My Thoughts Drift To Colombia

For reasons I will need to write more about another time, Colombia has been on my radar recently. When I first visited that country, the conflict was in full swing and my only task was to give a series of lectures related to the country’s potential for nature-based tourism. And I remember very clearly my sense of responsibility for not creating false expectations: as long as there was conflict, this potential would remain just that.

My most recent visit was as the conflict was nearing formal resolution. At that time I was engaged for some weeks of work to be very specific about the potential, location by location. And I was then able to say, based on my own direct observation, that this country would be a powerhouse in the birdwatching market. And I have to admit, I did not have then the knowledge I have now, thanks to the Lab of Ornithology, about the country’s species count and its ranking in the world. The information was there, but I did not have it. Now I do, and my sense of confidence in the country’s opportunity to leverage this abundance into sustainable development is strong. The film above came to my attention in the last 24 hours from several sources, all of whom I thank. But particularly I thank the sponsors of the film for their vision, and the director of the film for his visual acuity:

The Birders, a documentary film on Colombian bird diversity and birdwatching presented by ProColombia, with support of FONTUR and directed by Gregg Bleakney. The film highlights Colombian local birdwatching guide, Diego Calderon-Franco and National Geographic photographer / videographer Keith Ladzinski as they travel through one of the most diverse bird regions in the world to capture new and rare birds that have never been filmed before. The Birders, also takes people through the Colombian landscape, highlighting several of its’ top locations, culture, birds and music. Continue reading

A Step Up for Bird Migration Maps

Image © National Geographic

In 2016 I wrote a couple times about eBird’s data––the observations contributed by citizen scientists––being used for migration maps, among other things. Those posts included animated gif images that illustrated the flow of thousands of birds across the Western Hemisphere at different times of year, which could be used in a casual setting to predict when to go out looking for a target species one wants to see in the wild, or in a conservation setting to know what time of the year is best to enforce certain environmental regulations, like open hunting or hiking seasons in sensitive areas. The moving maps also served as a mesmerizing graphic to simply astound us with the magnitude of travel these birds are undertaking.

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Instagram’s Hashtag Alerts to Highlight Animal Abuse

This is the message that now appears on Instagram if you search for a hashtag like #koalaselfie

I post on Instagram a couple times a month, but I often browse pictures on the app at least once a day. I can’t say that I’ve encountered photos like those described in the NatGeo article below, but I’m still thankful that Instagram is taking action to try to keep it that way, by pointing out to people using certain hashtags involving wildlife that the animals may be suffering behind the scenes:

Instagram is rife with photos of cute wild animals—including the exotic and endangered. A picture of someone hugging a sloth or showing off a pet tiger cub is just a click away on the massively popular photo-sharing platform, which serves 800 million users.

But starting [December 4th], searches for a wide range of wildlife hashtags will trigger a notification informing people of the behind-the-scenes animal abuse that makes some seemingly innocent wildlife photos possible.

Instagram will now deliver a pop-up message whenever someone searches or clicks on a hashtag like “#slothselfie.” The message reads, in part, “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.”

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Snake Kings And Other Discoveries


CALAKMUL In the seventh century A.D. the Snake rulers presided over this capital city—in what today is southern Mexico—and its largest structure, a pyramid 180 feet tall. From Calakmul they managed an intricate web of alliances. CONSEJO NACIONAL PARA LA CULTURA Y LAS ARTES (CONACULTA), INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGÍA E HISTORIA (INAH), MEXICO

Discoveries in the lands once populated by the Maya continue apace. As Chan Chich Lodge completes three decades of archeological exploration, the wonders of three millennia are uncovered. The stories that capture my interest the most, related to the Maya, are about the man-nature relationship.



For example, Erik Vance’s story from last year. I remember thinking that it was the best article I had ever read in National Geographic. Partly, the graphics are better, if that is possible, than the typically excellent quality the magazine is known for. Also, the topic is more topical for me now. Chan Chich Lodge is situated exactly where the o in Holmul is on the map to the left. The lodge’s Maya foundations are situated at the periphery of where the snake kings once ruled.

