strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

It’s Not Just COVID19: The Trump Agenda for Killing More Americans

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2020

Growth industry.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

On the perpetual campaign trail, Donald Trump likes to brag that his regulatory rollbacks will save Americans from having to depend on the latest energy-saving light bulbs. (“To me, most importantly, the light’s no good. I always look orange.”) He promises to get rid of water-efficiency standards because toilets require too much flushing. (“Ten times, right?… Not me. But you. Him.”) The aim is to find a homey way to put across the message that regulations — especially environmental regulations — inconvenience the average American. They hurt the economy. They cost jobs.

But of course, these regulations almost always have corresponding benefits: They create jobs, they save human lives. They make life better and healthier for the tens of millions of Americans living downstream from polluting industries that were once unregulated.

That’s the reality Trump wants to shout down, cover up, make go away. The irony is that, even as the U.S. toll in the coronavirus pandemic is now at 74,000 deaths, he is aggressively pursuing a regulatory rollback that will kill far more Americans, and continue to kill them for years into the future.  To rub in the irony, Trump is pursuing this agenda as Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

How to Prevent the Pandemic Next Time

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 5, 2020

Nipah virus

This is a piece I published in 2013, and–surprise!–major governments did not institute the preventive measures suggested by the experts here. In fact, not much has changed, except that half the world is now under lock-down in a desperate, last-ditch bid to stop the spread of COVID-19. The recommendations here still matter. The challenge is to remember and finally act, after the all-clear.

by Richard Conniff

In 2007, in a rural district in northwestern Bangladesh, a man fell ill with fever, followed by fatigue, headache, and coughing. His wife tended to him at home over the next four days, feeding him and wiping froth and saliva from around his mouth. When he began to have trouble breathing, a cousin and a friend rode to the doctor’s office with the patient sandwiched between them on a motorcycle. The next day, they transported him via microbus to the nearest hospital, where he quickly died. All five people in close contact with the patient in his final days soon came down with the disease, known as Nipah virus, and the wife and cousin also died.

It was a small tragedy at the other end of the Earth, and in the grand scheme of things hardly worth noting.

But a new [2013] article in the journal Antiviral Research argues that we ought to pay close attention, and not just for philanthropic reasons. Without intervention by the developed world, says Stephen P. Luby, M.D., of Stanford University, a case like this is how the next great plague could leap from wildlife and quickly turn up in our own homes. “Bring out the dead” could become the catch phrase of 2020, or 2025.

Bangladesh is among the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, says Luby, who worked there for eight years before returning to the United States in 2012. But when he talks with people back home about poor clinical care there, and the absence of basic infection-control measures, “they see it as an issue only for Bangladesh.” Luby wrote his article to show just how deadly that sort of thinking could be.

Indian flying foxes in Madhya Pradesh (Photo: Charles J. Sharp)

Nipah virus was first discovered in 1998, and outbreaks now occur almost every year in Bangladesh and just across the border in India. As with SARS, Ebola fever, and a dismaying variety of other emerging diseases, Nipah virus comes from bats—in particular, the Indian flying fox, Pteropus giganteus. Luby was part of the team that figured out how the disease gets from bats to humans.

In Bangladesh, date palm sap is a favorite treat. Collectors climb to the top of a date palm tree, shave the bark, and set a clay pot underneath to catch the sap. The bats can’t ordinarily penetrate the bark, but they’re quick to adapt to a new food source and, in the course of feeding on the sap, they often leave bat urine and droppings in the clay pot. People relish the sap as a seasonal delicacy, preferably fresh and raw, and they are generally unaware of the hazard of Nipah virus until symptoms begin.

About 70 percent of victims die. But so far, says Luby, the virus is not highly contagious. It spreads via the saliva mainly to people who care for a victim. So how realistic is the threat? That is, could Nipah virus cause a pandemic?

RNA viruses like Nipah “have the highest rate of mutation of any virus or living organism,” Luby writes, enabling them to adapt readily to new environments. He likens the possibility of a pandemic to what happened with another virus in the same family: Until about a thousand years ago, an early form of rinderpest was a problem only for cattle, buffalo, giraffes, and certain other ungulates. Then a mutation occurred and the new virus jumped from domestic livestock to humans. It also became fiercely contagious. Measles, as this terrifying new disease became known, went on to kill tens—if not hundreds—of millions of people worldwide, until a vaccine brought it under control in the 1960s.

To avoid a replay of that scenario, Luby wants the governments of the United States and the European Union to invest in infection control and other preventive measures in undeveloped countries like Bangladesh.  For instance, bringing a powdered detergent and proper hand-washing protocols to healthcare workers can cost less Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Did the Illegal Pangolin Trade Spark this Pandemic?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 27, 2020

Pangolin in rehab (Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

 

Early on, the rumor circulated that SARS-CoV-2 may have made the leap to humans via pangolins sold for food in wild animal marketplaces in China, Vietnam, and other countries. Scientists instead linked the pandemic to bats, like previous coronavirus outbreaks (SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012). Now, though, a study in the journal Nature has identified a SARS-CoV-2-related virus in Malayan pangolins seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China. Other new research has also swung to the idea that the virus originated in bats, then jumped to humans via the illegal pangolin trade. With that in mind, here’s some information about the state of the pangolin trade, from past articles I have written.

by Richard Conniff

Pangolins are among the oddest and least-familiar animals on Earth. They’re mammals, but they’re armor-plated. Their chief defensive posture is to tuck their heads under their tails and roll up, like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. (It works: Even lions generally can’t get a grip.) They have tongues that are not only coated with a sticky, fly paper-like substance but can also extend up to 16 inches to probe into nests and snag ants for dinner. They’re shy, nocturnal and live either high up trees or deep underground.

Lisa Hywood has discovered just how charismatic these obscure creatures can be. At the Tikki Hywood Trust, her rescue center in Zimbabwe, one of her current guests, named Chaminuka, recognizes Hywood and makes a soft chuffing noise when she comes home. Then he stands up to hold her hand and greet her, she tells me. (Bit of a snob, though: He doesn’t deign to recognize her assistants.) Hywood finds working with pangolins even more emotionally powerful than working with elephants.

False hope for medicine

It’s also more urgent: Pangolins, she says, are “the new rhinos,” with illegal trade now raging across Asia and Africa. They are routinely served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam. Their scales are ground up, like rhino horn, into traditional medicines. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, are made from keratin and about as medicinally useful as eating fingernail clippings. When poachers get caught with live pangolins, Hywood rehabilitates the animals for reintroduction to the wild.

But a lot of pangolins aren’t that lucky. By one estimate, poachers  killed and took to market as many as 182,000 pangolins just between 2011 and 2013.  In one case in northeastern India, for instance, authorities nabbed a smuggler with 550 pounds of pangolin scales. Something like that happens almost every week. Many more shipments make it through. And the trade seems only to be growing bigger.

There is little prospect that this trade will stop, short of extinction for the eight pangolin species. Three of the eight species are currently listed as endangered and another three are critically endangered status. As pangolins have vanished from much of Asia, demand has shifted to Africa, which has four species. The price for a single animal there was at one point up to $7,000, according to Darren Pietersen, who tracked radio-tagged pangolins for his doctoral research at the University of Pretoria.

In a handful of trouble

Hunters use dogs to locate arboreal pangolins or set snares outside the burrows of ground-dwelling species. That rolled-up defensive posture, which works so well against lions, just makes it easier for human hunters to pick them up and bag them, says Dan Challender, co-chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. His research has taken him to a restaurant in Vietnam where, by chance, he witnessed a pangolin being presented live to a diner, then killed to be eaten. At such restaurants, stewed pangolin fetus is a special treat.

The trade is already illegal in many countries, and it is also banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But enforcement is minimal, and even poachers seized with tons of smuggled animals often get away with a wrist slap. Authorities sometimes dispose of these shipments by auction, cashing in on the illegal market.

It could be worse than what’s happening to elephants and rhinos.

Zoos at least know how to breed those species in captivity, says Hywood. But so far, no one has managed to captive-breed any of the eight pangolin species. That means that if Chaminuka and his ilk go extinct in the wild before scientists can figure that out, these curious creatures will be gone forever.

##

And here’s a related article I wrote on the pangolin trade for Yale Environment 360.

 

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Now Is Our Time to End Polio Forever

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 17, 2019

What it looks like when the vaccines don’t get there. (Photo: Unknown)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In January 2014 an American public health worker was visiting northern Nigeria to observe a polio prevention campaign by local health workers. It was a big, festive event with a marching band to bring out parents and children for their immunizations. But the American visitor and the local program manager soon found themselves being drawn away from the action, down deserted streets to an area still under construction. They were being led by a young girl.

“And what was happening was that she was Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Taxpayer-Funded Conservation on Private Land Should Not Be Secret

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 12, 2019


Coyote Ridge, part of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan in Northern California. (Photo: Bjorn Erickson/USFWS)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

A few years ago, an environmental lawyer named Jessica Owley set out to learn how well it works when the federal government allows development in the habitat of an endangered species. Under the terms of these deals, introduced in the 1980s to mollify opponents of the Endangered Species Act, the developers provide mitigation, typically with a conservation easement on some other parcel of private land.

Owley focused on four California examples, out of the almost 700 so-called Habitat Conservation Plans (or HCPs) that now exist nationwide. She had a long list of questions, from “Where are the protected parcels?” to “How do endangered species fare in the face of these deals?”

“I ended up being stopped at the first question,” says Owley, now a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find the HCP sites, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t know and couldn’t find them.” In one case, an HCP to protect the Mission blue butterfly outside San Francisco, nobody had even bothered to record the easement in municipal land records. Owley came away thinking that a lack of transparency is standard for conservation practices on private land — even when these practices are paid for by taxpayers and meant to serve a significant public interest.

Conservation on private land costs the public hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Just from 2008 to 2012, for instance, landowners donating conservation easements claimed tax deductions that cost the U.S. Treasury

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hello, China? You’re Wrecking The Ozone Layer (All Over Again)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 26, 2019

Barrels containing CFC-11 at a factory in Dacheng, Hebei Province. (Photo: The Environmental Investigation Agency)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

When the Montreal Protocol marked its 30th anniversary in 2017, it seemed like an unalloyed triumph for environmental common sense. By banding together to address a planetary emergency, the 197 signatory nations had officially ended production and use of chemicals responsible for depleting the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, an essential shield against the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It was a “milestone for all people and our planet,” according to António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations. “The Earth’s Ozone Hole is Shrinking,” one celebratory headline announced. “Without the Ozone Treaty,” another advised, “You’d Get Sunburned in 5 Minutes.”

But an unexpected recent spike in emissions of CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons), the major ozone-depleting chemicals, now suggests it’s far too soon to close the file on ozone depletion. A new study published this week in Nature pins down the source of 7,000 metric tons a year of new CFC-11 (trichlorofluoromethane) emissions to the provinces of Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

How to Send a Finch Extinct

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2019

Australia’s southern black-throated finch: Going, going …

This one caught my eye because it’s such a pretty bird, and because of the mindlessness with which Australia is letting human development drive it to extinction.

The state of Queensland and Australia’s federal government have allowed more than 1900 square miles of potential finch habitat to be cleared without anybody asking: Is this really a good idea? Almost 800 developments have been proposed and only one was turned down for its unacceptable impact on the finch, which has now vanished from 80 percent of its original habitat. Still in the works, five new coal mines in the last remaining high quality finch habitat.

It’s kind of amazing in a country that just this month is experiencing fish, wild horse, and bat die-offs  because of climate change.  (“Their brain just fries.“)

There’s a Senate hearing in Brisbane Friday on the continuing decline and extinction of Australia’s diverse wildlife. Time for somebody to get riled up. And of course it’s not just Australia. Development is our God everywhere, and the natural world pays the price.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

When Trade Deals Become an Invitation to Environmental Crime

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 17, 2019

camion-transportando-madera-eia

(Photo: EIA)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

When the trade deal between the United States and Peru went into effect in 2009, proponents touted it as a shining example of environmental good sense. It was the first time the main text of any trade deal included detailed protections for the environment and for labor. That mattered — and still matters — both as a model for other trade deals and also because the environment ostensibly being protected includes a large chunk of the Amazon rain forest.

As part of the deal’s Forest Sector Annex, the United States provided $90 million in technical assistance to beef up enforcement by Peru’s forest service and to create an electronic system intended to track every log from stump to export. (That system does not appear to be working so far, because of software issues, according to rumors.) Peru in turn agreed, among other things, to ensure the independent status of its forest watchdog agency, called Osinfor, which sends its agents into the field to check that loggers have actually harvested the trees reported in their export documents. (That system works all too well, repeatedly demonstrating that logging companies lie.) On passage, then-Senator Max Baucus assured skeptics that enforcement of the treaty’s added provision would “have real teeth.”

Sadly, the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement is now slouching toward its 10th anniversary on Feb. 1 in shambles, brought on this time by the Peruvian government’s latest attempt to hobble, cripple or otherwise rid itself of this meddlesome Osinfor.

From the start, the Peru deal has served as a cover for almost laughably rampant Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

Cities Are For People, Not Cars

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 18, 2018

Yes, there are people in those cars. But not many for the space they occupy.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In many of the major cities of the world, it has begun to dawn even on public officials that walking is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great underrated pleasures in life. A few major cities have even tentatively begun to take back their streets for pedestrians.

Denver, for instance, is proposing a plan to invest $1.2 billion in sidewalks, and, at far greater cost, bring frequent public transit within a quarter-mile of most of its residents. In Europe, where clean, safe, punctual public transit is already widely available, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center beginning next year. Madrid is banning cars owned by nonresidents, and is also redesigning 24 major downtown avenues to take them back for pedestrians. Paris has banned vehicles from a road along the Seine, and plans to rebuild it for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Yes, car owners are furious. That’s because they have mistaken their century-long domination over pedestrians for a right rather than a privilege. The truth is that cities are not doing nearly enough to restore streets for pedestrian use, and it’s the pedestrians who should be furious.

Many American cities still rely on “level of service” (LOS) design models developed in the 1960s that focus single-mindedly on keeping vehicle traffic moving, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, an urban design specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Hence improvements for other modes (walking, cycling, transit) that might increase vehicle delay are characterized as LOS. impediments,” she and her co-authors write in The Journal of Urban Design. The idea of pedestrians as “impediments” is of course perverse, especially given the word’s original meaning: An impediment was something that functioned as a shackle for the feet — unlimited vehicle traffic, say.

The emphasis on vehicle traffic flow is also a perversion of basic social equity, and the costs show up in ways large and small. Vehicles in cities contribute a major portion of small-particle pollution, the kind that penetrates deep into the lungs. (Thepercentage can reach as high as 49 percent in Phoenix and 55 percent in Los Angeles. It’s just 6 percent in Beijing, but that’s because there are so many other pollution sources.) People living close to busy roads, particularly infants and older people in lower-income households, pay most of the cost in respiratory, cardiovascular and other problems. A 2013 M.I.T. study estimated that vehicle emissions cause 53,000 early deaths a year in the United States, and a study just last month from Lancaster University in Britain found that children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to live in areas with high levels of vehicle pollution.

Among the smaller costs: Most people in cities from Bangalore to Brooklyn cannot afford to keep a car, and yet our cities routinely turn over the majority of public thoroughfares to those who can. They allow parked cars to eat up 350 square feet apiece, often at no charge, in cities where private parking spaces rent for as much as $700 a month. And they devote most of what’s left of the street to the uninterrupted flow of motor vehicles.

But that’s not really such a small cost, after all: It means that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Confused Animals Look Around and Sing: “This Is Where We Used to Live”

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 18, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

A shift in home range by a handful of bird species along an obscure ridge in the Peruvian Andes might once have seemed like sleepy stuff, even to ecologists. Instead, it made headlines last month when researchers reported that the birds’ uphill push for cooler terrain has already resulted in population losses for most species and the probable extirpation of five species that were common at the top of the ridge just 33 years ago.

It was some of the strongest evidence yet for the long-standing prediction by scientists that climate change will lead — is leading now — to widespread loss of wildlife. University of British Columbia ecologist Ben Freeman and his co-authors summed up their findings with a chilling metaphor: Mountain birds, they wrote, are “riding an escalator to extinction.”

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, didn’t report any actual extinctions. The Cerro de

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

Pantiacolla rises to a maximum height of only 4,642 feet, and the birds that disappeared from the ridgetop persist on higher and larger mountains — in effect, on other escalators — elsewhere in the area. Reliable scientific evidence that climate change has caused actual extinctions is in fact scarce so far, despite projections by climate modelers that such extinctions are likely. The only known example is a marsupial called the Bramble Cay melomys, which vanished sometime after 2009 from a low-lying island off northern Australia, after sea level rise and extreme weather caused repeated inundation of its habitat.

But the new study from Peru lends support to the predictions being made by climate modelers. It also fits into a rapidly expanding body of evidence that plants and animals everywhere are on the move as they struggle to adjust to climate change. The ecological upheaval is “happening right now and it will almost certainly continue to happen,” says Freeman, lead author of the Peru study, and “there is an immediacy to something happening right before our eyes that’s different from a study saying, ‘this is what it’s going to be like in 2100.’”

When plants and animals move uphill, they can lose habitat, simply because mountains become smaller the higher you climb. A shift in range can also mean the loss of old partnerships, the introduction of Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »