WEEK IN REVIEW 17 November 2011

by by Stoni Tomson, Alex Ronan & Seth Kleinschmidt

Fight back app
Although today’s most popular smart phone app provides users with an arsenal of angry birds to battle apple-stealing pigs, it’s beginning to seem likely that the future of apps will address more serious concerns. This month, Whypoll, a not-for-profit “citizens’ networking group” that aims to facilitate greater civic engagement in India, will release the Fight Back App. The app is described on Whypoll’s website as “India’s first women’s safety SOS mobile application.”

For the price of 100 rupees, about $2, the app helps women report threats of harassment and violence by sending a text message with a GPS location to up to five pre-selected contacts, including the police. In an attempt to protect privacy, users may send these texts anonymously. In addition, users have the choice of allowing the app to send out instant alerts on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. While at first glance the ease with which one can make a report seems surprising, Whypoll co-founder Hindol Sengupta explains that “Women are harassed and molested everywhere on buses, at metro stations, in markets ... we believe this is Asia's first phone application aimed at making women safer."

Part of Whypoll’s “Safe in the City” campaign, the data from the SOS app alerts will be compiled in an online “(UN)SAFE Map of New Delhi” to create a living database of gender-related crimes. As certain places become clearly defined as high-risk areas, Whypoll will notify the police and the press so that “there is a permanent, sustained pressure on the system to solve problem areas,” according to the campaign website. This practice is consistent with Whypoll’s goals of “creating a feedback mechanism and research process between citizens and government.”
Within New Deli, one-fourth of all reported rapes in India are committed, according to statistics in the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2010 report. Moreover, many Indians believe that these numbers are low, based on high rates of underreported gender-related crime. For example, the National Commission for Women has recorded more than 500 complaints of harassment by women from Delhi so far this year that went unreported to police. The agency has also noted that complaints of police apathy were common. Enter Whypoll, which attempts to address the problem by allowing Fight Back App users to remain anonymous.

While the app is currently being tested by a small group of users, its effectiveness remains to be seen. Sengupta is hopeful but realistic about the app’s impact: “Fight Back is not a complete solution. It won’t solve the problem of violence against women per se. But we’re hoping ...that it will give us a clearer picture of the scope of the problem.” —ST

Santa, Jesus, Poseidon, and the devil walk into a bar. Or rather, a huge billboard. The American Atheist’s holiday MYTH campaign, launched on November 14, includes a sign above the Lincoln Tunnel, on the New Jersey Side, depicting the four figures with the accompanying message “37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them.”  Billboards will appear in several other locations nationwide, including Florida and Ohio. Photographs of a Poseidon statue, a figure in a suit and devil mask, a painting of Jesus and a Santa bookend the question “What myths do you see?” The “37 million” figure presumably refers the number of atheists in America, though this figure is difficult to confirm. A 2011 Gallup poll found that eight percent of Americans don’t believe in a god, putting the figure closer to 25,000,000.

Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, told Opposing Views that he hopes the group’s signs are “thought-provoking and spark plenty of conversation nationally.” In the same interview communications director Blair Scott insisted that the signs aren’t meant to offend people. However, he admitted, “When you question someone's long-held beliefs and doctrine, they are going to be immediately offended and be on the defensive; it's a known psychological phenomenon.” One Pastor told the Christian Post that the signs were “ignorant” since “only the most dense and simple-minded person would put [Jesus] in the same category as the other three. Clearly, even those who lack a personal commitment to Jesus recognize that there was in fact some historical figure [who went] by this name….”

The American Atheist’s first campaign, carried out last holiday season, was in response to the American Family Association and the Catholic League. According to Scott, such organizations reported a “War on Christmas.” In an announcement, Scott said, “we thought we would give them what they seemed to want and fired the first shot in the war on Christmas” with the billboards declaring “You Know It's A Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason.” The Catholic League retaliated with a billboard that read “You know it’s real. This season: Celebrate Jesus.” As for this year, Scott says, “to both groups we say, 'Happy Holidays!'" —AR

Poached out of existence
If you were thinking of visiting Africa sometime soon to take pictures of rhinos, be prepared to search long and hard. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global conservation organization and eco-watchdog group, reported last week that the Western Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) is officially extinct: none are alive in the wild, and none exist in captivity.

A few surviving Western Blacks persisted in Cameroon through the early 2000s, but the IUCN has given up hope that any remain alive.  Rampant poaching is the main cause of the Western Black Rhino’s slide into oblivion, so it is likely that illegal hunters finished off Cameroon’s last survivors.  An exhaustive search of the Western Black’s suspected habitat was performed in 2006, but no individuals were sighted and no tracks, dung, or other signs were found that would indicate a resident population of rhinos.  The absence of Western Blacks from zoos and preserves makes impossible any reintroduction through captive breeding.

According to the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), a rhino research and conservation group, Africa was home to roughly 65,000 Black Rhinos of all subspecies in the 1970s, but indiscriminate poaching dropped that figure to 2,300 in 1993. Black Rhinos, who take their name from the dark mud they wallow in, are massive creatures, standing around five feet tall and weighing up to one-and-a-half tons, but poachers are only interested in the animals’ horns.

TRAFFIC, an IUCN partner organization which monitors trade in wildlife products, reports that as of early November 341 rhinos have been killed by poachers in South Africa alone.  This figure surpasses the total numbers for the previous year, and is reflective of the thriving trade in black-market ivory. Many traditional Asian medicines, including supposed cancer cures, make use of rhino horn, and so African poaching provides a steady stream of illegal ivory that flows into China and Southeast Asia.

“There were very limited anti-poaching efforts in place to save the animals, and anyone caught poaching was not sentenced, hence no deterrents were in place,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, in a press release.

The most recent incarnation of the Red List also notes that Africa’s Northern White Rhino is Possibly Extinct in the Wild—a handful still survive in captivity—while Indonesia’s Javan rhino is now down to a rapidly-dwindling island population.  Just a few week weeks ago the World Wildlife Fund declared the Vietnam Javan rhino Extinct.

The IRF reports that there are around 3,600 of the three remaining subspecies of Africa’s Black Rhino, the majority of which are concentrated in Namibia and South Africa, where conservation has been moderately successful. White Rhinos are more numerous; around 11,300 are still in the wild, mostly in South Africa. The Northern White recently disappeared from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Garamba National Park, but the White Rhino is still the least-endangered of Africa’s population.

“In the case of both the Western Black Rhino and the Northern White Rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented,” said Simon Stewart, Chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission said, in the Red List announcement.

“These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve breeding performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction.” —SK