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Gates Ag One to help farmers cope with climate

Farm in Africa
Gates Ag One will focus on accelerating agricultural innovation for smallholder farmers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. (Gates Foundation Photo)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is starting up a new nonprofit group that will focus on providing small-scale farmers in developing countries with the tools and innovations they’ll need to deal with the effects of climate change.

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Elephant-watching EarthRanger team widens focus

An elephant herd makes its way through the Serengeti in East Africa. (Vulcan / EarthRanger Photo)

Years ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen backed a project called the Great Elephant Census that highlighted a crisis for Africa’s elephant population, brought about primarily by illegal poaching.

Allen passed away last year at the age of 65, but the software-based successor to that project, known as EarthRanger, lives on. What’s more, EarthRanger has adapted to dramatic changes — not only in the challenges facing Africa’s endangered elephants, but also in the way old and new technologies are being used to address those challenges.

“I think the most important thing that’s happened … is the maturity of those of us who are technologists in this space, in what we’re now truly calling conservation technology,” said Ted Schmitt, principal business development manager for conservation technology at Vulcan Inc., Allen’s holding company.

Schmitt and his partners in the EarthRanger effort highlighted technology’s role in saving the elephants today during a news briefing at Vulcan’s Seattle headquarters. Along the way, they delivered a piece of good news from the Mara Elephant Project, which works with Kenyan authorities to protect elephants in the greater Mara ecosystem, part of East Africa’s Serengeti plains.

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Vulcan builds drones to protect African wildlife

EarthRanger monitoring
The EarthRanger software platform pulls together data from drones, animal collars, vehicle tracking and other sources. (Vulcan Photo)

One of the legacies left behind by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who passed away last October, is a drone development program aimed at providing aerial intelligence for Africa’s anti-poaching efforts.

The program takes a share of the spotlight in a behind-the-scenes report about Allen’s philanthropic operation at Vulcan Inc., published last week by Inside Philanthropy.

Vulcan has been working for years on a surveillance program for elephants and other African species, including the use of autonomous aerial vehicles to patrol protected areas. Allen’s team sought a regulatory exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration three years ago to test drones such as the DJI Phantom 3and the UASUSA Tempest for conservation purposes.

The in-house drone program has advanced significantly since then. Inside Philanthropy reports Vulcan is adapting off-the-shelf equipment to create affordable drones that are optimized for anti-poaching surveillance.

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‘One Strange Rock’ shows the benefits of bat poop

What do giant fruit bats have in common with Johnny Appleseed? Tonight’s episode of “One Strange Rock,” National Geographic Channel’s documentary series about the interconnectedness of Earth’s ecosystems, provides an answer that’ll awe the grossologist in your family.

During each rainy season, between October and December, up to 10 million of the bats — also known as flying foxes — converge on Zambia’s Kasanka National Park from all over Africa.

“It’s the largest mammal migration on Earth,” conservationist Frank Willems says in National Geographic’s video clip, available via GeekWire as an exclusive preview for tonight’s show. “They fly out in every direction, covering an area of 10,000 square miles.”

The bats gorge themselves on the waterberries, mangoes, musuku fruit and red milkwood berries hanging from the park’s trees, eating enough to equal half of their body weight each night.

As the bats fly back and forth, the fruit and the seeds pass through their digestive system — and yes, National Geographic shows that part of the process, using what appears to be an internal gut-cam. Then the seeds come out the other end and drop to the forest floor.

“The seeds might end up in a completely different place where a new tree can then grow,” Willems says. “We are looking at literally billions of seeds flying all over the continent.”

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Did Homo naledi co-exist with our species?

Homo naledi
This Homo naledi skull is part of a skeleton dubbed “Neo.” (Wits University Photo / John Hawks)

The paleontologists who discovered a previously unknown line of human ancestors in South Africa say that they’ve found more fossils — and that the species, known as Homo naledi, could have lived alongside our own species 250,000 years ago.

The newly disclosed finds from the Rising Star Cave system could reignite the debate over the tangled roots of humanity’s family tree.

Fifty-two scientists from 35 organizations around the world, including University of Washington anthropologist Elen Feuerriegel, were part of the team behind the Rising Star research

In one of the papers published today by the journal eLife, the scientists set the age of the first Homo nadeli fossils they found at between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, based on radioisotope dating, electron spin resonance dating and an analysis of the flowstone overlying the fossils.

