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Reception on behalf of endangered species at National Museum of Natural History.
The Sahara is expanding southward at a rate of 30 miles per year—and part of the desert's recently acquired territory is a 260-acre patch of land in north-central Mauritania, home to the village of Chinguetti, once a vibrant trading and religious center. Sand piles up in the narrow paths between decrepit buildings, in the courtyards of abandoned homes and near the mosque that has attracted Sunni pilgrims since the 13th century. After a visit in 1996, writer and photographer Kit Constable Maxwell predicted that Chinguetti would be buried without a trace within generations. "Like so many desert towns through history, it is a casualty of time and the changing face of mankind's cultural evolution," he wrote.
Coincidentally, that same year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the town a World Heritage Site, which spotlighted its rich past and precarious future. Yet, Chinguetti's fortunes have not improved. A decade later, a UNESCO report noted that global climate change is delivering a one-two punch: seasonal flash flooding, which causes erosion, and increased desertification, which leads to more frequent sandstorms and further erosion. Workers in Chinguetti have the Sisyphean task of wetting down the sand to prevent it from being blown about.
Today's Chinguetti is a shadow of the prosperous metropolis it once was. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, Sunni pilgrims en route to Mecca gathered here annually to trade, gossip, and say their prayers in the spare, mostly unadorned mosque, built from unmortared stone. A slender, square-based minaret is capped by five clay ostrich egg finials; four demarcate the cardinal directions and the fifth, in the center, when seen from the West, defines the axis toward Mecca.
Desert caravans were the source of Chinguetti's economic prosperity, with as many as 30,000 camels gathering there at the same time. The animals, which took refreshment at the oasis retreat, carried wool, barley, dates and millet to the south and returned with ivory, ostrich feathers, gold and slaves.
Once home to 20,000 people, Chinguetti now has only a few thousand residents, who rely mostly on tourism for their livelihood. Isolated and hard to reach (65 miles from Atar, by Land Rover; camels not recommended), it is nonetheless the most visited tourist site in the country; its mosque is widely considered a symbol of Mauritania. Non-Muslim visitors are prohibited from entering the mosque, but they can view the priceless Koranic and scientific texts in the old quarter's libraries and experience traditional nomadic hospitality in simple surroundings.
Chinguetti is one of the four ksours, or medieval trading centers, overseen by Mauritania's National Foundation for the Preservation of Ancient Towns (the others are Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata). The United Nations World Heritage Committee has approved extensive plans for the rehabilitation and restoration of all four ksours and has encouraged Mauritania to submit an international assistance request for the project.
But such preservation efforts won't forestall the inevitable, as the Sahara continues to creep southward. Desertification has been an ongoing process in Mauritania for centuries. Neolithic cave paintings found at the Amogjar Pass, located between Chinguetti and Atar, depict a lush grassland teeming with giraffes and antelope. Today, that landscape is barren. May Cassar, professor of sustainable heritage at the University College London and one of the authors of the 2006 UNESCO report on climate change, says that solving the problem of desertification requires a sustained effort using advanced technologies.
Among the most promising technologies under development include methods for purifying and recycling wastewater for irrigation; breeding or genetically modifying plants that could survive in arid, nutrient-starved soil; and using remote sensing satellites to preemptively identify land areas at risk from desertification. Thus far, low-tech efforts elsewhere in the world have been a failure. along the Mongolian border, Chinese environmental authorities sought to reclaim land overrun by the Gobi Desert by planting trees, dropping seeds from planes and even covering the ground with massive straw mats. All to no avail.
"We as cultural heritage professionals are faced with a growing dilemma that we may have to accept loss, that not everything can be saved." says Cassar. Or, to quote an old saying: "A desert is a place without expectation."
