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Romania’s Health Care Exodus

Sonia Papiu started her first year of residency as a psychiatrist in the Romanian city of Cluj in January, but she plans to move abroad within the

year, seeking better learning opportunities and hospital conditions.

She will not be alone.

“I don’t think any of my colleagues are planning to stay,” she said. “I think I could learn more abroad. You have higher responsibilities as a resident there.”

In the Romanian system, doctors go through six years of medical school and then three to five years as a hospital resident, treating patients while working under the supervision of senior staff.

Finding a job abroad will be easy. Cluj, one of Romania’s largest cities and a university and business hub, hosts several agencies recruiting for western European hospitals.

Romania has bled out tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists since joining the European Union a decade ago, lured abroad by what the country lacks: significantly higher pay, modern infrastructure and functional healthcare systems. France, Germany and Britain are among the most popular destinations.

The consequences are dire. Romania is one of the EU states with the fewest doctors. Nearly a third of hospital positions are vacant and the health ministry estimates one in four Romanians has insufficient access to essential healthcare.

“Medical staff leaving Romania at an almost massive pace deepens the problems of the healthcare system,” former health minister Vlad Voiculescu has said. “Entire hospitals are facing a major personnel deficit and entire towns don’t have a family physician.”

This despite the fact that Romania is a leading EU state when it comes to the number of medical graduates. But the system — ridden with corruption, inefficiencies and politicized management — has been unable to motivate them to stay. The shortages are even starker in rural areas.

“Because we have one doctor per section for most specialties, when a doctor goes on holiday we need to close down the section,” said Cristian Vlad, the hospital manager in Viseul de Sus, a small town near the Ukrainian border.

Vlad said three hospitals in the region shared one anaesthetist until last year, when his hospital brought in another from neighboring Moldova.

“I live in hope that our resident doctors will change their mind and stay in smaller hospitals, too,” Vlad said.

Turning point

Romania is taking steps to address the issues. Pay has risen significantly, although it still does not measure up to western standards. The net average monthly wage for the healthcare system stood at 2,609 lei ($606) at the end of 2016, nearly double what it was three years ago.

In 2016, the health ministry created a multi-year plan for the medical profession, including a simpler recruitment process, education reform, better promotion opportunities, and subsidies for physicians willing to move to remote villages.

The strategy has yet to be approved by the two-month-old cabinet of Social Democrat Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.

“Measures to improve healthcare are in place, but the system suffers from inefficiencies, limited accessibility and corruption,” the European Commission said last month.

Yet not all doctors shy away from remote areas. From the village of Tureni, Andreea Kis has been serving as a family doctor for five villages for nearly five years.

“I chose to be a family doctor because this is compatible with family life,” said Kis, a mother of two. “People in the villages preserve their humanity better.”

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Colossus Probably Depicting Ramses II Found in Egypt

Archaeologists from Egypt and Germany have found a massive eight-meter statue submerged in ground water in a Cairo slum that they say probably depicts revered Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

The discovery, hailed by the Antiquities Ministry as one of the most important ever, was made near the ruins of Ramses II’s temple in the ancient city of Heliopolis, located in the eastern part of modern-day Cairo.

“Last Tuesday they called me to announce the big discovery of a colossus of a king, most probably Ramses II, made out of quartzite,” Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani told Reuters on Thursday at the site of the statue’s unveiling.

The most powerful and celebrated ruler of ancient Egypt, the pharaoh also known as Ramses the Great was the third of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt and ruled from 1279 to 1213 BCE. He led several military expeditions and expanded the Egyptian Empire to stretch from Syria in the east to Nubia in the south. His successors called him the “Great Ancestor.”

“We found the bust of the statue and the lower part of the head and now we removed the head and we found the crown and the right ear and a fragment of the right eye,” Anani said.

On Thursday, archaeologists, officials, local residents, and members of the news media looked on as a massive forklift pulled the statue’s head out of the water

The joint Egyptian-German expedition also found the upper part of a life-sized limestone statue of Pharaoh Seti II, Ramses II’s grandson, that is 80 centimeters long.

