World Turtle Day: Rainforest Trust Guardians at the South African Tortoise Conservation Trust

Rainforest Trust would like to celebrate this World Turtle Day by highlighting the recently expanded Geometric Tortoise Preserve and our long-time partner South African Tortoise Conservation Trust (SATCT). The hard work and dedication of SATCT staff, many of whom serve as Rainforest Trust Guardians, make the ongoing protection of tortoise habitat possible. The preserve is home to 25% of the remaining species population.

In 2015, we worked with SATCT to designate the 810-acre Geometric Tortoise Preserve to safeguard shrubland for the Critically Endangered Geometric Tortoise. Before the preserve was created, nearly 95% of the species’ habitat was lost to metropolitan development and agricultural encroachment from ranches and vineyards. This land transformation left the Geometric Tortoise population dwindling at fewer than 1,000 individuals. Both the species and land would have continued to degrade without protection. So Rainforest Trust supported the founding of the preserve, and this month, we helped SATCT expand the protected area by an additional 49 acres. 

The newly expanded preserve requires a large amount of maintenance from staff. Invasive tree species often make their way into the habitat, which is detrimental to native plants and wildlife that rely on them. Hermanus van der Ross and the other Rainforest Trust Guardians commit their time to clearing these trees and their seeds before the rainy season, which allows for the region’s natural vegetation to thrive. “We burned the alien trees after cleaning them from the habitat. That way, when the rainy season starts, the Fynbos starts to come back and grow,” said Ross.

A significant portion of the unique Fynbos ecosystem lies within the preserve. The Fynbos is small lush belt of shrubland that sits on the Western and Eastern capes of South Africa. Known for its exceptional biodiversity, it is home to many rare and threatened plant species and other wildlife. Over 9,000 plant species live in the Fynbos and more than two-thirds of them are found nowhere else on Earth. Less than half of the original Fynbos remains intact today, making the preserve and the people who work to protect it crucial to ecosystem survival.

Guardian Pieter Jack is passionate about conservation in the area and maintaining it for years to come. “It makes me proud to help in conservation and to protect the tortoises and field,” said Jack. “We had to see that this area must be managed and the flora and fauna must be protected for the next generation.”  

A collection of photos from the Geometric Tortoise Preserve. Photos by SATCT.

 

Header image: A Geometric Tortoise on the preserve.

Two Rainforest Trust Partners Win Whitley Awards

This week, two conservationists supported by Rainforest Trust won the prestigious Whitley Award. Ilana Zanella from Misión Tiburón won for her work creating a reserve in Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce, a critical nursery habitat for the Endangered Scalloped Hammerhead. And in Ghana, Caleb Ofori from Herp Conservation Ghana won for his work creating the Onepone Endangered Species Refuge and protecting the Critically Endangered Togo Slippery Frog.

Each year, an expert panel of academics chooses the Whitley Award winners. The winners are granted one year of funding and a significant profile boost. This achievement pushes their stories to an international audience and increases their project’s visibility.

In May 2018, Rainforest Trust worked with Misión Tiburón to designate the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary in Golfo Dulce. The sanctuary protects over 10,000 acres of habitat necessary for the Scalloped Hammerhead and other species in Golfo Dulce’s rich array of biodiversity. This project brings the coast guard and local fisherman together to halt illegal hammerhead fishing and evaluate management decisions regarding juvenile shark populations. It will also double the number of students involved with Misión Tiburón’s education program.

Children participating in the education program. Photo by Misión Tiburón.

The Onepone Endangered Species Refuge, established in August 2018, safeguards 847 acres of threatened habitat for the Togo Slippery Frog and the plethora of other threatened species in the forest. The project’s success is heavily dependent on the local communities. Herp Conservation Ghana works alongside members of nearby communities to manage wildlife and reduce hunting. They’re also restoring damaged habitats, including replanting 20,000 trees to prevent erosion and sedimentation. This project will benefit both the forest’s resident species and the surrounding communities.

Caleb holding a Togo Slippery Frog. Photo by HERP Conservation Ghana.

