Cover pic “Smiley.” Nicole Rayner/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
How can that pic fail to put a smile on anyone’s face?
What would we do without our BFBFFs* in these difficult days. If they bring us out-loud laughter as well as everyday happiness, that’s got to be a bonus. And since this competition rattles vital extra funds into the Blue Cross‘s coffers, it’s bonus plus plus.
*Best Fur Baby Friends Forever
Sorry, no room for hitchhikers
“The Shepherd Family Road Trip.” Alice van Kempen/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
Could life get any better?
“Super Happy Dog.” Dean Pollard/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
My audition for Hamlet went pretty well, I thought
“Overdramatic Cat.” Iain Mcconnell/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
“If you eat meat, you probably buy products made by one Brazilian company. A company with such influence it can impact climate change, openly admit to having bribed more than 1,000 politicians, and continue to grow despite scandal after scandal. And you’ve probably never heard of it.
“Welcome to a world where meat is the new hot commodity, controlled by just a handful of gigantic firms which together wield unprecedented control over global food production. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been investigating the biggest of all: JBS, a Brazilian company which slaughters a staggering 13 million animals every single day and has annual revenue of $50bn.”
A cloud of scandals hangs over JBS and its shadowy network of subsidiaries, yet the company continues to expand. In the last decade it became the world’s biggest producer and exporter of meat with facilities in Australia and across the Americas, swallowing up among others the big US company Pilgrim’s Pride and Northern Ireland’s poultry firm Moy Park. Since the takeover, JBS’s investment in its Moy Park arm of the business enabled construction of hundreds more chicken farms in the UK which now supply nearly a third of all chicken eaten here in Britain.
JBS in numbers
13.6 million poultry birds slaughtered per day
116,000 pigs slaughtered per day
77,000 cattle slaughtered per day
$50 billion – amount of annual revenues
900,000 – number of employees across the world
150 – number of countries it supplies with meat
$250 million – amount company paid out in bribes in 2017
1,829 – number of candidates across Brazil’s political spectrum the company admits to having bribed
$3.2 billion – amount JBS was fined for bribery, one of the biggest fines in global corporate history
Scandal after JBS scandal. Take your pick –
Wholesale bribery and corruption – among many other scandals over the years, revelations from a 2014 investigation actually toppled the Brazilian government. Right now the company is under investigation for colluding with politicians and public servants to divert resources from a government-owned bank
Dirty meat – rotting beef, falsified export documents, failure to inspect meat plants, chickens contaminated with salmonella (a million of them in the UK)
Slave labour – workers forced to live in degrading conditions without adequate shelter, toilets or clean water
Animal cruelty – chickens punched and beaten with iron rods, piglets beaten and their testicles ripped off without anaesthetic
Illegal Amazonian deforestation – fined $7.7 million in 2017
Being part of a price-fixing cartel – now driving down prices paid to farmers for their meat, and now driving up their own wholesale prices by colluding with other major poultry producers to reduce the supply of chicken
And don’t imagine it couldn’t happen here in the UK. The Moy Park arm of JBS doesn’t bear close scrutiny either.
Moy Park UK in numbers
More than £1 million – total of fines paid since 2015 for subjecting chickens to “unnecessary pain and distress”, failure to pay workers the minimum wage, and unsafe work practices
8 million in 2 years – number of birds that never reach the market, wasted, thrown away as diseased, emaciated, injured with fractures and dislocations, dead before reaching the slaughterhouse, or contaminated
6 million – number of birds slaughtered per week
£1.6 billion – company turnover in 2017
In June this year three Moy Park farms in Lincolnshire were secretly filmed uncovering “horrifying conditions”, chickens lame, struggling to breath and surrounded by dead birds. Moy Park supplies most major UK supermarkets, as well as McDonald’s and KFC.
It took a team of seven dedicated investigative journalists to lift the lid on the unsavoury modus operandi of the JBS matrix. They deserve our thanks for all the hard (and possibly dangerous) work they put into producing this exposé of meat production’s dark and dirty underbelly. Do take a few minutes to read it in full.
“JBS began as a local butcher’s shop; now its beef travels thousands of miles from Brazil toUK supermarkets. That journey clouds the link between farm and plate and makes it almost impossible for the average consumer to understand where their food comes from — and how big a price the planet is paying the price for their cheap meat.”
Let’s not allow their hard work to be in vain. The only way we can be certain we’re not funding the shady JBS brothers’ luxury yachts and lamborghinis, lavish parties and sumptuous mansions – and much much more importantly that we’re not complicit in deforestation, animal cruelty, human rights abuse, wholesale corruption, and the supply of contaminated products – is to take the meat off our plates. The cause of justice, the animals and the planet will thank us.
JBS: Brazilian butchers take over the world A special investigation from Andrew Wasley, Alexandra Heal and Lucy Michaels in London, Dominic Phillips, André Campos and Diego Junqueira in Sao Paulo and Claire Smyth in Belfast
Have you heard the one about the New Zealand penguins that broke into a sushi stall?
Last weekend police responded to an unusual call – a little blue penguin had been spotted in the centre of NZ’s capital city Wellington. The police located the bird, scooped it up, and returned it to the water whence it came.
It now seems like he/she was there casing the joint, because two days later, he/she was back, but this time with a partner-in-crime. The pair of “waddling vagrants”, as the police dubbed them, began building themselves a nest right under the sushi stall in Wellington’s busiest railway station, in the heart of the city.
