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Early Warning System Is Reducing Human-Elephant Conflict in India

New program uses text messages and LED lights to improve life for both elephants and humans

Several years ago, as a masters student studying ecology, I took a trip with friends to the Anaimalais (literally, Elephant Hills, in Tamil) in the Western Ghats, a mountain chain running down peninsular India. One day we were careening down a hillside to the town of Valparai in the last bus of the day (or rather the night), trying to peer at the shadows the headlights threw up and spot wildlife. It was all very exciting, but I cannot imagine what would have happened if we had come across an elephant standing on the road.

Photo of Elephant in AnaimalaisPhoto by Thangaraj Kumaravel A new warning system in the Anaimalais is reducing elephant-human conflict.

Encounters with elephants and other wildlife in India are not rare. Often, animals enter human-modified landscapes, which the media frequently presents as a case of animals “straying” out of their habitat into human areas, requiring them to be chased back. Of course, these human-wildlife interactions can result in escalating conflict, even leading to death — of both humans and animals — and damage to property. Sometimes the situation gets so bad that authorities are pushed to capture or kill the animal. For example, in February 2015, a tiger in Tamil Nadu was declared a maneater after it killed a farmer and tea estate worker, and was put down. In other cases, the animals are captured and sent to zoos. On occasion, animals like the nilgai (an Asian antelope) are temporarily declared vermin in a specified region and people are allowed to kill them if they enter their property and destroy crops. 

A 2015 Whitley Award-winning initiative in the Anaimalais shows how this conflict can be reduced and co-existence made possible. The program, which focuses on human-elephant conflict, was developed and implemented by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a wildlife and conservation research organization.

Valparai, a town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is an unassuming jumble of houses spread over several hillsides. The 220-square-kilometer Valparai plateau is known for its tea and coffee plantations, created by the British more than a century ago by clearing the rainforest. With the tea industry booming (though the last two decades have seen a reversal of fortunes), human population increased. With growth came roads, construction, and electricity. The plateau …more

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30 Things You Didn’t Know About Rivers

Rivers are the arteries of our planet. They contain only 0.003 percent of the water on Earth but sustain much of her life. Yet rivers are also under threat. The following list offers a brief introduction to their unique ecological, social and cultural value.

Nam Ou 02photo courtesy International RiversThe Nam Ou River in Laos which runs runs 448 km from Phongsaly Province to Luang Prabang Province.

  1. Rivers are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Rivers and lakes sustain more fish species than the sea even though they contain 600 times less water.
  2. Rivers feed us. Freshwater fisheries currently sustain up to 550 million people on a fish-based diet.
  3. Rivers are the cradles of our civilizations. Our most ancient cultures sprang up along rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow.
  4. Dams have fragmented two thirds of the world’s great rivers. They store about 7,000 cubic kilometers or one sixth of the water flowing in rivers.
  5. Rivers shape our planet and have created some of its most beautiful landscapes. Think of the Grand Canyon, the Iguaçu and the Victoria Falls!
  6. We cry to Ol’ Man River, dance By the Rivers of Babylon, and waltz along the Blue Danube. Rivers have inspired great music around the world.
  7. With a length of 6,853 kilometers, the Nile is the world’s longest river. With a mere 27 meters, the Reprua River in the Caucasus may be the shortest.
  8. An estimated 10,000-20,000 freshwater species have been lost or are at risk. 37 percent of the world’s freshwater fish species – including 24 of 26 sturgeon species – are threatened by extinction.
  9. By depositing nutritious silt on floodplains and deltas, rivers have created our most fertile agricultural lands, from the Mekong Delta to California’s Central Valley.
  10. Rivers sustain fish populations offshore. Because of the nutrients they carry to the sea, 80 percent of the world’s fish catch comes from continental shelves.
  11. Rivers unite us. Some 276 rivers flow across more than one country, and their basins …more
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    New Film Documents Indigenous Rights Violations in Malaysian Borneo

    More than 15 years after moving to make way for a mega dam, families are still struggling to make a living

    In 1998 around 10,000 Indigenous people in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, were moved out of their ancestral lands and into the resettlement village of Sungai Asap to make way for the Bakun hydroelectric dam, Asia’s largest dam outside China. As is the case of many resettlement schemes around the world, they were promised a better life: better schools and housing, access to health care, and adequate farmland. They believed that by agreeing to resettlement their children would be able to prosper and integrate into the rapidly developing Malaysian economy. More than 15 years later these families are still struggling to make a living and Sungai Asap has been declared a resettlement disaster.

    A Still from Broken PromisesThe Sarawak government is planning to build 12 more hydroelectric dams which would displace tens of thousands of Indigenous people.

    The 10 acres of farmland per family that the communities were promised turned out to be 3 acres of often rocky, infertile, and sloping land located half day’s journey away from their new homes. Meanwhile, the dam has polluted the Balui River, poisoning their water source and killing the fish they depended on for food and income.

    The resettlement site is surrounded by oil palm plantations and the people no longer have access to their former hunting grounds. To add insult to injury, the transmission lines carrying electricity from the Bakun Dam pass directly over Sungai Asap but the villagers cannot access the power for which they were displaced. Instead, they have to make do with government-managed diesel generators that are often locked because they are unable to afford the expensive costs of diesel. Life before resettlement had been isolated, to be sure, but the Bakun communities were able to farm, fish, hunt, and feed their families, and make a living. Their quality of life has dramatically declined.

    The Sarawak government is now proposing to build 12 more hydroelectric dams, creating similar risks for tens of thousands of Indigenous people, who make 48 percent of the state’s population and comprise many distinct ethnic groups, including Penan, Iban, Kenyah, Bidayuh, Kayan, and Ukit. These communities know what has happened to the people of Sungai Asap, and they are fiercely fighting against the dam construction in order to protect their …more

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    In the Presence of Gorillas

    A stunning, intimate portrait of the greatest of the Great Apes

    Most of us will only ever get to see a mountain gorilla if it’s in a zoo behind bars. But what would it be like to walk among them in the wild? Chris Whittier had a rare opportunity to do just that while serving as the regional field veterinarian for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park from 2001 to 2006. He brought back compelling photos that reveal the individual personalities and group dynamics of the greatest of the great apes. His images are of Virunga Mountain gorillas. Although about a third of them are wild, the rest have been habituated by humans so that they can be monitored closely and receive veterinary care.

    photo of a gorilla on the shore of a crater lakePhotographs by Chris Whittier, D.V.M., Ph.D.“The crater lake at the top of Mt. Visoke on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most spectacular places in Volcanoes National Park. The day I took this photo was the only time I ever saw gorillas up there. It was the Beetsme group of about 25 gorillas. They were known to go up there a couple of times a year, but no one really knows why. There’s not nearly as much to eat up there as in other parts of their habitat, so you have to wonder if they came there for the view too. Bwenge, the gorilla in this photo, came prancing toward me and sort of posed just as the mist lifted over the crater. He’s the third ranked of four silverbacks in the group.”

    photo of gorillas lying on turf in forest
    “There had been reports of a respiratory outbreak and a dead baby in Pablo’s Group, so we went to check on them and recover the baby’s body to test it for infectious disease. It had rained hard the night before so the two moms in this photo, Mtimbili and Tamu, were lounging around with their babies in the early morning sun, warming up. The natural infant mortality rate of gorillas is 30 percent, but because these gorillas receive veterinary care, the rate has dropped to 10 percent, which is a big part of why their population is growing.”

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    Building Islands and Burying Reefs in the South China Sea

    China’s land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands are causing permanent damage to marine habitat

    Island-building isn’t new. San Francisco built Treasure Island in the 1930s for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Miami’s exclusive Star Island was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the 1920s. And of course there are more recent examples, such as Dubai’s infamous Palm Islands.  

    Fiery Cross ReefPhoto courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparncy InitiativeChinese development at the newly reclaimed Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the west side of Spratly Island. China’s island-building boom is widely seen as an attempt to tighten its control over the South China Sea.

    Now, China is fervently adding to that list at an unprecedented rate. For the past 18-plus months, China has been “reclaiming land” in the Spratly Islands, an island chain that consists of more than 200 identified reefs, atolls, islands, and islets in the South China Sea. A half-dozen nations make territorial claims over the strategically important area, and China’s island-building boom is widely seen as an attempt to tighten its control over the South China Sea. So far, China has completed the construction of five islands and continues work on two more.

    So, what does it take to construct an island chain in the middle of the ocean? It involves massive dredging of sand and corals, dumping sand on top of submerged and partially submerged reefs, and constructing giant concrete seawalls to protect manmade structures. China is topping its fully “reclaimed” islands with helipads, airstrips, military support buildings, solar installations, wind turbines, concrete plants, and radar towers, while also adding on harbors, piers, and desalination pumps. 
    In other words, China is burying reefs under sand and concrete. This would be troubling in any context, but it’s especially worrisome in the Spratly Islands. The reefs there happen to represent one of the most ecologically significant marine environments in the world, providing habitat for diverse marine life, including endangered species and larvae of heavily depleted fisheries in the South China Sea.

    Unsurprisingly, the ecological impacts of island-building in the region have been devastating. Accord to Dr. Edgardo Gomez, national scientist in the Philippines and a professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, the immediate effects of the ocean filling activities are numerous, and include “the total destruction of productive coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other shallow marine …more

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    SeaWorld Spy Attended 2014 Orca Conference

    Covert work went far beyond PETA

    The covert work of a SeaWorld employee accused of infiltrating the animal rights group PETA extended far beyond his involvement with any single organization. Former SeaWorld orca trainers have confirmed that Thomas Jones, whose real identity and name, Paul McComb, were revealed by PETA last week, attended last year’s Superpod event, an annual gathering of orca enthusiasts, researchers, and activists in Washington State.

    Killer whale show at SeaWorld, San DiegoPhoto by Jesse MeansIn addition to gaining access to activist circles, Thomas Jones aka Paul McComb used social media to encourage protesters to engage in violence or sabotage.

    On Friday PETA identified three more SeaWorld employees it believes acted as undercover spies.

    In addition to gaining access to activist circles, McComb used social media to encourage protesters to engage in violence or sabotage. In one tweet he said if Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that shattered SeaWorld’s animal-friendly image, didn’t put the company out of business, protesters would “burn it to the ground.” In Facebook message posted before a July 2014 protest, he wrote, “Grab your pitch forks and torches. Time to take down SeaWorld.”

    According to Dr. Naomi Rose, a prominent marine biologist who also attended last year’s Superpod conference, McComb said that he was there because he was “truly dedicated to the cause.” During the weeklong event he joined in on whale watching rides, had lunch with a group of scientists and researchers, and bootlegged the presentation of a draft scientific paper containing sensitive captive orca survival data that researchers had explicitly asked the audience not to post online. 

    One afternoon McComb joined Rose and about seven other scientists and conference participants at lunch. They weren’t discussing anything sensitive, Rose says, but McComb’s presence was notable. He was alone, she says, and tried to be part of the conversation, but everyone thought he seemed strange. “He was very obvious,” she says. “He stood out like a sore thumb.”

    When they asked who he was, he identified himself as “Thomas Jones” and said that he was committed to protecting orcas.

    The earliest evidence to surface thus far of McComb’s efforts to gain access to activist circles is a tweet from August 2012 in which he asked “guys on the Voice of the Orcas website”—the site …more

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    In Review: “Protecting the Wild”

    Essay collection by leading conservationists makes the case for why parks and preserves remain important today

    In recent years, a group of “environmental contrarians” have put out essays and books criticizing the environmental movement’s traditional advocacy for parks and wilderness. They claim the fight to protect these areas is futile as there is no true wilderness anymore, and that some of the species within them are doomed to extinction anyway. The contrarians go further to recommend that humans should manage the global landscape with the goal of fostering human needs, assuming natural cycles should work for our benefit.

    Published earlier this year, Protecting the Wild (edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler; 362 pages; Island Press) is a series of essays aimed at both defending the protection of parks and wilderness and advocating even more protected areas for the sake of preserving biodiversity and the special “services” the environment provides humans, such as watershed protection and sequestration of carbon dioxide. It’s a powerful and impassioned push-back to what is becoming a kind of conventional wisdom among a certain clique of environmentalists.

    book cover thumbnail

    Contrary to the contrarians, Protecting the Wild documents the value of protected natural areas. “With every action to reassert the dominion of beauty, diversity, and wildness over the Earth – each hectare protected, each habitat secured – we tug the universe towards justice,” Tom Butler writes in his impassioned introduction. While creating a national park or refuge does not guarantee that all species native to that area will survive, the species diversity is still much greater than surrounding lands used for utilitarian purposes like grazing or logging. And by expanding these natural areas and providing wild corridors or connectivity between them, their value is greatly enhanced for species survival. In short: We need more parks, not fewer.

    In one essay, Dr. Jane Goodall notes the success her projects have had in working with local villagers in Africa to protect local forested areas for biodiversity while providing the villagers with additional benefits such as improved medical care, education, and food production. The goal is to give local people a strong stake in protecting these local areas that they share. “A central part of the mission of the Jane Goodall Institute …is to conserve the great apes and other primates,” states Goodall. “And this, of course, means conserving the forests where they …more

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