Typical aerial photographs of the Amazon rainforest show a green expanse of trees so thick you can’t see ground. But the ones Ernesto Benavides captures are almost entirely brown, revealing a wasteland pocked by muddy, gaping holes where trees once fought for light.

Benavides’s images depict illegal gold mining camps inside the Tambopata National Reserve, a 1,061-square-mile park where more than 12,000 species of plants, insects, and animals make their home. Benavides photographs them from the open doors of helicopters manned by armed police. "From the air, you can see the whole ecosystem has been affected," he says. "It's sick."

Tens of thousands of miners operate thousands of small-scale settlements. They raze trees and create pit mines, using dredgers, pumps, and other machinery to extract the riches beneath the soil.

The consequences have been devastating: The Madre de Dios region of Peru, which includes Tambopata, has lost an estimated 148,000 acres of forest. Liquid mercury from the mining process also makes its way into the Madre de Dios River, poisoning tens of thousands of people living along it.

The rate of forest loss has more than quadrupled since 1999. Experts blame the soaring gold prices that followed the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the construction of the Interoceanic Highway, which allows prospectors to transport heavy equipment into the heart of the jungle.

The government does what it can to fight it. Since 2012, police have carried out hundreds of raids on the mining camps—more than 200 last year alone. They burn buildings and blow up millions of dollars worth of equipment, but the miners return. "This cancer is still growing, and the Amazon is really threatened by these gold fields," Benavides says.

Benavides lives in Lima, Peru's arid desert capital. He started visiting Madre de Dios a decade ago for various photographic assignments. But he never dared visit a gold mining camp until 2015, when Agence France-Presse sent him on a helicopter spin arranged by the Ministry of the Interior. It shocked him. "At the beginning you see a huge field of green," he says, "then suddenly it begins to appear: holes and mud, a man-made desert."

He has shadowed the police three more times on raids to La Pampa, the area inside Tambopata where the camps are located, and plans to go back. Benavides shoots out the helicopter’s open door, a strap holding him tight as he cranes his upper body far enough out to point his Nikon D4 straight down. It's loud and windy, requiring a shutter speed of 1/5000 to counter the camera shake. The scene below is often deserted, as the miners, on a tip, cleared out before they arrived.

His jaw-dropping images make the extent of the destruction clear. But it’s on the ground, when the wind from the chopper dies down and the heat of the place envelops him, that Benavides says he feels it most. "The jungle is hot, but you always have the shade of trees," he says. In this jungle, there are none.

While bald eagles aren’t an uncommon sight along the shorelines of Padilla Bay or throughout the region, at least one with unusual coloring has been spotted this summer in the Bay View area.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff believe the eagle — which has an almost white, marbled appearance — has genetic mutations that prevent it from developing the brown hues seen on other bald eagles.

These types of mostly white eagles, as well as eagles with spots of white, are called leucistic.

“The plumage of leucistic birds might be completely white, or the white might be distributed irregularly over the bird,” said Michael Green, deputy chief of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Migratory Birds & Habitat Program.

In the case of this eagle, a lack of pigmentation throughout the body and wings gives it “a frosted look,” he said after reviewing photos taken of the eagle along Bayview-Edison road.

Lance Douglas of Blakely Island has twice seen and photographed the eagle along the road, near the south end of the Padilla Bay Shore Trail.

He said both times he was driving along Bayview-Edison road when the eagle caught his attention.

“The closer I got the weirder it looked and it just didn’t look right,” Douglas said of the first time he saw it, perched on a telephone pole. “I slowed down, saw it, snapped a few pictures and said ‘Wow.’ It was very obviously just something different.”

A few days later, he saw it again, this time perched in a tree.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Douglas said. “I’ve been looking at eagles for 60 years and I’ve never had one that made me stop my car on the road.”

He said he guessed that the white head of the eagle indicates it’s an adult.

The experts at the federal Migratory Birds & Habitat Program agreed.

“It takes four years for bald eagles to grow in the white head and tail feathers typical of adults, and this bird’s white head and tail appear to be white by age,” Green said.

Because the typical brown pigmentation adds resilience to feathers, leucistic eagles are believed to be at a disadvantage for survival, Green said. But this eagle may have beaten the odds.

“I would say this bird has survived well despite its abnormal coloration,” he said.

Eagles and birds of other species have been noted with full or partial leucisism, but each can be different and interesting to see.

“Personally, I’ve never seen a bald eagle this light ... I would consider this a relatively rare sighting,” said Matthew Stuber, Pacific region eagle coordinator for the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Tim Manns of the Skagit Audubon Society said leucistic bald eagles have been seen in the area before.

“I know that leucistic bald eagles show up in Skagit County from time to time,” he said. “I recall seeing one 10 or so years ago around March Point, and that bird was being seen and noticed by a lot of people. I’ve heard of instances since then too.”

A spotted bald eagle also suspected of being leucisistic was documented near Bellingham in the winter of 2013, according to a National Geographic report.

The City of Somerville will observe “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” this year on what is traditionally Columbus Day, Mayor Joseph Curtatone announced Thursday.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Curtatone said the city will join other states and cities across the country that, on the second Monday in October, have recognized the native people who died following the European settlement of North America led by explorers like Christopher Columbus.

