How 3,000 holes in the dirt can save a barren land — and alter a social landscape

wildflowers, Namaqualand, South Africa

Wildflowers in South Africa’s Namaqualand region. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

The temperature hovered near freezing as farmer Katrina Schwartz and I stood before 3,000 shallow holes stretching as far as the eye could see.

A sudden freeze had recently hit Leliefontein, a town in the South African region of Namaqualand, after a long drought, causing major livestock losses for farmers. Land had turned barren; degraded by plowing and dominated by kraalbos and renosterbos, unpalatable plants that quickly dominate the landscape, soil restoration was an urgent priority.

Hence the freshly dug holes.

But this pitted landscape — aimed at catching water and reducing erosion — is about more than rejuvenating barren soil. These tiny holes, it turns out, are small blows against a stubborn social divide in South Africa. Continue reading

In search of tourist treasure, island chain banks on natural riches

dock in Anambas Islands, Indonesia

Dock in Tarempa in Indonesia’s Anambas Islands. CI is helping to empower local communities to conserve the islands’ natural wealth and ensure their livelihoods while the government develops tourism in the region. (© Conservation International/photo by Karen Villeda)

It was a rare and curious sight for this tiny seaside village: a steady swarm of expensive yachts dropping anchor.

On a sweltering Saturday in April, the fleet was making a stop in Tarempa, the capital of Indonesia’s Anambas Islands as part of a leg of Sail Malaysia 2015, an international yacht rally in the South China Sea. In Indonesia, high-profile visitors like these are more common in Bali than in Anambas, a cluster of more than 200 mostly uninhabited islands in the country’s northwest, off the coast of mainland Malaysia.

But if locals have their way, more visitors could be coming soon.

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What the environmental movement can learn from anti-smoking ads

(© moxduul via istockphoto)

To create a more sustainable global society, it is critical for companies to increase demand for green products and services — and advertising might hold the answer. (© moxduul via istockphoto)

In the early 2000s, the number of young people who smoked cigarettes in the United States dropped by about 40%. Public knowledge about the health hazards of cigarettes was nothing new — so why the sudden decline?

As it turns out, a single marketing campaign may have been largely responsible for the shift. Now it’s time for the environmental movement to follow suit.

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From rice to shrimp: How one unlikely crustacean is helping to save the Amazon

Editor’s note: Deforestation accounts for nearly 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As the world’s nations prepare for the U.N. climate change summit in Paris in December — their milestone for creating a global climate agreement — Conservation International (CI) is demonstrating that one of the most effective solutions may also be the simplest: leaving trees standing.

Shrimp farming in rice paddies, San Martin, Peru. (© Conservation International/photo by Alejandra Naganoma)

Shrimp ponds replace a section of rice paddies in the San Martín region of Peru. The water from the ponds is cycled into the paddies downhill, conserving water and reducing the need for fertilizers. (© Conservation International/photo by Alejandra Naganoma)

Around the world, shrimp farms are getting a bad rap: Widespread destruction of mangrove forests that protect villages from storms. Inefficient water use. Disease.

Yet in the Peruvian rainforest, CI and partners are changing the way shrimp is raised — and helping farmers produce more food without clearing more trees.

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Making the Links: August 2015

A giant panda at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve in China. (© Martha de Jong-Lantink)

A giant panda at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve in China. (© Martha de Jong-Lantink)

This is my latest post in “Making the Links,” a monthly blog series that connects the dots between nature and people in the news. (To learn more about the goal of the series, read the first post.)

The nature in humans (stories secretly about nature)

1.     China’s Pearl River Delta overtakes Tokyo as world’s largest megacity  

According to the World Bank, rapid urbanization has caused this Chinese manufacturing region to become the world’s largest “megacity” in terms of both size and population. It’s now home to more people than Canada, Australia or Argentina. In the next two decades, several hundred million additional people are expected to move to cities in East Asia.

The link: Often linked to pollution and urban sprawl that destroys vital ecosystems, at first glance the world’s “concrete jungles” might appear to be the antithesis of nature — and with more than 10 million people each, megacities may look like the worst offenders. Researchers are continuing to shed light on the carbon footprint of megacities — but data suggests that when cities are built and expanded sustainably, their residents may have a smaller environmental impact than country dwellers due to smaller, denser living quarters, public transportation and other factors. As cities continue to grow, fostering smart growth and conserving the resources (like fresh water) that sustain them will become even more critical.

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Animals without borders: The challenge of protecting our oceans

humpback whale calf, Hawaii

Humpback whale calf in Hawaii. Found in all the world’s oceans, humpbacks migrate thousands of miles between calving and feeding grounds; the population that feeds in Monterey Bay in September will swim down to Baja California to mate. (© David Fleetham)

Editor’s note: For three nights beginning August 31, Conservation International’s (CI) Dr. M. Sanjayan will be co-hosting “Big Blue Live,” a live television event documenting the natural splendor of California’s Monterey Bay. Tune in at 8 p.m. EST/PST (or check your local listings) on PBS to see what he discovers — and before you watch, learn why migratory species need Monterey in this blog from Dr. Greg Stone.

