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

Indonesian Government Sinks Vietnamese Shark Poaching Boat, Creates New Dive Site

sinking of illegal fishing vessel in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

This morning in Raja Ampat, police detonated a single charge placed in the hull of the ship to sink it perfectly onto a sandy bottom, where it will now become a new dive site attraction. (© Conservation International/photo by Julius Thonak)

Two years ago, we proudly blogged that the Raja Ampat government in the Indonesian province of West Papua had taken the bold step of passing a law protecting all species of sharks and rays in its waters (the first such law in Southeast Asia!) in recognition of the tremendous ecological and economic benefits to both fisheries and tourism of healthy elasmobranch populations.

This law rapidly gained national traction, and a year later I was delighted to congratulate the Indonesian government on its move to create the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary.

Raja Ampat's manta populations are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

Raja Ampat’s manta populations are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

At the time, the global response to these announcements was largely positive, though there were a number of skeptics who openly wondered if the Indonesian government would actually take enforcement of these laws seriously. So, as these two laws celebrate their first and second year anniversaries, it seems like a good time to ask: How effective have they been at deterring poachers and protecting these valuable species? Continue reading

Sometimes All You Need to Protect Turtles Are Some Duck Eggs

For more than seven years, I have been leading CI’s turtle project in Cambodia’s Kratie province, which works with local communities and Buddhist monks to increase the wild population of Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), a species that until recently was believed to have disappeared from Cambodia.

turtle and duck egg exchange, Cambodia

Ne and Yoeung display eggs from a wild Cantor’s giant softshell turtle next to domestic duck eggs. In exchange for protecting the turtle eggs (and thus allowing the turtle’s small population to grow), CI gave Ne an equal number of duck eggs to feed her family. (© Brann Sinal )

During this time, I have been proud of the progress we’ve made and inspired by many of the people I work with. However, I am also constantly reminded of an important lesson: behavior change does not happen overnight.

Here’s an example. Chann Ne is a 52-year-old mother of six living in Yeav village in Kratie province. Her family members sustain themselves mainly through fishing and farming. Since she was 16 years old, Ne has taken eggs out of turtle nests almost every year for food. During nesting season (from November to June every year), her mother showed her how to find nests by following the turtle tracks along the Mekong River near her house. Ne continued to do this for decades.

In late December 2014, Ne found a turtle clutch with 32 eggs near her boat. This time, instead of collecting the eggs for her family, she informed CI. Continue reading

Why I Made “EARTH A New Wild”

The five-episode series “EARTH A New Wild” — hosted by CI’s Dr. M. Sanjayan — shows how nature is speaking to people. The show airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on PBS.

M. Sanjayan paraglides with vulture

Sanjayan paraglides with vultures over the Himalayas while filming “EARTH A New Wild.” (© M. Sanjayan)

Over a decade ago I found myself in northern India watching a film crew from the BBC shoot a scene for the epic natural history series “Planet Earth.” I was lightly associated with the effort, and I was eager to see how it was done.

Predictably, a wildlife spectacle was unfolding in front of our eyes. But what really caught my attention was the action behind the camera’s field of view.

Perhaps a thousand villagers had gathered to watch the Western crew at work. They milled about, curious and incredulous that all this effort was being made to film what to them was their backyard. Every so often some guy pushing a cart, or perhaps a stray dog, would wander into the shot, and a fixer would be dispatched to shoo away the offender and keep the image pristine.

“Planet Earth” was a groundbreaking series, and I loved it because it opened all our eyes to the beauty and spectacle of our natural world. But it only told half the story. I knew then that I wanted to make a film that turned the camera around and showed the planet not as we wish it to be, but as it really is.

