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A passerby looks at a picture that is part of a campaign to save the rhino in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo credit: Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

Graffiti Campaign Inspires Protection of Endangered Rhinos

By Michael Tatarski

Throughout the month of March, a unique graffiti campaign popped up on the walls of several streets in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, the hyperactive commercial capital of Vietnam. The works differed from the usual tags and designs that adorn urban areas around the world. The graffiti pieces, 17 in all, carry a simple message: "Save the rhinos" or "Cứu tê giác" in Vietnamese.

Vietnam is home to one of the largest African rhino horn consumer bases in the world, in addition to being a key transit point for shipments to China. Users of rhino horn believe it can cure various illnesses, in addition to a number of other supposed health benefits. There is no scientific basis to back these beliefs up.

The graffiti in Ho Chi Minh City aims to educate locals on the importance of this issue. According to Nhi Thoi, program manager at the Center of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment (CHANGE), the street art is part of an awareness-raising campaign to inform people on the topic that began in 2013. The group specializes in initiating and developing environment and "climate change movements in Vietnam," according to their website.

"We've been running the 'stop using rhino horn campaign' for several years," Nhi said at CHANGE's office in suburban Ho Chi Minh City recently. "We produce a lot of PSAs (public service announcements) and we've invited a lot of celebrities."

A graffiti picture that is part of a campaign to save the rhino in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

One of these PSAs aired on television screens located next to elevators at some of the city's apartment buildings that normally show product advertisements. In the video, national celebrities explained the need to save the world's remaining rhinos, while graphic images of poached animals with their horns sheared off drove the message home.

Nhi explained that the aim is to create social pressure in order to persuade rhino horn users to change their ways.

"It's really hard to tackle the end-users, for example businessmen and high-ranking government officials, so we need to go around and talk to many other people," she said. The graffiti project began as a low-cost way to further this public conversation. "When I drove around the city I saw a lot of empty spaces, like dirty walls, and sometimes they had been vandalized. I asked myself, 'Why don't we paint our message on the walls?'"

Suby One, a French graffiti artist based in Ho Chi Minh City. Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

Suby One, a prominent French graffiti artist based in Ho Chi Minh City, has collaborated with CHANGE for three years and played a prominent role in bringing the rhino art campaign to life. "They contacted me and told me they want to change the audience," he said.

Instead of communicating through TV ads, CHANGE would bring its message to the streets in hopes of reaching the general public.

"They had celebrities before and now they want to reach the real people so that they know the rhino issue," Suby said. "They wanted it so that we could paint and people would come and talk to us while we were working."

Suby and CHANGE, in partnership with global conservation organization WildAid, invited 11 local and international artists to create designs featuring rhinos. It took months for Nhi and her team to obtain local government approval.

A graffiti picture that is part of a campaign to save the rhino in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

"From the beginning, I wanted our message to be very aggressive, so I wanted the artists to draw something about a dead rhino or something stunning," she said. "But since we're doing this in public, we needed approval from the authorities and they didn't want something negative."

CHANGE finally got the green light in early March and their team jumped into action, with an aim to complete the artwork in one month. The pieces, spread across a number of streets in Ho Chi Minh City's central District 1, are striking. Each portrayal is unique, but all carry the same plea: Save the rhino.

A graffiti picture that is part of a campaign to save the rhino in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

"I want to create love for rhinos," Nhi said. "In some images we had differences, like the rhino's horn exploding or the shadows of other rhinos that weren't actually there. We wanted to convey the message that the rhino is close to extinction and needs protection."

According to the conservation organization Save the Rhino, at the end of 2015 there were an estimated 30,000 rhinos remaining in the wild in Africa and Asia. At the start of the 20th century millions of rhinos lived in these regions. Vietnam in particular continues to be a major player in the illicit international rhino horn trade. According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, in March 2017 alone there were two seizures—one in Bangkok and one in Hanoi—totaling 67 rhino horns. The Bangkok case involved a Vietnamese national, while no suspects were named in the other.

TRAFFIC used the opportunity to call on the Vietnamese government to honor its commitment to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and prosecute wildlife crimes more vigorously. According to the organization, less than 1 percent of criminals involved in such activity in the country are successfully prosecuted.

The graffiti campaign has been a bright spot, though and garnered extensive attention from the public and the media.

A graffiti picture that is part of a campaign to save the rhino in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

"In the beginning they [people in the neighborhoods] didn't really support us, but when they saw us clean the walls and draw beautiful pictures they warmed up and were really supportive," Nhi said. "They brought us water and cake and brought their kids to play with us and talk about rhinos."

