Podcast #17: Shades of REDD

Join our podcast host and former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran as he discusses Undark’s latest Case Study “In Kenya, a Transformation in Shades of REDD,” about curbing deforestation and poaching in Southern Kenya, with writer Amy Yee. Also: Seth Mnookin on a controversial literature review on gender identities, and reporter Molly Segal on an effort to eradicate whirling disease at Banff National Park.


A full transcript of the podcast is below.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society — and we’re this podcast. Hello again. Welcome to episode 17. I’m David Corcoran. For our cover story, we travel to a wildlife sanctuary in southern Kenya for a close look at some people who are trying to do their part, not only to save the planet from global warming, but also to protect and maybe save some endangered elephants, giraffes, and lions from a horrible death at the hands of animal poachers. Reporter Amy Yee joins us to talk about an effort called Wildlife Works. Amy, welcome.

Amy Yee: Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: Set the scene for us. Describe this part of eastern Africa and tell us how you heard about the Wildlife organization and why you decided to travel there.

Amy Yee: Yeah, so Wildlife Works is a non-profit that’s located in southern Kenya. It’s very close to a big national park in Kenya called Tsavo. That’s the biggest national park in Kenya. It’s huge; it’s about the size of Wales. Interestingly, there are two sides of Tsavo. There’s Tsavo East and West. In between the park, there’s a national highway that runs through it to the capital to Nairobi. There are people who live and go about their daily lives basically in this corridor that’s a very large area, but they’re in the middle of what’s a wildlife crossing in Kenya’s largest national park where about half of the elephants in the country live. So about 12,000 or 13,000 elephants live there.

I heard about this non-profit from some environmental contacts in Nairobi. I met them at what I thought would be the tail end of the trip. I had already done a bunch of reporting about wildlife crime and poaching, did three or four other articles and heard about this near the end and didn’t know too much about it but thought it sounded really interesting, partly because of where it was based and then what they were trying to do, which we’ll discuss. I went down there without knowing that much. I thought I would be there for a few days. I ended up staying there for a few weeks. I got a really good glimpse of what life is like on the ground there for people who are living in this wildlife corridor. Basically I just took a bus from Nairobi and got on a bus and got dropped off on this dusty two-lane highway and then was introduced to Wildlife Works from there.

David Corcoran: The story of Wildlife Works, this non-profit, is quite a saga. It was founded by an American safari tourist?

Amy Yee: Yes, in a way, although he was a bit more than that in the end. This man named Mike Korchinsky, who is British by birth but has lived in the U.S. for a long time, he went on a safari in central Kenya, like many people do. Unlike other tourists though, he was really struck by how people were living. He would see a lot of armed guards, armed rangers with their guns and whatnot. It seemed to him quite an aggressive situation. He wanted to know more about it. He asked to see more beyond the boundaries of this reserve. When he went off the beaten track, not to look at wildlife but to actually look at how people were living, what he saw was a lot of people living in poverty, not benefiting from these expensive safaris and real divide between the local people who were living there and this aggressive situation. I think he called it fence and shoot conservation. I believe that’s what he called it. This struck him as a strange scenario. He wanted to do something about it.

David Corcoran: This was quite a while ago, right? He was there in the early 2000s?

Amy Yee: Right, I believe he went on that safari in 1997. Wildlife Works was started either later that year or in 1998, so fairly soon after he did the safari.

David Corcoran: His organization, Wildlife Works, really had some bumpy times before a United Nations program came along called REDD, that’s REDD with two Ds. What do the initials stand for and what does it do?

Amy Yee: The initial plan for Wildlife Works was just to do tourism. There was a small tourist lodge. That employed some people for guests who wanted to spend some time in the bush looking at wildlife. Then there was a small garment workshop employing seamstresses and tailors. They were making clothes that were being sold to fair trade organizations in the U.S. and possibly in Europe, but that business was a bit unstable. You had the attacks of September 11th happen in 2001. Tourism took a nosedive. They were just getting by at that time. There were about 30 employees. Mike Korchinsky, he heard about this program called REDD — stands for, let me get it right, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Basically, it’s a framework that was established at a U.N. meeting several years before.