If you’re struggling to imagine two penguins under a food stall, it may help to know that little blues are as tiny as they are cute. Standing at only 25 cms (10″) tall, and weighing a mere 1kg, they hold the record as the smallest species of flightless seabirds. Under a sushi stall there’s gonna be plenty of space. “Really, you won’t even notice we’re here.”
Department of Conservation manager Jack Mace said the birds were entering their breeding season, and chose the stall as a good spot to lay their eggs. With fresh meals just a beak’s reach away, what better place?
But what a shame – the police managed to lure this pair of little chancers away from the sushi with promises of salmon, and returned them to the harbour. Meanwhile to prevent any possible reoffending, wildlife officers sealed off all nooks and crannies under the stall. All the best-laid plans of little blues come to nought.
Pictured above, the quirky, cute and clever monk parrot, native of Chicago.
Did I say native of Chicago? Chicago the Windy City where winter temperatures can plummet to -26°C, and annual average snowfall is 91cm? No way.
Ok, I hold up my hands. That was a lie, or anyway a half lie. The monk is commonly found in South America, and like most parrot species is native to the tropics. On the other hand, several decent-size colonies of monk parrots have called Chicago home for the last 50 plus years, so it’s fair to say they are well and truly naturalised.
But what are they doing right up there on the 42nd parallel, nearly 5,000 km north of their ancestral homelands around the Equator?
According to American legend, as cargo was being unloaded at JFK airport one day in 1968, or maybe 1969, two thousand of the colourful creatures, or was it two dozen (details of the legend are a little hazy) burst forth from their damaged crate and took to the air. And who could blame them? Far better flying the skies of a strange land than looking out on the world through the bars of a pet shop cage – their intended destination.
But that was New York. So Chicago? These lively mischievous birds are a handful, as folk who’ve acquired them as pets will testify. They are “notoriously loud and noisy birds, the rock star of the bird scene, little Houdinis who like to find their way out of a cage and chase your rottweiler around the house …. They are fearless, intelligent and vociferous.”
Some likely escaped from captivity into the city. Or were released by freaked-out owners who got a bit more than they bargained for!
Whatever, this exotic creature of the tropics, which just happens to be themost adaptable of all parrot species, is thriving in the Windy City, snow or no snow. Most of the year they forage in parks and open grassy areas, but bird-lovers’ garden feeders are their salvation in the winter months.
Wouldn’t you think yourself immensely lucky to find some of these little treasures in your neighbourhood? Chicago’s first ever African American mayor, Harold Washington certainly did. Living just across the street from one of the city’s best-known monk parrot colonies, he called them his “good luck talisman”. He was clearly good luck for them too, because once he was no longer around to protect them (he died in 1987),the USDA tried to remove the birds. But the locals, who loved them as much as Harold did, threatened the USDA with a lawsuit. People power at its best!
The monk parrot’s behaviour, it has to be said, is not exactly serious and quiet, as you’d expect from its name. It has another name that’s a much better fit with its lively personality – ‘the quaker parrot’. And this little guy quaking and shaking to ‘Happy’ will show you why –
What do you think of those moves!
Friends & family
As well as being the most adaptable parrot, the monk/quaker is unique in another respect. It’s the only one of all the parrot species that makes a nest.The nest is a fairly messy affair as you can see, and can get quite a lot bigger than you might expect: “In the wild, the colonies can become large, with pairs occupying separate “apartments” in nests that can reach the size of a small automobile.” And even in cities you will find the monks hunkering down with their siblings, cousins, mum, dad, aunts and uncles – they’re all there. Doesn’t that sound a good way to live?
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. The nests can get so cumbersome that it’s said they can bring down power lines, and damage other infrastructure. Hence the USDA’s attempt to remove them.
Monk/quaker parrots in the UK
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, unlike the USDA in Chicago, were deaf to protests about their own program to eradicate this country’s wild monk parrot population, tiny in comparison with those in the US city. “Monk parakeets can pose a threat to national infrastructure, such as pylons and substations, crops and native British wildlife. That is why work is being carried out to remove them in the most humane method appropriate,” they pronounced.
Over 4 years and at a cost of £259K, 62 birds were trapped, of which roughly 40 were safely re-homed. The remainder “could not be re-homed”, whatever that means, and were put down. 212 eggs were taken and disposed of, and 21 nests were destroyed.
62 birds. A “threat to national infrastructure”. Really?
The monk parrot at home
Sadly the monk is not much favoured in South America, its original home range either. If not deterred in some way, large flocks can munch their way right through a farmer’s precious crop. They are, after all, not to know the humans have different intentions for that food.
And now, ‘charismatic, beautiful, exotic’, the parrot we love
If the monk parrots here in the UK are few, what we do have in abundance are these green-feathered beauties –
There are even more mysteries surrounding the Afro/Asian ring-necks’ appearance here, than there are about the monk parrots’ arrival in the US. Take your pick from these wild theories:
An unknown number escaped in 1951 from Shepperton Studios while they were filming The African Queen with stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Jimi Hendrix released a pair he named Adam and Eve in trendy Carnaby Street, London in the 60s
Something fell off a plane and landed on an aviary. All the birds broke free through the hole it made
A furious wife released her husband’s aviary birds in revenge for his errant ways
But whether all or none of the stories is true (for me, the Adam and Eve one most appeals) this colourful bird has spread all over Britain, and has become “the most northerly, wild breeding parrot species on Earth”. (Further north than Chicago, but of course, much more temperate.) Now numbering at best guesstimate 50,000, over the many decades since they first made their home with us, they’ve become “as British as curry”.