And we now have an ethnobotanical initiative linking Maya foodways to our surrounding nature conservation. That initiative is linked to the lodge’s food program, with some high expectations related to our abundant forests. But mainly, with regard to this article, the writing illuminating the topic is excellent:

…Two warring city-states were locked in perennial conflict, grappling for supremacy. For a brief period one of those city-states prevailed and became the closest thing to an empire in Maya history. It was ruled by the Snake kings of the Kaanul dynasty, which until just a few decades ago no one even knew existed. Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings…

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Masks from the tombs at Calakmul were meant to ease the passage of the Snake elite into the next world. Royal visages made of green jade, more valuable than gold to the ancient Maya, evoked the annual agricultural cycle and regeneration. CONACULTA, INAH, MEXICO (BOTH) PHOTOGRAPHED AT (LEFT TO RIGHT): NATIONAL PALACE, MEXICO CITY; MUSEO DE SITIO DE COMALCALCO, MEXICO

Bravo, Trip Advisor!


In a world where economics often focus on the concept that “the customer is always right” it’s heartening to see even large companies re-evaluate policy, and make make changes in the face of facts.

Our work in India has often placed us face to face with the common practices of human-animal interaction written about below, and we don’t promote the  “elephant rides” that are often on travelers’ agenda. Change occurs along  with a shift in understanding, and our goal has always been to craft travel experiences that are both authentic and educational.

So “Bravo!” and a hearty welcome to any company willing to join us in achieving that goal!

TripAdvisor Halts Ticket Sales to Cruel Wildlife Attractions


TripAdvisor, the popular travel review website, and its ticket sales company, Viator, said Tuesday they no longer will sell tickets to hundreds of tourist attractions that are widely accepted as cruel to wild animals, reversing a policy under which the companies had resisted considering the welfare of animals when promoting trips.

The move to stop selling tickets to elephant rides, swim-with-dolphin experiences, and attractions that allow visitors to pet tigers and other exotic animals comes after a one-and-a-half-year protest campaign by the London-based animal welfare group World Animal Protection and reporting by National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch, which drew attention to TripAdvisor’s continued promotion of such attractions at a time when dozens of other tour and travel companies were moving away from them.

Such attractions have been shown to cause animals psychological and physical trauma that can shorten their lives. They also result in more animals being taken from the wild for tourism.

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Lionfish Tales

This is issue has been on our radar for some time, in most part due to contributor Phil Karp‘s posts on his work with groups in Belize and other parts of the Caribbean focused on this goal. The concept of “If You Can’t Beat ’em, Wear ’em” carries a powerful message of innovative practices to manage the invasive species that’s causing havoc in the southern Atlantic and Caribbean waters. Continue reading

Wildlife Crime Challenge Winners Announced



Back in July we shared a story on turtle egg poaching that was part of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, created by USAID with the support of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and TRAFFIC. The company with the fake turtle egg idea from that article was one of the sixteen winners of the competition, but a grand prize was announced for the four “most creative and impactful” ideas offered out of those winners. The four grand prize winners were announced this weekend at the  World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Honolulu, Hawaii. Christine Dell’Amore reports:

Every year about 10 million aquarium fish pass through United States ports, many on their way to new homes as family pets. But first, federal inspectors must leaf through mountains of paperwork on the animals, which are shipped from more than 40 countries around the world. “Until recently, the [inspectors] didn’t even have wireless access in the warehouses,” says Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability and science at the New England Aquarium. Continue reading

Russkaya Arktika National Park Expanded

Big sky can be seen above Tegetthoff Island.
Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic Creative

We have lots of land conservation news going on right now (just scroll down), which can only be a good thing, and is perfect timing given the US National Park Service centennial. Jocelyn will be posting a close-up feature of a park later today, but first I invite you to imagine a new arms race between Russia and the United States – not of weapons, but rather in the sphere of conservation through protected national park expansion. President Obama just quadrupled the area of marine national monument Papahānaumokuākea, and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia expanded the island region of Russian Arctic National Park by over eighty percent. In this case, I say, the more friendly competition the better! Brian Howard reports on the Russian expansion:

Made up of more than 190 islands, Franz Josef Land is a mostly uninhabited area that is encased in sea ice for much of the year. Yet the rocky, glaciated islands are home to stunning biodiversity. The newly expanded park will protect habitat for such species as the Atlantic walrus, bowhead whale, polar bear, narwhal, and white gull.

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Fantastic Fantasy Maps Generated By Code

Different steps in the creation of a code-generated map that mimics real-world coastal landscape formation by erosion. Images by Martin O’Leary

There is no shortage of posts on maps here, but only one has been focused on the maps published in fantasy or fiction novels to set the scene. Two others have been linked to conservation, with one formatted in an amusing way. Then there’s my series on Icelandic cartography, starting in 1585 and continuing through 1849, then 1875, and finally 1906. But this is the first I hear about realistic fantasy maps created every hour by a bot – or computer program – coded by glaciologist Martin O’Leary and then tweeted on Twitter. And you can even go through the steps yourself and create a map of your making on his website! Betsy Manson writes for NatGeo:

As you travel northeast along the shore of southern Nimrathutkam, the first town you’ll encounter is Ak Tuh, followed by Nunrat and Nrik Mah before you reach the coastal city of Tuhuk, the largest urban area in the region of Mum Huttak.

If these sound like places out of a fantasy novel you read as a teenager, you’re not far off. Nimrathutkan is the result of an automated map generator that was inspired by those novels. The map bot, created by glaciologist Martin O’Leary of Swansea University in Wales, combines imaginary place names with fake terrain to produce fantasy worlds, tweeting a new one every hour from the Twitter account @unchartedatlas.

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Adjutant Storks and their Conservation Brigade

A rag picker looks for valuables among a group of Greater Adjutant Storks in a garbage dump site near Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwar, via The Hindu

Looking at the photo above, you may not see much to like in the Greater Adjutant, a type of stork found primarily in northern India and parts of Cambodia. But these big birds are important scavengers in their ecosystem, helping to break down dead animals. In this way they’re like vultures, a similarly-maligned group of relatively unattractive birds. As you’ll read below, many rural communities in India historically did not welcome the Greater Adjutant, which is classified as endangered by the IUCN. But storks, like other large avian families such as vulture and cranes, are not doing too well on a global scale: of the nineteen species of stork, the IUCN labels fifteen of their population trends as decreasing; four are endangered, while two are near-threatened and three are vulnerable. All of which makes the news from the state of Assam in India even more heartening:

On a cloudy day in July, in a remote village in northeastern India, Charu Das excitedly imitates the awkward movements of a stork with her hands.

In a few months, the greater adjutant stork—called hargilla, which means “swallower of bones” in Sanskrit—will descend on this hamlet, situated in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, to breed in large numbers.

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New Zealand Plans to Eliminate Invasive Mammals

Illustration of a Brown Kiwi chick. A History of the Birds of New Zealand. 2nd ed. by W.L. Buller (London, 1888). page 326 via WikiMedia Commons

It is not surprising that one of the nations that stands to lose the most from invasive mammals is also the first country in the world to announce its ambitious plan to remove them all by 2050, but the islands of New Zealand have a lot of work ahead of them to eradicate animals like rats, stoats, and possums – around nineteen and a half million US dollars worth of work, which will be the government investment in a new public-private joint venture called Predator Free New Zealand Limited . And now that deforestation has been controlled better, it’s time to protect the country’s wildlife another way. The kiwi illustrated above, for example, is one of five species in New Zealand, all of which are threatened or endangered, or critically endangered, thanks to predation by invasive mammals that the flightless birds can’t avoid.

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What’s the Longest Living Animal?

Some sea sponges can live for centuries, and are indeed animals. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAD DAVENPORT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

That’s a question National Geographic reader Mohamed Larbi Bahou asked the columnists of “Weird Animal Question of the Week,” and a question we hadn’t asked ourselves. Liz Langley answers Mohamed’s question – thanks to both of them for these interesting facts:

Some days it feels like it might be me.

Kidding aside, humans these days live pretty long lives: The average global life expectancy of someone born in 2015 is 71.4 years.

That’s not bad compared with some adult female mayflies, which live for under five minutes—just long enough to mate and lay eggs. Talk about speed dating.

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Jackfruit: Potential Meat Substitute?

A vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, offers the Jack BBQ: jackfruit, onions, and kosher dill pickles served on sourdough bread. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE HEBERT, THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

This question has actually already been answered here before. Last year, Rosanna wrote about the fruit, revolving around an article from The Guardian that featured a recipe for pulled pork but with jackfruit replacing the meat. Earlier that month, we had linked to an NPR segment that called them a “nutritional bonanza” that may help with the food crisis in developing countries. And the year before that, we had written another post calling the fruit a “mega food.” So when will that happen for good? Hopefully, soon! Stacie Stukin writes for NatGeo on the would-be fad-food:

When Annie Ryu first encountered a large, spiky orb called jackfruit, she was perplexed. “I thought it was a porcupine,” she says.

But when she ate it prepared in a curry, she was amazed at how meat-like it was in taste and texture. That was in 2011, when she was traveling in southern India as a premed student helping community health workers improve prenatal care. By 2014, she had waylaid her medical career to start The Jackfruit Company.

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Camouflage by Debris

Specimens preserved in amber. © Wang et al. in Science Advances, 2016.

We’ve featured posts here concerning camouflage plenty of times, whether in birds and their eggs, in beach-dwelling crabs, plant-mimicking insects, or strange caterpillars. That last example is the closest to the subject matter of Ed Yong’s latest post on Nat Geo’s Phenomenon blog, where he writes about insects that cover themselves in debris to hide from predators or prey alike:

Every year, in northern Myanmar, thousands of farmers pull tonnes of Cretaceous amber out of the ground, and send the glistening nuggets to local markets. For six years, Bo Wang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues have visited the markets and sifted through 300,000 of the glistening nuggets. It was a lot of work. Then again, it takes a lot of work to find animals that spent their whole lives trying not to be found.

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National Geographic Travel Photography


Grand prize winner: Winter Horseman. The Winter in Inner Mongolia is very unforgiving. At a freezing temperature of -20F and lower with constant breeze of snow from all directions, it was pretty hard to convince myself to get out of the car and take photos – not until I saw horsemen showing off their skills in commanding the steed from a distance, I quickly grabbed my telephoto lens and captured the moment when one of the horseman charged out from morning mist. Photograph: Anthony Lau/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

Have a look over at the source:

Winners Announced

The National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year has been named!

Explore the prize-winning photos and download stunning wallpapers. Share your favorite pictures with your friends and see the judges top picks. Continue reading


William Gadoury used the position of a constellation to identify the location of a possible Maya city where an anomaly, shown above in a satellite image, was observed. Further study on the ground is required to determine the nature of this feature. IMAGE COURTESY OF ARMAND LAROCQUE via NATGEO

We have shared stories about Mayans, and especially the archaeological questions surrounding them, before; and also discussed the modern region that was once the civilization’s stronghold more recently. And although we missed the original news covering this interesting hypothetical discovery by a Canadian teenager, his recent interview with NatGeo brought the aspiring “archaeoastronomer’s” ideas to light, and we certainly hope Mr. Gadoury is right about the undiscovered settlement. Below, the first reporting by National Geographic, on May 11 of this year:

For gee-whiz value, the announcement has been hard to beat: A Canadian teenager discovers a lost Maya city without even stepping foot in the Central American jungle.

Unfortunately, this “discovery” appears to be the well-intentioned, albeit faulty, result of modern Western education colliding with an ancient civilization that saw the world in a very different way.

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A Moth’s Dark Side Evolution

A mutation giving rise to the black form of peppered moths has been discovered and is estimated to have occurred around 1820. Photo by Ilik Saccheri

The story of moth populations turning from light grey to sooty black in England during the Industrial Revolution is a popular schoolbook lesson of evolution, but an explanation for the genes responsible for the change had not been clear until now. Ed Yong reports for Nat Geo’s Phenomena blog:

In the early 19th century, coal-fired power stations belched a miasma of soot over the English countryside, blackening trees between London and Manchester. The pollution was bad news for the peppered moth. This insect, whose pale speckled body blended perfectly against the barks of normal trees, suddenly became conspicuous—a white beacon against blackened bark, and an easy target for birds.

