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US Army Veterans Find Peace in Protecting Rhinos from Poaching

In South Africa, former soldiers are fighting both the illegal wildlife trade and the twin scourges of unemployment and PTSD

The sun has set over the scrubby savannah. The moon is full. It is time for Ryan Tate and his men to go to work. In camouflage fatigues, they check their weapons and head to the vehicles.

Somewhere beyond the ring of light cast by the campfire, out in the vast dark expanse of thornbushes, baobab trees, rocks and grass, are the rhinos. Somewhere, too, may be the poachers who will kill them to get their precious horns.

photo of rhinos in South Africaphoto Frye MaelVeterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife is employing American veterans in the fight to protect South Africa's rhinos.

The job of Tate, a 32-year-old former US Marine, and the group of US military veterans he has assembled in a remote private reserve in the far north of South Africa is simple: keep the rhinos and the rest of the game in the bush around their remote base alive.

The men are not mercenaries, or park rangers — they work for Tate’s Veterans Empowered To Protect African Wildlife (Vetpaw), a US-based nonprofit organization funded by private donations. All have seen combat, often with elite military units, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Though equipped with vehicles, trail bikes, assault rifles, sniper suits, and radios, the most important weapons in the war against poaching, Tate believes, are the skills and experiences his team gained on successive deployments in conflict zones over the last decade and a half.

“We are here for free. We are not going anywhere. Whether it is cold or hot, day or night ... we want to work with anyone who needs help,” Tate says.

The initiative is not without controversy. Some experts fear “green militarization” and an arms race between poachers and gamekeepers. Others believe deploying American former soldiers to fight criminals in South Africa undermines the troubled country’s already fragile state.

But the scale of the challenge of protecting South Africa’s rhinos is clear to everyone, with a rise in poaching in recent years threatening to reverse conservation gains made over decades.

Though rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails, a kilo is worth up to $65,000. The demand comes from East Asia, where rhino horn is seen as a potent natural medicine and status symbol, and is met by international networks linking dirt-poor villages in southern more

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How Our Freedom to Eat Whatever We Want Violates the Animals We Consume

Constraints on Farm Animal Freedoms: Confronting the Surreal

It may seem bizarre to talk about freedom in the context of food animals or to suggest that certain “more humane” alterations to their captive environment, like Temple Grandin’s stairway to heaven, could possibly make them happy. Yet it is worthwhile exploring freedom in this realm, as surreal as it might seem. We’ll see, for starters, that violations of the Five Freedoms are rampant.

photo of chickens raised for slaughterphoto Farm SanctuaryChickens being raised for meat. When densely housed, hens peck at each other and pull out feathers. 

The Five Freedoms are a set of guiding welfare principles drawn up in 1965 in the Brambell Report. These include freedom from fear, hunger, distress, and pain, and the freedom to engage in at least some species-specific behavior. (For example, birds must be able to stretch their wings) Adherence to these animal welfare goals is not enforced and violations do not incur punishment but are, rather, fully accepted as the cost of doing business. Additionally, because the Five Freedoms are typically understood, as by the Brambell Report, as unachievable ideals, failure to achieve them is viewed as inevitable. What happens, then, is that welfare science focuses on minor improvements to caging systems or slaughterhouse design, without really examining the serious deprivations and constraints to freedom that our food-production systems, and our eating habits, impose on sentient creatures. We may proclaim that we should have the freedom to eat whatever we want, but this proclamation sounds mighty selfish in the context of a discussion of how profoundly we violate animals destined for our stomachs.

Animals in intensive-farming systems have essentially no freedom. They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained. Their biological development is controlled by us: they are genetically manipulated to develop in certain ways (nearly always physically deforming and painful) and given highly processed and regularized “feed” (to be distinguished from “food”) to promote quick growth and fatten them up. They certainly don’t have freedom to live a natural lifespan, as nearly all food animals are slaughtered while young, which may be a blessing.

In addition to physical constraints, food animals are unable, for a variety of reasons, to engage in normal behaviors, as individuals and as social beings. They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments. Either they are isolated, or they are housed in …more

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Close to Home

Climate change is a threat to my family history, my home, and my heritage

Fighting climate change is about trying to change probabilities. The probability that a species will go extinct; the probability that powerful storms will drive people from their homes; the probability that coastal landscapes as we know them will be disfigured. I became aware of climate change because I was a conservation biologist, driven to stop the current mass extinction. While this goal still motivates me every day, I have found a more personal connection to the problems of climate change — I am one of millions of Americans whose lives and histories have been attached to the coast.

Boston skylinePhoto by Bill DamonLongfellow Bridge across the Charles River that connects Cambridge and Boston. Cambridge is one of many places along the east coast that are simultaneously connected to the author's family history and imperiled by climate change.

