Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Production Assistants…I mean Zoologists in training. ☺

Port of Dhaka, Bangladesh (Photo: JLewis, TDRF)
While stuck in Dhaka (thanks to strikes) and while waiting for our characters to come back from the field where we are not granted access, I have been lucky to get the help of a number of local university students from Jagannath University, Department of Zoology (Galib, Chayan, and Shanta) These fantastic students have helped me travel the city searching for b roll. Films are made mostly of what we call b roll, which is footage that can be used to have on the screen to help explain the points being made as the story progresses. For example, we are covering the issue of pressure to marry, so if we talk of this in the film, it will be good to show clips of young couples. Or a marriage ceremony where the marriage has been arranged.
Galib helps us locate interesting river footage on the Buriganges river near the shipyards of 
Dhaka, Bangladesh (Photo: JLewis, TDRF)

So for the past three days we have scoured the city of Dhaka and thanks to the amazing talents of my add hoc “production team”, we have now secured a significant addition of amazing shots (beautiful, poignant and inspiring) that we can choose from when we get back to editing.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Daily Struggles

Daily struggles in developing countries like Bangladesh are very different from those in countries like the United States. I reported before some of the issues that make work in conservation (or in any capacity for that matter) in the countries this film covers (Nepal, India and Bangladesh), a tougher road. For example, strikes that shut down all transportation across the nation, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Every single day there are power outages.

In some locations, nearly daily there are protests and demonstrations that can and many times are violent.

Recent Student Protest at Dhaka University, Bangladesh (Photo: Focus Bangla)
Because of the extreme poverty, as in any location (including the United States), where there is poverty, people tend to look for criminal means to make a living. Sometimes through theft.

Today I was reminded of this, as I worked to follow Farhana through the streets of Dhaka to film her in another struggle (the more than month long process just to get a passport). We had just arrived after taking an all night bus from Khulna and because we each had luggage we had to take separate rickshaws. Mine was following hers. When out of no where a car appeared that targeted Farhana and attempted to steal her laptop bag from her. Her driver handled his rickshaw expertly so that the car passenger could not quite get a good enough hold and gave up.

Even just moving about the city can be risky. (jgphoto.photoshelter.com)
I then learned not long before the same thing had resulted in considerable tragedy. A woman in a riskshaw had the same thing happen, but because she had the strap of her bag wrapped around her arm she was yanked out of the rickshaw and dragged under the car which ended her life.

Obviously bad things happen everywhere across the earth every day no matter where you live. But the number of daily obstacles and the chances for hardship are a bit higher in developing nations like Bangladesh than others. Increasing stress, and shortening life spans. Life spans that could have produced considerably more for the people of the world and our planet if they had been healthy enough to do so.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Assessing the damage

What can you do when an oil spill occurs? One of the top in the list would be to access the damage
Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project team on the water
surveying for dolphins. 
to the wildlife. This is what our character Farhana has been helping to do since the day this tragedy occurred a little over a week ago (oil spill in the Sundarbans). Farhana, along with the team leaders and volunteers of the Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP) (under the Wildlife Conservation Society) has been out on the water for almost a week now surveying the Sundarbans for dolphins, sampling the water for fish, collecting environmental data and attempting to measure the extent of the oiled vegetation.

The team works to sort and identify fish collected

Team members take a much deserved break for a meal. 

This work is hard, and most people on the boat manage only about 4-5 hours of sleep a night. Breaks only for meals. But the work they are dong is incredibly important. Everyone on board is aware of that and no one complains.Thanks to the foresight of this organization (and work in particular by Zahangir AlomBCDP Project Coordinator), a great deal of data pre-oil spill is available to compare to. So they will have information that will allow them to monitor any changes or effects to the ecosystem from this point forward.

Team leader Zahangir Alom discusses survey 
work with Farhana

Friday, December 19, 2014

A brief break from the spill

Day one: In the field with one of our main characters Farhana. 

Meeting Farhana I should mention was a turning point for the development of this story. The
Farhana Akhtar looks out over the waters near the oil spill. 
original plan was to follow different established researchers working to conserve the Ganges river dolphin. But after meeting Farhana, who worked for one of these groups in Bangladesh, it became apparent that the story here was about the problems young conservationists face in S central Asia, in their battle to stay in this field. And then what the loss of the young people could mean for the future of conservation in the region. Farhana herself struggles with this issue, having a job based on grants.

Farhana works as the education coordinator for the one and only dolphin research group in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP). She had just finished helping this group complete a major project, which was to create a permanent educational exhibit about the dolphins and whales found in Bangladesh waters, when the oil spill occurred. Her job responsibilities have therefore shifted considerably as a result, and now involve helping to coordinate field activities to access the damage.

Farhana has a minute to smile when explaining the work 
she did to help create the educational exhibit behind her
That being said, Farhana was able to take a short break to give a quick tour of the new exhibit. It includes full size sculptures of the two dolphins found in the waters of the Sundarbans (the Ganges river dolphin and the Irrawaddy) and then many kiosks with loads of fantastic information. It is immediately apparent that considerable thought went into choosing the design and the educational material for this space. The exhibit is now open for visitors to view, but the BCDP would like to finish it with a roof to help protect the exhibit from sun and rain. If you would like to help in that effort you can contact the BCDP

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Side Track Off Dolphins for One Post

Oil collected by villagers to sell
I cannot report the situation on the ground in good conscious without also mentioning the human impact (as there always is when a disaster like this happens). In the northern Gulf of Mexico, the fishing industry and tourism industry are still suffering years after the Horizon oil spill. This past summer I continued to find tar balls on the beaches of Dauphin Island (coast of Alabama, United States).

While I do not for one minute down play how much that hurt the people of the Gulf coast, I can with conviction say the impacts to the people living on the edge of the water in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh are considerably more.

First, the oil is now covering their boats and parts of their homes. Villages in the Sundarbans are based in large part on fishing. So the homes are right on the edge of the water. Therefore parts of the docks and the structures that keep the homes above the high tide line have been covered. Crude oil contains both neurotoxins and carcinogens. And now this is lying in a thick coat around the bottoms of many of their homes.  

Black oil coats the bottom of villager homes in Sundarbans after oil spill.  

Fishing nets of the villagers used to stop oil 
from entering other channels
Second, as mentioned these people depend on fish for their livelihood. In a previous Post we mentioned how coating the mangrove roots in oil will likely kill these trees and then have a cascading affect on the other species (including fish) that depend on the mangroves. Not only will the number of fish available be impacted, the toxicity of the fish will be under question as well. To add injury to insult, these people have been asked to use their own fishing nets to block the oil from getting into side channels and moving further into the forest (off main channels).

Pots used to collect oil

Finally, and more important than any of the above, these people have been asked to clean up the spill. Yes, you heard me right. ON THEIR OWN! With NO PROTECTION! In return they get 0.50US. Fifty cents to risk their health and the health of their children (I have seen many young kids under the age of ten out gathering oil to sell). I mention again the words NEUROTOXIN and CARCINOGEN.

Young boy covered in oil 
If this post bothers you at all, then I suggest you 1) contact major forms of news media (see post one for how to if you are in the US) and work HARD to get them to cover this story (US still not covering for the most part). 2) Write to the leaders of your country and ask them to pressure the government of Bangladesh to change this clean up solution IMMEDIATELY.  3) SHARE (don’t like..only sharing moves this story along) this post, and help us get the word out.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ecological disaster…..to say the least

Black color is oil. Sundarbans, Bangladesh. 

(Photo: JLewis, TDRF)
None of the main characters were available on this first day, so I hired a boat to take me to the spill area. I saw dolphins until I got to the area where I could detect the oil sheen on the surface. In this area, thick black oil covers everything on the shores up to the high tide line (about 2 m or 6 plus feet). 

This area is composed of mangroves which are trees found in tropical areas that are salt water tolerant (or at least many of them are). To deal with the salt water, they have evolved really interesting mechanisms to get rid of the salt when they take in water to survive. For example, some excrete the salt out into the backs of their leaves.

Roots covered in thick black oil. Sundarbans, Bangladesh (Photo: JLewis TDRF)
Mangroves are very important because they form critical habitat for many aquatic species. These trees have massive root systems that usually are below the water during high tide. Juvenile fish and many small organisms depend on these root areas for food and shelter. So the bottom of the mangrove works as a sort of nursery and home for lots of animals. If the roots of the mangrove are destroyed, many animals have no place to live. 

In the Sundarbans of Bangladesh (largest mangrove forest on Earth), the mangroves line the shores. Now, thanks to the oil spill, all these roots are covered in thick black oil. This prevents exchange of gases (so they can't "breath") and it prevents nutrient uptake (so they can't eat). You can guess what will happen now to these trees. And then without the trees what will happen to the animals that depend on them to live. This is just one example of how this spill will affect the ecosystem here in the Sundarbans.
Black ring across miles and miles of mangroves in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh. A result of the oil spill, December 2014 (Photo: JLewis, TDRF). 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sometimes you just run out of luck? Hopefully not.

We are on the ground again in Asia, to complete the film we started last year. The film is about the
Map of Ganges river and countries it runs through
young conservation biologists who are fighting to save the remaining Ganges river dolphins. We have been following the lives and work of four characters; Gopal from Nepal, Subhasis from India, and Farhana and Manish from Bangladesh. These three countries span the range across which the Ganges river dolphin still can be found…today. I say this with hesitation because it faces an incredible uphill battle to continue on this Earth. But I would not be on the ground again, working on this project, if I didn’t think there was hope, and still a chance for its survival. I have this hope because of the courage, passion and dedication of these young conservationists.

