By: Nejma Belarbi, based on an article published on Voices for Biodiversity
Wearing the mantra of Standing Rock Sioux, Water is Life, a young woman at the Oceti Sakowin camp looks out over an estimated ten thousand people gathered there. To the Sioux, fighting for water and land is not an intellectual exercise— it is a fight for the health of the people.
My Life for the Land, written by Nanai photographer and writer Kiliii Yuyan, illuminates the importance of viewing conservation through the Indigenous lens. The scientific community has begun to recognize Indigenous knowledge as pivotal to conservation efforts. One commonly overlooked reality is the direct connection between the wellbeing of a ecosystem and the basic human rights of Indigenous people. Cultural survival, food and medicinal needs in Indigenous communities all require the existence of a healthy ecosystem, so Indigenous peoples have a strong vested interest in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. For some of these communities, however, attempts at protecting the environment can be a life-threatening endeavor. Yuyan’s article sheds light on the important correlations between ecosystem health and the health of humanity — now and for future generations.
Kiliii Yuyan’s insights and photographs are truly inspiring. He weaves connections among different Indigenous groups and explains the barriers they face as they strive to both conserve and continue stewardship of ecosystems.
His article depicts the struggles faced by Indigenous people on the front lines of conservation, from the Brazilian rainforest to North Dakota’s Standing Rock to the Alaskan Arctic. He begins with the tragic loss of Indigenous leaders who were involved in — and often spearheaded — conservation efforts to protect their lands and ecosystems from corporate exploitation, a sad reality we are continuously witnessing.
Yuyan connects Indigenous-led conservation with biodiversity by exemplifying ecosystem management and subsistence practices that have often proven to be beneficial to the well-being of many species. He highlights the clear connection between community-led ecosystem management and positive impacts on species such as bowhead whales in the waters of Alaska.
“…under Iñupiaq management, the whale population had risen to almost 17,000 whales, which is believed to be even more than before the arrival of European whalers in the 1800s! Today the Beaufort Sea Bowhead population continues to grow at 3.7 percent annually, and serves as a prime example of how a modern Indigenous people can self-manage sensitive wildlife, even while hunting for subsistence.”
Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life which centers around the gift of the whale to the community. Foster Simmonds offers a prayer, saying, “Hide something for me. Look at the food, the whales. Look at the sea, the whalers. A blessing for them. Take that and hide it in your heart.” The whale here is tied up after being towed to the ice’s edge and is awaiting the village to come and help haul it onto the ice.
Yuyan explains that conservation efforts based on colonial concepts have sometimes caused great harm to Indigenous groups, who have had to fight back for their right to manage their homes and ecosystems. One such example is the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission, initiated in response to the 1977 moratorium on whaling. At the time, commercial whaling and Indigenous subsistence whaling were put in the same category, most likely due to the lack of understanding of the role these communities played as ecosystem stewards. Yuyan writes that:
“The Iñupiaq have been hunting whales here for at least 2,000 years. Yet the fact that they have the rights to whale today is remarkable — they nearly lost this way of life when the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on whaling in 1977… The Iñupiaq refused to give up and started their own Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission, fighting for the right to hunt whales and to manage their own bowhead whale population.”
The importance of Indigenous peoples’ lifeways in conservation is well illustrated throughout, with many examples of ongoing efforts to preserve ecosystems, which in turn protects countless species. His maps clearly show that Indigenous lands in Brazil, are least deforested regions.
Yuyan breaks down the myth that Indigenous land management and modern tools are mutually exclusive. He explains that:
Indigenous land management practices have evolved over thousands of years — and continue to evolve. Today the Ka’apor use game cameras and GPS to monitor wildlife activity and illegal logging. The Iñupiaq share information about whale observations and ice conditions over an extensive network of VHF radios. These modern additions are a natural adaptation for Indigenous people who live in a changing world with changing demands.
A truly salient point, which leads us to address our own biases regarding technology and subsistence living. Yuyan illustrates the shift in perspective by different cultures dealing with a changing world, with many now standing up to protect land and water. He speaks of his own experience at Standing Rock and witnessing the changing values of non-Indigenous people who gathered to support the interruption of the Dakota Access Pipeline:
“I witnessed thousands of people — from all races and cultures — gathering in support of the Lakota people and their land rights. I saw outsiders running into new values in a camp structured around Indigenous priorities.”
The photographs found throughout the article are rich and rare — true testimony to the power of imagery. With salient writing, a passion for the natural world and a desire to create greater opportunities for Indigenous knowledge to be recognized, Yuyan shows us an alternative vision of humanity’s greatest treasures — community, culture and the earth.
[Note: This is the third blog in a series about the WCS-led marine megafauna survey, which is gathering data on whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species inhabiting the coastal waters of Bangladesh. Data from the effort will identify biologically important locations for future consideration as marine protected areas.]
The WCS marine megafauna survey currently underway along the coast of Bangladesh involves two vessels. The larger vessel follows a transect line surveying for whales, dolphins, and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans). Researchers on the smaller vessel focus on active fishing vessels by collecting data related to their catches and learning from fishers about the nature and scale of their fishing effort.
Recording various gear specifications contributes to our understanding of coastal artisanal fishing practices. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
The team aboard the second, smaller survey boat, F. B. Jobeda, has the task of assessing the catches and bycatches of several different types of fishing gear operating in the coastal waters of Bangladesh. While the targeted finfish are of considerable interest, we are especially keen to investigate other species such as dolphins, porpoises, turtles, sharks and rays, as well as sea snakes—some of which are accidentally taken as bycatch.
On day two our team was preparing for the day’s work when we spotted a long liner—locally known as the Boiral—a fishing vessel that uses lines with thousands of baited hooks. By the time we reached the boat and established contact, the fishermen were already pulling in their lines.
A bigeye houndshark was identfied for the first time in our waters. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
As a researcher, investigating this haul was fascinating, but on a personal level it was deeply disturbing. Among the 1150 hooks we examined there was a shark caught on almost every one. We managed to identify four different species, including an immature tiger shark.
The catch also included several individuals of a relatively small shark species that the local fishermen call “Gule Kamot” and which we didn’t immediately recognize. These beautiful fish have large sparkling eyes and a stout snout. Upon looking at them more, we identified them as big-eye hound sharks, a new species we had yet to record in Bangladesh.
The baited hook and line fisheries target large finfish but catch large numbers of sharks. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
One of the females had 19 pups in her belly, and several others were clearly immature. We learned that these sharks have a very low market value and are used only as bait or simply discarded. Also, we discovered that some of the longliners are targeting endangered hammerhead sharks, due to their high market value.
This experience has strengthened my resolve to help find a balance between protecting of our country’s large and diverse marine megafauna and ensuring that fisheries are sustainable. Fortunately, WCS is partnering with the Government of Bangladesh to establish a network of marine protected areas that will promote sustainable fisheries while conserving threatened species such as hammerhead sharks.
This beautiful honeycomb whipray was caught in a drifting gillnet along the southern coast of Bangladesh. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
The information collected by survey participants, as well as other data collected by a WCS-led citizen science network at fish landing sites throughout coastal Bangladesh, will also help inform future management actions and international shark and ray conservation efforts.
——————————————— Shanta Shamsunnaharis the Marine Protected Area Program Coordinator for WCS’s Bangladesh Program and a research participant in the survey.
Giraffes, like these northern giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, are facing a conservation crisis. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
The steep ravine of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania lies behind me. Ahead are the plains of the Serengeti, grasses reaching toward the far horizon in a wavering line that finally bends into the curvature of the Earth. It is June, and the Serengeti’s “long rains” have just ended. The air is washed clean by the storms of March, April and May. In this briefest of interludes before the dry season, the land is verdant. Grasses still sprout, not yet turned sere and golden.
I think of age-old migrations and thundering hooves across miles of savanna. What I don’t think of is right before my as-yet-unseeing eyes: giraffes, peacefully browsing flat-topped trees, their legs and necks nearly hidden in a copse of acacias.
With all our concern for iconic African wildlife species – lions, cheetahs, rhinos – somehow we’ve forgotten the quietly ambling giraffes.
“While giraffes are commonly seen on safaris and in zoos, many people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says biologist Julian Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, based in Namibia. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in many of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa.”
