Does Guerrilla Gardening Really Promote Conservation?

Guerrilla gardening, resistance gardening, midnight gardening, bewildering, rewilding… the list goes on! As the movement grows, so do the synonyms. But what exactly is this hot green trend that has taken over eco-conscious warriors?

Guerrilla Gardening In A Nutshell

Guerrilla gardening happens when anyone cultivates land without having the legal right to do so. Common examples of such land include vacant lots, abandoned sites, urban sidewalks, and private property.

There are numerous motivations for the illegal cultivation of land. On one end, there are gardeners working quietly at night to spruce things up around their neighborhood. And on the other end, there are climate activists provoking change through direct action during daylight hours for publicity.

Regardless of the reason, guerrilla gardening has seen a steep increase in recent years, gaining traction through public buy-in to the green movement.

Wait, so how did it all begin?

The earliest guerrilla gardeners that are still celebrated today are Gerrard Winstanley (1649, Surrey, England) and John “Appleseed” Chapman (1801, Ohio, USA).

Winstanley was a founder and leader of the Diggers – a religious-political group that promoted agrarian socialism. He declared that “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”  Following this sentiment, the Diggers invited everyone to join them in cultivating vegetables on common land as a means to overcome bad harvests and high food prices. In response, the local landowners took to the court with their complaints. The court issued a ruling against the Diggers, requesting them to leave at their own free will – or face forced eviction by law.

In contrast, Chapman was a pioneer nurseryman and missionary for The New Church. His apprenticeship as an apple orchardist inspired his infamous journey of planting apple trees across the midwestern United States. Contrary to popular belief, Chapman planted nurseries and not orchards – leaving them in the care of neighbors who sold trees using a share trading system.

Interestingly, the term “guerrilla gardening” was only coined much later by Liz Christy. This happened in 1973 when Christy’s group, Green Guerrilla, turned a derelict private lot into a garden.

But This Could Be A Good Thing, Right?

Well, yes and no.

Let’s look beyond the illicit nature of guerrilla gardening and understand it from the perspective of a conservationist.

Guerrilla gardening increases the spatial coverage of green spaces. It also transforms derelict land into ecologically productive spaces. The introduction of different plants attracts various animal life seeking to take advantage of these new areas. Examples of these include birds, small mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. In dense urban environments, these micro-habitats can serve as natural corridors for the survival of wildlife.¹ In this way, guerrilla gardening can have a positive influence on biodiversity.

However, the type of plants cultivated and their combination can influence how diverse these spaces really are. For example, if non-native plants are cultivated, the new environment might not be well-suited to accommodate certain native animals. This is because some native animals depend on native plants for their survival.

Another pitfall is when the same combination of plants are constantly cultivated, favoring the same combination of animal diversity. You’ll notice that these micro-habitats tend to be dominated by cosmopolitan or “pest” species groups because they consistently outcompete others for the same resources. This can easily happen when we blindly follow plant lists from guerilla gardening blogs that are not targeted to meet local conservation needs. In this way, guerrilla gardening can have a negative influence on biodiversity in enriching already abundant wildlife.

What About Food Sovereignty?

The food sovereignty² movement is another global initiative that has become increasingly popular. With the real prospect of food shortages and actual crop failures in recent years,³ the general public is looking for ways to bring nature back into urban settings.

Guerrilla gardening with food plants is one such solution that ticks the social justice checkbox. Here, common herbs and vegetables are planted in neglected inner-city sites with the premise of making healthful food freely available.

As wonderful as this sounds, there are concerns that the location of food plants might make them susceptible to contamination. For example, plants cultivated in industrial areas, near roadsides or waste sites are likely unfit for human consumption.

Another issue is that many food plants that are cultivated do not actually increase the biodiversity, let alone the conservation status, of the area. They may also be treated with pesticides to ensure that they do not succumb to pests. In this way, they can do more harm than good in light of promoting conservation efforts.

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

Albeit illegal, guerrilla gardening certainly has its merits. If the right research is done, not only can it increase local biodiversity – but it can also improve the conservation of native wildlife. However, if we want to use this as a tool to actually promote conservation efforts, we need to understand our local ecosystems.

Whilst urban environments are far from natural, it is still useful to know the wildlife that occupies that region. Local ecologists and conservationists are valuable sources of information in this regard. When we make informed decisions on how to cultivate these spaces, we transform our efforts into positive contributions that actually support local conservation.


  1. Content, A., Energy, F. W., Environmental, U., Festival, T. N. O. C., & Join, T. N. O. C. Do urban green corridors “work”? It depends on what we want them to do. What ecological and/or social functions can we realistically expect green corridors to perform in cities? What attributes define them, from a design and performance perspective?
  2. Sampson, D., Cely-Santos, M., Gemmill-Herren, B., Babin, N., Bernhart, A., Bezner Kerr, R., … & Wittman, H. (2021). Food sovereignty and rights-based approaches strengthen food security and nutrition across the globe: A systematic review. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 288
  3. Schillerberg, T. A., & Tian, D. (2020). Changes of crop failure risks in the United States associated with large-scale climate oscillations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Environmental Research Letters, 15(6), 064035

Our Household Food Waste Undermines Sustainable Development

According to a recent report by the United Nations (UN), the world is currently in a food waste epidemic. This is difficult to imagine when 690 million people went undernourished in 2019. For that same year, 931 million tons of food was discarded by households, retail and restaurants across the globe. In other words, 17% of all food bought was discarded.

Interestingly, the investigation found that high- and middle-income countries had similar food waste patterns. This shared problem means that there is a serious need for national food waste prevention strategies across the globe.

Come the new year, we’ve only got 7 years left to achieve the UN-founded Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These goals serve as a blueprint to achieve a “more sustainable future for all people and the world by 2030.” SDG 12 covers Responsible Consumption and Production. Here, target 12.3 specifically addresses Food Loss and Waste.

Food Loss, Food Waste and Climate Change

Food loss occurs at every stage of the supply chain from harvesting up until it enters the consumer arena. Food waste, however, refers to food that is discarded at the consumer level, i.e. in households, retail and restaurants.

So how does this affect climate change?

Uneaten food negatively contributes to climate change. Approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions result from food waste alone. What makes food waste so harmful is that it generates all the same environmental impacts of food production without the benefit of nourishing people. This means that discarded food is not only a waste of energy but also a waste of resources.

The environmental impacts associated with food waste include intensive use of land and water, pollution of land and water, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, agrochemicals used to enhance food production can contaminate groundwater making it unsafe to drink, or can run into water bodies encouraging excessive algae production which can suffocate aquatic life.

Changing Habits At Home

The alarming news is that 11% of global food waste comes exclusively from households. As bad as this sounds, there is a silver lining: we have the power to change this. By changing how we make decisions about food and adjusting our buying habits, we can make a difference. When we reduce our food waste, we are also reducing our personal climate impact.

Here are some simple suggestions to get you started.

  • Buy only what you need: Make a point of checking your refrigerator and pantry before doing a grocery run. Making a list will help you to keep track of your purchases and prevent impulse buying.
  • Buy only when you need it: Top-up when you’re close to running out. Buying food regularly will limit your chances of bulk buying.
  • Use what you buy: Get creative with left-overs by using them in sandwiches, curries, frittatas or pasta. Add wilting vegetables to whatever you cook. Use your freezer to keep uneaten food for longer.
  • Plan your meals: Having weekly meal plans greatly reduces food waste. Choose to cook meals that use similar ingredients. Use recipes to get accurate serving sizes, or adjust your cooking quantities to reduce the chances of leftovers.


Five Ways to Become a Citizen Scientist Today

For some, becoming a scientist takes years of academic training, expensive equipment, and countless late nights hard at work. For others, becoming a scientist could be a walk in the park… literally! Across the globe, people everywhere are participating in citizen science. Citizen science refers to research projects that enlist large groups of non-experts to collect data on a wide range of subjects. These collaborations allow professional scientists to collect enormous amounts of data from all over the world, and give people of all ages opportunities to explore nature and the scientific process in new ways.

Whether you want to get muddy with friends looking for frogs near a local creek or identify birds from your kitchen window, the variety of citizen science opportunities makes it easy to find one that fits your style.

Here are five citizen science projects we think you and your family will love!

