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Jewels of the Earth: Tallying the last pure places

Protecting an area doesn't guarantee biodiversity will thrive, ASU faculty says.
ASU researcher is helping create a global standard to ID key biodiversity areas.
International conservation effort aims to protect the jewels of the Earth.
December 1, 2015

ASU researcher helping create a standard to identify key biodiversity areas

Tucked away on the far western end of Haiti’s southern peninsula lies the remote Massif de la Hotte mountain range. It's where you’ll find the last stands of Haiti’s cloud forest.

In there live rare and beautiful creatures like the Hispaniolan giant tree frog, which looks like a large clump of moss with brimming eyes. The blunt-headed green tree snake also resides there. It’s pencil-thin, with enormous eyes and forms a silly grin when it’s agitated.

It’s also home to 13 amphibians found nowhere else and one of the last refuges of the Hispaniolan trogon, Haiti’s national bird.

Massif de la Hotte is what conservation biologists call a key biodiversity area.

They are the jewels of the Earth.

One Arizona State University researcher is working on creating a standard to identify areas that contribute significantly to global biodiversity.

Land and marine conservation is up since the 1970s, but animal extinction rates continue to rise. Scientists and government and conservation officials are discovering that slapping protection around areas doesn’t necessarily preserve what’s in them. Sometimes protected areas don’t necessarily contain significant biodiversity.

Urbanization, invasive species, hunting and pollution are all destroying the natural world — and it’s happening quickly.

“Biodiversity is being lost so rapidly across the globe,” said Penny Langhammer, adjunct professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is part of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and affiliated faculty with ASU’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.

A scuba diver in the Great Barrier Reef

ASU adjunct professor
Penny Langhammer
dives in the Great
Barrier Reef off Australia,
an area whose biodiversity
is threatened.

Photo courtesy
Penny Langhammer;
top photo by James

Langhammer is co-chair of an International Union for Conservation of Nature task force charged with creating a standard for identifying important biodiversity hot spots. The IUCN is the largest professional global conservation network, with almost 11,000 scientists volunteering. Most people know it from its Red List, which usually appears in the news as a headline that something is on the verge of extinction.

“Governments are realizing you can’t just protect an area and expect biodiversity to thrive,” Langhammer said. “We hope (a standard) will be used by national governments in conservation and the private sector in improving risk to biodiversity, to ensure really important sites from being destroyed.”

The standard is for identifying areas that can be managed that maintain globally important biodiversity.

Some non-profits have already identified important sites. Bird Life International has identified 12,000 such areas. The Alliance for Zero Extinction has identified 587 sites for 920 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, conifers and corals.

“A lot of sites have already been identified,” Langhammer said. “We’re trying to fill in the blanks.”     

The standard is in the final stages of being developed. It will have five criteria for identifying a key biodiversity area.

The five measures by which sites can be measured are: threatened biodiversity, geographically restricted biodiversity, ecological integrity, biological processes and irreplaceability through quantitative analysis.

If any of the criteria are met it qualifies the area as a key biodiversity area. There must be clear reasons why the site is important. Ecosystem health will help make sites more eligible for conservation.

“We can go in and tell why it’s (an) important (site),” Langhammer said.

Ideally a site will be globally outstanding.

Professor Penny Langhammer in Samoa“Much of the world will not meet this criterion (for ecological integrity),” said Langhammer (left, pictured in Samoa). “There won’t be very many of those sites identified because the planet has been so impacted.”

Sites void of biodiversity would include rubber plantations in southern peninsular Malaysia, which stretch for hundreds of miles, or genetically modified cornfields in the Midwest, where almost nothing else lives.

Sites rich in biodiversity include the Massif de la Hotte in Haiti or Queen Maud Gulf in northern Canada, where Ross’ geese nest more than anywhere else. The upper Gulf of California, home to fewer than 50 vaquita porpoises, which are threatened by gill-net fishing, and the Northern Sierra Madre National Park in the Philippines, which supports threatened and endangered species, are positive sites, according to Langhammer.

“Not all (key biodiversity areas) will or need to be protected areas,” Langhammer said. For example, General Davis Cave in West Virginia, which holds the only population of West Virginia spring salamanders, is already owned by the Nature Conservancy.

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Theater across prison walls

ASU takes its theater program into the prison system.
No first-show jitters as this stage show debuts in prison.
December 1, 2015

ASU students and Eyman Prison inmates unite for performance

Rania Zeineddine peers through a wall of windows, watching the audience fill the seats in this makeshift theater.

She and her fellow actors start the show tapping on the glass to get the attention of her co-stars on the other side. One of them, Charles Thigpen, comes over and flattens his palms against the glass. She does the same before they start laughing and mimicking each other as if the window were a mirror.

This will be the closest thing to physical contact these actors will have in their performance. Once the seats are filled and the doors open, the actors will have one strict rule to follow: No touching.

This isn’t an avant-garde theater edict. This is a condition of staging a play inside the boundaries of Eyman State Prison.

Zeineddine is one of three Arizona State University undergrads who coordinated and crafted “Free Drama,” a 45-minute joint production between the students and Eyman inmates that stages the journal entries these prisoners and students exchanged during the course of a semester in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre’sThe School of Film, Dance and Theatre is part of ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Theatre Across Prison Walls class.

The doors finally open and the three students wearing ASU shirts walk inside, ready to join the prisoners wearing jumpsuits with “ADC” emblazoned on them.

There isn’t apprehension or fear. Rather, there are smiles and the joy coming from actors who get to perform their stories in front of an actual audience.

Prisoners performing a play.

Inmate Dusty Lewis plays the nagging
wife who beats "husband"
Gregory Fulton during a scene
written in "Free Drama."

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

An inspired design

Rivka Rocchio has spent the past two years teaching drama to inmates inside Arizona’s Eyman Prison. But it wasn’t until this semester that the ASU graduate student decided to incorporate undergrads into the process.

She liked the idea of teaching a class that involved an exchange of ideas between her students in prison and her undergraduate drama students. The idea was approved, but there was one problem: The two sides wouldn’t be able to regularly meet to create a production. So Rocchio, who is using this project as part of her graduate thesis, improvised.

“We asked them to create a master list of themes and motifs that they were interested in, so of those five themes they were interested in, I created a series of journal prompts,” Rocchio said.

They settled on five themes: going home, joy or enjoyment inside of prison, emotions, animals, and stereotypes and layers. Each week Rocchio would ask the students to write journal entries relating to the prompts. After the entries were exchanged between classes, the students selected the pieces that best fulfilled the themes.

Rocchio then gave students in each classes prompts to delve into deeper stories that were developed into group scenes or monologues.

But the exercise become more intriguing when Rocchio decided to have the students and prisoners swap stories for the performance.

The results were varied ­— an inmate spoke about a first summer job interview at Starbucks, an ASU theater major performed a monologue documenting drug addiction and redemption through the Bible and religion.

“That really gave the students the opportunity to try on each others’ stories, to live in that identity for a little while and experience what it would be like, what it would feel like to say as a 23-year-old college student I’ve been a drug addict for 40 years and this is the impact that it’s had on my life,” Rocchio said.

Salome Chuma, an ASU theater major, was cast in an inmate’s tale of fighting with a doctor while his newborn child was in the NICU.

“That was the first time he had ever mentioned that story to anyone else, and he was like, ‘It was interesting that this is a story that’s personal to me and it’s in my memory and now it’s something that you have in your memory now. It’s weird that it’s living in two different people, and I’m seeing that lived out through you,’ ” Chuma said. “As actors you kind of never forget a monologue, or a show, so it’s now a part of you just how it’s a part of them too …  it’s crazy.”

Performing with passion

Back in the Cook Unit of Eyman Prison, Chuma sits in a chair on “stage” during the performance in front of inmates and prison administrators.

Her hands are empty, but she relays a monologue about a letter inmate T.J. Garrison had written to his mom, who died during his time in prison. The dialogue explained his attempts to better himself and to better understand his mother’s motivations.

Garrison is soft-spoken and contemplative. His fingers are tattooed with letters that spell out “beauty.” He was convicted in 1997 at the age of 20 and wrote his journal entry on a day he simply “felt open,” which many Cook Unit inmates say is rare.

“When she performed the “mamalogue” I cried, I sat on the side and I was like, ‘Man, these people are going to see me cry,’ and I didn’t care and I let it go,” Garrison said. “To see something that I had written, put down and is going to be acted by somebody else, it made my heart swell, it made my heart swell a lot.”

Afterward, he thanked Chuma for the performance. She thanked him for sharing his emotions and words.

“I didn’t think anything I could do could ever have that kind of effect on somebody, and that felt really powerful,” Chuma said.

Much of the show, which veered from poignant introspection to comedy, inspired the same sentiments between parties.

As the production closed, Rocchio gives thanks to the Arizona Department of Corrections, her graduate adviser and to her students before asking the entire group to paint a large white banner with their thoughts about the performance with markers or fingers. Inmate Garrison writes a large and colorful “Namaste” while B. Brewer, his tattoed hands covered in purple paint, makes hand stamp prints up and down the banner.

An appreciated understanding

Rocchio said the moment this unique experience “clicked” for her students was during the hourlong car ride back to ASU from the prison in Florence. Her students related their initial apprehension and how it gave way to an understanding that drama became a shared experience to better understand another person they had seen as so different from themselves.

“That’s what I want you to get out of it,” Rocchio said. “You are people and these are people and you connect through the passions that you have for theater and art.”

Story, photos and video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now