Category Archives: NGOs

Saving the Chiquibul: What Will It Take?

Unless delimited by a river or mountain range, human boundaries rarely map to the habitats of non-human species. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face today in the field of conservation. For every political space entails its own unique set of policies, or lack thereof, that concern the management of ecological terrains vital to both human and non-human populations living in their precincts. And sometimes policy conditions of adjacent jurisdictions deeply conflict. Take, for instance, starkly diverging land management regimes of Belize and Guatemala.

In the Google Earth image below, one sees that the Chiquibul forest of Belize (on the right) remains largely intact. Conversely, neighboring lands on the Guatemalan side have been swallowed up by massive cattle ranches and expanding settlement—land-use inequities resulting from decades of state-sponsored genocide and social disarray. Thousands of local farmers have since been displaced from their lands and forced into Belize. While it would appear that the border follows the tree line visible from aerial view; it in fact lies a few kilometers to the west. Agricultural incursions have since moved across binational lines, posing a serious question for Belize: how is the country to keep Guatemalans from consuming its national forests?

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This question has taken up much of my thinking over the last two years. For I believe it gets to the heart of contemporary studies in politics and social theory on the environment. In context of Belize, one finds that the crux of the issue currently lies in a historic dispute over the legitimacy of the border itself. To this day, Belizeans are enraged by their neighbor’s claim over the southern half of their national territory. And the growing frequency of incursions into Belize’s forests only seems to suggest the onset of a surreptitious takeover. The political nature of these forests in turn have politicized nature conservation on the ground. Consequently, millions in public funds have been funneled to local NGOs working to curb encroachment.  

In a peculiar way, nationalist fervor kept alive by territorial anxiety thus directly benefits biodiversity on the ground. The scenario, however, is not merely one in which Belizean eco-nationalists link arms in opposition to a Guatemalan threat that looms from the west. Such could perhaps be said of the Belizean Territorial Volunteers, a group well known for their confrontational border protests and conservation background. But for other organizations such as Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), while territorial concerns have indeed helped it to raise programme funding—the disputed border serves less as a rallying point than as a roadblock to progress.

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While the BTV conduct protests provoking Guatemalan military forces, FCD forms allegiances with Guatemalan counterparts to target the ecological crisis at its root. From the perspective of FCD—whose mestizo heritage was forged at a time when Spanish-speaking peoples of Belize and Petén mingled while working in colonial forest product industries—ecological concerns in Belize are seen as directly linked to a growing insecurity of livelihoods across the border. And unsettled tensions at higher diplomatic levels only serve to disrupt the confidence it needs to work cooperatively with NGO and community partners in Petén essential to addressing this social crisis.

Is the poor Guatemalan campesino to be lumped into the same political category as a distant state aggressor? How is this complex demographic to navigate the double bind in which conditions of poverty due to landlessness compel involvement in more criminal avenues such as the illicit extraction of xate palm, gold, timber and scarlet macaw from Belizean forests? And how are conservation groups such as FCD to effectively address the transboundary effects of social inequity in Petén when the neighboring government has no legal incentive to take up the issue? 

Grappling with these questions exposes the challenges that Belizean conservationists must face while working to protect their western forests. Of course, there are no ready-made, clear-cut solutions. But there are certain policy pathways that perhaps bear greater long-term benefits than others. In this case, it would appear that the transcendence of historical divisions at the border affords greater comprehension of a truly multifaceted problem, and likely a more balanced approach to tackling it. Meanwhile, the macaws, jaguars and collared peccaries await patiently for what lies in store for the deeply troubled binational political ecology that confines them.

Will Evans is currently a postgraduate student in the School of Geography and the Environment.

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Embracing Change

I was fortunate to know from a relatively early age where I wanted my life to go. I had a vision and crafted a path to get there and all in all (and after a lot of work!) things came together rather well. Of course through the years as I learned more the vision matured and developed but it always existed in the realm of wildlife conservation. Immediately after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I moved my life to Namibia to start my ‘dream’ job.

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Working on the ground in ‘front-line’ conservation for a very well respected organisation was everything I had hoped… and more. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences, professional (and personal) skills gained, and knowledge acquired were so worth the years of work invested to get to this point.

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Photo: Bobby Bradley

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I was working first-hand with my favourite species in one of the most beautiful places on Earth doing things that very few people in this world have ever done. So, I get the question all the time ‘Why did you leave?’, and its answer is something I have to remind myself of frequently.

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Planet Earth is the most unique and precious thing that exists in our wide wide universe (if you haven’t seen BBCs ‘Planet Earth II’ do yourself a favour and go check it out), but everything that makes it such an incredible place to call home is under immense threat. AND, as ironic as it would seem, we humans are to blame. There are those who have committed themselves to fighting these threats, and victories have been won here and there. My organisation for example had done an incredible job at addressing the threats to this species in Namibia, and is currently working very hard at expanding its programmes throughout Africa. However, on a global scale we are failing.

This being said, we gain more and more ground every year and I know that we can win this fight if enough of us are (actually) willing to get up and do something about it; I can’t let myself believe anything else. I loved my job and loved the work I was doing, but I felt that there was so much more that I could do (and needed to do) and that is why I left to continue with my studies.

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This is not at all to say that what I was doing before was not meaningful, or that the work of my organisation was not good enough. It’s just that I felt for me there was more to do and I knew I needed to go and find what that was. Though life in Oxford is not particularly for me, I’ve joined a community of people committed to the same goal (or set of goals at least – check out the other awesome entries on the blog!) and though I’d probably rather be back in the bush, I know that this experience is a necessary step to achieve my vision.

That childhood vision is alive and well, but I now realize that there is not necessarily one place it leads to. Just like in conservation science, as I continue to learn and experience more in this messy world, my vision for the future will continue to shift and grow… I (and we) just have to be willing to embrace whatever change that may bring to our thinking and our reality.

all photos by Eli Walker unless stated otherwise

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Can One Bad Apple Rot Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Reputation?

Canada is known for having some of the most rigorous sustainable forestry regulation and enforcement in the world. Holding 10% of the world’s forests including 552 million hectares or nearly 30% of the world’s Boreal forests and as a leader in the forestry industry, Canada’s sustainable forestry management has global implications, setting standards both environmentally and economically.

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75% of Canada’s forests are Boreal. 3.7 million people live within the area including 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal People. This area is also a major carbon sink, a source of freshwater storage and home to high levels of biodiversity.

Complementing the management process are three voluntary third party sustainability certifications that “provide a stamp of approval that shows consumers they are buying products from forests managed to comprehensive environmental, social and economic standards”. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global NGO initiated non-state market mechanism, and is considered the “gold standard for well managed forests”. The other third-party certification schemes, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA), are both industry-initiated under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) international umbrella organization.

Resolute Forest Products, a global forestry force based in Montreal Canada holding logging rights on 22 million ha of mostly public land, has 100% sustainable timberland certification by third-party Forest Management Standards and is a signed member of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Resolute company values include be accountable, ensure sustainability and work together.

Corporate responsibility is clearly fundamental to Resolute, their management, brand value and reputation, so what is the problem?

It seems they will go to any lengths, including violating sustainable certification principles, disregarding indigenous rights, suing governments and suppressing environmental organization freedom of speech to assume this farce.

From an ecological standpoint, Resolute’s “sustainable”, “eco” and “recycled products” have in fact come from clear cutting three endangered forest areas; Ontario’s Caribou Forest and Quebec’s Montagnes Blaches and Broadback Valley. These areas are home to 150 birds, the highest densities of threatened woodland caribou and many Cree First Nations communities. Woodland caribou are considered an “indicator species”; sensitive to disturbance, and an “umbrella species”; their protection could ensure the survival of other species in the same habitat. The Grand Council of the Cree have challenged Resolute’s logging practices stating they are detrimental to their trapping lifestyle and the ecosystem balance throughout the area.

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Woodland Caribou have already been pushed north of their historic range. Unfortunately logging industries are also being pushed north and since protected areas don’t sufficiently cover their habitat meaning the caribou must rely on sustainable forest management for security. (Info-Map from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society)

In what way can they continue to state claims of sustainability and certification?

Many major US and global brands have moved away from SFI citing “the logging industry-run program misleads consumers and allows massive clear cuts, other destructive logging and human rights abuse”. Resolute instead is moving towards them. Their FSC certified lands have dropped by 50% since 2010 because of non-compliance and non-renewal. By switching to SFI, Resolute improved their sustainability certification cover to 100% without environment practice or management changes

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative offer competing sustainability certifications. While all non-state market driven certification schemes have implementation, management and accountability issues to contend with, FSC is considered more non-discretionary and broad based in their policy. 

But how is Resolute getting away with this?

