“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me. The lioness in the circus—I see you. The pig in the sow stall—I see you. The mouse in the medical experimentation facility—I see you. The fish crushed at the bottom of a trawler net—I see you. I know your suffering, and I will never be silent. I will push forward no matter what life throws my way because the cruelties inflicted on you must end, and I’ll do all I can to see that happen. You have all of me.”
The stirring words of outspoken vegan activist Emma Hurst, representative of the Animal Justice Party(AJP), at her swearing in to Australia’s New South Wales State Parliament. She is now the third vegan activist elected to state office.
My last post “Isn’t it Time to Stop the Killing in the Name of Conservation“, cast the spotlight on the horrific scale of Australia’s ongoing slaughter of wild and feral animals. Still more blood is shed to ‘protect’ farmers’ and ranchers’ interests – without mentioning the unhappy fate of the farmed animals themselves. So it’s good to know Arian Wallach and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation are not alone in their campaign for kinder ways. Here is an introduction to the Animal Justice Party –
Last month vegan activists stopped the traffic in central Melbourne, while others demonstrated outside abattoirs. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison no less, said their activism was “un-Australian”, and bad-mouthed them as “green-collar criminals”. 40 of them were arrested. He declared his determination not to let them “pull the rug from under our Aussie farmers,” at present an industry worth $30 billion.
May 18th’s pivotal election
“Australians will return to the polls this Saturday in what’s becoming a pivotal election for animals and the environment. The big question: Will Australia’s next prime minister be friend or foe to the nation’s animal agriculture industry?”
Veganism in Australia
The country has more than 2 million vegans
Veganism is especially popular among younger voters
44 percent of young people (aged 18–24) think that veganism is “cooler than smoking.” (Certainly much healthier!)
The plant-based food industry there is forecasted to grow 58%by 2020
Why things have to change
1.8 billion animals have been killed for food in Australia so far this year and counting
70% of the $30 billion Australian agriculture is ‘worth’ comes from slaughtered animals
30% comes from milk, wool and eggs (which of course all also mean animal slaughter)
Last year the country exported 2.85 million living animals which suffered cruelly over long journeys in cramped shipping containers
2,400 sheep died of heat stress en route from Perth to the Middle East
Australia’s animal agriculture accounts for 11% of national emissions of GHGs
Over 20 year timescale that actually means 50% because methane has a stronger climate forcing effect
“Nearly 85 percent of the population that lives along the coast will be impacted by rising seas, storm surges, flooding, heatwaves, and damage to public infrastructure”
And climate change is already a big problem
Last year Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issued four Special Climate Statements relating to “extreme” and “abnormal” heat, and reported broken climate records
With temperatures around 40°C in December last year, firefighters struggled to contain the 115 bush firesraging across Queensland
Piles of dead fox bats, whose brains literally fried in the heat, covered Sydney
For the last two years the country’s rainfall has been 11% below average
With the severe shortage of grazing on the parched land for their cattle, farmers in Western Australia have been struggling to find the money for the cost of feed, at $10,000 dollars per truckload
Farmers have also had to drive round with tankers of water to keep their thirsty cattle alive
In spite of all this, “as far as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Parliament’s pro-farming majority are concerned, animals are no more than the means to a very profitable end for this Parliament.” (This attitude is what we are all up against.)
The Animal Justice Party, which doesn’t“prioritize a cattle and BBQ culture ahead of a livable climate,” but does, like Emma Hurst, prioritise animal rights, certainly has its work cut out.
If you live in Australia please vote this Saturday for the AJP.
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me.”
For the sake of the animals, please share this post widely. Thank you.
Sign Animals Australia’s petition against live exports here and take more actions for the animals here
“Compassion for animals should be fundamental for conservation”
– Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“What gives us the right to be the gods…, to say who lives and who dies? [Invasive species] aren’t our children that we can control. They aren’t our pets or our livestock. They have their own agency. Conservation is ultimately a chauvinist method that treats animals as automatons”
– conservationist Arian Wallach
Filling in the background
Let me jump you back 350 years. We are in the Antipodes, in the land of Arustaralalaya¹, a land of wondrous creatures with wondrous names: the Rufous Bristle Bird, the Kangaroo Island Emu, the Rope River Scrub Robin, the Sharp-Snouted Torrent Frog, the Burrowing Bettong, the Pig-Footed Bandicoot, the Big-Eared Hopping-Mouse, the Western Barred Bandicoot, the famous Tasmanian Tiger, and many many more.
Here too are the aboriginal peoples. In ‘the Dreaming’, a ‘time beyond time’, ancestral spirits created the land and all life on it, the sky and water and all life in them. Nature is not something separate from the people. They, like all the other animals, are a part of Nature. And from it all their needs, physical, artistic and spiritual, are being met. A life with animals and plants, land, water and sky in perfect harmony. A life unchanged for thousands of years.
That is until ….
The British First Fleet, with orders to establish a penal colony where Britain could conveniently offload its felons, sailed into Botany Bay. And nothing was ever the same again.
As the anchors splashed into the water that day in 1788, no-one there could have imagined the magnitude of the moment, marking as it did the beginning of the end for so many species in Australia’s glorious panoply of life. Native animals and plants found themselves defenceless against the predations of the new colonists and the alien species they brought with them. Together, and in record time, these intruders drove the native animals over the cliff edge of extinction. Irrevocably lost. Gone forever.
The first wave of the British brought ashore pathogens till then unknown Down Under: tuberculosis, smallpox and measles, smallpox in particular wiping out huge swathes of the indigenous population. Next followed two centuries of systematic crushing of aboriginal culture, and unspeakable violations of human rights.
Horses and pigs were the first invasive (non-human) animals to disembark from the ships. A decade later sheep arrived. In the 1850s, foxes and rabbits were the unwilling travellers to a land that had never before seen such creatures. They were shipped there just so they could be hunted, for no better reason than that the thrill of the hunt was an indulgence the settlers were simply not prepared to leave behind them in the old country.
And so it went on, one after another. With the colonists, the alien species kept arriving.
Animals and plants in the wrong places are bad news for native flora and fauna conservation across the planet
And nowhere more so than in Australia, where they are “the No. 1 threat to Australia’s most at-risk species” – more deadly even than climate change and land clearance. As we speak, the invaders – plants, animals and pathogens – are putting well over a thousand native Australian plants and animals at risk.
Already a major conservation disaster. But what makes it even more critical is that 80% of the country’s flora and fauna is endemic, unique, found nowhere else in the world. “These species have existed for tens of thousands, in some cases millions of years, and many have been successful in responding to everything thrown at them for that time.” Right now though, in the Rate-of-Species-Loss world league, Australia unenviably holds poll position, right at the top of the table. Invasive species areeating away Australia’s precious biodiversity.
So, how to stop invasive species wiping out more endangered plants and animals in Australia and elsewhere?
The customary answer to this entirely human-created crisis is large-scale culling of the species that have fallen down ‘the status ladder’ as viewed from the human perspective. Humans brought in horses, donkeys and camels to serve as beasts of burden. When technology made the animals’ services redundant, they were abandoned. Now they are a pest. That is the paradigm. The animals go from ‘useful’ > abandoned as ‘no longer useful’ > a positive ‘pest’, the enemy. Once an animal reaches the bottom rung and gets labelled ‘PEST’, it loses the simple right to exist. In fact in human eyes, it’s a virtue to eradicate it, no need for remorse. There are no ethical issues, only practical ones.
And so, the deaths
Accurate figures of feral animals killed in Australia are difficult to obtain. Few records are kept by federal, state, or territory governments. But if this statistic from the state of Victoria is anything to go by numbers are huge: Victoria admits to paying out almost a million dollars for fox scalps – every year. The going rate is 10 dollars per scalp – that’s 100 thousand foxes killed yearly, in one state.
Here’s another chilling stat, this time reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: in the name of conservation 6,000 wild buffalo, horses, donkeys and pigs were ‘culled’ in Kakadu National Park in 24 days.