As the decades ticked by, black peppered moths started appearing. These mutants belonged to the same species, but they had traded in their typical colours for a dark look that once again concealed their bodies against the trees. By the end of the century, almost all the moths in Manchester were black.

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Plants Attracting Pest Predators

Illustration by Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve discussed ants living with plants in the past, actually in the context of acacia trees like Ed Yong mentions in his post. And there’s proof of plants sending pheromonal signals to wasps that will parasitize the caterpillars eating the plant’s leaves; this article in the NatGeo Phenomena blog reminds us of that:

Six years ago, Anke Steppuhn noticed that the bittersweet nightshade, when attacked by slugs and insects in a greenhouse, would bleed. Small droplets would exude from the wounds of its part-eaten leaves. At the same time, Steppuhn and her colleagues saw that the wild plants were often covered in ants.

These facts are connected. Steppuhn’s team from the Free University of Berlin, including student Tobias Lortzing, have since discovered that the droplets are a kind of sugary nectar, which the beleagured nightshade uses to summon ants. The ants, in return for their sweet meals, attack the pests that are destroying the plant. And this discovery provides important clues about the evolution of more intimate partnerships between ants and plants.

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Traveling by Water

Many are the memories created on the banks of rivers, in the middle of the sea, and along ocean tides. PHOTO: Abrachan Pudussery

Many are the memories created on the banks of rivers, in the middle of the sea, and along ocean tides. PHOTO: Abrachan Pudussery

At Xandari Riverscapes, water is everything. Sharing the Kerala backwaters with all those who choose to travel with us has always been about sharing stories of the waters. Of the paddy fields that hug the river banks, canoes that transport groceries and construction material to the hinterlands, women and children fishing and splashing around near their waterfront homes, fishing boats, and more. And so this soulful piece on water’s incredible power to flow by memories resonates with us all through:

Water is great. We tune ourselves to it, to its murmured song of ebb and flow, of wave and ripple, in seas, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, ponds, snows. We drink it, we bathe in it, we stare at dark clouds praying for their sudden moment of release of it. “Take me somewhere magical,” my favorite cousin once said. So I did, to sail the sea. By the third day our ship was completely out of sight of land, nothing but water curving with the horizon.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh. That’s exactly what I needed.”

Below us, the swells rolled, allowing us to dance with them until our very steps were full of the lift of waves. In our own small way, our steps lifting with the waves, we were tuning the ocean as we sailed—and it, in turn, was tuning us.

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The Earliest Artists

Located in southern France, the Cave of Pont d’Arc holds the earliest-known and best-preserved figurative drawings, dating back to the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BP). PHOTO: Nat Geo

Located in southern France, the Cave of Pont d’Arc holds the earliest-known and best-preserved figurative drawings, dating back to the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BP). PHOTO: Nat Geo

The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc has been ferociously protected by the French Ministry of Culture. An exceptional testimony of prehistoric art, the cave was closed off by a rock fall and remained sealed until its discovery in 1994. The images demonstrate techniques of shading, combinations of paint and engraving, three-dimensionality and movement.

Around 36,000 years ago, someone living in a time incomprehensibly different from ours began to draw on its bare walls: profiles of cave lions, herds of rhinos and mammoths, a magnificent bison off to the right, and a chimeric creature—part bison, part woman—conjured from an enormous cone of overhanging rock. Other chambers harbor horses, ibex, and aurochs; an owl shaped out of mud by a single finger on a rock wall; an immense bison formed from ocher-soaked handprints; and cave bears walking casually, as if in search of a spot for a long winter’s nap. The works are often drawn with nothing more than a single and perfect continuous line. In all, the artists depicted 442 animals over perhaps thousands of years, using nearly 400,000 square feet of cave surface as their canvas.

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