The sun temple in Heliopolis was founded by Ramses II, lending weight to the likelihood the statue is of him, archaeologists say.

It was one of the largest temples in Egypt, almost double the size of Luxor’s Karnak, but was destroyed in Greco-Roman times. Many of its obelisks were moved to Alexandria or to Europe and stones from the site were looted and used for building as Cairo developed.

Experts will now attempt to extract the remaining pieces of both statues before restoring them. If they are successful and the colossus is proven to depict Ramses II, it will be moved to the entrance of the Grand Egyptian Museum, set to open in 2018.

The discovery was made in the working class area of Matariya, among unfinished buildings and mud roads.

Dietrich Raue, head of the expedition’s German team, told Reuters that ancient Egyptians believed Heliopolis was the place where the sun god lives, meaning it was off-limits for any royal residences.

“The sun god created the world in Heliopolis, in Matariya. That’s what I always tell the people here when they say is there anything important. According to the pharaonic belief, the world was created in Matariya,” Raue said.

“That means everything had to be built here. Statues, temples, obelisks, everything. But … the king never lived in Matariya, because it was the sun god living here.”

The find could be a boon for Egypt’s tourism industry, which has suffered many setbacks since the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but remains a vital source of foreign currency. The number of tourists visiting Egypt slumped to 9.8 million in 2011 from more than 14.7 million in 2010.

A bomb attack that brought down a Russian plane carrying 224 people from a Red Sea resort in October 2015 further hit arrivals, which dropped to 1.2 million in the first quarter of 2016 from 2.2 million a year earlier.

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Apple’s Siri Learns Shanghainese as Voice Assistants Race to Cover Languages

With the broad release of Google Assistant last week, the voice-assistant wars are in full swing, with Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft and now Alphabet’s Google all offering electronic assistants to take your commands.

Siri is the oldest of the bunch, and researchers including Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, said Apple has squandered its lead when it comes to understanding speech and answering questions.

But there is at least one thing Siri can do that the other assistants cannot: speak 21 languages localized for 36 countries, a very important capability in a smartphone market where most sales are outside the United States.

Microsoft Cortana, by contrast, has eight languages tailored for 13 countries. Google’s Assistant, which began in its Pixel phone but has moved to other Android devices, speaks four languages. Amazon’s Alexa features only English and German. Siri will even soon start to learn Shanghainese, a special dialect of Wu Chinese spoken only around Shanghai.

The language issue shows the type of hurdle that digital assistants still need to clear if they are to become ubiquitous tools for operating smartphones and other devices.

Speaking languages natively is complicated for any assistant. If someone asks for a football score in Britain, for example, even though the language is English, the assistant must know to say “two-nil” instead of “two-nothing.”

At Microsoft, an editorial team of 29 people works to customize Cortana for local markets. In Mexico, for example, a published children’s book author writes Cortana’s lines to stand out from other Spanish-speaking countries.

“They really pride themselves on what’s truly Mexican. [Cortana] has a lot of answers that are clever and funny and have to do with what it means to be Mexican,” said Jonathan Foster, who heads the team of writers at Microsoft.

Google and Amazon said they plan to bring more languages to their assistants but declined to comment further.

At Apple, the company starts working on a new language by bringing in humans to read passages in a range of accents and dialects, which are then transcribed by hand so the computer has an exact representation of the spoken text to learn from, said Alex Acero, head of the speech team at Apple. Apple also captures a range of sounds in a variety of voices. From there,

an acoustic model is built that tries to predict words sequences.

Then Apple deploys “dictation mode,” its text-to-speech translator, in the new language, Acero said. When customers use dictation mode, Apple captures a small percentage of the audio recordings and makes them anonymous. The recordings, complete with background noise and mumbled words, are transcribed by humans, a process that helps cut the speech recognition error

rate in half.

After enough data has been gathered and a voice actor has been recorded to play Siri in a new language, Siri is released with answers to what Apple estimates will be the most common questions, Acero said. Once released, Siri learns more about what real-world users ask and is updated every two weeks with more tweaks.

But script-writing does not scale, said Charles Jolley, creator of an intelligent assistant named Ozlo. “You can’t hire enough writers to come up with the system you’d need in every language. You have to synthesize the answers,” he said. That is years off, he said.

The founders of Viv, a startup founded by Siri’s original creators that Samsung acquired last year, is working on just that.

“Viv was built to specifically address the scaling issue for intelligent assistants,” said Dag Kittlaus, the CEO and co-founder of Viv. “The only way to leapfrog today’s limited functionality versions is to open the system up and let the

world teach them.”

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Solar Energy Station to Power Hawaiian Island

One of Hawaii’s islands may soon be powered by solar energy, at least during the night.

In the biggest project since it acquired the solar cell giant SolarCity, the Tesla company will build a 13-megawatt solar farm on the island of Kauai, covering more than 44 acres (18 hectares). The solar cells will charge a 53-megawatt hour battery station able to provide most of the island’s power at night.

The batteries, called Powerpacks, will be built by Tesla’s new Gigafactory.

Right now, Kauai residents are paying very high prices for energy, so the plan is to gradually transition to renewable sources, including wind and biomass.

Kauai plans to generate 70 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030 and to completely wean itself from fossil-generated electricity by 2045.

Tesla says that once it’s in full production, the Kauai solar energy plant will lower the fossil fuel burn by over 6,000 metric tons a year.

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Doctors Tie Zika Virus to Heart Problems in Some Adults

For the first time, doctors have tied infection with the Zika virus to possible new heart problems in adults.

The evidence so far is only in eight people in Venezuela, and is not enough to prove a link. It’s also too soon to know how often this might be happening. The biggest trouble the mosquito-borne virus has been causing is for pregnant women and their fetuses.

“I think as awareness increases, the cases will start to show up more,” said Dr. Karina Gonzalez Carta, a Mayo Clinic research fellow working in Venezuela who investigated the heart cases.

She discussed them on an American College of Cardiology press call, ahead of a presentation Saturday at the group’s meeting in Washington.

Many people infected with Zika will have no or only mild symptoms, such as fever, aches, an itchy rash or red eyes. But the virus has caused an epidemic of birth defects in the Caribbean and South America, notably babies with abnormally small heads and brains.

A report last June in the International Journal of Cardiology describes heart problems that have been seen from other viruses spread by mosquitoes, such as West Nile and ones that cause yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya.

Doctors have been watching for the same from Zika, and “we were surprised at the severity of the findings” in the Venezuela cases, Carta said.

She studied nine patients, ages 30 to 64, treated at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Caracas who developed heart symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue an average of 10 days after typical Zika symptoms began.

Only one had any prior heart-related problem – high blood pressure that was under control with medications – and all had lab tests confirming Zika infection. They were given extensive heart tests and were studied for an average of six months, starting last July.

Eight of the nine developed a dangerous heart rhythm problem, and six of the nine developed heart failure, which occurs when a weakened heart can’t pump enough blood.

Doctors don’t know if these problems will be permanent. So far, they haven’t gone away although medicines have improved how patients feel.

“This is the first time we’ve considered that cardiovascular disease may be associated with Zika,” and people who travel to or live in places where Zika is spreading need to watch for possible symptoms, said Dr. Martha Gulati, cardiology chief at the University of Arizona-Phoenix who is familiar with the results.

Zika infections have been reported in more than 5,000 people in the United States, mostly travelers. After a big outbreak in Brazil in 2015, Zika spread throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. The virus also spread locally in parts of southern Florida and Texas last year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned pregnant women to avoid travel to Zika zones and to use bug spray and other measures to prevent bites.

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It Might Be Possible to Grow Potatoes on Mars

When humans finally land on Mars one of the first dishes made of locally grown vegetables may be the universally popular French fries.