Not welcome at home
These little creatures are no more welcome in their homes of origin (west Africa stretching over India to the Himalayas) than their South American cousins the monk parrots are in theirs. “In its native areas, the parakeet has been a severe agricultural pest for decades. In India, [it is] one of the most destructive birds. They have been known to reduce yields of sorghum and maize in India by 80 per cent.”
Research already shows the ring-necked parrot adversely affecting our native birds, by frightening them from food, commandeering the best nesting spots, and even on occasion attacking them. In December 2017, the bird found itself at no. 67 on the list of Europe’s top 100 most invasive species.
Stricter legislation on the possession, transportation and commercial trafficking of invasive parakeets, which has already happened in Spain
A new system for relinquishing unwanted pet parakeets
Removal of legal and financial constraints on rapid-response eradication of new populations, especially in areas where they are currently not present
Raising public awareness of the parakeet population and potential problems
They have to raise our awareness, because apparently, we the uninformed masses, all love them. “Many people say they bring an enormous sense of wellbeing. They say they are charismatic, beautiful, exotic. They absolutely love having them around.” The authorities know better, naturally.
Champions for the parakeets
These birds we so love have one expert champion in York University’s professor of ecology, Chris D Thomas. He favours leaving the parakeets free to move about and breed. And in his book, Inheritors of the Earth, argues against “irrational persecution” of non-native species. Thomas says, “We do not try to control species because they moved in the past, so why should we now try to police the distributions of species that are thriving in the human epoch? It makes no sense.” Rabbits and hares were invasive species here once.
And Thomas is not entirely alone. Biologist Roelant Jonker is the self-appointed protector of the ring-necked parakeet in the Netherlands. “The next generation [of people] will see the parakeets as ordinary birds… and they will be as ordinary as all the different colours of people and birds in Europe,” he says.
Back to the parrots of the USA
When ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones left Australia for Chicago University in 1988, it was the presence of “a unique piece of the city’s history”, the monk parakeets in Hyde Park, right there on the university campus where he was taking up his new post, that ignited his quest to discover whether other colonies of parrots might be thriving in equally unlikely settings across the USA.
Teaming up with Jennifer Uehling, Cornell University, and Jason Tallant, University of Michigan, he researched all available parrot data in the States from 2002 to 2016. He found:
56 different non-native parrot species spotted in the wild, in 43 states
25 of the species fully naturalised and breeding, in 23 different states
Monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet the most common species
More Red-crowned Amazons living in California than in their original habitats in Mexico
“Because of human activity, transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere. Many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”
As of now, the colonies of ex-pat parrots are a welcome exotic addition to America’s native fauna. But as is our experience with wild parrot populations in the UK, it’s a fine line between being ‘welcome and exotic’ and becoming ‘an invasive pest‘.
It’s entirely fortuitous, by luck, by chance, that the dark cloud of animals originally snatched from the wild and taken to places where they don’t belong, may just have one silver lining. Stephen Pruett-Jones believes, for parrots endangered in their native habitat, the colonies dotted across the States may become important, even “critical”, species reservoirs for the survival of species being decimated in their home range.
In an ideal world of course, species reservoirs in alien lands would never have to be the fall-back.
The exotic pet trade causing extinctions
The trade in animals taken from the wild to sell as pets is causing extinctions. “92%of the 500,000 live animal shipments between 2000-2006 to the United States (1,480,000,000 animals) were for the pet trade.”
“Many bird species are under severe extinction threat because of the pet trade. They include thousands of birds in South America, and an estimated 3.33 million annually from Southeast Asia.
Captivating as they are, and delighted as we are to have them living wild and free among us, we should never buy these gorgeous birds as pets. The exotic pet trade is lining the pockets of criminals while driving animals in their natural habitats to extinction.
Last summer, a story appeared in the New York Times that could have come straight from an episode of “Only Fools and Horses”. Just swap Peckham for Shanghai and cast two Chinese guys in the roles of Del Boy and Rodders.
Before the story begins, and in case we didn’t know, we need to understand that to start a pigeon race, the pigeons are transported hundreds of miles away from their lofts. When they are released, their instinct is to fly back home, and it’s the first to reach its loft again that wins the prize.
Right, the stage is set, and the action begins summer 2018, when these two guys decide to enter four birds into the annual Shanghai Grand Prix Race. They come up with the ingenious idea of giving their birds two home lofts, one in Shanghai, the race’s end, and one in Shangqiu, the race’s starting point.
The plan is, when all the pigeons are released by race officials in Shangqiu, their four birds won’t (and don’t) like the rest of the birds in the race, fly the hundreds of miles back to Shanghai. Instead they head straight back to their second and nearest home loft, the one in Shangqiu. Our two geniuses simply collect their birds, hide them inside milk cartons, and smuggle them on to the bullet train that connects the two cities.
Disembarking from the train in Shanghai, the birds are re-released and flap their way back to the Shanghai loft they call home. Needless to say, the four birds beat all the opposition by a long mile, and are declared outright and extraordinary winners of the prestigious race with its $160,000 prize.
The Trotters would have been in their element. You can just hear Del Boy saying to Rodders, “This time next year we’ll be millionaires!” But in this Chinese version, the jubilant smiles are soon to fade.