The basic premise is this — that poor countries will get a financial incentive not to cut down forests. That money comes from richer countries, let’s say the U.S. or Europe. The idea behind this is that if you are a poor person living in a forested area, in Kenya most people rely on wood for cooking. If you’ve ever been in a rural area in Africa, people rely on just cutting down timber that they find. If you have this free resource right there, that’s what you’re going to do. They also rely on making charcoal and selling it. That’s a source of income. I’m going to take some time to explain it. I didn’t even know what it was until I got to Africa. Charcoal is made by cutting down trees and then burning them in these underground pits using wood from other trees for days, two or three days. You need a huge amount of wood to make charcoal.

It’s made in a way that carbonizes the wood into what we know as charcoal. This burns longer and hotter than wood. People use this for cooking and then they also sell it. There aren’t many ways to make money. Charcoal making is a major one, 1) because people don’t have any other fuel for cooking, and 2) they don’t have many other forms of income. This leads to deforestation. When you cut down the forest where animals live, that’s going to be a major problem when you’re destroying their habitats. Deforestation also leads to the drying up of the land basically, desertification. We don’t have trees; the ground water can’t be absorbed. Dryness of the land, it becomes less fertile, can’t farm. Huge problems all related to the fact that there is no other abundant source of cooking fuel and also that there aren’t many other ways to make money.

David Corcoran: Of course, deforestation in the big picture leads to climate change. There aren’t the trees to soak up the carbon that just gets into the atmosphere and leads to planetary warming.

Amy Yee: That’s right. When you’re looking at the link between deforestation and global warming, when you have forests, it doesn’t only suck up carbon. You’re also keeping carbon that would otherwise be burned from being emitted into the atmosphere. Imagine the smoke that you would get from burning down a forest. By keeping it as a tree that’s growing, you’re sequestering it. You’re keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere in the form of emissions. The UN intergovernmental panel for climate change, it’s UNIPCC is the acronym, in 2004 I believe that report, they put out reports every four or five years. That report said that emissions from deforestation accounted for 17 percent of global emissions. At that time, that was more than the global transportation industry. It does more than just suck out some emissions from exhaust. It was a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The next report from IPCC was about 11 percent of global emissions that came from deforestation. I want to just put out those two numbers, but the upshot of that is just to say that deforestation is a major source of emissions. We might not think about that. We might just think it’s cars and the exhaust or coal burning power plants, but the act of cutting down trees, either burning it or taking it out of an ecosystem where you’re countering emissions, that’s also very destructive and contributes to global warming.

David Corcoran: Right. By limiting this deforestation in the wildlife sanctuary, the organization you wrote about, Wildlife Works, is actually reaping some financial benefit for the people who live in the area.

Amy Yee: Yeah, that’s right. The idea that I mentioned before, local people need some financial incentive. If you’re a poor person living in this dry bushland area, why wouldn’t you cut down a tree so that you could cook a hot meal for your family? Now, this system called REDD, it’s an agreement across many communities to say if the forest remains intact, we will pay you at the end of that after we measure in a quantifiable way that the forest is not been reduced. We’ll give you money to reward you for not cutting down the forest. That’s basically what this system is.

David Corcoran: Meanwhile, it’s enabling the local government or the national government to hire more park rangers, right, to prevent some of this horrible animal poaching that’s been going on.

Amy Yee: Right. Basically, because the community gets basically money for not cutting down the forest, Wildlife Works also gets money to run its operations and expand its operations. Before they launched this REDD project in 2011, by the way, this was the first REDD project to launch in the world, before they launched, they had about 60 employees. Then now after REDD, after the first year when they started to earn income from REDD and this was divided into different parts for different stakeholders, but it was three and a half million dollars. Even if you parcel out the chunk that went to Wildlife Works and the community, it’s substantial. You can do a lot with this few hundred thousand dollars, considering this is a country where GDP per capita, annual income per person, is about $100. Imagine how far several hundreds of thousands of dollars can go.

