Topic: Updates

Teaching Fish and Wildlife Conservation to Kids

Today, when we think of wildlife conservation we think of elephants and rhinos, gorillas, and tigers, but it all began with an American hunter called Aldo Leopold. Back then, people thought nature able to replenish its stock for eternity, but Leopold realized he was finding it harder and harder each season to find bears and mountain lions to hunt. On realizing this, he changed how he and others hunted and acted in New Mexico, allowing these predators to return, and saving the local ecosystem at the same time.

In the 21st century, we are more aware of conservation topics than any other generation, yet there is so much to be done. As part of this, it’s the duty of parents to teach their children how to both enjoy and preserve the natural environment around them. This means knowing the 4 key areas of conservation, which are:

  • Education and messaging

  • Habitat Protection

  • Wildlife Monitoring

  • Scientific Research

Many people across the world from documentary makers to activists, from NGOs to families, are making small differences whether it is protecting the big five in Africa to planting wildflowers for bees in America. Parents can learn more about how to educate their children by reading this teaching guide to wildlife and fish conservation.

Touching Space, A New Short Film for National Geographic

How do you touch space without even leaving the ground? Near Space Photographer John Flaig outfits weather balloons with cameras to capture novel images of iconic landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon.

How do you touch space without even leaving the ground? Near Space Photographer John Flaig outfits weather balloons with cameras to capture novel images of iconic landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon.

From this ethereal vantage, we have the opportunity to not only look beyond our planet, but to also gaze back at ourselves.

Space has never been more accessible to the dilettante explorer; we live in a world where commercial flights beyond our atmosphere are a growing reality. What was once only accessible to an elite band of astronauts, is now at the fingertips of anyone willing. As the number of individuals who have touched space doubles at a breakneck rate, there are a few pioneers ahead of the pack.

John Flaig is a Brooklyn-born software engineer and amateur photographer, currently living in the Midwest. While working at the Grand Canyon National Park some 15 years ago, John developed an interest in adventure, nature, and photography. Since then, John has been launching his “near space” weather balloons fixed with high end cameras to capture a rarefied glimpse of our planet from afar.

Such images were once only thought to come from NASA, now John is on the forefront of a growing movement to reach the edge of our gravitational pull. “Using a weather balloon is attractive because of the novelty and completely unique view it affords of places, like the Grand Canyon, that have been filmed extensively from every conceivable angle, in every conceivable condition, except from the edge of space,” John exclaims.

“My balloons aren’t really operated per se,” John admits. He starts out by deciding where he would like the balloon to land, and then figures out exactly where he’ll need to launch from. “It’s like playing golf with the hole being a hundred miles away.” Using some prediction tools, John can plot a trajectory fairly accurately with his closest estimate being only 10 miles off. That’s not bad when you consider that he is sending a balloon to the middle-stratosphere, which is roughly 22 miles high.”We live in the Troposphere,” John explains.

“That extends to about 10 miles up. Then there is the boundary layer, called the tropopause. The stratosphere then extends to around 31 miles before you hit the mesosphere where meteors burn up. Once in the stratosphere you are essentially above 99% of the atmosphere’s mass. The ozone layer is found in the lower stratosphere; my balloons can easily go above that.” Still, John is careful to comply with the FAA’s rules for unmanned free balloons.

A new short film for National Geographic, join us as we follow John as he attempts to photograph the Grand Canyon from the edge of space.


Photo by John Flaig

Once Thought Extinct, North America’s Rarest Mammal May Bounce Back

The black-footed ferret is returning to prairies, but it still faces steep challenges.

Text by James Owen, for National Geographic
Video by JJ Kelley & Katy Fox-O’Malley, for Dudes on Media

The black-footed ferret, North America’s rarest mammal, is returning to the western prairie 35 years after being declared extinct.

The comeback trail for Mustela nigripes began in 1981, when a ranch dog with a dead ferret in its mouth led to the rediscovery of a remnant population near Meeteetse in northwestern Wyoming. (See stunning pictures of the rarest animals on Earth.)

