Obama Combats Ivory Trade

Inside a government warehouse in Denver, Colorado sat six tons of illegal elephant ivory. On November 14, all of it was be crushed in the jaws of a rock-crushing machine.  President Obama insisted upon this course of action, and “the crush” was done in front of visiting foreign dignitaries, as well as TV cameras.  The hope is that the President’s dedication to ending the illegal ivory trade will inspire other world leaders to do the same, as well as send a message to illegal traffickers that the trade will soon grind to a halt.  Those six tons of ivory, however, represent only a small fraction of the ivory circulating through the back channels of the illegal market. 

One way to combat the poaching is to pass laws making the trade less profitable and increase the penalty for those guilty, and the Obama administration is beginning to do just that.  Unfortunately, elephants have already been pushed to the edge.  Every day, roughly 100 elephants are killed for their ivory, feeding the voracious $10 billion dollar industry.  With a new surge in demand, traffickers now have the means to poach elephants using more advanced methods.  In Zimbabwe, poachers killed 300 elephants using cyanide. 

Aside from the obvious detriment to elephants, some nations descending into terrorist-induced chaos also have the ivory trade to blame.  Al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that attacked the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, obtains 40% of its funds from ivory blood money.  In 2012, incumbent secretary of state Hillary Clinton became so concerned with the terrorism link that she declared wildlife trafficking a national security threat. 

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Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

If you’re a scientists hurting for data or an adventurer itching to help change the world, look no further. Gregg Treinish, an explorer affiliated with National Geographic, has founded a match-making non-profit to bring conservationists and adventurers together.

Initially just an adventurer, Treinish pursued a degree in biology after hiking 7,800 miles in the Andes. The fieldwork that accompanied his scholarly work fulfilled and inspired him. His new desire to mesh exploration and scientific discovery resulted in his brainchild, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Globe-trotting adventurers help scientists with data collection in places that scientists are unable to reach.

Treinish is working to solve a problem many scientists face: lack of funds to travel to remote corners of the world. Now, adventurers who can get out there enjoy themselves while working for the greater good.  Note: at ASC, the term “adventurer” is not limited to extreme athletes. ASC has worked with veterans, teachers, students, and even vacationing families.

Past ASC projects have included discovering the highest-altitude plant species on Earth on Mount Everest and two diatom species in Montana, helping scientists understand how grizzly bears traverse protected areas, and collecting ice worms from glaciers to better understand how organisms survive in such intense environments.

Treinish himself recently led an expedition to Mongolia where he collected data on over 20 species of animals. His team even uncovered snow leopard tracks in an area where snow leopards were thought to be locally extinct. ASC proves that exploration can only be enhanced by simultaneously working to make a difference.

Orca Observation in British Columbia

Orca Observation in British Columbia

Adventures in the Florida Keys

With my last bite of key lime pie in tow, I bid adieu (more like au revoir) to the Florida Keys. It’s been real and I liked it down here more than I had anticipated. I’ll definitely be coming back and in the meantime, I’ll miss the pink sea bungalows, the fried fish sandwiches, and the extraordinary variety of people.

The Turtle Hospital and the Dolphin Research Center were great, but the highlight of the trip was definitely the diving. I learned how to dive last summer in San Salvador. I even completed my advanced open water certification, but unfortunately, this didn’t stop me from knocking my regulator out of my mouth 90 feet below.

Let me back up. As I mentioned in my last post, we were scheduled to embark on a diving trip to Roatán, when the night before our scheduled departure, my younger brother discovered a travel warning for the whole of Honduras on the State Department website. Although issued in 2012, it had not been revoked and was troubling, so we decided to keep our flight to Miami and come to the Keys instead.

To keep with our prior plan to SCUBA, my mom and I, the only certified divers in the family, called the Southpoint Dive shop in Key West. Our first two dives were at a shallow reef and were pretty uneventful—and by that I mean pretty, but at 30 feet, not very exciting.

Our dive guide, a twenty something guy with light blonde dreadlocks and a barracuda tattoo, encouraged us to dive the Vandenberg the following morning. Coincidentally (or not), my mom had just finished reading about the wreck on a list of the best dives in America. Needless to say, we signed up.

My mom has a longer dive history than I, and she has dived several wrecks over the years, but the Vandenberg was to be my first. It was my initial idea to go, but I was nervous. My lingering childhood fear of drowning didn’t mesh well with the idea of a cavernous, dark, metal maze where it’s so easy to get lost.

The dive was great, and despite the youth of this up-and-coming artificial reef (the Vandenberg was sunk four years ago), there was already a lot of growth and many fish and rays calling the ship home. Side note: we did unfortunately see a couple of lionfish, an unwelcome and invasive ecosystem-disrupter.

Toward the middle of the dive, I lost my regulator. I froze for a second then reached out, grabbed it, shoved it back in my mouth, purged it, and breathed in the wonderful air. Although not as glamorous a dive mishap as, say, a shark attack or getting lost in a wreck, I get the shivers when I think about it because if I had panicked, the dive could have turned into a disaster.

Back on board the boat during our dry interval, I chatted up the captain, a man fitted with a single emerald earing, before our second 17-minute dive. He was a cool guy. I asked him about how many dives he’d been on. “I’d say over 10,000. I love my job. I love my office,” he replied, gesturing to the sea.

It was just dusk when we got back to port. The captain closed with the following: “thanks for cheating death with us today.”

Diver on the Vandenberg

Diver on the Vandenberg

Fish Around the Vandenberg

Fish Around the Vandenberg

Florida Keys Turtle Hospital and Dolphin Research Center

This week, my family and I flew to the Keys after a scary sounding travel warning prompted the cancellation of our dive trip to Roatan, Honduras.

Yesterday, we visited the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Currently home to 36 sea turtles, including an ultra-rare Kemp’s Ridley, the hospital is equipped to rescue, provide veterinary care for, and hopefully release the injured turtles that are called in by local, as well as visiting, good samaritans.

Recently, the center opened its doors to the public through a highly successful education program. Visitors learn the history of the hospital, which coincidentally was opened in 1986 by Richie, a good friend of my dive boat captain today, and get to see the current patients.

Medical care is donated by a generous local vet, renowned for his expertise in sea turtle care. The high-tech equipment found in the hospital was also donated by various hospitals and research centers. The permanent patients, those who are so sick or injured that they will never be able to be released, reside in the now salt water pool, formerly of the Hidden Harbor motel. The most common ailments facing the sea turtle patients are ingestion of trash, boat strikes, and the fibropapilloma virus, which causes tumors.

All volunteer and employees of the hospital cite the release of the sea turtles back into the ocean as the best part of their job. Due to different habitat ranges, different species of sea turtles are released at different locations around the Keys or at the Dry Tortugas. Since its opening, the Turtle Hospital has released over 1000 turtles.

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Juvenile Green Sea Turtle with Rehab Weights

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Hawksbill Sea Turtle

The nearby Dolphin Research Center, also a non-profit, is home to quite a few bottlenose dolphins, several descended from the famous dolphin Flipper. The center not only runs various educational programs with the in-house dolphins, but also helps rescue and rehabilitate stranded or injured whales, dolphins, and manatees.

Research is an important and ongoing part of the DRC. Scientists from around the world have come to view these dolphins in such a unique capacity. For a study on calf social development, the DRC served as the perfect place for research because the mother-calf relationship is so difficult to view in the wild.

Pandora at Dolphin Research Center

Pandora at Dolphin Research Center