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

May 26, 2006

Air Date: May 26, 2006



Cleaner Truckin’ / Ingrid Lobet

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More than a million truck drivers in the United States spend most of their time living in their cabs. To keep warm or to keep cool, most have to idle their engines, which spew particles and harmful gases. But, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, a Tennessee inventor has come up with a solution that's proving very popular in truck stops across the nation. (09:30)

In Search of Oil / Rich Pliskin

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With skyrocketing gas prices and U.S. determination to wean ourselves from foreign oil, companies are looking for new energy sources close to home. Rich Pliskin and his Players of Princeton, New Jersey imagine that it won’t be long before drilling comes to a neighborhood near you. (02:30)

Preserving the Magic of Madagascar / Daniel Grossman

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This week we present a special two-part report on Madagascar. This island nation off the southeast coast of Africa possesses the most numerous and rarest of animal and plant species on the planet. Producer Daniel Grossman visited the island to assess the conservation efforts underway to preserve Madagascar's unique ecosystem which is under intense pressure from deforestation. (18:00)

Prairie Pothole Wetland

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Spring comes alive in central North Dakota, near the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Nature recordist and photographer Lang Elliott gives Living on Earth host Steve Curwood a tour of a cattail marsh and the birds we’re likely to find there. (07:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

A marsh wren calls from a cattail in the wetlands of North Dakota.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Lang Elliot
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Dan Grossman


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. There are millions of trucks on the nation’s highways these days, delivering goods to communities big and small. But the diesel fuel most of them burn leaves the air heavy with pollution that’s hazardous to health.

CACKETTE: There are about 2,900 premature deaths from the emissions of diesels….and over 600,000 lost workdays every year in California alone.

CURWOOD: And now the good news. One man has found a way to clean the air by making it easier for diesel truckers to shut off their engines more often. Also, listening in as the marshlands of North Dakota come alive with the migrants of spring.


ELLIOTT: It’s just an amazing chorus you get there at dawn in the prairie marshes. There’s nothing else like it.

CURWOOD: Birds from another world and more, this week on Living on Earth. So stick around.

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


Cleaner Truckin’

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

Clean air advocates are calling on the federal government to do more about older trucks on the road in response to yet another report that shows the harmful health effects of diesel exhaust.

The news couldn’t come at a better time for one inventor from Knoxville, Tennessee.
He’s come up with a novel way to cut down on diesel pollution and, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, it all started with a parking ticket in New Jersey.

LOBET: About five years ago in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, A.C. Wilson and his wife Doris had just set up their camper for the evening. They waited for A.C.'s brother-in-law Carl, a long haul truck driver, to show up but it was getting late and they were getting hungry.

A.C. WILSON: So, we all went on to dinner without him and came back and he was mad as a hornet. He had been up in the Northeast, Jersey, and had gotten a ticket for parking on the on-ramp and idling his engine.

LOBET: Carl left his truck running because that's the usual way truck drivers keep their cabs warm or cool through nature's extremes. That night, Wilson, a longtime tinkerer, pondered the predicament.

WILSON: I bedded down in my motor home. And I was layin' there and I thought--why can I not do this for a trucker? Because I've got all the--cablevision, I've got heat and air on my rig but I've got to come up with a way to put heat and air conditioning into a parked truck.

LOBET: That night, Wilson got his idea. Picture a car vacuum hose. But instead of sucking air, the hose ends in a touch screen panel and vents that deliver warm or cool air, and also telephone, satellite TV, and fast internet. The next morning, he showed his brother- in-law the sketch and soon found himself talking to truck stop companies.

WILSON: They were very receptive to it, and wanted to know where we’d been the past 20 years, but that was how it was actually founded.

LOBET: Today, Wilson's company Idleaire makes a device that fits snugly into most truck windows. Drivers can find the connections at truck stops in ten states. The company has received clean air awards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. And some major trucking companies, like National Freight and Continental Express, have signed on. They pay Idleaire $1.40 an hour, but save two dollars every hour on diesel fuel.


PORTER: Hello My name is Jerome Porter. I drive for Continental Express.

LOBET: Jerome Porter says he likes life on the road. He better. For most of the month, his truck is his home.

PORTER: Livin’ in my truck, I don't have a problem with it. You know, I make pretty decent money. I got a comfortable bed back there, matter of fact I have two beds. I have a TV. I have a DVD player, a VHS player, along with my laptop computer, so I can always find something to do, to occupy my time.

LOBET: But to keep his cab warm or cool, he needed to idle.

PORTER: But you get up on the East Coast and New York they don't like big trucks to idle their trucks, you know. You mainly have to have a heated blanket or idle your truck for, you know, 15 minutes to an hour. But if the police come by, you have to shut your truck off otherwise they will ticket you.

LOBET: Then, one day, Porter pulled in to a truck stop with Idleaire hookups.

