Making the Links: October 2015

(© Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

With Ethiopia experiencing its worst drought in a decade, farmers are resorting to selling firewood and charcoal to feed their families. (© Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

This is our latest post inMaking the Links,” a monthly blog series that connects the dots between nature and people in the news. (To learn more about the goal of the series, read the first post.)

The nature in humans (stories secretly about nature)

Boeing says it created lightest metal ever

To help airlines save fuel — and huge amounts of money — Boeing has created the lightest metal ever, a composite carbon fiber material. Described as “99.99% air,” the material — called microlattice — lays the groundwork for creating new structural components in planes that can reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. 

The link: The structure of this new metal is not unlike that of bones — rigid and strong on the outside but mostly hollow on the inside, and therefore not easily crushed. Nature is full of other examples of efficient design, and for many years, people have been imitating nature’s designs to solve human problems. For example, shark anatomy — from the animal’s skin and tail to its speed — has inspired smart design for products such as watercraft, cars and water turbines. And a shopping center in Harare, Zimbabwe, is famous for its eco-friendly ventilation system that was inspired by termites.

Ethiopia, a nation of farmers, strains under severe drought

With Ethiopia facing its worst drought in more than a decade, the nation’s farmers and herders are reeling from dried-up streams, failed crops and dying cattle — serious issues for a country where more than 80% of the population works in agriculture. To make ends meet, some farmers, desperate to feed their families, have resorted to selling firewood and charcoal.

The link: Unsustainable harvesting of trees to make firewood and charcoal plays a role in climate change, as it is a major driver of deforestation in Africa. Worldwide, deforestation accounts for about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. The article mentions that this year’s El Niño, one of the strongest on record, has reduced rainfall levels across large stretches of Ethiopia, contributing to the severe drought. In fact, some scientists are saying that climate change may cause more frequent — and more intense — El Niños, which could in turn increase the chance of longer and more severe droughts in Ethiopia.

The humans in nature (stories secretly about people)

Prosecutors say this 66-year-old Chinese woman is one of Africa’s most notorious smugglers

Tanzanian authorities detained Yang Feng Glan and charged the well-known Chinese restaurant owner with wildlife trafficking. Officials said she helped smuggle more than 700 elephant tusks out of Africa over 15 years, using her ties to the Chinese and Tanzanian elite to move ivory across the world.

The link: This article discusses the immense damage to wildlife across Africa — but there is also a human toll of the illegal wildlife trade. Highly dangerous, sophisticated and organized, traffickers are killing not only the animals but also the people who are trying to protect them — globally, 29 park rangers were killed in a 12-month period between 2014 and 2015, according to the International Ranger Federation. Poaching and trafficking of elephants and other species also threaten economic growth in African countries that depend heavily on wildlife tourism as a source of jobs and income: A recent study estimated the tourism value of an elephant at US$ 1.6 million throughout its lifetime.  

Palau approves huge Pacific marine sanctuary

To protect its waters from overfishing, Palau announced the creation of a marine sanctuary twice the size of Mexico (500,000 square kilometers/193,000 square miles) — the world’s sixth-largest fully protected area. (Nearly 80% of the reserve will be completely closed off to fishing and drilling for oil.) The move follows a string of recent announcements on new marine parks, by Chile, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

The link: While this article focuses mainly on the importance of protecting the region for its unique environment and biodiversity — it’s home to 700 species of coral and 13,000 species of fish — the announcement is also good news for the 21,000 people of Palau. Around 20% of the sanctuary will still be accessible to local fishermen, who depend on healthy fish populations for food and income — and may, down the road, profit from what scientists call a “spillover effect.” As seen in other marine protected areas (MPAs), the high volume of larvae produced by mature fish within the reserve is often carried into surrounding waters by ocean currents, where they help repopulate depleted ecosystems and create sustainable fisheries. And, as healthier fish stocks overpopulate the MPA, they naturally begin to spill over beyond the borders in search of less crowded habitat to live, feed, breed — and eventually be harvested.

Editor’s note: The daily news cycle by necessity sometimes has to leave out the big picture. However, the more we can train ourselves to see the links between nature and the news, the more aware we’ll be of nature’s central role in our lives — and of the importance of protecting it.

Cassandra Kane is a staff writer for CI. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

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