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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 10, 2001

Air Date: August 10, 2001

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Malaria in Thailand / Orlando de Guzman

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Some of the world's leading malaria researchers are working in Thailand, along the country's borders with Burma and Cambodia, studying the emergence of virulent strains of malaria. Orlando de Guzman reports on why scientists believe malaria is resisting current anti-malaria drugs and what treatments are currently being suggested. (11:05)

Tech Note / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on windows that become darker with the flick of a switch, helping reduce heat and glare from the sun. (00:59)

Almanac: Krakatau volcanic eruption

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This week, facts about the Krakatau volcanic eruption 118 years ago. (01:30)

Ice Archeology / Bob Carty

(stream / mp3)

Producer Bob Carty travels to the Canadian Yukon to report on how receding ice, brought on by climate change, is yielding some of the oldest artifacts ever found in North America. (09:00)

Delinquent Elephants

(stream / mp3)

In the 1980's, a group of orphaned elephants was relocated to a national park in South Africa with the hopes of repopulating the area. But park managers didn't realize they were creating a juvenile delinquency problem. In the absence of older bulls, the young male elephants matured too soon and ended up killing endangered rhinos. Steve Curwood speaks with elephant researcher Rob Slotow on how the problem was solved. (05:40)

Health Note

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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on a new study that suggests applying protective sunscreens might include taking some health risks. (01:15)

Sea Turtles / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports from Mexico, where one sea turtle researcher has been trying to navigate the difficult waters of conservation and its clash with local culture. (15:00)

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Malaria in Thailand

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Malaria is a deadly and debilitating disease that was once an outstanding success story of modern public health practices. By the end of World War II, malaria had been eradicated from just about every industrialized nation. Even in less-developed nations, including Thailand, South Africa, and Kenya, health officials were able to bring the disease under control with quinine and other drugs. Now, things have changed. New, more drug-resistant strains of malaria are emerging, and every year more than one million people die from the disease. Today the World Health Organization says malaria threatens nearly 40 percent of the world's population. Orlando de Guzman reports from the border of Thailand and Burma, a place researchers call the global epicenter for new strains of the disease.

(Thunderstorm)

DE GUZMAN: Along the Dawna mountain range dividing Thailand and Burma, outbreaks of malaria come with the monsoon season from May to September. This is when mosquitoes breed easily in the dense jungle along the border. In this vast frontier, most people eke out a living planting rice and corn along the rugged foothills. Venture further into the forest and you enter a no man's land. It's home to heavily armed drug cartels and illegal loggers. Countless land mines litter the border.

(Ambient voices)

DE GUZMAN: This area is notorious for the most potent strains of malaria on earth. For villagers living here, malaria strikes hard and fast.

MASU SU: (speaks in native language) TRANSLATOR: Because she go into the forest, she said, for the six day, for six days, then she feeling hot, hot, so she not feel good condition so she come here.

DE GUZMAN: Twenty-five-year-old Masu Su was unconscious when she was carried for six hours from a logging camp inside Burma. Her family brought her to the village of Mokothai, a cluster of bamboo huts with a clinic on the Thai side of the border. A serious case of cerebral malaria has left her shivering beneath a wool blanket despite the tropical heat.

MASU SU: (Speaks in native language) TRANSLATOR: Before the chest pain, and the headache, and the dizziness, especially in the night time, with fever not feeling good.

(Voices; a child screams)

DE GUZMAN: Malaria is caused by a blood-borne parasite that's transmitted through the female anopheles mosquito. Once a person is bitten, the parasite quickly retreats to the liver, where it grows and multiplies. It's not until the parasites emerge and spread into the bloodstream that painful symptoms appear. In a matter of hours the parasite can copy itself thousands of times, thrashing about and popping red blood cells.

(Screaming continues)

DE GUZMAN: At a clinic for Burmese refugees in the Thai trading down of Measot, malaria is the most common illness. Aung Moon, the medic on duty, says political instability within Burma is causing the disease to spill over into Thailand.

MOON: (Speaks in Burmese) TRANSLATOR: Malaria is a big problem along the border, especially inside Burma, where they don't have clinics and doctors. These refugees don't know enough about malaria to take simple precautions, like using mosquito nets. When they get infected, they just buy a pack of painkillers. That's one reason why malaria is so high on the border.

DE GUZMAN: Aung Moon says refugees, mostly ethnic Karens, often get sick in their long trek through malaria-infested jungles to escape the Burmese army. The Thai government says this is why malaria cases have risen by 20 percent along the border since the mid-1990s. Although malaria is on the rise, Thailand shares a very small percent of the worldwide burden. Nine out of ten cases of malaria are in Africa. What's unique about Thailand is the strength of the parasite. Three of the most common anti-malaria drugs are useless here. Even quinine, an old ally used to fight severe malaria, is losing its punch, says Aung Moon.