The Whitley Award, sometimes referred to as the “Green Oscar,” raises awareness of world-changing projects in part by releasing short films narrated by Sir David Attenborough. They also provides PR assistance and distribute publicity materials world-wide to champion their winners. Rainforest Trust is honored to work with these incredible partners.

 

Header image: Endangered Scalloped Hammerhead. Photo by Misión Tiburón.

Endangered Species Day: Louis the Pangolin

On this Endangered Species Day, Rainforest Trust wanted to share a story from Oldrich Van Schalkwyk. Oldrich is a dedicated Conservation Fellow who recently helped organize a sting operation to rescue a pangolin being offered for sale.

Unfortunately, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and, as such, are on their way to extinction. Poachers value them in particular for their scales, believed to cure a variety of diseases in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to the rapid decline of Asian pangolin species, poachers have started targeting African pangolin species to sell in Asia.

Oldrich finds Louis under a cupboard. Photo by Endangered Wild Trust.

Earlier this month, Oldrich, a program manager for Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), caught word that a Temminck’s Ground Pangolin was being offered for sale in a village in Limpopo, South Africa. A brave informant, who then helped with the sting, provided this information. That informant began a fake negotiation with the sellers while Oldrich, EWT and local rangers planned the sting. They intended to rescue the pangolin and get him to safety.

The sellers were anxious to make the trade and the time window for rescue was closing. The sellers made it clear that if the sale didn’t go through within the hour the pangolin would go to someone else. So the team arrived at the scene as soon as possible. But the suspects fled before the team could arrest them.

“When you rescue animals from these situations, it is important to remember that you are dealing with organized crime. The animal lives are in danger, but human lives may also be in danger,” said Schalkwyck. “When I arrive at a scene like this, I am initially on “autopilot” and focused on following the proper legal procedures, because the animal is evidence.”

Eventually, woman and child in the house led the team to a small cluttered room.  Among the wreckage, Oldrich found the distressed pangolin hiding under a cupboard.

“The room was filled with chainsaw blades, it was awful. Once the scene was secure, there was a sense of urgency to get him to safety,” said Schalkwyk. “Though he seemed to be in relatively good condition, we wanted to get him a medical examination, because the wounds are not always visible.”

Upon rescue, Louis (the pangolin) was under immense stress and dehydrated. The team rushed him to Medike Nature Reserve, a Rainforest Trust-funded property, where he could eat, drink and rest. The following morning, the African Pangolin Working Group picked up him to begin full rehabilitation. They named “Louis” after the South African town he is from, Louis Trichardt. After rehabilitation, they will release him back onto the reserve. Rangers can then continue to monitor his health.

“Now we want to release him onto the Rainforest Trust property because it is the right habitat and has an active patrol,” said Schalkwyk. Our researchers will continue to watch him before his hard release into the wild.”

For over 30 years, Rainforest Trust has worked to safeguard habitat for endangered species like the pangolin. Our Fellows, like Oldrich, will continue to dedicate their work in the field to ensuring the long-term survival of these species.

 

The Vulnerable Temminck’s Ground Pangolin. Photo by Daivd Brossard.

 

 

Voices from the Rainforest: Oldrich Van Schalkwyk, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Conservation and Kinship with Animals

Oldrich Van Schalkwyk was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. He joined Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) in September 2017 as the manager of the Soutpansberg Protected Area. In his current position, Oldrich is tasked with establishing an inclusive conservation-oriented protected area that offers sustainable livelihood options to local communities. His mandate also includes the protection of threatened wildlife and important ecosystems, many of which are endemic to the western Soutpansberg. Rainforest Trust helped to form the Medike Nature Reserve, which is a part of the Soutpansberg Protected Area.

Oldrich fitting leopard “BB” with a tracking collar. Photo by Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Why did you become a conservationist?