When I was 23, my favorite part of the day occurred around 7 a.m. each morning when I was taking the train on the red line into Cambridge, the city where I was born. The train would cross over the Charles River via the Longfellow Bridge as the sun rose and its light began to sparkle across the water. As I would watch the boats from the windows of the train car, I’d enjoy my brief personal paradise. Cambridge is one of many places along the coast that are simultaneously connected to my family history and imperiled by climate change.

If you get off the train shortly after crossing the Charles, you’ll find yourself by the campus of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), the school every aspiring science nerd dreams of attending. Back when my father was in college, he used to visit his high school friend here and study in the library. My father-in-law attended MIT for his doctorate in chemistry. Even if you never set foot on campus, some of its landmarks, especially the iconic Great Dome, may be familiar to you, especially if you’ve watched Good Will Hunting.

Should the sea level rise to the levels expected by the end of the century, much of MIT’s campus will be underwater.

Sitting on the red line a little longer will bring you to Harvard square. Harvard is where my story as an activist really begins. While I was intensely interested in climate change and had already made the decision to study it, it wasn’t until my friend and prominent activist Chloe Maxmin handed me a flier: “Care about climate change? Want …more

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Saving the Dying Kingdom of Redonda

Restoration program is removing invasive goats and rats from remote Caribbean island, reviving native biodiversity


That was the first word Sophia Punnett-Steele, the Eastern Caribbean projects coordinator for Flora and Fauna International (FFI), used to describe her experience upon initially encountering Redonda, a tiny, 200-hectare island just off the coast of the small twin island Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda. “I couldn’t believe how degraded it was,” she continued, before trailing off. “I had seen photographs and video footage, but...”

photo of Island of RedondaPhoto courtesy of Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora International Redonda, a once-forested island, has been transformed into a "moonscape" by invasive goats.

If one were to view Redonda from a distance, her description appears to be apt. Located 35 miles from Antigua, and 15 miles from the closest inhabited island of Montserrat, Redonda is often described as a “moonscape.” Sharp inclines, with cliffs jutting almost straight down to the sea, give way to its nearly barren landscape.

But despite the sterile surroundings, Redonda is a biodiversity hotspot, hiding secrets in almost every nook and cranny, including at least three species of reptiles found nowhere else in the world, one of which is a yet to be named species of dwarf gecko. And because of these hidden secrets, international efforts are now under way to save the dying biosphere of Redonda.


Redonda wasn’t always a wasteland. It was once a lush and fertile island used as a waypoint for the traveling Indigenous people called the Kalinago (also known as Caribs), who made their way through the islands in dugout canoes, and who had named the island Ocananmanrou before the European settlers arrived to the Caribbean. In 1493, Christopher Columbus spotted the tiny island on his second voyage to the Caribbean. Although he never set foot on it, he named it Santa Maria la Redonda for its round shape, and noted the large number of birds on the island.

At that time, Redonda was an untouched paradise — visited only by the occasional seafarer — home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, including iguanas, borrowing owls, and thousands of birds. By the 1860s, however, the modern history of Redonda began to blossom, ushering in a period of corresponding negative impacts on the biodiversity of the island.

Ironically, it was the large population of seabirds nesting on Redonda that brought about the first permanent settlement there. Every year the birds produced several tons of waste, or guano, which contained the calcium phosphate that was then widely used in gunpowder and …more

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Europe’s Last Major Primeval Forest on ‘Brink of Collapse’

State-sanctioned logging in UNESCO world heritage site may be pushing Poland's Białowieża forest ecosystem to point of no return

Scientists and environmental campaigners have accused the Polish government of bringing the ecosystem of the Białowieża forest in north-eastern Poland to the “brink of collapse” one year after a revised forest management plan permitted the trebling of state logging activity and removed a ban on logging in old growth areas.

photo of Bialowieza National Park Photo by Jacek Karczmarz Logging activity in Poland's Białowieża forest threatens the primeval woodlands that provide habitat to rare species.

Large parts of the forest, which spans Poland’s eastern border with Belarus and contains some of Europe’s last remaining primeval woodland, are subject to natural processes not disturbed by direct human intervention.

A UNESCO natural world heritage site — the only one in Poland — the forest is home to about 1,070 species of vascular plants, 4,000 species of fungi, more than 10,000 species of insect, 180 breeding bird species and 58 species of mammal, including many species dependent on natural processes and threatened with extinction.

“At some point there will be a collapse, and if and when it happens, it’s gone forever — no amount of money in the universe can bring it back,” said Proffesor Tomasz Wesołowski, a forest biologist at the University of Wrocław who has been conducting fieldwork in Białowieża for each of the last 43 years. “With every tree cut, we are closer to this point of no return.”

Logging is prohibited in the Białowieża national park nature reserve, which contains woodland untouched by humans for thousands of years, but the reserve only accounts for 17 percent of the forest on the Polish side, leaving approximately 40,000 hectares vulnerable to state-sanctioned logging.

