A Bleached Coral Reef that Recovered

Can Coral Reefs Recover?

In our last post, we shared a conversation we had with Madhu (MD Madhusudan), one of the founders of NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation).

We talked about how conservation should be rooted in science.  And how the best solutions include partnership with local people to be successful.

Our last post was about tigers and other large animals.  But Madhu also shared with us a story about a coral reef off India’s coast, and how it survived a worldwide bleaching event when many other reefs didn’t.  The story begins with El Niño.

El Niño and Coral Bleaching

El Niño is a warming of the water temperatures off the Pacific coast of South America, about every 2 to 7 years.  It’s a natural event, and has occurred regularly for at least the past 300 years, and probably for a lot longer.  Recently, El Niño events have been more frequent, likely due to global warming.

Coral needs a certain water temperature to live.  If temperatures get too high, the coral begins to die and turn white.  This is called bleaching.  There was a worldwide coral bleaching event in 1998, as a result of rising sea temperatures caused by El Niño.

Many reefs didn’t recover, but the Lakshadweep reef off India’s coast did.  Why?

Location of the Lakshadweep Islands. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Location of the Lakshadweep Islands.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

NCF studied the issue and discovered the answer:  after the bleaching event, algae started to grow on the Lakshadweep reef.  Too much algae can destroy a reef, and in many areas around the world, algae outcompeted the coral.  But in India, it didn’t.  There were two key factors that made a difference:  people, and fish.

Understanding the Human Impact

The government had given residents of a nearby island boats and training, so they could fish for pelagic tuna in a dolphin-friendly way.  Pelagic fish live in open oceans, not near the shore.  So, with their new boats and training, the people of this island started fishing further out at sea.

As a result, the Lakshadweep reef was largely free of fishing pressure at the time of the worldwide bleaching event in 1998.  And when algae started to develop on the bleached reef, large numbers of herbivorous (plant-eating) fish, like surgeon fish and parrot fish, were there to eat the algae.  So the reef started to recover.

In many other areas of the world, where people fish more intensively around reefs, the coral has a harder time recovering, because there aren’t as many algae-eating fish.

Staying With the Problem

But this isn’t the end of the story.  NCF has continued to monitor the reef.  Taking a long-term approach — studying an issue over long periods of time — helps NCF see what changes may be happening, and identify new problems and pressures.

By continuing to monitor the Lakshadweep reef, NCF has seen a new problem:  now, the reef is under intense pressure from fishing.  This increased fishing pressure may leave the reef less resilient in the event of future coral bleaching.

Why is there more fishing now?  What’s changed in the 16 years since the reef was affected by coral bleaching?  One change is that now, fishing operations have access to cold storage — caught fish can be kept cold and fresh, making it easier to catch larger numbers of fish.  And fish prices have changed, making certain fish now very profitable.

NCF is looking at solutions; one unexpected solution may be… recipes.  There are local recipes that completely depend on particular species of fish at the reef.  If these species disappear, a part of the local culture will be lost, so NCF is getting older people to talk with younger people about their importance.  This is a great example of how conservation programs can be created thoughtfully, in harmony with local people.

If the reef isn’t protected, it may impact local people dramatically.  Coral reefs sometimes protect islands.  If a reef is destroyed, nearby islands may be as well.  So, the stakes could be very high for local people if reef areas are overfished.

Why We Shared This Story

Despite the current concerns about the reef, we wanted to share this story because it carries a hopeful message:  that natural systems, like coral reefs, can be resilient, given the right circumstances.

We also thought this story illustrated how good conservation combines scientific research with an understanding of how humans impact the environment.

And, it shows how conservation is a long-term issue:  conditions change, and new solutions may be needed.  By continuing to support conservation efforts over the long haul, we give them the best chance of success.


Study Guide Questions

1. What is El Niño?

2. What has been the likely impact of global warming on El Niño?

3. What is coral bleaching?

4. What did local fishermen do that helped Lakshadweep reef recover from the bleaching that occurred?

And, if you want to see more about coral bleaching, check out the video post we did about the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia a few months ago.

If you are an educator, we’ve created a page to help you leverage content we’ve created, including an index of our posts.







Tiger conservation programs in India

In our last post, we talked about tigers.  Here, we’ll share some more thoughts about how tiger conservation programs (and other conservation programs) can be created successfully.

We went to the Nature Conservation Foundation to find out about conservation in India.  We left after learning about many other things, too:  science; government policy; climate change; and working with local people.

It’s hard to sum up such a rich conversation, but there were two key ideas.

- Conservation should be based on science.  Without scientific data, conservationists may mean well, but their actions may not have the impact they want.