  1. Study amphibian populations with Frog Watch USA
    This citizen science project trains volunteers to identify the calls of frogs and toads before sending them out to collect data during breeding season. Amphibians are important indicators of environmental health, and studying frog populations across the country can help scientists understand what is happening in our wetlands. Frog Watch is coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and currently has more than 140 chapters. You can get involved through your local chapter, or by attending a volunteer training. 
  2. Listen to marine mammal songs with the Cetalingua Project
    Are you interested in helping scientists decode dolphin language? Through the Cetalingua Project’s Whale, Dolphin, and Manatee Chat tools, you can help scientists classify marine mammal recordings. After completing a tutorial, your job is to listen to ten-second clips recorded under the ocean, and determine whether the clip contains a marine mammal, nothing, or a boat.
  3. Identify spiders with Spider Spotter
    If you’re into spiders, this is the app for you. Spider Spotter helps you classify arachnids and their webs and allows you to upload pictures of your observations. With the map feature, you can explore the spider observations of those around you as well! Biologists are using this citizen-generated data to study how spider species are evolving for life in urban habitats.
  4. Go on a virtual safari to Botswana with Leopard Ecology & Conservation
    Wildlife ecologists often utilize motion-activated camera traps to study the movement and behavior of animals, especially elusive species like large carnivores. This project gives you access to photos collected from the Khutse Game Reserve in Botswana. After completing a short training, you can help the ecologists by identifying animals and behaviors seen in the images.
  5. Go birding!
    Birds are some of the most charismatic and ubiquitous animals in cities and towns. Grab some binoculars and go out exploring, or simply watch from a window. Apps like Audubon or Merlin Bird ID can help you identify species based on their appearance or call, and keep track of your sightings. You can use eBird or iNaturalist to log sightings as well. If you get really into birding, you can even join the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science project that has been happening for 121 years! Many scientists studying a variety of subjects access these data sets to inform their research, so your observations can provide valuable information as conservationists work to understand and protect the natural world.

Still looking for a citizen science project that is right for you? Check out citizen science projects offered by NASA, Smithsonian, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Zooniverse. Happy Sciencing!

Well-Meaning Animal Lovers May Be Fueling the Exotic Pet Trade in Unexpected Ways

The internet is full of cute animal videos. There are puppies sliding down slides, kittens in baskets, people and lion cubs cuddling on couches, chimpanzees riding tricycles… These pictures and videos may seem harmless, but when it comes to social media posts featuring exotic animals, the reality isn’t so cute. While liking or sharing videos of “cute” exotic pets may seem harmless, viral videos of exotic pets can put species at risk of extinction and perpetuate practices that are unsafe for people and animals in human care. In today’s attention economy¹, we support posts and creators by engaging with their content. We can all fight the exotic pet trade by being conscious of what we support when we “spend” our likes, comments, and shares.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Oakland Zoo (@oaklandzoo)

Videos and photos of exotic pets typically receive overwhelmingly positive responses on social media. These posts and their responses can make people think that dangerous practices are normal and acceptable, and also lead the public to think these animals are less endangered in the wild.2,3

Photos and videos featuring exotic animals also often remove important context necessary to evaluate the welfare of the animals featured. We see tiger cubs playing in an apartment, but not the moment these cubs were prematurely separated from their mother, or the poor conditions in which they will live out their lives once they become too large and dangerous to interact with just a few months later.4 The bigger picture is rarely so “😍😍😍.”

The case of the slow loris exemplifies the problems the internet can create for endangered species. Around 2010, viral videos of these nocturnal primates being “tickled” and eating rice balls led to an increase in the demand for lorises as pets.5 The sad truth is that the lorises raising their arms to be ‘tickled’ are actually displaying a fear response – the lorises raise their arms to access glands that secrete an oil that becomes toxic when combined with their saliva.6 In addition to being trafficked as pets, the popularity of lorises has also led to their trafficking to be used as photo props for tourists throughout Asia and parts of Turkey; pop singer Rihanna posted a selfie with a loris in Thailand in 2013.7 Unfortunately, demand for slow lorises has impacted their populations in the wild, and all species of slow loris are now vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.8 In addition to being threatened by habitat loss, these animals have to navigate the treacherousness of being “adorable” in the eyes of the internet.

An accredited zoo or aquarium, or someone who works at one, may post pictures that show them in contact with less dangerous animals. However, the person will usually be wearing a uniform, and they will never share photos of people in close contact with dangerous animals like large carnivores or primates unless a barrier is between the keeper and the animal.

