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Why Netflix isn’t worried about the streaming wars

At a downtown coffee shop in 1997, Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings wondered: Could you mail a DVD and have it arrive unbroken?

To test the idea, the friends dropped off a disc at the post office across the street and mailed it to Reed’s home nearby. To their surprise, the disc arrived undamaged, an experiment that soon led to the birth of a scrappy start-up now known as Netflix.

Netflix, a name that combines the internet and movies, was once such an improbable idea that Randolph’s wife thought, “that will never work,” inspiring the title of his recently released book.

The company not only worked, it worked beyond their wildest dreams. It would eventually revolutionize TV, herald the era of binge-watching and upend Hollywood’s long-established order. Netflix poured vast sums into original TV series and films and became the undisputed king of streaming, with more than 151 million subscribers in nearly 200 countries.

Now the Los Gatos company faces an existential challenge from a new crop of rivals who are determined to beat it at its own game. Next month, Apple and Disney will launch their streaming platforms, followed by WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal next year.

Investors have grown skittish about the looming competition. Netflix shares, which closed Tuesday at $270.72, have fallen nearly 30% since the company reported that it lost 126,000 subscribers in U.S. during the second quarter, its biggest decline since 2011. While revenue rose 26% to $4.9 billion the second quarter compared with a year ago, net income dropped 30% to $270.65 million during the same period, according to a filing.

“Netflix is in a much more difficult situation than it’s ever been. It’s a lot more competitive. It’s choppy waters.”

BRAHM EILEY

Netflix’s domestic business is slowing at a time when legacy media companies are determined to seize control of lucrative shows that have helped fuel Netflix’s success and lure subscribers to their own services.

“Netflix is in a much more difficult situation than it’s ever been,” said Brahm Eiley, president of the Convergence Research Group, a Victoria, B.C., firm that tracks the streaming industry. “It’s a lot more competitive. It’s choppy waters.”

Though few think Netflix will relinquish its dominance, its market share is expected to decline sharply in the U.S. Last year, Netflix took in 47% of subscription revenues for streaming platforms in the U.S., according to the Convergence Research Group. In 2022, Netflix’s market share will decline to 34%, Convergence said.

To be sure, Netflix has faced challenges before, first with the transition from mail-order-delivery to streaming in 2007, and later its successful foray into original programming with such hits as “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards.”

Big names hungering after Netflix’s niche

“We have to continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is make the best content and deliver it seamlessly,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said in an interview from the company’s Los Angeles offices. “I think the bigger you are, the more distractions you have to your core business, the more likely you can’t move as quickly as we’ve been able to through our history. The new set of competitors is actually just the old set of competitors.”

One of the biggest hurdles facing Netflix is that it’s going to lose some of its most popular programs starting next year, analysts say. Its top two most-watched titles in 2018, “Friends” and “The Office,” will leave to go to competing streaming services, according to Nielsen, which tracks ratings. Marvel and Pixar movies will also disappear from Netflix for a period of time. Netflix originals took up just roughly 30% of the time adult subscribers spend on Netflix, according to Nielsen data from October 2018.

Analysts will be closely watching to see how consumers react when they realize shows and movies they were used to seeing on Netflix are no longer part of its library.

Sarandos said Netflix originals are more popular than licensed shows when examined per season and that Netflix will continue its diverse programming strategy, which includes unscripted feel-good programs like “Queer Eye,” sitcoms such as “The Ranch” and acclaimed miniseries such as “Unbelievable.”

“Basically our goal is we’re trying to make your favorite show,” Sarandos said. “For some people, it’s that high pedigree, Emmy-winning, well-reviewed show and other people just want to relax and watch something.”

But as studios reclaim shows for their own services, Netflix will have to spend even more money on original programs like “Ozark” and “Stranger Things” to fill the gap — and keep subscribers coming.

‘Stranger Things’ season 3

Netflix’s spending on content is projected to climb to $35 billion in 2025, up from an estimated $16 billion this year, according to Pivotal Research Group. The additional spending on new and licensed programming could add to the company’s debt load.

The company reported long-term debt of $12.6 billion in the second quarter, up 51% from the same period a year ago. Its overall streaming content obligations — which includes amounts related to the acquisition and licensing of streaming content — totaled about $19 billion as of Dec. 31, according to a regulatory filing.

In the past, Netflix has been able to raise subscription prices to offset its rising investments in programming, but that option will be tougher because rivals will offer their streaming services at lower prices. Apple TV+ will start at $4.99 a month ($4 cheaper than Netflix’s basic plan). Disney+ will offer a basic plan for $6.99 a month and a bundle package with ESPN+ and Hulu for $12.99 a month. Netflix’s standard plan is $12.99 a month.

“There has been pressure on Netflix and its financial model for years,” Eiley said. “New players in the market only increase that pressure.”

Sarandos said that the company’s spending on content is sustainable given its revenue growth and that Netflix will remain competitive by offering something for everyone.

“The test is, ‘are you getting enough value for the money?’” Sarandos said. “That’s a question that consumers have to answer.”

Netflix also has an advantage in the bidding war because video streaming is its core business, unlike rivals such as Apple and Amazon. Some of Netflix’s competitors could back down if shows become too expensive, said Jeff Wlodarczak, a principal and senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group.

“There are few companies in the world that are going to be able to spend at these levels long term,” Wlodarczak said.

Known for the creative freedom it offers, Netflix continues to lure big-name talent, signing lucrative production deals with writers including Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, as well as D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the showrunners behind HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones.”

‘The Irishman’

The streaming giant also has landed projects with critically acclaimed filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón, (whose film “Roma” won three Academy Awards), Guillermo del Toro and Martin Scorsese, whose much-anticipated gangster film “The Irishman” debuts in November. It’s one of some eight Netflix movies that will debut later this year.

Major theater chains have refused to screen “The Irishman” in protest over Netflix’s strategy of showing films on its platform on the same day — or shortly after — they appear in cinemas.

“For less than the cost of the movie ticket, you get a month of Netflix,” Sarandos said. “At the end of the day filmmakers want their films to be seen, their work to be out there in the culture and that happens on Netflix better than anywhere in the world.”

As the race for consumers intensifies, Netflix will look to grow its subscribers abroad in Brazil, India and South Korea and other international markets.

One area Netflix is investing in is animation, which can be easier to dub into different languages such as Hindi. Netflix launched its first original animated kids shows in India in April called “Mighty Little Bheem” as part of an expansion in the vast market. In India, the company recently launched a cheaper $3 monthly plan for people who only watch Netflix on their mobile devices.

Then there is the push into interactive series that can track subscriber choices on shows. Last year, Netflix distributed a “Black Mirror” film, “Bandersnatch,” that allowed viewers to select what the main character should do from a list of choices on their screens.

Netflix has accumulated a massive amount of data on what people like to watch and when. The information dates back to 1998, when Netflix launched an online store for DVDs.

“They know more about their subscribers than anybody else,” said Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “They need to figure out a way and take that information from their subscriber base and be more focused.”

Unprecedented power outages begin in California as winds bring critical fire danger

SACRAMENTO — In an unprecedented move, Pacific Gas & Electric early Wednesday began a sweeping shut off power to about 800,000 customers across Northern California in a desperate attempt to avoid wildfires caused by winds damaging power equipment.

The power cutoffs started in several counties around Sacramento, including Placer and Yuba, amid increasing winds. Officials said cutoffs will continue throughout the day, including in parts of the Bay Area.

The blackouts will impact 34 counties in Central and Northern California. It would be the biggest power shutdown so far as utilities across the state attempt to reduce wildfire risk due to heavy wind. Utilities malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated Paradise, Calif., and the 2017 wine country blazes.