Image by Camille Moirenc / Hemis / Corbis. Mosque at Chinguetti, Mauritania. (original image)
Image by Remi Benali / Corbis. Mohamed Mahmoud on the roof of his Al-Hamoni family library, of which he is curator, in Chinguetti, Mauritania. (original image)
Image by Remi Benali / Corbis. Curator holding a Koran from the 14th century in the Wenane Library in Chinguetti, Mauritania. (original image)
Image by Camille Moirenc / Hemis / Corbis. Chinguetti is one of the four ksours, or medieval trading centers, overseen by Mauritania's National Foundation for the Preservation of Ancient Towns. (original image)
Image by Atlantide Phototravel / Corbis. Desert Biblioteque. (original image)
Image by Remi Benali / Corbis. Mohamed Mahmoud, curator of the Al-Hamoni family library in Chinguetti, Mauritania, reading Koranic texts. (original image)
There is a living database of yeast in the U.K. Norwich's National Collection of Yeast Cultures holds more than 4,000 strains of yeast, packed away in tiny freeze dried ampules and in live cultures. About 800 of them are used for brewing.
Megan Garber at the Atlantic writes:
Brewers can house their strains securely as well as deposit them in an open collection; this gives other brewers the possibility of using that yeast for their own creations. (If you want buy some, you can do so here.) Today's microbrewers are eager to make new concoctions with yeast from the 1940s, Chris Bond, the collection manager, tells Rogers. (And once, "we actually had someone trying to recreate a South American beer from the Incas," he notes.) You can think of the Center as a strain, if you'll pardon the pun, of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway—an archive meant to preserve our bio-heritage. The Center treats microbes not just as ingredients in some of humanity's oldest recipes (beer! booze!), but also as part of a heritage worth preserving in its own right. It recognizes our cultural reliance on microbes.
The National Collection of Yeast Cultures, in addition to being a living library, also does a lot of testing. Want to know if the yeast your company is using to brew beer contains one strain of yeast or multiple? They do DNA fingerprinting. They also do other kinds of yeast identification and R&D, but for a price. (People wanting to get strains of yeast for academic reasons do get a steep discount on yeast cultures.)
Of course, while plenty of valuable academic research is done on yeast strains, they are most renowned for being an integral part of the beer making process. The strain of yeast used in brewing a batch of beer can have a large impact on the resulting brew, which is why brewers are so interested in keeping their strains safe — little microbes can pack a large punch in brewing circles.
The last few decades have been good to California condors, which were once near extinction but have surged in population due to a concerted conservation effort across the country. But now that their population no longer seems doomed, writes Mary Beth Griggs for Popular Science, another threat has surfaced.
Contaminated food is to blame, writes Griggs, and humans are at least indirectly responsible for the threat. In a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers studied the diet of current-day condors. Though the birds are partial to carrion (think: the carcasses of dead mammals like deer and cattle), they also eat marine mammals like sea lions.
That’s a problem, says the study: When researchers assessed the diets of condors in their favorite coastal habitats, they learned that they largely eat marine mammals that have been contaminated by pesticides that could endanger condors’ reproduction and future survival. Coastal condors had blood concentrations of contaminants like mercury, chlorinated pesticides like DDE (which is formed when DDT breaks down), industrial products like PCBs, and other chemicals that were between 12 and 100 times higher than those of their non-coastal cousins.
All of those contaminants are associated with marine mammals, which chow down on fish and other lower-food-chain animals that in turn absorb contaminants in their fatty tissues as they eat other contaminated food and swim in contaminated ocean bottoms. And every single one is associated with human activity.
The research team concluded that in order to continue to support condor recovery, contaminants must be reduced in the ocean. Though condor conservation has been a runaway triumph for conservationists (a major conservation project saved the animals from extinction), humans could inadvertently be threatening the lives they have worked so hard to save.
Condors are still very susceptible to things like lead poisoning from leftover ammunition, which threatens the birds further inland. And as Griggs reports, it’s unclear just how humans can ensure condor diets’ safety. But reducing contamination in ocean waters could be a good first step for the majestic, bizarre birds who live closer to the sea.
In 1905, the Reverend Elias Camp Morris and self-taught architect Henry James Price, both of whom had been born in slavery, built the Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, Arkansas. Its Gothic Revival style stood out in the small, delta neighborhood; the building featured square towers with brick corbelling, double-hung lancet windows and a gabled roof. In the years that followed, Centennial emerged as a center of leadership and a beacon of pride for the African American community. It hosted civil rights leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and, more recently, Governor Bill Clinton, who visited the church in 1989 to announce a renovation plan for downtown Helena.
Today, Centennial's doors and stained glass windows are boarded up; pigeons fly in through holes in its sagging roof. A network of scaffolding dominates the nave, which is littered with construction debris. Wooden pews are stacked up around the sanctuary, and the pulpit has been removed to protect it from vandals. The last worship service here was in 1998.
"We felt it was the end of the road for the church," says Phyllis Hammonds, whose family had attended Centennial for 60 years. So Hammonds, an education consultant, created the all-volunteer E.C. Morris Foundation in 2004, which is striving to raise nearly two million dollars to restore the church and turn it into a museum or cultural center in memory of Morris. "He was the precursor to Martin Luther King," Hammonds says. "When he spoke, it was so uplifting. He was an amazing man."
Perhaps nearly forgotten today, Morris was one of the nation's most progressive African American ministers at the turn of the 20th century. Born on a Georgia plantation in 1855, he left after the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1884, he helped found the Arkansas Baptist College. Morris devoted his life to furthering the religious, political and social influence of the black community and often used Centennial as his base of operations. When regional black Baptist groups merged to form the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A, Morris was elected its president and served 27 years. Under his leadership, the convention established a black publishing house to produce religious materials for its congregations. By 1900, the Convention represented over 60 percent of African American church members and over one-half of Sunday schools
Morris was also highly regarded outside the African American community. He served as a delegate to three Republican National Conventions and, in 1908, traveled to the Belgian Congo as President Theodore Roosevelt's emissary to investigate claims of atrocities committed against the indigenous population by the colonial government. At home, Morris was lauded as a peacemaker in 1919 after one of the worst race riots in American history erupted in Elaine, Arkansas. The riot began when an altercation at a union meeting of black sharecroppers resulted in the death of a white security officer. Rumors of a "black insurrection" spread among the white community, and the ensuing violence left hundreds of African Americans dead. The day after the rioting, Morris assured Helena's white population that the rumors of insurrection were unfounded.
In 2003, long after his death in 1922, Morris's achievements would earn Centennial a National Historic Landmark designation. "He has a legacy; it just needs to be told," says Hammonds. "We want to tell our own story, but we don't have the resources or manpower. That's the most frustrating part."
Centennial's decline can be traced to the death of the charismatic Morris, after which the church began to loose its congregation. Meanwhile, members of the Morris family—along with thousands of other African Americans—migrated to northern cities to seek opportunities. By the time the church closed its doors a decade ago, the number of parishioners had dwindled from 1,000 to 25.
So far, about a half million dollars from private donors and Arkansas preservation grants have been spent to stabilize the church's deteriorating foundation, shore up its slumping walls and make other emergency repairs. But, for now, all construction has ceased as the Morris Foundation searches for more funding.
"We get money piecemeal, and we never have enough," says Hammonds. "It's always just enough to keep it from falling down." In 2006, the church landed on Arkansas' 2006 list of Most Endangered Places, which is compiled by the state's Historic Preservation Alliance.
The church is eligible for a $300,000 grant from Save America's Treasures, a federal program, but to qualify, it must be matched with cash, donations or building materials. The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the Wal-Mart Corporation has shown interest in helping out but Joe Black—the senior vice president of the nonprofit group Southern Financial Partners—who represents Walton, says the church must first come up with a plan to sustain itself. "After the grant funds are depleted, how will the church maintain itself?" he asks.
