• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

May 19, 2006

Air Date: May 19, 2006



Environmental Justice / Tara Siler

View the page for this story

After a quarter century of protest, environmental justice activists in the San Francisco neighborhood of Bayview Hunter's Point have persuaded PG&E to close an outdated power plant. Tara Siler of KQED reports. (03:00)

Mercury’s Legacy / Amy Standen

View the page for this story

The town of Idrija, Slovenia, was built around mining mercury. At one time, it was home to the second largest mercury mine in the world. Today, the mines are shutting down permanently, but as Amy Standen reports, the legacy of mercury lives on. (09:00)

Consumer Reports/Beating the Heat

View the page for this story

This summer, if you’re in the market for an air conditioner, remember: bigger isn’t always better. Host Steve Curwood talks with Consumer Reports’ Urvrashi Rangan about what buyers should bear in mind when it comes to keeping cool. (05:05)

EV on Ebay

View the page for this story

Auction closed. A 2003 Toyota RAV4 Electric Vehicle just sold on eBay for $67,300, a record price for a secondhand electric vehicle. And it's also double what the original owners paid when they bought it new - three years and 59,000 miles ago. Host Steve Curwood talks with winning bidder Sanat Kumara. (03:00)

Secrets of the Savanna

View the page for this story

When Mark and Delia Owens moved to the Northern Luangwa Valley in Zambia, ivory poachers were killing savanna elephants by the hundreds. And so they stayed to fight the destruction of Africa's wildlife, and helped stop poaching by helping villagers find alternatives in agriculture and education. Their new book is Secrets in the Savanna: Twenty-three years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries of Elephants and People. (09:45)

Emerging Science Note/Dragonfly Journeys / Bobby Bascomb

View the page for this story

Bobby Bascomb reports on the surprising migratory patterns of dragonflies. (01:30)

Early Signs: Kilimanjaro / Kate Davidson

View the page for this story

You may have heard the snows of Kilimanjaro are fast disappearing. It turns out, so are the forests. Reporter Kate Davidson spent time with scientists and local farmers in Tanzania to look at the combined effect of tree-cutting and climate change in this installment of the series Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet. (14:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

A family of elephants beds down for the night in the grasslands of Kenya.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Urvashi Rangen, Sanat Kumara, Mark and Delia Owens
REPORTERS: Tara Siler, Amy Standen, Kate Cheney Davidson
NOTE: Bobby Bascomb


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. For many people around the world the runoff from melting mountain snow and ice is their only source of fresh water to drink and irrigate their crops. Climate change can disrupt that flow. Just ask the folks who live at the base of Africa’s tallest mountain: Kilimanjaro.

THOMPSON: The ultimate question here is what’s the impact of the loss of ice fields 15 years from now on water supplies for the people who live at the base of the mountain?

CURWOOD: The melting snows of Kilamanjaro this week on Living On Earth. Also, when choosing an environmentally friendly air conditioner, don’t throw away your fan and remember bigger is not always better.

RANGEN: It always seems that way, and yet when it comes to air conditioners that’s the biggest mistake that people can make.

CURWOOD: We’ll have those stories and what do birds and dragonflies have in common? The answer and more is coming up. So, stick around.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

Back to top



Environmental Justice

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

We begin our program with news that after decades of effort, residents of a poor section of San Francisco are breathing easier after a major utility shut down a polluting power plant right at the edge of their community. Political leaders and environmental activists credit the residents themselves for making it happen. From KQED in San Francisco, Tara Siler reports.


SILER: For 77 years the mostly African American community of Bayview Hunter's Point has lived in the shadow of this natural gas fired plant that helped produce some of the worst air pollution in San Francisco. Now there's only the hum and clanking of old pumps and fans. After a quarter century of protests, lawsuits and countless meetings, PG& E permanently closed the plant.

HARRISON: Actually, I have to be honest with you – I am elated.

SILER: Marie Harrison is a resident of Bayview Hunters Point and a community organizer with Greenaction, a tiny environmental justice group that worked to close the facility. James Bryant, who also worked for the plant’s closure, says the community is ecstatic over the victory.

BRYANT: The folks that live up in Hunter’s view said to me just the other day, 'this is wonderful, to wake up and see the sky, look at the natural colors, and have no particulates coming out of that smokestack.'

SILER: The plant emitted, among other pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, a key contributor to smog. Studies have shown that citizens in these neighborhoods suffer a higher rate of asthma and cancer than other San Francisco residents. Though they can’t be certain of a causal link to the plant, residents have long pointed to this facility as but one example of the environmental degradation of their community. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says the closure is long overdue.

NEWSOM: It’s amazing. You look back at the history of this, it transcends many, many mayors, dozens and dozens of members of boards of supervisors. But the one constant throughout were members of the community who were vigilant the whole time in holding our feet to the fire and holding us accountable to get this done.

SILER: PG&E agreed to close the plant eight years ago, but said it first needed to locate another source of energy. Now a new transmission line provides added power and reliability to the South San Francisco peninsula.

Manuel Pastor is a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who studies the environmental concerns facing poor communities. He says the closure is a significant win for the environmental justice movement.

PASTOR: And the reason for that is there’s been a lot of victories around resisting, say, a new hazardous use coming to a neighborhood, and less of the kinds of victories that result in a major polluter agreeing to shut down in a neighborhood, to begin the process of cleanup. So this is going to be looked at by a lot of people from all over the country.

SILER: PG&E has agreed to remove the facility and decontaminate the surrounding land, but the Bayview Hunter’s Point area will still be home to one third of San Francisco’s hazardous wastes, one federal Superfund site, a sewage treatment plant, and scores of brownfields. For Living on Earth, I'm Tara Siler in San Francisco.

