‘Aha’ moment: A missing link in an island forest

Primatology students hike to their research site on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Primatology students hike to their research site on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. (© Molly Bergen)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s 30th anniversary, this is the first post in an occasional series called “‘Aha’ moment,” in which Conservation International staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. In this piece, blog editor Molly Bergen kicks off the series with a story about how a brief academic detour in primatology led her to rekindle her interest in the monkeys’ human cousins.

If howler monkeys had more interesting social lives, things might have turned out differently.

I was halfway through a two-week field course on primate behavior on Ometepe Island, whose two forest-and farm-draped volcanoes emerge from the middle of freshwater-shark-filled Lake Nicaragua. At the moment, I was searching through the field station’s “library,” in this case a musty trunk full of yellowed scientific papers stored in a dark, cobwebbed closet.

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Mud, parrots and parasites: Filming the rainforest in virtual reality

crew carry anaconda filmed for CI's new virtual reality film in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

In September 2016, a VR crew shot Conservation International’s second virtual reality film, “Under the Canopy” in the Amazon region. Here, CI’s John Martin (right) and a fellow crew member carry an anaconda that was filmed in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. (© Lucas Bustamante)

As part of the film crew for “Under the Canopy,” Conservation International’s (CI) second virtual reality experience, last September I joined fellow CI staff and a team from co-producers Jaunt VR on a 26-day expedition to two of the most pristine areas of Amazonia: southern Suriname and Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.

In years of traveling around the world, it has become a tradition for me to come up with a list of my “top five” and “bottom five” moments of each trip — the experiences that stay with me long after I’ve returned home. Here are my most memorable moments from this Amazonia expedition — starting with the worst. Continue reading

What we’re reading: Dangers of the pet trade, hope for the Arctic

Emerald tree boa coiled in a tree in southern Guyana's Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area

Emerald tree boa coiled in a tree in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. Demand for certain species as pets, particularly reptiles, is so high that it has driven several to extinction in the wild. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world. 

  1. How the pet trade is killing off animal species

The story: Despite claims of captive breeding, research shows that the vast majority of animals imported for zoos and pet stores are caught in the wild. As global attention has been focused on the impacts of the illegal trade of iconic species such as elephants, tigers and rhinos, the negative impact of the pet trade has remained largely out of the spotlight. According to an article in U.S. News, “92 percent of the 500,000 live animal shipments between 2000-2006 to the United States (that’s 1,480,000,000 animals) were for the pet trade, and 69 percent of these originated in Southeast Asia.” Many of them were illegally caught and then, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, “laundered to appear legal.”

What’s next: Demand for certain species as pets, particularly reptiles, is so high that it has driven several to extinction in the wild. Birds, fish, orchids — even primates are being illegally traded internationally, particularly troubling in light of new research showing primates face a greater threat of extinction than any other large mammal group. Numerous roadblocks hamper efforts to stem the illegal pet trade: incomplete classifications (legal to trade vs. illegal, etc.); a lack of communication and consensus among nations; and weak monitoring and enforcement. Continue reading

Indigenous-led conservation takes center stage in ‘Under the Canopy’

Kamanja Penashekung, an indigenous man who stars in CI's latest VR film, "Under the Canopy," stands on the bank of Suriname's Sipaliwini River at the edge of the Trio village of Kwamalasamutu.

Kamanja Penashekung, an indigenous man who stars in CI’s latest VR film, “Under the Canopy,” stands on the bank of Suriname’s Sipaliwini River at the edge of the Trio village of Kwamalasamutu. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

Editor’s note: Through the groundbreaking medium of virtual reality, Conservation International (CI) is spreading awareness of the plight of the world’s most stunning and vital ecosystems as never before. Last year, CI took viewers underwater in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region with “Valen’s Reef.” This week, CI brings viewers into the forest with the launch of its second film, “Under the Canopy.

Leaves rustle from unseen creatures as you descend into the lush darkness below. Dappled sunlight breaks through the dense canopy, as the drone of insects reminds you of the life found on every branch. A figure approaches along a well-worn path, with wisdom to guide you through the fronds.

This is Amazonia, brought to you through the art of virtual reality.