Researchers from the International Potato Center and the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru, say potatoes could grow in Martian soil, if they are given certain nutrients and water.

Researchers successfully grew potatoes in soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Peru, which they say is the closest chemically to the dry Martian soil.

 

Helped by scientists from NASA Ames Research Center, they built a special chamber closely mimicking the Martian temperature, air pressure, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

The most promising results have come from a variety of potato specially bred for extreme soil and climate conditions on Earth.

The new experiments were started on February 14 and can be viewed on potatoes.space/mars.

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Indian Campaigners Use Comics to Raise Trafficking Awareness

Since January of this year, thousands of school children in India’s northeastern state of Assam have pored over an illustrated story of how two young girls from a relief camp were lured by a man who told them of the good life they could lead in a big city, home to swanky buildings and flashy cars. It sounded attractive to the poor youngsters who could only visualize a bleak life ahead.

Fortunately spotted by a policeman as they waited for the man at a railway station to head to the city, the story goes on to relate what their future could have been like when they were sold to work as poorly paid domestic employees, sex workers or laborers.

The comic in the Assamese language aims to raise awareness among children about trafficking rings that lure young girls and boys from villages into India’s booming cities with the promise of good jobs.

The most vulnerable to human traffickers are states such as Assam, where a violent ethnic conflict has displaced many families, and the country’s poorer, underdeveloped states such as West Bengal, Telengana, and Andhra Pradesh.

As child rights campaigners stress prevention as key to addressing the problem, comic books have emerged as an effective tool to empower children to protect themselves in these areas. Children being sold accounted for nearly half of the human trafficking cases in India in 2015.

“There are more colors, more expressions, its an effective means of communication, especially for children,” says Miguel Queah at Assam-based non-profit Utsah, who wrote the story and helps organize reading sessions in vulnerable and displaced communities such as relief camps, children’s homes and government schools in Assam. “Children love reading the stories, discussing among their friends, we could see that response taking place” he says.

Orders to print more comics have gone out with the initial stock of 800 copies having run out and there is a proposal to incorporate it in school curriculums.

The non-profit My Choices Foundation began reaching out to rural communities a little over a year ago with its comic book, The Light of Safe Villages to educate children about threats such as trafficking and other social problems such as child marriage.

Hannah Norling who heads communications at the My Choices Foundation is confident that the colorful books and simple stories in local languages are effectively spreading the message of how traffickers trap young children. “We are in the right place,” she said.

It is distributed to students across more than 500 Indian villages.

She points out that while it is sometimes difficult to reach out to parents, who are busy working, children are more of a captive audience and the idea was to give them an illustrated book that could serve as a complete educational tool which they could share with their parents.

“We had to leave something behind that would be a long term reminder. If something happens a year from now, a physical frame of reference for them to revert back to ‘OK now what do I do?” said Norling.

One of the stories in the comic is of a guardian girl on a mission to save others and another of a vigilant boy.

Growing awareness among children has made them more alert to threats from traffickers and some have reported to village council or others if they noticed a friend missing, according to Norling. She said that helped in the rescue of three girls in the past year who had left their village.

The comic book initiative is among several efforts to prevent trafficking in rural areas. One of them by Save the Children spreads the message in local communities through children who have been rescued.

India honored a woman on Wednesday when 21-year-old Anoyara Khatun, who was trafficked from West Bengal state, received the “Women Power” award from the president for stopping hundreds of other children from being forced into labor or married off.

Khatun was brought to Delhi when she was 12 years old and forced to work as a house maid, but managed to escape after six months. With the help of child rights advocates, she returned home and is part of a network of children’s groups in 80 villages where young people are taught about their rights.

Manab Ray at Save the Children in New Delhi points out that once trafficking has happened, there is little that can be done to help the victims, so the key is to stop it in villages. And at the heart of the effort to engage local communities are the children themselves. “Children we found are the best informers, in terms of knowing the issues, because they face it themselves, they can have the natural ability of identifying the traffickers and all,” said Ray.