Human population growth poses the greatest risk to giraffes, says Fennessy. “Habitat loss and expanding agriculture and mining, illegal hunting, and increasing human-wildlife conflict are pushing giraffes toward extinction.”
Biologists report a steep decline in the overall giraffe population, from some 163,452 giraffes in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015. As a result, giraffes have moved from species of “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
But is that one giraffe species…or several?
Fennessy and other scientists argue in a paper recently published on bioRxiv that “mounting evidence of four giraffe species proposes a re-evaluation of the current IUCN giraffe taxonomy to raise the classification to a [yet] higher level of threat, and in turn increase conservation actions.”
Scientists have discovered that there are likely four giraffe species. (Graphic: Giraffe Conservation Foundation)
The four giraffes
Scientists had long recognized one giraffe species and nine subspecies. Then ecologists began an analysis of giraffe relationships. Giraffes, it turns out, are not one species, but indeed four. “The genetic differences among giraffes are at least as great as those between polar bears and brown bears,” says Fennessy.
He and geneticist Axel Janke of Goethe University in Germany led the research team. The unexpected findings highlight the need for in-depth studies of and greater conservation efforts for the four genetically isolated species, the biologists say.
“We were surprised at the results because coat patterns and other visible differences among giraffes are somewhat limited,” says Janke. “Giraffes are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, but no one really knows because they’ve been largely overlooked by science.”
Wildlife biologists tracked and collected samples from nearly 200 giraffes across Africa. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
The researchers looked at DNA evidence from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes. “The extensive sampling included populations of all nine previously recognized giraffe subspecies,” says Fennessy.
The analysis shows that the four overall groups of giraffes don’t mate with each other in the wild. As a result, the scientists believe, giraffes should be recognized as four distinct species: northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis); southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa); reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata); and Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi).
Why did giraffes separate into different species? Rivers, mountains and other geographic barriers may have kept populations apart long enough for new species to evolve, Fennessy says.
All giraffes are quintessential African savanna animals. That savanna, however, is vanishing. It once covered an area one and one-half times as large as the lower 48 U.S. states. Along with the grasslands, giraffes are disappearing.
Northern giraffes, for example, number fewer than 5,000 in the wild. “That makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world,” says Fennessy. “Giraffes have become islands in an ever-shrinking savanna.”
On the good news side, according to biologist Sam Ferreira of South African National Parks, southern giraffes are holding their own in South Africa’s national parks. Over the past five years, southern giraffe population increases have ranged from 0.1 percent in Marakele National Park to 17.9 percent in Mapungubwe National Park.
Fewer than 8,700 reticulated giraffes still exist in Africa; this one is in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
Epicenter of giraffe species
Twiga, kanyiet, tiga. Lenywa, ndwiya, iment. In the dialects of Kenya, all are words for giraffe.
“Kenya is likely the epicenter of giraffe speciation [the formation of new species],” says Fennessy. “No other country has such a diversity of giraffes.”
The animals meander through open grasslands, woodlands and scrublands. There they chew on acacias and other trees. The browsing promotes new growth, according to GCF researchers, ultimately making leaves easier to find.
Giraffes once ranged far afield in their search for food and mates. Now fragmented habitat is hampering their walkabouts. “The lack of long-distance movement limits access to suitable forage and to natural gene flow between populations,” Fennessy says.
Across Africa, giraffes like these in northwestern Namibia are being crowded out by humans. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
Two giraffe species and one subspecies live in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, which roams northern and eastern Kenya; the Masai giraffe, which inhabits the savanna and woodlands of southern Kenya; and the Nubian giraffe (formerly Rothschild’s giraffe), a subspecies of northern giraffe that’s reduced to small, scattered populations in western and central Kenya.
The Masai is Kenya’s most abundant giraffe, with some 12,000 animals, followed by the reticulated giraffe, with no more than 8,700 individuals. The Nubian giraffe numbers a paltry 400.
In the last two decades, Masai giraffes have declined by 50 percent and reticulated giraffes by some 70 percent. Nubian giraffe numbers have been going down for at least 50 years, mostly due to civil unrest in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia, Fennessy says. “The turmoil has led to loss of giraffe habitat as people are displaced, then move into areas formerly occupied by giraffes.”