“It is a very blunt way of approaching the situation, but at the same time, there’s an understanding of why it’s being undertaken,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who noted PG&E’s announcement came on the second anniversary of the 2017 firestorm. “We have vulnerable populations, our elderly and young children. We’re mostly concerned about them.”

The shut-down will be PG&E’s third in the last two months, the utility said. Power was restored within a day during the previous two events, but those were also for much smaller slices of its customer base.

“It is very possible that customers may be affected by a power shut-off even though they are not experiencing extreme weather conditions in their specific location,” the utility said in a statement. “This is because the electric system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions.”

Southern California Edison announced it, too, was considering preventive power outages. The utility said that given the anticipated possibly strong Santa Ana winds, power could be cut off to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight Southern California counties.

Edison’s possible outage would primarily affect customers in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Also under consideration are areas in Ventura County and portions of Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties.

California Wildfires Power Shutoff

The power shut-offs have generated debate, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch for news about fires. There has been heightened concern about those with health issues who rely on medical equipment.

Throughout Tuesday, the staff at the Ukiah Senior Center were scrambling to prepare for the planned outage, buying butane canisters at sporting goods stores so they could make coffee and freezing water bottles in case the power was out for days.

Relief came in the form of an email, when city leaders alerted the community just after 3:30 p.m. that PG&E had indicated that Ukiah’s electric system won’t be affected by the planned outages. Local leaders did warn that, because extreme weather is expected, outages could still occur.

“People have been on pins and needles all day because of the uncertainty,” said Diana Clarke, the senior center’s executive director. “They don’t know if they should go out and buy supplies, and especially with seniors, they don’t have a lot of extra money.”

The senior center provides residents with hot meals Monday through Friday and delivers meals to older residents who aren’t able to leave their homes. On Tuesday, the center’s outreach supervisor was busy calling people to tell them they weren’t sure whether they would have electricity and thus be able to prepare meals for delivery, Clarke said.

There is a deep sense of frustration, and skepticism, in the community at the idea of losing power to protect them from wildfires, she said.

“PG&E should have been doing the proper maintenance for the last decade,” Clarke said. “This wouldn’t have been necessary [if they had], and I think that’s what has got everyone so angry and frustrated with PG&E right now. This is a crisis of PG&E’s making.”

But it may also be the best option available as the utilities and the state face trade-offs between ensuring reliable power and the public’s safety, said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program.

“Power shut-offs in the face of really widespread dangerous fire weather, which is what we’re confronting, may be the best thing we can do for the time being,” Wara said. “In the long run, PG&E needs to fix its grid. And so does Edison … so they can use power shut-offs as a more limited tool like a scalpel rather than the blunt instrument they have now.”

Some state and local officials also have complained that utilities don’t always give enough notice before turning off the power. And they have expressed concerns about communications and evacuations if the power is out, especially if traffic signals don’t work and cellphone service is affected.

Caltrans announced it was closing multiple tunnels around the Bay Area as early as Tuesday evening because they require power to control traffic flow. Among them are the Caldecott Tunnel in Contra Costa County and the Tom Lantos Tunnels in Pacifica.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a bill signing ceremony in Oakland on Tuesday, defended PG&E’s plans for the intentional power shutdowns.

“The reality is that we want to protect people. We want to make sure people are safe. This is what PG&E thinks is in the best interest of their customers and ultimately for this region and the state,” the governor said.

“It is a massive inconvenience,” he added. “No one wants to see this happen. But it is a public safety issue.”

Wara compared it to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the rolling blackouts Californians experienced during the energy crisis of the early 2000s. He said while those events may have triggered blackouts that involved more customers, they weren’t on the order of days like what PG&E is saying could happen here.

“This kind of thing happens because of natural disasters, and here we’re having an unnatural disaster to avoid an even worse natural disaster.”

Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), whose district may be affected by the blackouts, acknowledged there is a fire danger requiring some shutting down of power, but he called the extent of the possible outage troubling.

“I think it is excessive,” said Hill, a longtime critic of the utility. ”PG&E clearly hasn’t made its system safe. These shut-downs are supposed to be surgical. But shutting down power to 800,000 people in 31 counties is by no means surgical.”

Hill, who convened a recent hearing on the Public Utility Commission’s oversight of PG&E, called on the state agency to do a “root cause” analysis of the power shut-downs.

“This cannot be something that can be acceptable nor long-term,” Hill said. “This is third world, and we are not.”

It also makes economic sense for the utility to make its grid more resilient, Wara said, because it’s losing money when it has turned off the power.

Once the fire weather subsides, PG&E employees will check the grid in person and electronically before determining if it is safe to turn back on, a company official said.

It took the utility less than a day to restore power to customers during a three-county shut-off it performed last weekend and during another in September, the company said in a statement.

At a press conference Tuesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf expressed her concern over PG&E’s timeline to restore power, but added she was grateful they had some time to prepare.

“We expect PG&E to do everything to minimize the impact to residents,” Schaaf said. “The idea of five days without electricity is devastating. We fully expect that to be a worst-case scenario.”

Johnson & Johnson, Risperdal maker hit with $8B verdict

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Philadelphia jury on Tuesday awarded $8 billion in punitive damages against Johnson & Johnson and one if its subsidiaries over a drug the companies made that the plaintiff’s attorneys say is linked to the abnormal growth of female breast tissue in boys.

Johnson and Johnson immediately denounced the award after the jury’s decision in the Court of Common pleas, saying it’s “excessive and unfounded” and vowing immediate action to overturn it.

The antipsychotic drug Risperdal is at the center of the lawsuit, with the plaintiff’s attorneys arguing it’s linked to abnormal growth of female breast tissue in boys, an incurable condition known as gynecomastia.

Johnson & Johnson used an organized scheme to make billions of dollars while illegally marketing and promoting the drug, attorneys Tom Kline and Jason Itkin said in a statement.

Kline and Itkin said that Johnson & Johnson was “a corporation that valued profits over safety and profits over patients.” Thousands of lawsuits have been filed over the drug, but the attorneys said this was the first in which a jury decided whether to award punitive damages and came up with an amount.

Johnson & Johnson said in a statement on its website it was confident that the award would be overturned, calling it “grossly disproportionate” with the initial compensatory damage award and “a clear violation of due process.”

Johnson & Johnson said the court’s exclusion of key evidence left it unable to present a meaningful defense, including what they said was a drug label that “clearly and appropriately outlined the risks associated with the medicine” or Risperdal’s benefits for patients with serious mental illness. They also said the plaintiff’s attorneys failed to present any evidence of actual harm.

“This decision is inconsistent with multiple determinations outside of Philadelphia regarding the adequacy of the Risperdal labeling, the medicine’s efficacy, and findings in support of the company,” Johnson & Johnson said. “We will be immediately moving to set aside this excessive and unfounded verdict.”

Asian stocks slip as tensions flare before US-China talks

Shares slipped in Asia on Wednesday as tensions between the U.S. and China flared ahead of talks aimed at resolving the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.

An overnight sell-off on Wall Street added to the gloom. Technology companies, banks and health care stocks bore the brunt of the selling after the U.S. blacklisted a group of Chinese companies, claiming that their technology plays a role in the repression of China’s Muslim minority groups.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index lost 0.6% to 21,459.77 and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong dropped 0.7% to 25,705.87. The Shanghai Composite index edged 0.1% higher to 2,917.27. The Sensex in India picked up 0.1% to 37,546.77 while shares in Taiwan and Southeast Asia declined. South Korean and Malaysian markets were closed for holidays.

China demanded Washington lift the sanctions on Chinese tech companies and warned Wednesday it will “resolutely safeguard” the country’s interests.

