Kenya’s wildlife tourism, a casualty of COVID, gets a lifeline

This article originally appeared in Conservation News and Global Heroes Magazine on November 19, 2020.

From July to October each year, millions of wildebeests, zebras and other wildlife travel from Tanzania to Kenya’s Maasai Mara region — a phenomenon known as “The Great Migration.”

But the animals are not usually the only ones that flood the region during this time: Typically, thousands of tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to catch a glimpse of this spectacle. 

This year, however, the tourists have disappeared — along with the life-sustaining revenue they provide to wildlife conservancies dedicated to protecting this land. 

Today, these conservancies are receiving a lifeline. 

Conservation International, in partnership with the Maasai Mara Conservancies Association, has established the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, a loan program that will help cover lease payments owed to Indigenous landowners who typically lease their land to conservancies for tourism operations. 

“The fallout in tourism due to the pandemic means communities are struggling,” said Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, who leads Conservation International’s work in Africa. “These lease payments will help ensure the lands that make up the greater Maasai Mara remain wild, and that the communities that count on income from tourism are supported during this global crisis.”

Spanning 4,500 square kilometers (1,737 square miles), the Maasai Mara ecosystem is home to 25 percent of Kenya’s wildlife, including such iconic species as elephants, giraffes and zebras. 

For the Indigenous Maasai peoples who own this land, lease payments by ecotourism operators are typically used to fund schools and health centers and to support wildlife protection efforts. 

However, the loss of lease income due to a halt in tourism caused by the pandemic — and uncertainty on when tourists may return — could force the Maasai landowners to sell or convert their lands to farming, putting wildlife conservation in the region at risk, experts say.

And as recent reports indicate a surge in poaching throughout Kenya since the pandemic began, wildlife conservation in this iconic ecosystem is more important than ever, Onyeka explains.

“There is no insurance policy, there is no social safety set; tourism has always been their only avenue to make money,” O’Brien-Onyeka said in a recent BBC podcast. “What that means is that organized criminal gangs that lead poaching have become the only employers in the area. People [are] raiding nature to survive out of desperation.”

Through the loan program, conservancies across the Maasai Mara will secure short-to-medium-term funding to offset the revenue loss from COVID-19. The loans will be repaid out of future tourism returns and conservation fees that the conservancies collect from tourism operators. 

As a condition of the financial support, the conservancies will be required to implement governance, financial and operational strengthening activities to help ensure their long-term sustainability and build resilience against future external shocks such as disease outbreaks or natural disasters. Further, stakeholders are actively exploring opportunities to diversify revenue streams for this landscape.   

“Most immediately, the funding will provide a bridge of support for conservancies — and the communities that rely on them for income — that face global challenges outside of their control,” said Agustin Silvani, who leads the conservation finance program at Conservation International. “As tourism returns, revenues are expected to be available to pay back the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, although Conversation International anticipates structuring loan terms to provide enough flexibility to weather downturns and ensure the long-term stability of the conservancies. We want the Mara to remain a thriving place for generations to come.”

New science: Saving freshwater species, lessons from China and more

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on November 12, 2020.

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent scientific research published by Conservation International experts. 

1. To save freshwater species, protect land and water 

Combining freshwater and terrestrial conservation efforts can increase protection of freshwater species by up to 600 percent, according to a recent paper.

The planet’s freshwater ecosystems are in crisis: Research found that populations of monitored freshwater species have fallen by 84 percent and nearly one-third of wetland ecosystems have been lost since 1970 due to human activities that degrade habitats and decrease water quality. 

But despite their vital contributions to humans and biodiversity, freshwater ecosystems receive only a small percentage of the funding dedicated to nature conservation, explained Robin Abell, a co-author of a recent review of these findings published in the journal Science, who leads Conservation International’s freshwater work. 

“Freshwater ecosystems connect headwaters with oceans, land with water and people with the resources they need to thrive,” Abell said. “However, they have historically been ignored during the development of conservation initiatives such as protected areas and other management interventions.” 

“Freshwater and terrestrial conservation need to go hand-in-hand to receive the full suite of benefits that nature can provide,” she said. “This will require strong policy that recognizes the connections between terrestrial and freshwater systems and that treats those systems as equal in importance.”

2. Protect nature, slow climate change: A lesson from China 

China’s strategy to divvy up land for protected areas and for human activities has helped to conserve the country’s biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study has found. 

As part of the country’s “ecological civilization” approach, China has implemented “ecological conservation lines” that requires officials to identify areas critical for biodiversity, freshwater conservation and disaster risk reduction, then work with local communities to set aside these regions for protection. This method has been implemented across a quarter of the country. 

“Following a series of catastrophic floods that were exacerbated by deforestation, China realized that protecting nature is also crucial to protecting its people,” explained Sebastian Troëng, executive vice president at Conservation International and a co-author of the study. “Now, they are working to strike the ideal balance between production and protection.”

A part of national climate policies, the “ecological civilization” approach uses nature-based solutions such as forest and wetland restoration projects to help maintain protected areas, while reducing land-use conflict among farmers and businesses by dedicating certain zones to activities such as agriculture and development. 

According to Troëng, this approach can work elsewhere. 

“Ahead of landmark biodiversity and climate conferences in 2021, China’s policy innovations in land-use planning and their approach to protecting nature could offer lessons for other countries in developing integrated strategies on climate, biodiversity and desertification.”

