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As Ethiopia Reclaims the Nile, Egypt Dwindles

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 6, 2017

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest, is now nearing completion. (Photo: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Though politicians and the press tend to downplay the idea, environmental degradation is often an underlying cause of international crises.  For instance, deforestation, erosion, and reduced agricultural output set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.  And prolonged drought pushed rural populations into the cities at the start of the current Syrian civil war. Egypt could become the latest example, its 95 million people the likely victims of a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement.

It’s happening now in the Nile River delta, a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles to the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1 percent of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.

The latest threat is a massive dam scheduled to be completed this year on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | 1 Comment »

To End Bushmeat Hunting, Let Them Eat Chickens

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 18, 2017

(Photo:Jeannie O’Brien/Flickr)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

The idea that the humble chicken could become a savior of wildlife will seem improbable to many environmentalists. We tend to equate poultry production with factory farms, downstream pollution and 50-piece McNugget buckets.

In much of the developing world, though, “a chicken in every pot” is the more pertinent image. It’s a tantalizing one for some conservationists because what’s in the pot there these days is mostly trapped, snared or hunted wildlife — also called bushmeat — from cane rats and brush-tailed porcupines to gorillas.

Hunting for dinner is of course what humans have always done, the juicier half of our hunter-gatherer origins. In many remote forests and fishing villages, moreover, it remains an essential part of the cultural identity. But modern weaponry, motor vehicles, commercial markets and booming human populations have pushed the bushmeat trade to literal overkill — an estimated 15 million animals a year taken in the Brazilian Amazon alone, 579 million animals a year in Central Africa, and onward in a mad race to empty forests and waterways everywhere.

A study last year identified bushmeat hunting as the primary threat pushing 301 mammal species worldwide toward extinction. The victims include bonobo apes, one of our closet living relatives, and Grauer’s gorillas, the world’s largest. (The latter have recently lost about 80 percent of their population, hunted down by mining camp crews with shotguns and AK-47s. Much of the mining is for a product integral to our cultural identities, a mineral used in

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The Hunger Gains: Calorie Restriction Shows Anti-Aging Benefits

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2017


Note: Almost 40 years ago (!) I wrote a piece on anti-aging research.  Part of it was about the fasting diet (aka severe calorie restriction or CR).  The article featured Roy Walford, a pioneer of that research at UCLA. Walford did not merely research CR, he also practiced it, and he looked emaciated to me. He later became part of the Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s, which turned into a prolonged CR experiment for everyone. Walford came out of it with his health broken, and died in 2004 at 79, about normal life expectancy then. So I came to the latest research on CR with a lot of caveats in mind.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

The idea that organisms can live longer, healthier lives by sharply reducing their calorie intake is not exactly new. Laboratory research has repeatedly demonstrated the anti-aging value of calorie restriction (or CR), in animals from nematodes to rats—with the implication that the same might be true for humans.

In practice though, permanently reducing calorie intake by 25 to 50 percent or more sounds to many like a way to extend life by making it not worth living. Researchers have also warned that what works for nematodes or rats may not work—and could even prove dangerous—in humans, by causing muscle or bone density loss, for example.

But now two new studies appear to move calorie restriction from the realm of wishful thinking to the brink of practical, and perhaps even tolerable, reality. Writing in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the National Institute on Aging reported

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As Coal Use Drops, So Does Mercury in Tuna. Will Trump Un-Do That?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 23, 2016

 (Photo: Yusuke Kawasaki/Flickr).

(Photo: Yusuke Kawasaki/Flickr).

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Levels of highly toxic mercury contamination in Atlantic bluefin tuna are rapidly declining, according to a new study. That trend does not affect recommended limits on consumption of canned tuna, which comes mainly from other tuna species. Nor does it reflect trends in other ocean basins. But it does represent a major break in the long-standing, scary connection between tuna and mercury, a source of public concern since 1970, when a chemistry professor in New York City found excess levels of mercury in a can of tuna and spurred a nationwide recall. Tuna consumption continues to be the source of about 40 percent of the mercury contamination in the American diet. And mercury exposure from all sources remains an important issue, because it causes cognitive impairment in an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 babies born in this country each year.

The new study, published online on November 10 by Environmental Science & Technology, links the decline directly to reduced mercury emissions in North America. Most of that reduction has occurred because of the marketplace shift by power plants and industry away from coal, the major source of mercury emissions. Pollution control requirements imposed by the federal government have also cut mercury emissions.

Progress on both counts could, however, reverse, with President-elect Donald Trump promising

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

Animal Music Monday: From the Diary of a Fly

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2016

This is a piece by Béla Bartók, both whimsical and empathetic, about a fly becoming caught in a spider’s web. It’s built on what musical types call ostinato, a single repeated musical phrase, and somehow over the course of less than two minutes, this captures both the buzzing repetitiveness of an insect’s life and the desperation in the face of death.

This one caught my attention because I have written about flies, without much empathy, in my book Spineless Wonders (currently out of print but one of these days I will get it back as an ebook). I have also written about spiders building their webs, and in that case I felt so much empathy that I went out to a climbing wall and tried to build my own web.  I wrote about it in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time. Here’s an excerpt:

One day back home, I was watching a spider spin its astonishing construction between my desk lamp and telephone (it was a slow day), and I suddenly wanted to become a spider, at least for a little while. I picked up the phone (a cataclysm for the spider) and found a climbing instructor named Stefan Caporale, who agreed to help me build my own orb web, in the corner between two climbing walls at the YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts. Caporale fitted me out with a climbing harness and Jumar ascenders. I’d never done any rope climbing, but with a slingful of the metal clips called carabiners over one shoulder and a rope bag in lieu of a silk gland over the other, I felt like Charlotte’s Web meets Rambo.

I was, of course, going to have to cheat,

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Angry Tweets Won’t Help African Lions

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016


(Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

THE killing of Zimbabwe’s celebrated Cecil the Lion by a Minnesota dentist, on July 1 of last year unleashed a storm of moral fulmination against trophy hunting. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued an official statement calling for the hunter, Walter J. Palmer, to be hanged, and an odd bedfellow, Newt Gingrich, tweeted that Dr. Palmer and the entire team involved in the killing of Cecil should go to jail. The television personality Sharon Osbourne thought merely losing “his home, his practice and his money” would do, adding, “He has already lost his soul.”

More than one million people signed a petition demanding “justice for Cecil,” and three major American airlines announced that they would no longer transport hunting trophies. A few months later, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed lions from West and Central Africa and also India as endangered, shutting down the major markets for trophies from that region. Australia, France and the Netherlands banned lion trophy imports outright.

Unfortunately, the furor did almost nothing to slow the catastrophic decline in lion populations, down 43 percent over the past two decades. That’s because trophy hunting was never really the main problem. Lions are disappearing in Africa for a reason Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Smarter Farming (and Eating) to Save the World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2016

(Photo: Chris Winsor/Getty Images)

(Photo: Chris Winsor/Getty Images)

My latest for

You probably don’t think agricultural intensification could ever be a good thing. And you certainly wouldn’t expect an argument for more of it in a column about wildlife. But here’s the deal: If we don’t figure out how to grow more food on less land, we’re going to have to plow under what little remains of the natural world and turn it into farmland.

And we have to figure it out fast, because there are going to be 10 billion people to feed by mid-century. The way we grow food now, that won’t leave enough room at all for creatures from ants to elephants—or for the plants with which they have coevolved over the history of the Earth.

The answer, according to a lot of agricultural experts, is sustainable intensification. Basically it means growing more food on less land, but doing so with minimal environmental damage. And it’s arguably even more important than the usual conservation strategy of creating national parks and other protected natural areas.