PORTER: I said to myself, “well, lemme see what it does. I'm not going to pass judgment yet.” And once I felt how cold the air could get without me idling my truck, I'm like – “oh, I'm sold (laughs).” I wasn't caring about the TV, the Internet service, uh-uh....just the air, heh-heh.

LOBET: Idleaire was initially aimed at alleviating the sweats and chills of life on the road. But it turns out the inventor stumbled on a partial solution for one of the nation’s biggest air problems -- diesel exhaust. The situation is so serious 21 states make truckers limit their idling. California is the most recent. Tom Cackette is deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board.

CACKETTE: Here, in California, we have over a million diesels operating and they cause a lot of smog. They are responsible for about half of the summertime ozone smog-forming emissions.

LOBET: Half of all nitrogen oxide emissions in summer. But that includes diesel equipment and driving. What about just idling?

CACKETTE: Well, the idling is about 50 tons per day of NOX and about one ton per day of particulate. That's about the same smog forming emissions as 1.75 million cars would put out.

LOBET: Truck engine makers are retooling and they’ll soon sell rigs that burn 97 per cent cleaner. And the Bush administration is cracking down on tractors and construction equipment diesels. That still leaves the trucks already on the road. Recent studies in California show even commuters who spend short periods in heavy traffic are getting significant exposures to diesel exhaust.

CACKETTE: We have characterized what the impact of these diesel emissions are and it is quite stunning. There’s about 2900 premature deaths every year from the emissions of diesels. There’s about a quarter of a million asthma attacks that occur as a result of diesel emissions and over 600,000 lost workdays every year in California alone.

LOBET: So when Idleaire came along and allowed trucks to turn off, regulators took notice. They started paying Idleaire to install facilities, in some cases defraying the company's capital costs.


LOBET: At a truck stop in Fresno, California, Idleaire employee Courtney Bowman shifts her weight from foot to foot to keep warm as she waits for her chance to persuade a weary trucker to give Idleaire a try.


BOWMAN: We are a company that provides air conditioning, heat, plug-ins, phone, satellite TV and internet.

MAN: Yes, ma’am.

BOWMAN: This is a window adapter here that you will buy which is ten dollars. That’s yours to keep. We give you a membership card with ten dollars already on it. That’ll hold you for, like, seven hours. After that, it's a dollar 40 an hour.

MAN: Okay.

BOWMAN: Here you can get on the internet and browse. I'm not going to hold you up too long. I know you have got to go. Nice to meet you. Happy holidays.

MAN: Thank you, ma’am. Appreciate it.

LOBET: Bowman gets about 30 seconds to make her pitch. It's too early in the day for much business. But a few who have hooked up are happy to say why. Daniel Johnson drives out of Rolla, Missouri.

JOHNSON: I wish there was more Idleaire. I’d pull into it every time I can, you know. If we turn off our truck in the summertime we get too hot because of the heat coming off of the engine and the transmission and, you know, heat coming through the cab from the sun. And in the wintertime, it's just unbearably cold really, really fast. And, you know, you really do need to keep more of a constant temperature so you don't get yourself sick.

BIRD: I hate pulling into a truck stop, trying to get some sleep and somebody next to me decides he's gonna run his rig all night.

LOBET: Jeff Bird drives out of Sacramento.

BIRD: It's annoying and it's expensive and it's polluting the air and these are already extremely gross polluters. But everybody in America wants their product, so they’re…it's kind of a give and take. You're gonna give up some clean environment so that everybody can have their Gucci handbags. We, Americans, are consumers of everything. From popcorn to Gucci.

LOBET: But, as much as Jeff Bird loves this service, he scratches his head about Idleaire's business model.

BIRD: Like, I pull in and I used it for three hours. That's only five bucks, I don’t know, maybe the numbers crunch right, but to me it didn't seem like it would.

LOBET: He has a point, says Linda Gaines, a physicist and diesel idling guru at Argonne National Laboratories Center for Transportation Research. Gaines says selling devices that let truckers shut of their engines and still have power should be a profitable game, and several companies are making a go of it. But she doesn’t think Idleaire wins in an even race.

GAINES: The installations are very expensive. They require a very large staff to run them. And the revenues from just the basic services are rather low. And so, what we see is that a lot of the initial installations have been funded by government grants but we don't know how they’re going to make it as a long-term viable business without government subsidies.

LOBET: Potential competition includes small diesel engines, and a fuel cell power unit developed by Freightliner and UC Davis. Also some newer trucks are being built so they plug in where power is available. A.C. Wilson, Idleaire's low-key founder, says his model is competitive.

WILSON: We're not out here promoting anti-idling or anything but we are here to promote a solution and we think the communities and the drivers themselves would really like.