3. Think globally, conserve locally: What makes ‘community conservation’ work?

recent paper offers a new approach to support conservation that is carried out by communities to protect the nature that they depend on.

Such community-based conservation efforts are actually widespread, employed across an estimated 3.7 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) of land around the world. 

Drawing lessons from across different social contexts, the study’s authors analyzed five community-based conservation programs in various regions — from the rainforests of Madagascar to the Great Plains of the United States. 

The study looks into how social factors influence conservation efforts in a local community throughout an entire project — from its establishment to its persistence to the number of people and communities in the region who adopt it.  

What they found: Tailoring a conservation approach to a region’s social, cultural, political and economic conditions was critical to each program’s success.

“The goal of this study is to bring social science theories under one unified lens to help develop and facilitate the most effective conservation projects in a given community,” explained Arundhati Jagadish, a social scientist at Conservation International and co-author on the paper. 

“This framework allows us to learn across different projects, stakeholders and organizations collectively to deliver positive results for both people and nature.”

Newly discovered coral species face uncertainty in Pacific’s depths

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on October 29, 2020.

A team of researchers recently discovered three new species of black coral in the North Pacific — each more than 670 meters (2,221 feet) below the ocean’s surface.  

While the lifespans of these particular species are not yet known, black corals are among some of the longest-living animals on the planet, thriving on the deep-sea floor, where conditions are typically as stable as the perpetual darkness. 

But these conditions may not remain stable for long, according to Daniel Wagner, co-author of this research and a marine scientist at Conservation International. 

Although active mining has not yet begun, mining companies have already started to prospect the deep sea for rare metals and minerals — which could put deep-sea coral and the species they support at risk.

Conservation News spoke to Wagner about how these new coral species could be affected by deep-sea mining — and what must be done to protect them.  

Question: How did you find these new coral species? 

Answer: Given that these black coral species were found hundreds of meters below “scuba diving level,” we needed the help of underwater robots to explore the deep-sea floor. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we used small robots equipped with cameras — known as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) — to collect samples of coral and videos of the seafloor that were broadcasted on the internet in real time. Using the ROVs, we found a variety black coral species on underwater mountains and ridges across a range of deep-sea locations, including around the Hawaiian Islands, California and the high seas waters of the North Pacific. 

Once we had the samples, we were able to determine if they were a new species or not. In birds, you can typically identify a species by the appearance of its feathers or its beak, but for coral, you need to look at their skeletons under a microscope. On the three new species that we found, tiny microscopic features on their skeletons allowed us to differentiate them from other species of coral.

Q: What makes these species interesting?

A: Some recent scientific studies have shown the black corals actually produce bioactive compounds that could potentially be used to fight diseases. In fact, remedies made out of black coral have been used in many cultures throughout China, Hawai‘i and Greece for centuries. Recent studies have found that many black corals harbor compounds that could help us find clues to fight cancer and other diseases. 

Another interesting trait about black corals is their prolonged lifespan. Similar to trees, black corals form growth rings which can be used to determine their age. They are generally long-lived, with lifespans of different species ranging from centuries to millennia. In fact, one black coral species found in deep waters around the Hawaiian Islands has been found to live more than 4,250 years. The reason they can live so long is because they are slow-growing and inhabit environments that have remained stable over very long periods of time.

Q: What could disrupt their environment? 

A: The biggest impending threat to deep-sea corals and other species inhabiting these environments is deep-sea mining. The three new species of black coral species that we discovered were found in the heart of the Prime Crust Zone — an area of the Pacific Ocean with some of the highest known concentrations of commercially valuable deep-sea minerals. The seafloor in this region is carpeted by a thick, black crust that contains manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel, platinum and other trace metals — and many mining companies are eager to start prospecting it. The problem: Research indicates that deep-sea mining is likely going to have devastating impacts to marine biodiversity. In essence, deep-sea mining requires large machines to scrape the seafloor, killing any fish, coral or small creatures living there. And that is just the most immediate impact — there are more indirect impacts from the sediment plumes, light, toxins and noise generated by deep-sea mining that will negatively affect marine life far beyond actual mining sites. If deep-sea coral reefs and other species are affected by this process, it will take an extremely long time for them to recover — if they can recover at all. 

Q: What can be done?

A: More time is needed to study the deep sea and increase our understanding of the risks associated with deep-sea mining. Currently, only 20 percent of the deep seafloor has been mapped, and even in that small area, we’ve found a wealth of marine life, including more than 116 coral reefs flourishing throughout the high seas. There are many other high-biodiversity areas throughout our ocean that have yet to be discovered. Before any deep-sea mining takes place, we need to understand where the most vulnerable and special ecosystems are located, so we can protect them.

Notes from the field: Sun-powered water, COVID and fishing, and more

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on October 22, 2020.

Though news headlines about the state of the planet may seem bleak, they don’t always capture the whole story. Right now, around the world, the work of protecting nature and the climate is happening in the field — and achieving small triumphs that don’t make the news. 

Here are three recent conservation success stories you should know about. 

1. Sun-powered water quenches a parched community 

Five hours from the nearest city, a tiny mountaintop community in the Philippines has long lacked easy access to water. 

With help from Conservation International, they’re now turning to an unlikely solution: the sun.

In partnership with Conservation International, utility company Source Global recently visited the community of Binta’t Karis, on top of Mount Mantalingahan, the highest point in the province of Palawan, to install an array of hydropanels — technology that uses solar energy to absorb water vapor from the air and filter it into drinking water. 

These panels will provide more than 40,000 liters (10,566 gallons) of drinking water annually to the 100 students, teachers and families at the Binta’t Karis Elementary School. It will also preclude demand for 2 million plastic water bottles over the life of the panels. 

“In Palawan’s highlands, access to basic water services for the Indigenous communities is poor, and water-borne diseases remain prevalent,” said Enrique Nuñez, who heads Conservation International’s work in the Philippines.  

“Providing clean, healthy fresh water that is easy to access will improve health and will allow those who previously dedicated time to collecting water, predominantly mothers and teenagers, to focus on other activities that benefit themselves and their families.”

2. Battered by the pandemic, small-scale fishers get a lifeline 

Demand for seafood has plummeted since COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect around the world — and small-scale fisheries are struggling to stay afloat, a recent study found. 

Despite lacking proper gear to protect against COVID-19, many small-scale fishers in communities on Santa Cruz island of the Galápagos, have been forced to continue working to feed their families and make up for ongoing financial losses. 

“Small-scale fisheries make up more than 90 percent of the global fishing industry,” explained Marco Quesada, the senior director of Conservation International’s oceans program in the Americas. “Unfortunately, many of these fishing communities are vulnerable to environmental and economic shifts, and often lack the health infrastructure to protect fishers against disease spread and infection.” 

To support them, Conservation International, the Blue Action Fund and the Helmsley Charitable Trust recently teamed up to provide food baskets and equipment kits filled with protective gear such as suits, masks, goggles and gloves to the small-scale fishing communities in Ecuador. These kits will help protect more than 60 fishers and their families, as well as 31 park rangers who work directly on the docks to monitor fishing activities. Similar efforts are being carried out in Costa Rica, Colombia and Panamá. 

“Without small-scale fishers, many people around the world would struggle to get access to their main source of protein,” Quesada said. “It is crucial to support these communities, because they are the backbone of the economies of coastal areas in Latin America.” 

3. An island nation pledges to protect its waters

For the people of Samoa, the cerulean waters that surround their Polynesian island provide nearly everything they need to live — from food to traditional medicine to livelihoods. 

Not only is the ocean crucial to their survival, it is also central to their identity.

To conserve these waters — and preserve their culture — the island nation’s government recently launched the Samoa Ocean Strategy, a plan to protect 30 percent of its 132,306-square-kilometer (51,000-mile) ocean jurisdiction. Developed in collaboration with Conservation International, the strategy also outlines steps underpinned by traditional knowledge and science to improve sustainable fishing practices, conserve coral reefs and support ecotourism. 

“The Samoa Ocean Strategy delivers a comprehensive pathway to sustainable management of Samoa’s ocean and marine resources,” said Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan. “For generations, Samoa has recognized the Pacific Ocean as the source of its social and economic wellbeing, recreation, fishing and as a deep spiritual connection with the rest of the world.”

To ensure that these waters will continue to be protected by future generations, the Samoan government, the Samoa Voyaging Society and Conservation International also developed an environmental educational program using the traditional Polynesian canoe as a floating classroom. By incorporating traditional knowledge into the islands’ national curriculum, this program aims to teach students about the importance of the ocean — and how to protect it. 

“This bold commitment values the role of oceans in the wellbeing of its people now and into the future,” Sanjayan added. “[It] is a beacon of hope for our oceans.”

Meet a scientist: the scuba specialist

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on October 7, 2020.

Edgardo Ochoa is the marine and diving safety officer at Conservation International, where he has logged countless hours underwater helping marine researchers stay safe at sea. 

Conservation News spoke to Ochoa about his shark encounters, the dangers of decompression sickness and his passion to prevent a plastic-filled future for the world’s oceans. 

Question: What inspired your love of the ocean?

Answer: I have a fascination with fish — I just get lost watching them. When I did my first dive at age 12 in the Pacific coast of Mexico, I spent hours snorkeling virtually motionless, observing every vibrant angelfish, curious sea turtle and graceful shark that swam by me. Since then, I’ve done more than 5,000 dives, spending around 4,000 hours underwater (not including the time I’ve spent in swimming pools training) and spotting new marine life is still my favorite part of every dive. 

Q: How did you turn your fascination with fish turn into a career? 

A: My father always encouraged me to follow my passions and step off the beaten path when it comes to careers, so I chose to study marine biology in college. While I found it interesting, I realized that I was more obsessed with spending time underwater and supporting other scientists than working in a lab myself. Eventually, I decided to dedicate my time to helping people do better research by diving safer and more efficiently. After a couple decades of managing diving programs for institutions that purely focus on research, however, I realized there was something missing: conservation. I wanted to be part of an organization that both does the research, then immediately uses their findings to implement programs to protect the ocean and the communities it supports — which is how I ended up at Conservation International. 

Q: As a diving safety officer, have you ever had any dangerous moments underwater? 

A: Yes, but nothing I have not been prepared for. I would say that I am a positive person, but I am also the one who always thinks something is going to go wrong. However, I have had a lot of exhilarating moments that might have scared some people. 

For example, I spent several days diving with Conservation International staff and local partners on an expedition to Cocos Island, Costa Rica — an area known for its abundance of sharks. One morning, I was with two other staff members during a safety stop when a 15-foot-long (four-meter-long) female tiger shark approached us, coming so close that I could have reached out to touch it. While my colleagues cautiously stayed back — one even used the other as a shield against the shark — I managed to snap some great photos. To this day, my colleague insists that she just moved away and denies using anyone as a human shield — don’t worry, I believe her. 