Since I can remember, I’ve always had a love for the natural world. I spend most of my free time in the outdoors. However, from the onset of national television in 1976 in South Africa, it became quite clear to me as a young boy, that our planet was in trouble. It upset me greatly to see documentaries, broadcasted so nonchalantly about logging of tropical jungles or whaling. For instance, it propagated the prosperity which came with the industrial revolution, but with no regard for the amazing species and ecosystems which it destroys. I decided early on that I wanted to live a life which made a difference and stand up for the defenseless, whether man, beast or the habitat we share.

 

“Being a Fellow allows me to fulfill my dream of living a purpose driven life. Rainforest Trust offers us a great support structure, and allows us to expand and conserve new critically important biodiverse areas.”

 

Tell me about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist.

The 17th of September 2008 marks the date on which I first captured a leopard on a trail camera in the Soutpansberg Mountain of South Africa. It was a young territorial female, named CC, due to a unique “cc” pattern on her right flank. I was to closely follow her life over the next four years as she raised her cubs and just do what leopards do, until she was sadly killed in mid July 2012, by a poacher’s snare which caught her around her left front paw. This devastating event made me even more determined to rid the Mountain of snares and lobby for the creation of a large protected area.

About a year after CC’s death, I fitted a satellite collar to her adult son, BB. This allowed us to follow his movements over the next 15 months to give us a better insight into the ecology of these elusive apex predators. Around four months later, we received a call from a neighbouring community informing us that a cattle farmer renting grazing from them wanted to poison a cattle calf carcase. The calf was killed the previous night by a leopard. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk to the farmer, and convinced him not to kill the leopard and that we would assist him in fortifying his cattle enclosure.

A camera trap was placed at the enclosure and revealed it was BB who killed the calf. This all took place about a mile south of where his mother was killed. I’m happy to report that BB walked the full term of 450 days with his collar until it automatically dropped off and was retrieved. His data gave us valuable insight into the secret life of leopards in the rugged Soutpansberg. BB is still thriving today as a territorial male on the far western Soutpansberg and EWT has since placed several guardian dogs, protecting the livestock farmers’ animals against any stock losses.

 

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

In South Africa, it seems that we have less and less federal support in protecting our natural environment. However, I suppose that’s why you have non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and we will continue to fight the good fight alongside other passionate NGOs like Rainforest Trust.

 

What has surprised you the most in the field?

The dedication of men and woman I share my occupation with. They have to make so many personal sacrifices and sometimes face insurmountable odds, even risking their very lives for the sake of saving a species.

 

“Humanity’s very existence depends on conservation. We are really saving ourselves. Not just in terms of our livelihoods, through the ecosystem services that our natural environment provides, but it is also for good mental health.”

 

What is the hardest part of your job?

Over the years I had the privilege to personally get to know the wildlife under my custodianship. For years, I have shared the life of individual animals I research, even feeling a leopard’s heartbeat in the palm of my hand when fitting a satellite collar, or intimately getting to know each rhino’s unique character while guarding them against poachers. Then one day having to stand at the dead body of one of “your” leopards caught in a poacher’s snare or having to witness a gruesome scene of the senseless slaughtering of a rhino. To me, they are more than animals, they are my friends.

 

The Bird That ‘Came Back From the Dead’

Thanks to an obscure evolutionary phenomenon, a small flightless, chicken-sized bird was able to bring itself back from extinction.

A new study from the University of Portsmouth and Natural History Museum in London revealed that the White-throated Rail — also known as the Aldabra Rail — has gone extinct and returned back from the dead over the course of tens of thousands of years.

The species’s ancestors were native to Madagascar, but, due to population growth, large flocks would often emigrate from the island. The flocks who flew to the north and south drowned in the ocean. Predators ate the groups who travelled west and landed in Africa. But those who ventured east were the luckiest, colonizing a few isolated ocean islands, including Aldabra. Aldabra, a ring-shaped atoll in the Indian Ocean, became their home. Since there were no real predators to fly away from on the atoll, the rail’s continued evolution left them flightless. Unfortunately, this meant they were unable to escape when sea level rose and inundated Aldabra. The atoll flooded and disappeared, wiping out all resident flora and fauna on the island, including the White-throated Rail.