- Conservation policies should be created in harmony with local people.  Policies that tell local people what they can’t do — without considering the impact on those local people — are likely to fail.

How to be a Conservationist

MD Madhusudan (Madhu) and three young friends met 21 years ago.  Trained as scientists, they set out to explain the world through science.  They went to remote areas:  mountains, oceans and forests.

MD Madhusudan (Madhu)

MD Madhusudan (Madhu)

But the environmental impacts they studied in all these places were from one species:  humans.  So they started looking at how humans interact with the environment.  And then, they wanted to do something about it.

Now they work on programs all over India.  They investigate problems and causes.  They work to understand people’s attitudes.  They intervene by creating partnerships with local people.  And they stay with projects long-term, to measure success.

To Begin:  Understand the Problem

First, when starting a conservation program, it’s important to understand the problem.  For example, there are two areas where tigers disappeared in India:  Sariska Tiger Reserve and Keladevi Sanctuary (adjacent to Ranthambhore, where we saw a wild tiger).  According to Madhu, you could just put solutions in place to protect tigers… but they might be the wrong solutions.

Here’s why:  In Sariska, prey for the tigers was plentiful.  The problem was poachers.  But in Keladevi, local livestock had overrun the park, and tigers had lost their prey.  The problem in Keladevi was food for the tigers, and conflict with local people.  So in areas where tigers are threatened, the potential solutions may be very different.

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

Work With Local People

A major problem with large wildlife is that it creates lots of difficulties for local people — like restrictions on areas of forest, livestock being killed, and attacks on people.  How is it possible to save wild animals, like tigers, when they can cause such difficulties?

Amazingly, according to Madhu, people in India have shown their willingness to live in harmony with wild, dangerous animals such as tigers, leopards and elephants.  Understanding people’s attitudes toward wildlife is key.  People in India don’t hate elephants and tigers — mostly, they respect them.  But they do cause real problems.

NCF realized that it can’t do conservation without also helping address these problems.  By using this approach, they, and other conservation groups, have had some successes.  Here are just a couple of examples:

Problem:  Tigers Preying on Livestock

When they stray from their reserves, tigers sometimes go after people’s livestock — sheep, cows, horses, goats — in search of food.  People may then try to kill the tigers to protect their livestock.

Tiger we saw in Ranthambhore

Tiger we saw in Ranthambhore


Tigers may leave reserves for different reasons:  lack of prey, or too many tigers in one area.  And, even within their own territories, tigers may encounter livestock that have come there to graze.

So, to deal with predators, like tigers, NCF has worked with villagers on better fencing for protecting livestock.  They’ve helped farmers fence in areas so they can grow feed crops for their animals to graze, instead of letting them loose to graze.  In some areas, NCF has also started community-based compensation programs — sort of like having insurance for your livestock, so if an animal is killed by a tiger, the farmer gets paid.

Problem:  Cooking Fuel

Although it isn’t an NCF project, Madhu shared another great example.  In Bandipur, there are thousands of families living near the forest, and the average family was collecting about 3 tons of firewood each year.  This was taking a huge toll on the forest as a habitat for wildlife, including tigers.  The government protected the forest, which cut off the primary source of firewood for villagers.

Solution:  LPG Stoves

So, an organization called Namma Sangha provided LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) stoves to villagers at a reduced cost.  LPG stoves are healthier for people’s lungs than cooking over fire.  And, instead of gathering firewood, people now have more time to earn additional income.  Now, more than 17,000 families participate in the program.  (If that many families stop collecting firewood completely, that could mean 50,000 tons of forest preserved each year.)

LPG stove

LPG stove

Madhu reminded us that some conservation problems come, not from criminals, but from honest, decent people doing reasonable things.  It’s easy for urban people to be concerned about saving wild animals.  But sometimes they overlook how someone else bears the cost of that conservation — like lost livestock, or lack of fuel to cook.

NCF is working hard to understand both sides of the equation, and hopefully, by respecting the needs of people, conservation can go hand-in-hand with programs that help people, too.


Study Guide Questions

1. What are the 2 key conservation principles we learned from MD Madhusudan?

2. True or False: All of the problems with loss of tigers in India have been caused by poachers.

3. Why would a tiger leave a nature reserve?

If you are an educator, we’ve created a page to help you leverage content we’ve created, including an index of our posts.