Q: Other than shark encounters, what else do divers have to look out for?

A: A much more realistic fear for divers than a shark attack is decompression sickness — commonly known as “the bends.” This occurs when there is a rapid decrease in the pressure surrounding you, which can form bubbles in your blood that can cause severe joint and bone pains. As a diver, it is crucial to gradually ascend toward the surface after a deep dive because of the pressure differences at different depths. One of the only ways to treat the bends is through a hyperbaric chamber, which is basically a big metal tube where the air is more pressurized than normal air at sea level. In this chamber, doctors can treat divers to help return their body’s tissues back to normal. 

As a diving safety officer, it is critical that I always know where the nearest medical facility and hyperbaric chamber are on every expedition because each minute you waste in between the incident and treatment can cost your life. A few years ago, on an expedition to Fiji, the only two hyperbaric chambers in the entire region were broken so I actually had to modify the entire dive plan to ensure that no one was going too deep or staying underwater too long. Knowing this information may have prevented several incidents on that expedition. 

Q: What has been your favorite dive? 

A: Everyone asks me what my favorite dive location is and I always have the same answer: the next one. My favorite thing about the ocean is that everything is connected — even in the most unique ocean geographies I’ve visited, each fish or underwater creature plays a role in keeping the entire ecosystem balanced. Humans are connected to the ocean, as well. It provides us with food, supports millions of livelihoods and is home to some of the planet’s most spectacular biodiversity. 

Unfortunately, this means that our bad behaviors are also connected to the ocean. Driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is turning parts of the ocean into hot, acidic and lifeless swathes of water. On top of this, nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic and waste are dumped into the ocean every year, where it can be ingested by seabirds and fish that confuse it for food. But humanity can help prevent this plastic-filled future for our oceans. 

Q: How? 

A: Part of my job is to share techniques with divers and our partners to help them give back to the ocean every time they dive. I recently co-authored and developed a new course with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors to teach divers how to safely remove waste from the ocean while they are underwater. There are more than 6 million active recreational divers worldwide. If everyone picked up just one piece of abandoned fishing gear or trash each time they went diving, it would be a monumental benefit to the global initiative to clean up the ocean. 

But you don’t have to be a diver to help clean up trash. Nearly 80 percent of the waste that pollutes the sea comes from land, so even if you don’t live anywhere near the ocean, your trash if probably still finding its way there. Whether you are on strolling through the streets or walking along the beach, try to pick up and properly dispose of waste wherever you spot it.

Study maps climate potential of letting forests be

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on September 23, 2020

Humanity has cleared nearly half of the world’s forests.

But what would happen if we let many of these lands to return back to forests — and how much climate-warming carbon would they absorb?

Knowing the places where restored forest cover could have the greatest climate impact could help decision-makers prioritize where to simply let forests be. 

That’s what a team of researchers, including Conservation International climate expert Bronson Griscom, set out to discover. Compiling more than 13,000 measurements of carbon captured in regenerating forests worldwide, they used artificial intelligence to project how quickly deforested areas could grow back naturally — and how much carbon they might absorb if they do. 

The result is a global map that pinpoints exactly which forest areas have the most potential to help humanity combat climate change over the next 30 years if they are simply left alone to function as nature intended.

And according to the map, restoring tropical forest cover might offer an even bigger climate opportunity than previously thought. 

Underestimated potential

In 2017, a team of scientists led by Griscom determined that nature could contribute at least 30 percent of the carbon emissions reductions necessary to keep average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit). By “nature,” the researchers meant the conservation and restoration of what are called “high-carbon ecosystems,” such as forests, peatlands and mangroves.  

The new study focuses specifically on the forest restoration aspect.

The rate at which forests regrow naturally and absorb carbon varies widely based on their species, their climates, soils and landscapes. 

But what the new study found is that tropical forests in particular can regrow up to 32 percent faster — and capture significantly more carbon from the atmosphere — than scientists previously estimated. 

“Before this study, there had always been a gap in information about the amount of carbon that could be absorbed by forests at a regional level — we only had broad global estimates,” Griscom explained. “This map now shows forest regrowth rates at a 1-kilometer resolution. It’s like we just walked out of our optometrist’s office with improved eyesight — we have a much clearer, more detailed picture of how fast forests can soak up carbon.”

With this information, countries can now identify where forest restoration efforts will provide the highest returns on investment, ensuring long-term carbon capture, Griscom added. 

“There’s been lots of excitement about natural climate solutions in the past few years, and the challenge now is harnessing that excitement into action. Right now, less than 3 percent of existing financing for climate mitigation goes to nature — which means that we are massively underinvesting.  

“This new dataset is a pivotal tool for determining where to target our restoration investments so that we can get the most bang for our buck, while re-greening the planet.”

In high seas, scientists see a lifeline for coral reefs

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on September 14, 2020.

The vast, underexplored seas covering much of the planet could be the key to saving what remains of a more familiar undersea feature, a new study finds.

The “living rock” that thrives in tropical shallows around the world, coral supports a quarter of all marine life. Yet around 20 percent of the world’s coral is already gone, and most of the rest is severely threatened by climate breakdown, overfishing and pollution.

Now, a deep dive into history on the “high seas” — the waters that lie beyond maritime borders — is providing a ray of hope for the world’s reefs: Combing through historical data and more than half a million records on the distribution of corals worldwide, researchers identified more than 116 coral reefs flourishing throughout the high seas.