And another: the Australian government is implementing a cull of feral cats, with a target of 2 million to be eradicated by 2020.
These are researcher Persis Eskander‘s conservative estimates of some of the invasive species culled in the country annually:
Wild boar/feral pigs 3,450,000
Red fox 310,000
European rabbit 200,000,000
House mice 25,000,000
Eradication. Elimination. Cull. Bland innocuous words behind which to hide the true picture – millions of living, breathing individuals made to endure the most inhumanely-inflicted suffering. Animals who feel pain, animals who grieve, sentient beings who want to live.
Foxes and feral cats, which kill millions of Australia’s native animals nightly “are typically killed with cage traps—in which the animals wait for hours until death arrives on two legs—or with 1080 poison, which causes vomiting; auditory hallucinations; irregular heartbeat; rapid, uncontrolled eye movements; convulsions; and liver and kidney damage.”
And we’ve already made acquaintance with the longest fence in the world intended to protect sheep ranches as well as native wildlife from predating dingoes. The fence, “a rickety-looking five-or-so feet of chicken wire that any decently sized mutt could easily dig under or vault over…. isn’t really meant to stop dingoes; it is more valuable as a landmark for the pilots who drop thousands of baits, laced with 1080, in a swath of poison up to four kilometers wide.”
If any of the unfortunate creatures escape the traps and poison, they will be shot at from the air.
The land of Australia runs red with the blood of the slaughtered, whose only crime is to have been born. And all in the name of conservation.
Unhappily, this kind of massacre is far from unique to Australia. Take the slaughter of 250,000 goats, pigs and donkeys in the Galapagos islands for example. The goats in particular were said to have “grazed the island mercilessly, causing erosion, threatening the survival of rare plants and trees and competing with native fauna, such as giant tortoises,” until Project Isabela unleashed on them “one of the best hunting and eradication teams worldwide”.
This unimaginable carnage was applauded as a landmark conservation success.
‘Merciless’: dictionary definition? ‘Callous’, ‘heartless’, ‘inhumane’. Who in this nightmare scene were the merciless?
A better way – compassionate conservation
Travelling the remote highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, it’s a relief to come across a bloodshed-free zone, Evelyn Downs ranch. This 888 sq. mile ranch is one of the very few places in Australia where wild donkeys, camels, wild horses, foxes, cats – invasive species all introduced by settlers – and dingoes, aren’t being routinely killed. There we will also find Arian Wallach, “one of the most prominent voices in an emerging movement called ‘compassionate conservation’.”
Arian, after persuading the owners of the ranch to implement a no-kill policy for the non-native animals living there, has made it the site for her field research. Her team have set up cameras around the ranch so they can study the natural interaction between the invasive species, the native species and the farmed cattle. She believes they will discover Nature restoring balance to the ecosystem if left to its own devices. It is, after all, and as always, Man that’s thrown it out of kilter.
Arian’s life and research partner can vouch for this in an unusual way. Australian Adam O’Neill was himself responsible for thousands of animal deaths in his former career as a commercial hunter and professional “conservation eradicator” – the irony in that title! Drawing on his many years of experience at the sharp end of invasive species control, he published a book in 2002 with this unequivocal message:
“If humans simply stopped killing dingoes … Australia’s top predator could keep cat and fox numbers down all by itself, allowing native animals to thrive and humans to retire from shedding so much blood.”
The donkey expert in Arian’s team, Eric Lundgren, also knows where to lay the blame, this time for the degradation of pastureland, and it isn’t at the donkeys’ door as the ranchers would want us to believe. The donkeys are being scapegoated. No studies have found donkeys to be responsible.
Lundgren says: “It seems very evident to me that the onlyherbivores to be substantially affecting plant communities there are the cattle—that are maintained at such ludicrously high densities.”
Man has introduced one invasive species, the non-native cattle, every one of which is destined for the slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, he’s busily despatching to equally premature deaths ‘pests’ he deems inimical to his business venture.
And mainstream conservationism happily goes along with this – it’s obvious, the donkeys must be culled. But Wallach instead “sees a puzzle to be solved. Step one: Stop overstocking cattle. Step two: Stop killing dingoes that might prey on the donkeys and keep their numbers down. Do this and the ecosystem will sort itself out—no killing required.”
The birth of compassionate conservation
The concept and phrase “compassionate conservation” emerged from a symposium hosted by the Born Free Foundation in Oxford in 2010. The movement was still in its infancy when the Centre for Compassionate Conservation (where Arian Wallach works) was set up at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2013.
“The core mission of compassionate conservationists is to find win-win approaches where [endangered] species are saved but no blood is shed. Where elephants in Kenya are being killed because they destroy farmers’ fields, the compassionate conservationist promotes a fence that incorporates beehives, since elephants hate bees. (As a bonus, the farmers can collect honey.) Where foxes are being killed on a small Australian island because they are eating rare little penguins, the compassionate conservationist installs guard dogs to look after the penguins and scare away the foxes. Often, advocates say, a solution can be found by examining what all the species in the area want, what they are thinking, and how best to tweak their behavior.”
What is it that makes compassionate conservation different from the mainstream? The Born Free Foundation wraps it up in a nutshell:
“Compassionate Conservation puts the welfare of individual animals at the heart of effective conservation actions.”
‘Invasive species’ are so much more than statistics. They are individuals whose needs must be respected and welfare safeguarded. Individuals, as much as you and me.
¹ The aboriginal name for Australia, “where ‘Arus‘ (अरुस्) means the ‘Sun’, ‘Taral’ (तरल) means ‘Water’ (route they took to travel from Asia 50,000 years ago) and ‘Alaya’ (आलय) means ‘home‘ or a ‘retreat‘. So, Arustaralalaya or Australia is home of Sun-praying, Water-travelled people.”
No-one knew that orangutans are unique among great apes, possibly unique among animals altogether with the exception of the human animal, in having the ability to talk about the past.
But now we do. Recently a researcher was surprised to find that the apes’ response to, say, a tiger’s presence is to gather their young to them and climb higher up the tree – in silence. You would expect the evasive action to be accompanied by an alarm call. Theirs is an endearing kind of “kiss-squeak” sound. Strangely though, they wait sometime until after the predator has entirely disappeared before they emit their kiss-squeak of alarm.
What on earth is the use of that, we ask. Isn’t that a bit late? Well, it seems the orangutan mums are transmitting a message to their infants, “THAT WAS DANGER! Remember for next time.”
Zoologists have a name for ‘talking about something that is in the past or the future, not present at the time’: it’s called ‘displaced reference’, and as well as being extremely rare among living creatures, is reckoned to be a sign of high-level cognition. These furry orange tree-dwellers may even surpass in brain power their other smart relations in the great ape family.
Another thing I didn’t know before today
Orangutans come in two varieties: the Bornean and the Sumatran. Both species are critically endangered. The Bornean orangutan has declined by a shocking 60% in the last 60 odd years, and between 1999 – 2015 alone we lost over 100,000. I say “we” because it’s a tragic loss for us all. It’s a similar story for the Sumatran ape. Orangutans rightly fear tigers, but there is another animal that is a much greater threat. As is almost invariably the case when species slide towards extinction, the menace is (the so-called) homo sapiens.
In this case it’s our insatiable appetite for palm oil. “More than half the packaged products on sale in the supermarket are made with palm oil,” according to the European Palm Oil Alliance. It’s palm oil production that is decimating these precious animals.
And it’s not just the injurious effect on the hapless apes, as if that were not enough in itself. The burning and deforestation of Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations is a big contributor to GHGs in the atmosphere. In the light of the UN’s recent report that we have only 12 years left to get a grip of climate change, this destruction is a supremely urgent environmental issue which affects the entire planet.