So here we go! Leaving the UK this morning to start the second set of flights which will take me to the first location, Dhaka, Bangladesh, I check my phone at 6am to see an email from one of the heads of a research group that works to conserve the dolphin and whales species in Bangladesh waters. Because of the work of this group, a set of three sanctuaries were created for the Ganges river dolphin in the area of Bangladesh called the Sundarbans.
Map of Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest on the Earth. Map Credit: WWF

The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest on the Earth, extending across southern Bangladesh into India. It is where the Ganges river finally meets the sea. This mangrove habitat is critical for the Ganges river dolphin. And it provides probably what may be considered the most pristine habitat available for this species across its range. That is….it did…until yesterday. And this is what the email was about. Yesterday, an oil tanker carrying oil upstream into a location in Bangladesh crashed into another boat and potentially all the oil contained was lost into this water. This water near the port of Mongla, which is right where the first of the three dolphin sanctuaries exists. For the Ganges river dolphin and also for the Irrawaddy (another species under threat).

Sunken boat in Sundarbans, Bangladesh near critical dolphin habitat (Photo Credit: bdnews24.com
What will be the result? I cannot tell you yet. I can however, share what I have considered. 1) Dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico are still affected (as are all marine life) from the Horizon oil spill and 2) The Ganges river dolphin is constrained to the river. No place else to go. These two facts combined seriously concern me.

While I absolutely hate to start this half of the story from such a dreary perspective, maybe it will
Oil from Sundarbans oil spill. 
bring home the fact to those that read it, the absolutely precarious nature that many of these species we are trying to protect are in now. And how easy it would be to tip the balance all the way to extinction….fast. And then how important it is that we focus our attention on these species and their habitat NOW.

This brings me then to consider the fact that after reading this, many of you may want to know what can you do NOW. I am glad you asked!

1. Immediately call your local and national news organizations and ask if they are covering this story? I actually have yet to look at US media to see if the story has  gone global yet? Or if it will. It WILL however, if you all help it to! Tell the news affiliates: Huge oil spill, largest mangrove forest on earth, over taking sanctuaries for endangered Ganges river dolphin. Try TV and internet based media. Here are links to email or forms to send the short sentence above: 




      2.   Spread the word via social media. We have posted this story on our facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/TropicalDolphinResearchFoundation) and twitter feeds (https://twitter.com/TropicalDolph). Please go to these and hit SHARE (not like). This tool can be extremely powerful to get the word out fast.

      3. Follow up the above two tasks by calling your congress people IMMEDIATELY (or similar types of government officials in other countries) to ask the US (or your country) to get involved IMMEDIATELY and provide aid to Bangladesh. In US here is how to find your congressperson (http://www.opencongress.org/people/zipcodelookup). Here is what you can say or write:

Prior to 2005 there were four river dolphin species on the Earth. Now there are only three. Soon there may be only two.

The Ganges river dolphin is endangered (IUCN) and had a major blow this week with an oil spill occurring over the most pristine part of its range, the Sundarbans in southern Bangladesh, (the Sundarbans are also the largest mangrove forest on Earth).

This spill occurred very close (less than a km) to one of the recently established sanctuaries for this river dolphin in Bangladesh.

At this time there are may be 1000 of this species left across its range (ranges from Nepal, across India and then into Bangladesh).

Bangladesh DOES NOT have the resources to clean up the spill. They MUST have outside aid.

Bangladesh MUST get help with a cleanup NOW. Or many species (from fish, to dolphins to tigers to humans) could be harmed to the point of extinction.

This is a chance to save these species (including the river dolphin).

We therefore request that the United States do everything in its power to immediately aid Bangladesh to help clean the oil spill.

I can tell you from first hand experience, this country is an AMAZING country, but it is a new country and struggles significantly just to feed its people. It simply is not equipped to deal with this. And MUST HAVE HELP FROM OTHER COUNTRIES. We all are from Earth. And we should all then take responsibility to help protect it, no matter where the man made border boundaries are where the problems exist. If we can all work together to get this story heavy coverage in the media and follow with huge influx of calls to our leaders, you would be surprised how effective we can be at getting aid to Bangladesh. I cannot emphasize, how critical time is in this effort. With only maybe 1000 Ganges river dolphins left, every animal saved by your actions will be critical for its continued existence.

      4.  Help us to tell this story. We are setting up a crowd funding site to raise money for the film. We have a limited budget (out of our own pockets…because we felt it was THAT important). By donating, either because you believe in the reason for the film, or because you want to help us to cover the spill event (which we will be doing now to include in the film), you can help us to increase the amount of time we can spend on the ground in Asia. And help us to promote the conservation of this species. One of the three remaining river dolphin species on the planet (the Yangtze river dolphin was declared extinct in 2005).

       We will post links to this as soon as live. Maybe later today. In the meantime, you can donate on our website (www.tropicaldolphin.org). We have a safe paypal link there.