Amid widespread coral bleaching, this reef is thriving

Coral reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Coral reef in eastern Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago in May 2016. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

Editor’s note: This week Conservation International’s first virtual reality film, “Valen’s Reef,” debuted at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity; watch the film here. Its spectacular setting — eastern Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region — contains some of the most species-rich waters on Earth; it could also hold clues for how to help our oceans adapt to climate change. CI marine scientist Mark Erdmann explains.

In recent months, numerous reports in the media have exposed the alarming levels of climate change-induced coral bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and many other locales across the Pacific Ocean. Aerial surveys suggest that over 93% of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by bleaching, and Australian experts warn that in many areas this bleaching is so severe that it will likely result in 50–90% mortality of corals.

Indeed, many coral scientists are lamenting that coral-dominated reef systems as we know them will cease to exist within the next few decades — a shift that could spell the end for a number of fisheries and marine tourism industries and cause significant economic hardship and food security problems for tropical countries around the globe.

coral bleaching, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Bleached coral in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. While places like this have been decimated by bleaching in recent years, the waters of eastern Indonesia have thus far stayed mostly unaffected. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

The overall trend is clear; we must address climate change now or prepare to face a very different world than we now enjoy. However, I also feel compelled to note that there are “bright spots” in our oceans, and that we do still have time to act and conserve some of our most important marine ecosystems.

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Lights, camera, coral: Under the sea, behind the scenes with a VR film crew

diver and coral in the Bird's Head, Indonesia

Eastern Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region, a biological treasure and the spectacular setting of Conservation International’s first virtual reality film, “Valen’s Reef.” (© Conservation International /photo by Mark Erdmann)

Editor’s note: Today, Conservation International’s first virtual reality (VR) film, “Valen’s Reef,” debuts at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity; watch the film here. Fresh off accompanying a VR film crew on the shoot in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region, Conservation International (CI) filmmaker John Martin explains why filming in this new medium is so difficult — and so exciting.  

Question: In 15 years on CI’s visual storytelling team, you’ve filmed all over the world. What was special about this trip to eastern Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region?

Answer: After years of seeing incredible video footage and photos from people like Shawn Heinrichs of Blue Sphere Media, our very own Mark Erdmann and other colleagues who have been there, Raja Ampat [an archipelago within the Bird’s Head region] has long been on my bucket list of places to visit and film. When it was picked to be the topic of CI’s first virtual reality film, and I was asked to shoot the “behind-the-scenes” footage, I was thrilled. As a filmmaker who has spent almost my entire career telling visual stories within rectangular, two-dimensional frames, being able to be part of CI’s first-ever virtual reality film experience and to learn about the whole VR production process was very exciting.

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What we’re reading: Vanishing rodents, climate ‘benefits’

A landscape shot of Kulusuk, a small village in Greenland with about 360 inhabitants. (© Ville Miettinen/Flickr Creative Commons)

A landscape shot of Kulusuk, a small village in Greenland with about 360 inhabitants. (© Ville Miettinen/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Climate change made a lot of news in the past week. Here are a few notable stories that you may have missed.

  1. ‘Climate corridors’ could save wildlife

The story: The great wide open spaces of the western United States offer wildlife plenty of room to roam. The east, however, is a different story: The highly fragmented landscapes of the eastern U.S. pose a major obstacle for species fleeing for new habitats if climate change pushes temperatures beyond habitable levels, Popular Science reported.

The answer, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the creation of “wildlife corridors” throughout the east that preserve or restore natural areas and which build bridges over (or tunnels under) busy roads.

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In photos: From forest to mega-city, a river’s journey

girl washing face in water near Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park, Indonesia

Young girl enjoys the benefits of having clean water piped into her village from the nearby Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park, Indonesia. (© Jessica Scranton)

A two-hour drive inland from the smog and chaotic congestion of Jakarta, Indonesia, takes you to a place that may as well be worlds away. But the forests of Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park hold something that binds nature and city together: one of Java’s largest water reservoirs. In fact, more than 60 rivers flow from here to the outskirts of Jakarta and other parts of the island.

This water is sacred to those who live along the park’s edge and use the rivers for bathing, drinking, fishing and flooding their neon-green rice paddies to nurture their crops. It is an integral part of daily existence.

woman washing clothes near Lido, Indonesia

© Jessica Scranton

boy near rice paddy on edge of Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park

© Jessica Scranton

However, by the time the water has reached Jakarta it is a cesspool of toxic chemicals overflowing with trash, no longer safe for consumption. There, it creates a cycle of disease, infections and poor health for the impoverished families living along the city’s outlying riverbeds.

On a recent visit to Java to take photos for Conservation International (CI), I tried to document the close and complex relationship the communities of Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park have to water — as well as its journey downstream.

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What we’re reading: Ivory bans, solar subways

African elephant, South Africa

Both China and the United States recently announced new restrictions on commercial ivory trading within their countries. As the two largest consumers of ivory worldwide, changes to ivory policies in these countries could help save dwindling African elephant populations. (© Clive Rogers/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world

  1. Bleaching ‘devastates’ Chagos Marine Reserve

The story: We’ve already heard about the dangerous coral bleaching event — likely exacerbated by El Niño — that is taking a huge toll on the Great Barrier Reef. Now the BBC is reporting that coral bleaching has damaged up to 85% of corals in the U.K.’s Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean.

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New virtual reality film dives into Indonesia’s ‘species factory’

coral and sponges, Bird's Head, Indonesia

The waters of Indonesia’s Bird’s Head peninsula host an incredible array of life, including these sponges and soft corals. (© Conservation International /photo by Mark Erdmann)

With 600 types of vibrant corals and 1,765 kinds of fish (including more than 40 species of sharks and rays), all concentrated in an area the size of Great Britain, Indonesia’s Bird’s Head peninsula is record-shattering and awe-inspiring … for those who get to experience it firsthand.

For the rest of us, this “species factory” can seem a world away from our daily lives — especially if you’re stuck in a windowless office. But there’s hope: Emerging technology is allowing more people to come closer than ever to diving into the clear waters of the Bird’s Head.

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Indigenous leaders: Traditional knowledge can save the planet

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape.

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape. (© Conservation International/photo by Will Turner)

Editor’s note: Could observing the stars or planting bushes help the world adapt to climate change impacts? Conservation International’s 2016 indigenous fellows think so. Martha Ntoipo hails from a Maasai village in northern Tanzania; Jamer López is a Shipibo-Conibo man from the Peruvian Amazon. Below, they discuss their research on traditional knowledge in their own communities and its implications for conservation and the future. (Note: the thoughts and opinions expressed on Human Nature are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CI.)

Question: What first inspired you to get involved in this kind of work?

Ntoipo: My father is a polygamist with seven wives; the youngest is a little older than my daughter. I grew up seeing the situation with my mother and stepmothers, and I clashed with my dad. He wanted me to marry a person he chose — actually, he chose six men, and I refused all of them. I felt that something needs to change, and that I should be part of that change.

After high school I went back to my community and started training and creating awareness among women of their rights, and trying to make men understand that women are the holders of much of the traditional knowledge that dictates how we relate to the natural world. It wasn’t easy; at first men were reluctant, and women were scared. But the good thing is if you are one of them, they tend to listen.

López: I could see that my community and others in Amazonia are losing traditional knowledge. Currently there are lots of people studying traditional knowledge within these communities, but generally they come from the outside. I was drawn to this work because I felt it was my responsibility as a young man who is part of this culture.

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Why aren’t we doing more to protect wildlife rangers?

Park ranger in Rwanda

For Conservation International’s new executive director of wildlife trafficking, when it comes to tackling this global problem, nothing can replace a ranger. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

Editor’s note: Since 2003, more than 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty. These rangers are the frontline between poachers and their prey — the literal boots on the ground trying to keep wildlife alive and out of the hands of the organized crime network profiting from their death and sale. Being a ranger or game warden is a rough, dangerous job that requires training and support — and it can mean the difference between success and failure in an anti-poaching mission. Unfortunate, then, that so often they are overlooked in trafficking policies and conservation programs.

Some would have you replace rangers with drones or other expensive, high-tech solutions. In a recent interview, Keith Roberts — Conservation International’s new executive director of wildlife trafficking — explains why, when it comes to fighting this global problem, nothing can replace a ranger.

