Photograph by Brent Stirton
Photograph by Brent Stirton
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They risk their lives to save elephants

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

With World Elephant Day next Wednesday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who risk their lives to protect them. In Zimbabwe, the Akashinga—an all-female, nonprofit, anti-poaching unit—is one of the most remarkable groups I’ve learned about.

Made up of local women from disadvantaged backgrounds—some of them orphaned by AIDS or victims of domestic violence—the Akashinga undergo special forces-type training and are charged with protecting a 115-square-mile wildlife area in the Zambezi Valley, which has lost thousands of elephants to poachers over the past 20 years. (Pictured above, ranger Petronella Chigumbura practicing reconnaissance techniques).

Founder Damien Mander, who has been training anti-poaching rangers in Africa for more than a decade, says female rangers tend to be far more successful than male rangers. They’re better at de-escalating potentially violent situations, are less likely to accept bribes from poachers, and usually invest as much as 90 percent of their income in their families, as opposed to 35 percent with men, Lindsay Smith wrote in a story about them last year.

Zimbabwe has lost about 11 percent of its elephants since 2005, and Africa overall loses some 8 percent of its savanna elephants each year, almost entirely to poaching for their ivory. Asian elephants continue to lose ground as well.

On World Elephant Day, National Geographic is raising awareness about the plight of elephants and the risks the Akashinga take to protect them. Nat Geo is premiering the documentary Akashinga: The Brave Ones, executive produced by James Cameron and streaming at akashinga.film. Check out the trailer now. (Below, Akashinga rangers with an elephant at a watering hole.)

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Morning workout: For two years, photographer Trevor Frost documented gelada monkeys in the highlands of Ethiopia. “Each morning the juvenile monkeys would wrestle and play in this dirt pit,” Frost says, “so I sat in there daily for a week trying to get photos of the action. While the play fighting looked intense, it was not violent, and no geladas were hurt.”

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Today in a minute

I know, they’re cute when they’re little: They can live 80 years. They can grow up to 14 feet long. In short, alligators are rotten pets, a subject that Tina Deines explored for Nat Geo after the discovery of two abandoned gators in a Kansas creek. “You’re basically dealing with a dinosaur,” says Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society.

Murder hornet mania: The hunt to find a colony of “murder hornets” has led to the unnecessary killing of insects throughout the United States. While the giant Asian invader [or wasp] has only been spotted in an area of Washington State, people nationwide are mistaking native hornet species for the highly publicized hornets, leading to jumps of searches for “hornet spray” and purchases of various insecticides. There also have been a flood of queries to experts, who bemoan the killing of helpful bees, wasps, and hornets. “We just don't distinguish the dangerous from the harmless from the helpful,” entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood tells Nat Geo’s Douglas Main.

Pangolins trafficked: A new study shows over 90 percent of the Philippine pangolins seized from illegal trade over the past two decades have been seized in the last two years, according to a new report from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. The eight species of pangolin, which look like scaly anteaters, are believed to be the most trafficked non-human mammals in the world.

1916: That’s when sensational media coverage of four Atlantic shark attacks really drilled fear of sharks into Americans, even those who lived far from the shore. That’s one of the findings of our new video explainer on sharks—focusing on our outsize fear of them. Still curious? We have an entire SharkFest section for you.

The big takeaway

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Don’t underestimate ostriches: Their kick can break bones. A claw can disembowel an adversary. Their eyes, the biggest of any land animal, can spot trouble two miles away. And their massive thigh muscles, elastic tendons, and long lean legs can power an escape at up to 40 miles an hour. In the latest issue of National Geographic, writer Richard Conniff pays his due to the fleet, winged giants, who don’t seem to put their heads in the sand.

Subscriber exclusive: They may look goofy, but ostriches are nobody’s fool

In a few words

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Come back tomorrow for Whitney Johnson on the latest in photography news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Debra Adams Simmons on history, George Stone on travel, and Victoria Jaggard on science.

The last glimpse

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Mutant ninja honeybee: What bulging creamy yellow eyes it has! And what, it is both male and female? A longtime beekeeper north of Pittsburgh discovered the rare bee in his hives, sending a photograph to an expert. Not only did the genetic mutant bee have odd eyes, it was a gynandromorph, an organism that possesses both female and male traits. “That’s why this is so astounding,” North Carolina State honeybee specialist David Tarpy tells Nat Geo. “It’s like catching two bolts of lightning in the same bottle.” Jason Bittel explores how it happened.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Have an idea, a link, a mutant bee? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading.