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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 31, 2001

Air Date: August 31, 2001


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Lyme Disease Surge / Diane Toomey

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Lyme Disease has risen dramatically in the past few years. So the tiny creature that's responsible for infecting people, the deer tick, has earned an infamous reputation. But the disease doesn't really begin with a tick bite. Ecologists say the real culprit is an environment that's friendly to both the ticks and animals they feed on. Living On Earth's Diane Toomey reports. (08:00)

Green Architecture / Jane Holtz Kay

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Commentator Jane Holtz Kay says green architecture may be making new buildings more sustainable. But she questions the difference it will make, especially if we continue to sprawl. (03:30)

Health Note / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports that you don't need to get your dander up over cat hair. Researchers say feline fur may not be as strong a trigger for asthma as once thought. (00:59)

Almanac: Agricultural Fairs

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This week, facts about the origins of agricultural fairs. (01:30)

Bulk Food / Bonnie Auslander

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Commentator Bonnie Auslander laments the days when food that came in pretty packaging ruled her pantry (03:20)

Chinko River / Brian Whitlock and Brent Runyon

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Africa's Chinko River runs through a wilderness of dense forests and grassy savanna. Animals once freely roamed this landscape but are now threatened by poachers. A group of conservationists are trying to protect the region. Recording engineer Brian Whitlock joined their expedition and sent us an audio journal. (12:30)

Animal Note

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The 20th Anniversary of the United Nations' World Food Day highlights the need for continued work in the fight against world hunger. Author Richard Manning and Robert Mwanga, a research scientist from Uganda, join host Steve Curwood to discuss the latest developments in biotechnology and how they will play a key role in the fight against global hunger. (00:59)

Hunger Roundtable

(stream / mp3)

The 20th Anniversary of the United Nations' World Food Day highlights the need for continued work in the fight against world hunger. Author Richard Manning and Robert Mwanga, a research scientist from Uganda, join host Steve Curwood to discuss the latest developments in biotechnology and how they will play a key role in the fight against global hunger. (09:00)

Elephant Band / Gina Wilkinson

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In Thailand, logging is illegal and the problem of what to do with elephants who worked in the logging industry is a big one. But through the efforts of a composer and an elephant expert at a Thai conservation center, a chosen few of these elephants have learned to play musical instruments, as Gina Wilkinson explains. (05:15)

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Lyme Disease Surge

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. It's the scourge of the suburbs, the price you may pay for a walk in the woods. Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that can cause flu-like symptoms and fatigue. If left untreated it can lead to brain damage. The incidence of lyme disease is on the rise, and in the Northeast and upper Midwest, where most of the disease-spreading ticks live, long pants and full body checks are now a summer regimen. Now there is new research that takes an ecosystem approach to combating the illness. It works by preventing the disease from being spread in the first place Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

DANIELS: I would like to know what a tick thinks.

TOOMEY: Fordham University ecologist Tom Daniels says researchers understand very little about the tick lifestyle. Although he has years of data looking at how tick numbers fluctuate with environmental conditions, that's just scratching the surface, he says. We do know a tick makes use of a number of different animals as hosts, a polite term to describe where it gets its blood meals.

DANIELS: This thing lives for two years and most of the time it's waiting for something to come by. And so, I would like to know what dangers it encounters. Why it chooses not to get on some hosts as opposed to feed on others, but to know why we find them in some areas of the woods and not others.

TOOMEY: For now, Daniels is making use of the tick knowledge he does have.

(Tape tears)

TOOMEY: Daniels is suiting up to go tick hunting. He wraps masking tape around the ankles of his jumpsuit so ticks can't jump in. Then he heads out into a patch of woods on private property in Westchester County, New York, an area where Lyme Disease is endemic. This tony neighborhood, just outside New York City, is a prime example of why the illness is on the rise. As more and more people move into suburbia, they move into the natural territory of deer ticks, the kind that spread Lyme Disease. What's more, suburbia, brimming with ornamental plants and full garbage cans, attracts the mice and deer that are the major hosts for deer ticks. And more hosts mean even more ticks.


TOOMEY: Daniels drags a white corduroy cloth behind him. August marks peak season for larvae, the beginning stage in the troika that makes up a tick's lifestyle after it hatches. Daniels wants to estimate how many larvae are on this property. A few of them have grabbed onto the drag cloth. To the untrained eye, they look like little more than specks of dirt.

DANIELS: So far we've got three. Now look, just by handling the cloth, I've got two of them on my hand. And that's just one of the bonuses of doing tick work.

