Imagine a Forbidden Area, left to slumber for 100 years, in which lies a ‘Fairytale Valley’,“where diamonds were once so common they could be picked up in handfuls as they gleamed in the light of the moon.”
“The most unspoiled large plot of land left on the planet, and the only arid biodiversity hotspot.” A unique wilderness almost the size of Belgium, of “towering dunes, sea cliffs, soaring inselbergs¹, panoramic views, lonely gravel plains, the fourth largest meteorite crater in the world, and mass flowerings that follow spring rains.”A dramatic landscape of desert, grassland, coast and mountains.
This is the Sperrgebiet National Park. The park surrounding a diamond mine is an industrial exclusion zone where Nature holds sway.
(More about the Sperrgebiet shortly)
We humans have found a million ways to deface the planet. Our expanding cities devour the land, we crisscross it with highways, we strip away forests, and crush it under factories, we gauge out mines. We disfigure it with scars of a magnitude visible from space.
But do our worst, we cannot keep unstoppable Nature at bay forever. And when large industrial complexes for example, set up heavily protected security zones around them to keep unauthorised humans out, Nature seizes the slightest of chances to move right on in. Her healing hands transfigure what we have blighted into havens pulsing with life. Life finds a way to flourish in the most unlikely of places. Not least in industrial exclusion zones.
Introducing the Industrial Exclusion Zones
Possibly the most infamous of them all – the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
In 1986, the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded and deadly radiation spread for hundreds of miles in smoke and dust, air and water. Every human being was evacuated from within a 30 km radius of the plant, and forbidden to return. An exclusion zone of 4000 km² was created. Fences and radiation warning signs were erected.
But wildlife is no respecter of fences and doesn’t read signs.
CEZ fence and wild dog inside the zone
30 years after the event, John Wendle made a visit to the CEZ for the National Geographic magazine, and wrote of finding “the tracks of wolf, moose, deer, badger, and horses. I counted scores of birds: ravens, songbirds, three kinds of birds of prey, and dozens of swans paddling in the radioactive cooling pond.”
And Ukrainian scientist Sergey Gaschak confirmed, “We have all large mammals: red deer, roe deer, wild boar, moose, bison, brown bear, lynx, wolves, two species of hare, beaver, otter, badger, some martins, some mink, and polecats.” And a score of other mammals including bats, as well as ten or more species of big birds: hawks, eagles, owls, storks, and swans. What a wealth of wildlife!
That was 2015. Now a bang-up-to-date 2019 study agrees – wildlife is abundant in the CEZ. Nature is thriving. Nature has taken over. Because we are not there.
“In the exclusion zone, humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.”
But the CEZ may be shrinking. Professor Jim Smith from Portsmouth University has been monitoring its radiation levels since 1990. In the outer regions of the CEZ radiation levels are lower than we would get flying on a plane or having a CT scan. And lower than the natural background radiation in many other parts of the world. In the decades to come, as people start to move back into the zone, what will happen to the fabulous wealth of wildlife that has so flourished in their absence?
Even in active industrial installations Nature finds a way
The Secunda Synfuels Operations plant, South Africa
The securely-fenced compound of the Secunda Synfuels Operations plant has become an unexpected haven for servals. The servals have found Secunda’s exclusion zone such a great place to live that the ratio of serval numbers to area is “far greater than any other site on record across the entire range of the species.”
Happily for the servals, the compound intended to keep people out, encircles a large area of wetland. Wetland means a plentiful supply of rodents, and no prizes for guessing servals’ favourite food!
There is little more commercially valuable and well-protected than diamonds. The Jwaneng diamond mine produces 11 million carats of diamonds per year, making it the richest diamond mine in the world. To get those precious stones, nearly 47 million tons of rock and ore are dug out every year. That is one big ugly scar on the face of the planet.
But the Jwaneng exclusion zone also encompasses the Jwana Game Park, home to the globally threatened lappet-faced vulture. Red hartebeest, impala, springbok, steenbok, duiker, wildebeest, gemsbok (oryx) kudu, eland, giraffe, zebra, warthog, baboon, cheetah, ostrich, leopard, caracal, and many other smaller animals are thriving in Jwana.
Venetia, South Africa
The Venetia diamond mine tells a similar story. South Africa’s biggest producer of diamonds, Venetia’s exclusion zone, all 360 km² of it, became the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, notable for those most ancient of trees, the baobabs.
Three of the ‘big five’, lion, elephant and leopard live there in safety, as well as “a broad array of large mammals such as African wild dogs, and cheetahs”.
Humans out, wildlife in.
Now to the Sperrgebiet, Namibia
German speakers will know that ‘Sperrgebiet’ means ‘Forbidden Area’. It lies within what was in 1908 – when diamonds were first discovered there – the colony of German South West Africa. The Forbidden Area, closed to the public for a century is now a national park extending over 26,000km². A national park with a difference, since nearly all of it is still forbidden to visitors. Though to this day diamonds continue to be mined there on a small-scale ,“the habitat is largely untouched and pristine.” It is a true wilderness.
Ancient signs still remain: “Warning. Penalty £500. Or One Year’s Imprisonment. The Public Is Warned Against Entering The Prohibited Area.”
“Exclusion of humans has helped preserve the natural biodiversity of the region which is now a hot-spot for exotic flora and fauna. The Sperrgebiet has more biodiversity than anywhere else in Namibia, supporting animals such as the gemsbok, springbok, and brown hyena, and bird species such as the African oystercatcher, the black-headed canary, and the dune lark. Some 600,000 Cape fur seals live here, representing 50 percent of the world’s seal population.”
80 terrestrial mammal species have been recorded there, and reptile species are abundant.
The Succulent Karoo holds the world’s richest flora of succulent plants, with one-third of the world’s approximately 10,000 succulent species
40% of its succulent plants are endemic to the Karoo
With 630 recorded species, the region is also exceptionally rich in geophytes²,
284 of the Sperrgebiet’s plants are on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species
The Sperrgebiet is in the world’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots. Man out, Nature in with a vengeance!
