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    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 ‘elephants’

Namibia’s Hidden Poaching Crisis

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 29, 2015

From the ivory black market in Okahandja, Namibia (Photo: Shi Yi)

From the ivory black market in Okahandja, Namibia (Photo: Shi Yi)

This story is dismaying for me, as I have often written about Namibia as a model of smart conservation and anti-poaching common sense. But no place is safe in the current war on wildlife. Or, let’s call it what it is –China’s continuing war on wildlife.

Here’s the reporting by Shi Yi, a Chinese investigative journalist working in southern Africa:

Caprivi imagesIt was a quiet evening in Zambezi, until a herdsman heard a gunshot in the wilderness. By the time the police arrived, they found an elephant carcass – and the tusks had been taken.

“It could be a good trophy animal. Poachers never take small ones,” said chief control warden Morgan Saisai at the Katima Mulilo office of Namibia’s Ministry of Tourism and Environment (MET).

The carcass brought the number of elephants poached in Zambezi, [a region until recently known as “the Caprivi Strip”] in the far north-eastern region of Namibia, to 37 this year.

Namibia is known for its extremely dry climate and desert landscape, but Zambezi is an exception. With the Zambezi river and its tributaries flowing through lush wetlands, it is home to nearly 10,000 resident elephants and thousands of migratory elephants, according to MET.

Poachers take advantage of this. Since 2011, more than 230 elephants have been reported poached in Namibia, more than 90% of them killed in Zambezi.

In the southwest of the country, more than 100 black rhinos have been poached. In addition to these two iconic species, poaching of other animals such as lions and pangolins is also on the rise.

There are indications that Chinese are the buyers behind some of the cases. Despite the anti-poaching messages that can be seen at many places in Namibia, I was frequently approached by locals for ..

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Killing Elephants for Fun and Profit

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014


A game guard points out where the poacher’s bullet killed this young elephant.

This is a hard photograph to look at, but it’s what ivory poachers do, and what we are complicit in when we buy ivory objects.

It’s from a poaching incident in Mozambique, where a survey is about to begin to determine how many elephants still survive there.  You need to know how many there are in order to protect them and keep stuff like this from happening.  Here’s the press release:

Great Elephant Survey To Commence in Mozambique

Hard Data Needed to Better Address Elephant Poaching Crisis

Maputo, Mozambique, Sept. 26, 2014 –The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population.

The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census–an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa  in response to the current escalating wave of poaching sweeping across Africa. The census will provide an essential Read the rest of this entry »

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Africa’s Hidden Population Boom Is Bad News For Humans & Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2014

(Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images)

(Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images)

A few years ago in Kenya, a taxi driver and I were remarking on the endless shambas—tin-roofed farmhouses on impossibly small plots of land–sprawling out from Nairobi all the way across the Great Rift Valley to Lake Nakura. Kenya’s population had quintupled in the driver’s lifetime, from 8.1 million people in 1960 to 44.4 million today, and the consequences were all around us. He pointed out places where he could remember seeing rhinos, hippos, elephants and other wildlife.

All gone now.

It’s the sort of thing that makes conservation biologists foresee an Africa without wildlife. And a new analysis just out in the journal Science suggests that the problem may be worse than anyone has imagined, with the population in Africa increasing from a billion people today to as much as 5.7 billion by 2100.

Past analyses have generally concluded that the total world population would increase from 7.2 billion today to about 9.6 billion in mid-century and then stabilize or even slowly decline. But the new analysis, from a global consortium of demographers and the Population Division of the United Nations, finds “little prospect of an end to world population growth in this century.” Instead, the Earth will somehow need to feed and accommodate 11 or 12 billion people by 2100, with much of the increase happening in sub-Saharan Africa.

That conclusion is surprising because the birth rate continues to decline worldwide and in Africa. But the decline in Africa is happening at only a quarter of the rate seen “in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s, when they were at a comparable stage” in the transition to smaller families, according to the new analysis. In some African countries, the rate of decline has actually stalled over the last 15 years, according to John Wilmoth, the report’s co-author and director of the UN Population Division.

Among possible factors behind the slowdown: The desired family size reported in Africa was

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In Mozambique, A Turning Point in the War on Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 12, 2014

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

The arrest of a deadly six-man poaching gang this past Sunday in the Niassa National Reserve, on Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, could mark a turning point in the war on elephants for two African nations critical to the survival of the species.

In a 1 a.m. raid, the result of a 10-month-long investigation, local police together with wildlife scouts from Niassa and the adjacent Lugenda Wildife Reserve surrounded the gang members as they were transporting a dozen ivory tusks.  The largest of the tusks, at 57 pounds apiece, came from an elephant believed to have been at least 40 years old.  Police also confiscated two high-powered hunting rifles.  During questioning, the shooter in the group, a skilled marksman, admitted to having killed 39 elephants in the Niassa Reserve this year alone.

