Your forest reading list: 6 must-read books about trees

Curl up somewhere comfortable and let one of our recommended books transport you to a serene and majestic location, like this scene of Peyto Lake in Canada. (© Sergi Akulich)

Curl up somewhere comfortable and let one of Conservation International’s recommended books transport you to a serene and majestic location, like this view of Peyto Lake in Canada. (© Sergi Akulich)

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere isn’t over yet — which means there’s still time to curl up in a hammock in the shade of a leafy tree with a good book. Relax and venture into the woods with one of these forest-related book recommendations by Conservation International staff.

1. “White Waters and Black, by Gordon MacCreagh

“This is one of my all-time favorite books. The Amazon basin is famous for its biological diversity and new species are still being found all the time. No one even had a firm estimate of how many kinds of trees are in the Amazon until a great new study came out, just this month. What we know about the Amazon is built on the work of thousands of scientists and their expeditions, and ‘White Waters and Black’ is a laugh-out-loud, irreverent account of a major expedition from 1923. Well worth a read!”

– Steven Panfil, Technical Adviser of REDD+ Initiatives

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From the archives: Small farmers, big data in Africa

Vital Signs researchers record data onto a tablet in Tanzania

Vital Signs researchers record data onto a tablet in Tanzania. (© Benjamin Drummond)

For effective conservation, you have to go where the people are.

When Conservation International’s Sandy Andelman led the creation of Vital Signs, a tool that collects data on how ecosystems support agriculture in Africa, she thought an online platform would be the best way to share data with government leaders and farmers. She soon realized that that wasn’t what people wanted — or needed.

“In many of the African countries where we’re working, the main — or even the only — way people access the Internet is through their cell phones,” Andelman said. “Cell data access is good pretty much everywhere … Internet access is touch and go.”

As part of our month-long spotlight on conservation issues in Africa, we’re re-sharing an article from February highlighting an innovative effort that uses cutting-edge science to better understand nature’s value across the continent.

Read the full interview.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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Eating wild animals: Commonplace, cultural, complicated

black-and-white ruffed lemur, Madagascar

Black-and-white ruffed lemur in Madagascar. Lemurs are frequently hunted and eaten by locals. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

No matter where you live, it’s likely that if you try hard enough (and are willing to pay the price), you can get your hands on some monkey meat.

Bushmeat markets are most prominent in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, but globalization has spread the (often illegal) sale of wild animal meat across borders and into major cities on every continent.

Due to high extraction rates, the hunting of bushmeat has been termed unsustainable in most of the places around the world where it is practiced. This overharvesting of animals is becoming a growing issue not just for conservationists, but also for the people who rely on forests for their food. In Central Africa, the supply of wild meat is expected to drop 81 percent by 2050 due to overhunting.

However, the consumption of bushmeat — and the trade that makes it possible — takes place amid complex economic, geographic, political and cultural realities that make it incredibly difficult to regulate and reduce it to a sustainable level. Here are a few of the complicating factors.

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

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Editor’s note: Tuesday, July 26, is International Mangrove Day.

“I love mangroves.” That’s a phrase you’ve probably never heard anyone say. Mangroves don’t inspire awe and wonder the way coral reefs, rainforests or wide-open grasslands do. In many parts of the world, they’ve long been frowned upon as dirty, mosquito-infested tangles of roots that stand in the way of an ocean view.

Even environmentalists tend to think of mangroves’ ecological role mostly in terms of protection from storms and nurseries for fish. As climate change threatens to increase the frequency and severity of storms, mangroves provide a stout defense against storm surge. Mangrove roots also provide habitats for fish and shellfish, crucial to sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities.

But that’s just the beginning — mangroves do so much more. In fact, there’s a case to be made that mangroves are the most useful ecosystem on Earth. Here are six reasons why.

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Amazon facing worst fire season on record, expert says

Sunrise from a canopy tower overlooking the Amazon Forest. If something isn't done, these trees could go up in smoke before we know it. (© Luana Luna)

Sunrise from a canopy tower overlooking the Amazon Forest. New technology could help countries and rural communities fight wildfires before they start. (© Luana Luna)

Editor’s note: As the world’s attention turns to Brazil for the upcoming Olympic Games, the region may soon draw attention for a different reason: This year’s fire season is slated to be the worst on record in the Amazon region.

The good news: Technology is getting us closer to fighting wildfires before they start, as Karyn Tabor, director of early warning systems at Conservation International, explained in a recent interview.

Question: Why is this year looking so bad for fire risk in the Amazon region? What does the “worst fire season on record” mean in real terms?

Answer: The past two severe droughts in the Amazon have been predominantly driven by the warming of the North Atlantic Ocean. But this year, the severe drought was driven purely by a severe El Niño and scientists are saying climate change could cause more frequent and intense El Niños.

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The future of Africa in 6 charts

Aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa

Aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa. As the African population grows larger and more urban, preserving a balance between cities and nature will be crucial to sustainabe economic development on the continent. (© grahambedingfield)

The last large source of arable land, minerals and fossil fuels, Africa may also be the continent that is the least-equipped to manage and protect its resources sustainably. If pursued with nature’s value in mind, Africa’s growth could mean long-term prosperity for its people; if not, it could bring unsustainable consumption, resource extraction and environmental degradation.

Here are some of the changes facing the continent.

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Snakes on mysterious island live in trees, impregnate themselves

An endemic gecko species which lives only on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste

This gecko spotted on a recent CI biodiversity survey on the island of Atauro, Timor-Leste, is thought to be found nowhere else on Earth. (© Conservation International/photo by David Emmett)

Editor’s note: In June, Conservation International (CI) conducted a biodiversity survey on and around Timor-Leste’s little-studied island of Atauro. Mark Erdmann recently blogged about the expedition’s ocean findings; today, David Emmett reports on what the group discovered on land.

Lying within sight of Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili, Atauro is becoming increasingly popular as a tourism destination. Yet the island remains very undeveloped (it’s home to only around 8,000 people), and the biodiversity of its grasslands, forests, beaches and fringing reefs is poorly understood.

I visited Atauro in May 2015 as part of a CI terrestrial survey team. This trip found relatively low diversity of terrestrial species but very high rates of endemism, or species found nowhere else on Earth, particularly among the reptiles.

CI Timor-Leste is assessing the marine and terrestrial diversity of Atauro to ensure the most important species and ecosystems are properly managed as part of a sustainable development and ecotourism plan. In June, we returned to the island to conduct a broader terrestrial survey, with a focus on understanding the geographic distribution of a handful of species that live only on this island.

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What we’re reading: Vanishing insects, grass ‘austerity’

Jeweled flower mantis in Prey Lang, Cambodia

Jeweled flower mantis in Prey Lang, Cambodia. (© Jeremy Holden)

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. Vanishing act: Why insects are declining and why it matters

The story: Yale Environment 360 reported on the dramatic decline of the world’s insect populations, citing a 2014 study that listed the leading factors of global decline as “habitat destruction, deforestation, fragmentation, urbanization, and agricultural conversion.” There has been a 45 percent decline of invertebrates over the past 40 years, including pollinator species like bees. In fact, “pollinating insects improve or stabilize the yield of three-quarters of all crop types globally — one-third of global crop production by volume.”

What’s next: Researchers are calling for intensive monitoring efforts to fully grasp the situation. For Jürgen Deckert, insect custodian at the Berlin Natural History Museum, the ability to address the large-scale agricultural issues many see as the cause of global insect decline boils down to this: “The key question is whether governments view biodiversity as an add-on or as something that is of existential importance for our future.”

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Threats to protected areas jeopardize global freshwater supplies

Permanent ponds in Savannah, Guyana serve as important sources of fresh water for locals. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Permanent ponds in Guyana’s savanna grasslands serve as important sources of fresh water for locals. Worldwide, nearly two out of three people on Earth get at least part of their drinking water from protected areas upstream. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: Where does our water come from? For nearly two out of three people on Earth, part of the answer is protected areas upstream from our homes. A paper published in the June edition of Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems presents a picture of the threats facing fresh water supplied by protected areas, and what that means for the billions of people who depend on it.

In this interview, Ian Harrison, the paper’s lead author, co-chair of the Freshwater Task Force of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and Conservation International’s senior manager of freshwater science and policy, explains why it’s crucial that we reduce threats to freshwater ecosystems by improving management of protected areas.  

 Question: What is the key takeaway from your research?

 Answer: Protected areas are an important opportunity for protecting freshwater biodiversity and consequently supplying people with the water they need. But to achieve this, we still need to do a lot more to improve their management.

While a region might be protected, that does not guarantee the rivers flowing through it are safe. There are many reasons for this. The protection might be focused on the terrestrial habitats rather than the freshwater habitats; also, rivers are often at the boundary of protected areas rather than safely within them. Most importantly, the rivers in the protected area can be affected by threats like pollution or dams that occur upstream, outside the protected area, but that affect the water flowing into them. These can be serious threats — so much so, that 80 percent of the world’s population who receive water from upstream protected areas are in fact still receiving water that has been exposed to high levels of threat. Where there is a large population and a high level of development Europe, North America, parts of Asia these are areas where we need to do mitigation and better management of protected areas to improve the quality of water they provide to downstream populations.

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What on Earth is ‘natural capital’?

Macushi girl playing in river in Rupununi, Guyana

Macushi girl plays in a river in Guyana’s Rupununi region. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?”

In this installment, we break down “natural capital,” a concept that could revolutionize the way nature is protected.

What is “natural capital”?

It’s the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources (e.g., plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals) that combine to provide benefits to people.

What kind of benefits are we talking about?

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the wildlife that maintain healthy ecosystems, the forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere and regulate climate — all of that comes from nature.

So natural capital is simply “stuff that nature does”? That seems rather broad.

Here’s another way to think of it: Imagine that nature is a trust fund, and humans are the beneficiaries. Humans live off the “interest” that the fund provides — the air, water, raw materials, carbon storage and its ability to regulate climate and mitigate floods, and so on. If humans keep dipping into the capital — by clearing too much forest, for example — we’re going to see diminishing returns from those dividends, to say nothing of their ability to continue to provide benefits over time.

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