Each year, humpback whales pass through Monterey Bay with their newborn pups, heading to winter feeding grounds off the coast of Mexico. Leatherback sea turtles — which nest more than 20,000 kilometers (almost 12,500 miles) away in Papua New Guinea — frequent the waters of Monterey to feed on jellyfish. Sooty shearwaters fly here from breeding grounds in New Zealand. Elephant seals, great white sharks, killer whales, dolphins and many other marine animals pass through Monterey Bay, all in a quest for survival.

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Bracing for the biggest El Niño on record: How climate change is upping the ante

Editor’s note: For three nights beginning August 31st, Conservation International’s (CI) Dr. M. Sanjayan will be co-hosting “Big Blue Live,” a live television event documenting the natural splendor of California’s Monterey Bay. Tune in at 8 p.m. EST/PST (or check your local listings) on PBS to see what he discovers — and in today’s blog, learn how this winter’s El Niño is expected to affect marine life in Monterey and beyond.

humpback whale breaching in Monterey Bay

Humpback whale breaching just offshore of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, California. In the coming months, the strongest El Niño on record is predicted to take hold in the Pacific Ocean, where it will likely impact a range of wildlife. (© 2010 – Richard Ryan)

From Rolling Stone to Grist to The New York Times, it’s been all over the news in recent weeks: One of the strongest El Niños in history could be brewing in the Pacific. After the big El Niño of 1997–98 killed as many as 2,100 people and caused more than US$ 33 billion in property damage worldwide, many people are now starting to worry about what the coming “Godzilla El Niño” may leave in its wake.

El Niño suppresses the normal upwelling of cold water off the Pacific coast of the Americas, which carries with it vital nutrients that support plankton and fish species, kelp forests and sea mammals such as seals and sea lions. There’s still some question as to whether the trade winds will die down, causing El Niño to intensify later this year, but warmer waters in the Pacific have already begun to take a toll on marine life.

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4 things conservation scientists sometimes forget

entomologist collects moths from fur of three-toed sloth in Guyana

An entomologist collecting moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in Guyana. Like other science fields, conservation research is constantly evolving; meetings like the International Congress of Conservation Biology allow conservation scientists to come together and exchange ideas. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Call me an eco-nerd, but I think conservation brings together some of the coolest human beings on the planet. I get a little star-struck when I get to shake hands with Kent Redford or have a glass of wine with Robin Naidoo or hear Ana Rodrigues speak about her passion for researching the historical ecology of whales based on — of all things — ancient manuscripts written by monks.

Recently in Montpellier, France, I joined a group of Conservation International (CI) staff attending the International Congress of Conservation Biology, a meeting of more than 2,000 conservation scientists, students, researchers and practitioners from over 70 countries. Every two years, the conference convenes to present the latest research and developments in conservation science and practice.

Besides being inspired by some of my environmental heroes, I also was reminded of a few things that conservation scientists sometimes forget. Here are four of my biggest takeaways.

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Of Monterey and men: How a Great American author ushered in age of ecology

Editor’s note: For three nights beginning August 31st, Conservation International’s Dr. M. Sanjayan will be co-hosting “Big Blue Live,” a live television event documenting the natural splendor of California’s Monterey Bay. Tune in at 8 p.m. EST/PST on PBS to see what he discovers  — and in the meantime, learn why this unique place is an important piece in humanity’s understanding of the natural world.

sea otter, California

Sea otters off the coast of California. Each September, coastal upwelling of nutrient-rich waters and migration patterns of species like whales, dolphins, sardines and seabirds result in an explosion of life in Monterey Bay; starting on August 31st, Dr. M. Sanjayan will be co-hosting “Big Blue Live,” a three-night live television event chronicling this phenomenon. (© Adam White)

Gaze into a tide pool and you’ll see all of life’s complexity, shrunken down to size. From the soft anemones waving sticky tentacles, to spiny sea urchins, to hard-shelled mussels, with crabs and gobies wedged in between, every square inch is occupied by something — pushing, scrambling and fighting for access to sunlight, or nutrients, or a mate.

In Monterey, California, tide pools might seem to pale in comparison with the town’s famous sea otters, kelp forests and breaching whales, but for one unlikely duo (an amateur biologist and a future Nobel Prize-winning American novelist) in the 1930s, these pools inspired a new way of looking at the natural world — one that shapes our modern understanding of ecology. Continue reading

3 ways Brazil’s environmental decisions affect the world

Christ the Redeemer statue lit with green lights for Brazil launch of Nature Is Speaking

To celebrate the Brazil launch of CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign, Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue was lit with green lights on August 13th. (© Caique Cunha)

What happens in Brazil doesn’t stay in Brazil. Whether you live in South America’s largest country or half a world away, what happens there impacts your life, from the coffee you drink to the hardwood floors in your home to the air you breathe. Continue reading