Big Report on African Elephants Offers New Spin on the Same Problems

There was big news this past week of a new study looking at population numbers of Africa's 2 subspecies of elephants - Forest elephants and the more common Savanna elephant you usually think about - and classifying each in a very dire and endangered state. Only, this is nothing really new. Biologists and conservationists have long seen these as 2 separate species with unique needs and challenges. This was a bit of journalism click bait to raise your panic meter. That said, elephants are in need of help in a big way. So we decided to talk to an expert - Niall McCann, co-founder of National Park Rescue and a National Geographic Explorer - did a short Q&A with us on the current state of elephants in Africa.

1) A recent study came out citing African elephants are under increased threat. However as we've discussed, this is not new information, since they merely took an existing species already threatened and divided into 2, so of course then the numbers for each are more dire. Is there indeed a bigger threat right now for forest vs. savanna elephants, or are they both critically in need of help?

The conservation status of forest elephants has, until relatively recently, been difficult to ascertain: it is formidably difficult to accurately survey cryptic forest species, even ones as big as an elephant; the Central African forests are unfathomably large; and many of the countries where they live are unstable or relatively undeveloped, making conservation and ecological research difficult. Over the past few years, improvements in survey techniques in the field have indicated that forest elephant populations are dropping off a cliff. This, combined with ivory seizure data, which can differentiate between forest and savannah elephants, has demonstrated that forest elephants have suffered extraordinary losses in recent years. Both elephant species are in real need of help, but forest elephants are in a particularly perilous situation.

2) Despite so many different efforts over the years to combat poaching, it seems to hum along consistent as ever. Why is it that we have not been able to make more inroads in seriously combating this issue?

Poaching levels remain persistently high for several reasons. Firstly, the same people who have failed to protect elephants for the past 50 years are still in charge of conservation across large parts of Africa, and are still failing to protect elephants today! Secondly, demand for ivory remains incredibly high, and while there is high demand and money to be made, corrupt officials and unscrupulous citizens will continue to facilitate or take part in poaching. Thirdly, poaching follows the line of least resistance: when anti-poaching operations are improved in one area the traffickers shift their focus to areas with poor security. Finally, human-elephant conflict remains very high, and until that is addressed and communities living near elephants feel that they are benefiting from this coexistence, communities will continue to allow poaching to occur on their watch.


3) It seems the best tool against poaching are local communities. It just seems impossible to fully mitigate this without local communities at the helm, without making it so deeply taboo culturally. Is this fair to say?

Communities are key to everything, if you alienate the local communities your conservation project is likely to fail. This is why human-elephant conflict is so insidious: communities often feel as though they suffer all the costs of living next to elephants (which can be highly destructive), without realising any of the benefits. For conservation to be truly sustainable, communities must be the primary beneficiaries of any conservation efforts. Innovative conservation projects also aim to provide payments to communities for protecting their natural capital, such as elephants: those communities that achieve the best conservation results receive the most payment.

4) Wildlife tourism can be very controversial. It can be a powerful economic incentive for local communities to protect wildlife, however it can be easily abused and harmful for the animals. In Africa, what is the right formula for wildlife tourism for national parks in your opinion?

Wildlife tourism is currently one of the most important contributors to conservation in Africa, but that really needs to change. Funding conservation, the protection of the ecosystems we all need to survive, on the whims of western tourists is a fallacy and a house of cards, as we’ve seen this past year. Conservation of natural resources must be factored into our national budgets for it to be sustainable. Until that time, tourism will continue to be important, and it’s vital that it is done in a way that local communities benefit the most, and landscapes aren’t degraded. Capping the number of people or vehicles visiting popular protected areas is important, so is setting aside parts of protected areas as ‘wilderness’, where tourism is not allowed. Each protected area will have to find its own balance, and in each case sustainability must be at the heart of any tourism plan.

5) Africa is changing in a lot of ways right now with the Internet and digital. We've sadly seen what "progress" looks like in places like Europe and the Americas where the natural world was more or less wiped out in the name of economic growth. How can we learn from this and not make the same mistake with the looming economic growth and pursuit of African nations? Is there a way they can grow their economies and quality of life without in harmony and balance with the incredible nature around them, or is this always an unavoidable trade-off?

Europe and North America wiped out much of the natural world in part through ignorance: not knowing what on earth we were doing, and in part because economic growth was based on chopping down trees and trapping animals. In 2021 there is no excuse to do the same anywhere on earth: biodiversity loss is as big a threat to humanity as climate change, and most economic growth will be in sectors that don’t require huge amounts of nature to be removed. It is vital that big economies, that made their wealth off nature, support developing economies to pursue low-carbon development strategies. It is also a fallacy to think that we need to destroy nature in order to turn a profit. Over 50% of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature, we simply must protect nature if we want to have a global economy in the future!