Resolute, aware that its reputation is at stake, has used its corporate weight and legal prowess to squash critics and competitors with SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

Following a failed audit in 2014 for “not complying with good environmental standards”, Resolute sued Rainforest Alliance, the FSC certified auditor. Bypassing the normal FSC dispute resolution, the case was settled and the report sealed. In 2015 Resolute filed a $70+million suit against the Canadian Government because the Nova Scotia Provincial government provided a subsidy to their local mill creating competition, which Resolute says caused their Quebec mill to go under. Resolute is in court with Greenpeace over a $7 million defamation suit for a report Greenpeace published in 2013, which critiqued the logging companies environmental and social conduct. While this case is still in progress, the Ontario Superior Court has dismissed broadening the case stating Resolute’s allegations of Greenpeace are “irrelevant”, “scandalous and vexatious”. They have now brought the case against Greenpeace to the US under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) with goals to silence Greenpeace’s freedom of speech.

Well, what are the implications of Resolute’s actions? It’s only one company right?

Public interest groups are worried over extrapolated implications of using the RICO lawsuit against freedom of the press/speech. The RICO law originated to combat the mafia, but it’s use “as a club to silence Greenpeace from using non-violent means to mobilize the public, raise awareness alongside the necessary funds to operate, and seek to bring about change in respect of environmental practices it opposes would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights not only by Greenpeace but by other groups, by Amici. It would endanger the ability of non profits to operate and set a dangerous precedent,” says the Sierra Club. Resolute’s lawsuits against NGO’s, governments and auditors can threaten not only the viability of non-state market drivers of forest governance, but traditional governance and advocacy roles.

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80  public interest organizations have come together to “condemn Resolute’s intimidation lawsuit and call on the company to respect the US Constitution – and our planet” via an advertisement in the New York Times earlier this month.(New York Times)

Sustainable forestry certifications are growing in supply and demand without a price premium attached or new markets opening up. Consumers aren’t willing to pay more yet they appear to expect these certifications as a minimum standard for forest products. Resolute feels their; “adherence to third party verified forest certification standards gives [them] an important competitive edge. It provides our customers with the assurance that our forests are managed responsibly according to rigorous standards”. With Resolute’s reputation benefiting from eco-certification where does that leave other logging companies particularly smaller ones. Forest managers must absorb the costs to gain and comply with certification schemes. Without significant product pricing benefits, where is the incentive to comply with stricter FSC protocol? This leaves the door open for industry-wide environmental degradation and unsustainable forestry practices.

Resolute has failed to adhere to not only it’s sustainable certifications, but it’s own corporate values of being accountable, ensuring sustainability and working together without any consequences. As indigenous groups are undermined, protected areas harvested and species threatened, Canadian Sustainable Forest Management practices are fundamentally destabilized. What does this mean for the legitimacy of Canadian Sustainable Forestry Management and third party sustainable forestry certification schemes? Can they continue to function as global environmental and social responsibility standards? How can the system be revised so the Boreal Forest, it’s residents both human and non human and it’s consumers aren’t left vulnerable to corporate greed?

The author will continue to look at these questions over the next month while writing a paper on Corporate Social Responsibility in Canada’s Forestry Industry. If you are interested in learning more or have insight, critiques or ideas please feel free to leave a comment or contact the author.

Natalie Knowles is an MSc student from Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include forest protected areas, ecosystem function and indigenous roles in conservation.

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The Cow Conundrum

In a country where the cow is ubiquitous, either deified and included in the household as part of tradition by many, bred and consumed for subsistence by others, or just left to live off trash and roam the dusty city roads by the ignoramus, the relationship between man and cow is culturally multidimensional. Although the beef ban in many parts of India has raised questions on the existence and functioning of a secular state, the bovine ballad that shall unfold isn’t on consumption.

As the rising sun ignites the first dawn of the Tamil month of Tai on the 14th of January 2017 in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where farmers – landowners and agricultural labourers – celebrate the start of the harvest season through the festival of Pongal, a lacklustre display of colour and joy would result due to the enforcement of (yet another) ban on a sport of taming bulls: Jallikattu, also known as Eruthazhuvuthal or ‘Embracing a Bull’. In fact, it is the corruption of culture over time, written – or worse, rewritten – to the whims and fancies of a majoritarian many that has led to its acknowledgement as a “sport”, as the initial practice of the ritual was in consideration of taming aggressive humped Bos indicus oxen (that animatedly conjure the image of flaring nostrils) as suitable, dominant males for breeding a healthy population of cows. The ritual, much like many others with humble origins in indigenous settings, gained cult status over the course of history, from periodically being mentioned in accounts and inscribed in sculptures, and tactfully survived the 200 years of colonial chastisement in the subcontinent, much to the surprise of contemporary thinkers.

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There is a supposed showcase of virility by man and bull during the ritual. The tamer is seen embracing the hump of the latter in the picture.