MOON: (Speaks in Burmese) TRANSLATOR: What's really scary is that more and more people are becoming resistant to quinine, the most common and powerful drug we have been using. Even when we give quinine to them, the parasites are still there in their blood.

DE GUZMAN: Resistance to drugs comes primarily from incorrect use. When a drug is taken irregularly or in low doses, not all of the parasites are killed off. The stronger pathogens that survive are then allowed to replicate. Quinine resistance was first documented in Thailand in the late 1980s, and researchers are closely monitoring its spread. There are fears that quinine resistance may move beyond Thailand into India and Africa. That's already happened to chloroquine, a synthetic and cheaper alternative. Dr. Francois Nosten is with the Shoklo malaria research unit. He's been tracking drug resistance along the border of Thailand since the early 1980s.

NOSTEN: The first case of chloroquine resistance was documented in 1957. Ten years later it has spread over the whole region, and in the middle of the 1980s it had already reached Africa. For certain drugs it's not a very quick phenomenon, but for other drugs the emergence of resistance is much quicker.

DE GUZMAN: In Thailand, for instance, it took only five years for the malaria parasite to become resistant to mefloquine, a drug developed by the U.S. Army. More alarming, says Dr. Nosten, is what happened to another drug called fancidar. The drug is an effective treatment in Africa. But in Thailand, the parasite became resistant to fancidar within two years.

NOSTEN: So it's a very clever organism and the type of parasite that we find in Asia is more capable of adaptation to its environment. But the exact, precise mechanism of how the parasite does all this, we don't know.

DE GUZMAN: Not only has the malaria parasite figured out how to escape the action of various drugs, it's also learned how to hide from our immune system. People who are infected with the disease never develop full immunity. Just how the parasite does this is key to developing a vaccine against malaria.

(Humming, fans)

DE GUZMAN: In an air-conditioned laboratory in Bangkok, Major Scott Miller from the U.S. Army is trying to unlock the biological underpinnings of the most deadly strain of malaria, plasmodium falciperum.

MILLER: These are our incubators. They are incubated at 37 degrees Celsius, which is roughly the temperature of the human body, where we grow malaria parasites in the laboratory.

DE GUZMAN: The U.S. Army is trying to develop a vaccine in case its troops are deployed in tropical countries. Dr. Miller says the U.S. Army is now less prepared to fight malaria than it was during the Vietnam War 20 years ago.

MILLER: Drug resistance in Southeast Asia is such that all of the drugs that are available on the U.S. formulary are ineffective, both in the prevention and to a large part of the treatment of falciperum malaria here. Therefore, if we had a large number of people come who were not immune to malaria, it is likely that malaria would be a serious illness that would affect those soldiers.

DE GUZMAN: Vaccine trials have been carried out in Thailand and in Gambia in West Africa, and so far results have been mixed. That's because once inside the body, malaria pathogens are able to change their appearance regularly, so the vaccine can't recognize them. The parasite is also extremely complex, containing a thousand times as many genes as HIV.

MILLER: The malaria parasite has been with humanity for many thousands of years, and it has proven to be a very difficult adversary, both in terms of our understanding the immune response that our body makes once we are infected with malaria, and also in terms of developing a vaccine against the parasite.

DE GUZMAN: With an effective vaccine a long way off, Thailand is relying on a promising anti-malaria drug called artemisinen. The drug is extracted from the wormwood plant. Highly effective, artemisinen has actually been used to treat fevers for over 2,000 years in China. In Thailand, artemisinen is used in combination with mefloquine. Dr. Nicholas White, a professor of tropical medicine at Oxford University, says the results were dramatic.

WHITE: In the mid-1990s it was really looking rather serious that we might be confronting completely untreatable malaria by this new millennium. But fortunately for us, a solution has come in the use of combination drugs. And this approach has prevented the emergence of resistance.

DE GUZMAN: That's because two drugs working together can kill off the infection completely. While combination drug regimens are highly effective, Dr. White remains cautious.

WHITE: I think that it would be very unwise to consider that resistance would not develop to any chemical that an organism is exposed to. Every time we have thought resistance would not develop in a microorganism that causes an infection, we're wrong.

DE GUZMAN: Although Thailand has the misfortune of having the most drug-resistant strains of malaria, it does have the political will and health infrastructure to deal with the problem.

(Thai music)

DE GUZMAN: Educational campaigns through songs and posters make their way to the village level quickly and have raised the public's awareness about the disease. The country's successful malaria eradication efforts have confined drug-resistant strains to small, isolated pockets, mostly along its borders. Dr. Krongtong Thimarsarn, the director of Thailand's malaria control program, says it's important to think of malaria not just as a health problem.

THIMARSARN: In my country, I think the government considered malaria was the top priority among the diseases, because they consider that malaria is the barrier for improvement of the socioeconomic status of the country. So the best way is to get rid of the enemy.

DE GUZMAN: Thailand's successful campaigns to control malaria have not been so easily repeated by neighboring Burma and Cambodia. But the biggest fear now is that Thailand's newer, drug-resistant strains are slowly making their way to sub-Saharan Africa. It's happened before, but this time the effects are predicted to be much more devastating. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman in Bangkok.

(Music up and under: Jean Dudon "Naiades")

CURWOOD: One footnote to our story. Recently there has been a lot of concern about the spread of malaria related to global warming. A study out of Oxford University says that as the world heats up, places where malaria exists will shift over the next 50 years. Some places that are presently free of the disease, including parts of Mexico and the southern United States, will likely see outbreaks. But other regions, including parts of Brazil, Bolivia, and the Horn of Africa, are predicted to become malaria-free.

(Music)

Related link:
World Health Organization Malaria Page">

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Tech Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, the cool side of global warming. Thawing ice in polar Canada reveals archaeological treasures. First, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music)

GRABER: Windows make a big difference in how much heating, cooling, and light a building needs. Today's best windows can reduce heat and glare from ultraviolet rays. But about half the heat streaming through them comes from visible light. So researchers have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce the first electrically powered tinting windows. These windows are coated with five layers of a thin metal mixture. With the twist of a dimmer, a user can send an electric charge through some of the coatings. Some layers absorb the charge and become darker, then lighter once again when the charge is released. Researchers say the new panels can save up to forty percent of electricity needs even over today's best energy saving windows. And because they cut down on both ultraviolet and visible sunlight, your couches, chairs, and carpets won't fade so quickly either. That's this week's Technology Update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

(Music)

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Almanac: Krakatau volcanic eruption

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One hundred and eighteen Augusts ago, the earth was sent the mother of all wake-up calls. On the island of Krakatau located between Java and Sumatra, a volcano exploded with the force of ten thousand Hiroshima atomic bombs. The explosion was heard as far as 1500 miles away. It's shockwaves traveled four times around the globe and created a massive tsunami; 40,000 people died in its wake. On the other hand, Krakatau offered a unique opportunity for biologists. Complete obliteration of flora and fauna there allowed them to study the rebirth of an ecosystem. Beginning with a single spider blown to the island nine months after the blast, wildlife soon reestablished itself. After 25 years, coastal trees reached 115 feet. And the island was supporting a host of insects and birds, even a large reticulated python. The recovery of Krakatau, now a forested national park, continues to intrigue scientists, and provides a reminder that life indeed can follow death. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Ice Archeology

CURWOOD: Some of the most dramatic evidence of climate change can be seen in the rapid retreat of the world's glaciers and ice patches. The melting of ancient ice could eventually cause drought and famine for millions of people around the world who rely on rivers fed by mountain ice. But in the western corner of Canada, the receding ice has also produced an unexpected benefit: the uncovering of ancient artifacts that archaeologists call some of the most important finds in North America. Bob Carty has this report from the Yukon.

(Helicopter engines)

FARNELL: We're a short distance south of White Horse in the Coast Mountain Range. We're flying at about 6,000 feet, and the site we're going to is known as Friday Creek. It's just up in this hanging valley at 12 o'clock.

CARTY: Rick Farnell is a government biologist, and today he's taking me for a little helicopter ride. Off to the west about 100 miles is the border with Alaska. Down below are the high ridges of the Yukon Mountains. In their crevices and in their hanging valleys are ancient patches of ice.

FARNELL: This one is about 100 meters wide, and I'd say about 300 meters long. A couple of years ago, we discovered these ice patches were melting back quite rapidly. This could be a real strong signature of global warming.

(Helicopter engines, fade to footfalls)

CARTY: The helicopter lands and we scramble over to the ice patch. As we walk up to it, there is a football field of rocks at its base. Rocks that are barren of lichens and mosses. They used to be covered by the ice patch. That's how far it's melted in only a few years, the result of repeated summers of high temperatures. In this part of North America, ice patches have melted by up to 80 percent of their original size.

(Flowing water)

FARNELL: There's always water runoff on the ice patches, and it's because these sites are really burning out. They're melting back really fast.

CARTY: Ice patches were formed thousands of years ago in the same way as glaciers: snow accumulating over the years getting packed down into ice. But unlike glaciers, ice patches do not move, which means they don't crush and mix up everything inside them. Which means that when they melt, they release their contents.

(Footfalls on gravel)

CARTY: Rick Farnell takes me up to the 25-foot face of the ice patch, and then he points to the thick black clumps under our feet. "What you're standing on," Rick tells me, "is caribou dung. Lots of caribou dung." And that's what Rick Farnell comes here to find and collect.