Easier said than done. Continue reading

What I’ve Learned about Protecting Indonesian Forests from Rural China

I work on a sustainable agriculture project in North Sumatra that aims to balance agriculture development and conservation of critical ecosystems. I recently learned some valuable lessons that could impact my work from an unexpected source: a Chinese village with remarkable similarities to my own.

tea plantation on edge of forest in China

Tea plantation on the edge of the forest in rural China. CI’s Conservation Stewards Program provides incentives for local communities to keep forests standing rather than cut them down for shirt-term economic gain. (© Conservation International/photo by Fitri Hasibuan)

Last November, I traveled to China to see how CI and partners are implementing the conservation agreement model developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP). The journey began with a 7-hour drive through mountains and forests to a small village called Lizhiba. Continue reading

Human Nature’s Newest Blog Series: Making the Links

Earlier this week, I blogged about a slow but noticeable shift in the way the world thinks and talks about the intersection between nature and people.

frog, Suriname

Frog in Suriname. Among other benefits they provide for humans, amphibians help regulate populations of insects that destroy crops and spread disease. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Yet despite this progress, I would argue that our industrialized society remains largely disconnected from the natural world. Too many people still think of environmental issues as occupying a separate section of the newspaper or government ministry. Most people I know don’t realize that when they buy Valentine’s Day candy next month, they may be unwittingly contributing to rampant deforestation in Southeast Asia. Or that protecting a species they’ve never heard of thousands of miles away could one day save many lives.

This brings me to our newest blog series: “Making the Links.” At the end of each month, I’ll share a selection of recent news links that have left out part of the story. At first glance, some of these articles appear unrelated to the health of the Earth; others may seem irrelevant to human well-being. My goal is to bring these connections to the surface. Continue reading

New PBS Series Reflects Shift in Perception of Humanity’s Role in Nature

When CI launched our Nature Is Speaking initiative in October, we challenged people to listen to what nature has to say. So far, 2.7 million people have listened by watching our thought-provoking films — voiced by some of Hollywood’s top actors — which emphasize that we need nature more than it needs us.

M. Sanjayan and panda on log, China

While filming “EARTH A New Wild” in China, CI’s M. Sanjayan meets a local. (© Ami Vitale)

And here’s some more good news: We’re not the only ones sharing this message through the power of film, a strong indicator that the way people perceive of and talk about nature is about to change for the better. Continue reading

The Galápagos Islands’ Least Famous Residents: Its People

Galapagos sea lion at fish market, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A Galápagos sea lion waits for scraps at the fish market in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos Islands. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

When I traveled to the Galápagos Islands in November, I had a slightly different mission than most visitors. Sure, I was psyched to see the islands’ famed giant tortoises, birds and marine life up close, but I was also curious to learn about the 30,000 human residents of the Galápagos. Although they often go unmentioned in tales of this unique place, these people are important characters in its history, for better and worse.

In CI’s small office in Puerto Ayora, the largest of the four towns on the islands, CI Galápagos Program Director Reyna Oleas explained that in many ways, the Galápagos Islands are a microcosm of the world at large — grappling with many of the same environmental issues faced elsewhere, but also acting as a laboratory for potential solutions.

After spending 10 days on and around the islands, I saw exactly what she meant. While the Galápagos Islands face plenty of challenges, there’s no denying that without the natural treasures the islands hold, the local economy would cease to exist. Continue reading

Without Forest Policy Reform, Indonesia Won’t Reach Emissions Reduction Goal

park rangers check camera trap in North Sumatra's Batang Gadis National Park, Indonesia

Park rangers check a camera trap they have set up in North Sumatra’s Batang Gadis National Park to monitor wildlife. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of CO₂ through deforestation; much of this clearing is done illegally. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

When Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office last October, hopes were high within the environmental community that he would take crucial actions to curb deforestation in his tropical country. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of CO₂ through deforestation; much of this clearing is done illegally.

So far, there are some positive signs. President Widodo has already voiced his intention to crack down on illegal forest clearing. He’s also spoken up for the value of peatlands, which store large amounts of carbon and can be used for sustainable agriculture by local communities.

This week, a study led by the Center for Global Development (together with colleagues from CI, World Resources Institute, Duke University, the University of Maryland and the Woods Hole Research Center) shared important data on one of the forest policies of President Widodo’s predecessor — insight that we hope the new president will keep in mind going forward. Continue reading