Ivory poaching on the rise thanks to Asian demand and a legal loophole

poaching, ivoryThe poaching of elephant tusks is a growing problem due to increased demand from Asian nations, the Kenyan newspaper Business Daily reports.

A loophole in the UN law regulating the ivory trade allows Japan and China to legally purchase some ivory from selected nations under tightly controlled contracts. This has encouraged poachers to smuggle their illegal goods to Asia. Once there, it’s much easier to unload them.

African nations are split on a global ivory ban, with Kenya supporting a ban and Tanzania wanting the trade to be legal. This basically comes down to whether nations want short-term profits by killing their wildlife and hacking their tusks off, or long-term profits from safaris and tourism.

Radio Netherlands reports that 2011 was a record year for ivory seizures, showing that at least some nations are taking the problem seriously. It also suggests, of course, that the trade is on the rise.

Authorities around the world made at least 13 large-scale seizures last year, bagging more than 23 tonnes of ivory. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, says that represents about 2,500 elephants. The figure is more than twice that of 2010.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress. It dates to sometime between 1880 and 1923, showing poaching isn’t a new problem.

American-Muslim group urges Palestinians to visit Holocaust Museum

Holocaust, holocaust
The Islamic Society of North America is defying Hamas and urging Palestinian youths to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Jewish news service JTA reports.

A group of A-students from the Gaza Strip are to visit the nation’s capital on a UN-sponsored educational visit. Their tour is to include the Holocaust Museum, but Hamas, which runs the Palestinian Authority, has criticized the plan. A Hamas spokesman says Palestinian children suffer enough persecution and can’t deal with learning about other people’s suffering.

That prompted the Islamic Society of North America to make a public statement endorsing the plan, saying they’ve taken Muslims there before and that it has had a positive effect on Muslim-Jewish relations.

I’ve never seen this museum, but I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Although I went nearly twenty years ago, I have a very clear memory of speaking to a German student who I met there. Her reason for going? “I feel it’s my responsibility as a German.” She became a friend, and although she often criticizes Israel’s policies, she’s fully aware of what happened in the biggest crime of the twentieth century.

Who knows? Perhaps this will encourage Jewish-American children to visit Palestinian high schools, or Iranian and American kids to set up an exchange program, or North and South Korea to create a communal youth group.

Hmmm. . .is that too much to hope for this holiday season?

[Image courtesy user AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons]

American arrested for stealing 299 stuffed birds

Here’s a new low in the annals of crime. An American man has been arrested in England for stealing 299 stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England.

The unnamed 22 year-old has been arrested in connection with a break in at the museum back in June. The birds that were stolen were all rare and would have fetched a fair amount on the black market, showing that the unnamed suspect knew what he was doing. Most of the stuffed birds have now been recovered.

The Natural History Museum at Tring is famous for its collection of more than 750,000 preserved birds, 95% of all the world’s species. If you’re not in the neighborhood, you can still check out their species of the day, a feature running throughout 2010 in celebration of the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Today’s species is the Welwitschia mirabilis, a plant that can live for up to 1,500 years despite living in the harsh Namib Desert.

This seems to be a mixed year for museums. Hundreds of historic treasures have gone missing in Pennsylvania and the Met had to fork over some stolen Egyptian artifacts.

On the bright side, museum attendance is up as people try to save money by visiting sights close to home. Hopefully none of these folks are stuffing dead critters into their coats.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Hartwell]

Ethiopia tops list of African nations improving quality of life

Ethiopia suffers from a bad image thanks to the war and famine of the 1980s. As my series on travel in Ethiopia showed, however, this is a land of friendly people, beautiful nature, and fascinating historic sites. Infrastructure is slowly improving and the Ethiopians are making serious efforts to boost education, access to clean drinking water, and other improvements to the quality of life.

These efforts have been recognized in the UN’s 2010 Human Development Report. It ranked Ethiopia as number 11 in the world for improving human development since 1970, the highest ranking in Africa. The report was prepared by the United Nations Development Programme and measures progress in health, education, income, gender equality, and other areas. Researchers then formulate a “human development index” (HDI) for 135 countries.

Other high-ranking African nations include Botswana (14th), Benin (18th) and Burkina Faso (21st). All of these countries and some others have done especially well in the past ten years. Only looking at the past decade, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Uganda all come out in the global top ten.

One of the biggest areas of improvement was in education. Literacy has almost tripled in Sub-Saharan Africa in the past 40 years to 65 percent. Also, life expectancy is up and infant mortality is down.

Sadly, not all the news is good. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were the only three countries in the world where quality of life actually went down.

Good news for Ethiopia is good news to travelers too. While the country is still an adventure travel destination, it’s not as rugged as many people think. I spent two months there and my wife spent three weeks, and in all that time we never got sick. Chalk one up for good sanitation and clean water! Also, Ethiopia scores well of gender equality, which meant that, unlike some countries we’ve been to, my wife didn’t get harassed by obnoxious guys. Good education meant we met lots of people who spoke English and wanted to improve it by chatting with us. Improved infrastructure meant there were more paved roads along our route than there were ten years ago.

When it comes to improvements in a country’s Human Development Index everybody benefits, even people who don’t live there!

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Tree cathedral grows in Northern Italy

Anybody that’s ever been to Europe has surely been inside one of the continent’s many cathedrals. But even if you’ve seen all the stone and stained glass you’d ever care to see, the Northern Italian city of Bergamo is giving the cathedral a fresh look by making one of the structures entirely out of living trees.

The man behind the work is the recently deceased Giuliano Mauri, an Italian artist who was commissioned as part of a project for the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. The frame of the building will initially be made up of more than 1,800 fir tree poles, 600 chestnut branches, and 6000 meters of hazel branch, planted in-between with growths of live Beech trees. As the Beeches grow, the wood frame will decompose, allowing the living trees to take over the structure.

Mauri’s work is not only a novel work of art, it’s an interesting contrast to the more permanent stone halls of worship that have come to dominate our images of Christian Europe. A blending of the natural, the artistic and the religious, all in one. Head on up to Bergamo, about 40km Northeast of Milan, if you’re interested in paying a visit.

[Photo courtesy of oltreilcolle.info]