The problem is of course that where there are wonders of Nature, people want to see them for themselves. In 2007 the park management were “plotting ecologically sensitive guided driving and hiking trails. Given the importance, but also the fragility, of this ecosystem, tourism planning must out of necessity be carefully and sensitively addressed. Some areas with a high endemicity and range-restricted species are to be designated as Strict Nature Reserves and will never be generally accessible. Other areas will have access limited to visitors on foot, horse or camel back.”
Fine words, and let us hope they will always be born out on the ground³. Otherwise the Sperrgebiet may not remain the forbidden, undisturbed paradise it has been for so long.
But let’s end on an up note. I love this story – Elephant seals reclaim Drake’s Beach in California during the US government shut down. No heavy industry here, but normally lots of humans, including the 85-strong staff of Point Reyes National Seashore. The government shutdown left only 12 staff there, not enough to shake blue tarps to frighten the seals away as they normally would. Every cloud, as they say …
“In January 2019, elephant seals occupied the section of Drakes Beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, and, at times, the parking lot and wooden ramps leading up to the visitor center”.The elephant seals – nearly 100 of them – are mostly females with their pups, but there are a few males too.
When the seals showed up, staff promptly closed off the entire area to the public. Now they are experimenting with weekend opening of a small part of the car park, just enough for 20 cars, for supervised viewing only. If the scheme is a success, weekend viewings will continue until early April when the pups will be weaned and the seals will move on.
Drake’s Beach is a far cry from Chernobyl – or Secunda and the diamond mines if it comes to that. But the moral of the story in all cases is the same:
In the words of Point Reyes’ chief seashore wildlife ecologist Dave Press,
“If you just get out of the way, wildlife will find its way in.”
Never a truer word.
¹Inselbergs are rock hills/mountains that arise steeply from a surrounding plain. Inselberg translates as ‘island mountain’.
²Most geophytes are plants that store water and carbohydrates underground – think tuber or rhizome such as the ginger we buy in a store. This underground organ helps them to withstand extremes of temperature and drought and protects them from grazing animals.
³Nowadays there is a strictly controlled guided day tour to Pomona, a ghost town abandoned at the end of the diamond rush, and the famous Bogenfels, a 55 metre high arch of rock on the Sperrgebiet’s Atlantic coast.
Want to pull out all the stops for your Valentine today? Looking for tips to impress? Well, you may want to think more than twice before emulating any of these strange critters.
American burying beetles, for example, have a freaky take on romance. The male beetle’s way of getting ready for love is unique. No bunches of red roses for his beloved. What he likes to sniff out for her is a nicely rotting corpse. And why not. It seems he can smell a carcass (small mammal or bird) from miles away – well, at least two miles, which is still pretty impressive. And by the way, isn’t he a handsome guy? Who could resist him.
He uses the ‘scent’ to lure the female to the spot and together they go to town ripping fur (or feathers) from the cadaver. Then they roll what’s left into a ball, ‘seasoning’ it with their oral and anal secretions. Eek.
The next step is equally macabre. They bury the carcass ‘ball’ in a grave lined with its own fur or feathers. Once the task is completed, it’s ‘down to business’. Finally, the now fertilised eggs are deposited in a tunnel right next to the grave. When the baby burying beetles hatch there’s a tasty ‘well-seasoned’ corpse right there for them to feast on. Go beetles!
Love Among the Ratites (nothing to do with rats)
The biggest birds in the world and flightless to boot, they make for “stellar dads and unusual lovers”. Ratites are the emus, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwis and rheas.
All male ratites (with the exception of the ostriches) are super-dads. They both incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks after they are hatched.
But what comes before the egg? What about the big birds’ love life? Very unusually in birds, ratites have penises, “really dense, collagenous penises” that they push out of their body cavity to mate. Truly. What can I say.
For dodgy doings and trickery we enter the world of the arachnid. A certain S. American spider gift-wraps in his silk the tasty prey he’s captured, before offering it to his beloved. But who knows what’s really inside that silk parcel? This gent is prone to giving in to his greed and presenting his sweetheart with an offering that is, yes indeed, beautifully wrapped. But when she tears off the layers in excitement, she discovers she’s been conned. All that’s inside are the inedible bits, worthless remains – damning evidence of his gluttony and lack of self-control. What a cheapskate.
You’ll Want for Nothing, Darling
No such scamming for this pretty little songbird. His modus operandi is 100% above board. Everything he has to offer he puts on conspicuous display to catch the eye of passing females. But don’t be deceived by those cute looks, this little avian has a startlingly macabre side. His love gift is a well-stocked ‘larder’… of corpses. If you’re ever in Scandinavia and stumble across a spiky bush gruesomely adorned with the carcasses of insects, frogs, toads, fish, lizards, mice, voles, stoats, bats or maybe even other birds , all brutally skewered on its thorns, you’ll know ‘the butcher bird’ is not far away.
I Made it Myself
How about a delicious ball of spit? And not just any old ball of spit. The male scorpion fly (so called because his tail-end, actually his genitalia, resembles a scorpion’s sting) offers his girl a ball a whole tenth of his body-weight in spit. That’s an impressive amount of spit. If the protein-rich saliva wins her over, she eats it, and the deal is sealed.
Still, a ball of spit is one up on the ball of something else the dung beetle has to offer. I think I’ll pass, thanks.
Though we all long to feel the warm glow of basking in our Valentine’s love, there are times one might be better off alone. Watch the peacock spider pulling his best moves to woo his very irritable-looking beloved.
Oh dear. Well that didn’t quite go to plan, did it? Looks like she’s not the romantic kind.
Happily Not All Animal Courtships End That Way
Though some might seem like a fate worse than death! Take the Golden Shower of the male porcupine for example. The Golden Shower is not as it sounds, some priceless treasure Mr P bestows upon his princess. Or may be it is. You be the judge. The ‘Golden Shower’, a vital part of porcupine courtship, is an explosive jet of urine with which he drenches his lady. Apparently it encourages her to ovulate. There have to be kinder ways!
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
‘Devil Ray Ballet’ (Photo: Duncan Murrell/Ocean Art)
Duncan Murrell’s photograph of three giant devil rays took home Best in Show. Murrell captured the photograph of “spinetail devil rays, (Mobula japanica) engaged in rarely observed or photographed courtship behaviour with two males pursuing one female.” The shot was taken in Honda Bay on the Province of Palawan in the Philippines.
Encounter with humpback whale (Photo François Baelen)
“This unique encounter happened in September 2018 in Reunion Island (Western Indian Ocean) where the humpback whales come here to breed and give birth. The mother was resting 15 meters down, while her calf was enjoying his new human friends.
“Trust : this is what came to my mind, when this close to 30 ton-animal, still hunted today by mankind, allowed me to freedive behind her and take that shot.
“From down there, everything seemed unreal: that huge tail centimeters away from me, the calf, my friend free diving symmetrically. I knew I would not get a shot like this one again.” — François Baelen
Enope squid (Photo: Jeff Milisen/Ocean Art)
“At around 3 inches in length, it was easily the largest and prettiest sharp-eared enope squid I recall finding.
“Soon the animal fled down, so I followed. We descended past forty feet, fifty feet, sixty feet while I continued watching, studying, and shooting. At eighty feet the kraken’s dancing and squirming still entranced me. Finally, at ninety feet deep, it was time to leave my new little friend at peace.” — Jeff Milisen
‘Inside the Eggs’ (Photo: Flavio Vailati/Ocean Art)
“During a dive in Anilao, Philippines I found this nudibranch and I waited for the best time to make this shot.” — Flavio Vailati
‘So Hairy Flames’ (Photo: Edison So/Ocean Art)
“Hairy shrimp have always been one of my favourite subjects, due to the variety of colors and types of similar species of shrimps. Shooting a hairy shrimp is also a challenging task due to its tiny size and nature. They like to hop from one place to another while photographers try to photograph it. Great patience is needed to wait for the perfect moment to press the shutter, the environment, the background, the composition, and of course, the focus on the subject.” — Edison So
Giant manta (Photo: Alvin Cheung/Ocean Art)
“Another diver, Marissa, was a few meters away from me and behind her was the landmark pinnacle of El Boiler. Visibility was crystal. I thought Marissa, together with the structure of the pinnacle, might be able to create an interesting background showing both the location of the dive site and the scale of the giant manta. With luck, the manta approached Marissa for an investigation. Hence this photo.” — Alvin Cheung
Pod (Photo: Eugene Kitsios/Ocean Art)
“Before you enter the water with a pod of dolphins, you never know what the interaction will be like. Sometimes you may have a great encounter, where the dolphins will curiously swim around you or show you some kind of playful behaviour. Other times they may leave you without interest. The best way to interact with them is to let them decide. Times where you are accepted by the pod are truly a magical experience. These intelligent creatures display so much interesting behaviour and in this case they playfully and curiously swimmed by me.” — Eugene Kitsios
‘3 Baby Seahorses’ (Photo: Steven Walsh/Ocean Art)
“I started diving in March 2017. I instantly fell in love with the underwater world and I started taking a camera on dives in December 2017. I had no photography experience above or below water (smart phone aside), but the many challenges and creative opportunities involved make the steep learning curve enjoyable.
“Each spring a unique event occurs at Blairgowrie Pier, in Victoria, Australia. In the cool 15°C water, Big-belly seahorse fry appear in large numbers. They cling to loose sea grass and weeds near the water’s surface, where they hunt in the shelter of the pier. This particular photo is the outcome of 4 hours of diving between night shifts as a firefighter.” – Steven Walsh
‘My Babies’ (Photo: Fabrice Dudenhofer/Ocean Art)
“I have been fortunate enough to have a Japanese guide who showed me a couple of clownfishes with their baby eggs. I never had the chance to shoot this type of interaction before so it was a big challenge for me. The adults swam endlessly around the eggs in order to oxygen them. Because of their endless movements it was difficult to get the perfect moment. To achieve the perfect shot I needed patience and a big part of luck. The guide and I stayed more than half an hour and I took more than 50 photos. I really wanted to show how some parent fishes cared for their babies. In this regard these clown fishes are not so different from us.” — Fabrice Dudenhofer
‘Cannibal Crab’ (Photo: PT Hirschfield/Ocean Art)
“Each year I eagerly await the return of the spider crabs en masse as they gather to shed their old shells, presumably finding ‘safety in numbers’ from predators such as stingrays, angel sharks and octopuses as they all moult in close proximity together. In reality, the most fierce predator of spider crabs is other spider crabs. I have occasionally seen them ‘on the march’ prior to settling to moult the old brown shells they have outgrown, snacking on another crab’s leg as they wander with thousands of others in massive circles around and beneath the pier. Once the crabs have moulted, they become extremely vulnerable as it takes approximately three days for their new, orange shell to harden. Often they climb the pylons of the pier, hoping the height will keep them out of predators’ reach. Some survive the ordeal of the moult only to become an instant soft-shelled meal for another hungry animal. I stumbled across this harrowing sight which I both filmed and photographed a ravenous unmoulted spider crab, fiercely feasting upon a freshly moulted crab. It dug its claws deeply into its victim’s back, pinning it down before transferring the fresh threads of still living crab meat into its merciless mouth. Between bites, the Cannibal Crab and its hapless victim stared back into my lens — one seeming defiant but justified by its need to feed, the other in all the resigned pathos of the final miserable moments of its life. The survival rate of crabs after they moult is quite low as the hundreds of thousands who have gathered steadily reduce to those lucky hundreds who will live long enough for their shells to harden before heading back out into the depths of the bay before the cycle continues the following year.” — PT Hirschfield
“This is my first time to meet jellyfish in Taiwan NorthEast Coast for shore dive! When I did night dive in 2018 summer time, I saw this beautiful jellyfish dancing in the dark! I followed her for a while and took many shots when she transformed into different shape. Suddenly, my diving buddy who is also my husband, Stan Chen, was so creative and used his torch to make the backlight for this unique jellyfish. In order to make good shots, we followed her over 1 mile and against the current. When we finished the dive, it’s already sunrise time at 5:30 am but we made it! We got the beautiful pose for the dancing jellyfish with an unique spotlight!” — Melody Chuang
‘Disco Nudi’ (Photo: Bruno Van Saen/Ocean Art)
“I was trying to create an image right out of the camera using special own-made backgrounds. But at the end, it was the photoshop filter ‘swirl’ which helped me a lot to end up with this creative image.” — Bruno Van Saen
‘Hairy Shrimp’ (Photo: Sejung Jang/Ocean Art)
“Before this trip, hairy shrimp were on my wish list. Fortunately my dive guide found it for me and my friends. It was my first time to see red hairy shrimp. It’s not easy to take photos of it, because it jumps a lot. After this photo, my camera didn’t work at all. I’m so lucky at least this nice shot came out of it!!!” — Sejung Jang
‘Chimaera’ (Photo: Claudio Zori/Ocean Art)
“The spotted rat fish, a resident of the northeastern part of the Pacific Ocean, usually lives between 50 and 400 meters and prefers temperatures no higher than 9 degrees. However, it tends to approach in shallow water during the spring and fall. While swimming, it can perform rotations and twists as if it were flying. The photo was taken in a night dive in front of God’s Pocket dive resort.” — Claudio Zori
‘Mangrove’ (Photo: Yen-Yi Lee/Ocean Art)
“A beautiful soft coral anchors and grows on mangrove roots. Two remote strobes were used to highlight the details of mangrove roots in the background, which also provided water surface reflection.” — Yen-Yi Lee
‘Grey Seal Face’ (Photo: Greg Lecoeur/Ocean Art)
Can’t you just feel the photographers’ excitement at managing to capture these awesome images! These are a reminder of what we look to lose if we don’t act in time to save them.