Even over a long race such as this, pigeons can fly at a phenomenal 80 mph. At that speed, the average race time between the two cities is about 8 hours. But the fastest of avian flyers can’t come close to the bullet train’s top speed of 200 mph. And the train only takes 3 hours 15 minutes to make the same journey.
Mmm. It’s not going to take a genius to work out pdq that in the birds’ record-shattering win the maths doesn’t quite add up. And the other competitors were no slouches working out the sums. If only our guys had thought to stop off somewhere for a leisurely lunch on the way back to Shanghai!
But this story, amusing as it is on the surface, leaves a bad taste. Because in truth…
There is nothing funny about pigeon-racing
After the Grand Prix race, to hide the evidence of their fraud, the two men destroyed their four innocent birds.
Here’s another “extraordinary story” passed on to a reporter for the BBC by one of his colleagues: “She [the colleague] used to live next door to a pigeon fancier. One day his winged competitors returned from a race, but one refused to re-enter the loft; it perched on the house roof, out of reach of its owner who wanted to register its ID from the tag on its leg.
“A simple solution was at hand, in the shape of an air rifle. He shot the bird and collected its corpse to complete his race record.
“‘You made that up,’ I accused. ‘No I didn’t,’ she replied.”
The reporter was wrong about one thing – the story is not “extraordinary” at all. On the contrary, it is all too familiar.
In Belgium, the historic home of pigeon racing and still the epicentre of the pigeon fancier’s world, competition birds can be worth thousands of euros, especially as certified winners. And over the last decade or so, the hobby’s popularity has spread like a contagion across the Far East, particularly in China, the Philippines and Taiwan. Last month a Chinese buyer “spent a record 1.25 million euros ($1.4 million) at an auction for Belgium’s best long-distance racing pigeon of all time.”
Put those facts together, and this is what you get –
Crime and Cruelty, Cruelty and Crime
In one incident, a Belgian national noticed two men who looked ‘Asian’ dumping black bin sacks in some woods. The sacks turned out to be full of pigeon corpses, each with one foot cut off – the foot with the identity tag.
“The Royal Belgian Federation of Pigeon Fanciers has suggested that Chinese criminal gangs are behind a growing number of robberies. Rather than attempting to smuggle their prey abroad, criminals will kill the pigeons and cut off their identifying rings to be used on much less valuable birds bred in Asia.”
“It is really an epidemic, a true plague,” said Pierre De Rijst, president of Fédération Royale de Colombophiles Belges. “All they have to do is fit the stolen identification rings in China onto a bird worth a fraction of the value, which they then pass off as an ace racer.”
When a race is on, people like to shoot the pigeons out of the sky, just for fun. Others string fishing nets across the mountains to catch the birds – then sell them on to would-be pigeon fanciers for a fraction of their monetary worth. (In the world of pigeon racing, a bird with no monetary worth has no worth at all.)
2 million pigeons are bred and raised by the UK’s 43,000 pigeon fanciers every year. Thousands of the birds are killed as ‘unsuitable’ before they even get to race. PETA filmed pigeon-fanciers weeding out “slow-flying birds and snapping their necks before tossing them into the bin.”
“Money—not just entry fees, but vast illegal wagers—fuels the multibillion-dollar pigeon-racing industry. Wealthy racers pay upwards of $100,000 for imported breeder birds, and top flyers admitted to making millions on a single race. The chance to win staggering sums leads to extortion, drugging of birds, and kidnapping birds for ransom.”
As if all that weren’t enough, after a race pigeons may be killed by their owners if they fail to make the time needed to qualify for the next race in the series.
And then there are the races themselves – even worse than the deadly Iditarod
The Alaskan Iditarod dogsled race calls itself “The Last Great Race on Earth”. Since it began in 1973, 150 participating dogs have died. Deaths are so routine that officials consider them “unpreventable”. Many others are injured, or end the race with permanent lung damage. Many many more are bred and then killed if they don’t reach racing standard. (Read more here)
But the stats for losses in major pigeon races are off the scale. Take the prestigious MacArthur Race in the Philippines: “It is a brutal 600-kilometre gauntlet during which competitors face searing heat, wild seas, vicious predators, and the threat of kidnapping.” Only 1 in 10 pigeons that start the race makes it back.
In Taiwan, “the birds, who are released over treacherous open oceans and have to fly hundreds of miles to reach land, are often swept underwater by waves and drown, or fall victim to extreme weather, raptors, electric lines, foul play, disorientation, or exhaustion—or, if they return but finish out of the money, their necks are typically broken.” In Taiwanese pigeon races, only 1 in 50 of the birds survive, 98 out of 100 die.
A Taiwanese fisherman describes the scene of horror he witnessed: “It was raining pigeons – literally. I’ve never seen such a scene. Every one of them crashed. Some crashed on to the boat, some crashed into the ocean… About one hour after the pigeon rain, you could see the whole surface of the ocean filled with dead pigeons.”
Here in the UK it is no better. Pigeons pair for life. They ‘kiss’ affectionately, and both care for their offspring. The fanciers exploit this fidelity by deliberately “widowing” a pair. They use the stronger male, who will fly back fast to his mate, in sprint races. Not in longer races. In longer races, the male is inclined to forget his mate back home and seek new love elsewhere.
The females on the other hand, never stray from their one soulmate, and even over long distance races faithfully fix their sights on home. This steadfast devotion is rewarded by making them the natural choice for the longest, cruellest races, such as the Barcelona International, in which they are forced to fly up to 900 miles to reach home. The final deadly barrier is the English Channel, referred to by those in the pigeon racing world as “the graveyard”, because it swallows up such huge numbers of exhausted birds. Only 1 in 10 make it back. Then, if they’re not going to be of use for future races, their owners drown them or break their necks.