That admission came in a bid to obtain repatriation to Tanzania, where four of the alleged poachers are based, according to Alastair Nelson, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Mozambique program, which co-manages the Niassa reserve with the national government.  “But that’s not going to happen this time,” he said. “These guys are in prison now and we’re pretty confident they’re going to remain there. Mozambique’s new minister of tourism himself phoned the warden and asked that these men be tried under a new law passed June 20.”

That law, for the conservation of biodiversity, criminalizes poaching of endangered species.  In the past, poachers often got off with a fine.  But the new law now mandates a prison sentence of eight to 12 years, on conviction.  That represents a major change for Mozambique, where in the run-up to elections last year, local police and politicians were rumored to be themselves participating in ivory poaching.

“We’re seeing a number of things beginning to align,” said Nelson.  “We have had

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An Elephant Story That Should Resonate for Modern China

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2014


Tusks in the factory at the end of my old street in Deep River, CT

Tusks in the factory at the end of my old street in Deep River, CT

Back in 1987, when Audubon Magazine had a more ambitious and expansive view of its role in the world, a great editor there named Les Line gave me an assignment to write about a story that had turned up literally on my doorstep.  At that point, I was traveling all over the world reporting stories on wildlife.  So I was startled, one day at home, to discover that the town where I had bought my first house had once been the center of the ivory trade in the Western Hemisphere.

It turned out to be an especially interesting story for me, as I dug into it, because the nineteenth century founder of the ivory company at the end of my street had also been a leading abolitionist.  But he had somehow never noticed that his business depended entirely on the slave trade in East Africa.

The resulting story of moral complication, “When The Music In Our Parlors Brought Death to Darkest Africa,” still resonates for me personally, and apparently also for others in the context of the modern slaughter of elephants.  NPR’s “Morning Edition” nicely paraphrases that original Audubon piece (with a few minor mistakes) in today’s show.  It’s only seven minutes long and worth a listen.

If you’re interested in hearing more, here’s an interview I did a while back with NPR’s Colin McEnroe, about what China can learn about the ivory trade from small town Connecticut. It runs 10 minutes, starting at 38:00: … …  And here’s a piece I published here on the same topic.

I keep meaning to publish that original Audubon piece as an e-book, and maybe one of these days I will get around to it.  Will keep you posted, if so.


New York (August 19, 2014) – The following statement was issued by John Calvelli, WCS Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Director of the 96 Elephants Campaign:


“Today’s landmark study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, authored by 96 Elephants partner Save the Elephants and other groups, confirms the widespread slaughter of elephants throughout Africa driven by ivory poaching.  These tragic numbers underscore

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This Week’s Green News Roundup

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 28, 2014

Here’s the weekly news roundup  from the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog. (OK, it’s the second one I’ve posted this week, but that’s because I let last week’s get away from me.  I apologize.)

The one near the bottom of this list, about Lady Gaga being bitten by a venomous mammal, reminds me of an old verse that arose from a geographic rivalry in the Turkish hinterlands:  “A viper bit a Cappadocian’s hide/And poisoned by his blood, that instant died.”

I am hoping in this case that the biter, a slow loris, has survived:


Are elephants as smart and social as we like to think? (Strange Behaviors)

Get up close and personal with a water opossum and other wild critters of Nicaragua. (Mammal Watching)

Reasons to love wildebeest, as if you need an excuse. (Tetrapod Zoology)

New Research

Bears use wildlife road crossings to find mates. (LiveScience)

From the start-with-the-basics-file: USGS had to locate all the wind turbines in the US before  Read the rest of this entry »

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Are Elephants As Smart and Social As We Like To Think?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 18, 2014

(Photo: Elise Gilchrist/ Think Elephants International, Inc.)

(Photo: Elise Gilchrist/ Think Elephants International, Inc.)

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

One time, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I was visiting with researchers studying a baboon troop when one of the animals became separated from her mates. In the distance, Sashe, as we knew her, started to give out her tremulous, plaintive “lost call,” repeating it over and over. It was so heartrending that, after more than a half hour, all of us wanted to go out and lead her back by the hand ourselves. But the really disturbing thing was to be with the troop, and see her friends and family going about their business, blandly indifferent, as if deaf, to Sashe’s plight.

Monkeys may look like us. They may even act like us in some circumstances. But they don’t have our capacity for empathy. They cannot put themselves in another animal’s place. So far, researchers have been able to demonstrate that ability to identify with and console a distressed individual only in great apes, some canines, and a few corvids, such as rooks and ravens.

It’s different, though, for elephants—or at least that’s what we’ve always believed. A new study published in the journal PeerJ and conducted in Thailand systematically tests that belief for the first time. “The reaction to this from the public,” says lead author Joshua Plotnik, who did the research as a doctoral student at Emory University, “is probably going to be Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage, Social Status | Tagged: , | 11 Comments »

Watching an Elephant Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 5, 2014


Filmmaker Mark Deeble has a post about the unsettling experience of seeing a bull elephant fall before his eyes in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, a victim of the escalating war on elephants:

Recently, we went on a recce [reconnaissance] for the film. The destination was a distant waterhole. We set off early. It was a typical Tsavo waterhole – seemingly hewn out of ochre. That warm glow seemed reflected in the animals that, as we watched, came to drink. A magnificent bull elephant, encrusted with dry mud, stood beside a tamarind as if surveying his personal fiefdom. He seemed unimpressed by the flights of sand-grouse that tumbled from the sky, briefly patterning his skin with their whirling shadows. They sipped twice, sometimes thrice, and clapped their way back into the sky. As they disappeared into the expanse of the Taru desert and their whistling blended with the day’s first gentle movement of air through the acacia thorns, the bull stepped forward to drink. He drank calmly and deeply. He might have traveled thirty miles to reach the water. He wasn’t going to hurry now. He’d drink a while and then rest in the shade, and then drink again as the shadows lengthened – or so we thought. What actually happened was that he drank deeply and stepped away. He faltered briefly and then suddenly collapsed. His legs spasmed as he thrashed in the dust – and within minutes he was dead.

It was utterly shocking.

Our plans for the day changed rapidly after that. A call to KWS/ DSWT vet Jeremiah Poghon resulted in an impromptu postmortem beside the waterhole.  He removed the head of a poisoned arrow that had been embedded in the bull’s flank, and released over 100 liters of pus from the hidden infection –  the result of the bull’s encounter with a poacher months before.

We’d watched the bull through binoculars before he fell and there was no noticeable sign of injury. It chills me to think how many others there may be like him, walking around, apparently fine, until the poison or infection finally catches up with them.

Read the full blog, with interesting stuff on the methods of modern poachers, here.

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China’s Ivory Destruction Goes Forward

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 6, 2014

ivory to crush

Here’s the first photo of the confiscated ivory that the State Forestry Administration destroyed a few hours ago in Guanzhou, China.  It’s interesting to see the almost floral presentation of the ivory beforehand, and also to note that the amount ultimately destroyed was 6.1 tons, just a fraction more than the United States destroyed in November.

Representatives of 10 foreign nations attended, among them three of the countries hardest hit by the continuing slaughter of elephants, Kenya, Gabon, and Tanzania.

There was also a certain quality of floral presentation in the praise for China served up by those engaged in the fight against the ivory trade.

From Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation: “This is a courageous and critical first step by China to elevate the important issue of wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world. The Chinese government is to be commended for taking the issue seriously.”

From Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society: “We congratulate China’s government for showing the world that elephant poaching and illegal ivory consumption is unacceptable. We are hopeful that this gesture shows that we can win the war against poaching and that elephants will once again flourish.”

Now the real question is whether China will take the lead to stop the war on elephants, instead of merely following the example of other nations.  As Samper put it:  “If China were to destroy the remainder of its ivory stocks and lead the world by committing not to buying ivory in the future, it would have a transformative, positive impact on the survival of African elephants.”‘

Saving the elephants, instead of eradicating them, could become a lasting status symbol and win China the admiration of the world.  But with 35,000 elephants–almost 10 percent of the remaining wild population–being slaughtered every year, now is the time to take that next step.

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China To Destroy Illegal Ivory: New Hope for Elephants?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 4, 2014

Tusks in Hong Kong: (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Tusks in Hong Kong: (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

 Back in November, I predicted that the U.S. decision to destroy its six tons stash of confiscated ivory would have no real effect. 

Now it sounds like I was wrong.  China–the last place on Earth you expect to turn its back on the ivory trade–will also destroy six tons of ivory this Monday. My latest for TakePart. 

In a remarkable turnabout, Chinese authorities have announced that they will destroy six tons of confiscated elephant ivory on Monday. “The burning ceremony of illegal ivory and other wildlife products” will take place at 11 a.m. local time (10 p.m. Sunday U.S. Eastern time) in Guangzhou, where the rampant ivory trade has until now gone almost entirely unregulated.

In a cordially-worded invitation sent out Friday to foreign diplomats and non-governmental organizations, China’s State Forestry Administration described the event as being “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating the Chinese government’s resolve to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.”

The move comes as the trade in ivory is rapidly pushing Africa’s elephants to extinction in the wild, with 35,000 elephants being killed every year for their tusks. Some estimates put the remaining population in the wild as low as 400,000. The modern ivory trade is dominated by China, which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the market, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. “China is the epicenter of demand,” a senior State Department official recently told the publication China-US Focus. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”

For China’s rising middle class, ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, combs, and other trinkets have enormous value as status symbols and gifts. This taste for ivory carvings extends to officials at the highest levels of the central government. But that may now be changing.

According to a U.S. wildlife expert close to the planning of Monday’s event, the State Forestry Commission has been a reluctant participant Read the rest of this entry »

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