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China Seeking International Law for State Control of Internet

China is seeking an international agreement to enhance state control over the internet in order to fight cyberattacks and cyberterrorism. Beijing wants to extend the existing idea of sovereignty over land and sea to cyberspace.

Beijing has released its first white paper discussing how it will persuade different countries to join together in an international partnership. The idea is to enhance the power of individual governments over cyberspace and reduce the role of the private sector.

“Countries in the whole world have increasing concerns [about cyberattacks] in this regard. Cyberspace should not be a space of no laws,” Long Zhou, coordinator of the Cyber Affairs division of the Foreign Ministry said last week while releasing copies of “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace,” China’s first policy paper on the issue.

Censorship

Analysts see it as a grandiose plan to extend the Chinese idea of censorship across large parts of the world. China has been criticized in developed countries for controlling the internet with a heavy hand and not allowing Google, Facebook, Twitter and many foreign news websites to be seen in China.

The first set of organizations that will be hit, if the Chinese campaign gains momentum, are American companies that play a dominant role in the internet space, analysts said.

“The inventors of cyberspace were idealistically and ideologically convinced that they had created a domain of perfect freedom, where anyone could gain entry and behave as if no laws existed,” Sheila Jasanoff, director of the program on science, technology and society at Harvard University’s Kennedy School told VOA.

“It has been interesting to see how this allegedly wide open and free space has gradually been ‘written over’ with all the markers of national sovereignty and rivalry,” she said.

Russian role in U.S. polls

China is taking advantage of the uproar in the United States over alleged cyberattacks by Russia to interfere in the recent presidential election.

Asked about the alleged Russian interference, Long said, “Especially in recent years, the number of cybersecurity events throughout the world is increasing, posing challenges to all countries’ efforts to maintain political, economic stability and protecting all citizens’ rights and interests.”

Lee Branstetter, an associate professor of economics at the Heinz School of Policy and Management of the Carnegie Mellon University, saw the situation differently. 

“The China solution is a proposal to create huge barriers to the free flow of information across borders. It is hard to see how a global digital economy could function under such a regime,” he said.

Beijing action plan

China is trying to persuade world governments and international agencies, including the United Nations, to accept the principal of “cyber sovereignty” that allows each country to govern the internet in the manner it wants without interference from other governments. Long said the concept of land and sea sovereignty, which is recognized by the U.N., should be extended to the cyber world because the problems and situations are similar.

He said the international community is discussing the need to “produce new international legal instruments to deal with the security situation in cyberspace.” These situations include cyberterror or cross-boundary cybercrimes.

China plans to raise the issue at different international forums including U.N. agencies, the BRICS group — for Brazil, Russia, India and China — and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Chinese endeavor has the support of Russia, which will join in the campaign for making international rules on cyberspace, Long said at a recent news conference.

Jasanoff is skeptical of the Chinese rationale.

“There is good reason to believe that China will do more to limit the freedom of information of its citizens than to ensure its own security with regard to things like critical infrastructure,” she said. “The most effective firewall will likely be against the creation of domestic networks of civilian information exchange and protest.”

Assertions of cybersovereignty from China and elsewhere are happening at a time when national sovereignty is in decline for many reasons, not least because the technological capability for both creating and breaking through security systems is highly dispersed, she said.

“Hackers for hire are distributed throughout the world, and recent experiences at all kinds of major institutions shows that hardly any are free from threats (and even the reality) of cyberattacks,” Jasanoff said.

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On Channel 972, Viewers Become Show Hosts

Senior citizens who move to Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, Maryland, have a chance to start new careers in television. No matter what they did before retiring, they’re encouraged to participate in creating a range of programs broadcast on channel 972, a closed circuit 24-hour TV station. Their active participation benefits them and their community.

