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Could London Become the World’s First National Park City?

Popularity of the idea reflects growing understanding that built environments are a part of the natural world too

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

The emerging explorer and guerrilla photographer for National Geographic, Daniel Raven-Ellison, wants to make London a National Park City. He came up with the idea after visiting the United Kingdom’s 15 national parks in 2013. During the tour he realized a very important habitat was missing from this list of parks: Urban areas. That’s what led him to start the campaign “Let’s make London a National Park City.”

More than 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s population live in towns and cities nowadays. Contrary to what it might seem, Raven-Ellison and his team believe these urban areas — which comprise a rich tapestry of gardens, rivers, parks, woodland, nature reserves, canals, meadows, streams, and lakes — have a deep connection with nature.

London is already one of the greenest cities in the world for its size. About 47 percent of the city is green. It is home to the world's largest urban forest. Its 8.6 million inhabitants share the city with 8.3 million trees, 13,000 different species of wildlife, 3,000 parks, and 1,400 sites of importance for nature conservation.

photo of St. James Park in LondonPhoto by Neil HowardSt. James Park in London, which is one of the greenest cities in the world for its size.

But the general definition of national park is not something that can be applied to a major city such as London. Nor is Raven-Ellison seeking the kind of regulatory powers for the city that traditional national parks have. “We’re looking to come up with a new definition for national park city, which will be a new kind of national park,” he explains, describing this as a semi-protected area, or a patchwork of formally and informally protected areas.

Growing populations create pressures on natural ecosystems that sometimes cannot be managed in protected areas and national parks. The real purpose behind making London a national park city, he says, is to connect people to nature. “One in seven children in London hasn’t been in a national park at all during the last year. This is a great opportunity to connect children to nature in the city,” Raven-Ellison says.

This involvement, he believes, could be crucial to saving ecosystems not just in the UK, but also across the world.

There are 7.3 billion people in the world. The United Nations expects this …more

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Animal Welfare Groups Push US to Classify All Leopards as Endangered

Raising the protection level for leopards would severely curb hunters’ ability to import body parts as trophies

Conservationists have demanded a crackdown on the import to the US of leopards killed by American hunters, in an attempt to replicate the protections introduced in the wake of the furor caused by the death of famed lion Cecil.

photo of leopardPhoto by Scott PresnellAnimal welfare groups have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to calsify all leopards as endangered.

A coalition of animal welfare groups have petitioned the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to classify all leopards as endangered, The Guardian can reveal. This would severely curtail the ability of American hunters to bring home “trophies”, such as leopard skulls, paws or skins, from hunting trips to Africa.

America is a leading collector of leopard parts. According to a Humane Society analysis of data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, US trophy hunters imported parts of 5,575 leopards between 2005 and 2014.

It is unclear how many leopards remain across Africa and Asia but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has warned the species has “declined substantially” due to habitat loss, paucity of prey and targeted poaching for sham medicinal products in Southeast Asia and China that can generate $3,000 for a leopard carcass.

The IUCN states that “poorly managed trophy hunting adds to pressure on local leopard populations”. In 2016, South Africa stopped the hunting of leopards, over concerns that untold damage was being wrought.

Currently, the FWS classifies leopards in northern Africa as endangered and sub-Saharan animals south of Gabon and Kenya as threatened. This distinction, drawn up in 1982 following lobbying by hunters, means that much less scrutiny is placed upon leopard imports from the southern half of Africa.

Buoyed by the success in getting lions classed as endangered last year following the controversial demise of Cecil, a famous Zimbabwean lion who was shot by a dentist from Minnesota, conservation groups want the FWS to extend endangered species protection to all leopards.

The petition states that leopards’ range “is in alarming and precipitous decline, including in southern Africa where leopards are currently listed as threatened.” It adds that the survival of the species is being risked by “Americans engaging in unsustainable trophy hunting and international trade of African leopards.”

The official request, lodged with the FWS on Monday, includes testimony from …more

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Squeezed for Space in the Vast Arctic

Saami reindeer herders hard-pressed by the conflux of rapid climate change and rapid human development

Where are you camped?” asks Mikkel Sara, an elderly Saami reindeer herder as I sit with him watching his family’s herd of some 2,000 reindeer graze.

“On Rypefjell,” I reply.

“Aha. On the Northwest end of the lake, in a shallow dug out?” he asks.

“Exactly,” I remark, a little surprised. I had understood that the Saami were intimate with the land, but this was uncanny.

Reindeer silhouettePhoto by Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse The reindeer silhouette has been a fixture on these mountain ridges for millennia. Their chances of enduring the next century now hinges upon both the herd's and the herder's adaptability in the face of rapid climate change and human development.