LOBET: And for now, that's one way of making a dent in the nearly one billion gallons of diesel fuel burned each year by idling trucks. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

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In Search of Oil

CURWOOD: With oil prices hovering near $70 a barrel, and oil profits at some of the highest levels in history, the race is on for new sources of oil and gas. Demand is so high that in Texas, oilrigs are drilling deep and wide, almost every where, including in a Houston neighborhood. The search of untapped sources of black gold has writer Rich Pliskin and his Players wondering how long it will be before energy wildcat drillers wind up in your front yard.


ROGER: Ahh. Thanks, hon.

CINDY: Light 'n sweet. Just the way you like it.

ROGER: Couldn't live without it.


CINDY: Is that a helicopter?

ROGER: Not in this neighborhood.


CINDY: Roger, there's a chopper in the front yard!

ROGER: What the --


FOREMAN: Roger Martin? Of 10 Clampett Court?

ROGER: Yes, that's right. Who are you? And what are all these trucks doing on my front lawn!

FOREMAN: [CALLING OUT TO WORK CREW]This is it, fellas! Let's start punchin' holes!


ROGER: What's the meaning of this? Who are you?



Pound that baby down, Fred! That's it!

ROGER: NARC? There's no drug dealing here!

FOREMAN: That's "NERC." National Energy Recovery Corp. Part of the governmental-petroleum complex.

ROGER: I don't understand.


FOREMAN: NERC satellite says your yard's got the richest vein of light sweet crude this side of the Board of Ed building.

CINDY: Oil? You're drilling for oil? In my peonies?

FOREMAN: Plenty of it, ma’am. Government's under pressure to top off those tanks, at least through November.

[CALLING OUT} Get that derrick in here, Freddy! That's it!

CINDY: My yard isn't an oil field. It's -- it's a yard! Roger?

ROGER: Now see here, NARC, or NERC or --

FOREMAN: Whoaaa..Comin' down!


CINDY: My hummer!

FOREMAN: You, uhh, might wanna move the vehicles off the work site, ma’am.

CINDY: It's not a work site! It's a mulch bed!


ROGER: [GROANS] aw, not Drysdale.

DRYSDALE: I hear you're sittin' on a goldmine!

ROGER: What?

DRYSDALE: They found coal under Furman's pool. Smithers has tungsten!

ROGER: Oh, my god. That's awful!

DRYSDALE: Awful? They're rich! Do you have any idea what they're paying for the drilling leases?

CINDY: Drilling leases?


ROGER: Honey?

CINDY: Zip it, Roger.


CINDY: What are these leases you're talking about?

DRYSDALE: Let's just say their brokers’ suddenly taking their calls. Say, what happened to the hummer?

CINDY: Hey! Hey, Mr. Energy man!

ROGER: But, sweetheart! The peonies!

CINDY: Get that wreck outta there, Freddy!

ROGER: Honey?

CINDY: Cut 'er up, drag 'er out and let's get the goop outta the ground. Move it, move it, move it! Let's go!


CURWOOD: A little satire, courtesy of Rich Pliskin and his Players of Princeton, New Jersey.

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[MUSIC: Martin Denny “Bangkok Cockfight” from ‘Scamp: Your Passport to Excitement’ (Scamp –1996)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: preserving the magic of Madagascar. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Preserving the Magic of Madagascar

(Photo: Daniel Grossman)

CURWOOD: Our story on the forests of Madagascar was originally produced for Radio Netherlands. Production assistance from Cambridge Consulting - providing management, strategy and organizational development consulting for nonprofits and foundations. To see some lovely photos of Madagascar’s wildlife go to Living on Earth dot org and check out Daniel Grossman's award-winning website, "Fantastic Forests."

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The island nation of Madagascar, off the south east coast of Africa, is famous for two things: It is home to an astounding range of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. And it has become famous for the rapid degradation of its habitats.

Now, even though Madagascar has already lost most of its original forest cover, it is still rich in biological diversity, and preserving what’s left has become a top priority for international conservation organizations. Dan Grossman has our report.


A gecko. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

GROSSMAN: Imagine a tropical rain forest. During the day it’s a pointillist painting in every shade of green, flecked with tiny shafts of light that somehow penetrate the layers of leaves. The forest doesn’t really wake up till sunset. Then frogs call for mates. Owls hoot. Leaves rustle softly as something in the dark eats a fruit or stalks its prey.

According to Stuart Pim, a tropical forest specialist at Duke University, primeval rain forests occupy only about five percent of Earth’s land, yet contain around half of all terrestrial species. They’re being cut today at a furious rate. Every second about one acre of tropical forest is being cleared for grazing, agriculture, or other purposes. Every month a combined area of rainforest about the size of Connecticut is cleared somewhere.

It’s easy to imagine the major villains as short-sighted ranchers, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous timber companies. But in Madagascar, most enemies of the forest are of a different breed. In a country where a third of the people are undernourished, the forest’s foes are the poorest of the poor. Sometimes on the verge of starvation, they’re just scraping by.