E.C. Morris board president Henrietta Williams, who grew up in the church, says it will likely take five years to come up with the $2 million needed to restore the church and turn it into a cultural center. "It is something I will never give up on," she adds
Image by Danny Johnston / AP Images. Sunlight shines into the interior of the 103-year-old Centennial Baptist Church building in Helena-West Helena, Ark. (original image)
Image by Danny Johnston / AP Images. The 103-year-old Centennial Baptist Church was built by a black architect and was pastored by Rev. Elias Camp Morris, the first president of the National Baptist Convention. (original image)
As if public radio stations aren’t facing enough problems, now they have to deal with snails, too. At least, as the Atlantic writes, Hawaii Public Radio is having to deal with a particular species of endangered tree snail, whose existence is threatening another endangered entity—the radio station.
Storms last month knocked out power to a relay station on Mount Ka’ala, where the endangered tree snail Achatinella mustelina makes its home. The snail had no natural predators until rats and a carnivorous snail species were introduced and started decimating the population of the slow-growing snail. The snails, which are important to Hawaiian culture, are the focus of several preservation efforts, including a preserve built a few years ago by the U.S. Army. Because of all the protective measures, repair crews can’t access the power lines that serve Hawaii Public Radio, leaving listeners in the audio dark (though they can listen online).
Adrienne LaFrance writes at the Atlantic:
Which is, on one hand, the NPRiest thing ever. On the other, it's a tidy metaphor for what's happening—and not happening—to public radio all over the country as listeners' habits evolve away from the airwaves and toward on-demand streaming. That is to say, despite bright spots of exception, radio has been slow to adapt. If print media has its dinosaurs, perhaps broadcast has its snails.
To make matters even worse, the outage came right at the start of the station’s annual pledge drive.
“That our radio signal is not being heard on Kauai and on Oahu’s North Shore right now has meant that this important semiannual conversation with listeners in these areas has been interrupted,” Michael Titterton, HPR's president, told the Garden Island. “But, we are trying to be philosophical, take a cue from the snails, and remember that we’re here for the long haul and that there will certainly be those who step up to preserve our habitat.”
The station has extended its pledge drive in an attempt to meet its fundraising goal.
Biologists discover endangered Isthmian goby and other elusive fish thriving around dock pilings by Kristen Minogue The Panama Canal is home to one of the rarest fish in the world: the Isthmian goby, an endangered, brown-speckled fish less than 3 centimeters long. For years scientists thought it remained only at the locks of the canal’s […]
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If you found yourself in the Arctic Circle in winter between the 1890s and early 1900s, then Herschel Island was possibly the best place to be. Hundreds of American men—some with families—would spend months there in the middle of nowhere, their whaling ships trapped by ice as the crewmen waited for warmer weather to pursue their prey, the bowhead whale, through the Beaufort Sea. Herschel Island hosted grand balls, theatrical performances and even sports leagues. The whalers worked hard and played hard—sometimes, too hard. Five men died during a baseball game in 1897 when a blizzard struck before everyone could take shelter.
Then, in 1907, the whaling market collapsed. Petroleum had replaced whale oil and mass-produced steel springs replaced baleen (a flexible material found in bowhead whale mouths). The whalers left the island. Over the next few decades, the Inuvialuit—descendents of the Thule Inuit tribes who left Alaska to colonize the island a thousand years ago, moved to the Mackenzie Delta on the mainland, leaving only the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had enforced the laws since 1903. Then, in 1964, the Mounties left as well.
No one lives on Herschel Island now. Located on the coast of the Canadian Yukon, 45 miles east of Alaska but separated from Prudhoe Bay by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is not the most convenient place to visit. But kayakers traveling down the Firth River visit and cruise ships stop by during the warm months. The Inuvialuit periodically return for days or months to practice the old ways and teach them to a new generation.
