Best of 2016: Thriving coral reef could bring hope in fight against changing climate

Coral reef in Indonesia's Raja Ampat archipelago.

Coral reef in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

Editor’s note: As the end of 2016 approaches, Human Nature is revisiting some of our favorite stories of the year. To support crucial conservation work like this, consider making a donation to Conservation International.  

Devastating incidents of coral bleaching are making news across the globe: In 2016 alone, bleaching has afflicted 93 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and caused 10 dive sites in Thailand to close. Indonesia is no exception; bleaching is severe across the country, threatening the coral-dominated reef systems that support fisheries and marine tourism, which in turn provide food and livelihoods for coastal communities.

But in one small, jewel-like archipelago in the province of West Papua, there is an outlier. The Raja Ampat archipelago — the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity — has somehow managed to largely escape coral bleaching.

Find out why — and how this knowledge could help bolster other reefs against similar threats — in this original post.

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Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates.

Best of 2016: Historic protections for Darwin’s island laboratory

A young sea lion naps on the beach in the Galápagos Islands. A new no-fishing sanctuary within the Galápagos Marine Reserve will help the islands' wildlife and economy.

A young sea lion naps on the beach in the Galápagos Islands. A new no-fishing sanctuary within the Galápagos Marine Reserve will help the islands’ wildlife and economy. (© Rod Mast)

Editor’s note: As the end of 2016 approaches, Human Nature is revisiting some of our favorite stories of the year. To support crucial conservation work like this, consider making a donation to Conservation International.

2016 was a banner year for marine protected areas around the world, from the creation of the world’s largest marine park, to the first U.S. national monument in the Atlantic, to new commitments from Colombia and Costa Rica, to a new ocean management target for Hawai‘i. But before any of these, the world celebrated new protections for a place home to the world’s highest concentration of sharks and a landmark in the history of ecology and evolution: the Galápagos Islands.

Find out what Ecuador’s historic creation of a 39,000-square-kilometer (15,000-square-mile) marine sanctuary — with no fishing allowed — will mean for the islands’ wildlife and economy in  the original post.

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Jamey Anderson is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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Best of 2016: This mother of 10 patrols Philippine forests in her spare time

Nolsita Siyang, a forest ranger who regularly patrols the protected area surrounding her village on the island of Palawan, Philippines.

Nolsita Siyang, a forest ranger who regularly patrols the protected area surrounding her village on the island of Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

Editor’s note: As the end of 2016 approaches, Human Nature is revisiting some of our favorite stories of the year. To support crucial conservation work like this, consider making a donation to Conservation International.  

When some busy mothers get a second to spare, they take a moment to relax. Not Nolsita Siyang.

A member of the Palawan indigenous group, Siyang is a farmer and mother of 10 who, when she isn’t climbing several miles of muddy footpath between her mountain village and the market to sell her family’s surplus crops, can be found volunteering as a forest ranger in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. Uncertainty about who she will encounter in the forest makes it a dangerous job — and she’s one of the only women doing it.

Find out why in this post from March.

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Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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Your favorite science stories: 10 top blog posts from 2016

camera-trap photo of African leopard, Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania

African leopard, a near threatened species, caught on film by a camera trap in Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains. Photo courtesy of Museo delle Scienze (Trento Museum of Science).

Covering topics from mangrove ecology to the world’s largest fish, many of Human Nature’s most popular blog posts of the year revealed our readers’ fascination with cutting-edge science.

  1. 6 things you need to know about mangroves (but never thought to ask)

Find out how your coconut shrimp appetizer may be contributing to the loss of coastal mangrove forests — and why these ecosystems are so critical to protect.

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The trees that could make or break Mexico City’s future

Lagunas de Zempoala National Park, Mexico

Lagunas de Zempoala National Park. The park is part of the Water Forest, an interconnected expanse of trees and natural grasslands that supply drinking water for more than 23 million people in and around Mexico City. (© Jessica Scranton)

Editor’s note: Last year, Human Nature blogged about the challenges of protecting the Bosque de Agua (Water Forest), a large swath of trees and grassland that supplies drinking water for more than 23 million people in and around Mexico City. This week, Conservation International’s (CI) Jürgen Hoth presented about the importance of grassland restoration at the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 13) in Cancun; in this interview with Human Nature, he talks air pollution, the illegal drug trade and why planting trees isn’t always the answer.

Question: Mexico has been on something of a tree-planting frenzy lately. Why?

Answer: Last March, dangerous air pollution in Mexico City saw its worst spike in 11 years. This was largely due to thermal inversion: In the wintertime, warmer air near the Earth’s surface cannot disperse like in summertime because of the layer of colder, denser air on top, so the pollution remains concentrated.

Sadly, air pollution is nothing new for the country. The worst of Mexico’s pollution was in the early ’80s, when dead birds began falling from the sky. In 1985, we had a massive, deadly earthquake, and people realized that Mexico City was highly vulnerable. A lot of the polluting industry moved out of the city, which greatly improved air quality. So everyone was caught off guard last winter when they saw how severe the pollution was.

One problem is that Mexico City is still growing every day — and there are many more cars than there once were. The city has taken important steps forward with public transit, creating bicycle routes, etc., but most people still prefer to travel by car. During the worst smog, people stopped going to work and children stopped playing in the schoolyards, because the air quality was too dangerous. There was a huge public outcry, and the government’s response was “Let’s plant more trees.” The goal is now to plant 18 million trees. But here’s the thing: all trees are not created equal, as I have seen in my work in the Water Forest.

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The hidden star of ‘Moana’: the Pacific voyaging canoe


Editor’s note: The fate of the Pacific Islands has always been inextricably linked to the fate of the vast ocean in which they lie — an ocean which faces unprecedented threats.

In the wake of the success of Disney’s new film, “Moana,” in which a young girl journeys across the sea in a traditional sailing canoe, Conservation International (CI), Walt Disney Animation Studios and the Samoa Voyaging Society (SVS) have announced a new partnership to bring conservation education and awareness to coastal Samoan communities. With technical support from CI and the Samoan government, SVS Captain Fani Bruun and her crew will sail between villages on their traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Gaualofa, and present free workshops on basic coastal and marine management. They will also host free screenings of “Moana.”

Human Nature asked Schannel van Dijken, marine program director for CI’s Pacific Oceanscape program, president of SVS and an experienced sailor of va’a (Polynesian sailing canoes) himself, to explain why these boats are so central to Polynesian culture.

Question: How has your experience sailing voyaging canoes affected how you view conservation?

Answer: I have been associated with the Samoa Voyaging Society since I started with CI in 2009. I have always felt connected to the ocean, so it was a natural fit to work with the voyaging society, and I easily gravitated to it. Voyaging is a perfect platform for education and outreach given the importance it holds for communities around the Pacific. The va’a has the power to reconnect our communities to their past and to honor what our ancestors did in migrating across the Pacific, colonizing these small specks of islands in the middle of the largest ocean in the world. The va’a honors the wisdom and expertise they had in doing that and reflects the way they viewed the natural world and the innate harmony they achieved with it. The canoe allows us to remind people of how we once lived, what we were capable of and how we viewed our natural world. By looking to the past, we are able to bring attention to the present, and ultimately to use the past to guide us into the future.

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To protect nature and boost economy, Cambodia must follow Costa Rica’s lead

capuchin monkey, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey in Costa Rica. Over the past 30 years, the country has doubled its forest cover while growing its economy, largely through development of nature-based tourism. (© Conservation International/photo by Ashton Jones)

Editor’s note: In order to adequately protect the species and ecosystems that form the backbone of a healthy planet, their value must be better integrated into the global economy. As scientists and policymakers gather in Cancun to discuss how to achieve this, Conservation International’s (CI) Carlos Manuel Rodriguez shares how a recent policy exchange between two countries helped spread the word about how to do it.

On the mountain slopes of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, a group of Cambodians got their first glimpse of a flock of great green macaws perching in a nearby tree. More than 50 birds, representing as much as one-fourth of the total population of this endangered species, ate fruit and socialized as our group talked with Juan Campos, a Costa Rican farmer who over the last decade has improved his agricultural practices and now protects his forest. What caused this change? Campos now gets paid for the water his forested land produces, given its location uphill from a hydroelectric power plant.

This jungle-friendly farm provided the perfect backdrop for the purpose of our visit: showing Cambodian leaders how my home country has managed to transform its economy from one dependent on smallholder agriculture into a healthier one built on protecting and sustainably using nature. Continue reading

5 surprising places that are improving ocean health

Tourist cabanas in the Maldives

Tourist cabanas in the Maldives. The islands’ clear waters, beautiful beaches and splendid marine life have formed the basis of the tourist economy, which provides nearly 30 percent of the country’s GDP. (© Ishan @seefromthesky)

As Human Nature wrote in February, if the Earth’s oceans were a man, he would not be the picture of health.

At least — for now — his condition is stable.

A tool developed by Conservation International (CI) and partners to provide governments, communities and businesses with the data they need to make sustainable decisions about ocean use has given the ocean its annual check-up. Its health “score”: 71 out of 100, the same as last year. While the score, calculated using the Ocean Health Index (OHI), isn’t as high as it could be, it doesn’t paint as grim a picture as it seems, according to one expert.

“This score sends a message that the ocean isn’t ‘dying’ the way many people think, but that people and marine life will fare much better when we use it in more sustainable ways,” said Steve Katona, OHI’s managing director.

There’s more to this story, though, than the overall score.

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In protecting the diversity of life on Earth, the world is behind schedule

Granada cross-banded tree frog in the Choco region of Colombia

Granada cross-banded tree frog in the Choco region of Colombia. (© Robin Moore/iLCP)

In 2010, the world’s nations agreed on 20 ambitious goals to stem the global extinction crisis that threatens to shrink the diversity of life on Earth in the coming decades. As negotiators gather this week in Cancun for the latest meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — six years after those 20 goals, called the Aichi Targets, were set — how close is the world to achieving them?

The Aichi Targets, which range from specific goals — such as protecting 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas — to less defined ones — such as expanding global awareness of the value of biodiversity — were intended to be achieved by 2020. With four years left for countries to make progress, Conservation International (CI) joined with four other global conservation organizations — Birdlife International, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Nature Conservancy and WWF — to determine how countries are progressing toward these targets. We looked at how countries matched their ambition to each Aichi Target as well as their progress in meeting their goals.

While our report shows positive progress on a number of the targets, the overall picture is poor, with inadequate progress to date in most countries. Unless countries significantly increase their ambition through more resources and improved policies for biodiversity protection, the Aichi Targets will not be met, and we will increasingly undermine the long-term well-being of humanity.

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As dams rise along the Mekong, can leaders balance nature and development?

The floating village of Akal in the middle of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake

The floating village of Akal in the middle of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

Last month, Laos announced plans to move forward with the development of a third controversial hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River.

For the government of Laos, the newest dam is part of a larger plan to develop and export hydroelectricity, which could, in turn, mean a boost for the Southeast Asian country’s struggling economy. But critics say development of the dam is short-sighted and could lead to dangerous consequences for the river, which snakes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before reaching the sea in Vietnam. The dam, critics say, could further disrupt fish migration and the flow of water and nutrient-rich sediment to the fields and inland fisheries that nearly 60 million people depend on for their protein and livelihoods.

Balancing energy production with conservation is an age-old dilemma. Now, a new tool could help enable simpler — and smarter — decisions in places like the Mekong watershed where complex water flows are concerned.

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