Nubian giraffes are being reintroduced in their native range, however. From east to west in Kenya, for example, small numbers are now found in Mwea National Reserve, Giraffe Centre, Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, Soysambu Conservancy and Lake Nakuru National Park, Nasolot National Reserve, Mt. Elgon National Park, Ruma National Park and Lake Baringo National Park.
Safari-goers visiting these and other protected areas can help, says Fennessy. “They can search for giraffes across the continent and let us know what they’re seeing. Many people, including guides, don’t realize that giraffes aren’t the same animals throughout Africa. When you look at the four species of giraffes alongside each other, they do in fact have different features, such as color, pattern and size.” The GCF website, https://giraffeconservation.org/, has detailed information.
It’s high time, Fennessy says, “to stick our necks out for giraffes.”
The sun goes down on Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Missing in this picture are its giraffes. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)
Sharks have been cruising the world’s oceans for millions of years. We know them as ferocious hunters, built for the kill. And some are. However, most shark and ray species have somewhat less aggressive feeding behaviour and, of course, many end up as food themselves.
These magnificent creatures have adapted to an incredible diversity of habitats, from the open ocean to deep ocean trenches, volcanic seamounts, coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries and rivers. There are even some that have evolved to live exclusively—or almost exclusively—in freshwater environments like the freshwater stingrays in South America and the river sharks in Southeast Asia and Australia.
In the waters off East Africa, in the Western Indian Ocean, nearly 230 shark and ray species have been identified, making this one of a handful of global shark and ray biodiversity hotspots. Because of this high diversity, including several species that are found only in this region, and because shark and ray species are millions of years old, the Western Indian Ocean is considered globally important for shark and ray conservation.
A shark is eviscerated and its fins are removed on the streets of Zanzibar. Photo credit: Rhett Bennett/WCS.
At the same time, in East Africa there are 70 million people living within 100 km of the coastline, many of whom are dependent on fishing and marine resources as their primary form of protein or income. Artisanal and traditional fishers use a range of fishing gears, such as handlines, longlines, spears, mosquito nets, beach seine nets, gill nets and even baited gill nets to target fishes, and many also target sharks and rays.
There are also small-scale commercial, commercial and industrial fishing vessels using deepwater trawl nets, shrimp trawl nets, deepset gill nets, longlines and purse seine nets. The result is that many of these either target—or result in considerable bycatch of—shark and ray species.
This heavy fishing pressure creates a major threat to sharks and rays. Most species grow much slower than other fish species and become sexually mature much later in life. They also tend to have very few offspring. Most will have just five or ten well-developed young per year, compared to some fishes that may release several million eggs in a single spawning event.
While sharks and rays may have evolved the perfect biology to capitalise on all aquatic habitats, their reproductive design cannot support extensive fisheries. Approximately one quarter of the species found in the Western Indian Ocean face a high risk of extinction in the wild due to overfishing. Sawfishes have not been seen in East Africa in several decades.
Fishing of sharks and rays has increased exponentially in recent years, driven largely by the global trade in fins—especially guitarfishes and wedgefishes—to supply the demand for shark fin soup.
It is not only direct fishing pressure that has a negative impact on sharks and rays, but also the destruction of critical habitat. Examples include the burning of mangrove trees to create coal (mangroves provide nursery areas for many species of coastal sharks and rays), destruction of coral reefs for coastal development, and overfishing of fish species that provide food for sharks and some ray species.
WCS staff Dr Rhett Bennett and Katya Kalashnikova prepare to deploy a baited underwater video camera off Pemba Island, Zanzibar. Photo courtesy of Katya Kalashnikova.
A recent status report led by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in collaboration with several other organisations highlighted the key threats to sharks and rays in the Western Indian Ocean. These include directed and incidental mortality in several fisheries, a lack of ecological knowledge and information on catches in the different fisheries, as well as poor controls on trade and a lack of legislation specifically for sharks and rays.
Nevertheless, it is not all bad news for these animals. There has been a new wave of focus on shark and ray conservation in recent years, both globally and within the Western Indian Ocean. Seychelles and South Africa have developed national plans of action, for the conservation and management of sharks and rays in their waters.