Accepting aging

Retired physician Stephen Schimpff is one of the residents-turned-TV-stars at Charlestown. He hosts two shows, Megatrends in Medicine and Aging Gracefully. Both deal with nutrition and lifestyle.

“It’s not giving medical advice on a problem,” he said. “I clearly avoid doing that. I say to people, if you have a problem go to the health center and see your doctor. But we deal with issues about aging. How our bodies age, the actual physiology of it, some of the mechanisms, and how we can affect that. We can affect it with our lifestyle. How can we increase the quality of food and reduce stress? What type of exercise do we really need? We’ve been also asked about supplements, should we be taking vitamins?”

Schimpff says the biggest issue about aging for most people is accepting it.

“If I go look in a mirror, I see a person who is older than I think I am. I say, ‘Gosh, when did he get older?’ because I don’t feel old. It is a thing about accepting, but not in a negative way, in a very positive way. We’re all getting older, everyone does. How can we make the best use of that time?”

Seeing themselves on TV

Community TV manager Tom Moore says viewers like Schimpff’s shows because they see themselves in it. That’s also the case with the other shows hosted by residents.

“When I have residents involved in TV production,” he said, “it truly becomes public TV because they can voice things from their perspective, which myself and the staff may not be able to adequately do.”

Residents participate in reading announcement and the daily newscasts. They are creating shows that cover a wide variety of topics, from history and careers to fitness and hobbies.

“We have shows that talk about residents and their pets,” Moore said. “We can easily highlight residents’ pets, but we also want to talk about how to take care of a pet as you get older, both the pet and ourselves, to take care of a pet while living in a community with 2,000 people. We do a program that looks at people’s apartments. People love to go behind the doors of other people’s homes and see what’s in there. We have programs where we interview our residents and staff. We do garden tours because the residents have their own gardens here, whether it’s outside of their patios of their apartments. Or we have a public space where you can grow gardens, where if you want to grow vegetables, you can do that. So we tour those gardens with that resident and show people what the gardens look like and give them some gardening tips also.”

Exploring the world

The environment at Charlestown invites new show ideas.

“We’re open to almost everything,” Moore said. “So if a resident comes to me and says, ‘You should do a program about something,’ I will often say, ‘Will you help me with that?’”

That’s what happened when Eugenia High, a former social worker, moved to the community a couple of years ago.

“I told him that travel is my passion,” she said. “That’s when he said, ‘Well, maybe you might want to use a video camera to record some of your trips and you could share it with other residents here.’”

So she learned to use a video camera. On each trip, High explores on a certain theme. On her recent trip to Iceland, for example, she focused on nature, while in Mongolia, she was attracted to culture and traditions.

“We went to one place in Iceland where the tectonic plates come together. And we were able to look down that reef and it was scary. In Mongolia, we visited a school or a cultural center where they teach children about traditional values and culture, like dancing and playing music on traditional instruments.”

High is now preparing to host another show that’s also about traveling.

“What I will be doing is interviewing residents who have gone on different trips, and I’ll be asking them questions about maybe why they chose that trip? What happened during the trip?”

Active retirement

Shortly after the Charlestown Retirement Community was founded in 1983, the directors launched the closed circuit TV station, hoping to connect residents. The television channel has evolved over the years and became more popular when residents started to volunteer to help with its programming. The community’s executive director, Clara Parker, says Channel 972 reflects what active retirement can be.

“Retirement living here is not a place where you come and be taken care of, it’s a place to come and live and thrive,” Parker said. “We do have residents who are homebound and can’t get out. So the TV is a way for them to be part of the community, to engage with their neighbors, to experience from a peer’s perspective what’s going on and it makes it relatable for them.”

That’s how Channel 972 keeps the community connected and helps the residents stay active and creative.

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In Surreal Wilderness, National Parks Visitor Travels Back in Time

Driving through the ancient swamplands of the Big Cypress National Preserve in southern Florida made national parks traveler Mikah Meyer feel like he was in another world.