Primate researcher Alison Jolly writes about one such man in her book “A World Like Our Own: Man and Nature in Madagascar.” She found him carrying his indispensable coup-coup ax.

JOLLY (READING): With a coup-coup over his shoulder, and a bridled dog behind him, Jean d’Armand strode up the mountain path as though he wore Paul Bunyan’s boots instead of cracked calluses upon his heels. Jean is the rainforest’s executioner. He’s the last frontiersman in a world that has no wilderness to spare. In defiance of Malagash law, and all principals of conservation, he still tackles the virgin forest with his coup-coup. He brings down rosewood, towering white rami trees, and hinsi, the cabinet-maker’s prize, with its crimson heart. These rainforest hardwoods are too dense even to float and must rot for one or two years before Jean can burn their trunks to enlarge his little homestead clearing.

GROSSMAN: These trees release so much water vapor through their leaves, they alter the weather. In their great green canopies live whole communities of plants and animals, including voluptuous orchids, blankets of moss, vines and tree-dwelling rodents. For the forest, such trees are the cornerstone of life. To a forest executioner with a family to feed, they’re a stack of valuable lumber.

A single hole in the canopy severs threads in the living fabric of the forest, and takes years to heal. As more trees are cut, the fabric unravels irreversibly. That’s what’s happening to Madagascar’s virgin, or primary, forest. Only about 10 percent of it remains intact. Biologists and conservationists around the world are watching Madagascar’s forests anxiously, concerned about the fate of its distinctive wildlife. Alison Jolly says Madagascar’s forests may look like any other at first glance, but up close they’re very different.

JOLLY: Madagascar’s a kind of science fiction world. You know, every science fiction writer tries the tale of alternate worlds. What would happen if time broke its banks and came to the present down a different channel? Well, Madagascar is just like that. Eighty or ninety percent of all its plants and animals are unique. The species are unique to Madagascar. You go there and you look and you say, “Oh, that’s a nut hatch.” Uh-uh. It’s a coral-billed vanga. It’s an animal, a bird whose whole family only lives on Madagascar. You look and you say, “Oh, that’s Arizona. That’s a cactus.” Oops. No. It isn’t quite right. It’s 20 foot tall and it sticks up like a giant hand against the sky and it has thorns all down it. But it’s got wood inside. It isn’t a cactus.

GROSSMAN: Perhaps the most famous of Madagascar’s animals is a primitive group of primates called lemurs. Dr Jolly, who’s a lemur expert, says they don’t even look like anything elsewhere.

JOLLY: You look at lemurs and you think, "Wait a minute. That’s not a cat, and that’s not a squirrel and it’s got hands with fingernails and big round eyes that look right at you. So what is it? And they live in societies that are like ours but with real twists, like complete female dominance".

GROSSMAN: Madagascar is special not just because most of what lives there lives only there. It’s also because of the bewildering variety of what’s there. Take plants. There are 12-16 thousand species of plants native to Madagascar.

MITTERMEIER: By comparison, all of North America, north of Mexico, has about 18,000.

GROSSMAN: Primate expert Russell Mittermeier is president of Conservation International, one of the world’s leading non-governmental advocates for tropical forest protection. He says the island is unusually rich in many animals, too, including snakes and chameleons, among the reptiles.

MITTERMEIER: The estimates run from about 340 to as many as 380 species of reptiles in this island that is a little bit larger than California and a little smaller than Texas. In all of the United States north of Mexico you’ve got about 300 reptile species. It looks like we are going to go as high as 300 amphibian species in Madagascar. This is more than all of the United States and Canada put together.

GROSSMAN: But Madagascar’s phenomenal fauna is not what it used to be.

[SOUND OF DIG SITE; SHOVELS SCRAPING; “Where’d the brush go?”]

GROSSMAN: Biologist David Burney squats on the balls of his feet on the floor of a pit the size and shape of a grave.


GROSSMAN: Hands caked in mud, face bronzed by the relentless sun, Burney breaks the compacted soil with a smack of a geologist’s pointed hammer.

BURNEY: The largest hole that I’ve dug like this, with the occasional help of a small pick but mostly just with my bare hands, so I don’t break up stuff and scratch it, is about 60 feet long and 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep. It’s on the island of Kawaii. I think we’ve probably, in that one site, done this kind of stuff to now, total of about 200 cubic meters. So, you know, I must like doing this. I don’t’ seem to mind it anyway.

GROSSMAN: For more than two decades, Burney has been researching what Madagascar was like before it was peopled. He believes learning the fate of wildlife in the past will help to anticipate – or, perhaps, to shape – the fortunes of wildlife in the future. Madagascar’s original settlers, probably Indonesian people sailing outrigger canoes, arrived here about 2,000 years ago. Burney says they must have been astounded by the wildlife they discovered, including the largest bird that ever lived, the elephant bird.

