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  • 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)

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Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

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 »

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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 »

Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime this winter, if all goes as planned, a caravan of livestock trucks will carry 60 American bison out of Yellowstone National Park on a 500-mile journey into the past. Unlike their ranched cousins, which are mainly the result of nineteenth-century attempts to cross bison with cattle, the Yellowstone animals are wild and genetically pure, descendants of the original herds that once astonished visitors to the Great Plains and made the bison the symbol of American abundance. Until, that is, unsustainable hunting made it a symbol of mindless ecological destruction.

When the appalling mass slaughter of 30 million or so bison finally ended early in the 20th century, just 23 wild bison remained in Yellowstone, holed up in Pelican Valley. Together with a roughly equal number of animals saved by ranchers, they became the basis for the recovery of the species, Bison bison, carefully nurtured back to strength within Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now routinely exceeds the limit of about 4000 bison thought to be sustainable within park boundaries. Park rangers have thus had the disheartening annual job of rounding up “excess” bison for slaughter or watching some step across the park’s northern border into a hunt that critics deride as a firing squad. Relocating the animals would be the humane alternative, except for one scary problem: Ranchers and others have long maintained that bison spread brucellosis, a bacterial infection that is devastating to both cattle and bison. But an authoritative 2017 study using whole genome sequencing determined that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Selling the Protected Area Myth (No Wildlife Need Apply)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2018

Chevron’s Gas Plant Being Built in a Class A Protected Area

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

It’s widely celebrated as one of the few success stories in the push to protect the wildlife we claim to love: Since the early 1990s, governments have roughly doubled the extent of natural areas under protection, with almost 15 percent of the terrestrial Earth and perhaps 5 percent of the oceans now set aside for wildlife. From 2004 to 2014, nations designated an astonishing 43,000 new protected areas.

These numbers are likely to increase, as the 168 nations that are signatories to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected area coverage by 2020. And at that point, even more ambitious targets should kick in.

So, hurrah, right?

Sadly, there are two big delusions at work here. The first is that designating protected areas is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 10 Comments »

When We Protect “Umbrella Species,” Who Else Gets In Under The Umbrella?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 23, 2018

Sage-grouse (Photo: Dave Showalter)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Conservationists often criticize state fish and game departments for focusing single-mindedly on one species to the detriment of everything else — for instance, improving habitat for elk, which then browse down habitat for songbirds. But what if conservationists — who don’t have that traditional hook-and-bullet mindset — nonetheless inadvertently do much the same thing?

That’s one implication of new research looking at the umbrella species concept, one of the fundamental ideas driving conservation efforts worldwide. It’s the idea routinely advocated by conservationists that establishing and managing protected areas for the benefit of one surrogate species — from gorillas to grizzly bears — will also indirectly benefit a host of other, less charismatic species sharing the same habitat. “The umbrella species concept is an appealing shortcut,” says Jason Carlisle, who conducted the research as a doctoral candidate at the University of Wyoming.  But the complications quickly pile up.

Across much of the American West, the greater sage grouse is one such umbrella species. It’s widely considered (but not officially listed as) an endangered species, with a population down from millions of individuals across 16 states and three Canadian provinces a century ago to fewer than 400,000 in a sharply reduced and fragmented range today.

In 2015, an unprecedented consortium of states, federal agencies, private landowners, industry, and environmentalists agreed to a painstakingly negotiated collaboration to protect the sage grouse and to make it an umbrella for 350 other “background” species in sagebrush habitat. Then, last August the Trump Administration threw out that Obama-era agreement and reopened sage grouse habitat on federal lands to additional mining, drilling, cattle grazing, and off-road vehicle use — all factors that helped imperil sage grouse in the first place.

In reality, Carlisle and his co-authors suggest, the protective umbrella created under the 2015 agreement should have been Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying Forests and Oceans

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2018

(Photo: FLIGHT Protecting Indonesia’s Birds)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Conservation biologist David S. Wilcove was on a birding trip to Sumatra in 2012 when he began to notice that house after house in every village he visited had cages hanging outside, inhabited by the sort of wild birds he had expected to see in the forest. Nationwide, one in five households keeps birds as pets. That got him thinking, “What is this doing to the birds?”