Columbus Day, established as a federal holiday in 1937 “with the best of intentions,” Curtatone notes, is an outdated and oversimplified view of history, he wrote.

“It’s been an issue we’ve given careful consideration, and many inside and outside our city have made compelling arguments for this change,” he wrote about the decision. “In fact, during the past year I received letters from East Somerville Community School students urging the change. One asked, ‘Why would we want to commemorate someone who slaughtered innocent people?’ Fair question, inescapable answer: we shouldn’t.”

Somerville’s discussion around the holiday extends back at least a few years.

An email sent by a local school principal to staff in 2011 about how to address multi-cultural perspectives surrounding fall holidays like Columbus Day given “the atrocities that Christopher Columbus committed” sparked controversy and made national news.

In Thursday’s Facebook post, Curtatone said that Columbus’s history should not be swept aside.

“Columbus participated in the early stages of what became a genocide,” he wrote. “On the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where Columbus established his first colony, chroniclers of that era detail enslavement, torture and dismemberment. Some natives had their hands chopped off when they didn’t produce enough gold. The cruelty he inflicted touched off mass suicides. Sadly, far greater numbers would die after that in the scouring of two continents lasting hundreds of years in which millions lost their lives.”

The change to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” is not an act of erasing history, but rather one that takes into account the whole picture with more respect “toward those to whom (history) was unkind,” he said.

“Observance of that loss and respect for the people who suffered it is not a lot to ask from those of us whose families migrated here in its wake,” Curtatone wrote. “By changing our customs around the holiday, we’re still saying we remember Columbus. We just don’t see that as cause to celebrate.”

Curtatone, whose parents were born in Italy, also touched on how fellow Italian-Americans view the Italian explorer with great pride.

But the decision to observe “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead of a holiday honoring Columbus was not a difficult one for him to make, he said.

“The only time Christopher Columbus’ name came up in our household was that my father sailed to the U.S. from Italy on a boat named Cristoforo Colombo, and I’ve never been in an Italian-American home (and I’ve been in a lot of them) where they had a crushed velvet or watercolor painting of Columbus hanging on the wall,” he wrote. “If you want talk about a name Italian-Americans speak with reverence, try Frank Sinatra.”


The Cherokee Nation sent an eight-man special operations water rescue team, boats, ATVs and its new search and rescue truck to North Carolina Thursday to help with potential relief efforts from Hurricane Florence rainfall.

The Cherokee Nation also has three emergency management team members in North Carolina.“The Cherokee Nation is not just going to sit idly by and say ‘poor them’,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said.

“The Cherokee Nation is fortunate to have the equipment, resources and trained marshals and emergency management staff capable of responding to any Type III FEMA disaster and search and rescue effort. Anytime we can help our family or any citizen, we’re going to pitch in and get there.”

The crew left Tahlequah Thursday for Cherokee, North Carolina. Although Hurricane Florence weakened to a Category II, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Incident Management Team in North Carolina expects widespread flooding over the weekend.

The Cherokee Nation is also taking its new one and a half ton turbo-charged search and rescue truck. The truck was purchased from a 2016 Tribal Homeland Security Grant but took one year to get specially built. The tribe just recently received the truck that will be used for rescue of citizens in flooding, tornados and other disaster sites.

“When we go to a natural disaster scene, we have to be completely self-sufficient,” Cherokee Nation Marshal Shannon Buhl said. “We never want to go into a community and pull resources, so we bring our own water, food, medical supplies and everything we need to sustain ourselves onsite for several days.”

The Cherokee Nation has sent its water rescue team to Houston for Hurricane Harvey and had teams previously in Florida, Moore and Joplin.

An animal shelter in the path of Hurricane Florence has warned it will euthanize animals if it can’t find people to adopt them before the storm hits.

Jewel Horton, manager of Pender County Animal Shelter in North Carolina, said on Wednesday that local government-run animal shelters were filling up fast and that those that hit capacity must “make space”.

This means putting down animals to reduce overcrowding. “We are avoiding euthanasia at all costs,” Ms Horton said. “That's why we're begging for assistance.” Organisations such as the Pender County Humane Society are helping to facilitate adoption and are working to clear space in the shelter without having to sacrifice any animals.

“For us, animals are more important than things,” said Julie Lamacchia, who is president of the Burgaw, North Carolina-based Humane Society. “Things can be replaced - anything can be replaced - but you can never replace a life, whether it's a person or an animal.”

Killing animals is the last thing the shelter staff want to do, Ms Horton said.

Usually, when the shelter in the town of about 4,100 people nears capacity, she gets the word out and residents respond. Samira Davis, a Wilmington resident, volunteered on Monday to help the Pender County Humane Society coordinate animal relocation. She said they've done a good job - for now.

“We've probably saved between 30 and 50 animals, but there are about to be so many more in need,” she said.

What's more, the local Humane Society is strapped for cash, and Ms Lamacchia worries that Hurricane Florence is going to further sap their resources.

“This storm is going to wipe us out,” she said. “If we don't get people to step up and foster and donate, it's really going to limit our efforts.”