Some of the money for the community, it doesn’t go to individuals. It doesn’t get pocketed by someone, but the village councils would decide how to use that money on their own. Most of the time that money went to building infrastructure related to water or roads. Water is a major challenge for people. They often have to walk miles to collect it. With that REDD money, they often would build pipes or reservoirs or something to ease the burden on the community and give them access to clean water. The other thing that the community would use the money for was education. It might be for rebuilding a school where there was no roof or no walls or refurbishing a dilapidated school. That’s what the community would use the money for. Now, Wildlife Works itself, they use that money to expand its operations much like any business would use an influx of investment to expand.

Wildlife Works, their employee numbers went from about 60 before the REDD project launched to over 300. Perhaps that seems modest if you’re in the U.S., but actually 300 employees, that makes Wildlife Works the largest employer in the entire county after the government and then after this large plantation that I saw. That just gives hundreds of people jobs. Those jobs range. As you mentioned, a big component of that is hiring wildlife rangers. These are private rangers that are employed by Wildlife Works, not by the government. That’s a separate organization, but the number of rangers went from 11 to now over 80. What that means is that obviously that’s a huge jump. They can control a much larger area.

Before they had one vehicle, which doesn’t really help much if you’re trying to patrol an area that’s 500,000 acres. They now have four vehicles. What that means is that there’s more patrolling of this very large area so that poachers can be controlled or found and penalized. The number of rangers was increased and the number of employees in other aspects of Wildlife Works was also increased. Greenhouse workers to grow seedlings to plant. The clothing workshop was expanded. This just gave a real boost to the local communities trying to put food on the table.

David Corcoran: You actually met a former poacher who is now a park ranger. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

Amy Yee: Yeah, his name is Ayub Vura. He is now in his 30s. The head of the rangers proudly called him their best tracker. The interesting thing about Ayub is that he used to be a poacher and a charcoal burner himself. That goes for about 30 percent of the rangers that Wildlife Works employs. That might seem ironic, but on the other hand, these men know the ways of poachers and charcoal burners. Ayub’s story illustrates what can happen when people are given a chance to just work regular jobs. Ayub had come from an area not far from where Wildlife Works is located, but outside of the protected area. He described to me starting to poach when he was a child, maybe 10 years old or so. He would go with an uncle, usually poach small antelope or the medium sized ones. He was really good at it. He doesn’t have an education.

When he grew older and he had his own family, there weren’t any real jobs available where he lived. He still relied on poaching. Imagine spending several nights a week in fairly treacherous conditions and making a few dollars. I think that gives an idea of how little were making. He was caught in 2006 for poaching by Wildlife Works rangers. Then he was handed over to the Kenyan authorities. He had a terrible experience in jail that really shook him up. He went to charcoal burning. He became a charcoal burner, charcoal maker. He actually saw a sign at a local village council, an elder’s house, a community bulletin board. He saw a sign that Wildlife Works was hiring rangers. He showed up at Wildlife Works and expressed interest in the job.

The head of the rangers was really surprised. He was like, “Well, we caught you poaching. You’re a poacher and a charcoal burner.” Ayub, basically what he was looking for was just a stable salary and a good job, so they ended up hiring him. He’s now their best trackers. His bushcraft, as they say, is supposed to impeccable. He knows every track. That’s something else the head of security told me. He makes a stable salary. The rangers certainly work hard, but it’s a pretty coveted thing to just make a monthly salary where you know you’re going to get X amount of money for your work.

David Corcoran: Amy, in reading your piece I was struck by how many pieces are interconnected. You have the forest itself, the trees that make it up, the animals and people who call it home, all the economics you spoke about, then this whole larger issue looming over us of global warming. The story of Wildlife Works is quite a hopeful story in a lot of ways, but of course this is just one program in one corner of one continent. In the end, are you hopeful about it?

Amy Yee: Yes, I am. I think it’s important to recognize the complexity of the situation. What the drivers of poaching and wildlife? That’s an issue that people are very familiar with now. They feel strongly about it. They want it to stop, but what’s the answer to that? If you unravel this question, poaching elephants by criminals, it’s a different story. But let’s say this subsistence poaching that I’m talking about, that’s driven by poverty. People need alternatives to what they’re doing. They often don’t especially want to be doing this, like the story of Ayub Vura, the poacher turned ranger. It’s important to recognize what the drivers are of the poaching and also the deforestation. People don’t always equate wildlife destruction with destruction of trees, but they are very much related.

Personally, I think if someone came up with an idea to find a clean renewable way to supply cooking fuel, let’s say like methane from biogas, that would be a huge boost to preserving wildlife. That’s not something that one would normally think of. The good news is that the forest in the project area where Wildlife Works 500,000 acres, that has remained intact or it has even increased. That’s very good news indeed. People who are in this area, REDD experts and climate change experts, they would want to emphasize that swaths of protective forests should be even larger. What Wildlife Works has done is a good example that this project can work.

David Corcoran: As our listeners can hear, it is a complicated story with a lot of interlocking elements and a very rich story. Amy, I want to thank you so much for coming onto the podcast to tell us about it.

Amy Yee: Thanks, David.

David Corcoran: Amy Yee is an award-winning journalist who was based in India for seven years and spent the last year reporting in Africa. She’s written for the New York Times, The Economist, and NPR. She’s a former correspondent for The Financial Times. Her article about Wildlife Works in Kenya is our Case Study in Undark this month at Undark.org. There are also some wonderful images there to look at. Amy, thanks again. (music) Joining us, as always, is Seth Mnookin to talk about science and the media. Hello, Seth.

Seth Mnookin: Hello, David. How are you?

David Corcoran: I’m fine, thank you. We want to talk today about an article that just appeared in Undark by Michael Schulson, who writes a couple of columns for us. This column was about an emeritus scientist at Johns Hopkins University who came out with a controversial paper. Can you tell us about it?

Seth Mnookin: Dr. McHugh is now a retired professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins. He’s a psychiatrist. He’s the former chief psychiatrist at what is one of the country’s most prestigious teaching hospitals. At its core, what McHugh is saying is that the dominant thinking that gender issues, sexual orientation, gender dysphoria is biologically based, that people are, to use a phrase, born this way, is incorrect. While he is a psychiatrist and this is an area that he has discussed in the past, in this instance, this is a perfect example of junk science.

He took half-baked anecdotes, cherry picked datas, combined those with outdated theories and did not supply any new evidence but put all this stuff, smushed all this stuff together to try and prove a point and a point that has been shown to be incorrect in many different ways, in many different times. Notably, he did this and he published this in a way that was not peer-reviewed. It seemed to be an effort to make a political point, not in the Democratic-Republican term use of the word political, but a cultural political point and not because there was any new research or insight that he has had that is really deserving of attention.

David Corcoran: Yeah. In today’s climate, where everything is so partisan, it’s just so easy to seize on a paper like this and use it for your own purposes whatever they are.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, that’s certainly what has been done here. It’s been used as evidence that bathroom bills are misguided. It is something that especially the right wing media has really seized upon and grabbed hold of, but this is something that happens on both sides of the political spectrum. I think the fact that his claim, and again this claim that was published in an unpeer reviewed journal or it was an unpeer reviewed paper, that it has gotten this attention I think is evidence of something that oftentimes happens with professors, with academics at prestigious institutions and many other cases with Nobel laureates, which McHugh is not one, but it’s something oftentimes Nobel laureates are asked to speak on issues that are not really their topic of expertise. I think it’s a mistake that we make in the media, which is that we assume that because someone has an impressive title or has a certain affiliation that then we should take them seriously regardless of what they’re saying, of what topic they’re talking on or of what evidence they have to support those claims.

