Pangolin Words provides high quality writing and editorial services specializing in nature, science and the environment.

On Cecil the Lion

Conservationists and animal rights activists opposed to safari hunting in Africa could hardly have a found a more perfect foil than Dr. Walter Palmer of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. His disgraceful, foolhardy, and most likely illegal killing of Cecil the lion outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park provides more than ample reason, for the majority of Americans at least, to finally consign the safari hunt to the history books. That would salve the wound, it might even be even be moral, but it might not be as effective a solution as we think. The outpouring of emotion over Cecil is entirely appropriate. Palmer’s attempt to foist responsibility onto his guides is particularly galling; it was his hunt and ultimately his responsibility. The idea of rich Americans paying handsomely to kill rare animals for the fun of it is proof enough for many […]

On Hedgehogs

An interesting debate flared up in the blogosphere in late March between Nobel-prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and data-guru and political prognosticator Nate Silver. The impetus was the launch of Silver’s new website,, which he describes as a “data journalism organization” and vastly expands the scope of his work from politics to sports, health, entertainment, the environment and just about anything else you can imagine. Krugman found that Silver’s reach exceeded his grasp, at least in the early going, and the two had some testy back-and-forth, with various observers lining up on one side or the other. I find it heartening that such media heavyweights are debating the proper role of data in public life. It is a testament to the growing interest in big data and its uses and abuses. But I am […]

Twice Told Tales

The Good Lord Bird. By James McBride. Knopf, 2013. 352 pages An Officer and a Spy. By Robert Harris. These books have almost nothing in common. But I happened to read them back-to-back, and one thing struck me: both take well-known stories and make them compelling even though the outcomes are not in question, and they do so in entirely different ways. The Good Lord Bird (not to be confused with The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, which is about the Ivory Bill Woodpecker and is by TNC’s own Phil Hoose) takes John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry as its text and uses it as the basis for an exuberant, funny, troubling, and wise book. McBride’s astonishing ability to capture the language of his narrator, an illiterate 10 year-old boy who spends most of the book pretending to […]

Great Summer Read: Roosevelt’s Beast

Roosevelt’s Beast. By Louis Bayard. Henry Holt, 2014. 299 pages. In January, 1914, Theodore Roosevelt, his son, Kermit, a renowned Brazilian explorer named Cândido Rondon, and their crew set off from the tiny, jumbled settlement of Tapirapoan to map the course of the Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt. It was an act both perfectly fitting the former President’s endless energy and yet also perfectly mad. He was, after all, 55 years old, two years past a failed run to recapture the White House, and casting about for something to do. Kermit was an even less likely candidate for the trip. Though he was a fine soldier as well as a hunter and a skilled engineer, he preferred French poetry to adventure and was engaged to be married shortly. The expedition seemed at times miserably ill-prepared, yet off they […]

Some things never change

Richard Conniff has a worthwhile post over at Yale e360. You should read the whole thing, but here is the teaser: Recent studies in Asia and Australia found that community-managed areas can sometimes do better than traditional parks at preserving habitat and biodiversity. When it comes to conservation, maybe local people are not the problem, but the solution. Yes. Absolutely. It’s an important message, one worth repeating. But I’m worried. Haven’t we been making this same argument for at least 20 years? I know I have. Not to make great claims for insight, but check out the last line of The Myth of Wild Africa, which Tom McShane and I published in 1992 and was in large part about the tensions between rural communities and protected areas: [Africans] have been labelled as the problem. They are in fact the solution. […]

Solving Wicked Problems

Nearly every problem in conservation is a wicked problem — difficult or impossible to solve because of inherently incomplete information, unresolvable conflicts among interested players, changing requirememts, and so on. Believe it or not, counterinsurgency might offer some clues. At least, so say some researchers in a recent study. For a slightly different but related take, see this blog from TNC’s Peter Kareiva.

The Oysters of Oyster, Va.

Could oysters make a comeback? Its is still the early days of restoration, but evidence is building about all the important things they do, beyond making for a good appetizer. Check out my blog on some research in Virginia on Cool Green Science.

On publishing, science, and conservation

Publishing has always been a quirky business, with its own traditions and mores. Those traditions and mores worked quite well for quite a long time, bringing us enlightenment, outrage, joy, and much else. Whether that will continue to be the case for much longer is very much an open question. The digital revolution is well under way nearly everywhere, but traditional book publishing seems to be putting up a fight. Many if not most publishers are still trying to figure out what it all means. Many people have written  about book publishing in the digital age, and the future of libraries part of that effort (on the latter, see in particular Robert Darnton on the National Digital Public Library). Many others have written about the related question of the need for changes to scientific publishing to foster greater (that is, […]

Was Wallace Stegner The Lorax?

In the course of a remarkable writing life, Wallace Stegner wrote 35 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and dozens of articles and essays. He was justly celebrated as the dean of Western writers, a hugely influential voice for the environment who counted among his readers several US presidents. This wise and productive scholar, teacher, and author, wrote millions of words in his career. His most famous work, though, may be just a single word, for which he has been uncredited even though it has been hiding in plain sight for more than four decades. Unless. Stegner’s friends said he looked the way God ought to, so it would be both unkind and untrue to say that Stegner was the least bit brownish, or mossy. He was not particularly short. By all accounts he was rather kindly, neither sharpish nor bossy. […]

Nature’s Fortune

My latest book, Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature, was released last month. In the book, my co-author ––Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy (and former Managing Director and Partner of Goldman Sachs) –– and I argue that while the conservation movement has made great strides in recent decades, nearly every precious bit of nature is in decline. As environmentalists we look warily to the future as critical systems creep closer toward their threshold—and threaten to create a world so depleted that it becomes hostile to human wellbeing and economic productivity. But there is hope, but only if businesses, governments, and environmental organizations can work together in new, innovative ways. In the book we make the case that economic growth and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive, and that in fact, saving nature is the […]