The dogsledding season ends in Minnesota (but continues in Greenland)

3_24_14StudentResponse (Lower)


Yesterday Amy and I said goodbye to the 70 sled dogs that we spent the winter working with at Wintergreen. We are heading to Chicago to visit schools. We will also be getting ready to head to the Amazon Rainforest in May. It is sad to think that another dogsledding season in Minnesota is coming to a close. However, the owners of Wintergreen, Paul and Sue Schurke, are about to head north on an amazing dogsled adventure. In a couple weeks, the Schurkes will fly to the one of the northernmost villages in the world—Siorapaluk, Greenland. Siorapaluk is a tiny village of less than 100 people in northwestern Greenland. Can you find Siorapaluk, Greenland on a map?


Northern Greenland is one of the last places on earth where people still hunt and travel using dogsleds like they have done for thousands of years. The Inuit hunters use large sleds call qamutiq. Sled dogs are usually connected to the qamutiq with a fan hitch. In a fan hitch, each dog has a long rope that connects it to the sled. The fan hitch works well for these dog teams that travel over jumbled sea ice.

greenland 2014


In Minnesota we dogsled over frozen lakes and rivers, as well as over trails through the woods. A fan hitch would not work because the dog team would be too spread out. We use a tandem hitch in order for the dog team to fit on narrow trails in the woods. The tandem hitch means the dogs are running in a line two by two.


When traveling in the Northwest Territories, we learned about one more way to hook up a dog team. There, the Dene First Nations people would traditionally run dog teams on really narrow trails in the woods. They would hook up their dogs in single file to travel on these trails.


These are three examples of how people traditionally dogsled in three different parts of the world. What kind of dogsledding would you like to try? What type of dogsledding would be best suited for the area you live in? Thank you for taking part in our Boreal Wilderness Adventure. We hope you learned a lot about dogsledding and the boreal forest. Let us know what your favorite lesson was! Do you have any suggestions for how we can make your learning adventures better?

Keep Exploring!


Dog of the Week: Inuk



Type of dog: Canadian Inuit

Age: 6, born in August of 2007
Favorite position: Lead


Hello. My name is Inuk. I am in charge. I just want to make sure there is no question, in case you were wondering. I run in lead. When I run with a partner, I tell him or her what to do. Usually I end up running with a younger dog. They can be so wild and curious. I quickly tell them what to do with a sharp bark or a growl. I am good at leading. I won’t let you down. You can depend on me. I am bigger than most of the other female dogs in the kennel. Like I said, I am in charge!

Presentation at Vermilion Community College

Dave and Amy will be giving a presentation at Vermilion Community College, sponsored by the VCC Foundation’s Barbara and Bill Rom Lecture Series Fund.

When: 5 pm on March 22

Where: Lecture Hall CL 104 at Vermilion Community College

Photo by Bryan Hansel

Photo by Bryan Hansel

Across the Continent by Kayak, Canoe and Dogsled

National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, Dave and Amy Freeman began a three-year, 11,700-mile journey across North America on Earth Day of 2010. Their human-powered trek took them from Bellingham, Washington to Key West, Florida via the Arctic. From coming eye-to-eye with humpback whales and grizzly bears to kayaking past Manhattan during rush hour and hunkering down as Superstorm Sandy battered the New Jersey coast, the Freemans have an unforgettable story to share.

Spring is Coming!




Spring is in the air. While dogsledding last week, we witnessed a big change in the weather. The days are longer and the temperature has risen. The high temperature one day was 50 degrees Fahrenheit! The snow turned to mush. It kind of felt like skiing on top of mashed potatoes. This temperature was actually too warm for the dogs, so we didn’t run them during the warmest part of the day. Their fur coats are designed for -20, not 50 degrees Fahrenheit.


The Spring Equinox (also called the Vernal Equinox) is coming up. It is on March 20. Do you know what that means? This is the first day of spring. An equinox happens twice a year. The length of the day and night are exactly the same on this day, because the sun is shining directly on the equator. In other words, the plane of the Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun.

During an equinox, the Earth's North and South poles are not tilted toward or away from the Sun and the length of the day is the same at all points on Earth's surface. Image by Przemyslaw "Blueshade" Idzkiewicz. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earth-lighting-equinox_EN.png

During an equinox, the Earth’s North and South poles are not tilted toward or away from the Sun and the length of the day is the same at all points on Earth’s surface. Image by Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz.


The season in the northern hemisphere is the opposite of the southern hemisphere. When I said that the Spring Equinox is coming up, I meant that the Spring Equinox will happen in the northern hemisphere. On the same day, the Autumnal Equinox will happen in the southern hemisphere


A sign of the warm weather can be seen on top of the snow. Little black spots can be seen on top of the snow. These are snow fleas. Well, they are not really fleas—that is just their nickname. These insects are really springtails.


Close up of a springtail. Photo by Daniel Tompkins.