On recent visits to the forest, The Guardian encountered evidence of widespread logging of trees in apparent contravention of Polish and European law, including many trees that appeared to be more than 100 years old in UNESCO-protected areas, with logs marked for commercial distribution.

“They are logging natural, diverse forest stands which were not planted by humans and replacing them with plantations of trees of a single age and species,” said Adam Bohdan of the Wild Poland Foundation, which monitors logging activity and provides data for scientists working at the Białowieża botanical research station.

photo of Bialowieza National Park Photo by GreenPeace Poland Saplings are planted where old spruce and oak trees were recently logged.

“They are logging in UNESCO …more

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On the Hunt for Burmese Pythons in the Everglades

As nonnative snakes decimate native species, hunters find a role in conservation efforts

“The word ‘Everglade’ means river of grass,” explains our airboat driver, who goes by Alligator Rob. We are out under the hot sun in the middle of the Florida Everglades, or “glades,” and Rob is addressing some engine trouble that has us stalled. He chats while he tinkers. “Not only is it a river, but it is the slowest moving river in the world. It only travels one mile a day. [It’s] 120 miles long, 50 miles wide. This is everybody’s fresh water supply from Pompano Beach all the way to the Keys.” Airboat rides in the Florida Everglades are a classic draw for tourists, skimming over the water and grass, with cameras pointed at the apex predator — the alligator. But there’s another predator now taking over the spotlight — the unwelcome, nonnative Burmese python.

photo of Burmese PythonPhoto by South Florida Water Management District Southern Florida is struggling to reduce python populations. The nonnative snakes are competing with native predators for food.

Since the python population exploded in the late 1990s — by some estimates, there are now as many as 150,000 snakes in the Everglades — these huge reptiles have decimated native wildlife, including, raccoons, marsh rabbits, and birds. According to one study, mammal counts during nighttime road surveys in Everglades National Park decreased substantially for several species between 2003 and 2011, including by 99 percent for raccoons, 99 percent for opossum and 88 percent for bobcat. As populations of these smaller mammals dwindle, the effects can be felt up the food chain, as native predators like panthers and alligators lose their primary food sources. The python issue is yet one more challenge facing the Everglades ecosystem, which once sprawled across more than 6,250 square miles, but has now shrunk by half, and which has been dissected by dikes, roads and canals that have diverted the natural flow fo fresh water.

Desperate measures are required to protect native wildlife, so the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has picked a select group of 25 hunters out of some 1,000 applicants to participate in a pilot python-hunting program this year on SFWMD lands. Other hunts are also taking place throughout the year in parts of Everglades National Park, sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The troublesome snakes seem to have originated from two sources: jaded pet owners dumping their charges, and the destruction of an Everglades breeding facility during Hurricane …more

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Message from Bonn: The World is Committed to Climate Action and Paris Agreement

Countries show that progress will not be deterred by shifting political winds in any one nation

Climate negotiations just concluded in Bonn demonstrated that countries are fully committed to continue global climate action and implement the Paris Agreement. During the two-week meeting, delegates made important progress on an outline for a detailed rulebook (also known as implementation guidelines) for the Paris Agreement and started building a process for countries to take stock of progress, highlight opportunities for action, and create a springboard for enhanced action. Delegates are now well-positioned to deliver a first draft of the negotiating text by the end of the UN climate summit in November, with the aim of adopting the guidelines in 2018.

photo of Bonn Climate TalksPhoto by UNClimateChange Delegates are on track to finalize guidelines for the Paris Agreement by 2018.

Uncertainty about continued US participation in the Paris Agreement did not slow progress in Bonn. If anything, countries were emboldened to move forward and show that international climate action will not be deterred by the shifting political winds in any one country.

The steady progress made in Bonn showed these two weeks was evidence of countries’ commitment to deliver on the progress made at the climate summit in Marrakech last year and finalize the guidelines for the Paris Agreement by the 2018 meeting in Poland, known as COP24.

Designing the Guidelines

At Bonn, countries set out key issues in accounting for finance that countries have provided and mobilized. They also discussed various ways the Adaptation Fund could serve the Paris Agreement and the necessary steps to make this happen. There was progress on developing guidance for regularly communicating adaptation efforts and fruitful discussions on reporting emissions and financial support. Negotiations advanced on how to establish a committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance with the Paris Agreement. Delegates also continued to work through the complicated issues involved in designing a global stocktake (when countries gather every five years to assess progress thus far) that includes all core elements including mitigation, adaptation and finance. There was also clear recognition that all of the elements of the Paris Agreement are linked, and that understanding and mapping these linkages to develop a framework that is coherent and mutually reinforcing is essential to ensure the Paris Agreement reaches its full potential.

The Paris Committee on Capacity Building met for the first time in Bonn. They consulted with stakeholders on how to address the lack of tools, technical expertise and organizational and institutional capacity in developing countries to both contribute to the design of the implementation …more

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