David Corcoran: Let’s talk about one other type of media that we may not even really think of as media: email. A really interesting piece in the New Yorker this month by Nathan Heller, tell us about it.

Seth Mnookin: The piece looked at this enormous trove of emails that came out of the Enron scandal in what must now seem like a very quaint and innocent time, early in this new millennium, and hundreds of thousands of emails that were released from that. The piece talks about various efforts since then to make sense of these emails, not really looking for evidence of malfeasance, certainly not anymore. That issue has been dealt with and settled, but using this as a trove of information that reveals how we communicate, how we communicate in unguarded ways, how what has become this very, very dominant mode of communication. You could argue about whether or not it is now the dominant mode, but certainly one of the dominant modes of communication, how it’s used and what it says about the ways that we interact with each other and the ways that we use language.

David Corcoran: Just a fascinating wealth of different, some of them quirky, oddball findings. The word oddball makes me think of the different ways that the word ball is used in business communication.

Seth Mnookin: The ball metaphor, yes.

David Corcoran: They talk about the ballgame. It’s a whole different ball of wax. The way that that word is invoked is just really interesting and fun.

Seth Mnookin: Including some that seem to make very, very little sense. There’s one about I believe it’s about ballpark where one email writer says, “I’ll be over in your ballpark later this week.” The quote is, “I will pretty much leave it in your ballpark about Friday night,” which even when you think about it, you can get a sense of what he’s trying to say, but is only very tangentially related to how one would actually communicate in English. Yeah, it really is fascinating and also made me think both about how I use email and also as we’ve seen both the journalists and in politics over the last 12, 18, 24 months, there are a lot of ways in which people working in media use email and I think continue to not be as careful as they might be.

When I was in high school and I was working on my school newspaper, I was interviewing a housemaster at my school. She said one of the ways that she tried to gauge what she was doing was to figure out how she would feel if whatever was happening at that moment was on the front page of the Boston Globe the next day. I think that would be something that journalists would be well served to keep in mind when they’re writing emails. When you’re writing to a source or when you’re writing to an editor or just anytime you’re communicating about a story, what would it look like if this was on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow?

Would it appear as if you were making deals with sources that you shouldn’t be making or that you had biases that were infecting your work? It can be very incredibly, incredibly difficult not to let that seep into email because email I think in some ways has become not only a method of instant communication but a way that we can instantly vent frustrations and emotions. As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, that can be very dangerous.

David Corcoran: It’s just too easy to use.

Seth Mnookin: Yes, and too overwhelming. I oftentimes fantasize about declaring email bankruptcy and being able to come in and just wipe out my inbox. In addition to the political climate, one of the main feelings of existential dread and angst I get every day is when I think about the piles of unanswered emails in my inbox.

David Corcoran: Most of them from me.

Seth Mnookin: I always answer you, David.

David Corcoran: Okay. Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including “The Panic Virus.” He’s director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT. Seth, as always, thanks.

Seth Mnookin: Yes, thank you, David. (music)

David Corcoran: Banff National Park is a stunningly scenic park in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. As it gears up for a busy summer tourist season, the staff are working to remove fish from a popular lake near the town of Banff. It’s part of an effort to curb the spread of a mysterious ailment called whirling disease that’s spread by an invasive parasite. Molly Segal visited the lake as biologists were hard at work removing the fish.

Molly Segal: It’s a warm, sunny day in June at Johnson Lake in Banff National Park. Just a short drive from the town of Banff, this small lake would normally be busy with people, but today it’s closed to everyone except for a team of Parks Canada employees.

Mark Taylor: There it is.

Unnamed Speaker: Under that rock, there you go.