(Scrapes, chops)

FARNELL: What we do is chop in here into the ice like this, and you can remove fecal material from the very bottom. And that will be the oldest fecal material. I was telling my assistant, Lora Lee, when she started working on this project, that she's going to learn a new science, and we're going to call it "fecology." And I've had her sorting and mailing and shipping turds, or, you know, fecal pellets, to all kinds of researchers.

CARTY: Now the question arises, why is there such scientific excitement about these caribou droppings? The reason is, there aren't any caribou living in these parts, and there haven't been for hundreds of years. And that made Don Russell, a caribou expert with Environment Canada, really curious when he heard about the dung. Three years ago he went up the mountain and discovered more than just caribou droppings.

RUSSELL: Just before I left, I picked up what looked like the end of an arrow. We subsequently had it aged and it was 4,300 years old, which was at that time the oldest organic artifact found in Canada. We had some of the droppings aged, and the oldest is around 8,000 years.

CARTY: It seems that for a period of up to 8,000 years, these mountain ice patches were visited by immense herds of caribou escaping from mosquitoes in the summer heat. And where the caribou gathered, so too did aboriginal hunters. If a hunter missed his prey with a spear or an arrow, it could be lost to the snow and to the ice. And to time. Until today. Diane Strand is the spokesperson for the Champagne-Aishiak Indians. Her elders used to talk about herds of caribou so large that when they moved, it seemed the mountains themselves moved. For Diane Strand, those are now more than just old tales. When the artifacts were first discovered on her people's land, Diane Strand went up to the ice patches to see what her ancestors had left behind.

STRAND: As I was climbing up, I had said a little prayer to my grandmother, just to give me some guidance and help. My grandmother had lived there. My mother was raised in that area. Just when I was finishing my prayer, I look down and I seen a stick that looks something like a pencil sticking out of the dirt or the dung, actually. I brushed it off, and I could see that there was some sinew that was wrapped around it. It was a spear-throwing dart. It was dated at about 6,700 years old, plus or minus a few hundred years there. And I go back and I think about -- it could be one of my ancestors, my great great great great great grandpa, of some sort.

(Chopping)

HARE: What we found, is you can find a piece of bone that looks as fresh as if it was dropped last year or the year before, and it can be 5,000 years old.

CARTY: Greg Hare fingers a piece of caribou antler he's just picked up from the ground. The ice patch we're visiting today is the seventy-fifth site that is now producing artifacts from previous centuries. It's like a dream come true for Greg Hare, an archaeologist with the Yukon territorial government.

HARE: One of the finest pieces we found in the last two years was a type of hunting technology where you use a throwing board to propel a long dart. And it's this beautifully-made stone point. The sinew is still very intact, holding it onto the wooden foreshaft. For most archaeologists this would be unbelievable.

CARTY: After artifacts are found on the ice patches, they're taken down to White Horse to be freeze-dried and preserved.

(Clanking, hammering, fans)

HARE: This is a dedicated freezer for storing the artifacts and faunal remains from the ice patches. It's constantly kept at minus 12 degrees.

CARTY: Greg Hare brings a tray of artifacts out of the freezer to show them off. And I have to admit to being very impressed. I visited quite a few museums and I've seen my share of arrowheads. And frankly, I've always found them kind of boring. This is different. These specimens are more than just the rock. They have their original organic parts, the wood and the sinew that would normally rot away and disappear. Greg Hare shows me an arrow he's particularly proud of.

HARE: Just a remarkable specimen. It's about two and a half feet long, it's got a barbed antler point at the end, it's tied on with sinew. There's three feathers, ochre decoration at least in five places down the arrow. This arrow has got to be a thousand years old, and it's in nearly perfect condition. If you had a bow you could shoot and hunt with this arrow today.

CARTY: The ice patches may contain other surprises. The caribou dung itself is being analyzed for what it can tell us about vegetation, bacteria, and diseases over thousands of years. It could even reveal insights into climate changes of the past. But for aboriginal spokesperson Diane Strand, the discoveries mean something more intangible.

STRAND: I do have mixed feelings about climate change, but it's been kind of a little blessing for us so that we can have -- the first nation's people can have some kind of opportunity in looking at their past. And once you have that, you develop a sense of pride.

(Helicopter engines)

CARTY: Up on these ice patches, you might expect researchers to be enjoying and celebrating their discoveries. Instead, they're working with a sense of anxiety and urgency. The problem is that their icy treasure chest is melting too fast. They may be running out of time to retrieve the secrets of the past. And it's all because of the weather of today and the forecast for the future, according to biologist Rick Farnell.

FARNELL: Our glaciologist predicts that we've only got five to ten years and they may melt back completely if the summers stay as hot as they are. CARTY: Climate change giveth and taketh away.

FARNELL: Yeah, and then they're no longer going to be time capsules, if they melt completely back.

(Helicopter engines)

CARTY: In the Yukon Mountains of Western Canada, I'm Bob Carty for Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our website. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at lettlers@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988, that's 800-218-9988. CD's, tapes and transcripts are $15.00.

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Delinquent Elephants

CURWOOD: Two decades ago, officials in South Africa's Kruger National Park decided they had too many elephants, and thinned the herd by killing adults. Some of the young elephants orphaned in this cull were sent to another national preserve called Pilansberg. But in the mid-90s, park rangers there realized an unintended and grizzly consequence of the relocation: elephants began killing rhinos. Researchers say the relocated male elephants, now teenagers, had entered into abnormally early, and abnormally long, periods of musth. That's the bull elephant's state of heightened testosterone and aggression. Dr. Rob Slotow, a biologist with the University of Natal in Durban, was called in to help find a solution to the attacks. He says these elephants were exhibiting deviant behavior because their normal hormonal cycles were severely disrupted.

SLOTOW: In a normal society, a male elephant would gradually have extended periods of musth. And during this process of gradually acquiring musth, they get experience at dealing with having elevated testosterone coursing through their blood, having these aggressive fits, if you like. And they learn to deal with de-escalation of conflicts when they can't win. So these bulls, the young bulls in Pilansberg, don't have this experience of de-escalating when in musth, because they've never encountered a bull that's actually dominant to them. There are no older bulls around that can beat them in a fight. And so they don't know how to de-escalate when they chase off to these rhinos.

CURWOOD: Can you tell us why you think the rhinos were singled out by bull elephants for aggression?

SLOTOW: Well, in natural populations, elephants and rhino typically interact with each other. And this also typically takes place around water holes. Animals typically will signal to each other intent to fight. There will be posturing or moves towards each other. And very rarely do physical interactions take place. And in most instances, one of the two, either the rhino or the elephant, would move away from the victor, who remains behind. What we believe happens in the instances where elephants are killing rhinos is that the rhinos are de-escalating. They're deciding they can't win this fight. They turn away and they move away. And what we believe is abnormal is that the elephants actually chase the rhinos down, chase them at the run, and will then attack them with their tusks.

CURWOOD: So then, someone had the idea, I gather, to bring in some older males to regulate the hormones of these young bucks. What happened when that was done?

SLOTOW: Well, the older bulls were brought in, in February 1998. And after about six months or so, the population settled down to, what we describe as, a normal population structure, in terms of the social behavior. And also after about eight months or so, the first of the Kruger bulls came into musth, and the young resident Pilansberg bulls started showing shorter and shorter musth periods.

CURWOOD: And what happened to the rhino killing?

SLOTOW: These mortalities had ceased completely since the introduction of these adult elephants.

CURWOOD: Now, some could say that this is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of human intervention in the highly complex animal society. What would you say?

SLOTOW: Well, I think that's exactly the point. When people try new ideas, there are consequences of them that we may not know about until a number of years have passed. And this is particularly so when you talk about long-lived species, such as elephants. What's happened here is we've learned a lot about elephant behavior, and we've also learned a lot about the procedures that should be followed when major undertakings, such as this, are taken. Not only should one consider what the elephants eat, is their food present, etc., but also, what the sociological consequences would be for animals such as elephants. Although, you know, some rhino were killed, this elephant population has established itself. It's a good population. The elephants were saved from culls in Kruger National Park, which is a nice thing, as well. And they are part of the ecosystem. So, the principle of translocating them wasn't a wrong principle, but what we've learned from this is that we need to translocate, essentially, miniature populations, which have the correct structure. And this is what is taking place now. So, the main source of elephants, Kruger National Park, have learned from this and they do translocate now complete female herds with adult females, and are also now sending older bulls with these populations.

CURWOOD: These elephants were orphaned by park rangers, the ones that we're talking about. But what happens when there's poaching in which, in fact, the biggest males with the biggest tusks are the targets?

SLOTOW: I think this is the next area where we're going to learn about problems of elephant society. In areas further north in Africa, in East Africa, where there were major poaching events and most of the older animals would have been wiped out, we now have young populations that don't have the guidance of these older animals. One such example might be young males come into musth earlier, but there may be other sociological problems that these populations are going to face. There may be problems with the females, etc. And we're only really going to learn about these problems through close study of these populations.

CURWOOD: Dr. Rob Slotow is a biologist at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. His paper on bull elephants appeared in a recent issue of Nature. Thank you, sir.

SLOTOW: Thank you.