If you haven’t already, take Conservation International’s pledge to be a #VoiceForThePlanet #NewDealForNature
Wow, these images are beyond stunning, aren’t they? How lucky are we to have these super-talented photographers capture for us the kind of close encounters most of us would never have the good fortune to witness in person – breathtaking, touching, awe-inspiring, and tragic. What a wondrous place is the Planet Earth we share.
Curious Encounter (Photo: Cristobal Serrano/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Any close encounter with an animal in the vast wilderness of Antarctica happens by chance, so Cristobal was thrilled by this spontaneous meeting with a crabeater seal off of Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula. These curious creatures are protected and, with few predators, thrive,” Serrano wrote in his submission for his photo seen above.
This year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition held by the Natural History Museum in London selected a group of images for its annual LUMIX People’s Choice Award. More than 45,000 entries were submitted from professional and amateur photographers from 95 countries, and the selections have been narrowed down to 25 entries.
“The images showcase wildlife photography as an art form, whilst challenging us to consider our place in the natural world, and our responsibility to protect”
the museum’s organisers wrote in a press release.
Last year’s People’s Choice Award winner captured a particularly poignant and compelling moment when a female lowland gorilla lovingly embraced a man who had rescued her from poachers who wanted to sell her for bushmeat.
In its 54th year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the oldest competition of its kind. “Inspiring audiences to connect with the natural world is at the heart of what we do as a Museum, and that’s why we’re so proud to run this competition. The LUMIX People’s Choice Award is special to us because it gives the public the chance to choose the winner, and I’m looking forward to seeing which of these beautiful photographs emerges as the favourite,” wrote Ian Owens, director of science at the Natural History Museum and member of the judging panel.
To help you choose your favourite, we present all 25 entries, with information about how each photographer captured the image.
Family Portrait (Photo: Connor Stefanison,/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A great grey owl and her chicks sit in their nest in the broken top of a Douglas fir tree in Kamloops, Canada. They looked towards Connor only twice as he watched them during the nesting season from a tree hide 50 feet (15 meters) up.” — Connor Stefanison, Canada
Bond of Brothers (Photo: David Lloyd/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“These two adult males, probably brothers, greeted and rubbed faces for 30 seconds before settling down. Most people never have the opportunity to witness such animal sentience, and David was honored to have experienced and captured such a moment.” — David Lloyd, New Zealand/United Kingdom
Painted Waterfall (Photo: Eduardo Blanco Mendizabal/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“When the sun beams through a hole in the rock at the foot of the La Foradada waterfall, Catalonia, Spain, it creates a beautiful pool of light. The rays appear to paint the spray of the waterfall and create a truly magical picture.” — Eduardo Blanco Mendizabal, Spain
Under the Snow (Photo: Audren Morel/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Unafraid of the snowy blizzard, this squirrel came to visit Audren as he was taking photographs of birds in the small Jura village of Les Fourgs, France. Impressed by the squirrel’s endurance, he made it the subject of the shoot.” — Audren Morel, France
One Toy, Three Dogs (Photo: Bence Mate/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“While adult African wild dogs are merciless killers, their pups are extremely cute and play all day long. Bence photographed these brothers in Mkuze, South Africa – they all wanted to play with the leg of an impala and were trying to drag it in three different directions!” — Bence Mate, Hungary
Sound Asleep (Photo: Tony Wu/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“This adult humpback whale balanced in mid-water, headon and sound asleep was photographed in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga. The faint stream of bubbles, visible at the top, is coming from the whale’s two blowholes and was, in this instance, indicative of an extremely relaxed state.” — Tony Wu, United States
Three Kings (Photo: Wim Van Den Heever/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Wim came across these king penguins on a beach in the Falkland Islands just as the sun was rising. They were caught up in a fascinating mating behaviour – the two males were constantly moving around the female using their flippers to fend the other off.” — Wim Van Den Heever, South Africa
Teenager (Photo: Franco Banfi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Franco was free diving off Dominica in the Caribbean Sea when he witnessed this young male sperm whale trying to copulate with a female. Unfortunately for him her calf was always in the way and the frisky male had to continually chase off the troublesome calf.” — Franco Banfi, Switzerland
Red, Silver and Black (Photo: Tin Man Lee/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Tin was fortunate enough to be told about a fox den in Washington State, North America, which was home to a family of red, black and silver foxes. After days of waiting for good weather he was finally rewarded with this touching moment.” — Tin Man Lee, United States
The Extraction (Photo: Konstantin Shatenev/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Every winter, hundreds of Steller’s sea eagles migrate from Russia, to the relatively ice-free northeastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan. They hunt for fish among the ices floes and also scavenge, following the fishing boats to feed on any discards. Konstantin took his
Otherwordly (Photo: Franco Banfi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A school of Munk’s devil ray were feeding on plankton at night off the coast of Isla Espíritu Santo in Baja California, Mexico. Franco used the underwater lights from his boat and a long exposure to create this otherworldly image.” — Franco Banfi, Switzerland
The Orphaned Beaver (Photo: Suzi Eszterhas/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A one-month-old orphaned North American beaver kit is held by a caretaker at the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, Washington. Luckily it was paired with a female beaver who took on the role of mother and they were later released into the wild.” — Suzi Eszterhas, United States