Although the ocean has been slowly encroaching on the island for centuries, climate change has sped up the process. Scientists predict that within 50 years, the remaining vestiges of whaling culture and that of its Thule Inuit predecessors, most of which are near the shoreline, will slip beneath the tides. The Canadian government is considering what, if anything, can be done to save the archaeological remnants of Herschel Island's unique history.
"There is no ready and cheap way to deal with Mother Nature and hold her at bay if she has an attitude," says Jeff Hunston, director of heritage resources for the Yukon government.
Mother Nature created Herschel Island almost as an afterthought. During the last Ice Age thousands of years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet pushed rock and sediment into a pile at its edge. The ice melted, causing sea levels to rise—and out of the resulting muck appeared the crest of land that Inuit and American whalers would one day call home.
The whole world has warmed since then, but temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the planet and could rise another ten degrees or more by the end of this century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As the ice and permafrost melts, "we're seeing dramatic changes in shoreline," says Wayne Pollard, a coastal geologist and climate scientist at McGill University in Montreal.
Over the years, heaving frost and landslides exposed several Inuvialuit graves dating back to whaling days. Worried about the reactions of tourists to exposed remains, about 15 years ago, officials asked Pollard for advice about how they could stop the degradation. By then, however, part of the archaeological record had already been lost. Many of the oldest relics, left by the Thule Inuit a thousand years ago, washed out to sea in the 1970s and 1980s before they could be excavated.
In 1999, a large storm hurled ice into one of the old whaling buildings, crushing an attached metal shed. Since then, park officials, who now manage the island, moved a couple of structures farther inland, which removed them from their historical context. Meanwhile, nothing is being done to save the island's four graveyards, other than covering any human remains that become exposed. "Dust to dust," Hunston says philosophically.
Even after the coastal archaeological sites are destroyed, the remainder of the island will remain above water for several thousand years. But the Inuvialuit traditions sustained by the Arctic climate may not survive. The Inuvialuit "don't have an oral history for what to do when it's warm," Pollard notes. They hunt from the sea ice, which is becoming unstable, and travel across the water in small boats, which are vulnerable to increasingly unpredictable storms. The caribou could shift their migration patterns, or polar bears could alter their denning sites. "There are all kinds of changes to the natural history that will affect cultural activities," Pollard says.
Damage to Herschel Island's flora and fauna would represent another major loss. Visitors rave about the gorgeous wildflowers and uncommon combination of wildlife. The island is one of the few spots on Earth where black, polar and grizzly bears share the same habitat. There are also moose, musk oxen and caribou, as well as bowhead and beluga whales. "It's the only place I know where you will have the whole food chain hanging out together," Pollard says.
William Fitzhugh, head of the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center, sees Herschel Island as just the tip of a melting iceberg, as many other Arctic archaeological sites have begun disappearing. "We're losing a lot of the Arctic record much faster than we were before," he says.
But Doug Olynyk, manager of Yukon's historic sites, puts the potential loss of Herschel Island and other archaeological sites in a broader, vastly more worrisome, perspective. "It will be sad that people won't be able to experience Herschel Island in its true glory, years from now," he says. "But once Manhattan starts being flooded, I don't think people will care about Herschel Island."
Image by Yukon Territorial Government. Even after the coastal archaeological sites are destroyed, the remainder of the island will remain above water for several thousand years. But the Inuvialuit traditions sustained by the Arctic climate may not survive. (original image)
Image by Loetscher Chlaus / Alamy. In 1908, the whaling industry collapsed and Herschel Island was deserted. (original image)
Image by Yukon Territorial Government. Damage to Herschel Island's flora and fauna would represent another major loss. Visitors rave about the gorgeous wildflowers and uncommon combination of wildlife. The island is one of the few spots on Earth where black, polar and grizzly bears share the same habitat. (original image)
Image by Yukon Territorial Government. No one lives on Herschel Island now. Located on the coast of the Canadian Yukon, 45 miles east of Alaska but separated from Prudhoe Bay by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is not the most convenient place to visit. (original image)
The idea of extinction is pretty straightforward — a species is there, until it’s not. But modern attitudes towards endangerment and extinction are hardly that simple. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that the idea of endangered animals didn’t even exist.