Conservation News spoke to the study’s lead author, Daniel Wagner, a marine scientist at Conservation International, about the scientific allure of the high seas and what this discovery could mean for the world’s dying reefs.

Question: Why is this discovery so important?

Answer: Most people perceive the high seas as an ocean desert: barren, lifeless and mysterious. This study shows that the high seas are more than just the blue carpet of nothingness that you see from an airplane window. After compiling and analyzing coral reef records from a range of sources — including museum collections, underwater surveys and scientific databases — we discovered an array of marine life teeming below the surface of this unexplored region of the ocean.

Specifically, our study looked for “reef-building” coral species on the high seas, which build up massive layers of calcium carbonate and combine with other organisms to form fully functioning reef ecosystems. Just like an enormous tree creates habitats for thousands of birds and insects, these coral species create habitats for a wide variety of fish and bottom-dwelling creatures.

Q: Where did you find most of them?

A: Our study revealed that most of the coral reefs on the high seas grow on structures with steep topographies, including underwater mountains known as seamounts. For example, there are two underwater seamount chains that stretch across 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) of the South Pacific, from the coast of Peru to Easter Island in Polynesia. In the high seas area of these mountain chains, several peaks come to within a few hundred feet of the ocean’s surface, where we found several species of reef-building corals.

One important aspect of our study is that although we were limited by what historic data is available on the high seas — which is minimal — we were still able to identify high seas reefs all over the world. This means that we are just looking at the tip of the iceberg; if we were to target explorations using deep-sea submersibles and other modern technologies, I am certain we would find many more reefs and a wealth of marine biodiversity across the high seas.

Q: How do coral reefs on the high seas differ from other coral reefs closer to shore?

A: Most of the reef-building coral species we found on the high seas were deepwater species and look very different from what you might find in shallow-water tropical reefs such as the Florida Keys or the Great Barrier Reef. Although not as bright and colorful as the reefs most are familiar with, these deep-sea environments are just as biodiverse and essential to the health of our oceans as surface reefs.

Due to their remoteness, coral reefs on the high seas are largely isolated from many of the human impactsthat near-shore reefs closer to civilization face, including climate change, coastal development, overfishing and pollution. As near-shore coral reefs become increasingly degraded, coral reefs on the high seas will provide critical refuges for marine life that depend on these ecosystems, while helping to “reseed” degraded coral populations closer to shores. Therefore, protecting these coral reefs on the high seas is extremely important because they might be our only lifeline when the reefs on our doorsteps start to disappear.

Q: If coral reefs on the high seas face fewer threats from near-shore human activities, then what are we protecting them from?

A: Two of the biggest threats to coral reefs on the high seas are deep-sea mining and destructive fishing practices such as deep-sea trawling.

Along with an array of unique marine species, precious and rare metals such as manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and more can be found on the deep-sea floor — and many mining companies are eager to start exploring these areas. The problem: Research shows that deep-sea mining is likely going to have devastating impacts to marine biodiversity. In essence, deep-sea mining requires large machines to scrape the seafloor, killing any fish, coral or small creatures living there in the process. And that is just the most immediate impact — there are more indirect impacts from the sediment plumes, light, toxins and noise generated by deep-sea mining that will negatively affect marine life far beyond actual mining sites. These conditions are bad in any ocean ecosystem, but particularly dire in the deep sea because most of the coral and fish in these environments live over hundreds or thousands of years and are accustomed to stable conditions, similar to the redwood forests of California. If destroyed, it could take thousands to millions of years for these ecosystems to recover — if they can recover at all.

Q: So how do we protect them?

A: More time is needed to allow for a better scientific understanding of the risks associated with deep-sea mining. The deep sea covers the biggest portion of the world and hosts up to 10 million species. Several mining companies are already prospecting deep-sea minerals and are ready to start mining if regulations pass. For example, one coral reef in international waters off the coast of Brazil documented by our study is located only 56 kilometers (35 miles) away from an active exploration contract for deep-sea minerals. Before any deep-sea mining takes place, we need to understand where the most vulnerable and special ecosystems are located on the high seas, so we can protect them. If these ecosystems are lost as a result of human activities, they will likely be lost forever.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr/Kyle Taylor

Indigenous leaders: To tackle climate change, ‘we must first address racial inequality’

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on August 6, 2020.

For centuries, social injustices against Indigenous peoples have hindered their ability to conserve the nature they depend on. 

As countries shrink or eliminate areas set aside to protect nature in the name of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous peoples are even more vulnerable to the virus and to the impacts of harmful activities such as mining and logging.  

For insight into how Indigenous peoples are fighting for their lands during lockdown — while simultaneously addressing deep-rooted racial inequality — Conservation News tapped two Indigenous leaders at Conservation International: Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous group in the Philippines; and Johnson Cerda, an Indigenous Kichwa of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Question: How has the pandemic impacted your communities?

Minnie Degawan (MD): For my peoples, closing off the community to the outside world is actually a common practice known as ubaya — a time of rest before or after the fields are prepared for planting and harvesting. Since we already have this protocol in place for agricultural seasons, we are also prepared for when we need to lock down for other reasons, including disease outbreaks such as the Spanish Flu in 1918. 