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China’s ivory ban marks big step for elephants

Elephant
The Great Elephant Census documents a decline in the species. (Great Elephant Census via YouTube)

China’s pledge to shut down commercial trade in ivory within a year comes as welcome news to conservationists who have been fighting for years to save endangered elephants – including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The Chinese government’s announcement on Friday laid out a plan to close domestic trade in elephant ivory by the end of 2017, following up on a commitment made by President Xi Jinping in 2015. The ban will be phased in starting in March, and will apply to physical sales as well as online transactions.

China already has been taking steps to counter the illegal trade, including widely publicized ceremonies during which authorities have crushed down tons of elephant tusks and carved ivory. The country is nevertheless considered the home of the world’s largest ivory market.

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Check out a ‘Ring of Fire’ eclipse over Africa

Image: Annular eclipse
A series of images shows the progression of the Sept. 1 annular solar eclipse as seen from Reunion Island. (Credit: Slooh / Weathernews Japan)

An annular solar eclipse swept across Africa today, treating skywatchers to a “Ring of Fire” eclipse and whetting appetites for next August’s all-American total eclipse.

The eclipse occurred in the middle of the night, Seattle time, but it was prime time for a roughly 100-mile wide swath of territory stretching from Gabon on Africa’s west coast to Mozambique, Madagascar and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.Those places are where the “Ring of Fire” effect was visible in all its glory.

Annular solar eclipses are similar to total eclipses, except that the orbital positions of the sun, moon and Earth are such that the moon doesn’t quite cover up all of the solar disk. As a result, the dark moon is surrounded by a blazing O.

About 3,000 eclipse fans gathered on Reunion Island to witness the spectacle, Reuters reported. “I saw a solar eclipse … but I have never seen an annular solar eclipse,” Austrian tourist Beate Sosz was quoted as saying. “It is great.”

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Elephant census confirms catastrophic decline

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Savanna elephant populations are dropping dramatically. (Credit: Great Elephant Census)

A first-of-its-kind census of African savanna elephants reveals that populations have declined by as much as 30 percent over the course of just seven years.

The backer of the Great Elephant Census, Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, said the findings were “deeply disturbing.” The tally was laid out today at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.

Allen spent more than $7 million to fund and manage the survey and make the results available online.

“Armed with this knowledge of dramatically declining elephant populations, we share a collective responsibility to take action, and we must all work to ensure the preservation of this iconic species,” Allen said in a statement.

The two-year project took advantage of sightings from the ground and from the air, as well as standardized data collection and verification methods, to come up with a baseline for future surveys. The project’s leaders figure that they counted more than 93 percent of savanna elephant populations across nearly 600,000 square miles of savanna.

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DNA dragnet widens for elephants and pangolins

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The black-market trade in ivory drives elephant poaching. (Credit: Gary M. Stoltz / USFWS)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – DNA tests conducted by researchers from the University of Washington helped bring down one of Africa’s biggest kingpins in the illegal elephant ivory trade, but the scientists say they’re just getting started. Now they’re ramping up their efforts to go after more of the smugglers, and extending their efforts to protect other endangered species as well.

“We are now hot on the trail of probably the largest ivory dealer in Africa,” Samuel Wasser, head of UW’s Center for Conservation Biology, said here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

Wasser declined to comment further on that investigation – but it’s worth noting that authorities in Tanzania have arrested several high-profile figures in the ivory trade, including the so-called “the Queen of Ivory” and “The Devil.” DNA evidence could well play a part in the prosecutions, just as it did in the conviction of Togo’s Emile N’Bouke in 2014. Wasser’s DNA data provided the key for cracking the case.

For 15 years, Wasser and his colleagues have been building a DNA database that links elephant populations across Africa to the tons of illegally exported ivory that are being seized every year.

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How Amazon inspired birth-control drones

Image: Drone in Ghana
Aerial vehicles are used to deliver medical supplies in Ghana. (Credit: Drones for Development)

When U.N. health experts were trying to come up with a way to deliver contraceptives to women in hard-to-reach areas of Ghana, they took a page from Amazon’s drone delivery playbook.

Their pilot project, known as Dr. One, was reportedly inspired in late 2014 by the Seattle-based online retailer’s plans for aerial package deliveries.

“We thought, ‘Hang on a minute. We can use this for something else!” Kanyanta Sunkutu, a South African public health specialist with the U.N. Population Fund, was quoted as saying in The Huffington Post’s report about the project.

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