White- throated Rail. Photo by Charles Davies.

But sea levels fell during an ice age several thousand years later. And somehow, the rail’s ancestors from Madagascar appeared again and recolonized the atoll. “Only on Aldabra, which has the oldest paleontological record of any oceanic island within the Indian Ocean region, is fossil evidence available that demonstrates the effects of changing sea levels on extinction and recolonization events,” said study co-author David Martill, of the University of Portsmouth.

Researchers studied two sets of fossils from the species: two pre-flood wing bones dating back 136,000 years compared to a post-flood leg bone around 100,000 years old. They also examined specimens of modern rails, of both the birds that could fly and those that could not. They found that the pre-flood bones were incredibly similar to the bones of the flightless rails that currently exist in that they showed an advanced state of flightlessness. The ankles in the leg bone from the post-flood fossil showed distinct evidence that it was evolving toward flightlessness. Meaning, the original species from Madagascar evolved into the same species of flightless rail on Aldabra after the extinction event, within a span of only a few thousand years. The White-throated Rail is still alive and flourishing on the atoll today.

“These unique fossils provide irrefutable evidence that a member of the rail family colonized the atoll, most likely from Madagascar, and became flightless independently on each occasion,” said the lead researcher for the study, Dr. Julian Hume, avian paleontologist and Research Associate at the Natural History Museum. “Fossil evidence presented here is unique for rails, and epitomizes the ability of these birds to successfully colonize isolated islands and evolve flightlessness on multiple occasions.”

This process of extinction and recolonization follows an extremely rare phenomenon called “iterative evolution.” Iterative evolution is the repeated evolution of a species from the same ancestor at different times in history. This is the first time iterative evolution has occurred in rails and one of the only known and the most significant instance of iterative evolution in any bird population.

 

Header image: The Aldabra atoll. Photo by UNESCO.

Thirty Years After the Last Golden Toad Sighting, What Have We Learned?

The story of Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest is like so many other protected areas. First, biologists noticed incredible species in an ecosystem. In Monteverde’s case, the forest contained tropical birds like the Resplendent Quetzal and amphibians like the Golden Toad. But then, like so many other protected areas, they also documented threats — in this case, habitat degradation from squatters and hunting. So, at last, they worked to protect the forest.

And thus, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve came into existence in 1973. Soon after opening, it hosted tourists and researchers from around the world. The reserve grew over time, offering more and more protection for its species.

All went according to plan.

Until it didn’t.

The Golden Toad was endemic to the Monteverde Cloud Forest — found nowhere else on Earth. The species was a brilliant burnt-yellow, prone to easy spotting in its thick, green rainforest home. That’s if you were around during the short time the toad was above ground. The species spent most of its life underground, emerging only for a few days at the end of the dry season to mate.

Spotting the frogs must have been an incredible sight to behold. In 1987, between April and July, researchers noted nearly 1,500 adult toads scattered between a few shallow pools around the forest. Imagine — these bright yellow toads, seen once a year, all converging on puddles to breed before retreating underground.

The Golden Toad.

But in 1988, scientists found only one toad, a male, in the same area. They documented nine more a couple of miles away.

And then in 1989, they spotted one male toad — and nothing else.

In 1990, they found none.

And so it’s been ever since. Finally, in 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the Golden Toad “Extinct.”

From 1,500 to 10 in one year. From 10 to one in the next. That is, respectively, a 99% drop and a 90% drop. Of course, going from one to zero is a 100% decline.

What lead to this precipitative drop?

This question leads into a near thirty-year debate on why, exactly, the Golden Toad went extinct. A paper in 1992 (when researchers still hoped some toads were hiding somewhere) noted that in 1988-1990, rainfall started later after the dry season. What’s more, the rain came down heavier at first, instead of slow to start. The pools used for frog breeding filled faster, which may have removed the window of shallowness needed to breed.

They speculated that small changes in climate might lead to catastrophic collapse. With the scientific community now examining the effect of global warming on ecosystems, this was significant.

But around the same time, amphibian researchers discovered another, once-hidden threat. Researchers around the world found a striking similarity in precipitous amphibian population declines. It seemed amphibians were on the verge of collapse everywhere — and no one could figure out why.

In 1993, researchers first found a possible culprit. Fungi in the genus Batrachochytrium, also known as “chytrid” was causing a fatal disease called chytridiomycosis. After decades of research, we know that at least two chytrid fungal species can lead to the disease. Researchers today cite the chytrid fungus as the likely cause of extinction for the Golden Toad. And, I should add, dozens of other amphibian species. The crisis is still occurring. Amphibians are dying everywhere, with species clinging to existence. It’s the most deadly threat to biodiversity you’ve never heard of.

Another victim of the chytrid fungus, from Panama. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

But we’re still uncertain of where chytrid came from, why/how it becomes fatal or how it spreads. Some scientists argue that climate change might alter the fungus’s growth pattern, leading to disease. Others note that amphibians have a chytrid-fighting bacteria on their skin. But something in the environment — like chemical pesticides or other pollution — might impede their immune response to the fungus. The spores can spread through soil and water, but they might also spread through rain.

We also don’t know how to stop it.

This threat doesn’t bode well for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. In fact, this type of threat doesn’t bode well for habitat protection at all. Climate change, fungal diseases — these won’t stop at a fence. A forest guard can’t stop these threats from passing into a reserve. Why even protect land if indiscriminate threats can still kill wildlife?

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Photo by Florent MECHAIN/TravelMag.com

But while protected areas aren’t catch-alls, they’re not useless. As the world’s ecosystems face a multifaceted barrage of threats, we need to keep habitats as intact as possible. Much like ecosystems, threats to ecosystems are interconnected.

Climate change can reduce rainfall — leading to wildlife migration outside protected areas in search of water. But protecting more land increases the likelihood they can find drinking water within a reserve.

Poaching targets individual animals for meat. But if habitat degradation causes a decrease in pollinator species, crops may not offer enough food for a family anymore. They might poach to survive.

Habitat is the basis of ecological survival. Land conservation is the first step for any species facing extinction because any conservation program is useless without habitat. Intact ecosystems are their own support systems — the more of an ecosystem remains intact, the more resilience it has against threats. Habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction worldwide, so habitat protection is one of the leading necessities of preventing extinction. Fences may not stop killer fungi, but they do keep species happy otherwise — making them stronger in the face of killer fungi. We’ve also rediscovered species once thought to be extinct in protected areas — like the “golden wonder” salamander.

In the thirty years since the last Golden Toad sighting, scientists and amateur herpetologists alike have searched in vain for the little, colorful amphibian. They’ve found zilch, nada, squat — every time. Over time, the Golden Toad has become a symbol of extinction and the amphibian biodiversity crisis. This week, many herpetologists mourn one of the world’s most-analyzed and rued amphibian losses.

Thirty years later, amphibians are still on the edge of oblivion. But in those thirty years, we’ve discovered chytridiomycosis. We’ve developed more plans to build ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change. We’ve expanded protected areas, including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Rainforest Trust actually helped secure an additional 100 acres for the reserve in 1993.

The work we’ve done to prevent other frogs from the Golden Toad’s fate hasn’t been enough. But it’s been a start. And you can’t get anywhere without that.

Voices from the Rainforest: Esther Kagoya, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Educating Communities in Conservation

Esther Kagoya is a Ugandan conservationist with over five years of experience in natural resources and freshwater fisheries research. She holds a Masters in Fisheries Science from Pukyong National University in South Korea. Currently, Esther is working as a research scientist for Uganda’s National Fisheries Resource Research Institute (NaFIRRI) in fish stock assessment, capture fisheries management and biodiversity conservation.

She worked as a field officer during the Safeguarding a Global Freshwater Fish Hotspot project. A collaboration between Rainforest Trust, NaFIRRI and local stakeholders that safeguarded 10,448 acres on Lake Nyaguo with two fishing exclusion zones and a wetland buffer around the whole lake.

Esther (Bottom Right) with other Rainforest Trust Conservation Fellows and community members.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

A combination of my education and field experience have inspired me to become a conservationist. I chose to earn my bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Economics because of my passion for natural resource related issues. I am primarily interested in sustainable management and conservation. I conducted research for my final BSc project on the effects of fisheries policies on fish production and conservation.

In the final months of school, I worked as an intern with NaFIRRI. During this time I was able to further my knowledge of fisheries conservation and obtain the necessary hands-on skills for field work. Eventually, I became a research assistant for NaFIRRI where I work on biodiversity conservation programs.

 

“The program provides easy access to conservation education and funding opportunities. Plus, reading about the successful protection projects conducted by other Fellows on the Rainforest Trust website inspire me and make me proud to be a part of the Conservation Fellows.”

 

Tell us about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist?

Being a young conservationist, I am always involved and interested in managing natural resources for the betterment of the future. During my work on the Lake Nyaguo project, I truly felt that I made a difference in the community. Before Rainforest Trust’s involvement in the project, the site was characterized by cultivated and cleared catchment and vegetation, use of illegal fishing gears and methods, low catch rates and declining fish stocks. I was able to get involved in several parts of the project. I worked with the research and project teams to identify several drivers of resource and species degradation. I also had the opportunity to communicate directly with resource stakeholders through community consultative meetings.

After the project’s inception, the stakeholders and communities are now more aware of the benefits of conservation through change in resource use behavior.  This gave them strength to sensitize other community members who were still using illegal fishing gears. The majority surrendered their destructive fishing gears and have transformed their use of destructive resource into practicing healthier ones. In addition, the project in collaboration with the local government enforced the wetland rules and regulations

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

The main challenge I am currently facing is the lack of political interest in conservation. While riparian communities are willing to abide by the best practices of fishing using the stipulated laws, regulations and policies, politicians are communicating contrary messaging by encouraging people to utilize natural resources at their will. The convoluted messaging has made it difficult for resource use communities, specifically fishermen, who try to abide by the positive conservation practices. They are often misled by their politicians to use the equipment and methods that have a harmful effect.

Poverty among resource users is another challenge. Communities always look for short term gains without being mindful of the long term issues. This is mainly attributed to the high poverty levels in these communities and luck of alternative sources of livelihoods.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Conservation is a process that involves change in the mindset of resource users and other key stakeholders of the resource in question. However, this can be arduous because people are more interested in short-term resources and project gains like increasing resource productivity rather than the long-term gains of conservation.   

Engaging communities in behavior change communication for long-term sustainability is quite challenging given that their mindset is fixed on short term gains. However, I believe that this is a gradual process that requires patience and in-depth understanding of the stakeholders and their interests. It is only a matter of time.

Header image: The Lake Nyaguo project site. Photo by Isabirye Aggrey.

Voices from the Rainforest: Eugène Mibog Diyouke, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


From Economist to Conservationist

Eugène Mibog Diyouke works as the program manager for Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society (CWCS) based in Mouanko, Cameroon. He has spent the majority of his conservation career in the field conducting research and educating local communities about the importance of sustainability. Eugène involved with the Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve, a key conservation site in Central Africa that safeguards mangrove forests, freshwater and marine habitats that are critical to the overall sustainability of the coastal land and seascape.

Eugène’s position allows him to work in several capacities within CWCS, including performing rural outreach, establishing and monitoring aquatic forest sample plots and mangrove nurseries, and GIS (Geographic Information System) database management.

Eugène performing fieldwork. Photo by Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

I started my career as an economist. I joined CWCS in 2001 as a socioeconomic assistant, working as a rural development agent. During my studies in the field, I faced many challenges connecting the socioeconomic development of local people to conservation of natural resources. I began working with my biologist and forester colleagues to know more about fauna and flora and the best ways to preserve them. I noticed that it was impossible ignore the connection between the sustainability of the environment as a whole and the well-being of local populations. One of the largest challenges I have faced is working with people who were not yet educated on the sustainable utilization of natural resources. It was also difficult to gain the attention of the the local government because they were primarily focused on the prevention of illegal acts. When I started to face is these challenges is when I realized I wanted to become a conversationalist.