Since my peoples are very community-minded, everyone respects lockdown restrictions and follows social distancing rules to ensure the health of the entire group, rather than having an individualistic mindset — which is why I think it has been so effective. We are currently COVID-free, but many other Indigenous peoples around the world are being severely impacted by the virus — and are struggling to find access to basic health services and hospitals. 

Johnson Cerda (JC): The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many Indigenous groups in the Amazon, especially in Brazil. Not only are many people dying from the virus, coronavirus-related restrictions have impacted local economies, cultural practices and food security. Under normal circumstances, my peoples’ traditions often bring everyone together in one place and are led by our elders, who provide guidance and information about traditional medicine. Now people are isolated in their own farms and several of our elders have passed away from the virus. Despite efforts to social distance, remote Indigenous communities are still exposed to the virus because many oil and mining companies have continued to tear through the forest throughout the pandemic and some of the workers from the city are unwittingly spreading the disease. This could leave isolated Indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19 due to their lower immunity — the result of limited contact with diseases from external sources, research shows. During isolation, it has also been extremely difficult for our peoples to maintain their farms and go out into nature to hunt or gather food.

Q: Can you talk more about your community’s relationship with nature? 

JC: Many Indigenous communities rely on nature for everything — from food and water to their livelihoods and culture. Though they account for only 5 percent of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples use or manage more than a quarter of Earth’s surface and protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Indigenous peoples manage 35 percent of intact forests and at least a quarter of above-ground carbon in tropical forests. 

Because of this intimate relationship with nature, we are the first ones to feel the impact of the climate crisis. 

For example, climate change has had a strong impact on the Amazon’s rainy season, which lasts from December to May. In my region of Ecuador, the rainy season typically causes floods along the river, which we have learned to control and take advantage of to fish by using traditional knowledge from our ancestors. Now, the floods have gotten too strong and are drowning our farms and starting to impact communities further upriver, who are not prepared for the influx of water. As these extreme weather events have become more frequent, it has been more difficult to grow crops, which has increased food insecurity amongst Indigenous peoples.

MD: What’s not discussed as much is the impact that climate breakdown has had on our cultures. My community originally created our calendar based on the native wildlife surrounding our home to help keep track of agricultural and hunting seasons. Within the past decade, most of the wildlife featured in this calendar has disappeared from the area due to climate change and habitat loss driven by deforestation. The loss of this biodiversity could also mean the loss of traditional knowledge for future generations, which could eventually result in the disappearance of distinct cultures of Indigenous peoples, as well.

Q: Where do Indigenous peoples fit into the current dialogue about global racial inequality? 

MD: The root of all racism is power imbalance. Within the environmental movement, Indigenous peoples are often seen as beneficiaries of nature conservation projects, instead of partners. The reality is that most of the initiatives to protect nature could not succeed without Indigenous peoples. Until Indigenous peoples have a seat at the table when it comes to how their lands are used or managed, they will continue to be subjected to racism.  

JC: One of the biggest issues facing Indigenous peoples is the difficulty of maintaining rights to their own lands. In some places in the world, it’s not easy to ascertain who has the right to manage land, or even who has the right to live there. For example, many Indigenous groups live on lands that are governed not by formal laws but by informal “customary” agreements — their historical association with the land is the basis of their “right” to manage it. This lack of formal, legally binding land rights can expose these communities to racism and environmental destruction. Although Indigenous peoples have been protecting nature since time immemorial, this lack of land rights makes it easier for governments and conservation organizations to come in and make their own decisions on how to manage or protect the land — without input from local communities. To effectively slow climate change and protect nature, we must first address racial inequality. 

Q: What steps do governments and environmental organizations need to take to address these inequalities?

MD: The environmental movement as a whole has a long way to go to address racism, but people can start by recognizing how much Indigenous peoples have done for conservation and by acknowledging the errors made against all people of color along the way. There must also be more Indigenous peoples in positions of power throughout environmental organizations to help assert their voices when making decisions about their land. The only way to gain trust with Indigenous communities is if these steps are followed up with concrete action in the field. For example, in the Philippines, Conservation International is helping Indigenous peoples develop management plans for their ancestral domains by providing technical support, but it is the communities themselves who are creating the plans because they know what is best for them and nature. 

JC: The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples came about in 1994 to draw attention to Indigenous peoples’ constant struggle for land rights, which is still a problem today. Rather than trying to take over lands or make all of the decisions of how to protect a certain area, governments and environmental organizations must instead work with Indigenous peoples to ensure that everyone’s interests are taken into account. Indigenous peoples have centuries worth of traditional knowledge to contribute to the fight to stop climate change and biodiversity loss. We all want to achieve the same goal — and the first step is making sure our voices are heard.  

3 ways to prevent the next pandemic with nature, according to science

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on July 23, 2020.

From testing to hospitalizations to economic recovery efforts, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are projected to cost the global economy US$ 5.6 trillion dollars this year.

new study published today in Science outlines a groundbreaking plan to decrease the risk of future pandemics by 27 percent or more — with a 10-year investment that is 50 times less than the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date.

Developed by a group of public health experts, ecologists, economists and epidemiologists, the strategy is three-pronged: reduce deforestation, restrict the global wildlife trade and monitor the emergence of new viruses before they spread.

To understand why protecting nature is key to saving the global economy — and countless lives, Conservation News spoke to three of the study’s co-authors: Conservation International scientists Lee Hannah, Jorge Ahumada and Patrick Roehrdanz. 

1. Reduce deforestation 

Over the past century, two new animal-borne viruses have emerged from nature every year — and these numbers are expected to skyrocket over the next decade. 

According to experts, deforestation is largely to blame.

Research shows that land-use change — such as development or agricultural expansion — is the single largest driver of emerging disease. As humans encroach deeper into the undisturbed forest, they are also exposing themselves to animals and the diseases they carry — a process known as “virus spillover,” Hannah explained. 

“Whether it is someone hunting for bushmeat or shopping at a wild animal and fish market, virus spillover can happen any place where there is wildlife, especially in the tropics,” Hannah said. “The risk becomes even higher when countries cut down forests to make room for roads, agriculture or infrastructure because they are also creating new edges of the forest — which can increase exposure to animals with diseases that can infect humans.”

Reports show that deforestation climbed by 3 percent in 2019 — with the planet losing a soccer-field sized chunk of tropical forest every six seconds. 

But not all hope is lost — if countries invest in strategies to dramatically decrease deforestation, Roehrdanz says.

“Just 10 percent of tropical forests hold more than half of the global risk for zoonotic disease emergence or ‘spillover’ from animals to humans,” Roehrdanz explained.  “An upfront investment in reducing tropical deforestation now could save us billions of dollars down the line by preventing the next pandemic.”

The new study concludes that investments between US$ 1.5 billion and US$ 9.6 billion could decrease deforestation at a rate that would reduce the risk of forest loss-related disease spillover by 40 percent in high-risk areas. The strategies will to reduce deforestation vary by country based on political, economic and environmental factors. 

“Decreasing deforestation does not have to come at the cost of economic growth,” Hannah explained. “In fact, implementing sustainable strategies — such as getting rid of agricultural subsidies that support the widespread clearing of land — could actually save countries money.” 

For example, in the Alto Mayo region of Peru, what was once the most highly deforested area in the country is now protected by more than 848 local coffee-farming families who directly benefit from the sale of carbon credits and sustainably grown coffee. With support from Conservation International, these REDD+ carbon projects reduce deforestation, while providing alternative sources of income for small-scale farmers — without sacrificing profit.

Overall, the study found that reducing deforestation could offer an additional annual savings of US$ 3.7 billion by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the damage they cause as climate change accelerates. In fact, investments in deforestation for disease control would actually offer a net gain when climate change benefits are taken into account, Hannah added.

“To help prevent the next pandemic, it is crucial for countries and businesses to incentivize protecting forests rather than destroying them,” he said.

“Not only is this good for public health, it will help slow climate change.” 

2. Limit the global wildlife trade 

Described by many scientists as “hotbeds of disease,” markets that sell wild animals have likely been the origin of several zoonotic illnesses, including COVID-19 and the 2003 SARS outbreak

But these markets are just the tip of a (multi-billion-dollar) iceberg: the global wildlife trade. 

Driven by demand for wild animal delicacies or the exotic pet industry, the global wildlife trade generates US$ 23 billion every year. But these indulgences come at a cost to public health, Ahumada explained.

“The wild animal trade puts species in contact with other species — and other diseases — that they likely would have never encountered naturally in the wild. 

“As soon as these animals are traded internationally, the risk of a small zoonotic disease outbreak turning into a full-blown pandemic suddenly increases exponentially.”

According the new study, the first step to preventing this is by banning the national and international trade of species that have a high risk of spreading disease, such as bats and pangolins. 

The second step? Making sure those policies stick. 

In light of the public health crisis, China announced in March 2020 a ban on wildlife trade and consumption for food, which could decrease demand for wild animal parts worldwide. But enforcement is just as crucial as the ban itself, Ahumada said.

“The farming industry in Southeast Asia is often used as a cover to funnel animals from the illegal wildlife trade into the global market unnoticed. We need to fund organizations that know how to track and enforce wildlife trade bans so that they can have a long-term impact on disease prevention.”

At a global level, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) is responsible for monitoring the wildlife trade, while regional networks — known as WENs — enforce regulations locally. To effectively tackle the illegal wildlife trade, however, these organizations’ budgets must increase by at least US$ 250 million per year, the report states.

3. Increase early virus detection

On December 31, 2019, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Wuhan, China. However, recent research revealed that the virus had already been raging through the city undetected since November, triggering a pandemic that would soon spread to every corner of the world. 

According to Hannah, the key to preventing these silent outbreaks is investing in research programs to detect disease spread at its source as soon as it arises. 

“There is a significant underreporting of human exposure to zoonotic diseases around the world,” Hannah said. “We need to actively track and stop virus spillover in areas where people are in high contact with wildlife, including farms and ranches, because zoonotic diseases such as swine flu and bird flu can emerge from human-livestock contact.”

Organizations such as the EcoHealth Alliance are already running programs to monitor zoonotic diseases, but are unable to expand surveillance at a global scale due to limited funding. The report found that an investment of at least US$ 1.5 million per agency would offer a significant return on disease prevention. 

“By identifying the regions that are most vulnerable to virus spillover, countries can also target the communities that stand to benefit the most disease prevention strategies, including protective gear to prevent human-livestock contact, effective sanitation infrastructure and education programs,” Hannah said.

“The fact of the matter is, the most cost-effective — and just plain effective — way to deal with a pandemic is to make sure it never happens in the first place.”

New science: mangrove protection, Caribbean coral loss, dam development and more

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on July 15, 2020.

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent scientific research published by Conservation International experts. 