Social media is also a threat to the cheetah. Popular accounts, often in the Middle East, depict pet cheetahs as status symbols, and demand for pet cheetahs has led to these endangered cats being trafficked from the wild.9

While social media websites like Instagram10,11 and Tinder12,13 have taken steps to warn users about what animal content may put animals at risk, it is up to us to ask questions about the context in which the animals we see online live before liking or sharing a post. There isn’t a golden rule for which animal content to engage with online, but there are a few guiding principles we can follow to allocate our likes and shares more judiciously, and avoid inadvertently supporting the exotic pet trade. First, avoid engaging with content that shows people and animals in close contact, especially if the animals appear to be in a residential home or are wearing human clothes. To get your fix of ethical animal content, choose reputable wildlife journalists, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or animal sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to follow on social media.

At the core of this issue, there is a lot of hope. Ultimately, people care about wild animals and hold a deep love for them. In a biodiversity crisis, it is important that people care enough to act on behalf of wildlife. However, it is important that our love for wild animals is directed towards organizations dedicated to the conservation of animals in the wild and the best welfare practices for animals in human care. By staying informed and being critical consumers of media that features wildlife, we can ensure that our love for animals is not perpetuating harmful practices.


  1. Joy, A. (2021, February 18). The attention economy: Where the customer becomes the product. Business Today Online Journal. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  2. Moloney, G. K., Tuke, J., Dal Grande, E., Nielsen, T., & Chaber, A.-L. (2021). Is YouTube promoting the exotic pet trade? analysis of the global public perception of popular YouTube videos featuring threatened Exotic Animals. PLOS ONE, 16(4).
  3. Ross, S. R., Vreeman, V. M., & Lonsdorf, E. V. (2011). Specific image characteristics influence attitudes about chimpanzee conservation and use as pets. PLOS ONE, 6(7).
  4. Learn more. Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance. (2021, February 11). Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  5. Anucha, K. (2013, August 12). ‘slow loris tickling’ video points to online peril for Endangered Species. The Guardian. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  6. Lombardi, L. (2020, August 3). Pet trade’s “cute” and “adorable” label endangers the slow loris. Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  7. Kitson, H., & Nekaris, K. A. I. (2017). Instagram-fuelled illegal slow loris trade uncovered in Marmaris, Turkey. Oryx, 51(3), 394–394.
  8. IUCN Red List – Slow Loris. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  9. Tricorache, P., Nowell, K., Wirth, G., Mitchell, N., Boast, L. K., & Marker, L. (2018). Pets and pelts: Understanding and combating poaching and trafficking in Cheetahs. Cheetahs: Biology and Conservation, 191–205.
  10. Daly, N. (2021, May 3). Exclusive: Instagram fights animal abuse with new alert system. Animals. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  11. Instagram. (n.d.). How do I learn more about wildlife exploitation? Instagram Help center. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  12. Take down the tiger selfies. Tinder Newsroom. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  13. Eschner, K. (2017, August 15). The big unsexy problem with Tiger Selfies. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved December 28, 2021.


The Woolly Mammoth Revival: Conservation Conundrum Or Colossal Catastrophe?

If you haven’t already heard, scientists have hatched a plan to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth within the decade. The US start-up, Colossal, has already raised $15 million USD to re-create a mammoth-like creature using CRISPR gene-editing technology.

The news is equally exciting and frightening, stirring heated debates around the ethics of de-extinction as a novel conservation tool.

The big questions on every conservationist’s mind are: Should we focus on preventing species extinctions – or reversing them? What impacts will this have on present-day ecosystems? And where, exactly, do we draw the line?

Let’s take a deeper look into what this means for the future of planet Earth and how conservation fits into all of this.

De-Extinction: Why Bring Them Back?

Mammoths roamed the Earth more than 10,000 years ago, becoming extinct due to a combination of warming temperatures, disease, and hunting. They lived across the polar regions of North America and Eurasia, inhabiting the great “Mammoth Steppes.” Since their extinction, these extensive Arctic grasslands became dotted with slow-growing mosses, ever-green shrubs, and larch trees. Over time, their habitat was transformed into the Arctic tundra we know today.

Fast-forward to the present where climate change has become the number one threat to the survival of all life on Earth. Our multitude of human activities means that we are degrading the environment at an accelerated rate. Warming temperatures have resulted in deglaciation, wildfires, formation of mires, and permafrost thaw in the Arctic. These play a major role in increasing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

For more than a decade, woolly mammoths have represented an interesting solution to this global problem.¹ Colossal speculates that the re-introduction of mammoth-like creatures into the Arctic tundra will ultimately assist in drastically reversing the effects of climate change. They believe that re-establishing grasslands will expose the ground to the freezing Arctic air, preventing permafrost thaw.

Following this logic, the transformation from tundra to grasslands has the potential to reverse rising temperatures because they also have a higher capacity to sequestrate carbon from the atmosphere. As an added bonus, these fertile grasslands have the potential to increase biodiversity.

As promising as this sounds, there is insufficient scientific proof to support these theories.

The Power Of Revival

Ancient DNA provides hope for the re-creation of extinct species. However, it has its own set of challenges such as fragmentation and degradation of genetic information. This means that scientists don’t have sufficient biological data to clone extinct species.

Cloning allows for a complete replica of a species to be created. In the case of the woolly mammoth, scientists are relying on revolutionary gene-editing methods to engineer a modern-day look-alike.

The Asian elephant is the closest living relative to the woolly mammoth, sharing 99.6% of its genetic make-up. Scientists at Colossal believe that they would need to make at least 50 changes to the genetic code to transform the Asian elephant into a creature that mimics a woolly mammoth.

If successful, this new elephant-mammoth hybrid will be genetically engineered to survive the extreme Arctic cold. Not only will it resemble a woolly mammoth, but it should theoretically behave and function like one too. Well, that’s if things go according to plan!

Counting The Cost Of Innovative Science

De-extinction is an exorbitantly expensive process. To engineer just one species requires a multi-million dollar funding program. For example, the $15 million USD invested in woolly mammoth revival does not include prior funding underpinning the technological advancements that will be used. Nor does it account for the scientific expertise required to execute these ambitious strategies.

The ultimate question is whether we should be funding traditional approaches to species conservation – or shifting to novel de-extinction methods.¹ How we, as a global population, answer this question will determine the direction conservation will take in years to come.

Prevention Is Better Than Cure

When conservation efforts are re-directed toward de-extinction, it places greater value on extinct species than on those that are currently alive but critically endangered. The prospect of revival can undermine conservation strategies if extinction risks are no longer a big deal.

The promise of de-extinction can have knock-on effects for human impacts. It can be used to justify human activities and behavior that contribute to climate change, habitat degradation, and biodiversity loss.

We also need to ask ourselves whether it is practical to bring back one keystone species, whilst at the same time losing a dozen, or more, less significant ones in the process. Are we willing to exchange our current biodiversity for the promise of an ancient predecessor?

Another concern around re-introducing extinct species is that they might not bring about the anticipated environmental change. As these species are essentially engineered hybrids, they may not have the same ecosystem function or the same role in the food chain. This compromises their ability to restore damaged ecosystems – a major motivation underpinning their revival.

In Conclusion

We know woolly mammoths played a crucial role in maintaining Arctic grasslands and preventing permafrost thaw. But the destruction of Arctic forests and moss cover may also play a critical role in protecting permafrost.

So how will we effectively manage and monitor these engineered hybrids in a vast, uninhabitable region like the Arctic?

Additional research will have to be done to fully understand their impact on a given ecosystem and appropriate management approaches will need to be developed.

This continues to shift expertise, funding and resources away from species and ecosystems that currently demand our attention.


  1. Jørgensen, D. (2013). Reintroduction and de-extinction. BioScience, 63(9), 719-720.


How South Africa’s Recent Civil Unrest Uncovered An Ecological Disaster

Between 9 and 18 July, South Africans took to the streets in protest of former President Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court. This quickly escalated into civil disobedience as citizens fueled by economic inequality and unemployment became increasingly dissatisfied. After 9 days of civil unrest, largely centered within the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, damage to commercial property had amounted to over $1.3 billion USD. Crucial infrastructure, industries and warehouses were also hit as arson and looting became commonplace during some of the worst violence experienced in the post-apartheid era. One such storage facility, namely UPL Limited, became the focus of an ecological disaster placing a spotlight on non-compliance and corruption of national environmental legislation.