BURNEY: Elephant birds were probably up to 1,000 pounds, 500 kilos, and stood ten feet tall. Over three meters. Try to imagine an ostrich multiplied by three or four.

GROSSMAN: This colossal flightless fowl was among dozens of oversized creatures, known as megafauna, unique to Madagascar. The remarkable menagerie included a gorilla-size lemur, a coffee table-size tortoise, and a cow-size, hippopotamus-like creature.

BURNEY: So we had a really diverse landscape here. A lot of different kinds of mammals. A lot of diversity of primates. Not like any place else on Earth. And now it seems to all be gone.

GROSSMAN: Today these bizarre giants are extinct. Aside from the crocodile, the largest native animal now is not much bigger than an overfed pussycat. Burney says humans almost certainly starred in this murder mystery, though the “murder weapon” and the exact scene of the crime are unknown. Was it hunting in marshes? Logging in forests? Burning in savannas? Whatever it was that humans did to the megafauna, the scientist says his gut tells him the purge is not over yet.

BURNEY: My suspicion is that Madagascar is still in an extinction event. It’s simply affecting now smaller animals. And perhaps eventually even some plants.

GROSSMAN: Burney believes the biggest breeds went first because large animals are generally more affected by forest clearing, hunting, and the like, than small ones. They need more territory and they generally breed—and thus recover from disturbance—more slowly. Hunters find them easier to spot and more worthwhile to catch. Today, Madagascar’s once-continuous forest canopy has turned into an archipelago of tiny embattled wildlife strongholds in a sea of farmland and pastures. Now even the smallest creatures are at risk.

The pitta-like ground roller dwells almost exclusively on the forest floor. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

FREUDENBERGER: What we see today is the last remaining sliver of the vast primary forest that used to cover Madagascar.

GROSSMAN: Agriculture expert Mark Freudenberger says Madagascar’s rural poor are trapped in an ill-fated cycle of forest destruction. In much of this country, the only new land available for farming is primary forest. So when farmland becomes exhausted and unproductive, and when new families need new plots, people are forced to clear virgin forest tracts. Bigger trees are sold as lumber and firewood. The rest is simply burned.

The soils are thin and poor, but the canopies are nutrient rich. Converted to ash, the burned vegetation makes land highly productive at first. In a matter of years, the nutrients are expended and these plots become useless. The farmer’s dream turns into a conservationist’s nightmare as hungry families cut fresh parcels of virgin trees.

FREUDENBERGER: The processes of slash and burn, or shifting cultivation, are creating a conversion of natural forests into barren wastelands.

GROSSMAN: Mark Freudenberger runs a project to find less destructive practices with funds from USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Madagascar is losing rain forest at between one and a half and five percent a year according to a 2002 article in the Journal of Science. That’s several times higher than the global average for rainforest clearing. At these rates, half of Madagascar’s remaining forest could be gone in the time it takes to raise a child, and the island’s native fauna will have almost nowhere to live.

In a place where evolution’s engines seem to have been turbocharged, even a tiny forest parcel sometimes contains distinct species found nowhere else in Madagascar, much less anywhere else on Earth. In the late 1980s, biologist Steve Goodman, a legendary expert on the birds and mammals of Madagascar, discovered firsthand how clearing a single forest tract can doom an entire species.

GOODMAN: We surveyed a very interesting forest that I don’t think anyone had ever been to before us.

GROSSMAN: The survey team had several wildlife specialists, including a herpetologist to study reptiles and amphibians.

GOODMAN: And the herpetologist on that trip captured at least two animals that were new to science.

GROSSMAN: That’s two reptiles that had never even been heard of before. A couple of years after the discoveries, Goodman returned to the site to snap some photographs to illustrate some of several papers about the new species.

GOODMAN: We went back to the place and the forest had disappeared. These papers were associated with the description of species new to science, but probably it was a description of extinct organisms. In the course of three years, an important block of forest that had unique organisms disappeared.

GROSSMAN: What happened to it?

GOODMAN: It was cut for slash and burn agriculture.

GROSSMAN: About three percent of Madagascar’s remaining primary forest is under protection in parks. The country’s president has pledged to triple that number by 2009. Achieving this goal will be tough, experts say. But even if it is accomplished, most of the country’s forests remain at risk.

Achille looking for chameleons at night. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

Like a modern Noah with only a raft instead of an Ark, conservation officials must make agonizing decisions about which forests to save. Malagasy herpetologist Achille Raselimanana is helping out by collecting the information they need.


GROSSMAN: Herpetologist Achille – who, like many Malagasy, usually goes by his first name – has dug a long line of holes in the soil of a rainforest. It took him two bone-rattling days by jeep and four hours on foot to get here, a remote, wooded valley in northeastern Madagascar. The earth underfoot here is springy. The air has the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. Lemurs bark out calls from treetops.