The Bat’s Wake (Photo: Antonio Leiva Sanchez/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“After several months of field research into a little colony of greater mouse-eared bats in Sucs, Lleida, Spain, Antonio managed to capture this bat mid-flight. He used a technique of high speed photography with flashes combined with continuous light to create the ‘wake’.” — Antonio Leiva Sanchez, Spain
Unique Bill (Photo: Rob Blanken/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The pied avocet has a unique and delicate bill, which it sweeps like a scythe, as it sifts for food in shallow brackish water. This stunning portrait was taken from a hide in the northern province of Friesland in The Netherlands.” — Rob Blanken, The Netherlands
Gliding (Photo: Christian Viz/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“With conditions of perfect visibility and beautiful sunlight, Christian took this portrait of a nurse shark gliding through the ocean off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas. Typically these sharks are found near sandy bottoms where they rest, so it’s rare to see them swimming.” — Christian Vizl, Mexico
A Polar Bear’s Struggle (Photo: Justin Hofman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Justin’s whole body pained as he watched this starving polar bear at an abandoned hunter’s camp, in the Canadian Arctic, slowly heave itself up to standing. With little, and thinning, ice to move around on, the bear is unable to search for food.” — Justin Hofman, United States
Shy (Photo: Pedro Carrillo/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The mesmerizing pattern of a beaded sand anemone beautifully frames a juvenile Clarkii clownfish in Lembeh strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Known as a ‘nursery’ anemone, it is often a temporary home for young clownfish until they find a more suitable host anemone for adulthood.” — Pedro Carrillo
Fox Meets Fox (Photo: Matthew Maran/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Matthew has been photographing foxes close to his home in north London for over a year and ever since spotting this street art had dreamt of capturing this image. After countless hours and many failed attempts, his persistence paid off.” — Matthew Maran, United Kingdom
Resting Mountain Gorilla (Photo: David Lloyd/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The baby gorilla clung to its mother whilst keeping a curious eye on David. He had been trekking in South Bwindi, Uganda, when he came across the whole family. [As he was] following them, they then stopped in a small clearing to relax and groom each other.” — David Lloyd, New Zealand/United Kingdom
Clam Close-up (Photo: David Barrio/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“This macro-shot of an iridescent clam was taken in the Southern Red Sea, Marsa Alam, Egypt. These clams spend their lives embedded amongst stony corals, where they nest and grow. It took David some time to approach the clam, fearing it would sense his movements and snap shut!” — David Barrio, Spain
Isolated (Photo: Anna Henly/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Snapped from a helicopter, this isolated tree stands in a cultivated field on the edge of a tropical forest on Kauai, Hawaii. The manmade straight lines of the ploughed furrows are interrupted beautifully by nature’s more unruly wild pattern of tree branches.” — Anna Henly, United Kingdom
All That Remains (Photo: Phil Jones/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A male orca had beached itself about a week before Phil’s visit to Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. Despite its huge size the shifting sands had almost covered the whole carcass and scavengers, such as this striated caracara, had started to move in.” — Phil Jones, United Kingdom
Ambush (Photo: Federico Veronesi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“On a hot morning at the Chitake Springs, in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, Federico watched as an old lioness descended from the top of the riverbank. She’d been lying in wait to ambush any passing animals visiting a nearby waterhole further along the riverbed.” – Federico Veronesi, Kenya
Ice and Water (Photo: Audun Lie Dahl/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The Bråsvellbreen glacier moves southwards from one of the ice caps covering the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway. Where it meets the sea, the glacier wall is so high that only the waterfalls are visible, so Audun used a drone to capture this unique perspective.” — Audun Lie Dahl, Norway
These are the 25 images from the Natural History Museum of London contest showcasing animals and landscapes in the running for the People’s Choice Award. To cast your vote, click here, and then on an individual image, and follow the prompts there. Voting is open until Feb. 5, and all images are currently on display at the Natural History Museum of London.
Update 14th February 2019 The winner of the People’s Choice Award is David Lloyd with his ‘Bond of Brothers’, the lions. (Coincidentally, the one I voted for!)
And clink on this link for the heart-melting pic that was People’s Choice last year:
If you are anything like me, you will find yourself hiding your head in your hands under the daily barrage of dismal news about the state of the planet. If it’s making you feel depressed, helpless and hopeless, please don’t switch off just yet. We have the antidote – a big dollop of good news from the WILD Foundation to re-invigorate and re-empower us. And a challenge.
Passionate people and conservation organisations are changing the world. All they need is for us to play our parts in “the biodiversity revolution” they are creating. There is good news. There is hope. But burying our heads in our hands is not an option. We need the courage to stare in the face the destination we are headed towards if we fail to take action now.
What we stand to lose
Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson writes in his 2016 book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life” of “the complexity, beauty and majesty of Nature” in which “each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.”These myriad marvels – from axolotl to armadillo, humming bird to hippo, parrot to pangolin, tawny owl to tiger, walrus to wolf, not to mention plant life – are what we stand to lose in this age of the Anthropocene, the 6th age of mass extinction caused entirely by the activities of Man.
Yet our species recklessly continues to suffocate the earth under a toxic blanket of new farms, dams, factories and housing that obliterate vital habitat, polluting land, sea and air in the process. And simultaneously persists in giving free rein to our own population growth, and the callous annihilation of non-human animals.