UPL Limited (formerly, United Phosphorus Limited) is a multinational company that manufactures agrochemicals and crop solution products. This includes fertilizers, pesticides, plant growth stimulants and soil conditioning agents. With its headquarters in Mumbai, India, UPL products are sold in over 150 countries through its numerous subsidiaries. It is the world’s fifth-largest agrochemical company with an estimated revenue of over $100 million USD in South Africa, and $140 million USD across the rest of Southern Africa.

The new 151,000-square-foot warehouse situated in Cornubia in the port city of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, was part of a larger mixed-use development project. It recently started operating on April 1st, 2021, storing over 700 chemicals. These chemicals comprised largely fertilizer components and bio-based materials, most of which are highly toxic.

What caused the chemical spill?

Toxic smoke from the UPL Limited warehouse in Cornubia.

On July 12, multiple fires engulfed the warehouse. The blaze lasted for 10 days before it was completely extinguished. However, firefighters could only reach the warehouse 3 days later due to the ongoing unrest. This caused a large proportion of chemicals to break down, creating dense black clouds that spread across the city.

The surrounding residents experienced numerous symptoms from inhaling the toxic smoke. They reported dry throats and noses, shortness of breath, and eye irritation. Residents also reported that their pets vomited for a few days.

In response, Dr. Gerhard Verdoon (UPL Limited’s toxicologist) assured the public that long-term health impacts were of no real concern. However, previous research showed that mortality rates increased significantly within 24 days after exposure to black smoke pollution.¹

The voluminous quantity of water used to douse the fire along, with the delayed action of spill response services, overwhelmed the containment system. This caused an immeasurable amount of chemicals to leak into the surrounding environment. This toxic chemical runoff flowed into the Ohlanga River and the Umhlanga lagoon, contaminating beaches for 25 miles.

It is mandatory for chemical production and storage facilities to have precautionary measures in place. Most popularly, these include “bunds” which are essentially concrete channels designed to prevent hazardous and flammable substances from escaping into the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, this was not the case with UPL Limited, whose facility was not purpose-built to support these measures.

What made matters worse is that the chemicals probably reacted with each other, the fire and the water. These “persistent organic pollutants”, whose combined effects are unknown, have the potential to accumulate along the food chain. This can have long-lasting impacts on both environmental and human welfare.

Environmental impact of the chemical spill

The chemical spill transformed the affected environments into dead zones. Not only was the water discolored but there was an acrid smell that hung in the air. The estuarine vegetation died and various forms of aquatic life washed up near Ohlanga River estuary mouth and adjacent beaches. Authorities reported 3.5 tons of dead fish and crustaceans. Other affected groups included amphibians and birds.

Following the incident, the Sibaya Conservation Trust has installed six water stations to provide wildlife with safe drinking water. Initially, they noticed hardly any birdlife in the immediate area. However, birdlife has slowly increased, as conservationists continue to track sightings.

First-response strategies

In the meantime, authorities restricted access to all beaches and waterways after the water turned a bright-bluish color. Investigations revealed this was caused by some 15,000 kilograms of blue dye that had leaked from the warehouse. The public has also been advised to stop all recreational activities. This negatively impacts subsistence communities that rely on the harvesting of seafood to support their livelihood. According to a human health assessment conducted by Apex Environmental, areas close to the warehouse were deemed inhabitable. Within the vicinity of the warehouse is Blackburn Village, an informal settlement, as well as a private school.

Several days after the fires had been extinguished, the agrochemical giant employed two hazardous clean-up companies to contain the toxic spill. Eight shallow water and eight deep water boreholes were drilled. Water samples confirm that no contamination had occurred. Despite this, bio-remediates were also applied as a precautionary measure in unaffected areas. Bio-remediates are plants and microorganisms that can break down and accumulate contaminants that are otherwise hazardous to most forms of life.

Environmental samples were tested in local and international laboratories. Results from these tests will be used to provide preliminary recommendations, followed by the development of a targeted remediation plan. Unfortunately, the lack of independent sampling remains a grave oversight as authorities are dependent on the full disclosure of original results from UPL Limited.

amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism revealed the chemical inventory housed by UPL Limited. The exhaustive list of toxic chemicals exceeding 6,000 m³ are banned in numerous countries across the globe, including the EU, US and India – but not in South Africa. Examples of listed chemicals include:

  • Over 26,000 kilograms of Masta 900, an insecticide containing the potent neurotoxin “methyl.” Contact with skin, inhalation or swallowing is considered fatal.
  • Over 30,000 liters of MSMA 720, which converts to inorganic arsenic in soil over time. This has the potential to contaminate water sources.
  • Over 40,000 liters of herbicides containing “paraquat,” which poses high risks to all life forms.
  • Over 600,000 kilograms of products using “tebuthiuron,” which is acutely toxic to all forms of aquatic life.

South African government’s approach

The South African government has identified three priority focus areas: (i) to ensure environmental and human health risks are contained, (ii) to provide oversight and guidance to assessment, clean-up and remediation processes, and (iii) to legally investigate the incident in relation to applicable environmental regulations. These priority areas are aligned with the principles outlined in the National Environmental Management Act (1998).

A month after the incident, an oversight visit to the warehouse, Blackburn Village and Ohlanga River was conducted. The following recommendations were made: (i) an assessment report addressing human impacts and the development of chronic conditions, (ii) possible compensation for affected community members, (iii) the availability of appropriate human and financial resources to respond to ongoing investigations, and (iv) the establishment of a multi-stakeholder forum including community members, researchers in health fraternities and NGOs.

It’s promising news that the country’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment has also begun investigating the contradictory reports of UPL Limited’s compliance and its chemical inventory. The company is liable to legislative requirements detailed in the Hazardous Substances Act, the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies Act, as well as relevant by-laws.

UPL Limited was part of a ‘fast track’ investment initiative, so it did not undergo appropriate scrutiny. By law, infrastructure for chemical production and storage must have a high-level environmental impact assessment (EIAs) before construction. Instead, a blanket EIA and subsequent approval were issued covering the infrastructure and activities across the entire development project.

Moving forward

Conservationists suggest that it could take more than five years for the environment to recover. Rehabilitation work would first require all the damaged environment to be removed, followed by dedicated replacement and restoration work. Despite remediation plans, experts suggest that stormwater drains will remain contaminated. In the short-term, expected Spring rains will continue to distribute chemical residues into waterways.

What makes this incident particularly harrowing is that South Africa’s national environmental legislation is one of the most powerful conservation management tools in the world. Not only does it promote the protection, conservation, and sustainable use of the environment and its natural resources, but it also provides a foundation for citizen’s constitutional right to access clean water and air. South Africa’s 1996 Constitution paved the way for an ‘open and democratic’ society prioritizing human values such as dignity, equality, and freedom. It also set a precedent for its citizen’s right to an environment that is ‘not harmful to health or well-being.’

The main lesson learnt from this experience is that social issues lie at the heart of conservation. It does not matter how powerful legislation is, it is clear that in the face of socio-economic disparity there can be unpredictable and unprecedented disasters that threaten the health and productivity of both human and environmental welfare.


  1. Beverland, I. J., Carder, M., Cohen, G. R., Heal, M. R. & Agius, R. M. (2012). Associations between short/medium-term variations in black smoke air pollution and mortality in the Glasgow conurbation, UK. Environment International. 50, 1-6.

Fall & Fat Bears

September 22nd marked the beginning of fall. For us humans, this might mean raking autumn leaves, wearing cozy sweaters, or drinking pumpkin spice lattes. For American black bears and brown bears, however, the beginning of fall is about one thing: consuming as much food as possible, in preparation for a long winter nap.

This phase during which bears put on weight to prepare for winter is called hyperphagia. During hyperphagia, bears are constantly foraging for food. Adult male brown bears can put on as many as 500 pounds of weight in the months before winter.¹ This seasonal weight gain has led Alaska’s Katmai National Park to establish Fat Bear Week in early October, during which fat bear fans from around the world vote for their favorite fat bear. This year, 25-year-old Otis AKA #480 claimed his fourth title, defying the odds by becoming winner of Fat Bear Week despite having lost multiple canine teeth. While celebrating overweight animals may not sound like it’s in the bear’s best interest, Fat Bear Week is really a celebration of Katmai’s healthy ecosystem.² Thanks to the plentiful salmon, Katmai’s brown bears have resources to build up fat reserves. For the bears that brave Alaska’s freezing winters, fat is survival.