Mark Taylor: I got it. There you go. My name’s Mark Taylor. I’m an aquatic ecologist with Banff National Park.

Molly Segal: Leading the team is Mark Taylor. He stands knee deep along the shallow shore of Johnson Lake. He wears hip waders. From the front, it looks like he has a backpack on and he’s holding a yellow pole.

Mark Taylor: What I’ve got in front of me is a long pole with a circular ring at the front end, which is an anode. Behind me, I’ve got a tail, which is a cable that acts as a cathode. It drags behind me. The machine has a battery inside that’s putting out an electric current into the water.

Molly Segal: The contraption is part of Mark’s electro-fishing gear. No, it’s not some tech savvy form of recreational fishing. This is planned. They’re trying to systematically remove every fish from Johnson Lake. They use gill nets throughout the lake and the electro fisher in shallow water.

Mark Taylor: The electro-fishers a great tool for these shallow margins. You can see this is shallow water here. Fish are really good at hiding in the grassy banks. A gill net’s not going to get fish out, draw them out of the banks here.

Molly Segal: Emptying a lake of fish is a monumental task. Why all the effort? Essentially, Johnson Lake is sick. It’s infected with whirling disease. The mud at Johnson Lake is a hot spot for the parasite that spreads it. The spores live in mud and need to find a warm host, the tube effects worm. When a tube effects worm eats the spores, they change into different spores in the worms gut. The worm spits out these new spores that are hook-like and can float in the water until they attach to a fish. Infected fish sometimes have a blackened tail and spinal deformities that leave them swimming in a whirling pattern. It becomes harder for them to survive. When they die, spores are released back into the mud and the cycle begins again.

Mark Taylor: One of the important aspects of the project is to quantitatively show the decline of whirling disease in the lake and track that to a point of zero.

Molly Segal: The capturing, and yes, killing of all of the infected fish in Johnson Lake is doing two things. First, it will eradicate all fish, native and non-native, so that the parasite can die out in this one spot. But more importantly, Parks Canada hopes doing this will stop the spread of whirling disease. Their biggest fear is that it would get into the nearby Lake Minnewanka. Bill Hunt is the resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.

Bill Hunt: This summer what we’re working on is trying to actually eradicate whirling disease from the Johnson Lake reservoir because of the pattern of human use we have here.

Molly Segal: That pattern of human use Bill Hunt is referring to is the steady stream of tourists and locals who visit Johnson Lake in the summer for a swim or a paddle, then hop into their cars and drive to Minnewanka, which is not far down a scenic road. Hunt and his team of biologists and conservationists worry about these people, especially the mud they could track from Johnson Lake to Lake Minnewanka, that diseased spore-carrying mud.

Bill Hunt: One of the streams that drains into the Minnewanka reservoir is called the Upper Cascade. It’s home to several core populations of westslope cutthroat trout. They’re listed as threatened.

Molly Segal: These westslope cutthroat trout live in a remote part of the watershed connected to Lake Minnewanka far away from some of the other non-native species of fish. It’s a pure and healthy population. Parks Canada wants to keep it that way.

Bill Hunt: One of the concerns we have here is that when you’ve got native species and non-native species, some of the non-native species like brown trout, originated from Europe where whirling disease originally came from many, many years ago. They’ve got 80 years head start in terms of co-evolving with whirling disease, whereas a native fish like westslope cutthroat or bull trout is being exposed to whirling disease for the first time.

Molly Segal: Banff National Park isn’t home to the only westslope cutthroat trout. There are populations in other parts of the Canada as well as the United States, but this specific group may be very important in the long run as water warms due to climate change. With generally colder glacial waters in the park, these fish may have a better chance of surviving down the road, if they can survive whirling disease.

Mark Taylor: Come out and look around here?

Molly Segal: For Undark, I’m Molly Segal in Banff National Park. (music)

David Corcoran: That’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran for Undark. (music)