The last 18 survivors of that population formed the seed stock for a captive-breeding program that reintroduced the species to its former range at 25 sites from southernmost Canada to northern Mexico. Yet numbers in the wild remain low—fewer than 500, according to Peter Gober, recovery coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado.

A major hurdle is disease, particularly sylvatic plague, a flea-borne infection that appeared in North America in the early 1900s. Because the disease is non-native, the black-footed ferret—a member of the weasel family—has no natural resistance; neither does its prey, the prairie dog. (Related: [Video] “Why Do Prairie Dogs Do ‘The Wave’?“)

Prairie dogs are “pretty much all the ferrets eat,” Gober says. They also “provide shelter, because the ferrets make use of their burrows.

“There are quite a few prairie dogs in the West still, despite the fact that they’ve been reduced by 90 percent plus since historical times,” he adds. “The problem is that they fluctuate wildly, due to drought and because of this plague.”

The reintroduced ferret populations mirror these fluctuations. They “come and go” like “lights blinking on a Christmas tree,” Gober says. (Read about how scientists decide what species to save.)

Repopulating ferrets over a wide range of their old territory helps manage the risk of disease, but that requires access to suitable land with plenty of prairie dogs. “There’s a lot of raw habitat out there, but it’s degraded,” Gober says. Such habitat is typically found on livestock ranches, where historically prairie dogs haven’t been welcome. Because they compete with cattle for grass, millions were exterminated during the past century.

Wealthy landowners like media mogul Ted Turner are already on board with the program, but accommodating the ferrets’ increasing need for habitat will require financial support for the ranching community in return for tolerating significant numbers of prairie dogs.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so far has provided about a million dollars to a dozen landowners in Colorado, and hopes to expand the program to other states.

New hope also comes in the form of a recently developed vaccine to combat sylvatic plague.

Meanwhile, Gober and his colleagues in Colorado are breeding some 250 black-footed ferrets annually.

The team watches for signs of inbreeding due to the small size of the original genetic pool from those sole survivors found in Wyoming. But evidence from the field suggests that the ferret has been pulled back from the brink of extinction.

Fighting for Brazil’s Stolen Species

National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer and conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira is on the front line of Brazil's fight against a thriving illegal wildlife trade.

National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer and conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira is on the front line of Brazil’s fight against a thriving illegal wildlife trade.

We had the chance to travel to Sao Paulo, Brazil to tell the story of wildlife warrior, Juliana Machado Ferreira for National Geographic.

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira fights illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil using science, political articulation, professional training, and educational outreach to curb demand, strengthen laws, empower police, and build international partnerships. Every year, poachers take 38 million animals from natural habitats in Brazil to supply all kinds of illegal wildlife trade. The business brings in $2 billion a year.

Machado Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to combat the thriving illegal trade, which she fights on many fronts. In Brazil, where keeping wild songbirds, parrots, and macaws is a widely embraced cultural norm, her organization educates the public about the devastating impact this can have on nature. She also helps police to identify, count, and provide triage care for birds seized during raids along with SOS Fauna. She holds a Ph.D. in genetics and has developed molecular markers that can aid in identifying the origins of birds seized by police and help return rehabilitated birds to the right spot in the wild.

"The mega business of illegal wildlife trafficking threatens Brazil’s mega biodiversity more every day. We must turn the tide now—before it’s too late."

“The mega business of illegal wildlife trafficking threatens Brazil’s mega biodiversity more every day. We must turn the tide now—before it’s too late.”

Josh & JJ Featured in National Commercial

Courtesy of Nature Valley

What do we love most? That’s easy! We travel through the natural world and capture the highlights on camera. It’s been our passion for over a decade, and that same desire has taken us to some pretty unusual and far-flung destinations.

It’s quite amazing to think that I met Josh 10-years ago on a hiking trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. The famous 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) captivated me in my early 20’s. I had this romantic notion that I could put all the essentials in one bag, hop a fence, and walk for months. So with 22-boxes of dried food waiting to be shipped to me, I set off, hiking from the northern end of the US bound for the south.