GROSSMAN: Achille is one of four biologists, each with a different specialty, setting traps and making observations here. He says he’s been interested in snakes and frogs since childhood.

RASELIMANANA: When I was a kid I caught grasshopper. With this grasshopper I [inaudible] and to catch frog. And then I used this frog to catch snake. And then I tried to catch the snake and then push them to vomit the frog. And sometimes it is still alive. So, even when I was a kid I already love animals.

GROSSMAN: Decades and a doctorate in biology later, the researcher now gets paid to catch the slimy and slithering.

RASELIMANANA: What we would like to do is do a biological inventory. We would like to know what kind of animals live in this area, and what kind of distribution.

GROSSMAN: The Malagasy scientist shoves a plastic bucket into each hole, flush with the ground. A waist-high fence of plastic nailed to wooden stakes will funnel snake-like skinks, insects, rodents and other small animals into the containers. Once inside, the animals will be kept from escaping by the bucket’s slick sides.

One of the rarest mammals in the world—a hairy-eared dwarf lemur. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)


GROSSMAN: After two weeks at his site in northeastern Madagascar, herpetologist Achille has completed his work. The study area is no bigger than a large city park, yet the team found a wide variety of birds, bats and small insect-eating mammals. They spotted 12 species of lemurs, including a hairy-eared dwarf lemur, a raccoon-like animal with tufts of black fur sprouting from its ears. It’s considered one of the world’s rarest mammals. Achille himself found 28 species of amphibians and 33 species of reptiles, including five never before known to science: three frogs, a skink and, most exciting for him, a spiny green chameleon.

A new chameleon, discovered by Achille. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

RASELIMANANA: To find a chameleon like this is very exciting. That’s the reason I’m always in the forest when I have time.


[MUSIC: Carsten Nicolai & Ryiuchi Sakamoto “Duoon” from ‘Hacca Note’ (Sound Noise Music – 2003)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: working to protect forests like these by helping farmers find less destructive ways of feeding their families. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at m-o-t-t dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable and sustainable society; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. ‘From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy; This is N-P-R, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Live Drum Music from Madagascar recorded by Daniel Grossman (2004)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Daniel Grossman’s report on the fantastic forests of Madagascar continues now in a tiny town on the outskirts of the jungle where scientists and farmers are developing new methods to preserve the island’s ecosystem.


Claude stands in front of his experimental plot. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

GROSSMAN: Under the harsh light of a kerosene lantern, a group of women sing of natural disasters like locusts and cholera. Hope lies, they sing, with God.


GROSSMAN: Members of a farmers’ cooperative, they’re relaxing after nutrition workshop in a mountainous region in southern Madagascar. In a room nearby, Claude Ranaivojaona, whose wife ran the session, worries about a different sort of disaster, this one caused by people.


RANAIVOJAONA: When I was young, from here in our house we could hear the lemurs crying and making noises. Now it is very quiet. Before, the mountains were covered in forests, and, because of that, there was an abundance of water. There were a lot of springs surrounding the town, there were hundreds of small springs. But now most of those springs are dried out.

The highlands of madagascar. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

GROSSMAN: Claude’s hamlet, Manampatrana, is in the middle of what was once a 60-mile-wide band of Madagascar’s lushest forests, running the entire length of the island’s east coast. Now, apart from the very tops of the mountains and patches here and there, nearly the whole region has been cleared for subsistence crops. In the past, many people here profited from cash crops. But one left a bitter taste in the mouths of growers such as Claude.

RANAIVOJAONA: There was a time when coffee cost 26 Ari Ari a kilo. People were able to sell coffee and buy sugar, salt, rice and even sardines.

GROSSMAN: Villagers tended saplings for years before any of the fragrant beans were ready for market. When the trees were finally mature, the efforts initially paid off. Some farmers even replaced their thatch roofs with tin for the first time. Then the coffee market collapsed. A decade later coffee prices are still depressed, and many of the tin roofs here are rusting. Despite recent signs of a recovery, Claude says growing coffee is too risky for most people here.

RANAIVOJAONA: Today it’s one price. In 15 days it’s another. A month later it’s another. And, because of this constant fluctuation in price, they are no longer secure, and so they constantly go to the forest to find quick money. Because through the forest you can always get quick money to survive day-by-day.

GROSSMAN: Claude hopes to save the remaining forest by making cultivated plots more profitable and productive for longer.


Rice paddies of Madgascar. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

GROSSMAN: Wearing a brimless straw hat in the gathering heat of the day, the Malagasy farmer walks briskly up a precipitous footpath. He passes men and women tending plots as steeply sloped as a Swiss chalet’s roof. Unlike rice paddies on the valley bottom, when these fields are planted with crops such as rice they’re at risk of losing their soil to erosion from tropical downpours.