Suby believes there has been an outpouring of support because of the role art can play in activism.

"I think graffiti is something new here and people are getting interested in it," he said. "You can reach more people with art—especially on the streets … I think touching the people and the neighbors, that's the strength of street art."

Philip Genochio, a British expat based in Ho Chi Minh City, was also involved in the campaign as an artist.

A graffiti picture that is part of a campaign to save the rhino in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Michael Tatarski / Mongabay

"For me, it goes beyond rhinos specifically," he wrote via email. "It's part of a much bigger problem of wildlife of all descriptions being killed in the name of vanity and ignorance."

His design in the campaign features the outlines of many small rhinos forming the shape of a large rhino. "I wanted something that had impact; something that would at least get people's attention," he said. "Also, I liked the idea of using vivid colors to represent happiness, joy and well-being … we should have these thoughts in our minds when thinking about wildlife."

Genochio added that he wishes to see the campaign spread an appreciation for art as well.

"On a lighter note, I hope people see the benefit that graffiti and street art brings to a city and its neighborhoods," he said. "It's uplifting, it's characterful, it's inspiring … why wouldn't you want to see this around the city?"

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.


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Mexican Government Stands in Solidarity With Sea Shepherd to Save Nearly Extinct Vaquita

Thanks to a swift response by the Mexican government, a potentially dangerous confrontation by hostile fisherman towards Sea Shepherd was averted on March 30.

A temporary restraining order issued against the fisherman on March 28 by the Attorney General's office was ratified by a judge on April 5.

Protesting fishermen, led by one of San Felipe's fishing cooperative leaders, held a demonstration on March 26 where they threatened to burn Sea Shepherd ships if they were still in the Gulf by, March 30 at 14:00 hours.

Sea Shepherd is currently in the Gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez, for Operation Milagro III to protect the near extinct vaquita porpoise and the endangered totoaba bass. The campaign is in partnership with the government of Mexico.

At the demonstration, the fisherman and their leader took a small local fishing boat, known as a "panga," painted Sea Shepherd's name on it and burned it in the streets of San Felipe. The act served as a warning that they would do the same with the anti-poaching organization's ships, the M/Y Sam Simon and M/V Farley Mowat, if they did not exit Mexican waters. The demonstration ended with the leader promising to attack the Sea Shepherd crew with 200 pangas on March 30.

When that date arrived, Mexican Navy vessels acted as escorts for the Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat in case a clash occurred. Meanwhile, on shore police screened fishing boats before allowing them to launch in to the sea.

However, no more than 60 pangas managed to assemble in the harbor and none set sail towards Sea Shepherd. No one was hurt on either side and no property damage occurred.

Restraining Orders Placed on Fishermen

On April 5, a Mexican judge ratified a restraining order to the fisherman and their group leader, forbidding them to speak, threaten and harass campaign leader and Sam Simon Captain Oona Layolle and the Sea Shepherd crew aboard the Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat. The fisherman have been ordered not come near the ships and land base.

"Sea Shepherd very much appreciated the effective measures taken by the Mexican government to quell what was potentially a very explosive and violent situation," said Captain Paul Watson.

Illegal poachers who set the banned gillnets that trap the vaquita, totoaba and other marine animals—are angry that Sea Shepherd is working with their government to remove these nets and remove the animals caught in them, be they dead or alive. The totoaba bladders fetch $20,000 a kilo in China, a price that has attracted individuals tied to organized crime and drug smuggling to the trade.

This illegal fishing has caused the vaquita numbers to dwindle down to less than 30, leaving the world's tiniest porpoise on the brink of extinction. In March, Sea Shepherd found several dead vaquita floating in the Gulf.

The poachers' animosity toward Sea Shepherd is further intensified because the conservation society uses drones to locate the illegal fisherman and the promptly notifies the Mexican authorities of their coordinates, which has led to arrests.

"Sea Shepherd is not in the area to oppose legal fishing activities," said Captain Layolle. "Sea Shepherd's actions are focused on illegal fishing and the only fishermen who have any reason to be angry with the Sea Shepherd ships are those whose illegal activities are being disrupted and shut down by Sea Shepherd crews."

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Beluga whale pod. Photo credit: Laura Morse/ NOAA

340 Beluga Whales Threatened by Another Pipeline Leak in Alaska's Cook Inlet

Hilcorp Alaska reported Saturday an oil leak from a pipeline in Alaska's Cook Inlet. The oil spilled from the offshore pipeline south of Tyonek is in a critical habitat for the gravely endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, whose numbers have dwindled to 340 individuals. This leak is unrelated to the gas leak from another one of its pipelines that has been ongoing since December.