If there was anyone who wasn’t aware of what is causing the frightening decline in orangutan numbers before, they certainly are now thanks to the furore created by the banning of Iceland’s Christmas ad. In case you’ve only just returned to Planet Earth from a trip to Mars and not yet seen the ‘offending’ ad, here it is:
The ad was banned on ‘political’ grounds. If you’re like me, you’ll struggle to find anything political in the ad.
So why ban the ad?
Greenpeace has unearthed some revealing correspondence between various UK government departments. The communications expressed fears that supporting an EU-wide ban on the import of palm oil biofuel might very well provoke Malaysia to change its mind about buying our British-built Eurofighter Typhoon jets, and look elsewhere for its military hardware. So yes, no doubt in governmental eyes the ad is political, though we wouldn’t be so cynical as to suggest Clearcast, the adjudicator of TV advertising that imposed the infamous ban, has been sat upon, would we??
The other reason given for the ban was that it had nothing to do with Christmas. It’s certainly not what you think of when ‘Christmas’ is mentioned. I think Greenpeace supporter and Iceland’s CEO Richard Walker knew exactly what he was doing when he sought permission from Greenpeace to adapt their telling animation for his company’s Christmas promotion. It was always unlikely to pass the scrutiny of Clearcast.
But thanks to the notorious ban, the ad hit the headlines. EVERYONE wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I know I did. And as of Wednesday just gone, the ad notched up 12 million views on Facebook, a further 3.8 million on YouTube, 30 million in total across all social media, with endorsements from celebrities including Anna Friel, Paloma Faith and James Corden. What better way of getting Greenpeace’s important message across, and at the same time promoting Iceland as a leader in business environmental- friendliness.
Managing director Richard Walker said at the time: “Certified sustainable palm oil does not currently limit deforestation and it does not currently limit the growth of palm oil plantations.
“So until such a time as there is genuinely sustainable palm oil that contains zero deforestation, we are saying no to palm oil.”
Well done Mr Walker!
And just in case the publicity was not enough
It’s been ramped up even further by sightings of an orangutan wandering the streets and parks of London, even at one stage hanging from a Christmas tree on Coin Street.
The ape on the loose is Iceland’s genius response to the ban of their Christmas ad. But we don’t have to worry, no orangutans were harmed etc etc – the creature is of course animatronic.
All perfect timing on Iceland’s part, for this week saw Greenpeace publish a report accusing the makers of the world’s most famous cookie the Oreo amongst many other products, of sourcing their palm oil from “rainforest destroyers.”
But why the huge demand for palm oil in the first place?
It has two huge advantages over other forms of fat
It has an unusually high melting point, so is semi-solid at room temperature
Both flesh and stone contain oil which makes it 10 times more productive than say, rapeseed, and therefore much cheaper to produce
If you’re interested in why palm oil makes up 38% of all vegetable oil produced, from only 5% of oil-producing farmland this is an excellent article.
What is palm oil used in?
Half the stuff in supermarkets, as mentioned earlier. That is biscuits, cereals, breads, gravies, sauces, margarines, ice cream, crisps, ‘healthy’ snack foods like muesli bars, pet food, cosmetics, toothpastes, toiletries, cleaning products, even ink. Sad to say, it also pops up in vegan goodies where it is used to provide the creaminess otherwise obtained from dairy.
And then there is the biofuel.
We haven’t spotted it on labels, though. How is it hiding in our products?
Palmitate – Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate (NOTE: Vitamin A Palmitate is a very common ingredient in breakfast cereals and we have confirmed 100% of the samples we’ve investigated to be derived from palm oil)
Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)
Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)
Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Chemicals which contain palm oil
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
Hydrated palm glycerides
Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (names with palmitate at the end are usually derived from palm oil, but as in the case of Vitamin A Palmitate, very rarely a company will use a different vegetable oil)
Even the most passionate environmentalists are not suggesting we avoid palm oil altogether. We just need it to be orangutan- and rainforest-friendly. Sustainable.
Just look for these logos
Meanwhile, ICYMT some petitions to sign and share. Thank you.
24th January 2019 The double-edged sword of palm oil“Contrary to a widely publicized narrative of deforestation driven by industrial-scale expansion, the researchers found most oil palm expansion and associated deforestation occurred outside large, company-owned concessions, and that expansion and forest clearing by small-scale, non-industrial producers was more likely near low-yielding informal mills.”
‘How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk Earth is destroying its only home?”
Who better to open the Guardian’s new series The Age of Extinction, than the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall? Her lifespan of 84 years has seen a horrifying loss of wild animals of all kinds, along with their habitats.
And yet she believes if we come together and play our part in our own lives, we can “heal some of the harm we have inflicted.” This is her message to us all:
During my years studying chimpanzees in Gombe national park in Tanzania I experienced the magic of the rainforest. I learned how all life is interconnected, how each species, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has a role to play in the rich tapestry of life – known today as biodiversity. Even the loss of one thread can have a ripple effect and result in major damage to the whole.
I left Gombe in 1986 when I realised how fast chimpanzee habitat was being destroyed and how their numbers were declining. I visited six chimpanzee range states and learned a great deal about the rate of deforestation as a result of foreign corporations (timber, oil and mining)and population growth in communities in and around chimpanzee habitat, so that more land was needed for expanding villages, agriculture and grazing livestock.
Chimpanzees were affected by the bushmeat trade – the commercial hunting of wild animals for food. I saw traumatised infants, whose mothers had been killed – either for the same bushmeat or the illegal animal trade, for sale in the markets, or in inappropriate zoos where they had been placed after confiscation by local authorities.
But I also learned about the problems faced by so many African communities in and around chimpanzee habitat. When I arrived in Gombe in 1960 it was part of what was called the equatorial forest belt, stretching from East Africa through the Congo Basin to the West African coast. By 1980 it was a tiny island of forest surrounded by bare hills, with more people living there than the land could support, over-farmed soil, trees cut down on all but the steepest slopes by people desperate to grow food for their families or make money from charcoal. I realised that unless we could improve their lives we could not even try to protect chimpanzees.
But chimpanzees, and many other species are still highly endangered. Over the last 100 years chimpanzee numbers have dropped from perhaps two million to a maximum of 340,000, many living in fragmented patches of forest. Several thousand apes are killed or taken captive for the illegal wildlife trade. Orangutans and gibbons are losing their habitats due to the proliferation of non-sustainable oil palm plantations. We are experiencing the sixth great extinction. The most recent report from WWF describes the situation as critical – in the last 49 years, we have lost 60% of all animal and plant species on Earth.
We are poisoning the soil through large-scale industrial agriculture. Invasive species are choking out native animal and plant life in many places. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by our reliance on fossil fuels, destruction of the rain forests and pollution of the ocean. Increase of demand for meat not only involves horrible cruelty to billions of animals in factory farms, but huge areas of wild habitats destroyed to grow crops for animal feed.
So much fossil fuel is required to take grain to animals, animals to slaughter, meat to table – and during digestion these animals are producing methane – an even more virulent gas than carbon dioxide. And their waste along with other industrial agriculture runoff is polluting soil and rivers sometimes causing toxic algae blooms over large areas of ocean.
Climate change is a very real threat as spelled out in the latest UN report*, as these greenhouse gases, trapping the heat of the sun, are causing the melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, more frequent and more intense storms. In some places agricultural yields are decreasing, fuelling human displacement and conflict. How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk the Earth is destroying its only home?
Because many policymakers and corporations – and we as individuals – tend to make decisions based on “How will this affect me now, affect the shareholders’ meeting, the next political campaign?” rather than “How will this affect future generations?” Mother Nature is being destroyed at an ever faster rate for the sake of short term gain. This, along with our horrifying population growth, poverty – causing people to destroy the environment simply to try to make a living – and the unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us who have way more than we need, is the root cause of all the planet’s woes.
It is depressing to realise how much change I have witnessed during my 84 years. I have seen the ice melting in Greenland, the glaciers vanishing on Mount Kilimanjaro and around the world. When I arrived in Gombe the chimpanzee population stretched for miles along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Buffalo, common then, are locally extinct and only a few leopards remain.