Wilson asks,“What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply?”
We are, he says, “a danger to ourselves and the rest of life…. the most destructive but unrepentant species in Earth’s history.”
Who can argue with that?
The Age of Loneliness
If we continue on this catastrophic course, the only wild animals left on the sublime planet thronging with life we inherited, will be rats, pigeons and jellyfish. We may of course still have our domesticated plants and animals, but what small comfort for the 4 million dazzling species we look to lose in the next 30 years if we carry on as we are.
We will have entered the Eremocine, the Age of Loneliness. A conquered planet almost devoid of natural life. What a terrifying prospect.
“Our relationship with this planet is badly broken. We need a new story about how we live here. We need a new relationship with the Earth that is thoughtful and balanced.”
– James Brundige, conservationist and wildlife film-maker.
Nature Needs Half
Thoughtful, balanced yes, and bold. Professor Wilson wants to steer us off the road that leads inexorably towards that unthinkable Age of Loneliness, and take a new direction – nothing less than giving over entirely to Nature free from the injurious activity of humans, half the planet. A full 50% of land and sea. And to prove his bold vision is not simply words on a page, ink on paper, he set up the Half-Earth Project: “With science at its core and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart, the Half-Earth Project is working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.”
So, an entire half the planet for Nature – great idea, but is it translatable into real life? Or is it just a comforting fantasy?
“When it was first launched, this idea didn’t go over so well… Although many conservation leaders admitted to personally supporting the half goal, they believed that publicly aligning themselves with half would ruin their credibility.”
If Nature Needs Half was first mooted a whole 9 years ago, what’s been happening since?
Though his widely read book, “Half Earth” came some years after NNH, what Harvard naturalist E.O.Wilson did achieve through his legendary status, was to lend the Half Earth proposal real credibility and clout. Now “the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Cristiana Pasca Palmer, is calling for ambitious actions in advance of the 2020 CBD in Beijing, China. At the same time, many of the world’s most prestigious conservation organizations are in the process of creating a groundbreaking ‘Global Deal for Nature’“, to go hand in hand with the Paris Climate Agreement.
But hasn’t the last decade seen more loss of vital biodiverse habitat? Aren’t we already too late?
There are currently across the world 161,000 protected reserves and parks making up somewhere in the region of 15% of Earth’s land area. 15% is still a shortfall from 17%, the unduly modest target the Convention on Biological Diversity originally agreed back in 1992. And of that 15%, a third is inadequately protected and under intense pressure from human activity, leaving a mere 10% properly set aside for Nature.
10%, 15%, 17% – still a long way short of WILD’s and Wilson’s ambitious vision for half the planet. 50%, isn’t more than that gone already?
Well, here comes even better news –
No, we still have half left! We can do this.
There still remains enough wilderness as yet untouched by human blight. And if we can send spacecraft to distant planets, surely we can save our own. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished when we pull together. The trick is to get people on board, and that is exactly what Nature Needs Half is doing. Year on year NNH brings more people and organisations under its umbrella, creating an ever-growing world wide web of conservation partners which include Wilderness Foundation Global, Rewilding Earth, Rewilding Europe, National Geographic, London Zoological Society, Sanctuary Asia, Coalition WILD, Wild Wonders of China, Google Earth Outreach, the Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation, and more.
And now hopefully, us.
Here are just a few of Nature Needs Half network’s achievements in 2018 –
1. Digital Earth
This year, National Geographic’s chief scientist, Jonathan Baillie co-authored “Space for Naturewhich argues the case for achieving 30% of land and ocean protected by 2030, 50% by 2050.
Under the auspices of NNH, that revered institution National Geographic has joined forces with another colossus on the world stage, Google, to devise a failsafe way of getting world leaders on board with those literally life-saving objectives. With NatGeo’s unsurpassable knowledge on the ground and Google’s tech expertise, together they are creating a public-access four-dimensional digital Earth.
“This living rendition of the globe will allow users to monitor the world’s species and ecosystems over time, understand threats to the natural world and realize solutions to help achieve a planet in balance.” – Partners’ press release.
It’s hoped that imaging change across the planet in real time will have a much greater impact on national governments and their citizens than pages of dry statistics. Seeing is believing.
Under the NNH umbrella, NatGeo is also working with the Nature Conservancy,and the Wyss Foundation which has pledged a staggering $1 billion to help meet the 2030 targets. Good news indeed!
China, that world super-power we most often associate with rapid industrialisation, pollution and environmental degradation, recently made a massively significant u-turn, pronouncing itself in 2015 the ecological civilization of the 21st century¹
Why is this so important? Because:-
China is home to 20% of the world’s population
China is the world’s second largest economy
China’s current and future ecological footprint is enormous
China is in the top 3 most biodiverse countries
China has committed to the most ambitious goals and environmental policiesof all the major nations on earth
This year, Nature Needs Half partners collaborated in a peer-reviewed article introducing the half-Earth vision to this country of 1.3 billion people. And again, we’re not just talking academic ink on paper. The article details the practical steps China can take to reach the goal of 50% for Nature in the next 30 year. The message reached more than 50,000 Chinese movers-and-shakers, academics, land managers, and land management professionals.
WILD and the Wilderness Specialist Group of the IUCN have also joined forces with Professor Yang Rui, expert in wilderness protection. “There are few if any professionals in China whose resumé commands the recognition and respect his does, with literally dozens of major planning, policy, and research projects to protect wild nature.” This hugely influential man, both in and outside China, is the recently appointed president of Tsinghua University’s brand new Institute for National Parks, and has wasted no time in putting forward six major suggestions to put wilderness at the heart of the chain of national parks China has in the making.
3. Securing last strongholds of critically endangered species
“Nature Needs Half partner, the Quick Response Biodiversity Fund, with the help of a major grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation², secured 13 sites around the world for rare and critically endangered species. Many of these sites are the last stronghold for some of Earth’s most unique and vulnerable lifeforms.”
The Half Earth movement is gathering momentum. There is good news. There is hope.