(A lint roller sweeps)

TOOMEY: Daniels meticulously collects the larvae with a lint roller. This head count is part of an effort to gauge the effectiveness of a federally-funded tick reduction project. Although many people in Lyme Disease country would like to see a reduction in the exploding number of deer, Daniels' experiment is being done in the spirit of, "If you can't beat 'em, feed 'em." He stops at a large metal box with troughs on either side.

DANIELS: This reservoir here is filled with about 200 pounds of corn. Corn spills out into these side troughs. The deer are attracted to the corn, and when they come in to feed on it, they have to rub their head and neck against these treated rollers to get at the corn.

TOOMEY: The rollers apply a pesticide to the deer's neck and shoulders, where ticks are most likely to feed. There are two dozen of these feeders set up in a two square mile area here. Even if it proves effective, Daniels knows this method isn't a panacea.

DANIELS: Not everyone will want a feeder, and it does take some maintenance. But if it shows, if it proves to have some impact, and you can envision entire neighborhoods, perhaps, setting up a series of feeders, it wouldn't have to be on every property.

TOOMEY: There is a lot of Lyme Disease in Westchester, but it's a county further north than New York that wins the prize for greatest number of Lyme cases in the country. And Duchess County is where ecologist Rick Ostfeld keeps track of Lyme Disease by keeping tabs on the white-footed mouse. Here's why: when a tick hatches, it doesn't have Lyme Disease. While people can blame ticks for their infection, the ticks can blame the mice.

OSTFELD: White-footed mice are the main host for the larval stage of the tick, and the main source in the environment where the tick picks up the Lyme Disease. The more mice there are, the more ticks get to feed on mice, the more of them get infected with Lyme. And then the higher the number of infected ticks there are one year later when the nymphal stage feeds, and that's the stage that infects most people.

TOOMEY: No one is sure why white-footed mice, compared to other host animals, have such a high concentration of Lyme bacterium swimming in their bloodstream. What is known is that a tick has about a 90 percent chance of getting the bacterium after it bites one of the ubiquitous white-footed mice. So Ostfeld, as part of his research, monitors mice populations.


OSTFELD: Oh, boy, here we have a flea colony. If I were a mouse, I wouldn't want to live there either.

TOOMEY: Ostfeld checks in on the wooden mouse nesting boxes he and his team have attached to some trees in this oak forest. This property belongs to the Institute for Ecosystem Studies, an almost 2000-acre independent research center that serves as Ostfeld's laboratory. By tracking the whereabouts of newborn mice, Ostfeld hopes to find out which elements of the forest influence the mouse population here. He opens up another nest box.

(Hinges creak)

OSTFELD: Nobody home. And that's going to be the way it's going to be, because we have low mouse density this year. Because last year was a year of zero acorn production, so the mice didn't have a winter food supply, and they're very low this summer.

TOOMEY: Ostfeld theorizes that acorn production can be used as a kind of leading indicator for Lyme Disease. For instance, two years ago acorn production soared. That led to lots of mice last year, and according to the theory, should predict more infected ticks this year. Ostfeld opens up another nest box. This one yields a single mouse.

OSTFELD: Let's just see if we can find some ticks. It's a clean mouse. (Snips) Ah, here's a tick. Here's one on the tip of the ear. It's a little, tiny bump that you can barely see.

TOOMEY: Ostfeld says another factor that probably influences Lyme Disease risk is the level of biodiversity in a given area. Lots of different animals mean mice have to deal with predators and competitors, so their numbers drop. What's more, greater biodiversity might produce something called the dilution effect. If a tick has lots of menu choices -- birds, chipmunks, squirrels -- its chances of being infected with Lyme drop, since those animals don't transmit the bacterium as efficiently as the white-footed mouse.

TOOMEY: To test the theory, Ostfeld has sent research assistant Brian Allen out to collect ticks from different parts of Duchess County, from forested plots dozens of acres in size to small fragmented pieces of land called back yards.

ALLEN: People have cooked for me and people give me beers and sodas and everything at the end of the day.

TOOMEY: When he brings the ticks back to the lab, Allen must grind them up so they can be analyzed for the presence of the Lyme bacterium.


ALLEN: A properly ground tick should explode on contact between the grinder and the side of the vial.


TOOMEY: The data from the study haven't been analyzed yet. But if the biodiversity theory holds, we may, by creating more and more suburban landscapes, be inadvertently increasing our risk of Lyme Disease. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Green Architecture

CURWOOD: In recent years the notion of sustainable architecture has become as commonplace as compost piles and sidewalk recycling. But commentator Jane Holtz Kay has been watching the eco-architects and green building codes flourish, and she has to admit, she's wondering what it's all sustaining.

HOLTZ KAY: Excuse me if my use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without New England origins are showing. But I am wondering about the true state of sustainability. I am wondering, for instance, if Home Depot's new growth only tree planks and Ford Motor Company's plan for a water collecting roof can really save our planet. One reason for my skepticism is a clipping on my desk of the Sonoran Preserve master plan for Phoenix. It is a postcard-pretty image, cactus to the fore, rocks posed to show their good side. The plan, to set aside 21,000 or so acres of public open space and wildlife habitat, won a major landscape architecture award. And why not praise it? The why not lies in the numbers. For the acres set aside amount to less land than the metropolis loses to development in a scant three years.

Phoenix is not alone in such myopic unsustainability, as Americans gallop across the last chance landscape, shooting 30 percent of global warming's CO2 with their car emissions plus another 30 percent with their building. Consider a recent conference of the Bureau of Land Management, now calling itself the Open Space Agency, where, according to High Country News, a speaker at the Las Vegas Imperial Palace complained that the gambling Mecca is chronically under-golfed. Under-golfed?

Consider older metropolises where poor planning produces free-for-all home and road building, swallowing farmland and wetland. In the hour it takes to listen to this program, roughly 40 acres of such undeveloped land will have gone under the bulldozers and backhoes, gone forever.

Not that all our earnest recycling and water-scrimping showers are futile, but such larger lapses raise the fundamental question of where and how, and yes, whether we should be building anew. Certainly, we should not be scattering mega-subdivisions on our greenfields when 600,000 toxic brownfields await restoration. Nor should we allow the $58 billion car-based transportation budget to split more neighborhoods, spit more carbon, and suck more space. There is no such thing as green sprawl. We need to step beyond our recyclable rugs. We need to look at the world outside our double-glazed windows. Above all, we need to plan to conserve as much as create. If we do not do so, if we merely lounge in smug content behind our airtight doorways, we are no more than environmental aliens, hammer-wielders, building little green islands in a sea of subdivided nature.

(Music up and under: Leo Koetke "Toad")

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Holtz Kay is the author of Asphalt Nation, Preserving New England.

(Music fade down)

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead and audio journey from Africa's unique Chinko River basin. Stay tuned to Living on Earth. Now this health note with Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: Think of the household allergens that trigger asthma and you probably think of cat dander. But several studies show that children who live with a cat have a much smaller than expected chance of developing the condition. New research may show why. The study looked at a group of more than 200 children. Researchers measured the amount of cat allergen in their household dust, and then they tested the children's blood for antibodies produced in response to allergens. One of these antibodies, immunoglobulin E, can trigger asthma. Researchers found that children who were exposed to a lot of cat dander - and it did have to be a lot - did not produce immunoglobulin E in their blood as a result. But living with a cat won't protect you from developing asthma since there are many triggers for the condition. And the authors say that asthmatic children with confirmed cat allergies should continue to avoid Fluffy. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Hartenstein "Claycussion")

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Almanac: Agricultural Fairs

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under: Mark Schatz "All Full Up")

CURWOOD: Ferris wheels, giant pumpkins, and straining tractors. They're all standard fare at today's modern agricultural fair. But the scene was a bit tamer back in 1807. That's when Elkanah Watson tied two Marino sheep to an elm tree in the village square of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in an effort to show off the breed. People were so intrigued that Mr. Watson thought: "Hey, if two animals are capable of exciting so much attention, what if there were more animals and different animals?" And so it was that 190 years ago this week, Berkshire County in Massachusetts put on what's reputed to be the first American agricultural fair. Of course, people have gathered since time immemorial at trading events, but Elkanah Watson's fair had a new goal: sharing agricultural improvements among the farmers of the day. Prizes were awarded for the best yoke of working oxen, the best piece of woolen cloth, the best field of corn. Eventually, parades, plowing matches, and social events joined the schedule. These days, though, only a tiny portion of the U.S. population makes a living in agriculture, and the plowing matches have been replaced by tractor pulls. Still, more than 3,000 agricultural fairs in North America aim to be inexpensive family fun, bringing the rest of us such exotic creatures as cows, chickens, and pigs. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music fade down

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Bulk Food

CURWOOD: Since the birth of her daughter Nina last year, commentator Bonnie Auslander has been spending a lot of her time doing household food shopping. The making of lists, the checking of shelves, and the buying of products has her remembering the foods of her childhood, and what they came in.

AUSLANDER: In the pantry of my kitchen memories stands a girl with yellow shoes and purple umbrella. Nearby is her California cousin, the Sun Maid raisin maiden. And on the shelf above, a Quaker with rosy cheeks and a bold bicep and mallet. These containers of my childhood were familiar and comforting. I didn't worry if I saw the Morton Salt Girl in the garbage; she'd be back. Because whenever packages were empty, you threw them away and got new ones.

Thirty years later, I met the environmentalist who became my husband. No packaging in his kitchen. No pretty boxes. The salt was in a plastic yogurt container, reused so many times the colors had faded. The flower and sugar and granola were piled on the shelf in plastic bags, like sleeping puppies. Empty egg cartons were stacked high, waiting to be filled again. This man lived to buy in bulk. Not shopper's club kind of bulk, but the bulk of a food co-op, with its musty bins and dubious oils oozing onto the floor. With its spaced-out cashiers who know the value of everything but the price of nothing.

At first, I was intrigued. There was something charming about this world without names, where the thing itself takes center stage, not the container it's in. It was only when I tried to bake some cookies in his kitchen that it got frustrating. "What kind of flour is this?" I asked. He opened the dusty bag and rubbed a pinch between his fingers. "It's whole wheat," he said, "but I'm not sure if it's bread flour or pastry flour." "You don't know?"

Then it hit me. It didn't matter, since the semi-sweet chips, too, had been bought in bulk. And that meant I didn't have the trusty back-of-the-package cookie recipe to follow. After we moved in together, I adjusted to co-op shopping. It helps if I think of it as a scientific expedition. Before you leave, gather your supplies. The maple syrup jar and olive oil cruet, the cloth sacks that moot the famous question, "Paper or plastic?" At the store, write down the product number and cost of every item, and don't forget to record the weight of those empty jars and bottles before they're filled.

In theory, I agree with bulk shopping's underlying premise of reduce, reuse, recycle. But inside, I mourn for the packaging of my youth. I didn't know how attached I was to containers, how much labels comfort me, until I tried living without them. To my chagrin, I find I've bought the Madison Avenue pitch: Brand is more important than product, and good things come in packages.

Given the state of the planet, I know my nostalgia for my childhood kitchen needs to become a thing of the past. My daughter won't have this problem. She won't pine for unnecessary packaging or be loyal to brands based on cute labels. I look around our kitchen to see what she'll remember. Grains in bags, flour in canisters. But what's that on the corner, behind the jar of lentils? Ah -- it's a little girl in yellow shoes holding a purple umbrella.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives with her husband John and daughter Nina in Ithaca, New York.

(Music up and under: E. Weber "Nuit Blanche")

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Chinko River

CURWOOD: Just south of Sudan in Central Africa is a paradise of dense jungle and grassy plateaus called the Chinko River Basin. The region was once habitat to large numbers of elephants, lions, and hippos. But poachers have been operating in the area for decades, killing the animals for ivory and food. Today, the once-great herds are nearly gone. Still, some conservation groups call the Chinko River one of Africa's last great hopes for wildlife protection. A group from the U.S. recently conducted perhaps the first detailed biological assessment of the area. Recording engineer Brian Whitlock went along with the expedition. His audio journal is narrated by Brent Runyon.

(Plane engine, ambient voices)

RUNYON: The enormity of what we're about to do is sinking in. We're flying about as far as you can get from civilization. From the air, I've only seen two villages in two and a half hours. Below me is true wilderness. Rolling savannah, dappled with acacia groves. Lush forests along the creeks and rivers. But this is a lawless landscape, where poachers are free to set massive grass fires that drive big game into their sights. The Central African Republic doesn't patrol this frontier because it can't afford to. A spate of coups has scared away foreign investment and commerce. Even the capital is crumbling, filled with dilapidated chateaus that look like ghosts of the French Colonial occupation. The dirt streets erode a little more with every rain, as if the city itself is melting. Our mission is to attract international conservation projects to the Chinko River. It's the only way to protect it. We need to show that despite the decades of poaching, there still are animals here whose populations can recover. We're on a hunt for the Chinko River's last survivors.

(Footfalls and machetes through tall grasses; buzzing bees)

RUNYON: The audacity of what we're doing becomes clear as we approach water's edge. We're going to run 300 miles of uncharted river. Three weeks without any outside contact or support. Just to get to the river, we have to machete a path through razor-sharp grass ten feet high. The temperature is in the 90s. It's unforgivingly humid, and the air is alive with bees. Swarms of them everywhere. When we first encountered the bees, we scrambled for long-sleeved shirts and head nets. Actually, that got us stung. By moving calmly and quietly, we're learning it's possible to work while covered with bees.

(Bird calls; movement through water)

RUNYON: It's better when we're out paddling on the water. The river is fast-flowing and muddy, but gentle for now. Altogether, there are 12 of us traveling in three inflatable rafts and three kayaks. A local guide begins to explain the poaching situation.

KOLAGA: (in French)

TRANSLATOR: Surely, at least 50,000 elephants have been killed since this started over the years. This was the river of elephants, and he doesn't think that he's exaggerating.

RUNYON: Toma Kolaga was once the premier game tracker along the Chinko. He looks the part: quick and lean. But the hunting safaris, which killed only a few trophy animals each year, are now gone, driven out by relentless poachers.

KOLAGA: (in French)

TRANSLATOR: He would like to see poachers killed if it would stop them from coming here. These people come and they take life away, and what are we going to do for our children? How are we going to explain to them that life once existed here and now it doesn't exist any more, because people took it away? This is nature. You can't kill nature. You have to protect it.

RUNYON: One of the members of our expedition is Randy Hayes of the U.S.-based Rainforest Action Network. He tells me that in many parts of Africa the ecosystem itself is under assault. But that's not the case here, which makes him hopeful the region can rebound.

R. HAYES: You don't have logging. You don't have roads. You don't have mining projects. Right now it's a wildlife issue.

(Animal calls)

RUNYON: And it's not like the Chinko lacks any animals. The riverbanks are buzzing with monkeys and birds. It isn't long before we spot hippos, too.

R. HAYES: You've got all your major mammal species here. You've got rhinos. You've got a lot of the antelopes. You've got the hippos. You've got the crocodiles. All of that can come back into the sort of plentitude that it once was, if we can stop the poaching.

(Animal calls up and under; fade to walking through grass)

B. HAYSE: Hey, Thomas? What's that noise? That bird?

RUNYON: Thomas is uncomfortable in our rafts, but he melts into the jungle with natural ease. To him, every track or sound or broken branch reads like a story. Our expedition leader, a conservationist and adventurer from Wyoming named Bruce Hayse, is especially impressed.

B. HAYSE: We are fortunate to have Thomas along, who is able to tell us with tracks and sounds and scat and trampled vegetation, lots of different signs he does see as to the relative abundance of the animals, that's made this a worthwhile trip. Without him, we'd be pretty stuck, since we've had only minimal sightings ourselves.

RUNYON: This is our morning routine. Walking side creeks and tributaries in the thick understory. The places where animals tend to congregate. Today, we're at a natural salt lake on the Cavaga River. The ground is covered with tracks. Thomas whispers the names of the animals that made them.

(Thomas whispers. Someone says, "Leopard.")

RUNYON: Thomas is ecstatic to see so many signs of wildlife. He thought the Cavaga's animals were poached out long ago.

(Thomas "meows")

RUNYON: Walking through a swampy tangle of kapok trees and hanging vines, we come to another clearing. Thomas begins making a noise that he hopes will attract a small antelope, called a diker.

(Thomas calls)

RUNYON: After several minutes, a diker scurries through the vines. It stops to peer at us, and in a twitch it's gone. Our expedition is turning out a bit differently than I'd imagined. We're not seeing the big animals directly. This isn't a game park where you drive up in a Land Rover to a pride of lions and snap a roll of film. Here the signs of the wild are subtle.

(Splashing water)

RUNYON: In the afternoons as we float along, Thomas entertains us with animal calls.

MAN: Another hippo.

(Thomas makes a hippo call; fade to rain)

RUNYON: It's the end of the second week and it's been pouring rain almost every night. Everyone is starting to break down. The tsetse flies and mosquitoes have ripped us to pieces. Half of us are on antibiotics. One person had a bad reaction to malaria medicine and is suffering a complete psychotic breakdown. I haven't been dry in six days, and there is a staph infection on my ankle. We've all taken on the permanent color of mud, and we're losing weight at an alarming rate.

(River flows)

RUNYON: So far, the Chinko River itself has been tame. We've come during the rainy months to avoid getting killed by poachers, who do their dirty work during the dry season. The rains have swollen the river, covering up most of the rapids. But now, we're facing a boiling 30-foot drop.

(Several voices at once)

RUNYON: Nobody agrees how to get past the rapids until leader Bruce Hayse makes the decision.

B. HAYSE: Basically there's three islands here. The easiest run is probably to the far left, just to sneak right down there...

RUNYON: Bruce looks like the kind of guy you trust in situations like this. A quiet country doctor with the rough edges of a mountain man. But the only thing he cherishes more than wilderness is dangerous wilderness. He says it fosters reverence for nature and keeps people humble. The rapids are too risky for everyone to run, so the expert boatmen will go it alone with our food and gear. The rest of us gather on a cliff to watch.

MAN: Oh, it's brutal.

RUNYON: The last boat takes a beating and flips, but nobody's hurt.

(Yelling, laughter; fade to sounds of dragging)

RUNYON: It's our final day, and as we unload our rafts at the village of Rafai we discover there's a human side to the poaching story. Rafai is a small collection of grass huts with a few mud brick buildings. The people are very friendly. As evening falls, they bring us Ngouli, a liquor made from the casava plant. It tastes like vodka with dirty laundry in it. But Randy Hayes seems to like it.

(Several voices at once)

RUNYON: There used to be many more villages on the Chinko. It was once a happy place. But settlements have largely disappeared because many people are afraid to live here now. With the frontier unprotected, roving bands of poachers have easily taken control. They've not only slaughtered the wildlife, but enslaved the local people. We learn about this inside the home of a Rafai villager named Jacelin Goni.

GONI: [in French]

TRANSLATOR: The poachers come and take our people away and force them to be porters carrying the poachers' supplies on their heads. They take the women to bed and use them. It's not good.

RUNYON: The campaign to end the poaching here will be more than a struggle to protect exotic animals. It will be about protecting people, too.

(Local music and conversation)

RUNYON: It's night and the village is filled with music and dancing. The Ngouli liquor is flowing like a river, and a community meal is being prepared over open fires. The melody is coming from a 12-foot instrument that looks like a xylophone. It's carved from split papaya logs. The Central African Republic faces a daunting challenge in putting an end to poaching. But the people in Rafai seem to appreciate our efforts in documenting their situation. We're spending our final night along the Chinko River with them in celebration.

(Music and singing continue)

CURWOOD: A Chinko River Journal was written and recorded by Brian Whitlock and narrated by Brent Runyon. Thanks to the African Rainforest and River Conservation Group and the National Geographic Society.

(Music and singing continue)

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Animal Note

Just ahead out of work elephants strike up the band. Stay tuned to Living on Earth. First, this animal update with Maggie Villiger.

(Music up and under)

VILLIGER: What's an ant to do when its nest is threatened by flood? If you're a Cataulacus muticus ant living in Malaysia, you'd better have a contingency plan, because you make your home in the hollow nodes of giant bamboo plants deep in the rainforest. These ants build only one colony in a lifetime, so holding back the frequent deluges is a matter of life and death. Plan A: Batten down the hatches by blocking the doorway with your head. If this collective sandbag technique doesn't hold back the waters, move on to Plan B: Start drinking. Hundreds of ants fill up on the unwanted water seeping in their colony and head outside to excrete it away from the nest. Scientists dub this behavior "communal peeing." The ants keep at it in a kind of reverse bucket brigade until the waters recede and their home is dry. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: B. Hall "Terra Zona")

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Hunger Roundtable

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Almost a billion people on the planet don't get enough to eat. Crop failure and poverty are two leading causes of world hunger, and increasingly, developing nations are turning to biotechnology as a solution. In his new book, Food's Frontier, Richard Manning chronicles some of these projects. He joins me now, along with Robert Mwanga, an agronomist from Uganda, whose story also appears in the book.

MANNING: The first green revolution was placed on what one scientist called an easy money trick. And basically, it increased the yields of crops, specifically grain crops like rice and wheat, by making the plants shorter. That sounds very simple, but it did allow the plant to put its biomass into seed. At the same time they became more efficient in water, things like that. So they boosted yields astronomically by that fairly easy trick. The people who have done that work and are still doing that work have put their heads together over the last few years and said, "You know, we really can't get much more blood out of that turnip. That trick, that technological trick, is now at its limit." At the same time, they also realized things like chemical fertilizers and pesticides are taking their toll on the environment, and we can't go on doing things the way we've done them in the past. So, there needs to be a whole new set of technologies and ideas for increasing yield, at the same time that we pay a lot more attention to the quality of the environment. And that's really what the second green revolution will look like.

CURWOOD: Is the second green revolution a genetic engineering revolution that people are very concerned about? Please explain to me the role that you think biotechnology and genetic engineers should play in combating world hunger.

MANNING: Well, it's going to play a role, there's no question about that. And we first need to draw a distinction between biotechnology, which is a whole set of technologies, and the smaller area of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is simply placing the genes, a hunk of genes, out of one species into another to pass along a trait. Biotechnology includes that, but it also includes things like reading the genome of a plant to understand exactly how it works, but not altering it in any way. So for instance, in Robert's program, he uses genetic markers to assist his breeding, but he doesn't change the genetics of that program. That level of biotechnology will be relatively uncontroversial. It will be an enormous tool. It cuts in half the time that Robert needs to field-test his variety, so he can get good quality food to the people in, say, four years instead of eight years. That's enormously important.