(Music up and under)

Related link:
Live webcam pictures from a watering hole in Pilansberg">

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, keeping sea turtles out of the soup. Say tuned to Living on Earth. Now, this environmental health update with Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: With summer approaching, people are stocking up on their favorite sunscreens to fend off the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays. But some Swiss scientists warn that the UV-absorbing chemicals used to protect skin cells may pose hormonal risks. Researchers studied six chemicals commonly used in sunscreens and other cosmetics. Five of the six UV screens they examined behaved like the hormone estrogen in lab tests, speeding up the growth of breast cancer cells. Three of the chemicals also quickened the pace of sexual development in rats when mixed with their feed. Even applying the chemicals to the rats' skin in concentrations allowed in commercial sunscreens disrupted normal reproductive development. Researchers don't know whether these dosage levels have similar effects on people, but they are concerned because the hormone-mimicking chemicals can build up in our bodies and have been found in breast milk. Also worrisome, the UV-absorbers can enter the food chain when fish accumulate chemicals that wash off sunscreen-coated swimmers. Scientists aren't yet advising us to abandon sunscreens, which still provide the best defense against sun-damaged skin. They do suggest that until we know more about the effects of UV-absorbing chemicals, zinc oxide, which doesn't contain the additives, may be your best bet. As long as you don't mind a bright white nose. That's this week's health note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

(Music)

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Sea Turtles

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Sea turtles have inhabited Earth for more than 150 million years. But today, all seven species of the animal are endangered. One recent study in the journal Nature noted that present trends will push one species, the leatherbacks, on an irreversible path toward extinction within ten years. There have been some successes in protecting nesting beaches, but only recently have scientists begun studying how to protect turtles in the waters where they live. Among them, a scientist who works along the coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber has this profile of J. Nichols.

(Engine)

NICHOLS: We'll approach them slowly, and then try to sneak up on them, and when we get close enough, jump out of the boat and grab them. It's known in turtle research circles as turtle rodeo.

GRABER: Turtle rodeo. That's one way J. Nichols catches sea turtles. Nichols and two assistants take a small motorboat about 30 miles into the Pacific off the coast of Puerto San Carlos to find turtles. They look for small white birds that rest on turtle shells. But finding a turtle is only half the battle. Just try getting one into the boat.

NICHOLS: They're really strong. They can pull you under and there's no way you'd be able to fight it. Except, if you grab them a certain way, you can steer them to the boat.

GRABER: Nichols stands at the bow of the boat and searches the calm waters. At age 34, with sun-bleached hair and an easy smile, Nichols looks like a surfer. And actually he does surf, a talent that helps him keep his balance against the roll of the waves. Suddenly, he jumps into the water.

(Splash; voices: "Whoo hoo!")

GRABER: Within seconds, Nichols drags a turtle to the boat, and, with help from his assistants, hauls it on board.

(Thrashing in the boat; gasping)

GRABER: The turtle thrashes about, then takes a few gasps of air.

NICHOLS: Pretty clean shell, surprisingly. This is an Olive Ridley, about the size of a mature female.

GRABER: The turtle's mottled green shell is called a carapace. It's roughly the size of a manhole cover. The men toss a dark blue tarp over the turtle to calm it down. They measure and weigh the animal, staple a silvery marker tag onto one of its flippers, and toss it back into the water.

(Splash)

GRABER: Millions of sea turtles once swam in Baja's coastal waters. And for most of the past century, fishermen caught them, canned their meat, and tanned their leather for export.

NICHOLS: Really, it would seem like an unlimited resource. There were just really, so many turtles.

GRABER: But a few decades ago, the population crashed. The Mexican government tried to limit the fishery, but it wasn't enough. So a decade ago, the killing of sea turtles was outlawed. Even eating one caught accidentally, or that simply turned up dead on the beach, was illegal, too. Exports stopped, but local people continued to kill and eat turtles. The situation got so bad that when Nichols told his Ph.D. advisors he wanted to study Baja's sea turtles, they told him not to bother.

NICHOLS: My committee was pretty skeptical. It may be too difficult to collect data. Too few turtles, too much ocean. Didn't seem like a good scenario.

GRABER: In the end, his advisors relented. Nichols came to Baja. He hired an old fisherman to take him out to sea in the middle of the night. As dawn broke, Nichols caught his first turtle.

NICHOLS: Measured it. Took photos. And jumped up and down in the boat a little bit, and put it back in the water. You know, kind of an emotional point. Looking back, it especially was one of the reasons why we decided to move forward with the project.

GRABER: Nichols continues to employ local fishermen to help with his research. After all, they are the ones who know where to find the turtles. Nichols also realized that each encounter gave him a chance to talk about why the animals may disappear forever. What Nichols said made sense to Rodrigo Rangel, a 26-year-old who grew up eating turtles. Now, he's one of Nichols' assistants.

RANGEL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The people think there isn't a problem because all year there are turtles. I know now from doing this study that this is where turtles feed all year round. I think it's a study that needs to be done, and I feel good about it. For many years I have eaten turtles. Now, it's a good opportunity to do something to help them.

(Engines)

GRABER: After five long hours at sea, Nichols and his team have caught and tagged only one turtle. They decide to head back. But Rodrigo keeps a constant lookout. A few miles from shore, Rodrigo calls out and the driver quickly whirls the boat around. Rodrigo dives into the water and reappears moments later with a massive loggerhead.

(Splashing, thrashing)

GRABER: They'll take this turtle back to Nichols' base in the village and tag it with a satellite transmitter. And they've given the turtle a name: Max. Three years ago, Nichols put his first satellite tag on a loggerhead turtle, a female named Adelita. He tracked her across the Pacific to Japan. Scientists long suspected loggerheads born in Japan make their way to Mexico to feed, and then return to Japan to reproduce. But Nichols' study was the first to conclusively prove the Japan-Baja connection.

NICHOLS: I mean, I was completely fascinated every time I got new data. I was just mapping it and playing it and watching this turtle start to slowly cross the Pacific.

GRABER: Nichols wanted to share his data with as many people as possible, so he had a friend set up a Web site. Soon, teachers and students around the world were able to watch Adelita cross the Pacific. Today, ten turtles are crossing the water over cyberspace. After five years of research, Nichols has proved the waters off of Baja remain a crucial feeding ground for four species of endangered sea turtles.

NICHOLS: It started off, that was the main focus, was science.

GRABER: But Nichols realized something early on in his research. Turtle nesting beaches were being protected in Mexico and Japan, and more juveniles were reaching Baja to feed. But many of the animals that came to Baja were eaten or caught accidentally, and so never made it back to their nesting beaches to lay eggs of their own.

NICHOLS: Just watching the turtles that I was studying disappear, be eaten, the light went on. You know what? I could sit around and look at turtle DNA for the next five years while these turtles get wiped out. That would be unethical.

GRABER: Mexican officials insisted no turtles were being illegally consumed. So Nichols talked to villagers all over the peninsula. He discovered the occasional turtle meal remains an essential part of special events, such as birthdays and religious celebrations.

NICHOLS: Anybody with money can buy a turtle. It's not uncommon for politicians even to eat turtle. So that kind of keeps some of the poachers pretty safe.

GRABER: And turtles are not killed just for food. Their oil and blood have long been a part of traditional medicine in Baja.

(Footfalls)

NICHOLS: So this is what we call the turtle cemetery. Basically, these are all carapaces that have been collected over the past year and a half, and I guess there's about 200 of them.

GRABER: The cemetery, located behind Nichols' base, is layered with turtle shells collected from back yards, beaches, and dumpsters. Nichols brings people from the community and government officials here so they can see for themselves the effects of turtle poaching. The once rich, varied shades of the carapaces are all dark gray now, the color of wet cement.

NICHOLS: Here is a very, very tiny loggerhead. This is about the smallest size loggerhead that we find here. This is, you know, barely enough for a couple of tacos. I mean, what the heck?

GRABER: Nichols figures about 10,000 turtles are eaten in Baja each year. Of the turtles he's tagged, he says about a quarter are eaten. Nichols knows this because the locals bring him tags from turtles they've had for dinner. They do this, Nichols says, because they trust him.

NICHOLS: I think people realize that I'm just going to keep coming back, and that I'm not here to make major problems for individuals. Some fishermen are curious and they'll bring a tag and they'll say, "Where did this turtle come from? When did you tag it?" And that, albeit, it's a dead turtle, that's a small step toward protecting the animals. And it's a step that wouldn't have been taken if the situation was polarized.

(Men call out)

GRABER: On a hot, sunny afternoon, two fishermen drop by Nichols' apartment to pay a visit. The Serrabia brothers, Gabriel and Juan, used to help Nichols with his research. Now, they have a tagging program of their own. They tie a bit of wire to the shells of turtles they catch accidentally out in the bay. Gabriel says once they trapped a turtle while out fishing with a 14-year-old helper. The teenager protested when Gabriel and Juan told him to throw it back.

G. SERRABIA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: He says it's about 50 kilos, and it's worth 15 pesos a kilo. It's good money. We say no, we explain why. He says okay, I'll put it back, marked and everything. The boy who came out in the boat, he'll go and say to his dad, "You should put it back." But when he goes out with other fishermen, he'll tell them that the Serrabias put the turtles back.

GRABER: Nichols calls fishermen like Gabriel and Juan the real heroes of sea turtle conservation.

NICHOLS: These guys that are making decisions that are not popular, that are ridiculed by their families, and really sincerely working to protect an endangered species that is food for most people. Really, I can't really imagine what it would be like to be in a community where I grew up and go against something of such a deep tradition.

(Men speak in Spanish)

GRABER: Early one morning, Nichols plays host to two fishermen on his research boat in Banderitas Estuary. The men represent a cooperative that's just gotten fishing rights to part of the estuary. In the calm, clear waters, it's easy to spot a turtle, if you know where to find them. And these fishermen do.

(A man speaks in Spanish) TRANSLATOR: I saw one out here earlier. A big one.

(Dragging)

GRABER: The men set up a makeshift office. A cooler topped by Nichols' plastic equipment case serves as the table. The two fishermen spread out maps of the bay, and point out the region they now control. Nichols tells them that tourists who come to the area to whale watch in the spring might stay another day and pay to see turtles in an area they know is protected. The fishermen are interested.

(A fisherman speaks in Spanish) TRANSLATOR: I'd like to protect them for my own benefit and so that they don't become extinct. I see them now, and my kids, when they're older, may not be able to see turtles if they aren't protected.

GRABER: It does seem strange to call one particular area a turtle refuge in a country that already has protection on the books. But Mexico's law isn't working. Right now, there are only five government officials to enforce all resource management laws in southern Baja. So that's why Nichols needs the fishermen. They are the ones who will patrol the fishing grounds each day. They are the ones who will watch for trespassers and turtle poachers.

NICHOLS: There's not another animal that is as integrated with life and symbolically represents Baja. The sea turtles are the Baja totem, in a sense. I think by promoting that idea, people will take some pride in protecting them.

(Voices in Spanish)

GRABER: A day after the loggerhead Max was captured, it's time to bring her back. With the help of some American students, Nichols carries the 90-pound turtle over to the boat. An olive green satellite tag, about the size of a cell phone, is attached to the shell with a small amount of glue.

(Engines)

GRABER: The boat heads out into the bay. Nichols says people call him an optimist. They find it difficult to understand how he can persevere in the face of such a difficult situation. But, he says, he doesn't have a choice.

NICHOLS: Your options are, be optimistic and work hard, or just forget about it and go home. If I thought this was a waste of time, I wouldn't be doing it. And I don't want to waste my time, or my life.

GRABER: These days Nichols has reason to be optimistic. The group of fishermen who own the rights to Banderitas Estuary have officially declared it a turtle refuge, the first ever in Baja. And they announced intentions to go house to house to tell everyone that poaching will no longer be tolerated in the estuary. Three other communities around the coast are moving to do the same. It's a beginning, but it's unclear whether it's enough, or in time. These are only a handful of protected areas spread out over more than 1,000 miles of coast. And the turtles still face fishing nets and hooks and marine debris as they swim thousands of miles back to their nesting beaches. In the face of these obstacles, Nichols keeps one clear vision.

NICHOLS: I imagine being an old man and sitting around with some of these fishermen that are my age, with our grandkids. And seeing some turtles swimming around in a place that's beautiful. And I think, God, that's going to be great.

(Engines)

GRABER: Finally, Nichols decides on a release spot for Max.

(Shifting around in the boat)

NICHOLS: Okay. What we're going to do it, we're going to pick up the turtle and I'll hand it over to you guys. Set it down, and you guys can kind of pull the tarp down around it. And let it go.

GRABER: Two young women slip into the water and spread a dark blue tarp between them. Nichols and an assistant grab hold of Max's flippers and slowly lower the turtle over the side and onto the tarp.

NICHOLS: Walk her out a little bit. Of course we're outside.

GRABER: And then it's time to let Max go.

WOMAN: All right?

NICHOLS: Pull down, pull down.

(Splashing)

GRABER: Max hesitates, and with a push of her flippers clears the tarp. She takes one last, long breath and disappears under the waves. Nichols says a quiet goodbye.

NICHOLS: Adios. Swim far.

GRABER: Far enough to avoid the nets and hooks of fishermen. Far enough to bring new information to the scientific community and to the world. Far enough to help Nichols realize his dream of seeing Baja's waters filled with sea turtles gliding beneath the water's surface. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber in Puerto San Carlos, Baja California, Mexico.

(Nichols and a woman talking)

(Music up and under: Tuu "One Thousand Years")

CURWOOD: For more information about J. Nichols' conservation work in Baja, or to see turtle Max's travels on the Internet, go to the Living on Earth's Web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, there's a new Web site where you can go to calculate just how much pollution you create. The kind of pollution that causes global warming. Ira Glass from This American Life kindly accepted our invitation to do the numbers and it got a little overwhelming.

GLASS: Like how much of a do-gooder are we expected to be? Like I'm supposed to take into account my contribution to the Greenhouse Effect in addition to everything else? I just don't know if I can take it and I think most people feel that way too.

CURWOOD: It's this American's emissions. Next week on Living on Earth.

(Music)

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a few well-chosen drips. Well, more than just a few, really. It's the resonant chorus of water dripping into pools in a cave, recorded by Jean-Luc Herelle.

(Drips)

CURWOOD: 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 Bonnie Lester. Jesse Wegman produced this week's program. We had help this week from Marie Chung, Katy Saunders, and Gernot Wagner. Allison 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 David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues; the Turner Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting coverage of western issues.

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