From a large scale perspective, progress was exceedingly glacial. After walking for 40-days—40 days of walking—I remember looking at a 3-foot map of the AT; I had only covered two inches! I was hiking alone and quickly realized that I might just go crazy if I walked this trail by myself. I mean 6-months in the woods with not a soul to converse; that could easily make me cuckoo.

It was literally that next day when I met Josh. He too was walking alone, and we hit it off right away. At that time, we had never held a camera and really didn’t know what we wanted to do with our lives. We were both content in finding a new horizon to start each day. Fast-forward to today, and we’ve we’ve logged over 8,000 miles either by foot, bike, rickshaw, kayak, and rowboat. We’re both television producers, Josh for Discovery and me for National Geographic. We’ve produced 3-feature  documentaries together and a recent short documentary. It’s been this amazing and completely unexpected ride.

So when we received a call from Academy Award Winner Sean Fine about appearing in a national commercial that he and his wife Andrea would be directing, I was blown away. I didn’t actually think it would happen up until the moment the cameras started rolling. In part it was a very familiar scene, there was Josh, and we were in the woods…in Maine again no less. However this time there was the addition of two world class filmmakers, a commercial ad team, Nature Valley representatives, camera operators, photographers and wilderness guides. It was all very surreal and today I’m honored to announce that the shoot was a success! We’re unyieldingly so grateful that our passion could be turned into a career.


JJ Kelley and Josh Thomas

Historic U.S. Ivory Crush a Call to Global Action

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

Text by Bryan Christy, for National Geographic
Video by J.J. Kelley of Dudes on Media

Yesterday the United States government destroyed six tons of ivory, nearly all of the ivory in its possession.

It was a ceremony covered by media from around the world, including China CCTV television, Al Jazeera, HBO’s VICE, CBS, and Reuters. The International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund co-hosted the event with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In contrast to the Philippines, which in June used hacksaws, a small roller, and a backhoe to break up its ivory stock before sending it to be incinerated in a crematorium used for stray animals, the U.S. brought in a massive rock crusher capable of pulverizing 150 to 200 tons of material an hour.

A bulldozer picked up almost a quarter century’s worth of seized ivory carvings and raw tusks and delivered these remnants of elephants into the crusher’s maw. Moments later out poured what looked like bits and pieces of seashells you’d find walking along a sandy beach after a storm. The material will go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will design memorials for distribution to its facilities around the country.

It is hard not to become jaded by the elephant poaching crisis. I spent three years investigating and writing about the illegal ivory trade. Elephants I watched from a Land Rover in East Africa just two years ago are now most certainly dead. Everyone knows why. Africa lacks sufficient security in the bush to protect elephants. Criminal syndicates smuggle ivory by the ton, but their kingpins have remained invisible for decades. Corruption is rife in the field, at the ports, and in governments from Africa to Asia, where most illegal ivory ends up.

More of the Same?

Recently, several of the world’s largest conservation NGOs teamed up to launch a campaign as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. The campaign’s slogan—”Stop the Killing, Stop the Trafficking, Stop the Demand”—is so patently obvious that I find it insulting.

Supply, shipment, and consumption are the cornerstones of every form of international trade. To present them as a fresh perspective on an old problem is to trigger my worst fears as a criminal investigator: Nothing will change.

Why? Because the same conservation establishment that has presided over the state of affairs we see today can come up with nothing more innovative to address the elephant poaching crisis than saying: We should stop it.

And so I went to the ivory crush without much real hope, and I did my job as a journalist.

“What does your machine normally do?” I asked the man on the rock crusher.

“It takes big rocks and turns them into smaller rocks,” he said. And I wrote that down.

Promising Signs

But then I began to hear things I hadn’t heard before. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Judy Garber announced a one-million-dollar bounty on the head of Laotian wildlife trafficker Vixay Keosavang and his syndicate under the State Department’s Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program. Here was a real crime-fighting technique being applied to wildlife trafficking.

I listened as IFAW’s Grace Gabriel told me a story of how China’s new president’s “Tiger and Fly” anti-corruption campaign has led to a drop in sales of luxury watches, expensive liquors, and other extravagant “gifts” commonly used to bribe officials. During my investigation in China, ivory retailers told me that government and military officials buying luxury gifts for superiors were customers for their best ivory.

I heard several people, including Ginette Hemley of the WWF, call for a ban on the domestic U.S. ivory market. It is illegal to bring ivory into the U.S., but it is legal to buy and sell ivory domestically. Legal domestic markets are a loophole that enables trade in many of the worst ivory trafficking problem countries, especially China.

And then, near the end of a day of speeches, I watched as actress Kristin Bauer van Straten reached into her pocket in the middle of her speech and pulled out an ivory bracelet her father, a World War II veteran, had brought home to her mother.

“This is a thing,” she said, holding the bracelet. “This is not life.” She added her family heirloom to the pyre of ivory to be destroyed.

Kenyan Paula Kahumbu ended the day by recounting her visit last week to Ivoryton, Connecticut, which, she said, once processed 100,000 African elephants a year into combs, piano keys, and billiard balls. Kahumbu said America’s recognition of its role in the ivory trade was a lesson for China. She read a message from Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who congratulated the U.S. and asked the American government to join Kenya in enacting a ban on domestic ivory trade.

As I was leaving, people began discussing the possibility of a nationwide program for people to turn in legal ivory they have in their homes but don’t want to keep in light of today’s elephant slaughter.

This is something many Catholic priests have asked me since my story “Ivory Worship” was published in National Geographic magazine. “Do I have to get rid of my ivory?”

There are even smaller things people can do to help. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe pointed to a U.S. Postal Service truck offering “Save Vanishing Species” stamps for sale.

And so it was a day of more than crushing the teeth of dead elephants. It was a day of turning the big rock of wildlife crime into smaller rocks of human action.

US Crushed Ivory

NEW SHORT FILM — Finding Moose in Maine

JJ Kelley and Josh Thomas

Is it fall already? It must be, Josh just shipped off for another year producing on The Deadliest Catch. As the days get shorter, I think we can all enjoy our day a little bit more imagining that unflappable young man bucking the worst of Poseidon with a smile on his face.

Before Josh took off, we had the great pleasure of returning to Maine. This is significant because the last time we were in New England together was when we first met as thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. It’s been 10 years since we started having adventures, over that time we’ve spent a full year crammed in a tent together traveling to some of the most far-flung places on the planet. It’s been a blast! Today we have 3-feature films together, a National Geographic short film, and dozens of TV credits to our names.

So in the spirit of an autumn adventure, it’s with great pride that we present this little short film. The objective is quite simple: capture the perfect shot of a moose. The result…well you’ll just have to watch!

New Short Film from Dudes on Media

It’s our newest short film and we’re pretty darn proud of it. “Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean” is a film we pitched to National Geographic earlier this year. We were honored when they agreed to tell the story with us. The film will be announced in the September issue of The National Geographic Magazine. Here is the trailer and a little more about the film, which comes out August 20, 2013.

Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean

Join the Gyre Expedition for a close-up look at how garbage impacts our planet. This team of scientists, artists, and educators journeyed into the Alaskan wild this summer to study and gather marine debris. What they collected will become part of a 2014 traveling exhibit that seeks to bring the environmental harm of trash into perspective. The project was launched by the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Anchorage Museum.

Learn more about the Gyre Expedition and see video from this summer’s expedition:

Gyre Project: What is it?

A Dudes on Media production for National Geographic.

Marine debris — mostly plastic — does not dissolve and stays in oceans for decades. And it kills. Every day, marine debris kills seabirds, whales, fish, dolphins, seals, turtles, and manatees that either mistake the debris for food or become ensnared and often strangled.

We at Dudes on Media believe that caring for our planet is one of the most important things we can do as a species. Our trash is becoming the cultural archeology of our time. Is that how we want to be remembered? We like to share this message with films, but we strongly feel they should never feel like medicine. They should be fun to watch, take you along on an adventure and even celebrate comedy.

In a new series for National Geographic, we’ll follow an international team of scientists, artists, and educators as they launch an expedition to study marine debris in the remote waters of Alaska. Traveling 450 nautical miles, they will stop to observe, document, and collect some of the trash that is changing our planet.

Here is a sneak peek of what’s coming later this year.

GYRE is an original National Geographic Web Series coming September 2013.

Follow GYRE

Filmmaking: A lesson in perseverance

It’s 5 o’clock in the evening, and I’ve been editing for six hours. I’ve watched an interview 15 times trying to dissect it and see how it can become a through-line throughout the film. I have five hours left to edit before I allow myself to sleep. My eyes ache, my head hurts, my tan has disappeared and all I want is to be back on the road living the adventure rather than trying to tell the story of it. Between the cat knocking over the external hard drive, the endless rendering and the feeling of inadequacy, I’m about ready to throw in the towel.

The Highway Walkers” was my first experience editing a feature length film. For 30 days, Josiah and I documented our hitchhiking trip from Iowa to Oregon. On average we filmed for 5 hours a day, which comes out to a minimum of 150-hours of video. That is six and a quarter days of footage! We were inexperienced and eager to film, but didn’t have the wisdom to know what footage was better off deleted on the road. This led me to sitting in front of the computer watching days and days of footage, the majority of which would never see light. We had a great resource in JJ Kelley of Dudes on Media who passed along insight about the filming process and who told us to have an idea of the story we wanted to tell. Little did we know how little we knew.

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein hitchhike from Iowa to Oregon in the film, "The Highway Walkers"

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein hitchhike from Iowa to Oregon in the film, “The Highway Walkers”

I would sit in front of the computer and become immediately intimidated by the mountain of material I had to trim down to 1:11 minutes. I had to learn to see the film in stages rather than in it’s entirety. I started breaking it down into chapters and beats and moments, chipping away at the mountain, shrinking it into a much more manageable and less intimidating size. The experience was pretty much a reiteration of everything I had learned in Sunday school, boy scouts and every other religious or goal oriented organization.

Not to get overtly spiritual, but there is something transcendental about seeing a project from start to finish. The book, ‘One Man’s Wilderness’ is a collection of journal entries collected from Dick Proenneke as he builds his cabin in the wilderness of Alaska from nothing but tools he made himself. He writes:

“I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one’s work, the kind of pride the old craftsman felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admire it. How does a man on an assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out at the other end?”


The experience of completing the project was laid out before me like a timeline. As I freelance as an actor as my day job, I was doing a fair amount of traveling in those 8 months of editing. I started in a cabin in northern Minnesota where I learned to see the film piece by piece, traveled to Wisconsin where I started to find the voice of the film. It was on the llama farm in Wisconsin that the pieces started to fit together with our new musical score. Then in New York City, Josiah and I learned how to let go. By the time I was in NYC the movie had been cut to 1:50 minutes and I had no idea how 39 minutes of footage was going to be removed. A friend of mine who works in the arts affectionately calls the process of editing your own work as ‘killing your babies’. NYC is where I learned how to kill my babies and trust that the story would still be told. In Olive Hill, TN is where the film had it’s first audience and where the first DVD was burned.

Spontaneous spelunking in Idaho. "The Highway Walkers"

Spontaneous spelunking in Idaho. “The Highway Walkers”

This timeline of locations and memories of toting external hard drives around the country are my scars and calluses that I will carry with me for future editing projects. They are my sense of completion and my link to the journey that is seeing a project through to the end.

All of this to say that while editing a film is no more toilsome that writing a novel, reading all of Shakespeare’s collected works, running everyday or completing a diet. It’s all about enjoying the journey of completion, of being able to look back over the timeline of the project and bask in the sense of accomplishment. I hope that as I grow in the field and have more projects and adventures that I become better skilled at articulating what it means to see a goal to completion. Best of luck to you whatever your journey may be.