When We Explore the Deep Sea, We are Exploring for Our Own Survival

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post as part of TED Weekends.

A diver explores the sea grass bed in Honduras. (© Joanne-Weston)

A diver explores the seagrass bed in Honduras. (© Joanne-Weston)

In 1953, on the heels of a discovery of a second coelacanth specimen in the Comoros Islands off Madagascar’s coast, J.L.B. Smith, the man who described the species, wrote in the Times of London: “We have in the past assumed that we have mastery not only of the land but of the sea… We have not. Life goes on there just as it did from the beginning. Man’s influence is as yet but a passing shadow. This discovery means that we may find other fishlike creatures, supposedly extinct still living in the sea.”

Unlike the coelacanth, which was thought to have gone extinct, we have known for centuries that giant squid have existed in our oceans’ depths. But unable to observe them alive in their deep sea home, we have understood very little about how they live, where they live and how they behave.  That is, until 2012, when Drs. Edith Widder, Steve O’Shea and Tsunemi Kobodera filmed the elusive and mysterious giant in its natural deep-sea habitat for the first time — a landmark moment in ocean exploration and an example of how technology and ingenuity can overcome the monumental challenges we face in exploring the deep. But it is a drop in the vast ocean-sized bucket of amazing discoveries waiting to be found.

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8 Nature Books You Should Read This Summer

It’s summertime again in the Northern Hemisphere, a season when millions of people journey to the nearest beach or mountain in search of a break from everyday life. It’s also a time that we all seem to read more — or, if nothing else, we talk about reading more. So why not combine these two forms of escape in one?

ghost crab, Costa Rica

Ghost crab on a Costa Rican beach. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Building off the popularity of last year’s summer reading list (as well as our winter one), here are eight more nature-themed books from CI staff.

1. “The Drowned World (J.G.Ballard)

Ballard is a British novelist (actually born in Shanghai) who became famous with “Empire of the Sun.” “The Drowned World” is his first novel, and my personal favorite. He published it in 1962, when people did not talk much about climate change yet. The story takes place in the 21st century, when “fluctuations in solar radiation have caused the ice-caps to melt and the seas to rise. Global temperatures have climbed, and civilization has retreated to the Arctic and Antarctic circles. London is inundated by a primeval swamp, to which an expedition travels to record the flora and fauna of this new Triassic Age.”

I hope this science-fiction piece continues to be seen as science fiction in years to come; it reads incredibly plausible and realistic nowadays.

–      Fabio Scarano, senior vice president of the Americas field division

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Urban Jungle: Restoring Rio’s Water Supply

This is the latest post in Human Nature’s “Urban Jungle” blog series. Read previous posts. 

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

View of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city. (© Jeff Gale)

Over the last month, millions of fans from all over the world looked toward Brazil, as teams from 32 countries and four continents have been battling for the title of 2014 World Cup champions.

This Sunday, the city of Rio de Janeiro will once again stage the final match— the first time since 1950. Back then, thousands of spectators reacted in astonishment when Brazil lost to Uruguay in the final match. This week, my generation experienced the same feeling after the seven goals scored by the German team in the semifinals. Sunday’s match will therefore be a stage for either the Germans or Argentineans to shine — may the best team win!

The city of Rio has changed a lot throughout the years. In the ’50s, the city was still the capital of Brazil (it’s since been moved to Brasilia) and its population was approximately 2 million. Today, this number has tripled.

During the last World Cup held in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro was in the midst of an urban revolution, with the opening of new avenues and construction of modern buildings downtown. The lack of water, however, was already a critical problem for the city due to deforestation in urban areas and a poor distribution system, and even inspired the lyrics of one of the most popular Carnival songs: “Rio de Janeiro / city that seduces us / during the day lacks water / during the night lacks energy.”

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Exploring Gender Roles in Africa’s Largest Rainforest

Kame Westerman with Madam Odette, one of the participants in a recent gender workshop in the DRC. (photo courtesy of Kame Westerman)

Kame Westerman with Madam Odette, one of the participants in a recent gender workshop in the DRC. Madam Odette runs a local organization that focuses on gender equality and providing family planning to villages near the park. (photo courtesy of Kame Westerman)

This blog is the second post in Human Nature’s new “Gender + Conservation” blog series; read the previous post.

One by one, the men and women stood up and rattled off a list: “Beans, sweet potatoes, peas … also sorghum.”

I was sitting on a hard, thin wooden bench in a dimly lit concrete room. Afternoon sunlight streaming in through holes near the roof provided enough lighting to display the crowd of men and women from the nearby village who had eagerly come to this meeting. “And the men,” they continued, “they are responsible for bananas, sugar cane, potatoes.”