Now, at the turning of the year, NNH partner and conservationist James Brundige throws down this challenge before us –
“The time is now. Nature Needs Half. And Nature needs you!“
What better way to start 2019 than by committing to Saving Half for Nature. Nature will richly reward us.
1 You can be part of this amazing work for the planet by becoming a WILD member here
6 Send your political representatives the Grow Green report, or if in the UK contact your MP here about the Grow Green campaign to transition unsustainable livestock farming to plant protein farming. And share with your friends
¹ In 2015 “The [Chinese] Congress clearly stated that China must incorporate the idea of ecological civilization into all aspects of economic, political, cultural, and social progress. Actions and activities relating to China’s geographical space, industrial structures, modes of production and people’s living should all be conducive to conserving resources and protecting the environment so as to create a sound working and living environment for the Chinese people and make contributions to global ecological safety.” UN Environment Our Planet
² “With contributions from scientists and partners around the world, One Earth, an initiative of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF), has developed a bold, new plan to avert a climate crisis and protect our biosphere. Justin Winters, LDF’s Executive Director, explains the three goals humanity needs to achieve by 2050: our energy systems to 100% clean, renewable energy; , connect and restore 50% of our lands and seas; and to regenerative, carbon-negative agriculture globally. At the heart of this effort is a new map of the world called the Global Safety Net, which shows what the world could look like if we achieve these three goals.”
Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation Executive Director Justin Winters on One Earth below
James Brundige”s TedEx talk on Nature Needs Half in this video
Cover photo: Overall winner Mary McGowan ‘Caught in the Act’ (Photo: Mary McGowan/Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards) Mary also won the Affinity Photo People’s Choice Award and Alex Walker’s Serian Creatures of the Land Award.
What can I say – enjoy!
‘While these images are downright humorous, the competition highlights the serious issue of conservation and partners with Born Free Foundation, a wildlife charity that works to help wild animals living in captivity.
‘The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards encourages its followers to follow their mantra. “We want you to take up our banner of wildlife conservation, bang the drum, beat the cymbal and make some noise, we need to spread the word – wildlife, as we know it, is in danger, all over the world and we need to do something to help save it.”‘ – from MNN
If anyone knew a thing or two about mountain gorillas it was the remarkable Dian Fossey. Ms Fossey, the first to study gorillas at close quarters, loved these animals with a passion. Humans – not so much. Her every breath, her every ounce of energy, her life’s blood, was spent protecting the gorillas by keeping humans at bay.
In the Rwanda national park where she established her research station, she had 4 of her own staff destroy 987 poachers’ snares in 4 months. (In the same period, Rwandan park rangers destroyed none. A desperately poor local community makes its livelihood where it can, and if that means poaching gorillas, so be it, was their thinking.)
Apart from fighting a war against one kind of humans, the poachers, Ms Fossey was fierce in her hostility to another kind – wildlife tourists. She had three seemingly incontrovertible reasons for her opposition to ecotourism. Firstly, humans would damage the habitat. Secondly, humans could infect the great apes with anthroponotic diseases (diseases which could jump the species barrier from us to them) such as TB, flu, the common cold, chicken pox, measles and herpes. With no natural immunity to these infections, gorillas could, and did die. And thirdly, the very presence of humans would affect the great apes’ natural wild behaviour.
I wonder how she would react today if she knew that the International Gorilla Conservation Programme now actively promotes tourism to her precious primates’ habitat. The charity’s rationale is simple: tourism provides a living for the impoverished locals living around the national parks and gives them a vested interest in protecting rather than poaching the animals. And the Rwandan government runs a scheme ploughing back 5% of income from gorilla tourism into local development projects like road construction, clean water supplies, sanitation, and health centres accessible for all. What better incentive could the local population have to see that the gorilla tribes thrive?
Good news story
This policy does indeed appear to be working. Kirsten Gilardi, director of Gorilla Doctors is adamant, “Gorilla tourism revenue has absolutely saved them from extinction.”(Her team of medics attending the gorillas with hands-on health care for four decades is also a beneficiary of ecotourism cash.) From the desperate level of only 240 remaining in 1978, and Ms Fossey fearing they would be extinct by the year 2000, the apes now number 1000 – still on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Endangered list, but no longer Critically Endangered. It’s a reason for “cautious optimism”, says the IUCN, a good news story of ecotourism directly benefitting wildlife.
And there are others:
Money from tourism was used to expand the habitats of cheetahs and African wild dogs, slowing population decline
Ecotourism funded the restoration of hoolock gibbons’ and golden lion tamarins’ habitat, reversing human-inflicted environmental degradation, and boosting growth in their respective populations
Wildlife management staff are safeguarding the future for African penguins and the great green macaw by using ecotourism money to control the birds’ predators – natural animal predators and human poachers
Around the world, national parks and nature preserves receive 8 billion visitors a year at a conservative estimate, in all probability many more. Ecotourism generates in excess of $600 billion, so researchers discovered in a first-of-it–kind study.
As with most things in life, there are no easy answers, and the jury remains out.
Of those billions of dollars generated by tourism to national parks and preserves, how much is actually spent on conservation of these amazing habitats and their wildlife? A small fraction. Less than $10 billion – and nothing like enough.
“These pieces of the world provide us with untold benefits: from stabilising the global climate and regulating water flows to protecting untold numbers of species. Now we’ve shown that through tourism nature reserves contribute in a big way to the global economy – yet many are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting, and some are being lost altogether. It’s time that governments invested properly in protected areas.” -Andrew Bainford Professor of Zoology at Cambridge University.
So what about the rest of the money from ecotourism? If governments aren’t investing it in protected areas, where is it going? According to USA Today“Corrupt governments frequently take a large cut of the profits from ecotourism, leaving little or none for local communities that are directly affected by the influx of visitors.”
And as we’ve already seen, benefit to local communities, giving them a stake in protecting their local wildlife, is a vitally important desired outcome of ecotourism. Without it, poaching will continue. But all too often corrupt governments allow “international corporations and developers from outside the area into popular destinations. Their hotels and stores take money away from the local economy. In addition, the original residents have to pay the same inflated prices for food and water as tourists do, putting a greater financial burden on them.”
