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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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How Butterfly Farmers Are Safeguarding the Forest in Kenya

Community-based conservation project helps transform former loggers into forest advocates

An innovative community-based conservation project that was started more than 20 years ago near the Kenyan coast is paying off. Former illegal loggers are now embracing butterfly rearing as a conservation model, earning money from their butterfly enterprises while safeguarding Kenya’s forest ecosystems.

photo of Orange Dog Butterfly KenyaPhoto by Shever, on flickrIn Kenya, former illegal loggers are earning money by breeding butterflies.

Coastal forests in East Africa once stretched from southern Somalia, through Kenya and Tanzania, and all the way south to Mozambique. However, these forestlands have long suffered from deforestation. Now, Kenya’s Arabuko Sokoke forest, which encompasses 42,000 hectares and is protected as a national forest reserve, represents the largest remaining block of coastal forest in the region.

Arabuko Sokoke is a treasure trove of endemic plants and animals, and is home to some of the most endangered species globally. More than 230 bird species live in the forest, among them rare species including the Clarke’s weaver bird, Pemba sunbird, and Sokoke scops owl. Endangered mammals like the African golden cat, the African elephant, Ader’s duiker, and bushy tailed Mongoose also live in the forest, as do 200 different butterfly species.

But the communities living around the forest have traditionally relied on it for their livelihood. From felling trees for sale to using timber for personal use, the communities for years played cat and mouse with the Kenyan government, which imposed a countrywide ban on logging in all public forests in 1999. Local conservationists, concerned about the impacts of illegal logging on this essential forest habitat, came up with an idea of creating nature based businesses like butterfly farming that would allow surrounding communities to transition to being forest protectors.

“We were losing the forest at a very fast rate,” said Shariff Mwandawiro a local community leader who was among the first butterfly farmers and who conducts conservation trainings in the community. “Dozens of trucks would be packed right inside the forest every day. The sounds of power saws and falling trees never stopped. We had to look for a way to stop it. But it had to be more rewarding to the communities than what they were currently getting.”

In 1993, with funding from the United Nations Development Programme, Kipepeo butterfly project was launched. (Kipepeo is Swahili for butterfly). The program involves introducing and training local communities in butterfly farming, monitoring activities to ensure sustainability of operations, and coordinating sales.

“We wanted the …more

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The Young and the Restless

The story of two giant otters in Peru’s Manu National Park

Cocha Otorongo, Manu National Park, Peru, 1993, 5:15 am. The otters stir in their den. A series of soft cooing sounds, followed by the characteristic “Let’s go” hum, indicates the family is ready to start the day. A moment later, Isla’s parents emerge. Together they visit the nearby latrine, their broad, flattened tails held high, before thoroughly spreading their scat. The circling movements of their forepaws and simultaneous shuffling of their hind legs combine in a comical scent-marking dance. Next, three-year old Isla appears at the entrance of the den. Unlike her parents, she pauses only briefly on the latrine, and is followed in rapid succession by her siblings, all of whom eagerly rush into the water. Their father does the work for them, waddling once more over the latrine to mix their scat. He is the last to leave the den site. The group sets off along the shoreline, just as a gossamer mist lifts from the surface of the water.

Photo by Frank Hajek A giant otter with a fish in Manu National Park.

Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, Peru, 1993, 5:40 am. Dedo awakens. He will not hunt on the lake today. For a while now he has been feeling restless; the urge is upon him to find a mate and raise cubs of his own, in his own territory. It is the end of the dry season, water levels are at their lowest, and fish are readily accessible. After two carefree years with his family, the time has come to leave the only home he’s known. He slips out of the hollow amongst the tree roots where he has spent the night and enters the water. As he heads toward the far end of the lake, he sees his family. They are fishing along the shore and don’t notice him. He swims past them quietly and purposefully, and without looking back, enters the channel that will lead him to the Manu River.

Between 1999 and 2006, my husband, Frank, and I spent many months in the lush rainforests of southeastern Peru, monitoring and helping to protect populations of the endangered and charismatic giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) as part of a long-term and ongoing conservation program initiated by the Frankfurt Zoological Society in 1991. This is the story of Isla and Dedo, two young otters inhabiting the jewel that is Manu National Park, whose life histories became as familiar to us as the lives of favorite characters in a television …more

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