While the period of dormancy seen in bears during winter is generally referred to as hibernation, some debate exists as to whether bears truly hibernate. During winter, bears enter dens and can go as long as 6 months without eating, drinking, urinating, or defecating. They survive by breaking down the layers of fat they built up during hyperphagia. Their heart rate and metabolic rate drop and they breathe much more slowly. However, their body temperature only drops about 12 degrees, which is significantly less than true hibernating mammals like ground squirrels, whose temperatures drop below freezing during hibernation.³ The winter dormancy in bears is sometimes referred to as torpor, because of the comparatively small dip in internal body temperature. During torpor, bears are able to wake up if disturbed, further distinguishing them from true hibernators.

Brown and black bears are intelligent and adaptable animals who are able to survive in a wide variety of climates and habitats throughout North America. Bears torpor for differing amounts of time depending on the climate in which they live. While bears in extremely cold places can torpor for half the year, black bears in more mild climates may go into a period of dormancy for just a few weeks, if at all.⁴ Bears awake in the spring having shed up to 30% of their body weight, and ready to chow down once again on spring’s new growth.5,6

Understanding the seasonal patterns of bears is important for humans who live or travel in bear country. People who share habitat with bears have a responsibility to ensure that wild bears don’t have access to human foods, especially during hyperphagia. When bears learn to search for food in human areas, it can put them in danger from car strikes, and if a bear repeatedly gets too close to human settlements, wildlife officials are forced to euthanize the bear.

Creating a world where people and wildlife coexist starts with understanding the needs and patterns of our non-human neighbors in order to accommodate them. This fall, let’s hope the bears are finding lots of natural food, and wish them a peaceful winter’s rest.

Learn more about how you can stay bear safe here.


  1. Cooper, K. (2018, October 5). Why a US national park is holding a ‘Fat Bear Week’ contest. BBC.
  2. Rosen, Y. (2021, September 29). Ahead of winter hibernation, Alaska celebrates Fat Bear Week. amNY.
  3. National Park Service. (2020). Arctic Ground Squirrel.
  4. Natonal Park Service. (2020). Black Bears in Big Bend.
  5. National Park Service. (2017). When Bears Wake Up.
  6. Fitz, M. (2013, November 13). Bear Hibernation. National Park Service.


Conservation Allies Joins Leaders 20/20 in a Virtual Personal Sustainability Event

On August 10, 2021, Conservation Allies collaborated with Leaders 20/20 to host a virtual event about personal sustainability, highlighting the Conservation Allies project #WhileImHere. Leaders 20/20, a network of young professionals who are sustainability leaders, is committed to civic engagement in the San Diego region. #WhileImHere tells the stories of how people contribute to conservation in their homes and communities. Discussing personal sustainability with such driven conservationists dedicated to improving the quality of life in San Diego set the stage for inspiration, energy, and action. During the course of 90 minutes, Conservation Allies had the opportunity to hear the voices who are making a difference in their community and advocating for a brighter – and greener – future.

What does personal sustainability mean? How can one person make a difference in their actions? Can one person affect change in a community? Each participant developed a #WhileImHere statement; this short but powerful statement provided insight into visions for the future and articulated the legacy each person wanted to leave. The thought-provoking responses included:

While I’m here, I want to make sustainability efforts something that they WANT to do, not just something they need to do.

While I’m here, I will look at sustainability through a lens of equity across all aspects of society.

While I’m here, I will focus on communication and inspire others to start a chain reaction.

What emerged from this component of the discussion was a desire to communicate the criticality of sustainability while making it accessible as part of everyone’s daily lives. Equity is paramount in conservation education and with a focus on the next generation’s actions, the Leaders 20/20 network is committed to ensuring that there are fewer barriers to understanding how to save the planet.

Another theme of the event was purchasing power – the impact of your spending habits on sustainability. The economy and the environment are deeply interwoven, giving meaning to our everyday buying actions. Using reusable water bottles and flatware, shopping at thrift stores or buying capsule wardrobes, and supporting companies that use sustainable ingredients and packaging are all small but effective ways to contribute to positive change. Sharing the different ways we vote with our wallet expanded each of our options, giving us new ideas and companies to look into.

#WhileImHere is a movement to share ways to promote sustainability at a critical time, encouraging people to leave a lasting legacy to protect the earth. The event with Leaders 20/20 did just that. It was an invigorating discussion that left us with something more than insight into an inspiring community – a sense of promise and actionable plans that we knew this committed group would carry into the future.