Close up of a springtail. Photo by Daniel Tompkins.

The polar vortex seems to be a thing of the past, but we still have several weeks of dogsledding left. This is a fun time to be out on the trail. After that warm day, the temperature dropped, making the trails fast and icy. The snow on the frozen lakes is covered in a crust of ice. This means we can easily travel anywhere on the lakes! With more daylight, we can spend even more time outside every day.


What is spring like where you live? Were you affected by the polar vortex this winter? How can you tell that the seasons are changing? What is your favorite season? We would love to hear from you!


Further Exploration:

The Reason for the Seasons lesson plans: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/activity/the-reason-for-the-seasons/?ar_a=1

Sun and Earth lesson plans: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/archive/xpeditions/lessons/07/g35/seasons.html?ar_a=1


Dog of the Week: Millie




Type of dog: Canadian Inuit

Age: 4, born in March of 2010

Birthplace: Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge; Ely, MN

Parents: Ramona and Steve

Favorite position: Wheel


Hi! Guess what?! I just had a birthday. I turned four years old! Happy birthday to me! I like to pull dogsleds. I like to run fast. I work hard. I have lots of energy. Can you tell? Let’s go! Let’s go dogsledding. Put my harness on and I’ll show you how strong I am.


People sometimes look at me and say that I’m small. They assume that I can’t pull much weight. I prove them wrong every time! I might be small, but I can pull as much weight as dogs twice my size. I just want to go. Let’s go!


Tigers in India

Imagine a fort, deep in India’s forest, called Ranthambore Fort.  Now imagine you’re a maharajah — an ancient king, hundreds of years ago — vacationing there.  The forest is your playground — you hunt tigers there for sport.  You practice conservation, of a kind — you hunt, but not too many, so there will still be tigers there for hunting.

Ranthambhore Fort

Ranthambhore Fort

Although the days of the Maharajas are over, the fort still survives.  The area surrounding it is a national tiger reserve — and one of the few places you can still see a tiger in the wild.

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

Project Tiger

In 1970, India banned tiger hunting.  The first census of tigers in India showed there were fewer tigers than expected — 1,827 Bengal tigers.  So, in 1973, the country launched a national tiger conservation program called Project Tiger.

The Ranthambhore forest was named a tiger reserve, and later expanded in 1992.  Today, it covers about 400 square km (150 square miles), and it’s one of the most visited tiger reserves in India.

Ranthambhore sign

Tigers share the park with leopards, striped hyenas, langurs, macaques, spotted deer, and a larger type of deer called sambar deer.  In Ranthambhore, deer are the tigers’ primary prey.  Tigers can eat 27 kg (60 lbs) of meat at a sitting.  A tiger might eat about once a week.

Sambar deer - the tiger's favorite food

Sambar deer – the tiger’s favorite food

The Challenge of Counting Tigers

Bengal tigers, or Indian tigers, are the most numerous species in the wild, although all tiger species are endangered.  Now, about 1,700 live in the wild in India.  About 670 more Bengals live in countries nearby.

In Ranthambhore, there are between 50 and 60 tigers.  It’s hard to get an exact number — it’s difficult to keep track of tigers, especially because they’re most active at night.  And some tigers disappear for periods of time, reappearing later.

Another picture of the tiger we saw

Another picture of the tiger we saw

However, there is one thing that helps in counting:  a tiger’s stripes.  No two tigers have the same pattern of stripes — their unique patterns are like human fingerprints, and help scientists and rangers keep track of individual tigers.

Conflict with Local People

Tigers are territorial – a female tiger needs a territory large enough to feed her and her cubs.  Males have a much larger territory, usually overlapping the territory of one or many females.  One challenge for Ranthambhore is that the park already is at capacity.  As a result, some tigers have left the park in search of new space.

Although there are other forests within range, they aren’t protected, and there isn’t a corridor for tigers to get there.  Ranthambore has rivers on two sides, and villages on the other two.  About 200,000 people live nearby, and roaming tigers can cause difficulties for local people.

Ranthambhore with farm fields in the background

Ranthambhore with farm fields in the background

People in the area have been killed by tigers.  And tigers that leave the park may prey on livestock.  As a result, people sometimes fight back:  one tiger from Ranthambhore was found poisoned in December 2013.  However, the Rajasthan Forest Department and WWF-India work to protect straying tigers whenever possible.

Tourism in Ranthambhore

It was amazing to see a tiger in the wild.  It was a little unsettling, though to see all the jeeps clustered nearby, hear the engines revving and see Jeeps jockeying to get tourists in good positions to take photos.