The Ministry of Commerce criticized the curbs imposed on sales of U.S. technology to a group of Chinese companies as interference in the country’s affairs.

“The US tactics are undoubtedly a high risk, seeking to pressure the Chinese trade delegation before the main event really gets underway,” Jeffrey Halley of Oanda said in a commentary.

U.S. stocks closed broadly lower, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average giving up more than 300 points in the last hour of regular trading.

Envoys from the U.S. and China are scheduled to meet in Washington on Thursday for another round of trade talks. The bouts of added conflict are denting hopes that Washington and Beijing will find a resolution to their long-running and painful tariffs war.

“The rhetoric on both sides, whether it’s the U.S. putting certain Chinese technology companies on a blacklist, or China vowing to retaliate with a ‘stay tuned’, it just keeps upping the temperature in the room and creating greater uncertainty for businesses, for consumers and for investors,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

The S&P 500 index lost 1.6% to 2,893.06. The Dow slid 1.2% to 26,164.04 and the Nasdaq, which is heavily weighted with technology companies, dropped 1.7%, to 7,823.78.

Smaller company stocks were also big decliners, sending the Russell 2000 index down 1.7%, to 1,472.60.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 1.53% from 1.55% late Monday, a signal that investors are favoring lower-risk investments amid the trade war turmoil. Utilities and real estate companies, both safe-play sectors, held up better than the rest of the market, though they also ended the day in the red.

The latest escalation in U.S.-China tensions adds yet another worry for investors already anxious over a bevy of political and economic concerns. Last week, the S&P 500 posted its first back-to-back losses of 1% this year as surprisingly weak numbers in surveys of manufacturing and service industries showed the U.S.-China trade war is threatening U.S. economic growth.

Benchmark crude oil dropped 22 cents to $52.41 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It fell 12 cents to settle at $52.63 a barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude oil, the international standard, slid 24 cents to $58.00 a barrel.

While the price of U.S. crude is up just under 9% so far this year, it remains off by more than 27% from a year ago. That slide in prices over the past 12 months has weighed on energy stocks this year.

The dollar rose to 107.18 Japanese yen from 107.07 yen on Tuesday. The euro rose to $1.0959 from $1.0956.

___

Iraq’s uprising an open crisis with no known path forward

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq has been plunged into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State group in a war that left much of the country in ruins and displaced tens of thousands.

The latest bloody confrontations have killed more than 100 people in less than seven days. But this time, the clashes do not pit security forces against Islamic extremists, the country’s Sunnis against Shiites, or insurgents against occupation forces.

Instead, Iraqi security forces have been shooting at young Iraqis demanding jobs, electricity and clean water — and an end to corruption.

It’s still unclear why the government chose to exercise such a heavy-handed response to a few hundred unarmed demonstrators who first congregated last week on social media to hold a protest. But analysts say the violence has pushed Iraq toward a dangerous trajectory from which it might be difficult to pull back.

As the spontaneous protests — with no apparent political leadership emerging — continued to clash with security forces in Iraq cities and towns, the government appeared unapologetic and failed to offer solutions to entrenched problems, raising fears that yet another Arab nation will be mired in a long-term crisis without a path forward.

“The use of force coupled with cosmetic concessions will work to temporarily ease pressure but will not end the crisis,” wrote Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa head at Eurasia Group. “This cycle of protests could be contained, but the political system will continue to lose legitimacy.”

In their demands for better services and an end to corruption, the protesters are no different from those who rioted in the southern city of Basra over chronic power cuts and water pollution last summer. Or in 2016, when angry demonstrators scaled the walls in Baghdad’s highly secured Green Zone and stormed Iraq’s parliament, shouting “thieves!”

But unlike in 2016 when the protests were led by populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, today’s protests have not been co-opted by any political party. Most are young men in their twenties. They do not have a clear list of demands or a program, nor do they have a spokesman to speak on their behalf. Some are teenagers or fresh university graduates unable to find jobs in a corruption-plagued country that sits on some of the world’s biggest oil reserves.

Their movement — if it can be called that — has no clear contours, nor any quick solutions. The protesters say they are fed up with the entire post-2003 political class which profiteers on kickbacks, nepotism and corruption while ordinary Iraqis drink polluted water and endure massive unemployment.

And most strikingly, the protests are predominantly Shiite demonstrations against a Shiite-led government.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has promised to address protesters’ demands. But the 77-year-old premier began his tenure last year facing a raft of accumulated challenges, including high unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated public services and poor security, and he has told protesters there is no “magic solution for all that.”

The crisis erupted on Oct. 1 after protesters who had organized on social media staged a demonstration calling for their rights. They were met with water cannons, tear gas and bullets. The demonstrations were partially triggered by anger over the abrupt removal of a top Shiite military who led battles against Islamic State militants and was largely seen as a non-corrupt, respected general. But the protesters carried a long list of grievances.

The protests come at a critical moment for Iraq, which had been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and the regional Shiite power Iran — both allies of the Baghdad government. Iraq’s weak prime minister has struggled to remain neutral amid those tensions.

Adding to the nervousness, mysterious airstrikes blamed on Israel had for weeks targeted military bases and ammunitions depot in Iraq belonging to Iran-backed militias, which vowed revenge against Americans troops stationed here.

The protests, when they started, quickly spread from Baghdad to the Shiite heartland in the south, including the flashpoint city of Basra. The government imposed a round-the-clock curfew and shut down the internet for days, in a desperate attempt to quell the protests.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Saad Maan said Sunday that at least 104 people have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the unrest. He said eight members of the security forces were among those killed and 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters had been torched by protesters.

The massive crackdown appears to have succeeded in whittling down the number of protesters for now, although sporadic clashes between demonstrators and security forces continue on a smaller scale, including an hours-long gunbattle Monday night near the volatile Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

But among Iraqis and country observers, there is consensus that a dam has been broken and that with so many killed, the protest movement is likely to return, and become better organized next time — whenever that may be.

In a country awash with weapons, there are concerns the violence would lead some protesters to arm themselves, similar to what happened in Syria. There is also worry that some of the hard-line militias loyal to Iran could enter the fray and exploit the chaos.

Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s influential cleric who has a popular Shiite support base and the largest number of seats in parliament, has called on the government to resign because of the large number of people killed. He also suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

If al-Sadr joins the protest movement, it will give it much more momentum and potentially lead to even more violence.

Ali Al-Ghoraifi, an Iraqi blogger, said the government may have succeeded in putting a lid on the situation for the time being.

“But it will be like a coal ready to ignite at any time and place,” he wrote in a post. “And when it does, it will burn everyone.”

Church accused of covering up priest’s abuse, and paternity

SAMBURU, Kenya (AP) — When Sabina Losirkale went into labor, her sister Scolastica recalls, priests and religious sisters filled the delivery ward waiting to see the color of the baby’s skin — and if their worst fears had come to pass.

Scolastica and dozens of villagers peered in from behind the clinic fence, as well.

A nun screamed. The boy was white — “a mzungu child,” Scolastica said, using Kiswahili slang.

“How will we cover up this shame?” the sisters fretted, she recalled.

The shame that brought this baby into the world: An Italian missionary priest, her family alleges, impregnated this Kenyan girl when she was just 16. But the nuns need not have worried about the scandal spreading.

The priest — who to this day denies paternity — was transferred, and a Kenyan man was found for Sabina to marry. He would be listed as the father on the boy’s birth certificate.

The church’s efforts to conceal what is alleged to have happened here would stretch over three decades — a testament to the extraordinary ways in which church officials have dealt with accusations that priests in the developing world have had sex with girls and young women. Here, the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis is just beginning to force a reckoning.

