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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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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Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

India’s The Tiger Capital of the World. Here’s How It Could Do 5X Better

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 9, 2018

Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal, India (Photo: Soumyajit Nandy/ Wikimedia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Ullas Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.

Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.

Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.

Richard Conniff: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?

Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

Conniff Is there any chance that that will happen?

Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of Read the rest of this entry »

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

Eye in the Sky on Nature: Satellites are Transforming Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 22, 2017

Satellite image of the Sundarbans coastal forest in Bangladesh, home to the endangered Bengal tiger. NASA

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

As recently as the 1980s, gray seals were effectively extinct on Cape Cod. So when researchers announced last week that the population there has recovered not to 15,000 gray seals, the previous official estimate, but to as many as 50,000, it was dramatic evidence of how quickly conservation can sometimes work.

But the researchers, writing in the journal BioScience, weren’t just interested in the seals. They also sought to demonstrate the rapidly evolving potential of satellites to count and monitor wildlife populations and to answer big questions about the natural world.  That’s still news to many wildlife ecologists, according to senior author David W. Johnston, of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  Ecologists have been slow to incorporate satellite data in their work so far, in part because their training and culture are about going into the field to get to know their study subjects at first hand. The perspective from outer space has not necessarily seemed all that relevant.

But the rapidly growing abundance and sophistication of satellite imagery and remote sensing data is about to change that:  “High-resolution earth imagery sources Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Dear Conservatives: Yes, You Can Go Green Again

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2016

Teddy Roosevelt and the conservative roots of American conservation.

Teddy Roosevelt and the conservative roots of American conservation.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

NOT long ago I wrote an essay on how to talk about environmental issues with conservatives. Talk persuasively, that is, not confrontationally. A conservative promptly replied that I was afflicted with “fundamental ignorance,” and possibly worse. The gist of it was that conservatives are already environmentalists, and the rest of us are just too stupid to recognize it. I put on my cheerfully positive face and suggested that he amplify his point by listing 10 pro-environment actions by conservatives in this century. (O.K., maybe that was my passive-aggressive face, given that George W. Bush was president for eight of those 16 years.) He replied with more name-calling.

This is a shame, because conservatives used to be almost by definition conservationists, focused on preserving our shared heritage from destructive influences. You can, in fact, date the rise of the conservation movement as a political force in this country to a December 1887 dinner party of wealthy big game hunters, largely Republicans, hosted in a Madison Avenue house by Theodore Roosevelt (still a hero to many modern conservatives, despite certain progressive leanings). He and his guests that night formed the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to preservation and management of game.

Putting to work their considerable social and political clout, as well as their money, they went on to save the bison from extinction, greatly expand the national park system, and help establish both the National Wildlife Refuge System and the United States Forest Service. The Lacey Act, still our most important law against wildlife crime, was largely their doing. Ducks Unlimited, a Boone and Crockett offshoot, became an early force for wetland conservation.

This natural link between conservatives and conservation lasted through much of the 20th century. Conservatives may complain about oil companies being shut out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but most of the credit for protecting that habitat belongs to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also signed the nation’s first air pollution control law. Richard M. Nixon, not otherwise a candidate for sainthood, changed the way the nation lives, breathes and does business, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and enacting the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, among other major environmental initiatives. George H. W. Bush, finally, Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Trouble with Saving Nature by Putting a Price on It

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 11, 2016

Do we really want to put a price on this? (Photo: Lena Trindade/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Do we really want to put a price on this? (Photo: Lena Trindade/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)

My latest for

Not too long ago, Mexican free-tailed bats seemed like a perfect example of how conservationists could use the “ecosystem services” idea to save the natural world. These bats feed on insect pests in the Southwestern United States, and researchers have calculated that they provide a benefit to cotton farmers that was at one point worth about $24 million a year.

It would, of course, have taken a miracle worker to get the farmers to pay for a service they had always gotten for free. But before that could happen, technology and market forces intervened: BT cotton, a strain of cotton genetically modified to produce the insecticide BT, came on the market. The BT took over the job of controlling insect pests on cotton farms, and suddenly the free-tailed bats were like buggy-whip makers in the automotive age or newspaper reporters today. The value of their services plummeted by 80 percent.

Cases like this have led a lot of biologists to wonder, as the title of a recent article in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution put it, “Have Ecosystem Services Been Oversold?” These critics increasingly question the validity of the entire ecosystem services movement on practical and moral grounds. They ask, among other things: What happens when technological and market forces make the services a species provides, and thus the species itself, seem worthless? Is it even right to monetize and in some cases privatize nature, the ultimate public good?

The questions are worth asking because the ecosystem services idea is a movement, beloved by many conservation organizations, and the subject

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Why We Are Such Suckers for Trophy Photo Outrage

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 11, 2015

(Photo: It came from Facebook)

(Photo: It came from Facebook)

My weekly column for

Lately, I’ve been lurking on the outskirts of a provocative Facebook conversation about hunting. Everybody involved in the debate fit the description “conservationist.” But that was about the only thing they agreed on. (And if I’d stuck around a little longer, they might have gotten ugly about that, too.) The topic of the debate was: “Why have trophy photographs become such a standard object of Internet outrage?”

12308389_10207858489478242_7719123601841035935_nThe person who started it all put that question in an intriguing context: The earliest cave paintings almost always depicted hunters pursuing trophy-quality animals—mastodons with great curved tusks and antelope with enormous antlers. The primitive people who painted them were the ancestors of us all, and we would not be here without them or the hunting by which they lived. Their paintings also represent the beginnings of art and human culture. So how can we revere those ancient trophy images and yet also feel such anger toward their modern counterparts?

The two things are radically different, one writer replied. Scholars generally interpret the hunts in cave paintings as expressions of shamanic or magical links to the quarry. They also served Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Yes, Hotshot Harry Can Be A Hunter and a Conservationist, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2014

Prince Harry

Britain’s Prince Harry continues to take heavy flak for being simultaneously a hunter and a conservationist, with the appearance in today’s Daily Mail of the above photograph.  It’s 10 years old, and shows “Crackshot Harry, The Buffalo Killer” in Argentina, smiling over the carcass of a water buffalo, not exactly an endangered species.

Harry has been taking a public relations hit since going out earlier this month on a boar hunt in Spain with his brother William, immediately prior to making a public pledge to fight against the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts and other endangered animals.

My Irish and American family background means I am no great fan of royalty, and I should probably welcome the endlessly clumsy, tone-deaf behavior by the British Royals.  It makes a better case for republicanism than any Fenian or Federalist ever did.  (And it’s so much more entertaining.)  But that said, a legal hunt for water buffalo or boar is Read the rest of this entry »

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

Is Focusing on Human Needs Like Saying “Yes’ to Extinctions?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2014

My latest for Takepart (the web site of the movie company Participant Pictures):

When modern conservationists seem to put human welfare ahead of the needs of wildlife, are they betraying the movement’s central tenets? That’s the argument made by the authors of a new editorial in the journal Biological Conservation. In fact, it’s less an argument and more like an angry accusation, relying heavily on the phrase “great moral wrong.”

The editorial taps into a growing uneasiness among some conservation biologists about the direction of the conservation movement as it struggles to find the most effective role in an era, the so-called Anthropocene, in which human expansion seems to be having a devastating effect on almost every species and landscape on the planet—via habitat destruction, poaching, bush-meat hunting, pollution, and climate change.

Prominent environmental groups—among them The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International—have responded to this change with an increasing emphasis on how deeply human survival depends on the things nature provides: “ecosystem services” like clean water, crop pollination, flood control, putting oxygen into the atmosphere and pulling carbon dioxide out, wildlife habitat, and recreation.

This shift in emphasis means that environmental groups now often work side by side with old adversaries, from indigenous communities crowding around conservation areas to Fortune 500 companies looking to clear-cut, mine, harvest, or otherwise exploit the landscape. The shift to a more human-oriented approach has sometimes resulted, notably at Conservation International, in an exodus of species-oriented biologists.

What gets lost in the process, according to the editorial, is the defining environmental belief that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 17 Comments »

Fighting Back in the New War on Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 20, 2011

Here’s the story I reported from South Africa earlier this year.  It’s now out in the November Smithsonian:

Johannesburg’s international airport is an easy place to get lost in the crowd, and that’s what a 29-year-old Vietnamese man named Xuan Hoang was hoping to do one day in March last year—just lie low till he could board his flight home.  The police dog sniffing down the line of passengers didn’t worry him; he’d checked his baggage through to Ho Chi Minh City.  But behind the scenes, police were also manning the x-ray scanners on flights to Vietnam, believed to be the epicenter of a new war on rhinos.  And when Hoang’s bag appeared on the screen, they saw the unmistakable shape of rhinoceros horns—six of them, weighing more than 35 pounds and worth up to $500,000.

Investigators suspected the contraband might be linked to a poaching incident a few days earlier on a game farm in Limpopo Province, on the country’s northern border.  “We have learned over time, as soon as a rhino goes down, in the next two or three days the horns will leave the country,” said police Col. Johan Jooste of South Africa’s national priority crime unit, when I interviewed him recently in Pretoria.

The Limpopo rhinos had been killed in a “chemical poaching,” meaning that hunters, probably traveling by helicopter, shot them with a dart gun loaded with an overdose of veterinary tranquilizers.  As the price of rhino horn has soared, said Jooste, a short, thickly-built bull of a cop, so has the involvement of sophisticated criminal syndicates.

“The couriers are like drug mules, specifically recruited to come into South Africa on holiday.  All they know is that they need to pack for one or two days. They come in here with minimal contact details, sometimes with just a mobile phone, and they meet with guys providing the horns. They discard the phone so there’s no way to trace it to any other people.”

Police were not sure they would be able to send Hoang away for serious jail time, much less get to the professionals who had hired him. South African courts often require police not just to catch someone smuggling rhino horns, but actually connect the horns to a specific poaching incident.   “In the past,” said Jooste, “we needed to physically fit a horn on a skull to see if we had a match.  But that was not always possible, because we didn’t have the skull, or it was cut too cleanly.”

Taking the sample for DNA analysis

Police sent the horns confiscated at the airport to Cindy Harper, head of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria. Getting a match with DNA testing had never worked in the past. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

God is a Tree Hugger

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 13, 2011

When I published a piece recently in the New York Times about how rapidly species are going extinct, my religiously inclined sister–my own sister!–replied, “Who’s to say they shouldn’t have gone extinct?”

God came to mind.

Maybe it’s pandering, but here is a selection of passages from the Bible that clearly argue for a conservationist ethos:

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)

“You must keep my decrees and my laws…. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out Read the rest of this entry »

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