“If we want to save biodiversity in the world,” said G. David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, “the most important thing is not to buy a piece of land and put a fence around it but to help farmers feed their families—and feed other families.” He’s talking mostly about Read the rest of this entry »

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When Animal Rights Sabotage the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2016

Deer-herd-web-2-26-06My latest for

There are times—too many times, in truth—when understanding and protecting the natural world demands that we band together to stop the killing: The macho practice of shooting wolves in the American West comes to mind as an example. So does the relentless slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa. But at other times, protecting the natural world requires us to kill, and this is the painful reality some animal rights activists refuse to understand.

It’s not a failure to communicate. Animal rights groups are often brilliant at communicating. It’s a failure to reason in the face of scientific evidence, and it comes up almost endlessly for people who do the real work of protecting the natural world.

The latest case happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city wanted to cull a booming deer population that is destroying the forest understory, damaging local landscaping, and causing car accidents (88 last year, double what it was just five years ago). Then both the Humane Society of the United States and the local chapter of the Humane Society—two separate entities—showed up to cry, “Cruelty!”

But, hang on, why should the rest of us care about Ann Arbor, a university town of 113,000 people 45 minutes west of Detroit? It matters, says Christopher Dick, a plant ecologist at the University of Michigan, because “HSUS is pitting its huge resources and cherry-picked science against every small town in the eastern U.S. that is having deer overabundance issues and considering lethal options.”

Activists put on a reasonable face when they come into town to

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , , | 27 Comments »

The Big Thing Killing Off the World’s Only Lemurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 1, 2016

Verreaux's sifaka ballet dancer in a croisé (Photo: Kevin Schafer/Arkive)

Verreaux’s sifaka ballet dancer in a croisé (Photo: Kevin Schafer/Arkive)

My latest for
Once, in Madagascar, I ordered lunch at an outdoor restaurant. A cluster of street kids gathered on the other side of the railing, plainly famished, to watch me eat. Some beany dish, if I recall correctly, with bits of chicken in it. It might even have tasted good under other circumstances.

In any case, I ate. It’s too easy to get overwhelmed by beggars in places like that, and maybe I thought it would be rude to the restaurant owner to indulge them. Maybe I was also hungry, or at least hungry by American standards, after two weeks in the bush eating a lot of rice. Or maybe I was just a callous bastard. In any case, what happened next stunned me: I got up to leave, and the kids instantly reached over the rail to grab my plate and lick it clean.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on Earth and always seemingly getting poorer. But like most visitors, I was there to look at lemurs and other wildlife, not poverty. In particular, I saw sifaka lemurs, with their stark, staring, reddish-brown eyes, and theirartful way of leaping from branch to branch like ballet dancers in perfect partnership with the trees. They were gorgeous. The idea of killing and eating them seemed like an abomination, especially since lemurs occur nowhere else in the world, and 94 percent of the 110 or so lemur species are now threatened with extinction.

But a new study in the journal Biological Conservation makes clear that understanding and addressing

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Letting Fishermen Stake Out A Turf Saves Jobs–and Fish, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2016

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

My latest for

The way the world is currently consuming (and wasting) seafood, we will soon be living on our familiar blue planet, but with oceans that abound in plastic debris rather than marine life.

What if we could make a few relatively simple reforms and start seeing improved fisheries worldwide in just ten years?

What if those reforms could ensure that 98 percent of the world’s fisheries would be biologically healthy and feeding the world on a sustainable basis by 2050?

What if, finally, it doesn’t require the old, and deeply unpopular, method of shutting down fisheries and leaving fishing boats idle at the dock?

That all may sound too good to be true, and there are critics willing to say so.  But it’s achievable, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers looked at the current status and trends in 4,700 fisheries around the world, representing 78 percent of the world’s reported catch.  Then, they projected the future prospects of those fisheries under three different management regimes: business as usual, management to maximize long-term catch, or something called rights-based management.

Their conclusion is that rights-based-management simultaneously feeds more people, boosts profits, and protects the marine resource.

If rights-based management is so good, why aren’t we already doing it?

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