 

Spot the Difference!
Savanna Elephant
  • Larger
  • Tusks curve outward
  • Lighter in color
  • Lives in Eastern and Southern Africa
  • Lives in family groups of about 10 and often congregate in groups of 70 or so
Forest Elephant
  • Smaller
  • Tusks are straight and point downward 
  • Darker in color
  • Lives in equatorial forests of Central and Western Africa
  • Lives in family groups of just a few animals 

 

World Health Organization Releases New Report on COVID-19 Origins

On Tuesday, March 30 2021, the World Health Organization plans to release a full report on their investigation to determine the origin of COVID-19. The organization conducted a four-week investigation in China, and while the exact natural source of the COVID-19 virus was not identified (this takes many, many years of research), the report provides valuable insight into the most probable causes for how the virus was transmitted to humans.

Here is a quick summary of what the WHO report found, based on various reports from world health officials and world governments prior to the release of the full report to the public. They covered four hypotheses and ruled two out of the four to be unlikely:

The most likely way that the virus was transmitted to humans was from a bat to an intermediate animal, then to humans. The intermediate animal is unknown at the conclusion of this report. The second likeliest hypothesis is the direct transmittance of the virus from bats or pangolins to humans. WHO ruled the packaging of “cold chain” food as the least likely source of origin, as this packaging is very unlikely to transmit the virus to humans.

The rumors are true: Bats are known to carry coronaviruses and actually carry the closest relative to the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus. The report also says that highly similar viruses have been identified in pangolins. Despite knowledge of extremely similar viruses in these animals, WHO has not identified the exact coronavirus in animals which is affecting humans. For now, bats are the closest carrier of the virus that we know of.

What about the suggestion that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China? Well, WHO was actually quick to dismiss this theory. In fact, they didn't even conduct a full investigation in the labs. They said there was no evidence of any closely related viruses in any lab before December 2019, and that a lab investigation was not the main focus of the trip. WHO representatives also mentioned that some raw data was not made available to them while in China, so further investigations would need to be conducted once they can get their hands on that data. They ruled this ‘lab-leak’ hypothesis “extremely unlikely”, but WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom says, “All hypotheses remain on the table...we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned.”

Healthcare professionals and government officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, has suggested that the raw data from the investigation need to be released. While WHO is extremely qualified and credible, supplying raw data to the world will allow other scientists to make their own inferences and conclusions based on what the investigation uncovered.

As we look at the findings of this report, the timing, and the feedback from around the world, we must apply this all to the bigger picture: What does this report tell us about how we disseminate information? How can we be more transparent and timelier with such investigations? How can we efficiently, ethically, and thoroughly investigate such large-scale events like a global pandemic? Essentially, how can we improve the way we communicate and work together on a global level?

Opinion Piece from Project Planet A
What to Remember About Environmentalism
By: Gio Mondragon, Liv Valinsky, and Andrew Blatt

 

About Project Planet A:

Here at Project Planet A, a youth environmental organization, our goal is to bring about a more sustainable and eco-friendly future. Change starts with us, and with you. By providing education, resources, and opportunities to give back to the Earth, we hope to inspire individuals everywhere to learn how to properly coexist with our one and only planet.

There’s a lot of social pressure and anxiety that comes from activism. In our lives, there are multitudes of issues to educate ourselves on. Creating change and being educated on social matters is highly important, but we are still human. Change takes time, it takes growth and understanding of the world around us. Doing the right thing is important, but it is more important to do things for the right reasons. The effort you make is just as important as the change you create.

To live as sustainably as possible is ideal, but progress takes time, and perfection is not attainable. It is important to understand that ‘completely ethical’ consumption is not available right now and we are still in an advancing world. We must advocate for change and educate ourselves to continue to support our planet, so that advancements are sustainable advancements.