The controversial ban on this “cruel male entertainment” was enforced on ethical grounds by the Supreme Court of India in a landmark verdict, through a lobby of animal welfare activists, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and spearheaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)-India through an intensive campaign and investigation, citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The revocation of the ban due to colossal resistance by pastoralists and activists of traditional practices in view of the anticipated damages in the agrarian economy, the loss of traditional cattle breeds has produced a conundrum in the dialogue between various actors, and extended to pugnacious debates between non-governmental organisations, local-governance bodies, the State government and New Delhi.

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In many parts of Tamil Nadu, bulls continue to be used for ploughing the land, although tractors have been included extensively. The gap between the economically sound and backward farmers is stark.

It is unfair, as a rational student of conservation science, to display a bias to gain resolution. What first holds the mind aghast is the perceived danger of activists pitted against the other, in a classic case of one-upmanship, where activists are somehow “superior people”, as noted by Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna, a renowned musician and musicologist from Tamil Nadu in a 2015 news article. Secondly, the arguments made in favour or against the ban are equally legitimate, giving both parties their fair share of voice and free thought, but share striking commonalities – they are rooted in the conscience of thinkers, in the support of people, in the cultural fabric of society, and most importantly, in the interest of the animal itself. Herein comes to the fore, the need for regulation – not prevention – and thence mutual cooperation for shared “benefits” in this dialogue, necessitating the horizontal division of conservation governance in India, for the inclusion of well-supported reason. The ideologues of animal ethics essay their role well in arguing against the “torture” of bulls for the sake of tradition, in support of the greater good, accommodating, and involuntarily adding this topic into the kettle of ethics-related (vegan) soup. The other school of support in favour of this form of traditional ecological knowledge seemingly argues for pastoralists who have tamed (or embraced, as the transliteration dictates) and hence bred cows through the practice, preventing the loss of native breeds like the Kangeyam, Pulikulam, Umbalachery and Malai Maadu in Tamil Nadu – the traditional keepers of livestock have evidently engaged in this form of conservation and allegedly resisting depredation of Indian cattle by the western dairy industry. The earlier utterance of corruption is certainly the point that weakens the case – the practice at large has lost its rubric as an intimate affair, shifting from craft to consumerism, with sole purpose of taming giving way to a messy affair of (reported) torture and cruelty, thus paving way for PETA & Co. Also in question is that artificial insemination and breeding technologies – which are in use amongst well-heeled agriculturalists – could be further popularised  to kindle the sake of attachment to breed. However, India (and recently, the UK and USA) knows the ramifications of emotional attachment to what is perceived as “culture” and “belonging”: the dangers of the currently trending rhetoric, ‘give my country(side) back’.

Throughout the history of indigenous people and local communities, the enforcement or mere presence of Western thought is regarded as neo-colonialism – in most cases, according to Thomas Thornton in Being and Place Among the Tlingit, it is blamed for deeming tradition with “mechanistic or estranged” views, disparaging the “intimate, enchanted union with the landscape”. Whilst the animal rights activists sympathise with cows and advocate ethics, in sync with the tone of ahimsa or non-violence that gripped the nation during its struggle for freedom, hasn’t folklore from the native Sangam literature indicated the presence of the system percolating from the Mullai tribes that embraced man-animal interaction for the “management” and “survival” of these species – terms that are commonplace in modern conservation policy? Sustainability should be tested through healthy skepticism, as many yesteryear practices were regressive. As for Pongal in 2017, there is bound to be ‘a countenance more in sorrow than anger’.

Dhruv Gangadharan Arvind is from Chennai, India and aspires to be a columnist. He occasionally writes on the interface between nature, culture and society in his blog, Veritable Verses, and is the co-author of Airflow, Comfort and Habitability of Game Reserves.

 

The weekend when The Jury’s Inn filled up with Herpetofauna workers

48 hours of fascinating talks, workshops and exciting chats with interesting people. This is what went on in Oxford last weekend, 7th-8th of February: Herpetofauna Workers Meeting 2016 (HWM). I was lucky enough to be able to attend this amazing yearly event, where I was surrounded by really inspiring people.

Thanks to the cake and coffee reception first thing in the morning on Saturday, everyone forgot about the horrible weather encountered on the way and started chatting and pouring copious amounts of coffee in their cups. At reception, I received a name tag and the programme, which featured several talks and one workshop per day. After a few croissants and handshakes, the other delegates and I made our way to the main hall for the morning session of talks.

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The welcome pack

Kicking off was Mr Ben Tapley, from the ZSL, presenting his and his team’s current work in China with the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). Chinese Giant Salamanders have been experiencing extreme declines mainly due to overexploitation: they are often consumed as a delicacy, and this has caused both their disappearance in the wild and the expansion of their farming industry. Therefore, survey work is carried out to discover more about the remaining population abundance, distribution and threats, and to set a long-term monitoring programme. But social work is also sorely needed, as farms are often in bad conditions, and the local perception of this animal usually is negative: they are commonly thought of as scary and ugly. By partnering with local organisations, this project is hopefully going to change the perception of Chinese Giant Salamanders to amazing animals which deserve protection.