Ghostly landscape

“Because it was so early, it was super foggy,” he said. “We couldn’t see more than 20- 30 feet in front of us and it was just this ethereal, misty experience.”

“At one point we came up against a controlled burn site, so you have these tall trees that were green at the top but then underneath, everything was charred and… it was straight out of a Star Wars movie…I was just waiting for the Ewoks to appear!”

 

Mikah – who’s on a mission to visit all of the more than 400 National Park sites – had just been to Florida’s famous Everglades National Park, so it was natural for him to want to visit the neighboring preserve. “It was on the same road as I took to go to the Everglades — Highway 41. The Everglades was on the south side; the Big Cypress National Preserve on the right side.”

Western Everglades

“A far less popular park than the Everglades, Big Cypress is a lot more wild,” Mikah noted. The huge cypress swamp, most of which is in Big Cypress National Preserve, is dominated by bald cypress trees that grow in water, which create surreal scenes that are enhanced by fog and smoke.

Wonder what it’s like to ride on a swamp buggy? Hop on with Mikah and his friends to find out!

His guide, Ozzie Gonzalez from Everglades Nature Tours, drove Mikah and his travel companion, Andy Waldron, through the ghostly environment on a swamp buggy, a vehicle that’s specially designed to navigate the area’s rough and muddy terrain. “It had these monster truck wheels that were only four-pounds pressure, and that’s basically because you’re going over so many rocks and so many holes that it’s needed to be light pressure so that the vehicle doesn’t break,” Mikah explained.

Big Cypress was actually the first national preserve in the National Park Service, established in 1974. It owes that distinction to a massive community effort. “It was both industry and conservationists, along with hunters and Native people who use this land for their own recreational purposes,” Mikah noted, “so it was a real group effort to make sure that it remained in ways that helped everybody.”

Freshwater to the sea

The primary reason the preserve was created was to protect its freshwater’s natural flow into the neighboring Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands, and help support the rich marine estuaries along Florida’s southwest coast.

“It helps protect the watershed,” Mikah said. “So the water that comes down from Lake Okeechobee, today only 25% of it flows to the Everglades as it did historically. So by having the preserve north of the Everglades, it helps protect the water that comes down into the Everglades…and is the drinking water for half of the people that live in Florida – so over 10 million people — so that’s important.”

Plentiful pythons

Protecting nearly 300,000 hectares of this vast swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve comprises a combination of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife. That includes the elusive Florida panther, and in more recent years, Burmese pythons, one of the largest snake species on Earth.

The invasive snakes have been turning up in and around Big Cypress National Preserve and are now known to be breeding in the preserve and spreading throughout south Florida.

Mikah said that back in the ‘70s, having exotic pets was a trend. “People would purchase pythons as little, one-foot long baby snakes, which would eventually grow to over 10 feet and you’d have to feed them a pig a week…so all these people were just taking them to the Everglades and Big Cypress and dumping them in nature.”

Now they’ve reproduced, “and have basically taken over the place to the point that some naturalists think there will come a point when they will have eaten all of the other species and at that point they’ll start to cannibalize each other,” he said.

Big Cypress National Preserve is working with other government agencies to control the growing Burmese python population and address other invasive species. On its website, the National Park Service notes that the reptiles “serve as a painful reminder of just how dangerous invasive species can be.”

Stepping back in time

About 130 kilometers west of Miami, far from the bright lights and bustle of city life, the national parks and preserved spaces in south Florida — and the wildlife they support — are also a reminder of what protection can offer… a chance for visitors from around the world to explore a special and fragile place that remains untouched by civilization.

“It was so interesting to be in south Florida because I think when we hear south Florida, we just think of nightclubs on Miami Beach,” Mikah said. “But in reality, the vast majority of the land is made up of Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve and so it’s important to remember that these two National Park Service sites represent what Florida looked like before human interaction.

“So if you want to step back in time, this is a place you can do it.”

Mikah invites you to learn more about his travels in Florida and all across America by visiting his website, Facebook and Instagram.

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