The concept of caring about or quantifying threats to animals is actually fairly modern — but it started earlier than you might think. Though early colonists reacted to the sheer abundance of American wildlife with shock and delight (Captain John Smith boasted of “diverse sorts of wild beasts as fat as we could eat them”), people soon started to notice the impacts of settlers on animals. “I have heard a hunter assert, he saw above one thousand buffaloes at Blue Licks at once;” wrote John Filson in 1784, “so numerous were they before the first settlers had wantonly sported away their lives.”
Growing populations and unchecked hunting quickly left their mark. In 1857, citizens concerned about dwindling numbers of passenger pigeons turned to the Ohio Senate, but were dismissed. “The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection,” the Senate scoffed. “No ordinary destruction can lessen them.” Not so — in 1914, the very last passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo.
Early conservation attempts aimed to preserve game for settlers rather than protect animals per se — the Lacey Act, which was passed in 1900 and was the first federal law protecting wildlife, focused primarily on poaching and hunting. But by the turn of the century, a Progressive conservation movement was underway. Imbued with a romantic appreciation of nature and alarmed by declining animal populations, grassroots efforts to protect animals began.
In 1973, the Endangered Species Act enshrined both animal endangerment and endangered species conservation in American law. Today, both the ESA and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ Red List define endangered species and identify extinct ones.
Pat Deibert, national sage-grouse coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, points out that the Endangered Species Act enables conservation policy within the United States. “We tie together the threats to a species with the population trend” to determine whether a species is endangered, she tells Smithsonian.com. Once endangerment is identified, the act enables Fish and Wildlife to take steps to conserve a species using local laws and recovery plans. The act also lists some “foreign species” as endangered in an effort to increase awareness, enable laws about the import of foreign animals and free up funds for international wildlife conservation. Today, 1,345 species are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
This differs from the IUCN’s methods. “It’s very much a probabilistic system,” Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the ICUN’s Red List unit, tells Smithsonian.com. He works with thousands of scientists worldwide to try to determine the probability of a species becoming extinct in the wild — a process that’s painstaking, lengthy and that involves a complex web of data and mathematical models. The IUCN’s list is much larger than that of the ESA: Today, it lists over 20,000 species as threatened.
Both systems have their challenges, especially given the growing impact of things like climate change and industrial development. But there are successes, too, like when the Virginia northern flying squirrel was taken off the list of endangered species in the United States after its population grew from just ten to over 1,100. Not all success stories are that dramatic: For example, the IUCN was able to move the Iberian lynx from “critically endangered” to “endangered,” but it still faces threats from hunting and scarce food sources.
“Lots of people think that extinction is a natural process, which it is,” says Hilton-Taylor. But humans play a role, too, speeding up extinction as modern lifestyles disrupt animal habitats and speed up processes like climate change.
“It all comes down to a value judgment,” agrees Deibert. That and the perceived desirability of a species. “Conserving a sand flea is a little more challenging than a charismatic bird,” she admits.
Despite better conservation laws and growing awareness of the threats that face animals, says Krithika Srinivasan, a social scientist who specializes in social, ecological and animal justice, “we often cause harm even when we want to care.” By marking some animals as endangered, she tells Smithsonian.com, humans can ignore their responsibilities to all animals — and downplay their own contributions to threats and extinction.
“The ironic part of this is that in order to be endangered, you first need to be harmed,” says Srinivasan. “We seem to only want to protect those things that are not there in large numbers,” she says — a lesson that, though exemplified by the extinction of the once-abundant passenger pigeon, doesn’t seem to have sunk in to the collective conscious. Until humans accept responsibility for their role in causing and perpetuating endangerment, says Srinivasan, the list will continue to grow. Perhaps that’s the next frontier in modern attitudes towards endangered animals — broadening the definition before it’s too late.