"At first, I hoped that news of this latest oil leak was an April fool's joke because it seemed like Hilcorp couldn't spring another leak so soon," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. We're really worried about what this means for Cook Inlet belugas with the double whammy of an oil spill and gas leak in the same season."

The cause of the leak is unknown and oil sheens have been reported in the area. The company said it has shut-in production at the platforms, known as Anna and Bruce, that are connected by the leaking pipeline. Reports this morning confirm that the leak has stopped, but the risk to wildlife is unknown. These platforms were installed in 1966 and aging infrastructure and severe tides in the Cook Inlet make them vulnerable to incidents. The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has also repeatedly cited Hilcorp for violating safety regulations for its oil and gas operations in the state.

"It's clear that there's no safe way to drill for oil in the ocean. This is the same company that plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a place that is much more dangerous for oil drilling with severe storms and ice," Sakashita said. "Hilcorp keeps springing leaks in Cook Inlet and it should certainly not be allowed to build the Liberty project in the Beaufort Sea."

The Center for Biological Diversity has sent Hilcorp a 60-day notice of its intent to sue for the ongoing gas leak and it is monitoring the new oil leak to determine whether legal action is warranted.

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Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Fast and Furious Star Joins Sea Shepherd to Show Impact of Climate Change on Baby Seals

A Sea Shepherd team flew over the Gulf of St. Lawrence last week documenting an ecological disaster that very few people want to talk about—especially those in the Canadian government.

It has been 40 years to the month that French actress Brigitte Bardot first went to the ice floes in Canada to focus attention on the slaughter of baby seals at the behest of Sea Shepherd founder, Captain Paul Watson.

This year, actress Michelle Rodriguez—best known for her role as Letty Ortiz in the blockbuster franchise The Fast and the Furious—joined the all-woman survey team known as Operation Ice Watch. The group was led by Sea Shepherd Toronto coordinator Brigitte Breau and also included Yana Watson, the wife of Sea Shepherd leader Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd advisory board member Clementine Pallanca and Canadian animal rights lawyer Camille Labchuk of Animal Justice.

The group was accompanied by a three-person documentary crew: French photojournalist Bernard Sidler, Australian videographer Jasmine Lord and Toronto-based Czech photographer Marketa Schusterova.

Since Captain Watson first founded Sea Shepherd 40 years ago in 1977, much has changed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Not all whitecoat seals are clubbed to death on the ice (shotguns are also permitted now), the kill quota is almost twice what it was then. Since 2011, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been allowing the slaughter of 400,000 seals they define as "adult" although many are no more than six weeks old.

Canadian seal products are banned in Europe and in the U.S. Regardless of the quota that has allowed sealers to kill 2.4 million seals over the last six years, only around 350,000 have actually been slaughtered in total because of a scarcity of markets.

However, there is one very significant change that the world needs to know.

Where is the Ice?

Harp seals cannot give birth to pups unless there is ice for them to be born upon. The team of Operation Ice Watch had trouble finding any substantial ice during its investigation.

Earlier in the week, the Operation Ice Watch crew found a couple of small patches along the coast of Cape Breton containing a few hundred seals and their pups. Two days later that patch was gone, broken up by high winds. It was found again two days later, more broken up and with fewer seals. Most likely the seal pups drowned.

There should be more than 200,000 seal pups in the Gulf yet no one seems to know where they are.

What the Operation Ice Watch team witnessed is something that Sea Shepherd has never witnessed before—a completely ice-free and seal-free Gulf. This alarming sight means that without ice, seal pups cannot be born. They are being birthed into the sea, only to drown or forced up on land where they have little chance of survival.

Despite the lack of ice, the Canadian government has issued a kill quota once again of 400,000 seals for the year 2017. This is an astounding figure when tens of thousands of seals may have already perished in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year due for lack of ice.

Captain Watson and Sea Shepherd feel this should be declared a national emergency and a clear warning that climate change is accelerating faster than authorities anticipate.

Brigitte Bardot and Michelle Rodriguez: Posing With Seals Then and Now

Captain Paul Watson sent the all-female crew to the ice to commemorate the courage of Brigitte Bardot when she went to the ice in 1977 to focus international attention of the slaughter of seals. A photo of Bardot posting with a seal brought world attention to the cause and the need to protect harp seals. It became a pivotal point in the fight to stop this annual Canadian obscenity of cruelty and mass slaughter.