“A beautiful spot,” he says somewhat nostalgically, and continues to consider the herd for a long moment in silence. His nine-year-old grandchild dodges adeptly amongst the reindeer, chasing and catching the calves by the antlers. His son stands to the side giving pointers, passing on the ancient knowledge of the trade.

“That campsite you are staying on was my father’s and grandfather’s summer camp. I grew up there,” Sara says, returning from his quiet reflections. “But we don’t use it anymore, there’s too much development.”

I’ve made my way to this northernmost region of Norway to meet with indigenous Saami herders like Sara, who have subsisted in this unsympathetic Arctic environment for generations by fishing, hunting, and herding reindeer. Although their way of life is in many ways dissimilar and incomparable to the societies to the south, I’ve travelled here hoping that their story will provide some insight into the challenges that may lie in wait for the rest of the world in the face of climate change.

Much of the research and media reports we read about climate change talk about the dire, not-so-far-off effects of changes that are unprecedented in human history. A constant barrage of this information can lead to the nerve-wracking experience of “eco-anxiety” — a feeling of being perched upon the precipice of ecological calamity, peering into the dark unknown. I feel that we need something more tangible, a real-world taste of what lies ahead, in order to cope with this kind of eco-anxiety. What if we could locate a unique geographic area that is undergoing dramatic climate change right now — one that is home to a group of people who are facing these challenges head on? 

The Arctic is one of the world’s so-called climate change “hotspots.” Here, temperature increases double the global average …more

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One Man’s Legal Quest to Change How We View Animals

In Review: Unlocking the Cage

Given that I’ve written in great detail about Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to get some animals recognized as “persons,” the basic premise and much of the convoluted legal gymnastics showcased in Unlocking the Cage were not new to me. Nevertheless, even for someone well informed on the subject matter and plotline, the documentary is a compelling watch.

Steven Wise and the NhRP teamPhoto courtesy of Pennebaker Heeds Films/HBOSteven Wise (second from left) and his team at the Nonhuman Rights Project wants to to punch a legal hole through the wall that separates animals from us.

The 91-minute film by celebrated documentarians Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (The War Room, Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back, and Kings of Pastry) follows Wise, founder of NhRP, and his colleagues over the course of three years as they file the first lawsuits aimed at changing the legal status of animals from “things” with no rights to a “person” who possesses, at the very least, the basic rights to life and liberty. 

Wise, who is in his mid-60s, has spent nearly three decades developing the legal strategy for this initiative. He changed the course of his legal career to focus on animal law in 1980 after reading philosopher Peter Singer’s groundbreaking 1975 treatise, Animal Liberation, and experiencing a moral epiphany.

Citing reams of scientific evidence, Wise maintains that cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights that would protect them from abuse. Recognition as legal persons, he says, would protect these animals from being held captive by private citizens, or in zoos, circuses, and theme parks. It would also save them from being subject to invasive experiments in laboratories.

poster of Unlocking the Cage

The NhRP’s focus on these particular species is basically a strategic choice. Given the evidence about the self-awareness and “humanlike” intelligence of great apes, elephants, and cetaceans, and the fact that none of these animals are native to the US, Wise and his team believe there’s a greater chance a judge would be willing to consider granting them special status as nonhuman persons.

The NhRP’s long-term goal however, is, as Wise told me back in 2104, “to punch a legal hole” through the wall that separates animals from us.

Unlocking the Cage picks up the thread of Wise’s …more

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When it Comes to GMOs, the Devil is in the Details

Unresolved safety questions about gene-editing technologies underscore need for caution

While expressing support for the watered-down GMO labeling bill, which was passed by Congress last week and is now awaiting President Obama’s signature, White House spokeswoman Katie Hill told Bloomberg News: "While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, (emphasis added) we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers' interest in knowing more about their food…."

Making these kinds of broad statements about all genetically modified foods being “safe” seem to be a common quirk among even among science journalists who write about  GMOs. There is a tendency to describe genetically engineered crops as though they are just one thing. True, GMOs have many traits in common, but so do planes, trains, and automobiles. Writers who lump them together often ignore important subtleties and distinctions between each GMO crop, how they are created and used, as well as the damaging agricultural practices most of the transgenic crops under commercial cultivation promote.

GMO corn field in KauaiPhoto by Ian UmedaA GMO corn field in Kauai. While a recent National Academy of Sciences study found no evidence that eating genetically engineered food can cause adverse health effects, it also found no evidence that GE traits have provided measureable increases in overall crop productivity.

Consider, for example, this story at Slate.com by William Saletan which proclaims that “there’s no good evidence” that GMOs are unsafe. “The deeper you dig,” he writes, “the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies.”

