Points of Progress: Conservation projects bear fruit, and more

Places where the world saw progress, for the June 8, 2020 Monitor Weekly.

1. United States

Nicholas Johnson was named Princeton’s valedictorian for the class of 2020, making him the first black student to earn the title in the university’s 274 years. Mr. Johnson’s senior thesis focused on solutions to decrease obesity in his home country, Canada. The valedictorian acknowledged that the opportunities, international internships, and cultural trips Princeton provided encouraged him to explore his interests. In 2017 the university launched its Princeton and Slavery Project to make available records and sources revealing the presence of slavery in the university’s history. “It feels empowering. Being Princeton’s first black valedictorian holds special significance to me particularly given Princeton’s historical ties to the institution of slavery,” said Mr. Johnson, who will begin his Ph.D. studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. (CNN, The New York Times)

Courtesy of Lisa Festa/Princeton University
Nicholas Johnson became the first black student to be named Princeton University’s valedictorian.

2. Rwanda

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In an international justice breakthrough, Rwandan genocide suspect Félicien Kabuga was arrested near Paris after 26 years on the run. In his first hearing on May 20, just four days after the arrest, Mr. Kabuga’s lawyer said his client wished to be tried in France, but the United Nations has already requested custody. The powerful Hutu businessman is accused of being the primary financier of the 1994 genocide, funding the militias that ultimately murdered 800,000 Tutsis and their moderate Hutu allies. He was also the part owner of a radio station that stoked ethnic hatred toward Rwanda’s Tutsis and advised listeners on how to kill them. “[This arrest] is an important step towards justice for hundreds of thousands of genocide victims,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Survivors can hope to see justice and suspects cannot expect to escape accountability.” (Reuters)

3. Britain

A wild white stork chick has hatched in West Sussex to parents that were bred in captivity and then released as part of a 100-bird rewilding project. This is Britain’s first wild white stork hatchling in centuries. White storks are monogamous creatures that have long symbolized fertility, and European folklore depicts storks delivering babies to human families. After monitoring the nest for more than a month, researchers spotted the mated pair casting away eggshells and regurgitating food for their offspring. The large social birds were once common in Sussex County, but conservationists believe they’ve been extinct in the wild in the British Isles since the 1600s or earlier. The White Stork Project aims to reintroduce at least 50 breeding pairs across southern England by 2030. (BBC, The White Stork Project)

Penny Green/Courtesy of The White Stork Project
These white stork chicks were born in southern England, part of a project to restore the wild population there.

4. Hungary

Hungary’s top court ruled May 12 that an elementary school in Gyöngyöspata had illegally segregated Roma students for years and awarded $310,000 in damages to the children’s families. There are approximately 700,000 Roma people living in Hungary, according to estimates from the Council of Europe, and many face disproportionate poverty, workplace prejudice, and even violence, say rights activists. Anti-Roma sentiment still runs high. Gyöngyöspata has long been a flashpoint for ethnic tension, and the nation’s supreme court decision to uphold an earlier ruling that the minority students “were unlawfully segregated and given substandard education” is a victory for Roma rights after centuries of discrimination. “For once we are not oppressed and the courts, even the supreme court, is on our side,” said Niki Csemer, a former student. (Reuters, Council of Europe)

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Nikolett Csemer and her husband, David Berki, are among those who will receive compensation for anti-Roma discrimination after Hungary’s top court ruled in their favor.

5. The Maldives

The Maldives moved up to 79th position from No. 120 in the World Press Freedom Index within two years, according to Reporters Without Borders. The Maldives experienced significant deterioration of press freedoms for five years under former President Abdulla Yameen, who came to power in 2013. The government widely used a draconian law on defamation, which tended to result in harassment of independent media outlets, and in 2018, police violence against journalists spiked, according to Reporters Without Borders. However, under the new government led by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who was elected in 2018, the law was repealed. The Maldives’ 19-rank climb on the World Press Freedom Index this year makes it the world’s second most improved, after regional neighbor Malaysia, which still ranks considerably lower on the list of 180 nations, at No. 101. (Maldives Times, Reporters Without Borders)


Scientists have mastered the use of frozen zoos – biobanks of species – to reproduce endangered amphibians. Olaf the toad is the first of its species to be born from previously frozen sperm. Although the idea of frozen zoos was introduced in the 1970s, development was limited by available technology. Today, scientists have successfully created biobanks of the frozen sperm and eggs of a number of species around the world and then used in vitro fertilization to reproduce them. But reproducing amphibians has proved more difficult. In addition, at least 41% of amphibians are at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “So that was an exciting first, to reintroduce genetic lines back into the population,” said Andy Kouba, an ecologist at Mississippi State University, one of many international scientists who worked on the project. (The Guardian)

Courtesy of the Fort Worth Zoo
The birth of Olaf using previously frozen sperm is a milestone in the conservation of endangered amphibians via biobanks.
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