Jeeps of tourists watching the tiger

Jeeps of tourists watching the tiger

However, tourism in Ranthambhore does seem generally well-run.  A government guide is required, safaris are at specific times only, and vehicles must exit the park by 6 pm.  That means the tiger’s most active time, at night, is relatively undisturbed by humans.

Year of the Tiger:  2022

Although tigers in Ranthambhore are doing fairly well, worldwide tiger numbers have been on the decline, and some species are extinct.  In 2009, the world population of wild tigers was about 3,200.  In the 1990s (although it’s a rough estimate), there were 5,000 to 7,000.

This is due to habitat loss, conflict with local people, and the sale of tiger parts for medicines and other products.  (We learned about the illegal tiger trade and demand for tiger products when we visited ENV, in Vietnam.)

However, there’s some good news for tigers.  As Jamie and Jason mentioned in their recent post, 13 countries with wild tiger populations have launched an initiative to increase the number of tigers.  The next Year of the Tiger on the Asian lunar calendar is 2022:  by then, the goal is to reach a world population of 6,000 wild tigers.

Hopefully, by improving conservation programs, enforcing existing laws, and especially by working closely with local people, the number of tigers in the wild will grow.  India has by far the largest tiger population of any single country, so its efforts will make a tremendous difference.

In our next post, we’ll talk about more about tigers, and how conservation groups can work with local people.  We’ll share a conversation we had with one of the founders of Nature Conservation Foundation, where we learned a lot about what it takes to make a conservation program successful.

Study Guide Questions

1. In the whole world, about how many tigers are there in the wild today?

2. True or False: All tigers have the exact same pattern of stripes.

3. Name two challenges that tigers cause to local people.

4. Why can’t the people that manage Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve try to double the amount of tigers in the reserve?


If you are an educator, we’ve created a page to help you leverage content we’ve created, including an index of our posts.

Dog of the Week: Bullet


Photo by Kathy Yelton.

Photo by Kathy Yelton.

Type of dog: Canadian Inuit dog

Age: 9

Birthplace: Churchill, Manitoba
Favorite position: Lead


Hey there young ones. I’m Bullet. I was born north of here—in Canada. I was adopted by John Stetson and spent several years in his kennel. Then I moved to Wintergreen. I like to run in lead. I’m an expert at this dogsledding thing. I’m getting to be quite old for a sled dog, but I still keep up with the young dogs. In fact, last week I ran in solo lead. It takes a dog with confidence to do that. I had two young whippersnappers running behind me. If they started to goof off, I would just turn my head and give a sharp bark. That usually got them to behave. They knew to pay attention to their elder.

Iditarod, the Ultimate Dogsled Race Across Alaska



People often ask us if we have ever been in a dogsled race. Amy and I have been working with sled dogs for many years, but we have never been in a dogsled race.  The Canadian Inuit Dogs that we work with are too slow for racing. They can pull a lot of weight and handle extreme cold and harsh conditions, but they are not built for speed. Most dogsled racers use Alaskan Huskies, which are much faster. Right now there are hundreds of dogs and dozens of mushers competing in the most famous dogsled race in the world, the Iditarod. The Iditarod is almost 1,000 miles long and takes most teams between 10 and 14 days to complete.


You can follow the Iditarod on the internet. They even have a “teacher on the trail” that helps classrooms all over the world follow the race. Right now Aliy Zirkle is in the lead and the top teams are about 3/4th of the way through the race. The Iditarod goes from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The teams race up and over mountain passes, through the forest, down rivers and over the sea ice and tundra. It is a very challenging race.


The race follows the route to Nome the mushers historically followed to haul supplies across Alaska. The race also commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska. The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did in the past. However some modern dog drivers like Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson move much faster than their old-time counterparts, making the trip to Nome in under ten days. Historically the freight mushers used larger dogs that were more like the Canadian Inuit Dogs that Amy and I work with. They are slower than the racing dogs, but they are very strong and can pull a lot of supplies.


Iditarod route

Amy and I have really enjoyed following the Iditarod. It is amazing how fast the dogs and their mushers can travel across 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. We hope that you will follow the Iditarod as well. Would you like to race in the Iditarod someday?


If you would like to run the Iditarod, what are some of the things that you would need to do to train and prepare for the race?


What do you think would be the hardest part of running the Iditarod?


What do you think would be the most fun, or rewarding part of running the Iditarod?


Keep Exploring!


Dave Freeman


Further Exploration


Iditarod website: http://iditarod.com/

Iditarod education portal for teachers: http://iditarod.com/teachers/

Iditarod activities for students: http://iditarod.com/teachers/students/