And Ms Fossey was 100% right about some of the other downsides of ecotourism
Land gobbled up for visitor centres, cafes, tourist lodges, and toilet blocks for the growing numbers of visitors, and the roads to reach them
Wildlife accidentally killed by cars
Wildlife deliberately killed by hunters and fishers
Tourists passing on disease
As for that last point, it seems tourists are far more concerned about contracting a disease from contact with wildlife than they are about themselves passing infection to the animals. Anthropologist Dr Michael Muehlenbein found that though as many as 86% of tourists knew they could pass disease to wildlife, they clearly didn’t care too much because two thirds said they would still touch or feed wild primates if they got the chance.
“Imagine you’ve spent $2,000 to go to Malaysia to see the orangutans and you’ve got a cold. Are you going to stay away? It becomes a complex moral question: How much do you respect the life of other animals over your vacation experience?”
Personally I don’t see it as that ‘complex’. A tough decision naturally, but not a complex one. Though it’s ‘only a cold’ for us, it could kill that animal we would so like to see up close and personal. When we are watching wildlife, let’s be the responsible ones and follow the advice here.
What if we travel on foot to see the wildlife and keep ourselves to ourselves?
What could be less harmful to wildlife than rambling quietly along a woodland trail, soaking up the forest scents and listening to the birdsong? Sad to say, even this most gentle activity is not as innocuous as it seems. Just the fact our being there has an effect. A recent study found that the longer a forest trail is used, and the bigger the number of people walking it, the greater the adverse effect on forest birds. “We show that forest birds are distinctly affected by people and that this avoidance behaviour did not disappear even after years of use by humans.”The birds simply never get used to our being there.
“This is important to show because pressure on natural habitats and nature protection areas is getting stronger and access bans are often ignored,” says Dr Yves Botsch of the Swiss Ornithological Institute.
And an earlier study found that the mere presence of humans is more terrifying to smaller prey animals like badgers, foxes and raccoons – who we may have thought were habituated to us – than the presence of apex predators like bears and wolves. And that we “may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined.”
When you consider that at least 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly affected by the presence of humans and human activity in one way or another, this particular piece of research is not good news.
Overall, human disturbance detrimentally affecting animals’ survival and mating behaviours can lead straight down the path to extinction
Take the New Zealand sea lion for example. The habitat disturbance and fishing brought by ecotourism is killing young sea lion pups. This animal is predicted to be extinct by 2050, a direct victim of ecotourism.
On land, nature preserves can have well-defined boundaries, theoretically easier to protect. Yes, we do have marine conservation areas, but the thing about water is that it flows. No oceanic conservation area’s boundaries can keep out pollution or stop rising sea temperatures. Marine animals are also disproportionately affected by humans’ plastic waste. The dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sulawesi this week had 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach: 115 plastic cups, plastic bags, bottles and even flipflops. On top of that animals such as whales and dolphins are badly affected by underwater noise from shipping.
All of these problems are far more likely to be exacerbated than mitigated by ecotourism.
In the Arctic, for example, 53% of 80 populations of Arctic animals in the ‘open-water’ period of September when the ice is at its minimum are adversely affected by ship traffic, by collisions, by noise disturbance, by the changes these trigger in the animals’ behaviour. Most of these animals are found nowhere else on Earth.
And Arctic ice is shrinking. “Summer sea ice cover has shrunk by over 30 percent since satellites started regular monitoring in 1979.” And less ice means more ships.
Less ice, more ships. More ships, more harm to the animals.
It’s as simple as that. Whales and walrus are among the most vulnerable, and narwhals most vulnerable of all. So you may want to rethink your Arctic cruise. And, as if the harm shipping does to Arctic wildlife were not bad enough, cruise ships also take the trophy when it comes to being the most environmentally-unfriendly way to view wildlife – one cruise ship releasing fuel emissions equivalent to a million cars, in one day.
The last thing we want is to harm the very wildlife we love going to see. So how can we nature-lovers see nature without destroying it?
In spite of all the negatives, there can be no doubt that ecotourism makes animals more valuable in money terms alive than dead. That gives it huge potential to protect nature and save endangered species. But the responsibility of making that happen lies with each of us individually. Planning a trip? Do some thorough research. For potted advice check out The Essential Guide to Eco-Friendly Travel, and Five ways to be a responsible wildlife tourist.
But for in depth information go to Responsible Travel which the Guardian rates “The first place to look for environmentally friendly holidays.”The Responsible Travel website is packed to the brim with information on how to be a wildlife-friendly ecotourist. Find out Responsible Travel’s stance on wildlife, and wildlife tourism issues here.
In the end it’s all down to us as individuals, our choices. Just as we shape the kind of world we want to live in with our eating, shopping and everyday living choices, so with our travel. Our choices are making the difference between life and death for the animals.
3 months ago Wisdom, the world’s oldest known living wild bird laid an egg, to add to her tally of 36 she has notched up over her nearly 7 decades.
3 months is a lot of sitting on an egg, but Wisdom’s diligence has been rewarded – now the great day has come, and she is proud mum once again to a fluffy little Laysan albatross chick.
What perfect timing – Happy Mother’s Day Wisdom!
Wisdom was believed to be just five-years-old when she was first banded back in 1956 by biologist Chandler Robbins when Midway Atoll was an active U.S. Naval Air Station. In 2002 Robbins encountered her again by chance and her story took off.
Wisdom flies thousands of miles every year to return to Midway Atoll, the breeding site for millions of birds. It is the largest population of albatross on earth: 73 percent of all Laysan albatross, 36 percent of all Black-footed albatross and endangered Short-tailed albatross.
“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses” said Kelly Goodale, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Biologist. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks. What a family reunion!”
Credit: B. Peyton/USFWS Pacific Region
The main threats to these birds – on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – are entanglement in fishing tackle, and swallowing plastic.
It will be another 4 months before Wisdom’s newest baby will fledge. Until then she and her mate Mr Goo have their work cut out avoiding those dangers and providing all the food that a growing chick requires.
Long may you flourish Wisdom and Mr Goo, and continue gracing the world with your beautiful offspring.
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