“Millions of dollars fly in this business, but the pigeons are always the losers” – PETA
A pigeon’s worth?
Cock-fighting, badger-baiting and hunting foxes with hounds are rightly banned in the UK as barbaric activities having no place in the modern world. Every life is precious and every animal death for human ‘sport’ an unnecessary tragedy. But it seems we care much more about badgers, foxes and cocks (and the Iditarod dogs) than we do about the racing pigeons, whom “many people consider to be no better than flying rats.”
Who gets to decide what the life of this gentle, intelligent creature is worth?
There is little doubt that the dingo is the most reviled of all Australian mammals
Aussies, as we all know, have a multitude of colourful expressions, some printable and others less so. But if someone calls you a dingo, there can be no doubt – your reputation is shot. ‘Dingo’ is “a term of extreme contempt… because of the animal’s reputation for cowardice and treachery.” The poor dingo has always had a terrible press.
How did the unfortunate dingo come by such notoriety?
Right from the time British settlers first brought sheep to Australia in the 18th century, the carnivorous dingo has been considered No. 1 pest by ranchers, a pest best met with a shotgun. Bounty hunters were hired to track and kill them. The bounty hunter in colonial writings of the 19th century was cast in the role of the quintessential Australian, canny and heroic, ridding the land of the thieving marauding dingo that was “ripping the heart out of sheep grazing country.” In these tales, dingoes were the outlaws and criminals.
“280,000 bounties were paid for dingoes between 1883 and 1930, by which time dingoes had become scarce in all but the north-eastern corner of the State [New South Wales], where sheep numbers were lowest” – a grievous slaughter, practically an annihilation.
As recently as 2011, an Aussie MP was still proposing a bounty be put on the animal’s head.
The villainous persona the unfortunate dingo has acquired is deeply imbedded in Australian culture. As a former dingo trapper Sid Wright says in his 1968 book ‘The Way of the Dingo’: “In the outback it is accepted without question that the dingo is a slinking, cowardly animal”
“There is little doubt that the dingo is the most reviled of all Australian mammals. It is the only native mammal not protected in NSW by the State’s fauna legislation. [Indeed] the dingo, along with other wild dogs, is covered by a Pest Animal Control Order.”
The longest fence in the world
In the 1940s, the gaggle of higgledy piggledy fences erected to keep dingoes (and rabbits) out of sheep-grazed land was joined up to make one giant fence stretching 8614 km. Since shortened to 5614 km, it encloses the south east quarter of Australia, of which New South Wales is the heart. It’s the longest fence in the world, and its upkeep costs 10 million Australian dollars a year – “a truly epic testament to how much Australians can hate the dingo.”
(Eat your heart out Donald Trump – if your horrible wall happens, as all lovers of wildlife, biodiversity and commonsense sincerely hope it won’t, it would be little more than half the size of this one.)
So, a loathed and despised predatory pest – such is the view of the dingo from the rancher’s side of the fence.
From the dingo’s side of the fence the picture looks very different
Dingoes ranged the bush thousands of years before the first sheep set foot on Australian soil, and while some co-existed with the indigenous peoples, none were ever domesticated. Quick-witted, pragmatic, and resourceful, these are wild animals perfectly adapted to their environment. According to a study undertaken at the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre near Melbourne, the dingo is, “the most intelligent animal in Australia apart from man.”
Sid Wright’s personal opinion of the dingo did not accord with what he knew to be the ranchers’ view. For him the animal was a “wild, magnificent creature” that should be conserved in Australia’s national parks and reserves.
These two opposing stances represent Australia’s ‘dingo schizophrenia’
So what to do about the dingo? Is it villain or hero? Should it be killed to protect sheep, or should it be protected as native fauna? This is the dilemma legislators and conservationists have to grapple with, of which the four most important elements are these:
1. Is the dingo a distinct species of its own, or is it simply a feral dog?
2. If it is a distinct species, is it a genuine native one, and why does this matter?
3. If it is a distinct and native species, is it threatened?
4. As the apex predator in Australia, what is the value of the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides?
According to Dr. Laura Wilson, UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, “Pure dingoes have been shown to have cranial growth patterns more similar to wolves than domesticated dogs, larger brains and a more discrete breeding season producing fewer pups than domestic dogs.
“Dingoes are also notably less sociable with humans than domesticated dogs, characterised by a weaker ability to interpret gestures and a shorter time maintaining eye contact.”
The most recent research into the animal found further evidence of specific characteristics that differentiate dingoes from domestic dogs, feral dogs, and other wild canids such as wolves. And were there still any doubt, the clincher is of course the genetic data.
Answer to Q.2
“Dingoes have been living wild and independently of humans for a very long time — they have a distinct and unique evolutionary past that diverged some 5 to 10 thousand years ago from other canids. This is more than enough time for the dingo to have evolved into a naturalised predator now integral to maintaining the health of many Australian ecosystems.” – The dingo is a true-blue native species.
Co-author of a new study, Professor Corey Bradshaw agrees:“We show that dingoes have survived in Australia for thousands of years, subject to the rigours of natural selection, thriving in all terrestrial habitats, and largely in the absence of human intervention or aid.”
“The dingo is without doubt a native Australian species,” the Prof concludes.
Why does it matter?