The water of the Lake was crystal clear, fish and water cobras were abundant, and there were crocodiles. But with soil washed into the lake and over-fishing, that changed. When I spent time in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro in the 60s and early 70s, rhino and elephants were plentiful. I grew up in the south of England. The dawn chorus of the birds was magical – so many of them have gone, along with the hedgehogs that used to rustle through the vegetation at night. In May and June we had to draw the curtains at night to keep out the hundreds of cockchafers – May bugs, attracted to the light – today it is rare to see even one, and the clouds of mosquitos and midges are almost gone.
Yet I believe we have a small window of opportunity when, if we get together, we can start to heal some of the harm we have inflicted. Everywhere, where young people understand the problems and are empowered to take action – when we listen to their voices, they are making a difference. With our superior intellect we are coming up with technological solutions to help us live in greater harmony with nature and reduce our own ecological footprints. We have a choice each day as to what we buy, eat and wear. And nature is amazingly resilient – there are no more bare hills around Gombe, as an example. Species on the brink of extinction have been given a second chance. We can reach out to the world through social media in a way never before possible. And there is the indomitable human spirit, the people who tackle the impossible and won’t give up. My job is to give people hope, for without it we fall into apathy and do nothing.
How we fight back against biodiversity loss
In 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute launched the Tacare program, working in collaboration with the villagers themselves. A holistic program including restoring fertility to the farm land (no chemicals used), improved health and education facilities, water management programs, microcredit opportunities (particularly for women), family planning information, and scholarships to keep girls in school. Today this operates in 72 villages throughout the range of Tanzania’s remaining chimpanzees, most of whom live in unprotected village forest reserves. Village volunteers learn to use smart phones, patrol their forests, and note any illegal activities as well as signs or sightings of animals. This information is uploaded onto a platform in the cloud, including Global Forest Watch.
Tacare now operates similar programs in six other African countries. “The villagers have become our partners in conservation,” says Goodall. “They know that protecting the environment benefits them as well as wildlife.”
*Jane’s call to action is urgent. According to the UN report she mentions, we have only 12 years left to get control of climate change. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.” – Debra Roberts for UN IPCC
Desperate times call for drastic measures – so believes a certain 87 year old Harvard professor. And these surely are desperate times for much of the planet’s wildlife – flora and fauna. The octogenarian’s plan to save them is nothing if not radical. In fact, at first glance pretty off-the-wall. It is simply,
Half-Earth – giving over half of planet Earth to Nature
His critics dismiss his idea as not just radical, but “truly bizarre, disturbing and dangerous.”
But is it? Why should we give over half the Earth? Why should we not? Why this way? Wouldn’t it be bad news for people? Is it even possible?
We will come back to these questions.
Earlier this week during the run-up to World Wildlife Day 2018, conservationists met up in London to mull over matters that could scarcely have greater significance for the future of wildlife, the future of the human race, and the future of Planet Earth itself.
By 2020 they purpose to have 17% of Earth’s land protected for Nature, and 10% of Earth’s oceans. So far we’ve reached 15% and 7% respectively.
“But many conservationists argue that even if these [unduly modest] goals could be achieved, they will still not halt extinctions. The current focus on protecting what humans are willing to spare for conservation is unscientific, they say. Instead, conservation targets should be determined by what is necessary to protect nature.”
The Aichi targets are, it has to be said, a long way off the audacious proposal ‘half for us and half for the animals’ spelled out by Edward Osborne Wilson in his visionary book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Dr Wilson, the aforementioned octogenarian professor, is sociobiologist, biogeographist, naturalist, environmentalist, author, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and generally considered the world’s foremost authority on biodiversity and conservation. So I guess his ideas and opinions are not to be dismissed lightly.
And indeed, only 2 years on since Dr Wilson’s book was published, his bold half-earth proposal is seeming less and less out there, less controversial, much more mainstream and worthy of serious consideration.
In actual fact, the good Prof jumped on to a bandwagon that was already rolling. Conservationist Harvey Locke brought the Nature Needs Half movement into existence in 2009: 50%, he says, “may seem a lot – if you think the world is a just a place for humans to exploit. But if you recognise the world as one that we share with wildlife, letting it have half of the Earth does not seem that much.”
But now, going back to those questions: why, how, should we, and can we? World Wildlife Day seems the perfect time to take a good hard look at them and try to find some answers.
Why should we do this?
Well, that’s an easy one. It’s no news to any of us that right now plants and animals are being snuffed out to extinction at a rate unknown since the asteroid Chickxulub wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists call this the Anthropocene Age, because never before have human beings had such a profound effect on the planet, one that will end badly for us as well as the rest of life on Earth. A truly earthshakingly terrible prospect, especially when we stop to think that right now our precious planet harbours the only known life in the universe. We need a drastic solution to a cataclysmic problem if we are to save this planet and the life on it.
Why this way?
There are two reasons why we should put our energies into a bold plan such as this, Dr Wilson argues. Firstly, he maintains that people like to see a big goal achieved rather than piecemeal, barely noticeable small incremental steps, which is what we have now in conservation efforts: “They need a victory, not just news that progress is being made. It is human nature to yearn for finality, something achieved by which their anxieties and fears are put to rest.” He reads us well. Oh how we long for some major reversal of the destructive path down which humankind is at present rushing headlong.
Secondly and more importantly, as delegates at the London conference were forced to acknowledge, current conservation efforts are doing little to halt the alarming decline in biodiversity. Protecting just 15% of the planet’s land – the course we are on at present – we still look to lose half of all species. It’s much too little and soon will be far too late. Whereas protecting 50% of the planet would mean 80% of species saved – more if we focused on the most biodiverse areas.
It’s all about the species-area curve, conservationists will tell you. The species-area curve is the mathematical relationship between the area of land and the number of species that can be successfully maintained in it. “The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss. With a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by (roughly) the fourth root of the habitable area.”
Put simply, the larger the area the better Nature’s chances. The species-area curve also means that setting aside a few sizeable chunks of land is very much better in terms of numbers of species saved, than trying to protect lots of small separate habitats.
And the chunks need to join up: “I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish,” Dr Wilson told the journal of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. His vision is for a series of “Long Landscapes”, wildlife corridors running vertically down and horizontally across continents, that will allow species free movement as they adapt to the effects of climate change.
The Yellowstone-to-Yukon conservation initiative running 2,000 miles without break from Wyoming in the mid-west of the US to the Yukon territories in the north west of Canada is a model for the protection he would like to see rolled out worldwide. It’s an entire eco-system in 502,000 square miles of continuous protected land where animals can freely roam.
(Sadly America itself is hardly a model nation when it comes to protecting biodiversity. In spite of being a wealthy country, and one with vast areas only sparsely populated, the US can boast just a pitiful 4% of its landmass protected for biodiversity, less than half the average worldwide. If the present ‘leadership’, remains unchallenged, that percentage can only fall further. Donald Trump is pre-eminent among those who “think the world is a just a place for humans to exploit.”)
So is Half-Earth a “bizarre” and “dangerous” idea?
Well if we are looking at the biodiversity statistics – and affirm with Dr Wilson that “each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius” – his idea makes total sense. We have so much to lose. Wildlife he says, is facing “a biological holocaust.”It could barely get more apocalyptic than that. For him, as for many of us, safeguarding the wonder that is life on Earth in all its diversity is a moral issue.
“In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.” Truth Out
What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.
What would be bizarre is an insistence that we continue as we are doing now, or just nudge the goalposts a bit. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are Dr Wilson says, “nowhere close to enough,”to prevent the 6th Extinction. Many others agree. It is after all, self-evident.
But his critics, social scientists in the Netherlands Bram Buscher and Robert Fletcher, clearly coming from the very same anthropocentric, the-Earth-exists-for-us standpoint that has brought us to this sorry pass in the first place, judge his Half-Earth vision “disturbing and dangerous.” They are united in their condemnation:“It would entail forcibly herding a drastically reduced human population into increasingly crowded urban areas to be managed in oppressively technocratic ways.” They could justifiably claim history backs them up, since indigenous peoples have indeed been moved out of areas newly designated as protected in the past. So, wouldn’t Half-Earth be bad for people then, especially the indigenous and poor?