The boy who was born to Sabina Losirkale on that day in 1989 has been an outcast of sorts for all of his life. Tall and light-skinned, with wavy hair, Gerald Erebon, now 30, looks nothing like the dark-skinned Kenyan man who he was told was his father, or like his black mother and siblings.

“According to my birth certificate, it is like I am living a wrong life, a lie,” he said. “I just want to have my identity, my history.”

___

Amid the torrent of sex abuse accusations that have rocked the priesthood, little attention has been paid to the pregnancies resulting from those illicit acts. And nowhere is this a more glaring issue than in Africa.

While there are no official statistics, experts point to a “culture of silence and compromise” that has allowed abuses of all kinds to fester in African society, said Augusta Muthigani, in charge of education for the Kenyan bishops’ conference.

“Matters of sexuality are not discussed openly,” she said.

The continent has long lagged behind the United States, Europe and Australia in confronting the problem of priests having sex with children, given the church’s priorities here have focused on fighting poverty, conflict and traffickers who sell children off to war or work.

Recently, East African bishops established regional child protection standards and guidelines to prevent child sexual abuse. And in parts of Francophone West Africa, the Catholic Church has launched safeguarding programs for society at large.

Those initiatives, though, are relatively new, scattershot and underfunded. And eight months after Pope Francis summoned bishops from around the world for a summit to insist that clergy sexual abuse prevention be a priority for the universal church going forward, African bishops made no mention of it in their final declaration after a continent-wide assembly in July. All in a region where advocates say Catholic clergy routinely violate their vows of celibacy, including with children.

The Rev. Mario Lacchin encountered Sabina Losirkale when she was a student at the Gir Gir Primary School in Archer’s Post, a dusty town on the highway to Ethiopia. The school was established by the Consolata Missionaries religious order, which had come to Archer’s Post to spread the faith to the semi-nomadic tribes of Kenya’s northern Rift Valley.

Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, the Losirkale girls and two cousins were often left on their own; their parents were poor shepherds and spent days away from home, seeking pasture in the bush for their animals.

Starting about a year before she turned 16, Sabina skipped afterschool sports to go to the priests’ quarters to do housework, cooking and cleaning for the parish priests. Scolastica recalls she would sometimes see Sabina and Lacchin hugging as they said goodbye.

Other times, Scolastica said, Sabina would come home from Lacchin’s house crying and asking for Scolastica to fetch water so she could bathe. Some nights she didn’t come home at all.

At the time, the priest was in his early 50s.

“I think Father Mario was taking advantage of my sister,” said the 45-year-old widow, looking through family photos in her one-bedroom, mud-brick home. “He bribed her with gifts, food, clothes. He was even buying us books. My sister used to come with books, pens, all we needed.”

One night, Sabina vomited. It was the first indication that she was pregnant.

Their parents were shocked and angry. They demanded to know who the father was.

Lacchin was quietly transferred to a nearby mission; his driver and a catechist at Archer’s Post, Benjamin Ekwam, was chosen to marry Sabina.

Nevertheless, people talked.

“You know, it was very shameful in the community,” Scolastica said. “If someone wanted a child, a girl, they just married. So this was just an embarrassment to the whole community.”

Sabina was just 16 when she gave birth March 12, 1989. She had conceived a few weeks after her 16th birthday. In Kenya, the legal age of consent was and is 18.

___

The Vatican doesn’t publish statistics about the number of priests who have fathered children. The Holy See only publicly admitted that it’s a problem this year, and only then because it was compelled to acknowledge that it had crafted internal guidelines to deal with it.

The man behind the disclosure was Vincent Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist and son of a priest who in 2014 launched an online resource, Coping International, to help children of priests.

Doyle has been a thorn in the side of the Vatican ever since, seeking to raise awareness through the media about the plight of these children, who often suffer emotionally and psychologically. He has also begun advocating for their mothers, some of whom were just girls when they conceived.

In recent months, he has forwarded three such cases to the Vatican: those of Erebon and of children born of a 17-year-old in Cameroon and a 15-year-old in the United Kingdom.

All told, Doyle believes priests’ children number in the thousands, given the 415,000 Catholic clergy alive today and church teaching that forbids artificial contraception and abortion. Doyle estimates that about 5% of these births are the result of sex between a priest and a minor, though he has only anecdotal evidence.

The Rev. Stephane Joulain, a leading expert in clergy sex abuse prevention in Africa, said the majority of cases of sexual abuse of minors in Africa involve foreign missionary priests. But he said there is a significant problem of local African priests fathering children, including to young mothers, because of cultural norms: “You become a man only when you have fathered children.”

Many priests cite this pressure from family or tribe to explain why they have had offspring. Other priests, Joulain said, rationalize their behavior by saying celibacy is an imported “Western” tradition that has no place in Africa, where girls are often considered adult once they reach puberty, irrespective of the law.

The flouting of celibacy vows among African clergy is no secret to the Vatican. Nearly every time a group of African bishops visited the Vatican during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, he would remind them of the need to train their priests to “embrace the gift of celibacy,” a reminder not often given to other bishops’ conferences, according to a review of his speeches to more than a dozen African bishops’ conferences.

Decades ago, as in Erebon’s case, it was common for bishops and religious superiors to relocate an offending priest and try to find a man who would accept the woman and child as his own, Joulain said. If the mother was lucky, the order would provide financially for them.

“Congregations were all dealing the same way with the same problem,” he said.

___

Gerald Erebon grew up devoted to the Consolata Missionaries who employed his mother and her husband and, along with an Italian order of nuns in Archer’s Post, paid for his education. An altar boy, he entered the minor seminary after graduating from Gir Gir Primary School, hoping to join the order as a priest.

He knew well he was different from his dark-skinned siblings and the rest of the Samburu and Turkana people of the region. His half-sister Lina Ben, 27, recalled her siblings teased Erebon mercilessly, as did the family of the man he knew as his father. They called him “bastard.” Even Erebon’s last name was different, belonging to his maternal grandfather.

When Lina was 14, she asked her mother why Gerald didn’t look like her other children, and why his friends often referred to him as “mtoto was padre” — “child of the priest.”

Her mother initially pushed her away, but eventually told her that “Dad to Gerald is a priest called Father Mario and he is not here.”

Scolastica said her sister finally told her the secret in 2012, two weeks before she died.

“Now that my days are over,” her sister told her, she could reveal all: “When Gerald will ask you who’s his father, just tell him: Father Mario.”

In fact, neighbors took Erebon’s heritage for granted. “The people of Archer’s knew it was Father Mario. The people knew that the priest was responsible. Because even the boy — he resembled the priest when he was born,” said Alfred-Edukan Loote, who taught Erebon in primary school.

Young Erebon often got into fights, raging at the children who teased him. He eventually was expelled from the minor seminary after he smashed a plate of hot food on the head of a boy who had called him son of a white man.

After his mother’s death, Erebon asked Scolastica the question he never had the courage to ask his mother. She remembers hearing him cry over the phone when she told him.

___

In mid-2013, Erebon reached out to Lacchin, sending him a series of emails over the span of two months, hoping to establish a relationship following his mother’s death. By now, the two men looked strikingly alike, tall and lanky with sharp cheekbones.

“Ever since I knew you as my real biological father, I could not stop asking myself questions as to why I was born the way I was born, which consequently had put hate in me against you,” Erebon wrote.

But he said he had since had a change of heart and now forgave him. “I love you father,” he wrote. “Let us not allow the past to affect our present and future.” He signed the email “Your son, Gerardo” — the Italian name that appears on his birth certificate.