Sustainability is a Privilege

It is a privilege to be able to prioritize healthy, ethically sourced, or eco-friendly resources due to a variety of reasons, including living-situations, finances, education, and/or community values. For many families, food options are limited and they may not be able to afford healthy and eco-friendly choices. They may have to prioritize caloric density over ethically-sourced products. Another huge privilege is time. While shopping locally and avoiding supporting companies with questionable values and views is ideal, many people have no choice but to shop from amazon and bigger companies because they don’t have the free time to peruse shops. They don’t have time to grow their own food, plant trees, participate in beach clean-ups, and find the most sustainable products. Certain diets that are perceived to be more healthy and environmentally-friendly such as vegan and vegetarian diets can be expensive and too restrictive for some people. Sustainability is a privilege and instead of shaming others for taking care of themselves before the environment, it is important to remember that our efforts are not in vain. Every action we take brings us closer to a sustainable future that will make it easier and more accessible for everyone to live environmentally-friendly lives. In order to recognize and address intersectionality in environmentalism, must must remember to

  1. listen to other perspectives

  2. use any privilege you may have to give a voice towards minorities

  3. educate yourself before making any assumptions

  4. serve as a model by acknowledging intersectionality in any environmental conversations

You are not alone in this fight for change. Remember, environmentalism is about change, not perfectionism. There is a whole community supporting the same causes and wanting to make a difference too. We are here to communicate, educate, learn, and experience together. Choose to lead your friends to live more sustainable lifestyles and choose to support companies that align with your beliefs. Our small actions lead to big change as we continue to protect Earth and make it safer and healthier for all of its inhabitants. These actions lead to bigger things and work to create a sustainable mindset so that any action taken can be done more effectively and cohesively. Taking action starts with small things, such as:

  • Eating less meat

  • Driving less / Carpooling

  • Gardening

  • Recycling

  • Taking shorter showers

There is not one path to take with environmental activism. Being an advocate for the environment does not necessarily mean having to protest or lead a campaign. Whether you are an artist, someone shy, or a leader, there is something for you, including:

  • Protesting

  • Joining an environmental initiative or campaign

  • Using art to communicate issues

  • Talking to your local government

  • Starting conversations with friends and family about environmental issues

  • Serving as a model by making your own sustainable choices

 

Project Planet A works to inspire people to make lifestyle changes and take initiative in their community to limit their harmful effects on our planet. We hope to achieve this by educating people on environmental issues and what decisions they can make to improve these issues. By providing opportunities and resources to help the environment to individuals and communities, our goal is to preserve the Earth's environments and inhabitants.

This has been done through our educational posts on social media and our events we hold, including webinars, conferences, and easy ways for youth to get involved. Project Planet A works to create an engaging and open community in order to encourage conversation and exchange of ideas. Our network of chapters around the globe create a united community of environmentalists helping their respective communities be more sustainable.

Clean/Green Tech Startups 2.0

The last three years have seen a big rise in “Clean Tech” investments. These are companies taking on the climate challenge via new technology in areas such as:

  • Clean energy batteries
  • Low Carbon Steel and Concrete
  • Cell-Based Meat Production
  • Direct Air Carbon Capture
  • Regenerative Agriculture

From 2018 to 2020, Clean/Green Tech private investment was north of $15B, after never crossing $5B a year until 2016.

Entrepreneurs are trying to capitalize on the continued surge in climate action and push towards combating the mounting greenhouse gas problem. And they are trying to learn from the investment wave the first go around so there are more stories of success.

So what was 1.0?

The first big wave of private investment in clean/green tech was in the early 2000s. They were dominated by electric vehicles and solar and wind energy mostly.

 

Much of this was on the back of the movement ignited by Al Gore and was big time in Silicon Valley even if it was relatively unnoticed outside of it. John Doerr, an infamous investor from Kleiner Perkins, said in a TED talk in 2007 that Clean Tech could be bigger than the Internet.

Some of these really worked out - hello Tesla?

However the success stories were few and far between. Solar in particular showed promise but got crushed by China, who moved quickly into solar panel production at far lower costs primarily due to their much lower cost in labor. By 2015, the vast majority of the world’s solar was made in China.

So what is gonna be different this time around?

Reason to Believe & Lessons Learned

For one, this is not a fringe movement like it was 15 some odd years ago. Every major corporation is aiming to reduce its footprint, Biden’s administration has already signed a slew of climate action orders with a $2 Trillion spending package on Renewables to come, and we’ve reached the point of no return - we must keep investing and advancing clean tech or we are all screwed.

However investors need to account for longer time horizons this time around, and give their companies more runway, treating them like biotech investments more so than the run of the mill Silicon Valley mindset.

Companies also need to be wary of the copycat power of China. When there is economic opportunity, China will move on it. It seems their commitment to clean tech and climate is only economical. That wave of investment in solar and wind died down once the market opportunity stabilized. They yanked solar subsidies altogether a few years ago. Their investment in clean energy plummeted from $76B in the 1st half of 2017 to $29B in the 1st half of 2019. Yes they are still today the world’s largest provider of solar and wind energy, but they ALSO build more new coal plants in the last 2 years than any CONTINENT alone, not just any country.

So let’s see how it plays out!

 

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