African elephant

Rangers risk their lives daily to protect elephants, rhinos and other species in Africa. (© CIFOR / Daniel Tiveau)

Question: Starting June 5, you’ll be deep in the Peruvian jungle, running an ultra-marathon on behalf of Runners for Rangers. Why this event and this organization?

Answer: The “Beyond the Ultimate” Jungle Ultra in Peru will be a true test of endurance: Runners traverse 230 kilometers (192.9 miles) over five days on jungle trails, mountain roads and village tracks, making their way from the cloud forest down 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) to the Amazon jungle below. Humidity levels will approach 100% and the runners will have to be self-sufficient, carrying their own hammock, sleeping bag, food and supplies for the entire race.

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How fashion can bring about ecosystem collapse

Sea otter

A fashion for otter fur is directly linked to the degradation of kelp forests, a new study shows. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

Editor’s note: A new scientific paper argues that drivers of social change like technology and fashion play a key role in bringing about environmental change and it’s time the scientific community pays attention. The authors   including Jack Kittinger, senior director of Conservation International (CI) Hawai‘i   contend that in order to protect ecosystems before it’s too late, we have to look beyond traditional data and clue into these social forces, which can forewarn scientists when an ecosystem is in decline.

In a recent conversation, Kittinger laid out the paper’s key findings.

Question: What’s an example of a social factor that can tell us about the health of an ecosystem?

Answer: It may be hard to believe, but to understand the decline of kelp forests, you have to understand how the demand for otter pelts was driven by a fashion craze in China. The demand for this species was so great that the price was astronomical, driving the intensity and geographic expansion of the harvest. This explains why some people were still financing expeditions long after the majority of otters were extirpated — the pelts were worth more than gold. We are doing the same thing now with bluefin [tuna], actually.

But markets are just one example: For cod off the coast of Newfoundland and the northeastern U.S., new technologies were the culprit. Suddenly people were able to use fish-finding technology, allowing them to increase or maintain their catch per unit effort, even while the stock was declining precipitously. If you’re just watching the catch, you’d miss the importance that technology played in crashing the fishery. It’s never recovered — clearly we need to be more vigilant in our monitoring of technology and its impact on species and on ecosystems.

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3 ways protecting nature can help resolve conflict

A man looks out over the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia.

A man looks out over the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia, an area rich in both forests and large deposits of iron ore and gold. CI and local partners worked with the communities to help implement conservation agreements that addressed conflicts over resources. (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

From the murders of environmentalists to wars that threaten iconic wildlife, the links between human conflicts and natural resources are clear — and as populations grow and unsustainable development is exacerbated by climate change impacts, tension over ever-scarcer resources will only escalate.

But there’s good news: A growing body of evidence is showing that protecting nature can help promote peace — and, in some cases, resolve active conflict. Here are three examples.

1. Peace parks

The peace park concept was popularized by the Peace Parks Foundation, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela. Also called transboundary protected areas or transfrontier conservation areas, peace parks are areas spanning two or more national borders that have been formally designated to conserve biodiversity, maintain animal migration patterns and protect natural resources required for a growing human population.

Peace parks can imply a cooperative and peaceful relationship between nations. The first peace park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, was established in 1932 by Canada and the United States in celebration of the peace and goodwill shared between the two countries.

In some cases, a peace park may also help calm tensions between nations. The Cordillera del Condor Peace Park between Peru and Ecuador signified the first time that a peace park was written into a treaty between nations as a means of stopping active violence.

For decades, the mountainous region between Peru and Ecuador had been contested and was subject to periodic encroachment and active conflict between the countries. In the early 1990s, Conservation International (CI) worked with the two governments and local scientists to carry out a scientific assessment that confirmed the region’s biological importance, including the role it plays in maintaining the hydrological cycle that links the Andes mountain range to the Amazon.

This independent analysis of the shared natural resources ultimately led to the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries, whereby each committed to ending hostilities and finding ways to collaborate. The agreement set a precedent for a binational vision of conserving biodiversity through cooperation.


Around the globe, people are standing up to protect the nature they rely on. Get the latest news from the front lines.


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