Related link:
Greenaction For Health and Environmental Justice

Back to top


Mercury’s Legacy

A typical tunnel in one of the older parts of the mines. The ridges in the ground are for pit wagons, which were used to transport mercury ore out of the mine. (Photo: Chris Colin)

CURWOOD: The town of Idrija, in the Balkan nation of Slovenia, was once home to one of the world’s largest mercury mines. For 500 years, miners pulled quicksilver out of this tiny valley, building a culture around – and, literally, on top of – this poisonous metal. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists and doctors came from far and wide to study mercury mining and its effects on human health.

Now, with the use of mercury greatly reduced and a better understanding of its dangers the mines are in the process of being shut down. But as Amy Standen reports, the culture and toxic legacy of mercury mining remain.

STANDEN: Near the town square of Idrija, a man sells fish out of a trailer. It’s a sunny day, and a few of his customers hang around, as their cars idle. A stereo blasts Slovenian folk music.


A typical tunnel in one of the older parts of the mines. The ridges in the ground are for pit wagons, which were used to transport mercury ore out of the mine. (Photo: Chris Colin)

STANDEN: Standing here, you’d never guess there’s a whole other world beneath your feet – a vast network of tunnels, shafts and ladders long enough to stretch between LA and San Francisco.


STANDEN: The sign over the entrance to the Idrija mine reads “stre_no” or “good luck.” We walk through a tunnel carved out of rock, and then we begin our descent.


STANDEN: Down here, the tunnel is round and propped up with wood. It’s like walking through the inside of a barrel. The supports splinter and bulge under the weight of a thousand feet of dirt and stone above us.


DIZDAREVI: Yes, here you can see the drops, that sparkling.

STANDEN: Tatjana Dizdarevi is a mine safety engineer. She points to a cluster of perfectly shaped, silver caviar eggs that ooze out of the rock wall.

DIZDAREVI: These are drops of native mercury. If you will touch it with this golden ring, the mercury eat (Laughs), simply eat gold.

STANDEN: Idrija’s one of the few places on earth you’ll find elemental mercury like this. There’s also a more common form, cinnabar, a brick red mercury sulfide compound that must be cooked in a smelting plant to release its mercury content. Miners have hauled mercury ore out of these tunnels since 1490, only recently with elevators.

DIZDAREVI: They carried the ore in leather sacketts. Each miner by itself carried these sacketts and used wooden ladders to carry this very heavy material out. One piece of ore, a small piece, weighed almost five, six kilos. Depends on the percentage of mercury in it.

STANDEN: Smash or explode the rock. Gather and pack the ore. Carry it up and out to the smelting plant. This was the life of nearly every Idrijan male for 500 years.

Many miners and their families rented apartments in houses like these, with up to two families on each floor. (Photo: Chris Colin)

DIZDAREVI: My father was a miner, and I can remember from that time I was a little girl when he came home, at that time they worked in three shifts, also at night. It was very exhausting work. All the miners were tired. But these was almost the best paid jobs in the town.

STANDEN: Miners of Dizdarevic’s father’s generation didn’t live very long. Down in the mines, they handled pure mercury, which vaporizes at room temperature. Also toxic were mercury vapors coming from the smelting plant where concentrations were often highest.

Inhaled into human lungs, mercury vapors go straight to the central nervous system and the brain. Mercury poisoning contributed to alcoholism, depression, even suicide in many miners. Their hands shook so violently they could barely write.

KOBAL: When I come here at the beginning, this was something terrible to see what happened. I say what happened to these people? What they do in this mine?

STANDEN: Dr. Alfred Kobal spent his career treating miners. Slight and dapper, he seems proud of the work he’s done. Since coming here in 1964, Dr. Kobal has seen hundreds of mercury intoxications.

KOBAL: The people was so sad, sad. And we found that the mortality is connected to mercury exposure, and with alcohol consumption. And also you know and they smoke a lot of cigarettes a day. Altogether is the problem of miners.

This chapel, which stands at the start of the mines before miners begin their descent, was built in the 18th century. The chapel honors Saint Barbara, the patron saint of mining, and St. Ahac, on whose feast day, June 22nd, in 1508, miners discovered a rich new vein of mercury ore. (Photo: Chris Colin)

STANDEN: Miners were also exposed to radon, leading to high cancer rates, and silica dust, which filled their lungs with quartz crystals and, eventually, asphyxiated them. Dr. Kobal witnessed much of this suffering.

KOBAL: Short breath. Very difficult respiration. High amount of cough. They cannot move. They sit in the bath. They could not be horizontally in the bed, they must be sitting up all night. In the night was very long. I see many of these people who died due to this.

STANDEN: Thanks to Dr. Kobal and others, deaths like this became rare after the 1970s. Protective masks, air filters, and constant monitoring kept mercury vapors and silica dust levels far below what miners faced 50 years ago.

KOBAL: And these people live today. I see these people walk through Idrija and I am so glad that is so.

STANDEN: Even back when mortality was at its highest, Idrija was always a company town. The mine sponsored schools, gymnastics contests, Slovenia’s first theatre. It houses the town’s award-winning mining museum and launched the Idrija miners band, founded in 1665 and still going strong today.


STANDEN: Around the time the Idrija miner’s band started up, a British visitor took a dip here in the Idrica river. “The water is so saturated with mercury,” he wrote, “that it heals itchiness and other similar discomforts.”

Mercury occurs in the river naturally, in trace amounts, but the mine company dumped leftover ore on the riverbanks and sent mercury levels soaring.