It matters because conservationists’ ability to protect the dingo hinges entirely on establishing and upholding its status as a distinct and genuinely native Australian species.
It matters because the Western Australian government for example, in order to evade its conservation obligations to the dingo, recently made a politically-motivated and controversial attempt to classify it as “non-native fauna”.
Bizarrely – though maybe it’s not so bizarre considering New South Wales’ land area falls almost in its entirety on ‘the ranch side’ of the Dingo Fence, and is therefore no doubt under constant pressure from the ranching lobby – NSW is trying its darnedest to square the circle. It simultaneously acknowledges the dingo as a native speciesandexcludes it from the protection afforded by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 to all the rest of its native fauna. “All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (except the dingo) are protected in NSW. It is an offence to harm, kill or remove native animals unless you hold a licence.” But not if you’re harming, killing or removing dingoes. That’s ok. And dingoes continue to be routinely shot and poisoned in huge numbers.
It matters because Australia holds an unenviable record: “Half the world’s mammal extinctions over the last two hundred years have occurredin Australia,and we are on track for an acceleration of that loss” – Dr Thomas Newsome, School of Biological Sciences University of Sydney. “Predation by feral cats and foxes is the main reason that Australia has the worst mammal extinction record of modern time” – Prof. Sarah Legge, Threatened Species Recovery Hub.
Answer to Q.3
It matters because the dingo is on the IUCN’s Red List as a “vulnerable species”, and could also be heading for extinction.
Even without finding itself in the ranchers’ crosshairs, the dingo may lope down another disquieting path to extinction: interbreeding with domestic dogs settlers brought with them to Australia. Unless positive steps are taken to segregate the dingo, its genes will be diluted until the true species ceases to exist.
As with all other antipodean native fauna, the simplest way to conserve them is on an island. On islands it’s easier to control who or what arrives and who or what leaves. World Heritage site Fraser Island is “home to the most pure strain of dingoes remaining in eastern Australia.” Fraser Island boasts a wealth of native wildlife and operates an eco-code for visitors.
Dingoes on the beaches of Fraser Island
Yet even here dingoes live under a cloud of controversy. “110 dingoes have been humanely euthanised for unacceptable or dangerous behaviour on Fraser Island between January 2001 and September 2013, with between 1 and 32 dingoes killed in any given year.”
In 2011, one Jennifer Parkhurst was fined and given a suspended sentence for feeding the dingoes on the island, which she claimed were starving. Others supported her claim: “If things go on the way they’re going, the whole dingo population on that Fraser Island will become extinct,” said veterinarian Dr Ian Gunn, from Monash University’s National Dingo Recovery and Preservation Program. Yet other sources claim many of the dingoes on the island are overweight, verging on the obese!
And as you can imagine, the news media are ever ready to fall into a feeding frenzy and stoke dingo controversy whenever there’s a dingo attack on people. Wiki lists 10 such on the island since 1980, the worst in 2001 resulting in the tragic death of 9 year old Clinton Gage.
31 Fraser Island dingoes were culled in response. “It was a meaningless cull, but in terms of the genetics, it was terribly significant because it was a high proportion of the population” – Dr Ernest Healy, of Australia’s National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program. Such a drastic cull diminished the gene pool, and just where the animals should live free from the dangers surrounding their mainland cousins, this raised the spectre of extinction for the pure breed dingo of the island. “Kingaroy dingo handler and breeder Simon Stretton says purebred Fraser Island dingoes will be gone in 10 years.”
Answer to Q.4
Besides sheep and cattle, invasive species camels, horses, donkeys, deer, rabbits, goats, hares, foxes, cats, rats and house mice also arrived in Australia courtesy of 19th and 20th century settlers. (Foxes were introduced in 1855 simply so the new human arrivals need not forgo the ‘sport’ of hunting them they enjoyed so much at home. The foxes have since multiplied to more than 7 million, and the threat level they pose to native fauna is ‘Extreme’.) After humans, these invasive species are next most responsible for the decimation of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. The carnivores take out the fauna (the foxes and cats alone take out millions of native animals nightly, and are almost solely responsible for the loss of 20 native animal species) and the herbivores “graze the desert to dust and turn wetlands to mud barrens.”
What has this to do with the dingo? A lot! As Australia’s apex predator, the ‘ecosystem services’ the animal provides are, researchers are discovering, invaluable. “Dingoes play a vital ecological role in Australia by outcompeting and displacing noxious introduced predators like feral cats and foxes. When dingoes are left alone, there are fewer feral predators eating native marsupials, birds and lizards” – Prof Bradshaw.
Dingoes may be enemy No. 1 in the eyes of sheep farmers, but cattle farmers (as well as the native fauna) should thank their lucky stars to have them around. “Dingoes can also increase profits for cattle graziers, because they target and eat kangaroos that otherwise compete with cattle for grass in semi-arid pasture lands” -Prof B once more.
And according to Dr. Mike Letnic, Centre for Ecosystem Science UNSW, “the dingo, as Australia’s top predator, has an important role in maintaining the balance of nature and that reintroduced or existing dingo populations could increase biodiversity across more than 2 million square kilometres of Australia.” Where dingoes had been exterminated, Dr. Letnic found far greater numbers of red foxes and invasive herbivores, with small native mammals and grasses being lost.