Bardot and Seal, 1977.

In recognition of Bardot's famous picture, taken 40 years ago this March, Rodriguez posed with a whitecoat baby seal in her own 21st Century version of the iconic photo.

Michelle Rodriguez posed with a whitecoat baby seal in her own 21st Century version of the iconic photo.Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"People listen to celebrities," said Captain Watson. "Michelle has over 13 million friends on her Facebook page along with an international following. This helps to get the message out that now the seals are not just threatened by human hunting, but even more threatened by climate change and the loss of ice. Not content to kill the babies, mankind has now wiped out the nurseries."

However, unlike the ice conditions of 1977 which made Bardot's photoshoot a relatively safe one, it was not so easy to recreate the shot in 2017. The ice was so broken up and thin that Sea Shepherd's helicopter could not land. Rodriguez, along with Yana Watson, Sidler and Lord had to hop from one small pan of ice to another just to reach the seals.

Despite the challenges, Rodriguez was thrilled to meet the seals on the small patch of ice.

"Seeing these beautiful creatures and understanding their place in the ecosystem, I'm saddened the Canadian government has been so short sighted in failing to prevent a massive ecological catastrophe," said Rodriguez. "It's sad to know the truth and watch the world turn a blind eye."

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Science Trumps Politics: Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Officially an Endangered Species

By Daniel Raichel

There are times—even today—when law and science triumph over politics.

Hard to believe, I know, but that's exactly what happened this week when the Trump administration backed away from its "freeze" on listing the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species.

The rusty patched bumble bee is the first bumble bee to receive endangered species protections and for good reason. Although common across the Midwest and the East Coast as recently as the mid-90s, since then, the bee's population has plummeted by about 90 percent.

After studying the bee for years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came out with a report last summer, finding it was likely to disappear from most of its remaining habitat within five years and go completely extinct within 30 years. Recognizing there was no time to waste, the agency finalized a rule to list the bee as an endangered species in January. The rule was set to take effect in 30 days, but then Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the U.S.

On day one, the Trump administration issued an order to "freeze" or delay the effective dates of all final rules, including the rusty patched bumble bee listing. The Fish and Wildlife Service then issued a notice—just one day before the bee was scheduled to be added to the list—claiming to delay the effective date of the listing until March 21.

That's when we sued. Because as any good government attorney knows, agencies can't simply discard or delay final rules years in the making at the whim of the president. They must instead follow the procedure required by law, which includes fair warning of a change in policy and an opportunity for interested members of the public to weigh in. The process can sometimes be slow, but it's designed to stop rash, baseless or purely political decision making—like, say, suddenly stopping the listing of a critically imperiled species supported by years of scientific study and review.

Given the Trump administration's questionable track record on appropriate legal process, we had anticipated a fight. But then, something incredible happened—the administration backed down and allowed the rusty patched bumble bee to get the federal endangered species protection it so desperately needs.

While it's hard to know whether this victory for common sense will be repeated elsewhere, it's unquestionably a win for bees everywhere—especially for the 4,000 species of native bees here in the U.S. While native bees like the rusty patched don't always get the same attention as honey bees, they are just as important to our food and our environment and many are just as in trouble. That's why we're hopeful that the protections the rusty patched bumble bee now enjoys will begin to help other bees too, chipping away at the larger bee crisis before it's too late.

The devil, of course, is always in the details, so we'll be watching closely as the Trump administration starts to implement those protections. Whatever happens, one thing's for sure—if they step out of line again, we'll "bee" there.

Daniel Raichel is a staff attorney and a member of the lands and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.


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Watch Sea Shepherd Ship Sail with Megapod of Dolphins

On Feb. 25, while patrolling the waters of the Gulf of California for Operation Milagro III, the M/V Sam Simon sailed through a megapod of dolphins with numbers estimated to be more than 1,000 individuals.

The elation and joy of this sight comes with the realization that many of these dolphins' lives will be cut short due to illegal gill nets. Sea Shepherd will stay in the Gulf of California until we pull out every last illegal gill net, ensuring the safety of the inhabitants who call these waters home.

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Help Save the World's Most Endangered Species

By Zak Smith

There are only about 30 vaquita porpoises left in the world. The smallest and most endangered cetacean species on the planet faces extinction in three years if the people with the power to save it don't take immediate action. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and casting blame elsewhere, the Mexican government, Mexican shrimp fisheries and U.S. shrimp importers must be bold or Mexico will lose this national treasure. But they're not committed to taking the steps necessary to save the vaquita, so we have to motivate them. Boycotting Mexican shrimp is the answer.