Following Ben, Mr John Baker made our wandering imaginations return to the UK, where he has been monitoring adders in Norfolk for more than 10 years. Local habitat restoration impacted the adders, as they were not taken into account during the plans: however thanks to John’s data hopefully in the future management will consider protecting adder hibernation sites and areas around these during major habitat restorations.

Finally, right before the first workshop, Mr Paul Edgar and Mr Rob Cameron updated us on the recent changes in Natural England’s (NE) views, structure and projects, underlining NE’s major interest for new achievements on the ground. It is a time of great change due to an increase of licences granted, the feedback that the UK received on the British EPS, and other major changes within the Government. NE intends to have a greater focus on habitat provision (such as securing habitat for great crested newts), grant advice at earlier stages of developments, as well as targeting the efforts to where the risks are greatest. I was able to participate to their workshop which followed right after, where we discussed four main proposed licensing policy changes. These, if approved, could majourly influence surveying efforts needed, exclusion-trapping-relocating requirements as well as habitat compensation requirements.

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Mr Paul Edgar talking about mitigation guidelines

After a tasty and well-needed lunch, another set of presentations got us back in the mood for more herpetofauna talk. From grass snakes monitoring, to toad night patrols in Kent, and a very thorough presentation on the aquatic invertebrates a pond surveyor is most likely to find, everyone’s eyes and ears remained fixed on the presenters all afternoon. Rob Gandola, from the Herpetological Society of Ireland, closed this last session with a witty talk about the recent, amazing work carried out by the Society and some students on North Bull Island, the heart of the newly designated Dublin Bay UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Their citizen-science led monitoring project was able to identify the presence of both frogs and lizards on the island, and discover that their populations are healthy and breeding.  Some funny anecdotes, such as confused frogs hopping into the surf at night, made everyone leave the hall with a smile.

However, the first day of the HWM did certainly not end here. In the evening everyone gathered again for informal drinks, before suiting up (or not) and heading back to the main hall – which was in the meanwhile turned into a fancy dining hall. A three course meal (featuring my first sticky toffee pudding ever!), accompanied with great chats and banter really livened up the night. After an exhilarating herpetofauna-based (obviously) quiz, which included a hilarious masquerade round, a few more drinks and jokes, everything turned into a great party.

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The masquerade round

The great party meant that Sunday morning was a bit of a rough start, but equally extremely interesting. The day started with the second workshop – which for me was on Reptile Surveying Guidelines. There were many consultants and experts in the workshop, which made it really valuable for me since I have very little experience in the field. We discussed pros and cons of different existing guidelines, as well as proposing our own ideas on what guidelines should include. After a second round of coffee and chocolate biscuits, we had two sessions of talks. In my opinion, the most interesting talk was Dr Jeremy Biggs‘ from the Freshwater Habitats Trust, which was on the use of eDNA analysis for detecting great crested newts. Last year the first successful national survey of these newts was completed succesfully. This methodology revealed itself to be very inexpensive and easy to use for volunteers as part of the PondNet project, through which almost 350 ponds were analysed – 25% of whuch were found hosting great crested newts. eDNA stands for “environmental DNA”, which is DNA that is released into the water by organisms from their skin, eggs and other means, and can be analysed to find out what organisms live in the body of water sampled. Volunteers are given a simple eDNA kit to collect water samples, which can then be sent to a lab for analysis. To date, eDNA cannot be used to evaluate abundance of organisms yet, but research in the topic is advancing quickly. The PondNet project is picking up again this year, and hopefully 2017, which will provide national trends as a basis for long term monitoring.

Other great talks and discussions continued for the rest of the day, until about 4PM, when we sadly had to start to pack up. It was such a wonderful and inspiring weekend! I particularly appreciated the diversity of people present, with the most varied backgrounds but unified by a common passion. Many thanks to ARG UK and ARC Trust and all the organisers of this amazing meeting, I definitely hope to be able to participate next year!

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Saving elephants with creative conservation

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The fight to save Africa’s elephants is at a crossroads.

There are approximately 400,000-700,000 elephants in Africa, which sounds like a lot until you realize their population is plummeting: 100,000 were slaughtered in just the last three years. These gentle giants—the largest living land mammal on Earth—could be extinct in our lifetimes.

So what do we do about it? Continue reading Saving elephants with creative conservation