Cyclone Pam Signals Slow-motion Disaster in Kiribati

This week, dire news continues to come in from Vanuatu, as residents struggle to recover from the destruction unleashed by Cyclone Pam on the island nation. Although Vanuatu may have experienced the most damage, it’s not the only place to feel the impacts. Today on Human Nature, CI’s Greg Stone reports from Kiribati.

lagoon, Tarawa, Kiribati

A lagoon in Tarawa, Kiribati. Although all seems placid in this photo, taken a few days after Cyclone Pam, the storm caused major damage to the capital’s main causeway. (© Conservation International/photo by Greg Stone)

The sun rose quick and quiet over Tarawa. This island is home to the capital of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, the largest atoll nation in the world and the only country that is in all four hemispheres; its 33 islands in the Central Pacific straddle both the equator and the international dateline.

The previous evening had been pleasant, with a genial ocean breeze. Now the sun commanded the sky and drove the temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit [32 degrees Celsius]. Sweat ran down my back and off my forehead as I walked along the edge of the lagoon.

I had returned to Kiribati to meet with government officials and partners working together on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a project CI has been involved with for over 10 years. I had more than PIPA on my mind, however, as Cyclone Pam — a Category 5 storm — had just spun like a giant pinwheel across the South Pacific. At its strongest, it generated gusts of wind up to nearly 200 miles an hour, flattening thousands of buildings and killing at least 11.

Unlike Vanuatu, Cyclone Pam did not directly hit Tarawa, nor any of the islands in Kiribati. However, the waves it generated pummeled many of the islands, which rise no more than a few meters above the ocean. Continue reading

To Fight Climate Change with Forests, Two Steps Forward

forest in Papua New Guinea

Forest in Papua New Guinea. The world’s tropical forests are often called the “lungs of the Earth,” absorbing carbon dioxide and converting it into oxygen. When forests are cut down, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. (© Trond Larsen)

In 2013 I blogged about why the world needed to support a global forest carbon market, which was in a tough spot. A year and a half later, recent successes are building momentum that we hope will result in a comprehensive U.N. climate change agreement in Paris later this year.

Although conservation funding still remains woefully inadequate to tackle global deforestation, signs of change are pointing in the right direction as individuals, companies and organizations step up to assume responsibility and address the most glaring of gaps.

This month, I’ve been heartened to hear two important developments connected to CI’s work: Continue reading

In Remote Indonesian Villages, Driving Conservation Through Film

Last year, John Weller and Shawn Heinrichs blogged about their film”Guardians of Raja Ampat,” which they produced in conjunction with CI. Now, they’ve just returned from an Indonesian tour showing the film to one of its most important audiences: its subjects. 

villagers attend screening of "Guardians of Raja Ampat" in Indonesia

Villagers in Raja Ampat attends a screening of “Guardians of Raja Ampat,” a new film pro ducted in conjunction with CI. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

A thousand faces glowed in the light of the two-story-tall outdoor theater screen. The mood of the crowd changed minute by minute in reaction to the film: excited whispers and inside jokes as they saw themselves and their village on screen; pursed lips and angry sideways glances as a fish bomb exploded; nods of agreement, sweet smiles and even tears at the end.

villagers watch "Guardians of Raja Ampat" in Indonesia

A giant inflatable manta ray sets the scene for an audience of Indonesian villagers watching “Guardians of Raja Ampat.” (© Shawn Heinrichs)

But the end of the film was only the midpoint in this event. Moments later, hundreds of fists flew into the air as Edo Kondologit — Papua’s most famous singer, who donated his time to headline the tour — leaned forward into the climax of his songAku Papua” (“I Am Papua”). The crowd screamed the lyrics into the night, proclaiming their heritage, declaring their solidarity in the name of conservation. Continue reading

Recent Victories Show Momentum for Fighting Wildlife Trafficking

rangers conducting night patrols, Lewa Conservancy, Kenya

Highly trained rangers conducting night patrols at the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya. (© M. Sanjayan)

Today is World Wildlife Day, an important observance for raising awareness about the extinction crisis taking hold of our planet.

The situation on the ground remains dire. Elephants and rhinos remain in poachers’ crosshairs. Sharks and rays are illegally targeted in the Pacific. And the pangolin, a harmless, scaled forest mammal that eats ants and termites, now has the added distinction of being the most trafficked mammal on the planet, with over a million snatched from the wild in just a decade.

Humans too are caught in the poachers’ snare, with communities displaced by armed gangs and the disruption of ecotourism. Worldwide, two anti-poaching game rangers are killed every week. And the links between illegal wildlife trafficking and global security are becoming increasingly clear.

But two recent, very significant developments offer a glimmer of hope: Continue reading

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