The vaquita's steep decline is solely attributable to the use of gillnets in their habitat, a 2,000km² area in the northwest corner of the Upper Gulf of California—an area roughly equal in size to Orange County, California. Vaquita get tangled and drown in gillnets used to catch shrimp, totoaba and other fish. Between 1990 and 2010, shrimp fisheries' use of gillnets drove the population down by more than 70 percent from more than 700 to about 200. After 2010, the use of gillnets in an illegal fishery for a croaker fish called the totoaba (also endangered and also found in the Upper Gulf of California) increased the vaquita's rate of decline as fishermen flooded the area with gillnets to supply Asian demand for totoaba swim bladders.

The response from those with power to force change has fallen flat. The Mexican government promised stronger enforcement of a temporary and incomplete gillnet ban and a ban on fishing in a special vaquita refuge. It hasn't happened; fishermen's use of gillnets in the vaquita's habitat continues unabated. Mexican shrimp fisheries point fingers at the illegal totoaba trade, refusing to take responsibility for bringing the vaquita to the cliff's edge and focusing instead on the fishery that is giving the vaquita the final fatal push. And U.S. shrimp importers pledge fealty to "sustainability," but continue to profit without demanding the vaquita's recovery.

We have the power to force their attention. We have the power to save the vaquita. Boycott shrimp from Mexico and these actors will respond. They will finally ensure that the vaquita's waters are gillnet free. We all know how this works; you hit people where it hurts, their wallets. Join the campaign and save the vaquita.

Zak Smith is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.



Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

66 Totoaba Found Dead in a Single Net, Dead Newborn Vaquita Washes Ashore

With the near-extinct vaquita porpoise now numbering less than 30, conservation was dealt a blow on March 12, when Sea Shepherd found a dead newborn vaquita on the beach just 33 km south of San Felipe, in the Northern area of the Gulf of California.

The non-profit marine conservation society's anti-poaching ships, the M/V Farley Mowat and M/Y Sam Simon, have been patrolling the upper Gulf since last fall as part of Operation Milagro III to save the vaquita and the endangered totoaba bass.

The body of a second, adult vaquita was reported to the crew not far from where the neonate was found, but after several days of searching by the crew, it has yet to be located. However, the locals who spotted it took pictures and gave them to Sea Shepherd in hopes that its body would still be found.

Sea Shepherd handed over the baby vaquita corpse to the Mexican authorities and a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. The most common cause in the Gulf of California for the vaquita is getting caught in one of the numerous illegal gillnets hidden underwater, set up to trap the totoaba bass. Both the vaquita and the totoaba are similar in size and once the vaquita becomes entangled in the net, it is unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing it to drown.

A dead newborn vaquita.Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"Under the stress of fighting for its life, a mother could have discharged the calf," hypothesized Operation Milagro campaign leader Captain Oona Layolle.

A female vaquita gives birth to a calf approximately once every two years. It is not known if the adult vaquita body spotted by locals was the newborn's mother or not.

Unprecedented Number of Dead Totoaba in One Net

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The marine life devastation in the Gulf of California continued March 14, when the M/V Farley Mowat found and retrieved a net containing 66 dead totoaba. A 67 one was found alive and set free.

Illegal fisherman and the Mexican criminal cartels target the totoaba just to export its swim bladder for sale on the black market in China and Hong Kong for unsubstantiated medicinal properties. There it can fetch more than $20,000 per kilo. Due to this high street value, the totoaba bladder is frequently referred to as "aquatic cocaine" and is the only reason these animals are being killed.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"We never found as many dead totoaba in one net," said Captain Layolle, who was on hand to witness their destruction by the Federal Agency of the Environmental Protection after the carcasses were handed over to the Mexican government organization. "It was heartbreaking and disgusting to see so many animals die to feed the Chinese demand for swim bladders. The trafficking of their swim bladder is destroying the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of California."

"The illegal fishing activity has never been so dramatic here in the Gulf of California," Captain Layolle continued. "We have been witnessing poacher's activity day and night. High season for totoaba poaching is now hitting hard. It is having a huge impact on the biodiversity of this place; this is our last chance to save the species from extinction. But it seems that human ignorance and greed won't stop."

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson added: "We are on the threshold of the doorways to extermination of many marine species. If we lose the vaquita, what next? Sea Shepherd needs all the help we can get to prevent the extinction of the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise."

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