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Primates face greater extinction threat than any other large mammal group

Common squirrel monkey

Primates such as this common squirrel monkey in Amazonia are severely threatened by the destruction of tropical forests. (© Nick Fox)

New research paints a dark picture for the future of non-human primates: 63 percent of the world’s primate species are currently threatened with extinction.

The paper, which was published in Science Advances and included Conservation International Executive Vice Chair Russ Mittermeier and Senior Research Scientist Anthony Rylands as coauthors, listed the destruction of tropical forests as the main threat to primates, 90 percent of which live in this biome.

But as Mittermeier and Rylands wrote in this op-ed on Mongabay, there is reason for hope. The world did not lose a single primate species or subspecies in the 20th century — and reversing trends in species numbers is possible.

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MIT, CI scientists ‘hack’ climate solutions

Mangroves

By integrating the power of nature and technology, researchers can maximize their chances of solving problems such as climate change. For example, technological advancements could bring more accurate measurement of the coastal protection benefits of mangroves. (© Jeff Yonover)

On the seventh floor of a conference center in Cambridge, Mass., last Friday, a group of scientists and engineers huddled around tables, tapping on their laptops and sketching on poster paper, barely looking up to take in the Boston skyline.

The term “hackathon” — an event in which a group of people collaborate on computer programming — usually evokes an image of college students coding into the early hours of the morning to prototype apps that make it easier to find a parking spot or coordinate a game of soccer. The Hackathon for Climate — the second one for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Environmental Solutions Initiative but the first to include Conservation International (CI) — had a different feel.

“The day is about informed speculation towards solutions,” said John Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, as he introduced the Hackathon. The topics to be discussed ranged from reducing the environmental impacts of mining to shrinking the carbon footprint of digital data storage.

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Aboard a Hawaiian sailboat, new insights into root of ocean’s problems

The Hōkūleʻa and her sister vessel Hikianalia

The Hōkūleʻa and her sister vessel Hikianalia arrive in Apia, Samoa on a 2014 voyage. (© US Embassy/Flickr Creative Commons)

A version of this post was originally published on the Hōkūleʻa Crew blog.

The smell of bacon and butter greeted me this morning as I emerged from the makeshift cabin that we are each extremely fortunate to call home when aboard Hōkūleʻa. Those on the 6-to-10 watch were at the sweep adeptly steering the Hōkūleʻa in a SSW direction, guided by Mark Ellis, one of the navigators on board.

He estimated that we had traveled approximately 125 miles overnight since leaving port in Balboa. I had been on the earlier 10-to-2 watch crew, lucky to steer during a clear, star-filled night with the north star at our stern and the half-moon on our port side to guide us through most of our shift. The morning crew had to steer with clouds, inconsistent wind and no land to guide their way. They were relying on a rising sun and setting moon, neither of which are the most accurate indicators as they move overhead. When I finished my watch, the sun was rising, the clouds kept changing and the wind kept shifting. Steering was much trickier than it had been the night before with a reliable northern star.

Aulani Wilhelm steering the Hokulea while seas are calm.

Aulani Wilhelm steering the Hōkūleʻa while seas are calm. (© Conservation International)

The deep blue-green waters of Panama continue to carry us toward Malpelo, a tiny volcanic island offshore of Colombia, which we hope to reach in two days. We are privileged to be sailing in a geography referred to as the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS), an area covering 750,000 square miles across the marine domains of four countries: Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

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Photo essay: 30 years of exploration, discovery and action

When Conservation International (CI) was founded 30 years ago this week, the conservation of nature was viewed by many countries, corporations and citizens around the world as an impediment to economic development.

In the decades since, from the realms of international policy to on-the-ground science, CI and partners have worked to move the needle toward a more accurate perception of nature: as the foundation of our economies and survival. In the words of Peter Seligmann, CI’s co-founder, chairman and CEO, “Our connection to our natural world is more than sentimental. Humanity depends on fresh water, reliable food and a stable climate. For that, we need intact forests, productive fisheries and healthy ecosystems.”

As we look ahead to the future, these photos document some of the places we’ve been.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil


Russ Mittermeier poses with a monkey for a Gap ad circa 1989. The primatologist served as Conservation International’s president from 1989 until 2014; he currently serves as the organization’s executive vice chair.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Wildlife biologist David Emmett trains two CI Cambodia employees and a government ranger in GPS, compass and map use during a survey of the Central Cardamoms Mountains. Emmett is now senior vice president of CI's Asia-Pacific field division.
© Conservation International/photo by David Emmett
Iguazu Falls, Brazil


CI staff and supporters on a trip to Botswana in 2005. Among those pictured: Peter Seligmann, Jeff Gale, Jane Gale, Cedric Rhodes, Rod Mast and Mike Chase.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil



CI co-founder, Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann meets a snake at a 1994 CI board meeting in Bahia, Brazil.
© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Iguazu Falls, Brazil


Woman inspects coffee growing in Chiapas, Mexico in 2000. For more than 15 years, CI has been working with Starbucks to reduce the negative impacts of coffee production on the environment and improve the lives of those who grow it.
© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn
Iguazu Falls, Brazil


Entomologist Chris Marshall and assistants collect moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth on a 2006 Rapid Assessment Program expedition in Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area.
© Piotr Naskrecki
Iguazu Falls, Brazil


Russ Mittermeier explores forests near Manaus, Brazil in the late 1980s. While president of CI, Mittermeier was the only active field biologist to head a major international conservation organization.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil



Stan Malone, former director of CI Suriname, and Lisa Famolare, currently CI’s vice president of Amazonia, participate in a clean-up event in Georgetown, Guyana in 1995.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil


Russ Mittermeier shares a poster about primates with Trio children in southern Suriname in 2001. CI works with indigenous communities like this one to protect forests and other ecosystems that are integral to their survival.
© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Iguazu Falls, Brazil


Peter Seligmann and renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle in the Cook Islands. CI is working with Pacific Island governments and partners to expand a network of protected areas that will protect the region's most crucial resources.
© Conservation International/photo by Greg Stone
© Jeff Yonover
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Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation International. 

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Guyana aims to shift economy from gold to green

Alluvial gold mining in the rainforests of Guyana.

Alluvial gold mining in the rainforests of Guyana. This is a medium-scale operation; many Guyanese work in the artisanal, small-scale gold mining sector, which is built around removing minerals from topsoils. As the gold runs out, the supply accessible from the surface will be the first to disappear, leaving many people in search of new livelihoods. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: Last week, Conservation International (CI) Guyana and partners launched a new initiative to improve mining practices and ease the transition to a greener economy in the South American country. In this interview, CI Guyana Vice President David Singh explains how a country dependent on revenues from nonrenewable resources can make this shift.

Question: What is the current state of Guyana’s economy, and how do nonrenewable resources fit in?

Answer: In the decades after Guyana declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, gold was a bastion of our economy; in fact, at times it was the direct source of revenues to pay civil servants. Even now, with the distress within the country’s sugar industry and the challenges facing the rice industry, gold has proven to be a reliable source of foreign exchange. It has kept the economy afloat, and it has provided a lot of employment for people. I would estimate 10 percent of the country’s workforce is directly involved in the gold mining supply chain — not just the mining itself but the services that make it possible (shopkeepers, truckers, etc.)

However, the country’s entire economy tends to focus on mining at the expense of other types of industry when the price of gold is high. For instance, the heavy equipment operators in the sugar industry left their jobs to go work in the gold mines, which of course impacted sugar production. With soaring gold prices, teachers and nurses left their jobs to work in the mining industry. Without any active intervention to diversify the economy, such a high-level connection with the gold price is leading us into a “resource curse” situation.

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New partnership combines best of nature and technology to fight climate change

On the edge of the fishing town of Concepcion, Philippines, a permeable seawall made of bamboo works together with mangroves in an attempt to reduce storm surge.

On the edge of the fishing town of Concepcion, Philippines, a permeable seawall made of bamboo works together with mangroves in an attempt to reduce storm surge. CI’s green-gray project — which will be aided by MIT research — is located nearby on the island of Iloilo. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

Nature and technology have long had a complicated relationship. The factories of the Industrial Revolution set in motion the escalation of resource exploitation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that eventually led to the global climate change we face today. On the other hand, technological innovations such as hybrid cars and biodegradable packaging are making it possible for humanity to lessen its toll on the health of our planet.

Although nature and technology are often pitted as opposites — the past versus the future — in truth we don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, to sustain life on this planet, both are crucial. That’s what makes Conservation International’s (CI) new collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) so exciting.

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