Milena Horvat is a senior researcher at the Jo_ef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana. She’s studied the effects of mercury on the Idrijan environment for over 20 years.

HORVAT: We have in some areas deposits that are ten meters deep and still contain huge amounts of mercury.

STANDEN: Dr. Horvat says all this mercury would stay trapped within the Idrica River’s sediment, largely out of the food chain, if only people would let the river run its course. But local officials have a different plan.

HORVAT: Now they would like to build a new hydroelectric power plant on the Idrica river. This would be really a disaster because by stopping the water running in the Idrica river, you create a situation where methyl mercury is formed about 700 times higher rate than when you keep the water running. And if you increase methyl mercury in sediments in water, you increase it definitely in the fish.

STANDEN: Despite precautions taken at the mines, cancer, disorders of the central nervous and immune systems and other medical problems are still more common in Idrija than elsewhere in Slovenia. It’s as of yet unproven, but Dr. Horvat believes that elevated mercury levels in the air, soil, and water could have something to do with it. She wants to open a mercury information center in Idrija. She says the money’s there, but what’s lacking is community interest.

HORVAT: Because now when you go to Idrija everybody puts a lot of glory to the past of the mercury mining. It used to be the glory and it can remain the glory, but you really need to demonstrate that you know how to deal with this. Not to say “Oh! My grandfather was a miner, and I don’t care this mercury that is here in my environment, I don’t care.” It’s not possible to say this with all this evidence that we have today.


STANDEN: Meanwhile, about 60 miners are in the final stages of closing down the mines for good, filling in the tunnels with water, cement, and sand, so they don’t collapse. Car parts and electronics factories are the main employers in Idrija now. And while future generations will continue to reckon with mercury contamination, the industry that created it will soon be a distant memory.

For Living on Earth, this is Amy Standen in Idrija, Slovenia.

Related links:
- More info on Slovenian mines (1)
- More info on Slovenian mines (2)

Back to top

CURWOOD: Coming up: some cool consumer tips about air conditioners. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Roots Tonic & Bill Laswell “Employees Must Wash Your Hands” from ‘Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell’ (ROIR – 2006)

Consumer Reports/Beating the Heat

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Well, it’s already that time of year down south and it’s getting to be that time of year up here in the north. You know, the time of year when you dig the air conditioner out and stick it in the window in hopes of keeping cool. To find out what we should do as consumers about air conditioners, we have with us Urvashi Rangan. She’s director of Greener Choices dot org, a free public service from Consumer Reports. Hello.

RANGAN: Hello Steve.

CURWOOD: So how necessary is air conditioning?

RANGAN: For folks who are living in places that are fairly dry and cool in the evenings you don’t really need to use an air conditioner. And you have other options, like using ceiling fans and using your drapes smartly in the daytime to block out the sunlight. But in places that are hot and humid – just in 1995, for example, 485 elderly people in Chicago died from heat exhaustion. And that was primarily due to the fact that these folks didn’t have any air conditioning.

So it can actually be a matter of life and death for many people. Specifically, you know, the elderly populations, young children, people who are particularly overweight. If you have a heart condition, for example, or you’re on certain medications that can intensify heat, those are all people who are good candidates to use an air conditioner in the summertime. Especially when it’s very hot and humid.

CURWOOD: Now you’ll tell us the results of what you were able to find among these various air conditioners on your website for people who want to know the details, but basically if you go shopping for a room air conditioner, what kinds of things should one keep in mind?

RANGAN: Yeah, it’s a great question. There’s a couple of things to keep in mind. I don’t know, Steve, if you ever felt so hot you just wanted to run out and go by an air conditioner. Did you ever try to look for the biggest air conditioner you could find?

CURWOOD: Uh-oh, you caught me.

RANGAN: (Laughs)

CURWOOD: Of course. Bigger’s better, right?

RANGAN: Well it always seems that way and yet, when it comes to air conditioners, that’s the biggest mistake that people can make. You want to make sure that you size that air conditioner right, and you want to make sure you actually take the dimensions of the room and visit our website and use the calculator on there to plug in the dimensions of your room so you can find out exactly what size air conditioner is right for the room.

If you don’t size it right and you just get the biggest, you may in fact not be cooling the most efficiently in that room. It may cool it before it actually deals with the humidity of the room, so you could have a cool room with high humidity. So make sure that you do actually buy an air conditioner that is appropriately fitted for your room.

CURWOOD: So where in the house is the best place to put a window air conditioner to make it the most efficient?

RANGAN: Well, really when you’re talking about room air conditioners, you know, it depends on the room itself and what you have. But generally any kind of non-south-facing window. The south-facing windows are obviously going to get the most radiant heat, and it’s going to make your air conditioner work the hardest. So if you have a north-facing window, even an east/west-facing window, those are probably better options.

CURWOOD: How can we save money around air conditioners?

RANGAN: One thing you can try is using a ceiling fan in conjunction with your air conditioner. Since ceiling fans themselves can make a room feel six to seven degrees cooler, you can actually keep the temperature level on your air conditioner set fairly high – say around 72, 75 degrees – while using a ceiling fan. So that’s one way you can actually use less energy, less electricity, save money.

And here’s an interesting statistic: for every degree you raise your air conditioner you can actually save three percent or more on the energy that you use. So that makes a big difference in terms of setting it at, say, 68 degrees compared to 75 degrees. And finally, make sure that you clean your air filters. A dirty air filter is really going to reduce the energy efficiency of your air conditioner as well.

CURWOOD: Urvashi, your website also has something called a “label center” where you give consumers a head’s up on misleading labels. Any that we should be aware of in terms of beating the heat?

RANGAN: Well, when you’re looking for new filters, Steve, for your air conditioner, make sure that when you’re shopping you don’t pay more for any filter that claims to be hypoallergenic.

CURWOOD: Really?

RANGAN: Really. Consumers buy that label because they think in terms of air filters, maybe it filters out more dust or dirt, making it ultimately the air less irritating to use, or causes less allergies. All of that is simply misnomer, unfortunately, and hypoallergenic really doesn’t mean much.

CURWOOD: Urvrashi Rangan is director of Greener Choices dot org, a free public service from Consumer Reports. Thanks so much.

RANGAN: My pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

Related link:
Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices website

Back to top


EV on Ebay

Sanat Kumara poses next to his winning item, a 2003 all-electric RAV-4. (Photo courtesy of Sanat Kumara)

CURWOOD: EBay is the place where you might pick up a mounted Russian boar – “Wild boar closed-mouth shoulder collectible mount” –for the low-low price of 100 bucks.

But, hey, if that's not your style, you might be intrigued by a "2003 Toyota RAV4 EV" - Electric Car. Imagine: No emissions. No gas stations. No tailpipes. It's secondhand, but the sellers say they love it. Ah, but you are too late!

The RAV4 EV just sold on eBay for $67,300, a record price for a secondhand electric vehicle and double what the original owners paid for it new. Sanat Kumara was the winning bidder and he joins me now. Welcome.

KUMARA: Thank you.

CURWOOD: So talk me through the economics of this decision. This car is three years old, it has almost 60,000 miles on it. Why is it worth twice the original price?

Sanat Kumara poses next to his winning item, a 2003 all-electric RAV-4. (Photo courtesy of Sanat Kumara)

KUMARA: Well, I work in the area of ecology, I have a solar home, and I really wanted a RAV4. And this particular RAV4 has the new batteries and it’s in very new condition, and I only saw it just a day and a half before it was sold. And then in the process it went up to the price that it did, but in my research it was worth that value so I went ahead and bought it.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about this auction. What was that scene like in the final moments of the auction? Are your palms sweating?

KUMARA: They were very much sweating. I was in shock. Even after the fact, after I had bought it, I just sat there in shock over the fact that I paid this much money for a car.

CURWOOD: So what does this tell us about the times we live in when a secondhand electric vehicle goes for twice its original price?

KUMARA: I think the reason why this went up to $67,000 is because I have a major interest in it. Somebody else also had a major interest in it – I don’t know what it was – but mine was because it’s so hard to get a good electric car that will serve the purpose that I want.

CURWOOD: Wait a second. $60,000 I could buy, let’s see, I see an ad here for a 2003 Hummer2. Now it sold for a deal, it was only $26,100. That’s about a third what you paid for that RAV4, and nobody will mess with you in traffic when you drive something that big.

KUMARA: Yeah, but I’m an ecologist. You know, when you’re an ecologist you really get off on being an ecologist rather than driving this great big Hummer. I mean, I just pass by those gas stations and I just go to where I want to go. And I come right back home and I have my own little gas station here at home that I plug into this solar system that I have hooked up for electricity, which costs me absolutely nothing to drive this car.

CURWOOD: So now you work at a Tibetan center there. You teach Buddhist philosophy?

KUMARA: That’s right.

CURWOOD: So how does this purchase tie in with those teachings?

KUMARA: Harmlessness. Complete environmental harmlessness and proper attitude toward economy.

CURWOOD: Sanat Kumara was the winning bidder of the electric RAV4. Thank you so much.

KUMARA: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Her Space Holiday “The Young Machines” from ‘The Young Machines’ (Mush - 2003)]

Secrets of the Savanna

Mark Owens affixes a radio transmitting collar to an immobilized elephant in North Luangwa Zambia in order to track the movements of her family group to better understand the conservation needs of this population after 93% of their members were killed by poachers. (Photo courtesy of the authors)

CURWOOD: Mark and Delia Owens went to Africa as young graduate students in 1972. Their plan: to study its disappearing animals - the brown hyena, the lion. They didn’t know they would stay in Africa for the next 23 years. They didn’t know then how political zoology work could be.

But when they moved to the Northern Luangwa Valley in Zambia, ivory poachers were killing savanna elephants by the thousands. So they stayed to stop the slaughter by helping villagers find better alternatives in agriculture and education.

And they tell their story in their new book: “Secrets of the Savanna: Twenty-three years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries of Elephants and People.” Mark and Delia, thanks so much for being here.

Mark Owens affixes a radio transmitting collar to an immobilized elephant in North Luangwa Zambia in order to track the movements of her family group to better understand the conservation needs of this population after 93% of their members were killed by poachers. (Photo courtesy of the authors)

MARK OWENS: Great to be here, Steve.

DELIA OWENS: Thank you for having us.

CURWOOD: So here you are in Africa, Delia, to study lions. What’s the moment that you decide it’s all about elephants?

DELIA OWENS: We were putting mud up on our little mud and waddle hut. It was going to be our first house in Africa – it had a thatch roof and it was just some logs with mud on it – and gunfire broke out all around camp. In fact, the gunfire was so close Mark grabbed me and pulled me behind a tree. We thought people were shooting at us. And in fact they were killing elephants, and we found some dead elephants near our camp. And we decided at that very moment that we would postpone the lion study and try to stop the poaching of the elephants.

CURWOOD: Take us back in history though a little bit on this story. How did you stop that poaching, Mark?

MARK OWENS: Well the first thing we tried to do was motivate the local game scouts. There were only seven game scouts protecting an area one and a half times the size of Delaware. They were dressed in rags, they had no weapons, they hadn’t been paid in eight months. And so what we tried to do was motivate them with equipment. We thought at first that might just do it.

CURWOOD: It didn’t do it though.

MARK OWENS: Not even close. What we had to do in the end was supplant an entire illegitimate economy based on poaching with a legitimate economy where villagers were improving their agriculture, starting small businesses like fish farms, poultry units, little vegetable gardens and so forth, and also we gave them jobs. We were basically replacing the meat they were getting from poaching and the cash they were getting from poaching with all these little enterprises.

CURWOOD: Now this is amazing to me. You guys go in, you identify the poachers, and instead of trying to put them in jail you give them jobs?

MARK OWENS: Well yes. Because, I mean, poaching was profoundly decimating to the wildlife and also to the people who were enslaved to work for the poachers for a lump of meat. They paid a shooter, they’d hire a shooter and pay him $10 to kill an elephant. So it was a very degrading, corrupting influence on the village communities.

CURWOOD: Now your book is also about the importance of family, and how elephants are really challenged when their natal groups are taken apart. There was one in particular who really stands out in this book. Her name is Gift. What was so extraordinary about her?

Delia Owens shows a wildlife magazine to children in a remote village near North Luangwa, Zambia. (Photo courtesy of the authors)

DELIA OWENS: Gift appeared on the beach across from our river one day when we were in camp, and she was only five years old. She was an orphan. The rest of her family unit had been shot. There were in fact quite a few orphans in North Luangwa, but she was the first to actually come into our camp.

Gift had a little jig that she would dance if we got too close to her. She would run towards us and flap her ears, and then she would stop and she would run in the opposite direction. It was a jig, it was so funny. But she was very, very special because she stayed around our camp for many years.

And then when she was eight and a half years old she had a calf, and she was the first one who showed us that the very young females were breeding. Because before poaching the elephants would not have their first calf until they were 16 years old. She was eight and a half and had an infant. We named the infant Georgia.

CURWOOD: So she would have gotten pregnant at six, because it takes two years to gestate an elephant.

MARK OWENS: Exactly.

DELIA OWENS: That’s right. The age of first ovulation in elephants had been cut in half. So this was the trick that the elephants had up their trunks to recover.

CURWOOD: You’re in a ridiculously dangerous place. At what point did the danger seem overwhelming?

Dr. Delia and Mark Owens conducted elephant research and conservation from the camp they built in the wilds of North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. (Photo courtesy of the authors)

MARK OWENS: I think the worst time for me, really, well, for both of us, was when – we had a favorite elephant who became more or less our mascot in the war against poaching. His name was Survivor. Survivor was the first to accept us and he began coming into our camp and hanging around a lot.

And we really became, we got to know him. And I could do this little ritual dance. I would hold my arm up full stretch and reach out my fingers, and he would arch his trunk over and smell my fingertips, and we’d sort of turn around each other in sort of a ritual dance in camp.

Anyway, he was shot one day, by a very bad guy with a group of about 40 men who came to kill us and the elephants. At that point I decided we had to escalate the war against poachers, and I did that by shooting firecrackers at them.

CURWOOD: Shooting firecrackers at them?

DELIA OWENS: Yes. The firecrackers were harmless, but the poachers didn’t realize that. It scared them. They thought they were hand grenades or something.

CURWOOD: By the way, when you’re bombing these poachers with firecrackers they shoot back at you?

MARK OWENS: Very definitely. They were shooting AK-47s at me. When I was flying at night I could see tracers streaking past the wings at times. They came to camp, as I think I said, three different times – at least three – to assassinate us. Fortunately the village people, who were on our side by this stage, warned us in every case.

But what worried me the most was three poachers of the major poaching figures were trying to get a shoulder-fired missile from corrupt elements of the army to shoot me down. So that’s why I had to come up with something that made us look less like a soft target. But I didn’t just shoot the firecrackers. At the same time I started rumors that these were actually rocket-propelled grenades instead of firecrackers. It was a big bluff. (Laughs)

DELIA OWENS: And believe it or not, this was what really cleared the park out. Finally, after everything we tried, these firecrackers chased the poachers out of the park, and the poaching stopped dramatically. And that’s when it became dangerous, really dangerous for us, when we succeeded. When the poaching stopped the ivory dealers were put out of business, and some very high-level officials were making money off of ivory, so they then determined to stop us. And they tried a lot of different ways.

CURWOOD: Through all these difficult times, how do you keep a marriage together?


MARK OWENS: (Laughs)

DELIA OWENS: It was not easy. I thought that Mark was taking too many risks. I mean, we wanted to solve the problem, but it became so dangerous, and it was too much for me. And I actually moved out and built a smaller camp along the Luangwa River about, well, it was about 60 miles…

MARK OWENS: About 40 miles…

DELIA OWENS: About 40 miles from our camp. Forty miles, that’s a day’s trip in the bush. And I think that’s what helped, because it put some distance between us and I didn’t have to know when he was going out at night and everything. Actually, I think every woman should have her own camp. It was wonderful. Mark would come out for the weekends and we’d sit and watch the elephants or the hippos and we were able to find some peace again.

CURWOOD: Tell me, is it possible to save elephants without saving people?



MARK OWENS: Absolutely not. If you think about human communities and wildlife communities juxtaposed throughout eons of time, they have always been interdependent. What we did in the North Luangwa was raise the standard of living not only for the wild animals but for the people, so that eventually when they reached a parity we could reassemble those ancient synergistic bonds between the two communities that had always existed.

DELIA OWENS: It ended so well. That’s what makes us happy, that after all this chaos and all these dangers, we never dreamed that it would actually end well.

MARK OWENS: Well what saved the project in the end, Steve, was that it was the local people really who saved the project. They simply would not let the corrupt elements of the government prevail. They were seeing so many benefits and had such an improved lifestyle and living standard that they basically, they and their chiefs, basically stood up and simply refused to accept that that project was finished. And it continues today. This is our 20th anniversary and it’s totally run by Zambians now. Northern Luangwa National Park is the most secure park in Zambia and probably in Africa.

CURWOOD: So I have to say guys, if I simply met you walking down the street or at the library or at a friend’s house over dinner, I’m not sure that I would see that you were so fearless and unstoppable as obviously you are. What’s your secret? What is it that drives you?

DELIA OWENS: We didn’t know what we were getting into when we went over there. We took it one day at a time, and when things got so dangerous we talked about quitting a lot, we really did. I’d say every other day we seriously asked ourselves why are we still here. And then an elephant would walk into camp, an elephant would stand five yards from us and look at us in the eye. And these people started depending on us, and their little children needed us, and we could see a little taste of success coming along. And we could not leave, we could not turn our backs on those people or the elephants who were depending on us.

CURWOOD: Mark and Delia Owens’ new book is called “Secrets of the Savanna.” Thanks so much for coming in today.

MARK OWENS: Thanks for having us, Steve.

DELIA OWENS: Thank you Steve.

MARK OWENS: It’s been a pleasure.

Related link:
Secrets of the Savanna

Back to top

[MUSIC: Marconi Union “Sleepless” from ‘Distance’ (Hannibal – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the amazing migrating dragonfly. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for N-P-R comes from N-P-R stations, and: Kashi, maker of all natural foods. Founded on the belief that everyone has the power to make healthful changes. Kashi: seven whole grains on a mission. The Kresge Foundation, investing in nonprofits to help them catalyze growth, connect to stakeholders, and challenge greater support. On the web at Kresge dot org. The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education. The WK Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact. 75 years of philanthropy. This is N-P-R -- National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Sonar Senghor & His Troupe “Miva” from ‘Where In The World Is Rykodisc?’ (Ryko - 1997)]

Emerging Science Note/Dragonfly Journeys

A swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) with a radio-transmitter attached to its thorax warming up at Cape May, NJ, before continuing its migratory flight. (Photo: Christian Ziegler)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: Why the Roof of Africa is losing its crown of ice. First this note on emerging science from Bobby Bascomb.


BASCOMB: New research shows that dragonflies can travel up to 100 miles a day in patterns that are very similar to migrating birds. Scientists at Princeton University attached radio transmitters – weighing 1/100th of an ounce – to the undersides of 14 Green Darner dragonflies and monitored their habits for 12 days.

The results: both birds and dragonflies start migrating when temperatures begin to drop in the fall. Each groups builds up reserves of body fat before migrating, wait for favorable winds, take extended periods of rest, reorient themselves if they get lost and use the same navigational markers on the landscape.

A swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) with a radio-transmitter attached to its thorax warming up at Cape May, NJ, before continuing its migratory flight. (Photo: Christian Ziegler)

Of the 5,200 dragonfly species in the world, 50 of them migrate. And of those, nine are found in North America. The Green Darner migrates from the Northern United States and Canada as far south as Mexico. But the trip South is a one-way ride. The adult dragonflies mate in the south and only their offspring return North in the spring.

Fossil records show dragonflies appeared about 140 million years before birds. So, instead of saying dragonflies migrate like birds, it might be more accurate to say that birds migrate like dragonflies. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Related link:
Princeton University Physiological Ecology Lab

Back to top


Early Signs: Kilimanjaro

The view of Kibo, Mt. Kilimanjaro's last remaining glaciated peak, from 11,300 feet. Scientists expect the glaciers on Kibo will disappear in the next 10-15 years following a worldwide trend of glacial retreat due to global warming. (Photo: Kate Cheney Davidson)

CURWOOD: Today we have another installment of our special series, Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet. The series is a collaboration of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Salon dot com, and Living on Earth to document places around the world where concerns about climate change are already having an impact.

Places like 20,000 feet above a dry, grassy savanna in northern Tanzania where Africa’s tallest mountain rises. But the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro made popular by author Ernest Hemingway are rapidly disappearing. Following a worldwide trend of glacial retreat due to global warming, scientists say that Kilimanjaro’s ice fields are expected to vanish completely in the next 10 to 15 years.

But it’s not only the glaciers that are under stress. The way of life for people downstream, who rely on the mountain’s melt and forests, is also at risk. Reporter Kate Cheney Davidson has our story.


DAVIDSON: It’s mid-morning and the equatorial heat is already seeping into our green Land Cruiser as it bounces along a rutted dirt road.

THOMPSON: I first came here in 1999, so this will be my third trip.

DAVIDSON: Professor Lonnie Thompson is one of the world’s leading experts on tropical glaciers. He watches out his window as we speed past flat-topped acacia trees and fields of sunflowers.

THOMPSON: The tropics, to me, are an extremely important area to understand for two basic reasons. One is that you have 50 percent of the surface area of the planet in the tropics. And two, you have 70 percent of the 6.5 billion people living there.

DAVIDSON: Professor Thompson says it added to his sense of urgency when, six years ago, he compared fresh photos of the mountain with maps drawn ninety years earlier. The results shocked him.

THOMPSON: And it turned out that 82 percent of the ice had disappeared. And if you look at just the projection of the rate of loss, sometime before 2020 the ice fields on this mountain will be gone.

The view of Kibo, Mt. Kilimanjaro's last remaining glaciated peak, from 11,300 feet. Scientists expect the glaciers on Kibo will disappear in the next 10-15 years following a worldwide trend of glacial retreat due to global warming. (Photo: Kate Cheney Davidson)

DAVIDSON: Before the glacial record here is wiped clean, Professor Thompson and other scientists are racing to chart the changes. After hours of driving, we get our first glimpse at the ice-covered summit of Kibo, Kilimanjaro’s highest peak, and the only one still covered with ice.

Ice is very much a threshold system. If the temperature is minus 1 degree Celsius, it’s perfectly happy, but once you reach zero and it starts to melt, the ice will disappear much more rapidly. And there’s evidence since 2000 that there’s actually been lakes that have burst out the sides of the glaciers, so melting has taken place.

Three years ago a glacial wall suddenly collapsed, spewing geysers of water and room-size blocks of ice onto a trail. No one was hurt, but this year three Americans died as a result of a freak rock fall high up on the mountain. These events, says Professor Thompson, could be further signs that the mountain is responding to a historic shift in climate. And that, he says, could be a harbinger of much larger human costs – not for recreationists, but for farmers.

THOMPSON: The ultimate question here is what’s the impact of the loss of ice fields 15 years from now on water supplies for the people who live at the base of the mountain?


DAVIDSON: Meet William Kiwali, chairman of the small village of Kifura.


KIWALI [VOICEOVER]: I’m a farmer. I grow coffee, corn, and bananas.

DAVIDSON: Here on a sun baked farm a half-mile below Kilimanjaro National Park, the evidence of a changing climate is obvious.


DAVIDSON: Mr. Kiwali leads us into a field of parched cornstalks that lean like drunkards at a bar. His farm, like many others on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, is not doing well.

KIWALI [VOICEOVER]: My farm is dry now, and so are the other farms, because there is not enough water.

DAVIDSON: Normally this region of East Africa receives two periods of precipitation, but the short rains, which were due in September, haven’t come for the past three years. Mr. Kiwali’s farm is one of hundreds that blanket this area, located in Mt. Kilimanjaro’s rain shadow. And despite occasional droughts, there’s usually plenty of water here. But Mr. Kiwali says this is not the land he remembers as a child.

An ice arch on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This photo was taken in 2001, and its position documented using a global positioning system (GPS) device (Photo: Douglas Hardy, University of Massachusetts Geosciences)

KIWALI [VOICEOVER]: In the past there was a lot of ice on the mountain, and the rivers were so full we could not cross them. Now there’s not enough water and the ice is diminished.

DAVIDSON: For generations, people here have relied on a clever system of furrow irrigation. It can send water to farms miles away from any source. But now local villagers say the rivers and streams that feed the irrigation ditches are starting to go dry.


DAVIDSON: Wearing high rubber boots in the mud, Mr. Kiwali points to a ditch containing a small trickle of water. He says he is surprised to even be standing here.

KIWALI [VOICEOVER]: In the 70s, this place was filled with water and you couldn’t cross here. But now, a lot of ditches are dried out and the rivers are low. And even the rivers that have water only have a little.

What remains of the arch, January 2006. (Photo: Douglas Hardy, University of Massachusetts Geosciences)

DAVIDSON: With so little water, says Mr. Kiwali, people started fighting.

KIWALI [VOICEOVER]: No, there’s not enough water for people, so they start quarreling. Sometimes they cut each other with machetes. It’s not normal. In the past there was no such thing.


DAVIDSON: We load into Professor Andreas Hemp’s battered four-wheel drive and climb another 2,600 feet into the forest. This is the place some scientists and government officials worry most about. The glaciers may grab headlines, but the forests are also in danger from a changing climate.

HEMP: We are now going on the main road up into the forest. You see a lot of bananas here, the main crop.

DAVIDSON: Andreas Hemp is an energetic German ecologist who has been studying the forests on Kilimanjaro for 10 years. Over the past seven decades, he says, people have cut down huge swaths of trees, and even more have been lost to fire. But Professor Hemp believes it’s all exacerbated by climate change. Over the last 100 years, there’s been a steady decline in precipitation. And if the forests are destroyed, he says, the mountain and the people who live on it will lose the majority of their water.

HEMP: Now we come nearer to the end of the banana-coffee belt. And we are soon entering the forest reserve.


DAVIDSON: The upper forests on Mt. Kilimanjaro perform an almost magical function. In a process called “fog-stripping,” large leafy trees on the upper mountain collect water vapor and funnel it in the form of droplets down to the forest floor. This process is believed to produce enough water annually for the entire population of Kilimanjaro.

We’ve come to the forest to check on one of the rain gauges that Professor Hemp has placed all over the mountain. Over the years, he has recorded Kilimanjaro’s loss of rain and fog water. If current conditions persist, he warns…

HEMP: Then we will lose the upper forest regions during the same time during which we lose the glaciers. It’s a parallel trend.


DAVIDSON: We stop at a huge tree fern. Professor Hemp pulls branches away to reveal a five gallon plastic bucket tucked against its base.

HEMP: This is a very simple system. You have a funnel on top, this collects the water, the rainfall…

DAVIDSON: Though it’s hard to imagine, Hemp says the water collected annually here in the forest is five hundred times the amount released by the glaciers.

HEMP: You can estimate the annual loss of the glaciers and the annual output of the melting water. Our estimations of the water output of water from the forest belt, and we can compare them. Five hundred million tons per year from the forest and one million tons from the glaciers.

DAVIDSON: Back at Professor Hemp’s laboratory we sit surrounded by satellite maps and rich botanical illustrations of the forest. He grimaces when asked to contemplate the future of the mountain and its water.

HEMP: If it’s going on like this, then it really would be a catastrophe. Because if we lose the forest cover due to illegal logging, due to fires, then we lose our permanent outflow of water on the mountain. A population of over one million people live on the mountain depends highly on a permanent, constant water output of the mountain. This would not be the case if we lose the forest cover.

DAVIDSON: The Tanzanian government is now trying to protect these endangered forests. President Jakaya Kikwete recently banned all tree cutting in Kilimanjaro’s preserves. And Tanzanian water officials and several civic and conservation groups have been helping people prepare for the dry times to come.

WEST: My name is Kelly West and I work for IUCN, the World Conservation Organization based in Eastern Africa.

DAVIDSON: Kelly West’s organization is helping fund the new initiative, called the Pangani River Basin Management Project.

WEST: One of our big messages in this project is we’re not just in a period of a few bad years. Climate change predictions for this area are strong. There’s likely to be a strong negative climate change impact in terms of river flows. So we wanted to work with both water managers and water users to look at the way they use water, and how we are going to plan ourselves for reduced flows.

DAVIDSON: Over three million people depend on the Pangani River, which drains Mt. Kilimanjaro, for their crops and livestock. But the challenge, says Ms. West, is to convince farmers that water is more than a gift from God.

WEST: For a long time…people are still in the mentality that we’re just having a bad year, but you’re not going to have the rains that you remember from your childhood again. Climate change is happening and people need to change the way they use water.


DAVIDSON: There’s one region where the future is already here. As you might expect, it’s downstream. The people of Mwangaria, a village on the dry, dusty savanna below Mt. Kilimanjaro, are losing their traditional sources of water because it’s getting used up before it reaches them. Now they must rely solely on the rains to water their crops, which makes them very vulnerable to any drought or change in rainfall.


DAVIDSON: We meet Rispaeli Jonas hiding from the blistering afternoon sun with a group of older women beneath a stand of trees. Her hair is plaited in straight cornrows and she wears a multi-colored kanga, a traditional African wrap skirt.

JONAS [VOICEOVER]: Right now we ask ourselves in Mwangaria what is happening? Is it because we cut a lot of trees? We are truly astonished because it’s been three years now and we still don’t have enough food to eat.

DAVIDSON: And when she’s hungry, she admits she does something that will only make her situation worse.

JONAS [VOICEOVER]: So when the drought comes and there is no rain, we cut trees for money to buy food at the market.

DAVIDSON: In this part of Africa, as in some other places that fortune has skipped over, climate change is likely to aggravate what humans have already done to the landscape.

SAGURO [VOICEOVER]: My name is Israeli Saguro. My family name is Mmanyi, and I’m 52 years old.

DAVIDSON: There will probably be more people like Mr. Saguro, whose job it is to supervise the water supply for Mwangaria, a place that has no water. That’s because a government-endorsed rice-growing scheme diverted the village’s main water source more than a decade ago. And now, there’s drought.

Parched corn leans listlessly on a farm near the village of Kifuru, located at about 5,000 feet on Mt. Kilimanjaro's south side. Local farmers say corn harvests have suffered for the past three years due to lack of rain. (Photo: Jon Lewis)

SAGURO [VOICEOVER]: Yeah, sometimes we had drought, but not like this. I think it has been three years now and we have harvested nothing. When you grow corn they dry up before they can blossom. It used to be different than it is now.

When there wasn’t drought, I lived a happy life. I wasn’t suffering like I am now. I had plenty of food and water, and the weather was good. Now it’s extremely hot and there is no day when the weather is good.


DAVIDSON: Mr. Saguro gets up from the couch in his modest house made of narrow logs chinked with mud. Gently, he lifts a small wooden instrument from a peg on the wall. It’s called an irimba, and his father showed him how to make it.


Mr. Saguro tells us he knows exactly what song he wants to play.

Children gather around the only water pump left in Mwangaria; the other pump ran dry in the early 1990s. Villagers say this is the only safe drinking water they have. (Photo: Jori Lewis)

SAGURO [VOICEOVER]: I wanted to play this song because I see happening today.

DAVIDSON: The song says people are dying and asks, who is willing to climb aboard the Lord’s ship to help?


For Living on Earth, I’m Kate Cheney Davidson in Mwangaria, Tanzania.

CURWOOD: Our story on Mount Kilimanjaro was produced with help from Elizabeth Chur. “Early Signs” is a collaboration of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Salon dot com, and Living on Earth. To read a print version of the story about Mount Kilimanjaro and see photos - visit our website Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

Related link:
To see a print version of this story, and other reports in this series, click here

Back to top


MUSIC: Israeli Saguro Mmanyi plays the Irimba, a traditional African instrument, to end the story (live recording – 2006)


CURWOOD: We leave you this week - not far from Mount Kilimanjaro - on the Maasai Mara plain in Kenya.

Chris Watson quietly recorded a family of elephants that have bedded down in rough grassland for the long African night.

EARTH EAR: “Elephants” recorded by Chris Watson from ‘Outside The Circle Of Fire’ (Touch Music – 2003)

CURWOOD: You know, I better not wake up these elephants, so I’ll just tell you this. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Emily Torgrimson, and Jeff Young - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, and James Curwood. Our interns are Bobby Bascomb and Emily Taylor. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; Kashi; maker of all natural cerials and snacks for health and wellness. Kashi, seven whole grains on a mission. And Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, the Wellborn Ecology Fund, and the Saunders Hotel Group of Boston's Lennox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth