding waters a marine protected area.

“Developing … ecotourism income is key to the future of the island’s people and relies directly on the preservation of the reef diversity,” Trudiann Dale, Timor-Leste director at Conservation International, told The Guardian.

Learn more:

Ben Koses is an intern for Conservation International.

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5 rainforest species that could save your life

Researchers collect symbiotic moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Researchers collect symbiotic moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. Recent research in Panama has identified several types of fungi growing in sloth fur that could help fight human diseases. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, several football fields worth of rainforest have been destroyed. Another 2,000 trees will be cut down in the next 55 seconds. This is bad news for many reasons, including the fact that many species native to rainforests hold the potential to save countless human lives. Here are five of them.

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