Wilcove, who teaches at Princeton University, made a detour to the Pramuka bird market in Jakarta,

White-rumped shama (Photo: Shanaka Aravinda)

Southeast Asia’s largest market for birds and other wildlife, from fruit bats to macaques. “It was this sort of Wal-Mart-size space filled with hundreds of stalls,” he recalled recently, “each stall of which was filled with

hundreds of birds. An awful lot of them were in very poor condition, with signs of disease, feathers frayed, behaving listlessly–or thrashing around in their cages, because a lot of these are wild birds that are not at all suited to living as caged birds.” Some were species that even zoos with highly trained professional staff cannot maintain in captivity; they would die soon after purchase, “the cut flower syndrome,” he remarked.  “It was really a shocking site. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Research by Wilcove and his colleagues subsequently linked demand for birds in Indonesia’s pet marketplace to the decline of numerous species in the wild. Prices in the pet market, they suggested, in a 2015 study in Biological Conservation, can even serve as an alarm system for species declines that might not show up in field studies until years later, if at all:  When the average price for a white-rumped shama, a popular species in Indonesian songbird competitions, shot up 1500 percent from 2013 to 2015, the shift tipped conservationists off for the first time that these birds were vanishing from the wild.

Follow-up field studies in Indonesia by co-author Bert Harris, now at the Rainforest Trust, found no trace of shamas even in seemingly intact habitats where they should thrive, such as in national parks and in forests five kilometers from the nearest roads.  Buyers were paying especially high prices for distinctive island populations, some of them likely unrecognized species or sub-species. The pet trade, said Wilcove, thus has “the potential to drive species to extinction even when they have suitable habitat, and drive them to extinction without anyone being aware of it.”

The problem isn’t just about birds.  Nor is it limited to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

How Cities Could Still Save Us

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 23, 2018

22conniff-superJumbo

(Illustration: Lan Truong by permission)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Before the environmental activist and gay rights lawyer David Buckel set himself afire in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on April 14, he wrote a letter explaining that he had chosen his “early death by fossil fuel” as an act of protest against the environmental catastrophe that we are bringing upon ourselves and the planet. It was a horrifying end, not least because in life Mr. Buckel had successfully taken on issues as seemingly intractable as the legalization of same-sex marriage. If someone so capable had given up on the environment, one woman remarked to a Times reporter, “What does that mean for the rest of us?”

I was thinking about Mr. Buckel and about despair a few nights later, over a drink with Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society. As director of that organization’s worldwide field conservation work, Mr. Walston routinely comes face-to-face with the dark forces of human overpopulation, mass extinction of species, climate change and pollution. But he is also the co-author of a paper being published this week in the journal BioScience that begins with the uplifting words of Winston Churchill to the British nation in June 1940, under the shadow of the Nazi conquest of France: “In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye,” Churchill declared, “I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Mr. Walston and his co-authors go on to argue against the increasingly common view that these are the end times for life as we know it. Instead, they suggest that what the natural world is experiencing is a bottleneck — long, painful, undoubtedly frightening and likely to get worse in the short term — but with the forces of an eventual breakthrough and environmental recovery already gathering strength around us.

Mr. Walston sipped his beer and listed what he called “the four pillars” of conservation in the modern era — a stabilized human population, increasingly concentrated in urban areas, able to escape extreme poverty, and with a shared understanding of nature and the environment — “and all four are happening right now.” He singled out the trend Read the rest of this entry »

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

Can We Fix Climate Change by Pumping More Oil?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 9, 2018

At the Petra Nova power plant in Texas, carbon capture technology reduces CO2 emissions from one of four coal-fired units

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

At first glance, it sounds like something cooked up after too many martinis by a K Street lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry: Take legislation making it more profitable for oil companies to pump oil, and easier for coal-fired power plants to continue to operate — and then sell it as a climate change remedy. Calling it “counterintuitive” might sound like an understatement.

In fact, though, the proposal became law in February, as a little-noticed — but remarkably bipartisan — piece of the deal to pass a budget and reopen the United States government. Among the leading sponsors was Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, rated 0 percent in 2017 by the League of Conservation Voters­­­­­.  But joining her was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, with a 100 percent rating.

Environmental groups backing the initiative, which substantially increases tax credits for projects that capture carbon emissions, included the Clean Air Task Forceand the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, among others. “In terms of reducing emissions, it’s probably the most consequential energy and climate legislation in a generation,” said Brad Crabtree of the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit focused on decarbonizing the power industry.

But other environmentalists argued that one provision of the new law — promoting use of captured carbon dioxide for “enhanced oil recovery” — would serve, as Greenpeace put it, “to promote oil supply and keep us hooked Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2018

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just can’t imagine that, for instance, floods, mudslides, wildfires, biblical droughts and back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes are going to be a serious problem in our lifetimes. And we certainly don’t make the connection to the food on our plates, or to beef in particular.

The cattle industry would like to keep it that way. Oil, gas and coal had to play along, for instance, when the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency instituted mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. But the program to track livestock emissions was mysteriously Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »