To help African farmers, making big data fit in their pockets

Woman harvests crops in Tanzania

A woman harvests crops in Tanzania, one of the countries where Vital Signs is collecting ecosystem and socioeconomic data to help inform development decisions. (© Benjamin Drummond)

As the use of mobile technology in Africa continues to skyrocket, it’s changing more than how people communicate — it’s also changing how they grow their food.

In a recent special edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, Conservation International’s (CI) Sandy Andelman and Peter Seligmann write that improving access to ecosystem data can help farmers adapt to climate change. One program that is striving to do this, Vital Signs, is already helping national governments in Africa improve development decisions — but reaching individual farmers is a tougher challenge.

In this interview, Andelman talks about efforts to surmount this challenge — and revolutionize the livelihoods of African farmers.

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Animal love: 8 weird ways species get it on

Editor’s note: It’s Valentine’s Day, when thoughts turn to romance — a complicated matter for us humans, but even more so for some of our animal friends. This Valentine’s Day, we asked Conservation International’s own Russ Mittermeier, a renowned primatologist and naturalist, about some of the more colorful mating habits of the animal kingdom. 

  1. Male parrots only get lucky if a nearby tree is producing fruit.
kakapo, Maud Island, New Zealand

Kakapo on Maud island, New Zealand. The world’s heaviest parrot, the extremely rare kakapo only breeds every three or four years when a particular tree species is fruiting. (© Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation/Flickr Creative Commons)

“The kakapo is a nocturnal, flightless parrot residing in New Zealand. Males of this critically endangered species climb to the top of a mountain, build a nice round display area, then “boom” several hundred times per night to attract females. But the females are interested only once every three or four years when a particular tree species fruits — so the males boom tens of thousands of times before they get any action. Reminds me of some guys I knew in high school.”

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In the Year of the Monkey, could primate-watching be the next big thing?

Quinling golden snub-nosed monkey, central China

Quinling golden snub-nosed monkey in central China. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Editor’s note: As Chinese New Year celebrations usher in the Year of the Monkey, we’re sharing an updated version of a 2012 blog by CI’s Russ Mittermeier about a passion of his: making primate tourism as popular as bird-watching. A version of this post was recently published on Mongabay.

You’ve heard of “bird-watching,” a hobby of millions of people around the world. The nearly 50 million bird-watchers just in the U.S. generate about US$ 50 billion in economic bird-watching activity each year. You may have even heard of “life-listing,” where individual birders keep lists of the number of species they have seen in the wild and compete with their fellow enthusiasts. The competition can sometimes be quite intense, as captured in the film, “The Big Year.”

But you probably haven’t heard about “primate-watching.” Primate-watching is poised to grow in the years to come, and what better time to move forward with this than in the Year of the Monkey, which begins today with the start of the Chinese New Year.

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Indonesian coffee farmers grapple with climate of uncertainty

(© Conservation International/photo by Syaiful Purba)

Glora Padang, a young Sumatran farmer, is drying coffee beans that a local trader will come and collect. The unpredictability of coffee prices is leading many farmers to turn to citrus production in hopes of earning more income, but the crop’s dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides has taken a toll on the environment. (© Conservation International/photo by Syaiful Purba)

Editor’s Note: One of the many things that climate change threatens to disrupt is coffee production. In a far-flung corner of Indonesia, this could spell disaster for farmers’ incomes — and for tropical forests. This is the story of one of those farmers.

Glora Padang, a young farmer in the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, learned how to grow coffee from his parents, who five years ago gave him 2 hectares (5 acres) of land in Siempat Rube subdistrict to settle down on.

Like most farmers in the region, Padang grows other crops alongside his coffee, including rice, corn and other vegetables. One recent morning, a trader arrived at Padang’s house to buy some newly harvested crops. Padang sold 13 liters of coffee beans and 4 kilograms of chili peppers that morning, earning Rp. 352,000 (about US$ 32). This moderate income helps him support his wife and infant son — but a stable price for his crops is by no means guaranteed. Continue reading

From Zika outbreak to ’Snowzilla,’ climate change lurks behind the headlines

mosquito on blade of grass

As climate change makes some regions hotter and wetter, it may exacerbate the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika virus. (© Ramon Portellano/Flickr Creative Commons)

A mosquito-borne virus explodes in Latin America. A study delivers bad news for countries that rely on hydroelectric power. “Snowzilla” paralyzes the East Coast of the U.S. with historic snowfall.

Seemingly unrelated, these three recent events have taken place under the shadow of climate change.

Although scientists are averse to linking any single event to climate change, a growing body of evidence is showing that a changing climate could make events like these more common — and more destructive — in the near future.

Here’s a quick peek behind the headlines. Continue reading

In Indonesia marine park, survey finds troubled waters

clownfish and sea anemone, Natuna Islands, Indonesia

Clownfish in sea anemone spotted on a recent marine survey of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. (© Conservation International/photo by Ronald Mambrasar)

The creation of a marine protected area (MPA) is often lauded as a happy ending.

But in fact, it is only the beginning.

Case in point: in 2007, the Indonesian government declared an MPA in the Natuna Islands, a remote archipelago more than 1,000 kilometers north of the capital, Jakarta. Although it spans 1,430 square kilometers (552 square miles), so far this MPA has no established management — there is no staff to patrol the park, no designation of which areas can be used for which activities, or allocated budgets to ensure the waters are actually being protected. In fact, an in-depth marine assessment had never been conducted around the Natuna Islands — until now. Continue reading

For forests to combat climate change, 3 things we must do

© Trond Larsen

Illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia. The cutting and burning of tropical rainforest releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. (© Trond Larsen)

A version of this post was originally published on Mongabay

All but the most cynical would agree that the long-awaited global climate change agreement reached at last month’s U.N. climate talks in Paris was an important step forward.

As countries spend the next five years refining their goals and creating specific plans of action before the agreement goes into effect in 2020, I hope they’ll adequately consider a climate change solution that the world has historically undervalued and oversimplified: forest protection. Continue reading

Q & A: El Niño’s grip foreshadows uncertain future for a country on climate’s edge

plant growing in dry cracked soil

El Niño is causing droughts in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, affecting the food supply of rural communities, according to Conservation International Papua New Guinea Country Director David Mitchell. (© Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

While the world was tackling climate change, it was the weather playing havoc.

El Niño, a naturally occurring climate phenomenon characterized by abnormally warm waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, has upended weather patterns from California to Cambodia, with researchers suggesting that the 2015-16 episode will go down as one of the strongest ever recorded.

Some countries have paid a heavy toll. By the time the world’s attention turned to the Paris climate talks in November 2015, Papua New Guinea was in the grip of severe drought that ravaged agriculture across the country. The El Niño-induced drought affected everything from school operations to women’s labor to public health, according to a review published earlier this month by the Development Policy Centre in Australian National University.

While links between El Niño and climate change have only recently become clearer, what Papua New Guinea has seen in the past year is a harbinger of what is to come for the country in a changing climate, according to David Mitchell, country director of Conservation International (CI) Papua New Guinea. Worse, he says, is that climate change is already adversely affecting marine ecosystems, eroding a critical food “safety net” for drought-affected people in the country’s coastal regions.

In the following Q&A, Mitchell takes stock of the situation.

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In camera-trap snaps, scientists tackle big data challenge

researcher sets up camera trap, Peru

TEAM researcher Patricia Alvarez sets a camera trap in Peru. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, we shared results from a new study indicating that protected areas have saved wildlife from decline in many tropical forests. To get their findings, researchers sorted through 2.5 million camera-trap photos taken in 15 protected areas in rainforests around the world. How did they pull off such a feat? Jorge Ahumada, executive director of the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network, which produced the study, explains.

Question: What exactly can camera-trap photos tell you about how tropical species are faring?  

Answer: We start with the raw data: a time-stamped image of an animal that has been identified by a scientist. We have around 500,000 raw images a year coming into our database from TEAM camera traps.

There can be a lot of problems with camera-trap data if you just take it at face value. You can’t just count the number of pictures of a particular species and use that to accurately estimate the population of that species in the forest. Because sometimes an animal will walk in front of the camera 100 times, and then you will have 100 pictures of that one animal. The other problem is when you don’t see something in a camera trap, that doesn’t mean that the species isn’t there; it could mean that it just didn’t walk in front of the camera trap. This is a very important distinction that few people make.

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Study clears the waters on a dirty threat to Hawai‘i’s reefs

Many Hawaii'n fisherman are dependent on the health of Hawaii's coral reefs, as healthy reefs attract more fish. (© Troy K Shinn/

Many Hawaiian fisherman are dependent on Hawai’i’s coral reefs as vital habitats for marine life. The declining health of these fragile reef ecosystems is damaging the ability of marine species to support the livelihoods of local fishermen. (© Troy K Shinn/

Of all the threats facing Hawai’i’s coasts and coral reefs — including overfishing and “hot blobs” — one of the trickiest to stop, it turns out, is mud.

Sediment pollution from land has severe consequences for fragile coral reef ecosystems, and Hawai‘i is no exception: Soil erosion from development and agriculture creates excess sediment that chronically muddies reefs across the state, making it difficult for corals and fish to thrive.

But what are the most effective means to prevent sediments from reaching the reefs? And once sediments reach the reefs, how quickly are they flushed out by wind and tide?  Continue reading