Dr Wilson wants to keep indigenous people in their own territories. “Theyare often the best protectors” of their own land, he says.When local populations find new livelihoods from eco-tourism for example, they become passionate about protecting their natural heritage. Protected areas would not mean banning people – simply keeping the land undeveloped. He envisages something along the lines of national parks, where development is not permitted, but there is still regulated access. (Even hunting and fishing may be permitted in a defined portion of the conservation area.)
He points to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique as a model of how well-managed protected areas actually benefit local people.
“The maintenance and expansion of this magnificent reserve has been enhanced by the improvement of agriculture, health, and education – and new jobs – in buffer zones. The same effect is demonstrable even within industrialised nations.”
And recent research elsewhere backs him up. Protecting areas in Uganda, Thailand and Costa Rica have indeed improved the lives of locals.
Is setting aside the Half-Earth for Nature even possible?
Yes we can, by reducing our ecological footprint. And the best way to achieve that reduction is by moving towards a plant-based diet. Then yes indeed, Half-Earth is an achievable goal. Scientists in the fields of conservation, ecology, environment, climate change, sustainability and indeed human health all agree: if people cut back, or better still, stop eating meat & dairy products altogether, many of the deeply disquieting and serious threats to the future of life on Earth would disappear. It’s not just the animals being eaten that we are killing. By destroying wildlife habitats for livestock farming we are killing the wild animals too. Currently 40% of the world’s land is used for farming. (Urban development takes up only 3%) A whole three quarters ofthat farm land is used to grow cropsto feed livestock. Freed from this absurdly wasteful use of land, it would not be too great a challenge for humans to find a Half-Earth for Nature.
What is stopping us?
According to Dr Wilson, it’s simple – greed, shortsightedness and above all, ignorance. Formidable obstacles to overcome. Ignorance at least can be remedied. We can start by sharing this, why Planet Earth needs Dr Wilson’s bold idea, and what we can do about it, with as many people as we can reach, especially those who haven’t yet found their way to plant-based eating and living.
But to overcome greed and shortsightedness, it’s hearts that need to change.
“When people are encouraged to take a close look at the remnants of Nature, in its complexity, beauty, and majesty, and when they understand that the natural environment is the home of their deep history, many become [Half-Earth for Nature’s] most ardent supporters.”
I’m most definitely one.
Want to make a real difference for planet Earth and the life on it? Four important actions we can take:-
4 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
“Stunning limestone cliffs, lagoons with turquoise waters and long stretches of untouched beaches.” Palawan, one of the world’s most beautiful islands, home to the Philippines’ last remaining forests and an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot.
But this seeming paradise is also the setting for greed, corruption, even murder – and jaw-dropping heroism. Meet the PNNI, the Palawan NGO Network Inc, a strangely grand title for a small band of ragged flipflop-wearing underfunded environmental crusaders, many ‘baptised’ with scars from sharp-toothed chainsaws at the hands of illegal loggers .
50 year old ‘Tata’ Balladares has already led his small band of six environmental para-enforcers up and down the steep mountain slopes of Palawan for 15 hours, searching for signs of illegal logging, only stopping once for 30 minutes sleep on a mountain path. Reporter Kari Malakunas stands by as they stealthily close in on what the whine of a chainsaw gives away as a crime scene – a site of illegal logging.
Completely unarmed, their only weapon in these dangerous situations is surprise. This time luckily, caught in the act of felling a giant apitong tree, are only two young men. Tata asks if they have a permit for the timber, and if the chainsaw is registered. They don’t, and it isn’t. His little band confiscate the men’s chainsaw and machetes, and search the area for possible concealed homemade pistols and rifles.
Tata, though ‘only’ a civilian para-enforcer, wraps up the brief skirmish with calm unflappable authority. But afterwards, during a short break for a meal of rice and dried fish, he breaks down in despair at the enormity of the task the PNNI is facing.
“This should be the work of the government but they are not doing their job. Who else is going to stop this if we’re not here,” he says.
Traditional campaigning has failed to prevent corrupt businessmen, politicians and even the security forces from pillaging the rich resources of this beautiful island. So the PNNI goes for direct action – confiscation and citizen’s arrest – against illegal loggers, miners and cyanide fishers, however many and whoever they may be.
On display at their small HQ in Puerto Princesa is a ‘Christmas tree’ standing two storeys high, made entirely of chainsaws. The organisation has confiscated more than 700 in its 20 years of life, along with a boat used for transporting illegally-logged timber, two drills used for illegal gold mining, and a number of firearms.
Tata and his men may be unarmed themselves – besides being overworked and underfunded – but they have the support of local communities, as anxious as they to stop the despoliation of their island home. Nevertheless, they are ill-matched against their greedy and powerful opponents. It’s an unequal contest.
And though many small and not so small victories are won, as witnessed by the chainsaw ‘tree’ at HQ, there is no end in sight to the war being waged over the paradise of Palawan. It would be demoralising for the best of us. Add to that these men, passionate about preserving their environment though they are, live daily with the inescapable knowledge that the supremely taxing task they have taken upon themselves also puts their lives on the line.
Twelve of their courageous fellow-enforcers have been murdered since 2001. In 2004, PNNI’s founder and leader, environmental lawyer Bobby Chan was out with his team when they discovered the body of Roger Majim, one of their own, on a beach. “The loggers put his flip flops on the mound where they buried him. When we unearthed him he had, I think, 16 stab wounds. His eyes were gouged out. His tongue was cut off. His testicles were cut off and placed in his mouth,” says Chan.
“The government does little to stop the violence and rarely holds anyone to account for the killings,” says Global Witness‘s environmental and land defender campaign leader, Billy Kyte.
The most recent murder was last September. 49-year-old father-of-five, Ruben Arzaga was shot in the head as he was approaching an illegal logging site. Earlier in the year Arzaga, during another mission to confiscate chainsaws from illegal loggers, had told AFP“If this illegal activity is not stopped, I think before my youngest daughter becomes a young adult and has a family of her own, all the big trees here will be gone.”
On their way to Ruben’s funeral, Tata’s team stopped to confiscate another chainsaw. For them it’s simple: forest lost equals their priceless paradise lost. That also means inevitably, extinctions.
These are some of the animals the PNNI are fighting to protect –
Frank Passamonte hatched on Sept. 5, 2011. Turtle was less than a month old at the time of this picture.
Some of the most endangered species of the Philippines. L to R, Top to Bottom: the Philippine eagle (critically endangered), Palawan forest turtle (critically endangered), the rufous-headed hornbill (critically endangered), the Philippine tarsier (near threatened), the bleeding heart mindoro (critically endangered), the Nicobar pigeon (near threatened)
philippines palawan island crocodile endangered species animal
The Palawan purple crab, only discovered in 2012 and already critically endangered by mining, and the Philippine crocodile also critically endangered
The hawksbill turtle (critically endangered), the lionfish, and the flamboyant cuttle fish
Those are just a few of the treasures for whom these heroes are risking their lives on a daily basis. “It’s a selfless, courageous task that should be celebrated,”says Billy Kyte, Global Witness.
The country of the Philippines is not just a biodiversity hotspot, but an environmental murderhotspot, one of the most dangerous in the world. Last year in this country, environmental activists were killed at a rate of one every 12 days.
But such egregious violence is not unique to Palawan, or to the Philippines. The problem is worldwide. This is Global Witness’s record of environmental activists, men and women, murdered in 2016, “some shot by police during protests, others gunned down by hired assassins.”
Brazil 49 men and women
The Philippines 28
DR Congo 10
Tanzania, Mexico & Peru 3 each
South Africa, Myanmar, Peru 2 each
Ireland (!), Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Iran and Pakistan 1 each
“Far from the corridors of power ordinary people defending their rights to a healthy environment are being killed in record numbers. If governments are serious about stopping climate change, the very least they can do is to protect the people who are personally taking a stand.”
These are not just statistics. These are flesh and blood, men and women often from indigenous communities, with families of their own. People with a level of courage I can barely imagine, and know I would never be able to emulate, defending their land not just against illegal loggers and miners, but against legal but environmentally destructive industries like mining, agribusiness, logging and hydropower.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson
Let us hope and pray that the lives of these protectors of our planet, deserving of our admiration and gratitude in equal measure, do indeed find reserves of strength and last long. And that in 2018 they notch up many more successes protecting paradise and its animals – and above all, stay safe.
Like and follow PNNI’s Facebook page, and send them a few words of encouragement. And if you are ever lucky enough to get to travel to beautiful Palawan, be sure to support them with a visit to PNNI’s HQ in Puerto Princesa.
Take a look at the Rainforest Alliance supporting indigenous peoples, their lands and their wildlife, all around the world. On their website you can sign petitions for the environment until your fingers ache! You can also help protect the planet by donating
The most famous of all reindeer ever, the dude with the shiny red nose (how did he come by that schnoz, I wonder) is NOT WHO HE SEEMS. There’ve been rumours – confirmed just this week – that Rudolph has been masquerading all these years under a false identity. For Rudolph is not Rudolph.
I’ll whisper the dreadful truth: –
Shh, don’t tell the kids, but Rudolph… is… really… Rudolpha!
Kids aside, the hard facts must be faced – none of Santa’s dancing, prancing sleigh team are boys – it’s a physical impossibility.
This little video explains all.
By the time of the autumn rut, the male reindeer have grown magnificent antlers in preparation for the battle to bag themselves mating rights. But after they’ve clashed antlers, and done all the rest that’s required of them, they’re left flagging, energy low, having burned up nearly all of their body fat. Certainly not up to the challenge of pulling a gift-heavy sleigh from the North Pole all the way around the world and back again.
Not only that, but by the early days of December those impressive antlers will already have been shed into the snow. So by the time Christmas Eve comes round male strength is sapped, and heads are bare. How is that going to look on the Christmas cards.
Step up the girls: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Unlike the boys, and still sporting their headgear – because yes, out of the entire deer family, reindeer females alone have antler equality with the males – they are Christmas-ready, fit and raring to go.
The first sighting of the girls in the night sky was celebrated in verse almost 200 years ago, in 1823
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer, and Vixen!
“On Comet! On Cupid! On Donner and Blitzen!”
(A Visit from St Nicholas by Clement C. Moore)
Rudolph(a) on the other hand, is a bit of a johnny/jeannie-come-lately. For more than a century Santa successfully negotiated the chimneys of the world with his regular team of eight. But in the thick pea-souper that blanketed the earth on the Christmas Eve of 1939, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the rest refused to come out of their stalls. They said to embark on the flight in such conditions would be madness. There were muttering about Health and Safety regulations, and even, unthinkably, about cancelling Christmas altogether.
But for that fateful fog, Rudolph(a) may never have got her big break. Suddenly, the luminous red snooter that all her life had brought her nothing but ridicule, now became a uniquely invaluable asset, indispensable to light Santa on his worldwide way.
Why exactly she adopted the alter ego of Rudolph is anyone’s guess. But the rest as they say, is history. It will take more than some smarty-pants biologist telling us male reindeer shed their antlers well before Christmas to dislodge Rudolph – the hero celebrated in song, the saviour of the Christmas stocking, Santa’s main ‘man’, from his/her unassailable place in children’s dreams of Christmas.
But now might be a good time to tweak the traditions a little. Real life reindeer (known as caribou in N. America) are remarkable animals, and have their own complex lives in the wild which definitely don’t involve pulling sleighs for us, or even for Santa. And the ‘rein’ in reindeer doesn’t mean, as we might have supposed, that that is their purpose in life. It actually has nothing to do with reins, but comes from Old Norse hreinn meaning ‘horned’. More reindeer/caribou facts:-
They are smaller than you think, standing at only 1.2m at the shoulder
They have clowns’ feet – wide spreading hooves that make perfect snowshoes, shovels to shift snow (to get at the food beneath) and paddles for swimming
It’s true they do have unusual noses – not normally red! – because they are furry. In fact their special insulating hollow fur covers every bit of a reindeer’s body from furry nose to furry feet, except of course their eyes
They talk to each other with their feet. When the herd is moving, “they make a delicate clicking or popping sound. Being surrounded by a small herd sounds a bit like being in a bowl of puffed rice as the milk is poured on to it”
They are long distance runners, travelling the furthest of any land mammal in the world, up to 5,000 km a year
They can run at up to 80 kmh
Surprisingly there are two herds numbering several thousand at the South Pole – well, almost. The animals were introduced to South Georgia a century ago and are still flourishing
But, once widespread in the northern states of the US, they are now the country’s most endangered mammal with barely a dozen remaining
In Canada, caribou populations have fallen by as much as 90%
Reindeer are also found in Scandinavia and Russia where their populations are estimated to have fallen by 60% in the last three decades
Main threats to these beautiful creatures are the usual suspects: human-caused habitat loss and disturbance by industrial development. And now, human-caused climate change.
And considering how wonderfully adapted are these gentle, quiet and sensitive animals to conditions in the Arctic, it is heartless and inhumane to bring them into hot, noisy crowded shopping malls and festive fairs for Christmas ‘entertainment’. So much better left in kids’ imagination at the North Pole with Santa.*
Hmm, it looks like Santa may have been hiding a secret too. Nowadays, he sails through the night sky on a Tesla electric sleigh. Don’t worry, Rudolph(a), Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen are still there alongside the man in red as he chimney-hops around the world on Christmas Eve. But for reindeer heavy sleigh-pulling is so last century. In 2017 the famous nine will be dancing across the wild blue yonder – just because they want to, just for fun.
PS Santa wants it to be known that he still loves his mince pies. Just make sure you leave him vegan ones
These were the words naturalist Joseph Banks wrote in his journal, his response to the exuberant rhapsody of birdsong filling the air as Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour dropped anchor in the paradise that was Discovery Bay in 1770.
If Banks and Cook were to make that same landing in 2017, they would hear – silence. Little did either realise that their own expedition, the first to map the coastline of New Zealand and study its wildlife, bears in large part the blame for today’s uncanny hush. For the Endeavour was carrying more than its crew. It also brought stowaways, in the shape of Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat. And it’s rats that have brought that music to a stop.
New Zealand’s native birds were/are endemic, ie. unique to that country, occurring nowhere else in the world. And, having no natural ground predators and therefore no need to take to the sky, they’d evolved over millennia flightless. So, easy pickings for the voracious invaders inadvertently brought to their shores.
Since that time, more than 70 species of birds native to NZ have been lost to the world, with more likely headed in the same direction, including the world’s heaviest parrot, the kakapo, and possibly the cheekiest, the alpine kea.
A shocking 26 million of the nation’s birds are killed by invasive predators every year.
Of course this is not a problem exclusive to New Zealand. The pattern is repeated all over. On Hawaii for example, the most isolated land mass in the world, native plants and animals evolved, as in New Zealand, without aggressively competitive or predatory species. The native species, not having had to compete themselves, are “more gentle than others, leaving them vulnerable to the ‘meaner’ species … being introduced to the islands.”
This is one of the ‘meanies’, who indiscriminately demolishes Hawaiian birds, insects, plants and flowers. He doesn’t belong there, but he sure has made himself at home.
Islands that once were regular Gardens of Eden where all lived in harmony, are today red in tooth and claw. And most often, the teeth and claws belong to Rattus norvegicus, or Rattus rattus, the black rat. Rats have found their way, courtesy of humans, on to more than 90% of the world’s archipelagoes, and embody everything that characterises an invasive species:
High dispersal ability
Ability to live off a wide range of foods
Ability to adapt to different environments
Association with humans
Mammals like the rat are not native to oceanic islands, which are predominantly the domain of birds. Two-thirds of extinctions over the last 500 years have occurred on islands, largely at the paws of invasive mammals. Islands make up only 5.5% of the Earth’s land mass, but are home to 15% of all land species. They are hotspots of biodiversity. And that makes islands in particular, critically important for conservation.
So, how to stem the alarming losses in biodiversity?
Money for conservation is always at a premium. So much to be done, and never enough funding to do it. $21.5 billion is being spent annually, yet in places it’s hard to see much impact on biodiversity. It’s vital to direct funds to projects that will yield good results. And conservationists have found, especially on islands, the only effective method of stemming biodiversity loss is eradication of the invasive species that are pushing the natives to extinction. When the invaders are removed, the beneficial effect on native species is dramatic.
Different lands, different species demand different eradication methods. What works in one locale, fails in another. Our own ‘meanie’ here on the island of Britain is the American mink brought across the Atlantic to be farmed for its fur. Now escaped into the wild, these invaders have eaten their way through the water vole population, pushing the little rodents to the cliff edge of extinction. Mink are being trapped with the help of volunteers, and then shot in the head.
“It’s not something I get any satisfaction out of, but I am trained to do this, and we dispatch them as quickly and humanely as possible to cause minimal distress to the animal,” says river biologist Jamie Urquhart.
( I once saw a mink in the river at a National Trust property. I began an email to notify the Trust, but then couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for the animal’s death, and deleted the email.)
In the Galapagos Islands, feral goats spread like wildfire, munching their way through forests and native fauna until nothing was left but bare grass. Native birds, invertebrates and the famous Galapagos tortoise were all endangered. Rangers hunted the goats down on land and by air, and shot them, 55,000 of them just on one island. The now goat-less islands reforested and recovered with gratifying rapidity.
In the Seychelles, where the invading Indian red-whiskered bulbul was ousting its native cousin, nets were used, and “rifles to get the last remaining few.”
In New Zealand, lethal traps and poisoned bait have been ‘successful’ on small islands, but as they are labour-intensive (requiring constant checking and resetting) they’re not practical over larger areas. Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) is developing more effective ‘tools’, from “more attractive lures to electronically monitored traps.”The traps being used kill the rats instantly. “You don’t get those kills where it just breaks the back; we don’t want prolonged suffering,” says Aitken, one of the government-employed eradicators.
This is ZIP’s latest prototype: “Nailed to the tree a few feet off the ground is a shiny orange-and-black contraption called the GoodNature A24. Powered by a gas-fired piston, it delivers a quick, fatal blow to an animal’s head as it tries to snatch the bait inside. The device can kill 24 rats or stoats with a single canister of gas, requiring fewer of these strenuous, time-consuming trap line tromps, thereby saving on labor costs.”
Whatever method is used, eradication means no more nor less than the killing of every possible individual animal of the unwanted species in that territory. ” Most critics point to the ethics of the matter. Killing animals whether they are invasive or not is wrong, they argue, and uncompassionate.Killing wildlife for conservation seems counterintuitive. Isn’t conservation supposed to be about conserving wildlife?”
Some critics even see eradication as another manifestation of racism – prejudice against the non-native. “Certainly the Nazi drive to eliminate non-indigenous plants was related to the campaign to eliminate non-Aryan people.”
But an argument for eradication is that often, the native wildlife needing protection is found nowhere else on the planet, whereas the invaders such as the rats, are generally very widespread. Reading that sentence back and substituting the word ‘Aryans’ for ‘native wildlife’, and ‘Jews’ for ‘rats’, it does sound horribly like the Nazi justification for the Holocaust, doesn’t it? And labelling a group (Jews or rats) ‘vermin’, makes them so much easier to eliminate – it transforms eradication from a murderous crime into a public good.
Even if we accept that the uniqueness-of-the-endangered-native-wildlife argument makes sense at species level, does it justify killing thousands of sentient animals who are just getting on with their lives best they can?
Suppose eradication is a necessity, aren’t there non-lethal methods that could be used?
Yes, there are. Some are not always a practical option, some are just bizarre, and some pose unknown risks.
The obvious solution would be to trap the invaders and transport them back to where they came from. And on occasions this has been done. But imagine the politics, the logistics, and of course the cost involved of say, catching, keeping alive and shipping every veiled chameleon from Hawaii back to Yemen. And where on earth would you take the tens of thousands of feral goats from the Galapagos? Multiply that by thousands of conservation projects and it’s clear that can rarely be an answer.
Researchers in Australia have a novel approach. Remember the native species are invariably ‘gentler’ than the invading ‘meanies’ whose successful proliferation at the expense of the natives is down to their adaptability and aggressive competitiveness? Since there is little to no hope of ridding the whole of Australia of its mercilessly predatory feral cats, researchers there are trying to “force natural selection’s hand”.
They’ve placed hundreds of small endangered endemic marsupials in a pen with a couple of the cats. The hope is that the smartest marsupials will learn to survive, and pass on their cleverness genes to their offspring. But such human-contrived evolution of the marsupial could take 100 years or more. And if it seems like a big gamble, that’s because it is. No need for me to list possible objections, practical and ethical. They are all too obvious.
Genetic technology already available to us would be by far the most effective nonlethal tool for dealing with invasive species. Scientists have now found a way to not only alter the genes of a species – in this case a gene for producing male offspring only – but make that alteration inheritable. It’s called a “self-propagating gene drive system [which] promotes the inheritance of a particular genetic variant to increase its frequency in a population.” This would obviously require “fewer invasive organisms to be released in order to spread infertility and ultimately eliminate the pest population.” The animal basically would be programmed to (re)produce its own extinction.
New Zealand is one country taking a good hard look at this technology as a much easier, and definitely more humane way to rid the land of the invasive rats, mice, stoats and possums that are so destructive of its native wildlife. There is no question the gene technology would work. The invaders would die out, allowing the native species to flourish once more.
But, and it’s a big but, what it would also do, is create in effect a new species still retaining all the characteristics that made it such a successful invader in the first place. In other words, it would be impossible to contain these modified animals in the target location. Invasion is what they do best – they would spread far and wide with unknowable, and most likely catastrophic results.
The self-propagating gene drive is the perfect example of technology moving ahead at such a pace, it is way in advance of any ethical agreements surrounding its use. The international community needs to catch up fast, formulate, and sign up to a binding accord. New Zealand is by no mean the only country looking at the self-propagating gene drive as a conservation tool. And if something can be done, you can guarantee it willsooner or later.
To kill to save, or not?
“Not doing anything to prevent these extinctions is, in and of itself, an action—which is not compassionate to native species. We can sit there and watch animals go extinct, or we can do something about it,” says conservation biologist Holly Jones. “Killing things sucks. But when you realize the gravity of not acting, which in many cases equates to watching extinction happen in front of your eyes, I think there is no other choice,”
“We do have the ability to fix our damages. Which is why many conservationists believe we have an obligation to right the wrong when it comes to invasives since humans are, more often than not, solely responsible for introducing species into places they shouldn’t be.” Peter Haverson, another conservation biologist.“No other species has this capability, unfortunately.”
We’ve carried invasive species to every corner of the world, either deliberately – sheep, goats, dogs, cats and so on, then escaped and gone feral – or inadvertently, as with the rats. The cats, who are particularly pernicious predators of endangered wildlife, fall into both categories.
As we have caused the problem, should we be taking action to fix it? We can refrain from eradicating invasive species. That means standing by, letting individual endangered animals be killed by invaders, and allowing entire species to go extinct. Or, we can opt to kill the invaders – bearing in mind that rats, stoats and possums are people too. In conservation there is no fence to sit on. By not doing one, we are of necessity doing the other.
This is a cowardly cop out I know, but I’m so glad it’s not me having to make the decisions. What is your take on this most troubling of questions?
The most invasive species of all
We don’t just transport invaders around the globe. We ourselves are by far the worst invaders of the lot:
“From Africa, we’ve spread out onto every continent on Earth settling into jungles, plains, forests, deserts, mountains and more. All environments we touch experience extinctions and suffer from varying degrees of degradation. Many scientists even believe we are currently causing a mass extinction event of global wildlife, like the one that ultimately claimed the dinosaurs.”
“Believe”? The 6th mass extinction is no more a matter of belief than climate change. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone suggesting as a solution to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s precious biodiversity, the eradication of this, the most deadly of invasive species, Homo sapiens. Why is that?
Is the human race divided into two tribes, those who love animals and those who don’t? Yes, it seems so. But what makes us this way? If only we could open a window into the human brain and see what is going on in there, what it is that makes one ‘tribe’ so different from the other.
Oh, hang on – we can. Exactly what was revealed when neuroscientist Massimo Filippi and his team did just that, opened that window, we will come to very shortly.
We’ve already seen in his fascinating book The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw delving deep into the past to unravel the threads of our relationship with domesticated animals. He uncovers an evolutionary forking of the path – one group of humanity opting to settle, begin domesticating and living with animals, while the other remained hunting, marauding nomads.
Through the generations, passing those tameness genes down, the domesticated cats and dogs, cattle and sheep gradually got tamer. And at the same time the humans who lived with animals passed down their own evolving animal-loving genes to their descendants.
Meanwhile, the nomads found themselves an easy living without the trouble of making animals a part of their daily lives, by raiding the others’ settlements and stealing theirs. Animal-lover of animal-unlover, whichever group we fall into, that is very likely how we came to be. With apologies to John Bradshaw for squeezing what takes a book to explain into an ever-so-slightly oversimplified couple of paragraphs!
Now back to Massimo & co and their window into the brain
Their project set out to measure and compare the levels of empathy towards other humans and towards nonhuman animals in 3 different groups: omnivores, ethical vegetarians, and ethical vegans. By ethical we mean those who are veg*n for the animals rather than say, simply for their own health.
All the participants were first given an ‘Empathy Quotient’ survey to complete. Social cognitive neuroscientist Claus Lamm’s definition of empathy might be useful at this point:
“When we are confronted with another person [human or nonhuman] – say, someone in pain – our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. Empathy results in emotion sharing. I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself.“
Next, using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) they showed the different groups images of human suffering and animal suffering, and monitored their brain activity to establish exactly what was happening inside these people’s heads.
The results of the fMRI:
The veggies and vegans showed more activity in empathy-related areas of the brain to images of both human and nonhuman suffering than the omnis
The veggies and vegans responded more strongly to the animal suffering than the human suffering
The vegans responded more strongly than the veggies to animal suffering
The veggies reacted more strongly than the vegans to human suffering
The omnis reacted more to the human suffering than the animal suffering
Both vegans and veggies showed reduced activity in the amygdala, which means that they were trying hard to control their emotions. Especially the vegans
All of which corresponded with the results from that preliminary EQ survey.
The study does leave some questions unanswered. For example, wouldn’t it be important to know which nonhuman animals appeared in the images? Were they dogs, cats, rats or hens? If they weren’t companion animals, might not cognitive dissonance have come into play for the omnis? After all, veg*ns don’t hold exclusive rights on loving animals, do they?
Cognitive dissonance – a brief excursion into the secret that enables our crazy species to both love animals and eat them. This is how it works:
In our Western culture we are socially conditioned to see animals as falling into specific groups defined entirely by how we humans relate to them, and how useful they are to us. We absorb this way of thinking completely unconsciously from our mother’s knee, and everything we encounter throughout our childhood, books, movies, games, toys, advertising, reinforces the construct.
So we have:
Wild Animals with whom we have little contact
Utility Animals who ‘work’ for us – horses, donkeys, farm and police dogs and so on
Food Animals – cows, pigs, sheep, hens
Animals for entertainment– racehorses, greyhounds, circus animals, animals in zoos and aquaria
Animals for ‘education’ – animals in labs, zoos and aquaria, in schools and universities
Companion Animals – pet dogs, cats, hamsters, budgies etc
And let us not forget
Vermin – this category can be made to emcompass any species from buzzards to badgers that humans discover reasons for finding ‘a nuisance’
What makes veg*ns different, is that they have broken down and demolished this construct. To them it matters not whether it is a woodlouse or a wolf, a chicken or a cheetah. A life is a life, and each and every one matters and has a right to live free from harm and exploitation. But might it not make a difference which animals’ pics were shown to the omnivorous participants? As they remain captive to that social conditioning which compels them to allot a category to different animals, some animals might matter to them more than others.
That aside, it’s no surprise that omnis responded more to human suffering than animal, or that for the veg*ns it was the reverse. The interesting finding was that the veg*ns were more responsive to suffering overall than the omnis. Yet most veg*ns including me, started life omnivorous.
So do the study’s results mean we were born with an innate empathy that turned us into vegans, or did becoming vegan make us more empathetic? Who knows.
If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, ” we could do a great deal of harm, and put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there”
Philosopher Janet Stemwedel
One thing the findings do, is cast doubt on how effective it is for animal advocates to try ‘converting’ omnivores by showing them images of the misery endured by so many animals at human hands. The response might fall disappointingly short of a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. The research shows that for some, seeing is not necessarily feeling.
But it isn’t only written in the genes. The brain has plasticity – it is capable of being moulded. So let’s take the hopeful view and assume that becoming vegan helped make us more empathetic. And that omnivores may have more of those nomadic raiders’ genes with an animal-disconnect. But they are also profoundly conditioned, as we all are or have been, in their attitudes to nonhuman animals by the prevailing norms of our society.
Do you love animals but still eat them? Here is one eloquent, passionate man who may be able to change your mind. Philip Wollen, tearing down those malignant social norms – so inhumane towards nonhuman animals, and indeed, so disastrously damaging for humankind and the planet itself.
Whatever I do, it will never be enough. Is that how you sometimes/often feel, in the face of the gargantuan environmental problems confronting the planet? That you may as well be the tiniest little ant holding up the tiniest little Stop sign before the climate-change juggernaut that just keeps rolling inexorably on to the point of no return, dragging us all along with it?
Well then this is the app for you. This app puts the power right back in our hands. It tells us in real time “the impact of our actions on our health and on the planet” every time we eat without meat. Awesome or what? Created by Chris Darwin, the great-great-grandson of the great naturalist Charles Darwin himself, it’s The Darwin Challenge app.
Wildlife enthusiast Chris was busy setting up nature reserves – his way of trying to fend off the 6th mass extinction. Trouble was, wildlife was not the only thing he was enthusiastic about – he was also an enthusiastic eater of meat. One day he calculated his carbon footprint, and was horrified to realise he himself was part of the problem, not the solution. From then on he went plant-based for the planet, encouraged others to do the same, and developed his amazing app to help us on our way.
This is Chris’s own description of the app on iTunes:
The Darwin Challenge App tracks the days you don’t eat meat, and shows you the difference you make. From improvements to your health and wellbeing, to animal welfare, human rights, and the world, you’ll be amazed by the benefits of going meat free, just one or more days a week. Vegetarian or Vegan? Download the app to see the difference you’re already making, connect with people just like you, and spread the word.
Use the app to set yourself targets and reminders, see the difference you are making, invite family, friends and colleagues to join in, see how other groups are doing and check your collective efforts on the leaderboards
Did I mention it’s FREE?
The app couldn’t arrive on the scene at a better time. We’ve just been served with the second “Warning to Humanity” by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries. It’s an update of the first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” exactly 25 years ago. No-one listened in 1992, and things have got so much worse for the planet. If you want the bad news it’s here. This is their list of “measures that would help halt environmental degradation”:
Creating more parks and nature reserves
Curbing wildlife trade
Shifting to plant-based diets
Expanding family planning and educational programs for women
Massively expanding renewable energy and other green techs