I had come to visit a small village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) near the border of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage SiteContinue reading

Gender + Conservation: A New Blog Series

This is the first post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” series. Read other posts in the series. 

Men and women use natural resources in different ways. In coastal Madagascar, for example, men fish in carved out wooden boats, while women harvest octopuses from the reef flat.

woman in Madagascar

Young woman in Madagascar. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Understanding those differences, and the roles that men and women play in natural resource management and decision-making, is key to ensuring that their unique uses of resources are taken into account, and that conservation efforts will benefit everyone.

But what does it mean to incorporate gender into a conservation project or program? What does a “gender-integrated” project look like? At CI, we are working closely with our staff around the world to find out. Continue reading

4 American Conservation Stories to Celebrate

Friday is the Fourth of July, an American holiday that celebrates the independence and birth of the nation. It’s a day when people in the U.S. look back to remember all the things that make them proud to be American.

bald eagle, Alaska

Bald eagle in Alaska. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

In honor of the holiday, here are four monumental conservation efforts by the people and government of the United States — just a few inspirational conservation victories among many that have occurred.

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In Cambodian Riverside Villages, New Attitudes toward Turtles

Here in a riverside town near Kratie, Cambodia, the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) is nearly bursting with baby turtles.

Cantor's giant softshell turtle hatchling

Cantor’s giant softshell turtle hatchling at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center near Kratie, Cambodia. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

Every available tank holds at least one Cantor’s softshell turtle (Pelochelyscantorii). The animals spend most of their time buried in sand mimicking their Mekong River habitat. Soon most of them will be released back into the wild — blissfully unaware of how close their species has come to disappearing.

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Big Things Come in Small Climates

Imagine a mountain overlooking a grassy plain. As rising temperatures and other impacts attributed to climate change take hold, the plants and animals covering its slopes are dying off. Birds and small mammals are migrating toward higher elevations in search of cooler climates — all except in a tiny patch of land at the base of the mountain, where these species are mysteriously continuing to thrive.

tree in field, Cambodia

Lone tree on a hilltop in Cambodia. (© Conservation International/photo by Sopha Sett)

Why? This is what we’re trying to figure out, to see if it may give us clues for how species — and humanity itself — can adapt to climate change.

Extinction risk from climate change may be determined by patches of habitat so small that scientists have overlooked them for decades. A few trees clinging to a cool hillslope or a patch of grass riding out a dry spell near a spring may make all the difference in how vegetation — and the animals that depend on it — survive climate change.

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Indigenous Knowledge Could Help Rescue New Caledonia’s ‘Millennium Trees’

In the southwest Pacific Ocean, on the archipelago of New Caledonia, atop the highest mountain of the main island, lives an ancient tree species that embodies the spirits of the island’s indigenous ancestors.

kauri tree monitoring team on Mt. Panié, New Caledonia

The tree monitoring team at the foot of a Mount Panié kauri tree in New Caledonia. (© Conservation International/photo by Nicolas Texier)

Commonly called the Mount Panié kauri (Agathis montana), this huge, magnificent conifer lives well over 1,000 years; local indigenous Kanak people call it dayu biik after its capacity to resist cyclones and other natural disasters.

But recent observation and studies indicates that these unique trees are disappearing, posing a major threat to the ecosystems and culture tied to them. Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated the tree’s status on its Red List of Threatened Species from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered — the last stage before extinction. Continue reading

Small Islands, Giant Oceans: Q&A with President Tong of the Republic of Kiribati

This morning at the “Our Ocean” Conference, currently being hosted by the U.S. State Department, President Anote Tong of Kiribati announced that starting next year, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) will be completely closed to commercial fishing — a monumental development that aims to regenerate a species-rich area of ocean the size of California. President Tong recently sat down with us to discuss this announcement; here’s an excerpt from the interview.  

President Anote Tong of Kiribati

President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kiribati. (© Conservation International/photo by Toby de Jong)

Q: What will happen with the Phoenix Islands Protected Area on January 1, 2015?

A: At the beginning of next year, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area — over 400,000 square kilometers [154,000 square miles] — will be closed to all commercial fishing activity.

Q: Why did the government of Kiribati decide to increase the percent of the PIPA that is closed to commercial fishing?

A: We have always intended to close off the whole of the PIPA … what we needed was time to put it into place. We have a number of partners that fish in our waters; the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, the Spanish, even the United States has quite a number of fishing vessels operating there. What we needed, and what they needed, was time to restructure and to reorganize their activities and accept the reality that the PIPA would no longer be available for them to fish in.

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