After Erebon received no response, he said he tried to meet Lacchin in person in Marsabit, where Lacchin was working as a church administrator. Erebon said Lacchin brushed off his overture. Told by the priest to take his complaint to the bishop, he did not.

Five years later, Erebon — by then a student studying education at Catholic University of Eastern Africa, his tuition partially paid for by an anonymous donor — reached out to Doyle, the Irish psychotherapist.

Doyle immediately contacted the Rome-based superior of the Consolata Missionaries, the Rev. Stefano Camerlengo, who sent a top official to investigate. The order arranged three meetings over the past year between Erebon and Lacchin in Nairobi, in what Camerlengo told Doyle was an effort at facilitating dialogue between the two.

According to minutes of a Jan. 15 meeting prepared by a Consolata priest who attended, Lacchin denied paternity. He refused to take a DNA test “since it would mean that he is possibly the father, whereas he knows that he is not the father.”

The Rev. James Lengarin, the Consolata’s deputy superior who investigated the case and hails from a town not far from Archer’s Post, said the order felt it could not compel Lacchin to take the DNA test, and that a slow process of reconciliation was the best course.

“We didn’t feel that he should be constrained by obedience, by force of obedience, to do it,” Lengarin said, noting that Lacchin is now 83.

He added that there was no reference in the Consolata’s archives to any problem with Lacchin in Archer’s Post, though an official history of the order in Kenya makes a cryptic reference to him in an entry about scandals involving some missionaries.

After months of impasse, Doyle went directly to the Vatican and Interpol after acquiring the birth certificates of both Erebon and his mother, which showed that she had just turned 16 when she conceived.

There are no known criminal proceedings against Lacchin in Kenya as a result of Doyle’s report to Interpol.

While the birth certificates don’t prove a canonical crime of sexual assault of a minor — in 1988, the church’s internal code didn’t consider a 16-year-old a minor in sex abuse cases — Sabina’s sister and other villagers allege the two were engaged in a sexual relationship well before she turned 16.

In many countries nowadays, such documented information would lead to the immediate removal from ministry of the priest pending a canonical investigation that could result in defrocking. Lacchin has continued in ministry, preaching at the Resurrection Gardens church in Nairobi as recently as this summer.

Lengarin said the order had planned to continue its investigation and hoped Lacchin would be persuaded to accept a paternity test, but is now awaiting orders from the Vatican office that handles religious orders on how to proceed.

The Vatican confirmed the office is investigating Lacchin, but declined further comment.

Efforts to reach Lacchin for comment were unsuccessful. He didn’t respond to email, text message and phone calls. After witnessing him celebrate Mass at his Resurrection Gardens parish in July, the AP went back to the church and was told this week that he was visiting a sick sister in France and would take a period of leave at least through the end of October.

In an Aug. 2 reply to Doyle, the undersecretary at the congregation for religious orders, the Rev. Pier Luigi Nava, criticized Doyle and asked for further information, saying it wasn’t clear what Erebon wanted, or if he intended to launch a criminal case in Kenyan or church courts.

Erebon said he wants Lacchin’s help to obtain Italian citizenship for himself and his two children. But more than that, he wants a life that is based on the truth.

“They created something which is not my real identity,” he said. “I just want to have my identity, my history, so that my children can also have what they really are: their heritage, history and everything.”

___

How science has shifted our sense of identity

In the iconic frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), primate skeletons march across the page and, presumably, into the future: “Gibbon, Orang, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Man.” Fresh evidence from anatomy and palaeontology had made humans’ place on the scala naturae scientifically irrefutable. We were unequivocally with the animals — albeit at the head of the line.

Nicolaus Copernicus had displaced us from the centre of the Universe; now Charles Darwin had displaced us from the centre of the living world. Regardless of how one took this demotion (Huxley wasn’t troubled; Darwin was), there was no doubting Huxley’s larger message: science alone can answer what he called the ‘question of questions’: “Man’s place in nature and his relations to the Universe of things.”

Huxley’s question had a prominent place in the early issues of Nature magazine. Witty and provocative, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ was among the most in-demand essayists of the day. Norman Lockyer, the magazine’s founding editor, scored a coup when he persuaded his friend to become a regular contributor. And Huxley knew a soapbox when he saw one. He hopped up and used Nature’s pages to make his case for Darwinism and the public utility of science.

It was in the seventh issue — 16 December 1869 — that Huxley advanced a scheme for what he called ‘practical Darwinism’ and we call eugenics. Convinced that continued dominance of the British Empire would depend on the “energetic enterprising” English character, he mused about selecting for a can-do attitude among Britons1. Acknowledging that the law, not to mention ethics, might get in the way, he nevertheless wrote: “it may be possible, indirectly, to influence the character and prosperity of our descendants.” Francis Galton — Darwin’s cousin and an outer planet of Huxley’s solar system — was already writing about similar ideas and would come to be known as the father of eugenics. When this magazine appeared, then, the idea of ‘improving’ human heredity was on many people’s minds — not least as a potent tool of empire.

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Individual identities, rooted in biology, have perhaps never played a larger part in social life, even as their bounds and parameters grow ever fuzzier.

The Frontis engraving from the first edition of Huxley's 1863 "Evidences as to Man's Place in Nature" showing primate skeletons
Frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863).Credit: Paul D. Stewart/SPL

Designs on intelligence

“Methods of scientific precision must be introduced into all educational work, to carry everywhere good sense and light,” wrote the French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1914. A decade earlier, Binet and Théodore Simon developed a series of tests for French schoolchildren to measure what they called ‘mental age’. If a child’s mental age was less than her chronological age, she could receive extra help to catch up. The German psychologist William Stern took the ratio of mental to chronological age, giving what he called the IQ and, theoretically, making it comparable across groups. Meanwhile, Charles Spearman, a British statistician and eugenicist of the Galton school, found a correlation between a child’s performance on different tests. To explain the correlations, he theorized an innate, fixed, underlying quality he called ‘g’, for ‘general intelligence’. Then the American psychologist Henry Goddard, with the eugenicist Charles Davenport whispering in his ear, claimed that low IQ was a simple Mendelian trait. Thus, step by scientistic step, IQ was converted from a measure of a given child’s past performance to a predictor of any child’s future performance.

IQ became a measure not of what you do, but of who you are — a score for one’s inherent worth as a person. In the Progressive era, eugenicists became obsessed with low intelligence, believing it to be the root of crime, poverty, promiscuity and disease. By the time Adolf Hitler expanded eugenics to cover entire ethnic and cultural groups, tens of thousands of people worldwide had already been yanked from the gene pool, sterilized, institutionalized, or both.

Not me

Immunologists took another approach, They located identity in the body, defining it in relational rather than absolute terms: self and non-self. Tissue-graft rejection, allergies and autoimmune reactions could be understood not as a war but as an identity crisis. This was pretty philosophical territory. Indeed, the historian Warwick Anderson has suggested that in immunology, biological and social thought have been “mixing promiscuously in a common tropical setting, under the palm trees”.

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

Later, Burnet was drawn to new metaphors taken from cybernetics and information theory. “It is in the spirit of the times,” he wrote

in 19544, to believe there would soon be “a ‘communications theory’ of the living organism.” Indeed there was. In the same period, molecular biologists also became enamoured of information metaphors. After the 1953 solution of the DNA double helix, as the problem of the genetic code took shape, molecular biologists found analogies with information, text and communication irresistible, borrowing words such as ‘transcription’, ‘translation’, ‘messengers’, ‘transfers’ and ‘signalling’. The genome ‘spells’ in an ‘alphabet’ of four letters, and is almost invariably discussed as a text, whether it is a book, manual or parts list. Not coincidentally, these fields grew up alongside computer science and the computing industry.

The postwar self became a cipher to be decoded. DNA sequences could be digitized. Its messages could, at least in theory, be intercepted, decoded and programmed. Soon it became hard not to think of human nature in terms of information. By the 1960s, DNA was becoming known as the ‘secret of life’.

Many selves

In the late 1960s and 1970s, critics (including a number of scientists) grew concerned that the new biology could alter what it means to be human. The ethical and social issues raised were “far too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific and medical communities”, wrote James Watson (of DNA fame and later infamy) in 1971.

In 1978, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards succeeded with human in vitrofertilization, leading to the birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’. By 1996, human cloning seemed to be around the corner, with the cloning of a sheep that Ian Wilmut and his team named Dolly.

Cloning and genetic engineering have prompted much soul-searching but little soul-finding. There has long been something both terrible and fascinating about the idea of a human-made, perhaps not-quite-person. Would a cloned individual have the same rights as the naturally born? Would a baby conceived or engineered to be a tissue donor be somehow dehumanized? Do we have a right to alter the genes of the unborn? Or, as provocateurs have argued, do we have an obligation to do so? The recent development of potent gene-editing tools such as CRISPR has only made widening participation in such decision-making more urgent.

A macaque lies in intensive care after undergoing a liver transplant with a liver from a transgenic pig
A macaque undergoing a liver transplant from a pig in China in 2013.Credit: VCG/Getty

Arguments, both pro and con, around engineering humans often lean on an overly deterministic understanding of genetic identity. Scientism can cut both ways. A deep reductionism located human nature inside the cell nucleus. In 1902, the English physician Archibald Garrod had written5 of genetically based “chemical individuality”. In the 1990s, as the first tsunamis of genomic sequence data began to wash up on the shores of basic science, it became obvious that human genetic variation was much more extensive than we had realized. Garrod has become a totem of the genome age.

By the end of the century, visionaries had begun to tout the coming of ‘personalized medicine’ based on your genome. No more ‘one size fits all’, went the slogan. Instead, diagnostics and therapy would be tailored to you — that is, to your DNA. After the Human Genome Project, the cost of DNA sequencing nosedived, making ‘getting your genome done’ part of mass culture.

Today, tech-forward colleges offer genome profiles to all incoming first-years. Hip companies purport to use your genome to compose personalized wine lists, nutritional supplements, skin cream, smoothies or lip balm. The sequence has become the self. As it says on the DNA testing kit from sequencing company 23andMe, “Welcome to you.”

Boundaries blur

But you are not all you — not by a long shot. The DNA-as-blueprint model is outdated, almost quaint. For starters, all of the cells in a body do not have the same chromosomes. Cisgender women are mosaics: the random inactivation of one X chromosome in each cell means that half a woman’s cells express her mother’s X and half express her father’s. Mothers are also chimaeras, thanks to the exchange of cells with a fetus through the placenta.

Chimaerism can cross the species boundary, too. Human–chimpanzee embryos have been made in the laboratory, and researchers are hard at work trying to grow immune-tolerant human organs in pigs. Genes, proteins and microorganisms stream continuously among almost any life forms living cheek by jowl. John Lennon was right: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

Even in strictly scientific terms, ‘you’ are more than the contents of your chromosomes. The human body contains at least as many non-human cells (mostly bacteria, archaea and fungi) as human ones6. Tens of thousands of microbial species crowd and jostle over and through the body, with profound effects on digestion, complexion, disease resistance, vision and mood. Without them, you don’t feel like you; in fact, you aren’t really you. The biological self has been reframed as a cluster of communities, all in communication with each other.

These, too, cavort promiscuously beneath the palms. Scientists found that they could use a person’s microbiome to identify their sexual partner 86% of the time7. The communities of greatest similarity in cohabiting couples, they found, are on the feet. The thigh microbiome, by contrast, is more closely correlated with your biological sex than with the identity of your partner.

A body part, a cesspool, a subway car, a classroom — any place with a characteristic community — can be understood as having a genetic identity. In such a community, genetic information passes within and between individual organisms, through sex, predation, infection and horizontal gene transfer. In the past year, studies have shown that the communities of symbiotic microbes in deep-sea mussels become genetically isolated over time, like species. In fungi, genes called Spok (spore-killer) ebb and flow and recombine across species by ‘meiotic drive’, a kind of genomic fast-forward button that permits heritable genetic change to occur fast enough to respond to a rapidly changing environment. The genome, as the geneticist Barbara McClintock said long ago, is a sensitive organ of the cell.

Epigenetics dissolves the boundaries of the self even further. Messages coded in the DNA can be modified in many ways — by mixing and matching DNA modules, by capping or hiding bits so that they can’t be read, or by changing the message after it’s been read, its meaning altered in translation. DNA was once taught as a sacred text handed faithfully down the generations. Now, increasing evidence points to the nuclear genome as more of a grab bag of suggestions, tourist phrases, syllables and gibberish that you use and modify as needed. The genome now seems less like the seat of the self and more of a toolkit for fashioning the self. So who is doing the fashioning?

Distributed self

Brain implants, human–machine interfaces and other neurotechnical devices extend the self into the domain of the ‘universe of things’. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink in San Francisco, California, seeks to make the seamless mind–machine interface — that sci-fi trope — a (virtual) reality. Natural intelligence and artificial intelligence already meet; it’s not far-fetched for them to somehow, someday, meld.

Can the self become not merely extended but distributed? The writer and former Nature editor Philip Ball let researchers sample his skin cells, turn them back into stem cells (with the potential to become any organ) and then culture them into a ‘mini-brain’, neural tissue in a dish that developed electrical firing patterns typical of regions of the brain. Other sci-fi staples, such as growing whole brains in Petri dishes or culturing human organs in farm animals, remain a long way off, but active efforts to achieve them are under way.

Self control

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. It matters that Henrietta Lacks, whose tumour cells are used in labs all over the world, cultured and distributed without her consent, was a poor African American woman. Her story has stimulated countless conversations about inequities and biases in biomedicine, and changed practices at the United States’ largest biomedical funder, the National Institutes of Health.

Considering genomic genealogy from an African American perspective, the sociologist Alondra Nelson has revealed complex, emotionally charged efforts to recover family histories lost to the Middle Passage. In the Native American community, creation of a genetic Native identity was a co-production of Western science and Indigenous culture, as the historian Kim TallBear has shown. DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Sweeping extent of global trade in wild animals revealed

Comprehensive study of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles finds that nearly one-fifth of vertebrates are bought and sold around the world.

Almost one in five vertebrates that live on land are traded on wildlife markets — a much greater proportion than previously thought.

The findings come from one of the most comprehensive studies of the international wildlife trade to date, which surveyed more than 30,000 species of mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile. The authors found the proportion of traded animals to be 40–60% higher than previous estimates had suggested, and predict that it could rise to more than one in four.

“This is the first time that somebody has tried to look at the full scope of the problem,” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study.

The authors of the work, published in Science on 4 October, say the findings could help to identify species that are at risk of being wiped out by illegal trafficking, so that policies can be put in place to protect them.

Trade in wild animals or animal parts such as skins, bones or meat is a global, multibillion-dollar business that is driving a number of species towards extinction, says co-author Brett Scheffers, a conservation biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Wild animals are sold as exotic pets or for food, and animal parts, such as pangolin scales, are often used in traditional medicine.

To identify species that are currently traded, the researchers used databases maintained by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose Red List provides the conservation status of most species.

The team found that 5,579 of the 31,745 vertebrate species analysed — around 18% — are being bought and sold around the world. This includes more than 2,000 birds and nearly 1,500 mammals, many of which are captured illegally from the wild, although the figures also include legal trade.