As the re-introduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park famously proved, from the presence of an apex predator flows a trophic cascade of ecological benefits. In the dingo’s case, the trophic cascade emanating from this particular apex predator flows all the way down and into the soil itself. And for the research that uncovered this surprising benefit, the infamous Dingo Fence for once worked in the animal’s favour:
“The fence provides a unique opportunity to test the effects of the removal of an apex predator on herbivore abundance, vegetation and nutrients in the soil,” says researcher Timothy Morris.
From comparing the conditions in the outback on either side of the fence came forth the revelation that exterminating dingoes not only has an adverse effect on the abundance of other native animals and plants, but also degrades the quality of the soil.
Far from supporting a continued assault on this much maligned creature, all the evidence supports “allowing dingo populations to increase”. More dingoes, not less are Australia’s prerequisite to “enhancing the productivity of ecosystems across vast areas of the country.”
Oh Aussie legislators and ranchers, you are getting it so wrong. Stop demonising and destroying this ‘wild, magnificent creature’, and let us see Canis dingo running free for millennia to come.
If you are of the same mind, please sign and share these petitions:
Petition to save dingoes from extinction – re-classify as an endangered species
Petition (Australian citizens only) to stop the promotion of a new export market — Australian dingoes for Asian diners –
Petition to stop the use of toxin 1080 to poison dingoes
If the dingo teaches us anything as human beings, surely it’s this:
“As they have demonstrated time and again, large carnivores will not stay within human defined safe zones. We need to learn to share the land and its bounty with them, to live with them, or we will lose them—and with them a considerable part of what makes us human.”
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war. It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals, reports Diana Darke.
(There is nothing I can possibly add to this amazing story, except to say that if you want to see what true humanity looks like, look no further than Diana’s account below of this exceptional man.)
Just weeks after the video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.
Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.
As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.
When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.
Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.
In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.
The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.
He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.
He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.
His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.
“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.
“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”
During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.
“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.
Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.
Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.
This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.
As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.
“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.
All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).
“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.
When your holiday zest for sightseeing bazaars and palaces begins to flag, and you turn into the nearest cafe for a much-needed sit down and restorative coffee, chances are several street dogs and cats will have got there before you and nabbed the best seats.
As you settle at a vacant table, a furry feline will in all likelihood settle on you. And in this city no-one is going to turn them out. Because you are in Istanbul, the ‘four-legged city’, where the free-roaming dogs and cats get cared for as well as the pampered pets inside the home.
The cafe owner emerges from the kitchen with dishes of food for his four-legged guests. The fishmonger next door is slicing up pieces of fish for the hopeful, patiently waiting outside.
Local residents are putting out bowls of water and food next to the little shelters they’ve knocked together for the furries out on their own streets. And of course, there are rich pickings to be had for the enterprising in the bags of rubbish thrown on to the street.
Reinvigorated by your coffee? Then head for Nişantaşı Sanat Parkı, otherwise known as ‘the Cat Park’. There are cats, cats and more cats everywhere you look. Hundreds, yes hundreds, of them. Unlike feral cats in the UK, these are completely habituated to people, and will return your attentions with happy purrs and affectionate nuzzles.
You may be puzzled by strange white boxes dotted about the city. These are ‘smart’ recycling boxes. Recycling with an unusual twist: the box rewards you for recycling your empty water bottle by dispensing cat and dog food to give to the animals.
Canines beyond the city limits where food opportunities are thin on the ground are not forgotten either. A van is sent out daily to Belgrade Forest with 1,000 kg of dry dog food. The driver honks the horn, the signal that breakfast has arrived. The dogs come running out of the trees.
That’s hunger dealt with. What about thirst? The city has installed fresh water stations especially for the 130,000 thirsty dogs and 165,000 thirsty cats free-roaming the city – that’s about as many street-dwelling felines and canines combined as there are human residents of Nottingham or Belfast.
If any of these free-spirited furries get sick, no problem – if they can’t get to one of the 6 health clinics (with a little help from the always willing humans), the VetBus will come to them.
There’s no doubt about it: Istanbul’s four-legged residents are done proud. You could say they own the city.
A paradise present and past
What a paradise for these lucky animals, a paradise present and past. Dogs and cats have been documented on the streets of Istanbul for hundreds of years. “The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city,”Mark Twain wrote after a visit in 1867. “They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by.”
Why is it that in this city they are not just tolerated, but actively cared for? “They are the neighbourhood’s dogs [and cats]. They protect us and everyone loves them,” says resident Hamit Yilmaz Ozcan.
Sadly the same cannot be said of many other cities in the world. In the last few years alone we have heard of cities like Sochi, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro’s horrific mass killings of street animals ahead of big sporting events. Other places like Cyprus and Bali also view the street animals as pests, and regularly cull them. ‘Cull’ of course is just officialese for ‘kill’. But killing it is nonetheless. In 2013, Romania’s capital Bucharest ordered euthanasia (another euphemism) of its 50,000 strays.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide. Countries such as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Mexico have in the past, taken reduction measures [yet another euphemism to cloak the unpalatable truth] to control their large populations of stray dogs.”
So what makes Istanbul so different, possibly unique?
The answer is, centuries of Islamic tradition in the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital and seat of power. The Ottomans took to heart the Qu’ran’s teaching that all animals were made by Allah. All animals are loved by Allah. All animals must be treated with kindness and compassion.
“According to Islamic culture, people should avoid being unjust to others, and it places animals’ rights above human rights since it is possible to compensate for the wrongdoing to people by asking for their forgiveness; however, it is not possible with animals as they lack reason.”
(Personally, I think it’s not that they lack reason, but that we don’t understand their language.)
“Prophet Muhammad told the story of two different women who lived long before his time. As he recounted, an evil women went to heaven because she gave water to a dog, while a good woman went to hell because she starved a cat to death.”
(Define ‘good woman’, I’d say. Starving a cat to death sounds pretty evil to me. But anyway, you get the drift.)
“Fearing this story, people in the past fed their animals before they sat down for meals and did not go to bed before they cleaned the animals in their barns and checked if they had water and feed. Moreover, the government punished those who carried barnyard fowls upside down or overloaded horses or donkeys, and people who harmed animals were alienated from their community in the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottomans established foundations to feed street dogs, and wolves in the mountains, provide water for birds on hot summer days and treat storks with broken wings or injured horses. They also built birdhouses in the courtyards of buildings such as mosques, madrasahs and palaces and placed water pans on gravestones for birds.”
Even ‘worn out’ donkeys and horses, no longer fit to work, were not shot or abandoned as would have been, and often still is their fate elsewhere, but cared for until the end of their days.
Sad change in the 19th century
The people of Istanbul have always loved having the animals around – and who wouldn’t. The state though is a different matter. In the 19th century, the Ottomans, realising the image they were projecting to European powers was one of backwardness, decided to push beggars, orphans and the unemployed into forced labour or deportation. And at the same time made “systemic efforts to annihilate stray dogs within the wider picture of Ottoman modernizing reforms.”
In 1909, “although old Istanbul’s street dogs were very famous, the municipality collected all of them, ferried them to an island in the Marmara Sea and abandoned them. They were left with no food or clean water, and their cries were heard throughout the city.
“The people who pitied them threw them food, but when all of these dogs died on the island, the residents of the city were disturbed by the smell of their corpses. The wars that broke out and the defeats of the empire following this incident were seen as a punishment for what was done to those animals.”
That sudden ruthless disregard for the centuries-old traditions of care and respect for the street dogs and cats continued right through the 20th century. Right up to the 1990s, officials were strewing poison around the city, consigning the animals to a cruel death.
In 2004 Turkey passed an Animal Protection Law
Everything changed again. The municipalities were forced to take a more humane approach. Instead of slaughter, an extensive neutering program was implemented by the VetBus and the clinics.
With rabies still endemic in Turkey, the thought of rabid animals roaming the busy streets of this ancient city is not one the municipality was prepared to countenance for a second, so the other important part of the program is vaccination. Under the Capture Neuter Vaccinate & Release program, CNVR, the dogs and cats are also chipped and given an ear tag so they can easily be identified as having been ‘done’ before they are returned to the street or square where they were found.
It’s a secret
The tons of food, the water stations, the recycle boxes, the clinics, the VetBus, the CNVR program – surely none of this can come cheap? The municipality refuses to say how much is being spent on the street dogs and cats of Istanbul. “If people knew how much money was spent on these services, maybe people would be more upset, but these figures are not disclosed,” says Yildirim, coordinator of the collective “Dort Ayakli Sehir” (Four-legged City).
But Turkey’s Agriculture and Forests Minister Bekir Pakdemirli did recently admit that between 2009 and 2018 his ministry expended 31 million Turkish lira (around $6 million) just contributing towards the budgets of local authorities across the country for their care of street animals.
Maybe still not quite such a paradise for the street dogs and cats after all?
The best efforts of the CNVR program has only succeeded in keeping the stray feline and canine populations at a fairly constant level. Their numbers have not fallen over time as the municipality might have hoped and expected. Of course, there will always be some wily characters that escape the net and keep breeding.
But much sadder than that, according to animal welfare organisations on the ground:
“There is a high incidence of dog abandonment in Turkey. Pets are often bought on impulse, and frequently as gifts. But when cute little puppies grow into large dogs that need space, exercise and long-term care, many families simply abandon their pets to the streets or forests. Many abandoned dogs are pure breeds, like golden retrievers, that are temperamentally unfit to survive on the streets or in the wild.”
The self-same fate awaits cats:
“In Turkey everyday, thousands of puppies and kittens are sold in the pet-shops just like stuffed animals and most of them find themselves abandoned on the streets within a couple of months… Abandoned cats and dogs are everywhere. Sometimes people simply kick them out from their home right on the streets, sometimes they take a dog into a forest and leave him there so he can’t find his way back home, or even abandon him by the side of a motorway so he gets killed quickly.”
This little guy is one such victim. Only 40 days old, found all alone and whimpering in a ditch at the side of the road. Luckily he was rescued and put up for adoption. But there’s still a chance he could end up back on the street further down the line.
Love for the street animals/casual, callous abandonment. How to reconcile the two?
Is it that the good people of Istanbul enjoy the pleasure the animals bring into their daily lives, and feel good giving food and some outdoor shelter, but don’t want the full responsibility of caring for them in their own home?
Or could it be that in today’s cosmopolitan city, while some still hold fast to the old traditions, others have discarded them as belonging to the past? That would be sad indeed.
From the centuries-old Ottoman Islamic ethic of respect and compassion, I believe there is much we and the world could learn in our attitudes towards all animals, great and small. Don’t you agree?
Please sign and share:
Petition to stop the poisoning of strays in Turkey’s capital, Ankara
Petition to end this tragedy in Turkey: dog starvation on a colossal scale.
Petition to stop neighbouring Jordan killing every street dog in the country
Petition to stop authorities in Benalmadena, Spain ruthlessly culling homeless cats
Petition to enforce ban on dog culling in Bangladesh
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.