CURWOOD: Robert, I want to turn to you now. Tell me, what role do you see biotechnology playing in your own work in Uganda?

MWANGA: We have major problems on sweet potato diseases, specifically viruses. And bugs, specifically sweet potato weevil. If farmers don't harvest the crop promptly during a dry spell, the weevil will destroy the whole crop, and the crop will be lost. Now, the technology has the advantage that we can make fast progress to identify the genes that are resistant, and for the weevil there is at the moment no resistance that has been identified to last a long time. But with biotechnology, we think we can come up with resistant types.

CURWOOD: How important would that be to the folks in Uganda if you could do that?

MWANGA: Wow, that would be a big jump! Because as I have said, if we have developed a resistant sweet potato that can stay in the ground without being attacked by the weevil, then the farmer will harvest all his crop.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, where are people hungry in this world? And in particular, I'm wondering, do we find these people in cities or in rural areas?

MANNING: Well, we find them in both areas, both rural and city. There are different levels of hunger and poverty in both places. But the universal is, they tend to be in the developing world, particularly concentrated in Africa, which has enormous problems feeding its people. A few in Southeast Asia, and some pockets in Latin America. But by far the worst is in Africa.

CURWOOD: Richard, in your book you talked about how the food crisis would be in better shape if people in the West seeking to help had a better understanding of how various societies and ecosystems work. You had a number of examples. In Africa, you talked about tannin and an ancient way of removing it, and how it confused folks who thought they were improving things. I wonder if you could tell that story to us now.

MANNING: It's an interesting example of making a mistake through our best intentions. People eat sorghum in Africa, and it's a really important grain crop. And it tends to be quite dark brown, and dark brown means it has tannin in it, which is bitter. That's what makes tea bitter. And it's also less nutritional when the tannin is in there. So, some plant breeders in the United States understood that they could breed that out and make a light-colored sorghum that would be far more nutritious and taste better, and therefore they'd do a favor for the people of Africa. What they didn't know was about a predator bird that lived in the area. And the bird is ubiquitous. It's like a sparrow here in the United States; it's everywhere. And as soon as they took the tannin out of the sorghum, the bird attacked it, because that bitter taste was keeping the bird off as well. And of course, the people in Africa knew that to a degree. And they had learned in their villages to process their sorghum with wood ash, which itself removed the tannin, and they were just fine before this whole system came along. But as soon as the system took the tannin out, then the birds ate all their crop.

CURWOOD: Robert, how has this kind of experience happened in Uganda, and in what ways have folks in the global community, in trying to help things, made things worse in Uganda for food?

MWANGA: Well, to some extent, by funding research that does not concentrate on prairie to crops, what is important for the farmers, for the population in Uganda, by focusing on coffee, by focusing on cotton, by focusing on tea, that has kind of led to a lagging behind. And I think in that way, we can say it has had a negative influence.

CURWOOD: Richard, how do you think that we can attain a future of sustainable agriculture?

MANNING: There's no single path to that. We're understanding that the solutions to these issues are as diverse as there are human cultures. And so, we have to understand that we in the developed world have to form partnerships with the people in the developing world. We have to do things like help people like Robert get the education and technical support he needs, but also to work within his country to help his country set its goals and to understand the needs of the people there, so that they can have a life with some dignity.

CURWOOD: Robert, how do politics, political stability, fit into these questions of feeding people?

MWANGA: When there is peace, people can grow crops. They can feed themselves. They can share the surplus. They have better living conditions. And so they have a better livelihood.

MANNING: Steve, I have a suggestion, something I would like to add.

CURWOOD: Go ahead.

MANNING: We talked earlier about what we can do in the developing world, what's important to developing agriculture. And one of the things we almost never think of but is vitally important, and is illustrated by Robert's case, is peace and political stability in an area. Robert had a partner when he started out in this program, and the two of them were putting together a grant to do their work. And we said sweet potatoes are important in Uganda, but they're also important in eight other countries in the area, or seven other countries in the area. And one of those was Rwanda. And Robert's partner was a plant breeder in Rwanda, who knew more about sweet potatoes, probably, than most of the people in the region. And as they were getting their program together, it's when the troubles broke out in Rwanda. And Robert's partner happened to be Tutsi, and he was taken out in his field and he was hacked to death with a machete. And so, that particular area of Africa lost its expertise in its most important food crop. That's the kind of things that happen when violence breaks out, and violence is really what has left a huge footprint on the work in Africa.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for joining me today. Robert Mwanga is a scientist in Uganda, and Richard Manning is author of Food's Frontier. Thank you both for joining me today.

MANNING: Thank you, Steve.

MWANGA: Thank you.

(Music up and under: Kronos Quartet "Mai")

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story St, Cambridge, MA 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. And visit our web page at www.loe.org. CD's, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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Elephant Band

CURWOOD: In 1988, authorities in Thailand imposed a ban on logging to protect the country's dwindling forests. But the move also deprived elephants and their handlers of their traditional jobs of hauling logs for the timber industry. Once in domesticity, elephants can rarely go back to the wild. So today, many elephants and their owners wander the streets of Thai cities begging money from tourists and kind-hearted locals. But now, some elephants are trumpeting a new line of work: playing in the band. Gina Wilkinson traveled to Lampang in northern Thailand and has our story.

(Music, including elephants trumpeting)

WILKINSON: Reminiscent of Yoko Ono at her most avant-garde, the Thai Elephant Orchestra breaks new ground with this selection of jumbo tunes.

(Elephant music continues)

WILKINSON: The idea of having elephants play musical instruments is the brainchild of New York-based composer and producer David Soldier and pachyderm expert Richard Lair, who works at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. The duo chose scales used in traditional Thai music, a genre familiar to these 11 talented elephants, and then added a few blues notes before they began recording the album. Richard Lair says many of the elephants took to their new assignment with gusto.

(An elephant trumpets)

LAIR: I'd say for about half of the elephants playing in the orchestra is just a job. But several of them genuinely enjoy it. Particularly Luuk-Op, whose English name would be Tadpole, is a wonderful percussionist, keeps perfect time. If you give him something new to bang on, he'll figure out just where to hit it to get the nicest sound.


WILKINSON: Some of the instruments in this unique orchestra were custom made for the elephants, including a gong fashioned from a circular saw that had been confiscated from an illegal logging operation. Lair says others are traditional folk instruments.


LAIR: Our key instrument is modeled on a Thai instrument called the renat, which is basically a kind of xylophone with a totally gorgeous sound. But we also have big drums; a thunder sheet; harmonicas; and cane, which is a kind of traditional Thai pan pipe; angaloon, which is a traditional hill tribe instrument; and we're working on new instruments all the time.

(Chimes and gongs)

WILKINSON: While the idea of an elephant orchestra may be highly unusual to many, those familiar with the Lampang elephants may not be so surprised. As Lair explains, these artistic elephants have already earned a worldwide reputation for their abstract paintings.

LAIR: It actually sprang out of an earlier project, the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, which is the elephants painting. Which comes from when two Russian conceptual artists came here last March. There was an auction; we sold 92,000 U.S. dollars worth of paintings. Some from Indonesia, some from India, but mainly from our center here in Lampang.


WILKINSON: Charles Hyatt is the director of the Human-Elephant Learning Project based in Georgia in the United States. The project is a network of scientists who are studying elephant intelligence. Hyatt says his own experiments have backed up tests carried out by German scientist Bernard Rensch in the 1950s, which found elephants can distinguish 12 musical tones and remember simple melodies, even when played on different instruments at various pitches, timbres, and meters. Hyatt regularly travels to Lampang to further his research. He says far from exploiting these magnificent animals, their new musical job provides the pachyderms with a valuable creative outlet.

HYATT: In captivity, elephants don't have the natural curiosity enhancing activities of foraging for food and tromping about in the forest. So we need to provide them with things to do, and they seem to derive enrichment from the music they've been taught.

(Chimes and gongs)

WILKINSON: The first 12 tracks on the CD have a very Thai flavor. They're followed by human and elephant collaborations, some of which could come in handy for your next rave or techno dance party.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

WILKINSON: Richard Lair says the debut CD of the Thai Elephant Orchestra is selling well. Proceeds will go toward establishing a milk bank for orphaned baby elephants and provide training for elephant handlers.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

WILKINSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Gina Wilkinson in Lampang, Thailand.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

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CURWOOD: Before we go, a quick dip into the Pacific for the sounds of Humpback whales. The recording by Lisa Walker, was made in a long, narrow channel that amplified the whales' calls.

(Soundscape up and under: Lisa Walker "Tenakee")

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, and Bunny Lester. Jesse Wegman produced this week's program

We had help this week from Marie Chung, Katy Saunders and Gernot Wagner. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; The Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; The Town Creek Foundation; The W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; The James and Cathleen Stone Foundation; and the Oak Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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