Source: Ref. 1

The analysis revealed that traded species are more likely to be threatened or vulnerable to extinction than those that aren’t bought or sold. Although it is difficult to assess whether trade is responsible for making species rare or whether already-rare species are more likely to be traded, this finding is “alarming”, Scheffers says, because it suggests that the commercialization of wildlife is threatening species that are already on the cusp of extinction.

He points out that the study looked only at land-based vertebrates, and that if plants, invertebrates and water-dwelling animals were included, the number of traded species would be much higher. “We are literally talking about tens of thousands of species that are being traded globally,” he says.

The researchers estimated that a further 3,196 species are at risk because they have similar features to species already on the market. For example, colourful birds such as Serinus finches or Ploceus weavers resemble the critically endangered yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola). As this species becomes rarer, traffickers could turn to Serinus finches or Ploceus weavers to meet demand.

Predictions of the species that are likely to be traded in the future could help governments and international organizations to develop regulations that protect those species before they become endangered, says Katarzyna Nowak, a wildlife scientist at the Safina Center, a non-profit conservation group in Setauket, New York.

References

  1. 1.Scheffers, B. R., Oliveira, B. F., Lamb, I. & Edwards, D. P. Science 366, 71–76 (2019)

DJI Osmo Action vs GoPro Hero 8 Black: Which one is better?

GoPro has just launched its latest flagship Hero 8 Black action camera. It brings a number of design and stability improvements. GoPro is also targeting vloggers with the new action cam. It will be competing wnot only with GoPro’s older Hero 7 Black but also with the DJI Osmo Action, which was launched in May this year. Let’s check out how the GoPro Hero 8 Black stacks up against DJI Osmo Action.

DJI Osmo Action vs GoPro Hero 8 Black: Design

Both the action cameras have a similar design with similar dimensions and removable batteries. The DJI Osmo Action measures 65×42×35 mm and weighs 124g compared to the Hero 8 Black’s 66.3×48.6×28.4 mm and 126g.

The Osmo Action has a display on the front as well as back, which proves immensely helpful when framing shots or vlogging. The Hero 8 Black has only a rear display. The tiny screen on the front of the new Hero shows the current mode, the duration of the current clip, and the battery life. It doesn’t display a preview of the scene.

The Osmo Action has a 2.25-inch display on the back and a 1.4-inch on the front. The GoPro camera sports a 2-inch display on the rear.

The Osmo Action requires a frame if you want to place the camera on the mount. But the Hero 8 Black has a new design that allows you to mount it on any GoPro mount without having to attach a frame. It has built-in mounting ‘fingers’ at the bottom that slot into all GoPro mounts.

It also means the Hero 8 Black users can easily swap out the battery or remove the microSD card without having to remove the camera from the mount. The Hero 8 Black features a 1220mAh battery while the DJI cam gets a 1300mAh battery.

Both action cameras are water-resistant. The GoPro Hero 8 Black offers water-resistance up to a depth of 10 meters. DJI claims its camera is water-resistant up to 11 meters. Among other things, users can’t remove the lens cover on the Hero 8 Black. GoPro claims it has also made the glass twice as strong as the Hero 7 Black glass. If you like to use filters, you have to use an additional adapter.

Though the Hero 8 Black lacks a front display, it more than makes up for it with the newly announced Mods. The company announced a handful of new accessories that will turn your Hero 8 Black into a more professional vlogging camera. However, the Mods won’t be available until late 2020.

There will be a Display Mod that would offer a selfie screen; a Media Mod that would add an external microphone, a 3.5mm audio hack, a USB-C port, and an HDMI port; and a Light Mod that could be attached to the mount or the Media Mod to offer LED light. All three Mods can be used simultaneously.

Still photos

Most action camera users record adventure videos with their cameras. But some also use them for still photography. Both the Osmo Action and Hero 8 Black have 12-megapixel sensors for still photography. They can capture images in RAW format. Both of them support time-lapse, timed photos, and capture burst.

The DJI Osmo Action can take AEB pictures, but it doesn’t support HDR for still photos. The Hero 8 Black has a couple of new tricks to let you shoot still photos in extreme situations. They are the Live Burst mode and an improved Super Photo 2.0. The Super Photo 2.0 is a minor upgrade over GoPro’s HDR image processing.

The Live Burst mode captures 1.5 seconds of images before you press the shutter and 1.5 seconds after. It’s particularly useful when capturing unpredictable scenes. You can select the best still to save as a photo or save the whole 3-second clip.

Video shooting

Both action cams are capable of recording videos at different resolutions and frame rates. Both of them support video recording at 100 Mbps bitrate. The Osmo Action can record 4K videos at 60 fps, 4K HDR videos at 60fps, 4K at 30fps, 2.7K at 60fps, 2.7K HDR at 60fps, 2.7K at 30fps, 1080p at 240fps, 1080p HDR at 240fps, and 720p at 240fps.

The Hero 8 Black lets you shoot 4K videos at 60 fps, 4K at 30fps, 2.7K at 120fps, 2.7K at 60fps, 1440p at 120fps, and 1080p at 240fps.  The new Hero camera is capable of shooting 1080p super slow motion videos at 240fps. For live streaming, Hero 8 allows you to live stream footage at 1080p.

The GoPro camera has a bunch of view modes: Wide, SuperView, Linear, and Narrow. The DJI camera offers only a single wide field of view. The Osmo Action has a De-Warp feature that crops into the view and removes the fish-eye distortion of the wide-angle lens.

Both cameras have a time-lapse video mode, which compresses time by capturing frames at a much slower pace. The Hero 8 Black can slow down to one frame per 60 minutes, which means you need more than a day to shoot one second of video. The Osmo Action can be slowed down to one frame every 30 seconds.

The GoPro Hero 8 Black features a new wind-optimized microphone. It’s placed right below the lens. The California company has also added new audio processing algorithms to offer “high fidelity audio” in both quiet and loud settings by reducing the wind noise. The Osmo Action also records pretty good audio.

Footage stabilization

For stabilization, the DJI Osmo Action has the Chinese company’s RockSteady technology, which is pretty impressive. The Hero 8 Black features HyperSmooth 2.0 for superior stabilization in all shooting modes and resolutions. It works even when you are recording 1080p videos at 240fps. It also has a TimeWarp 2.0 technology, which adjusts the time-lapse speed depending on the camera movement.

The Hero 8 Black also has a new HyperSmooth Boost mode. It offers smoother, gimbal-like stabilization by cropping the frame slightly. It’s useful when you are shooting close-up vlogs or challenging actions.

Pricing

The DJI Osmo Action has been around for a few months. It’s officially priced at $379. But the camera is often available on sale for as low as $329. The Hero 8 Black has been priced at $399.

Conclusion

The Hero 8 Black is more expensive than the Osmo Action. They both have the same bitrate. If you are a vlogger or a price-conscious buyer, the DJI Osmo Action makes more sense because of its front and back display, and relatively lower price. Its low-light performance is also praiseworthy.

The Hero 8 Black would be a great camera for vloggers once the Mods hit the store shelves. But the Mods are about a year away.

Pakistan, China to advance military ties

(IANS) China’s Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang said on Tuesday that his country is willing to keep advancing the ties with Pakistan and between their militaries.

Xu made the remarks when meeting with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, who reached China ahead of an official visit by Prime Minister Imran Khan here, Xinhua news agency reported.

The friendship between the two countries has weathered the changing international landscape and stayed rock-solid, he said.

China is willing to implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, strengthen pragmatic cooperation with Pakistan in various fields and deal with risks and challenges together with Pakistan, according to Xu.

