As Indonesia’s dry season looms, a new tool can predict daily forest fire risk

smoke from fire in Borneo, Indonesia

Smoke from fire in Borneo, Indonesia. (© Will Turner)

This blog post was originally published on the World Resources Institute’s blog, Insights. 

This summer, visitors to U.S. national parks and forests will be greeted by Smokey the Bear, the Forest Service’s beloved mascot, delivering a warning about the day’s fire danger. Those warnings are important — signs point to another record fire year for the country. But this summer, many of the world’s most damaging fires may actually occur halfway around the world in the forests and peatlands of Indonesia.

Last year, Indonesia’s forest and land fires emitted more than the entire U.S. economy on a daily basis for half the summer. Toxic smoke and haze afflicted hundreds of thousands, disrupting the economy, triggering respiratory problems and even causing deaths. Could this crisis be averted if Indonesia had its own version of Smokey the Bear’s daily fire danger warnings?

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In wildlife trafficking, organized crime still a step ahead

Gibbon rescued from wildlife trade in Cambodia and placed in a rescue center. (© Conservation International/Photo by Emilie Verdon)

Gibbon rescued from wildlife trade in Cambodia and placed in a rescue center. (© Conservation International/photo by Emilie Verdon)

Editor’s note: Wildlife trafficking threatens species, economies and global security — and it is a lucrative enterprise for organized crime networks. While international efforts to curb trafficking are beginning to see progress, cracking down on these increasingly sophisticated gangs will require more political will, community outreach and boots on the ground, says Keith Roberts, Conservation International’s new executive director of wildlife trafficking.

In the following interview, Roberts weighs in on trends in the field, the mixed role of ecotourism and what regular people can do to fight the problem. Read the first half of this interview. 

Question: How are we doing in the fight against wildlife trafficking driven by organized crime?

Answer: The organized crime syndicates recognize how nicely wildlife trafficking complements their other illegal activities like weapons trafficking, counterfeit products and drugs; in fact, there are documented links between the illegal wildlife trade and terrorist groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army and Al-Shabaab. Law enforcement and conservation agencies rarely have the resources to match those that the criminal syndicates bring and are often left playing catch-up.

Fueling this is the lack of political will and leadership to address the situation. The countries that are showing strong political leadership and support for tackling wildlife trafficking, that’s where you start to see a reduction the crime levels. We have to realize this is an international problem and that multi-country, regional collaboration and initiatives mobilized around specific strategies for implementation are required.

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Little-known reef reveals wealth of unexpected riches, new species

Pseudanthias pleurotania – the square-spot anthia, a typical inhabitant of the deeper reefs of Atauro Island. (Photo © Mark Erdmann)

The squarespot anthias, a typical inhabitant of the deeper reefs of Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

Editor’s note: This post is about the underwater discoveries of a recent species survey. Learn about this expedition’s terrestrial findings. 

Four years ago, after thoroughly surveying the reefs of Timor-Leste’s Nino Konis Santana National Park, I and a team of Conservation International (CI) marine researchers were delighted to spend the final day of our expedition diving around the island of Atauro. Within minutes of hitting the water, I knew this was a special place — healthy corals draping the sheer walls that dropped off into the abyss, with shoals of colorful reef fishes made all the more spectacular by the crystal-clear visibility.

Our whole team hoped for a chance to one day explore these magnificent reefs more thoroughly — and just two weeks ago, our dream came true.

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Across the world’s seas, more refuges for predators

whale shark and snorkeler, Indonesia

A whale shark swims with a snorkeler in Indonesia. Although whale sharks are not prime targets for commercial fisheries, markets for their fins exist — despite the fact that their value in tourism far exceeds the price of their fins. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

On June 15, the Cayman Islands and St. Maarten in the Caribbean became the latest territories to close their territorial waters to commercial shark fishing, raising the number of shark sanctuaries around the globe to 21. Grenada and Curacao also vowed to pass legislation banning shark finning in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) before 2017. This represents an enormous triumph for the protection of marine ecosystems. Here’s why.

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In Papua New Guinea, protection of nature hinges on local support

Man in boat on Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Local man in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. The country’s largely rural population interacts closely with nature every day; consequently, its protection relies on their support. (© William Crosse)

In one of the richest natural environments in the world, a rare step is being taken to empower local people to protect it.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a land of incredible biodiversity, harboring more species per square kilometer than nearly anywhere else on Earth. PNG’s people, meanwhile, are heavily reliant on nature: Many live in remote villages on isolated islands or deep in mountain rainforests, disconnected from roads and electricity, surviving on food from their gardens and the skill of their hunters and fishers. About 80% of the country’s population relies on subsistence agriculture.

Despite its natural splendor, Papua New Guinea is often overlooked by conservation and aid organizations. Poor Internet connectivity and high levels of corruption have kept the country largely isolated from the world; when news does emerge in Western media about PNG, it’s rarely good.

These perceptions can overshadow why Papua New Guinea is such an important place to care for.

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Repost: 5 things sharks do for you

hammerhead shark, Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Hammerhead shark near Cocos Island, Costa Rica. (© Barry Peter/Flickr Creative Commons)

For Shark Week, we’re re-sharing one of Human Nature’s most popular blog posts of all time: “5 things you didn’t know sharks do for you.”

Pop culture has transformed these ocean predators into an animal many people love to fear, but the truth is we’re more of a danger to sharks than they are to us.

In fact, continued declines in shark populations could pose a problem for people, too; here are some reasons why.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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Recent findings illuminate dark world of ‘demon whale-biters’

The sharp teeth of a cookie-cutter shark.

The sharp teeth of a cookie-cutter shark, which feeds off of whales and other animals in the deep sea. (© JSUBiology)

Editor’s note: It’s Shark Week, which means we’re sharing some of our favorite stories about how the lives of sharks and other species — including humans — intersect. Today’s story underscores the many mysteries still hidden in the deep sea. Check out more Shark Week stories here.

A sei whale in search of its next meal sees the glowing outline of a fish. It swims toward the luminescent shape with its jaw open, ready to chomp, when the fish does something surprising: It suctions itself onto the whale with its lips and spins its body around, using its serrated teeth to remove a chunk of the whale’s flesh.

The perpetrator — called the “cookie-cutter shark” for the neat, circular wound it leaves — will bite whales, sharks, tuna — even humans — in its quest for food.

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Whale shark watch: 4 things we’ve learned from tracking the world’s largest fish

Whale sharks in Cendrawasih Bay, Indonesia feeding on baitfish beneath a bagan (lift net) fishing platform.

Whale sharks in Cendrawasih Bay, Indonesia feeding on baitfish beneath a bagan (lift net) fishing platform. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

Editor’s note: To kick off Shark Week 2016, we’re bringing you the latest science news about the world’s largest fish. This blog was co-written by shark researchers Mark Erdmann, Abraham Sianipar and Megan Meyers.

Last year about this time, we wrote on Human Nature about a ground-breaking new whale shark satellite tagging program we had just launched in Cendrawasih Bay, in the Bird’s Head region of eastern Indonesia.

Whale sharks in Cendrawasih are frequently captured inadvertently in fishing nets which target the silverside baitfish that the sharks normally feed upon. Taking advantage of this, we were able to get close to these gentle giants and give them some high tech “bling” — fin-mount satellite tags which transmit their position (as well as depth and temperature data from their recent dives) every time the sharks come to the surface. Fin-mount satellite tags have long been used on other shark species, including tiger sharks and great whites, but were not in common use on whale sharks because the animals are simply too big to easily catch and pull alongside a research ship while attaching the tags. (Check out the video below — shot by Megan Meyers — to see one of these sharks up close.)

 We’ve now had tags deployed on five whale sharks for over a year, and have deployed an additional 11 tags over the past eight months. (Watch the sharks’ movements in real-time on our “whale shark tracker” page.) 

So far the tags have functioned beyond our highest expectations, providing a wealth of new insights into the behavior of the world’s largest fish. Here are four things we’ve learned:

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Building guesthouses — not mines — on South Africa’s Wild Coast

Wild Coast, South Africa

Ever since titanium and other minerals were discovered in 1998 in South Africa’s Wild Coast region, local residents have been battling with mining companies for rights to the land. (© Peter Wollinga)

On the eastern shoreline of South Africa known as the Wild Coast, tensions are at a boiling point. Ever since titanium and other minerals were discovered in 1998 under the region’s famous red dunes, local residents have been battling with mining companies for rights to the land. On March 22, anti-mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was murdered at his home. Other activists have been forced into hiding to prevent a similar fate.

Amid all this strife, a group of women is undertaking a last-ditch effort to hold onto their lands: expanding a tourism eco-lodge and related activities whose long-term income potential could leave mining in the dust.

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For one of world’s foremost fish finders, ‘no better place’ than this dive site

flasher wrasse (Paracheilinus rennyae)

This flasher wrasse species (Paracheilinus rennyae) was discovered by Gerald Allen and Mark Erdmann in 2013. Among the 515 species that Allen has discovered, 11 of them are flasher wrasses. (© Gerald Allen/Conservation International)

Editor’s note: This week Conservation International’s (CI) 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. Many of these species were discovered by the same man: record-setting ichthyologist (and frequent CI collaborator) Dr. Gerald Allen. In this interview, Allen reflects on what he’s seen in his 46-year career. 

Question: You’re one of the world’s foremost ichthyologists. What first sparked your interest in fish? 

Answer: When I was 7 years old, my parents gave me a 5-gallon aquarium and a few tropical fish for Christmas; I’ve been fascinated by these creatures ever since. Fishes took a back seat during my teen years when I had an all-consuming passion for football and other sports, but a snorkelling session at Hawai‘i’s Waikiki Beach in 1963 instantly rekindled my interest in fishes. Fortunately, once the interest was revived I had the good fortune to receive guidance from some very influential people in the world of marine biology during my university days. Continue reading