1. Mangroves and coral reefs can help protect millions from rising seas 

More than 31 million people worldwide live in regions that are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise and hurricanes or tropical cyclones. 

According to a new study, mangroves and coral reefs could help protect more than a quarter of people at risk by serving as a buffer between coastal communities and ocean waves or flooding, and by significantly reducing erosion.

Conservation International scientists Dave Hole, Will Turner and Mariano Gonzalez-Roglich looked at mangrove forests and coral reefs situated near coastal populations around the world. They found that communities across Central America, the Caribbean, Eastern Africa, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific region stand to benefit the most from the conservation of these coastal ecosystems. Based on a range of economic and other societal factors, these communities have fewer opportunities to adapt via other means, such as building sea walls or buying insurance. 

In addition to providing extreme weather protection, conserving mangrove ecosystems in these regions also helps slow climate change over the long-term by storing nearly 900 million metric tons of climate-warming carbon emissions a year.

Yet according to the study, only 38 percent of mangroves and 11 percent of coral reefs located along the most vulnerable coastlines are protected. Already, one-third of these coastal ecosystems that lack environmental protections have been lost since 1980 due to development, aquaculture and overfishing. 

“Ensuring the resilience of mangroves is a win-win-win for people, nature and the climate,” Hole said. “Mangroves store more carbon than any other forest ecosystem on Earth, drawing carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere and storing it for decades, thus helping slow global warming.”

2. Caribbean corals are dying. Humans are to blame 

new study revealed that two crucial coral species in the Caribbean were declining decades before climate change began impacting the world’s oceans — showing that human activities such as overfishing and coastal development can have drastic impacts on coral reefs. 

Over the past 40 years, warming ocean temperatures and acidification have caused mass deaths of coral reefs worldwide — which could have catastrophic implications for marine life and the people who depend on it. But climate change is not the only thing affecting corals around the world, according to Conservation International’s Ocean Science Fellow Katie Cramer, the study’s lead author. 

By combining fossil data, historical records and underwater surveys, Cramer was able to track the decline of elkhorn and staghorn corals in the Caribbean over the past 125,000 years. According to the data, these corals began to disappear in the 1950s to 1960s — at least two decades before the impacts of human-driven climate change were evident. 

“This research shows that local human activities such as overfishing and coastal development have been weakening coral reef health for quite some time,” Cramer said. “Local actions matter for the future of coral reefs. The best way to help them cope with the intensifying impacts of ocean warming is to reduce these other stressors affecting them.”  

3. Unheralded fisheries hold key to sustainable development 

Well-managed fishing areas in freshwater ecosystems could help increase food security, alleviate poverty, provide jobs and protect biodiversity, according to a recent study

Despite the crucial services these inland fisheries provide, they are absent from global policies that aim to achieve the United Nations’ 2030 list of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs (goals to address some of the world’s most pressing issues including poverty, disease and food insecurity). 

“The current SDGs focus on the role of freshwater ecosystems for supplying water security to communities around the world, but they offer so much more than that,” explained Ian Harrison, the director of freshwater science and policy at Conservation International and a co-author of the study, “This priority, while important, may be at the detriment of properly managing the habitat itself as well as the species within it, rather than just the water resource flowing through it.”

By comparing the relationships between inland fisheries, freshwater conservation and human well-being, the researchers were able to identify which SDGs could benefit from the inclusion of inland fisheries. For many low-income, food-insecure populations, these ecosystems are critical sources of food and jobs, with inland fisheries employing more than 58 million people.

However, research shows that due to overfishing, climate change and development, more than 30 percent of freshwater ecosystems have been lost since 1970 — and that this loss will continue to accelerate if countries do not increase investments in freshwater conservation.  

“If left unprotected, the health of communities, millions of jobs and nature will be at risk,” Harrison said. “Countries need to recognize the importance of conserving freshwater ecosystems and prioritizing inland fisheries in their SDGs so that they can continue to provide crucial services for humanity.” 

4. Dams in these 3 rivers could threaten lifeblood of Southeast Asia

Three of the most important rivers for conserving fish populations in Southeast Asia’s Mekong Basin are under threat due to rapid agricultural and hydropower dam development, according to recent research.  

The Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers — known collectively as the “3S” — lead directly into the Mekong River Basin, which supports the food security and livelihoods of more than 300 million people. Recently, however, dam development has put the health of these rivers — and subsequently the entire Mekong Basin — at risk, causing severe flooding, droughts and declining fish populations.  

Using a tool developed by Conservation International to measure the condition of freshwater ecosystems — known as the Freshwater Health Index (FHI) — a group of researchers identified the sources of stress that are degrading this critical group of rivers. 

“The FHI assessment showed us that if dam development continues at its current pace, the Mekong River Basin will not be able to sustain the crucial services it provides — from fertile land for rice to grow to the livelihoods supported by one of the world’s largest inland fisheries,” said Nick Souter, the lead author on the study and Conservation International’s Greater Mekong Program Freshwater Manager.  

Although dam development has started to slow in parts of the Mekong Basin, countries must also protect the tributaries that feed into it such as the 3S, according to Souter.  

“Only a few decades ago the Mekong was one of the world’s last great free flowing rivers, but development and pollution have left it severely degraded,” Souter explained. “Fortunately, some of its tributaries, particularly the Sekong River, are still in good condition — for now. Conserving them is vital to ensuring the continued ability of the Mekong Basin to provide the ecosystem benefits that millions of people rely on.”