The O’Reilly Animals
A lot of smart people are working against time, using new technologies to save endangered animals and their habitats. This is where we share their stories, highlight opportunities for developers and makers to lend a hand, and, as we’re able, connect people to the resources and expertise they need.
Click on an animal to learn more
Douglas Adams’ expeditions to find endangered species
Yes, that Douglas Adams, writer, humorist, dramatist, and author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Last Chance to See, by Adams and Mark Carwardine, is the story of a series of expeditions the two men took in 1989:
- Mark Carwardine: “We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins.”
The result was a radio series for BBC Radio 4 (you can listen to the radio series on the BBC’s “Last Chance to See” website) and the book, about which the Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Who would have thought that a book in the field of “ecology/nature”…could be as lively, sharply satirical, brilliantly written and even funny as this one is?…ranks with the best set pieces in Mark Twain.”
Douglas Adams passed away in 2001. In 2009, Mark Carwardine and Adams’ close friend Stephen Fry went back to the places Adams and Carwardine had visited 20 years earlier. Carwardine and Fry blogged throughout the project, Carwardine with written posts and Fry with video. Their expeditions were documented by the BBC and released as a TV series (now available on DVD) and a book, both entitled Last Chance to See. Highly recommended.
A Smart Solution to an Age-Old Problem
One of the challenges for endangered species that live in the Arabian desert is access to fresh water. A case in point: the Arabian oryx, a member of the Bovidae family native to the Arabian Desert.
At one time, Arabian oryx were plentiful in the desert region extending across the Arabian peninsula. They were hunted to extinction in the wild by 1973, although a number of oryx remained in private collections and zoos. Since 1963, captive breeding programs in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates have worked to restore the species. Oryx bred in captivity and maintained in preserves and private collections are slowly being reintroduced into the desert. The IUCN estimates there are now more than 1000 Arabian oryx in the wild, with 6000-7000 held in captivity worldwide in zoos, preserves, and private collections.
Maintaining these rare animals in the desert requires providing them with access to fresh water. Unfortunately, the ground water beneath the Arabian desert has a high salt content; there is little fresh water naturally available. Read more…
Three Practical Challenges: Help the Elephant Listening Project Save What They Can’t See
Most people are aware of Asian elephants and the African elephants of the savannahs. A third variant on the largest land mammal on earth walks the rainforests of Central Africa, mostly out of sight and out of mind. The forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is so poorly known that efforts at designing effective conservation strategies are greatly hampered, yet these are the only elephants left on earth that enjoy a mostly free and unconstrained existence. They make their home in closed-canopy forests where most of the standard tools for studying animals are ineffective. We desperately need to find ways to leverage the incredible advances in engineering and software that define human activities today to help this amazing animal survive.
In recent decades, human threats to forest elephants have escalated at rates that, if unchecked, will push them to extinction before our generation has passed. From an estimated 1 million animals when the Phoenicians first ventured down the west coast of the African continent, they are now reduced to 100,000; last year alone about 12,000 were slaughtered for their ivory.
But how does one study an animal that we only directly observe when it comes to a forest clearing a few times each year? Additional challenges are posed because we can’t catch these three-ton beasts, and it’s dangerous to be on the ground with them.
The Elephant Listening Project (ELP), at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been tackling these problems through sound, eavesdropping on the communication system of forest elephants to track some basic aspects of their biology. To save the elephants, we need a quantum advance in our understanding of their biology, which requires both tracking individuals and moving data efficiently out of the forest to analysis hubs or the cloud. In addition, we also need to find ways to excite and engage young people living in elephant countries, perhaps by getting them directly involved with the biodiversity of their forests. Read more…
The Zoological Society of London is one of 10 finalists for a Google Global Impact Award – the tech-savvy folks at the ZSL have developed prototypes of tiny cameras with sound recording devices that will enable game wardens in Kenya to detect gunshots as they are happening, so they have a far better chance of catching poachers in the act of killing endangered elephants and rhinos.
Wildlife crime is one of the largest illegal trades in the world. Rhino poaching increased by over 40% from 2011-2012, posing a real threat to communities and tourism operations that depend on wildlife. The ZSL estimates that with the devices they’ll be able to cut poaching by 50% over two years.
The first award of £500,000 is based on online voting by the general public, and then there are 3 more awards of £500,000 each that will be determined by a panel of judges (including Sir Richard Branson and Sir Tim Berners-Lee).
There are 9 other great projects in contention for the awards; the ZSL project is the only one that focuses on endangered species. You can vote for up to 4 different projects, so go check them out and cast your votes! The public voting ends June 3rd.
To cast your vote for the ZSL’s Digital Eyes and Ears for Wildlife Protection project, go to: https://globalimpactchallenge.withgoogle.com/#/zsl
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, University of Kansas insect ecologist Orley R. “Chip” Taylor suggests that it’s likely that genetically engineered crops are largely to blame.
Monsanto first introduced Roundup-resistant soybeans in 1997, and Roundup-resistant corn a year later. By 2004, Taylor estimates that about 50% of commercial farms were using the modified seeds. About that same time the monarch population started to significantly decline. Read more…
As if African elephants didn’t have enough to worry about, habitat loss is yet another key issue affecting their survival. Although elephant populations have increased since the 1970s, the human population has grown even more quickly, cutting the elephants’ habitat up into farms and roads. The elephants’ key migratory routes have been cut off in many places. As result, they regularly break through fences, where they eat and destroy crops. When the farmers confront elephants on their property, things don’t generally end well for either party.
Lucy King, a researcher working with Save the Elephants, has spent many years investigating the problems involved in crop protection. Her goal is to find long-term solutions that reduce the frequency of human-elephant conflicts—and that can be financed and managed by local farmers.
As Ms. King looked into the elephants’ habits for any clues to keeping them out of fields planted with crops, she noticed that they tended to avoid acacia trees with active nests of African bees. Elephants, it so happens, are afraid of the bees, and will move away from an area and warn other elephants if they hear bees buzzing nearby.
And so the beehive fence was invented. Read more…
For Earth Day, a look at the gift that keeps on giving.“Plastics.” That famous line from The Graduate has stuck with us for many years—and so, for better or worse, have plastics themselves. Today, plastics are in just about everything we make and use, from cars and computers to clothing and food storage containers. And with good reason: plastics are generally inexpensive, easy to mass-produce, light, strong, durable, corrosion-resistant, with good thermal and electrical insulation properties.
Because plastics are so cheap, most of the plastic containers we use are designed for a single use. And each year we use more; according to a 2010 report from KPMG International, plastic production during the past decade equals that of the entire twentieth century. Although we don’t give those single-use containers another thought once we dispose of them, we should; they are and will always be with us. Read more…