Zero-deforestation commitments pose acute challenges for commercial giants in the palm oil industry

Nothing can ruin the intensely enjoyable experience of digging into a spoonful of the delectable hazelnut spread, Nutella, than turning over the can to examine its ingredient list. Right there, front and center, is palm oil: its production directly imperils Critically Endangered orangutans, among thousands of other species. But attempts to regulate palm oil production are well under way, and in late 2013, several prominent members of the commercial food industry adopted zero-deforestation commitments. In the months following these announcements, often heralded by the media as unprecedented progress in the palm oil debate, the actions of these companies have come under even closer scrutiny. The path to zero-deforestation appears to be paved with good intentions, but how successful are these companies in staying on that path? A controversial proposal to construct a refinery in the wildlife-rich Balikpapan Bay in Indonesian Borneo highlights the challenges faced by both palm oil companies and conservationists in the face of zero-deforestation commitments.

No experience necessary: how studying tamarins led to an innovative research organization in the Amazon

An interview with Mrinalini Watsa: new organization gives first time students a research and education opportunity in the Peruvian Amazon. Published January 15, 2014 on

While conducting doctoral research on tamarin reproductive biology in the Peruvian Amazon, Mrinalini Watsa realized she needed help in the field. Rather than hiring seasonal assistance she, along with Gideon Erkenswick, decided to create a life-changing non-profit organization, PrimatesPeru. The new NGO would allow students to conduct field research in one of the most biodiverse, yet threatened, places on Earth.

“Gideon and I both realized that there was no way we could accomplish all that we wished to do without asking for help – and so PrimatesPeru was born,” Watsa told in a recent interview.

PrimatesPeru’s students are made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, a wide range of ages, and stemming from all over the world. Rather than selecting based solely on prior experiences, PrimatesPeru is most interested in a willingness to learn and pursue accomplishments after completion of the course. This allows for the organization to help others, while others help them.


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This was an absolutely super interview of our work with Field Projects International – except that somehow, Gideon didn’t get featured nearly as much as he needs to be. This is my way of publicly announcing that that’s just not right, people! Couldn’t have done any of this without him.

To collect or not to collect?

Modern day expeditions face a collection dilemma as scientists consider ethics and endangerment. Published originally December 10, 2014 on

In 1912, a group of intrepid explorers led by Rollo and Ida Beck, widely acknowledged to be the foremost marine bird collectors of their time, embarked on a most remarkable effort to catalogue South America’s oceanic birds. Museums of the day held opportunistically collected specimens from scattered sources, but rarely did these include truly pelagic, or ocean-bound, birds that spent little time near the coast. A comprehensive collection of species was critical to resolving questions on the birds’ phylogeny or family tree, but was conspicuously absent, thus giving rise to the Brewster-Sanford Expedition of 1912.

Dr. Leonard Sanford, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), with the financial support of Frederick Brewster, hired the Becks to lead the five-year expedition. Beginning in Peru, the Becks traversed the entirety of the South American coast, collecting specimens in Cuba and the Caribbean on their way back to the United States. This Herculean effort culminated in the import of 7,853 dead bird specimens to the AMNH.

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This article won first place in among all intern-produced articles in 2014 on the network. Hurray!

It was also republished on a blog that curates the best articles on invertebrates, which is a bit odd, since it’s primarily written about vertebrates!

Featured image credit: A tray of Eriocnemis (a genus of hummingbird) specimens, Swedish Museum of Natural History – Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet,Stockholm, CC BY-SA 3,0 License, Wikimedia.

De-protection of Protected Areas ramps up in Brazil, ‘compromises the capacity’ of ecosystems

Brazil is the country with the largest protected area system in the world, spanning nearly 220 million hectares of land, from the Pantanal marshes to rainforest crawling with wildlife. The country is home to endangered species such as the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) and the brazil-nut poison frog (Adelphobates castaneoticus) that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.

Its protected areas (PAs) include over half the Amazon rainforest, and make up a total of 12.4 percent of all PAs the world over. According to Global Forest Watch, an environmental data repository run by the World Resources Institute that tracks global forest change, 58 percent of the country is forested.

It is no wonder then that Brazil and its rainforests are referred to as the “lungs of the world” – but can they breathe on our behalf forever?

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This is the third part of a three-part series examining trends in Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD). Read the first and second parts for a more comprehensive look at the issue

Bolivian vice president proposes unprecedented agricultural expansion

On August 14, the Bolivian Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, made a startling announcement: by 2025, Bolivia was going to make two striking developments – first, it would expand all cultivated land to 2.5 times its present area, and second, it would triple food production from 15 to 45 million tons.

Read the rest of Part I and Part II of the series on

‘Natural Reserves’ no more: illegal colonists deforest huge portions of Nicaraguan protected areas

In southeastern Nicaragua, abutting the coastal Caribbean town of Bluefields, lie two nature reserves – Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda – that are embroiled in a bitter battle for survival against the speedily encroaching agricultural frontier. The forest is all but decimated here, with disconnected patches whose very existence rests precariously in the hands of its occupiers – both legal and illegal.

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Tigers vs. Diamonds

India’s protected areas rampantly downgraded to make room for people, industry

In India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh lie 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) of protected land demarcated as the Panna Tiger Reserve. The Reserve has the dubious distinction of becoming entirely bereft of Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) in 2009, seemingly without anyone noticing, and then subsequently hosting a remarkably successful tiger reintroduction program.

While Panna has faced many battles since it was set aside as a tiger reserve in 1991, including the sheer embarrassment of being declared tiger-free (common consensus: rampant poaching, see suppressed facts), it could always rely on at least one thing on paper, if not in action: its status as a Protected Area. Recently, however, even that definition has been questioned and global-scale analyses show that Panna is far from being alone among India’s Protected Areas (PAs).

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This is the second part of a three-part series examining trends in Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD). Read the first and third parts for a more comprehensive look at the issue.

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