Bajwa delivered his congratulations on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and said the Pakistani military is willing to strengthen strategic communication and pragmatic cooperation with the Chinese military, so as to make contributions to safeguarding regional peace and stability.

Saudi Arabia assures world oil needs will be met

(IANS) The Council of Ministers on Tuesday reemphasized the Kingdom’s readiness to meet the world oil needs as the most reliable, safe and independent oil exporter of the world.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman chaired the weekly session of the Cabinet at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, the Saudi Gazette reported.

In a statement to the Saudi Press Agency following the session, Minister of Media Turki Al-Shabanah said the Cabinet noted the Kingdom’s assertion, during its participation in the Russian Energy Week held in Moscow, to meet the world oil demand, after exerting extraordinary efforts to restore its capability to supply markets within 72 hours, following the criminal attack on Saudi Aramco’s Khurais and Abqaiq plants.

“This strengthens the Kingdom’s efforts to establish relations with countries within and outside of OPEC to achieve permanent stability of oil markets; benefit producers, consumers, and the oil industry; attract investment and stabilize the financial system to enable the global economy to grow and prosper,” the statement said.

At the outset of the session, the King briefed the Cabinet on the outcome of the official talks held with President of the Sudanese Supreme Council General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Sudanese Prime Minister Dr. Abdulla Hamdok, highlighting the fraternal relations between the two countries and peoples and ways of enhancing and developing bilateral cooperation in various fields.

Al-Shabanah said the Cabinet reviewed the final statement of the fourth extraordinary meeting of the GCC Supreme Military Committee, at the level of chiefs of staff of the armed forces, which was held in Riyadh to discuss the current regional threats and situations, in order to achieve more joint GCC military coordination.

The talks stressed the readiness of the GCC armed forces to confront any terrorist threats or attacks, condemning the recent sabotage attacks in the Kingdom, violating the airspace of some GCC member states, in addition to attacks on oil tankers and threatening the freedom of maritime navigation.

The Cabinet was also briefed on the announcement of the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) about acceptance of the Kingdom’s nomination to the presidency of the International Union for the Protection of Industrial Property (Paris Union) by the General Assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Accordingly, the Kingdom will hold the presidency for a period of two years.

The minister also referred to the announcement of SAIP’s nomination to the vice-presidency of the International Patent Cooperation Union (PCT) comprising 152 countries, as well as the Kingdom’s success in nominations for permanent membership of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) during the 40th General Assembly session, saying that such moves embody the advanced global standard attained by the Kingdom, in these domains as well as the international reliability it has maintained.

Vision problems affect 2.2 billion people, warns WHO

(IANS) The World Health Organization’s first report on vision warns that the excessive time children spend indoors is linked to an increase in eye conditions such as myopia.

The report published on Tuesday has not linked these increasing problems directly to the use of smartphones or any other kind of screen, the Efe news reported.

The document, presented by Spanish doctor Alarcos Cieza, WHO coordinator of blindness and deafness prevention, revealed that 2.2 billion people around the world suffer from some kind of eye problem.

Ageing populations in many countries and inadequate access to ophthalmological care, especially in low-income countries, partly explain these numbers, but the increase has also been influenced by lifestyle changes like sedentarism.

“We must encourage children to spend more time outdoors, because this is not only associated with preventing obesity but also myopia,” Dr. Cieza told Efe.

However, neither she nor the report directly advised spending less time on computers, televisions, mobiles or other devices. The focus was put on “exercising more” and outdoor activities.

The report, Cieza said, was prepared as a response to the increase in the number of people with visual impairment, including those suffering from glaucoma, which nowadays affects 76 million people, a number that could increase to 95 million by 2030.

WHO also revealed that almost half of current vision problems could have been prevented and urged countries to include ophthalmological care within health care systems.

“It is unacceptable that 65 million people are blind or have impaired sight when their vision could have been corrected overnight with a cataract operation, or that over 800 million struggle in everyday activities because they lack access to a pair of glasses,” WHO director-general, Thedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.

According to the organization, a $14.3 billion investment in ophthalmological care is needed, especially in middle and low-income countries, a move that would end avoidable eye problems that affect one in seven people around the world.

The report emphasizes that vision problems are four times more likely to happen in developing countries in comparison to richer nations.

It also said that blindness reaches rates up to eight times higher in poor regions of the world.

Eating habits are also a factor, since, in type 2 diabetes, the number of retinopathy cases increases.

With age, the possibilities of eyesight worsening increase, but WHO warned that these should not be seen as irreparable old age problems.

“It is not necessary to accept the loss of vision as a natural consequence or part of the aging process, because with the appropriate treatment, there is no reason to develop a visual impairment,” Cieza said.

The report has been published ahead of World Vision Day on 10 October.

According to WHO experts, the organization wants the document to serve as a guideline for the next decade.

First mountain trekking training for locals held in Ladakh

(IANS) The first training for youth in the Ladakh region in various aspects of mountain trekking was organized by the government-run Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM), Gulmarg, in association with the Indian Institute of Travel and Tourism Management (IITTM), an autonomous body under the Union Tourism Ministry, an official statement said on Monday.

The 10-day adventure tourism training courses in trekking is designed to train local youth in various aspects of mountain trekking and gave them hands-on experience, a Tourism Ministry release said here.

According to the ministry, over 30 local youth enrolled in the first batch which started on September 24. Around 90 local youth will be trained in three batches which will be completed by October 12, 2019.

The trekking program starts with a briefing, after which participants cover places like Spithuk, Then, Zinchen, Rumbak, Stok la Base and Stock in 10 days and return to Leh thereafter.

“This training program is aimed at developing the basic skills of trekking in the youth who can later use these skills for becoming guides or entrepreneurs in future,” the statement said.

The Union Tourism Minister had visited the Leh region of Ladakh and nearby areas in September to initiate a dialogue with local stakeholders, following which the ministry decided to train local youth to help them gain expertise in the tourism sector.

Kerala kids initiated into world of letters

(IANS) Thousands of children were initiated into the world of letters, a tradition in Kerala on Vijaya Dashami, at functions held in temples, churches, clubs and media organizations here on Tuesday.

Earlier, this was basically a Hindu event as it takes place on Vijaya Dashami when thousands of elders both men and women help the tiny tots to write their first letter. But now, this has turned into more of an educational event than a religious one.

A mad rush was witnessed at the temples, clubs and media organizations, from early Tuesday morning onwards where parents mostly dressed in traditional Kerala attire, queued up with their children.

The child is made to sit on the lap of a ‘teacher’ who holds their hand to help them write Malayalam letters on a plate of rice.

While the Hindu children write “Hari Sree Ganapathaye Namaha”, Christians write “Sree Yesu Mishihaye Namaha”.

At the famed Mother of God Church, Vettukad, children belonging to various religions stand in a queue, waiting for their turn to sit on the lap of the priests to write their first letters.

And at most places, using a gold ring, the ‘teacher’ writes a Malayalam word on the child’s tongue.

Everything gets over in a matter of minutes and the final act is when the parents hand over an offering to the ‘teacher’ for their services rendered.

As always, the biggest crowd was witnessed at the Thunachan Paramabu near Thrissur which is considered as the home of Malayalam litterateur Thunchathu Ezhuthachan.

Another place where crowds gather is the famed Panachikkadu Temple dedicated to the Goddess Saraswati, situated in Panachikkad, Kottayam.

The day also saw candidates from all political parties turning ‘teachers’ to help the children write their first letters, including three candidates from the three major political parties fighting a tight poll battle at the Vattiyoorkavu Assembly by-election in the capital city.

The other prominent faces who turned a ‘teacher’ for the day included veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, former diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan and eminent oncologist V.P. Gangadharan.

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