RANAIVOJAONA: So what we see here is my plot, where I’ve planted pineapple and banana.

GROSSMAN: Claude stops and motions majestically to a small plot of waist-high plants. In contrast to hillside rice and other annual crops planted on most of this valley’s slopes, perennial crops like these don’t get pulled up every year.

RANAIVOJAONA: It is better to plant fruit. Fruit trees. Because fruit trees, the fruit is above ground and can be harvested above ground. If you plant plants that are tubers, and whose produce is under the ground, that creates holes underneath the soil which water can easily seep into, and the soil becomes more vulnerable and can be washed away.

GROSSMAN: Claude says, planted in rice, this plot’s soil would be washed away in a matter of years. Planted in tree crops like bananas, pineapples, and leeche nuts, it could keep on producing virtually forever. Income from harvesting such fruit and nut orchards will pay for staples like rice Claude would otherwise grow himself. The long-lived trees will continue earning him money, like a retirement account, even when he’s too old to work. The tiny plot is the sort of highly productive style of farming conservationists want to see more of. They say less productive practices in widespread use, like hillside rice growing, have been fostered by decisions made far away with no regard for the farmers or forests of Madagascar.

FREUDENBERGER: What we’re seeing today is the ecological impact of the incorporation of Madagascar into the international economy.

GROSSMAN: Nevertheless, USAID expert Mark Freudenberger says he thinks the global trade in agricultural products could be harnessed to help farmers to preserve the forest, rather than force them to clear it.

FREUDENBERGER: So what we’re doing now in Madagascar is focusing much more on how to create market incentives for practicing sustainable agriculture. We’re working on increasing prices. We’re working on increasing transport infrastructures so that transport costs come down, and, hence, are more of an incentive of getting agricultural produce to the markets.

GROSSMAN: Freudenberger advises farmers to plant a diverse suite of fruit and nut trees which, like an investment portfolio containing different stocks, will help them weather the financial blow when any single crop’s boom goes bust. He says Claude’s orchard is attracting the interest of other farmers, who are gradually beginning to plant their own trees. But he says the future of the little remaining rain forest in this mountainous region is still uncertain. For instance, a train line critical for shipping farm products is in danger of shutting down.

Many conservation specialists are also promoting ecotourism as a relatively benign source of desperately needed cash for Madagascar. Visits by foreigners, who pay park fees and spend money on lodging, food and supplies in villages near reserves, are on the rise. Madagascar has also recently become more open to outsiders offering assistance. Biologist Steve Goodman says for the first time in decades there’s hope for the people and wildlife of Madagascar. Goodman won a MacArthur Genius Award for his research in the country’s forests.

GROSSMAN: This is the first time in decades where there’s really hope something is actually going to happen and things are going to move in the right direction. Both for the people of Madagascar and for the unique patrimony that this island guards.


GROSSMAN: On a pedestrian walkway in downtown Antananarivo, the Malagasy capital, two barefoot boys sing of Jesus for tips. Believers must not be tempted by material things, they chant, and he’ll return.


GROSSMAN: The boys may not know it, but, ever since settlers arrived here, the primary source of material goods has been the forests. But now the well is almost dry. Like these chants of spiritual salvation, many biologists are warning that salvation of the forests will require a dramatic change of heart. Madagascar’s primeval habitats must no longer be seen as a source of land and lumber, but as the Ark for preserving one of evolution’s most precious gems. Lemur expert Alison Jolly:

Lemur with baby on its back. (Photo: Daniel Grossman)

JOLLY: All wild species, and, above all, all wild ecosystems, are treasures. We don’t know what economic treasures there are going to be. We could guess. But they are human treasures. They are treasures of climate, of watershed, of wonder, of awe, of understanding. For understanding ourselves, our own history from the lemurs. For understanding how an ecosystem fits together. We have no idea how this will expand into some renaissance of understanding nature and understanding our place in the world. The best we can do is just keep it.


GROSSMAN: For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman

CURWOOD: Our story on Madagascar’s forests was originally produced for Radio Netherlands. Production assistance from Cambridge Consulting - providing management, strategy and organizational development consulting for nonprofits and foundations. To see some lovely photos of Madagascar’s wildlife - go to Living on Earth dot org and check out Daniel Grossman's award-winning website, "Fantastic Forests."

Related link:
“Fantastic Forests” – Daniel Grossman’s award-winning website

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[MUSIC: The Books “The Lemon of Pink” from ‘The Lemon of Pink’ (Tomlab - 2003)]

Prairie Pothole Wetland

CURWOOD: It’s daybreak in a cattail marsh near Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota. This prairie region is teeming with wetlands and bird life on this spring morning and joining me now to get up close and personal with the birds here is nature recordist and photographer Lang Elliott. Lang, sounds like a bird symphony here!

The marsh wren is a common bird of the cattail marsh. (Photo: copyright Lang Elliott/NatureSound Studio)

ELLIOTT: Holy smoke, it is. It's just an amazing chorus you get there at dawn in the prairie marshes. There's nothing else like it.

CURWOOD: What's this area look like?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's a hilly upland region, awash with all these depressions or pothole ponds that were formed during the Wisconsian glaciation. And, all these wetland marshes of cattails and rushes--just chock full of wildlife.

CURWOOD: I hear a noise that kind of sounds like a sump pump noise. Who makes that sound?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. That's the sound of the American bittern. It's a heron-like marsh bird that's brown with a streaked breast and very camouflaged; lives among the cattails. The male inflates his throat before he calls to create a resonant chamber and makes that sound, sort of a pumper lunk, pumper lunk, pumper lunk.


CURWOOD: How did you get so close to record this bittern?

ELLIOTT: Well, my first morning at the marsh I could hear them out there. There was more than one and I wanted to get a really nice recording, but if you try to approach one in the daylight they see you and, of course, they hunker down in the cattails and they grow quiet or they slink away or fly away.

So, what I did is come evening, I could hear one way out in the marsh and I thought, 'well I'm going to canoe out there and set up a microphone and then come back at dawn and record.' But he was so far out I was afraid I'd get lost in the dark, so I put a little blinking red light on my van which was parked next to the lake and I canoed out in the marsh. It took me about 30 minutes or 40 minutes to hone in on this bittern that was calling occasionally. And I set the microphone on a tripod in shallow water next to this patch of cattails where the bittern took up residence for the night. And I strung a bunch of cable back to a platform they had built for goose nesting, a goose nest platform, tied the cable off and put a blinking red light there. And, then I looked back over the marsh and I could see where my van was so I canoed back to my van and slept for maybe four or five hours, got up four in the morning. I could see that blinking light way out in the marsh, so I canoed way back out to that spot and when it started getting light, he really started pumping and I got this fabulous recording. I don't think I could do any better.


CURWOOD: Now, what other birds are common out there among the cattails there?

ELLIOTT: Oh, there's quite a variety and a lot of them make really interesting sounds. There are little chicken-like birds called "rails." The Virginia rail is out there in the marshes and even more common is a small rail called the Sora, which has a fabulous whinny-like outburst, sort of a laugh-like outburst.


ELLIOTT: Other species, of course, you have the redwing blackbird and there can be quite a lot of sound coming out of both males and the females. Yellow-headed blackbirds have sort of other worldly sounds and they're quite common in some cattail marshes.


ELLIOTT: And, there's a number of shorebirds in the marsh. There's killdeer, a type of plover; there's lesser yellow legs, they are quite noisy. Semi-palmated sandpipers; American avocets, which are really elegant and beautiful and make a lot of sound. Common snipe which flies overhead and makes a really peculiar sound with its wings. And then there's the willet who's quite a noisy creature and willets are fairly large shorebirds and they fly overhead, flying over the marsh going "peewee willet, peewee willet, peewee willet."


CURWOOD: Peewee willet, peewee willet. What will it do? What is the question it's asking here?

ELLIOTT: Well, I don't know. I mean, the question is, will it or won't it? And, exactly what it might do, I'm not too sure. But, I hope that it does do whatever it will do.

CURWOOD: I hear that this area has long been the largest nesting colony of white pelicans on the continent and that there's some 30,000 white pelicans that usually call the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge home. Is that right?

ELLIOTT: Yes, actually….well, the recordings that we've been playing come from just north of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in a waterfowl production area. The refuge itself is fenced in and there's a large lake with an island out in the middle that has the largest colony in North America, breeding white pelicans. And, the numbers have risen to nearly 30,000, but last year, for some unexplained reason, in late May, they began abandoning their nests and over a period of just a few days the majority of these birds just flew away, up and flew away.

CURWOOD: Leaving their eggs or their chicks behind?

ELLIOTT: Leaving the eggs, leaving young that had already hatched, all of which perished. Nobody knows why this happened in the history of the refuge, which was established in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt. They've never abandoned their nests so it's a real mystery and got a lot of people concerned. I'm told that the pelicans are now arriving again this year. There's 500 to a thousand that have appeared and everyone hopes that they will nest successfully this year and it will not be a repeat performance.

CURWOOD: Lang, thanks for taking this time with me, today.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Lang Elliott travels far and wide to record the natural world. His most recent book, which includes photos and a CD, is “Music of the Birds,” published by Houghton Mifflin. To hear more sounds of birds of the North Dakota prairie region, go to our web site, living on earth dot org.


Related links:
- NatureSound Studio
- Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge

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CURWOOD: 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. Or hear us any time there. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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