Saletan could find no room for a single mention of the nagging, unresolved safety questions involving new gene-editing biotechnologies like RNA interference or CRISP/Cas9, or to investigate industry claims about increased crop yields, or to note that while less than a handful of GM crops like the ringspot-resistant papaya (engineered to resist a virus that once threatened to wipe out the fruit from the Hawaiian islands) have definitely helped save a fruit crop, biotech corporations have largely focused on commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton, where the profit margin is higher.  

It’s not that he was crimped for space. He rambled on for 10,000 words, or about three times the length of a long-form magazine article. Although such details can annoyingly disrupt a story’s overall arc, they are newsworthy nonetheless. At the time his article was published (June 2015) the safety of these newer technologies was already generating robust debates among scientists.

You can find …more

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The Right Climate for Learning

Climate change education, and mitigation, in our national parks

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyNational Park Service Ranger Brian Ettling queues up his presentation on climate change with the familiar notes of the 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Ettling, who has served as a seasonal ranger at Crater Lake National Park for 23 years, began developing his talk in 2010.

Like many national parks, Oregon’s Crater Lake is showing the impacts of climate change. Average snowpack has declined by 140 inches, more than 11 feet, since the 1930s. Warmer temperatures have compromised populations of pika, a small mammal that prefers rocky alpine slopes, and favored beetle populations that have killed many iconic whitebark pines that grow on Crater Lake’s rim. Even the clear, deep water of the lake may be threatened, as increased water temperatures may fuel algae blooms.

When communicating these grim facts, Ettling has learned to include a healthy dose of humor. That’s where the characters from the Clint Eastwood classic come in. Ettling calls the pure beauty of Crater Lake “The Good,” the negative impacts of climate change on pikas “The Bad,” and the destruction caused by pine bark beetles “The Ugly.”

Photo courtesy of National Park Service Wildflowers in Crater Lake National Park, where rangers offer climate change presentaitons.

“I firmly believe that if people are laughing with me, they are more likely to listen to a controversial subject like climate change,” says Ettling.

Though he developed his ranger program for Crater Lake, Ettling first confronted the issue in a very real way while a seasonal ranger at Everglades National Park in Florida. Faced with more frequent and violent storms and the threat of sea level rise, Everglades National Park is on the front lines of climate change, and the park’s interpretive staff were among the first in the NPS to proactively educate visitors on the topic.

In 2010, under the leadership of Director Jonathan Jarvis, NPS launched its formal Climate Change Response Program. One of its four directives is to incorporate climate change education throughout the park system.

The first step toward implementing this directive is to educate NPS staff. The NPS has developed training tools to this end, including webinars and a climate change communication toolkit offered through Earth to Sky, a partnership between NASA, NPS, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Seasoned rangers like Ettling have also shared tips for effective communication during conventions and …more

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Rare Leopards Released into Russian Reserve Threatened by a Ski Resort

Three endangered Persian leopard cubs are intended to reintroduce the species to the Sochi area

Three Persian leopard cubs have been released into the Sochi area of Russia’s western Caucasus, a day after UNESCO threatened to deem the area a “world heritage site in danger” because of a planned ski resort expansion.

Photo by Anton Agarkov, WWF-Russia Persian leopards once roamed across the Caucasus mountains.

Persian leopards once prowled across the Caucasus mountains in great numbers but poaching, poisoning and human encroachment wiped out the species in Russia, in the early 20th century.

The new reintroduction plan was intended to lay the foundation for a new population of the charismatic big cats, which are now thought to number less than 500 across central Asia.

But conservationists say that a recent vote in the Russian parliament to weaken environmental protections, and allow new ski trail constructions in Sochi, will cut off a vital corridor to Turkmenistan for the free-roaming animals.

Igor Chestin, the CEO of WWF Russia said: “We had hoped to release these very special leopards into a secure environment. Instead they will enter the unknown. The future of the western Caucasus is hanging in the balance.”

At a conference in Istanbul on Thursday, the world conservation body, UNESCO, warned that the Russian parliament’s vote could have “negative impacts” on the Persian leopards’ reintroduction.

Construction of large-scale infrastructure on the site could lead to its being placed on the list of world heritage sites in danger, the committee agreed. But it declined to do so immediately, despite pleas from conservationists.

WWF Russia says it wants the International Olympic Committee to be more proactive in pressuring Russia to honor environmental promises made at the time of the 2014 winter games in Sochi.

At the time, Russia pledged to expand two protection areas around the world heritage site. Last week however, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, signed off an amendment to allow new ski constructions within the site itself.

The original groundbreaking plan to bring the endangered leopard species back from the dead envisaged 100 big cats returning to the region’s forests and mountains.

These would have followed traditional migratory routes to mate with female cats in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. If the ski resorts are built as planned though, no more than 30-40 big cats will establish themselves in the western Caucasus, Chestin said.

“The development of ski resorts will destroy the connectivity of the protected area between the central and western Caucasus where leopards are still occasionally …more

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