In addition, WCS is supporting the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests of Madagascar and the Kenya Fisheries Service to produce national plans of action for shark and ray conservation and management in Madagascar and Kenya, respectively, while plans are underway to develop a guiding roadmap for shark and ray management in Mozambique, and hopefully Tanzania will follow soon.
A cowshark investigates an underwater camera in a South African marine protected area. Photo credit: Michael Markovina.
WCS has several conservation initiatives in the Western Indian Ocean aimed at addressing the threats to sharks and rays, through collection of ecological and fishery data, supporting governments to develop and implement regulations and legislation specifically for shark and ray species, and through engagement with fishing communities to raise awareness of the poor status of most shark and ray species, and the need for their conservation.
While sharks may kill four or five humans per year, the annual number of sharks and rays killed by humans exceeds 100 million! And most shark attacks are effected by just a few species. Ultimately, sharks and rays support many human activities and contribute essential ecological services, and they have very few negative impacts on humans.
Shark Week reminds us that it is time to improve our knowledge of sharks and rays, and support initiatives to protect these prehistoric species and their habitats, rather than persecute them.
——————————————— Dr. Rhett Bennettis Shark and Ray Conservation Officer for Madagascar and the Western Indian Ocean at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
The Chenchu tribe think of the tiger as their brother. They understand their forest and its wildlife better than anybody else and have shaped, nurtured and protected this environment for millennia. Yet their lives are being destroyed by government efforts to conserve this animal. Survival International researcher Fiore Longo spent time with them in Amrabad and Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserves, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States, India.
“Our ancestors taught us only one thing: Love and respect the forest and it will take care of you. Here we don’t need money to eat and to live. This forest is our breath and our life.”
The Chenchu can recognize five different types of bees that produce five different types of honey. “We leave the larvae so it will recycle again; by looking at the way a bee flies we can know where the honey is”.
Outsiders think that tigers and humans are a threat to one another, but the Chenchu, who live with the animals day to day, have a different perspective; “We love them as we love our children. If a tiger or a leopard kills our cattle, we don’t feel disappointed or angry, instead we feel as if our brothers have visited our homes and they have eaten what they wanted”.
Evidence proves indigenous peoples manage their environment and its wildlife better than anyone else. Yet like other tribes in India’s tiger reserves, such as the Baiga and Mising, the Chenchu are being threatened with illegal eviction from their ancestral homelands: “We will shed every single drop of our blood to protect our rights and our forest. This forest is our home. The flora and fauna of this forest are part of our family. Without us the forest won’t survive, and without the forest we won’t survive.”
Under Indian law, to conduct a relocation of indigenous peoples from their forests, evidence must be provided to demonstrate that the community is irreversibly harming the flora and fauna, and that coexistence with wild animals is impossible. Then, if the community gives its consent, they should be offered one of the two options of the resettlement package that the authorities are obliged by law to provide: either receive cash (Rs 10 lakh per family, around 14,500 US dollars), or move to a resettlement village. This is not what is happening in reality.
This woman is from Pecheru village, which was evicted in the ’80s. Of the 750 families that used to live in the village, the Chenchu told us that only 160 families survived after the eviction took place. Many starved to death. “The thought of that frightens us – we don’t want to see it. We won’t get the safety we have here anywhere else. Most of us would die of depression, unable to cope with a new life, and the rest of us would die slow, horrible deaths.”
“Among ourselves we have pure love and strong relationships. But outside it is not the same. Everything is related to money. If you don’t have money there is no food and no water. No money means no house and no clothes. It’s a shameless world out there, where nothing is pure. From the air we breathe to the relationships we establish, everything is impure there. We won’t get the safety we have here in the forest anywhere else.”
The Chenchu have released a letter demanding to be allowed to stay in their home: “Since our ancestors’ time, we have been born in this forest and we have died and will die in this very forest. This forest is our breath and our life. This forest is our right and no one can take this right from us and break our bond. If anyone tries to do this, we shall fight against it till our last breath. We will shed every single drop of our blood to protect our rights and our forest.”
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