“Conservation is important because it helps to keep the global environments and their biodiversity in a good state in terms of quality and quantity and it allows ecological equilibrium and ecosystem services for today and for future generations.”

 

Tell us about a conservation success in your work.

I participated in all the steps of gazettement (change of status) of the Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve into a National Park that lead to the success of the project. It was a difficult process because the local populations did not understand the importance of the project. We had to go through several community meetings in order to find a common understanding and reach an agreement. Another time, I felt that I made a difference as a conservationist when I taught the local population to understand the importance of mangrove restoration and gained their participation in planting activities in 2008.

 

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your work.

The slow adoption of improved smoke ovens for fish and other fishery products by the riverine population of mangrove areas. The new ovens, compared to the traditional ones that local communities use, consume less fuel wood and save more energy. The process has been delayed due to lack of volunteer support that is necessary to construct the ovens and the local population having difficulty accepting the integration process. The hardest part of my job is sensitization, to bring people to change behaviors and adapt to a more sustainable lifestyle.

“What makes me proud to be a Fellow is that my experience as a conservationist will be shared with others.”

 

Header image: Eugène (left) discussing fieldwork plans with colleague. Photo by Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society.

Use Technology to Think Like a Tiny Primate

Conservation and animal rights advocates have always anthropomorphized nonhuman animals to inspire empathy. And for good reason: it’s hard to look into the eyes of a sad pup while Sarah McLachlan sings and not feel a kinship with the creature.

But those clips always seemed shallow, at least for conservation science. As conservationists, we preach the gospel of admiring wildlife for their own sake — not through an anthropocentric lens. That’s why some of us like March of the Penguins more than Happy Feet. For that matter, that’s why some of us like Frozen Planet more than March of the Penguins.

Anthropomorphism is — sometimes — gimmicky. But it works so well to inspire the public. Listen, I’d care about the plight of the Axolotl no matter what it looked like. But looking like a smiling salamander with face wings helps.

An Axolotl, or, a smiling face-winged salamander. Photo via Pixabay.

There has to be a way to inspire commonality with wildlife without resorting to imposing a human perspective on their life history. We need to immerse ourselves in a species’ reality without the pretense of our physiology. I mean this virtually. We need to immerse ourselves in their reality, virtually.

You know… like a virtual reality.

Students at Dartmouth University came up with this exact thing. A team of software designers and evolutionary biologists developed a virtual reality program mimicking the point of view of a tarsier.

Tarsiers are small, nocturnal primates native to Southeast Asia. As an adaptation for moving through the dense rainforest at night, they have massive eyes to see in the dark. And I mean massive eyes.

Oh, hello. A Philippine Tarsier, native to the Philippines. Photo by Klaus Stiefel.

All the better to see you with, indeed.

The paper summarizing this program, published in Evolution: Education and Outreach, mentions that if humans had the same eye-to-brain size ratio, our eyes would be the size of grapefruits.

Tarsiers are also unique because they don’t have the standard ocular physiology of nocturnal mammals. Most nocturnal mammals have a light-reflecting tissue layer which creates a better sense of vision in low-light. But tarsiers don’t have that layer, hence the far-larger-than-average peepers that let in more light.

The program allows users to move through different landscapes such as “Matrix,” “Labyrinth” and “Bornean Rainforest” with a tarsier’s unique, nighttime-ready eyesight. The program also features the ability to switch between human and tarsier eyesight in each virtual environment. The paper’s authors describe the nighttime rainforest environment as “a dark, maze-like space that is practically opaque under human visual conditions.” But, they add that the rainforest is “navigable as a tarsier, demonstrating the advantages of tarsier visual sensitivity.

Some of that dense Bornean rainforest the tarsiers must navigate at night. Photo by Rainforest Trust.

The developers set out to create the virtual reality program as a tool for students to engage with biology and the physics of eyesight. But for conservationists, one potential benefit of this software is the ability to imagine life as a creature with a different physiology. One barrier to empathizing with wildlife without anthropomorphizing them is the barrier between our respective “umwelt.”

The concept of umwelt is a phrase of semioticians, people who study signs and the production of meaning. (More than a little theoretical, I know. But think of it like studying how we comprehend that things mean what they mean. Sort of.) Umwelt is the idea that the way any organism moves through the world depends on its anatomy. Different anatomies = different ways of seeing and interacting with the world.

But if we can break down that barrier and live as another species — even in such an insignificant way — we can empathize without the part of the veil of humanity.

If we’re using virtual reality to engage folks with wildlife and biology, the tarsier will likely be the first of many animals we’ll transmogrify into with the power of technology.

Put on these shoes, and you’ll be able to communicate through the ground like elephants.

Put on these headphones and learn how warblers converse.

Put on this full-body motion capture suit and live as part of Happy Feet 18: Climate Ch-ch-ch-changes!

Well, if it can help us connect with wildlife without anthropomorphizing and learn a bit along the way, it’s a great idea.

Voices from the Rainforest: Bagus Irawan, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Raising Awareness for Conservation

Bagus Irawan is a Conservation Fellow in Sumatra, Indonesia, championing the Leuser Ecosystem, a verdant expanse of lowland and clouded mountain rainforests under extreme pressure from mining and palm oil, pulp and paper plantations.

Bagus focuses on community relations and conservation education. He is one of the few adults in the region that does not work for the government or an extractive company. Where many before him failed to make inroads with Kluet communities, Bagus is starting to succeed because of his patience and dedication to the forests he calls home.

Bagus (second from right) meets with local community members in the Kluet watershed. Photo by Bagus Irawan.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

I was born and grew up in the South Aceh district, which is part of the Leuser Ecosystem. Since I was little I have been accustomed to interacting with forests and wild animals, so I had the dream of becoming a mountaineer at that time. I have been in conservation since I finished high school at a conservation institution. There, I came to know the importance of conservation to maintain the stability of nature and wildlife for human survival. I see too many people who are destroying forests and hunting animals, so I take a small part in saving forests and animals, especially in the Leuser Ecosystem.

 

Tell us about a conservation success at your project site.

Many conservation agencies and forestry authorities couldn’t access the Kluet region because of community conditions. We also had the same challenge — how many times have we been expelled and threatened? But we continued to strive and manage the strategy. Now, we have a very good relationship with the entire community there and we can carry out activities according to what was planned. We have built traditional house facilities and monitoring posts. We have also been considered as family by much of the local community. Even during the construction of our monitoring post, the local community offered their land free to us.

Working to provide an understanding of conservation to local communities, especially with people who have different levels of education, is very difficult. For economic reasons, communities often convert forests into monoculture plantations. The challenge is to change the people’s mindset to become a conservationist society.

The first time I interacted with the community in Kluet I got a strong rejection. But the conditions are now inversely proportional. I feel that I have become part of the community there, like being at home.

 

What inspires you most about being a Conservation Fellow?

I want to share my experiences with friends around the world about the conservation activities we have done in Kluet. I also want to learn about other conservation experiences around the world. With my limited experience and knowledge here, by working with other fellows, I can participate in campaigning for Leuser conservation throughout the world.

 

Why is conservation important to you?

The environment requires balance to carry out its functions. If nature is disturbed it will have a very bad impact on life on Earth. The Kluet region is a key wildlife habitat in the Leuser ecosystem and is a source of livelihood for 20,000 people. The majority of them are farmers who need water for their fields and gardens. If this region is destroyed and not conserved, this potential consequences would be inconceivable. I would be very sorry to see the source of life of my families there disappear. Not to mention, key animals such as Sumatran Rhinos, Sumatran Tigers, Sumatran Orangutans and Sumatran Elephants — all Critically Endangered subspecies — will lose their habitat.